The Magonia Problem.
David Halperin


by David Halperin

– 1 –

One day not long after the year 800, Agobard, archbishop of Lyon, found himself in exactly the right place to stop a lynching. Lucky thing for three men and one woman, who were said to have fallen from ships that sailed through the sky.

Vis-à-vis the aerial ships, Agobard was what we’d now call a “debunker.” If he were alive today, he’d probably be in CSICOP. Or maybe not: the foundation of his skepticism was that the popular beliefs he devoted himself to debunking were contrary to Holy Scripture.

But let Agobard tell the story:

But we have seen and heard of many people overcome with so much foolishness, made crazy by so much stupidity, that they believe and say that there is a certain region, which is called Magonia, from which ships come in the clouds. In these ships the crops that fell because of hail and were lost in storms are carried back into that region; evidently these aerial sailors make a payment to the storm-makers [Tempestariis], and take the grain and other crops. Among those so blinded with profound stupidity that they believe these things could happen we have seen many people in a kind of meeting, exhibiting four captives, three men and one woman, as if they had fallen from these very ships. As I have said, they exhibited these four, who had been chained up for some days, with such a meeting finally assembling in our presence, as if these captives ought to be stoned. But when the truth had prevailed, however, after much argument, the people who had exhibited the captives, in accordance with the prophecy (Jeremiah 2:26), “were confounded … as the thief is confounded when he is taken.”

(From Agobard, Against the Multitude’s Absurd Belief Concerning Hail and Thunder, chapter 2; translated by Wendy Lewis

Obviously—the skyships were “really” extraterrestrial vehicles, the three men and the woman “really” humanoid beings from other planets. That’s what the UFOlogists of the 1950s and 1960s would have said. It was left for Jacques Vallee, in a groundbreaking book published in 1969, to float the idea that the obvious resemblances between reported UFOnaut behavior, and traditional beliefs about “little men” and “fairy folk,” pointed instead to some transcendent realm which we humans can’t grasp as it really is, and therefore try to force into whatever categories our culture approves. For Biblical prophets like Ezekiel, the appropriate conventionalization might be “visions of God.” For us, it’s space-age technology.

Vallee took his code name for this realm from Agobard’s story. He entitled his book Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers. From there “Magonia” entered UFOlogical discourse, where it remains to this day.

But what and where was Magonia? Who were the four people alleged to have come from there? Nice that Agobard (or somebody voicing arguments similar to Agobard’s) seems to have kept them from being stoned to death—but what gave the crowd the idea in the first place that they ought to be stoned? Agobard gives hardly a clue. A true “debunker,” he’s more interested in mocking than in understanding.

Getting behind a 1300-year-old story is seldom easy. But it can’t hurt to try.

– 2 –

What exactly is Magonia? I learn from Miceal Ross’s fascinating article “Anchors in a Three-Decker World” (in the 1998 volume of the journal Folklore) that the etymology of the name is a subject of dispute. Some derive it from Greek magoi, Latin magi, “magicians,” and understand it as “land of the magicians.” This is the derivation that’s always made sense to me. But there’s another theory, associated with the famous nineteenth-century folklorist Jakob Grimm, that links Magonia to Old High German maganwetar, “whirlwind.” As far as I know, the name occurs nowhere but in this Agobard passage.

Let’s grant that Agobard must be right: the three men and the woman were ordinary human beings. Magonia and the Magonians never existed. But the Tempestarii to whom they paid their tolls surely did. To judge from Agobard’s references, these “storm-makers” were as real, and every bit as pathetic, as the nasty old women who got burned at the stake in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when some witch-hunter decided they had near-infinite powers of malignity hiding behind their feeble exteriors. Agobard doesn’t deny that the “storm-makers” are actual, identifiable people. Only, he says, they can’t possibly have the magical mastery of weather that his contemporaries credit them with.

Homunculi, “little men,” he calls them (ch. 14). The term might evoke Vallee’s elfin folk and our modern UFO aliens, but it probably conveys only Agobard’s contempt for the storm-makers’ insignificance. They’re hated by their neighbors, he says, who at every passing breeze curse them as gale-raisers. He tells a rather funny anecdote (ch. 7) about someone who assured him he’d witnessed one storm-maker’s wonders with his own eyes, yet backed off under cross-examination and admitted he wasn’t actually there at the time. He complains about a similar sort of folk, believed to have the power to ward off storms in exchange for a share of the farmer’s crop—and about the so-called Christians who can’t be bothered to pay tithes for the church or the deserving poor, yet are only too eager to buy protection from these fakers.

