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  • Watchers of the Sky: The Modern UFO Cult May 29, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback


    The sky was not a big thing in the supernatural before the early modern period. Yes, there were the odd wild hunts, some dragon flights (aurora borealis?) and some airy elementals. But there was no sense that the heavens were worth watching for the supernatural in their own right. Then the modern age begins: Protestantism, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Atom Bomb and the sky takes on a new importance among anomalists. In the early modern period it is mute: but there are some twitches on the Geiger counter with witches riding to sabbat on broomsticks and phantom armies in the sky (the second are not new but they seem to become more common). By the nineteenth century there are mystery airships; and by the twentieth century we have graduated onto the UFO cult. Some comparative mythologists have contrasted chthonic earth religions with sky religions: in as much as the modern west has any religion it seems to be directed upwards…

    Why does this change take place? The first answer is surely ‘flight’: as in balloons, planes and rockets. From the late sixteen hundreds there is scientific writing about the possibility of human flight. 1783 the first balloon goes up and from there on there is understandable interest among the general public and sightings of mystery sky vessels: there are some few records of flying ships from the middle ages, but they seem to be  fundamentally different in type. By the late nineteenth century there are already mutterings that these UFOs may be from other worlds. It is always difficult to know what is going on with anomalies, but Beach would be tempted, while being quite ignorant of the psychological mechanisms involved, to see these sky ships (of any kind), as the long shadow of man’s exploration of the environment above him. With fairies we look backwards: so many fairy accounts have descriptions of fairies as dressed in the clothes of two or three centuries ago. With ‘aliens’ we look forward. These sky creatures are what we are supposed to become with their laser weapons and leisurely clothes. Both fairies and aliens are ‘knowing’ wise figures, but the first are atavistic and rooted, the second are aspirational and futuristic.

    Chris from Haunted Ohio Books makes the interesting points that just possibly the acquisition of wings by fairies dates to this period of increased interest in the heavens: though she has her doubts that things are quite as clear cut as suggested here. Any other thoughts: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    30 May 2016: Chris S: I remember some time ago you were upset about the direction of the world and I wrote you something inspiring to break that spell. (cite, just in case http://www.strangehistory.net/2015/03/02/horror-history-seen-bubble/) I’m glad you see the UFO and alien phenomenon as forward thinking. Here’s another angle. Most abductees  (stereotypically) go on about peace, love, light, and kumbaya from our space brothers. If aliens represent our future, then it’s going to be bright enough to require shades if I may paraphrase a song. Again demagogues like Trump, Putin, Un, are a flash in the pan and are hardly reflections of the spirit of mankind. Just the fears and if children are a measure of mankind, we outgrow those fears. They might be replaced by new ones, but they will be conquered in due time. Let there be more UFO tin-foil hatters because they remind us, in a relevant mythical context, how eusocial naked primates are destined for something grand rather than sifting through our ashes for our next meal.

    30 May 2016: KMH, ‘Regarding the UFO cult, as a historian you could perhaps answer the question: Does history have a goal?  If yes, then we might say that humanity has been predestined to eventually fly in the atmosphere and even travel to other planets, perhaps to escape hopelessly deteriorating conditions here on earth. Like Jacques Vallee and others suggest, UFOs may fill the role that fairies, elves, demons, angels, etc. did in past millennia. New experiences can bring with them their own variety of good and bad encounters with new, formerly unknown, entities.  When Faust came to the end of his rope, what did he find? He found a new acquaintance named Mephistopheles. I submit humanity is currently analogously playing out the Faust literary experience on a grand scale – first looking for evidence of other life in the universe (SETI, etc.), and then, surprisingly, finding extra-terrestrial life actually initiating contact with the human species, beginning with crashed UFOs, etc. All those who believe the aliens are here to help humanity correspond to Faust, and should wind up effectively as Faust did. Yes, when individuals and peoples come to the end of their ropes, strange things can happen, and often do.’

