In the current (June 2015) issue of Edge Science magazine, Chris Aubeck and Martin Shough published an excerpt from their forthcoming book, Return to Magonia (Anomalist Books). In the article, the authors attempt to determine the cause of a prodigy reported in German leaflets in 1665 and in various books thereafter. That year, according to these reports, a plate-like round form, dark in color, hovered in the sky over Stralsund, a militarized Hanseatic city that had recently become part of Swedish Pomerania as a result of the Peace of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, but remained subject to ongoing tensions between Sweden and Brandenburg, the future Prussia.
Aubeck reported on the incident earlier, in Wonders in the Sky (2009), where he and then-coauthor Jacques Vallée had taken the story from a 1998 book called Best UFO Cases: Europe by Illobrand von Ludwiger and published by Robert Bigelow’s now-defunct UFO group, the National Institute for Discovery Science.
Note: Although Aubeck and I have discussed some of his ideas in the past, I did not ask him about this incident because I wanted to form my own opinion of what the two authors wrote without knowing their thought process behind the investigation. I’ll ask about it after this piece runs.
The story goes that around 2 PM on April 8, 1665, six fishermen in Stralsund saw a flock of birds take the form of a ship in the sky, followed by several other ships, which then fought a battle. By 6 PM, the ships had gone, and at that point a large, dark-colored disk appeared in the sky. Locals connected this event to the fact that all the fishermen who saw the event fell ill the next day. No one else saw anything, which would tell me that the story is, shall we say, unreliable.
Unfortunately, this is one case where I can’t look at all the primary sources since most are in early modern German, and that is not among the languages I can read fluently. I can read the 1671 Latin version, and thus as best I can tell, Aubeck and Shough appear to offer a mostly correct translation of the oldest source, a 1665 leaflet published in Leipzig, which reads thus in German and their English translation:
Nach welcher über eine kleine weile mitten aus dem Himmel ihnen eine runde platte Form wie ein Teller und wie ein grosser Mannshut umbher begriffen vor Augen kommen von Farben eben als wenn der Mond verfinstert wird: so schnurgleich über der St. Niclas-Kirche stehend geschienen; und alda auch biß auff den Abend verblieben ist. Nachdem die Schiffer nun voller Angst und Furcht dieses erschreckliche und verdächtige Spectacul nicht länger anschauen noch dessen Ende abwarten können; haben sie sich in ihre Hütten verfügen müssen: drauff sie in nachfolgenden Tagen theils an Händen und Füssen theils am Häupt und andern Gliedern ein groß Zittern und Beschwerden empfunden.
The untranslated words the authors say are unclear to them, and it is not clear to me that they consulted any German scholars to determine what they mean. Given the importance of these words to clarifying precisely what the hat and/or plate is doing, it would seem to be important. This is one of the details that bothers me about fringe work. Aubeck and Shough believe that analyzing specific details from old accounts can allow them to determine their origin, or at least eliminate suspects, yet they skimp on the work needed to ascertain these details. One question I will ask is whether they consulted a German linguist. As you can see from the German, the phrase “big man’s hat” is a bit confusing; it isn’t the hat of a big man but a big hat in masculine style, as opposed to a woman’s bonnet. It seems that the sentence would more literally read “A little while after this, they realized that a round, flat form, like a plate and with the circumference of a big hat, had appeared before their eyes from the middle of Heaven, of colors like those when the moon darkens.” I don’t insist on this because I don’t read German well enough (German grammar alone is incredibly complex!), and I know phrases like vor Augen (“before [their] eyes”) can be idiomatic and don’t always mean what they literally say. But I’m pretty sure I’m close to right here because the parallel passage in Erasmus Finx’s 1685 version reads, in the authors’ own translation: “After a little while a flat, round form, like a plate or a large man’s hat, came straight out of the sky, shining before their eyes in colors like the darkening moon, motionless above Saint Nicholas Church, where it remained until evening.”
But if you’re planning to use a passage to determine whether there is evidence of alien spacecraft or what-have-you, you’d think knowing what it literally says would be an important priority.
Aubeck and Shough suggest in their notes that the object may have appeared like a 1950s-style UFO, because they offer one reading of the German phrase they left untranslated as suggesting that the plate was “gripping around” the hat, which I assume they imagine as being dome-like in form. (Even the authors recognize this is a less likely interpretation.) I’m going to guess that the German author was actually thinking of seventeenth-century style “big hats,” the so-called “Cavalier hats,” which were famous for their enormous brims, making them look like giant plates sitting on their wearer’s heads. This cannot exclude the possibility that the author was thinking of a high hat, but in context, the emphasis on the broad brim would seem to be the better concept. The Latin translation uses the phrase pilei vulgaris, the common folks’ round felt hat.
The authors then proceed to use the above description and a 1665 engraving from the leaflet in which the text appears in order to determine what the object might have been. This relies on far too many assumptions for my taste, notably that the eyewitness accounts were accurate, that the German leaflets and books (all copying from one another) told the story correctly, that the 1665 artist illustrated the account in any way resembling fact (the illustration was based on the text, not firsthand interviews), etc., etc. Most importantly, they assume that the dark disk is the most important part of the prodigy, and not the battle of the ships.
From this they proceed to offer a bunch of computer simulations of the sky in order to try to eliminate various hypotheses about what the object might have been before concluding that no known celestial objects, birds, or weather events could account for the sighting. “So, what is dark, round, visible from miles away and hangs in the sky for over an hour? As riddles go, this one is unusually tricky.” I think the two authors are misguided and are asking the wrong question: The question is not what the prodigy was in reality but whether the prodigy existed at all. (The authors do briefly acknowledge that the sighting may not be true.)
Let me take a stab at this. We have a few key facts: (1) According to all the texts the authors present, the only witnesses were six sailors on a boat. (2) No one else saw anything, despite an epic sky battle apparently occurring over a major city. (3) The sailors all came down with the physical symptoms of disease within 48 hours of witnessing the event, and indeed one had been sick from the time they returned, according to a Berlin account of April 10, 1665 (how it was reported so fast in Berlin, I have no idea; the authors give the text, like many in the piece, uncredited from a translation of Illobrand Von Ludwiger appearing on page 3 of his book). Occam’s razor would tell us that the most logical conclusion is that the fisherman had some spoiled food and gave themselves some bizarre pre-modern illness (or otherwise contracted a contagion from their sicker friend, bad fish, contaminated water or beer, or whatever), and hallucinated the whole thing, egging each other on as they ranted about their various visions, whose shapes and colors—generated from the common stock of visions from altered states of consciousness—they interpreted through their own cultural experience, namely portents, battles, and boats. This solution elegantly accounts for all the facts, omits none (as Aubeck and Shough ignore the battling ships), and requires fewer assumptions, least of all any about the sighting “causing” illness in witnesses. The chain of causation is more likely the reverse. It certainly is not an established fact—nor would I claim it to be—but the fact that it is a possible solution means that there’s really no reason to try to explain what doesn’t need explaining in terms of a reality that the thousands of people in Stralsund did not share with these sailors. Aubeck and Shough, starting with the premise of looking for physical explanations therefore miss the alternative. When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
“The Stralsund event is therefore a remarkable case and—true or not—ought to be considered among the first alleged ‘flying saucer’ sightings in history,” the authors write. Here we can agree: There is just as much evidence in favor of this “flying saucer” as any of the Venusian disks that buzzed American skies in the 1950s.
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.
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