Benson Saler, Charles A. Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore. UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.
(For the first part of this post, click here.)
“The Greeks believed the gods were immortal,” I wrote in a guest blog post six years ago. “The UFOlogists know better.”
Of course I was talking about Roswell.
Say, if you will, that the Roswell story is a myth, which over the past four decades has permeated our culture. Pretty much everyone has at least heard of it, even if they don’t believe it or know (or care about) its details. Why shouldn’t we call it a myth? As in the myths of old, the gods ride through the sky in their chariots, inaccessible to earth-bound mortals except insofar as they choose to reveal themselves. The story’s technology may 20th-century futuristic. Its heart is ancient.
Only, in the classic myths the gods don’t normally fall out of the sky, they and their vehicles shattered together. Their corpses aren’t torn, their guts devoured by desert predators. When gods die, as on occasion one does, it’s not for ever. They’re not frail, childlike, and sexless, with huge heads and spindly limbs. So exactly and pathetically like children, in fact, that a mummy of a two-year-old boy might (in 2015) be widely mistaken for one of them.
If Roswell is a myth, it’s a strange and distinctive one, perhaps unparalleled in the world’s mythology. The question demands to be answered: what does it mean? (Historical events may be accidents, without meaning. Myths—never.)
Of course anthropologists Charles A. Ziegler and Benson Saler, the principal authors of UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth, have their thoughts on this question.
Ziegler turns for his answer to folklorist Stith Thompson’s massive Motif Index of Folk-Literature, which recognizes a genre of story in which “an essential item such as food or water is impounded or hoarded by a malevolent monster so that humankind cannot use it. A culture hero defeats or circumvents the monster to release or steal the item, which then becomes available to humankind.” In one variant, “the essential item that the monster impounds is wisdom.”
You don’t think that sounds much like the Roswell story? Ziegler will explain:
“Thus, the central motif of the Roswell myth is that a malevolent monster (the government) has sequestered an item essential to humankind (wisdom of a transcendental nature, i.e., evidence-based knowledge that we are not alone in the universe). The culture hero (the ufologist) releases the essential item (wisdom) for humankind.”
This proposal is made on page 51 of UFO Crash at Roswell. By page 67 it has metamorphosed into established fact. “I have shown that the Roswell myth is thematically akin to a two-motifeme, hoarded-object tale in which the object is wisdom (i.e., evidence-based knowledge that we are not alone in the universe).”
Of course Ziegler has “shown” nothing of the kind. He’s advanced a conjecture, to be accepted or not on the basis of its inherent plausibility.
In Ziegler’s reading, the UFO is a passive, almost incidental piece of furniture. The story’s most powerful and compelling image–the crashed and crippled disk, its dead occupants–has no inherent meaning. It’s there only to convey the abstract lesson that “we are not alone in the universe.” Abstract–and bereft of the smallest utility. We learn nothing about our fellow-sharers of the universe beyond that they exist. Did they come to rescue us? Invade us? Teach us something we need to know? If so, death has silenced their lips, leaving their corpses one more riddle. As a piece of “essential” wisdom, this is pretty poor stuff.
Unless, of course, the central lesson is just that: they are mortal.
For Ziegler, this seems to be a non-issue. So much so, that toward the end of his discussion he compares the aliens to angels. “UFO and angel stories share striking similarities,” he says. “Both involve elusive entities that carry out their terrestrial activities unobtrusively without leaving behind physical evidence of their existence or their unearthly status, and at the deepest level both convey the same fundamental message–we are not alone.”
(Never mind that being “not-alone” has one meaning in the thought that “you’re never alone if your guardian angel is with you,” and an entirely different one when it’s used to convey that there are other sentient and intelligent entities in the universe besides humans. Only the first usage of “not-alone” carries with it the implication of being cared for.)
What would Ziegler say if the most resonant, familiar, widely-circulated angel story were to tell of a man who finds his guardian angel dead in the gutter, half eaten by dogs?
