Strange Fruit: Ozark Folklore and the Continuation of Traditional Witch Beliefs in the Modern Satanism Scare.
David Sivier

From Magonia 91, February 2006 


One of the major problems presented by the Satanism scare of the 1980s and 1990s is the apparent reappearance of a set of beliefs and a persecuting mindset little different from the magic and superstition of previous centuries in the economically and technologically developed world. Indeed, the problem is particularly acute in the case of America, one of the most important crucibles for the forging of the Satanism scare, and a nation that has prided itself on its scientific and technological modernity

In searching for the origins of the modern Satanism scare, historians and sociologists have necessarily paid most attention to the contemporary societal factors stimulating its rise, like the increasingly irrational ideologies permeating psychotherapy, victim culture and the drive to identify as pathological an increasingly wide range of human behaviour seen as shocking or deviant, such as ‘emotional incest’ or ‘sex addiction’, the emphasis of certain sections of American social reformers and some feminists in demands for the children of the poor to be taken into state care, and the breakdown of a moral consensus on issues such as sexual morality, which has allowed Satanic Child Abuse to become an issue that can unite conservative Christian Evangelicals and Feminists and left-wing groups in a moral crusade. [1]

The genesis of the modern witchcraft accusations in the demonology of Middle Ages, including the Blood Libel myth directed at the Jews has been recognised and explored by a number of researchers, and comparisons drawn between the great witch-hunts of the past, such as those directed against the Bogomils in the ninth and tenth centuries, and the great witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. [2]

These have all been identified as having a common origin in the breakdown in the wider Christian community, such as between Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic for the earlier persecution, and Roman Catholic and Protestant for the latter.[3] However, while some historians have effectively demonstrated the origins of modern allegations of satanic ritual abuse in nineteenth century anti-Satanist and anti-occultist propaganda, such as Gareth Medway in his The Lure of the Sinister, few seem to have considered that there may also have been operating an unbroken tradition of witch beliefs that may also have fed into and stimulated the Satanism scare of the last twenty years.

Contemporary sceptical researchers into the Satanism scare have instead traced its roots in the narratives of adult survivors, often converts to Christianity, such as Doreen Irvine and June Johns in the 1960s and 1970s. These authors “presented Satanism (not distinguished much from Wicca) in turns of kinky adult sex, homosexuality, drug taking and suburban wife-swapping, with the now largely vanished phenomenon of the desecration of churches”. [4] The motif of child abuse, however, only entered these narratives because, “as society became more permissive and secular this repertoire ceased to conjure up images of ultimate decadence and evil” [5]

Yet while contemporary historians, such as Dr. Ronald Hutton in his The Triumph of the Moon, have effectively refuted the idea of a Palaeolithic cult of a horned god continuing unbroken into the twentieth century, it is however quite possible that some elements of a witch-cult, in so far as it was believed to exist in socially backward, agricultural communities in America, continued to exist from the sixteenth century onwards to inspire the Satan hunters of the late twentieth century. Indeed, the Canadian historian, Elliot Rose, in discussing the existence of a ‘witch-society’ in the Ozark country of the US, as described by the American folklorist, Vance Randolph, drew explicit comparisons between it and the descriptions of contemporary witchcraft practices by Gerald Gardner. He concluded that “I think we can see in this Ozark testimony the traces of the cult stripped to what its unlearned members considered its essentials, after persecution and enlightened scepticism between them had deprived it of both learned leadership and true continuity of tradition.” [6]

Randolph’s study of Ozark folklore is valuable for the insight it gives on a number of Fortean topics, not just witchcraft. For example, his description of the appearance of spectral lights along the ‘Devil’s Promenade’, a lonely stretch of road in Oklahoma, fourteen miles from Joplin, Missouri, is interesting not just for its description of the lights themselves, but also for the explanations offered for them. These include not only the supernatural – that they are the spirits of a murdered Osage chief, or a Quapaw woman who killed herself after the death of her husband in battle, but also for the scientific and pseudo-scientific. Thus it is suggested that the lights are those of cars driving on Highway 66 five miles away, are marsh gas or “that the effect is produced somehow by electrical action of the mineral deposits in the ground.” [7] 

Randolph’s book was originally published in 1947, about the same time the UFO myth was gestating, and although this explanation for strange lights seems to have been forgotten until proposed in the 1970s by Persinger and Paul Devereaux, its recording by Randolph suggests that the piezo-electrical explanation for such unexplained lights has its basis in the folkloric rationalisations offered for such phenomena, rather than the cold, detached theorising of a laboratory researcher.

The points of contact and contrast between Gardnerian and Ozark witchcraft discussed by Rose was the appearance in both cults of nudity and ritual sex, and instruction in the cult’s mysteries of an initiate by a parent or other family member. In the Ozarks the novice witch was taught the cult’s traditions by a parent of the same sex, while they were inducted into the cult by a member of the opposite sex in ritual coition in front of a naked coven. For Gardner, however, instruction had to be carried out by a member of the opposite sex, and although initiation was – performed naked, it did not involve sex. [8]

Beyond the similarities and differences between the two cults is the question of the similarities of both to the incestuous, satanic cults described in Michele Remembers. In this conception of a modern, satanic cult, as formulated by the social worker, Maribeth Kaye, and criminal psychologist, Lawrence Klein, “membership is transmitted primarily through families” and “sexual child abuse and torture is deliberately employed by Satanist families as a technique to brainwash and program children to confuse evil with virtue, so that they will follow instructions to commit Satanic evil acts without feeling any guilt.” [9]This is similar in concept to the Ozark belief that “the secret doctrines must pass only between blood relatives, or between persons who have been united in sexual intercourse. Thus it is that every witch obtains her unholy wisdom either from a lover or a male relative … A mother can transmit the secret work to her son, and he could pass it on to his wife, and she might tell one of her male cousins, and so on.” [10]

While the transmission of the secrets between family members is not necessarily incestuous, and there were rituals that could transform a woman into a witch which did not involve sex, such as repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards and firing seven silver bullets at the moon, the important element nevertheless in consecrating the witch in her unholy career was sex: “A virgin may possess some of the secrets of ‘bedevilment’ imparted by her father or her uncle, but she cannot be genuine witch, for good and sufficient reasons.”[11]

According to the tradition, this sexual initiation took place at the family burial ground, at midnight at the dark of the moon, over three consecutive nights. Devils and the spirits of the evil dead did appear, conjured up by the blasphemous incantations of the witches and the recital of the Lord’s Prayer backwards, the person initiating the witch was another mortal human being, not Satan himself. In this respect it differed from some of the medieval and early modern witch narratives, in which the witch copulated with Satan or a demon, [12] but was similar to the recovered memories of survivors of Satanic Ritual Abuse, who were sexually abused by their fellow humans, although the Devil and other demons nevertheless also appeared during the ceremonies. It thus appears that, amidst the basis of such fears of child ritual abuse in the concern over all too real cases of incest and child abuse that were appearing in the 1970s, the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare also drew on traditional stories of witch families and sexual initiation, and conflated the two elements according to the fears of the times.

Appearing with the motifs of multi-generational witch families and satanic sex also was the belief that witches burned the body of newborn children in order acquire further magical powers, and that the ashes were used to make luck charms. [13] While this element of the myth ultimately derives from Inquisitor’s allegation against a group of heretics at Orleans in 1022, that they burned the bodies of children born from their orgies to Satan and used the ashes in a blasphemous parody of the Christian Eucharist, [14] it is also of the same type as the allegations in the modern Satanism scare that women were being used as ‘brood mares’ to supply children for sacrifice to Satan.

This folklore, although fantastic to those raised in a more sceptical environment, was responsible for several Satanism scares even before the appearance of the moral panics several decades later. Randolph knew three women who were not only believed to be witches, but also believed themselves to be witches. [15] One panic concerning an alleged ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ supposedly occurred when a group of young people were photographed dancing nude at the side of a road outside a cemetery, apparently conforming to the pattern of a witches’ Sabbath. Randolph himself considered that they were just drunken young people, and that the photograph of a similar gathering at Forsyth, Missouri, showed a group of Holy Roller religious fanatics outside their camp on the White River, accompanied by thrill-seeking young men from nearby villages. [16] If nudity, either in a Christian ecstatic ritual context or simply done for less elevated pleasures was practiced in backwoods Missouri, then it might explain why the Venusians who contacted Buck Nelson were similarly naked when they landed on his farm and walked into his farmhouse carrying their coveralls. [17]

The supposedly satanic activities carried out in Missouri were not necessarily so spectacular. Even something as relatively harmless as teaching schoolchildren to say their times tables backwards as a learning aid, in such an atmosphere of superstition and fear, could be construed as suspiciously antichristian because of its similarity to the witches’ supposed practice of repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards. According to Randolph, one ‘pious Baptist lady’ in McDonald County, Missouri, denounced the local schoolteacher for teaching the girls in her care their multiplication tables in such a way, because of the danger that ‘they’ll be a-sayin’ somethin’ else back-lards tomorrow.’ [18]

Again, there’s a remarkable similarity to modern conflicts and attempt to maintain supposed Christian education in schools. This has included not only the topical debate about evolution, but also the campaign by American Fundamentalist Christian organisations against then use of the Impressions curriculum in school. Although designed to introduce primary school children to literature, it has been attacked for encouraging violence, Satanism, occultism, cannibalism and cultural relativism, in tones strongly reminiscent of the earlier concern about teaching the Lord’s Prayer backwards: “We believe there is a desensitisation effect here … Pretty soon, casting and chanting spells will seem so commonplace to kids that, when they’re confronted with the advances of satanic groups on a darker level, it will seem more acceptable.” [19]

At the time Randolph was writing, it was felt that witches were extremely common, with one informant telling him that “witches are thicker than seed ticks”, but that “it’s all under cover nowadays.” [20] A major cause of the growth in witchcraft was the increasingly immoral behaviour of the young, who lived ‘too fast and heedless’. [21] Despite this pervading climate of fear, suspicion and violence – Randolph gives several instances where people were shot or otherwise assaulted as suspected witches – nevertheless the country seemed placid and untroubled to outsiders: “Things happen in these hills which are never mentioned in the newspapers, never reported to the sheriff at the county seat. The casual tourist sees nothing to suggest the current of savage hatred that flows beneath the
 genial hospitality of our Ozark villages.” [22]

Since the days of the pioneering folklorists of the nineteenth century, the folk traditions of backwoods Appalachia have been of interest to folklorists because of the way they have independently preserved British folklore, including traditions that may have become extinct in the mother country. Certainly much Ozark folklore is remarkably ancient. The incidents recorded by Randolph of hill people who believed they had been changed into horses and ridden by witches are of the same type as the seventeenth century British allegations against witches and other heterodox religious groups, like Quakers, such as those made by Margaret Pryor of Long Stanton in 1657. [23] It thus seems likely that the Ozark beliefs about witches represent the persistence of sixteenth and seventeenth century British and European traditional ideas about witchcraft, as adapted by conditions in the frontier settlements of the New World. This is significant, because, as historians of witchcraft have pointed out, popular belief in witchcraft did not die out with the triumph of scepticism amongst the ruling elite in the eighteenth eentury, but still persisted into the twentieth century in some parts of Britain, France and the Netherlands, for example. [24]

It’s something of a truism that the heartland of American Fundamentalist Christianity, with its heavy emphasis on deliverance ministry and spiritual warfare against demons and the human agents of Satan is the traditionally economically backward rural south, and its possible that the ~ appearance and growth of Charismatic Evangelical Christian ministries nationwide during the 80s transmitted traditional southern lore about witches to a broader national audience as mediated by the Evangelists’ own emphasis on the literal truth of Scripture. In this atmosphere, where archaic, premodern ideas exist alongside a parallel, and contradictory belief in technology and progress, it’s fair to say that modern America is indeed a ‘medieval society with modern technology’, a situation ready for the spread of VERY similar medieval irrational fears and superstitions. [25]

It thus appears that the ultimate genesis of the Satanism scare in America was not the concern over new religious movements and cults in the late 1960s and 1970s, such as the Manson ‘Family’ and the activities of various devil worshippers, such as the Church of Satan, but traditional rural witchlore in the rural Deep South. While the rest of America was economically buoyant and felt morally and culturally secure, this folklore was largely confined to that area. With the growth of new religious movements in the 60s and the economic and social dislocation of the 1980s, the social climate nationally became more favourable to the spread of irrational fears of secret satanic conspiracies, lent verisimilitude by the existence of explicitly satanic religious movements like the Church of Satan and Temple of Set, and non-Satanist religions like Wicca, which claimed descent from the medieval witches but did not involve the worship of Satan.

Thus, the witch-hunts and panics Randolph reported in the 1940s became both the model and the precursor for the national and international panics four decades later, though this time led by people from backgrounds often very different from superstitious rural poor of the backwoods hill country.



  1. Sandell, R., Review of Mark Prendergast, Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, Hinesburg, Upper Access 1995, Magonia 53, August 1995, pp. 22-3.

  2. Victor, J.S., Satanic Panic: The Creation of Contemporary Legend, Chicago, Open Court, 1994, pp. 273-90; Sandell, ibid, p. 23.

  3. Sandell, ‘Victims’, p. 23.

  4. Harney, J., Review of Jean La Fontaine, Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1988, in Magonia no. 64, August 1998, p. 17.

  5. Harney, J., ‘Devil’, p. 17.

  6. Rose, E., A Razor for a Goat: Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1989, p. 213.

  7. Randolph, V. Ozark Magic and Folklore (New York, Dover 1964), p. 234.

  8. Rose, E., ‘Razor’, p. 212.

  9. Victor, J.F., Satanic Panic: The Creation of Contemporary Legend, Chicago, Open Court, 1994, p. 97.

  10. Randolph, V., Ozark Magic and Folklore, New York, Dover 1964, p. 266.

  11. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 267.

  12. See, for example, the description of a sabbat in the Memoires of Jacques du Clercq, in P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult in Medieval Europe (Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan 2005), p. 126; also J.B. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, Cornell University Press 1972), pp. 144-5.

  13. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 281.

  14. Russell, Middle Ages, p. 87.

  15. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 265.

  16. Randolph, Ozark Magic, pp. 267-8.

  17. Bord, l. and C., Life Beyond Planet Earth: Man’s Contacts with Space People (London, Grafton 1991), p. 135.

  18. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 266.

  19. Concerned parent quoted in “Trouble’s Brewing Over Witch in School Reader,” Buffalo News, March 10, 1991, pp. A1, A14, cited in Victor, op. cit., p. 158.

  20. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 264.

  21. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 264.

  22. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 300.

  23. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 279, ‘Long Stanton’, in Folklore, Myths and Legends, London, Readers Digest 1973, p. 242.

  24. See Davies, O., Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951, Manchester, Manchester University Press 1995.

  25. Porter, B., review of M. Northcott, An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire, London, LB. Tauris 2004, Lobster 49, Summer 2005, p. 35



Fairies and Fireballs.
Peter Rogerson

left-frameFrom MUFOB New Series 9, Winter 1977-78

A Moravian fairy-tale communicated to GEPA, the well-known French UFO group, by a Mr Chaloupek, relates how, one day in the mid seventeenth century in the village of Chechy Pod Kosirem, near Prostejov, the village baker’s daughter was delivering some milk-rolls to the castle. In a turning she met a strange little man who sprung up in front of her. He siezed the three rolls, bit into one of them then spat it out in disgust. He did this with the other two rolls, before disappearing back into the woods. Shortly afterwards she saw a fireball rise up into the sky (1).

The little man was probably a water-nix, and there is surely some significance in the mystic three rolls. His rejection of the rolls acts as a mirror image of the traditional need to reject fairy food. Presumably the rolls are as tasteless to nixes as the fairy chocolate was to the unfortunate motorcyclist of Les Routiers

Fairies have been associated with fireballs in more recent times. One wild and stormy night in 1948 a shepherd was sheltering from the storm with his sheep, in a hut near Yaste Monastery near the town of Garganta Il Olla, Spain. He heard voices outside, and on opening the door saw a small man, who he invited in. Only when the being stood warming himself before the newly lit fire did the poor shepherd realise that his visitor had a very develish cloven hoof. He screamed in panic, and ‘Pan’ fled through the door. Only then did he see the fairy fireball ascending into the stormy sky. The poor man was now convinced that he had had a visitor from regions somewhat warmer than sunny Spain! He became a fervent churchgoer! (3)

This, incidentally, was not the first Magonia-inspired conversion in Garganta la Ollo. Fourteen years previously, in October 1934, an old lady saw a strange being in a silver suit, and a voice “in her head” announced the birth of her grandson. As she ran towards this being it vanished. When she found the grandchild had indeed been born, she demanded he be christened ‘Angel’. (4)

In view of the satyr-like qualities of the Spanish fireball fairy, it is significant that Hartland (5) mentions a Moravian tale of a bride who shuts herself up every eighth day. When her husband peeps through a keyhole, he behold her thighs clad with fur, and her feet those of a goat.

The classic case of a fireball fairy is that seen by children of Premanon, who in September 1954 (again on a rainy night) met a walking ‘sugar cube’. One of the startled youngsters receiving an electric shock from this bionic boggart! As at Yuste Monastery, the fairy left in a luminous reddish fireball which left marks on the ground, including a fairy-ring of flattened grass (6).

The fairy fireball is perhaps the traditional will of the wisp, which is also said to signify the presence of fairies. I am sure that there are traditional stories of fairies seeking shelter from storms, though I cannot find any to hand. Perhaps one of our kind readers can help?


  1. Communication from Alma Camard.
  2. FSR, volume 21, number 6, page 20.
  3. Ballester-Olmos. Catalogue of Type I UFO Reports in Spain and Portugal. Case 7.
  4. Ballester-Olmos. op. cit., case 4.
  5. HARTLAND, Edwin S. The Science of Fairytales; an Enquiry into Fairy Mythology. Methuen,1925.
  6. VALEE, Jacques and Janine. Challenge to Science. Spearman, 1967.


The Victorian Charm of the Protong, part 2.
David Sivier

The Victorian Charm of the Protong – Part 2.

From Magonia  88, May 2005

Apart from the demonstrably erroneous nature of the claim that the Passion narrative represents human sacrifice in a real, historic lunar cult, is the highly questionable nature of the proof adduced for it. The theory takes as proof facts, or rather factoids, widely separated in space and time from the centre of the Passion narrative in first century Palestine. For example, there is the statement that Christ was crucified on Friday 13th. Friday has indeed always traditionally been the date of Christ’s crucifixion, and the belief that it occurred on the 13th is a common piece of contemporary folklore, though it probably arose to explain why Friday 13th is considered unlucky. It’s unlikely, however, that Christ was crucified on a 13th, as the Jewish Passover, during which the events of the Passion unfolded, begins on the 14th of Nisan. [34] Although Friday was declared a day of penance for Christians by the medieval church, and there was a concomitant fear that it was unlucky, the particular fear of Friday 13th is actually no older than the 20th century. In fact the superstition surrounding the supposedly unlucky nature of the number 13 dates only from the 17th century, when it was felt unlucky for 13 people to be present at a meal. [35] Similarly, Freya was a goddess worshipped by the ancient Germans, not Semites, and Friday and related terms such as Freitag were used only by the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe. To the Romans, the day was dies Veneris, Venus’ Day, while the Hebrew term was different again. Similarly, for Christians, Christ was resurrected on Sunday, not Monday, as the theory states, though because of its place as the day after Easter Day, Monday was declared a holiday by the medieval church.

As for the argument that the 13 disciples represented the 13 months of the lunar year, this, and the assertion that Christ’s Passion represented the death of the sun, is also reminiscent of yet another 19th century anthropological theory to account for the origins of religion, Max Muller’s Solar Mythology. Friedrich Max Muller was one of Victorian Britain’s most brilliant Sanskrit scholars and students of Indian religion. A trenchant critic of Tylor’s theory that fetishism was the origin of human religion and anthropological evolutionism, he considered instead that sun worship was the primal religion of humanity. He came to this view through his study of the Vedas, particularly of Agni, the god of fire, and tentatively applied his theory of religions origins in a solar cult to the other, savage, societies found elsewhere in the world. [36] 

Muller arrived at his theory of solar origins through his grounding in Sanskrit philology, and he attempted to explain the violent, sensual, ignoble and generally barbarous behaviour of the Greek gods through tracing their origins in the gods of the Vedas, the oldest literature of the Indo-European peoples. For Muller, the mythopoeic conceptions of the gods occurred before the rise of civilisation, before human language could convey abstract notions, so that Dyaus, the supreme god in the Veda, could be understood also as meaning sky, sun, air, dawn, light and brightness, while a number of other words, with different associations, could also indicate the sun. [37]

These linguistic associations led Muller to an allegorical interpretation of the Greek myths. For example, the story of Chronos, Zeus’ father, devouring his children before being forced to vomit the younger god’s siblings back up actually stood for the sky devouring and then releasing the clouds. [38] Nor was the solar cult confined to the Indo-European peoples. Muller later expanded his theory to various extra- European peoples, tracing the origin of various Indian, Polynesian and African peoples back to an alleged solar cult through an analysis of the languages of the tales themselves and the etymology of the terms used for the various gods. [39]

Muller’s pupil, Sir George William Cox, pushed the theory even further, viewing the Indo-European myths as allegories of the contest between sun and night, and comparing the Homeric epics thus interpreted with Christianity: ‘The story of the sun starting in weakness and ending in victory, waging a long warfare against darkness, clouds and storms, and scattering them all in the end, is the story of all patient self-sacrifice, of all Christian devotion.’ [40]

Unlike Gooch, however, he did not believe that there was ever a human reality at the heart of these myths, and viewed such heroes as Grettir, King Arthur, Sigurd, William Tell, Roland, Beowulf, Hamlet and the Biblical patriarch David as purely mythological figures representing the sun. [41]

Muller’s intellectual opponent with whom he carried on a lively controversy over the origins of human mythology was Andrew Lang, a former Oxford graduate and supporter of the ethnological, rather than philological, origins of mythology and folklore. Lang’s 1887 Myth, Ritual and Religion amassed considerable anthropological information to show that primitive peoples everywhere had similar myths, legends, and customs, and that elements of these had survived in modern peasant lore and the Classical Greek myths. [42] Lang never denied that solar, lunar and star cults and myths existed, but that they had independent origins in the animist stage of human culture. As for the bloody acts committed in fairy tales and legends, Lang viewed these purely as storytelling formulae: ‘It is almost as necessary for a young god or hero to slay monsters as for a young lady to be presented at court; and we may hesitate to explain all these legends of an useful feat of courage as nature myths.’ [43]

In the end, Lang’s view of the origins of religion and mythology prevailed, partly due to the immense influence of his Myth, Ritual and Religion but largely due to the establishment of the Folklore Society, whose members favoured and who wrote steadily and voluminously to support the evolutionary origin of myth. [44]

As for Christ and His disciples forming a coven of 13 , this is merely the reading back into Christianity of the religious perceptions that led to the view that witchcraft covens always had 13 members in the first place. In fact 13 , representing the total number of Christ and his 12 apostles was considered the ideal number of friars in a community, and the same model was adopted for the number of suffragans under archbishop and monks in a monastery. It has therefore been suggested that the choice of 13 for the number of witches in a coven was therefore made as a deliberate inversion of the Christian norm. [45] The Middle Ages viewed witchcraft as a satanic parody and inversion of God’s church and the natural order, and the reputed ideal membership of 13 for a coven was a further parody, in line with the blasphemies of the Black Mass, of the ideal membership of Christ’s fellowship with the Apostles and orthodox Christian religious communities.

fishyIn the case of the Grail legend and the Fisher King [left] , although some historians have suggested that the central motif of this story — a genitally wounded king — does indeed come from ancient myth, its ultimate source is Brythonic Celtic, not Semitic. If it does have a mythological origin, then it one from Celtic myth, which has been Christianised to fit the dominant religious culture of Europe at the time. Again, the legend is late, appearing in the 12th century with Chretien de Troyes, who was writing chivalrous fiction. Despite the religious elements, and the claims to be based in history, the legend of the Fisher King appeared 1200 years after the rise of Christianity and was never a part of the religion, however enormously influential it may have been as secular literature.

It is possible to go on and list more of the factual errors, inconsistencies and anachronisms in Gooch’s argument, though this would be missing the deeper, and more important point. At its heart is the assumption that modern folklore represents survivals of lore and knowledge of deep antiquity, and the related belief that humanity passes through a fixed stage of civilisation, inherited from Morgan and the other 1 9 th century anthropologists, of which contemporary primitive, or pre- industrial societies, are survivals.

This view was explicitly stated by Tylor himself in his Primitive Culture of 1871, in which he wrote,’Survivals are processes, customs, opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home, and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out which the newer has been evolved.’ [46] The reliance on outmoded anthropological theories of mythology as sources for its view of the Neanderthals in City of Dreams was one of the major criticisms made of the book when it was reissued in 1996. [47]

In fact, Gooch is not the only contemporary writer to be convinced that contemporary myths and legends are the remnants of a much older, Stone Age religious system. Adrian Bailey in 1998 advanced the view in his book, Caves of the Sun: The Origin of Mythology, that the original prehistoric religion was a solar cult, which also influenced the Neanderthal cult of the bear through the sun’s apparent retreat in winter into caves in the earth. The book was again heavily dependent on 1 9 th century anthropology and dismissive of the psychological and  century interpretations of the origins of religion. [48] John Grigsby, in his Warriors of the Wasteland of 2003, advanced the theory that the original pre-Indo-European, Neolithic religion was that of a dying and rising man/god, which was usurped by the intrusive solar cult. Although Grigsby similarly brought a wealth of information to bear on his subject, his thesis was nevertheless criticised for its reliance on the 1 9 th century theories of Frazer, among others, for its conceptual framework. [49]

In fact, the notion that contemporary pre-industrial cultures are survivals from an ancient state of human culture has effectively been challenged by developments in anthropology during the  century.

Particularly instrumental in attacking the unidirectional development of cultures through specific phases were Boleslaw Malinowski and Franz Boas. Malinowski based his anthropological theories on his experience of fieldwork amongst the peoples of the Trobriand Islands. Here, he developed a functionalist view of society, considering that no matter how strange a custom or practice was, it survived because it fulfilled a contemporary purpose: ‘Savages aren’t half-rational or irrational, but do things because they work. Customs survive not as throwbacks but because they fulfil some function.’ [50] It’s a view that the probably the great majority of contemporary occultists and New Agers, sharing the belief in the efficacy of magic, would endorse. Nevertheless, it challenges the tendency in some circles to view extra-European cultures as irrational, in contrast to the post-Enlightenment rationalism of contemporary European culture. There are elements of this view in Surrealism, for example.

Although the Surrealists ardently championed the rights of indigenous and subordinate colonial people against the oppression of European imperialism in the Caribbean, French Indo-China and elsewhere, their espousal of the art of primitive, tribal cultures such as those of Black Africa was predicated by the notion that they were much in touch with their subconscious, and by implication, more irrational, than Europeans.

