Last month, researcher Chris Aubeck gave an interview to Danish writer Thomas Brisson Jørgensen of the Vomanomalous blog on the subject of UFOs, particularly on accounts of pre-1947 UFO-style encounters with objects from the sky and their alleged occupants. In the interview he discusses some strange stories from old books, though without specific references and links, there is no way for me to identify the stories. Some are quite bizarre, like an old tale of a rocket-like ship from which emerged a being who got into a horseless carriage. If I find myself interested enough, I’ll ask him for the references, but today I am more concerned to discuss some of the broader themes that he discussed in the interview.
While we may differ somewhat on whether there is a “real” layer beneath the story of UFOs past and present, Aubeck is admirably working to trace the influence of culture, particularly mythology and literature, on the stories that witnesses have told about things they imagine falling from the sky. In the interview, he notes that much of pre-1947 ufology is bound up in the experience of trying to understand meteorites and interpret them through the lens of the technology and science fiction of the time: “I can see how it overlapped with stories of meteorites, for example. I can see how literature, culture and the advance of science turned many meteorites sightings into UFO stories, including the ones about passengers, or those with strange writing on them.” Many of the stories of meteorites with “writing” were either outright hoaxes or wishful thinking imposed on cracks and fissures in the rock surface.
He mentions, too, a Victorian story about a bust falling from the sky, and this recalls the legend told of Pindar that a statue of the Great Mother goddess fell from the sky in front of him. He was giving a lecture on a mountain when “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 Ellen Harrison). It sounds for all the world like a meteor that someone fancied resembled the rough icons of the gods used in the time before realistic statues superseded them. But many scholars consider the story to be a dream, and there lies the rub: In the old days, when the nights were dark and our minds weren’t filled with images from TV and movies, the accounts of dreams speak to a depth and realism that our sleep-deprived minds don’t seem to replicate as frequently. (Of course, in 1882, Popular Science attributed crazy dreams to theater visits, reading novels, and hearing music, so take it with a grain of salt.)
A doctor of spiritualist inclinations named J. Preston Moore wrote about it in 1890, only to lament that the intensity of dreams and their deeper meaning was being lost in the pressures of capitalism and commerce:
Without any effort on our part, living landscapes or mountains, hills, valleys, and plains, with running streams of water, and animal and vegetable life, as realistic and active as anything we see when awake, rise spontaneously in our dreams; and we never for a moment imagine that we are not in their midst and form part of them. No wonder the simple savage finds it easier to believe in the separation of soul and body, than to doubt his active participation in the chase of his dreams.
There is ample testimony to the same effect in the Victorian literature. It goes back much farther—Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, wrote that the gods gave him medical advice in his dreams (1.17) and spoke, albeit metaphorically, of the difficulty distinguishing between dreams and reality (6.31). In his 1829 book about Sir Thomas More, who died in 1535, the Romantic poet Robert Southey claimed to have met More’s ghost and wrote of how dreams might be mistaken for reality but reality could never be mistaken for dreams:
It was no dream, of this I was well assured; realities are never mistaken for dreams, though dreams may be mistaken for realities. Moreover I had long been accustomed in sleep to question my perceptions with a wakeful faculty of reason, and to detect their fallacy. But, as well may be supposed, my thoughts that night, sleeping as well as waking, were filled with this extraordinary interview; and when I arose the next morning it was not till I had called to mind every circumstance of time and place that I was convinced the apparition was real, and that I might again expect it.
It's pretty obvious that it was a dream, he knew it was a dream, and convinced himself otherwise. In fact, in a review of his book published shortly after the book, the reviewer wrote exactly that:
From all which an ordinary reasoner would infer, that this interview, being a dream, had been mistaken for a reality. The Doctor proceeds in another way. He informs us that he was well assured it was not a dream, because realities are never mistaken for dreams; that is, he first assumes that it was a reality, and then argues most cogently, that, this being the case, it could not possibly be a dream. To make the matter still more clear, and to convince us invincibly that it could not have been a dream mistaken for a reality, he adds that dreams are sometimes mistaken for realities: that is, that what we suspect to have taken place in this instance, does sometimes take place. A peculiar and extraordinary mode of arguing!
Yet today we see much less consideration of dreams as being convincing as a counterfeit reality. Whether this is due to our dreams being less grounded in reality due to exposure to media, or whether we are too sleep-deprived to have as many of these intense dreams, or whether we simply deny the intensity of dreams out of a misplaced desire to appear hyper-rational, I cannot say.
But I think it’s important to recognize that dreams can be so intense and convincing that people have felt compelled to write of them as though they really happened. And here is the bigger point I think is worth making: Studying UFO sightings in a vacuum will lead you down the primrose path. Studying only the category of UFO sightings is pointless, since it lacks context. Even studying sightings in the context of the art and literature of the time is only a partial solution. Instead, you have to understand the whole culture, as best we are able, to find the possibilities that might otherwise be invisible, like, in this case, the testimony that intense dreams were often mistaken for reality in those days, a concept largely alien to us, for whom any confusion between the two is subject to embarrassment and apologies.
That’s why it was interesting to see Aubeck talking about the process he and Jacques Vallée used to try to distinguish between different categories of supernatural encounters when writing Wonders in the Sky:
I mean, when I was writing Wonders in The Sky with Jacques, we argued a lot about this. He would say “look, here's a classic close encounter case” and I would say, “but this sounds more like a ghost to me” and then he would present another case, and it would sound to me like a vision of the Virgin Mary. Why try to argue that a virgin is a ufonaut or whatever? I just can’t understand that approach. And in the end we actually agreed to take out a lot of these more ambiguous close encounter stories.
In so doing, they accidentally stripped out the broader context and the continuum of experiences that reflect the broader culture that informed the subset of epiphanies that we would today call UFO sightings but in that time were part of a greater supernatural worldview.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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