This week I’m looking at the “best” evidence for ancient UFOs as collected by ufologists Jacques Vallee and Chirs Aubeck in Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times (2009). Since Vallee and Aubeck (hereafter V&A) claim to be a better breed of ancient astronaut theorist, their evidence is therefore proportionally more important than that presented on Ancient Aliens. As we saw in part 1, however, V&A share with Ancient Aliens the tendency to distort and selectively quote ancient texts to “improve” the message to conform to modern UFO beliefs.
Today I’m picking up with Roman-era texts.
Our next selection is again from Livy (History of Rome 42.2) where yet another phantom fleet was seen in the sky, this time around 172 BCE. Once again the authors take a fragment of a sentence out of context and leave out the other portents seen at the same time: wool growing straight from the ground, farmers plowing up fish from beneath their fields, and the requisite shower of stones from the sky. Such portents are so common in Livy that it’s hard to see them as anything more than Roman superstition. This may again refer to a mirage caused by the projected image of actual ships over the horizon, or it could just be people seeing things in the clouds. What I am wondering is why V&A have selected only a few of Livy’s many portents, some of which are much more interesting. Consider this one from 30.2:
…at Anagnia fiery meteors were seen in different parts of the sky and these were followed by a huge blazing torch; at Frusino a thin bow encircled the sun, which afterwards grew to such a size that it extended beyond the bow; at Arpinum there was a subsidence of the ground and a vast chasm was formed.
Oh, right: that one can’t be turned into a spacecraft. But it is part of Livy’s endless list of portents, in every book and chapter, almost all of which are distortions of meteorological events, part and parcel of the Roman need to see the gods at work in every action of nature.
The next text is again a “restored” text from Julius Obsequens, added in the sixteenth century by a German. I don’t know where he got it from, but it exactly parallels Livy in History of Rome 28.11, where two suns were also seen in the sky in one place and it was light at night in another. The authors also choose to translate the sentence (Liber Prodigiorum 14) “Nocte species solis Pisauri adfulsit” as “By night something like the sun shone at Pisaurum” (their emphasis) when the Latin actually says “At night, an appearance of the sun shone at Pisaurum.” The word “species,” according to Latin dictionaries, can mean “something like,” but only in the construction in speciem, which does not appear in this sentence. This mistranslation gives the appearance that this solar visitation was actually an alien craft. Instead, it seems to be a false sun mirage which can occur after sunset.
Finally, a new author! Now we’re on to Pliny (Natural History 2.32). But V&A are deeply disingenuous in the citation. V&A quote Pliny as follows: “Three moons have appeared at once, for instance in the consulship of Gnaeus Domitius and Gaius Fannius.” This they take to be exceptional, though possibly explicable by modern meteorology, since Pliny stooped to record such a fact. But look at the unquoted rest of Pliny’s sentence, and you’ll see it’s nothing special: “Three moons have also been seen, as was the case in the consulship of Cn. Domitius and C. Fannius; they have generally been named nocturnal suns” (trans. Bostock and Riley). That last missing phrase makes quite plain that Pliny was talking about a not uncommon atmospheric condition rather than an intrusion from another dimension. It’s simply the nighttime version of parhelia, where light from the sun (or in this case the moon) reflects off ice crystals in the sky to make it appear that the orb is in triplicate. Pliny makes clear this was no singular event.
Up next, a citation simply to “Plutarch’s Lives.” That’s helpful, isn’t it? The text is from Life of Gaius Marius 17.4, and it tells of “spears, and shields which at first moved in different directions, and then clashed together” before heading off to the west. V&A are puzzled by such a description since it does not match the behavior of meteors, though it is a very good description of how meteors, clouds, sun dogs, or auroras could be imagined to prefigure the battle Marius was about to fight, which is the context for these portents. Of course ancient alien theorists think Constantine’s vision of a glowing cross was a UFO, too, and they aren’t inclined to see the work of Roman propaganda acting on ambiguous lights in the sky.