The greatest challenge to the unidirectional view of cultural progress, however, came from Franz Boas. Boas’ fieldwork amongst the Kwakiutl peoples of the American north-west coast led him to attack the doctrine that society moved from a matrilineal to a patrilineal organisation, and the theory of totemism as the origins of human religion. He believed that the positing of a uniform scheme of human development overlooked the uniqueness of individual human cultures. Instead of there being a general sequence of cultural stages amongst humanity, there was instead’a tendency of diverse customs and beliefs to converge towards similar forms, and a development of customs in divergent direction.’ [51]

As a German Jew, he was bitterly opposed to the biological reductionism of the Nazis and the racial interpretation of history, which he saw, along with eugenics, as irremediably dangerous. His book, The Mind of Primitive Man was burned in Nazi Germany and unpopular amongst supporters of apartheid and segregation in the United States because of its assertion that there were no pure races, that racial intermixing did not lead to degeneration, and that Blacks would be perfectly able to fulfil their duties as citizens alongside Whites if the legal restrictions against them were lifted. His views have thus been immensely influential in challenging the racist assumptions of White superiority towards other cultures characteristic of 19th century anthropology. While his anti-racism is praiseworthy, his emphasis on each culture’s autonomy, and demand that anthropologists should not make value judgements about the societies they studied, unfortunately has led to the extremes of postmodern cultural relativism in which practices or beliefs which are untrue or repellent are nevertheless defended and declared valid because of their part in a particular culture. Hence the postmodern view that relegates science to the position of only one of a number of possible interpretations of the universe, none more true than the others.

Attempts to posit totemism and shamanism as the origin of human religion have similar been questioned because of their coexistence with apparently more sophisticated forms of religious experience. Tylor himself recognised that primitive peoples, ‘alongside their magic, ghosts, totems, worshipful stones, have a very much better God than most races a good deal higher in civilisation.’ [52] It’s a sentiment with which many of today’s occultists would no doubt agree, contrasting the apparent benevolence of primitive religion with the cruelties of Western institutional faiths, particularly Christianity. Nevertheless, it does undermine the claim that totemism is somehow a more primitive, primal form of human religious experience.

The idea of Christ’s passion as a mythological treatment of real, primal human totemic sacrifice similarly becomes untenable. Although the consumption of Christ’s body and blood in the transubstantiated bread and wine of the mass certainly performs some of the functions of the consumption of a totemic sacrificial victim in promoting a social and spiritual solidarity amongst members of the congregation, this does not mean by any means that a real, human sacrifice was necessarily performed and consumed, beyond the theological view of Christ’s crucifixion as a paschal sacrifice before God, though this certainly would not have been the intention of the Roman and Judaean authorities responsible for it. Furthermore, people do adopt creatures and objects as symbols for themselves, as in mascots and on coats of arms, without these creatures ever being personally consumed by them. Muller himself pointed to his friend, Abeken, whose name meant ‘small ape’ and who therefore had a small ape on his coat of arms, as the possible possessor of a totemic ancestor. He joked, however, that although he had never actually seen him eating an ape, it was probably due to a matter of taste. [53]

Of course, attempts to shoehorn all forms of religion into the pattern of a solar myth, is also open to abuse. It was satirised even during its high point in the 19th century. Sabine Baring-Gould, for example, illustrated its excesses with an essay, originally produced by a French ecclesiastic, which mischievously attempted to prove that Napoleon was the sun god, citing linguistic, historical and figurative parallels with the myth of Apollo. [54]

Similarly, the arguments for the antiquity of shamanism have also been questioned, with scholars pointing out that the Palaeolithic cave paintings of dancing male figures with animal heads could equally be gods, and that the argument for the universality of shamanism across the globe is weakened by the fact that there is not even a commonly agreed definition of the term. [55] Furthermore, as with totemism, shamanism also exists alongside organised religion in some of the societies in which it is found. [56]

Modern anthropology’s rejection of the theory of a uniform, primitive Cro- Magnon culture based on communism, matriarchy and goddess- worship undoubtedly explains why Gooch has looked yet further back into the Palaeolithic, to the Neanderthals, for his utopia. The sheer scantiness of the evidence and its amibiguity makes them an ideal tabula rasa, on to which contemporary scholars can project their own views of their nature.


Modern anthropology’s rejection of the theory of a uniform, primitive Cro-Magnon culture based on communism, matriarchy and goddess-worship undoubtedly explains why Gooch has looked yet further back into the Palaeolithic, to the Neanderthals, for his utopia.

* * *

Much still remains conjectural and the subject of debate. For example, although there are finds of Neanderthal burials, complete with flowers and a sprinkling of red ochre on the dead, as well as jewellery of animal teeth, to suggest that they had a symbolic culture, and so were not the subhuman creatures of earlier views, this view is hotly contested. Its opponents argue that these practices only emerged after the Neanderthals came into contact with the Cro-Magnons, and so were simply copying their practices without truly understanding them, rather than inventing them for themselves. [57]

At present though, recent findings regarding the Neanderthals tend to disprove some of Gooch’s theories. For example, the greater muscular development on Neanderthal skeleton’s right arms suggests they were right, rather than left handed, using that arm to wield the spear in a stabbing motion suitable for hunting animals amongst woodland, rather than throwing them. [58] On the other hand, analysis of Palaeolithic handprints suggest that the Cro-Magnons, by contrast, had a far greater proportion of left- handers than today. Analysis of the chemical composition of Neanderthal bones similarly suggests that they were almost exclusively carnivorous. [59] If true, these findings prove the exact reverse of some of Gooch’s own view of the Neanderthals.

Aside from these specific points, most anthropologists and historians today, following Franz Boas, would baulk at seeing a racial, biological origin for political institutions, and it is mistaken to project distinctly  century political structures far back into prehistory, long before these political philosophies and social organisations had arisen. As for the specific examples of left- handers’ political inclinations today, there are serious problems with these.

(Although there is considerable interest in the apparently different cognitive and social skills developed by left and right handers, with the genetic differences between the two being wider than those of human races, it’s problematic whether any of the individuals Gooch cites as left-handers can be described as socialist. Radical Islam of the type promoted by Osama bin Laden strongly rejects the present world order and the dominance of America as an oppressive infidel power, but it also vehemently rejects atheist communism and secular socialism.

In Revolutionary Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini abolished political parties from a belief that they were divisive, and that’all Muslims should be brothers’. In some respects, particularly urban planning, the insistence on restricting legislation solely to what can be expressly supported by the Qu’ran has meant that some Iranian policies resemble the laissez-faire economic policies of the Victorian West, rather than the state interventionism of revolutionary Communist regimes. Supporters of the Iranian Revolution vehemently denounced comparisons of the revolutionary regime with Western political movements, particularly Fascism, and it’s almost certain that bin Laden and the others in al-Qaeda would also reject comparisons with Socialism, Communism or other Western philosophies for the same reason.

As for China being a Communist country, this is also problematic. Although China is a one-party state whose official ideology is revolutionary Marxism, in practice the country follows capitalist economics. As with the other countries of the former Communist bloc, it’s problematic whether Communism in China can outlive the increasingly aging members of the ruling party. In any case, most scholars would point to distinct, obvious political and social causes for the rise of Communism in China, such as the political and economic chaos and corruption of the Kuomintang, rather than crude biological determinism.

Beyond the errors and inadequacies of the theory of Christ’s Passion as the central ritual of a prehistoric lunar cult, rather more profound points can be made generally about fringe religious history and its methods of proof and investigation. The first point is that much fringe speculation, despite its wide ranging use of facts, rather than opening up new ground, really does little more than attempt to propound and defend earlier, discredited theories. Just as the above theory recapitulates elements of Victorian notions of the origins of human religion and society, so Ron Pearson’s theories of the subatomic origin of the spirit world relies on a rejection of Einstein’s theory of relativity in favour of a revived insistence of the existence of the ether. Secondly, global assumptions of a universal religious cult in antiquity are almost certainly wrong.

Any assumptions regarding the nature of a historical event, including its religion, requires as proof directly relevant facts to support it. In the case of the above theory of Christ’s passion, this would ideally be Roman, Greek or Jewish eyewitness reports that such a sacrifice did indeed occur, rather than inference from unrelated myths or legends recorded thousands of years later and further north. There also has to be an awareness of the wider history and origins of the events investigated, and a clear distinction between causes and effects. In the above example, this means an awareness that the belief that witches’ covens had a membership of 13 was based on the total number of Christ and His disciples, rather than vice versa. Furthermore, any allegorical interpretation of a myth or legend requires high standards of proof directly relevant to the subject of study.

It is immensely easy, simply by a judicious choice of numbers and mythology, to prove an allegorical meaning behind just about any subject one chooses, as Sabine Baring-Gould’s apparent proof that Napoleon was really Apollo clearly demonstrates. In general, unless there is direct evidence that the subject of study was considered allegorical at the time, or consciously used in such a context, allegorical interpretations of specific historical events are probably best avoided.

It also needs stating that when propounding a particular interpretation of history, the researcher needs to consider the academic history of the subject being discussed, and the origins and history of the ideas surrounding it. Professional academic historians, for example, consider previous treatments of their subject in their monographs, and history courses in higher education teach historiography — the theories and philosophies of historical interpretation, and how these have changed over time — as an integral part of the history course, as these may profoundly affect the treatment of a particular historical event or person, including the type of evidence accepted to support the historian’s view of their subject.

The most important point, however, is that biologistic assumptions of the origins of culture or political organisation and views are both wrong, and have been the basis of brutality, oppression and genocide. No matter how well meant, even by liberals keen to rescue their subjects from the images of savagery, like those, which have been characteristic of the treatment of the Neanderthals, such theories should be strenuously rejected.

The recent history of archaeology has shown how there is a place for fringe theorising, and that when this is done well it can make a valuable contribution to the understanding of its subjects. Archaeoastronomy, despite its origins in fringe archaeological speculation, is now academically respectable, and Paul Devereaux’s theories on the Stone Age use of sound to create altered states of consciousness amongst worshippers at sacred sites has similarly been well received, at least in some quarters of academia. To be accepted by academia, however, researchers in the mystical and occult fringe need to adhere to the same rigorous standards of proof and approach, some of whose characteristics are outlined above, that academics use to assess the value of their own views and theories. unfortunately, with the current furore over the Da Vinci Code spawning a plethora of ever wilder pseudo- historical religious speculation, we may have to wait a long time for that.



    • 35. ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ in J Simpson ans S. Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, OUP, 2000, p.61
    • 36. R. M. Dorson, ‘The Eclipse of Solar Mythology’, in A. Dundes, The Study of Folklore, University of California at Berkeley, Prentice Hall, 1965, p.61
    • 37. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.62-2
    • 38. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.64
    • 39. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.69
    • 40. G. W. Cox. An Introduction to the Science of Comparative Mythology and Folklore. 1881, cited in Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.72
    • 41. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.72-3
    • 42. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.61
    • 43. A. Lang. Myth, Ritual and Religion, vol.2, p.196, cited in Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.67
    • 44. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.83
    • 45. E. Rose. A Razor for a Goat, University of Toronto Press, 1989, p.158-9
    • 46. E. B. Tylor. Primitive Culture, cited in Bennett, op.cit., p.35
    • 47. Review of S. Gooch, City of Dreams, Aulis, London 1995, in Fortean Times  no. 85, Feb/Mar. 1996, p.61
    • 48. M. Jay, ‘Caves of the Sun, The Origin of Mythology’ in Fortean Times 117, December 1998, p.56
    • 49. N. Rooney, ‘Shadows from a Celtic Twilight’, in Fortean Times, 178, December 2003, p.60
    • 50. Bennet, op.cit., p.65
    • 51. Bennet, op.cit., p.71
    • 52. Bennet, op.cit., p.68
    • 53. Dorson, ‘Solar Mythology’, p.68
    • 54 S Baring-Gould, ‘A Satire on German Mythologists’, in p. Vansittart, Voices: 1870-1914, Jonathan Cape, 1983, p.126-9
    • 55. Hutton, The Shamans of Siberia. Isle of Avalon Press, Gastonbury, 1993, p. 14
    • 56 Hutton, op.cit., p.9
    • 57 S. Mithen, ‘Symbolic Humans Started here’, reviewing J. L. Arsuaga, Neanderthal’s Necklace, John Wiley & Sons, 2003, in Fortean Times,  170, May 2003, p.61.
    • 58. See, for example, the BBC Horizon programme broadcast January-February 2005 which attempted to reconstruct the Neanderthals and their lifestyle from fossil remains.
    • 59. See the BBC Horizon programme as above.

The Victorian Charm of the Protong, part 1.
David Sivier

From Magonia 88, May 2005

One of the strangest responses to the religious furore surrounding the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004 was that of veteran fringe writer, Stan Gooch. While other writers and academics feared that the graphic depiction of Christ’s suffering would provoke a further rise in violent anti-Semitism amid a resurgence of extreme Right wing political groups in Europe, and the renewed intifada in the Arab world, Gooch took the opportunity of the film’s release to expound his own, very personal theory that Christianity owed its origins to a secret lunar cult.

‘Why,’ he asked rather tetchily, ‘do people not understand that far from being what it is claimed to be, the story of Christ is simply a garbled version of the ancient Moon religion’s chief ceremony? In this ceremony, the Sun (the King for a Year) is sacrificed by the Moon on the last day of the year, his genitals are removed (hence the spear in the side) and the still clearer spear through both thighs of the Fisher King to turn him into a menstruating woman, the blood then drunk and the testicles eaten. (This, of course, is why Catholics eat the body of Christ and drink His blood during Mass.) However, the Moon graciously resurrects the Sun so that life on Earth may continue.’ [1]

As proof of this remarkable assertion, Gooch goes further and states that ‘the cross is the symbol for the Moon in all pre-Christian cultures worldwide and Christ dies on the cross on Friday 13th. Friday is the day of the Moon goddess, Freya.

‘And He is resurrected on Monday, which is again Moon-day. Christ and his 12 disciples constitute a coven of 13. The only 13 which exists in nature (or anywhere else) is the 13 New Moons/Full Moons that occur in each alternate year. The date of Easter (of the sacrifice and resurrection) is of course still today determined by the Moon, which is why Easter is a moveable feast.’ [2]


Of course the simple answer to why his theory is not accepted is because it is utter rubbish from start to finish!


Of course the simple answer to why his theory is not accepted is because it is utter rubbish from start to finish. While there were cults that practiced castration and allegations of human sacrifice committed by others in the ancient world, no cult that combined the two is recorded to have existed. The priests of Cybele castrated themselves, but did not do so as part of a cult of human sacrifice, and did not engage in cannibalism. Indeed, far from being intended to cause their deaths, the castration marked the worshippers’ entry into their new lives as the goddess’ priests. The allegation is even more incredible, and potentially dangerous, when applied to the 1st century Judaism out of which Christianity grew. Despite the weird and depraved sacrificial mixing of semen and menstrual blood by some libertarian Christian Gnostic sects, such as the Cainites, such acts were viewed as abominations in the wider Judaeo-Christian world. [3] It is true that some historians following the Christian apologist Justin Martyr have tentatively suggested that the Roman accusation of orgiastic sex and cannibalism directed at Christians may have come from the activities of some of these sects, such as the Marcionites. [4] Pliny, on the other hand, despite his willingness to execute Christians on the emperor’s orders, found that there was no substance behind the rumour, only ‘a depraved and immodest superstition’. [5]

Furthermore, the allegations of human sacrifice in Christianity at this time, before the religion was completely separate from Judaism, could be seen as substantiating the ‘Blood Libel’ rumours of the ritual sacrifice of gentiles which have produced so much vicious anti- Semitism ever since they first appeared at the court of Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria c.125-96 B.C. [6] In the case of Christianity, most scholars believe that the allegations of cannibal’thyestean feasts’ arose through a Roman misunderstanding of the nature of Eucharist, with some Romans believing that the Christians dipped the host in the blood of sacrificed child. [7]

Despite being totally wrong historically, the theory of Christianity’s lunar origins nevertheless is a good example of the concerns of a certain part of the fringe archaeology/secret history movement, and in particular its origins in outmoded, Victorian views of the origins of religion. In fact, Gooch’s view of the origin of Christianity is part of his wider attempt to trace the origins of modern religious and political systems in the racial difference between Neanderthal and modern Homo Sapiens. In his 1989 book, Cities of Dreams: When Women Ruled the Earth, he stated his case that the Neanderthals were creative left-handed, pacifist, socialist, matriarchal vegetarians whose religion was centred around the worship of the Moon, in contrast with the Cro Magnons, who were patriarchal, violent, right-handed, destructive and capitalistic. Intermarriage between the two produced modern humanity, with the different political and religious beliefs being determined by the relative expression of the Neanderthal or Cro Magnon heritage in various individuals.

Thus, left-handers, according to Gooch, have more Neanderthal heritage, and are thus more likely to be anti-capitalist political leftists. As proof of this, he cites Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and Suleiman Abu Ghaith as prominent left-handers, as well as the statistic that left-handedness in China, which ‘just happens to be a Communist state’ is almost double that of Europe. Thus ‘the present world crisis, our political system itself, and the vast majority of our social problems all arise from the fact that we, modern humans, are an unstable hybrid cross between predominantly left-handed Neanderthal man and the right-handed Cro-Magnon, and all possess two sets of opposing instincts.’ [8]

Other fringe writers, such as Stanislaus Szukalsky, would have concurred. A Polish nationalist and founder of the ‘Horned Heart’ patriotic movement, Szukalsky similarly believed that an archaic, prehuman race from which modern humans were partially descended also shared communistic inclinations. Rather than the idealised paragons of antediluvian virtue envisaged by Gooch, however, these were subhuman creatures of violence and depravity. It was their racial heritage that was responsible for the cruelty and criminality in the modern human character. Szukalsky’s views, however, were no doubt moulded by his country’s experience during the post-War years. Newly liberated from both Germany and Russia, the country was nevertheless subject to political instability and armed incursions from its former eastern master after the Revolution when the nascent Soviet union attempted to spread Communism by force.

Similar views of the origin of Communist criminal depravity in a prehuman racial heritage informed the views of many of German Pagan sects whose vehement antisemitism made them precursors of the Nazis. Despite the substantial difference in outlook between Szukalsky and the leaders of the Volkisch neo-pagan sects in Wilhelmine Germany, his view of the Protong as the prehuman originator of evil is of a type with Lanz von Liebenfels’ Buhlzwerge, subhuman pygmies, which the ancients had reared for perverted sexual pleasure. For Liebenfels, Christ’s passion was a garbled account of attempts by these pygmies to rape and corrupt Him on the urging of Satanic bestiality cults devoted to racial interbreeding. [9] 

Liebenfels’ own political views were diametrically opposed to Gooch’s. A rabidly anti- Semitic German Nationalist, whose views may have exerted an influence on the young Adolf Hitler, Liebenfels was resolutely behind the hierarchical, capitalist world, which Communism sought to overthrow. Nevertheless, both Liebenfels and Gooch’s views of the Passion are similar, rejecting the literal meaning of the narrative in favour of an allegorical interpretation of sexual violence.

Liebenfels’ interpretation of the Passion narrative, however, lacks the cannibalism of Gooch’s. Yet this is also present in the 19th century attempt to establish the anthropological origin of religion, though this time in Freud’s discussion of the origin of religion in the Oedipal struggles of the early human community expressed in the murder of a Biblical figure, though this time Moses, rather than Christ. In his Autobiography, Freud declared that the ur-human paterfamilias had seized all the tribe’s women for himself. As a result, his sons banded together against him to kill and devour him. However, as their father was also their ideal, they were ridden with guilt, and so enacted rituals to expiate them of their sin. The result of this was the ritual murder, not of Jesus, but of Moses by his Jewish followers. [10]

Where Freud got this bizarre idea of Moses’ ritual murder is a mystery. The Bible makes no mention of a murder at all. In it, God simply summons Moses to die on Mt. Nebo, because he had broken faith with the Almighty and did not revere Him as holy in Meribathkadesh. [11] Moses complied, dying in full view of the Promised Land, which he was forbidden to enter. There is no mention of any killing by Moses followers, who, far from being filled with hate, spent thirty days in mourning for their prophet. [12]

The Talmud and extrabiblical Jewish legend also makes no mention of Moses being murdered either. There, the short Biblical account of the prophet’s death is supplemented with a longer account of his refusal to die, and the refusal of various angels sent by the Lord to take his soul, until at last the Lord lures his soul out of his body with a kiss. Again, Moses’ death is the cause for great mourning, not just of Israel, but also of the whole of creation. [13]

The Roman Jewish historian, Josephus too makes no mention of any murder, but describes instead Moses being called to die by God, and giving a lengthy sermon stressing the nation’s duty to God and describing the constitution and laws revealed to him by the Almighty before ascending the mountain where he was due to die. Again, rather than being murdered, Moses’ death is the subject of extreme sorrow for his people. Josephus’ account differs from that of the Bible and the Talmud in having the prophet disappearing from under a cloud, which settled over him while still in conversation with the patriarchs Eleazar and Joshua. [14] Freud thus appears to have confused Moses death with the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, which was a revolt against Moses and Aaron’s authority. [15] This ends not with Moses’ murder, however, but with Korah and the leaders of the revolt being swallowed alive by the earth down to Sheol, the Hebrew underworld, and their followers consumed by fire. The overwhelming impression by Freud’s account of Moses’ death as a ritual sacrifice by the people of Israel is of a deliberate misreading of the text in order to make it conform to his theory.

Unfortunately, this certainly was not the last time this was done.

Nor has the fascination with the murder of Biblical figures abated over the past 100 years. While Freud’s theory of the ritual murder of Moses has become one of the lesser-known and obscure parts of his psychoanalytical system, other writers on religion have since moved on to Hiram Abif, the architect of Solomon’s Temple in Masonic legend, who was similarly murdered by his followers, in this case, the other workmen. Such a work is Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas’ The Hiram Key of 1996, which similarly made spurious claims about the origins of religion, including the statement that the secret scrolls of Christ were buried under Roslyn Chapel, and claiming that the mummy of the pharaoh Seqenenre Tao II was the body of Hiram Abif himself. [16] Freud’s theory of the cause of Moses’ putative murder in the enactment of Oedipal conflicts with his people could also be applied to the story of the murder of Hiram Abif, though as yet it doesn’t appear that anyone has actually done so. Clearly religious murder and secret religious history continue to hold a lurid interest for modern, as well as Victorian readers.


Hiram Abif and King Solomon

Writers have since moved on to Hiram Abif, the architect of Solomon’s Temple in Masonic legend, who was murdered by his followers


Regardless of the precise theory anthropological or psychological theory underpinning Szukalski’s, Liebenfels’ and Gooch’s views of the nature of prehistoric humanity and the origins of religion and capitalism and Communism, all are strongly informed by the racial and anthropological theories of the 19th century. Although these have been discredited by later research carried out in the 20th century, they persisted long enough for their influence still to be felt in the modern occult and Fortean fringe. Even when these theories are presented from a liberal perspective, as in Gooch’s attempts to rescue the Neanderthals from their image of savage brutality, they still present considerable dangers because of their biologistic readings of historical and cultural events. Apart from challenging the racist basis of such theorising, it’s also instructive to analyse these theories to reveal just how far 19th century views of primitive humanity and its religion even in today’s far more liberal occult and fringe religious milieu.

Underpinning Freud’s theory of the psychological origin of religion, however, was the nascent anthropology of the Victorian era, which itself was informed by that age’s faith in progress from primitive barbarism to modern, technological, European civilisation. Freud was particularly influenced by studies such as W. Robertson Smith’s Lectures On the Religion of the Semites of 1898, which argued that sacred acts and cults were the essence of religion, rather than doctrines or beliefs. [17]

Liebenfels was similarly influenced by contemporary anthropology, with one article citing more than a hundred references to academic studies in anthropology, palaeontology and mythology. [18] The major influence on Liebenfels’ thinking, however, seems to have been a flagstone at Heiligenkreuz Abbey, where he had been a Cistercian monk, showing a nobleman trampling upon a strange monster, which Liebenfels interpreted as an allegorical representation of the struggle with the subhuman evil present in the world. [19]

Although Freud’s historical account of the origins of religion has been discredited, while Liebenfels, despite his erudition, was never more than an eccentric fringe thinker whose ideas have similarly been thoroughly discredited because of their genocidal racism, they nevertheless shared their basis in evolutionary theory with more mainstream anthropological speculation. The founders of sociology in France and Britain, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, were firm believers in the progress of human civilisation from out of savagery. Indeed, it was Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’ as a staunch supporter of Darwinism. [20] As a result, 19th century anthropology was infused from its birth with what Boleslaw Malinowski described as ‘enthusiastic evolutionism’. [21]

Both Comte and Spencer attempted to fit the development of religion into their schema of social and biological progress. For Comte, the earliest and most primitive form of religion was animism, when early humanity invested the natural world around them with supernatural presences and powers in order to explain it. For Spencer, this ur-religion was the belief in ghosts and ancestral spirits. The great Victorian anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, viewed by one modern scholar, Jacques Waardenburg, as ‘the actual founder of anthropology as the science of man and his culture’, [22] further refined this view so that the belief in a soul, rather than ghosts, was the origin of religion. It was Tylor who coined the term’animism’ to describe the belief that animals, plants and inanimate objects possessed souls as well humans.

William Robertson Smith, who influenced Freud’s theory of religion and who has been described by the anthropologist Mary Douglas as the real father of anthropology, [23] rather than Tylor, differed from his predecessors in viewing totemism as the origin of human religion. Smith’s views were influenced by his experiences when he visited the Bedouin in North Africa. In the totemic stage of society, he believed, each clan or savage kin-group considered itself related to its totem. Although the totem could be any creature or object, usually it was some kind of animal. When this sacred animal was sacrificed, its flesh and blood, if eaten, united the worshippers with the sacrificial victim. It was this totemism, which was at the heart of modern Christian Holy Communion. It is a view, which is clearly related, if not actually ancestral, to Gooch’s view that Christian Holy Communion is based on a real human sacrifice, whose body and blood was indeed eaten. [24]

These rationalist, evolutionary accounts of the origin of religion remained influential into the 20th century. An edition of Smith’s Religion of the Semites was published in 1927 , while Freud’s account of the psychological origins of religion, where ‘respect and fear of the Old Man and the emotional reaction of the primitive savage to older, protective women, exaggerated in dreams and enriched by mental play, formed a large part in the beginnings of primitive religion and in the conception of gods and goddesses’, was incorporated into H. G. Wells’ own account of the origin of religion. [25]

Later in the century shamanism, rather than animism or totemism, was viewed as the origin of religion, or at least the oldest religious system. Archaeological evidence suggested that it was at least 20,000 years old, meaning that it ‘was the world’s oldest profession and Shamans were probably the first storytellers, healers, priests, magicians, dramatists, and so on, who explained the world and related it to the cosmos.’ [26] In the view of some researchers, the transition to priesthood occurred when humanity found it increasingly difficult to enter the dissociative states necessary for the shamanic experience, and when the shamans’ powers were eroded as they came under the sway of the leaders of the emergent states. Thus, instead of the original, ecstatic experience, priests and diviners used set rituals and procedures instead to bring about the miracles and mystical communion with the gods or ancestors, or to produce religious phenomena and attitudes agreeable to their secular masters. [27] For many in the New Age milieu, it is the apparent extreme antiquity of shamanism, as well as the freedom it offers for direct mystical communion with the numinous, unmediated by the strictures of an organised, dogmatic priesthood or oppressive state structure, that validates shamanism as a contemporary religious path.

