“Some stories are true that never happened” – Elie Wiesel
Now, if you’re into UFO’s you very prudently watch the skies, especially if you have cattle or an aversion to anal probing. If you’re convinced ancient aliens have been manipulating human history for their own nefarious purposes, you look for evidence to support your thesis. And if you are historically inclined, chances are the notion that folks have been seeing unidentified objects loitering about across the millennia has great appeal. The sky is a funky place for those of us who aren’t birds or pilots. We don’t really know what’s going on up there, so anomalistic occurrences give us the heebie jeebies. Heck, I was at my brother’s wedding in West Virginia two decades ago (inadvisable in the best of circumstances), and we stepped outside for a smoke, only to be greeted by a massive green light streaking across the sky. Creatures of the modern world that we are, we immediately went inside and turned on the news which reported a small asteroid had impacted somewhere in Canada after largely burning up in the atmosphere. I have a fondness for pancakes, so I was momentarily concerned for the maple syrup supply, but everyone seemed to have a good handle on what was occurring. Nonetheless, I initially felt the same sense of awe that our forefathers no doubt felt when weird aberrations manifested themselves in the heavens. We’ve always looked upwards for portents, omens, and the distinct possibility that a smiting was in our immediate future. As our understanding of physics, cosmology, and meteorology advanced, we started to figure some cerebral astronomer or meteorologist would conveniently explain aberrant astronomical or meteorological phenomena to us. If you’re an ancient aliens fanboy (no judgement, everybody’s got a fetish), every heavenly anomaly seems like a good candidate for evidence of an alien presence, but since most of us couldn’t tell an aurora borealis from an extraterrestrial attack, it seems prudent to avoid leaping to any conclusions. That’s why, when I read ancient accounts of strange things in the sky, I could care less what was floating about. I’m interested if other oddities are associated. Particularly if they were weird. I’m told that admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.
If you want to see the significance of unidentified flying objects in the historical record, there is no shortage of material, keeping in mind that the UFO acronym simply means “I saw it in the sky and it was outside the realm of my normal experience”. Now, your die-hard ETH (Extraterrestrial Hypothesis) advocate sees all manner of alien activity in Ezekiel’s wheels, monumental Egyptian architecture, the Sumerian reports concerning the Annunaki, Von Daniken-esque nuclear exchanges in ancient India, unexplained aerial combatants fighting over 16th Century Nuremberg, sky-ships in the American West, and phantom blimps hovering about England. It’s no less reasonable a theory than the suggestion that everyone prior to the 21st Century was a complete moron, only falsifiable in so far as most everyone in the 21st Century is also a moron. The bottom line is we’ve been seeing inexplicable stuff over our heads for as long as we’ve been standing erect, and knowing that we are susceptible to misinterpretation and misidentification, even in an age of universal education and selfies it’s problematic to trawl the historical record for hints that the aliens have always been among us. Or at least over us. Or near us. Or sleeping with our girlfriends. Did I say that out loud? Anyway, the desire to equate any strange aerial phenomena reported across the centuries with our modern conception of UFOs, more often than not, in its zeal to rub the noses of skeptics in the fact that UFO’s are obviously not a psychological byproduct of 20th Century pulp fiction, errs on the side of ignoring bizarre and far more puzzling phenomena closely associated with such sightings. An excellent example of this can be found in reports from the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 A.D.), where many witnesses claimed to have seen chariots and armies dueling in the skies over Jerusalem shortly before the fall of the city to future Roman Emperor Titus in 70 A.D. Whether alien air combat was afoot over Jerusalem coincident with Roman victory is of less consequence in my mind than the odd reports from multiple witnesses that simultaneous declarations by a cacophony of disembodied voices were heard in the temple that declared “the gods were departing”.
Here’s the setting. It was just before the advent of the Pax Romana (70-192 A.D.), that stunningly long period of peace and prosperity where after having conquered pretty much all their neighbors, the Romans settled in to rule the Mediterranean world and enjoy the fruits of their labors. The backwater province of Judea had been problematic since it had been incorporated into Roman territories in 6 A.D. By 66 A.D., the first all-out rebellion against Roman rule erupted, initiating what has come to be known as the First Jewish-Roman War. Judean rebels quickly overran the small Roman garrison and forced pro-Roman king Agrippa II to flee. Technically, Judea was administered by the more important Roman Governor of Syria, and he sent in the 12th Legion to open up a can of legionary whoop-ass on the upstart Judeans. In a shocking turn of events, the rebels ambushed and massacred the 12th Legion at the Battle of Beth Horon. The Romans did not take the loss of a legion lightly. A Roman general named Vespasian with his son Titus as second in command descended on the Galilee in 67 A.D. with over four legions, scrupulously avoiding the heavily-fortified Jerusalem until they had quelled the revolt in the rest of Judea. By 69 A.D., the rebels held very little but Jerusalem itself, but Vespasian was called back to Rome to be crowned emperor, leaving his son Titus in charge. The Romans breached the first two walls of the city within weeks, but attempts to get through the third wall dragged on in a brutal siege for seven months. Eventually, infighting among Judean factions, and dwindling food supplies had weakened the Judean forces sufficiently, and the Romans ran roughshod over Jerusalem, burning the Second Temple, ransacking the city, and selling most of the survivors into slavery. Mop up operations in the countryside would continue until 73 A.D.
