Anthropologists and ufologists suffer from a similar methodological malady. Traditionally, an anthropologist or archaeologist faced with an artifact for which no practical function can be discerned will identify it as a “religious” object, a categorization that has the virtue of sounding intelligible and scholarly while being completely vacuous. If one were being intellectually honest, they would simply say, “I have no idea what the hell that was for”. Look around your house. Imagine everything was buried for a few thousand years. How much of your stuff has no clear reason for existence, yet are decidedly not objects of religious adoration. From where I sit I can see sculptures of a hippo taking a bath and a zebra on stilts. They amuse me, but unless my theology is subtler than even I myself suspect, they have no serious symbolic role to play in my faith. Similarly, when ufologists encounter historical reports of strange things in the sky, they conclude that our ancestors were using different terminology to describe alien spacecraft. This has resulted in the equation of angels with aliens, monumental architecture with spaceports, and in particular (even before the recent resurgence of various loopy Von Danikenisms and en vogue ancient alien fandom) early modern “airship” encounters with flying saucer reports. Just as mockers of Freud observed that “sometimes a knife is just a knife,” sometimes a flying ship is just a flying ship.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good UFO story as much as the next guy. Even more so, I enjoy looking at the repetition of bizarre details that strain credulity. The fundamental mistake that we repeatedly make is the assumption that our predecessors were complete morons, even when there is no basis to conclude that they were not describing precisely what they were observing. For example, from roughly 700 A.D. – 1600 A.D., in Scotland, England, and Ireland there are documented reports of encounters with flying boats, complete with crews, and the curious detail of these boats dropping anchors (especially around churches). While the average medieval peasant certainly lacked a modern education and a good sense of hygiene, and also no doubt firmly believed in all manner of quaint superstitions, it’s probably safe to say that they could recognize (1) a boat, and (2) an anchor. Why we would require them to misinterpret ordinary objects with which they were no doubt familiar is not clear to me. Except of course, we “know” that boats don’t fly, don’t anchor at churches, and don’t carry crews that have trouble breathing near the ground. We know these things, just as the skeptic “knows” that UFO’s are a delusion or the planet Venus. Or swamp gas. Or secret government projects. Anomalous sightings of airships (that were described as reminiscent of zeppelins, the pinnacle of aeronautic technology just prior to World War I) along the coast of England are seized upon as early UFO encounters by believers, dismissed as military scouting from Germany by skeptics (despite the unlikeliness due to the cost and dubious air-worthiness associated), dismissed by Germans at the time as British paranoia, and identified as a way for the British Ministry of Defense to justify increased expenditures on aeroplanes and blimps by contemporary politicians and conspiracy theorists. While they did not yet have ipods or the internet, pre-World War I Europe was not an entirely barbarous place. At least they appreciated the fact that air travel was being experimented with, thus mysterious phantom blimps hopping around the continent do not seem entirely out of the technical question. These are the sort of anomalous events that, while unlikely, are not outside the realm of possibility. They don’t have to be identified as UFO’s. Yes, they are unidentified, they are flying, and they are objects, but not necessarily of some advanced alien civilization. In a word, boring. Not as perplexingly weird as an 8th Century flying boat that decided to weigh anchor on the local church.
One of the earliest reports of a flying boat in the British Isles comes to us as a mere side note in the Annals of Ulster, compiled by the Irish scribe Ruaidhrí Ó Luinín in the late 15th Century, and drawing on annals that had been scrupulously recorded by his predecessors from the 6th Century onwards, purporting to contain a year by year history of medieval Ireland from 431-1540 A.D. In between historically important battles, transfers of kingship, Viking invasions, and complex genealogies, the Annals mention the appearance of flying boats around the monastery of Clonmacnoise, in County Offaly (in the Midlands of Ireland near the River Shannon) in 748 A.D.
Ships, with their crews, were seen in the air, over Clonmacnoise (Annals of Ulster, Kal Jan. A.D. 748).
