From Magonia 26, June 1987
Peter Rogerson examines the folklore of ‘Balls of Light’ (BOLS), and finds some remarkable connections with UFOs, poltergeists and witchcraft
In the Rio Grand area of the United States, Lights in the Sky (LITS) are well known amongst both whites and Indians as signs of high flying witches. As Pulitzer Prize winning Indian novelist N. Scott Momaday wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexicanof 24th September 1972:”There are witches at Lémy Pueblo, and when I lived there I knew them sure enough. One night I saw some curious lights away in the distance, small points of light moving erratically about at ground level, and I was told them they were witch lights. I thought nonsense, there are some boys running about with flashlights, that is all. And then one of the lights rose slowly and moved like a shooting star across the whole expanse of the sky. I shudder to think of it”
The community believed that witches could fly disguised as gourds, eggs, pumpkins and especially fireballs. People could be abducted by witches, teleported to distant locations. The Cochite describe such fireballs as measuring six to twelve inches in diameter, and consisting of a black centre with a surrounding surface of fiery red flames. Other pueblos believed similar things.Strange tales are told of these lights – two men travelling the road to Chama late one December night saw at about 1 o’clock in the morning a phantasmal light in the distance. At first they thought it might be a campfire of wood gatherers, but on drawing close they saw it change shape and make unearthly motions. Finally it soared upwards and shot across the horizon to the town of San Luis. When the men went to a nearby house to enquire about the strange phenomenon, the farmer claimed he was bewitched and the fireball was his tormentor.
Nicolo Marina of San Mateo saw a fireball descending into an arroyo and on going to investigate he discovered it had changed into a huge rat. As he chased it through tall grass it suddenly changed into a dog, gave a savage growl and disappeared among the willows.
Men named Juan were noted as witchfinders and capturers. An excellent way to capture witches was to draw a circle on the ground. One such man was Juan Chavez of Torré, who lived in the 1890′s. One day, riding from Torré to visit a friend in Casa Colorado, down an isolated stretch of road he perceived a large ball of fire leaping over the countryside in great bounds. Realising it was a transformed witch, he dismounted and drew a circle on the road. The flaming object then flew into the circle and vanished. Juan carried on with his journey. Returning along the same route the next day he found an old woman named Chata, a suspected witch, sitting on the road unable to move unless he held her hand.
The bewitchment that these fiery witches brought was the supernatural attack. A modern case of this sort occurred in 1966 at the Alfaneo Quintana home in El Llan, south of Taos. A barrage of rocks pelted the house during the late night hours, and some witnesses saw weird luminosities. The wife of a local J.P., Mrs Mascarenas described fireballs “about the size of a golf-ball, a strange blue gray colour, not at ail like a flashlight”. They bounded along higher than a man’s head, and disappeared into the trees further down the Santa Barbara road. No footprints were found, and bullets fired into the darkness had no effect. (1)
There are a number of stories connecting strange assaults and ghost-lights in the literature.
In July 1962 a series of strange flashes like neon tubes, which were seen whether the blinds were drawn or not, plagued the Howell home in Clayton, North Carolina. They were red or yellow, about the brilliance of a 200 watt bulb. Parapsychologist William Roll who investigated saw “three clear but not blinding flashes of Iight”. No prowler was found, and it a geared that the lights originate from inside the house. (2)
During the period October 9-14, 1966, poltergeist disturbances, including phantom stone-throwers, furniture overturning and increases in air pressure were reported from the Szlanfucht house in Osceola, St Joseph’s County, Indiana. At the same time strange lights were seen in the sky in the area.’ (3)
In March of the same year similar disturbances were reported at the Reeves home near Toledo, Oregon. The story began when 15-year-old Kathy Reeves and a friend were walking up Pioneer Road and saw a ruddy glow in the distance. As they got closer they saw it was “smoke boiling all around, making a dome shape as high as a room”. No fire was found in the field, however.
