Sunday 2 July 2017

UFOs Ancient and (Relatively) Modern

World UFO day, ‘dedicated to the Existence of Unidentified Flying Objects’, is celebrated on July 2, the anniversary of the Roswell Incident. On July 2 1947, unidentifiable debris found by a rancher near Roswell, New Mexico, was diagnosed as the remains of an extra-terrestrial flying saucer. Thousands of people remain convinced that there was an alien landing which the Pentagon is covering up. 'Leaked' pictures of the aliens involved still circulate widely in the Internet.

My own childhood interest in UFOs was fostered by short film documentaries suggesting that various archaeological sites in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica served as landing and launch pads for extra-terrestrials. Once I discovered Classics I started collecting references to unexplained objects from outer space recorded in ancient authors. Since the official website of World UFO Day ( ) politely requests that we spend the day  ‘talking with your friends about the possibility of UFOs or alien life’, here’s my contribution: my five favourite classical UFOs in ascending order.

Timoleon's Torch
1.   In  343 BCE, a giant torch was seen moving through the sky by the Greek general Timoleon, defender of the Greeks against the Carthaginians, and showed the route his fleet needed to take to Sicily. The historian Diodorus does not draw the obvious inference that these ETs responsible preferred the Greeks to the Carthaginians.

2.   Cosmic ships were seen sailing across the Italian sky in 214 BCE when the Romans were feeling particularly frightened of—wait for it—the Carthaginians (Livy).

3.   Celestial chariots and armed phalanxes charged through the clouds during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE when the Romans defeated the Jews. Whose side were the ETs responsible for the UFOs on? (Josephus)

4.   An enormous 100-foot ‘beast’ which looked as though it was made of pottery,  emitted darts of fire and had a multioloured upper surface, in company with a Woman in White, was seen on the road between Rome and Capua in about 150 CE (Shepherd of Hermas). The ETs on this occasion were voting for Christianity.

Attempt at Reconstructing Flying Saucer Wine Jar
5.   But the winner for sheer spectacle, and apparent lack of partisan feeling amongst the ETs, is the flame-like wine-jars of silver hue which landed via a suddenly appearing split in the sky between the armies of Lucullus and Mithridates when the Pontic monarch was terrorising the Roman army in Phrygia in 74 BCE. Both armies saw it and its senders did not appear to take sides.

The Unidentified Flying Wine-Jar  wins because it is evidence that Extra-Terrestrials either drink wine or were dropping a hint that they would like to. Which is hardly surprising if you consider the alleged Roswell alien, who certainly looks in severe need of a drink.

1 comment:

  1. A note on a somewhat similar (related?) phenomenon -

    The waters that blend with bracken and become a slimy grey blur are the 'fosses where Caractacus fought Rome' (Tony Harrison, 'Art & Extinction: Loving Memory'). They appear in Milton’s Paradise Lost, (1674) as ‘The black tartareous cold Infernal dregs’ (viii: 238) via Genesis (the Plain of Shinar):

    And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

    (The Holy Bible. Genesis 11: 2, Authorized King James Version, 1611).

    Also Isaiah: For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north (11: 14) ‘wherein a black bituminous gurge / Boiles out from under ground, the mouth of Hell;’ (Paradise Lost xii: 41, 42) where the Devil abides. It is a sea so thick, viscous and sticky that ships were believed to coagulate in its quagmires. From it spring legendary tales of ghost ships, (See John Livingstone Lowes' chapter on 'Wefts & Spectres' in The Road To Xanadu. Constable, 1927, 1951). It is bridged by the Sword Bridge which appears as the Bridge of Sirat in Islamic iconology (via the various Traditions of Muhammad ﷺ). To fall into this sea is to fall into it for good. Except (like the Coleridgean death-fires of the Ignis Fatuus) a lightning-flash of associations set the ‘reliques of sensation’ (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817) free in order to unify them so that out of chaos springs the poetry of allusion. This is what is termed as inspiration or revelation in religion. Anything other than this merely denotes the final stage of responses to a work of art when emotion has spent itself, and carries no emotive implicitness.

    I do think we channel our ideas and thoughts based on impressions we receive via books, media and the un/Regal company we keep. For example I was reading about the fascinating natural phenomena of Fata Morgana in Marina Warner's book Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, & Media into the Twenty-first Century. Her fascinating chapter on these castles in the clouds and I thought of the verse from The Holy Quran:

    But the deeds of those who disbelieve are like a mirage in a desert. Which the thirsty person imagines to be water, when he comes up to it he finds it to be nothing and finds Allah near him Who pays him his account in full and Allah is swift in reckoning.

    (al-Nur [The Light]. 40).

    The Buddha said 'All that we are is all that we have thought'. Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya wrote 'This world is like a shadow. If you try to catch it, you will never be able to do so. If you turn your back towards it, it has no choice but to follow you’. David Dimbleby visited the town of Dunwich in A Picture of Britain and told of the scientific phenomena of Fata Morgana, in Britain & the Sea at Bosham (church bells heard ringing from the bottom of the sea at low tide in both places). See also the poem 'Lightenings: viii' by Seamus Heaney. As in Dunwich, bells can also be heard rising from the sunken cathedral of Ys, the subject of Debussy’s prelude for piano 'La cathédrale engloutie'. A village lies hidden beneath the Chew Valley Reservoir in Somerset which has not been seen for decades, local legend says the old clock tower reappears when the waters get too low.