27.6.15

DINING AT THE GOBLIN'S MARKET

Joshua Cutchin. A Trojan Feast: The Food and Drink Offerings of Aliens, Faeries and Sasquatch Anomalist Books, 2015

In her book The Folklore of Guernsey (Guernsey Press, 1975) Marie De Garris includes a tale told by Edmund Vale in Blackwoods Magazine in 1922:

“ I remember a farmer in Guernsey, on whose land stood a giant dolmen, telling me that one morning early when he went into the field, he saw a tall stranger, with a great beard, sitting on one of the capstones of the dolmen. He rose on seeing the farmer and beckoned him. When the farmer came near he poured out a strange liquid into a tiny cup and set it down on the capstone. Neither spoke. Presently the stranger lifted the cup and of it, offering the remainder to the farmer. The latter, fascinated, if not awed, partook. The host then bowed to his guest, and to another not visible, and departed, never again to be seen. “And that” whispered the farmer into my ear, “was the sign”. And although he was not clear in any way what the sign was, it seemed to him a grave occasion, a momentous business” (p204-5)

That little story sums up rather the theme of Joshua Cutchin’s book, and that I should come across it while reading his book is one of those odd synchronicities which appear from time to time. 

Across time and culture human beings have told stories about encounters with “the others”, who offer them food and drink. In many stories this food is best rejected. The tale that opens Cutchin’s book warns of this. In the early eighteenth century a Norwegian farm maid is guarding the herd when she hears the sound of strange music and sees a man she thinks is her employer coming down from the mountain. He tells her to leave the herd and come with him, to a place where they are joined by four blonde men, dressed in red shirts, black trousers and caps and blue stockings. Now the man she thought was her employer looks like the rest and she finds herself inside a mountain. There she meets a minister who urges her to eat and drink of their fare, as does his wife. Time and again she is tempted but refuses and she is eventually released. Though she thought only twelve hours had passed she was away for four days. In other tales the captive is warned by someone present, usually another human taken into the other-world, not to partake of the food and drink, lest they be lost for ever in the otherworld.

As Cutchin shows these stories are not just ancient lore, they occur in modern stories of encounters with aliens, abductions and encounters with Sasquatch. They also, though Cutchin does not say this, encountered in tales of Satanic Child Abuse. The drinks may be sweet or sour; the food tends to concentrate on a few items, mainly fruit and bread, but also in our modern age, pills. Of course none of this unearthly food is ever found to be really unworldly. Joe Simonton’s pancakes being mundane enough for example. Traditional lore suggests this is true of all other-world gifts.

The others do not just give, they take. It is well to leave offerings out for the “little people” and such ideas are barely secularised in stories told by people who claim to be “habituating” Sasquatch. In both cases those who refuse might live to regret it. In other lore the others just take the “essence” of food, leaving just some “dead” unappetising residue.

Cutchin traces connections to sleep paralysis, other-world ointments, sexuality, psychedelic substances such as ayahuasca and DMT, and to Hindu theories of diet. At times he goes into speculations where few are likely to want to follow, mainly because he makes the usual error of assuming that stories are some sort of quasi-scientific evidence.

What they are is evidence that human beings are a story telling species and that food and its offering are of profound importance. The offering of food, and of sex, and protection are the primary transactions out of which societies are constructed, and it is through the widening of such trades that human beings forge a habitat and become something more than just another wild animal. These primal transactions go back much further than modern humans and modern language, they must have been at the core of the very first stories ever told, perhaps they are “the story” which gave birth to complex language.

The foods which appear in these stories rarely include red raw meat from the outer wilderness, they seem to be agrarian and proto-agrarian foods, foods around which the first stories were told. The gathering and sharing of food therefore is the building of society, but they also offer temptations away from the band. Food and sex are also the primary temptations and as such tend to be related together. The theme of temptation runs through many of these stories. Nor must we forget that many would have been told in hungry times when people were completely obsessed with where the next meal was coming from.

Even today there is the sense of food being a source of dangerous temptation, especially when offered by the exotica, the outsiders. How many children are told not accept food from strangers and don’t we talk of forbidden fruit. These themes occur strongly in Christina Rossetti’s poem 'Goblin Market'.

“Nay, take a seat with us, 
Honour and eat with us,” 
They answer’d grinning: 
"Our feast is but beginning"

The partaking of food also implies an acceptance of allegiance both spiritual and temporal. Taking the fare of the 'others' implies an allegiance to them, who might be the forgotten dead of the wilderness, and the temptation to escape from the quotidian realities of the world into the fantasy world of fairyland, offering liberation from the restraints of society. This fairyland might well be the deeply ambivalent Pure Land wherein all the complexities, contradictions, pains and heartaches of the world are resolved. One only has to watch the headlines to know what sort of places such Pure Lands actually turn out to be, especially when they pretend to be preserving the Habitat while destroying everything that holds human societies together.

Our modern word for temptation is grooming, so you might ask what might it mean to be groomed by the nameless dead arriving in magical machines.

In his final chapter Joshua Cutchin suggests that this food is 'mirage food. by which the others can communicate (or is that possess) us. He takes this rather literally, but if we substitute the phrase 'false food', we can see that this makes an excellent metaphor. Today Laura would not even have to get off her backside to get the goblin’s false food, the Internet will supply it at the press of a button, no doubt delivered by a mindless drone on leave from dropping bombs, and it can offer you fruit so false that it would make the hardiest boggart vomit its guts out.

