Indexing the Machine Elves: Fairy Tale Motifs in UFO Narratives

David Sivier
Magonia 90, November 2005
 
One of the most fascinating developments in folklore has been its extension to include UFOs and abduction accounts. Since the rise of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) much of the argument surrounding them has occurred within the domain of the physical and psychological sciences, examining the question of whether or not they can be considered as visiting alien craft, or, as C.G. Jung posited instead, they are “a modern myth of things seen in the sky”. [1]

It is a debate whose basis in the hard sciences is epitomised in the title of Carl Sagan’s and Thornton Page’s book, UFOs – A Scientific Debate. [2] However, scholars from the soft sciences – anthropology and sociology – and humanities, like history, have also been involved, stressing the need for the social and psychological phenomena subsumed under the UFO rubric to be investigated in their proper cultural, political-economic and historical contexts, something not always done or possible in the hard scientific discussions of UFOs. [3]

Since the 1970s however, folklorists have also been involved in the debate, treating the memorates and narratives of UFOs and alien encounters as a variety of modern folklore. Foremost amongst these researchers have been Linda Degh, whose 1977 paper, ‘UFOs and how folklorists should study them’ [4], an attempt to formulate a folkloristic approach to UFOs, and Thomas Eddie Bullard, and Peter Rojcewicz, who have been studying the phenomenon as folklore since writing their Ph.D dissertations, ‘Mysteries in the Eye of the Beholder: UFOs and their Correlates as a Folkloric Theme Past and Present’, and ‘The Boundaries of Orthodoxy: A Folkloric Look at the UFO Phenomenon’. [5]

Although this folkloric approach to UFOs appeared as early as 1950, with the publication of Howard Peckham’s paper, ‘Flying Saucers as Folklore’, the real inspiration behind this were two Fortean authors, John Keel and Jacques Vallee, and their books UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse and Passport to Magonia. [6] Central to their approach was the view that “the modern, global belief in flying saucers and their occupants is identical to an earlier belief in the fairy-faith. The entities described as the pilots of the craft are indistinguishable from the elves, sylphs, and loons of the Middle Ages.” [7] Although writing from the point of view of a believer in the objective reality of the UFO phenomenon, though not that of the ETH, Vallee made his basis in folklore clear in his book’s very subtitle: From Folklore to Flying Saucers. [8]

To demonstrate the similarities between the diminutive fairies of tradition, and the equally diminutive others of the UFO myth, Vallee cites Evans Wentz’s collection of stories of encounters with fairies from the Aran Islands. [9] The parallels and choice of source are not accidental, for one of Evans Wentz’s informants, when asked where he thought the fairies came from, replied, “they are a big race who come from the planets”. [10] The informant here, however, came not from Aran but County Sligo, and added that this was merely his own opinion. As a result of this interest in UFO encounters by academic folklorists, examination of the UFO myth has become a respectable part of academic teaching on folklore courses at a number of institutions around the world, such as at the University of Washington. A talk on UFO abduction reports was included in the module, ‘Continuity in Tradition’, during the autumn 2004 term, for example. [11]

Beyond structuralist attempts to map out the central motifs and sequence of UFO encounters, such as Eddie Bullard’s dissection of the Abduction experience and John Harney’s analysis of the motifs informing the Crash Retrieval myth , [12] is the deeper problem of whether, if UFO encounters really are fairy narratives in a postmodern, technological guise, they can be related to the classic motifs of traditional fairy narratives in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature, or E. Baughman’s similar index for British and American folklore, the Type and Motif Index of the Folktales of England and North America.

