27. UFOs and Ancient Astronauts
The idea that Earth is being observed by UFOs, and/or was visited by extraterrestrial spacemen in ancient times, has become so prevalent that to many peopleespecially those who dont read either serious astronomy books or science fictionits a definitive part of the idea of alien civilizations. As far as myth is concerned, the question of whether UFOs actually exist in our skies, and if so, whether they are of extraterrestrial origin, is irrelevant. Whats significant is the fact that so many people believe they exist, and moreover, assume automatically that they are alien spaceships.
According to a 1978 Gallup poll, 57% of the American public believes UFOs are real (and I suspect the percentage is even higher today). By no means, however, is the phenomenon predominantly American. Britain, with its small area, has the highest number of sighting reports in proportion to the rest of the world, in part because it has a large number of UFO researchers. (Last monthJanuary 1995I saw a TV news report of a current demand by residents of Scotland for official government investigation of sightings in their area.) I also have books giving accounts of sightings in France, Australia, Africa and the former Soviet Union, though they include no statistics. The interest in China since its 1978 opening has been especially strong; as of 1988 the Chinese Journal of UFO Research had developed a circulation of 325,000 copieshigh in comparison to Western UFO magazineswith an estimated 10 readers per copy, and there were hundreds of sightings in China that could not be explained during investigation.
Those unfamiliar with UFO material often confuse mere belief in UFOs with UFO cultism. Even social scientists have made this mistake, in part because scholarly literature has sometimes used the term believer to refer to cultists. But most UFO sightings have no connection whatsoever with cult followers. UFO cultism involves only a small minority of those who believe in the reality of UFOs; it is an occult phenomenon distinctly different from the widespread mythic view of our culture.
The cultists are convinced that they or their leaders are in telepathic contact with extraterrestrials, whether or not these leaders are self- proclaimed contactees. They are usually people who are, or have been, involved in other areas of the occult. Some have actually sold their belongings and waited for predicted mass pickups, just as other cults wait for the end of the world. Others sincerely believe that Jesus was an alien and the Star of Bethlehem was his ship. There have also been quite a few channeled books alleged to be aliens advice to Earth. (Practically always, the ETs are perceived as gods from outer space whose aim is to save us from ourselves.) Most of these are not frauds. Channeling is a phenomenon not yet understood, which is becoming popular apart from UFOs; most likely it does not call for literal interpretation of the channeled material, but it is not faked. Its only connection to myth is that mythic metaphors usually do, as in this case, provide the basis for the ideas coming from, or through, the channels unconscious mind.
During the past decade, there has been growing interest in channeled UFO material on the part of people who are not cultists, but who are adherents of New Age ideas. It is important to recognize that these ideas have been around for a very long time, and their current popularity is merely their latest manifestation, more public than past ones and therefore involving more people. Its part of what is sometimes called the occult revival, but whereas past occultists believed themselves to be in contact with angels or departed spirits, they now often perceive their psychic contacts as extraterrestrials, in accordance with the mythic imagery most prevalent in our culture. There may well be real parapsychological phenomena underlying this form of occultism, as all otherssuch beliefs are not mere nonsense, however silly some of their adherents literal interpretations may sound. At the very least, they deserve the same respect accorded other minority religious beliefs.
But occult psychic contact with aliens is not part of the mythic view held by most people who think UFOs are alien ships. The more common outlook is suspicion that our planet is being secretly visited, with or without the knowledge of our own governmentsit is typified by the widespread belief in government coverup of a 1947 UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico. Furthermore, while both scientists and SF readers have traditionally scorned and ridiculed UFO cultism and its New Age sympathizers, there has been a growing overlap between the much larger categories of believers in UFO sightings and people who enjoy pop-culture science fiction.
This is not to say that science fiction has shaped UFO reports. Except for the alien invasion films of the 50s, relevant films such as Close Encounters did not appear until after those reports were widespread. Furthermore, the people who make detailed sighting reportsand practically all who report actual contactusually prove to be those who have had no previous interest in extraterrestrial life. Until mass-media SF became so prevalent that few in our society were unexposed to it, they were apt to be those who had not even seen such films. Some connection has been shown between obscure SF and the imagery in contact reports, which Ill discuss in the next lecture; but rarely could it be established that the individual making the report had viewed any. On the whole, the more deeply a person is involved with UFO mythology, the less likely he or she is to be involved in SF mythology, and vice versa.
