Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Witchcraft and Aliens: Were Medieval Witches Actually Early Abductees?

Between the 14th and 18th centuries, somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 people on the European continent were tried and executed for witchcraft. Most of these people were burned alive in the public square of the nearest town, and most were also tortured before burning. Between 70% and 80% of all 'witches' executed were women, but many men, children, and even animals were executed as well.

What is most strange about the witchcraft trials of medieval Europe is that, despite being studied in great detail by historians and scholars of many stripes and biases, no single persuasive explanation has emerged for why they took place.

What is also interesting is that medieval 'witches' had much in common with today's 'abductees', and the witch hunters also resemble some of today's abduction 'researchers' in surprisingly consistent ways.

Something fairly powerful has to be going on either inside the public imagination or out in the real world or both, in order to sustain nearly four centuries of torture, carnage, and religious persecution. The Church did not simply try and burn witches: It aggressively sought them out to try and burn them.

The infamous Malleus Maleficarum (compiled in 1486) is a detailed instructional Church manual on how to identify a witch and what to do when you find one. Professional witch hunters, employed by the Church, roamed the European countryside searching out witches and delivering them into the hands of Church inquisitors who usually ended up torturing and killing them to save their souls.

Although the Malleus isn't a word-for-word precursor to Intruders or Missing Time, many elements are similar enough to warrant a closer look. 

How to Identify a Witch or Abductee

Although today we do not burn alive abductees alive, the modern process for identifying an abductee is remarkably similar to the medieval process for identifying a witch. Witches and abductees share the follow characteristics:
  • Marks on the Body. Abductees and witches are both thought to be physically marked in some way. In the case of witches the mark might be a mole or birthmark, or if no such mark was found, the examiner  declared the discovery of 'an invisible mark.' In the case of abductees, researchers look for scoop marks, triangle-shaped scars, or evidence of alien implants. 
  • Supernatural Sex. Witches were believed to have sexual intercourse with inhuman agents of the Devil called incubi (male demons) and succubi (female demons). Abductees are often believed to have intercourse with inhuman or half human alien beings during the abduction experience. 
  • Flying by Night. Witches had the ability to fly through the night sky. Alien abductees often have vivid memories of flying or being transported through the sky or through space. 
  • Messing with Animals. Witches were said to possess the ability to kill farm animals without drawing blood. Alien abductions are often associated with bloodless cattle mutilations or the draining of blood from small farm animals (chupacabra incidents are often paired with UFO sightings). 
  • Miscarriage and Disappearing Fetuses. Witches were believed to have the ability to cause miscarriage or cause fetuses to disappear. Alien abductees often report disappearing pregnancies or mysterious anomalous events involving human reproduction. 
  • Circular Meetings in the Deep Woods. Witches were thought to meet with the Devil in the woods, holding highly sexualized rituals naked in a stone circle. (See drawing above.) Abductees are taken into a circular craft, often from remote or wooded locations, where they are then examined naked on stone or metal slab.
  • The Devil and the Greys. The physical description of the 'Devil' of the medieval witchcraft trials (to whom witches were said to agree to a pact or contract) bears remarkable similarities to the tall Greys described by abductees. Tan or grey in color, the Devil and the tall Grey both have cloven feet, strange skin, and demand perverse sexual allegiance. The Devil's eyes are said to 'pierce' the eyes of women and control them in this way. The Greys control by means of their hypnotic huge eyes. 
  • Associations with Bright Lights in the Sky. Both Satan and aliens are associated with bright lights in the sky. Satan was said to be the "brightest angel in the sky" before he fell to earth for rebelling against God. Alien abductions are often (though not always) associated with brilliant lights in the sky (UFOs) that come down to earth to release frighting Greys with a baffling sexual agenda. 
David Hufford's The Terror That Comes in the Night

Folklorist David Hufford wrote a landmark paper about the relationship between sleep paralysis and the legend of the 'Old Hag'. This tale occurs in every age and across all cultures. In the story, a sleeping person wakes to find a hideous creature (the 'Old Hag') sitting or pressing down upon his or her chest. The victim is unable to move during this experience, which often includes sexual intercourse with the fantastic other. The incubus/succubus tales of medieval Europe are variants of the 'Old Hag' myth, and Hufford believes many alien abduction stories are modern variants of this universal tale.

