Jacques Vallee is not your typical ufologist, at least in the sense that he differs from Giorgio Tsoukalos in discounting the “nuts and bolts” aspects of alien spacecraft. Instead, he supports an idea he calls the “ultra-terrestrial hypothesis” (UTH) whereby aliens are to be understood as a culturally-bound manifestation of non-human intelligences that communicate with us from another dimension via human consciousness. That doesn’t stop him, of course, from looking for UFOs. In 2009, Vallee and ufologist Chirs Aubeck wrote Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times. This is Vallee’s version of an ancient astronaut book.
The book is organized into three parts: a chronology of events, a discussion of myths and ancient astronauts, and a methodology.
Unlike previous reviews, I’m not going to go through this line by line because so much of the book is devoted to modern materials that are beyond my purview. I am, however, very interested in exploring Vallee’s “evidence” for UFOs in ancient and early medieval times, and I also plan to review some of his arguments about myths, legends, and ancient astronauts. I imagine this will take a few posts to get through.
Vallee and Aubeck (hereafter V&A) draw four conclusions, presented at the start of the book. These are that (a) unexplained aerial phenomena are real, (b) human interpret these through the lens of culture, (c) these events have been suppressed but impacted culture and religion, and (d) ancient sightings can inform understanding of modern sightings. The authors then review the secondary literature on the folkloric analogues to modern UFO sightings, and V&A seem to imply that we should view religious texts written long after the events they describe, like 2 Enoch and the Mithras Liturgy as reporting genuine phenomena, despite the obviously fictional narratives to which the “UFO” reports are attached.
But even here in the introduction V&A are not playing fair with the ancient texts. The Mithras Liturgy, a Greek magical papyrus found in Egypt, is excerpted in carefully selected segments to make it appear to describe a typical UFO:
The visible gods will appear through the disk of gold...and in similar fashion the so-called 'pipe,' the origin of the ministering wind. For you will see it hanging from the sun-disk like a pipe...and when the disk is open you will see the fireless circle, and the fiery doors shut tight. Then open your eyes and you will see the doors open and the world of gods which is within the doors.
But this omits so much to make its fake UFO. I can’t even quote the whole passage to show you how much is cut out because it is simply too long. I’ll link you to the complete text here, in the same translation used by V&A. Look at the very first words quoted. An essential bit of information is left out: “Now the course of the visible gods will appear through the disk of god…” This refers not to aliens but to the planets seen on the “disc” of the sky—the plane of the stars. The rest of the text is about the astrological signs. The “pipe” isn’t a physical UFO but rather a bit of astrological mumbo jumbo. Almost one hundred lines later, the full text makes very plain that the antecedent to the “disk” with doors is the “sun’s disk,” not some mysterious UFO. Besides, how many UFOs have within them “many five-pronged stars coming forth from the disk and filling all the air”? It’s just a description of an astrologer’s view of the sky.
But the edits, unforgiveable edits, distort this into something it is not.
Sadly, this seems to be a pattern in this book. But, on to the evidence.
We start with the Gebel Barkal Stela, which, in a partially damaged section, tells of how a “star” defeated the Nubians, according to V&A. V&A use a translation that appears to have been done into English from a German translation of an Egyptian original. A direct translation implies that a small meteorite fell into the enemy camp, causing fire and chaos. However, V&A offer a reconstruction of the damaged section favorable to ancient astronaut views, while other efforts to translate the damaged text differ markedly. For example, this translation views the star passage entirely as astrological in nature, with only humans responsible for the Nubians’ defeat—and to be honest, in the context of the stela’s full text, this seems like the more logical reading, since the puissant king was likened to a shooting star earlier in the text.
At any rate, this is much more ambiguous than V&A pretend, and their emphasis on the “undisputable” authenticity of the text implies they think more of it than it is worth. Similarly, they quote Akhenaton’s texts about the Aten, the sun disc, as reflective of the round shape of flying saucers. The Egyptians understood the difference between the sun and things that are not the sun. As you can see from the translation of the stelae linked here, which V&A fail to provide, Akhenaton does not, as they claim, say he saw a “shining disc” descend from the sky like a UFO. He says he saw the sun disc, his chief god.
Such is the evidence from Egypt.
