The problem in a nutshell: In close-encounters-of-the-third-kind reports and UFO abduction stories, at least in the post-1947 era, the UFOnauts are seldom if ever described as being green in color. Yet the trope of flying saucers piloted by “little green men” endures, unshakeable and seemingly universal. Why?
Item: Pope Francis, calling last May for the Church to open itself to all, wanted to know: “If – for example – tomorrow an expedition of Martians came, and some of them came to us, here… Martians, right? Green, with that long nose and big ears, just like children paint them… And one says, ‘But I want to be baptized!’ What would happen?” Of course: Pope Francis would baptize the Martian, whose greenness he takes for granted.
Item: The “Shalom Life” website, imagining Jesus as an alien, depicts him with the light-bulb shaped head and huge almond eyes that became iconic with the 1987 publication of Whitley Strieber’s Communion. Yet the artist assumes, contrary to Strieber’s and all (or nearly all) other reports of the “gray” abductors, that the extraterrestrial Savior’s skin will be … green.
Item: A column reprinted last week on the New York Post website proclaims, with smug facetiousness, that “the Central Intelligence Agency has used the end-of-the-year silly season to finally come clean about UFOs. Anyone hoping for little green men will be disappointed, though …” As if extraterrestrial visitors and “little green men” are one and the same thing.
Examples could be multiplied endlessly. The point has been made: “little green” extraterrestrials, who play just about no role in the UFO phenomenon as reported, are central to the UFO phenomenon as imagined. This divergence intrigues me. Convinced as I am that UFOs are an essentially human phenomenon, both “as reported” and “as imagined,” I’m not prepared to dismiss the little green men as an ignorant and therefore meaningless stereotype. It has to come from somewhere. But where?
Jump back now nearly 400 years–to 1621, and to the publication of Robert Burton’s massive, rambling, quaintly erudite compendium of knowledge on just about every subject under (or circling) the sun, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Here’s what Burton has to say on the subject of extraterrestrial life:
“[I]f the earth move, it is a planet, and shines to them [who dwell] in the moon, and to the other planetary inhabitants, as the moon and [planets] do to us upon the earth: but shine she doth, as Galileo, Kepler, and others prove, and then per consequens, the rest of the planets are inhabited, as well as the moon. … Then (I say) the earth and they be planets alike, moved about the sun, the common centre of the world alike, and it may be those two green children which Nubrigensis speaks of in his time, that fell from heaven, came from thence …”
In other words, “those two green children,” like our “little green men,” are likely to have been visitors from other planets.
But who are the “green children”? What do we know about them?
Burton’s “Nubrigensis” is the medieval monk and historian whom we call William of Newburgh (1136-1198), whose fine critical intelligence has evoked the admiration of historians down to the present day. In Book 1, chapter 27 of his Historia rerum Anglicarum (“History of English Affairs”), William tells the story of the “green children.”
“I think that I should not omit mention of a prodigy unprecedented since the world began,” he introduces it. “I myself had protracted doubts over this, though it was reported by many, and it seemed to me absurd to accept as genuine an event whose rational basis was non-existent or most obscure. But finally I was so overwhelmed by the weighty testimony of so many reliable people that I was compelled to believe and marvel at what I cannot grasp or investigate by any powers of the mind.” (Translation by P.G. Walsh and M.J. Kennedy.)
In chapter 28, William will go on to tell of other “unnatural events” with which he’s more comfortable, because he has a “scientific” explanation for them. These other bizarre happenings can be plausibly explained as the work of demons, which for William are a rationally comprehensible aspect of the natural world. The green children, however, burst all his categories. They obviously weren’t demons, and human beings aren’t green. Unlike the 17th-century Burton, who understood that the planets aren’t just lights in the sky but worlds like our own which may be inhabited by beings like ourselves, William had no conceptual framework into which small green humanoids might reasonably fit.
The incident, says William, took place during the chaotic, civil-war-torn reign of England’s King Stephen (1135-1154).
“In East Anglia there is a village which is said to lie four or five miles from the famous monastery of the blessed king and martyr Edmund. Close to the village some very ancient ditches are visible. In English they are called Wlfpittes or wolf-ditches, and they lend their name to the village close by.
“At harvest-time, when the harvesters were busy in the fields gathering the crops, two children, a boy and a girl, emerged from these ditches. Their entire bodies were green, and they were wearing clothes of unusual colour and unknown material. As they wandered bemused over the countryside, they were seized by the reapers and led to the village. Many people flocked to observe this most unusual sight, and for several days they were kept without food. So they were now almost fainting with hunger, yet they paid no heed to any food offered to them. It then chanced that beans were brought in from the fields; they at once grabbed these, and looked for the beans in the stalks, but when they found nothing in the hollow of the stalks they wept bitterly. Then one of the bystanders pulled the beans from the pods and offered them to the children, who at once gleefully took and ate them.
“For several months they were nourished by this food until they learned to eat bread. In the end they gradually lost their own colour when the qualities of our foodstuffs had their effect. They became like us, and also learned the use of our speech. Persons of prudence decided that they should receive the sacrament of holy baptism, and this was also administered.”
(Pope Francis surely would approve.)
“But the boy, who seemed to be younger, lived only a short time after baptism and then died prematurely, whereas the girl continued unaffected, differing not even in the slightest way from the women of our own kind. She certainly took a husband later at Lynn, according to the story, and was said to be still living a few years ago.
“Once they had the use of our language, they were asked who they were and where they came from. They are said to have replied: ‘We are the people from St Martin’s land; he is accorded special reverence in the country of our birth.’ When they were next asked where that land was, and how they had come from there to Woolpit, they said: ‘We do not know either of these things. All we remember is that one day we were pasturing our father’s flocks in the fields, when we heard a mighty din such as we often hear at St Edmund’s when they say the bells are ringing out. When we turned our attention to the sound which caused us surprise, it was as though we were out of our minds, for we suddenly found ourselves among you in the fields where you were harvesting.’
“When they were asked whether people believed in Christ there, or whether the sun rose, they said that it was a Christian country and had churches. ‘But the sun does not rise among the natives of our land,’ they said, ‘and it obtains very little light from the sun’s rays, but is satisfied with that measure of its brightness which in your country precedes its rising or follows its setting. Moreover a shining land is visible not far from our own, but a very broad river divides the two.’ They are said to have made these and many other replies too long to narrate to interested enquirers.
“Every person can say what he wishes,” William concludes, “and can rationalise these events as best he can; but I am not ashamed to have described this unnatural and remarkable event.”
So how shall we “rationalize” them–that is to say, find a context that will make sense of their (allegedly) having happened?
by David Halperin
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