From then on the family was plagued with ‘crawling lights’. At one time someone fired at something outside, which retreated,then the inside of the house suddenly sparkled with a multitude of crawling lights. Mrs Reeves woke up, at two in the morning to see:
“my whole bedroom … a rosy glow so bright you could read a newspaper in it … I happened to turn towards the door leading into the living room and I saw this thing like a cloud just hanging there. It was water-melon coloured and you could see through it … It was just a kind of hazy mass for a couple of seconds, and then it disappeared.”
A chemist friend, Max Taylor, camped out and saw two pulsating spots of light on opposite ends of the house, like a beam of light seen at the extremes. Presumably on the same night a deputy saw an orange light maneuvering, which disappeared after ninety seconds with a high-pitched whine. Strange walking stumps were also seen and marks found in fields. Others saw peculiar objects in the sky. (4)
The Gould farm at South Middleton (Mass.) was, in 1977/78 the scene of a complex series of events, including a landed UFO which left physical traces, a small helmeted being which appeared and disappeared, a faceless prowler, a vague case of cattle mutilation, and poltergeist disturbances. (5)
At Lowell, Michigan, three men of ‘dubious repute’ became paranoid over ‘kids’ in camouflage suits who had the unnerving habit of running on all fours. Gradually they became convinced that ‘they’ were climbing into their house, and fired at them. The men thought they had killed one of the intruders, but no body was found, and the trio were arrested by the police. At Shelbyville, Michigan, a young couple panicked, believing they were being besieged by prowlers or police, wearing SWAT suits showing green lights. There was also a prowler who broke in, who fled when pursued, and a red light like a lens moving up and down the window of a the house. (6)
There are many other cases which fall into this pattern – an isolated farm in Ohio besieged by two giant ‘ape-men’ and something like a hazy, box-like light, a light beam, flashes of light in a wood, and a red light flitting among the trees, as well as cases like Hopkinsville, and even the notorious Ripperstone Farm in Wales.
It was not just in the Rio Grande that strange lights were associated with witchcraft. Similar beliefs were held by several African societies. During his field work amongst the Azande, Evans-Pritchard (left) saw, just once,
“…witchcraft on its paths. About midnight, before retiring, I took a spear and went for my usual nocturnal stroll. I was walking in the garden at the back of my hut, amongst banana trees, when I noticed a bright light passing at the back of my servant’s hut towards the homestead of a man called Tupoi. As this seemed worth investigation I followed its passage, until a grass screen obscured the view. I ran quickly through my hut to the other side in order to see where the light was going … but did not regain sight of it. I knew that only one man, a member of my household, had a lamp that bright, but he had not been out or used it”
Evans-Pritchard was told he had seen witchcraft which had caused the death of a man in Tupoi’s compound. (8)
Amongst the Basuto, witches were accused of turning into fireballs in order to harass houses, and the witches appeared as balls of fire amongst the treetops. Men could extinguish them by using the proper medicine. (9)
What can one make of this apparent connection between LITs, witchcraft and poltergeists? A good clue lies in the cases of ‘phantom attackers’. An historical case mentioned by Westrum offers perhaps the best insight. In 1692 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, an Ebenezer Bapson was plagued by ‘French-men and Indians’ who were repeatedly shot at for three weeks, defying all attempts to kill or capture them. Westrum comments: “the bold appearance of these phantoms, the general lack of concern about the gunfire, their seeming invulnerability when convincingly hit, and their skulking are all familiar elements in these stories.” (6)
The context of this story is dramatic. 1692 was the year of Salem, in the period when the security and very survival of New England was at stake. The Puritan experiment was threatened externally by the French and Indian depredations, which meant that no colonial border was safe; and the charter of 1691 enfranchised dissident Quakers
and Anglicans (10) The external and internal wildernesses were threatening the New World garden. The Indians and French were seen less as humans, than as demonic inhabitants of the howling wilderness (11) – a wilderness now perceived as “less a force to be mastered in accordance with divine plan than a menacing presence that threatened to encroach on their territories.” (10)
The same theme of habitat under siege from the wilderness is obvious. Perhaps the paradigm here is the famous film Assault on Precinct Thirteen in which the embattled inhabitants of an isolated urban police station are surrounded by semi-substantial urban terrorists and hoodlums, who remove the bodies of their dead, leaving little physical evidence.
