When a sighting report is not

Visitors to tha Skunkworks will know how little patience I have for those (whose name is legion) who insist on taking premodern tales or artwork to be the equivalent of modern-day UFO sighting reports. I’ve taken Vallée to task for conflating alien abduction reports with fairy tales and Velikovsky, Jaynes, and Ancient Astronaut theorists (not to mention even scholar D. W. Pasulka, who should know better) for their no less ahistorical errors. My point has always been that the way we communicate today differs from the ways of other times and places (linguists would refer to differing “codes”), and, so, it’s just ignorant to read texts or interpret art universally according to how we write and represent things here and now. Friend and Irish Studies scholar Antoine Malette has provided me with an excellent case in point.

Celtic Studies scholar John Cary (presently at University College Cork) presented a paper in 1992 titled “Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries: The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel” (interested readers without access to JSTOR can sign up for a free membership to read it, here). In his study, Cary scrutinizes variations of a story familiar to readers of Jacques Vallée’s Passport to Magonia (144). In Cary’s version:

There happened something once in the borough called Cloena [=Cionmacnoise], which will also seem marvellous. In this town there is a church dedicated to the memory of a saint named Kiranus [=Ciarán]. One Sunday while the populace was at church hearing mass, it befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky as if thrown from a ship; for a rope was attached to it, and one of the flukes of the anchor got stuck in the arch above the church door. The people all rushed out of the church and marveled much as their eyes followed the rope upward. They saw a ship with men on board floating before the anchor cable; and soon they saw a man leap overboard and dive down to the anchor as if to release it. The movements of his hands and feet and all his actions appeared like those of a man swimming in the water. When he came down to the anchor, he tried to loosen it, but the people immediately rushed up and attempted to seize him. In the church where the anchor was caught, there is a bishop’s throne. The bishop was present when this occurred and forbade his people to hold the man; for, said he, it might prove fatal as when one is held under water. As soon, as the man was released, he hurried back up to the ship; and when he was up the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed away out of sight. But the anchor has remained in the church since then as a testimony to this event.

Curiously, Vallée (and Donald B. Hanlon from whom he cites the story (and Harold T. Wilkins, Hanlon’s ultimate source)) remarks the tale’s variations from eighth century Ireland to Merkel, Texas in April, 1897 and (along with Hanlon) the provocative if no less problematic analogues between the medieval and modern versions but neglects to unfold the implications of this variation, unlike the scholar Cary.

All in all, Cary examines no fewer than six versions of the story, including the newspaper report from 1897. He summarizes their development as follows:

(a) In the mid-eighth century, a notice that ships had been seen in the air was included in the annals. The apparition was subsequently localized at the assembly of Tailtiu, and said to have been witnessed by the then reigning king of Tara.

(b) By the late eleventh century the story had been transferred to the reign of the tenth-century king Congalach Cnogba, and embellished with the detail of the lost and recovered fishing-spear [thrown from the ship]; there was now only one air ship,

(c) By the end of the twelfth century the story was shifted to the monastic milieu of Clonmacnoise, and an anchor took the place of the fishing-spear.

So, the version Vallée and Hanlon compare to the 1897 newspaper story is already so embellished it can’t be seriously considered anything other than a fanciful (i.e. fictional) tale of the marvelous (a medieval genre with its own features and purposes). But I’m not interested in the tiresome exercise of merely debunking Vallée et al. The philology of this tale’s development is more complex and interesting in its implications.

Having surveyed the tale’s variations, Cary conjectures about how it might have arrived at its final, thirteenth century version. The sky ship’s anchor getting caught echoes a motif from around the world and from at least two extant Irish texts, the saga Tochmarc Emere and an extended gloss on the hymn “Ni car Brigit buadach bith“. The tale reaches its fullest elaboration with the Clonmacnoise version likely because, as Carey writes, “Clonmacnoise in the later Middle Irish period seems to have been greedy for marvels: quite a number of little tales, drawn in all likelihood from many disparate sources, associate the monastery with fantastic occurrences of all kinds.” Therefore, Cary concludes, “it seems likeliest that it was in the heady atmosphere of Clonmacnoise mirabilia-collecting” that previous versions and other material “were fused into a single tale.”

