The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)
Chapter 7. The Demon-Haunted World
There are demon-haunted worlds, regions of utter darkness.
The ISA Upanishad (India, c. 600 BC)
Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which
every one in himself calleth religion.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
The gods watch over us and guide our destinies, many human cultures teach; other entities, more malevolent, are responsible for the existence of evil. Both classes of beings, whether considered natural or supernatural, real or imaginary, serve human needs. Even if they’re wholly fanciful, people feel better believing in them. So in an age when traditional religions have been under withering fire from science, is it not natural to wrap up the old gods and demons in scientific raiment and call them aliens?
Belief in demons was widespread in the ancient world. They were thought of as natural rather than supernatural beings. Hesiod casually mentions them. Socrates described his philosophical inspiration as the work of a personal, benign demon. His teacher, Diotima of Mantineia, tells him (in Plato’s Symposium) that ‘Everything demonic is intermediate between God and mortal.
God has no contact with man,’ she continues; ‘only through the demonic is there intercourse and conversation between man and gods, whether in the waking state or during sleep.’
Plato, Socrates’ most celebrated student, assigned a high role to demons: ‘No human nature invested with supreme power is able to order human affairs,’ he said, ‘and not overflow with insolence and wrong...’
We do not appoint oxen to be the lords of oxen, or goats of goats, but we ourselves are a superior race and rule over them. In like manner God, in his love of mankind, placed over us the demons, who are a superior race, and they with great ease and pleasure to themselves, and no less to us, taking care of us and giving us peace and reverence and order and justice never failing, made the tribes of men happy and united.
He stoutly denied that demons were a source of evil, and represented Eros, the keeper of sexual passions, as a demon, not a god, ‘neither mortal nor immortal’, ‘neither good nor bad’. But all later Platonists, including the Neo-Platonists who powerfully influenced Christian philosophy, held that some demons were good and others evil. The pendulum was swinging. Aristotle, Plato’s famous student, seriously considered the contention that dreams are scripted by demons. Plutarch and Porphyry proposed that the demons, who filled the upper air, came from the Moon.
The early Church Fathers, despite having imbibed Neo-Platonism from the culture they swam in, were anxious to separate themselves from ‘pagan’ belief systems. They taught that all of pagan religion consisted of the worship of demons and men, both misconstrued as gods. When St Paul complained (Ephesians vi, 12) about wickedness in high places, he was referring not to government corruption, but to demons, who lived in high places:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
From the beginning, much more was intended than demons as a mere poetic metaphor for the evil in the hearts of men.
St Augustine was much vexed with demons. He quotes the pagan thinking prevalent in his time: ‘The gods occupy the loftiest regions, men the lowest, the demons the middle region... They have immortality of body, but passions of the mind in common with men.’ In Book VIII of The City of God (begun in 413), Augustine assimilates this ancient tradition, replaces gods by God, and demonizes the demons, arguing that they are, without exception, malign. They have no redeeming virtues. They are the fount of all spiritual and material evil. He calls them ‘aerial animals... most eager to inflict harm, utterly alien from righteousness, swollen with pride, pale with envy, subtle in deceit.’ They may profess to carry messages between God and man, disguising themselves as angels of the Lord, but this pose is a snare to lure us to our destruction. They can assume any form, and know many things - ‘demon’ means ‘knowledge’ in Greek* -especially about the material world. However intelligent, they are deficient in charity. They prey on ‘the captive and outwitted minds of men,’ wrote Tertullian. They have their abode in the air, the stars are their neighbours, their commerce is with the clouds.’
[* ‘Science’ means ‘knowledge’ in Latin. A jurisdictional dispute is exposed, even if we look no further.]
In the eleventh century, the influential Byzantine theologian, philosopher and shady politician, Michael Psellus, described demons in these words:
These animals exist in our own life, which is full of passions, for they are present abundantly in the passions, and their dwelling-place is that of matter, as is their rank and degree. For this reason they are also subject to passions and fettered to them.
One Richalmus, abbot of Schonthal, around 1270 penned an entire treatise on demons, rich in first-hand experience: he sees (but only when his eyes are shut) countless malevolent demons, like motes of dust, buzzing around his head – and everyone else’s. Despite successive waves of rationalist, Persian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim world views, despite revolutionary social, political and philosophical ferment, the existence, much of the character, and even the name of demons remained unchanged from Hesiod to the Crusades.