Folklore is not about aliens it is about us, and that is why it is important. So you can read this book as a source of modern fairy stories but you would be well advised to think hard on what these stories mean for us today. -- Peter Rogerson.

22.6.15

GOING APE

Bryan Sykes. The Nature of the Beast: The First Scientific Evidence on the Survival of Ape-men into Modern Times. Coronet, 2015.

Bryan Sykes is one of the pioneers of DNA ancestry, and in previous books has traced the migration patterns of modern humans around the world, and the peopling of the British Isles. Here he turns his attention to claims that there other kinds of hominids, humans and their relations in the world. He collects physical evidence in the form of skin, bone and other traces of DNA among alleged remains of creatures such as the yeti, bigfoot, the almasty and so on.

Based on a Channel 4 documentary, this book examines this possible DNA evidence. As the fact that the world of anthropology hasn’t been shaken to its foundations demonstrates no unambiguous evidence for such creatures was in fact found. The majority of the samples of Bigfoot weren’t even from the bears which probably give rise to most Bigfoot reports, but from cattle, dogs, deer and in one case a modern human. The vignettes of his interactions among the Bigfoot hunters demonstrate how far removed from his kind of science many of them are. One tell him that Bigfoot has telepathic abilities; another that she encountered a Bigfoot walking into the sea, however this was through remote viewing!

Perhaps the oddest of these claims was that a Bigfoot lived under an old tree and communicated by knocking. Things were getting sticky because the Bigfoot was getting jealous of the boyfriend of the woman who communicated with it and the knocking was getting more agitated. A local game warden that Sykes brought in to investigate had a more prosaic explanation: the sound was being carried down a nearby tree as its branches brushed together in the wind, the old log acting as a sounding board. It struck me that in another context these knockings or ‘raps’ would have been evidence of a poltergeist or spirit communication.

Not all the evidence was as weak as this. There was a flurry of interest in that some of the yeti DNA appeared to come not from an anomalous primate but from an anomalous bear, one which showed a relationship to a fossil ancestor of the polar bears, or was a polar bear/brown bear hybrid. This has now been challenged by another group http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-30479718 who argue that the DNA was from an ordinary Himalayan bear.

An even more interesting case is that of Zana, an alleged almasty captured in the Caucuses in the 1850s, who lived in captivity until 1892. She had two surviving sons and they left several descendants. Their mitochondrial DNA appears to be West African and suggests that Zana may have been wholly West African.

"ZANA"
Sykes however seems to try and argue that Zana was remembered as being very different from the average west African and her DNA was rather different. From this he suggests that she might have been a descended of some relict population that had left Africa before the modern human mainstream. However there are at least a couple of problems with this; first she was described as dark skinned, but a people who had been in the Caucuses many thousands of years before the majority of the population would have paler not darker than the mainstream and secondly they would have almost certainly interbred with the majority population many times over through the millennia.

In fact there is no actual evidence as opposed to assertion that Zana originated from the local area at all; she had passed round from one person to another several times over with just a legend that she had been captured in the wild. Such tales were used by showmen to display ‘wild men’ who were often just ordinary people with some form of learning difficulty or genetic malformation.

How tortuous her journey to Caucasus was we will never know, but we do know it involved probably removal from her people at a very early age, treatment as a wild animal or show freak, imprisonment, degradation, slavery, repeatedly the victim of rape and sexual assault. Her mutism is not evidence of her animal nature but of trauma on a scale which beggars comprehension. Yet she lived to see two of her children accepted into the community. She is not a cryptozoological specimen but a testament to human courage, endurance and survival against almost insupportable odds. Her descendants should be proud of her.

The search for surviving Neanderthals and the like is likewise futile. Because the recent evidence of some significant interbreeding shows that they too would not cryptozoological specimens, but just another human ethnic group, and would long have been assimilated into the human mainstream. Any surviving group of other hominids would have to be very different from us indeed, such as the famous “hobbits” of Flores.

Though Sykes remains impressed by ‘eyewitness testimony’ he has to concede not only the lack of real physical evidence, but that to many of its practitioners cryptozoology, like ufology, is a religion rather than a science. And as with ufology they not so much interested in evidence to help solve a scientific puzzle as ‘evidences’ for some quasi-theologically held world view. Bigfoot is almost certainly not a paws and pelt creature but an inhabitant of the goblin universe of the human imagination.

The book sadly lacks an index. -- Peter Rogerson.


17.6.15

BAPHOMET: ACTING THE GOAT

Nikki Wyrd and Julian Vayne. The Book of Baphomet. Mandrake, 2015.

In reading and reviewing this book, the phrase 'curate's egg' kept coming to mind. That means to say I found the book to be good in parts. It is a stimulating but rather odd concoction of writings by a male and female couple who have evidently been practitioners of Chaos Magick for many years and are initiated Wiccans, as well as being enthusiastic users of mind-altering substances in their rituals and relate some of their experiences in sufficient detail to make parts of this book a veritable head-trip. If you are curious to know how to use toad venom as a magical sacrament and the effects thereof, you will find it in this book.

