It’s hard to get too excited about modern-day UFOs, since so many of them are obviously advanced military vehicles. But I’m intrigued when I read about UFO encounters that took place a hundred years ago or more, such as this one:
Apr. 15, 1897 Perry Springs (Missouri). A passenger train on the Wabash line, going toward Quincy, was followed by a low-flying object for 15 min between Perry Springs and Hersman. All the passengers saw the craft, which had a red and white light. After Hersman it flew ahead of the train and disappeared rapidly, although the train was then running at 65 km/h.
This story appears in the Magonia Database, which tracks 100 years of UFO encounters, from 1868 to 1968. The database was assembled by Jacques Vallée, upon whom the French scientist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is based. It originally appeared in his recently reissued classic book, Passport to Magonia, whose main idea has been summarized thus:
…[UFO] beliefs identical to those held today have recurred throughout recorded history and under forms best adapted to the believer’s country, race, and social regime. If we take a wide sample of this historical material, we find that it is organized around one central theme: visitation by an aerial people from one or more remote, legendary countries. The names and attributes vary, but the main idea clearly does not. Magonia, heaven, hell, Elfland – all such places have in common one characteristic: we are unable to reach them alive, except on very special occasions.
In Passport to Magonia, Vallée investigates hundreds of intriguing incidents going back to ancient times, for instance:
[O]n September 12, 1271, the famous priest Nichircn was about to be beheaded at Tatsunokuchi, Kamakura, when there appeared in the sky an object like a full moon, shiny and bright. Needless to say, the officials panicked and the execution was not carried out.
On August 3, 989, during a period of great social unrest, three round objects of unusual brilliance were observed; later they joined together. In 1361, a flying object described as being “shaped like a drum, about twenty feet in diameter” emerged from the inland sea off western Japan.
…Pierre Boaistuau, in 1575, remarked: “The face of heaven has been so often disfigured by bearded, hairy comets, torches, flames, columns, spears, shields, dragons, duplicate moons, suns, and other similar things, that if one wanted to tell in an orderly fashion those that have happened since the birth of Jesus Christ only, and inquire about the causes of their origin, the lifetime of a single man would not be enough.”
Vallée takes a brave and brilliant look at stories of elves and fairies as they relate to UFOs:
However strong the current belief in saucers from space, it cannot be stronger than the Celtic faith in the elves and the fairies, or the medieval belief in tutins, or the fear throughout the Christian lands, in the first centuries of our era, of demons and satyrs and fauns. Certainly, it cannot be stronger than the faith that inspired the writers of the Bible—a faith rooted in daily experiences with angelic visitation.
An edition of Passport to Magonia, subtitled Of UFOs, Folklore and Parallel Worlds, is available free online as a pdf but without its Table of Contents or Introduction. You can buy the new edition here.