It’s a hardscrabble, superstition-ridden world Agobard calls up for us, where a hailstorm might doom an entire village to starvation while sky-riding “Magonians” feast off the fruits of their broken backs. Not very long before, Agobard tells us at the end of his treatise, a cattle plague was blamed on poison dust scattered through the fields by Charlemagne’s enemies. Whole crowds of people were scapegoated and lynched for the impossible crime, perversely insisting on their own guilt as they died. In a world like this, what’s extraordinary about three men and a woman almost stoned for falling from airships?

Yet as I read Agobard’s story I sense a residue of bafflement, something pointing beyond simple superstition toward “Magonia,” in Vallee’s sense of the word . And to an oddly similar story from a different time and place, told by a dead man whom I’ve come to know exceedingly well, which may (or may not) give the key to what happened in Lyon centuries earlier. You be the judge.

– 3 –

This man is usually known as Abraham Cardozo, though he was christened Miguel at birth and carried that name with him until he died.

He was born in Spain in 1627, to a family that once had been Jewish but accepted Catholicism at the end of the fifteenth century, when the Iberian Jews were given the choice of conversion or exile. Not all such families preserved their ancestral Judaism in secret—confessions of “Judaizing,” extracted by Inquisitional tortures, are often suspect. But the Cardozos did. At age six, little Miguel knew he was a Jew beneath his Christian façade. At age 21 he fled to Venice and formally converted. That was when he took the name “Abraham,” after Judaism’s first convert.

He became a physician, then a Hebrew scholar, then a Kabbalist—a devotee of Judaism’s mystic doctrine. In 1665, when a Turkish Jew named Sabbatai Zevi became an international celebrity by proclaiming himself Messiah, Cardozo was among the thousands who believed. He kept on believing even after 1666, when Sabbatai scandalized his followers by converting to Islam.

Cardozo knew what it was to profess a religion you didn’t really believe—Islam in Sabbatai’s case, Christianity in Cardozo’s. He conceived that he also was Messiah, Sabbatai’s mirror and partner; and when Sabbatai died without doing what Cardozo believed was the Messiah’s task, of revealing the secret identity of God, Cardozo took it upon himself. Until his death in 1706, he wandered among the cities of the Turkish Empire, expounding upon the relation between God and the Supreme Being. (Hint: they’re not the same.) He performed magic rites to bring about the messianic redemption. He maintained a lively intercourse with the world of ghosts and demons.

Insane, you say? Probably. (You might have turned out a little odd too, growing up in the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition.) Yet extraordinary—intellectually brilliant, dazzling in his utter sincerity and devotion to Judaism as he understood it, which happened to be different from the way nearly every other Jew of his time did. For years I’ve felt admiration and spiritual kinship with this man, and eventually published translations of his Hebrew writings under the title Abraham Miguel Cardozo: Selected Writings (Paulist Press, 2001). The story I’m about to tell may be found, with more detail and citation of sources, in that book.

– 4 –

It takes place in July 1683. Cardozo was at the time living by the Dardanelles, a hunted exile. He’d predicted Redemption for the spring of 1682; prophecy, as often, had failed. Its failure was not just embarrassment but disaster. Cardozo’s Jewish enemies, fed up with him, were rumored to have planned a lynching. He fled.

From this time of exile and humiliation, Cardozo reports the following experience:

On Tammuz 11, 5443 [= July 5, 1683], one hour before nightfall, as I was descending into my garden from my upper chamber, I looked up and saw the moon. “I see what appear to be shapes on the moon,” I said to the people of my household. They looked and said: “There are four shapes: Messiah ben David, Rabbi Nathan, Rabbi Isaac Luria, and a fourth shape that looks to be a woman.”

Cardozo lists five witnesses beside himself. They know, or think they know, who the three men on the moon are: Sabbatai Zevi, the Messiah descended from David; Sabbatai’s prophet Nathan of Gaza; and the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria. Three ghosts, in other words (for both Sabbatai and Nathan had died years earlier); and it comes as a shock when, later on, Cardozo discovers the three are not what they seem to be. No one tries to guess the woman’s identity.

Now I could see them clearly. “After our meal,” I told the others, “we shall say the evening prayer. They shall tell us then what their appearance in the moon today may betoken. It has been many years since they visited us, sitting and speaking with us. This is a certain indication that something new has come to be, and after the prayer, we shall know what it is.”

(Am I the only one who’s reminded of the Anglican missionary William Booth Gill, who on June 26-27, 1959, at Boianai, Papua New Guinea, saw close-up a hovering illuminated disk with four humanoid pilots? And who interrupted his contemplation of the extraordinary craft to eat dinner and lead a church service?)