For all of the authors' apparent erudition, it takes them several billions of years and over 30 pages to mention their headline subject. The first chapter, The Song of Life, is something like a creative writing essay on the evolution of the cosmos. Here is an example of their vibrantly poetic writing style: "Sex is the amphetamine of evolution. A handy way of shaking your chromosomes about and getting variation both faster and in a way that is likely to favour the previous set of variations that worked best. It's a biological epic win and has swept through life on this planet like a dose of the pox. As soon as complex cells had started fucking the whole system goes into overdrive". I'm not sure that Darwin would have dared use such terminology, but times have changed, and humanity has, it is alleged, evolved since those days of Victorian restraint.

On page 32, before we come to the subject of Baphomet, the authors state how the book itself evolved: "This book decided to emerge as a collage. Instead of a simple coherent history or linear narrative, we formed a many coloured patchwork of words, experiences and ideas. Our two bodies and their third mind gave rise to a multitude of perspectives, a chorus of voices". 

Within its many chapters there are indeed many perspectives on the mystery of Life on Earth, its origins and possible purpose. Through occult knowledge, gnosis, science, history of the Knights Templar and Freemasonry, we are led to the modern day where Pagans, Wiccans, and Chaos Magicians are free to celebrate and even worship the Great Spirit in any way they wish.

The emergence of the "secret knowledge" known only to initiates is such a complex and diverse subject that the authors must be congratulated on keeping their book so compact, a handy size and under 230 pages in total. Also, it has to be mentioned that the book is physically appealing with a solid hard cover with impressive artwork.

As to who Baphomet actually is, the short answer would be the embodiment of the Great Spirit, the anima mundi representing all Life on Earth, and indeed its Creator. There are several visual symbols, usually goat-headed with two large horns, female breasts and male genitalia. Pan, the goat-headed god, means "All", after all! The concept is of the human being animal and spiritual, male and female, mixture of good and evil, wild and tame, and all the other opposites one can think of. It is our work to unite these opposites in harmony within ourselves, although one may argue that it is an eternal process, the intrinsic nature of life itself, while ever seeking unity.

If, as Crowley asserts, the name Baphomet means the "hieroglyph of perfection", as "the Devil of the Book of Thoth", and also as "Father Mithras", the cubical stone which was the corner of the Temple, the nature of Baphomet is that all of these attributions may be true.

Dr Hugh J. Sconfield, a scholar who worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls, argued in his book The Essene Odyssey that the word Baphomet, rendered in Hebrew, is code for the word meaning Wisdom, or Sophia in Greek.

At the end of the book, the authors provide some Magickal exercises that one may undertake to invoke Baphomet. The rather sinister image of Baphomet as 'Devil' would certainly deter most seekers of Truth, but to those who are grounded and initiated it may be one way of communing with the Great Spirit. For others, a gin and tonic and a walk in the park might do the trick. Ultimately, as in Gnosis, it's up to you! - Kevin Murphy

11.6.15

HITTING THE BUFFERS

John Horgan. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Basic Books, New York, 2015

John Horgan, in his preface to this new edition of this book, first published in 1996, insists that he was right to assert that significant progress in scientific discovery was coming to an end. Scientists these days are just filling in the details.

The idea for the book began to take shape in 1989, when Horgan interviewed the British physicist Roger Penrose about The Emperor's New Mind, which became a best seller despite Horgan's opinion that it was dense and difficult.

Penrose's ideas about the human mind are discussed in some detail in the chapter on neuroscience, together with those of other scientists, including physicists as well as neurologists. Penrose considers that the mind is too complex to be explained in detail using available theories. He told Horgan that a computer capable of thought would have to rely on mechanisms related to quantum mechanics, not in its present form but on a deeper theory not yet discovered. In The Emperor's New Mind he was arguing against the assumption that the mystery of consciousness, or of reality in general, could be explained by the current laws of physics.

Neuroscientists had been concerned with finding out how the brain worked, but considered consciousness to be not physical, but metaphysical, and thus not a proper subject for scientific investigation. This attitude changed when Francis Crick, who was noted for his work, with James Watson, on discovering the structure of DNA in 1953, proclaimed, in collaboration with Christof Koch, in 1990, in Seminars on the Neurosciences, that consciousness should be made the subject of empirical investigation. Horgan remarks that "they had transformed consciousness from a philosophical mystery to an empirical problem".

One factor which makes the study of consciousness particularly interesting is the clashes which occur between strictly scientific and philosophical approaches to the question. For example, Colin McGinn believes that most major philosophical problems are beyond our cognitive abilities, but Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained (1992) described consciousness as an illusion. I must comment here that to me the notion of a non-conscious illusion seems self contradictory. This seems to be a problem in that discussions on consciousness tend to be ambiguous or just incomprehensible.

One of the more interesting chapters is on what Horgan calls chaoplexity, by which he means "chaos and its close relative complexity". He traces this as "a full-blown pop-culture phenomenon" to the publication in 1987 of Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick, a former New York Times reporter. One aspect of chaoplexity is that many phenomena are inherently unpredictable because very small influences can eventually lead to unpredictable and enormous consequences. This became popularly known as the butterfly effect.

Computers may, if anything, hasten the end of empirical science

The positive side of chaoplexity is the use of sophisticated mathematical techniques using powerful computers to produce models of complex systems to predict how they are likely to develop. However, Horgan concludes that chaoplexologists "have not told us anything about the world that is both concrete and truly surprising" and that computers "may, if anything, hasten the end of empirical science".

