Chris and Martin follow the footsteps of Charles Fort by seeking out reports of UFO-like reports recorded in documents over the past 400 years. Unlike Fort, who ruined his eyesight poring over dusty old volumes in public libraries, they note that today we can easily search such treasure houses of information through the Internet. Indeed, Chris has been responsible for making much of this data available through his Magonia Exchange project, which is a private Yahoo group for Fortean researchers of pre-1947 aerial anomalies.
Rather than just record these instances and use them as a punch-line to mock scientific pomposity and certitude, as was the manner of Fort, the authors have concentrated on reports that have date, location and witness details. Using this information they have checked it with a digital planetarium to discover if the ‘weird apparitions’ in the sky match with known celestial events. They were surprised to find that
‘... when looking at the aerial phenomena described in the Annus Mirabilis, a 17th century collection of celestial prodigies assembled as political propaganda and usually neglected as fables. We found many accounts recognizably depicting a planetary conjunction and other natural phenomena, despite their origin as religious superstition, and despite the publishers’ political agenda.’
Other digital resources used by the authors were genealogical records to determine if alleged witnesses were real people, or made-up names to give authority to a rumour. They also used Google Earth and other digital maps to identify sighting locations.
The source of many Fortean stories, including wonders in the sky, from the 15th Century until the 17th Century when newspapers began to appear, are pamphlets and broadsides, or compilations like the British Mirabilis Annus (‘Year of Wonders’) trilogy published between 1661 and 1662 or the Spanish El ente dilucidado. Tratado de monstruos y fantasmas (‘The entity elucidated. Treatise on monsters and ghosts’) published in 1676.
Reviewing this material in Chapter 1, they note that most of these miraculous events were used for political or religious reasons to indicate ‘God’s opinion of current activities on earth’. Certainly, some were invented or provide insufficient information for analysis, but using computer simulations they found that many did relate to real events like meteors or mirages. Like the UFO phenomenon of today, there remain a handful of cases that defy any explanation.
The following chapters concentrate on specific cases or types of sightings. In Chapter 2, for example, they look at a sighting of ships in the sky doing battle accompanied by "...a flat round form, like a plate, looking like the big hat of a man... Its colour was that of the darkening moon, and it hovered right over the Church of St. Nicolai. There it remained stationary until the evening. The fishermen, worried to death, didn’t want to look further at the spectacle and buried their faces in their hands. On the following days, they fell sick with trembling all over and pain in head and limbs." This was viewed by fishermen on 8 April 1665 near the Baltic city of Stralsund, and sounds like a very early account of a flying saucer and it’s even associated with physiological effects!
The authors look at different explanations for this sighting, from flocks of starlings, sundogs, clouds, smoke, tornados to ice crystals. In the end they conclude, due to the length of time it was seen, that it is a "remarkable case".
They go on to look at fiery exhalations - that were common in Wales from the 17th Century onwards - UFOs from the sea, globes of fire, discs and saucers (and how the term ‘flying saucer’ originated from a sport using aerial projectiles patented in 1882), unusual clouds, lunar conundrums and flaming objects associated with entities, triangles in the sky, dark objects, mystery balloons, aerial machines, graveyard UFOs, airborne coffins, oblong lights, mystery airships, an electric disc seen in October 1899, a huge starfish UFO seen in 1901, luminous entities, the Aldeburgh Platform sighting of 1917 and giant flying eggs seen in February 1947 over Australia.
These indicate the rich variety of things reported in the sky over the centuries and the scope of this book, which gathers this material and attempts to explain them in terms of science rather than through the cloud of religious, political, folkloric and superstitious interpretations. Nonetheless, they still find it difficult to explain many of these reports and wonder if they represent instances of poorly understood natural phenomena. They conclude ‘...we cannot state categorically that there were real, unknown phenomena involved. Still less can we say, “This was the work of an alien intelligence.”’
Return to Magonia presents the most thorough and detailed review and analysis of historical aerial anomalies cases, making it essential reading for everyone interested in Fortean and UFO topics. -- Nigel Watson.