V&A cite the translation of Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) as evidence of an alien abduction, although Elijah’s foreknowledge of his coming journey is not typical of alien abductions. Similarly, the text makes plain that the “fiery chariot” is not the vehicle of Elijah’s translation, but rather a “whirlwind.” As I discussed a while back, this passage has provoked a great deal of commentary, including questions about whether the ambiguous Hebrew refers specifically to traveling to heaven or to the extinguishing of Elijah’s life. Indeed, early Jewish and Christian sources did not read this passage as referring to a translation to heaven at all.
They then describe Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1:4-21) as a “craft” (a loaded term), even though this vision has long been well-explained as standard Mesopotamian religious iconography associated with the wheeled thrones used to transport statues of the gods. They cite Ezekiel 3:12-15 as evidence of an alien abduction even though the plain reading of the text is at odds with that interpretation as Ezekiel never claims to have entered a craft or to have been transported to outer space or heaven. In fact, his reference to being “lifted up” does not even imply flying (flight is never mentioned) but rather being raised from a seated position.
V&A start by citing Julius Obsequens, a writer of the fourth century CE, on events four hundred years earlier, and they recognize that his references to fiery globes may well refer to meteors. At any rate, four hundred years after the fact is rather worthless evidence.
Next we get material from the Christian writer Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1.24) describing how a “pillar” of flame guided the Athenian statesman Thrasybulus nearly six hundred years earlier. The authors leave out the fact that Clement was purposely manipulating the story to emphasize parallels to the pillar form of Yahweh in Exodus, which he accused Thrasybulus of plagiarizing. Clement, however, never says that the pillar of flame was particularly large, and the story is known only from him. It probably referred originally to Thrasybulus attributing his deliverance to the torch-bearing goddess Artemis, to whom he built an altar as Phosphorus, the light-bringer. (Indeed, the entire story may well be an ex post facto myth explaining why Artemis was worshiped unusually as Phosphorus at Munychia.)
Then we have Diodorus Siculus’ report (16.66.3) of a light in the sky seen by Timoleon several centuries earlier. The authors note that it could have been a comet or a meteor, and I have to concur with the scholars who suggest that a meteor or comet was exaggerated in the telling across the centuries—something seen elsewhere in Diodorus, in known contexts.
Afterward, we have an out-of-context quotation from Livy (History of Rome 21.62) about a phantom navy seen in the sky in 218 BCE. Livy considers this no more credible than stories of talking babies or a shower of stones from the sky. At any rate, these ships were apparently recognizably Roman vessels, and well-known phenomena akin to mirages can produce similar effects if one is so included to seek out a rationalization for a secondhand story of a supposed vision. V&A quote a second bit of Livy (22.1) to the effect that “at Arpi shields had been seen in the sky and the sun had appeared to be fighting with the moon; at Capena two moons were visible in the daytime,” but they again leave out the context that these were but two signs among many, all unbelievable: Livy reports that shields and statues exuded blood, that waters turned to blood, and that the very grain bled. He also notes that at Capua at the same time, the sky caught fire and the moon fell out of its orbit during a rainstorm. V&A simply ignore all of this, and instead take half of a sentence as evidence of “disk-shaped flying objects.” So what of the bleeding statues and the moon falling out of the sky?
What bothers me, though, is that V&A don’t bother to tell us where in the texts their quotes come from, making it difficult to trace back the original—especially since they only cite a scanned reprint of a 1905 translation lacking any of the usual chapter and paragraph numbering!
The next source, supposedly talking about men in a flying disc, the authors admit they can’t trace back beyond a 1960s Italian popular magazine. I think it’s a fabrication from part of Livy 21.62 where men in white were seen at a distance (on the ground), rewritten to make it seem like they were on the flying ships. Since there is no actual source given, we can ignore the probably fake quote.
I think I’ll stop for today with the next piece of evidence, another line from Julius Obsequens, as reconstructed in the sixteenth century, claiming that men in white clothes were seen around an altar in the sky in 213 BCE. V&A correctly note that this account is almost certainly duplicated from the white-clothed men seen at a distance in Livy’s report in 21.62.
I’ll pick up tomorrow with the next set of Roman prodigies, but I think you can see that so far V&A haven’t made much of a case for ancient UFOs. They have, however, demonstrated that neither author knows much about ancient texts and that both have a fondness for secondhand sources and superficial readings of ancient material. Oh, right: They’re ancient astronaut theorists.
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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