Once upon a time, the archetypal alien was a little green man bent on claiming this planet for Mars, or destroying the Earth with an Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, as it obstructed his view of Venus. Somewhere along the way, our standard diminutive, green extraterrestrial visitor became a grey-skinned, bulbous-headed, big-eyed sexual predator obsessed with abduction and decidedly uncomfortable experiments on humans. While we can accept the possibility that there may have been a change in interstellar management accompanied by a dubious new fad in motivational techniques, it simply begs the question, how did our little green men go grey? The answer, in a nutshell, is that they got smarter.

We’ve tried scrubbing, and we’ve tried soaking, but we’ve still had little green men around for quite some time, certainly predating the appearance of flying saucers in our skies, and even before the appellation was applied to the odd wayward Martian in the interest of making light of the possibility of extraterrestrial visitation, numerous mythological traditions from all over the world noted the presence of supernatural critters dubbed as little green men, above and beyond the standard sort of vegetative deity that personifies nature. That Green Man is so last Thursday–rather we are talking about a much more corporeal and instrumentally oriented set of little green men running around doing stuff other than being leafy. For example, Native American Northern Ute medicine men concur that many learned their healing trade under the watchful eyes of little green men.

Concerning the source of his power, Pa’gits said that he treated the sick under the tutelage of a “little green man” and that numerous other medicine men were under the same guidance, there being many of the little green men. He first saw the little green man when he was a boy of about 12 years and has seen him at intervals ever since. The songs used in his treatment of the sick were, however, received by him about three years previous to giving this information. At that time he was in the mountains and fell asleep. He then heard the little green man singing these songs and learned them in this manner. He said that when a man hears a song in a dream he sings aloud in his sleep and remembers the song after he wakes. Describing the “little green man, Pa’gits indicated his height as about 2 feet, saying he was green from head to foot and carried a bow and arrows. In disposition he was “good to those he liked,” and especially favored medicine men. He could hear those who spoke unkindly of him and “shot his arrow” into them. These “arrows” were removed by the medicine men, who were paid for the treatment. Pa’gits said that the little green man “came around only at night. If Pa’git§ wished to talk with the little green man he sat outdoors in the early morning before sunrise. He sat facing the east and smoked. No ceremonial act was connected with this and he had no drum or rattle, neither did he sing. Sometimes it was not even necessary for him to smoke in order to talk with the little green man. If he wished to make a present to the little green man he left it beside the “hole” which was the door of his dwelling. He was not obliged to give him a present after each successful treatment of the sick, but once in a while he gave him a handkerchief or other small gift. The abodes of the little green men were said to look like little chimneys and to be scattered through the mountains or any unsettled country. Those who pass such a dwelling and recognize it always throw a little branch of cedar or some other offering in front of it so the little man will not be angry with them. Tradition says that one night some white people filled the door of a little green man’s house with stones, but in the morning all the stones had been removed. Pa’gits said: “The little man makes a fire at night, and you can see a little light. In the early morning you can see smoke coming out of his house” (Smithsonian, 1928, p128)

12th century England, which was a pretty weird place to begin with, largely characterized by a fondly remembered period of history called “The Anarchy” (essentially a complete breakdown of law and order during a civil war between England and Normandy from roughly 1135-1153 A.D.), saw the report of the Green Children of Woolpit, two young green-skinned kids whose origins were unknown, but were by most reports accepted into the Woolpit community with good grace, given the fact that most folks were running around clubbing each other on the head. Details concerning the Green Children of Woolpit were attested to by many witnesses, and recorded in both historian William of Newburgh’s (1136-1198) Historia Rerum Anglicarum, as well as abbot Ralph of Coggeshall’s (c. 1228) Chronicum Anglicarum. William of Newburgh clearly didn’t want to believe the story, but was swayed by the preponderance of evidence. Or he just thought it sounded cool.