Following this we again get another clip from Julius Obsequens, Liber Prodigiorum 45, which the authors claim reports a “round shield” flying from west to east across the sky at sunset. The text itself though states that this is a round glowing globe, like a meteorite. In fact the very word used for “shield” also means “meteorite” in Latin. We are then treated again to Obsequens 54 where he reports on another glowing globe, among the more interesting of his portents—which I remind you are all cataloged from Livy (though in missing books)--"Near Spoletium a gold-colored fireball rolled down to the ground, increased in size;seemed to move off the ground toward the east and was big enough to blot out the sun." Here the authors seem to recognize that Wilkins in Flying Saucers on the Attack willfully mistranslated the Latin, adding a scientific-sounding gyration and a revolution that aren't in the original:
In the territory of Spoletum, a globe of fire, of golden color, fell to the earth gyrating. It then seemed to increase in size, rose from the earth and ascended into the sky, where it obscured the sun with its brilliance. It revolved toward the eastern quadrant of the sky.
V&A say that is could not be a meteor or ball lightning. If we assume this fourth century summary of Livy’s report several centuries after the fact is somewhat accurate, it seems to describe, frankly, something like the Tunguska meteor, as seen from a distance, breaking up in the atmosphere, with parts hitting the earth and other parts shooting into the sky.
We leave Rome for our next piece, this time from China where in 76 BCE a “candle star” that the authors note may have been a supernova appeared in Chinese records (Han-shu 26), which V&A quote secondhand from a 1987 science journal article. The article identifies the star as a fireball (meteor) heading to earth in a trajectory parallel to the line of sight, making it seem stationary.
Well, this is exciting stuff, yes?
Next on the tour, we return to Pliny for another unspecified quotation from somewhere in the hundreds of pages of his Natural History. It’s from 2.35 and it reads: “We have an account of a spark falling from a star, and increasing as it approached the earth, until it became of the size of the moon, shining as through a cloud; it afterwards returned into the heavens and was converted into a lampas; this occurred in the consulship of Cn. Octavius and C. Scribonius. It was seen by Silanus, the proconsul, and his attendants” (trans. Bostock and Riley). This passage has long puzzled scholars; the translators I quote here had no idea what to make of it, and neither do V&A. It sounds to me, though, like the mushroom cloud and ejected fragments that arise after a large meteor plummets to earth, the fireball getting brighter as it falls, and explodes.
Here’s a fun one: Cassius Dio is introduced, again with no reference, and we are told that thunderbolts fell on Pompey and a fire from the sky on Caesar. The authors suggest these were “missiles.” The text, after a long search, I finally found at 41.61.2: “For thunderbolts had fallen upon his camp, a fire had appeared in the air over Caesar’s camp and had then fallen upon his own, bees had swarmed about his military standards, and many of the victims after being led up close to the very altar had run away” (Loeb edition). That these portents are largely fictional can be seen by the exact parallels at 41.13.1 and 41.13.3 where thunderbolts, bugs, and animals perform the same actions in other contexts. Interesting, isn’t it, that Cassius Dio attributes the same importance to a swarm of bees as the descent of a UFO into Caesar’s camp? Even if there is something to this beyond superstitious fiction, it isn’t much more than a thunderstorm.
Following this, several examples from China and Japan are presented, but V&A provide no reference to any primary source whatsoever, and I have no way of evaluating the material. V&A attribute one example to a 1960s-era Japanese UFO magazine, it in turn citing an unnamed “ancient” Japanese text, while two Chinese examples are translated into English from a French text with no original cited.
Remember, this is the “best” evidence, carefully selected by UFO “experts.”
A Buddhist myth comes next, and the authors emphasize how reluctant they were to include a mythic source; but they have no problem with the fact that they take the story—about the Chinese emperor having a vision of a floating gold figure—from two secondary modern sources with no primary source cited. The vision is widely reported in scholarly literature, so it must be recorded somewhere, but floating gold gods in dream visions aren’t UFOs, so, whatever.
We return to Palestine for a floating sky army of chariots and soldiers, attributed this time to the non-existent book CXI of Josephus’ Wars of the Jews. The text is actually from Wars 6.5.3; how that became 111 I cannot fathom; perhaps the old 1737 translation they were using had the paragraphs numbered sequentially. Josephus includes this as one of several portents, others being a cow that birthed a lamb, a glowing light around the Temple altar, and a great voice shouting from the earth Hebrew words. Oh, and a comet, too. I am not sure why the flying soldiers are to be treated as factual while the cow and the talking earthquake are not.