A Norwegian educational text called the Konungs skuggsjá (“The King’s Mirror”), thought to have been written for the son of Norweigan King Håkon Håkonsson (1204-1263 A.D.) and referred to in Latin as the Speculum Regale notes a similar occurrence dated to 956 A.D. when describing the marvelous things that have happened in other nations. Some scholars have speculated that Cloera is Clonmacnoise, and that the Annals of Ulster and the Konungs skuggsjá are referring to the same incident. This story has been repeatedly misattributed to lawyer and statesman Gervase of Tilbury’s 13th Century Otio Imperialia (“Recreation for a King”), written for the entertainment of Otto IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, when it, in point of fact, first appeared in the earlier Speculum Regale.
There happened something once in the borough called Cloera which will also seem marvelous. There is a church dedicated to the memory of a saint named Kiranus. In this town One Sunday while the populace was at church hearing mass, it befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky as if thrown from a ship; for a rope was attached to it, and one of the flukes of the anchor got caught in the arch above the church door. The people all rushed out of the church and marveled much as their eyes followed the rope upward. They saw a ship with men on board floating before the anchor cable; and soon they saw a man leap overboard and dive down to the anchor as if to release it. The movements of his hands and feet and all his actions appeared like those of a man swimming in the water. When he came down to the anchor, he tried to loosen it, but the people immediately rushed up and attempted to seize him. In this church where the anchor was caught, there is a bishop’s throne. The bishop was present when this occurred and forbade his people to hold the man; for, said he, it might prove fatal as when one is held under water. As soon as the man was released, he hurried back up to the ship; and when he was up the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed away out of sight. But the anchor has remained in the church since then as a testimony to this event (Speculum Regale, Chapter XI, trans. Larson, p116-117.)
Gervase of Tilbury does indeed mention these odd airships, recording the very nearly same story in roughly 1211 A.D., in addition to which there are similar reports for Gravesend, Kent and Bristol, England attributed to approximately the same time period.
Gervase of Tilbury relates, that as the people were coming out from a church in England, on a dark cloudy day, they saw a ship’s anchor fastened in a heap of stones, with its cable reaching up from it to the clouds. Presently they saw the cable strained, as if the crew were trying to haul it up, but it still stuck fast. Voices were then heard above the clouds, apparently in clamorous debate, and a sailor came sliding down the cable. As soon as he touched the ground the crowd gathered round him, and he died, like a man drowned at sea, suffocated by our damp thick atmosphere. An hour afterwards his shipmates cut their cable and sailed away; and the anchor they had left behind was made into fastenings and ornaments for the church door, in memory of the wondrous event (Kelly, 1863, p12).
Note, that everyone seems pretty clear on the basic facts. An anchor drops from the sky. Attached to the anchor is a flying boat. The crew of the boat appears annoyed at having gotten their anchor all jammed up on a church, and sends the low man on the totem pole swimming down through the air to resolve the problem. Depending on the version of the story, the unfortunate crewmember assigned the task of freeing the anchor either is stoned to death by the locals, suffocates like a drowning man, or manages to get hauled back into the boat after cutting the line and freeing the airship. Absolutely nobody is saying they saw a strange metallic craft, aliens, flashing lights, or claims to have had any abductions or subsequent anal probings. They saw an anchor dropped from the sky. They saw a flying boat. They saw a crew. The world, historically, is weird enough. There is no need to reinterpret this in a 21st Century idiom. Just because a technology did not exist, does not mean that those who recorded anomalous events in the Middle Ages could not identify the pieces of what they were seeing. More importantly, these encounters were entirely consistent with the cosmological view of the folks who experienced them.
While there is a certain appeal to Jacques Vallee and John Keel’s notions (liberally interpreted) that something is out there that has a symbiotic relationship to time and place, a chameleon that appears in appropriate disguise depending on the observers e.g. interdimensional travelers that appear as fairies to the medieval Irish, gods to the ancient Greeks, operate flying saucers in the United States in the 1960’s, and flying ghosts ships to 18th Century sailors, it is a bit of a logical cop out that smells like theology, all for some unspecified purpose, which given the shroud of secrecy surrounding most anomalistic phenomena suggest a malign, if not downright nefarious goal. And anyway, these hypothetical interdimensional travelers or extraterrestrials would have to be assumed to have been around for a few thousand years at the very least, and obviously haven’t achieved their objective yet, which implies serious incompetence or the worst imaginable project management skills. Freaking aliens. No business savvy.