Demons, the ‘powers of the air’, come down from the skies and have unlawful sexual congress with women. Augustine believed that witches were the offspring of these forbidden unions. In the Middle Ages, as in classical antiquity, nearly everyone believed such stories. The demons were also called devils, or fallen angels. The demonic seducers of women were labelled incubi; of men, succubi. There are cases in which nuns reported, in some befud-dlement, a striking resemblance between the incubus and the priest-confessor, or the bishop, and awoke the next morning, as one fifteenth-century chronicler put it, to ‘find themselves polluted just as if they had commingled with a man’. There are similar accounts, but in harems not convents, in ancient China. So many women reported incubi, argued the Presbyterian religious writer Richard Baxter (in his Certainty of the World of Spirits, 1691), ‘that ‘tis impudence to deny it’.*
[‘ Likewise, in the same work, ‘The raising of storms by witches is attested by so many, that I think it needless to recite them.’ The theologian Meric Casaubon argued – in his 1668 book. Of Credulity and Incredulity, that witches must exist because, after all, everyone believes in them. Anything that a large number of people believe must be true.]
As they seduced, the incubi and succubi were perceived as a weight bearing down on the chest of the dreamer. Mare, despite its Latin meaning, is the Old English word for incubus, and nightmare meant originally the demon that sits on the chests of sleepers, tormenting them with dreams. In Athanasius’ Life of St Anthony (written around 360) demons are described as coming and going at will in locked rooms; 1400 years later, in his work De Daemonialitae, the Franciscan scholar Ludovico Sinistrari assures us that demons pass through walls.
The external reality of demons was almost entirely unquestioned from antiquity through late medieval times. Maimonides denied their reality, but the overwhelming majority of rabbis believed in dybbuks. One of the few cases I can find where it is even hinted that demons might be internal, generated in our minds, is when Abba Poemen - one of the desert fathers of the early Church - was asked,
‘How do the demons fight against me?’
‘The demons fight against you?’ Father Poemen asked in turn. ‘Our own wills become the demons, and it is these which attack us.’
The medieval attitudes on incubi and succubi were influenced by Macrobius’ fourth-century Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, which went through dozens of editions before the European Enlightenment. Macrobius described phantoms (phantasma) seen ‘in the moment between wakefulness and slumber’. The dreamer ‘imagines’ the phantoms as predatory. Macrobius had a sceptical side which his medieval readers tended to ignore.
Obsession with demons began to reach a crescendo when, in his famous Bull of 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared,
It has come to Our ears that members of both sexes do not avoid to have intercourse with evil angels, incubi, and succubi, and that by their sorceries, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurations, they suffocate, extinguish, and cause to perish the births of women as well as generate numerous other calamities. With this Bull, Innocent initiated the systematic accusation, torture and execution of countless ‘witches’ all over Europe. They were guilty of what Augustine had described as ‘a criminal tampering with the unseen world’. Despite the evenhanded ‘members of both sexes’ in the language of the Bull, unsurprisingly it was mainly girls and women who were so persecuted.
Many leading Protestants of the following centuries, their differences with the Catholic Church notwithstanding, adopted nearly identical views. Even humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More believed in witches. “The giving up of witchcraft,’ said John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, ‘is in effect the giving up of the Bible.’ William Blackstone, the celebrated jurist, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), asserted:
To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God in various passages of both the Old and New Testament.
Innocent commended ‘Our dear sons Henry Kramer and James Sprenger’ who ‘have been by Letters Apostolic delegated as Inquisitors of these heretical [de]pravities’. If ‘the abominations and enormities in question remain unpunished,’ the souls of multitudes face eternal damnation.
The Pope appointed Kramer and Sprenger to write a comprehensive analysis, using the full academic armoury of the late fifteenth century. With exhaustive citations of scripture and of ancient and modern scholars, they produced the Malleus Malefi-carum, the ‘Hammer of Witches’, aptly described as one of the most terrifying documents in human history. Thomas Ady, in A Candle in the Dark, condemned it as ‘villainous Doctrines Inventions’, ‘horrible lyes and impossibilities’, serving to hide ‘their unparalleled cruelty from the ears of the world’. What the Malleus comes down to, pretty much, is that if you’re accused of witchcraft, you’re a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There are no rights of the defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers. Little attention is given to the possibility that accusations might be made for impious purposes - jealousy, say, or revenge, or the greed of the inquisitors who routinely confiscated for their own private benefit the property of the accused. This technical manual for torturers also includes methods of punishment tailored to release demons from the victim’s body before the process kills her. The Malleus in hand, the Pope’s encouragement guaranteed, Inquisitors began springing up all over Europe.