In his epilogue to the book, Horgan, rather surprisingly for one who gives the impression of being a nuts-and-bolts scientific type, tells us of what he says could be called a mystical experience. One day, years before he became a science writer, he was lying on a lawn when he became insensible to his surroundings and felt he was hurtling toward what he was sure was the ultimate secret of life, and became convinced that he was the only conscious being in the universe. For months after this experience, he was convinced he had discovered the secret of existence: "God's fear of his own Godhood, and of his own potential death, underlies everything".

The notion that there will eventually nothing of importance left for scientists to discover is obviously a controversial topic, and the author's interviews about it with various scientists, including details of their appearance and mannerisms, which makes some of them seem almost human, is very informative and entertaining. Most of the arguments presented, though, seem to me to be more philosophical than scientific. -- John Harney


7.6.15

MARK, MY WORDS


Robert Conner, The Secret Gospel of Mark: Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and Four Decades of Academic Burlesque, Mandrake of Oxford

Robert Conner seems to be specialising in books about controversies stirred up by New Testament scholar Morton Smith. Earlier this year I reviewed his Magic in Christianity, which largely examined Smith’s idea that Jesus was, essentially, a sorcerer. In this book he turns to Smith’s other claim to fame/notoriety, his discovery of the one-time existence of a ‘secret’ version of Mark’s Gospel.

The discovery held some very unwelcome implications for Christians and scholars alike, and since Smith’s death in 1991 allegations of fraud, only whispered in his lifetime, have become ever louder. In this slim volume of just under 150 pages, Conner gives his assessment of the controversy. As he sums up: ‘The “Secret” Mark saga is complex, encumbered nearly from the start by specious claims, misinformation, silly arguments, and gay bashing.’

Mar Saba
In 1958, in the library of the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, Smith came across a copy of a letter written by the first-century Bishop of Alexandria, Clement. (Although the copy was made in the seventeenth century, this was the usual practice when old documents began to deteriorate.) The letter concerned a ‘more spiritual’ version of the Gospel of Mark containing secret teachings of Jesus, which was withheld from rank-and-file worshippers, some passages from which were quoted by Clement. Smith took photographs of the document back to America and, over 15 years of study concluded, first, that it really was a copy of a genuine letter by Clement and, more sensationally, that the quotes were indeed from an alternative version of Mark.

The document itself has disappeared, after being moved from the monastery to the library of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem. This has, inevitably, led to accusations that it never existed, even Smith’s photographs being part of his hoax. However, as Conner shows, the blame lies with the Patriarchate – or an individual librarian – which has either hidden or destroyed the original because of the threat it poses to established thinking.

Smith’s discovery raised several challenges to the conventional understanding of the origins of Christianity and its sacred texts. First, because of the suggestion that Jesus had secret teachings that were reserved for an elite. Secondly, as evidence that the gospels were subjected to editing and censorship. And finally because of the dynamite content of the excised passages quoted by Clement.

The major one tells what is clearly another version of the raising of Lazarus, although the resurrectee is only described as a ‘young man’ who ‘was rich’. One of New Testament scholarship’s great mysteries is why this pivotal miracle is only found in John’s Gospel. Smith’s discovery supplied an answer: it was in one other – in fact, the first to be written – but was removed because it was for initiates’ eyes only.

Worse for traditionalists, in ‘Secret Mark’ the young man later comes to Jesus ‘wearing a linen cloth over his naked body’ and spends the night with him receiving some kind of special teaching. Smith concluded that this was a ritual reserved for the closest disciples - and even suggested that there was a homosexual element to it. Small wonder Smith’s books on the subject (one academic, one popular, both published in 1973) raised the hackles of Christians everywhere, particularly those of a fundamentalist persuasion.

For those uncomfortable with any or all of these notions, the secret gospel has to be a forgery. And the forger can only be Smith; for various reasons it couldn’t have been a hoax foisted on him by others.

From his study of the evidence, Conner is firmly on Smith’s side. Assessing the authenticity of the ‘Clement letter’ is a highly specialised exercise that requires very detailed knowledge of, among other things, the Greek of the era - expertise that Conner has but which is conspicuously lacking in Smith’s most strident critics. His verdict is that the letter is almost certainly genuine – and, more importantly, that the extracts really are from an alternative gospel written by the same hand as canonical Mark.

Clement of Alexandria
Beginning with background on the Mar Saba monastery and Clement of Alexandria, Conner takes the reader through the controversy, from Smith’s conclusions about the letter to the academic response and the ‘firestorm of invective and denial from Catholic and evangelical quarters.’

Connor demonstrates that attempts to shoot the letter down on the grounds of vocabulary and style are ‘in the very best case shoddy procedure, in a slightly worse case mere incompetence, and in the worst case, academic fraud pure and simple.’

Conner makes the important point that Smith’s opponents never start with the letter itself, but with his interpretation of it, on the backward logic that if the conclusions he drew from it can be shown to be wrong then that proves it’s a fake.

A particularly compelling aspect of Conner’s argument is that, when it comes to the interpretation, he doesn’t slavishly follow Smith, persuasively arguing that he made some major mistakes. In particular Conner disagrees with the most controversial of Smith’s conclusions, that the nocturnal ‘sequel’ to the raising of the young man represented a secret ritual – a special kind of baptism reserved for a favoured few – and his speculation that it may have included a homosexual element. If Smith himself misinterpreted the letter then the forgery hypothesis is fatally undermined.

