14.4.14

THE DEVIL'S TABERNACLE

Anthony Ossa-Richardson, The Devil’s Tabernacle: The Pagan Oracles in Early Modern Thought, Princeton University Press, 2013

To call The Devil’s Tabernacle a work of specialist scholarship is something of an understatement. It’s a highly specialised study of a highly specialised subject, a revision of the doctoral dissertation that earned Anthony Ossa-Richardson a Leverhulme Fellowship at the University of London, in which he displays an exhaustive familiarity with obscure historical treatises and engages in often rarefied debate with his peers. I’m certainly not qualified to critique his overall thesis – probably only a handful of people are - so for this review I’ll concentrate on the book’s relevance to areas of ‘Magonian’ interest.

Despite the subtitle, the book isn’t concerned with the pagan oracles plural, but solely the most important of them, the Oracle to Apollo at Delphi. And it’s not about the historical Delphi – Ossa-Richardson candidly admits he’s never been there and has no desire to see it – but how it was perceived in the early modern period, i.e. between about 1500 and 1800, or during the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Neither does Ossa-Richardson have much to say about Delphi in the popular or artistic culture of that time. Although there are nods to the inspiration it provided to, for example, Romantic poets such as Byron – particularly through the potent image of its Pythia, ‘the raving princess among her laurels, perched on her tripod above a chasm of rising fumes, babbling out the future to those who had come to consult her’ – he focusses squarely on scholarly views about it. And on today’s historians’ views of those views. He reports a friend’s observation that, in his chosen specialist subject, he isn’t studying a thing, but people talking about a thing. To which he happily adds that it’s even ‘people talking about people talking about a thing, or still further recursions.’ See, I told you it was specialised.

The real point of the study is the way different currents of thought – mainly those grounded in traditional Christian doctrine and the rising humanist scepticism - developed or declined during the period: ‘In tracing the story of [the oracles] presence in Western thought… we trace, from one angle, the aims and fortunes of reason itself.’

Ossa-Richardson begins with a review of the sources that were available at the start of the period: the accounts of classical writers, such as Cicero and Plutarch, and the Church Fathers whose interpretation of those accounts formed the ‘official’ view of the oracles, that they were the work of demons that were silenced by the coming of Christ. (There was disagreement, though, about how immediate that silencing was; while Roman and Greek sources agreed that the Delphic Oracle had been in decline since about 100BC, it wasn’t actually closed down – on the orders of the Christian Emperor Theodosius - until 391AD). In this way, the oracles formed part of a process of early Christianity using paganism, its ‘vanquished antithesis,’ to define itself.

As proof of the reality of demons and the ability of Christians to best them, in the sixteenth century the chief interest in Delphi was the light it was believed to shed on contemporary cases of demonic possession and the efficacy of exorcism. These sections have some relevance for those with an interest in the history of demonology and witchcraft.

During the seventeenth century two other explanations emerged: ‘natural causation’, such as ‘inflamed melancholy and terrestrial exhalations’, and the ‘imposture thesis’ – simple fakery on the part of the priesthood. Such theories generated a heated reaction from Christian traditionalists, since they implicitly questioned some fundamental, even defining, aspects of Christian dogma; for them, the Oracles worked – they really did give valid answers about the future – it was just that they did so through the machinations of Satan or his lesser demons, and to doubt them was dangerous. Debate over the oracles was therefore part of a much wider one between two worldviews.

A chapter is devoted to the ‘landmark exchange’ between the Parisian savant Bernard de Fontenelle, who championed the imposture thesis, and the Jesuit Jean-François Baltus, who maintained the traditional Christian position. Neither side, Ossa-Richardson contends, was really arguing about Delphi, but arguing in favour of the correctness of their worldview. (Ironically, Fontenelle’s position, that the oracles were fraud perpetrated on a credulous population by a venal priesthood, is now the one favoured by the Catholic Church.)

What is refreshing in Ossa-Richardson’s approach is that it is free of the smugness, born of hindsight and sense of historical superiority, that is exhibited by many historians when looking back on past scholarly controversies. He cautions against this ‘presentism’ (‘we must take care not to assume that what is now obvious to us was, or should have been, obvious in 1700’), and shows how today’s academic interpretations of the debate (the people talking about people talking about things) are rooted in modern preconceptions. For example, most modern commentators automatically side with Fontenelle because he expresses a recognisably modern attitude, while Ossa-Richardson shows that many of Baltus’ criticisms of Fontenelle’s reasoning and misuse of his sources were, in fact, perfectly valid. It is a feature of Ossa-Richardson’s approach that he devotes as much attention to those who lost the debate.