It quickly became an expense account scam. All costs of investigation, trial and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives, down toper diem for the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges, the travel expenses of a messenger sent to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city, and the faggots, tar and hangman’s rope. Then there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch’s remaining property, if any, was divided between Church and State. As this legally and morally sanctioned mass murder and theft became institutionalized, as a vast bureaucracy arose to serve it, attention was turned from poor hags and crones to the middle class and well-to-do of both sexes.
The more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere fantasy. Since each ‘witch’ was made to implicate others, the numbers grew exponentially. These constituted ‘frightful proofs that the Devil is still alive’, as it was later put in America in the Salem witch trials. In a credulous age, the most fantastic testimony was soberly accepted – that tens of thousands of witches had gathered for a Sabbath in public squares in France, or that 12,000 of them darkened the skies as they flew to Newfoundland. The Bible had counselled, ‘Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.’ Legions of women were burned to death.* And the most horrendous tortures were routinely applied to every defendant, young or old, after the instruments of torture were first blessed by the priests. Innocent himself died in 1492, following unsuccessful attempts to keep him alive by transfusion (which resulted in the deaths of three boys) and by suckling at the breast of a nursing mother. He was mourned by his mistress and their children.
[* This mode of execution was adopted by the Holy Inquisition apparently to guarantee literal accord with a well-intentioned sentence of canon law (Council of Tours, 1163): The Church abhors bloodshed.’]
In Britain witch-finders, also called ‘prickers’, were employed, receiving a handsome bounty for each girl or woman they turned over for execution. They had no incentive to be cautious in their accusations. Typically they looked for ‘devil’s marks’ – scars or birthmarks or nevi – that when pricked with a pin neither hurt nor bled. A simple sleight of hand often gave the appearance that the pin penetrated deep into the witch’s flesh. When no visible marks were apparent, ‘invisible marks’ sufficed. Upon the gallows, one mid-seventeenth-century pricker ‘confessed he had been the death of above 220 women in England and Scotland, for the gain of twenty shillings apiece’.*
[* In the murky territory of bounty hunters and paid informers, vile corruption is often the rule - worldwide and through all of human history. To take an example almost at random, in 1994, for a fee, a group of postal inspectors from Cleveland, USA, agreed to go underground and ferret out wrongdoers; they then contrived criminal cases against 32 innocent postal workers.]
In the witch trials, mitigating evidence or defence witnesses were inadmissible. In any case, it was nearly impossible to provide compelling alibis for accused witches: the rules of evidence had a special character. For example, in more than one case a husband attested that his wife was asleep in his arms at the very moment she was accused of frolicking with the devil at a witch’s Sabbath; but the archbishop patiently explained that a demon had taken the place of the wife. The husbands were not to imagine that their powers of perception could exceed Satan’s powers of deception. The beautiful young women were perforce consigned to the flames.
There were strong erotic and misogynistic elements, as might be expected in a sexually repressed, male-dominated society with inquisitors drawn from the class of nominally celibate priests. The trials paid close attention to the quality and quantity of orgasm in the supposed copulations of defendants with demons or the Devil (although Augustine had been certain ‘we cannot call the Devil a fornicator’), and to the nature of the Devil’s ‘member’ (cold, by all reports). ‘Devil’s marks’ were found ‘generally on the breasts or private parts’ according to Ludovico Sinistrari’s 1700 book. As a result pubic hair was shaved, and the genitalia were carefully inspected by the exclusively male inquisitors. In the immolation of the 20-year-old Joan of Arc, after her dress had caught fire the Hangman of Rouen slaked the flames so onlookers could view ‘all the secrets which can or should be in a woman’.