About a half-hour past nightfall they began to speak with us from the moon, loudly, in human voices. We could hear them as distinctly as though they were conversing with us in the garden. I told them that the spot was ritually pure and that they might stand upon the trees, which they proceeded to do. They spoke that night for about two hours. They imparted attractive interpretations of the Bible, considered according to its literal meaning. They discussed Kabbalistic subjects with accuracy. And, after bidding us adieu, they departed.

The next day they visited me in my upper chamber, conversing with me as was their wont. I did not recognize them; I believed they really were the Messiah, and Rabbi Isaac Luria, and Rabbi Nathan.

The three men, in other words; the woman seems to have stayed on the moon. Gradually Cardozo unmasks his three visitors. They are not, as he and his friends first imagined, spirits of the blessed dead. They’re three demons, come to seduce him into misbelief.

Foul are the blasphemies the evil three pronounce. God, they tell Cardozo, has been stripped of His power by the Supreme Being; Satan now rules the world. Once God was able to drown Pharaoh in the sea, to kill Sennacherib within his camp. Now, the demons demand—if He has any power at all, let Cardozo call upon Him to send fire to burn them up! Cardozo accepts their challenge. But, horribly, it’s upon Cardozo himself that the fire descends.

For days Cardozo lies in his bed, teetering on the edge of death with fiebre ardiente, burning fever. Dressed in black, the three men stand by his bedside, declaring it their demon-god’s delight to do to him as his God once did to Pharaoh. Their black clothing has its roots in Talmudic legend; yet it’s striking that this is the first time “three men in black” put in an appearance. They will re-appear in Bridgeport, Connecticut, 270 years later—as Gray Barker relates in They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers—to terrorize Albert K. Bender into abandoning his UFO researches.

Of course all this is Cardozo’s hallucination. That his friends also see the foursome on the moon is a problem, but not much of one. Throughout his life Cardozo had a talent for getting others to share his hallucinatory experiences, to enter with him into a complex folie à deux, to see things that were never there to be seen. It’s likely enough, actually, that his memories of the whole episode were a fever-hallucination, the beginnings of which he projected back to the time just before he fell ill. His moon-woman, his three moon-men, never had any physical existence. In this they differ from Agobard’s Magonian Four, who were plainly flesh-and-blood human beings.

Yet the parallel is haunting. A quaternity in the celestial realms, three men and one woman. They descend, three of them or all four, to earth. Their purpose is sinister and malignant. (And in case you wonder what evil beings would be doing in the sky rather than somewhere down below, the idea of “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” is as old as the New Testament: Ephesians 6:12.)

Forget the gap of nearly nine centuries that separates Agobard’s report from Cardozo’s. Can their resemblance be coincidence?

Well, of course it can.

The more fruitful question is, is it coincidence? Or is there another hypothesis that works better, that correlates and explains the two testimonies in a more satisfying way than treating their resemblance as random and accidental? I think there is. And as I’ve tipped you off with my use of the word “quaternity,” this hypothesis is rooted in the psychology of Carl Jung.

– 5 –

I’m not a Jungian, not exactly. The mystagogic quality of Jung’s writings has always put me off. More than once I’ve found myself asking, as I read him: why can’t he just say what he means, show us the evidence, and let us decide for ourselves? (The way I hope I’ve done with you, in this essay.)

Yet, during my three decades of research in some of the odder byways of Jewish mysticism, I’ve kept coming up against texts which Jung is highly unlikely to have been aware of, yet which best make sense through his explanatory models. The ancient rabbinic doctrines of the merkavah (the chariot seen by Ezekiel, chapter 1), for example, show us a quaternity very like the hypothetical Quaternity of which the Christian Trinity is a mutilated relic: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, plus the Fourth, the Devil. (Jung develops this idea in “A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East, vol. 20 in the Bollingen edition, pp. 109-200. I discuss the rabbinic materials in my book The Faces of the Chariot: Early Jewish Responses to Ezekiel’s Vision, Tübingen, J.C.B. Mohr, 1988.)

Cardozo also knows a divine, or at least messianic, quaternity. It’s the same Jungian 3 + 1 pattern—three alike, the fourth tied to the three yet in some significant way different. Developing an ancient Jewish tradition of two Messiahs, Cardozo tells us there will be four: Messiah son of David, Messiah son of Joseph, Moses redivivus, and Elijah returned from heaven. Only—here Cardozo bowls a major googly—he’s not quite sure whether the fourth Messiah will really be Elijah after all. Maybe it will be a she, a woman Messiah, the She-Who-Brings-Good-News-To-Zion of Isaiah 40:9. This female Messiah has no precedent in Jewish tradition. She’s the Jungian Fourth, in a quaternity that’s no longer 3 divine + 1 demonic (as in Ezekiel’s vision), but 3 male + 1 female.