We know an awful lot about the First Jewish Roman War because the Romans themselves were big history buffs, particularly when history supported the glory that was Rome. Our detailed record come primarily from the writings of Joseph ben Matityahu (37-100 A.D.), who would later take the Romanized name Titus Flavius Josephus. Josephus was a Jewish scholar from Jerusalem who initially commanded the rebel Judean forces in Galilee, surrendering to Vespasian in 67 A.D. Vespasian kept Josephus as a slave and interpreter, eventually granting him Roman citizenship, after which he became a close friend and advisor of Vespasian’s son Titus. After the complete suppression of the Judean rebellion (about 75 A.D.), Josephus wrote the historical chronicle called The Jewish War, relating the events of 66-70 A.D. Josephus describes the strange events surrounding the siege of Jerusalem by Titus.
Not many days after the festival, on the twenty-first of the month Artemisius, there appeared a phenomenon so marvellous as to exceed credibility. What I am about to relate would, I conceive, be deemed a mere fable, had it not been related by eyewitnesses, and attended by calamities commensurate with such portents. Before sunset were seen around the whole country chariots poised in the air, and armed battalions speeding through the clouds and investing the cities. And at the feast which is called Pentecost, the priests having entered the inner court of the temple by night, as was their custom, for discharge of their ministrations, their attention was drawn at first, they said, by a movement and a clanging noise, and after this a voice as of a multitude, ” We are departing hence” (Josephus, Jewish Wars, Bk. 6, Ch. 5:3).
Aerial battles over Jerusalem before the sack of the Second Temple are excellent fodder for ancient alien afficianados. It’s not hard to imagine that an ancient Judean would describe air combat overhead as a clash of chariots and armies in the skies. Yet, the question is why? The strange visions of celestial war did not seem to visit any strategic airstrikes on the more mundane Roman and Judean combatants, nor did they seem to have much involvement in the conflict. Even Josephus admits that if he hadn’t talked to so many eyewitnesses, he would have assumed the story was fabulous. What’s far more curious than the possibility that something was mucking about in the sky over Jerusalem, is the assurances we are given that a host of disincarnate entities were making strange declarations in the Temple. Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 A.D.) made statements similar to those of Josephus.
Many prodigies had occurred, which this nation—so prone to superstition, so hostile to religious observances—will not permit to be expiated by either vows or victims. Hosts joining battle, with arms flashing, had been seen in the sky; the Temple had been lighted up by flames bursting out of a cloud; the doors of the inner shrine had suddenly been thrown open, and a voice louder than the human was heard to say:—’The Gods are departing’ and then came a mighty stir as they departed (Tacitus, Bk. 5, Ch.13).
It doesn’t get much more cryptic than a ghostly chorus declaring that “the gods are departing”. Monotheistic Judaism doesn’t have a whole pantheon of celestial critters to be exiting stage left, and the interpretation that this is ex-post facto propaganda for Roman victory in Judea seems a bit of a stretch. What gods? Where were they going? Why would they announce their departure? I find this far more disturbing than the possibility that strange things were happening in the air over Jerusalem, alien or otherwise. Josephus wasn’t big on metaphor. Curiously, we see even more ancient references to gods departing. When Aeneas sees the Greeks as masters of Troy, he cries out that “the gods have departed”. In Aeschylus, the Thebans express the same belief. In fact, it seems that the Romans largely adopted the formula from the Greeks, maintaining that “in order to take a city was necessary to make the gods leave it. For this the Romans employed a certain formula which had in their rituals and which Macrobius has preserved: ‘O thou great one who hast this city under protection I pray thee. I adore thee I ask of thee a favor to abandon this city and this people to quit temples these sacred places and having separated thyself from them to come to Rome to me and May our city our temples and our sacred places be more agreeable and more dear to thee; take us under thy protection. If thou doest this I will found a temple in thine honor’. Now the ancients were convinced that there were formulas so efficacious and powerful that if one pronounced them exactly and without changing a single word, the god could not resist the request of men. The god thus called upon passed over therefore to the side of the enemy and the city was taken” (Coulanges, 1882, p203). Heavy stuff, asking a god to defect.
Face the facts, if we are to take any one of the many holy scriptures humans have recognized over the years as evidentiary, the gods are fickle, and they generally want to be on the winning side, and if they play their cards right they can get incorporated wholesale into someone else’s pantheon before their last worshippers are wiped out. Still, I shy away from overtly sociological interpretations of folklore. My parents were ruthlessly killed by a marauding band of sociologists. I harbor a grudge. Do we see wacky stuff in the sky? Sure we do. I am far more concerned with the surreal interactions we have with these hypothesized “other intelligences”. If you consider the bulk of folklore and bizarre history, you inevitably come to the conclusion that aliens might be gods, and gods might be aliens, but either the gods are crazy or we are. And I know who I’m betting on.
Fustel de Coulanges, 1830-1889. The Ancient City: a Study On the Religion, Laws, And Institutions of Greece And Rome. 4th ed. Boston: Lee and Shepard , 1882.
Josephus, Flavius. The Jewish War of Flavius Josephus: a New Translation. Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1858.
Tacitus, Cornelius. The Histories of Tacitus: an English Translation, With Introduction, Frontispiece, Notes, Maps And Index, by George Gilbert Ramsay, London: J. Murray, 1915.