Non does it seem right to pass over an unheard-of prodigy, which, as is well known, took place in England during the reign of king Stephen. Though it is asserted by many, yet I have long been in doubt concerning the matter, and deemed it ridiculous to give credit to a circumstance supported on no rational foundation, or at least one of a very mysterious character; yet, at length I was so overwhelmed by the weight of so many and such competent witnesses, that I have been compelled to believe, and wonder over a matter, which I was unable to comprehend, or unravel, by any powers of intellect. In East Anglia there is a village, distant, as it is said, four or five miles from the noble monastery of the blessed king and martyr, Edmund; ‘ near this place are seen some very ancient cavities, called “Wolfpittes,” that is, in English, “Pits for wolves,” and which give their name to the adjacent village. During harvest, while the reapers were employed in gathering in the produce of the fields, two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations. While wandering through the fields in astonishment, they were seized by the reapers, and conducted to the village, and many persons coming to see so novel a sight, they were kept some days without food. But, when they were nearly exhausted with hunger, and yet could relish no species of support which was offered to them, it happened, that some beans were brought in from the field, which they immediately seized with avidity, and examined the stalk for the pulse, but not finding it in the hollow of the stalk, they wept bitterly. Upon this, one of the bystanders, taking the beans from the pods, offered them to the children, who seized them directly, and ate them with pleasure. By this food they were supported for many months, until they learnt the use of bread. At length, by degrees, they changed their original colour, through the natural effect of our food, and became like ourselves, and also learnt our language. It seemed fitting to certain discreet persons that they should receive the sacrament of baptism, which was administered accordingly. The boy, who appeared to be the younger, surviving his baptism but a little time, died prematurely; his sister, however, continued in good health, and differed not in the least from the women of our own country. Afterwards, as it is reported, she was married at Lynne, and was living a few years since, at least, so they say (William Of Newburgh, 1856 translation, p436).

We could certainly trawl numerous folk traditions and come up with a plethora of little green men wandering about cross-culturally, but I only mention the more explicitly terrestrial types to emphasize that green skin has often been associated with mythological critters, signifying that (a) they are not of our species and/or (b) mama had an unfortunate unprotected liaison with a lizard (no judgment implied, it happens to the best of us). I mean it wouldn’t be any more surprising that a crocodile monster was green than Ashley Simpson was lip-syncing. I mean, you’re horrified for a millisecond, but then it kind of seems obvious. The green part I mean. I’m still troubled by both monster crocodiles and Ashley Simpson’s brief, but lucrative career. The essential point is that when we started seeing extraterrestrials, at least for the first few decades of the 20th Century, the classical representation of an alien was that of a little green man, in fiction and popular consciousness. Interestingly, it is pretty darned hard to find any reports of close encounters where the aliens are actually said to be little and green, despite the fact that from the late 19th Century onwards, the little green man was the go-to motif for aliens in science fiction, comic books, pulp novels, and all the other fringy, but mythopoetically significant literary forms. Although, occasionally, a bold contactee would step forward with an actual account of little green men, such as the nasty little silver-suited green aliens of the 1955 Kelley-Hopkinsville alien encounter in rural Kentucky. Hopkinsville is a bit of an odd place, as although it is just a tiny little slice of Americana, population 30,000 as of 2010, it was the birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, noted African-American Feminist Bell Hooks, and famous psychic Edgar Cayce. Well, actually, “little green man” was applied to the little men reputedly encountered in Hopkinsville by snotty journalists who were sure it was a hoax (as was the official conclusion of Project Blue Book at the time, with no explanation offered, but those were the same guys that suspected swamp gas was responsible for everything from UFO’s to tooth decay). Now, I’m puzzled at just how closely we associated the “little green man” with extraterrestrial encounters, despite the fact that almost nobody actually seriously reported seeing one. At the same time, more or less at least since the watershed 1947 Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting that snowballed the whole modernist mythology of unexplained aerial phenomenon and presumed alien visitation (and certainly appearing in earlier fiction, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian sci-fi ), little green men were associated with the denizens of the wider universe, but not as a figure of fear, even for the stodgy Wall Street Journal, who were just angry that the government was spending any money looking into alien violations of our airspace, rather than say giving it to millionaires so they could become billionaires or use it to light their cigars, all in the best interest of the public.

