If there’s anything more gauche and un-with-it these days than quoting Sigmund Freud with approval–which I do with some regularity–it’s quoting Sir James George Frazer. Which I am now about to do, in connection with the problem of the “little green men.”
Nearly everyone has at least heard of Freud. But Frazer, whose multi-volume Golden Bough was one of the most widely known and influential books of the early 20th century, has slipped into what seems irredeemable obscurity. He thought of himself as an anthropologist. I doubt if there are a dozen modern anthropologists who’d acknowledge him as one of their own.
Frazer did what only the bravest souls nowadays would dare attempt. He constructed a grand theory of religion which explained, on an evolutionary basis, all religious manifestations everywhere in the world. Its pivot was the annual death and rebirth of the vegetable world on which human survival depends. This, Frazer thought, was the original death-and-resurrection story of which the Christian gospel is a weak, distorted refraction.
(You can see why he was hooted at in his own time as the leader of the “Covent Garden School of mythologists.” A clever gibe. Like most clever gibes, grossly unfair to an extraordinary thinker.)
The central figure in Frazer’s world-wide, millenia-long pageant of delusion and heartbreak–that’s religion, according to the rationalist Frazer–was the Dying God, often incarnated in a human king or priest and often made to die (killed, that is) in order to rise again, not in human form but in the verdant fertility of fields and orchards. That was what human sacrifice was, what much if not all sacrifice goes back to: not sacrifice to the god, but sacrifice of the god.
Who’s essentially a spirit of vegetation, the fruits and the crops personified. Like “John Barleycorn,” in the weird old ballad that Robert Burns turned into a poem:
“There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die. …
“They wasted, o’er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a miller us’d him worst of all,
For he crush’d him between two stones.”
That’s what you do to barley, in the process of turning it into beer or whisky–
“And they hae taen his very heart’s blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound.”
–but when you do this kind of thing to a human being, a sacrificial stand-in for the god who personifies the crop, the results tend to be bloody and stomach-churning. As in some of the stories Frazer tells in chapter 47 (“Lityerses”) of the 1-volume abridgment of The Golden Bough, about the sacrifice of the embodied “corn-spirit”:
“The Pawnees annually sacrificed a human victim in spring when they sowed their fields. … A particular account has been preserved of the sacrifice of a Sioux girl by the Pawnees in April 1837 or 1838. The girl was fourteen or fifteen years old and had been kept for six months and well treated. … On the twenty-second of April she was taken out to be sacrificed. … Her body having been painted half red and half black, she was attached to a sort of gibbet and roasted for some time over a slow fire, then shot to death with arrows. The chief sacrificer next tore out her heart and devoured it. While her flesh was still warm it was cut in small pieces from the bones, put in little baskets, and taken to a neighbouring corn-field. There the head chief took a piece of the flesh from the basket and squeezed a drop of blood upon the newly-deposited grains of corn. His example was followed by the rest, till all the seed had been sprinkled with the blood; it was then covered up with earth.”
Frazer died in 1941. I wonder what he would have made of the story told in 1978, by an elderly man recalling what he and his brothers had seen in their cotton fields 65 years earlier. (Speaking of “bloody and stomach-churning” …)
From the article “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in Jerome Clark’s monumental UFO Encyclopedia (2-volume edition, 1998):
“An incident near Farmersville, Texas, ranks as one of the most bizarre–not to mention unpleasant–humanoid reports of all time. In 1978 the informant’s grandson brought the report to the attention of the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS …) and attested, ‘My grandfather has never told this because of fear of ridicule. … He has agreed to tell this only after much prompting and encouragement from me, his history-oriented grandson’ … . Later, at CUFOS’ behest, Larry Sessions of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History interviewed the witness. While unable to accept so bizarre a tale at face value [I can’t either!–DH], Sessions conceded there was no doubt of the old man’s sincerity or sanity.