By the end of the period the imposture thesis had won the day. However, that isn’t the theory held by today’s historians or anthropologists who, having ‘decoupled’ the oracles from Christian theology, rather see them as performing a vital social function, ‘an integral part of Greek cultural life, and a force for civilising unification, or in some other capacity for moral good, at least at first.’ (As he points out, for modern academics the reliability or otherwise of Delphi’s predictions are simply irrelevant.)

Even here, Ossa-Richardson shows how this view – first proposed in 1748 – didn’t gain ground over the next century for purely objective reasons, but because of political concerns of the day, specifically new concepts of national unity and attempts to keep the peace in Europe through federal assemblies. These idealists saw the Delphic Amphictyony – the Greek federation formed to maintain and protect the Oracle – as a precursor and model, once again imposing contemporary concepts on the classical evidence. As it falls outside the period of his study, Ossa-Richardson’s examination of the development of the modern view in his final chapter isn’t as exhaustive as the rest, rather being a call for more research. So, for me, the story stopped just as it was getting interesting.

Similarly, while Ossa-Richardson notes that Mesmer’s ‘magnetism,’ and the study of psychic phenomena such as clairvoyance, offered new explanations for the oracles, and that they featured in occult reconstructions of history by the likes of Madame Blavatsky and Eliphas Lévi, he doesn’t explore these avenues because they were proposed by ‘amateurs and historians,’ and his study is concern solely with the views of scholars.

The real message that emerges from The Devil’s Tabernacle is that in any period historical debate and analysis is shaped by that period’s concerns and preconceptions; there is always a subjective element in the interpretation of the past, something that is as true of today’s view of the oracles as it was in 1500. -- Clive Prince



12.4.14

MISSING, PRESUMED SHREDDED

Nick Redfern. For Nobody’s Eyes Only. New Page Books, 2014.

Things go missing every day, from car keys and wallets right up to Boeing 777 airliners. It should be of little surprise, then, that official dossiers and files are among the items that hands cannot be laid upon when such things are required. Modern bureaucracies number staff in their tens of thousands, so it is with scant surprise that the public hears of information being lost and mislaid. Also, with vast amounts of data circulating around our planet every second, is it really any wonder that not every file is on hand?

That is the subject of this tome by the industrious Nick Redfern. He takes us on a tour of the most glaring conspiracy theories in popular culture and looks at attempts to obtain the official files kept by government agencies. We not only get taken around the more cosmic and outré concepts, such as UFOs and Roswell, but also such down-to-earth events as the death of Marilyn Monroe, the “Squidgygate” tapes, Watergate and WMD information (or lack of it). The part looking at the death of Dr David Kelly also rightfully reminds us that there are some mysteries that should still be investigated and kept in the public eye. There is a helpful introductory section explaining the various levels of security and how this may be accessed (if at all).

This is quite a sweep, and Mr Redfern does this in his usual fashion. His prose is accessible and entertaining, making the information open to most readers, and the subject matter is eye-catching. It is also helped by the inclusion of both a thorough index and bibliography. It is also quite remarkable to write a whole book about something that is not there, as it were. The point is that the files concerned are said to be unavailable, lost or destroyed. When it comes to the section about MK-ULTRA, the destruction of the relevant files is a good part of the tale, and this is told in such a way that makes one despair of ever getting to the bottom of the CIA’s mind-control experimentation and perpetuates the suspicion that governments may be keeping much more from us. There is also the almost obligatory chapter in contemporary books of mysteries concerning Aleister Crowley, which is not to say that it is bad, just fashionable.

All in all, this is an entertaining and an absorbing read. Nick Redfern piques the readers’ interest and draws one into these tales of non-existent documentation. There is some information that may be new to the experienced fortean seeker after the odd and hidden, but quite a bit of it will be familiar to just such an audience. However, due to the clear writing style and logical sections, it would be a very good primer to the world of mysteries for someone starting out in the universe of the strange. -- Trevor Pyne


8.4.14

25 YEARS AGO: MAGONIA 31 AND 32

Two back issues to look at this time: must try harder to keep to schedule!
 
Elvis Presley on the cover of Magonia 31 could only mean an article by Mick Goss - ‘The Urban Legendary Elvis’ relating the many stories which have spread since The King’s death suggesting that he is still alive, or being kept in a frozen state, and will make his second Coming known when the time is ripe; with reports of sightings from Kalamazoo to Waltham Forest.
The crop circle have now settled into a niche between conceptual art and cosmic mysticism, but back in 1988 some people, including Magonia contributor Paul Fuller, still thought that there was a chance of establishing its bona-fides as a genuine physical scientific phenomenon. In his piece 'Mystery Circles: Our Golden Opportunity' Fuller makes a last-ditch defence of the ‘vortex’ theory, maintaining that: “…the vortex theory is a golden opportunity for us all to demonstrate our more mature approach to the scientific study of anomalous phenomena”.
 