Conner shreds ‘ill-considered, pseudo-academic responses’ such as The Gospel Hoax by Stephen Carlson (a lawyer) and The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled by Peter Jeffery (a Benedictine oblate and, errr, musicologist), which set out to prove Smith a fraud. Conner declares the latter ‘simply the most bizarre thing in any category of literature that I have ever read.’

He highlights the part that homophobia played in the Christian responses: they assume Smith to be gay – and therefore conspiring to ‘gay’ Jesus – although, in fact, nobody knows his sexual orientation. As Conner pointedly observes, ‘Jeffery speculates endlessly about the sexuality of confirmed bachelor Morton Smith, but makes no comment at all about the confirmed bachelor Jesus of Nazareth.’

Having demolished the case for a hoax, Conner gives some of his own thoughts about the significance of ‘Secret Mark,’ in particular the identity of the resurrected young man. He is clearly the Lazarus of John’s Gospel; Conner provides evidence that both accounts are drawn from the same, Aramaic source. However, from a penetrating analysis, Conner also identifies him as the mysterious ‘beloved disciple’ in John’s Gospel, canonical Mark’s equally enigmatic ‘certain young man,’ dressed only in a linen cloth, who flees naked from the garden when Jesus is arrested, and the rich man who prompts Jesus’s ‘camel through the eye of a needle’ saying. Clearly this individual, whoever he was, was extremely important in the last days of Jesus’ mission, but for some reason was such an embarrassment to the early Church that it edited him out of the gospels as much as it could. Fascinating, thought-provoking stuff.

Conner’s final chapter is a lament on the revival of fundamentalism in the USA and its influence on ‘Jesus studies’, and on the increasingly poor quality of New Testament scholarship.

The Secret Gospel of Mark is an important book. However it has the same problem as Magic in Christianity: is it aimed at a popular or scholarly audience? There is a mismatch between the chapters dealing with the ‘hoax’ controversy, which are sharply written with a pungent wit (I particularly liked ‘the whine list of believers’), and the more scholarly ‘analytical’ chapters, in which Conner brings in specialist terms without any explanation. Phrases such as ‘the use of chiasmus to create epexegetical frames’ aren’t going to carry the general reader along. On the other hand, the fact that Conner, while possessing all the necessary expertise, doesn’t hold an academic position - and takes it upon himself to pronounce on the current state of the profession, often witheringly – won’t, unfortunately, give the book a warm welcome there either.

It’s a great shame, as ‘Secret Mark’ is of vital importance to anybody with an interest in the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity – if it’s genuine it changes the game fundamentally – and Conner’s book is by far the best assessment of the debate about it and the issues it raises, by somebody with the skills to do the job, and therefore should be read by scholars and laypersons alike. -- Clive Prince. 
 


1.6.15

THE BRAINS IN SPAIN

Nigel Watson reports:
 
From the 27 to 28 May 2015, La Casa Encendida ('The House on Fire'), Madrid, held a series of talks by UFO experts about the historical origins and foundations of modern UFO beliefs and theories.

The star guest was Jacques Vallee, and it was great to actually meet the inspiration for so much on this website and who influenced the creation of Magonia magazine, and Peter Rogerson’s INTCAT project.

In 2010, with Chris Aubeck a fellow speaker and organiser of the meetings, Jacques wrote ‘Wonders of the Sky’ that chronicles 500 anomalous events from Ancient Egypt right up to 1879. This certainly indicates that UFOs and related events are nothing new. Indeed, in 2003, Chris set up the online Magonia project to collect old newsclippings and reports of UFO-type events from the past, resulting in a massive 30,000 to 40,000 items being posted, with more being added everyday.

Jacques knows there is something unusual going on. “I don’t have a personal theory,” he says. “I’m not trying to sell a theory. I can’t give an answer, but there does seem to be a non-human consciousness that seems to be amongst us that is an enigma that science needs to study.”

His view of alien abductions is that “I believe witnesses have real experiences, my problem with them is that with the use of hypnosis to obtain alien abduction ‘memories’ it can damage the perception of normal life.”

“As civilisation has developed people integrate the UFO phenomenon into their lives as folklore and mythology, and it seems to act as a control system. The question is are we creating this control system or is something outside us that is manipulating us?”

Chris Aubeck, spoke about the issue of trying to unveil the clouds of folklore and mythology that has attached to the subject of luminous and non-luminous objects seen in the sky. “We need to exclude such things as Reptilians, Roswell, Pyramids, Faces on the Moon, Anunnaki and the Bermuda Triangle from our data analysis,” he said.

Chris also spoke about his own work on the theme of meteorites being being found covered with hieroglyphics and containing ‘alien’ bodies inside, and noted he had found 65 cases of people between 1880-1920 who claimed to be from other planets (most of whom were locked up rather than being invited to daytime TV shows as they would be today!).

Theo Paijmans from Holland presented a talk on the influence of early or proto-science fiction literature on UFO-type sightings in the 19th and early 20th Century. He noted how the expectations and anticipations of the ‘industrial imagination’ connected to the proto-UFO sightings of the 1880s onwards, as well as with the growing body of proto-science fiction that was so popular at that time. He showed some wonderful illustrations from these works in his presentation.

