Did Rip Van Winkle get abducted by aliens? More importantly, why would anyone jump to that conclusion? The answer is a case study in how preexisting beliefs can prejudice an investigation and lead to false confirmation of an alien abduction narrative. This story is particularly interesting to me because it involves upstate New York, where I live and work.
Cheryl Costa is the UFO correspondent for the Syracuse New Times, an alternative newsweekly targeting upscale and affluent readers in central New York State. According to a recent article she published, in the fall of 2013, Costa was a student in a college literature class and had been assigned to write a term paper on one. She selected Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” the famous 1819 story in which the title character tries to escape his wife’s nagging by escaping into the hills. There, he encounters the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew, thunderously playing nine-pins. He drinks their liquor, falls asleep, and awakens twenty years later with a foot-long beard.
This immediately suggested to Costa that the story had alien origins.
For my term paper, I proposed to my Literature professor that Rip Van Winkle read like a modern alien abduction account. I pointed out that the Hudson valley had been a hot bed for UFO activity for decades, perhaps centuries. I explained that I was of the opinion that the Washington Irving story might be based on some older Hudson Valley folk tale or Native American story.
Superficially, this wasn’t a bad idea. Although Costa said her professor could find no academic research on the subject, Thomas E. Bullard wrote a similar piece (though not on Van Winkle) on “UFO Abduction Reports: The Supernatural Kidnap Narrative Returns in Technological Guise” in the Journal of American Folklore in 1989, and before that Jacques Vallée also noted the parallels between folklore related to abductions in Passport to Magonia (1969).
But Costa began with the assumption that the UFO phenomenon is real, and therefore her analysis slowly but methodically derailed.
She begins well enough by recognizing, as scholars have since the early 1800s, that “Rip Van Winkle” is a fairly straightforward Americanization of the German folk tale “Peter the Goatherd,” which is a charming little story but one that should immediately suggest a solution to the mystery rather than a confirmation of aliens. Irving was well-read and may have encountered the story in the form published by Johann C. C. Nachtigal in 1800. He probably encountered the book during his tour of Europe from 1804 to 1806. Since the story is rather short, let me present it as it was translated in 1828 (I will spare you the italics and present it in roman for easier reading):
Do you see the solution? We’ll get to it in a moment. First, let’s see what Costa makes of the tale. She calculates that a foot-long beard takes 24 months to produce, so she therefore rejects the 20 year timeline. She then relates the return of Rip and Peter to the “missing time” reported by alien abductees like Betty and Barney Hill (themselves influenced by science fiction!). Naturally, this leads her to wonder how Einstein’s theory of relativity can apply here:
As I read the Rip Van Winkle/Peter Klaus stories, I see a character that was with the alien visitors for twenty-four months as evidenced by the natural record of his foot long beard growth. A person who returned to Earth where twenty years had passed. Einstein’s “Theory of Special Relativity”, gives us the key to understanding how this is possible. If we travel near the speed of light. The person in the space craft ages at a slower rate than those of us back here on earth.
She concludes with the crackpot logic of Ancient Aliens: “Our ancient ancestors weren’t idiots; they are speaking to us through our ancient folks tales if we are willing take the time to look at these stories through modern eyes and interpretation.”
You will of course recall that Ancient Aliens did an episode on this very subject, called “The Time Travelers,” in which the ancient astronaut theorists similarly related folklore sleep narratives to Einstein’s time dilation. This was the episode that famously claimed that the story of the 66-year supernatural sleep of Abimelech in the extra-biblical 4 Baruch 5:1-29 was a biblical narrative.
Costa is obviously familiar with this episode and its claims.
I trust you can see that her preexisting belief in the reality of UFO abduction narratives has led her to interpret the “Peter the Goatherd” story as confirmation of the same. But her confidence in the extraterrestrial underpinning of the story led her to stop too soon, leading to a false conclusion of alien abduction.
The key to the story is its location, the Kyffhäusen. That is one of the most important localized traditions of the widespread European myth of the sleeping king. At this particular place, the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was said to sleep with his attendants until such time as he is needed. Versions of the story are also told of Charlemagne, King Wenzel, Holgar Danske, King Harold, the Duke of Monmouth, Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI, Portugal’s King Sebastian, and many others. These are localizations of what seems to have been originally a Germanic or Celtic myth associated with Odin, preserved in Greek interpretation by Plutarch, where Odin has been interpreted as Cronus, the onetime king of the gods: He wrote of “one island where Cronus is confined, guarded while he sleeps by Briareus; for his sleep has been devised as a bondage for him, and round about him are many demigods as attendants and servants” (De Defectu Oraculorum 18, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt).
