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Mythology Background of the UFO Abduction Phenomenon

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Summary: In biblical times, the prophet, Ezekiel, reported what would probably be deemed a variant of a CE-4 (close encounters of the fourth kind) UFO experience, had it been reported today in a contemporary western society.1 What is related in the Book of Ezekiel is not only the presumed divine origin of the strange luminous display that he witnesses, but also his consequent "contact" with strange entities.

In biblical times, the prophet, Ezekiel, reported what would probably be deemed a variant of a CE-4 (close encounters of the fourth kind) UFO experience, had it been reported today in a contemporary western society.1 What is related in the Book of Ezekiel is not only the presumed divine origin of the strange luminous display that he witnesses, but also his consequent "contact" with strange entities. Ezekiel described what he saw as wheels within wheels coming as a whirlwind, from which four strange and very different creatures descended. "Their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning." (Ezekiel, as quoted in Vallee, p. 16). He was then carried away to a remote mountain top where he found himself in a state of wonder and confusion. The Bible, as UFO buff and Rev. Barry Downing is quick to point out is chock-full of references to UFOs--from the "wheels" of Ezekiel and the "chariot of fire" that Elijah departed in to the rather suspicious behavior to the "Star of Bethlehem". Jenny Randles, the prolific writer of a stream of books of UFO commentary, writes:

In 1425, a French peasant girl claimed she saw a brilliant light with several strange creatures with it. Interpreting her perceived experience as a religious visitation, she acted upon the promises, prophecies and psychic powers that these other worldly beings gave her. Joan of Arc, as she was later to be called, was allegedly able to foresee French successes and defeats in their battle against the English invaders, and was also able to foresee her own execution, burning at the stake, after she was found guilty of being a "witch". (Randles, p. 31)

Over three centuries later, in September 1768, Goethe, the great German poet and scientist, who was sixteen years old at the time, was traveling to the University of Leipzig from Frankfurt, when:

All at once, in a ravine on the right hand side of the way, I saw a sort of amphitheatre, wonderfully illuminated. In a funnel-shaped space there were innumerable little lights gleaming, ranged step-fashion over one another; and they shown soon brilliantly that the eye was dazzled. But what still more confused the sight was that they did not keep still, but jumped about here and there, as well downwards from above as vice versa, and in every direction. The greater part of them, however, remained stationary, and beamed on. It was only with the greatest reluctance that I suffered myself to be called away from the spectacle, which I could have wished to examine more closely...Now whether this was a pandemonium of will-o'the wisps, or a company of luminous creatures, I will not decide. (Goethe, as quoted in Vallee, p. 20).
The accounts quoted above are a few examples of what lies deep within Western folklore, in which hints of certain recurrent themes and motifs skillful folklorists can extract and elaborate upon.

Jacques Vallee, for example, an astrophysicist, computer scientist, and folklorist, is a prominent international figure of "ufology", who has researched many aspects of the UFO phenomenon for over thirty years. Vallee, along with other folklorists such as Thomas Bullard and Peter Rojcewicz2, have attempted to locate certain relevant themes of medieval folklore in the hope of situating contemporary "abductions" [henceforth referred to without quotation marks, with the understanding that the term is not to be taken literally] into some sort of thematic continuum. Vallee has gathered hundreds of specific legends and myths from around the world--many dealing simply with unusual aerial phenomena [see Appendix 1] but others being directly relevant to contemporary abductions.3 The following are just a few examples. In the writings of Agobard, who became Archbishop of Lyons in 816, the following account is given:

We have seen and heard many men plunged in such great stupidity, sunk in such depths of folly, as to believe that there is a certain region, which they call Magonia, whence ships sail in the clouds, in order to carry back to that region those fruits of the earth which are destroyed by hail and tempests; sailors paying rewards to the storm wizards, and themselves receiving corn and other produce. Out of the number of those whose blind folly was deep enough to allow them to believe these things possible, I saw several exhibitions in a certain concourse of people, four persons in bonds--three men and a woman who said they had fallen from these same ships; after keeping them for some days in captivity they had brought them before the assembled multitude, as we have said in our presence to be stoned. But truth prevailed. (Agobard, as quoted in Vallee, p. 15)

Though Agobard saved the lives of these four people through his position of religious authority, others were not so lucky. In a scene reminiscent of the Salem witch trials, Vallee cites a seemingly obscure tale from the same era as the Agobard episode. From a French folkloric manuscript, the following is quoted:

The Sylphs seeing the populace, the peasants and even the crowned heads thus alarmed against them, determined to dissipate the bad opinion the people had of their innocent fleet by carrying off men in every locality and showing them their beautiful women, their Republic, and their manner of government, and then setting them down again on earth in diverse parts of the world. They carried out their plan. The people who saw these men as they were descending came running from every direction, convinced beforehand that they were sorcerers who had separated from their companions in order to come and scatter poisons on the fruit and in the springs. Carried away by the frenzy with which such fancies inspired them, they hurried these innocents off to the torture. The great number of them who were put to death by fire and water throughout the kingdom is incredible. (as quoted in Vallee, p. 17)