A similar attitude also underpins much of the current interest in ritual magic, with adherents and adepts similarly stressing the experience of communion with transcendent powers outside of the restrictions imposed by religion as an important element in its attraction. Although not stressed to the same extent as shamanism, magic has similarly been viewed as the ultimate origin of religion, most famously by Sir James George Frazer in his work The Golden Bough. Like Inglis, Frazer believed the transition to religion occurred when the magic failed to work, though as a rationalist he viewed this as the growing awareness of emerging civilisations that magic could not explain and control the world satisfactorily. [28] Frazer was influenced in his view of magic as the origin of religion by the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel.

Although Hegel’s theory of the emergence of the historical process through the dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis is best known through the left-wing, materialist version propounded by Marx, Hegel himself was a practising Lutheran. The dialectical process of the human journey mirrored the operation of the divine mind. Magic and fetishism were the origins of human religion, a Naturreligion in which no duality was perceived between nature and spirit. This ur-religion had become obsolete in advanced societies, particularly those of Western Europe, through the process of antithesis, which separated spirit from its original, unformed self, so giving rise to Persian dualism. Eventually, however, the highest stage of the process, the synthesis, was achieved in revealed religion, particularly that of European Christianity. [29]

Hegelianism formed the conceptual basis of Marx’s concept of the progress of human society, though he also drew many of his ideas from anthropology. Particularly influential in this regard was Lewis Henry Morgan, whose study of the Iroquois Indians was published in 1851 and which has been hailed as ‘the first modern ethnographic study of a native people’. [30] It was Morgan, taking his lead from Spencer, who proposed that society developed from savagery, through barbarism to civilisation, and identified each stage with a particular technological or social advance. For many Marxist intellectuals, and those influenced by them, the earliest stage of human society was marked by a primitive communism which the growing diversity of function and division of labour and roles in more advanced societies had destroyed, but which would be restored again after the dialectical process had advanced through capitalism and its successor, socialism, to the idyllic true communism of the post- revolutionary world order.

Marxist anthropologists have paid particular attention to hunter-gatherer societies where no one is dependent on others for the weapons that are the sole means of production. [31] It is no accident that radical western socialists, such as London’s former mayor, Ken Livingstone, in an interview with the Sunday Express in the mid-80 s, hearkened back to the primitive communism of the Palaeolithic as a golden age. Despite the Soviet regime’s persecution of shamanism alongside other expressions of religious belief and practice incompatible with its militantly atheist ideology, and the view of Marxist anthropologists that magicians, by their specialist knowledge, make the workers dependent on them and so exploit them, [32] it is probably no accident that many of those interested in shamanism tend towards the political left in their beliefs, and have a similar nostalgia for the lost utopia of Stone Age society.

Such attitudes can be traced further back, of course, to Rousseau and Diderot’s idealisation of the Noble Savage, and especially Tahiti, as terrestrial paradises of primitive communism and sexual freedom, free from the repression, hypocrisy and corruption of aristocratic Europe. Although they too praised the natives as enjoying a natural religion in harmony with humanity’s own nature, the post-modern Neo-Pagan movement has as much in common with Hegel’s view of magic as it does with the Noble Savage of the philosophes. For Rousseau and Diderot, the natural religion was something like European deism, which posited a distant creator, but denied that He took any further action to interfere with His creation. It was an intellectual faith, which lacked the Romantic involvement with the miraculous, which is at the heart of a belief in magic.

Modern Neo-Paganism’s debt to 19th century anthropology is also demonstrated in its concern with ancient matriarchies, which worshipped goddesses, rather than male gods, and where the mediators of female divine power were queens and priestesses. Although in the  century this view of early global culture and religion has been most strongly propounded by Marija Gimbutas, of UCLA, whose book, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe has been particularly influential, the idea itself goes back to Johan Backhofen in the 19th century. Backhofen, a Swiss jurist, believed that all societies passed through a matriarchal phase, though he termed it Mutterrecht – mother-right — rather than matriarchy. It was an enormously influential view, being taken up, amongst others, by Sigmund Freud and the archaeologists V. Gorden Childe and Jacques Cauvin. [33] Hence Gooch’s theory of primitive Neanderthal matriarchy, and his statement that Christ’s Passion is a mythological treatment of human sacrifice performed by a lunar cult, identified in much modern Neo- Pagan literature, though not explicitly stated in Gooch’s account of Christ’s Passion, as the religion of a moon goddess.


Such attitudes can be traced to Rousseau and Diderot's idealisation of the Noble Savage, and especially Tahiti, as terrestrial paradises of primitive communism and sexual freedom, free from the repression, hypocrisy and corruption of aristocratic Europe


  1. Stan Gooch. ‘Moon Religion, Fortean Times, 185, July 2004, p.75
  2. Ibid.
  3. See for example, Christ’s condemnation of such practices acording to the Pistis Sophia, cited in ‘The Orgy’, in A. Nataf, The Occult, Chambers, Edinburgh 1991, p.70
  4. J. B. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, Cornell University Press, 1972, p.90
  5. T. Barnes, ‘Pagan Perceptions of Christianity’ in I. Hazlett, ed., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD600. SPCK, London 1991, p.90.
  6. J. B. Russell, Witchcraft, p.89
  7. J. B. Russell, Witchcraft, p.89
  8. Stan Gooch, ‘Sinister Sinstades’ in Fortean Times, 155, February 2002, p.54
  9. N. Goodrick-Clarke. The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on Nazi Ideology, I. B. Tauris, 1992.
  10. Alister McGrath. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. Rider, 2004, p.72-3
  11. Deuteronomy 32, 48-52
  12. Deuteronomy 34, 1-8
  13. A.S. Rappaport, Ancient Israel: Myths and Legends. The Mystic Press, London 1987, pp.343-362
  14. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, trans. William Wiston. Charles Griffin, pp. 95-103
  15. [to be confirmed]
  16. P. Henry, ‘The Hiram Key’, Fortean Times, 192, Novmber 1996, p.60
  17. Alister McGrath. op.cit., pp.72
  18. Goodrick-Clarke, op.cit., p.93.
  19. Goodrick-Clarke, op.cit., pp.91-2
  20. C. Bennett. In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Religions, Cassell, 1996, p29.
  21. Bennett, op.cit., p.36
  22. Bennett, op.cit., p.34
  23. Bennett, op.cit., p.41
  24. Bennett, op.cit., p.42
  25. H. G. Wells. A Short History of the World. Watts & Co., 1934, p37
  26. ‘Shamanism’ in R. E. Gulley, Harper’s Encyclopaedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience. HarperCollins, New York, 1991, p.540
  27. B. Inglis. Natural and Supernatual: A History of the Paranormal from the Earliest Times to 1914. Prism, 1992. p.540.
  28. Bennett, op.cit., p.39
  29. Bennett, op.cit., p.25
  30. Bennett, op.cit., p.31
  31. ‘Marxist Anthroplogy’, in C. Cook, ed., Pears Cyclopaedia, 95th Edition, Pelham, london, 1986, p.F61
  32. Ibid., p.F61
  33. I. Hodder, ‘Women and Men at Catalhoyuk’, Scientific American Special edition:Mysteries of the Ancient ones, vol. 15, no. 1, 2005, p36. J. F. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, Abingdon Press, 1993, p.63.


Continue to Part Two >>>


America Strikes Back
Further Rumblings from Across the Atlantic
Thomas E. Bullard

From Magonia 37, October 1990

Little did I imagine that my ‘American Way’ article in Magonia 34 would provoke such an uprising of criticism as I find in Magonia 35. Peter Rogerson, Martin Kottmeyer, Hilary Evans and Dennis Stillings take aim at my article or other writings with lethal intent and often deadly effect. Surrounded from every side, like any good American I must circle the waggons and defend my scalp.

The apparent stability of abduction reports poses a genuine puzzle from my perspective as a folklorist. A fixed sequence and similar content recurred far more than chance would allow among 300 cases I examined in my comparative study of published reports. (1) Growing evidence suggests that abduction reports vary more than the received literature would suggest, and how far this trend will go is an important indicator to watch. Even allowing for as much increase in variety as I have seen, the sterility of these narratives still exceeds all expectations for folklore obeying the familiar dynamics of oral literature. If these narratives are folklore in any usual sense, they manifest unique properties and stand apart as remarkably uncharacteristic.

The capacity of forms and contents to persist in tradition through time and distance is a defining characteristic of folklore. Similar jokes and legends turn up thousands of miles apart after passing among dozens of narrators along the way. Folk-tales like Cinderella recur in recognisable form all over Europe, and even the Zuni Indians tell a story about a poor but beautiful girl who aquires rich clothing through supernatural help, then loses her finery by violating a time limit. The cultural players change so that a friendly herd of turkeys replaces the fairy godmother, but the plot similarities are unmistakable. (2)

Larger patterns like the life of the hero shape the biographies of Moses and Jesus, the ‘epic of defeat’ pattern lends its form to accounts of such recent historical events as Custer’s Last Stand. (3) A recognised collection of motifs drifts in and out of folk narratives of all sorts: fictitious, told for true, even personal-experience stories. The types, themes, patterns and motifs of folk tradition become old friends to the folklorist. They peep out in different guises, adapted to their circumstances and times but always familiar; a timeless link uniting past and present in one unbroken tradition.

Stability is one hallmark of folklore, but variation is another. The mercurial alterations of folk narratives as told by the folk often slip out of mind even amongst folklorists who have often centred more on a dead, literary text than on living, functioning cultural products. (4) In scholars’ schemes of classification folktales exist as ideal types, but in reality each tale is a unique creation, drawing on recurrent plots and motifs, but arranged in an idiosyncratic and creative way by each narrator. (5) Legend characteristics are looseness of form and content unified only by a core of belief. (6) Living folklore is always fluid, and few narrators serve as mere relay stations. Each teller adds, leaves out, or modifies some part of everything he tells. Every narrative we hear reflects a more or less lengthy history of the improvements, alterations, rearrangements and embellishments of many narrators. Stability does not mean that a complex narrative endures as a monolithic whole. The stability of living oral tradition is a far more modest concept, and amounts to two or more narrative’s sharing some elements of form and content. These shared elements may loom large in the sight of whoever recognises them, but differences often far outweigh similarities.

Too much emphasis on stability and too little on variation is a common misconception fostered by the traditions of folklore scholarship. Rogerson speaks of a set pattern for stories and songs enforced by a critical audience. This ‘Law of Self-Correction’ he alludes to is respectable folkloric theory, but limited in application. Self-correction depends on an unchanging society where everyone knows the tradition and prizes it for its aestheticvalue. Then the audience may correct deviations and guard the stability of the tradition, but such suppression of variation could work only locally, among groups that meet face to face. Each locality and group would differ slightly, with variation the outcome. (7)

Genres like the legend actually encourage disagreement (8). Studies of live legend-telling sessions have found that the lifeblood of these narratives is dispute, where people argue over facts and their interpretation. Consensus is foredoomed in such a situation, but the climate is ideal for variation in form and content to flourish. As a general principle in folklore it is safe to say that whatever can vary, will vary. It is even safe to say that what should not vary, probably will vary. Jokes have an exacting structure of set-up and punch line: they allow for little tampering if the humour is to succeed, yet we all know how often jokes fail. the variation may be accidental or deliberate, but it is a constant process in the narration of folklore.

Rogerson points out a false analogy when I compare long-traditional folklore with narratives spread for 20 years and largely via electronic or printed media. Folklorists have long treated the history of any tradition as a settling-down process. (9) The longer a narrative type has been around,the more it will demonstrate such classic properties of oral tradition as variation, widespread distribution and refinement of form and content so that the idiosyncratic disappears and general patterns come to the fore. Now we know that time is not the vital element. We have watched folklore in formation, seen it pass from oral tradition into the media and back out; followed the lightning spread of narratives and their equally rapid evolution from raw idea or vague rumour to polished joke or urban legend. (10)

Good narrators may serve up a well-structured story from the start. Twenty years may be 19 years and 12 months longer than a narrative needs to become fully ‘folklorized’. The dynamics of folklore apply to the new and the vintage alike. Media involvement has proved only another ‘voice’ in the process of oral transmission, a way to speed up folk processes (including variation) rather than an agent of homogenization.

Another ‘tradition of scholarship’, to use David Hufford’s term, can explain the apparent information poverty of abduction reports noted by Stillings. He finds ordinary conversation to be information-rich whereas myth and folklore say little about contemporary human life. The folklore he is most likely referring to is the folklore presented by folklorists. They have traditionally denatured their texts, rewritten them to purge the unique or topical and emphasise those universal but faceless elements the folklorist thinks should be there. This correction process has drained the cultural life out of countless published collections. Living folklore pulses with the currents of contemporary existence. Urban legends of poodles that explode when placed in a microwave to dry express fear of technology, accounts of earthworms in hamburgers express uncertainties about the trustworthiness of business and the safety of food. (11) Jokes are immediately topical, drawing on politics, fads and mores for humour. The hopes, fears, values of narrators are embodied in their folklore. So sensitive is folklore to its cultural milieu that collectors usually meet with disappointment when they return to an area after a period of years. (12) If abductions lack a personal touch, this condition is atypical of folklore, and the reason must be sought in abductees, their experiences or the presentation of their narratives.

Scholarly tradition emphasises stability over variation in folklore when in fact variation constantly revolves the order of any narrative type. The same should be true of abductions if they are folklore. These narratives are long and complex, fantastic in context, controversial in nature, and the personal claims of individual abductees. If any kind of story should generate a luxuriant profusion of variants, this is it. What we find instead is a surprisingly unchanging narrative type. Folklore should not behave this way. My critics propose two reasons to account for this stability.

Both Rogerson and Stiilings raise an important question of how selective the published sample of abduction reports may be. If the authors have selected, rewritten and homogenised these themes, we readers may read a story much less varied than the abductees actually told. I confess that the same question bothered me. I also admit that I am in a poor position to give a judicious answer. My comparative study treats published sources, so its reliability depends on their representitiveness and accuracy. The only response l can offer comes from an account of the investigators of 103 high-information, high reliability cases. I found that 17 cases included Leo Sprinkle in the investigation, ten Budd Hopkins, nine Ray Fowler, five James Harder and five Ann Druffel. Two teams or individual investigators dealt with three entries each, another seven with two each, and the remaining 37 cases came from individuals or groups independent of investigators in any other entry. Six investigators are associated with 46 cases, nearly half the total, though few cases represent solo effort.

Looking at the numbers another way, the investigators differ in 51 cases. That’s quite a few hands to dabble in the pot and still serve up a consistent story. Critics may argue that investigators, hypnotists, writers, editors, and anyone else in the chain from report to publication have helped impose conformity on these texts, and they may be right. The fact is that no investigator records slavishly duplicate abductions. Sprinkle finds ‘nice guy’ aliens and also the torturers of the Casey County case: Hopkins has cruel aliens but also the friendly beings who met Virginia Horton. And so it goes – the skeleton remains the same but the flesh differs somewhat from case to case. My bottom line of doubt remains that that any group of even fifty or so individuals could maintain the coherence of such a complex narrative as the abduction story without careful and deliberate collusion.

The mystery of abductions from a folklorist’s standpoint is still the dozens of reports, alike in sequence and details. Rogerson counters that contactee yarns from the 1950′s had similarities and accounts of witches sabbats included a wealth of similar details. True up to a point, but contactee stories were highly individualistic despite some efforts by the principles to support one another’s tales.

Witches sahbats scatter considerably in events and details, despite investigators’ manuals and singularly persuasive ways of leading the witness. No, the stability of abduction reports has a qualitative peculiarity. If they are fictions or fantasies the glue holding them together is an unusual one. No matter how unrepresentative the sample of reports called abductions proves to be relative to all UFO close encounters, this subgroup stands by itself as large enough and self-coherent enough to challenge conventional interpretation.

The second explanation for stability in abduction reports appears in Kottmeyer’s article, certainly one of the most effective and devastating critiques ever offered against the abduction phenomenon. He says that the reports assume the sequence they do because this sequence is the right way to tell a story. The episodes in abduction reports and narratives from many other cultural contexts align according to a dramatic structure because this order best realises the emotional potential of the story elements. When the episodes are properly played against one another for contrast and suspense, the arrangement optimizes the impact of the whole.

Kottmeyer’s insights converge on folklorists’ thinking about form in urban legends (13), which manifest a cunning organisation based on dramatic structure and the withholding of key information to build suspense and spring a surprise at the end. These tales circulate in sloppy and well-structured versions, with some narrators able to pick up the bare elements and recast them into a good form, with an unconscious intuition for what makes a ‘good story’. But the same research that confirms Kottmeyer’s general principle also underscores the peculiarity of abduction reports. Just because people know how to tell a good story does not mean that they exercise their skills often or well. An examination of the variants of urban legends shows that these narratives are highly volatile, subject to frequent change and likely to fall short of their aesthetic potentials. Narrators scramble the parts, ruin the form, and settle for inartistic presentations as a matter of course. Drama remains a goal only sometimes achieved in everyday practice. In this light the stability of abductions once again rises to anomaly status, since we should expect more stories told the wrong way than we actually see.

He also assumes, and rashly I think, that everyone assigns the same emotional values to the various episodes. Even given the same elements, two story-tellers may may focus on different parts as the most important or emotion packed. One narrator’s climax becomes another’s footnote.

The idea that there is only one good way to tell a story harks back to the perception of tradition as a prison, whereas folklorists have come to regard tradition as a framework conducive to creativity. Not every creative choice is as easy or necessarily as effective as another, but good narrators make the differences work. If abductions are fictitious, narrators have different options to explore, arrangements to try and ways to dramatize them all.

Kottmeyer limits his explanations to the overall sequence of episodes, when in fact the sequencing of events within episodes complicates the abduction story even more. The ’capture’ episode and especially the actual procurement of a captive by the beings, follows a lengthy itinerary. So does the examination episode. Here too we find remarkable stability, despite so many added opportunities for variation. With so much variety among much shorter urban legends, the relative invariance of long, loose abduction narratives comes as all the greater surprise.

The bulk of Kottmeyer’s article goes to uncovering parallels between science fiction and abductions. Legitimate extraterrestrials should be independent of culture and mark a discontinuity with the past. Culturally derived stories of aliens should have cultural antecedents. In support of this principle he demonstrates with ample evidence that abduction ideas are nothing new under the sun, but are represented with considerable fidelity in the SF movies and literature to which many people have been exposed. Themes of reproductive concern and dying planets, practices like organ removal and medical examination, descriptive details such as large crania and short stature have ready examples in the movies. The comparison requires no gymnastics of the imagination. Some of the ideas are quite literally interchangeable from one medium to the other.

He details possible influences on the Hill case at greatest length, partially motivated by my claim that the Hill’s underwent their abduction ‘entirely unpredisposed’. What I intended to say was that their abduction story was new to the UFO literature, but Kottmeyer notes that Donald Keyhoe discussed short beings with kidnap on their minds in the very book Betty read shortly after the ‘interrupted journey’. Moreover Keyhoe’s assumption that aliens would
visit on a scientific mission lent credibility to ideas like medical examination. While the synthesis of the abduction story may rest with the Hills, Kottmeyer makes clear beyond doubt that the pieces were already there for taking off the cultural shelf.

Not all of Kottmeyer’s identifications are equally convincing. The derivation of the needle-in-the-navel incident from an image in Invaders from Mars me as clever but unpersuasive. The Invasion of the Saucer men aliens are short and big-headed, but the eyes, ears, mouth, veined cranium and general expression are all wrong. Such differences of opinion in no way detract from the overall case that abductions owe much to cultural influences.

One of the most powerful arguments involves the Kenneth Arnold sighting. Arnold described an odd form, half wedge, half disc, but it was the term ‘flying saucer’ that captivated the public imagination. People reported saucers – nice regular shapes which have so dominated reports that a concept of cultural origin seems certain to have determined the 1947 sightings. I do not intend to refute the cultural-influence explanation, since I quite agree that this force is hard at work in the UFO phenomenon. Rogerson allows that abductions may have an experiential basis, though the experience is a consequence of cultural influences. This is the way folklorists have explained extra-normal encounters: traditional beliefs raise expectations, and expectation shapes ambiguous stimuli in its own image. (14) Certainly most UFO reports fall into this category.

My intention is rather to show that cultural influence may not be the whole story, whereas primary experience or a combination of experience and influence may provide a better explanation. Folklorists have begun to bend their rigid stance of the supposedly one-way relationship of cause and effect. David Hufford’s research with ‘Old Hag’ traditions has established that sometimes experience comes first and tradition develops later as a human response to an experiential fact. This possibility is reasonable enough, but acceptance has come slowly. (15)

The prospect of facing an unusual and unfamiliar experience raises some interesting problems. How do you describe it? How do you understand it? The terms of description and conceptual structure of understanding are themselves traditions. We rely on past experiences to deal with the present, but old acquaintances break down before novelty. When nothing quite fits, we must turn to approximations and metaphors as ways to get a handle on the puzzle, however partial and slippery our grasp. Familiar terminology and classifications may not do the job, but rather than leave a phenomenon uncomprehended and ineffable, most of us opt for positive categories and communication with others even if our choices require a compromise of observational integrity.

Applying this principle to the 1947 saucers, Arnold believed that he saw experimental military aircraft and could describe what he thought they looked like without firm cultural obligations. Those who followed were not so lucky. For them the ‘flying saucer’ image set a powerful precedent. A desire to conform, eagerness to join the excitement, and the pressure of expectation influenced many people to convert vague stimuli into flying discs. What if someone saw something that was not a disc? The same pressure would come to bear on him, driving him to simplify his observation towards the `norm’, perhaps even to recast his memories in the orthodox mould. Where a stubborn individual might resist, the media would soon round off the edges of his report for him, and he would go on record as seeing a saucer in spite of himself. The fact is, we do not know for certain the proportion of saucer shapes to Arnoldesque shapes amongst 1947 reports. Ted Bloecher’s admirable study lists shapes only according to general category, so the finer points get lost. Newspaper writers mediated in most of the reports he cites, and the noise-to-signal ratio necessarily runs high among these accounts, even if a real signal exists. Given these handicaps and the consequent shortcomings of evidence, and firm conclusion that the 1947 wave is all cultural noise amounts to a leap of faith instead of a logical step.

Abductions pose a far more formidable challenge to the witness. The event is more complex, far stranger, personally threatening and viewed in a state of mental impairment according to most reports. An abductee would hardly return fluent in the language of the unknown. He wouldd stumble to describe it and lean on every verbal or visual crutch. Even Barney Hill’s alien with wraparound eyes need not wholly be a product of influence. If John Fuller conveys a faithful summary of the Hill’s conscious memories, then we know that the eyes troubled Barney before hypnosis and before the Outer Limits episode was aired. Is it so strange that he would grope for a handy visual simile, and grasp one from a recent TV show? I doubt it. Most of us do the same all the time, enriching our stock of expressions and humour with borrowings from the media. Even if his description bent towards the image of the television alien, this fact does not negate the reality of his basic observation. Television seems not to have planted a preoccupation with
strange eyes in his mind.

Experience seems to have taken the lead in that.

An argument along these lines may explain why no paediatrician known to Stillings has reported abductions, a puzzling situation if they are as common as ufologists claim. A child could not identify an abduction by name or describe unfamiliar sights in precise terms, and a paediatrician might not be familiar with the abduction phenomenon, or sensitive enough to connect it with a child’s clumsy approximations even if aware. A paediatrician used to hearing the whimsical yarns of children might dismiss abduction evidence without ever recognising it. Paediatricians conform to their professional traditions as well as anyone else.

If proponents of cultural influence accept that it equips the imagination to counterfeit an entire experience, they can also allow it a more limited role as modifier of real experience. An overlay of terminology or conceptual filter based on prior knowledge would channel the report to the realm of the familiar. The influence argument cuts both ways, Influence based fantasy or influence-modified experience could both account for abduction reports, and such an argument loses its edge.

Kottmeyer attempts to resolve the issue with an appeal to simplicity: is there anything in the abduction story without an antecedent in science-fiction? I would have to give a negative answer. Even if modified reality could account for the culturally derived patterns and content in reports, simplicity throws the decision to a subjective origin.

This line of reasoning is formally correct, but I distrust it because the critics have a vast reservoir of parallels from which to draw. Science fiction has generated so many images that some of them are bound to match up with abductions. In fact why limit the search to science fiction? the pool of influence grows into an ocean if we include every possible cultural source, since we can find strange, penetrating eyes among fairies, or demons that torture with sharp pointed objects in the popular vision of hell. The hunt for parallels is a search that never fails. Folklorists have overindulged from time to time, especially in the heyday of solar mythology. One caution against setting too much store in parallels came when a folklorist applied the hero pattern to the life of Abraham Lincoln, and found that Lincoln promptly dissolved into myth. (The American educational system has since achieved similar results using ignorance as the salvent) The moral (in both cases) is that too much laxity of application may look proper enough, but still leans to false results.

Stillings denounces me for such concretist statements as “fairies do not fly in spaceships or use eye-like scanning devices.” Even valid parallels do not duplicate one another exactly, so he rightly notes that I overstate the case. The point I wished to make nevertheless deserves repeating – with the terms of comparison abstracted enough, anything can look like something else. Abstraction only exacerbates a situation where many analogues are available. For comparisons to be truly persuasive they must relate homologues rather than analogues. Homologues are likenesses based on deep genetic relationships and not mere surface appearances.

Establishing homologies reprrsents no easy task but for a start the confidence in a comparison rises when the terms are specific, complex patterns match, and near-parity of elements prevails (that is, most elements correspond and few are left over). A genuine case of cultural influence may not fulfil these stringent criteria, but they set a worthy standard for evidence. It should be clear that an argument founded on stray resemblances and abstracted patterns falls well short of this goal.

The wonder then is not that every element of the abductions story has its antecedents, but that the story-tellers use so few of the available possibilities. Science fiction aliens come in all shapes and sizes, science fiction storylines diversify well beyond any single plot. Even if the Hill report has become the guiding light for abductees, they have gone through life exposed to other ideas that would play well within an abduction framework. If the Hill’s vivid fantasy was born out of science fiction influences and little else, surely these same images have power enough to break the stranglehold of this story and stimulate other narrators to a little creative adventurousness now and then. The power of science-fiction ideas should destabilise abduction reports, or else cultural influences are not
  not so influential after all. 