He calls to his aid a postal survey which was conducted in 1987 amongst farmers in the Hampshire/Wiltshire circle heartland. Analysing the ninety replied he concludes: “All the survey findings were consistent with the hypothesis that a rare, natural phenomenon was responsible for the circles”. But within a couple of years the whole circle-circus has collapsed.

Manfred Cassirer, SPR doyen, contributed a piece with the eye-catching title ‘Nightmares, Sex and Abductions’ drawing precise parallels between the historical incubus/succubus stories and contemporary UFO abduction reports. At least with the incubi and succubae the ‘percipient’ seems to have had rather more fun from the encounter than their modern counterparts do with their icily clinical abductors, leading one clerical investigator to admit “wearied with the rehearsal of so many lecheries so horrible and very filthy fabulous actions and passions I must end …”

You don’t get abductions like than any more!

The main article in number 32 (March 1988) was Martin Kottmeyer’s important article linking the UFO abduction experience with ‘boundary deficit’. Martin developed Ernest Hartmann’s analysis of nightmare experiences, which proposed that the mind develops various separate categories as it develops: between self and non-self, fantasy and reality, masculine and feminine and a large number of other experiences. However some people, perhaps because of biochemical and/or genetic reasons have more permeable or fluid boundaries than others. This, Kottmeyer argues, is why some individuals are for instance more open to misinterpretation of events, or prone to misjudgements of time and distance. He concludes: “The boundary deficit proposition has in it the implicit resolution of the paradox of how people without significant psychopathology can entertain the belief that they are victims of alien abduction.”

Other articles in this issue included Patrick Harpur looking at alchemy as a way of interpreting UFO experiences, and Ralph Noyes taking a sceptical look at sceptics who may be too eager to ascribe unconventional beliefs to superstition.

The Italian ufologists Edoardo Russo and Gian Grassimo looked at the growing rift between American and European ufology, which was clear in the 1980s and has grown even wider in the intervening 25 years. They comment: “It looks like the circle of history has closed on itself and ufology has gone back to the beginning, with a difference: Europe left at a tangent, while America is beginning again the merry-go-round.”

I think that is still the situation today. Certainly American and British ufology now seem to be two different subjects, at least as conducted by ‘serious researchers’. However on the more populist level I think the might of American mass-media ufology has triumphed even in Europe. [This article is not yet on-line]


5.4.14

VAMPIRES: SAGAS AND SOUND BITES

Margot Adler, Vampires Are Us: Understanding Our Love Affair with the Immortal Dark Side. Weiser, 2014

There’s no question that vampires are big. In fact, they are – or at least have been over the past few years – something of a publishing phenomenon, especially among young adults. There’s even a fashion crossover with the Gothy look, plus the interesting psychological syndrome, usually associated with one’s teenage years, whereby the wearer of striking outfits and make-up is simultaneously screaming ‘look at me/how dare you look at me!’. Vampires, in short, are cool.

Margot Adler’s quest to uncover the secrets of the undead began, as she movingly describes, with the slow death of her beloved husband from cancer. Suddenly she was ravenous for everything connected with immortality – and of course vampires are as near being literally immortal as damnit. Adler set herself the monumental task of reading as many vampire works as possible, then reporting on them in the form of a book, besides musing on many possible shades of meaning behind the genre. So far, so understandable.

However, unless one is a committed New Ager, the work is immediately confusing – even, dare one say it, perhaps somewhat irritating. This book about vampires begins with ecological pioneer Stewart Brand’s campaign to get NASA to publish a photograph of the whole Earth… This little section ends with ‘so hold that image of the Earth in the back of your mind as we go on a very strange journey…’ Arguably what is truly strange is the crowbarring in of the environmental theme, which has a noticeably jarring effect. Yes, of course it is valid as Adler’s own opinion: ‘perhaps our blood is oil, perhaps our prey is the planet’. And, incidentally, this is also Whitley Strieber’s stance – but perhaps this is not the sort of angle that is immediately attractive to your average vampire-lover.

If not marginally annoyed by the opening of the book, and indeed the remorseless personal anecdotes – though there’s never any doubt that Adler is a good and decent person - there’s plenty of stuff worthy of deepish pondering. She notes that even modern vampire works tend not to dwell on penetrative sex, but concentrate instead on the deeper intimacy of shared blood, of rare moments of ecstatic kisses and so on. Of course there was no question of sex in the Victorian Dracula, and indeed the antihero himself was hardly young and lusty, but a sinister and even repulsive older man. As in very much older man.