There is a reason for this, I believe. Space fiction appeals to people who are interested in the future and/or ET life, but who do not feel a need to take the details of their mythology literally, however literally they may conceive of its basic framework. UFO mythology, on the other hand, is accepted as literally true in all its details. Both are responses to our cultures perception of the universe beyond our planet, but the nature of the unconscious process involved appears to be quite different. In the first place, UFO enthusiasts want to believe, rather than imagine. In the second place, unless we give credence to the idea that aliens are actually present here, we must suppose that reporters of details, as distinguished from mere lights in the sky, have different perceptions than the rest of us. The most impressive sighting reports, like the contact reports, are made by people who not only arent SF fans, but who arent UFO buffs either. It is almost as if their minds reject hypothetically-expressed metaphor and perceive it directly as if it were reality.
I must emphasize that Im not saying that these people are mentally disturbed. Most of those examined by psychiatrists have, in fact, been found to be entirely healthy. The term hallucination is commonly used as if it indicated illness, but that is only because of our cultures aversion to the idea of altered states of consciousness. In more and more contexts, its coming to be recognized that the human mind does perceive in ways unrelated to sensory input and that such perceptions may be indistinguishable, under certain conditions, from sensory ones. Ufology has yet to recognize this fact; by and large, the idea of hallucinations is associated with debunkers and therefore resisted. Those researchers who now believe that there cant be so many alien ships are turning to the idea of physical manifestations from other dimensions to account for whats being experienced. Personally, however, I find this much more far-fetched than the possibility that our minds are more complicated than weve realized.
In the next lecture, I will discuss the abduction phenomenon, which is now forcing researchers to take investigation of UFO contact reports seriously. Before going on to that, however, mention should be made of the ancient astronaut myth, which was especially popular during the 70s at the time Von Danikens books appeared. This was the context in which the term gods from outer space originated. There are people who dont think ETs are present now, yet believe they were here in the past, and were no less responsible for our evolution than the fictional monoliths of the film 2001. They maintain that aliens built ancient structures and taught ancient stargazers, on the basis of evidence that is rejected by all reputable anthropologists and archeologists.
Of course, we have no evidence that ETs did not come here. We do, however,
have irrefutable evidence that they did not interbreed with our own species,
as is often claimed: DNA data show an unbroken line of molecular evolution
from early vertebrates to homo sapiens. In fact, the human genome is
99% identical to that of a chimpanzee, which could not be the case if we
were crossbreeds. The idea of interbreeding is thus purely mythic, yet
its very persistent; why? Is it a mere reinterpretation of ancient
creation myths, or myths of sex between humans and gods? (See lecture 13.)
Do we, perhaps, believe so strongly in the superiority of ETs that wed
rather be related to them than to animals? Or is it simply a metaphor for
our hope that we wont find a universe full of strangers?
Until quite recently, UFO experiences were of three kinds: sightings of unidentified flying objects, which were quite common; contact reports, which were rare and sometimes fraudulent, the sincere ones usually coming from people with some past involvement in the occult, or at any rate a desire to gain personal followers; and alleged government coverups. For these reasons, most serious observers did not take UFOs very seriously. I myself did not though I recognized them as an aspect of Space Age mythology, I dismissed the occultists views as representative of too small a minority to be significant and the sightings as too lacking in detail. As for the government conspiracy theories, I found, and still find, them incredibleif the government cant conceal its scandals, how could it manage to conceal something as important as the existence of ETs?
But with the rise of the abduction phenomenon in the 80s and 90s, the situation has changed. Now, thousands of peoplestatistical projection says millionsare having extremely detailed experiences they interpret as UFO contact, and that are definitely not faked. Most of them have no prior interest in UFOs, and, according to reputable psychiatrists, no symptoms of mental instability. Moreover, many are well-educated professionals. Thus, increasingly, its being recognized that there must be some hitherto-obscure explanation. From the standpoint of a mythologist, the most significant aspect of this is that if and when we do uncover the explanation, we are likely to find that it covers not only Space Age mythology but mythology in general, including ancient mythology. I think we may well be on the verge of an entirely new theory of what myth is, how it arises, and how it is disseminated.
