“Right, darlings, we need to thought-shower this. What shape are we having this year? No, no, dear: cigar-shaped is just so last season, please try to keep up.”
– Unnamed Alien Commander, Annual Style Conference, Zeta Reticuli
WHAT IS A UFO? I shout the question so’s you can hear me over all the people out there telling you what a UFO is – to whit: an alien spaceship, bent on mutilating cattle and probing your…
Anyway, the Government (all of them, not just ours) knows about it all and is Hushing It Up. It’s self-evident, when you think about it: they’re denying that they’re Hushing It Up, so that’s really proof. After all, if they weren’t Hushing It Up, they’d come straight out and admit that they were Hushing It Up. A lot of people have pointed out that this isn’t logical, but that only proves that they’re In On It.
A remarkable culture has grown up around the UFO today. A casual interest in the subject might lead you to find out about some of the most famous sightings and encounters in UFO history: the sighting in 1947 by pilot Kenneth Arnold of the first ‘flying saucers’ to be so described, over Mount Rainier in Washington. You might have heard about Betty and Barney Hill, the American couple supposedly abducted by aliens in New Hampshire in 1961. You might have heard of the strange lights and goings-on seen by personnel from two US Air Force bases in Suffolk in 1980, in what’s now known as the Rendlesham Forest Incident. And you’ll certainly have heard about the alleged crash of a UFO, and its recovery by the US government, in Roswell, New Mexico, also (significantly?) in 1947.
But to discover the roots of the modern UFO phenomenon we have to a little further back than 1947. In fact, the earliest reported sighting was not by a pilot. It was by a pharaoh.
In the twenty-second year of his reign, which he shared jointly with his wife and half-sister Hatshepsut (yes, her again), the Pharaoh Thutmose III had a strange experience. So strange that it was recorded in the written annals of Egypt:
“The scribes of the House of Life found there was a circle of fire coming in the sky […] It had no head; the breath of its mouth had a foul odour. Its body was one rod long and one rod wide. It had no voice.”
A ‘rod’ is an Egyptian measure equivalent to about five metres. The record continues:
“These things became more numerous in the sky. They shone more in the sky than the brightness of the Sun, and extended to the limits of the supports of the heavens.”
It’s quite possible that what was recorded here was a meteor storm, or similar natural event. It’s hard for us modern types to appreciate the difficulty the ancients would have had with the idea of fiery rocks falling out of the sky. It’s contrary to common sense to say that rocks could fall out of the sky. I mean, just look up: there clearly aren’t any rocks up there, so how could they fall down?
So the earliest accounts of UFO are a little confused: as may well be the case today, the majority of them can probably be attributed to natural phenomena. There are many old stories involving clouds, and fire, and heat and the shaking of the Earth – all of which are really more likely to depict meteor strikes, volcanoes, earthquakes and so on, than alien activity.
There are also those stories that are a little harder to dismiss. Such as, for example, the account by Roman historian Titus Livius of an event – admittedly a century and a bit before his time – in Hadria. Livius describes what appeared to be an ‘altar’ in the sky, surrounded by “the strange spectacle of men in white clothing”. It’s a little more difficult to explain the presence of white-clad men standing around an altar in the sky.
A little later, in 1211 – in Gravesend, no less – we find the first really odd mediaeval ‘UFO’ account. A church congregation participating in Mass one Sunday found themselves landed upon by an anchor. An actual, proper metal anchor, dropped out of the sky. The anchor caught on a stone in the graveyard, and when the celebrants looked up, they found tethered above their heads a ship – complete with crew. After a few moments, one of the crew jumped overboard, ‘swam’ down and tried to retrieve the anchor. The churchgoers immediately tried to capture him – as you do – and he beat a hasty retreat. His shipmates then cut the anchor rope, and the vessel sailed away into the sky, leaving the anchor behind. Which, showing a truly stunning scientific awareness, the local blacksmith melted down and turned into church ornaments. Which was handy.
Between 1896 and 1897 the United States underwent what’s known as the ‘Airship Wave’: a series of otherwise unrelated UFO reports all bearing a striking similarity in terms of the description of the objects seen. In Sacramento, California, witnesses described an ‘arc lamp’ moving through the sky pulling a ‘dark shape’. One witness claimed to have heard a voice from the mysterious object saying, “We ought to reach San Francisco by tomorrow noon”.
In 1910, aircraft described as ‘dirigibles’ (a term describing any steerable balloon craft, such as an airship) were seen over Manhattan; and Britain’s first ‘airship’ UFO was sighted over Peterborough, for some reason, in 1909.
As the twentieth century progressed, and the shooting started, UFO reports continued, but their form began to change. By the 1920s, objects were still being sighted, but were now starting to take on a disc-like, or cigar-shaped, appearance. Beyond this point there seem to be no more airships, just as the airships themselves appear to have replaced the flying sea-ships commonly reported previously.
The advent of the cheesy B-movie in the 1940s and 50s more or less fixed public expectations with regard to UFOs: they were now, most certainly, ‘flying saucers’. Had Klaatu and Gorn set down in Central Park in an airship, no-one would have believed a word of it.
Throughout the following two or three decades, alien spacecraft remained much the same. Human concepts changed: we had the Enterprise, the Discovery, the Nostromo; while real-life spaceships tended to start out as mighty rockets and end up as ingenious, but rather uninspiring, podules. UFO reports, though, still tended to describe flying saucers. Only in the 1980s and 90s did the pattern start to change again, as the aliens upgraded to ‘The Triangle’. The popular 1990s series The X Files, and its rather more intriguing but shorter-lived rival Dark Skies, had their aliens scooting around in large, black, triangular craft, with lots of lights, that could hover, silent and ominous, over remote towns. And Bakewell.
All right, Bakewell didn’t get a mention in either of those shows, but in the 1990s it did get overflown by a large black triangular object which – based on a series of reports from roughly the same time – made its way silently, and at low altitude, down the country and eventually crossed over into Belgium. Somewhere along the line a similar craft was reported in the West Midlands, and dubbed in the local press ‘the Dudley Dorito‘, thanks to its distinctive shape.
So we see that, for some reason, UFOs have changed their shape numerous times over the years. Sometimes this is a gradual, evolutionary shift; and occasionally it’s a complete overhaul resulting in a completely different concept. But once these big changes occur, they tend to stick, and either work their way into UFO lore, or start there and work their way out into ‘reality’: the consensus view that most subsequent witnesses seem to report. The strange objects have gone from fireballs, clouds and dragons in the earliest accounts, been flying ships for the bulk of recorded history, and transformed into more mechanical ‘vehicles’ in later years: first airships, then flying saucers, and most recently the black, triangular-shaped ships immortalised in 1990s paranormal drama series.
One thing I’m reasonably sure of is that, in the future, UFOs will take on a new shape. I’ve no idea what that shape will be, but I’ve no doubt it will conform quite nicely to our collective expectations and perceptions at the time. The question is: is this because we are basically making them up – and always have – through a form of collective hysteria; or is there something more to it than that