Anchored in philology: an addendum to “When a sighting report is not”

The latest example of Rich Reynolds’ irrational tenacity sent me to Aubeck’s and Vallée’s Wonders in the Sky. For all its failings, catalogued at length by at least two tenacious critics and admitted by no less than Vallée himself, the book is not without its saving graces.

I was recently moved by being shown John Carey’s study of sky ship tales from medieval Ireland to use his scholarship to make an argument about the interpretive dangers of reading narratives from distant times and cultures. At the time, I went to Wonders in the Sky and was surprised I could find no mention of these sky ships. It turns out Aubeck and Vallée were one step ahead of me in this regard, however.

I was unable to find such stories among the 500 they present in their “Chronology of Wonders”, because they include them in the second section of illustratively questionable tales, “Myths, Legends, and Chariots of the Gods”. The authors base their own analysis (pp. 405-11) on Carey’s, noting both the scant references to the sky ships in the annals and the increasing embellishment of the basic story line over time.

Most impressively (to me) they resolve the mystery of how the most famous (and fabulous) version of the story, wherein the sky ship’s anchor is caught in the church’s door arch, is repeated during the Phantom Airship flap of 1896/7:  according to Aubeck and Vallée, the Boston Post published an article “A Sea Above the Clouds:  Extraordinary Superstition Once Prevalent in England” that recounted two British folktales, one a version of the more famous Irish one. Two weeks later, the story was updated to the present and relocated to Merkel, Texas as reported the Houston Daily Post 28 April 1897, two days after the incident was said to have occurred (p. 409).

A (very) little more digging turns up that the article Aubeck and Vallée refer to also appeared (seemingly for the first time) in the 7 March 1897 edition of Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune and the next day in the Nebraska State Journal. It remains nevertheless no less astounding, however, that so recherché a philological tidbit should make the rounds as a syndicated article of all things in America’s newspapers at the time!

To paraphrase Chaucer:  The life so short, the bookshelf so long to read!

8 thoughts on “Anchored in philology: an addendum to “When a sighting report is not”

  1. Okay. My take on this “ancient/historical wonders” dust up and even sightings of today.

    The interpretation of what was seen is 100% in the brain of its beholder.

    When that beholder then describes his interpretation, often with misrememberings (memory has been shown by much research to be fallible) or embellishments (for dramatic effect) to someone else, the interpretation of that description is 100% in the brain of that someone else.

    And so on down the chain of retellings. Thus, we have the game of telephone as well as tales of sky anomalies told and retold from the beginning of time.

    Without substantiating hard evidence (after-the-fact drawings are neither hard nor primary evidence) or documented similar descriptions from corroborating individual witnesses to the original event, no UFO tale can be assumed to be literally true, whether it took place last month or 1,000 years ago.



    1. It’s a bit hyperbolic to say the sighting is “100% in the brain of the beholder”, but I do understand you to be exaggerating. Where there is an interpretation there is something interpreted, otherwise we just have an hallucination, right? Nor are these interpretations absolutely idiosyncratic: the individual has self-knowledge only through others and the Symbolic order, which is public, e.g., language. But all that is beside the point, I think.

      What interested me about the cloud ship tales is that they were so amenable to a deconstruction, in the rigorous sense, demonstrably reducible to, as you call it, a game of telephone, where the language refers to other language rather than some lived experience.

      I am inclined to agree with the young Vallée, that the primary data is the report (which has interesting rhetorical implications…). But you express a curious idea: What would a “literally true UFO report” be?


      1. I’m saying the interpretation of what is seen is 100% in the brain of the beholder.

        We identify things in our world based on information previously stored in our brains, i.e. what we’ve experienced as individuals, what we’ve been taught, what we believe, what culture we’re from, even what age we are (my 13 year-old nephew was totally baffled when he first saw my old Kodak brownie camera). Our brains our hard-wired to try to fit new experiences into patterns we already know.

        We might look at the same thing in the sky and you see a trick of light due to atmospheric conditions and I see the Second Coming. Our unique and individual brains are processing the same information based on what’s uniquely stored in them.

        So many recent recent neuropsychological studies have shown that memory is very fallible. It begins degrading immediately following an event. And the further in time we get from an event, the more we confabulate about it.

        I have my own single witness sighting of something strange in the sky. However, I realize that it’s highly probable I simply don’t have the needed information or experience that would allow me to correctly identify it. Just because it was strange and exotic to me at the time, doesn’t mean it was, in fact, strange or exotic.

        This is why I don’t trust single witness sighting reports. They’re stories. Stories based on highly individual interpretations of what was seen.

        I know for sure I saw something. But what it was could be any one of millions of things I don’t know about that are nevertheless totally mundane.


      2. I’d object to the claim that _the brain_ interprets (but that’s another matter), but, sure: the object can only impinge upon our senses (eyes, ears, nose, skin, etc.), whose data (to speak all too roughly) is organized according to certain categories and schemata, as you outline.

        But where do we got with that? On the one hand, there _is_ consensus reality, and enough of it to underwrite society and science and technology. But the problem arises when, as you remark, the object is anomalous (“nameless”), lacking an a priori category by which it might be identified. That’s where things get interesting, eh: how we try to make sense of the strange becomes all the more projective than receptive, which then reveals more about the perceiver than the perceived, and because the witness’ understanding of the world is more public than private (the source of those schemata are public, “Symbolic” as Lacan would say), the interpretation of the anomalous becomes a kind of Rorschach test of the collective unconscious (ideology). But this takes us quite a ways from the question of just what a witness might in fact have witnessed.

        Nevertheless, one still has to account for the consistency (however variable) among witness reports, another fun knot to unravel…


  2. Re: telephone

    Rich Reynolds recently came across a 1982 UFO book written by a psychologist, and was intrigued by the comments on the Hill case. Rich thought it contained information new to him, but after a little digging, we determined:

    * the author cited a secondary source
    * the author relied entirely on the secondary source
    * the author misunderstood the secondary source
    * the author “read in” a mundane explanation based on this misunderstanding

    We don’t know if anyone subsequently cited this obscure book, but carrying forward errors is quite common in ufology. Careful UFO writers who do put in the effort of reviewing primary source material tend not to be invited to speak at UFO conferences or be invited on TV.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, T the C, your (very fine) point in this regard is well taken–talk about there being “nothing outside of the text”, eh? (And I know too well what you refer to here, with regards to Billig’s book, etc.).

      For what it’s worth, what was pleasing about being inadvertently sent back to _Wonders in the Sky_ was to discover the final link between the Merkel, Texas story and the “telephone line” that lead back to the 8th century annals.

      But even over and above that philological sleuthing is the thornier issue raised by Purrl Gurrl; for my part, the UFO report is always already caught up in “the text-in-general”, or, to put it another way, distinguishing between such textual telephony and a simple reference of a report to an experience is a more complex matter than most, and not just ufologists, are aware or willing to admit. Overturning just this assumption was a sport in literary criticism in the 80s and 90s….

      Thank ye gods I’m uninterested in speaking at UFO conferences (“the horror, the horror”) or to be invited on TV…


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