Stillings claims that Americans start with ETH beliefs and dismiss without due consideration all explanations based on psychology, cultural influence or hypnotic confabulation. This statement stings my pride, since I thought I had given some consideration to just these issues. My comparative study of reports explored the folkloric affinities of abductions and my investigation of hypnosis inquired into its potential as a solution. (l6) In both cases I examined a great deal of evidence, and in both cases I found the subjective answers wanting. Nor do I mean to hog all the credit. Elizabeth Slater’s evaluation of abductees, June Parnell’s tests of close-encounter experients, and Rima Laibow’s studies of post-traumatic stress disorder have set the psychological study of abdwctees on a sound evidential footing. At the heart of the matter, American investigators have worked closely with abductees, a great many abductees, probing their stories in depth and following up on life changes and consequences.

Rogerson raises the psychological issue by citing Charles Hickson’s emergence as a contactee, and sees here an example of reality at odds with the image of normalcy promoted by ufolagists. What we can say about abductee psychology is that Keul and Phillips have found evidence for mental disturbance and social dissatisfaction among close-encounter claimants. Slater found no psychopathology among the nine abductees she studied, rather a set of characteristics that could mean either fantasy-prone personalities or traumatic victimisation. Parnell found no evidence for psychopathology or above-average capacity for imagination among close-encounter witnesses, while abductees proved to be among the least imaginative subjects in her sample. (l7) The picture remains vague and inconclusive. With such evidence, is American reluctance to jump upon a psychological bandwaggon surprising?

The Hickson example resurrects the problem of what is cause, what is effect in the abduction phenomenon. The possibilities that certain psychological manifestations are consequences of an experience deserves more serious consideration than my critics appear to have given. An individual with the right psychological predispositions might report contact with aliens and later undergo profound life changes akin to religious conversion, all as part of his psychological makeup. Yet it is no less reasonable to believe that an unpredisposed individual might change in drastic ways as a result of a real and deeply disturbing experience. John Rimmer’s editorial mentions Laibaw’s finding that abductees report a high incidence of childhood sexual abuse. Before jumping to any conclusion that abductions serve as screen memories for actual abuse, another clue should be noted: Abduction memories do not relate to abuse memories in the right way for a screen, since the abuse memories screen the abduction. (l8) So which is cause and which is effect? Such evidence by no means proves aliens, but it means that the problem is more convoluted that psychological proponents have acknowledged.

One criticism levelled by Stillings is undeniable: ETH supporters can rationalise anything with their theory. It is flexible enough to accommodate all sorts of phenomena, and difficult to falsify. Anyone who has taken abductions seriously and found psycho-social reductions unsatisfying must trouble over this difficulty in the ETH positign.

At the same time psychosocial advocates set their house in little better order. I agree with Evens that European ufological investigations have been both extensive in effort and excellent in quality. I apologise for giving the inadvertent impression that I considered them anything less. However I still find the present psychosocial theories as much a Procrustean Bed as Stillings regards the efforts as American ufologists.

We can thank the psychosocial school for a surfeit of explanations, few of them developed beyond the stage of vague suggestiveness. I found that reports obtained by hypnosis similar to reports remembered spontaneously and concluded that hypnosis played little part in shaping the abduction story. Stillings questions this conclusion on the grounds that hypnotic and other altered states can occur without formal induction. He is right, but sceptics (and Stiilings himself in the same article) usually advocate a facilitative and not a causal role for hypnosis in abduction making. Hypnosis enhances susceptibility to influence so a subject readily follows the lead of the hypnotist. When a hypnotist is a believer he may confabulate and abduction with the subject. Consistencies in the reports then trace to hypnotists who want to hear the same abduction story and pass their expectations along to a receptive subject. This argument suffers if people tell a similar story without benefit of leadership, which happens in the case of spontaneous recall.

If Stillings wishes highway hypnosis or some other altered-consciousness condition to account far abductions, he has an established natural phenomenon on his side, but he must still explain how natural hypnosis produces a story like other abduction stories. If a hypnotist who leads a witness is all important in one explanation, where is the leader in the other? Though one solution goes down in flames, plenty more wait in the wings. Perhaps the witness is a fantasy-prone or boundary-deficit type? If I point out that these people should tell the most varied stories instead of the most stable my opponents have fresh arguments: perhaps an over-zealous, Svengali-like investigator or a well-intentioned but fatal bias in establishing the sample of cases. Perhaps the answer lies not with research errors but with life conditions or mental states that predispose the witnesses, or the blame may lie with TV, movies, SF images; when hard pressed electro-magnetic fields from seismic events may come to the rescue.

This leaves an impression of ad hoc arguments addressed to one or another aspect of the phenomenom rather than to the whole problem. Each explanation may succeed in one area but fail in another. Too many explanations undercut the credibility of any one, and only Kottmeyer states his case in depth. Psychosocial proponents seem to take their answers too much for granted and with few exceptions fail to nurture an embryonic case to full term.

In the end abductions present a sort of orthoteny in reverse. This time we have the straight-line of consistent story given to us, and seek the points on which it rests. The field is crowded with possible alternatives; explanations pile layers deep. Somehow the line stays true. What makes the situation so striking is itself a psychosocial argument. The knowledge that comes from folklore research and demonstrates the likelihood of variation. Whether folklore sprouts from the deep psyche or takes root in cultural influences, the resulting narratives blossom with creativity and individuality within traditional frames. Personal experience accounts bear a richness of personal idiosyncrasies. Abduction reports simply mismatch other folklore in these significant respects.

I sympathise with Evens when he says that an ETH explanation for abductions is riddled with contradictions and simply does not work. Michael Swords makes a thoroughly compelling case against hybridisation, and no-one has yet solved the problem of how aliens in vast numbers can cross light years of space to reach earth then find nothing better to do than repeat the same old lab exercises. (19) If I truly believed that aliens could seize me I would spend my life in the company of a hundred other people, all armed to the teeth and ready to demonstrate to any short grey house-guests that happiness is a warm AK-47. I do not, therefore deep down I do not believe. A literal reading of abductions clashes with commonsense and learned good sense alike, but that reason in itself gives me licence to question but not to close my eyes. The evidence as I see it shows me a puzzle that I cannot solve with reference to conventional phenomena known to me, nor have the alternatives offered by psychosocial advocates proved adequate to the task. On the other hand a literal reading best fits the story line. I may not believe that abductions are real experiences, but we have no better answer for now.

After all, I was under the impression that proper young Victorians discovered ladies’ legs by experience, perhaps for a monetary consideration or otherwise, but without the need for an intermediary. In Europe as in America, experience is the best teacher.



  • 1. Bullard, Thomas E. UFO Abductions: the measure of a mystery. Fund for UFO Research, 1987.
  • 2. Thompson, Sith. Tales of the North American Indians, University Press, 1968: pp.225-231.
  • 3. Dundes, Alan. ‘The hero pattern in the life of Jesus’ in Dundes, Interpreting Folklore. Indiana University Press, 1980; Rosenberg, Bruce A. Custer and the Epic of Defeat, Penna. State Univ. Press, 1974.
  • 4. Dorson, Richard M. ‘Folklore in the Modern World’ in Dorson, ed, Folklore in the Modern World, Mouton, 1978; Hufford, David J. ‘Traditions of Disbelief’, New York Folklore 8 (1982) 47-55.
  • 5. Degh, Linda. Folklore and Society. Indiana University Press, 1969.
  • 6. Degh, Linda. Processes of LegendFormation’, Laographia 22 (1965): 8.
  • 7. Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. Univ. of California Press, 1977.
  • 8. Degh, Linda, and Andrew Vazonyl ‘The Crack on the Red Goblet or Truth and the Modern Legend’, in Dorson, Richard M. (ed.) Folklore in the Modern World.
  • 9. Degh, Linda, and Andrew Yazonyl ‘The Memorate and the proto-Memorate’, Journal of American Folklore (1974) 225-239.
  • 10. For example: Mullen, Patrick B. ‘Modern Legend and Rumor Theory’, Journal of the Folklore lnstitute 9 (1972) pp.95-109  Klintberg, Bengt, ‘Modern Migratory Legends in Oral Tradition and Daily Papers’ Arv, 37 (1981): 153-160; Grider, Sylvia, ‘The Razor Blades in the Apple Syndrome’, in Smith, Paul (ed.) Perspectives on Contemporary Legend, Univ. of Sheffield, 1984.
  • 11. Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Norton, 1981.
  • 12. Bennett, Gillian, Traditions of Belief, Penguin (NY), 1987.
  • 13. BARNS, Daniel R. ‘Interpreting Urban Legends’, Arv 40 (1984):67-78; Nicolaisen, W F H, ‘The Linguistic Structure of Legends, in Bennett, Gillian, Perspectives on Contemporary Legend, v.2. Sheffield Academic Press, 1987.
  • 14. Honko, Lauri, Mernorates and the Study of Folk Beliefs’, Journal of the Folklore Institute I (1965) pp.5-19.
  • 15. Hufford, David J. The Terror that Comes in the Night, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
  • 16. Bullard, Thomas E ‘Hypnosis and UFO Abductions: a Troubled Relationship’, Journal of UFO Studies n.s. 1 (1989}.pp.3-40
  • 17. Keul, A. and Ken Philips. ‘Assessing the Witness’ in UFOs 1947-1987, Fortean Tomes, 1987; Final Report of the Psychological Testing of UFO Abductees, Fund for UFO Research, 1984; Parnell, June O. ‘Personality Characteristics on the MMPI, IGPF and ACL of Persons who Claim UFO Experiences’, Laramie, University of Wyoming dissertation, 1986.
  • 18. Laibow, Rima E.’Dual Victims; The Abused and the Abducted’, International UFO Reporter, 14/3 May-June 1989) 4-9.
  • 19. Swords, Michael. ‘Extraterrestrial Hybridization Unlikely’, MUFON UFO Journal, 247, No, 1988, pp6-10.




Visions of Bowmen and Angels.
Kevin McClure



In August 1914, Brigadier-General John Charteris was one of the senior officers in the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was a staff officer to General Sir Douglas Haig, working with him at G.H.Q., and also a close personal friend.

During the earliest weeks of the Great War, he was an involved observer within the B.E.F. as the men retreated from Mons in the face of substantially superior German forces. He also sent home detailed and eloquent letters, a chronicle of that demanding and dramatic time. These were published some 17 years later (At G.H.Q., Cassell, 1931), apparently in their original form, certainly with no hint of rewriting or later addition. The entry for September 5th, 1914, includes the following passage: -

” Then there is the story of the ‘Angels of Mons’ going strong through the 2nd Corps, of how the angel of the Lord on the traditional white horse, and clad all in white with flaming sword, faced the advancing Germans at Mons and forbade their further progress. Men’s nerves and imagination play weird pranks in these strenuous times. All the same the angel at Mons interests me. I cannot find out how the legend arose.”

If a perceptive and open-minded Brigadier-General, knowing his men and the experiences they had been through could not get to the bottom of the stories of angels some ten days after the events are said to have happened, what hope do I have nearly 80 years on? I have plenty of written sources – though there are many more, the tales being told again and again – and the perspective of history in my favour. Yet I can make no promises as to what may have occurred, and cannot say with certainty that any particular, named individual, of perhaps 100,000 soldiers in the B.E.F. at that time, saw any one vision or another. But it is clear to me that the debunking that has in recent years been the only published context for the Mons material has been hopelessly inadequate, if not actually dishonest. It is time to present the contemporary sources – as close to the truth as we can come – however confusing they may be. Now we can evaluate this strange and wonderful story in a new and independent way.

In his marvellous study of wartime myths and legends, The Smoke and the Fire – Myths and Anti-Myths of War, 1861-1945 (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1980) historian John Terraine records that Private Frank Richards – later to be author of the Billy Bunter books – wrote of angels in the context of the retreat from Le Cateau, which was on August 26th, 1914. There are few specific references to dates, but it seems that the 26th or 27th are the most likely. Whatever happened, probably happened then.

On September 29th the Evening News published the Arthur Machen story The Bowmen for the first time: just 17 column inches on page 3 of a London evening paper. Unfortunately, copyright prevents me from reproducing this fine story in full, but Light magazine for 10.10.14 – always very literate for a specialist journal in the Spiritualist field – summarises it well: -

” The Evening News of the 29th ult. contains a remarkable piece of imaginative word-painting by Mr Arthur Machen, the novelist, entitled ‘The Bowmen’. Picturing one of the stands made by the allies early in the war against the overwhelming German host that was slowly pressing them back, he makes a British soldier with some knowledge of Latin recall the motto he had seen on the plates in a certain vegetarian restaurant. “Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius” – ” May Saint George be a present help to the English”. The man utters the invocation aloud, and at once the roar of battle seems to die down and in its place he hears a tumult of voices calling on St.George: ” Ha! Messire: Ha! sweet saint, grant us good deliverance! St.George for merry England! Harow! Harow! Monseigneur St.George, succour us.”

And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German host. To their astonishment, the other men in the trench see the ranks of the enemy dissolving like mist, the foe falling not in dozens or hundreds, but in thousands. After the engagement the German general staff, finding no wounds on the bodies of the slain, decide that the English must have used Turpinite, but the soldier who knows Latin knows that St.George has brought his Agincourt bowmen to help the English!”

If you are not familiar with ‘The Bowmen’ then I would commend it to you most heartily, along with most of Machen’s other, marvellous fiction: quite possibly the finest writing on supernatural and horror themes of its period. Actually, this was not the first Evening News piece in which Machen had used legendary figures to make an encouraging and patriotic point. On 17.9.14, a piece of Machen’s appeared under the title ‘The Ceaseless Bugle Call’. Starting with observations on the huge training camps at Aldershot, it waxes lyrical about St.George, and concludes: -

Tuba mirum spargens sanum: wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth. It shall resound till it call up the spirits of the heroes to fight in the vanguard of our battle, till it summon King Arthur and all his chivalry forth from their magic sleep in Avalon: that they may strike one final shattering blow for the Isle of Britain against the heathen horde.”

I find The Ceaseless Bugle Call particularly interesting. It is virtually a trial run for The Bowmen, yet we hear nothing more of King Arthur playing any part in the course of the war. It was The Bowmen that caught the public interest, and the more respectable ‘occult’ and Spiritualist journals wrote to Machen after publication, to ask him what truth there was in the story, and how he had come by these marvellous facts. He responded that the story was entirely of his own making, written as his response to the horrors of the war, particularly the reports in the Weekly Dispatch of 30.8.14. Light and the Occult Review reported this response with little comment and there, for a time, the story rested.

Perhaps the greatest mystery of the way the Mons stories unfolded is the ‘missing link’. How the visions ceased to be reported in October 1914, having been given little or no credence, but then suddenly reappeared – in different forms, in different places – the following spring, over 6 months later. There had been many dramatic events during that time: hundreds of thousands of young men had marched willingly to war, and many of them had died or suffered appalling injuries. The British public had become all too familiar with the names of other places, other battles. Yet it was the few days of the retreat from Mons – a fortunate event, marked by great bravery, but hardly a memorable victory – involving smaller numbers of men, and lower casualties, that became the subject of tremendous attention throughout the summer of 1915. The first of the array of reports I have traced comes from Light magazine, 24.4.15., under the title The Invisible Allies: Strange Story from the Front: -

” In Light of October 10th last we referred, under the title of The Invisible Allies to a remarkable story by Mr Arthur Machen, the novelist, which appeared in the Evening News of a few days before, and which depicted our soldiers at the front as being aided by the spirits of the English soldiers of the past. The soldier about whom the story revolves sees a vision of the Agincourt bowmen and hears their voices. A short time ago we were asked by a well-known publisher if we could tell him anything of the origin of the story, as statements were being made that it was founded on fact. We replied that we thought it nothing more than an effort of that imagination of which Mr Machen’s stories are full. However, being curious on the point, and having a personal acquaintance with the author, we wrote to him asking the question, and were not surprised to receive his answer that the tale was merely a fanciful production of his own. He though it rather curious that any legend should have grown up around his story.

A few days ago, however, we received a visit from a military officer, who asked to see the issue of Light containing the article in question. He explained that, whether Mr Machen’s story was pure invention or not, it was certainly stated in some quarters that a curious phenomenon had been witnessed by several officers and men in connection with the retreat from Mons. It took the form of a strange cloud interposed between the Germans and the British. Other wonders were heard or seen in connection with this cloud which, it seems, had the effect of protecting the British against the overwhelming hordes of the enemy. We wonder what truth there is in the report. Legends spring up quickly, but so far as we have observed there is always some core of truth, however small, at the back of each. Even the ‘Russians in England’ rumour, we understand, was not entirely without foundation. But this legend of Mons is fascinating. We should like to hear more of it.”

This was a simple story. The effect – the protection of the British soldiers – is the same as in The Bowmen, but it occurs as the result of the presence of a mysterious cloud. Only six days later, on 30.4.15., the Roman Catholic newspaper, The Universe, published in London, carried a more detailed and rather different account, headed On A White Horse: St.George and Phantom Army: -

” An extraordinary story, which recalls an incident in the Crusades, reaches The Universe from an accredited correspondent who is, however, precluded from imparting the names of those concerned.

The story is told by a Catholic officer in a letter from the front, and is told with a simplicity which shows the narrator’s own conviction of its genuineness . . .

” A party of about thirty men and an officer was cut off in a trench, when the officer said to his men, ‘Look here, we must either stay here and be caught like rats in a trap, or make a sortie against the enemy. We haven’t much of a chance, but personally I don’t want to be caught here.’ The men all agreed with him, and with a yell of ‘St.George for England!’ they dashed out into the open. The officer tells how, as they ran on, he became aware of a large company of men with bows and arrows going along with them, and even leading them on against the enemy’s trenches, and afterwards when he was talking to a German prisoner, the man asked him who was the officer on a great white horse who led them, for although he was such a conspicuous figure, they had none of them been able to hit him. I must also add that the German dead appeared to have no wounds on them. The officer who told the story (adds the writer of the letter) was a friend of ours. He did not see St.George on the white horse, but he saw the Archers with his own eyes.”

I think we can safely regard this as the basic ‘bowmen’ legend, and it has undeniably close parallels to Machen’s story. Why it should suddenly appear in the respectable Roman Catholic press, apparently in a letter from the front in France, I cannot imagine.

It is not easy to work out a precise chronology, but it seems that the next item of importance to be published was a report in the All Saints,Clifton, Parish Magazine for May 1915. This version – which appears elsewhere, and which I assume to be a correct transcription – comes from the Church Family Newspaper, in its July 1915 issue. It was also reprinted in the same Parish Magazine, in its July 1915 issue. It has the title, An Angelic Guard – Strange Experiences.

” The following account is published in the current issue of the All Saints, Clifton, Parish Magazine: -

Last Sunday I met Miss M., daughter of the well-known Canon M., and she told me she knew two officers both of whom had themselves seen the angels who saved our left wing from the Germans when they came right upon them during the retreat from Mons.

They expected annihilation, as they were almost helpless, when to their amazement they stood like dazed men, never so much as touched their guns: nor stirred till we had turned round and escaped by some crossroads. One of Miss M’s friends, who was not a religious man, told her that he saw a troop of angels between us and the enemy. He has been a changed man ever since. The other man she met in London. She asked him if he had heard the wonderful stories of angels. He said he had seen them himself and under the following circumstances: -

While he and his company were retreating, they heard the German cavalry tearing after them. They saw a place where they thought a stand might be made, with sure hope of safety; but before they could reach it, the German cavalry were upon them. They therefore turned round and faced the enemy, expecting nothing but instant death, when to their wonder they saw, between them and the enemy, a whole troop of angels. The German horses turned round terrified and regularly stampeded. The men tugged at their bridles, while the poor beasts tore away in every direction from our men. This officer swore he saw the angels, which the horses saw plainly enough. This gave them time to reach the little fort, or whatever it was, and save themselves.”

Looking at the development of the accounts of the visions, this is a particularly important piece. It seems to represent the basic ‘angels’ legend, and it bears only a minimal resemblance to The Bowmen. In the ‘angels’ legend, there is no decision by the soldiers to take their chance, no invocation of St.George or any other figure, no foreknowledge of the words to use to call for assistance, such as those on the plate in the vegetarian restaurant. The ‘angels’ have neither leader nor weapons. Indeed, this version of intervention has more in common with the ‘strange cloud interposed between the Germans and the British’, than it does with The Bowmen. The claims of many commentators, and of Machen himself, that all the accounts of visions and interventions at Mons were generated by his brief column in the Evening News can, at times, seem very far-fetched.

Yet nothing in this investigation is straightforward or simple. To anticipate a little, the Society for Psychical Research, in its Journal for December 1915, published An Enquiry Concerning the Angels at Mons. This is an excellent piece of work, and I’ll refer to it again. The Society was swiftly off the mark in writing to Miss M. (actually Miss Marrable, daughter of Canon Marrable) on May 26, 1915

” . . the story is told on the authority of Miss M., who is said to have known personally the officers concerned. Accordingly we wrote to Miss M. to ask whether she could corroborate these stories, and received the following reply, dated 28.5.15.

‘I cannot give you the names of the men referred to in your letter of May 26, as the story I heard was quite anonymous, and I do not know who they were.”

I suspect that Miss Marrable had a busy few weeks answering enquiries about her alleged informants: there are reports of other publications also pursuing her.

Early May saw a fascinating mixture of accounts appearing in the ‘occult’ and Spiritualist press. In Light for 8.5.15, a feature appears headed Supernormal Phenomena at the Battle Front: -

” The following letter from ‘Scota’, a correspondent in Ireland, embodies statements some of which had already been received by us from other quarters: -

Sir, I am very glad that in the last issue of Light you had noticed the story about the intervention of spirit helpers at Mons, for the subject is well worth investigation. It has reached me through three different channels having no connection with each other.

A friend who was in London last autumn read in the Evening News the story of the vision and accompanying shout. She was much struck by it, but was inclined to question its credibility. A few days later, however, she met a young soldier, a private who had been wounded. Directly she heard he had been at Mons she asked, “Oh, did you see the vision, and hear the shout?” He answered, “I did not hear the shout, but I did see the vision and, he added very emphatically, the Germans saw it too, they couldn’t get their horses to come on!” He said that on comparing notes with his comrades afterwards they found that some had seen the vision, and some heard the shout, but very many had neither heard nor seen.

Shortly afterwards this same lady met a member of the family of an officer, General N., who also had been at Mons. He stated that in that rearguard action there was one specially critical moment. The German cavalry was rapidly advancing, and very much outnumbered our forces. Suddenly, he saw a sort of luminous cloud, or light interpose itself between the Germans and our forces. In the cloud there seemed to be bright objects moving: he could not say if they were figures or not, but they were moving and bright. The moment this cloud appeared the German onslaught seemed to receive a check; the horses could be seen rearing and plunging, and they ceased to advance. He said it was his opinion that if that check, whatever its cause, had not come, the whole force would have been annihilated in twenty minutes.

Since then another friend of mine has had a visit from a relative, a young officer home on short leave from the front. He, too, had been at Mons, and told her that the story, as she had heard it, was perfectly correct. He had seen the luminous cloud and the sudden check to the enemy’s cavalry, exactly as General N. had described it, and he said, “After what I saw that day, nothing will make me doubt for one moment but that we shall win in this war.”

The following week, Light published further accounts, from different sources: an interesting variation on the ‘vegetarian restaurant’, and a surprisingly Christian report in this Spiritualist context: -

” In a sermon preached by the Rev. Fielding Ould, vicar of St.Stephen’s, St.Alban’s, he is reported to have said -

I heard a story last week from three sources, and which I think may be true. A sergeant in our army had frequented a house of the Young Men’s Christian Association, and had seen there a picture of St.George slaying the dragon. He had been deeply impressed by it, and when, at the front, he found himself in an advanced and rather isolated trench, he told the story of St.George to his men – St.George, the patron saint of England, whose name the warriors have shouted as their war-cry in the carnage of Crecy, Poitiers, and on many another glorious field. When shortly afterwards a sudden charge of the grey-coated Germans in greatly superior numbers threatened the sergeant’s trench, he cried, “Remember St.George for England!” to his men as they advanced to meet the foe. A few moments afterwards the enemy hesitated, stopped, and finally fled, leaving some prisoners in our hands. One of the latter, who seemed dazed and astonished, demanded to be told who were “the horsemen in armour who led the charge. Surely they could not have been Belgians dressed in such a way!” There are many similar stories of supernatural intervention in the old battles of the world and I, for one, would hesitate to say that they had no basis of fact.”

Mrs F.H.Fitzgerald Beale, writing from Mountmellick, Ireland, says -

” You mention in Light of the 24th ult. that a strange cloud came down at Mons and hid the allies from the Germans. I am pleased to be able to tell you it is true. We have among other wounded soldiers home from the war a soldier of the Dublin Fusiliers who was injured at Mons. I told him of the story and asked him whether it was true. He said, “Yes, I saw it myself. A thick black cloud: it quite hid us from the enemy.” Indeed, all the other men have told me of the miraculous way that crucifixes were preserved. One soldier said that in a wood there was a mound with a large crucifix on top to mark the burial place of a number of soldiers killed in a former war. The trees were swept away by shell fire as if they had been cut down with a scythe, but the crucifix stood untouched. This preservation has been so very marked everywhere, he said, that even the Jews in the trenches were asking for crucifixes from Catholic soldiers, and people were embedding them in the walls of their houses. I hear this from every soldier who has returned.”

In Bladud, The Bath Society Paper of Wednesday, 9th June 1915, The Rev.M.P.Gilson, Vicar of All Saints, Clifton, told of his experiences since he published the earlier account of the ‘Angels’ . . .

” You will, I think, be no less surprised than I have been to find that our modest little parish magazine has suddenly sprung into almost world-wide notoriety; every post for the last three weeks has brought letters from all over the country, not asking merely for single copies, but for dozens of copies, enclosing a quite embarrassing number of stamps and postal orders, the more so since there were no more magazines to be had.”

He goes on to express surprise that everyone is so amazed that miracles should still be occurring, and prayers still being answered . . .

” Why should it seem more strange that a regiment of Prussian cavalry should be held up by a company of angels, and their horses stampeded, and our infantry delivered from a hopeless position, than that an angel with flaming sword should have withstood Balaam, or that St.Peter should have been delivered from the hand of Herod by the intervention of an Angel? Do they really relegate all such miracles to ‘Bible Days’, and believe that when the Church made up the Canon of Holy Scriptures she also brought to a close the age of miracles?”

Bladud also quotes some of the accounts sent to the Rev. Gilson, who passes comments on the developing stories – comments that seem quite perceptive to me. The accounts first . . .