The very scheme of the story (aerial ships) and other marvelous elements woven into it by the monks of Clonmacnoise are part of a larger tapestry in Irish and world literature. Cary cites the example of “the famous encounter between the mortal Bran in his ship and the divine Manannán in his chariot, and the [ancient, pagan] poem in which the god declares that what is sea to one is land to the other”. Cary proposes that

such flourishes of paradox and surreality subordinate our habitual frame of reference to an alien [!] and unreckonable scheme which lies beyond it. The stories, in [Proinsias] Mac Cana’s words, explore “the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, between this and the other world, together with the ambiguities and relativities of time and space which were implicit in their interaction.”

Cary’s and Mac Cana’s point here is all the more persuasive when one reflects that the clouds’ being compared to the foam of the sea is ancient, and the revery that inspires it is likely one many of us will remember from our childhood.

However much the story of sky ships is caught up inextricably in daydream, poetic inspiration, and embellished retellings, the matter is still more complex. As all authors here—Cary, Vallée, and Hanlon—admit, the problem of how the modern, newspaper story follows so closely upon the thirteenth century version cited above is “a recalcitrant one.” Moreover, Cary, being the sincere scholar he is, admits up front that

the date, the range of attestation, and the fact that the item [the appearance of aerial vessels] was first recorded in Latin all suggest that we have here to do with a contemporary notice of an anomalous occurrence [my emphasis]. We will of course never know what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead in the 740’s, or how many retellings and mutations separated the first testimony from its distillation in the annals.

In the case of the newspaper story from the Houston Daily Post, the story either records a real event, copies the tale from the thirteenth century Norse text Konungs Skuggsj, or uncannily draws from the same sources of inspiration that coalesced in that version; each of these possibilities equally strain credulity. More to the point, we’re still left with the mystery Cary notes, “what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead in the 740’s.”

Those inclined to believe the Psychosocial Hypothesis will maintain that even those earliest, lost passages from the annals record nothing more than rumours, themselves merely stories like that of Bran and the god Mannanán, inspired by the same imaginative schema as the Irish poem. But this response, ironically, commits the same error as taking all stories to be equivalent to witness reports, conflating the genre of the annal or chronicle with that of mirabilia, forgetting that Herodotus called his writings “histories” motivated by the meaning of the ancient Greek verb at the root of our word ‘history’, meaning to inquire, explore, or, as the poet Charles Olson so forcefully put it, to see for oneself. This is to say, no less ironically (or dialectically) that Herodotus’ histories and medieval annals and chronicles are closer in spirit and linguistic code to modern day witness or newspaper reports than the marvelous tales worked up the monks of Clonmacnoise. And a sufficiently persuasive account for how the 1897 version of the story came to be written is still wanting.

Thus, a further irony leads us to a notion central to Ancient Astronaut theorizing, that the body of literature under scrutiny here, like all those myths such theorists point to, is the pearl formed by the oyster of the Unconscious or Creative Imagination around the hard grain of truth of “what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead”. But this proposal doesn’t get us very far either, for just what the medieval annals record, in this case, at least, is lost, and, ironically (…), the modern-day version is, in Hanlon’s words, all the more “strange and, in fact, downright suspicious” precisely because of its mirroring the thirteenth century, demonstrably fabulous version.

What should remain beyond a reasonable doubt is the need for and value of the application of intelligent, sensitive specialized erudition in such matters, an application neglected by all the ufological authors in question. Just how to understand temporally and culturally distant narratives concerning anomalous aerial phenomena, let alone nonhuman entity encounters, is no simple matter. Indeed, similar scrutiny can be applied even to the hermeneutics, productive and receptive, of modern-day witness reports, as if their being contemporary makes them any more immediately comprehensible. By a further turn of the screw of irony, such considered and well-informed analyses and explanations render the topic all the more mysterious, leaving as well the hard kernel of the mystery of just what was seen along with the strangeness of its apparent transhistorical consistency as further grist for the mill of reflection, investigation, and speculation.

3 thoughts on “When a sighting report is not

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