Equally, it might be added, but for very different reasons, there’s no question of sex in the phenomenally best-selling Twilight saga, largely because the author, Stephenie Meyer, is a church-going Mormon to whom any sort of extramarital hanky-panky is unthinkable. (Or rather, it probably is only too thinkable, but that’s all it is.)

It is when discussing Meyer’s Mormonism – hardly an unimportant factor in the shaping of the narratives - that Adler seriously misses the mark. She muses that Meyer’s portrayal of a vampire driven to create others in his own image reflects the Mormon passion for huge families. Plus, she opines that the semi-deification of the vampire is a reference to the Mormon belief that all the faithful will eventually become gods of their own worlds. Fair enough, but – oh dear – only up to a point. As a former Mormon myself (and, incidentally, a founder member of the British Dracula Society) I would suggest that what Meyer’s subconscious is really telling us is very different.

For a start, it’s only Mormon men who get to be gods. Women can marry them (several women to one god, rather predictably), but not even the most faithful female can ever become an independent deity. And on a day-to-day level, few except prejudiced apologists would argue that the Mormon Church is not one of the most repressively male-dominated organisations in the 21st-century West. So when Meyer has her main character Bella declaring that she’s fed up being Lois Lane, adding: ‘I want to be Superman!’ this is not pro-Mormon but fervently, if implicitly, anti-Mormon. (Is Meyer’s saga actually a cry for freedom?) But, incredibly, this never seems to dawn on Adler, who admiringly quotes the ‘Superman’ line without drawing the obvious inference.

She also devotes many pages to her own card-carrying feminism and just paragraphs after the Meyer comments praises Joss Weedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for his own deeply-felt pro-female stance. Adler quotes his comments about the blonde girl who always gets killed in classic horror movies: ‘She was always more interesting to me than the other women. She was fun; she had sex; she was vivacious. But then she would get punished for it… [but] what if the girl goes into the dark alley. And the monster follows her. And she destroys him.’ And so Buffy was born – literally a punchy demon/vampire slayer who under all her occasional vulnerability, has powers that ordinary men had better not mess with either. Perhaps Meyer would have loved to feel intellectually and spiritually free to create Buffy… That, I would suggest, is potentially rather more interesting than uncritically touching on Mormonism’s tendency to create enormous families.

Otherwise, though, Adler’s material can be fascinating, as she presents various arguments for the vampire representing the social outsider – duly quoting from Colin Wilson’s 1950s classic – or, more specifically, the very teenagers/young adults who have turned buying vampire books into a feeding frenzy in recent years. Adler quotes an email from Anne Rice, author of the Vampire Chronicles: ‘…right now the vampire reflects more than anything else the tremendous need of adolescents and young people to embrace their monstrous and outsider status in our society, their refusal to see themselves as the criminal class they are often forced into being where their established rites of passage are understood to be forbidden sex, illegal drugs, and sometimes criminal rebellion… the vampire… the metaphor for the outsider in all of us, is romanticized by them because they so desperately need to find a noble path through the hideous passage that Western culture has set up for them.’

That the vampire is a figure of power, straddling as he or she does the twilight zone between life and death and always tempted, at the very least, to create others in a similar image with or without their consent, is well known and certainly worth debating, as Adler does here. But then she homes in on ‘vampires’ in politics, citing, for example, Voltaire’s comments about vampires being stockbrokers and men of business who suck the blood of ordinary people. Adler seems curiously struck by the analogy of vampires and politicians, though quite why is hard to fathom as it’s not only well-worn but screamingly obvious. And it’s clearly metaphorical, not literal. She seems oblivious to the irony here – which is not just the stuff you make stakes out of.

There’s a good deal of material one can really get one’s teeth into (all possible jokes intended, with no apology): vampires seen as epitomes of the fears of their particular era is a sober and intriguing theme. In Dracula, for example, we have a heightened reflection of Victorian London’s terror of disease coming in on boats from foreign lands. The 1980s, with their sensationalist AIDS scare, saw a spate of tales about vampires as bringers, or even embodiments of, diseases of the blood. And now vampires are conflicted about their sexuality, and the power of sex to enslave.

A third of this book is concerned with the subjects raised above and other angles on the phenomenon, but the bulk of the pages are devoted to ‘Margot’s Annotated Bibliography of Vampire Fiction: an overview of more than 270 novels, as well as anthologies, short stories, and assorted nonfiction.’ Hardened vampirists might prefer to turn to this section first, then flick through the first third. On the whole, it’s a valuable and handy bibliography, with useful and often incisive comments. (However, Adler’s patience with her self-appointed task wears thin occasionally and we’re simply informed, in one case, that ‘the writing is lovely’. And we’re told baldly that Sir Walter Scott includes vampire verses in his poem ‘Rokeby’, just as Baudelaire’s vampire poem is mentioned but not described. The poor woman was obviously flagging.)