I’m getting bored for today, so I think I’ll stop with the next bit of stupid. Repeating verbatim a quotation lifted from Flying Saucers on the Attack or UFOs in History, V&A present an early modern text from 1527 by Henry Boece claiming that the “Roman emperor Agricola” saw a ship (i.e. a boat, not a plane) floating in the sky over Scotland in 80 CE. Never mind that this text was, putatively, written 1,450 years after the fact. Never mind that the emperor in 80 CE was Titus, not Agricola. The passage seems to a bad translation of material about Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman general (imperator, which in this context is not emperor) who conquered Britain and campaigned as far north as northern Scotland.
Here’s how V&A give the passage:
When the Roman Emperor, Agricola was in Scotland (Caledonia), wondrous flames were seen in the skies over Caledon wood, all one winter night. Everywhere the air burned, and on many nights, when the weather was serene, a ship was seen in the air, moving fast. […] In Athol, shower of stones fell from the sky into one place, and a shower of paddocks (frogs) fell on one day from the sky. And high in the air, at night, there raged a burning fire, as if knights in armor and on foot or horse fought with great force. (emphasis in original)
V&A don’t have a clue where it came from, merely citing Boece in general. In Flying Saucers on the Attack, Harold T. Wilkins claims the quotation is from a sixteenth century manuscript of Boece, but provides no reference and no published source gives this exact wording. Other UFO writers say the quotation actually comes from Conrad Lycosthenes, but no source is given there either. So, I sat with Google and kept searching until I found it, in Historia Gentis Scotorum 4.58. It was hard because the “quote” was so mangled. Here’s the original, as translated in its own time, around 1536:
Sindry mervellis war sene in Albion, afore this last battal that Galdus faucht with Romanis. Mony birnand speris war sene fleand in the air. Ane gret part of the wod of Calidon apperit birnand all nicht; howbeit na thing apperit thairof in the day. Ane flot of schippis was sene in the aire. Ane schoure of stanis was in Athole; siclike, in Angus, rank paddokis. Ane monstoure was borne in Inchecuthill, with doubill membris of men and wemen, with sa abhominabill figure, that it was distroyit be the pepill. Thir uncouth and wonderfull mervellis maid the pepill astonist: for thay war interpret to sindry facis; sumtimes to the gud, sumtimes to the evill.
And here is the same text in a modern translation:
Our annals record that a large variety of prodigies had occurred in Albion a little before Galdus’ battle with the Romans. Flaming brands were seen to fly through the air, a great part of Caledonia appeared to be ablaze at night, but to be untroubled by fire in the daytime. Phantom ships appeared in the sky, in Athol it rained stones, and in Horestia there was a torrential downpour of frogs. At Tulina, a town I have already mentioned, a hermaphrodite was born, a foul monster in every respect, and was put to death lest it offend men’s eyes. These prodigies troubled many men’s minds and divided their opinions: as happens in such situations, some put a good interpretation on them, and others a bad.
Both accurately translate the Latin original. I cannot fathom how Wilkins (or whoever was the source of the fake “quote”) so mangled the Latin as to turn the above into the wildly different text V&A reproduce, except that many of his quotations are similarly muddled and can only have been purposely faked. (There is a second sixteenth century manuscript of the first English translation that has many variant, and inferior, readings; this might be the source Wilkins used; however, according to philologists the relevant book and chapters are missing from that garbled version.) But either way the original Latin text should govern our argument, not inferior translations.
I trust you can see that this is simply Boece applying to Scotland the same stereotypical Roman portents we’ve seen several times with Livy, apparently the most important source for ancient UFO reports. In fact, the text is probably dependent on Livy’s portents of the phantom navy and shower of stones. The Latin of Boece (“navium speciem in coelo apparuisse”) literally says that “a vision of ships appeared in the sky,” an almost word-for-word duplication of Livy (“navium speciem de caelo affulsisse”) at 21.62, which I discussed yesterday. Perhaps tellingly Livy and Boece are the only two authors I can find to use the odd phrase “navium speciem.”
V&A, knowing none of this, not even the plural nature of the ships, see this as a fabulous example of a UFO sighting.
Again, this is the “best” evidence for ancient UFOs.
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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