“In May 1913 Silbie Latham, then 12 years old, his brothers Sid and Clyde and the rest of the family lived on a cotton farm two and a half miles west of Farmersville. One morning as they were out chopping cotton, Silbie recalled, their dogs Bob and Fox, 50 to 75 feet away on the other side of a picket fence, began barking ‘just like they was in a terrible distress,’ and this soon escalated into a ‘deathly howl.’ Finally the three boys stopped their labors and went to investigate. They were shocked to find a little man who, in Silbie’s words, ‘looked like he was sitting on something. He was looking toward the north. He was no more than 18 inches high and kind of a dark green color. He was the same smooth color all over. He didn’t seem to have any shoes on, but I don’t really remember his feet. His arms were hanging down just beside him, like they was growed down the side of him. He had on a kind of hat that reminded me of a Mexican hat. It was a little round hat that looked like it was built onto him. He didn’t have on any clothes. Everything looked like a rubber suit including the hat. … He just stood still. I guess he was just scared to death. … Right after we got there, the dogs jumped him.’
“They tore him to pieces. Red blood spilled everywhere, and the little man’s insides, which looked like human organs, fell to the ground. As the boys stood watching, the animals bit his legs off. If he made any sounds as he was being killed, the Lathams could not hear them because of the racket the dogs were making. The boys returned to their hoeing and discussed the incident among themselves. Two or three times they went back to the spot to check the remains. All the while the dogs huddled close by them as if frightened. The next day all traces of the strange little man were gone …”
Would Frazer have recognized the green man as one of his vegetation spirits? Sensed a kinship with his sacrificed Sioux maiden, cut in pieces, the ground enriched with her blood?
As a classical scholar, he’d no doubt have thought of Actaeon–the great hunter of Greek myth, transformed into a stag by the goddess Artemis and torn to pieces by his own dogs–although I suspect he wouldn’t have had any idea what to make of the connection, any more than I do. I myself think of the “green children” of 12th-century England, who “emerged” from the ditches outside Woolpit village “at harvest-time, when the harvesters were busy in the fields gathering the crops” and were “seized by the reapers”–who, however, didn’t do to them anything horrific (like the Lathams’ dogs) or even unpleasant (as reapers do to strangers in some of the folk-customs Frazer describes).
There’s no hint in Silbie Latham’s story that he and his brothers saw a UFO. Was their “strange little man” nevertheless one of the “little green men” who were to become notorious as UFO pilots?
If so, the Lathams weren’t alone. I’ve pointed out in an earlier post that “at least in the post-1947 era, the UFOnauts are seldom if ever described as being green in color”; I’ve quoted Martin Kottmeyer to the same effect. Now I perhaps need to qualify that judgment.
In his “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” article, Jerry Clark summarizes 47 reports from 1901 to 1947 of humanoids being seen in connection (or assumed connection) with something that now would be called a UFO. In these early, pre-Kenneth Arnold reports, green skin (or green clothing) tends to recur.
Not, to be sure, in any great quantity. 35 of the 47 cases make no mention at all of the entities’ skin color; 33 say nothing of the color of their clothing. I assume most of the witnesses saw something like standard Caucasian skin color, and felt no need to speak of it. But where they did mention an unusual skin color, it was normally either green (3 cases, including Farmersville) or white (3 cases, of which one is very dubious). The only other colors mentioned, besides “pale” (1 case) or “fair-complexioned” (1), were “black” (1) or “yellowish” (1). (In one case the colors were said to vary from individual to individual, but we’re not told what those colors were.)
The predominant clothing color, where color was mentioned, was one shade or another of green (6 cases). We also hear of “silvery” (3), white (2), brown (1), blue (1), and gray (1). This is not a huge sample. Still, it does hint at some linkage between UFO sightings and the color green. Of the ROY G BIV colors, green is the only one that stands out.
(Only, however, before UFOs had become a culturally defined phenomenon. By the time “the little green men in the flying saucers” turned into a cliche–in 1955, as Kottmeyer has persuasively argued–those little green men were no longer being seen. This seems paradoxical, and I’m not sure how to explain it.)
So what would Frazer say? That the “little green men” are really vegetation spirits, incongruously zooming around in flying machines? (Come to think of it, what would Frazer say about the Jolly Green Giant?) Or could he be persuaded that this equation, though tempting, doesn’t cover all the data, and we have to dig deeper?
Maybe even into the collective unconscious?
by David Halperin
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