However, Hufford's groundbreaking thesis was that the 'Old Hag' narrative was universal because it referred to a real human experience. 

This was controversial stuff in the dry, methodical world of academic folklore research. Up until the time of Hufford's paper it was assumed that narrative traditions and physical experience were rigidly separated categories. Stories were just stories. Folklorists collected them.

Folkloric tales were assumed by definition to refer only to imaginary events and experiences passed down by specific cultural groups for various sociological purposes: indoctrination into the mores of the group being one of the main purposes. Hufford was saying that at least some universal myths and legends appeared to be an attempt to convey the content of a genuine experience in the language of the culture and time in which the experience occurred.

So during medieval times when the Church held enormous power and controlled people through vivid descriptions of hellfire, damnation, and the wages of sin, the experience was interpreted as demonic and the abductor as Satan. In ancient Sumeria the experience was intrepreted as divine. In modern technological culture the experience is interpreted as extraterrestrial. But the same experiental elements are repeated in each instance; they are simply spun with a different explanation of what it all means.

Hufford was careful not to ascribe any particular interpretation to the raw experience underlying these stories; he only sought to make the argument that some kind of real experience was at the base of the stories. Hufford made a careful, exhaustive (and rather dry) philosophical argument that the scientific term 'sleep paralysis' is a description (and hence, another myth), not an explanation.

Hufford felt that the experience itself remains unexplained.

We don't know what causes these experiences. We don't know why the experience has these predictable and bizarre elements. We've just slapped a descriptive label--'sleep paralysis'--on something that has apparently been plaguing mankind for as long as man has been able to tell stories about it.

The Problem With the ET Hypothesis

One of the biggest obstacles to understanding UFO and alien abduction phenomena is the ET hypothesis, the belief that visitors from outer space are causing these experiences and events. We really don't know that, but the tendency to interpret all these phenomena through a modern technological filter is so strong that today the term UFO has today become synomymous with 'spacecraft', even though its original meaning was simply something flying through the sky that could not be identified. 'Unidentified Flying Object' means we don't know what it is. And we don't.

If we KNEW it was a spacecraft, then it would NOT be a UFO. It would be a spacecraft.

What are the chances that our current cultural filter is any more correct than the medieval one that ascribed these phenomena to devils, or the ancient one that ascribed them  to Isis, or the medical one that ascribes them to a mysterious brain disorder called sleep paralysis, or the northern Scandavian one that ascribes them to the appearance of the 'Old Hag' (a folkloric harbinger of death)?

Weirdly, Huffords ideas get little uptake in ufology because they are seen as acribing the phenomena to 'myth', which is popularly understood by ufologists (who seem not to actuall read this stuff) to mean 'made up story that isn't true in any way'.

That understanding is the exact opposite of the compelling original argument made by Hufford, an argument that supports the notion that something real is going on, but that we just don't know what it is. Hufford's work could be used to support further scientific or academic study or these phenomena, but in a weird twist of illogic, it is used to dismiss them by both camps.

At least we aren't burning people alive over the experience these days.

But it would be nice to know what it was actually all about.

    Friday, August 20, 2010

    Why Ufology is Dying a Slow Horrible Death

    I recently had an unpleasant run-in on a ufology site that I realized is pretty much emblematic of why ufology today is on the decline.

    The relative dearth of good, new books on ufos and anomalous experience is not just a function of lack of public interest.

    The public is definitely very interested.

    No, the decline is more a function of infighting within ufology itself and a struggle between various camps for 'authority' and control.

    This infighting and nastiness is killing new inquiry, since mainstream science already shies away from any real research, and now new people who are willing to take a chance on entering the discussion have to face the wrath of these little, little self-proclaimed ufology gods and make offerings to them and so forth and so on to even be allowed to speak.