I continued Theo’s theme with a talk about the enthusiasm for flight during the 19th Century inspiring new inventions, science fiction stories and sightings of anything in the sky as being of ‘phantom airships’ piloted by secret inventors. I also mentioned how the German menace influenced sightings during WWI that I chronicle in my book ‘UFOs of the First World War’.

Jesus Callejo reviewed the story of how humanity has always dreamed of flying, and the gadgets and inventions that have been designed and built since 500 AD to make the dreams a reality. Such attempts were often fatal either because their prototypes drastically failed, or were condemned as the work of the Devil making their inventors flee for their lives.

Another speaker was Juan Jose Sanchez-Oro, a professional historian who graduated from the Universidad de Complutense, who spoke about the evolving role of otherworldly beings in belief and folklore over time. Unfortunately, I missed his talk.

The event hosted at La Casa Encendida, contained rooms full of alien related exhibits and film shows, making it a ufological delight. It was certainly a great opportunity to meet other ufologists who have been exploring historical cases and their wider context. It was also a wonderful opportunity to see and taste the delights of Madrid. A reminder of some of the Anglo-French UFO meetings of the 1980s!
 
...........................................................................................................................................................

28.5.15

NORTHERN ECHOES: MEETING THE SHAMANS


A slightly different type of 'Northern Echoes' this time. I thought it might be interesting to discuss an older book which does not fit into the 'First Read' format - at 21 I'd read an awful lot of other stuff by then - but which like the books I'd read as a early teenager, had quite an effect on my thinking about Magonian-type topics, as well as politics and culture generally.

Ernest(o) de Martino. Magic: Primitive and Modern. Tom Stacy, 1972.

This was a book which had quite an influence on me as a 21 year old student, introducing me to shamanism and to radical ideas of what one might later see as a proto-post modernist nature.

Ernesto de Martino (1908-1965) was an Italian anthropologist and philosopher who undertook an intellectual journey from fascism to communism, perhaps seeing both as forms of civic religion.

In this book, first written in 1948 de Martino was concerned with the reality of magical powers. Anthropologists had traditionally viewed them as error, fraud and evidence of the “pre-logical thinking” of “primitive” people. De Martino on the contrary argued that they could well be “real”, at least in some cultural and historical contexts. He gave examples from ethnological accounts of shamanism and related phenomenon, and from psychical research, his knowledge of which was, however, rather hazy.

De Martino argued that in small scale traditional societies, where human beings were being in danger of being overwhelmed by nature, magic was a means of “preserving ones presence in the world”. In these societies magic was real, it worked. But perhaps not so in modern mass society. De Martino seems to saying if we envisage the world as organic and magical it will be so, but if we think of it as a mechanism, it will act as a mechanism.

These kind of radical relativist ideas had quite an appeal to me for a number of years, as witness the notorious Doves Are Just Middle Class Pigeons! They seemed to gel with ideas of people like Thomas Kuhn or even Charles Fort. For a time I entertained the idea that maybe anomalies were not actual things, but as it were “holes in reality”. Some people argued that consciousness created reality, others that society created consciousness, so could society if not create, then at least organise reality.

So I constructed an idea that the shaman ventured out of socially constructed reality into the “wilderness” beyond in order to gain access “energy” which could be brought into the community.
Over time these ideas became much less literal, though you can see that the idea of “habitat and wilderness” still informs much of my thinking.

Looking back at de Martino’s book after many years, what struck me was how obscure much of it was, something that would be even more true of later post-modernist thinkers. It is never exactly clear what de Martino actually thought. One reason for this, and for its appeal to young people in the 1970s, was that it reflected his own intellectual turmoil. The parapsychology looks a lot less impressive, and one has to be careful about some of the ethnography, compiled by Europeans who wanted to portray non-western cultures as exotic, primitive and instinctual.

Yet there is something here in de Martino’s arguments about the nature of the precarious world. In our modern air conditioned society we live in a given world which all seems secure. Yet events, such as the death of person out of time, or a major health or related crisis can lead to the fall of this “given world”, into a chaotic realm where anything now seems possible, and in which magical thinking reasserts itself as a narrative that seeks to restore order and meaning to a chaotic world.


16.5.15

I FOR ONE WELCOME OUR NEW PSYCHOSOCIAL OVERLORDS

David Clarke. How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth. Aurum Press, 2015

In this book David Clarke, Britain’s leading ufologist, through his personal reminiscences and interviews provides a portrait of the rise of the UFO mythology. He recounts how seeing a (particularly dire) UFO documentary sparked his interest in the subject. The result was that he started to consume the literature on the subject and became an avid supporter of the ETH. He became an avid fan of Close Encounters, attended his first UFO meeting in which a speaker (Arthur Tomlinson of DIGAP?) rattled on and on, searched local papers and found reports of airships and other strange things in the skies. He got out his dad’s tape recorder and went to interview his first witness. He decided he wanted to be a reporter when he grew up and specialise in interviewing UFO witnesses. He set up a young people’s UFO group and wrote for the children’s UFO magazine Magic Saucer.

However as time went on he became less enamoured of the ETH and, influenced by Jacques Vallee and John Keel, became interested in local folklore and was intrigued by Paul Devereux’s earthlights hypotheses. However while researching the airships David Clarke came into contact with Nigel Watson, who introduced him to Magonia, “the beacon that shone through the fog'.