The first UFO abduction case was that of Betty and Barney Hill in 1961, which was for a long time quite exceptional, not just in its features but in the fact that the Hills could remember the experience only under hypnosis. But now, the pattern set by that case and others, such as the 1975 Travis Walton case (basis of the film Fire in the Sky) has become very common. Typically, abductees are taken by force aboard what they interpret as an alien ship and are examined medically, often painfully and usually with emphasis on organs of reproduction; women often report either the initiation or interruption of pregnancy. Physical marks and/or symptoms sometimes remain. Multiple encounters are common, and not only do many adults recall their initial occurrence in childhood, but children as young as two or three tell of being abducted. Such experiences are almost always terrifying, both while they are happening and later, when recalled spontaneously or through hypnosis. However, there are statistically significant instances of later positive personality change.
Basically, there are five categories of interpretation given to this phenomenon by investigators. (Abductees themselves, however, almost invariably interpret it at face value.)
What is more productive for us to attempt, at this stage, is speculation about what the abduction phenomenon means. Its easy to see why adherents of Space Age mythology perceive godlike aliens offering us advice, such as those the contactee cults and channelers describe. But why terrifying aliens of the kind abductees encounter? These aliens arent perceived as hostile to Earth or apt to invade it; usually they are cold and indifferent. Sometimes they do offer information about Earths perils; more often, abductees later become increasingly concerned about those perils, such as environmental crises. But most people who develop such awareness dont get abducted by UFOs. Furthermore, the abductees shun publicity; they are not trying, even unconsciously, to command an audience. Why, if the phenomenon is a warning about danger to Earth as more and more are coming to believe, does it take the form of personal, rather than cultural, examination? And why dont people whove hoped to encounter ETsas many of us haveever have such experiences?
I do not know the answers to these questions. But I think, as far as I can determine without having access to the serious ufology journals not found in local libraries, that reseachers have not been considering them in the light of Space Age mythology. They seem to either take them at face value as alien encounters, or try to answer them in terms having nothing to do with extraterrestrials. This, in my opinion, ignores the fact that most people other than researchers do believe UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin. I agree with much that Keith Thompson says in Angels and Aliens about their significance in terms of our developing perceptions, yet the form the phenomenon takes, as distinguished from the form taken by myths dealing with angels, is nevertheless its most outstanding facet. Any explanation of it, even one based on full knowledge of our mental processes, needs to tell us why the concept of aliens now has more power over us than other images of similar origin.
And so I speculate that the UFO abduction phenomenon is a metaphoric expression of our cultures fear of the wider universe, as distinguished from hopes expressed by most pop-culture science fiction and from wishes implicit in the beneficient gods from outer space myth. It seems to me to reflect not fear of our own destructiveness, as most commentators who dont take UFOs literally seem to think, but fear that were indeed on the verge of contact with extraterrestrial environments, if not beings, and that when we face that test we will be found wanting. The people who have these encounters are not those who look forward eagerly to exploring space. They are not Star Trek fans (and considering the rapid increase in both populations, its surprising that theres not more overlap). I suspect that abductees are those who are open to new forms of consciousness, yet terrified at the mere idea of meeting something alien, so terrified that they perceive such contact as threatening to the very essence of physical humanity, their sexuality. The perception of genetic experimentation by aliensand, often, of nurseries full of hybrid babiesis, perhaps, a mythic reaction to the fear that apart from Earth and our Earthly heritage we would no longer be fully human.
This is only one way of responding to fears aroused in us by our perception
in this era of a universe wider than Earth. Another, more common, response
is withdrawal from that universe through insistence that Earth is all that
matters: that it is our sole source of life, or even divinemore
specifically, the Mother Goddess. That is the essence of the Gaia myth,
which I will discuss in the next lecture.
If you got to this page by searching, please read the Introduction to the series.