Although the relationship between fairy lore and UFO narratives is so well established among folklorists and psycho-social ufologists investigating the psychological and sociological background and possible causes of the phenomenon as to be something of a truism, comparison of such UFO narrative motifs with the indexed entries for traditional fairy lore may put such relationships into stark, unambiguous relief, and stimulate further debate into the causes of the occurrence, or transference of such traditional motifs into the new folkloric domain of UFOs. Certainly, very many of the motifs from traditional lore are present. For example, the common, CE1 sighting of a UFO as a travelling light is clearly related, if not identical to E 530.1 – Ghostlike lights. [13]

Nevertheless, there is a problem in using the Stith Thompson and E. Baughman indexes because of the changing character of the societies from which the legends were collected and their motifs catalogued. Although French scholars such as Gabriel Vicaire were exploring the notion of urban folklore as early as 1886 and a decade earlier, in practice folklore was largely collected from lower-class and relatively uneducated rural communities, considered to be static, untainted by urban sophistication, and thus likely to preserve archaic remnants of ancient lore. [14] In contrast, the new folklore of flying saucers emerged in self-consciously modern, urban, technological cultures, whose imagery of machines and high technology defined the phenomenon.

The dichotomy between the two cultures is not absolute, however. Despite the rapid expansion of towns and industry during the 19th century, parts of the United Kingdom remained largely rural into the early 20th century, and folklorists were collecting traditional material from these agricultural areas up to the 1960s, though some of the material cited in their works may date from much earlier. The same is true of the United States, of course, and the Appalachians in particular have attracted interest since the days of Child as the repository of British folk traditions in an isolated, rural American society. It should come as no surprise then, that amongst the space-suited humanoids reported in these encounters are more traditionally folkloric types, such as the ‘goblins’ that assaulted the Sutton family in Kelly-Hopkinsville, Kentucky. [15]

To explore the relationship between the rural folktale types recorded in the Stith Thompson and E. Baughman indexes and their translation into the technological folktale of the UFO, a sample of the fairy and supernatural motifs recorded in the folktales of two British rural areas, Somerset and Orkney and Shetland have been selected, as roughly representative of the type of rural, British society whose legendary lore was also transplanted into the New World by the early British settlers in the 17th century.

It is possible to criticise this selection on a number of criteria. For example, it is possible that the UFO encounter narrative contains folkloric elements derived from the traditions of other areas in the United Kingdom which are strictly confined to these regions, and do not appear in those of the above samples. Furthermore, although the United States is an Anglophone country, its ethnic constitution has always been very diverse, including members of African and Asian nations, as well as other European peoples such as French, Germans, Swedes, Dutch and Spanish, as well as the indigenous First Nations. As a result, American folklore contains a diverse and culturally mixed range of motifs and imagery, complicated further by the fact that many of the early Contactees such as George King, the founder of the Aetherius Society, and George Adamski, were interested in oriental mysticism. As a result, there may be a marked oriental influence and parallels in UFO folklore, particularly the abduction experience. [16]



This painting, ‘Troll Hill’ by the 19th century Danish painter J. T. Lundby, presents an image which to the modern eye seems to combine traditional fairylore with an image from contemporary UFO accounts
 

In fact, it is possible to list a number of the attributes of UFOs and their occupants and the corresponding motif in traditional fairy lore. These include:
 
Fairies, and many UFO aliens, including the classic `Greys’, are smaller than adult men. A good example of the fairy features of some UFO entities are those reported from the Imjarvi Encounter in Finland, which were 90 cm (35″) tall and with conical, though metallic helmets: Motif F 239.4.2. [17]
 
The grey skin colour of the now stereotypical alien abductors is mirrored in E 422.2.3, grey as the colour of returning dead. [18] This, however, is just one example of the way traditional motifs associated with the dead have also been assimilated into modern UFO lore, and some UFO encounters are far more like traditional hauntings than encounters with flesh and blood extraterrestrial entities. A particularly good example of this is the ‘ghost that wore a spacesuit’, whose disembodied head and shoulders appeared before a British NCO at Dalakia barracks in 1968. [19] This points to another, common motif in fairylore, that amongst the fairies are human dead. [20]
 
Other, less common forms of the aliens also have their counterparts in traditional lore. The birdlike alien encountered by Betty Andreasson during her encounter is strikingly reminiscent of E 211.3: speaking bird. [21]