    30 May 2016: Ruththeunstoppablycurious, ‘I don’t remember if I brought this book to your attention already, but here it is: Wonders in the Sky by Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck: ‘In the past century, individuals, newspapers, and military agencies have recorded thousands of UFO incidents, giving rise to much speculation about flying saucers, visitors from other planets, and alien abductions. Yet the extraterrestrial phenomenon did not begin in the present era. Far from it. The authors of Wonders in the Sky reveal a thread of vividly rendered-and sometimes strikingly similar- reports of mysterious aerial phenomena from antiquity through the modern age. These accounts often share definite physical features- such as the heat felt and described by witnesses-that have not changed much over the centuries. Indeed, such similarities between ancient and modern sightings are the rule rather than the exception. In Wonders in the Sky, respected researchers Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck examine more than 500 selected reports of sightings from biblical-age antiquity through the year 1879-the point at which the Industrial Revolution deeply changed the nature of human society, and the skies began to open to airplanes, dirigibles, rockets, and other opportunities for misinterpretation represented by military prototypes. Using vivid and engaging case studies, and more than seventy-five illustrations, they reveal that unidentified flying objects have had a major impact not only on popular culture but on our history, on our religion, and on the models of the world humanity has formed from deepest antiquity.’ I’m not sure if they addressed the frequency of sightings issues, as it’s been a while since I read it, and frequency was not on my radar.  Since you’ve brought it up, it is certainly an interesting topic – and extremely difficult to quantify, especially as we look further back in time. And of course there’s Vallee’s Passport to Magonia, his original presentation of his thoughts on the subject. Vallee is reviled by many UFO enthusiasts, as he does not support the usual favorite hypotheses, the nuts-and-bolts-aliens people, the conspiracy theorists, new age star brothers/sisters as saviors, etc. (I suspect these views are not entirely modern…) Vallee is in a class of his own, and has a small following of people who don’t want to jump to conclusions, and would like to consider all the evidence, not just what fits their pet theory.

    30 May 2016 Bruce T: I’ve thought of them as an akin psychological phenomena, but the actual reports of wings beginning with the latter in the early Enlightenment is a new twist for me. Perhaps it was a part of a counter-paradigm to the Scientific Revolution that was soon to sweep away the old mode of thought? If scientists can see the stars and the moons of planets, let’s give the fairies, and “others” of the old world a means of beating them to it by access to the so called “etheral plane” via wings? Wings had been a well known attribute of angels since antiquity. With the demotion of religion in the Age of Enlightenment, perhaps wings devolved to fairies and the sightings of such beings by rude country folk, not clerics in the yard of a monastery? By the late 17th Century any cleric claiming to see angels on a regular basis would have generally been looked on as mad. UFO sightings and alien beings are interesting in their folkloric aspects. The late 19th century airship sightings had a oft repeated motif of a local being hailed by the operator of the ship asking for help in some way, directions, food, water, a hand in tying it off, often with handshakes and introductions. The operator was often a “Professor So & So ” from town “X”.  Just your late 19th century eccentric with an airship for a Sunday jaunt. People were looking for airships by then, work on dirigibles was beginning, gliders that worked were being reported, and observation balloons had been used in war since the 1860’s. Heavier than air flight was just around the corner, people were looking up, and writers and hoaxers were there to fill the demand. In the meantime the Canals of Mars had been discovered by Schiaparelli, and thoroughly misinterpreted by American dilettante astronomer and occultist, Percival Lowell, as being signs of an advanced civilization on said planet. Due to Lowell’s wealth and connections, his views reached a wide audience and primed the pump for H.G. Wells and later Orson Welles. People really began to look up. I think you know the rest, foo fighters, Ken Arnold, and general Cold War hysteria over who got the best secret Nazi super weapons. When one starts looking for things, one way or another they find them. The physical appearance of the new, so called “aliens”, were much the same as they were in the airship sightings, with some mid- 20th century race theory thrown in. Some were, green, some were blue, some were Nordics, some were as odd as the boggarts had always been. In the 60’s the “greys” started turning up. The timing of this is very interesting to me personally. A weekly magazine of the time that my Grandparents subscribed to, (I want to say “The Saturday Evening Post”, but I’m not sure after fifty years.), had an article about human evolution as the Leakey’s were all the rage then. They projected what we humans would look like in several hundred thousand years. We would lose or size and strength due to or dependence on computers, but the size of our craniums would expand in response to all the information we would be interpreting, we would lose our hair, and the “vestigial” digits, the pinky finger and the small toes. Except for smaller eyes, the illustration was the spitting image of the greys that would become the rage a couple of years later.In my opinion, we create our own reality, Beach. It’s the same bugaboos of the mind manifesting themselves in different ways.