If you receive my newsletter, you already know that the editor of Paranthropology has asked me to write a critique and evaluation of Steven Mizrach’s article on the “para-anthropology of UFO abductions.” I discussed this article a little while back, and you’ll recall that Mizrach suggested that the “ultra-terrestrial hypothesis” of Jacques Vallee, whereby the UFO phenomenon is to be understood as an intrusion of beings from another dimension, is the most fulfilling explanation for UFOs and alien abduction narratives. Mizrach wrote to offer some interesting questions about the UFO phenomenon that I’d like to discuss a bit more as I work on some ideas for my article. This is what Mizrach said:
But if we are dealing with a purely subjective experience, how do we explain objective traces, multiply witnessed events, and physiological effects on witnesses? […] I think a lot of "alternative archaeology" (especially the kind that denies indigenous people the ability to build their own buildings) is crap, and I think "ancient astronauts" theories are also rubbish. […] I was mainly trying to suggest approaches and the possible validity for an eclectic approach.
He also asked me about my view of Vallee’s work. This, in turn, brought into focus something I’ve been thinking about for a while now: What is the warrant for lumping together several different “mysteries” as part of a single UFO phenomenon? Why do we assume that lights in the sky (UFO sightings), crop circles, “abduction” events, and cattle mutilations are part of a single phenomenon and that all of these distinct topics require a single explanation?
Here is where I think it helps to look at “ancient astronauts”—not as evidence of aliens but rather as a body of data that purports to trace back aspects of the modern UFO myth to ancient antecedents. While Mizrach is happy to dismiss such speculation as “rubbish,” I think it reveals important information about how the modern UFO myth was concocted from unrelated parts and how it is sustained by the assumption that its various elements are related and therefore require the projection of supernatural beings to adequately explain.
In the case of crop circles, it’s fairly obvious that modern crop circles are a hoax. But even crop circle enthusiasts can’t quite decide how or whether supposedly genuine circles are related to UFOs. A famous 1997 video (later proved a hoax) shows two small orbs forming a circle, while the oldest report of a crop circle, from 1678, a field was said to have burst into flame, resulting in an unnatural mowing, attributed to the devil—not to any lights in the sky. The accompanying illustration shows the devil mowing the grain with a scythe. Other circles were attributed to fairies, who, again, were not traditionally associated with UFOs, though I suppose one could try to make them into trans-dimensional beings if one really wanted to.
The case of “alien” cattle mutilations is even more clearly contradicted by ancient reports. While modern cattle mutilations are routinely attributed to aliens (even though they are almost always the result of natural decay), the ancients and medieval people attributed extremely similar events to the actions of the goatsucker, a small bird. The goatsucker (older Spanish chotacabra = modern Spanish chupacabra) mythology, in turn, gave rise to the modern El Chupacabra myth, the chief competitor to aliens in explaining cattle mutilations. The ancients and medieval people did not associate the action of the goatsucker with bright lights, human abductions, metal ships, or any of the other paraphernalia of modern UFOs, which suggests strongly that the connection is a modern one. After all, the oldest reference comes from Aristotle, with no UFO trappings: “They say that when the udder has been sucked that it gives no more milk, and that the goat becomes blind” (History of Animals 21.2, trans. Richard Cresswell). Medieval people conflated the goatsucker with the screech owl (believed to kill children and mutilate corpses, according to Ovid, Fasti 6.131ff) and decided that the goatsucker killed and mutilated goats.
The case of UFO sightings also finds interesting parallels in ancient times. The Greek poet Pindar saw a bright light in the sky, as recorded in the scholia on his work: “there was heard a great noise, and a flame of lightning was seen descending, and Pindar saw that a stone image of the Mother had come down at their feet, and the oracle ordained that he should set up a shrine to the Mother” (trans. Jane Ellis Harrison). This is, of course, usually described as a meteor strike in modern discussions. The Greeks, though, also associated an epiphany of the gods with flashes of lightning and supernatural glowing in the sky. This might sound like a UFO, but the Greek descriptions don’t have two key elements of modern UFO sightings: the lights are not small round dots darting through the sky, and none appears as a metallic orb or saucer. Instead, they are spectacular displays of divine radiance, something most modern UFOs lack. (By the Roman period, some references to flying shields appear, but always in the context of supernatural miracles during major world events, not as random intrusions of space men.) I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow when I begin reviewing the “evidence” for ancient UFOs collected by Jacques Vallee in his Wonders in the Sky (2009).
The case of the abduction narrative, the ancients had a very different view than modern people. Modern ufologists claim that ancient stories of incubi and succubae are precursors of the alien abduction narrative, even though these appearances (readily explained by near-sleep dream states) lack the trappings of modern UFOs. There are no lights or saucers, no medical experiments—just weird sex. Others claim that fairy abduction myths are also precursors of the alien abduction narrative, although typically such supernatural abductions take place underground and not in the sky. They are, however, often associated with weird sex—but not cattle mutilation, crop circles, or glowing metal orbs in the sky. Worse, the first modern alien encounters, like that of George Adamski, were taken straight from Buck Rogers, involved civilized meetings with Nordic aliens, and had nothing to do with the night terrors of the stereotyped abduction narrative.
Vallee explains away these problems by positing that ultra-dimensional beings irrupt into this world from other dimensions and are interpreted through filters in the human mind to take culturally-determined forms. But if we can’t trust the shape of the being, where it is interacting with us, or the actions it performs—all “cultural” interpretations—why should we suppose the being exists outside the human mind at all? Indeed, that was the argument David Lewis-Williams made in The Mind in the Cave (2002) in directly attributing to known, repeatable brain imagery the origin of shamanic deities and monsters, the earliest precursors of the alien theme. Like Vallee, he believes culture determines how ambiguous imagery generated by the brain in altered states of consciousness is perceived, but unlike Vallee, he sees no reason to suppose that these shapes, which can be induced by hallucinogens or electrical brain stimulation, are messages from another dimension.
That, though, is a question for another day. Today I’d like to know why we’ve decided, after about, say, 1965 or so, to use the UFO myth as an overarching explanation for phenomena that don’t appear to have any actual reason to be viewed together. Sure, from the time of Betty and Barney Hill, strange lights in the sky have been linked to abductions to the point where they are inseparable now, though this was not the case before the Outer Limits made it so. The sheer diversity of situations and events attributed to aliens implies to me that a myth has been created and is sucking in all manner of “unexplained” events under one umbrella—but that doesn’t make the myth true. Again, I think ancient history helps understand this.
The Greeks had a myth of the supernatural hero, and they used suspiciously similar evidence to support it. They claimed (as Pausanias noted) that ancient ruins were so overwhelmingly large they must have been the work of Cyclopes, giants, or the heroes. They dug up extremely large bones and claimed these were the very bodies of the heroes, the giants, and the Cyclopes. And they made sacrifices to the subterranean spirits of the giant heroes and prayed to them for help, which they believed the heroes provided from beneath the earth. These heroes, too, were believed the have mated with humans and produced hybrid offspring.
But we know today that the myth of the heroes was concocted from unrelated parts: faded Mycenaean gods, the actual physical remains of Mycenaean cities, and the bones of extinct elephants and other Ice Age fauna—unrelated concepts dragged together in service of a single explanatory story that combined history, myth, and outright fantasy in service of an idea that said much about contemporary conditions in Greece and very little about the supernatural realm of the loved dead. I’m not sure I understand why the many and varied aspects of the UFO myth are not similarly roped into service of a modern myth. Perhaps by dropping the UFO framework it would help us to better understand the actual history, form, and function of the myth’s moving parts.
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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