In Cardozo’s vision of 1683, this quaternity is transplanted to the moon. Degraded, in the process, from messianic to demonic. (But Cardozo admits: they had him fooled for a while.)

There’s more to Cardozo’s vision than Jungian psychology. I have no doubt that the unnamed moon-woman came to him, at least in part, from unconscious or half-conscious memories of his Catholic childhood. Seventeenth-century Spain was awash with paintings and sculptures of the Immaculate Conception, showing the Blessed Virgin as a beautiful young girl standing on the moon. (There’s a particularly gorgeous painting of this genre by Velázquez, done about eight years before Cardozo was born Often the Virgin is accompanied by three male cherubic figures, whose wings could have suggested to an impressionable child that they might fly down from the moon to pay us a visit, while the Lady remains above.

Will this contradict the Jungian explanation of the vision, or render it unnecessary? Not at all. The two supplement each other. The archetypes clothe themselves in the cultural garb of the time and place in which they appear. And who knows?—the tendency of Spanish artists to give the Virgin three cherubic attendants may itself have been influenced by the quaternity archetype.

You may say: this is well and good for a psychic production, a hallucinatory vision like Cardozo’s. But do the archetypes become flesh, as they must if we’re to use them to make sense of Agobard’s story?

Jung himself asked much the same question …

– 6 –

In the final chapter of his classic Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1958), after demonstrating at length the psychic associations of the UFO, Jung confronts the problem: UFOs can be photographed. UFOs can appear on the radar screen. And if they’re psychological—how can this be?

It boils down to nothing less than this: that either psychic projections throw back a radar echo, or else the appearance of real objects affords an opportunity for mythological projections. …

If these things are real—and by all human standards it hardly seems possible to doubt this any longer—then we are left with only two hypotheses: that of their weightlessness on the one hand and of their psychic nature on the other. This is a question I for one cannot decide. … But the psychic aspect plays so great a role that it cannot be left out of account. The discussion of it, as I have tried to show, leads to psychological problems which involve just as fantastic possibilities or impossibilities as the approach from the physical side … psychology, too, has not only the right but also the duty to do what it can to shed light on this dark problem.

The question of anti-gravity is one which I must leave to the physicists, who alone can inform us what chances of success such an hypothesis has. The alternative hypothesis that Ufos are something psychic that is equipped with certain physical properties seems even less probable, for where should such a thing come from? If weightlessness is a hard hypothesis to swallow, then the notion of a materialized psychism opens a bottomless void under our feet …

Fortunately, there are less drastic ways by which psychic phenomena can take on physical reality. The extent to which these can be applied to the more baffling modern UFO experiences, and the manner of their application, are questions upon which I’m not yet prepared to offer an opinion. But for Agobard’s Magonians, I think they’ll work.

I’m thinking of the mechanism called projection, to which Jung alludes in the quote above. The term refers to our psychological habit, nearly unbreakable, of projecting what’s going on inside us onto people or situations in the external world. These persons or situations are sometimes wholly innocent of what we attribute to them, blank screens for our projections. Sometimes they collude, consciously or unconsciously, with our projections, in which case they confirm the illusion of reality that we’ve created. But the essential process remains the same. What we won’t recognize within us, we conceive to be out there.

Sometimes, by taking action based on our projection we can make it be out there, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I imagine something of the sort happened in Agobard’s Lyon. For reasons I can’t guess, the quaternity archetype of 3 + 1 had taken on a peculiar power and intensity in the collective psyche of the people of his time. (Like Jung, I do believe in a psyche that transcends the individual.) The archetype is a pattern, a form; it goes in search of matter to be formed, reality to be patterned and organized. One day early in the ninth century, the quaternity archetype encountered its matching reality.

That reality, no doubt, was something altogether banal. A fortuitous grouping of three men and one woman—that by itself, perhaps, was enough to invoke the archetype. Or perhaps these people were seen conversing with one of the reputed Tempestarii, arranging something that looked like an exchange of goods or promises. In came the archetype, investing the situation, and the unfortunate individuals caught up in it, with its own uncanny numinosity.

And the populace, seeing its internal “spiritual hosts of wickedness” made flesh before its eyes, set about stoning them.


My thanks to Dr. Thomas E. Bullard, author of The Myth and Mystery of UFOs (University Press of Kansas, 2010), for his read of this essay and his insightful comments thereon.


David Halperin was a teenage UFO investigator in the 1960s. Later he became a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—his specialty, religious traditions of heavenly ascent and otherworldly journeys. His novel Journal of a UFO Investigator was published in the USA by Viking Press this past year. It appeared in Spanish translation in 2010; Italian and German editions are scheduled for 2012. David blogs about UFOs, religion, and related subjects at: