“Little green men” in the UFOs. From the Pope to the Flintstones, they’re everywhere in the popular imagination. Yet they’re seldom actually reported by people who experience close encounters of the third kind, or the fourth. (See my last post, though, for a qualification of this.) Where do they come from?
We take for granted that UFO pilots are apt to be small and green, not because there’s any observational basis for the notion, but because it somehow feels right. In this series of posts, I’ve tried to explore that “somehow” as a problem of comparative mythology. Our green-skinned aliens don’t come from outer space but from the human psyche. As such, they have meaning rather than reality.
Or rather, their meaning is their reality.
How far do we let our circle of comparisons expand in order to get at that meaning? How much difference are we prepared to overlook? I’m comfortable about including the “green children” of medieval Woolpit, England, within the relevant circle. The Jolly Green Giant, about whom I posted two weeks ago? Well, maybe.
What about al-Khidr, the enigmatic “Green One” of Islamic legend?
He’s an “alien,” all right—so C. G. Jung has perceptively called him. If Jung’s reading of his story has even a grain of truth, he owes his existence to one of the deepest longings of the human soul: renewal and rebirth.
Let’s start with the basic facts.
Al-Khidr is mentioned in the Qur’an, but not by name. He’s called “a servant from among Our [Allah’s] servants”; the Islamic exegetical tradition is left to fill in the details. His story appears in what’s perhaps the strangest and most cryptic of the surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an: Surah 18, Surat al-Kahf, “the Chapter of the Cave.” As we’ll see, Jung found a special significance in this title.
“… Moses said to his page,
‘I will not give up until I reach
the meeting of the two seas,
though I go on for many years.’
Then, when they reached their meeting,
they forgot their fish, and it took
its way into the sea, burrowing.
When they had passed over, he said
to his page, ‘Bring us our breakfast;
indeed we have encountered
weariness from this our journey.’
He said, ‘What thinkest thou? When we
took refuge in the rock, then I
forgot the fish—and it was Satan
himself that made me forget it
so that I should not remember it—
and so it took its way into
the sea in a manner marvelous.’
Said he, ‘This is what we were
seeking!’ And so they returned
upon their tracks, retracing them.
Then they found one of Our servants
unto whom We had given mercy
from Us, and We had taught him
knowledge proceeding from Us.”
(Tr. A.J. Arberry)
Mystery upon mystery: Who is Moses’s “page”? What are the two men looking for? What has a fish to do with it? And when the well-instructed “servant” of Allah inexplicably pops into the tale—this is al-Khidr, according to the commentators—things become more rather than less strange.
Moses requests permission to follow al-Khidr, “so that thou teachest me, of what thou hast been taught, right judgment.” Al-Khidr demurs: “Assuredly thou wilt not be able to bear with me patiently.” No, no, Moses assures him; I’ll be patient and obedient. OK, says al-Khidr, but you must agree not to ask any questions unless I volunteer the information. Moses accepts the condition.
And almost immediately breaks it.
He can’t help himself, as he watches al-Khidr perform one bizarre act after another. He bores a hole in the boat that’s carrying them; he murders an innocent boy; he performs a gratuitous act of public service for a city that has refused him and Moses the smallest hospitality. Once, twice, three times Moses asks for an explanation. That’s once too many. “This is the parting between me and thee,” al-Khidr tells him; but, before vanishing, explains the hidden divine rationale for all his acts.
The Moses of the Qur’an is normally identical with the Moses of the Bible: a prophet and miracle-worker who leads the Israelites out of slavery and receives the Torah from God. The “Moses” of Surat al-Kahf might as well be a different person altogether—and some of the Muslim Qur’an commentators say that he indeed was. Modern Western scholars agree.
The original hero of the story in Surat al-Kahf, they tell us, was not Moses but Alexander the Great. The tale derives from ancient “Alexander” legends, rooted in the still more ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Alexander searches the world for the secret of everlasting life.
Some water of immortality is apparently to be found at “the meeting of the two seas.” Alexander/Moses and his “page” (whom the Muslim commentators identify as Joshua) find it at last. (“This is what we were seeking!”) But they get no benefit, at least of the kind they were expecting. Rather, it’s the fish—obviously dead, intended for their breakfast—that comes into contact with the miraculous water and, restored to life, “took its way into the sea in a manner marvelous.”
It’s left for Jung, in his 1939 paper “Concerning Rebirth,” to point out that precisely when the fish vanishes from the narrative, al-Khidr appears. Suggesting that the two are, at the unconscious level, one and the same.
“The fish they had intended to eat,” writes Jung, “is a content of the unconscious, by which the connection with the origin is re-established. … The immortal being”—namely al-Khidr—“issues from something humble and forgotten. … Since the unconscious gives us the feeling that it is something alien, a non-ego, it is quite natural that it should be symbolized by an alien figure.”
As for the title of the surah in which the Khidr story appears, “the Chapter of the Cave”—taken from another story in that surah, the Rip-van-Winkle-like tale of the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus”—Jung sees it as particularly appropriate. “This entire Sura is taken up with a rebirth mystery. The cave is the place of rebirth, that secret cavity in which one is shut up in order to be incubated and renewed.”
In that “cave of the unconscious” lies the “wholeness,” the “psychic totality” symbolized by the fish and embodied in al-Khidr, which incorporates the ego (Moses) but is greater than the ego. To Moses it appears as someone outside himself (“alien”), functioning as his teacher and guide.
That “alien figure” is called “the Green One,” according to the 9th-century Muslim writer Tabari, “because he sat on a white pelt, and when he got up from it, it was green.” Islamic scholar Gordon Newby, who translates this passage from Tabari, comments: “Al-Khidr is usually associated with fertility and fecundity, as indicated by his color and the story that he sat on a white skin which turned green. Muslim commentators usually identify the skin as the earth and the green as plants.” Another medieval writer, Thalabi, says that Moses saw al-Khidr “standing on a green carpet in the middle of the sea engaged in prayers.” (Quoted by Haim Schwartzbaum in Fabula, 1959.)
“During my trip through Kenya,” says Jung, “the headman of our safari was a Somali who had been brought up in the Sufi faith. To him Khidr was in every way a living person, and he assured me that I might at any time meet Khidr … in the street in the shape of man, or he might appear to me during the night as a pure white light, or—he smilingly picked a blade of grass—the Verdant One might even look like that. He said he himself had once been comforted and helped by Khidr, when he could not find a job after the war and was suffering want. One night, while he slept, he dreamt he saw a bright white light near the door and he knew it was Khidr. Quickly leaping to his feet (in the dream), he reverentially saluted him with the words salem aleikum, ‘peace be with you,’ and that he knew that his wish would be fulfilled. He added that a few days later he was offered the post as headman of a safari by a firm of outfitters in Nairobi.”
A mysterious white light linked to a man green as the grass—are we moving back into the domain of the UFO? And if so, what have we learned from our excursion?
That the “little green men” aren’t vegetation spirits, exactly (as Sir James George Frazer might have guessed), but emblems of that most yearned-for capacity of the vegetable world: its potential for rebirth in splendid new greenness?
And if so—are they the flip side of the shattered corpses retrieved from the wreckage at Roswell?
Is a vast pattern beginning to emerge, as from beneath melting snows? Or only a bridge of speculations, doomed to collapse of its own weight? Time will tell.
by David Halperin
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