This morning I went outside to enjoy the beautiful spring weather, and I looked up into the brilliant blue sky. The sun was shining, and there wasn’t a cloud around. What should I see streaking across the empyrean but a flying saucer! It appeared to be metallic silver, round, with what seemed to be a horizontal disc around the center of the round globule. It hovered for a few seconds before streaking across the sky. Was this an alien spacecraft? Of course not; I knew immediately was it really was.
A few seconds after this, more flying saucers started to appear in the sky, popping into view one by one. With the sun behind me, they reflected the solar light brilliantly and looked for all the world like invading alien armada.
But as they grew closer, the horizontal discs started to move up and down, and shortly the beaks and tail feathers were visible. Yes, it was a flock of seagulls. The birds’ silver and white feathers reflect sunlight beautifully, so when conditions are just right—a sunny, cloudless day—and the birds are soaring opposite the sun far enough where no tree or building mark their size or distance, they take on the appearance of the stereotypical UFO. Their gray feathers and white feathers blend into an illusion of a silver craft reflecting white sections in sunlight.
I knew what they were the moment I saw the illusion because I had experienced it before. Almost two decades ago I saw this illusion for the first time. Back then, I was really into UFOs and space aliens, and I was quite excited to have seen what I thought was an alien spacecraft. That excitement last for about the ninety seconds it took the bird to glide down from the sky to the parking lot where I was standing.
What this taught me back then was that our expectations and mental models govern how we interpret ambiguous stimuli. A splotch of gray and white in the sky can look like a 1950s flying saucer if that’s what your mind primes you to see. That’s another reason that eyewitness testimony can’t automatically be trusted.
Imagine, though, if the birds had been flying away from me instead of toward me. They would have looked like flying saucers that sped off into the sky and vanished. For someone unfamiliar with the appearance of seagulls in the sky (they usually don’t venture to my area of Albany, preferring the river), this would have been a dramatic UFO sighting.
Speaking of UFOs, you’ll remember that last year I discussed the claim made by Jacques Vallée in Passport to Magonia (1969), Jacques Vallée and Chris Aubeck in Wonders in the Sky (2009), and Philip Coppens in The Ancient Alien Question (2011) that Charlemagne passed legislation against UFOs, derived from the Rosicrucian novel Comte de Grabalis (1670) by the Abbé de Villars, their only source for this information. In the novel, the Abbé writes that medieval people believed that there were wondrous ships that flew across the air, populated by weather-wizards. “The Emperors believed it as well; and this ridiculous chimera went so far that the wise Charlemagne, and after him Louis the Débonnaire, imposed grievous penalties upon all these supposed Tyrants of the Air. You may see an account of this in the first chapter of the Capitularies of these two Emperors” (Discourse V, sec. 127-128, anonymous 1913 trans.).
Obviously, I don’t take the word of the Comte de Graalis for anything, but it is the origin of Vallée’s Passport to Magonia, since Magonia is the name of the kingdom of the weather-wizards (Agobard, Contra Insulsam Vulgi Opinionem de Grandine et Tonitruis 1-2). Vallée almost certainly learned of this from the explanatory notes in most editions of Comte de Grabalis, but this is getting away from the story.
So, I looked up Charlemagne’s law, the Admonitio generalis cap. 65 (repeated by Louis), and translated the relevant line in which he forbids weather-wizards. At the time, my concern was to show that the law said nothing about aliens, flying ships, or sky kingdoms so I didn’t concern myself too much with the niceties of translating some of the more confusing words, particularly obligatores, literally “binders.” But in translating the complete law for my book of fringe history texts, I have to deal with such problems. Here, then, is the correct translation, to which I have added the references to the Bible verses cited therein:
Again we have in the law of the Lord the command: “do not practice soothsaying or divination” (Lev. 19:26); and in Deuteronomy: “there shall not be found among you any that uses divination, or an observer of dreams and omens”; and also: “let no one among you be a wizard, nor an enchanter, nor a consulter with familiar spirits” (Deut. 18:10-11). Therefore, we enjoin that there shall be neither prognosticators and spell-casters, nor weather-magicians or amulet-binders, and that wherever they are found they must either be reformed or condemned. Again, with regard to the trees, rocks, or springs where some fools make lights or conduct other observances, we command that wherever it is found this most wicked custom, detestable to God, must be removed and destroyed.