This is a very patchy book, largely because the risky strategy of including so much personal material doesn’t always work, but also because one more – final – draft wouldn’t have hurt, to even out the overall tone and the ups and downs of authorial energy. Yet to ardent vampirists, and certainly to New Agers, it will no doubt prove a valuable addition to their collections. – Lynn Picknett


31.3.14

FIRST READ - JACQUES VALLEE

Jacques Vallee. Anatomy of a Phenomenon: Unidentified Objects in Space - A Scientific Appraisal. Neville Spearman, London, 1966. By John Harney

Introduction
When I first read this book nearly fifty years ago I, along with many other ufologists, thought it was a valuable contribution to the serious study of the subject, in contrast to some of the wild speculation and nonsensical contact stories available at that time (and ever since). However, on recently reading it critically I did not find it so impressive. It became clear that Vallee was committed to the notion that there was such a thing as a UFO, as distinct from hoaxes, misinterpretations, unusual aircraft or natural phenomena. Perhaps the simplest way to record my impressions of the book is to go through it chapter by chapter.

Chapter One: The Legend of the Flying Saucers
This includes such profundities as "The legend of the flying disks has existed throughout history". Vallee starts by quoting from writings which seem to be descriptions of mysterious flying craft if they are interpreted literally. Only very brief accounts are given, and for most of them there are no references to sources for readers who require further details. Where references are given they are to newspaper reports or to items in UFO books or journals, often by writers notorious for their unreliability.

Vallee also shows no apparent interest in attempting to find explanations for the reports he mentions. For example, he gives us several reports of giant rotating luminous wheels seen from ships, even though the explanation for this phenomenon is well known. These wheels began to appear as sailing ships were being replaced by steamships. They are caused by small organisms in the sea which emit light when subjected to mechanical vibrations, such as those caused by ships' engines.

Chapter Two: Probability of Contact with Superior Galactic Communities
This is a short essay on the possibility of contact with intelligent life in the galaxy, although most of it is devoted to speculation about the possibility of life in our solar system.

Chapter Three: Modern UFO Reports and their Reliability
Here we are back to the flying saucers. Vallee admits that the accumulation of sightings since 1946 is "a problem of sociological significance" and that scientists have been discouraged by "the number of misinterpretations and hoaxes among which the true phenomenon seems very difficult to find". He notes, though, that about 10 to 30 per cent of American sightings kept up to date in Dayton by ATIC "could be called intriguing, to say the least". Of course, they don't have to be "real" UFOs to be intriguing, and we are not given any guidance on how to detect the genuine UFO sightings.

We are often given estimates of the speeds and altitudes of the UFOs, but we are never warned that such estimates can be little more than guesswork.

For what seem to be the most interesting cases we are given the fewest details. The most absurd example of this is an event which allegedly occurred in 1950. "On March 18 an observation at Farmington, New Mexico, had several thousand witnesses. The phenomenon -- another demonstration of 'aerial fight' -- lasted no less than one hour." No references or other details are given.

Chapter Four: The Scientific Problem
This is not only the problem of devising a meaningful hypothesis to account for UFO reports, but a problem with scientists, particularly astronomers. "They cannot replace in the world of life and their imaginations the huge cosmic cemetery for celestial bodies which they describe in their books with a world of life and thought." Also, they "...have jumped directly from their doctoral dissertation into research and teaching without indulging themselves in any romantic affair with earthly matters". This allegedly results in their inability to survive in a different environment, so they do nothing to risk losing their astronomical positions. He does not provide any evidence to support these assertions.

As well as discussing the alleged inadequacies of UFO investigators, amateur or professional, Vallee proposes that UFO reports can be classified by eliminating all the identified reports and all the moving objects similar in behaviour to conventional objects as they would usually appear. The others are then said to belong to a small number of types depending on their appearance and behaviour. The classification system defines five main types, numbered from I to V, with subdivisions for each.

Having devised the classifications, Vallee fails to consider normal explanations for them. For example, Type III "can be described as aerial forms hoverng in the atmosphere, or following a path interrupted by a stationary point; a precise point will be defined on the ground from this discontinuity"

He gives a number of examples, and the attentive reader will note that they tend to be described as hovering, then moving in a spiral or "falling leaf" motion. The attentive reader will also be aware that these are remarkably like descriptions of autokinesis, the effect of staring at something against an almost featureless background, which causes involuntary eye movements giving the impression that it is moving.