The chronicle of those who were consumed by fire in the single German city of Wiirzburg in the single year 1598 penetrates the statistics and lets us confront a little of the human reality:
The steward of the senate, named Gering; old Mrs Kanzler; the tailor’s fat wife; the woman cook of Mr Mengerdorf; a stranger; a strange woman; Baunach, a senator, the fattest citizen in Wiirtzburg; the old smith of the court; an old woman; a little girl, nine or ten years old; a younger girl, her little sister; the mother of the two little aforementioned girls; Liebler’s daughter; Goebel’s child, the most beautiful girl in Wiirtzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys from the Minster, each twelve years old; Stepper’s little daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; an old woman; the little son of the town council bailiff; the wife of Knertz, the butcher; the infant daughter of Dr Schultz; a blind girl; Schwartz, canon at Hach...
On and on it goes. Some were given special humane attention: ‘The little daughter of Valkenberger was privately executed and burned.’ There were twenty-eight public immolations, each with four to six victims on average, in that small city in a single year. This was a microcosm of what was happening all across Europe. No one knows how many were killed altogether - perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. Those responsible for prosecuting, torturing, judging, burning and justifying were selfless. Just ask them.
They could not be mistaken. The confessions of witchcraft could not be based on hallucinations, say, or attempts to satisfy the inquisitors and stop the torture. In such a case, explained the witch judge Pierre de Lancre (in his 1612 book, Description of the Inconstancy of Evil Angels), the Catholic Church would be committing a great crime by burning witches. Those who raise such possibilities are thus attacking the Church and ipso facto committing a mortal sin. Critics of witch-burning were punished and, in some cases, themselves burnt. The inquisitors and torturers were doing God’s work. They were saving souls. They were foiling demons.
Witchcraft of course was not the only offence that merited torture and burning at the stake. Heresy was a still more serious crime, and both Catholics and Protestants punished it ruthlessly. In the sixteenth century the scholar William Tyndale had the temerity to contemplate translating the New Testament into English. But if people could actually read the Bible in their own language instead of arcane Latin, they could form their own, independent religious views. They might conceive of their own private unintermediated line to God. This was a challenge to the job security of Roman Catholic priests. When Tyndale tried to publish his translation, he was hounded and pursued all over Europe. Eventually he was captured, garrotted, and then, for good measure, burned at the stake. His copies of the New Testament (which a century later became the basis of the exquisite King James translation) were then hunted down house-to-house by armed posses - Christians piously defending Christianity by preventing other Christians from knowing the words of Christ. Such a cast of mind, such a climate of absolute confidence that knowledge should be rewarded by torture and death were unlikely to help those accused of witchcraft.
Burning witches is a feature of Western civilization that has, with occasional political exceptions, declined since the sixteenth century. In the last judicial execution of witches in England, a woman and her nine-year-old daughter were hanged. Their crime was raising a rain storm by taking their stockings off. In our time, witches and djinns are found as regular fare in children’s entertainment, exorcism of demons is still practised by the Roman Catholic and other Churches, and the proponents of one cult still denounce as sorcery the cultic practices of another. We still use the word ‘pandemonium’ (literally, all demons). A crazed and violent person is still said to be demonic. (Not until the eighteenth century was mental illness no longer generally ascribed to supernatural causes; even insomnia had been considered a punishment inflicted by demons.) More than half of Americans tell pollsters they ‘believe’ in the Devil’s existence, and ten per cent have communicated with him, as Martin Luther reported he did regularly. In a 1992 ‘spiritual warfare manual’ called Prepare for War, Rebecca Brown informs us that abortion and sex outside of marriage ‘will almost always result in demonic infestation’; that meditation, yoga and martial arts are designed so unsuspecting Christians will be seduced into worshipping demons; and that ‘rock music didn’t “just happen”, it was a carefully masterminded plan by none other than Satan himself. Sometimes ‘your loved ones are demonically bound and blinded’. Demonology is today still part and parcel of many earnest faiths.
And what is it that demons do? In the Malleus, Kramer and Sprenger reveal that ‘devils... busy themselves by interfering with the process of normal copulation and conception, by obtaining human semen, and themselves transferring it’. Demonic artificial insemination in the Middle Ages goes back at least to St Thomas Aquinas, who tells us in On the Trinity that ‘demons can transfer the semen which they have collected and inject it into the bodies of others’. His contemporary, St Bonaventura, spells it out in a little more detail: succubi ‘yield to males and receive their semen; by cunning skills, the demons preserve its potency, and afterwards, with the permission of God, they become incubi and pour it out into female repositories’. The products of these demon-mediated unions are also, when they grow up, visited by demons. A multi-generational trans-species sexual bond is forged. And these creatures, we recall, are well known to fly; indeed they inhabit the upper air.