” The first is an extract from an officer’s letter: “I myself saw the angels who saved our left wing from the Germans during the retreat from Mons. We heard the German cavalry tearing after us and ran for a place where we thought a stand could be made; we turned and faced the enemy expecting instant death. When to our wonder we saw between us and the enemy a whole troop of Angels; the horses of the Germans turned round frightened out of their senses; they regularly stampeded, the men tugging at their bridles, while the horses tore away in every direction from our men. Evidently the horses saw the Angels as plainly as we did, and the delay gave us time to reach a place of safety.”

” Another contribution comes from a more unexpected source. A captain in charge of German prisoners states that these men say it is no use to fight the English, for at Mons “there were people fighting for them”, that they saw angels above and in front of the lines, also that it is happening at Ypres.”

” From another source I heard that many prisoners were taken that day who surrendered when there was no call for it. At home it was suggested that they were underfed and did not want to fight. Some of these German prisoners were afterwards asked why they surrendered, ‘for there were many more of you than us; we were a mere handful,’ they looked amazed and replied, ‘but there were hosts and hosts of you.’ It was thought that the angels appeared to them as reinforcements of our ranks.

The St.George story is, I believe, a fiction. It has been enquired into, and apparently it is only based on a perversion of the story of the angels, and that I do believe. The only very astonishing part of it is that so many men were allowed to see them. (If other accounts of the visions agree with these, it is surely noteworthy, adds the Editor of the All Saints Magazine, that the angels appear to have taken no part in the killing: they defended our men, and caused the Germans to flee or to surrender).

Included in the same feature is a report of a sermon given in St.Martin’s Church, Worcester: -

” He told”, says the writer describing his sermon, “about this vision of angels, which had been seen by so many of our soldiers, on that Saturday in August, when the situation looked so hopeless that the Times correspondent wired that the British army ‘had been annihilated’, and the Sunday papers all published it, and if it had not been for the angels there would have been no contradiction of it in Monday’s papers.”

” In particular he spoke of twelve men in a quarry, who all saw the angels, and among the mass of the army some saw and some did not. Two colonels, he spoke of, who said they had seen them, one of whom had until then been an unbeliever. But all saw the unlooked for salvation of the remnant of the army.”

An interesting point there – that the vision was in some way selective. This is not the only time this element is mentioned, and it is not an uncommon phenomenon in reports of paranormal experience.

Another sermon, reported in various church and secular newspapers had considerable influence, presumably due to the status of the preacher. It received wide publicity, and introduced some new elements to the apparent role of the supernatural in the course of the war, in addition to the ‘legions of angels’ version of the retreat from Mons: -

” In a recent sermon at Manchester, Dr R.F.Horton, the well known Congregational minister, told how, in the Dardanelles, the airships of the enemy came over a troopship and dropped bombs. The captain, who was a devout man, gave the order to his crew to pray. “They knelt on the deck, and the Lord delivered them. The eighteen bombs which seemed to be falling from overhead fell harmlessly into the sea.

Dr.Horton then mentioned the story of the ‘Comrade in White’, which was dealt with recently in Light, and passed on to a consideration of the ‘company of angels’ which intervened to save our soldiers in the retreat from Mons. He referred to it as ‘a story repeated by so many witnesses that if anything can be established by contemporary evidence it is established.”

I haven’t found any fuller version of the story of the troopship in the Dardanelles, but this seems to be a good point at which to consider the matter of the ‘Comrade in White’ – or ‘White Helper’ – a figure that moves surely through the battlefields and hospitals of the early part of the war, without any real specifics of places or dates. The first account is from Dr Horton again -

” Now and again a wounded man on the field is conscious of a comrade in white coming with help and even delivering him. One of our men who had heard of this story again and again, and has put it down to hysterical excitement, had an experience. His division had advanced and was not adequately protected by the artillery. It was cut to pieces, and he himself fell. He tried to hide in a hollow of the ground, and as he lay helpless, not daring to lift his head under the hail of fire, he saw One in White coming to him. For a moment he though it must be a hospital attendant or a stretcher-bearer, but no, it could not be; the bullets were flying all around. The White-robed came near and bent over him. The man lost consciousness for a moment, and when he came round he seemed to be out of danger.

The White-robed still stood by him, and the man, looking at his hand, said, ‘You are wounded in your hand.’ There was a wound in the palm. He answered, ‘Yes, that is an old wound that has opened again lately.’ The soldier says that in spite of the peril and his wounds he felt a joy he had never experienced in his life before.”

Then there was . . .

” A letter from Miss Stoughton, whose sister was a nurse in the hospital at Tekleton. ‘There is a wonderful story,’ she writes, ‘of the man called by the soldiers, ‘A Comrade In White’, who is going about at the front, helping the wounded. A man told my sister that, though he had not seen Him himself, he knew many soldiers who had. He was supposed to be ‘The Angel of the Covenant’ – our Lord himself. He has been seen at different places.”

This isn’t exactly first-hand testimony – the writer is the sister of a nurse who spoke to a soldier who knew some others who said they had seen the figure! But it’s interesting to note that there are much more modern cases where similar figures have been involved inguiding or rescuing lost travellers in times of severe danger.

Quite moving is the story of the dramatic rescue of a young boy during battle, supposedly told by a nurse who had served in France (this may have been Phyllis Campbell, who we will discuss later): -

” How did you manage to pick up the child under the German guns? I asked. He shifted a little uncomfortably, then looked bravely into my eyes. “It’s a bit of a queer thing I’m going to say – but it’s true,” he said. “It was a kind of golden cloud between us and the Germans, and a man in it on a big horse – and then I saw the child in the dust on the roadside, and I picked it up.” “Yes, Sister,” he added, “Lots of other chaps saw it too.” There was a murmur of confirmation. “The minute I saw it,” he continued, “I knew we were going to win. It fair bucked me up.”

You can see the sort of structure these accounts have. The following – from Life and Work magazine for June 1915 – is a particularly detailed one, from which I have taken extracts. It is, apparently, from a letter from an unnamed soldier: -

” Strange tales reached us in the trenches. Rumours raced up and down that three-hundred mile line from Switzerland to the sea. We knew neither the source of them nor the truth of them. They came quickly, and they went quickly. Yet somehow I remember the very hour when George Casey turned to me with a queer look in his blue eyes and asked if I had seen the Friend of the Wounded.

And then he told me all he knew. After many a hot engagement a man in white had been seen bending over the wounded. Snipers sniped at him. Shells fell all around. Nothing had power to touch him. He was either heroic beyond all heroes, or he was something greater still. This mysterious one, whom the French called the Comrade In White, seemed to be everywhere at once. At Nancy, in the Argonne, at Soissons and Ypres, everywhere men were talking of him with hushed voices.”

The writer continues, explaining that he expected no such help should he be injured in battle. Then, in an advance on the facing trenches, he was shot in both legs, and lay in a sheell-hole till after dark,

” The night fell, and soon I heard a step, but quiet and firm, as if neither darkness nor death could check those untroubled feet. So little did I guess what was coming that, even when I saw the gleam of white in the darkness. I thought it was a peasant in a white smock, or perhaps a woman deranged. Suddenly. with a little shiver of joy or fear, I don’t know which, I guessed that it was the Comrade in White. And at that very moment the German rifles began to shoot. The bullets could scarcely miss such a target, for he flung his arms out as though in entreaty, and then drew them back till he stood like one of those wayside crosses that we saw so often as we marched through France.

And he spoke. The words sounded familiar, but all I remember was the beginning, “If thou hadst known,” and the ending, “but now they are hid from thine eyes.” And then he stopped and ushered me into his arms – me, the biggest man in the regiment – and carried me as if I had been a child.

I must have fainted again, for I woke to consciousness in a little cave by the stream, and the Comrade in White was washing my wounds and binding them up. It seems foolish to say it, for I was in terrible pain, but I was happier at that moment than ever I remember to have been in all my life before. I can’t explain it, but it seemed as if all my days I had been waiting for this without knowing it. As long as that hand touched me and those eyes pitied me, I did not seem to care any more about sickness or health, about life or death. And while he swiftly removed every trace of blood or mire, I felt as if my whole nature were being washed, as if all the grime and soil of sin were going, and as if I were once more a little child.

I suppose I slept, for when I awoke this feeling was gone, I was a man, and I wanted to know what I could do for my friend to help him or to serve him. He was looking towards the stream, and his hands were clasped in prayer: and then I saw that he, too, had been wounded. I could see, as it were, a shot-wound in his hand, and as he prayed a drop of blood gathered and fell to the ground. I cried out. I could not help it, for that wound of his seemed to be a more awful thing than any that bitter war had shown me. “You are wounded, too”, I said faintly. Perhaps he heard me, perhaps it was the look on my face, but he answered gently: “This is an old wound, but it has troubled me of late.” And then I noticed sorrowfully that the same cruel mark was on his feet. You will wonder that I did not know sooner. I wonder myself. But it was only when I saw his feet that I knew him.”

The identification of the figure with Jesus Christ was not an uncommon one, but I am rather intrigued by the ‘transformation’ of personality mentioned above. Whatever we call these accounts – wishful thinking, imagination, hallucination, spirit or divine intervention, or whatever – they are perhaps closer to traditional forms of religious experience than the visions involving interventions by non-human figures in military battles. They made popular reading, and no doubt brought hope and some comfort to those at the front in France, and to those at home

Before we return to the continuing development of the stories of angels and bowmen as they emerged in August and September of 1915, a little time should be spent with Phyllis Campbell, a lady who was, apparently, a nurse at front-line hospitals in France.

Over the past ten years or so, I have managed to find most of the important books and references relating to Mons, but one item has eluded me – Miss Campbell’s booklet Back of the Front, published by George Newnes Ltd in 1915. I gather that even the British Museum Library doesn’t have a copy, and apart from some extracts, all I have seen is a flyer showing the front cover! However, she received a lot of publicity, particularly via Ralph Shirley, editor of the Occult Review, and played her part in the growth of some of the more extreme legends.

In this particular instance, I tend to concur with the opinion of the sceptical writer, Melvin Harris, and I am unwilling to accept her unsupported testimony. Her work had appeared in the Occult Review before the war, and it is clear from her accounts of atrocities supposedly committed by the advancing Germans that she was prone to believing what she wanted to believe. I don’t suppose she was alone in that publicising the horrendous practises of the Bosch did wonders for Army recruitment. Anyway, some excerpts from her writing will convey her approach – bearing in mind that the content was, in 1914 and 1915, quite acceptable to many of her readers. From Light, 7.8.15 -

” The Occult Review for August publishes an article by Miss Phyllis Campbell, a nurse who was in the Mons retreat. She tells of a great outburst of pious enthusiasm on the part of the French wounded, some of whom were in a state of great exaltation of mind. They clamoured for ‘holy pictures’ – the little prints of saints and angels so common in Catholic countries – but were unanimous in selecting St Michael or Joan of Arc. A wounded English soldier – a Lancashire Fusilier – asked for ‘a picture or medal of St.George because he had seen the saint on a white horse leading the

British at Vitry-le-Francois when the allies turned.’ An RFA man, wounded in the leg, claimed to have seen a man with yellow hair, wearing golden armour and riding on a white horse with his sword upraised. He endorsed the account given by the fusilier that the phantom cavalier led the British troops. The French troops maintained that the figure seen was that of St Michael. Many of them professed also to have seen Joan of Arc.

That night (writes Miss Campbell) we heard the tale again, from the lips of a priest this time, two officers, and three men of the Irish Guard. These three men were mortally wounded; they asked for the sacrament before death, and before dying told the same story to the old abbe who confessed them.

In the Occult Review article – The Angelic Leaders – she stresses that she had written to its Editor about the stories of visions before the publication of The Bowmen in the Evening News. There is no confirmation of this; it would have been remarkable had a field nurse been able to stop and send out a letter amidst the havoc of retreat, and even more remarkable had the astute Ralph Shirley not used such a report if it had been offered him. The following piece is apparently taken from Back of the Front, reporting on how she was moving around France with the Army hospital, and recounting what soldiers had supposedly said to her, in her own, gory style . . .

” For forty-eight hours no food, no drink, under a tropical sun, choked with dust, harried by shell, and marching, marching, marching, till even the pursuing Germans gave it up, and at Vitry-le-Francois the Allies fell in their tracks and slept for three hours – horse, foot and guns – while the exhausted pursuers slept behind them.

Then came the trumpet call, and each man sprang to his arms to find himself made anew. One man said, “I felt as if I had just come out of the sea after a swim. Fit, just grand. I never felt so fit in my life, and every man of us the same. The Germans were coming on just the same as ever, when suddenly the advance sounded, and I saw the luminous mist and the great man on the white horse, and I knew the Boches would never get Paris, for God was fighting on our side.

Poor Dix, when he came into hospital with only a bleeding gap where his mouth had been, and a splintered hand and arm, he ought to have been prostrate and unconscious, but he made no moan, his pain had vanished in contemplation of the wonderful things he had seen – saints and angels fighting on this common earth, with common mortal men, against one devilish foe to all humanity. A strange and dreadful thing, that the veil that hangs between us and the world of Immortality should be so rent and shrivelled by suffering and agony that human eyes can look on the angels and not be blinded. The cries of mothers and little children – the suffering of crucified fathers and carbonized sons and brothers, the tortures of nuns and virgins, and violated wives and daughters, have all gone up in torment and dragged at the Ruler of the Universe for aid – and aid has come.”

The Society for Psychical Research was also interested in Miss Campbell’s reports. As part of their enquiry they reported that,

” We wrote some time ago to Miss Campbell asking whether she could give us any further information or put us in touch with the soldiers to whom these experiences had come, but we have not heard from her.” So far as I can establish, she made no further claims, and it was left to others to eagerly back her accounts when they could be used in support of their own contentions. But even so, if anyone comes across a copy of Back of the Front, I’d still be delighted to own one!

Miss Campbell’s contributions aside, by July 1915 the initial impetus of the reports had slowed down. Even the religious press only printed versions of earlier accounts – often set in the context of religious events in history – and many commentators began to wonder at the lack of witness testimony for which a witness could actually be identified. August saw two apparently promising testimonies in the Daily Mail. The first appeared on the 12th, and was a report of an interview with a ‘wounded lance-corporal’.

” I was with my battalion in the retreat from Mons on or about August 28th. The German cavalry were expected to make a charge, and we were waiting to fire and scatter them . .

The weather was very hot and clear, and between eight and nine o’clock in the evening, I was standing with a party of nine other men on duty, and some distance on either side there were parties of ten on guard . . An officer suddenly came up to us in a state of great anxiety and asked us if we had seen anything startling . . He hurried away from my ten to the next party of ten. At the time we thought that the officer must be expecting a surprise attack.

Immediately afterwards the officer came back, and taking me and some others a few yards away showed us the sky. I could see quite plainly in mid-air a strange light which seemed to be quite distinctly outlined and was not a reflection of the moon, nor were there any clouds in the neighbour hood. The light became brighter and I could distinctly see three shapes, one in the centre having what looked like outspread wings; the other two were not so large, but were quite plainly distinct from the centre one. They appeared to have a long, loose-hanging garment of a golden tint, and they were above the German line facing us.

We stood watching them for about three quarters of an hour. All the men with me saw them, and other men came up from other groups who also told us they had seen the same thing.

I remember the day because it was a day of terrible anxiety for us. That morning the Munsters had a bad time on our right, and so had the Scots Guards. We managed to get to the wood . . . Later on, the Uhlans attacked us, and we drove them back with heavy loss. It was after this engagement, when we were dog-tired, that the vision appeared to us.”

The Society for Psychical Research wrote to the Lady Superintendent of the hospital at which the man had been treated, to whom he was said to have told his experience before it was published, and asked her if she could give details of his whereabouts. She replied on 28.10.15:

” The man about whom you enquire has left here and has failed to answer my letter and postcard. I do not therefore know his present whereabouts. When I hear from him again I will write to you.”

There is nothing to suggest that the witness was ever located, but nor was the report disproved; this was a time of high casualties in France. The situation was a happier one than the Mail found itself in later in the month. The SPR enquiry tells the story well: -

” One other piece of alleged evidence in support of the ‘Angels of Mons’ may be briefly dismissed. In the Daily Mail for August 24, 1915, there appeared a communication from G.S.Hazlehurst stating that a certain Private Robert Cleaver, 1st Cheshire Regiment, had signed an affidavit in his presence to the effect that he “personally was at Mons and saw the Vision of Angels with (his) own eyes.” Speaking of his interview with Private Cleaver, Mr Hazlehurst said:

” When I saw Private Cleaver, who struck me as being a very sound, intelligent man, he at once volunteered his statement and had no objection to signing an affidavit before me that he had seen the Angels of Mons. He said that things were at the blackest with our troops, and if it had not been for the supernatural intervention they would have been annihilated. The men were in retreat, and lying down behind small tufts of grass for cover. Suddenly, the vision came between them and the German cavalry. He described it as a ‘flash’ . . The cavalry horses rushed in all directions and were disorganised”.

In the Daily Mail for September 2, 1915, there appeared a further communication from Mr Hazlehurst to the effect that in consequence of a rumour that Private Cleaver was not present at the Battle of Mons, he had written to the headquarters at Salisbury for information as to his movements, and received the following reply:

” From – Records Office, Cheshire Regiment. 10515 R.Cleaver.

With regard to your enquiries concerning the above man, the following are the particulars concerning him. He mobilised at Chester on August 22, 1914. He was posted out to the 1st Battalion, Expeditionary Force, France, with a draft on September 6, 1914. He returned to England on December 14, sick.”

Mr Hazlehurst concludes:

The battle of Mons was in August, 1914, and readers will draw their own conclusions. Information sworn on oath is usually regarded as sufficiently trustworthy for publication, but apparently not in this case.”

Much more intriguing is a letter sent to Arthur Machen by a Lieutenant-Colonel whose identity was apparently known to the Daily Mail, and who was present at the Retreat from Mons. It appeared in the issue dated September 14th, and seems never to have been refuted. It is worth mentioning that some historians have placed the publication of this account a year earlier, which would render it as vital evidence for a pre-Bowmen provenance for the stories. However, it definitely appeared over a year after the events that it reports. Nonetheless, its simplicity, and lack of specific identification of individualssomehow lend it a credibility not possessed by some other reports: -

” On August 26, 1914, was fought the battle of Le Cateau. We came into action at dawn, and fought till dusk. We were heavily shelled by the German artillery during the day, and in common with the rest of our division had a bad time of it.

Our division, however, retired in good order. We were on the march all night of the 26th and on the 27th, with only about two hours’ rest. The brigade to which I belonged was rearguard to the division, and during the 27th we were all absolutely worn out with fatigue – both bodily and mental fatigue.

No doubt we also suffered to a certain extent from shock; but the retirement still continued in excellent order, and I feel sure that our mental faculties were still . . . in good working condition.

On the night of the 27th I was riding along in the column with two other officers. We had been talking and doing our best to keep from falling asleep on our horses. As we rode along I became conscious of the fact that, in the fields on both sides of the road along which we were marching, I could see a very large body of horsemen. These horsemen had the appearance of squadrons of cavalry, and they seemed to be riding across the fields and going in the same direction as we were going, and keeping level with us . . .

I did not say a word about it at first, but I watched them for about twenty minutes. The other two officers had stopped talking. At last one of them asked me if I saw anything in the fields. I then told him what I had seen. The third officer then confessed that he too had been watching these horsemen for the past twenty minutes. So convinced were we that they were real cavalry that, at the next halt, one of the officers took a party of men out to reconnoitre, and found no one there. The night then grew darker, and we saw no more.

The same phenomenon was seen by many men in our column. Of course, we were all dog-tired and overtaxed, but it is an extraordinary thing that the same phenomenon should be witnessed by so many different people. I myself am absolutely convinced that I saw these horsemen, and I feel sure that they did not exist only in my imagination . .”

Quite rightly, the SPR Enquiry juxtaposes the above with this letter from Lance-Corporal A.Johnstone, late of the Royal Engineers, which was published in the Evening News of 11.8.15: -

” We had almost reached the end of the retreat, and after marching a whole day and night with but one half-hour’s rest in between, we found ourselves on the outskirts of Langy, near Paris, just at dawn, and as the day broke we saw in front of us large bodies of cavalry, all formed up into squadrons – fine, big men, on massive chargers. I remember turning to my chums in the ranks and saying: “Thank God! We are not far off Paris now. Look at the French cavalry.” They, too, saw them quite plainly, but on getting closer, to our surprise the horsemen vanished and gave place to banks of white mist, with clumps of trees and bushes dimly showing through them . . .

When I tell you that hardened soldiers who had been through many a campaign were marching quite mechanically along the road and babbling all sorts of nonsense in sheer delirium, you can well believe we were in a fit state to take a row of beanstalks for all the saints in the calendar.”

The summer of 1915 saw the publication of several books and booklets dealing with Bowmen, Angels and related issues. They included a fair amount of debate, and not a little name-calling. As I’m trying to stick to source material here, rather than the minutiae of opinions and attitudes, I won’t detail the comings and goings of the various writers; but I will summarise the best-sellers among them.

The first to appear was a 15-page booklet, gloriously titled The Angel Warriors at Mons, Including Numerous Confirmatory Testimonies, Evidence of the Wounded and Certain Curious Historical Parallels, An Authentic Record by Ralph Shirley, Editor of the Occult Review. It was published by the Newspaper Publicity Co., 61, Fleet Street, London, E.C. It covers the basic ‘Angels’ stories, and includes a number of excerpts from the vivid writings of Phyllis Campbell, as well as some interesting accounts of other battlefield visions: the Virgin Mary at Suwalki, and the Battle of Edge Hill.

The next to be published – on 10.8.15 – was The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War by Arthur Machen himself, published by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton Kent & Co. This appeared in two separate editions, the second being the better value as in addition to reprinting The Bowmen itself, it also includes five further short stories in a similar vein: The Soldier’s Rest: The Monstrance: The Dazzling Light: The Little Nations and The Men From Troy. Some of these are, in my hopelessly biased opinion, quite beautiful. Why they are described as ‘Other Legends of the War’ I cannot say – so far as I’m aware, they are all completely original.

The controversial part of Machen’s book is the 51-page Introduction, which tells the story of the development of The Bowmen as the author himself saw it: his point of view being that he was its author, not its historian. He fairly quotes evidence from both sides of the ‘event’ hypothesis – vision vs. hallucination – but still stays with his belief that there was no ‘event’ at all. This Introduction is beautifully crafted, and well worth reading in its entirety.

There were, of course, many who believed in the legends, and their views found a popular outlet in On the Side of the Angels – the Story of the Angels at Mons – an Answer to ‘The Bowmen’, by Harold Begbie. I understand that Mr Begbie was quite a notable author at the time, but his writing displays limited critical faculties. His contention is that whether the visions occurred or not, it was not Machen who originated them. Begbie marshalls most of the ‘pro-event’ material, from the fairly reputable down to the worst of the vague and rewritten, but actually adds little to the canon of stories with which the public was already familiar. Nonetheless, it was clearly influential at the time.

Various other publications appeared in 1915 and 1916, while the various stories and opinions held the public imagination to a remarkable degree. Few of them made contributions of any great originality, but an honourable mention must go to a skilful and elaborate parody, Find the Angels – The Showmen – A Legend of the War, by T.W.H.Crosland, published by T.Werner Laurie, 1915. This exquisitely parodies Machen’s Introduction, includes The Showmen itself, and various appendices taking shots at Machen, Begbie and the rest, and ending with some verses parodying Kipling in ‘The White Feather Legion’. I do admire Mr.Crosland’s skill!

One way and another, I think I have presented most – if not all – of the relevant material that appeared in Britain between the retreat from Mons itself, at the end of August 1914, and Christmas 1915. Other than these, there were opinions a-plenty, many quite critical, considered and convincing. Were I playing sceptic – as I often do when commenting on strange events and phenomena – I would weigh those comments heavily in the balance. But that isn’t my aim in compiling this account. To round oof this collection of evidence – and not-quite evidence – there are some other, later reports that deserve a hearing . . .

There is a little-known report in the Grays and Tilbury Gazette for 25.8.17., of angels on the home front: actually, at Grays Thurrock, a place not famed for drama, romance or mystery, situated on the Thames in Essex. Here, at a relatively optimistic stage of the war, were seen the ‘Peace Angels’.

” All Argent Street was out after them”, said one speaker. “They appeared over the Exmouth, two of them sitting on two rainbows with ‘Peace’ in between. Then they faded away, leaving only the rainbow.” Another observer said that the angels had, “roses wreathed in their hair.” It seems that children, in particular, were taken with this attractive story.

Moving on some years, on 17.2.1930 the Daily News published the following strange tale: -

” The British really saw in 1914 what they called the Angels of Mons, if a story by a former member of the Imperial German Intelligence Service is to be believed. This officer, Colonel Friedrich Herzenwirth, whose narrative is published in a newspaper in New York, says:

‘ The Angels of Mons were motion pictures thrown upon ‘screens’ of foggy white cloudbanks in Flanders by cinematographic projecting machines mounted on German aeroplanes which hovered above the British lines.’

The reports of British troops during the retreat from Mons on August 24th, 1914 – that they had seen ‘angels the size of men’, which appeared to be in the rearguard of the retreating army – were attributed by psychologists to mass hypnotism and hallucination. Colonel Herzenwirth says the object of the Germans responsible for these scientific ‘visions’ was to create superstitious terror in the allied ranks, calculated to produce panic and a refusal to fight an enemy which appeared to enjoy special supernatural protection. But the Germans miscalculated.

‘ What we had not figured on’, adds the Colonel, ‘was that the English should turn the vision to their own benefit. This was a magnificent bit of counter-propaganda, for some of the English must have been fully aware of the mechanism of our trick. Their method of interpreting our angels as protectors of their own troops turned the scales completely upon us. Had the British command contented itself with simply issuing an Army order unmasking our trickery it would not have been half as effective.’

The next day, in the same newspaper, the following appeared:

” Following is a message received yesterday from our Berlin correspondent.

‘ A prominent member of the War Intelligence Department in the present German Ministry declares that the story is a hoax, Herzenwirth himself a myth or, if existing, a liar. It is officially stated that there is no such person.’

Mr Arthur Machen, the author, told the Daily News yesterday that the whole story of the apparitions was a legend invented by himself. It arose, Mr Machen said, from a story called The Bowmen, which he wrote and which was published on September 29, 1914.

” The story told how, during the retreat from Mons, some English soldiers in the trenches saw the advancing Germans dropping down by whole regiments. That, they supposed, was due to the fact that one of them said, half in a joke, ‘May St. George be a present help to the English!’

The tale is that St.George came along bringing with him the ghosts of the bowmen of the old days, and the Germans were supposed to be pierced by ghostly arrows. Nothing particular happened for the next few months, but some time in 1915 it was pointed out that people were taking the story as true. Then they began to turn the bowmen into angels. They elaborated the story and changed it about in all sorts of ways.”