From elsewhere in the same text:

The Hebrews used to call these beings who are between the Angels and Man "Sadaim", and the Greeks, transposing the letters and adding but one syllable, called them "Daimonias". Among the ancient Philosophers, these demons were held to be an Aerial Race, ruling over the Elements, mortal, engendering, and unknown in this century to those who rarely seek Truth in her ancient dwelling place, which is to say, in the Cabala and in the theology of the Hebrews, who possessed the special art of holding communion with that Aerial People and of conversing with all these Inhabitants of the Air. (as quoted in Vallee, p. 16)

Much of the scholarship in history of science points to the hypothesis that the difficult transition from medieval religions to our idealized notion of what `Enlightenment' and `Science' is had been partly "bridged" by various occultisms such as Gnosticism and Hermeticism--esoteric knowledge systems with significant and revealing social functions. Edward Tiryakian, a sociologist at Duke University, notes an important change in the respective grammar of symbols during these transition periods:

The priest will tend to see the invisible reality in terms of personalized forces (e.g., good and evil deities) towards which he relates by means of prescribed rituals. The scientist will tend to see this reality in terms of impersonal forces (e.g., gravitation, rays, atomic energy) towards which he relates by means of impersonal (objective, experimental) procedures...The magician, as such, will see the invisible reality in terms of both personal and impersonal forces which he relates to by means of prescribed rituals, a mirror image of those of the priest. (Tiryakian, p. 9)

The `magician', in a sense, has preceded the scientist in regard to a social function -- both the magician and the scientist provide comprehensive accounts of the "invisible forces" that underly the visible world. And a general consensus among many fields of evolutionary biology, philosophy, and cognitive psychology is that as a species of conscious, meaning-oriented creatures, humans crave for a `unity of understanding'. [To take a modern example, the entire Kantian philosophical project can be seen as an attempt to defend the "necessary" metaphysics of Newtonian science -- the metaphysics of inductive "laws" of cause and effect -- against the rigid empirical skepticism of David Hume]. To what extent such a craving for unity is biological versus its being a historical and social product is at the heart of contemporary debates between philosophy of science and history/sociology of science. Dynamic historical relationships and transition periods have emerged between religion, esoteric traditions of ritual, and "pure science", and Tiryakian notes the possible invariants which may have remained throughout these transition periods4:

A common element is the belief that the conflicting tensions between the forces of the cosmos underlie the changes which punctuate the world before us....Each symbolic conception also encompasses the view that the conflicting forces form necessary parts of a whole, or constitute a unity, of cosmic harmony. The knowledge of this ultimate "fitting-together" (the harmony of conflict) is the ultimate knowledge of the meaning of the world, and consequently the ultimate source of power. If the world of appearances, the visible world, is a possible arrangement of parts that derives from the invisible reality, the knowledge of the invisible can make possible the rearrangement of the visible. Knowledge of the invisible is power to transform the visible. It is awesome, fascinating, dangerous knowledge. (Tiryakian, p. 9-10)
The dream of Plato (which temporarily lost its clarity and analyticity during the Dark Ages) was to transcend the world of appearances by gaining knowledge of the presumed reality that lies hidden behind the world of appearances. Such is the philosophical drive that has propelled virtually all western philosophy from Plato to Kant, a drive whose self-proclaimed mission, whose fundamental assumption, has only recently been formidably challenged by twentieth century philosophy's acute reflexivity (e.g, an emphasis on the linguistic pragmatics of language).

With that in mind, we can view the folklore studies of Vallee and others as uncovering the attitudes that our ancestors held towards various ideas of "invisible forces" and the like, the elements of "ultimate reality" that affect the world as we know and experience it. And as I have alluded to, degrees to which our drives and cravings for such knowledge and interpretive frameworks are biological versus historical are at the hearts of debate in many academic disciplines. As Nietzsche so often put the question, `What really distinguishes religion from philosophy and science?'