Alien behaviour too shows a marked continuity with fairy traditions. Motif F 261 – dancing fairies, can be seen in the report of two silver-suited entities dancing in the middle of the road reported by Mr. and Mrs Donathan in 1973. [22]

Related to the dancing motif are fairy rings on the grass, F 261, traditionally produced by the fairies during their revels, and to which Crop circles or `UFO nests’ can be assimilated. [23]

The courtship and marriage of particular, favoured humans by extraterrestrials, such as that of Elizabeth Klarer are similar to F 300: marriage with fairy. [24]

The secret underground bases occupied by Greys and their collaborators in government, the military and industry have their prototypes in the traditional motifs F 721.1: underground passages; and is of the same type as F 211: Fairies live in hollow knolls. [25] The location of the underground alien bases as the source of valuable secret technology can be seen as being related to N 511: treasure in ground, particularly N 512 – treasure in underground chamber; F342: Fairies give people money; and F 244: fairy treasure. [26]

This may also be assimilated to the supposed biotechnological and genetic secrets held and revealed by the Greys with the rise of the information economy and genetic prospecting in the late 20th century. The strange, animal-human hybrids, products of the aliens’ genetic engineering campaigns that populated these underground bases can be assimilated to E 423 – revenants in the form of animals, and E 291.2.1: ghost guards treasure. [27] The government’s permission of the aliens to abduct and experiment on humans in return for technological favours is of a type as B 11.10 – human beings sacrificed to dragon, particularly as the aliens receiving these victims are frequently described as reptoids. [28] The association of such artificial hybrids with the aliens recalls motifs G 225 – animals as servants of witches, and G 265.7 – witch controls actions of animals. [29]

The abduction of humans by the UFOnauts can be compared with F 322: fairies steal man’s wife; and the substitution of an android or simulacrum for the woman during her sojourn aboard the spacecraft a form of F 322.1(a) stick left as substitute for stolen woman. [30]

The hybrid children resulting from human-alien crossbreeding are a version of F 305: offspring of mortal and fairy. [31]

Episodes of missing time, or the experiences of Contactees such as Mario Restier, who was taken by people from Orion to their home world, a sojourn which lasted four months, but to him only seemed like three days, are related to F 377: Supernatural lapse of time in fairyland. [32]

Away from the benefits of alien treasure and technology given to the military and industrial complex, individual humans have also received presents of pancakes, such as those given to Joe Simonton by the 3.65m (5ft) tall occupants of the UFO he encountered at Eagle River in Wisconsin in 1961; and odd stones, like the ‘moon potatoes’ produced by Howard Menger, and to the TV presenter Clive Anderson by two Ufologists on British television. [33] These are modem counterparts of F 340: Gifts from fairies, and has obvious, though possibly superficial links with F 809 – fabulous or miraculous rocks and stones, particularly D 931: magic stone. [34]

Less benignly, the cattle mutilation phenomenon ascribed to cruel experiments by the alien visitors are clearly a version of F 366 – fairies harm cattle, though the repeated abduction of the human parents of hybrid children to hold and nurse their offspring aboard the alien can be seen as versions of type F372: Fairies take human nurse. [35]

Researchers have also explored the complex relationship and the apparent similarity between the alien abduction phenomenon and the Near Death Experience, which also raises the possibility that those alien abductions in which the abductee returns bearing a spiritual message for humanity, such as that of Kathryn Howard, are a variety of E 377: return from the dead to teach the living. [36]

Despite these similarities and continuity however, there are also profound differences, which reflect the shift from traditional, paternalistic agricultural society to the mass, industrial society of mid- and late 20” century capitalism, and changing gender roles and expectations. For example, the abducted spouse used for breeding purposes may be a husband as well as a wife, as in the notorious Villas-Boas case of 1957, while the abduction of the adult parents of both sexes to hold and nurse their alien babies reflects the disappearance of the children’s nurse as a common fixture of the middle class family in the mid-20th century. [37]

The identification of the government and big business as the beneficiary of the various Faustian pacts made with malign and predatory alien civilisations like the Greys, rather than individual people, reflects the tensions engendered in the mass society of the 20th century. Governments are seen not only as actively working against the best interests of their citizens, but also as keeping the benefits of alien contact to themselves, so that the abduction mythology in this respect almost acts as a lurid symbolic form of the Marxist theory of surplus labour, where industry and the government expropriate the fruits of working class labour for themselves.