There is no spaceship in these stories. But most of the central elements of the alien abduction account are present, including sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experiments on the human species. Unless we believe that demons really exist, how can we understand so strange a belief-system, embraced by the whole Western world (including those considered the wisest among us), reinforced by personal experience in every generation, and taught by Church and State? Is there any real alternative besides a shared delusion based on common brain wiring and chemistry?
In Genesis we read of angels who couple with ‘the daughters of men’. The culture myths of ancient Greece and Rome told of gods appearing to women as bulls or swans or showers of gold and impregnating them. In one early Christian tradition, philosophy derived not from human ingenuity but out of demonic pillow talk, the fallen angels betraying the secrets of Heaven to their human consorts. Accounts with similar elements appear in cultures around the world. Parallels to incubi include Arabian djinn, Greek satyrs, Hindu bhuts, Samoan hotua poro, Celtic dusii and many others. In an epoch of demon hysteria, it was easy enough to demonize those we feared or hated. So Merlin was said to have been fathered by an incubus. So were Plato, Alexander the Great, Augustus and Martin Luther. Occasionally an entire people - for example the Huns or the inhabitants of Cyprus - were accused by their enemies of having been sired by demons.
In Talmudic tradition the archetypical succubus was Lilith, whom God made from the dust along with Adam. She was expelled from Eden for insubordination - not to God, but to Adam. Ever since, she spends her nights seducing Adam’s descendants. In ancient Iranian and many other cultures, nocturnal seminal emissions were believed to be elicited by succubi. St Teresa of Avila reported a vivid sexual encounter with an angel -an angel of light, not of darkness, she was sure - as did other women later sanctified by the Catholic Church. Cagliostro, the eighteenth-century magician and con man, let it be understood that he, like Jesus of Nazareth, was a product of the union ‘between the children of heaven and earth’.
In 1645 a Cornish teenager, Anne Jefferies, was found groggy, crumpled on the floor. Much later, she recalled being attacked by half a dozen little men, carried paralysed to a castle in the air, seduced and returned home. She called the little men fairies. (For many pious Christians, as for the inquisitors of Joan of Arc, this was a distinction without a difference. Fairies were demons, plain and simple.) They returned to terrify and torment her. The next year she was arrested for witchcraft. Fairies traditionally have magical powers and can cause paralysis by the merest touch. The ordinary passage of time is slowed in fairyland. Fairies are reproductively impaired, so they have sex with humans and carry off babies from their cradles, sometimes leaving a fairy substitute, a ‘changeling’. Now it seems a fair question: if Anne Jefferies had grown up in a culture touting aliens rather than fairies, and UFOs rather than castles in the air, would her story have been distinguishable in any significant respect from the ones ‘abductees’ tell?
In his 1982 book The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, David Hufford describes an executive, university-educated, in his mid-thirties, who recalled a summer spent as a teenager in his aunt’s house. One night, he saw mysterious lights moving in the harbour. Afterwards, he fell asleep. From his bed he then witnessed a white, glowing figure climbing the stairs. She entered his room, paused, and then said - anticlimactically, it seems to me - “That is the linoleum.’ Some nights the figure was an old woman; in others, an elephant. Sometimes the young man was convinced the entire business was a dream; other times he was certain he was awake. He was pressed down into his bed, paralysed, unable to move or cry out. His heart was pounding. He was short of breath. Similar events transpired on many consecutive nights. What is happening here? These events took place before alien abductions were widely described. If the young man had known about alien abductions, would his old woman have had a large head and bigger eyes?
In several famous passages in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon described the balance between credulity and scepticism in late classical antiquity:
Credulity performed the office of faith; fanaticism was permitted to assume the language of inspiration, and the effects of accident or contrivance were ascribed to supernatural causes...
In modern times [Gibbon is writing in the middle eighteenth century], a latent and even involuntary scepticism adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their admission of supernatural truths is much less an active consent than a cold and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe and to respect the invariable order of Nature, our reason, or at least our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain the visible action of the Deity. But in the first ages of Christianity the situation of mankind was extremely different. The most curious, or the most credulous, among the pagans were often persuaded to enter into a society which asserted an actual claim of miraculous powers. The primitive Christians perpetually trod on mystic ground, and their minds were exercised by the habits of believing the most extraordinary events. They felt, or they fancied, that on every side they were incessantly assaulted by daemons, comforted by visions, instructed by prophecy, and surprisingly delivered from danger, sickness, and from death itself, by the supplications of the church...