As I pointed out before, this is a far cry from the Abbé de Villars’s claim that Charlemagne specifically legislated against flying sky wizards, though in theory flying sky wizards are subsumed in the broader category of “weather-magicians”—even though almost all of these were itinerant (and earthbound) charlatans who promised rain in exchange for cash. But since a 1670 novel linked the law to Magonia, fringe historians have accepted the connection without question.
So this gets to the question of the obligatores, translated above as “amulet-binders.” It’s an obscure term, and one I wasn’t familiar with since I’m not a medievalist and this seems to be a primarily medieval usage. After doing a great deal of research, I discovered that it refers to people who tied magical amulets to their bodies to drive away evil, an ancient practice popular among the Romans but one condemned by the Church from Late Antiquity onward as superstition and/or demonic. The bindings, or ligatures, gave rise to the name of the practitioners of this type of folk magic.
I thought it would be a good idea to check my translation against any other translations of the same law to check to see if I am reading some of the more obscure parts correctly. The fools making lights (luminaria, literally: lamps) seemed a bit weird to me. Of course there is no ready English translation of the whole of the law. Most translate only the last sentence, if that. The most commonly given English translation is that of Margaret Deanesly in Methuen’s History of Medieval and Modern Europe (1931), but she was no help. Deanesly apparently didn’t recognize the word obligatores either; she simply skipped it in her translation, along with everything between “weather-magicians” and “trees.”
This is another reason primary sources are important to consult in the original. I’ve found similar problems time and again. When I translated the famous French science fiction novella The Xipéhuz, I noticed that some of the published English translations simply omitted terms the translator didn’t understand. One translation refused to list Ecbatana among the ancient cities of the world, presumably because the translator didn’t know what it was. Most also chose to translate another phrase as “the year one thousand” even though the story took place in the year 22,649 of the characters’ calendar; the translators didn’t recognize the religious reference to the Millennium, even though in context it was obvious: “It was the Millennium for these young tribal peoples, the death knell of the end of the world….” How would “the year one thousand” work there?
As for the making or doing of lights—that one has no consensus either. Deansely gave the phrase as “where fools are wont to carry lights,” but the Latin verb faciunt doesn’t usually have the sense of “to carry.” James Bentley, in Restless Bones (1985) gives this as “where idiots are in the habit of carrying lights,” but there is nothing about habits or carrying in the Latin. In European Paganism (2018) Ken Dowden gives the line more literally “where some stupid people do lights.” It should be obvious that the line--ubi aliqui stulti luminaria … faciunt—refers to some kind of pagan ceremony involving lamps, torches, or other lights. But the wording just sounds weird however I try to translate it. Taken literally, it could say “where some fools make lamps,” “where some fools do lights,” “where some fools acquire lamps,” etc.
I decided to go with “make lights” because of the parallel texts Dowden provides from earlier condemnations of paganism. In the sixth century Martin of Braga in De correctione rusticorum 16 condemned “lighting candles at rocks and at trees and at springs and at crossroads” (ad petras et ad arbores et ad fontes et per trivia cereolos incendere), almost exactly the same as Charlemagne’s list of condemned places. After 442 the Second Council of Arles (a book, not an actual council) similarly condemned in canon 23 the “faithless [who] light torches or venerate trees, springs, or rocks” (infideles aut faculas accenderint aut arbores fontesve vel saxa venerantur). To this we can add a sermon of St. Eligius from before 659 CE that actually uses the term luminaria faciant (Vita Eligii 2.16), though the English translator decided to leave that part out! [Update: See below on luminaria as gods.] Therefore, on these parallels, it seems clear that “carry” isn’t warranted as the verb in Charlemagne’s law. Also: These condemnations weren’t very effective, were they?
[Update: From McNamara's translation of the Vita Eligii in Head's Medieval Hagiography (2001), I see that she takes the luminaria to be gods. So, that's fun: Did Charlemagne condemn lighting torches or the idea that gods were in the rocks? This requires more thought, apparently. But see my comments below for why I feel that McNamara's translation is wrong.]
It must be nice to be a fringe writer and never have to actually deal with the problems of primary sources or the concept of context. As far as they are concerned, Charlemagne was condemning ancient astronauts’ flying space vehicles because some seventeenth century French cleric said so in a novel.
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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