The social, natural and supernatural wilderness is merged into a single vision of external chaos. The real life victims of such attacks appear to be those in geographical and/or socially marginal situations: inhabitants of the liminal zone on the physical and psychological frontiers of society, exposing themselves to the wilderness. The besiegers are today’s witches and demons, with all their traditional immunity to human weapons. By incorporating the wilderness into themselves they transcend the human condition: as part of the wilderness they are invulnerable to the puny efforts of human technology.
The real life victims of such attacks appear to be those in geographical or socially marginal situations: inhabitants of the liminal zone on the physical and psychological frontiers of society
The central treason of witchcraft is the invitation of wilderness into the midst of habitat. It is not surprising that one of the afflicted at Salem reported that her spectral assailants included French-Canadians and Indians, and that the book which directed their diabolic mission was a Catholic devotional text written in French. (10)
Witchcraft accusations are generally believed to result from quarrels and tensions within the community; tensions which rupture the bounds of habitat, allowing in wilderness. To the Church, every act of sin or deviance placed the sinner in a liminal state, which made them an opening through which the external demonic forces could invade the community.So what can the equation BOLS = Witches mean? In a variety of cultures we have seen that BOLS are equated with the wild spirits of the distant wilderness, far beyond the frontiers of human habitation. They also symbolise the zone of the spiritual: in becoming a fireball the witch has achieved a final transcendence of the human condition.It might well be that if BOLs are associated with seismic activity or ball-lightning they would be even more appropriate as symbols of the wilderness, both perfectly demonstrating the fragility of human habitat, buffeted by the weather, split and shaken by the trembling earth.
A strict application of the psycho-socio-cultural hypothesis would make us hesitate about awarding any special status to modern ‘scientific’ theories making them immune from psycho-socio-cultural analysis. Such an analysis would argue that the modern folklore of earthquake lights, fault-lines and so on, contains profound symbolism. Fault-lines are symbolic liminal zones, gaps in reality where energies might enter.
Whether taken as fact or symbol, BOLs as earthquake lights, harbingers of wilderness, can also be interpreted as spirits of transcendence, reminders that reversion to, or coming of the wilderness is not just a degradation.
NOTES AND REFERENCES:
1. SIMMONDS, Marc. Witchcraft in the Southwest; Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande, Norland Press, 1974.
2. ROLL, William G, The Poltergeist, Star Books, 1976, (Chapter 6, Strange Lights in Clayton, North Carolina).
3. SMITH, J, ,The Case of the Messy Poltergeist’, Fate (UK), May 1967 p,42 ff.
4. LLOYD Dan, ‘Crawling Lights, a new development’, FSR vol, 13, no, 3, (May-June 1967) pp,29-30.
5. WEBB David F, ‘Humanoids at South Middleton’ FSR, vol, 27, no, 1, pp 23-28 and vol, 27, no, 2, pp. 8-12.
6. WESTRUM, Ron, ‘Phantom Attackers’, Fortean Times, no, 45, pp,54-58.
7. RICKARD, Bob ‘More Phantom Sieges’, Fortean Times no, 45, pp, 58-61.
8. EVANS-PRITCHARD, E. E. Witchcraft Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Clarendon Press, 1937.
9. PARRINDER, Geoffrey, Witchcraft, European and African, Faber 1963
10. WEISEMAN, Richard, Witchcraft, Magic and Religion in 17th Century Massachusetts, University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
11. DEMOS, John (Ed.) Remarkable Providence, Braziller, 1972.
12, ROGERSON, Peter. ‘Taken to the Limits’, Magonia 23, July 1986, pp. 3-12.