It was their firm persuasion that the air which they breathed was peopled with invisible enemies; with innumerable daemons, who watched every occasion, and assumed every form, to terrify, and above all to tempt, their unguarded virtue. The imagination, and even the senses, were deceived by the illusions of distempered fanaticism; and the hermit, whose midnight prayer was oppressed by involuntary slumber, might easily confound the phantoms of horror or delight which had occupied his sleeping and his waking dreams...
[T]he practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision. Their love of the marvellous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favoured the establishment of Polytheism. So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition...
Put aside Gibbon’s social snobbery: the devil tormented the upper classes too, and even a king of England - James I, the first Stuart monarch - wrote a credulous and superstitious book on demons (Daemonologie,1597). He was also the patron of the great translation of the Bible into English that still bears his name. It was King James’s opinion that tobacco is the ‘devil’s weed’, and a number of witches were exposed through their addiction to this drug. But by 1628, James had become a thoroughgoing sceptic -mainly because adolescents had been found faking demonic possession, in which state they had accused innocent people of witchcraft. If we reckon the scepticism that Gibbon says characterized his time to have declined in ours, and if even a little of the rampant gullibility he attributes to late classical times is left over in ours, should we not expect something like demons to find a niche in the popular culture of the present?
Of course, as enthusiasts for extraterrestrial visitations are quick to remind me, there’s another interpretation of these historical parallels: aliens, they say, have always been visiting us, poking at us, stealing our sperms and eggs, impregnating us. In earlier times we recognized them as gods, demons, fairies, or spirits; only now do we understand that it’s aliens who’ve been diddling us all these millennia. Jacques Vallee has made such arguments. But then why are there virtually no reports of flying saucers prior to 1947? Why is it that none of the world’s major religions uses saucers as icons of the divine? Why no warnings about the dangers of high technology then? Why isn’t this genetic experiment, whatever its objective, completed by now, thousands of years or more after its initiation by beings supposedly of vastly superior technological attainments? Why are we in such trouble if the breeding programme is designed to improve our lot?
Following this line of argument, we might anticipate present adherents of the old beliefs to understand ‘aliens’ to be fairies, gods, or demons. In fact, there are several contemporary sects -the ‘Raelians’, for example - that hold gods or God to come to earth in UFOs. Some abductees describe the aliens, however repulsive, as ‘angels’, or ‘emissaries of God’. And there are those who still think it’s demons.
In Whitley Strieber’s Communion, a first-hand account of ‘alien abduction’, the author relates
Whatever was there seemed so monstrously ugly, so filthy and dark and sinister. Of course they were demons. They had to be ... I still remember that thing crouching there, so terribly ugly, its arms and legs like the limbs of a great insect, its eyes glaring at me.
Reportedly, Strieber is now open to the possibility that these night-time terrors were dreams or hallucinations.
Articles on UFOs in The Christian News Encyclopedia, a fundamentalist compilation, include ‘Unchristian Fanatic Obsession’, and ‘Scientist Believes UFOs Work of Devil’. The Spiritual Counterfeits Project of Berkeley, California, teaches that UFOs are of demonic origin; the Aquarian Church of Universal Service of McMinnville, Oregon, that all aliens are hostile. A 1993 newsletter of ‘Cosmic Awareness Communications’ informs us that UFO occupants think of humans as laboratory animals, wish us to worship them, but tend to be deterred by the Lord’s Prayer. Some abductees have been cast out of their evangelical religious congregations; their stories sound too close to satanism. A 1980 fundamentalist tract, The Cult Explosion, by Dave Hunt, reveals that
UFOs ... are clearly not physical and seem to be demonic manifestations from another dimension calculated to alter man’s way of thinking... [T]he alleged UFO entities that have presumably communicated psychically with humans have always preached the same four lies that the serpent introduced to Eve... [T]hese beings are demons and they are preparing for the Antichrist.
A number of sects hold UFOs and alien abductions to be premonitions of ‘end-times’.