    Not a good way to encourage new ideas.

    Within ufology there are a few major camps and you have to choose one straight up and be accepted to get any uptake--no small task in itself--and the thing is, not one of them has the whole answer:

    1. The New Agers. These folks tend to believe that aliens are here to raise our consciousness and save the planet, and often have a whole cosmology of alien types and agendas readily at hand, with complex attendant beliefs and explanations that have to be learned and publically accepted if one is to gain entrance to their temple. No matter if any of it is correct. 
    2. The Conspiracy Theorists. Be afraid, be very afraid. The government is behind every bad thing that ever happened in your life, most especially abductions and ufo sightings and remember that time you stubbed your toe when you were 8? MK-Ultra. And BTW you'd know that already if you were as informed as those in the inner sanctum but clearly you are not, hence your ignorance you ignoramus you. (Would you like a little abuse with your abuse? How about some abuse for dessert?)
    3. The Aliens-Are-After-Our-Wimmin Witch Hunters. OK, I'm just going to say it. Budd Hopkins and David Jacobs creep me out. They might be nice guys, they might have positive motives, but I have my doubts. Neither of them has had any direct experiences of UFOs or aliens, and both spend all their time sitting on the bedsides of hurting people with painful sexual memories involving aliens, luridly transcribing every word and publishing it. They brook no criticism and have already decided what is going on and who knows the most about it: Them.
    4. The Folklorists and Neoplatonists. I like these people the best because at least they are aware of the magic words, "I don't know," and are willing to say them out loud in front of others. Basically they see these anomalous phenomena as modern manifestations of something very old and very earthly. Most of them reject the entire ET hypothesis but do believe that another intelligence is at play. 
    5. The Debunkers. These folks are just annoying. They're always about 'bring me the flying saucer,' totally ignoring the fact that millions of sightings and contact reports are in and of themselves enough reason to ask, "Um, what's going on here?" One of the most famous debunkers, Joe Nickell of Skeptical Inquirer fame, spends much of his time questioning other people's credentials. He himself holds a bachelor's degree in English. Wow.

    Why would I even care about the decline of a pseudoscience anyway?

    Because I want a good answer, and mainstream science won't look for one. It's really that simple.

    Modern science is clearly in trouble, and that means we are all in trouble. What science can't explain, it tosses aside. Plus, the language of science is so exclusive and the population at large so undereducated that only a very select few people get to participate in any scientific discussion of anything at all.

    So if, like me, you are hooked by an unexplained experience or event, you're kind of doomed to roam the margins of the known, looking for like-minded others with firing brain cells. When those others bite you too, it's even worse than being gaslighted by mainstream academia.  Lots of brilliant people--Jacques Vallee being my favorite, but there are others--have given up on ufology for this reason.

    Science is not bad. Science gave us radios, and computers, the electric car, and quantum physics and so forth, but one look at the world today and it's clear that something is wrong with science, epistemologically speaking. Science should not be a worldview. It's more like a tool, like a hammer.

    To a guy with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

    Hence, ever since the 17th century, science has been like a runaway truck barrelling backwards down a mountainside. It's a very powerful tool, yes, but if you don't know how to drive and you don't have a map, well, stuff goes wrong and keeps going wrong, faster and faster. (Kind of like now.)

    The pace of change today is so ridiculous that geezers like me have to buy cell phones by the six pack because by the time the one we own breaks, we'll need all new skills when its time to replace the damned thing. (Seriously, some of us just want to make phone calls on them. That's really true.)

    We know how to punch holes in the bottom of a sea bed and to get to oil two miles down, but we don't know what to do if something goes wrong. We know how to make chickens grow to three times their normal size and pop eggs out of their mouths (OK I just made up that second thing), but we have no idea what effect that will have on the humans who eat them. We'll figure we'll invent something later to fix that.

    Sure we will.

