Matt Staggs calls my attention to a story making the rounds of alternative websites suggesting that a “Skyman” reported in Canadian ethnographic literature may have been an extraterrestrial being, an ancient astronaut. The ancient astronaut claim appears to have originated in 1994 in John Robert Colombo’s Voices of Rama (reprinted in his 2009 Big Book of Canadian Hauntings), and Colombo’s description of the story is retold in remarkably similar language—down to the suggestion that the story describes one of Erich von Däniken’s ancient astronauts—in recent online reports. One such report claims “Many modern UFO theorists believe Skyman was a marooned extraterrestrial astronaut whose own craft was somehow damaged or destroyed. […] Many researchers believe Skyman was no mythological tale, but rather an actual encounter of the first kind between an ancient alien and an entire Ojibwa community.”
So, let’s turn to the original reports and find out what happened.
The story originates in the 1917 edition of the Sessional Papers of the Ontario provincial legislature (collecting the 1916 Archaeological Report to the Minister of Education) and records stories told by Ojibwa natives to Col. G. E. Laidlaw over the preceding few years. The story comes from an Ojibwa named Jonas George (Wa-sa-ghe-zik), and Laidlaw entitled it “The Man from the Sky.”
In other notes in his papers on the subject, Laidlaw reported that George was “mixed and forgetful” in telling his stories, freely adapted stories to suit the listener and current events, and routinely described most events that happened outside his direct knowledge as occurring “four hundred years ago, as the Indians tell it.” This meant to George only that it happened sometime in the past. As with most traditional oral tales, the exact chronology is fluid and cannot be taken as literal—as I wrote about yesterday. For example, in Laidlaw’s paper, another Ojibwa discussed his grandfather’s memories of the War of 1812, but was not able to identify the year as 1812, remembering it only vaguely as sometime in his grandfather’s day. Most events, even those from living memory, were ascribed only to “a long time ago,” “some time ago,” or “not long ago.” It appears that George was unique in ascribing a date to his stories, probably attributable to influence from Euro-Canadian historical and educational traditions. For example, if he knew from Canadian-mandated Eurocentric schooling or from missionaries that the first Europeans came to Canada after 1500, then anything from the mythic past must therefore have taken place before this, even if this was not factually true. (The Ojibwa were largely independent of Canadian control until the nineteenth century.)
So, let’s look at the content of the story itself. Far from a typical UFO, the object was shiny like a star (reflecting sunlight) but was small enough for two men to pull down (implying the existence of attached ropes). Given the time when this story was first told (the 1910s), I think that Colombo had it right when he stated that the story most likely describes a relatively recent encounter with a hot air balloon as filtered through traditional folk tales. Colombo notes that the area around where Laidlaw collected stories was home to an airfield with many balloons and small planes. A flying race from New York to Toronto had even been run in 1910. Additionally, small, unmanned weather balloons were known to have been launched in Toronto in 1910, and it does not take much imagination to see a story of a man rising up with the balloon becoming attached to even such a small, but unusual sight as a sphere that rose on its own. A balloon frenzy even erupted in September 1910 when a large kite (later recovered) floated across Lake Erie, causing a sensation from Detroit to Toronto, according to the Toronto Mail and Empire, as collected in Charles Fort's Lo! Boats went searching the lake, thinking a weird craft or large balloon was on the loose.
The rest of the story is largely mythical, no different in form than countless folktales of the hospitable treatment of a mysterious stranger, like, for example, the story in Ovid (Metamorphoses VIII) of how Jupiter and Mercury disguised themselves as mortals and accepted the hospitality of Baucis and Philemon, or the disguised angels who accepted the hospitality of Lot and his wife in Sodom (Genesis 19:1).
I will give alternative theorists credit for one thing: This time the story actually exists and really says what they claim it says!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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