"Wonders in the Sky": Why we've always been obsessed with UFOs

Unexplained sightings date back thousands of years and span the globe. What does that say about us?

Published December 6, 2010 12:01AM (EST)

 (Picasa 2.0)
(Picasa 2.0)

UFO skeptics take note: Strange flying objects have been haunting our planet for much longer than many people think. Over 3,000 years ago, in the Egyptian Nile Valley, a man reported looking into the sky to see a "shining disk" descend and tell him to build a new city. On Sept. 11, 1787, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a group of people reported, "a fiery globe larger than the sun" moving eastward in a horizontal direction and dipping below the horizon before exploding behind a cloud. Eight years later, in the Quangxi province of China, a "large star" rose and fell three times, followed by another star that "crashed in a village." 

According to Jacques Vallee, the French-born astronomer and co-author (with Chris Aubeck) of the hypnotic new book "Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times," these stories are important not only because they show that flying things have been capturing our imagination for centuries, but because of what they say about our most cherished beliefs and deepest fears. In the book, Vallee and Aubeck list 500 claims of sightings, in chronological order, between the years 1460 BC and 1879, and argue that the commonalities -- references to light, round shapes, erratic flight and terror in the observer -- offer us real insight into human behavior and our need to find explanation for things we cannot explain.

Salon spoke with Vallee from his home in San Francisco about our religious connection to UFOs, the controversy surrounding his own work -- and our endless cultural obsession with flying objects.

Your book calls "alien contact" humankind's oldest story. How so?

I'm not the only one saying that. If you look at the body of scholarship in anthropology and the history of religions, they talk about the idea that the soul is a human space capsule. Certainly the "Book of the Dead" in Egypt, the Bible, the writing of the mystics, in poems of ancient China, and the "Vedas" in India, the contact between man and creatures, entities, divinities, who travel from space is the main story. This includes humans traveling with them and humans being "abducted," to use a modern term. There is a very rich literature exactly about that; it's the oldest story.

Why is the idea of ancient UFO sightings a controversial one?

Most UFO believers believe the phenomenon began in 1947, when a civilian pilot named Kenneth Arnold saw several objects that he described as behaving like saucers skipping on water. And he saw them from his plane flying over Mt. Rainier in the state of Washington. And that was the beginning of the flying saucer era in the media.

I came to a point where I wondered when the phenomenon had begun, and I found a lot of material describing objects that seemed to behave the same way [as UFOs] and entities [resembling aliens] that dated back to the Middle Ages. At that time they were called angels or demons or leprechauns or elves or fairies and so on. So I published a book called "Passport to Magonia" that caused something of a scandal with the believers, because I was shaking that idea that UFOs were a recent phenomenon.

Why did you cut off your research at 1880?

We wanted to cut off the chronology at a point where the modern world hadn't happened yet, ideally at the Industrial Revolution. And we couldn't quite do that, but we got to 1879 which was a time when there were no dirigibles, no airplanes, no CIA, no Air Force, no SR-71s, no secret prototypes, no Area 51 and all of that. I mean, people could certainly be fooled by meteors and comets: They didn't know what comets were; the Aurora Borealis hadn't yet been explained. Some of the cases where people describe a serpent in the sky that destroys villages, we suspect, were tornadoes. But those are fairly easy to screen out. And what you're left with is something very consistent from culture to culture.

What were those consistencies?

One of the things that resonates very well is that witnesses are thunderstruck, awestruck and puzzled. Again and again, they say, "I saw this and am reporting it to you, my Lord, but have no idea what it was and I wish someone would tell me." That's what you find in China, what you find in Medieval France and so on. The other thing that is striking is the objects behave in similar ways. They are seen for a fairly long time, not seconds but minutes or dozen of minutes or hours. In most of the cases, they are described as round and moving not on a continuous trajectory, but coming and going, landing in some cases and taking off again, giving off heat, suddenly giving off light of different colors.

Stephen Hawking has discounted reports of UFOs by suggesting they only appear to "cranks and weirdos?" Why don't you think these ancient witnesses were just delusional?

Because delusions have their own pattern, and these don't seem to fit them. A delusion is usually single-witness and there are many multiple-witness cases in the book. You also have authority figures, astronomers and well-known people making claims. You have Michelangelo seeing a triangle with three lights of different colors in the sky and making a painting of it. It's staggering when you hear modern scientists saying only idiots and crazy people report UFOs. The consuls in ancient Rome made a law that they had to have an annual report on any unexplained aerial phenomena. They were not looking for UFOs, they were looking for astrological warnings of famines, or revolutions and wars and death of emperors and that type of thing. Many of them were copied by historians, and they have survived.

As you mention in the book, the Roman Catholic Church has traditionally been fascinated by these sightings. What's the connection between mystical sightings such as Fatima and Guadalupe and the sightings of unexplained aerial objects?

Unexplained aerial phenomena have played a major role in the imagery of every major religion. Whether it's Islam, the Bible or even Mormonism, with Angel Moroni appearing [to Joseph Smith and other early Mormons]. There's a long and rich history of that imagery being linked to things in the sky or from the sky. When witnesses are confronted with the phenomenon, very often the reaction is one of awe and sometimes terror. Because the sightings seem to transcend our reality, they try to resolve their terror through reference to a spiritual or religious solution.

There was a case in the Air Force files in 1964 where the main witness was a highway patrolman from New Mexico and the Air Force asked Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who was their scientific consultant and my mentor at the time, to go there to investigate. The patrolman asked to talk to a priest before he would talk to Dr. Hynek. That shows you, even now, people have that reaction.

When people are close to the phenomenon, whatever it is, their reality changes. I've had cases where people claimed that when the object came over their car they were driving north, but everything shows they were driving south. Given the perceptions I had at the time, they were sincere and they were truthful. It's no wonder the closest witnesses would put things in a religious or mystical context.

That speaks directly to a key conclusion you make in the book, that all people interpret these phenomena in their own terms. Often, in the past, those terms were religious. Is there a typical interpretation for these encounters in modern times?

Well, if you go to your local library, you will probably find UFO books -- sometimes including my own books -- in science, or New Age, or occult, or in religion, next to books about apparitions of angels or apparitions of the devil and so on. The libraries and bookstores don't quite know what to do with this subject. It will be interesting to see what they'll do with this book.

You make some interesting distinctions in the book between sightings that can be labeled as myths, legends or hoaxes and those that cannot be easily explained away. Where did you draw the line?

When we didn't have a date, where we couldn't determine if there were comets or meteors, we excluded them. And then there were hoaxes, that took us a long time to track down, because some of them were really good. Then there were cases that were borderline, because they were describing something, but completely in a religious context. Even if there is a date, there is a witness and a description, we don't have anything to say about things that are, from the beginning, in a religious context.

There seems to be a very common visceral reaction to the issue of UFOs, whether people believe in them or don't believe them, the reaction tends to be fairly certain. Why do people have such strong reactions?

Especially in journalism, the typical reaction is ridicule. It's a human reaction to ambiguity, because it's a big challenge [to explain] and what people describe is, in many cases, terrifying. Given that you don't have an explanation and there aren't people doing really good research, humor is one way to react. The other way is to jump to some conclusion and become a believer. Or a skeptic, which is another form of irrational belief.

By Michael Humphrey

Michael Humphrey is a former editorial fellow at Salon. He is a contributor to Forbes.com and currently teaches at Colorado State University.

MORE FROM Michael Humphrey

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Nonfiction