In the wake of my recent discussion of Ibn Firnas’ alleged glider flight in Spain circa 900 CE, Aaron Adair has done us all a great favor and provided the exact wording of the 1001 Inventions exhibit catalog’s claim for the flight in his excellent blog post evaluating the claim. This wording makes quite plain that the authors of 1001 Inventions far exceeded any possible facts. The passage begins by describing an apocryphal first flight using a parachute, and then it continues thusly:
The authors repeatedly describe this as a “flying machine.” This version of the legend reflects contemporary Muslim folktales about the flight, but as I noted in my first post, it has almost nothing to do with the oldest Arabic sources, which, in Al-Maqqari’s version, state:
Now, since Ibn Firnas’ enemy Mu’min bin Said described Ibn Firnas’ flight in a poem written before 886 CE, saying “He flew faster than the phoenix in his flight when he dressed his body in the feathers of a vulture,” we can be fairly certain Ibn Firnas really flew. (The version I provided in my first post was mistranslated by the nineteenth century translator.) But there are no machines, no claim of flying upward, or any suggestion that the wings could be moved or flapped to create lift.
But let’s move away from this for now and think about what it means for another area of alternative studies, the ancient astronaut theory.
Ancient astronaut theorists repeatedly tell us that the ancients had all manner of flying contraptions, and that they were so familiar with powered flight that they made jewelry in the image of airplanes, wrote about rockets and airplanes in their sacred myths, and routinely were taken on flights across the oceans or into outer space.
Given this, why on earth would Ibn Firnas’ flight have been news?
Nor was his the only flight to make news in Antiquity or the Middle Ages. As I discussed yesterday, the Chinese made several attempts at flight between 100 BCE and 600 CE before arriving at a design for a kite capable of lifting a man. Additionally Eilmer of Malmesbury, in the eleventh century, attempted the same feat, according to William of Malmesbury, a respected medieval historian considered the most reliable of his age:
I think it’s rather extraordinary that William of Malmesbury and Al-Maqqari both describe essentially the same event, in almost identical wording, down to the “forgotten” tail—a weird claim that has no basis in fact, since birds don’t fly that way. One historian said this was merely an “amusing” coincidence, and I’m not aware of any connection between the texts.
The point is, William of Malmesbury, the Chinese court writers, and the Arabic historians all considered these early attempts at gliding to be extremely newsworthy and important of note. For this to be the case, flights carrying human passengers therefore could not have been commonplace, or even known. (Surely these writers would have compared them to the alien transports had they existed.) This calls into question the widespread alien air travel promoted by Giorgio Tsoukalos, David Childress, and Erich von Däniken. Why bother writing about gliders if you already had supersonic air transport?
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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