The next, very peculiar tale comes from Fate magazine for May 1968. It is taken from a letter from a Rev.Albert H.Baller of Clinton, Mass. who was apparently lecturing on Unidentified Flying Objects to a group of engineers in New Britain, Conn. in 1955 or 1956, when one of the engineers gave him this report: -

” He said that he was in the trenches near Ypres in August, 1915, when the Germans launched the first gas attack. Since it was the very first, neither he nor any of his buddies knew what it meant when they looked out over no-man’s-land and saw a strange grey cloud rolling towards them. When it struck, pandemonium broke out. Men dropped all around him and the trench was in an uproar. Then, he said, a strange thing happened. Out of the mist, walking across no-mam’s land, came a figure. He seemed to be without special protection and he wore the uniform of the Royal Medical Corps. The engineer remembered that the stranger spoke English with what seemed to be a French accent.

On his belt the stranger from the poison cloud had a series of small hooks on which were suspended tin cups. In his hand he carried a bucket of what looked like water. As he slid down into the trench he began removing the cups, dipping them into the bucket and passing them out to the soldiers, telling them to drink quickly. The engineer was among those who received the potion. He said it was extremely salty, almost too salty to swallow. But all of the soldiers who were given the liquid did drink it, and not one of them suffered lasting effects from the gas.

When the gas cloud had blown over and things calmed down the unusual visitor was not to be found. No explanation for his visit could be given by the Royal Medical Corps – but the fact remained that thousands of soldiers died or suffered lasting effects from that grim attack, but not a single soldier who took the cup from the stranger was among the casualties.

It is certainly not to my credit that I have not remembered the engineer’s name. I do recall that on later enquiry that evening I discovered he was a man of some standing in his profession, known for his complete honesty and integrity.”

This story, with its vague provenance, has all the trappings of an ‘urban legend’ or ‘foaftale’, but I have not encountered it elsewhere. I am intrigued by the similarities to the ‘Comrade In White’ accounts, and as there is clearly some awareness of World War 1 legends in the USA, I wonder if any reader may have come across others?

The final original account I think worth presenting is this quiet, unassuming, and at least signed letter to The Spectator, which published it on 19.10.1918, some three weeks before the Armistice. It is not the first report to claim that some particular element of an event was seen only by the Germans: -

” Sir – Much has been said at various times about alleged superhuman interventions in our favour when, in ‘that dire autumn’ of 1914, our heroic ‘Contemptibles’ were in retreat, pressed hard by overwhelming forces. To myself nothing has come in the way of evidence on that subject with such a claim on attention and, I think, on credence as what I heard not many weeks ago from my friend (he allows the mention of his name) the Rev.W.Elliott Bradley, Vicar of Crosthwaite, Keswick, a reporter whose accurate memory and sober sense I entirely trust.

He got a practically identical account of a certain incident of that crisis from each of three soldiers, old Contemptibles, to whom he talked on three separate occasions. The first two men were, at different times, in a V.A.D. hospital near Ulverston, where the Rev.Bradley was rector between three and four years ago. The third man was seen not many months ago working on a farm near Keswick after discharge from the Army. Mr.Bradley asked in each case whether the soldiers recalled ‘anything unusual’ at the crises of the retreat. And each man without hesitation gave this answer. The Germans were coming on in massed formation, and the men of the thin British line were preparing to sell their lives dear: it was the only thing to do; the Teuton host could not help walking over them on the way to Paris. Suddenly the grey masses halted; even the horses of the cavalry jibbed and reared; and the collision did not take place. German prisoners, taken a little later, were asked why they failed to attack on such an advantage.

The answer was straight and simple: they saw strong British reinforcements coming up. Such was the story told, without leading or prompting as to detail, by these three isolated witnesses at first hand. Two, if not three, added quietly the comment, “It was God that did it.”

As my friend pointed out to me, the incident was the more impressive because all the men agreed that our soldiers saw nothing. The vision was not given to them, though their nerves might well be strained to an imaginative exaltation by their tremendous position. It was the Germans, in the full consciousness of their overmastering force and seeming easy certainty of victory, whose “eyes were opened”. I may add that what was seen was of a kind to suggest fact rather than subjective phantasm. The delivering host appeared not as ‘winged squadrons of the sky’ but as British soldiers, neither less nor more. At this hour of mighty victories, let us not forget the Supreme Disposer who, as I for one humbly believe, intervened in mystery and mercy then. (signed) Handley Dunelm, Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland.”

The best contemporary investigation was – as has so often been the case – that conducted by the Society for Psychical Research. There is much to be said for a comprehensive knowledge of the field, an open mind, and the persistent application of common-sense. Here are some excerpts from the conclusions of the SPR Enquiry: -

” Summing up the evidence at our disposal, the following conclusions may be drawn:

a. Many of the stories which have been current during the past year concerning ‘visions’ on the battlefield prove on investigation to be founded on mere rumour, and cannot be traced to any authoritative source.

b. After we have discounted these rumours, we are left with a small residue of evidence, which seems to indicate that a certain number of men who took part in the retreat from Mons honestly believe themselves to have had at that time supernormal experiences of a remarkable character . .

In the main, the result of our enquiry is negative, at least as regards the question of whether any apparitions were seen on the battlefield, either at Mons or elsewhere. Of first-hand testimony we have received none at all, and of testimony at second-hand we have none that would justify us in assuming the occurrence of any supernormal phenomenon. For we cannot make this assumption until we have established at least a strong probability that the observed effects are such as only a supernormal phenomenon could produce, and in the present instance, as I have tried to show, all our efforts to obtain the detailed evidence upon which an enquiry of this kind must be based have proved unavailing.”

I cannot disagree with those conclusions, but I hope that, still, there may be further evidence still to come to light. Should it do so, I will be happy to rewrite this account accordingly. In the meantime, it is most important of all to remember that the legends we are discussing come from a time and place of tremendous courage, and dreadful suffering: almost impossible for us, now, to imagine. Any quality or worth this account may have is dedicated entirely to those who then fought on our behalf. If there really was some element of divine intervention, they had earned that, and more besides.

I still don’t know what happened during the Retreat from Mons: I doubt that I ever will. Perhaps the most vital point of dispute is whether Arthur Machen’s story The Bowmen was responsible, as Machen himself believed, for all the stories and legends of supernatural intervention that appeared from March 1915 onwards. My personal view is that there was rather more to it than that, and I concur with the opinion of the SPR in effectively suggesting that the men of the B.E.F. – or a number of them, anyway – were aware of reports of a ‘cloud’ or of ‘angels’ before the publication of The Bowmen on 29th September 1914. It would be helpful to know what flow of private correspondence there was between the B.E.F. and home that September: whatever there was seems not to have yielded any relevant reports. On the other hand, I doubt that Machen, among the many writers covering the war, alone received a secret tip-off, unknown to the rest of the press. I am sure that he genuinely believed that all the legends sprang from his own.

He may have been right, but there do seem to be two separate stories of intervention – the ‘Bowmen’ and the ‘Angels’- though there are certainly later accounts in which both appear, the two forms having apparently been amalgamated. Anyone familiar with the development of folklore will be aware of how easily such changes occur. But the initial formats and characteristics of each story are quite different, and it is hard to see how the one could have emanated from the other. There is no written record of any sort of ‘intermediate’ version, bridging the two.

I have, earlier, made the point that if one does not accept Machen’s explanation, and decides instead that there was either an event, or a belief in an event, then there are physical factors to be taken into account. There are strong arguments put involving the hallucinatory effects of extreme fatigue. I must agree with those who suggest that a combination of tiredness, discomfort and fear, prolonged over an excessive period, can effectively trigger an ASC (altered state of consciousness) of one type or another. This effect would be heightened among an interactive group, though oddly enough the ‘angel’ reports refer consistently to the sudden, almost surprise nature of the phenomenon. It is the ‘Bowmen’ reports, presumably of fictional origin, that stress the positive decision to seek supernatural intervention.

In the end, we all have our own thresholds of belief and acceptance, and responses to the Mons material will continue to vary, as they have already done for many years. So long as any conclusions are drawn on the basis of the breadth of the available source material, which I hope I’ve been able to present, I will have no strong reason to disagree with any of them.


I’ve included a good many references to newspapers and periodicals in the text, but I think it may be useful to collate details of books, booklets and pamphlets to which I’ve either referred while writing this account, or which I know exist, and are relevant, even though I’ve never seen them. I am indebted to the Imperial War Museum’s Booklist No. 1256A: The Angels of Mons, for several of these references, though even they have few of them in their library. I’ve marked with an asterisk the titles that I haven’t actually been able to find.

  • Altsheler, J.A. The Hosts of the Air: the story of a quest in the Great War. Appleton, London. 1915. *
  • Begbie, H. On the Side of the Angels. Hodder and Stoughton, London. 1915.
  • Campbell, P. Back of the Front. Newnes, London. 1915. *
  • Charteris, J. At G.H.Q. Cassell. 1931.
  • Churchwoman, A. The Chariots of God. Stockwell, London. 1915.
  • Corbett-Smith, A. The Retreat from Mons – by one who shared in it. Cassell. 1917. (An early personal account, which makes no mention of any strange or supernatural event).
  • Crosland, T.W.H. The Showmen: A Legend of the War. Laurie, London. 1915.
  • Garnier, Col. The Visions of Mons and Ypres: their meaning and purpose. R.Banks, London. 1915. *
  • Machen, A. The Bowmen and other Legends of the war. Simpkin Marshall, London. 1915.
  • Pearson, J.J. The Rationale of the Angel Warriors at Mons during the retreat and the apparitions at the battles of the Marne and the Aisne. Christian Globe, London. 1915. *
  • Phillips, A.F. and Thurston Hopkins, R. War and the Weird. Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., London. 1916.
  • Shirley, R. Angel Warriors at Mons: an Authentic Record. Newspaper Publishing Co., London. 1915.
  • Stuart, R. Dreams and Visions of the War. Pearson, London. 1917. *
  • Taylor, I.E.  Angels, Saints and Bowmen at Mons. Theosophical Publishing Society. 1916.
  • Terraine, J. Mons. Pan. 1962.
  • Terraine, J. The Smoke and the Fire. Sidgwick & Jackson. 1980.
  • Warr, C.L. The Unseen Host – Stories of the Great War. Alexander Gardner, Paisley. 1916.

Thanks . . . are long overdue to many friends and fellow writers, who have contributed to this account in one way or another: particularly by remembering to send me the cuttings and references that have added so much to the variety of sources I have been able to provide. There are many others, but I must mention Michael Goss, Granville Oldroyd, Hilary Evans, Mark Valentine, Andy Roberts, Bob Skinner, Robert Rickard, and Eleanor O’Keeffe and the SPR. Most of them have probably forgotten just how much help they gave!

Kevin McClure 1994


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In the Light of Experience.
Thomas E. Bullard

From Magonia 44, October 1982

In Magonia 42 Hilary Evans and Peter Rogerson take me to task as they speak out again in favour of a psychosocial explanation for UFO abductions. Their interests are friendly, but they leave me in need of saving myself from my friends, and my friends from themselves.

To begin on an agreeable note. I agree with much of what they say. Peter Rogerson is quite right to point out that variation is present in abduction narratives. The beings described are far from copies of one another, the plots and details differ as well. Yet the importance of differences depends on their proportion to the similarities, and similarities prevail throughout my sample of reports. The picture is especially clear among the 103 high information, high reliability cases. The ‘ufological filter’ through which the reports reach the literature is a serious concern, but please remember that those 103 good cases are the work of fifty different investigators or teams. the contributions of Budd Hopkins do not swamp all others. An implausibly large cadre of investigators marches in lockstep to the same tune, if they impose the similarities.

I have to disagree with Rogerson when he takes lightly the failure of abduction narrators to exploit the broad range of science-fiction ideas available today, and would have us believe that abductee narratives have about reached their limits. I would not lay any bets. Human imagination is wonderfully adaptive, and likely to defy any limits or prescribed directions set up by unimaginative scholars – assuming of course that imagination rather than experience sets the course of the abduction story.

Rogerson mentions Edith Fiore’s cases as examples of the more varied accounts that come through a less single-minded ufological filter than, say, Hopkins’s. I would point out the case of Dan in chapter 12 of Fiore’s book as a fine example of what imagination can do. Dan claims 627 abductions (give or take one or two?), and recalls a life of high adventure during his days in the Space Marines. He retired to Earth in the body of a boy, but wants to re-enter active duty now that he is once more an adult. Who says imagination is limited? His story illustrates what I would expect if abduction stories were imaginative – Flash Gordon adventures, extraterrestrial Harlequin romances and ego satisfaction tailored to individual needs of the narrators. What I see instead is largely impersonal and often unpleasant. Even the people who feel they benefit from the experience acknowledge that it is difficult, a challenge, a lesson hard to learn no matter how positive the outcome may be.

So yes, we find variety. At the same time we find a core of stability that is absent in 1950s contactee stories. That observation should alert us that abductions are not just contactee yarns with a forced entry and medical examination tacked on. Abductions are like Old Hag experiences in part, like fairy kidnap in part, like epileptic seizures in part, like 1950s space movies in part. Like many things in part, but also coherent with a uniqueness of their own. Say there were twice the usual number of murders in town last night – one with a gun, one with a knife, one with a blunt instrument, one by strangulation and six by axe and those within a one-block area. We do not need Sherlock Holmes to tell us that those six axe murders are probably related, the other four probably not. This same intuition applied to abductions advises that the coherent reports differ in a qualitative way from the largely idiosyncratic accounts.

The investigator’s dilemma is how to focus on that core phenomenon without prejudging its nature. Discrimination of evidence is a necessary evil, since the alternative is a hopelessly muddled sample. I would suggest that not every encounter is an abduction, not every abduction story is genuine, and not every genuine (whatever that may mean) abductee describes the experience in uniform or even accurate terms. Many stories can pass as ‘abductions’ through a lenient filter. Settle for a few content points as an adequate intersection and the list of ‘related’ narratives will never end. A meaningful understanding of the abduction phenomenon requires stricter criteria, specifically attention to the most unique and puzzling materials. Fifty or a hundred reports with a complexity of details but little inclination to imaginative elaboration is mystery enough. the other accounts need explaining as well, and might lend themselves to psychosocial theories already offered, but let’s not confuse an already difficult issue with obvious hoaxes, probable fantasies, or remote analogies.

Which brings us to Hilary Evans and his solution. I argue from the standpoint of a folklorist that too many abduction reports demonstrate a stubborn and unnecessary consistency to be products of the imagination pure and simple. He seems to have little use for folklorists. A century and a half of scholarship has left us with nothing but a ‘free-for-all’ of amorphous materials imposed upon by the half-baked schemes of scholars, no two of whom are in agreement. Folklorists are prone to keep their heads in books, and abstract stereotypical patterns out of a mass of individual narratives while forgetting that the stereotype is a scholarly fiction. The folklorist loses sight of the individual factor in narratives, and makes up rules about non-existent ideals.

Any candid assessment of folklore theory would have to give at least a partial nod to these criticisms. Much toil has produced few results, and scholarship has torn off in wrong directions all too often. But folklorists are not such a bad lot: some of us love dogs and children, most of us bathe regularly (once or twice a week whether we need it or not), and quite a few of us leave our books from time to time and make contact with the ‘folk’.

One thing we have learned about this ‘folk’ is that its members are seldom old goodwives in chimney corners, such as come to Evans’s mind when I speak of ordinary storytellers who forget or fumble their narrative. No. You and I are the folk. Our role as folk depends on the way we communicate, and not on our social circumstances, while our words acquire folklore status more by the channels we pass them along that by their inherent contents. Folklore needs no validation of hoary age. Jokes and urban legends spring up day by day and go the rounds.


Folklore scholars once drew arbitrary boundaries between folk, popular and mass culture, but we learned our lesson. the folk show no respect for such distinctions. What matters is how narrators use those ideas, not their ultimate origin or nature


Science fiction and forms of communal fantasy are perfectly good sources of folkloric communication, contrary to what Evans implies. Folklore scholars once drew arbitrary boundaries between folk, popular and mass culture, but we learned our lesson. the folk show no respect for such distinctions. What matters is how narrators use those ideas, not their ultimate origin or nature. As long as narrators treat the materials as folklore, they are folklore wherever they come from; old tradition, science fiction, the tabloid press, the TV set, or for that matter, direct personal experience.

The ‘rules’ I referred to certainly lack the status of natural law. Contrary to the title of Alexander Krappe’s famous book, there is no ‘science of folklore’. Folklorists cannot predict how a narrative will change with the certitude of an astronomer who predicts the return of Halley’s Comet. At the same time folklore is not entirely amorphous. If science is not a search for The Truth but, more modestly expressed, a search for order in nature, then folklore scholarship still offers pertinent help in understanding what happens to narratives in circulation. Ultimate questions of why and wherefore may raise conflicts among various schools of thought, but at a lower level of empirical inquiry folklorists have learned something about the dynamics of narratives.

Simple observation makes it clear that narratives vary. People tell the same general story in a variety of ways, whether by accident or design. Some of those old goodwives are formidable narrators who shape their stories into a fine artistic production. Most of the rest of

 us shape them according to our lesser abilities and fallibilities. In either case variation results. We expect to find it in abduction reports because our first reasonable assumption pegs them as products of imagination. The loose construction of the story and the wealth of ideas available from various cultural sources leads us to expect a great deal of variation. When we find a relative lack of it, an anomaly confronts us. An anomaly tells us that something is wrong with our assumption.#

This finding is simply interesting. It does not prove aliens or any other specific explanation, but it calls into question cultural sources working through the usual channels of borrowing and communication. This is a slender sort of conclusion, but it comes about in the right way. It comes from an application of what we know to be a problem, rather than an application of wishful thinking or doctrinaire theory.

I agree that psychosocial theorists attribute abductions to more than folklore, and draw parallels with many form of communal fantasy. I disagree with Evans when he says that folklore ‘rules’ therefore no longer apply. The folklorist’s understanding of narrative dynamics comes from studies of memory processes and the circulation of unofficial communications in society. Much of what happens to folklore as it passes from person to person also happens in the transmission of rumour and gossip, in episodes of mass hysteria, in fads and popular movements – in any human effort to formulate and convey an account of an unusual experience. What is communal fantasy anyway but the action of emotionally charged ideas on a transpersonal scale? Folklorists are at home with these processes, and share an understanding of their regularities with scholars in other disciplines.

Where we truly part company is over his explanation of abduction experiences. He identifies them as a combination of folklore, in the form of shared myth, with deep individual need. The narrator externalises those private needs in a fantasy, but shapes it according to the outlines of some familiar stereotype to give a public legitimacy. Some narrators choose the demonic possession script, others choose abduction, but the underlying cause is the same. The personal factor causes variations, the stereotype or public myth provides stability.

No one would question that a personal element goes into almost every narrative – Freud pointed out the deep motivations behind telling a mere joke, and all of us have recognised more superficial motives in ourselves, like the desire to make others laugh or outdo another narrator. Abduction narratives often engage strong emotions, and clearly express deep needs of the narrator. Yet rather than explaining the minor variations with abduction narratives, this undeniable emotional pressure simply deepens the mystery of why those variations remain so minor. This pressure should crack all containers. The individual with a need to externalise has many cultural frames to choose from, demonological or otherwise, and could choose many abduction-based scenarios to make a fantasy public. Any one of them would serve as well as another. In fact narrators in surprising numbers pick the same scenario. We do not find multiple narrators telling a Dan the Space-Marine story. The space adventurers thrill themselves with a different adventure every time, contactees have a wide range of contacts, but most abductees are stuck in a rut and repeat each other’s abductions like broken records.

Have I led everyone astray by abstracting a stereotypical pattern from the reports, when the pattern is no more than a figment of my scholarly making? I don’t think so. the pattern I found came to light case by case and detail by detail. Examination precedes conference, beings have large heads, and examination rooms have uniform lighting – how abstract can a pattern be when it simply counts specific elements, and recognises some as far more common than others? The pattern emerges because it describes what witnesses report, not because a scholar prescribes what the story ought to be. 



The psychosocial approach has more the characteristics of a faith than a serious effort to explain abductions by wrestling with the data and proposing step-by-step explanations


If anyone is guilty of illegal abstractions it is Evans when he speaks of a ‘shared myth’. The idea of an immutable pattern fixed in the collective mind and capable of shaping consistent abduction reports raises a ghost of scholarship past, and one best left buried. Fifty years ago folklorists might have sympathised with such a notion. Even then patterns like shared myth or tale type were conceived as vague influences, outlines at best, and never floating checklists. The specificity of abduction reports demands no less, if we are to understand how narrators duplicate one another’s stories in so many aspects. A recurrent abduction story that combines shared myth and personal need is a chimera, a monster of instability. Personal needs drive the story away from unity, not toward it. If folklore is so amorphous that it obeys no discernible rules, how can we have a shared myth so static in its pattern, so efficacious in its influence on one narrator after another, that it bonds complex stories together and secures them against the howling forces of variation? Inquiring minds want to know.

Psychosocial theories differ considerably in specific contents, emphasising the psychological side or the sociocultural side to explain abduction narratives. Folklorists adopt this same approach when they explain narratives of extraordinary experience as ideas drawn from tradition, or false experience provoked by tradition-based expectations. Since folklorists have long excluded any other explanation, they deserve recognition as diligent and loyal psychosocial proponents in their own right. Only thanks to David Hufford’s studies of Old Hag tradition has the experience-based narrative re-entered the folklorist’s conceptual vocabulary. He establishes that exclusive reliance on psychosocial answers inadequately accounts for reports of extraordinary encounters.

Yes, our concepts of folklore might need to change even further. Folklore may be developing in ways hitherto unknown, and abduction reports may not behave like folklore as we know and love it. As a folklorist I can take an interest in abductions on the basis of this possibility alone. But if the psychosocial approach is right, these reports must act like creations of the human imagination, be driven by human motivations and derive from human creative processes. If so, these narratives cannot differ in their dynamics from other such creations, folk narratives amongst them. If experiences count for anything, then abduction reports should vary more than they do. To deny the findings of folklore scholarship in this evaluation is to deny experience, a great deal of it by many scholars after long years of enquiry, not into books but into the practice of narrators. On what else but experience can we base our conclusions? Discount it and then we know nothing about any narratives and all theories are worthless. We might as well bring back the mating hedgehogs and mix comic relief with our bemusement.

The psychosocial theorists who dismiss the experience of folklorists offer little in its place. A communal container for an expression of individual needs sounds like a reasonable description, but it leaves too many questions about how it stabilises the narrative. 

I have shown, one element at a time, that stability exists among a sizable sample of abductions reports, and folklorists have shown that variation is rife around narratives such as folk tales and urban legends. These conclusions are limited but demonstrable. From the psychosocial camp I hear many assertions but little proof. The claim that shared myth and personal need can coexist in narratives as stable as we observe runs counter to experience or intuition, yet we must accept this claim as self-evident. I can understand why “there are probably as many PS-hypotheses as there are PS-proponents.” A failure to provide convincing demonstrations for any hypothesis leaves them all unpersuasive. The psychosocial approach has more the characteristics of a faith than a serious effort to explain abductions by wrestling with the data and proposing step-by-step explanations. Those of us who prefer reason to revelation won’t bite.

The abduction phenomena is a genuine anomaly. Whether similar strange experiences provoke similar strange stories, or personal needs somehow motivate people to select the same few story elements out of all the possibilities available to them, the problem remains provocative. Blame aliens, something akin to the Old Hag, Kenneth Ring’s imaginal realm, Jacques Vallée’s control system, an unexpected property of narrative transmission, hedgehogs or anything else. Folklore scholarship certainly cannot pick the winner. It can only point out some probable losers.

Something more than narrative processes, shared myths, media influences, or investigators leading the witness seem necessary to explain the consistency of the narratives. On the other hand experience could hold a body of narratives together, and gets my vote pending any more persuasive alternative. I am presently cataloguing reports from 1986 to the present, and I will be anxious to see if the consistencies I found in the earlier sample hold up in the latter. I will also be interested to see how widespread the genuine differences, such as descriptions of the beings or evolving episodes like the baby presentation, prove to be. The answers will follow as a consequence of evidence, not as an article of faith.

Saving sinners is a bit out of my line; nevertheless, let me step out of character and end with an exhortation to psychosocial proponents, that they do their ideas justice. I object less to the ideas themselves than to their cavalier presentation. Speculative assertions and random examples cannot substitute for consistent arguments backed with convincing evidence, and with the exception of Martin Kottmeyer, psychosocial proponents seem to disdain both. I’m slow-witted. Show me step-by-step how your explanations work, and I’m perfectly willing to believe. As matters now stand, you have accumulated a huge explanatory debt, and like the U.S. budget, the weight of that debt threatens to sink you down the tubes of history unless your repent. There’s still time, brothers.


Spooklights in Tradition and Folklore.
David Clarke

First published in Magonia 24, November 1980.

…Of purpose to deceive us
And leading us makes us stray
Long winter nights out of the way
And when we stick in mire or clay
He doth with laughter lead us

Drayton’s Nymphidia

Few people today will have heard about the once common phenomenon known generally in the British Isles as ‘Will o’the Wisp’ or ‘Jack o’Lantern’. Prior to the end of the 19th century this rural mystery was a terror familiar to night travellers, especially in the marshy, undrained areas which still remained in many parts of England.

willothewispWill o’the Wisp is known to scientists by its Latin name ignis fatuus – foolish fire – and is variously described as a strong, flame-like light (often first taken for a lantern or the lights of a house in the distance) seen hovering over marshland just after sunset. However, many reliable witnesses have described seeing brilliant Will o’the Wisps dancing over hedgerows, rising high in the air or performing elaborate movements. They often appear to display signs of intelligence – the light is said to recede from an observer who approaches it, or follow him if he retires. This appears to contradict the long-held, but never proven, belief that Will o’the Wisps are caused by the spontaneous ignition of marsh-gas or ‘phosphoretted hydrogen’ in swampy areas.

In 1980 A.A. Mills, a chemist at Leicester University, published a study investigating the possible connections between marsh-gas and Will o’the Wisps. [1] He worked initially on the old premise that the phenomenon was due to ignition of natural gas or methane, perhaps ignited by contamination with phosphine or a higher hydride. Mills experimentally tried to create a Will o’the Wisp in his laboratory by filling a gallon glass bottle with compost, peat, eggs, bone meal and other such ingredients, which were then allowed to incubate at a warm temperature. He collected the ‘marsh gas’ which bubbled off, “but although repulsively odiferous it never displayed the slightest luminosity when allowed to come into contact with air”.

Further, Mills stated that to explain Will o’the Wisp as marsh gas one had to “explain how to achieve natural ignition of an intermittent, disconnected bubble of gas rising through the marsh”. The suggestion that phosphine could provide this natural ignition is a non-starter, as phosphorous is never found in a pure state in nature, and vapour-phase chromatography has failed to detect even parts per million traces of phosphine in marsh gasses analysed in laboratories.