Congressional UFOing. If you are a flying saucer, tremble. Rep. J. Edward Roush has just called called for a Congressional investigation. Congressman Roush, it seems, isn’t satisfied with a study of unidentified flying objects conducted by the University of Colorado under Air Force auspices… Now,UFOs are hard to investigate. First you have to identify them.Various suggestions include little green men, mass hallucinations, the planets Jupiter, Venus and Mars, and a type of lightening that comes in balls and floats (the Germans have a word for it, kugelblitz). Personally, every UFO we have seen has defied identification by the clever tactic of turning into an airplane just when it got close enough for a good look. So it’s understandable that the Air Force study has had its problems. Somehow, though, we doubt that typical Congressional investigating methods would do much better. Marsh gas is allergic to klieg lights. And how do you subpoena a kugelblitz, let alone a little green man?” (Wall Street Journal, May 3, 1968).

Then things started to get serious. I for one blame Marvin the Martian. In 1948, Looney Tunes introduced the first Bugs Bunny antagonist who was not just embarrassingly moronic or incompetent, rather smart, lethally dangerous, and bent on our utter destruction, that is, Marvin (a little green man largely modeled after Mars, the God of War). Likely, as most great intellectual turning points in human history can be traced to cartoons (e.g. cave paintings, medieval illuminated manuscripts, and The Simpsons), we can use Marvin as a barometric reading on the mounting psychological pressure to consider the possibility of alien life that began to emerge once we started seeing inexplicable craft in the skies. Of course, Bugs always outwitted him, but the fact that he was a soft-spoken figure of menace vs. say, the good-natured and relatively harmless comic styling’s of Yosemite Sam, suggests this may have been the formative moment that presaged what aliens would become. The 1940’s ushered in the age of the scientist-hero, and the pace of technological development began to accelerate. We went from the obsolescence of fixed-wing biplanes to manned moon-landings in the span of 39 years. We went from the very first digital computer to the UNIX operating system in the same span of time. It took anatomically modern Homo sapiens 245,000 years to come up with the wheel, so not too shabby if I may be so bold to give props to my fellow 20-21st Century humans. Go us. Take a victory lap. But make it a short one, because now we’re going to talk about how twisted we are.

To technologically advanced critters such as ourselves, little green men just didn’t cut it anymore as a means to face our fears, which is generally our main motivation for embodying monsters, whereas the monsters’ main motivation for embodying us is as a food group. I mean, let’s face facts, they were little. And green. Like a houseplant. Most people aren’t scared of the Ficus (I myself have a pathological aversion, but it involves post-traumatic stress from an unfortunate encounter with a fern in a dark alley in 1981. I don’t like to talk about it). So, the long and the short of it is, we got smarter, and so did our extraterrestrials. Enter the Greys. Marvin had already prepared us for the possibility that (1) the aliens were way smarter than us, and (2) did not have our best interests at heart, which is somewhat disheartening as we like to think of ourselves as the dominant species on the planet. We got that way by tricking other animals onto our plate or away from the village through such nifty inventions as spears and fire. Basically, as we know we are not the toughest mammal in nature, we learned how to use our brain to concoct clever stratagems, and bam, now we are kings of the world. While we were using punchcards to feed data to computers, we were probably already envisioning sexting, although without our 21st Century reference points, we probably though it would be more tactile than it turned out to be. What we came to realize is that the scientists who kept developing cool stuff like microwave ovens, digital watches, Ipods, and the Flowbee were also hard at work making atomic bombs, napalm, star wars, genetically-engineered plagues, advanced surveillance technologies, mind-manipulating drugs, computers that were smarter than we were, and Ryan Seacrest. Needless to say, the whole rapid technological advancement thing began to worry us. And at heart, we’re always worried that the tribe over the hill knows something we don’t, and subscribes to the less than friendly philosophy expressed by Conan the Barbarian, paraphrasing Genghis Khan, that the best thing in life is “to crush your enemies — See them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women”. For the past fifty years, we’ve felt pretty confident that we don’t have to worry that Moldova will be rising up to conquer the world, so our relative lack of geographical knowledge doesn’t phase us, mostly because we know precisely how dumb we actually are, and even the better educated among our species are a set of indoor plumbing and a pension away from finger-painting on the cave walls and eating their neighbors. Our early conceptions of aliens were that they would be the barbarians at the gate of our grand empire, intergalactic Visigoths coming to ransack Rome and haul us off as slaves to mine uranium on Neptune. We’re older and fractionally wiser now, and have realized that if extraterrestrials have managed to cross the vast distances between stars and keep themselves pretty well hidden for several generations, that in all likelihood, they ain’t no dummies. And that kind of smarts, as our scientists have taught us, are dangerous, especially if they are trickier than we are. Mammoths thought they were top of the pops until they encountered their first Clovis point. It really didn’t take us long to wipe them out after that.