The bulk of the book consists of David Clarke’s interviews with a range of people, from true believers to sceptics. In the first chapter Clarke takes us to the beginnings of ufology in Britain, with the earliest (as far as known) UFO club, the Bristol based British Flying Saucer Bureau, with an interview with its then young founder, Dennis Plunkett, now the doyen of British ufologists.
 
The BFSB was affiliated to Albert Bender’s International Flying Saucer Bureau, and the Plunketts, seem to have bought into the whole MIB scenario. Plunkett reports that his family were similarly visited, by the MIB but his mother took them for Russian spies and just sent them away with a flea in their ear! Dennis Plunkett however has stayed true to the UFO faith and showed the same sense of persecution and grandeur that one associates with the field: he is so important that the press have to fabricate a story about his organisation so as to divert attention from some “disclosure conference“ in the US.

David Clarke reminds us that similar views were held by Gordon Creighton of FSR, who believed that 'they' were going around taking UFO books off the shelves of Britain’s libraries. The truth was much simpler, they were either stolen by ufologists who didn’t want to pay for their own copy, or became so filled with added comments in green ink that they had to be withdrawn. But of course I am a retired librarian and therefor am part of the conspiracy.

The discussion of the BFSB leads on to a wider discussion of the early years of ufology, from Kenneth Arnold to Roswell, and the myths that have grown up around them

In chapter two Clarke discusses a local UFO sighting, which turned out to be flock of birds, and this leads to his discussion of the famous pelican explanation for Kenneth Arnold’s seminal experience, and the wild hostility with which this was greeted by even relatively rational UFOlogists, so much so that the term 'pelicanist' must now have turned up in some major dictionary. Clarke shows that critics do not actually come up with alternate explanations; they just want to conserve the mystery. In reality the pelican theory, as Martin Kottmeyer points out, actually makes far more sense that the ETH. Why would space craft fly in formation like birds?

This leads on to a wider discussion of the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, and the ease by which perfectly ordinary things can be anything from just misidentified to completely misperceived or misremembered, using the work of Allan Hendry as a base. One thing, I suspect that my lie behind this is that these days most things we see in the sky are aircraft, so the temptation is to interpret anything that looks odd in the sky as a craft of some sort.

Chapter Three takes us to one of the most dramatic examples of misperception, David Simpson’s famous - or infamous - Warminster photo hoax. Despite having built in clues as to its fake nature this was taken as evidence of the exotic nature of the “object”, not just by the typical wide-eyed amateur ufologist but by the likes of Dr Pierre Guerin, an actual scientist. In fact unknown at the time, and still relatively unknown in the English speaking world, there was an even better example David Clarke could have used; the famous Premanon landing case, endorsed by the likes of Aime Michel, Jacques Vallee and numerous ufologist. It was a hoax, and confessed as such weeks later, by a bright, bored 10 year old boy, who got his little sister on the act. Scientists were fooled because they could not for one moment imagine that they could be fooled by not only a child, but, horror of horrors, a peasant child.

Faced with Simpson’s hoax did ufologists face up to how easily they could be mistaken, of course not, instead Simpson was accused of being a 'government agent' (he worked for the National Physical Laboratory), and when MUFOB, as it then was, published it we were accused of being part of the conspiracy and of betraying ufology.
 
In the following chapter David Clarke looks at the official investigations into UFO reports and interviews some of those involved. On such was Alex Cassie, one of the document forgers for WWII's 'Great Escape'. Cassie's claustrophobia meant that he did not join the escape party, most of the members of which were re-captured and murdered by the Gestapo. Survivor guilt led to his interest in military psychology, and he eventually became the MoD’s chief psychologist.
 
It was in that role that he became involved in investigating UFO reports, including that of Angus Brooks at Moigne Downs in Dorset, which featured in FSR. Cassie found this his most baffling case, but eventually came to the view that some physical trigger, some ordinary object in the sky, or a floater in the eye, had triggered some sort of dream-like experience, and that Brooks extraordinary sense of precise knowledge, was indicative of this.

Delving into the official archives and his involvement with Freedom of Information requests finally got Clarke access to the 'Holy Grail', Britain’s official UFO study, Project Condign. Would this reveal the 'great truth'? Of course not, it turned out to be a naïve, garbage in, garbage out computer study of the sort ufologists undertook in the 1970s, and its talk of UAPs and plasmas seems to be taken straight from the books of Jenny Randles. This reminds me of the for a time notorious US Air Force paper on UFOs written for cadets which simply plagiarised the works of Frank Edwards and Jacques Vallee, but was hailed for a time as proof of inside knowledge

Needless to say these files did not contain the smoking gun; they were collections of stories that were basically the same as those collected by ufologists over the years. This of course does not convince the UFO Truthers, because the only truth they want to find is that the earth has been visited by aliens. Because David Clarke helped to get the files released and eventually curated the collection, he was yet another 'government agent' in the eyes of many ufologists. What the files actually demonstrated was what was already known; reports of UFOs and their occupants changed with fashion and tended to peak at the times when the subject was in the news. The old flying saucers are now replaced to a large extent by flying triangles for example.