Regarding the many examples from history and folklore of strange lights and beings, and the involvement of humans possessing strange powers and abilities, Vallee writes:

[W]e are faced with an account the truthfulness of which it would be futile to question: the lives of the early saints are full of miracles that should be taken as literary figures rather than as scientific observations. The important point is that basic religious texts contain such material, giving, so to speak, letters of nobility to a category of beings widely believed to be of supernatural origin. Such observations...prove fundamental when religious authorities are faced with the problem of evaluating medieval observations of beings from the sky, claims of evocations of demons by occult means, and modern miracles. (Vallee, p. 14)

Vallee is someone who, after his extensive research into medieval folklore and modern UFO cases, hypothesizes that it could very well be that something physical lies behind those thematic continuums that exist from the days of stories of elves and fairies stealing babies (or dragging off village women to bear their children), to shamanic journeys to underworlds, to the religious miracles of Fatima, to modern UFO abductions [see Appendix 3]. Before building his case for this hypothesis, Vallee writes:

From this distance, however, it is impossible to separate the reliable observations from the emotional interpretation. What matters here is the link between certain unusual phenomena--observed or imagined--and the witnesses' behavior. These accounts show that it is possible to affect the lives of many people by showing them displays that are beyond their comprehension. (Vallee, p. 12)

But before we can gain any insight into what light folklore studies can shed on the modern abduction phenomenon, we must first look as closely as we can at the modern abduction narrative itself, in all its variety and detail.



1 A "close encounters of the fourth kind" translates into some form of "contact" with alien entities. The CE-terminology was coined by J. Allen Hynek as a way to distinguish the literal narratives of alleged witnesses (a CE-1 is simply a sighting; a CE-2 is a sighting with purported physical evidence--such as radar corroboration or photographs; and a CE-3 is a sighting of both a UFO and some type of occupant). One can begin to see certain potentially unintended consequences of this terminology: it may give the impression (via its being a form of "technical jargon") of subtly legitimating the alleged physical dimension of each of its respective categories.

Such is also the case with the term "UFO" itself. In an earlier paper, I noted the importance of keeping in mind precisely what the term "UFO" implies, but even this may not be enough--not only do we all seem to know the tacit meaning that the term "UFO" takes on in the cultural arena, but even in its strictest technical sense, the term is deceiving: "unidentified flying object" seems to suggest that, despite the fact that we lack sufficient information to identify the phenomenon, it is nonetheless an "object" that is capable of "flying". A much better term would be "Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon" (UAP), which is used by a handful of skeptics and scientists who dabble into the general phenomenon. It would take, however, a near-impossible cultural turnaround to rid ourselves of the term "UFO", and, given the extent to which the term "UFO" is used in supermarket checkout lanes and such, a task of this size certainly appears next to impossible. The danger does not, of course, lie in the potential semantic confusions among the scientists--for those few scientists who do involve themselves with the UFO phenomenon and who become familiar with the literature, are quick to make the necessary analytical distinctions and qualifications that surround any given "UFO" incident. The danger does lie with the general public and certain amateur "UFO investigators" who run the risk of promulagating needless pseudoscientific auras around what could be, in some cases, a genuine physical anomaly of some type.

2 Both of these folklorists are still very much interested in the abduction phenomenon. Bullard's 1982 dissertation from Indiana University is entitled, "Mysteries in the Eye of the Beholder: UFOs and Their Correlates as a Folkloric Theme Past and Present", and Rojcewicz's 1984 dissertation from the University of Pennsylvania is entitled, "The Boundaries of Orthydoxy: A Folkloric Look at the UFO Phenomenon".

3 At a minimum, we ought to heed Marcello Truzzi's important analytical distinction between "Anomalous Processes" and "Anomalous Objects (Things or Events)" and to be aware of precisely how these different aspects of "occultism" interrelate with each other [see Appendix 2]. I stress the importance of not conflating UFOs with the abduction phenomenon--they are very different and independent phenomena. It is my contention that current evaluations of the physical dimension of the UFO reports (anomalous events) are harder to incorporate into that network of beliefs which we might call the "occult system" of popular ufology, as technological advancements in such areas as computer-aided photoanalysis and soil sampling make it harder to substantiate pseudo-physical evidence of a UFO sighting or encounter. (This has not always been the case, however, as Simpson's controlled hoax in Paranormal Borderlands of Science and Dr. Bruce Maccabee's technical defense of the dubious Gulf Breeze photographs demonstrate. But on the whole, and as technology improves, I believe it generally becomes more difficult to substantiate pseudo-physical evidence.) On the other hand, the unfolding subtle twists and turns of both contemporary abduction narratives and, more so, the evolving popular hypotheses that adjust to maintain the ETH-abduction connection are a most sophisticated and adaptive mythos that increasingly becomes more and more unfalsifiable. (I will elaborate on this later).

4 This brings in an entire dimension of controversial conceptual issues. For example, Foucault's attempt (as well as the attempts of the `Strong Programme' school in sociology of science) to historicize all of humankind's knowledge-claims (including our own modern paradigms) may be resting on a very shaky foundation. It boils down to the reflexive problem: how can we legitimately use logic, argumentative reasoning and the "scientific method", etc. to historicize those very concepts? (I spent last semester in a seminar on Foucault, having entered it with a naive optimism that eventually led--due to a simultaneous philosophy of science class in which I was reading Popper--to both my realization that the "burden of proof" most definitely rests with sociology of knowledge and to my growing doubts about the very merits of what might be a false-science.)

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