Ever since the little bald headed dudes reportedly recovered at Rosewell, New Mexico in 1947, the 1961 Barney and Betty Hill abduction case, followed closely (in the grand scheme of things) by formative fiction like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the X-Files, the alien de jour is the Grey, and the statistically inclined that aren’t busy running scams in Vegas estimate that about 50% of alien encounters (75% in the U.S.) reported these days involve our little grey friends. Well, not so much friends, as stalkers with frightening toys. The average Grey alien is fairly recognizable to most of us – grey skin (because they don’t get out much), oversized head (indicative of enormous brains), gigantic eyes (presumably from staring at computer screens continuously), and diminutive stature (bad diet? Atrophy from too many years in outer space? Robots doing all their work?). And they appear to have a relatively limited set of goals: mutilating cows, making cryptic crop circles, abducting humans for painful orifice-oriented experimentation, and consulting on Ancient Aliens. Okay, I made the last one up, but the rest qualify as a comprehensive resume of modern alien activity.

Basically, the modern monster that the alien represents is a symbolic scientific uber-nerd. He’s smarter than you and he has plans that you can’t comprehend, but rest assured he didn’t travel across the galaxy because baby got back. All that painful prodding credited to the Greys implies an endgame that doesn’t involve buying us breakfast. The characteristics attributed to Greys are everything we associate with intelligence, and maybe the bully deep inside all of us is scared of what the social outcast would do with his thoughts of revenge if he had access to technology light-years ahead of us. I can only assume (okay, fine, based on personal fantasy) it would probably involve painful probing of some sort. I won’t go so far as to associate this with a rampant anti-intellectualism permeating our society. I mean, I would, but I promised my wife I would stop my incessant attempts to start a nerd revolution. It seems more likely that the ascendancy of the Grey has a lot to do with our increasing belief that we are being lied to and conned by pretty much everyone and everything, that our unprecedented access to information is a double-edged sword that obfuscates as much as it enlightens, and that the pace of technological advancement is in fact, outpacing us. No wonder our modern monsters are involved in conspiracies, cover-ups, and insidious and vaguely scientific experimentation. Paleontologist Simon Conway Morris once mused, “I don’t think an alien will be a blob. If aliens are out there they should have evolved just like us. They should have eyes and be walking on two legs. In short if there is any life out there then it is likely to be very similar to us”. So then again, maybe, just like Sir Mix-A-Lot, they simply have a deep aesthetic appreciation for a shapely posterior, and they cannot lie.

Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 75. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1928.
William, of Newburgh, 1136-1201?. The History of William of Newburgh; The Chronicles of Robert De Monte. [London]: Seeleys, 1856.