This week I’m looking at the “best” evidence for ancient UFOs as collected by ufologists Jacques Vallee and Chirs Aubeck (hereafter V&A) in Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times (2009). This will be my last post about specific cases and evidence. The pair assembled 500 “cases” from prehistory down to 1899, and there’s no way I could possibly go through all of them in anything shorter than a book. Today I’ll finish up my case-by-case review by looking at the last few cases V&A present from ancient history.
I can’t fathom why V&A choose to quote Herodian secondhand from Lycosthenes’ summary when the original is so easy to find. It’s in his History of the Empire at 1.14.1: “Stars remained visible during the day; other stars, extending to an enormous length, seemed to be hanging in the middle of the sky.” I think they like Lycosthenes’ version better because, 1250 years after the fact, he added new details about clouds and vanishing stars and other nonsense. It sounds to me like a description of sun dogs, where partial reflections of the sun take on the shape of elongated spears. Herodian, of course, was writing of events in his own lifetime, but as he was based in Syria and the events happened at Rome, he was not a witness himself. He did not consider these strange stars of any more concern than abnormal animal births as divine portents that Commodus, the reigning emperor, was mad.
Next we get a passage from Cassius Dio, again unnumbered (it’s 74.14.3-4), in which the Roman author describes three “stars” that appeared around the sun, symbolizing three officials attempting to secure Rome and overthrow the emperor. What is interesting is that the Roman author makes plain that he is not providing particularly good testimony: “As for us, however much we hoped and prayed that it might so prove, yet the fear of the moment would not permit us to gaze up at them except by furtive glances. So much for this incident, which I give from my own knowledge.” Thus, Cassius Dio tells us that he only half-saw these lights and was interpreting them mystically, not reporting them scientifically.
Another Chinese example follows, again quoted secondhand from a French summary without any citation to a primary source. I am unable to find any other reference to the “red object with pointed rays” supposedly seen by “Hou Chu,” the posthumous name of Emperor Meng Chang. V&A ascribe him to the third century CE, but he reigned in the tenth according to standard sources. This might be confusion with Lord Mengchang from the third century BCE, a figure associated with many astrological omens, or perhaps Meng Chang, the Han-era governor of Hepu in the second century CE. Since I’m no expert in Chinese history, I just don’t know.
After this comes a quotation copied secondhand from a Chinese book I have never heard of, transliterated in 1913 as Wu ki (I am not able to find this book), that tells of one fish that jumped out of a brook into the clouds while another that remained within turned into a dragon. I do not know what this was supposed to prove.
We finally get something appreciably weird in an excerpt from a 1996 translation of a fourth century Chinese text, Sou-shen Chi (8.235), usually ascribed to Gan Bao, which tells of a strange child with flashing eyes who appeared to a group of children and claimed to be the god of the planet Mars. He had arrived to deliver a prophecy of the fall of the state of Wu. Sadly, the Sou-shen Chi (In Search of the Supernatural) is part of a well-known Chinese genre of fantasy stories that imitated historical writing. It was always known to be fiction.
A further Chinese example is admitted by V&A to have no known ancient source and may therefore be dismissed.
Next we get a Byzantine text from Theophanes the Confessor, written in 813, describing a star that emitted smoke for two hours one day in 334. Modern research has correlated this with Eutropius’ description of an exceptional comet that appeared in 336 and was also recorded by the Chinese as the “broom star” of that year in two separate texts, and again in a Korean version. V&A say that the star was seen for too little time to be a comet and was visible too long to be a meteor; they simply trust that 400 years later Theophanes was correct to the very hour.
Next, V&A cite a secondary book I’ve actually read, and they do it wrong! The give a bibliographic entry for Cook’s Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion vol. 1 (1914) but actually extract the text from vol. 3 (1940), as they themselves note in the introductory text. They also fail to turn back just one page to get the actual citation to what they are quoting, Photios’s summary of Damascius’ Life of Isidore (Library codices 181 and 242). I’m not going to type out the full text here because it’s too long, but you can read it here. It tells of a whitish-purple meteor that fell to earth, had words painted on it in cinnabar, and hissed prophecies. V&A cut out most of the sundry other miracles associated with this stone, including the fact just noted that it supposedly answered questions by hissing answers. V&A are very concerned that no meteorite could have cinnabar sufficient to have whole words written on it, but they seem unconcerned that such letters are described as “painted” onto the stone. They also claim that meteorites cannot be white, much less purplish. Well, here’s one that’s white. Here are some more. Or maybe it was one of these weird fellows, the pallasite meteorites, if, that is, we give credence to Photius quoting Damascius quoting Isidoros quoting the rock’s own, Eusebios. The point is: V&A don’t know what they’re talking about.
After a couple of more mentions of what seem to be sun dogs and comets, we effectively conclude Antiquity and begin moving into early medieval material. This seems like as good a place as any to call it a day. Medieval literature isn’t my specialty, and the highly symbolic and frankly fictitious nature of so many medieval chronicles makes their material even more dubious than the Antique sources I’ve examined over the past couple of days. Of the more recent material V&A include, I am frankly shocked by their uncritical use of material with no provenance, material unknown outside of 1960s-1980s UFO books, Victorian newspaper hoaxes, and in one case somebody’s grandmother saying she remembered something from when she was a little girl and saw a flying boat with someone inside who waved to her.
I’m not going to check all 500 cases V&A provide; that would take a book as long as their own, and I’m not an expert in early modern material. However, item 488 on their list is especially interesting because V&A ignore the actual explanation provided in their source. Citing Notes and Queries for April 17, 1875, they note that blue lights were seen darting about in Wales that winter. The full text is below, with V&A’s excerpt in boldface.
Some few days ago we witnessed here what we have never seen before—certain lights, eight in number, extending over, I should say, a distance of 8 miles; all seemed to keep their own ground, although moving in horizontal, perpendicular, and zigzag directions. Sometimes they were of a light blue colour, then like the bright light of a carriage lamp, then almost like an electric light, and going out altogether, in a few minutes would appear again dimly, and come up as before. One of my keepers, who is nearly 70 years of age, has not, nor has any one else in this vicinity, seen the same before. Can any of your numerous readers inform me whether they are will-o’-the-wisps, or what? We have seen three at a time afterwards on four or five occasions.
The full text makes plain that the author, A. R., presenting this sighting by a local (whose name, from another source, was G. T. Picton-Jones) recognized it as akin to the “Fiery Exhalation” reported in the same place in 1693 or 1694 and explained long ago. Tracing the reference, we find that scholars understood this to be a will-o’-the-wisp, better known to UFO enthusiasts as the infamous “swamp gas.” V&A, you will note, leave out the witness’s own statement that he was hoping to find out if he saw a will-o’-the-wisp. What he saw could have been anything from phosphorus gas bubbles to clouds of fireflies to passing carriage lamps blocked from time to time by trees, but the will-o’-the-wisp phenomenon was well known before most wetlands were drained. In fact, some bird species are known to sometimes “glow” at night due to phosphorus in their feathers, and a flock of glowing cranes, herons, or owls (all native to Wales and known to exhibit glowing feathers) would go a long way toward matching the description. (Many observers assume objects are larger and therefore farther away than they really are, especially at night.) Indeed, just a month earlier Bye-gones magazine ran the same letter from Picton-Jones (originally published in a newspaper the month before) alongside a piece about the large phosphorus deposits of the region!
So, in short, V&A’s modern evidence isn’t any better than the ancient evidence, and the authors are too quick to suggest an inexplicable phenomenon to “explain” things that additional research beyond searching Google for “UFO” might elucidate.
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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