Regarding the mechanism by which such traditional, rural lore became transferred and embodied in the imagery of the new, technological society, there are a number of conduits that may be identified as such. For example, the traditional and literary fairy story gained renewed vigour during and after the industrial revolution as a reaction to the mechanistic values of technological society, in a manner which prefigured John Rimmer’s later identification of the use of the UFO as an anti-technological symbol in the 20th century. [38]

Moreover, in popular literature and entertainment of the day, science-fictional themes could rub shoulders with ghosts and other exotic or supernatural beings in literature and on the stage. Thus, Frank L. Baum could include a Demon of Electricity amongst the fantastic characters in his novel, The Master Key, and the Edwardian stage magician, John Nevil Maskelyne, as well as the matinee demonstrations of stage magic, also staged a full-length play based on Edward Bulwer Lytton’s proto-SF novel, The Coming Race. [39]

Scholars examining the appearance of the fictional aliens that populate much modern SF have pointed to the strong influence of the culturally iconic figures of traditional nursery lore about animals in defining these aliens’ characteristics, and suggested that the UFO aliens now encounters by modem Experiencers are comparative to the supernatural creatures of incubi, succubi, witches and ghouls that haunted the imagination of previous ages. [40] This is very much to be expected, as it has long been recognised by neurologists that the content of the hallucinations suffered by severe epileptics and schizophrenics are influence by the cultural and personal background of the sufferer, including traditional myths and folklore, and also literature, thus supporting the contention of researchers such as Bertrand Meheust that literary SF also plays a powerful role in the construction of UFO aliens. [41]

At the level of esoteric religion, during the 19th and early 20th century too an increasing number of Spiritualist, Theosophical and Masonic intellectuals and mystics began turning to outer space as the source of their mystical communications. For example, Charles Stansfield Jones, one of the most important disciples of the British occultist and self-appointed `Great Beast’, Alistair Crowley, considered that Aiwass, the entity, which communicated the Book of the Law to his mentor, was an extraterrestrial, rather than merely discarnate entity. [42] For the Theosophical writer Alice A. Bailey, writing in 1922, human evolution was directed by `intelligent forces of nature’ on the `inner planes of the Solar System’, with the `influences which produce self-consciousness in men’ relayed to Earth via Saturn from a Masonic lodge on Sirius, which focussed `the energy of thought’ from a distant cosmic centre. [43]

In the 18th century the Swedish mystic August Swedenborg visited inhabited alien worlds during his astral voyages, Allan Kardec during the compilation of his Spirits’ Book received messages from the spirit world informing him that other planets than ours were inhabited, while Sherman Denton and ‘Helene Smith’ (Catherine Elise Muller) both recounted their memories of astral journey to Mars. In 1926 the veteran psychic investigator Harry Price, sat with a medium, Mrs. St John James, who channelled messages from a Martian civilisation. [44] Thus, at a popular and elite level the extraterrestrials were linked and imagined as mystical entities, an view which may well have trickled down to influence Evans Wentz’s informant from County Sligo.

Additionally, rural tradition itself remained far more vigorous than has previously been considered. Far from being a static, timeless environment, everything changed for the rural villager during the 19th century. The railways brought greater communications, agricultural insurance meant that disease and crop or cattle failure no longer meant instant famine, while greater mechanisation and the centralisation of milk, butter and cheese production in commercial dairies rather than cottage butteries, and the replacement of a barter economy by a general store, meant that the face to face society which generated much of the tensions resulting in accusations of witchcraft simply ceased to exist.