As in the case of King Arthur, these servants were usually twelve in number, answering to the twelve men seen by Peter.
The corollary to this myth is that the sleepers must be roused when the time is right. From this emerged stories that the tomb in which they slept (usually a cave in a mountain) opened once every seven years, or once a century, or some other period of time. And the sleepers would check to see if they were needed. From this derived stories of peasants who chanced upon the sleepers, who asked if it was time to wake. Because they were in a magic never-never land outside reality, these visits to the sleepers were often said to have seemed to last a few hours but to have taken hours, days, or even years. This seems to be a borrowing from fairy abduction myths, which typically involve an individual encountering dancing fairies, being taken to their home, and returning after a few hours only to discover that days or even years have passed.
“Peter the Goatherd” is a much later version of a traditional story, told of the Marquis John, standing in for Frederick Barbarossa. Edwin Sidney Hartland retells the story in his Science of Fairy-Tales, translating German accounts:
A peasant going with corn to market at Nordhausen, drove by the Kyffhäuser, where he was met by a little grey man, who asked him whither he was going, and offered to reward him if he would accompany him instead. The little grey man led him through a great gateway into the mountain till they came at last to a castle. There he took from the peasant his waggon and horses, and led him into a hall gorgeously illuminated and filled with people, where he was well entertained. At last the little grey man told him it was now time he went home, and rewarding him bountifully he led him forth. His waggon and horses were given to him again, and he trudged homeward well pleased. Arrived there, however, his wife opened her eyes wide to see him, for he had been absent a year, and she had long accounted him dead. It fared not quite so well with a journeyman joiner from Nordhausen, by name Thiele, who found the mountain open, as it is every seven years, and went in. There he saw the Marquis John (whoever he may have been), with his beard spreading over the table and his nails grown through it. Around the walls lay great wine-vats, whose hoops and wood had alike rolled away; but the wine had formed its own shell and was blood-red. A little drop remained in the wine-glass which stood before the Marquis John. The joiner made bold to drain it off, and thereupon fell asleep. When he awoke again he had slept for seven years in the mountain
The similarities, down to the intoxicating beverage, are obvious, but here the sleeping king elements are much more clearly presented. This version is older and betrays its origins. Other versions have no lost time but rather make the herdsman age rapidly as a result of his supernatural encounter.
If you’re interested, the Brothers Grimm recorded simpler versions of the legend of Kyffhäuser that are probably closer to the version from before it incorporated the fairy motifs. The very presence of such variants immediately casts doubt on the more elaborate time-lapse versions as literal truth, since they are coequal with these other variants. I translate from the Grimms’ Deutschen Sagen no. 23:
In 1669, a farmer who wanted to haul his grain from the village of Reblingen to Nordhausen was led into the mountain by a little man, who told him to empty out his grain and to fill the bags with gold. He saw the Emperor sitting, but quite motionless.
Hartland was also of the opinion that “Rip Van Winkle” was a huge rip-off of “Peter the Goatherd.” In Science Hartland records dozens of similar stories—an ancient fairy-tale motif that entered into the sleeping king legend cycle from earlier stories of fairy abductions. That’s why the mysterious men are actively playing games in the “Peter” and “Rip” tales—they have become conflated with the mischievous fairies!
And here we can conclude that the “Peter the Goatherd” story is not one of alien abduction since it is a late addition to the broader sleeping king myth, one taken from fairy abduction legends. But by presupposing that myths are eyewitness account of aliens, Costa missed the origins of the specific tale she sought to illuminate.
Hartland’s Chapter VII and Chapter VIII are dedicated to the supernatural lapse of time in the land of the fairies (or the gods). The motif is well-nigh universal, known not just from Europe but also in the East, including (as mentioned) the story of Abimelech as well as the famous tale of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus; even in the oldest literary source, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim and Gilgamesh cannot age while in the Dilmun of the gods. Now at this point one might try to apply the alien abduction motif again—as indeed Thomas Bullard and Jacques Vallée have done. But there is nothing that should prejudice us in favor of aliens, there being no evidence that any such beings exist on the earth now or ever did. It is the very fact that ufologists try to impose their paradigm on these stories that makes them seem like alien abductions. We could, with equal weight of evidence, claim that “aliens” are really fairies. It is our perceptions that give shape to the stories.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.