26.1.11

SIGNS AND WONDERS

Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck. Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times, and Their Impact on Human Culture, History and Belief. Tarcher/Penguin, 2010. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

From its earliest days ufology sought to create a history for itself. To some extent one already existed in the books of Charles Fort, and stories from Fort were used by early writers such as Donald Keyhoe to bolster that history. Other writers such as Desmond Leslie, Harold Tom Wilkins, Morris K. Jessup Jnr, delved much further into the ancient chronicles of Greece and Roman and medieval accounts of prodigies, as well as the works of three centuries of astronomers and naturalists to generate long lists of old events which could somehow be interpreted as UFOs. By the late 1960s these were joined by the pioneers of the Ancient Astronaut school of writing, led in Britain by the pioneer of ufological camp, Raymond Drake. Others looked back to historical events such as the great airship waves of 1897 or 1908, or the strange lights associated with the Welsh revival of 1905. Indeed it was a common interest in these old stories which led to MUFOB's association with our absent friend Roger Sandell.

Jacques Vallee, like John Michell before him, associated UFO stories with traditional fairy lore in his hugely influential Passport to Magonia, from which we obtained our title. Both Vallee and Michell were gifted writers and both appealed to the hippie romanticism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even before Passport to Magonia appeared John Rimmer pointed out the similarities to modern UFO lore in the Irish fairy stories of D. A. MacManus.

John's review of Passport to Magonia was linked to that of another book on Irish fairy and folklore Lady Gregory's Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland.

As John's new introduction to that review shows, times changed. In particular the critical studies of the 1897 airship reports by the likes of Jerome Clark and Eddie Bullard and those of the 1909 and 1913 British airship waves by Nigel Watson and David Clarke, showed these stories cannot be wrenched from their historical and cultural context, or regarded uncritically as 'genuine anomalies'. Many of the more dramatic airship stories were probably newspaper hoaxes, the products of creative writing competitions or even possibly in some cases of black propaganda. The less dramatic stories like most modern UFO reports were probably the product of misidentification and misperception of a variety of common astronomical and meteorological phenomena.

This led to a reaction in which the 'UFO phenomenon' was seen as an essentially modern experience, with little prior history.

Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck here aim to restore that lost history. Following the route laid out by Wilkins and Drake they assemble all sorts of narratives and fragments from the ancient world up to 1879.

With an introduction by David Hufford, it is divided into three sections. 'A Chronology of Wonders' contains reports which the authors claim resist their attempts at conventional explanation, and have at least a precise date and place. A second section entitled 'Myths Legends and Chariots of the Gods' includes vaguer reports; those which might have a conventional explanation are listed as well as modern hoaxes, and finally a section dealing with sources and methods,

The main catalogue is an incredibly diverse collection, including portents in the sky, an alleged satellite of Venus, anomalous meteorites, the miracles associated with saints, visions of the Virgin Mary, accounts of transvection produced by people accused of witchcraft when under torture, the levitation of the religious, the famous Drummer of Tedworth, and just about everything bar Uncle Tom Cobleigh and his phantom grey mare.

At one level this might be acceptable. We could see this as a collection of accounts, any one of which today might just about be classed as a UFO story and get into some UFO book or other. We could see it as a way of showing that human beings have attributed all sorts of meanings to a variety of strange phenomena, events and experiences. What we cannot do, is what the authors (or at least Vallée) seem to want to do, which is to present all these stories as being 'genuine' accounts of some totally anomalous unitary UFO phenomenon. The raw reading of the stories clearly indicates that they refer to many different phenomena and experiences, just as do modern reports. It also must be said that the connections between the two in some cases seem fairly strained.

It is damned difficult to work out exactly what was experienced and what caused the experiences when dealing with accounts reported a week ago. Sceptically minded ufologists know how extraordinarily difficult it can be to rule out 'normal' phenomena in modern cases, and how dramatic stories can be generated by sightings of Venus or even the Moon. How much more difficult to do this with fragmentary tales in ancient chronicles.

It requires a great stretch of the imagination for modern city dwellers, to try and recapture this ancient world: a world before street lighting, when nights were of Stygian darkness and the sky filled with stars and nebulae. Phenomena barely visible to us would have been much more vivid. It is perhaps not surprising that a greater number of rare natural phenomena were then reported. But as historians have argued, this world was also one in which the imagination projected more things against this backdrop, a world where malnutrition, stress, toxins in food, disease and so forth led to altered states of consciousness.

If today stars, planets and meteorites can become magical machines, then in the past they could be armies in the sky, men worshipping at altars, spears and shields, armies in the sky, or flying dragons and the like.

Of course these accounts are not without interest, and the portions relating to strange lights in the sky may well contain material of interest to astronomers and meteorologists. This is particularly true of the material from the nineteenth century. For example some of the observations of dark objects crossing the sun might be early accounts of near-earth asteroids.

Though the second section entitled 'Myths, Legends and Chariots of the Gods' is supposed to be the one in which more mythical or even fictional material is presented, once it moves out of modern hoaxes, the differences between the two sections become rather academic. Again, it seems to invoke the sort of arguments which plagued projects like INTCAT, trying to separate out the 'genuine' from 'spurious' cases, often on the basis of personal belief and boggle factor. Again if we cannot make easy judgements about events in our own time, how can we possibly make them about events and experiences centuries ago?

Even more problematical are those parts of the third section which attempt various forms of statistical analysis, such as the law of the times, how long things are seen for, etc., and to use these to 'prove' the existence of a unitary anomalous UFO phenomenon. This is, I fear, a case of trying to use the tools of physical science in dealing with material for which they are wholly inappropriate.

Despite these cavils this book has its fascination and interest, it charts the changing ways the human imagination has interpreted unusual phenomena and experiences, and one can use it to chart the gradual dis-enchantment of the skies over the last three hundred years.


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