Owen Davies’ study of the persistence of the belief in witchcraft after the Witchcraft Act in 1736 has demonstrated that belief in witchcraft remained strong amongst rural Britons into the early 20th century, long after the upper and middle classes had rejected such superstition. In his analysis, the belief in witchcraft declined because there was no longer a compelling economic and social need to identify witches as the causes of misfortune. [45] Indeed, for Davies the persistence of astrology, UFO abductions and belief in psychic powers in the late 20th century forces scholars to re-evaluate the image of the past as a unique locus of irrationality and superstition.

Rather than British society moving from a state of supernatural credulity to scientific rationality, irrational beliefs have merely been translated into different forms, as many people now feel bounded by the universe, rather than the limits of the immediate parish. [46] It is a conclusion which comparison of the common motifs in traditional ghost and fairy lore, and that of the UFO myth, bears out, and is very much line with the introduction of industrial and mechanical imagery in other traditional tales during the course of the 19th century.

For example, The Steam-Loom Weaver, a comic ballad of the 1830s recounting the romance between an engine driver and a female steam loom weaver, was based on an earlier balled of 1804, when cotton weaving was a domestic industry. In this version, the heroine works in her own home, and the lusty hero is an itinerant worker who visits her in order to repair it. The mechanisation of the lovers’ respective occupations reflects the industrial society that had developed in the 30 years or so since its first publication. [47] It thus appears that fairy beliefs acted very similarly, persisting despite the lack of a compelling social need for them into the 20th century, until that need emerged in the late 1940s with the reaction against the technological horror of mechanised warfare, and for a plausible explanation, or framework for experiencing the new, enigmatic objects seen in the sky, whence they were translated into the new, legendary forms of alien contact and abduction.


