Three men and a woman, actually. They fell from the sky, it would seem, in the vicinity of Lyon in what’s now eastern France, early in the ninth century. They came from a place called Magonia.
So the local mob believed, as they prepared to stone them to death.
We have the story from Agobard, Archbishop of Lyon (c. 779-840), in a treatise directed against “the absurd opinion of the common folk concerning hail and thunder.” Agobard prided himself on his enlightenment; Scripture, not superstition, was for him the touchstone of truth. Here’s the story he tells, as translated by W. J. Lewis for the Internet Medieval Sourcebook:
“But we have seen and heard of many people overcome with so much foolishness, made crazy by so much stupidity, that they believe and say that there is a certain region, which is called Magonia, from which ships come in the clouds. In these ships the crops that fell because of hail and were lost in storms are carried back into that region; evidently these aerial sailors make a payment to the storm-makers, and take the grain and other crops. Among those so blinded with profound stupidity that they believe these things could happen we have seen many people in a kind of meeting, exhibiting four captives, three men and one woman, as if they had fallen from these very ships. As I have said, they exhibited these four, who had been chained up for some days, with such a meeting finally assembling in our presence, as if these captives ought to be stoned. But when truth had prevailed, however, after much argument, the people who had exhibited the captives, in accordance with the prophecy (Jeremiah 2:26) ‘were confounded … as the thief is confounded when he is taken.’ ”
This is a story well known in UFOlogical circles, for good reason. Forty-some years ago, it inspired the title of Jacques Vallee’s Passport to Magonia (Regnery, 1969), a stunningly original book that set forth the practically unheard-of possibility that it was possible to believe in UFOs without believing them to be visitors from outer space. Vallee noticed, and took seriously, the resemblance of the small humanoid beings who piloted the UFOs to the “wee folk” of European fairy lore. He suggested the two species of alien might have more in common than their small stature.
Not that the fairies and elves were misidentified spacemen, as the UFOlogists might have said. Nor (as the “debunkers” held) that UFOs are the same sort of nonsense as the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny. Rather, both traditions attested to some realm beyond consensus reality, yet co-existing with ourselves through the length of human history. A realm that, for want of a better name, we might call “Magonia.”
Where did Agobard—or the popular beliefs that Agobard debunked—get the name Magonia? Maybe from Greek magos, Latin magus, in which case the mysterious airships came from “the land of magicians.” But Jakob Grimm (of Grimm’s Fairy Tales fame) suggested another etymology, from an old German word for “whirlwind.” So I learn from a fascinating article by Miceal Ross, “Anchors in a Three-Decker World,” which appeared in the 1998 volume of the journal Folklore—and which I’ll return to in a future post, in connection with the mysterious “airship” that haunted American skies in 1896-97.
Agobard’s story provokes another question, even more baffling and much more important. Let’s assume the “four captives,” whom the archbishop rescued from a ghastly lynching, actually existed. And let’s assume, as good rationalists must, that they were ordinary human beings—that Agobard was right, the mob had been led astray by some sort of delusion. But how did the crowd ever get the idea these people were “aerial sailors … fallen from these very ships”? Was it something they’d witnessed? Or something the unlucky foursome said or did?
And why does a quaternity very much like them appear almost 900 years later, in the darkening sky over Turkish Canakkale, by the Dardanelles? There they were spotted by the heretical Jewish magus, theologian and cult leader Abraham Cardozo one July evening in 1683, when he stepped out of his house and looked at the moon …
But that’ll be for next week’s post.