Will o’the Wisp is therefore as much a mystery in our present age as he was to earlier generations. In recent times he appears to have diappeared from the countryside, along with fairies, as marshes have been drained, and as technology has redefined his image for our modern perceptions. We now regard strange lights in the night sky as heralds of extraterrestrial visitors rather than the mischevious sprites, evil spirits and elementals which were once familiar to our ancestors.

In 1855 a writer in Notes and Queries asked if Will o’the Wisp was still to be seen in any parts of the British Isles. He received replies from many correspondents, giving eyewitness acounts of recent sightings. One correspondent replied:

“I have little doubt that the sprite is still to be met with in certain districts of Essex or among the Norfolk Broads… the inquirer might procure a sight of one if he would enquire of some rustic where they most frequently occur. But for this purpose he must know the vernacular name in the district where he lives” [2]

Nearly every country district of the British Isles has its own particular name for Will o’the Wisp and his kind, most of them personalised – Joan the Wad (Devon and Cornwall); William with the little flame (Ireland); Jenny Burntail (Warwickshire; Kitty wi’the Wisp (Northumberland), and countless others. Similar names can be found throughout Europe: irrllchtern, ‘wandering light’ (Germany); feux-follets (France); Fuoco fatuo (Italy); lycktegubbe ‘lantern bearer’ (Sweden) – suggesting a world-wide occurence of similar phenomena. Other names have been given, or related to Will o’the Wisp. Countryfolk and folklorists connect him with Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Friar Rush and other pagan elementals. These traditions are unwittingly continued on bonfire night when children place a candle in a hollowed-out turnip to represent the evil spirit or Jack o’Lantern. [3]

These wandering lights have been known to haunt certain spots for centuries. The folklore of the Scottish Highlands is particularly rich with stories concerning strange lights regarded as omens of death or disaster, and the Gaelic language has several names for them: solus bais, a death light, solus taisg, a spectre light, and teine biorach, “a fire floating in the air like a bird”.

In ‘Ghostlights of the Western Highlands’ [4] R.C. McLagan writes that “there are places which have got their names from the belief that mysterious lights have appeared in their neighbourhood, Thus Creag an T-Soluis, a rock above Cairn near Port Charlotte, has its name from a belief that supernatural lights used to be seen about it. For the same reason another rock down at the shore below Cairn Cottage is called Carraig na Soluis.”

Almost everywhere these lights are regarded as omens of death, particularly in Celtic countries where the ‘corpse candle’ tradition originates. One account describes the candle as a light “seen during the night slowly gliding from the house to the gate of the churchyard and along the church-road, but that by which the funeral processions pass” [5] McLagan notes that:

“In the Isle of Man, on May Eve, many of the inhabitants remain on the hills till sunrise, endeavouring to pry into futurity by observing particular omens. If a bright light were observed to issue, seemingly, from any house in the surrounding valleys, it was considered a certain indication that some member of that family was soon to be married; but if a dim light were seen, moving slowly in the direction of the parish church, it was then deemed equally certain that a funeral would soon pass that way to the churchyard!” [7]

This tradition is similar to that connecting the lights to areas of pre-historic sanctity – burial mounds, stone circles and ancient religious sites’. In Norwegian folklore the little islands off the coast were inhabited by dwarfs, and on festive nights were “lit up with countless blue lights that moved and skipped about without ceasing, borne by the little underground people; and the grave mounds of heroes emitted lamdent flames that guarded the dead and treasure buried with them [4].

A fascinating account of this kind appeared in the popular science magazine English Mechanic during 1919. This described how a correspondent, T. Sington, saw “strange lights… no doubt will o’the wisps” while walking with a friend in the dead of night near the ancient and spectacular Castlerigg Stone Circle near Keswick in the Lake District:

“When we were at a point near which the track branches off to the Druidical circle, we all at once saw a rapidly moving light as bright as the acetylene lamp of a bicycle, and we instinctively stepped to the road boundary wall to make way for it, but nothing came, As a matter of fact the light travelled at right angles to the road, say 20 feet above our level, possibly 200 yards or so away. It was a white light, and having crossed the road it suddenly diappeared. Whether it went out or passed behind an obstruction it is impossible to say, as I have not yet had an opportunity of again visiting the place during daylight. There is certainly no crossroads there. We then saw a number of lights possibly a third of a mile away, directly in the direction of the Druidical circle, but of course much fainter, no doubt due to distance, moving backwards and forwards horizontally; we stood watching them for a long time, and then only left as it was so late at the hotel people might think we were lost on the mountain (Helvellyn).

“Whilst we were watching a remarkable incident happened – one of the lights, and only one, came straight to the spot where we were standing; at first very faint, as it approached the light increased in intensity. When it came quite near I was in no doubt whether I should stoop below the boundary wall as the light would pass directly over our heads. But when it came close to the wall it slowed down, stopped, quivered, and slowly went out, as if the matter producing the light had become exhausted. It was globular, white, with a nucleus possibly six feet or so in diameter, and just high enough above ground to pass over our heads”

Mr Sington concluded his fascinating story by stating his suspicion that the ancient builders of the stone circle had selected this particular spot “owing to some local conditions at present unknown… such lights would have attracted the attention of the inhabitants, who would have attached great significance to them, and might then have selected the site as a place of worship or sacrifice.” [9]

In view of recent research at various megalithic sites by members of the Dragon Project [9] Mr Sington’s idea seems to be vindicated. In Folklore (1894), Mr M.J. Walhouse describe a visit to the marvellous megalithic stone-rows at Carnac in Britanny, where he asked a boy who was guiding him about any local popular beliefs attached to the stones:

“It was not easy to understand him, and I could only gather that on certain nights a flame was seen burning on every stone, and on such nights no-one would go near – the stones are there believed to mark burial places.”[10]

Walhouse adds that:

“in the extreme south of India the Shanars, a very numerous caste of devil-worshippers, believe that waste-places, and especially burial grounds, are haunted by demons that assume various shapes, one after another, as often as the eye of the observer turns away, and are often seen gliding over marshy land like flickering lights. They are called in Tamil pey-neruppu, i.e. devil fires. Riding late after dark over a jungly tract near mountains I once saw what the natives averred was a pey-neruppu; it seemed a ball of pale flame, the size of an orange, moving in a fitful wavering way above the bushes and passing out of sight behind trees; its movements resembled the flight of an insect, but I know of none in India that shows any such light; the fireflies there are no larger than fireflies in Italy.” [11]

Another writer in the same publication tells an interesting story of similar lights observed in another part of India, upon which similar legends were attached.

“I was staying on a tea-garden (plantation] near Darjiling last year (1893) and one evening as we were walking around the flower garden our eyes were caught by a light like that of a lantern being carried down the path which leads to the vegetable garden some 200 feet below. My host sent for the Mah1i who came down from his house, and asked him what business anyone had to be going to the vegetable garden at that time? ‘Oh’, said the man, ‘that is one of the chota-admis (i.e, little men); and on being asked to explain, he said that these little men lived underground, and only came out at night. He did not appear to be very clear as to what their occupation was, but they always walk or fly with lanterns. They are about three feet high, and they will never allow anyone to get near them; but if by any chance one was to come upon them unexpectedly, they would quickly disappear, and the person who saw them would become ill and probably die. They are constantly about on dark nights, sometimes as many as twenty or thirty together, but he and all the natives always gave them a wide berth.

“Whilst he was speaking we watched the light, which apparently left the path, and in two or three minutes flew across to another portion of the hill, between which and the vegetable garden was a steep dip which would take an ordinary individual at least half an hour to descend and ascend the other side; then it disappeared, and we saw no more that night, but two or three times afterwards we saw similar lights, sometimes carried along the paths and at others flying across dips in the hills. We made enquiries from the natives, who all told the same tale; but when we asked other planters they could tell us nothing about them. The light was too large and not erratic enough for any firefly that we have seen in that neighbourhood, more like a lantern than anything else we could think of.” [12]

There can be little doubt that there is a real, objective natural phenomenon lurking behind many of these accounts, which appear to be describing luminous shape-shifting blobs which have a mysterious relationship with certain areas and types of terrain. They appear to interact in mysterious ways with human beings, particularly those undergoing intense emotional excitement – as shown by the phenomena accompanying the Welsh Revival of 1905, or are attracted to the electric fields surrounding human beings out in the open. Although they may appear to possess some kind of rudimentary or mischievous intelligence, this is more likely to be an illusion produced by the observer through some process of perception. It is more likely that the energy from which they are formed is affected by external changes in the surrounding environment – geology, variations in the earth’s magnetic field, changes in air density, etc. These may all contribute to giving the impression of intelligent motion.

In 1967 ufologist John Keel had realised that it was the spookllght sightings, what he described as ‘soft objects’, which “represented the real phenomenon.” He described these sightings as of “transparent or translucent objects seemingly capable of altering their size and shape dramatically.” [13] During his investigations in West Virginia Keel actually had the opportunity of watching them from his skywatch position at Gallipolis Ferry. In The Mothman Prophecies [14] he says:

“Each night from three to eight unidentified ‘stars’ appeared, They were always in the same position at the beginning of the evening and a casual observer would automatically conclude they were really just stars. However, on overcast nights these unidentifieds would be the only ‘stars’ in the sky, meaning they were below the clouds. While the rest of the night sky slowly rotated, these phony stars would remain in their fixed positions, sometimes for hours, before they would begin to move. Then they would travel in any direction, up, down, clockwise, etc, they had a number of curious traits. When a plane would fly over they would suddenly dim or go out altogether. As soon as the plane was gone they would flare up again.”

These strange lights are still with us, appearing at various spots throughout the world, and there is little doubt their comings and goings will add to the considerable amount of folklore already in existence. The lights which have been haunting the remote Norwegian valley of Hessdalen since 1981 display remarkable ghost-like characteristics – playing tag with observers, at times appearing to be gaseous and at others solid; sometimes showing up on radar and at others not. A similar kind of phenomenon – this time a brilliant orange ball of light – has been plaguing the Pennine hills of Yorkshire and Lancashire since the 1970′s, particulalry the Rossendale Valley and the area around Skipton and Grassendale. The fact that both these areas are criss-crossed by numerous geological faults can surely be no coincidence, and adds to the considerable evidence now available which appears to indicate that one of the variables which may explain the creation and origin of the lights – fault lines – has now been isolated.

As regards the recent sightings in the Craven district of Yorkshire, local UFO investigator Tony Dodd, a police officer and alleged witness to over 200 sightings, said in 1983:
“There are strange things flying around at night, but where they come from is another thing. They seem to be more prevelant on winter nights. A lot of the ones I have seen have been way below cloud level. This area has a very high percentage of national sightings. I have seen 60 to 80 of these machines in the last ten years… I feel because this is one of the hotspots as far as sightings go, there are bases located in certain places where they go underground.” [15]

Although Mr Dodd may not realise it, he may have given us one of the most important clues to solve this mystery.

Notes and References:

  1. HILLS, A. A. ‘Will o’the Wisp’ in Chemistry in Britain, 16:69, Feb. 1980,
  2. Notes and Queries, April 4th 1891.
  3. Old drawings and woodcuts showing Will o’the Wisp’s consistently depict the light being carried in the outstretched hand of an imp or hobgoblin.
  4. McLAGAN, R. C. ‘Ghostlights of the Western Highlands’ in Folklore, vo1,8 (1897), pp.203-256.
  5. FEILBURG, H. H. ‘Ghostly Lights’ in Folklore, vol, 6 (1895), p.293.
  6. This connection has become apparent to me time after time during research work. The sightings around Burton Dassett, Warwickshire, in 1923-4, described in Spooklights; a British Survey were seemingly centred upon a pre-Norman church and its holy well, This is one of many examples which could be cited.
  7. Train’s Isle of Man, vol. ii, p.118.
  8. SINGTON, T„ ‘A Mystery’ in English Mechanic, Oct, 17, 1919, pp,152-153.
  9. ROBINS, D. Circles of Silence, Souvenir Press, 1985.
  10. WALHOUSE, M. J. ‘Ghostly Lights’ in Folklore, vol, 5 (1894), pp. 293-299.
  11. In McLAGAN, op. cit. there is the story of a prehistoric burial cairn near Ledaig in Scotland called Carn Bhan which has a legend attached to it that seven kings were buried there. A 70-year-old woman resident of the area told McLagan that “there used to be a large light often seen at the Carn Bhan, indeed I think it is not so very long ago since it was seen there, I have often seen it there myself, it was as large as the light of that lamp”.
  12. Folklore, vol, 6, (1895), pp. 245-246.
  13. KEEL, JOHN A. ‘The principles of transmogrification’ in Flying Saucer Review, vo1,15, no.4, (June-July 1968), pp,27-31.
  14. KEEL, JOHN A. The Mothman Prophecies, Dutton, 1975
  15. Craven Herald (Skipton, Yorkshire), July 21, 1983.

Indexing the Machine Elves. David Sivier

From Magonia 90, November 2005

Fairy Tale Motifs in UFO Narratives

One of the most fascinating developments in folklore has been its extension to include UFOs and abduction accounts. Since the rise of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) much of the argument surrounding them has occurred within the domain of the physical and psychological sciences, examining the question of whether or not they can be considered as visiting alien craft, or, as C.G. Jung posited instead, they are “a modern myth of things seen in the sky”. [1] It is a debate whose basis in the hard sciences is epitomised in the title of Carl Sagan’s and Thornton Page’s book, UFOs – A Scientific Debate. [2] However, scholars from the soft sciences – anthropology and sociology – and humanities, like history, have also been involved, stressing the need for the social and psychological phenomena subsumed under the UFO rubric to be investigated in their proper cultural, political-economic and historical contexts, something not always done or possible in the hard scientific discussions of UFOs. [3]

Since the 1970s however, folklorists have also been involved in the debate, treating the memorates and narratives of UFOs and alien encounters as a variety of modern folklore. Foremost amongst these researchers have been Linda Degh, whose 1977 paper, ‘UFOs and how folklorists should study them’,[4] an attempt to formulate a folkloristic approach to UFOs, and Thomas Eddie Bullard, and Peter Rojcewicz, who have been studying the phenomenon as folklore since writing their Ph.D dissertations, ‘Mysteries in the Eye of the Beholder: UFOs and their Correlates as a Folkloric Theme Past and Present’, and ‘The Boundaries of Orthodoxy: A Folkloric Look at the UFO Phenomenon’. [5]

Although this folkloric approach to UFOs appeared as early as 1950, with the publication of Howard Peckham’s paper, ‘Flying Saucers as Folklore’, the real inspiration behind this were two Fortean authors, John Keel and Jacques Vallee, and their books UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse and Passport to Magonia. [6] Central to their approach was the view that “the modem, global belief in flying saucers and their occupants is identical to an earlier belief in the fairy-faith. The entities described as the pilots of the craft are indistinguishable from the elves, sylphs, and loons of the Middle Ages.” [7] Although writing from the point of view of a believer in the objective reality of the UFO phenomenon, though not that of the ETH, Vallee made his basis in folklore clear in his book’s very subtitle: From Folklore to Flying Saucers. [8]

To demonstrate the similarities between the diminutive fairies of tradition, and the equally diminutive others of the UFO myth, Vallee cites Evans Wentz’s collection of stories of encounters with fairies from the Aran Islands. [9] The parallels and choice of source are not accidental, for one of Evans Wentz’s informants, when asked where he thought the fairies came from, replied, “they are a big race who come from the planets”. [10] The informant here, however, came not from Aran but County Sligo, and added that this was merely his own opinion. As a result of this interest in UFO encounters by academic folklorists, examination of the UFO myth has become a respectable part of academic teaching on folklore courses at a number of institutions around the world, such as at the University of Washington. A talk on UFO abduction reports was included in the module, ‘Continuity in Tradition’, during the autumn 2004 term, for example. [11]

Beyond structuralist attempts to map out the central motifs and sequence of UFO encounters, such as Eddie Bullard’s dissection of the Abduction experience and John Harney’s analysis of the motifs informing the Crash Retrieval myth , [12] is the deeper problem of whether, if UFO encounters really are fairy narratives in a postmodern, technological guise, they can be related to the classic motifs of traditional fairy narratives in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature, or E. Baughman’s similar index for British and American folklore, the Type and Motif Index of the Folktales of England and North America.

Although the relationship between fairy lore and UFO narratives is so well established among folklorists and psycho-social ufologists investigating the psychological and sociological background and possible causes of the phenomenon as to be something of a truism, comparison of such UFO narrative motifs with the indexed entries for traditional fairy lore may put such relationships into stark, unambiguous relief, and stimulate further debate into the causes of the occurrence, or transference of such traditional motifs into the new folkloric domain of UFOs. Certainly, very many of the motifs from traditional lore are present. For example, the common, CE1 sighting of a UFO as a travelling light is clearly related, if not identical to E 530.1 – Ghostlike lights. [13]

Nevertheless, there is a problem in using the Stith Thompson and E. Baughman indexes because of the changing character of the societies from which the legends were collected and their motifs catalogued. Although French scholars such as Gabriel Vicaire were exploring the notion of urban folklore as early as 1886 and a decade earlier, in practice folklore was largely collected from lower-class and relatively uneducated rural communities, considered to be static, untainted by urban sophistication, and thus likely to preserve archaic remnants of ancient lore. [14] In contrast, the new folklore of flying saucers emerged in self-consciously modern, urban, technological cultures, whose imagery of machines and high technology defined the phenomenon.

The dichotomy between the two cultures is not absolute, however. Despite the rapid expansion of towns and industry during the 19th century, parts of the United Kingdom remained largely rural into the early 20th century, and folklorists were collecting traditional material from these agricultural areas up to the 1960s, though some of the material cited in their works may date from much earlier. The same is true of the United States, of course, and the Appalachians in particular have attracted interest since the days of Child as the repository of British folk traditions in an isolated, rural American society. It should come as no surprise then, that amongst the space-suited humanoids reported in these encounters are more traditionally folkloric types, such as the ‘goblins’ that assaulted the Sutton family in Kelly-Hopkinsville, Kentucky. [15] To explore the relationship between the rural folktale types recorded in the Stith Thompson and E. Baughman indexes and their translation into the technological folktale of the UFO, a sample of the fairy and supernatural motifs recorded in the folktales of two British rural areas, Somerset and Orkney and Shetland have been selected, as roughly representative of the type of rural, British society whose legendary lore was also transplanted into the New World by the early British settlers in the 17th century.

It is possible to criticise this selection on a number of criteria. For example, it is possible that the UFO encounter narrative contains folkloric elements derived from the traditions of other areas in the United Kingdom which are strictly confined to these regions, and do not appear in those of the above samples. Furthermore, although the United States is an Anglophone country, its ethnic constitution has always been very diverse, including members of African and Asian nations, as well as other European peoples such as French, Germans, Swedes, Dutch and Spanish, as well as the indigenous First Nations. As a result, American folklore contains a diverse and culturally mixed range of motifs and imagery, complicated further by the fact that many of the early Contactees such as George King, the founder of the Aetherius Society, and George Adamski, were interested in oriental mysticism. As a result, there may be a marked oriental influence and parallels in UFO folklore, particularly the abduction experience. [16]


This painting, ‘Troll Hill’ by the 19th century Danish painter J. T. Lundby, presents an image which to the modern eye seems to combine traditional fairylore with elements from contemporary UFO accounts

In fact, it is possible to list a number of the attributes of UFOs and their occupants and the corresponding motif in traditional fairy lore. These include:

Fairies, and many UFO aliens, including the classic `Greys’, are smaller than adult men. A good example of the fairy features of some UFO entities are those reported from the Imjarvi Encounter in Finland, which were 90 cm (35″) tall and with conical, though metallic helmets: Motif F 239.4.2. [17]

The grey skin colour of the now stereotypical alien abductors is mirrored in E 422.2.3, grey as the colour of returning dead. [18] This, however, is just one example of the way traditional motifs associated with the dead have also been assimilated into modern UFO lore, and some UFO encounters are far more like traditional hauntings than encounters with flesh and blood extraterrestrial entities. A particularly good example of this is the ‘ghost that wore a spacesuit’, whose disembodied head and shoulders appeared before a British NCO at Dalakia barracks in 1968. [19] This points to another, common motif in fairylore, that amongst the fairies are human dead. [20]

Other, less common forms of the aliens also have their counterparts in traditional lore. The birdlike alien encountered by Betty Andreasson during her encounter is strikingly reminiscent of E 211.3: speaking bird. [21]

Alien behaviour too shows a marked continuity with fairy traditions. Motif F 261 – dancing fairies, can be seen in the report of two silver-suited entities dancing in the middle of the road reported by Mr. and Mrs Donathan in 1973. [22]

Related to the dancing motif are fairy rings on the grass, F 261, traditionally produced by the fairies during their revels, and to which Crop circles or `UFO nests’ can be assimilated. [23]

The courtship and marriage of particular, favoured humans by extraterrestrials, such as that of Elizabeth Klarer are similar to F 300: marriage with fairy. [24]

The secret underground bases occupied by Greys and their collaborators in government, the military and industry have their prototypes in the traditional motifs F 721.1: underground passages; and is of the same type as F 211: Fairies live in hollow knolls. [25] The location of the underground alien bases as the source of valuable secret technology can be seen as being related to N 511: treasure in ground, particularly N 512 – treasure in underground chamber; F342: Fairies give people money; and F 244: fairy treasure. [26]

This may also be assimilated to the supposed biotechnological and genetic secrets held and revealed by the Greys with the rise of the information economy and genetic prospecting in the late 20th century. The strange, animal-human hybrids, products of the aliens’ genetic engineering campaigns that populated these underground bases can be assimilated to E 423 – revenants in the form of animals, and E 291.2.1: ghost guards treasure. [27] The government’s permission of the aliens to abduct and experiment on humans in return for technological favours is of a type as B 11.10 – human beings sacrificed to dragon, particularly as the aliens receiving these victims are frequently described as reptoids. [28] The association of such artificial hybrids with the aliens recalls motifs G 225 – animals as servants of witches, and G 265.7 – witch controls actions of animals. [29]

The abduction of humans by the UFOnauts can be compared with F 322: fairies steal man’s wife; and the substitution of an android or simulacrum for the woman during her sojourn aboard the spacecraft a form of F 322.1(a) stick left as substitute for stolen woman. [30]

The hybrid children resulting from human-alien crossbreeding are a version of F 305: offspring of mortal and fairy. [31]

Episodes of missing time, or the experiences of Contactees such as Mario Restier, who was taken by people from Orion to their home world, a sojourn which lasted four months, but to him only seemed like three days, are related to F 377: Supernatural lapse of time in fairyland. [32]

Away from the benefits of alien treasure and technology given to the military and industrial complex, individual humans have also received presents of pancakes, such as those given to Joe Simonton by the 3.65m (5ft) tall occupants of the UFO he encountered at Eagle River in Wisconsin in 1961; and odd stones, like the ‘moon potatoes’ produced by Howard Menger, and to the TV presenter Clive Anderson by two Ufologists on British television. [33] These are modem counterparts of F 340: Gifts from fairies, and has obvious, though possibly superficial links with F 809 – fabulous or miraculous rocks and stones, particularly D 931: magic stone. [34]

Less benignly, the cattle mutilation phenomenon ascribed to cruel experiments by the alien visitors are clearly a version of F 366 – fairies harm cattle, though the repeated abduction of the human parents of hybrid children to hold and nurse their offspring aboard the alien can be seen as versions of type F372: Fairies take human nurse. [35]

Researchers have also explored the complex relationship and the apparent similarity between the alien abduction phenomenon and the Near Death Experience, which also raises the possibility that those alien abductions in which the abductee returns bearing a spiritual message for humanity, such as that of Kathryn Howard, are a variety of E 377: return from the dead to teach the living. [36]

Despite these similarities and continuity however, there are also profound differences, which reflect the shift from traditional, paternalistic agricultural society to the mass, industrial society of mid- and late 20” century capitalism, and changing gender roles and expectations. For example, the abducted spouse used for breeding purposes may be a husband as well as a wife, as in the notorious Villas-Boas case of 1957, while the abduction of the adult parents of both sexes to hold and nurse their alien babies reflects the disappearance of the children’s nurse as a common fixture of the middle class family in the mid-20th century. [37]

The identification of the government and big business as the beneficiary of the various Faustian pacts made with malign and predatory alien civilisations like the Greys, rather than individual people, reflects the tensions engendered in the mass society of the 20th century. Governments are seen not only as actively working against the best interests of their citizens, but also as keeping the benefits of alien contact to themselves, so that the abduction mythology in this respect almost acts as a lurid symbolic form of the Marxist theory of surplus labour, where industry and the government expropriate the fruits of working class labour for themselves.

Regarding the mechanism by which such traditional, rural lore became transferred and embodied in the imagery of the new, technological society, there are a number of conduits that may be identified as such. For example, the traditional and literary fairy story gained renewed vigour during and after the industrial revolution as a reaction to the mechanistic values of technological society, in a manner which prefigured John Rimmer’s later identification of the use of the UFO as an antitechnological symbol in the 20th century. [38]

Moreover, in popular literature and entertainment of the day, science-fictional themes could rub shoulders with ghosts and other exotic or supernatural beings in literature and on the stage. Thus, Frank L. Baum could include a Demon of Electricity amongst the fantastic characters in his novel, The Master Key, and the Edwardian stage magician, John Nevil Maskelyne, as well as the matinee demonstrations of stage magic, also staged a full-length play based on Edward Bulwer Lytton’s proto-SF novel, The Coming Race. [39] Scholars examining the appearance of the fictional aliens that populate much modern SF have pointed to the strong influence of the culturally iconic figures of traditional nursery lore about animals in defining these aliens’ characteristics, and suggested that the UFO aliens now encounters by modem Experiencers are comparative to the supernatural creatures of incubi, succubi, witches and ghouls that haunted the imagination of previous ages. [40] This is very much to be expected, as it has long been recognised by neurologists that the content of the hallucinations suffered by severe epileptics and schizophrenics are influence by the cultural and personal background of the sufferer, including traditional myths and folklore, and also literature, thus supporting the contention of researchers such as Bertrand Meheust that literary SF also plays a powerful role in the construction of UFO aliens. [41]

At the level of esoteric religion, during the 19th and early 20t’h century too an increasing number of Spiritualist, Theosophical and Masonic intellectuals and mystics began turning to outer space as the source of their mystical communications. For example, Charles Stansfield Jones, one of the most important disciples of the British occultist and self-appointed `Great Beast’, Alistair Crowley, considered that Aiwass, the entity, which communicated the Book of the Law to his mentor, was an extraterrestrial, rather than merely discarnate entity. [42] For the Theosophical writer Alice A. Bailey, writing in 1922, human evolution was directed by `intelligent forces of nature’ on the `inner planes of the Solar System’, with the `influences which produce self-consciousness in men’ relayed to Earth via Saturn from a Masonic lodge on Sirius, which focussed `the energy of thought’ from a distant cosmic centre. [43]

In the 18th century the Swedish mystic August Swedenborg visited inhabited alien worlds during his astral voyages, Allan Kardec during the compilation of his Spirits’ Book received messages from the spirit world informing him that other planets than ours were inhabited, while Sherman Denton and ‘Helene Smith’ (Catherine Elise Muller) both recounted their memories of astral journey to Mars. In 1926 the veteran psychic investigator Harry Price, sat with a medium, Mrs. St John James, who channelled messages from a Martian civilisation. [44] Thus, at a popular and elite level the extraterrestrials were linked and imagined as mystical entities, an view which may well have trickled down to influence Evans Wentz’s informant from County Sligo.