Notes:
  1. C.G. Jung, UFOs – A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, (Princeton, Bollingen 1991).
  2. S. Sagan, and T. Page, eds., UFOs – A Scientific Debate, (Ithaca, Cornell University Press 1972).
  3. R. Cook, `Anthropology and UFOs: An Introduction’, Centre for Anthroufology, http://home.uchicago.edu/~ryancooklanthufo.htm.
  4. L. Degh, `UFOs and How to Study Them’, Fabula 18, (1977), pp. 242-8.
  5. T.E. Bullard, ‘Mysteries in the Eye of the Beholder: UFOs and their Correlates as a Folkloric theme Past and Present’, Ph. D dissertation, (Indiana, Indiana University 1982); P. Rojcewicz, The Boundaries of Orthodoxy: A Folkloric Look at the UFO Phenomenon, Ph. D. dissertation, (Indiana, University of Indiana 1984).
  6. H. Peckham, `Flying Saucers as Folklore’, Hoosier Folklore 9, (1950), pp. 103-7; J. Keel, UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse, (London, Abacus 1973); J. Vallee, Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers, (Chicago, Henry Refinery Company 1969).
  7. J. Vallee, cited in P. Cousineau, UFOs: A Manual for the Millennium, (New York, HarperCollins 1995), p. 151.
  8. Vallee, Magonia.
  9. P. Cousinea, UFOs, p. 152.
  10. E. Wentz, The Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries, (Oxford, OUP 1911), p. 53; cited in K. Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1967), p. 172.
  11. Scandinavian/Comparative Lit 331: Folk Narratives at University of Washington, at http://courses.Washington.ed/folklore/Scand331.
  12. J. Harney, `UFO Crash Retrievals – A Developing Myth’, in Magonia 58, (1997), pp. 6-9.
  13. K. Palmer, The Folklore of Somerset, (London, Batsford 1976), p. 176.
  14. J.-B. Renard, ‘Old Contemporary Legends: 19th-Century French Folklore Studies Revisited’, Foaftale News 32, (1994), p. 1; ‘Folklore (the Word), in J.Simpson, and S. Roud, eds., Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, (Oxford, OUP 2000), p. 130.
  15. ‘Kelly-Hopkinsville’ in J. Spencer, UFOs – The Definitive Casebook. Sightings, Abductions and Close Encounters, (London, Hamlyn 1991), p38; `Bulletproof Goblins’ in A. Baker, True Life Encounters: Alien Sightings, (London, Millennium 1997), pp.88-91.
  16. D. Sivier, `Paradise of the Grey Peri: A Literary Speculation on Some Oriental Elements in the Abduction Experience’, in Magonia 69, (1999), pp. 8-12.
  17. Imjarvi Encounter’, in Spencer, Casebook, p. 98; E.W. Marwick, The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland, (London, B.T. Batsford 1975), p. 210.
  18. Palmer, Somerset, p. 175.
  19. ‘The Ghost that Wore a Spacesuit’, Baker, Sightings, pp. 94-5.
  20. Briggs, Fairies, pp. 58-65.
  21. Betty Andreasson’, Spencer, Casebook, p. 51; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 209.
  22. ‘Flatter/Danathan’, Spencer, Casebook, p. 61; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210.
  23. Palmer, Somerset, p. 176.
  24. ‘Elizabeth Klarer’, Spencer, Casebook, pp. 146-7; J. and A. Spencer, True Life Encounters: Alien Contact, (London, Millennium 1998), pp. 93-4; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210.
  25. Baker, Sightings, pp. 204-19; Palmer, Somerset, p. 176; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p.210
  26. Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 212; Palmer, Somerset, p. 178; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210; Palmer, Somerset, p. 176; Palmer, Somerset, p. 176.
  27. Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210, Palmer, Somerset, p. 175.
  28. Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 209.
  29. Palmer, Somerset, p. 177.
  30. Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210.
  31. Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210.
  32. J. and C. Bord, Life Beyond Planet Earth? Man’s Contacts with Space People, (London, Grafton 1992), p. 93; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 211.
  33. ‘Joe Simonton’s Pancakes’, Baker, Sightings, pp. 73-6, ‘Joe Simonton’ in Spencer, Casebook, p. 42; J. Keel, The Mothman Prophecies, (Lilburne, IIlumiNet Press 1991), p. 158
  34. Palmer, Somerset, p. 176; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 209.
  35. Baker, Sightings, pp. 66-71; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 211; J. and A. Spencer, Fifty Years of UFOs: From Distant Sightings to Close Encounters, (London, Boxtree 1997), pp. 141-2; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 211.
  36. Baker, Sightings, pp. 268-72; Cousineau, Manual, pp. 137-9; `Kathryn Howard’, Spencer, Casebook, pp. 94-5; J. Spencer, Perspectives: A Radical Examination of the Alien Abduction Phenomenon, (London, Futura 1989), pp. 130-144; Marwick, Orkney and Shetland, p. 210.
  37. Spencer, Casebook, pp. 181-4.
  38. J. Rimmer, ‘The UFO as an Anti-Scientific Symbol’, Merseyside UFO Bulletin 2, (1969), p. 4. (Repr. Magonia 99, 2009)
  39. F.L. Baum, ‘The Master Key’, in C. Wilkins, The Mammoth Book of Classic Fantasy, (London, Robinson 1981), pp. 345-434; J. Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible, (London, William Heineman 2004), pp. 181, 184 & 185.
  40. J. Cohen, and I. Stewart, Evolving the Alien: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life – What Does an Alien Look Like, (London, Ebury Press 2002), pp. 170-186.
  41. W. G. Walter, The Neurophysiological Aspects of Hallucinations and Illusory Experience, (London, Society for Psychical Research 1960), p. 6; B. Meheust, Science Fiction et Soucoupes Volants, (Paris, Mercure de France 1978).
  42. L. Picknett, and C. Prince, The Stargate Conspiracy: Revealing the Truth behind Extraterrestrial Contact, Military Intelligence and the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt, (London, Little, Brown and Company 1999), p. 272.
  43. Picknett and Prince, Stargate, p. 280, 283.
  44. Bord, Planet Earth, pp. 179-184.
  45. Davies, O., Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951, (Manchester, Manchester University Press 1999), p. 294.
  46. Davies, Witchcraft, p. 295.
  47. J.M. Golby, and A.W. Purdue, The Civilisation of the Crowd: Popular Culture in England 1750-1900, (Stroud, Alan Sutton Publishing 1999), p. 128.