If UFOs come from another planet or another dimension, were they sent by the same God who has been revealed to us in any of the major religions? Nothing in the UFO phenomena, the fundamentalist complaint goes, requires belief in the one, true God, while much in it contradicts the God portrayed in the Bible and Christian tradition. The New Age: A Christian Critique by Ralph Rath (1990) discusses UFOs, typically for such literature, with extreme credulity. It serves their purpose to accept UFOs as real and revile them as instruments of Satan and the Antichrist, rather than to use the blade of scientific scepticism. That tool, once honed, might accomplish more than just a limited heresiotomy.
The Christian fundamentalist author Hal Lindsey, in his 1994 religious best-seller Planet Earth - 2000 AD, writes,
I have become thoroughly convinced that UFOs are real... They are operated by alien beings of great intelligence and power ... I believe these beings are not only extraterrestrial but supernatural in origin. To be blunt, I think they are demons... part of a Satanic plot.
And what is the evidence for this conclusion? Chiefly, it is the eleventh and twelfth verses of Luke, Chapter 21, in which Jesus talks about ‘great signs from Heaven’ - nothing like a UFO is described - in the last days. Typically, Lindsey ignores verse 32 in which Jesus makes it very clear he is talking about events in the first, not the twentieth, century.
There is also a Christian tradition according to which extraterrestrial life cannot exist. In Christian News for 23 May 1994, for example, W. Gary Crampton, Doctor of Theology, tells us:
The Bible, either explicitly or implicitly, speaks to every area of life; it never leaves us without an answer. The Bible nowhere explicitly affirms or negates intelligent extraterrestrial life. Implicitly, however, Scripture does deny the existence of such beings, thus also negating the possibility of flying saucers... Scripture views earth as the center of the universe... According to Peter, a ‘planet hopping’ Savior is out of the question. Here is an answer to intelligent life on other planets. If there were such, who would redeem them? Certainly not Christ... Experiences which are out of line with the teachings of Scripture must always be renounced as fallacious. The Bible has a monopoly on the truth.
But many other Christian sects - Roman Catholics, for example -are completely open-minded, with no a priori objections to and no insistence on the reality of aliens and UFOs.
In the early 1960s, I argued that the UFO stories were Grafted chiefly to satisfy religious longings. At a time when science has complicated uncritical adherence to the old-time religions, an alternative is proffered to the God hypothesis: dressed in scientific jargon, their immense powers ‘explained’ by superficially scientific terminology, the gods and demons of old come down from heaven to haunt us, to offer prophetic visions, and to tantalize us with visions of a more hopeful future: a space-age mystery religion aborning.
The folklorist Thomas E. Bullard wrote in 1989 that
abduction reports sound like rewrites of older supernatural encounter traditions with aliens serving the functional roles of divine beings.
Science may have evicted ghosts and witches from our beliefs, but it just as quickly filled the vacancy with aliens having the same functions. Only the extraterrestrial outer trappings are new. All the fear and the psychological dramas for dealing with it seem simply to have found their way home again, where it is business as usual in the legend realm where things go bump in the night.
Is it possible that people in all times and places occasionally experience vivid, realistic hallucinations, often with sexual content, about abduction by strange, telepathic, aerial creatures who ooze through walls, with the details filled in by the prevailing cultural idioms, sucked out of the Zeitgeist? Others, who have not personally had the experience, find it stirring and in a way familiar. They pass the story on. Soon it takes on a life of its own, inspires others trying to understand their own visions and hallucinations, and enters the realm of folklore, myth and legend. The connection between the content of spontaneous temporal lobe hallucinations and the alien abduction paradigm is consistent with such a hypothesis.
Perhaps when everyone knows that gods come down to Earth, we hallucinate gods; when all of us are familiar with demons, it’s incubi and succubi; when fairies are widely accepted, we see fairies; in an age of spiritualism, we encounter spirits; and when the old myths fade and we begin thinking that extraterrestrial beings are plausible, then that’s where our hypnogogic imagery tends.
Snatches of song or foreign languages, images, events that we witnessed, stories that we overheard in childhood can be accurately recalled decades later without any conscious memory of how they got into our heads. ‘[I]n violent fevers, men, all ignorance, have talked in ancient tongues,’ says Herman Melville in Moby Dick; ‘and... when the mystery is probed, it turns out always that in their wholly forgotten childhood those ancient tongues had been really spoken in their hearing.’ In our everyday life, we effortlessly and unconsciously incorporate cultural norms and make them our own.