Chapter Four ends with a proposal that UFO research should be reorganised by arranging co-operation between the official US Air Force investigation of UFO reports and "a team of from six to ten civilian researchers competent in their various fields and already familiar with the field of UFO research, who would volunteer to conduct independent studies". It seems to me, though, that this would not have worked back in the 1960s, and would not work now. Civilian researchers, including scientists, are notorious for disagreeing about how to investigate UFO reports. Indeed, some of them are known for strongly objecting to those who submit what they regard as inexplicable and genuine UFO reports to critical examination.

Chapter Five: Flying Saucers and Human Reason
We are again told, as in the previous chapter's remarks on the alleged social and emotional inadequacies of astronomers, that "men of science react to UFO reports in a very peculiar fashion". They "... also go so far as to neglect to conform with the basic rules of scientific honesty when confronted with this problem ..." This is nonsense. Scientists do what they are paid to do. Astronomers study the stars and the planets; meteorologists study the weather. They are not paid or given facilities to investigate UFO reports. This is one of the questions ignored by Vallee: who is going to pay for these investigations?

Some of Vallee's pronouncements are quite baffling when you stop to think about them. For example, he deplores the fact that there are today (the 1960s) only a few specialists in the study of Mars working with obsolete equipment on "what could become, in a few years one of the most important problems facing our civilization". The planet Mars is certainly of great interest to scientists, but Vallee fails to give us any idea how it could become a threat to our civilization.

Having dealt with the professionals, he goes on to sneer at the amateurs. "The UFO mystery, because of its appeal to human imagination provides an opportunity for persons who lead a generally dull life to bring a touch of extraterrestrial horror into their existence."

Most of this chapter is used to persuade his readers that the stories told by contactees such as George Adamski, Gabriel Green and Orfeo Angelucci, are based on nothing more than dreams, fantasies and hoaxes, and thus prepare them for the following chapter.

Chapter Six: Typical Phases of UFO Behaviour
Vallee begins by trying to draw a distinction between the stories of the contactees and what he calls Type I events, landings or near landings, which he claims are very simple. He gives a number of brief descriptions of these, usually without giving any references, and without apparently realising the need to check that the reports are reasonably reliable, and to give little weight to those without independent witnesses. Some of the landing stories involve UFO "occupants", but he rejects those where they allegedly speak to the witnesses, thus neatly distinguishing them from contactee stories.

He was greatly impressed by the famous 1959 New Guinea sightings, as he apparently has a tendency to take the accouts of seemingly sincere witnesses literally. Later studies of this case by serious researchers have indicated a psychological explanation, possibly by gazing at bright stars and planets and exercising over-active imginations.

He then brings in the incidents at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, where three children claimed to have had visions which the Catholic Church eventually announced to be apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Although this is one of the best known of such occurrences - there have been thousands of them in different parts of the world - it is difficult to discover the facts concerning what did or did not happen at Fatima. If you consult the voluminous writings on the subject you will find that the non-religious describe it in psychological or sociological terms, with most Catholics describing it as genuine encounters with the Virgin, and Protestants asserting that it was the work of the Devil.

Vallee's excuse for including Fatima is that "older events suggest different interpretations, and they consider with increasing interest reports that were, in older times, simply classed as miraculous by theological authorities". He was seemingly not aware that there is, and has been, no shortage of alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary, although most of them attract only local attention. I suspect that his inclusion of Fatima only serves to confuse most readers, as it has very little in common with any of the UFO reports he mentions.

Chapter Seven: Theories and Hypotheses
Vallee sums up by reviewing a number of hypotheses "even if they appear as mere speculations with little factual support". These speculations are generally of little interest, as they tend to be examples of biblical literalism, or musings about why and how extraterrestrials might visit us, and what they might or might not do. In other words, they provide plenty of material for pub bores.

In the middle of the chapter we get an account of the classic Kelly-Hopkinsville incident of 21 August 1955, in which a family claimed to have been besieged by strange creatures which apparently emerged from a flying object which landed behind their house. As the witnesses all belonged to the same family a psychological explanation seems the most rational. However, it was emphasised that they were a family of non-drinkers, although many people are quite capable of getting hysterical without any assistance from alcohol.

Conclusions
There is really not much to say about Vallee's discussion of UFO reports and witnesses. He rather clumsily sets out to convince his readers that there is some mysterious intelligence behind the phenomena. The only reason for this that I can think of is that he knows that most readers prefer this to the critical analysis of interesting reports, undertaking psychological and sociological studies of UFO flaps and beliefs, and generally treating UFO stories as modern foklore.


28.3.14

FUTURE MINDS

Michio Kaku. The Future of Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind. Allen Lane, 2014.

Having explored the outer limits of physics, Michio Kaku now turns to examining the cutting edges of neuroscience. The areas with the most immediate applicability are the various projects to transform the lives of people with quadriplegia and locked-in syndrome, by constructing systems directly linking the brain to computers and hence to a variety of equipment, including cyborg arms. Along the line are hopes of complete exoskeletons to allow much greater mobility.

