I’d like to start today with a the truth about a “giant”: After reports circulated in gigantology circles this week that a “giant” skeleton up to twelve feet tall had been excavated at Varna in Bulgaria on March 17, other fringe types decided that the bones were those of a vampire. (Varna was the port used by the vampire in Dracula.) Others claimed that the fifth century bones actually were of a giant resident of Atlantis. Bulgarian archaeologists released actual facts about the skeleton yesterday, and it turns out that the skeleton is of a person who stood 5’4”. Archaeologist Valeri Yotov of the Varna Museum, who excavated the bones, said that the media and the public simply would not listen to reason as soon as they thought a “giant” had been unearthed beneath the ruins of Odessus. You can read the whole story here.
OK, let’s move on. This is kind of a strange case, but one that builds to an interesting climax. In Wonders in the Sky (2009), Jacques Vallée and Chris Aubeck translate a passage from the expanded 1594 edition of Pierre Boaistuau’s Histoires Prodigieuses, which I will tell you (because they don’t) comes from Book IV, chapter VII, p. 615. The authors assert that the event occurred “near Tubingen, Germany”:
Numerous black clouds appeared around the Sun, similar to those we see during major storms; shortly thereafter, other clouds of blood and fire emerged from the Sun, and yet others yellow as saffron. From these clouds came luminous effects like big, high and broad hats, and the earth itself appeared yellow, bloody, and covered with high and broad hats that took various colors such as red, blue, green, and most of them black.
What makes this strange isn’t that the translation is wrong per se (it’s close, though awkward) but that it’s already been translated, and accurately, in Vallée’s earlier works. Here is how Vallée presented the same passage in Passport to Magonia and again in Dimensions: A Casebook of Alien Contact, each time offering a more accurate translation, presumably his own:
About the sun many dark clouds appeared, such as we are wont to see during great storms: and soon afterward have come from the sun other clouds, all fiery and bloody, and others, yellow as saffron. Out of these clouds have come forth reverberations resembling large, tall and wide hats, and the earth showed itself yellow and bloody, and seemed to be covered with hats, tall and wide, which appeared in various colors such as red, blue, green, and most of them black.
Why the translation changed for the worse is anybody’s guess. Now when I say the older version is “more” accurate, that’s because there are a couple of issues. Aside from the odd choice of “reverberations” in the older version (a transliteration of the French reverberations), that translation is more or less correct. Here’s how I render the same lines, plus, for context, a bit of the opening of the passage:
In the town of Altorf in the country of Wurttemberg in Germany, one league away from the town of Tübingen, on the fifth day of last December, in the year 1577, at around seven o’clock in the morning, when the sun was beginning to rise, there was seen not its natural brightness and splendor… All around the sun there appeared many black clouds, of the kind we are accustomed to see when there is a great storm, and soon after there came from the sun other clouds, all bloody and fiery, and others as yellow as saffron. From these clouds emerged diffusions of light resembling great high and wide hats, and all the earth showed itself to be yellow and bloody, and seemed to be covered (?) in hats, high and large. These hats appeared in many colors, such as red, blue, green, and for the most part black.
The word I have translated as “diffusions of light” is the same one Vallée has given as “reverberations” and as “luminous effects.” The word is reverberations, which in the seventeenth century referred to reflections, refractions, scatterings, or echoes of sound or light.
I’m not very confident in the word translated as “covered,” which in the original is given as touuerte, a word I haven’t been able to find defined or even used elsewhere. I believe that Vallée has read it as couverte (“covered”), but I can’t find a version that uses a “t.” So, I decided to look at a different edition to see what the word is, but scanned 1598 copy on the Bibliothèque nationale de France website has the first half of the word lopped off!
The bigger issue, though, is that in none of the various iterations does Vallée explain that he has excerpted a few lines from several pages of discussion of wonders associated with this strange light show, all tied to various weird dark clouds that resembled soldiers. The French author says that two suns appeared in the sky, one red and one yellow, before the sky cleared and more weird clouds arrived. Given the tone and tenor of the work—whose original author was dead long before this passage was added to his book—it would seem to be a heavily exaggerated account of some atmospheric phenomena like sun dogs.
The answer probably lies in a 1578 edition of Schrockliche Newe Zeitung from which the French version derives, housed at the Department of Prints and Drawings of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich, in the Wickiana collection. Vallée and Aubeck note this themselves, but do not consult the original. The Swiss were kind enough to make it available online, and although it’s too small for me to see the German text, the illustration, made months after the fact by an artist who knew only the written account, speaks volumes!
Yes, people rejoicing as hats fell from the sky! No, that’s not really what happened. It’s symbolic, as you’ll see. What’s doubly interesting is that the French volume illustrates the same scene, crudely and in reverse, but leaves out the falling hats.
Now, that’s not to say these hats aren’t in the original text. According to the Swiss library’s notes accompanying the online scan of the broadsheet, the original text states that the phenomenon involved the appearance of two suns, one red and one yellow (as seen in the 1578 illustration). Black clouds (represented as soldiers) appeared, and rainbow patches of light and shadow covered the ground, resembling hats. We should likely now be able to understand that we are most probably dealing with sun dogs and rainbow light beams resulting from the light passing through a moist and icy atmosphere. Pending a full translation of the German original, it would seem that this is the best explanation of what the French writer has seemingly translated, likely almost verbatim (hence the line about “last” December, 17 years later), and slapped into the book from which our author has excerpted only a couple of sentences.
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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