A similar inhaling of motifs is present in schizophrenic ‘command hallucinations’. Here people feel they are being told what to do by an imposing or mythic figure. They are ordered to assassinate a political leader or a folk hero, or defeat the British invaders, or harm themselves, because it is the wish of God, or Jesus, or the Devil, or demons, or angels, or - lately - aliens. The schizophrenic is transfixed by a clear and powerful command from a voice that no one else can hear, and that the subject must somehow identify. Who would issue such a command? Who could speak inside our heads? The culture in which we’ve been raised offers up an answer.
Think of the power of repetitive imagery in advertising, especially to suggestible viewers and readers. It can make us believe almost anything - even that smoking cigarettes is cool. In our time, putative aliens are the subject of innumerable science fiction stories, novels, TV dramas and films. UFOs are a regular feature of the weekly tabloids devoted to falsification and mystification. One of the highest-grossing motion pictures of all time is about aliens very like those described by abduct-ees. Alien abduction accounts were comparatively rare until 1975, when a credulous television dramatization of the Hill case was aired; another leap into public prominence occurred after 1987, when Strieber’s purported first-hand account with a haunting cover painting of a large-eyed ‘alien’ became a best-seller. In contrast, we hear very little lately about incubi, elves and fairies. Where have they all gone?
Far from being global, such alien abduction stories are disappointingly local. The vast majority emanate from North America. They hardly transcend American culture. In other countries, bird-headed, insect-headed, reptilian, robot, and blond and blue-eyed aliens are reported (the last, predictably, from northern Europe). Each group of aliens is said to behave differently. Clearly cultural factors are playing an important role.
Long before the terms ‘flying saucer’ or ‘UFOs’ were invented, science fiction was replete with ‘little green men’ and ‘bug-eyed monsters’. Somehow small hairless beings with big heads (and eyes) have been our staple aliens for a long time. You could see them routinely in the science fiction pulp magazines of the twenties and thirties (and, for example, in an illustration of a Martian sending radio messages to Earth in the December 1937 issue of the magazine Short Wave and Television). It goes back perhaps to our remote descendants as depicted by the British science fiction pioneer, H.G. Wells. Wells argued that humans evolved from smaller-brained but hairier primates with an athleti-cism far exceeding that of Victorian academics; extrapolating this trend into the far future, he suggested that our descendants should be nearly hairless, with immense heads, although barely able to walk around on their own. Advanced beings from other worlds might be similarly endowed.
The typical modern extraterrestrial reported in America in the eighties and early nineties is small, with disproportionately large head and eyes, undeveloped facial features, no visible eyebrows or genitals, and smooth grey skin. It looks to me eerily like a foetus in roughly the twelfth week of pregnancy, or a starving child. Why so many of us might be obsessing on foetuses or malnourished children, and imagining them attacking and sexually manipulating us, is an interesting question.
In recent years in America, aliens different from the short grey motif have been on the rise. One psychotherapist, Richard Boylan of Sacramento, says:
You’ve got three-and-a-half-foot to four-foot types; you’ve got five- to six-foot types; you’ve got seven- to eight-foot types; you’ve got three-, four-, and five-finger types, pads on the ends of fingers or suction cups; you’ve got webbed or non-webbed fingers; you’ve got large almond-shape eyes slanted upward, outward, or horizontally; in some cases large ovoid eyes without the almond slant; you’ve got extraterrestrials with slit pupils; you’ve got other different body types -the so-called Praying Mantis type, the reptoid types... These are the ones that I keep getting recurrently. There are a few exotic and single case reports that I tend to be a little cautious about until I get a lot more corroborative.
Despite this apparent variety of extraterrestrials, the UFO abduction syndrome portrays, it seems to me, a banal Universe. The form of the supposed aliens is marked by the failure of the imagination and a preoccupation with human concerns. Not a single being presented in all these accounts is as astonishing as a cockatoo would be if you had never before beheld a bird. Any protozoology or bacteriology or mycology textbook is filled with wonders that far outshine the most exotic descriptions of the alien abductionists. The believers take the common elements in their stories as tokens of verisimilitude, rather than as evidence that they have contrived their stories out of a shared culture and biology.