    So I'm interested in fixing that flaw, that runaway train quality to modern life, by finding a way to ground us culturally, and I think that UFO phemonena offer a way into that. I think that for a lot of reasons. So did Jacques Vallee. So do a lot of people way smarter than me who nevertheless know better than to poke a rattling snake with a sharp stick at a ufology conference.

    It isn't easy to stay open in the face of a great mystery, but what if that is exactly what is required?

    It would be really nice if someone could. Or would.

    Saturday, August 7, 2010

    Whitley Strieber Revisited

    I've been re-reading Whitley Strieber's UFO books and listening to old interviews with him on Coast to Coast and other You Tube radio and TV clips, and frankly I'm finding the exercise a lot more enjoyable than the first time around, back in the late '80s when Communion was selling like hot cakes and everyone and their mother suspected aliens were lurking in their closets (or at least their driveways).

    Coming back to this stuff after 25 years or so, it is striking how the whole alien contact/abduction thing has become normalized and at the same time, bracketed off, more or less put on the shelf indefinitely.

    Aliens? Oh, that. Aisle 5, right next to the werewolves.

    I think U.S. government intelligence helped this mainstreaming process along, but it's also a function of the enormous tension the topic generates. It's hard to stay hyped up forever.

    At some point, there's the dog and the wife and the electric bill.

    Life goes on.

    Today no one really cares too much about this UFO stuff anymore except for people with direct experience, and even those people have come to some conclusion about it all long ago and have either 1) let it go and moved on with their 'normal' lives, or 2) started their own religion, web page, investigative organization, or whatever based on UFOs, aliens, or New Age philosophies.

    UFO interests today subdivide into odd but passionate little factions: the religious contactee New Agers, the dark Malleus-wielding 'investigators' and their victim devotees (a la Hopkins and Jacobs), the MUFON folks and other mechanistic pseudoscientists, the annoying and often woefully un-credentialed debunkers (if you're going to ridicule and be snotty, shouldn't you yourself have a leg to stand on?), the consciousness gurus, the neurologists and psi researchers... it's quite the circus, and you have to pick your act, straight up.

    Declare your bias or bug off.

    Strieber is almost unique in being a direct experiencer who not only has no axe to grind, he refuses to pick any specific bias or declare it. Instead, he insists on the importance of not pretending to know more than we really do. This is refreshing coming from anyone talking about UFOs these days, since most folks seem to want to impress you with their credentials immediately (or at least slam someone else's credentials and then compare themselves favorably by contrast). 

    Strieber on the other hand talks repeatedly of the importance of not choosing a box and not putting this stuff on the shelf prematurely, of allowing the mind to stay open and admit, "I don't know what this is or why it is happening."

    That's really hard to do.

    It's SO hard to do, in fact, that I think it may well be the whole point of the experience--at least from the human side. Can you let go of certainty? Can you stop yourself from forming an explanation that nails it to the wall? Can you stop yourself from labeling it evil OR good and just let it be what it is?

    Most people can't. Not for long.

    As a culture we value knowledge and authority, but personal experience we discount ruthlessly. I believe we've paid a high price for this highly selective epistemology. In fact, I personally think it is killing us.

    Descartes said that his cogito statement was founded in a moment of radical doubt. It seems to me that the ability to stay open in the face of mystery requires exactly the opposite--a moment of radical trust.

    This is not to say that Strieber's 'greys' are trustworthy--if anything they are the penultimate tricksters--but only to say that perhaps the medicine for runaway rationalism and its ill effects involves openness and a willingness to dream--no matter how strange the dream, no matter where it takes you.

    Strieber's current website is called Unknown Country, his broadcasts Dreamland, and he refuses to even use the word, 'paranormal' because it doesn't mean anything.

    There is no normal versus paranormal experience. There is only experience. Experience is what it is. If we don't edit it, sometimes we are utterly amazed at what we find.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010

    Mac Tonnies on the Crypto-Terrestrial Hypothesis

    Fascinating guy. I just discovered him, and sadly he died very recently at only 34 years of age. But this is pretty close to what I think is going on with much of the abduction phenomena.