Additionally, rural tradition itself remained far more vigorous than has previously been considered. Far from being a static, timeless environment, everything changed for the rural villager during the 19th century. The railways brought greater communications, agricultural insurance meant that disease and crop or cattle failure no longer meant instant famine, while greater mechanisation and the centralisation of milk, butter and cheese production in commercial dairies rather than cottage butteries, and the replacement of a barter economy by a general store, meant that the face to face society which generated much of the tensions resulting in accusations of witchcraft simply ceased to exist. Owen Davies’ study of the persistence of the belief in witchcraft after the Witchcraft Act in 1736 has demonstrated that belief in witchcraft remained strong amongst rural Britons into the early 20th century, long after the upper and middle classes had rejected such superstition. In his analysis, the belief in witchcraft declined because there was no longer a compelling economic and social need to identify witches as the causes of misfortune. [45] Indeed, for Davies the persistence of astrology, UFO abductions and belief in psychic powers in the late 20th century forces scholars to re-evaluate the image of the past as a unique locus of irrationality and superstition.

Rather than British society moving from a state of supernatural credulity to scientific rationality, irrational beliefs have merely been translated into different forms, as many people now feel bounded by the universe, rather than the limits of the immediate parish. [46] It is a conclusion which comparison of the common motifs in traditional ghost and fairy lore, and that of the UFO myth, bears out, and is very much line with the introduction of industrial and mechanical imagery in other traditional tales during the course of the 19th century.

For example, The Steam-Loom Weaver, a comic ballad of the 1830s recounting the romance between an engine driver and a female steam loom weaver, was based on an earlier balled of 1804, when cotton weaving was a domestic industry. In this version, the heroine works in her own home, and the lusty hero is an itinerant worker who visits her in order to repair it. The mechanisation of the lovers’ respective occupations reflects the industrial society that had developed in the 30 years or so since its first publication. [47] It thus appears that fairy beliefs acted very similarly, persisting despite the lack of a compelling social need for them into the 20th century, until that need emerged in the late 1940s with the reaction against the technological horror of mechanised warfare, and for a plausible explanation, or framework for experiencing the new, enigmatic objects seen in the sky, whence they were translated into the new, legendary forms of alien contact and abduction.


  1. 1. C.G. Jung, UFOs – A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, (Princeton, Bollingen 1991).
  2.  S. Sagan, and T. Page, eds., UFOs – A Scientific Debate, (Ithaca, Cornell University Press 1972).
  3. R. Cook, `Anthropology and UFOs: An Introduction’, Centre for Anthroufology,
  4. L. Degh, `UFOs and How to Study Them’, Fabula 18, (1977), pp. 242-8.
  5. T.E. Bullard, ‘Mysteries in the Eye of the Beholder: UFOs and their Correlates as a Folkloric theme Past and Present’, Ph. D dissertation, (Indiana, Indiana University 1982); P. Rojcewicz, The Boundaries of Orthodoxy: A Folkloric Look at the UFO Phenomenon, Ph. D. dissertation, (Indiana, University of Indiana 1984).
  6. H. Peckham, `Flying Saucers as Folklore’, Hoosier Folklore 9, (1950), pp. 103-7; J. Keel, UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse, (London, Abacus 1973); J. Vallee, Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers, (Chicago, Henry Refinery Company 1969).
  7. J. Vallee, cited in P. Cousineau, UFOs: A Manual for the Millennium, (New York, HarperCollins 1995), p. 151.
  8. Vallee, Magonia.
  9. P. Cousinea, UFOs, p. 152.
  10. E. Wentz, The Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries, (Oxford, OUP 1911), p. 53; cited in K. Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1967), p. 172.
  11. Scandinavian/Comparative Lit 331: Folk Narratives at University of Washington, at http://courses.Washington.ed/folklore/Scand331.
  12. J. Harney, `UFO Crash Retrievals – A Developing Myth’, in Magonia 58, (1997), pp. 6-9.
  13. K. Palmer, The Folklore of Somerset, (London, Batsford 1976), p. 176.
  14. J.-B. Renard, ‘Old Contemporary Legends: 19th-Century French Folklore Studies Revisited’, Foaftale News 32, (1994), p. 1; ‘Folklore (the Word), in J.Simpson, and S. Roud, eds., Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, (Oxford, OUP 2000), p. 130.
  15. ‘Kelly-Hopkinsville’ in J. Spencer, UFOs – The Definitive Casebook. Sightings, Abductions and Close Encounters, (London, Hamlyn 1991), p38; `Bulletproof Goblins’ in A. Baker, True Life Encounters: Alien Sightings, (London, Millennium 1997), pp.88-91.
  16. D. Sivier, `Paradise of the Grey Peri: A Literary Speculation on Some Oriental Elements in the Abduction Experience’, in Magonia 69, (1999), pp. 8-12.
  17. ‘Imjarvi Encounter’, in Spencer, Casebook, p. 98; E.W. Marwick, The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland, (London, B.T. Batsford 1975), p. 210.
  18. Palmer, Somerset, p. 175.
  19. ‘The Ghost that Wore a Spacesuit’, Baker, Sightings, pp. 94-5.
  20. Briggs, Fairies, pp. 58-65.
  21. Betty Andreasson’, Spencer, Casebook, p. 51; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 209.
  22. ‘Flatter/Danathan’, Spencer, Casebook, p. 61; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210.
  23. Palmer, Somerset, p. 176.
  24. ‘Elizabeth Klarer’, Spencer, Casebook, pp. 146-7; J. and A. Spencer, True Life Encounters: Alien Contact, (London, Millennium 1998), pp. 93-4; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210.
  25. Baker, Sightings, pp. 204-19; Palmer, Somerset, p. 176; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p.
  26. 26. Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 212; Palmer, Somerset, p. 178; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210; Palmer, Somerset, p. 176; Palmer, Somerset, p. 176.
  27. Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210, Palmer, Somerset, p. 175.
  28. Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 209.
  29. Palmer, Somerset, p. 177.
  30. Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210.
  31. Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210.
  32. J. and C. Bord, Life Beyond Planet Earth? Man’s Contacts with Space People, (London, Grafton 1992), p. 93; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 211.
  33. ‘Joe Simonton’s Pancakes’, Baker, Sightings, pp. 73-6, ‘Joe Simonton’ in Spencer, Casebook, p. 42; J. Keel, The Mothman Prophecies, (Lilburne, IIlumiNet Press 1991), p. 158
  34. Palmer, Somerset, p. 176; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 209.
  35. Baker, Sightings, pp. 66-71; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 211; J. and A. Spencer, Fifty Years of UFOs: From Distant Sightings to Close Encounters, (London, Boxtree 1997), pp. 141-2; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 211.
  36. Baker, Sightings, pp. 268-72; Cousineau, Manual, pp. 137-9; `Kathryn Howard’, Spencer, Casebook, pp. 94-5; J. Spencer, Perspectives: A Radical Examination of the Alien Abduction Phenomenon, (London, Futura 1989), pp. 130-144; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210.
  37. Spencer, Casebook, pp. 181-4.
  38. J. Rimmer, ‘The UFO as an Anti-Scientific Symbol’, Merseyside UFO Bulletin 2, (1969), p. 4. (Repr. Magonia 99, 2009)
  39. F.L. Baum, ‘The Master Key’, in C. Wilkins, The Mammoth Book of Classic Fantasy, (London, Robinson 1981), pp. 345-434; J. Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible, (London, William Heineman 2004), pp. 181, 184 & 185.
  40. J. Cohen, and I. Stewart, Evolving the Alien: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life – What Does an Alien Look Like, (London, Ebury Press 2002), pp. 170-186.
  41. W. G. Walter, The Neurophysiological Aspects of Hallucinations and Illusory Experience, (London, Society for Psychical Research 1960), p. 6; B. Meheust, Science Fiction et Soucoupes Volants, (Paris, Mercure de France 1978).
  42. L. Picknett, and C. Prince, The Stargate Conspiracy: Revealing the Truth behind Extraterrestrial Contact, Military Intelligence and the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt, (London, Little, Brown and Company 1999), p. 272.
  43. Picknett and Prince, Stargate, p. 280, 283.
  44. Bord, Planet Earth, pp. 179-184.
  45. Davies, O., Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951, (Manchester, Manchester University Press 1999), p. 294.
  46. Davies, Witchcraft, p. 295.
  47. J.M. Golby, and A.W. Purdue, The Civilisation of the Crowd: Popular Culture in England 1750-1900, (Stroud, Alan Sutton Publishing 1999), p. 128.


The American Way: A Cock-and-Bullard Story. Dennis Stillings

Originally published in Magonia 35, January 1990

As editor of Artifex, like most editors, I have become something of a clearinghouse for gossip, rumor, and inside information about all sorts of things relating to anomalies, witnesses, and those who investigate them. In regard to the extraterrestrial abduction scene and those involved, I have heard many impressive anecdotes from very reliable sources that have led me to regard many of the abductionist claims and claimants as highly suspect. Furthermore, in my personal interactions with some of the abductionists, I have observed behaviours and heard statements made that have led me to believe that their claims must be taken with a very large grain of salt indeed. A sampling of these statements and observations follows:

Item: Reliable. Source (RS) and Well-Known Abductionist (WKA) went to investigate the report by members of a family that they had seen “aliens in yellow space suits on the road.” There were “several flashing lights.” It was rainy and misty. RS checked on this by calling the county highway department to see if they had any people out at that place and time. Sure enough, a crew had been doing emergency roadwork. They had several Caution signs with them and were wearing the traditional yellow slickers due to the wet weather. RS passed this information on to WKA, who categorically refused to accept the explanation.

Item: RS (with Ph.D. in psychology) witnessed one of WKA’s hypnotic regressions for the purpose of confirming an abduction experience. It was clear to RS that WKA was recursively leading the subject, subtly suing him according to a predetermined programme, which WKA had written out on a notepad held in his hand.

Item: RS told me of a case of a New York woman who became extremely upset over WKA’s attempts to coerce her into believing that she had been kidnapped by aliens when she knew better; she was so upset, in fact, that she flew out to California to see a recommended therapist in order to recover from what amounted to a brain-washing experience.

This particular case, as well as the one just above it, is highly relevant to the issue of who really “homogenizes” the reports of the abduction experience. In spite of claims that these reports – coming directly from the victim – are essentially identical, we have this only on the word of the abductionists. As far as I know, no proof of this exists.

The purpose in bringing these anecdotes to the reader’s attention is to indicate that the level of reliability of American researchers in these areas might not be as high as Bullard implies. In relation to some of these items, Bullard’s invocation of Hufford’s important book [1] and its conclusions seems inappropriate – unless he wishes to apply its lessons to the abductionists themselves. I see little reason to believe that the abductees are “taken at their word” by the abductionists, or that the abductionists are giving us the pure, untouched reports of their subjects. A moderately close reading of Hopkins’ Missing Time and Intruders reveals that the subjects very often try to indicate that their experiences had a dreamlike or imaginary quality.

This is always glossed over or reinterpreted. Jungian explanations for the alleged similarities among the abduction reports depend on the reliability of what we are told by the investigators. I no longer believe that what is claimed by the investigators is reliable, therefore the similarities can probably be accounted for by a much more parsimonious explanation: the similarities are merely an artefact of the Procrustean techniques being used by the abductionists. In addition, much is made of the claim that typical abduction reports have been obtained by individuals not subjected to regressive hypnosis. For some reason, which is not at all immediately obvious to me, this is supposed to be proof of the objectivity of the experience. I am afraid that the significance of this claim needs to be spelled out more clearly.

The as yet ill-defined altered state of consciousness obtained by means of formal hypnotic induction is but one of several altered states available to the individual on his own. Autohypnosis, as well as altered states induced by more or less chance interactions with the environment, must be considered. The entire psychological history of the individual must also be taken into account.

Item: WKA has said to a number of people that he is “on a mission,” and that the abduction problem “is why I’m here.” Actually, having watched him say this myself, he really says it to no one; he sort of gazes upward with unfocused eyes as he says it. Item: I told a Well-Known Skeptic (not specifically a UFO sceptic) that I had heard no reports of abduction cases from any of my paediatrician friends. It seemed to me unlikely that these professionals would not have heard of abduction cases if they are of the ubiquity claimed by the abductionists. WKS said “It’s a cover-up!”

I know a number of paediatricians pretty well. They are sensitive, imaginative people who listen sympathetically to what children have to say, no matter how bizarre the story might be. Paediatricians frequently deal with the wild tales of children and use the imaginative content as part of therapy. It is unlikely that a paediatrician would take a story of alien abduction at face value. They would, however, not suppress such material.

Item: WKA (who is not a professional psychologist or counsellor) cautions victims about whether or not they should have children (due to the genetic experiments done on them by aliens), or whether they might not have to terminate intimate relationships because their ‘significant other’ “will not be able to understand the experience.” Aside from the prosaic fact that such counselling by unlicensed persons is illegal, unethical, and irresponsible, these abductionist recommendations are highly reminiscent of suggestions made by cult leaders to their recruits.

Item: In the little-known ET Bag Lunch Case, Well-Known MJ-12 person finds mysterious items that he is sure resulted from the visitation of an alien spacecraft. Having access to a UFO-buff high up in the administration of an aerospace corporation, he manages to have their laboratories do an analysis. The items turn out to be aluminium shavings, an old insulator, and part of a brown paper bag.

Item: Long before William L. Moore debunked himself at the 1989 MUFON meeting in Las Vegas, he got off to a strong head start, in 1972, by publishing, in consultation with Charles Berlitz, the perfectly fantastical book The Philadelphia Experiment. [2] This book speculates that, during the war, the U.S. Navy was in possession of some sort of relativistic electromagnetic device that would not only render an entire ship and its crew invisible, but teleport it to a distant location as well! Ufologists who have been reminded of the fact of this book have looked at Moore’s claims and reliability through new eyes. (The prominent biophysicist Otto Schmitt was heavily involved in electromagnetic experimentation with the navy during World War II. He has some 60 patents in this area, many of which are still classified. When I mentioned the Philadelphia Experiment to him he claimed [between chuckles and head-shaking] that he had never heard of such a thing, even by way of rumour. For various good reasons, I do not think he was hiding anything. Conspiracy buffs will, of course, think otherwise.)

The above items, in combination with the unwarranted enthusiasm among some American ufologists for the moribund MJ-12 and Gulf Breeze cases seem, in my opinion, to justify European ufologists’ dismay at the current condition of American ufology.

Along these lines, I also do not completely share Bullard’s characterization of European ufology vis-à-vis American ufology. Bullard claims that Americans “work from – the bottom up, wallowing in facts, often content just to accumulate and enumerate them.” They are often “satisfied to cobble together a few unsystematic generalizations and prefer to isolate phenomena rather than relate them.” On the other hand, European ufologists work from the top down, conforming data to theory. With regard to Europeans, I tend to regard this as somewhat true; however, the recent work of Hilary Evans [3] and Terence Meaden [4] – of singular importance to current ufology – do nothing of the sorts. [5]

Persistent objections from sceptics are met with the response that the sceptic is an ‘armchair ufologist’, yet nothing is presented that is the least inducement to get out of one’s armchair.

Both of these investigators proceed by way of gathering data, constructing models, and then allowing fresh data to strengthen or modify their hypotheses. In the case of American ufology, it is hard to see in what way the ETH, which dominates American UFO thinking, is not a ‘top down’ approach. The ‘top down’ approach is also characteristic of the abductionist method. It also characterizes recent American books on abductions that dismiss objections based on the problems of hypnosis, folkloric and mythological parallels, science fiction sources, and psychology, with a mere snort and a wave of the hand. Such objections are never raised by the abductionists themselves in their strongest possible form and then systematically refuted. They are scarcely raised at all. One is instead requested to accept the abductionists’ word that such objections are utterly irrelevant. Persistent objections from sceptics are met with the response that the sceptic is an ‘armchair ufologist’, yet nothing is presented that is the least inducement to get out of one’s armchair.

Budd Hopkins’ paper on ‘stewpot thinking’ [6] which Bullard cites, is an undistinguished and poorly thought-out critique of the use of traditional comparative methods (dismissed as ‘stewpot thinking’) in elucidating UFO and ET cases. Hopkins’ fundamental error in this paper is to compare problem-solving within a paradigm (discovering the source and cause of Legionnaires’ Disease) with problem-solving, where no paradigm exists (ufology). In the former case, one has a well-established and agreed-upon methodology; controversy may revolve around details, but the investigators pretty much all agree on the direction that solution of the problem will take. ‘Stewpot thinking’, in this case, might be inappropriate, but not always. Very often, the ‘stewpot’ thinker, seeing both the trees and the forest, perceives relationships unnoticed by his more linearly thinking colleagues. In nascent science, such as the development of electrical theory in the 18th century, analogies and comparisons with earlier models (hydrodynamics and alchemy were favourites) often prevail until the paradigm is established. It is in no way extraordinary or defective to lay the groundwork for clarifying and understanding a problem by using ‘stewpot thinking’.

Actually, the most important aspect of Hopkins’ essay is that it palingenetically models one of the first steps a cult or religion takes after it becomes established: it denies its relationship to any past religion. The Church Fathers were at pains to deny any relationship between Christianity and the Egyptian religion, but even the Church Fathers had a hard time maintaining this position and finally developed the theory that the Devil had caused other cultures to mimic Christianity in order to undermine the faith. Because of Hopkins’ remarkable recreation of this theological pattern, I strongly recommend that his paper be read.

Bullard’s arguments often seem to undercut his own discipline. As he says, “if the only evidence is a text, fiction counterfeits truth to perfection.” This may be so on occasion, but as a matter of fact, fiction rarely counterfeits truth to perfection, or to anything approaching it. We may not be able to provide an absolute, definitive proof that the story of Little Red Riding Hood is fiction, but there are several criteria of comparative method, long used in textual analysis and literature studies, that may be applied internally to any text that will lead us to regard it as either true, partly true, or mainly fictional. I do not understand what Bullard could mean here, and I sincerely hope that I have misread him. He appears to be making an unjustifiably strong statement that can be true only in the most absolutist sense.

One of the very best criteria for distinguishing between fact and fiction in abduction reports (as in many other kinds of anomalies reports) is the criterion of “information richness.” Let me give you a homely example. A drunk of no great intelligence, teetering on a bar stool, leans over to his buddy and grumbles, “If Tommy Kramer hadn’t busted his knee, we could all be going to the Super Bowl.” If this were overheard by a Martian, he would obtain, in this one sentence, (1) immediate, useful information about the nature of human beings and (2) a number of puzzles that would motivate further investigations, which might lead to additional real information.

The Martian would at least know, or soon be able to know, that a ‘Tommy Kramer’ had something called ‘knees,’ that they get broken, and that circumstances surrounding the physical condition of a ‘Tommy Kramer’ determines whether or not these humans will all go somewhere called ‘Super Bowl’. This level of information richness – and this is a pretty minimal example in human terms – is not to be obtained from ET contact. Nor is much ordinary information about contemporary human life obtained from myth and folklore which, like ET contact reports, tend to have an abstract, formalistic, and timeless character.

It is extraordinary that Bullard, as a folklorist, should fall prey to expressing such a concretism as, “In comparing folklore and abductions, many features fit but at the same time many do not. … Fairies do not fly spaceships or use eyelike scanning devices.” Don’t they? Representations and reports exist in which creatures, not fairies, perhaps, but certainly, creatures very similar to one or another variety of the ‘Little People’ do fly spaceships. [7] And eyelike scanning devices can be traced back a very long time indeed. They have significant representation in early myth and folklore, and have been used by mythical entities for ‘scanning’. [8]

I fully agree with Bullard that merely pointing out mythological or folkloric parallels does not prove that – very strictly speaking – something didn’t really happen. And if a single parallel were the only criterion for distinguishing fact from fiction, we would have great difficulties in certain cases. For instance, the tale of the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt with the infant Jesus could well be true, and it is almost a certainty that many ordinary families of three have had to make similar perilous journeys. Yet we also know that the traditional details surrounding Jesus’ birth and childhood closely parallel the circumstances surrounding the birth of many mythological or semi-mythological heroes. Thus one archetypal motif – the flight to avoid persecution by the representatives of the old order – is brought into connection with another theme: the birth of the hero. [9]

The ‘success’ of the rationalizations of the ETHers derives from the fact that once an arbitrary will behind a phenomenon is assumed, anything can count as evidence

Other folkloric themes and motifs may be assembled around a story, each severely reducing the probability of the story being a true and literal account of an historical event. From pursuing this exercise, we can even come up with why such stories are structured the way they are. (Needless to say – I would hope! – such themes and motifs abound in the abduction material.) Furthermore, comparative material having the very same motifs may even be obtained from the dreams of modern people. And if such motifs are the persistent stuff of dreams, I would suggest that they do not deal with matters of objective external reality. There are several other relevant tests for distinguishing real reports from mythic and folkloric confabulations. Bullard is blowing smoke from Freud’s real, cigar here.

At bottom, the ‘success’ of the rationalizations of the ETHers derives from the fact that once an arbitrary will behind a phenomenon is assumed, anything can count as evidence. This, combined with what Norman Mailer once referred to as “a logic that doesn’t know where to stop,” takes the ETHer wherever he wants to go. The ETH is extremely difficult to falsify, making it a fertile breeding ground for every sort of fantasy. The knowledge vacuum we confront in contemplating ETs and UFOs stimulates the imagination into providing ‘answers’ derived from psychological and cultural sources. If the imagery has a strong archetypal component, it will be driven by energies that arise from the very roots from which myth and folklore grow. The unconscious always tends to personify its contents and express the psychodynamics involved in dramatic form.

In closing, I would like to address the specific criticisms made against me by Bullard. First of all, I have never articulated to myself, much less published, a comprehensive Jungian theory of UFOs and ETs. I doubt very much that it could be done. The attempts I have seen have been virtually complete failures. I merely believe that there are certain aspects of UFO reports that lend themselves readily to Jungian treatment. Even if the ETH turned out to be true, this would not invalidate a Jungian approach to certain aspects of the subject. Human psychology is, after all, involved.

Contrary to Bullard’s hopes or fears, I do not have any fundamental ‘answers,’ and I have never claimed to have any – nor do I know where Bullard got the idea that I did. Jung, not I, first asserted that the world was in such dreadful shape [10] that a salvation myth, such as the one developed from extraterrestrial beliefs, was needed. I would, however, second his opinion. Nor am I the originator of the idea that there might be a parapsychological component to the UFO and its associated physical evidence. This idea has been entertained by, among others, Jung, I. Grattan-Guinness, Manfred Cassirer, Michael Grosso, Peter Rojcewicz, George Owen, and last, but not least, Jerome Clark. Clark, who now wishes to distance himself from his book on the Jungian/parapsychological explanation of UFOs and UFO reports, is one of only two people I know of who has attempted to put forward such an interpretation in a full-length book. [11]

Not only did Clark write an entire 272-page volume in this vein, but in the course of the work (in addition to putting forward a vigorous defence of the reality of the Cottingley Fairies) he formulated actual “Laws of Paraufology.” The First Law of Paraufology is: The UFO mystery is primarily subjective and its content primarily symbolic; the Second Law is that the ‘objective’ manifestations are psychokinetically generated by-products of those unconscious processes which shape a culture’s vision of the otherworld. Existing only temporarily, they are at best only quasi-physical. [12] Laws, no less!

Now, I appreciate the fact that Clark has disavowed this book, although I believe that this was due mainly to his intuition that its superficial and formulaic use of Jungian ideas for an understanding of UFOs was weak and unsatisfactory. But the point I really want to make is that, if Bullard wants to critique a substantial statement of the Jungian/parapsychological interpretation, why doesn’t he take aim at Clark’s book, rather than at the few very sketchy and tentative remarks I made in the Magonia article? Never mind that Clark no longer believes in what he wrote in The Unidentified, it is still the best example of what Bullard doesn’t like. If I didn’t know better, I would suspect that both Clark and Bullard want to hang Clark’s book around my neck!

I consider my ideas about the role of archetypal psychology and parapsychology in understanding UFO and ET reports to be merely attempts at opening up, and keeping in mind, alternative perspectives – no more than that.

In summary, I have to agree with those European ufologists who consider American ufology to be a frightful mess. Bullard’s paper goes far, in my opinion, toward supporting this view. It does nothing to refute it. I certainly would like to see the American Way return to action: Truth, not uncriticized fantasy; Justice – for the abductees; and the return of the empirical, pragmatic American ufological brain, the real victim of Abduction. There are signs that this is happening.



  1.  David J. Hufford. The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
  2.  The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility. Grosset & Dunlap, 1972
  3.  Alternate States of Consciousness: Unself Otherself and Superself. Aquarian Press, 1989.
  4.  The Circles Effect and Its Mysteries, Artetech Publishing, 1989.
  5.  Actually, when it comes to the gathering of facts, it is rare indeed that no ‘top-down’ hidden agenda is involved – rare enough that may be seriously doubted whether pure fact-gathering ever takes place.
  6.  Budd Hopkins, ‘Stewpot Thinking’, MUFON UFO Journal, 251, March 1989, pp.8-9,12
  7.  Bullard Might well benefit from a perusal of Michel Meuger and Claude Gagnon’s excellent book, Lake Monster Traditions, (Fortean Tomes, 1988). Meuger documents, by actual field studies, the transformation of traditional folklore creatures into machines.
  8.  See Tony Nugent’s discussion of the three Graea in relationship to the Pascagoula case in his paper ‘Quicksilver in Twilight: A Close Encounter with a Hermetic Eye’, in Cyberbiological Studies of the Imaginal Component in the UFO Contact Experience, Archaeus Publications, 1989, pp.109-124.
  9. A very recent example depicting the birth of the hero and the flight into the wilderness may be seen in the television special, Shaka Zulu.
  10.  I leave it to our European friends to evaluate Bullard’s counter: “when has the world ever not been in dreadful shape?” Nietzsche once remarked that “if there was a God he would not allow the twentieth century to have happened”.
  11.  Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman, The Unidentified: Notes Towards Solving the UFO Mystery, Warner Paperback Library, 1975. The other full-length Jungian book attempting to account for UFOs is by Gregory L. Little, The Archetype Experience, Rainbow, 1984
  12. Clark and Coleman, pp. 235ff, 242