A further development of such brain to computer systems would be to allow a better remote control of robotic avatars that could work in conditions far too hazardous for flesh and blood creatures. Kaku argues that we might on the verge of direct brain to brain communications, leading to a transformation of human consciousness, something rather more probable in the short run than artificial intelligence. Also just on the horizon is dream reading, in a very crude state now (say at the level of the first TV experiments of Logie Baird), but maybe a new form of entertainment in a decade or two’s time.

Rather more speculatively Kaku argues for the possibility in theoretical terms of downloading human memories into computers, or even into laser beams, and sending them to the remote stars. He rather glosses over the snag that there would have to be some sort of reception equipment at the other end, which would have to be sent by probe the old fashioned way.

Of course all of these advances, if possible, would be open to abuse, and who can doubt that virtually all governments, whatever their surface ideology, would so abuse such developments. One way, not thought of by Kaku, that ‘democratic’ governments would sell intrusive systems is to appeal to ‘safety’. Wouldn’t you like your children to able to roam free and not be stuck in front of the computer all day? Wouldn’t it be to have a little chip inserted, along with a micro camera between the eyes, so your computer/cell phone etc. can keep track of them, and you can watch what they are seeing? Soon extended to tackle the elderly with dementia, or as a less obtrusive way of tagging criminals, and why then not everyone? If you are not doing anything wrong why object? (Don’t believe this, then remember that if the present level of CCTV surveillance had been mooted 50 years ago there would have been a revolution.)

Kaku is if nothing else, a great technological optimist, and I suspect that much of the talk about reverse engineering the brain, downloading consciousness and such like is wildly over the top. If, of course, consciousness evolved over many millions of years to deal with the day to day problems of living, then there is little chance of it developing in computers or robots unless they are sent out into the wild and allowed to develop and reproduce over vast periods of time. -- Peter Rogerson.


25.3.14

TWO UFOLOGICAL CRASHES

Timothy Good. Earth, An Alien Enterprise: The Shocking Truth Behind the Greatest Cover-up in Human History. Pegasus Books, 2013.

John Hanson and Dawn Holloway. Haunted Skies Volume Nine, 1981 - 1986. Haunted Skies Publishing, 2013.
 
Give him his due, Timothy Good is able to assemble a vast mound of UFO related folklore, urban legends, “things I learned in the services” stories, rumour, fringe beliefs and the like, much of it stuff that 'sensible' ufologists wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. His books are among the last refuges of the old fashioned contactee stories that were the staple diet of British gutter-roots ufology 50 years ago.

There would be no problem with any of this if all this material was actually presented as folklore, and as such it would give an interesting insight into the range of fringe beliefs that circulate around the field.
 
The problem is that Good actually seems to believe much of this lore. He really does believe the stories told by George Adamksi, Dan Fry, Gabriel Green and their imitators as well as by the likes of Philip Corso. In fact there isn’t any piece of UFO lore that he doesn’t swallow, or at the very least give it a damn good chewing.
 
As you read this book, you come to a rather sad conclusion, that Tim Good simply cannot grasp a sizable proportion of his 'informants' are just having a laugh at his expense, and that the rest consist of the usual motley collection of frauds, liars, bullshitters, con-artists, cult leaders, fantasists and the plain delusional. The only population excluded are plain ordinary folk who happen to have, to them, puzzling experiences.

Good is so gullible that he is even taken in by the infamous Monguzzi photographs, fakes so crude as to make George Adamski’s seem examples of fine art by comparison. There is a detailed discussion of these photographs in Maurizio Verga’s excellent study When Saucers Came to Earth, published by the Italian group UPIAR in 2007, which shows how they were made.

The real anomaly with Tim Good is the puzzle of how such an obviously intelligent and cultivated person can be so naive. The answer must surely be that for him ufology is a religion, a field in which otherwise entirely sensible people can believe the most extraordinary things.

The same lack of critical faculty is increasingly appearing in the works by Hanson and Holloway. In inverse proportion to interesting cases from ordinary members of the public, more and more of the material seems to come from a small coterie of uncritical ufologists and their friends, family and neighbours. Whether this is because of all sorts of copyright and other legal issues that mean much of the more recent material is unavailable or for other reasons is not clear.

What is clear is the dearth of material, which falls practically to nothing past 1983, and so the authors have to pad out more and more with other material. Some of it is interesting such as the cases of stone falls, other just bizarre such as the pages devoted to Brenda Butler, Billy Meier, and even convicted child abuser Wendelle Stevens. -- Peter Rogerson.