But back to cosmology. And don’t all things ultimately end up there anyway? I mean, an image of Jesus on toast has great significance if you believe in Jesus. Not so much, otherwise. I mean, I like toast, but don’t expect it to provide any sort of religious revelation. Unless it’s slathered in a nice duck pâté. Then we’re talking ecstatic conversion, baby. Contemporary medieval cosmology suggested that the “vault of heaven” had a lot of oceanic properties, presumptively implying that sailing upon the oceans of heaven was not entirely outside the realm of reason. And any seasoned salt will tell you, every once in a while, you’re obliged to weigh anchor.
In contrast to the terrestrial earth and sea, so the heavenly world of salvation was symbolised by the blue sky. In Categories of Medieval Culture, Gurevich describes the religious and ethical significance of earth and sky as a contrasting pair: “The sky was the seat of higher, eternal, ideal life, while the earth, in contrast, was the vale of tears, where sinful man eked out his earthly span. The world beyond the grave was imagined as being just as substantial as the earthly one — more so, indeed, since it was imperishable.” Conceptions of the nature of the heavens varied over time and space. In the early Middle Ages, especially, it was widely considered that the earth was surrounded by seven heavens — hence today’s common phrase, to be in seventh heaven — and their zones included different waters of sea around the world. A homiletic vision of the creation of heaven and hell, The Evemew Tongue, written in Irish in the tenth or eleventh century, describes these waters and the many kinds of seas flanking the earth on every side. They included a “black waveless sea, with the colour of a stagbeetle, so that no ship that has ever reached it has escaped from it, save only one boat by the lightness of its course and the strength of its wind.” Clearly the idea of sea or water in the sky, even as a sort of watery black hole, was something the medieval mind could envisage without difficulty, for of course it was the work of God revealed in the biblical account of Creation. “God said, ‘Let there be a vault through the middle of the waters to divide the waters in two.’ And so it was. God made the vault, and it divided the waters under the vault from the waters above the vault, God called the vault heaven.” (McCaughan, 1998).
It’s awfully popular to look back through old documents and find anomalies that correspond to modern sightings, blithely assuming that those poor folks that preceded us simply misinterpreted phenomena that we occasionally see today, and that our interpretations are somehow more intelligent or robust. Perhaps this is just typical human hubris, to think that one’s own era is the pinnacle of enlightenment. I own a microwave. I can’t intelligently tell you how it works. This sort of reconstructionist anomalistics truly does a disservice to the human race. If I had to grow my own food, I would no doubt starve to death, but my ancestors were pretty darn good at it. They may have interpreted their universe differently and understood their experience of the universe in a way that I can’t relate to, but they were not necessarily rational slouches, for their lives, much more than mine, depended on a realistic understanding of the world around them, including the way in which they comprehended the inevitable intrusions of unreality. Every generation regards its interpretation of reality as the apex of understanding, pretending that our grasp of truth and untruth is deeper and more meaningful that those who went before us. We are no more and no less ignorant, despite all our science, all our learning, and all our open-mindedness, than our predecessors. Abraham Lincoln once marveled at the prescience of an ancient story that expressed this sentiment, relating “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!” We now look back at mythology, folklore, and even the strange phenomena of our own era and chuckle, reinterpreting the experience of anomaly through our own cultural and technological lenses. Of course we find analogies, but analogy is not equality. Unless of course, you can find me duck pâté on toast that also looks like Jesus. I’d sell my cyncical soul for that.
Annals of Ulsterr. Annala Uladh: Annals of Ulster, Otherwise, Annala Senait, Annals of Senat; a Chronicle of Irish Affairs From A.D. 431, to A.D. 1540 … Dublin: Printed for H. M. Stationery off., by A. Thom & co. (limited), 1887.
Kelly, Walter Keating. Curiosities of Indo-European Tradition And Folk-lore. London: Chapman & Hall, 1863.
Larson, Laurence Marcellus, 1868-1938. The King’s Mirror: (Speculum Reagle–Konungs Skuggsja). New York: The American-Scandinavian foundation, 1917.
McCaughan, Michael. “Voyagers in the Vault of Heaven:The Phenomenon of Ships in the Sky in Medieval Ireland and Beyond”. Material Culture Review v.48, 1998.