As I wrote in my previous post, the first two chapters of UFO Crash at Roswell are Ziegler’s. His fellow-anthropologist Benson Saler contributed chapter 4; the two of them collaborated on chapter 5. (The third chapter, by the late physicist Charles B. Moore, provides the underpinning for the “Mogul” explanation of the Roswell debris that Ziegler and Saler take as a given.) Like Ziegler, but proceeding along a different path, Saler tries to make sense of the content of the Roswell story:
“Proponents of the Roswell myth accept the putative existence of powerful aliens who overcome the limitations that our science currently posits regarding travel in space and time. Indeed, Roswell proponents seem to deem the existence of such beings plausible.” Saler approvingly quotes anthropologist Melford Spiro’s (reasonable) suggestion that our experiences as infants and very young children, with beings vastly larger than ourselves who provide for our needs and come running at our cries, predisposes us to believe in gods and other “superhuman beings” such as UFO aliens. Why these “superhuman beings” should be envisioned as childlike and dead, apparently doesn’t seem to Saler a question worth asking.
“Traditional Western religions,” Saler writes, “answer to dependency longings. They maintain that a benign, omniscient, and omnipotent creator looks upon his human creatures as his children, whom he guides and sustains. He is their father in heaven, the ultimate source of their daily bread. … Similar dependency longings are now directed to superhuman extraterrestrials.”
But how do you “depend” on frail entities who can’t save themselves, much less you, from destruction? Whose corpses lie on your examining tables to be dissected? Who, unlike the traditional Christian saints, don’t even have an “odor of sanctity” in their death? (Quite the contrary. The Roswell mortician Glenn Dennis, whom I regard as the principal creator of the Roswell story as we know it, remembers the probably fictional nurse with the evocative, surely symbolic name of “Naomi Maria Self” as having emerged from the room where the dissections were being performed, her nose and mouth covered with a cloth to ward off the overwhelming stench of the alien bodies.)
Saler shows no sign of having actually read any of the Roswell literature. This would seem a handicap for someone undertaking to pronounce on Roswell and its significance. Sadly, it’s not unparalleled among non-UFOlogists who try to write about UFOs, apparently regarding the details of what they’re discussing as delusional and therefore beneath their notice. But Saler’s anthropological perspective does allow him genuine insights. Although he’s less well-informed than his colleague Ziegler, his remarks show greater depth and less condescension. To my recollection, his chapter contains no sneers at “UFO buffs” and “true believers.” He often seems–as in his quite fascinating discussion of the shift from the cultural construct of “heaven” to that of “space”–to recognize Roswell’s appeal not just to a peculiar coterie of “believers” but to us all.
Indeed, Saler is at his best when he zeroes in on the elusive quality of belief and the “reality” it attributes to its objects (pages 127-129). It’s no accident that his examples come from the foreign culture he knows best, the Wayú Indians of Colombia and Venezuela among whom he did his fieldwork. The Wayú myths, he tells us, “describe the doings of powerful nonhuman (but very anthropomorphic) beings–beings who, in the narratives, often interact with humans and affect their lives in determinate ways.” These are the Wayú “gods” and “goddesses”–except that they aren’t.
“There are no cults to these beings,” Wayú religious ritual concerning itself instead with the transformed spirits of their own dead. “People do not pray to them, worship them, or attempt to propitiate them in real life. Indeed, I was told by some of my own informants that these beings are not ‘real’ in the sense that I am real.”
(When I was a teenage UFOlogist, were the UFOs as “real” for me as my parents were real, or the girls in my high school whom I longed to ask out but imagined would laugh in my face if I did? Was the threat of invasion from space–I professed the belief that UFOs were hostile–as real as the threat of that anticipated humiliation? I know I didn’t fear it one-hundredth as much.)
For the Wayú, says Saler, these mythic beings “have a certain ‘truth’ to them, the truth of capturing and expressing various realities in the existential experiences of the Wayú. And although stories about them are therefore valuable for reflection as well as being entertaining, and although they provide a useful and aesthetically pleasing idiom for talking about a variety of concerns, these godlike beings do not in themselves constitute or represent the ‘really real.’ They point to, or otherwise express, experientially validated truths–the truths, if you will, of common sense. But that can be done, and often is done among the Wayú, in other idioms.”
Maybe that’s what it means to solve the UFO mystery: to recast in another idiom those truths the UFOs are trying to tell us.
by David Halperin
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