21.3.14

FADING FORTEANA

The ability we now have to search back issues of local newspapers on-line is allowing researchers to unearth intriguing little nuggets of forteana. Here are two items which Peter Rogerson has uncovered in his latest trawl through the haunted wing of the newspaper archives.

Dundee Courier, September 22, 1926.
VISITORS FROM MARS
 
In a short time the planet Mars and the earth will be in opposition. This will be the inevitable signal for a revival of the time-worn question: Is communication between two worlds possible? Scientist and layman alike demand.  Can man visit Mars?" Is Mars inhabited " Can the Martians visit us?"
 
But it has been left to an American to raise novel aspect of the question. In a New York newspaper this advanced thinker, a Mr Fort, boldly asks, "Have the Martians visited us?" Note the difference. Mr Fort has doubts about the existence of men on Mars; or about their ability to make the transuniversal journey: his question is simply, "Have the men of Mars already visited us? and his answer is in the affirmative. Of course—Mr Fort hastens to add—of course the Martians have not actually made landing on our earth. Otherwise, should have heard more shout 't. There would have been full accounts and interviews in our newspapers, and historic crowds would have gathered to fete the cross-ether victors.
 
It may be, suggests Mr Fort, that the men of Mars foresaw this, and purposely avoided landing from dislike for sensationalism. But that they have been very close to us. cruising a few miles above our heads, Fort has not the slightest doubt. His reasons for thinking lie in those mysterious moving lights which appear from time to time in our skies. early as in 1909 such a light is reported have cruised. about in the heavens—a short distance over Boston harbour and the City Of Worcester. Mass. This, Mr Fort says, could not possibly have been an airship. Nor was it a meteoric phenomenon.
 
Therefore, he concludes, it was probably an expedition from Mars, making near reconnaissance the earth. Mr Fort's letter was penned and his theory propounded, before the recent celestial sensation occurred over Great Britain, when, it will be remembered, a mysterious light, was seen in the heavens which scientists found difficulty in explaining. No doubt Mr Fort now smiling at our scientists' laboured explanations, but what are content to call the mystery meteor he has accepted, corroboration of his own theory and interpreted return visit from Mars.


 
Fort would have appreciated this hoax:
 
AN AMERICAN METEORIC MYSTERY
Manchester Evening News 24 September 1887.
 
A phenomenon unparalleled in the annals of astronomical science, says a Clayton (Ga.) correspondent in the local Courier Journal, occurred here one day last week, which, from the light it throws upon the hitherto open question of the habitability of other planets, will prove of great value to scientists. At 7.45 p.m. there fell near this town a spherical metal ball or terolite, on the service of which appear graven characters, which give conclusive evidence of its having been moulded by intelligent hands. Dr. Seyers, in whose possession it now is, said this evening:
 
"I was returning from a patient's house situated some seven miles from the town, where I had spent the latter part of the afternoon. I was ascending a long hill, when my horse suddenly pricked up his ears, and on glancing ahead, my eyes were dazzled by a brilliant white flash, resembling a lightning stroke, and immediately following came a sharp hiss, as of escaping steam. 1 knew that an aerolite had fallen, for had the flash been electrical there would have been a clap of thunder. Driving on up the hill, I noticed that steam was issuing from the ground some few rods back from the road, and on hastening to the spot, found a hole about 4 inches in diameter, from which arose considerable heated vapour. I drove home as rapidly as possible, and taking a pick and shovel, returned to the spot.
 
After half an hour's hard digging I came upon the object of my search at a depth of about five feet. It was still too hot to handle, but I succeeded in getting it to my carriage by lifting it on my shovel. 1 noticed that it was remarkably heavy, but not until I reached my barn and removed the adhering soil did I realise what a prize I had. Instead of a rough mass of meteoric iron there appeared a smooth, perfect sphere of steel blue metal, with polished surface and engraved with pictures and writings.
 
There upon the surface of the terolite was a deeply graven circle, within which was a four-pointed star, a representative of a bird or reptile, resembling in a measure our extinct archaeopteryx, and a great number of smaller figures resembling those used in modern short-hand. The metal of which the ball was composed was unlike anything I had ever seen, being about as hard as copper and entirely infusible in my Bunsen blow-pipe. I filed off some small bits and sent them to a chemist, who made the following report:
 
"Sir, I have made an analysis of the filing you sent. The metal is fusible only in the electric arc. It is a new element. Examined by the spectroscope its vapour gives three fine yellow lines to the left of the D line of sodium, a broad green one to the right of the line of barium, and an innumerable number of very fine purple ones. H. Randolph Stevens, Analytical Chemist.''
 
The ball is now in the possession of Dr. Seyers, but it will be sent to the Smithsonian Institution in a short time, when an official report will be made.


 

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