One of the seekers is a retired British Transport police officer, Gary Heseltine, who clearly believes that the US government is hiding the truth, backed by the world’s media which are all engaged in a gigantic conspiracy. That the huge amount of documents leaked by the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden contain no reference to UFOs doesn’t faze him; the media are all suppressing it. Heseltine’s arguments boil down to the usual ufologists’ doctrine of the inerrancy of eyewitness testimony “people have been convicted on less”. Indeed, if they are poor and black and live in the USA, but not so much here in the UK now. When I was on a jury the judge went out of his way to advise us to be extremely sceptical of eyewitness testimony.

Clarke then goes on the examine tales of crashed flying saucers and the suggestions that they were either some form of subtle cold war propaganda or a cover for some nasty domestic experiment that went terribly wrong. Fascinating though some of this material is, it lacks proof like other such theories. For example ufologists love to believe that the notorious APEN letters hoax was the work of secret government agents. The truth is much simpler, they were the work of Bryan Jeffrey a Cambridge university student, and seem to have been part of some sociological experiment that got out of control. That is of course just too simple for ufologists to accept.

It is obvious from much of this that ufology is really a religion not a science, albeit a primitive and largely disorganised one, so it is fitting that there are two chapters which are devoted to contrasting religious approaches to ufology; the promotional one of the inevitable Aetherius Society, and the negative one promoted by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians; one such being the former Rev Eric Inglesby, a one-time Church of England vicar who later converted to the Orthodox Church and became Father Paul. Like Gordon Creighton, late of Flying Saucer Review, he thinks they are the work of demons - though not necessarily card carrying communist feminist ones as Creighton maintained. One person who is often accused of promoting the demon theory was John Keel. Magonia have, however, always assumed that his 'ultraterrestrials' were a metaphor for the human imagination and culture, and Keel seems to have confirmed this in conversation with David Clarke and Andy Roberts.

Sandwiched between these chapters is one on alien abductions, and it features perhaps the strangest person ever to have been a local councillor in the history of British local government. His tales of alien abduction, alien ancestry, wild conspiracy theories and the like shows how far the abduction narratives have come from the secular tales of the Villas Boas and the Hills. These stories seem to have more to do with traditional shamanism that any advanced technology.

In his penultimate chapter, Clarke returns to the supposedly scientific ETH, and shows how flawed it is. One of its proponents is Michael Swords, who argues that intelligent humanoids are the almost inevitable outcome of any biosphere, Though Swords argues “almost everyone agrees”, the truth is that very few evolutionary biologists believe this, most believe the contrary. Swords arguments are not basically, scientific, they are religious. He is a devout Roman Catholic opponent of Darwinian evolution, preferring a divinely directed evolution instead. Increasingly astronomers are coming to agree with a view held for long time by many biologists that we may well be the only techno-linguistic species in the galaxy. I suspect if that idea and its true implications became a widespread belief it would be far more destabilising to the world’s power elites than any spaceship landing on the White House Lawn.

One of the most interesting interviews is with the cosmologist Paul Davies, who describes his youthful interest in the subject, sparked by reading a library book by Donald Keyhoe. He thought that it must be true because it was in a library. He continued his interest Into his university days, where for a time he was in effect the British representative on Allen Hynek’s 'Invisible College'. He wrote a letter to Physics Bulletin criticising RV Jones for writing a critical article on the subject, and visited Hynek in Illinois and searched the files, but realised that there was no fundamental difference between the IFOs and UFOs, something that Hendry also came to accept. The reference to the letter sparked a dim and distant memory of writing a similar letter to New Scientist in about 1972.
 
In many ways I could see how David Clarke’s and Paul Davies’ trajectories had much in common, and how similar they are to several other people’s journeys towards a more sceptical position (mine included).

In the end David Clarke comes down firmly in the psycho-social camp, which he summarises as follows;
  • There is no such as the UFO phenomenon, but there are lots of phenomena that cause UFO reports.
  • There is no such thing as “True UFO”.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
  • Accounts of UFO experiences form the core of the syndrome but stories do not constitute “evidence”, they are folklore.
  • Culture not experience creates the UFO interpretation but some experiences are independent of culture.
  • The UFO syndrome fulfils the role of the supernatural “other”.
  • The extraterrestrial hypothesis and other exotic theories cannot explain UFOs.
  • The idea of a superconspiracy to hide the truth about UFOs is unfalsifiable.
  • The common denominator in UFO stories is the human beings and see in believe in them. People want to belief in UFOs.
Summarising one might say that, even if a very tiny proportion of UFO reports were generated by novel physical phenomena or psychological processes, they would not be the UFO phenomenon, which would still exist in their absence. The real UFO Phenomenon is actually a collection of stories around which a huge folklore has accrued, and is a product of the individual and collective human imagination. It tells us about human beings not aliens or unexplained phenomena.

Ufology is a religion not a science, it exists in the realm of personal belief, and is centred around a technologized theology. In a time in which science is often seen as dispiriting, and robbing us a vision of a transcendental 'Other', but traditional religion is seen as antithetical to the modern world, the UFO religion offers an attempt at synthesis, in which the mystical powers are given a technological gloss.

It’s important not to confuse this psycho-social approach with simple debunking. It does not take the view that because UFO reports are essentially human documents and are in some sense or another products of the human imagination they are of no interest and can be just thrown away. Rather it argues that their roots in the human imagination is exactly why they are interesting and important.

I found this a really refreshing change after reading one naïve UFO book after another, and happy at last to read one which Magonia can wholeheartedly recommend. -- Peter Rogerson.


MAGONIA RECOMMENDS