21.12.14

GETTING MY GOAT

J. Nathan Couch. Goatman, Flesh or Folklore? Createspace, 2014.

A constant theme of Fortean/Magonian analysis is how to draw a boundary between physically real, actually experienced, genuinely believed, and rumoured or imaginary phenomena. Indeed whether there is really any way we can define these various levels of experience. This is a topic I first touched upon in a MUFOB article back in 1977, suggesting that these are all points on a spectrum of experience ranging from apparently objective reporting, to a form of artistic creation.

Some phenomena seem to have established a fairly stable position in this spectrum. UFOs, no matter what you think of their objective existence are clearly a phenomenon that people actually experience. The same with ghosts and creatures like sasquatch. Vampires are a bit more doubtful, and we ask if there was ever a genuine, actually-experienced vampire phenomenon rather than a collection of folk-tales and rumours. Werewolves perhaps also fell into the category of rumour, legend and lore, but following the investigations of Linda Godfrey into stories of wolf-men in the American mid-West it seems that some at least of these stories can be traced to genuine anomalous experiences. We even have at least one instance of an experienced encounter with a troll in modern Europe. This does not mean of course that we have to accept the consensus-reality of the fur-and-claw creatures themselves wandering the back-roads of middle America or the tram-tracks of Norway. 
Randy Greek satyr and worried-looking goat

But goat-men are different, aren't they? Pan and all those randy man-goat satyrs of Greek mythology, they can safely be filed away in the box marked 'mythology/legend'. Surely? Well, it doesn't seem that they can.

Nathan Couch first became aware of the contemporary legends of half-goat half-human creatures after moving to Wisconsin, where at a meeting of a local history society he heard stories of a creature that haunted a nearby road. The original story dated back to the early nineteenth century, and involved a pair of newly-weds setting out in a horse-drawn wagon to set up their new home. I won't spoil the story for you, but it involves a broken wheel, the young man setting off in the night for a replacement, and the dreadful end he comes to at the hands of a hideous half-goat creature. Oh, sorry, I have rather spoiled it, haven't I? However, this was just the start of a whole tradition of 'Hook-Man' type urban legends around the area, usually pointing out the dangers of illicit sexual activities (those randy satyrs again?) or in later years, the perils of drink and dangerous driving along lonely country roads.

These seem like the regular sort of urban legend and 'legend-tripping' stories that provoked teenagers to seek out these danger-haunted locations, rather than avoid them, as the people spreading the stories might have hoped. However, when looking deeper into these tales, Couch discovered a few which seemed to be, at least marginally, real-life experiences: a county workman collecting road-kill sees a large hairy creature with a long muzzled head attempting to pull a deer carcase from his truck; strange footprints around isolated homesteads; hairy, bi-pedal creatures glimpsed seemingly eating their prey.

He also starts to discover the explanations that people give for these stories: lonely goatherds driven mad by marauding teens, escapees from bizarre animal hybrid laboratories, or hideous phantoms seeking revenge on those who caused their – usually cruel – death.

Goatman Central appears to be Prince George's County, Maryland. This once rural but increasingly suburbanised area just on the outskirts of Washington DC is home to the original Goatman, or so many of its inhabitants claim. John Keel has pointed out the attraction that the fringes of expanding urban areas seem to have for bizarre, half-real creatures. It certainly seems to be home to the most comprehensively documented collection of Goatman tales as well, in the University of Maryland Folklore Archive.

As he delves deeper, Couch discovers Goatman stories from pretty well every US state, as well as aquatic Goatmen, shape-shifting Goatmen, and even kindly Goatmen. He eventually manages to track down one historical, well-witnessed and very flesh and blood Goatman who seems amn even stranger phenomenon than the mythical kind. He examines Goatman's peculiar attraction to bridges, particularly bridges which hold an attraction for suicides. Is this where Goatman meets the Trolls and Billy Goat Gruff?

But is Goatman 'real'? Couch is too good a Fortean to fall for that question. He understands the liminal landscapes in which these creatures lurk, and knows that a suburban lot can hold as deep a terror as the remotest forest. This is a fascinating account of a search for mystery, a real search involving the author travelling to some of the weirdest spots in the US, not just clicking 'search' on a computer screen. This is Fortean writing at its finest, and recommended to all Magonia readers. – John Rimmer


12.12.14

LETTING IN THE LIGHT

P.T. Mistlberger. The Inner Light: Self-Realization via the Western Esoteric Tradition, Axis Mundi Books, 2014.

My immediate reaction on being handed The Inner Light to review was that this was a book that could go in one of two very different directions. The title and subtitle, together with the packaging and the cover blurb’s description of the author as a ‘transpersonal therapist’ and ‘transformation workshop facilitator,’ awakened all my prejudices against the New Age, that woolly-minded and smugly narcissistic ransacker of spiritual and esoteric traditions which it dilutes beyond homeopathic levels, removing any genuine wisdom and insight in order to blend it into a bland, homogeneous belief system. On the other hand, the proclamation that this path to self-realisation is based on the traditions of the West, which are so often given mere lip service by the New Age, held out some promise. But which way would it go?

Thankfully, it is the latter. Canadian P.T. Mistlberger sets out to reclaim the Western esoteric tradition as a valid and productive basis for self development. This results from a personal epiphany. Like most in his line, Mistlberger was, in his words, ‘heavily oriented’ towards Eastern philosophies and metaphysics. But in 2006, during a period of depression following personal losses, he found them unable to help. He found the way out of his ‘mental funk’ through practices derived instead from Western traditions. This led him to a new appreciation of those traditions and the realisation that, because of their emphasis on practicality and creativity, they chime better with the Western psyche than spiritual paths imported from the East.

Coupled with this is the recognition that there is a fundamental difference between the Western and Eastern psyche, at the root of which are the differing cultural conceptions of time: whereas the Eastern mind sees history as cyclical, the Western perceives it as evolutionary. (‘We are participating in a grand unfolding of the universe, redeeming the world as we redeem ourselves.’)

Another crucial difference is the emphasis that the West places on the intellect. Throughout the book, there is the implicit message that we Westerners shouldn’t be ashamed of our elevation of intellectualism and rationalism – provided it is tempered with an awareness that it is only one way of approaching reality.
 
Consequently, Mistlberger emphasises the need to understand the history and development of the various components of the Western esoteric tradition, stressing, in statements that had me mentally punching the air, that ‘scholarly accuracy is not antithetical to practical inner work’ and that ‘conceptual clarity… provides the important foundation for deeper avenues of wisdom.’ He defines his book as ‘an attempt to synthesize historical research with esoteric theory and practical inner work – a combination not typically seen.’ You can say that again!

Mistlberger’s definition of ‘inner transformation’ - sharper and more meaningful than your average New Age workshop facilitator – is that is finding ways to live up to one’s full potential. And – another air-punching moment – he stresses that this process requires intellectual effort, writing that ‘it is common in fluffier (“feel-good”) New Age or personal growth communities to develop anti-intellectualism, by confusing pre-rational states with trans-rational, and thereby assuming that any non-rational state must be spiritual – even though many non-rational states are actually highly egocentric or narcissistic.’

Again in contrast to the usual New Age approach, Mistlberger stresses that, because it involves the human psyche, which has its dark side, there are dangers on the path to enlightenment. He points out that, although he has chosen the title The Inner Light, this ‘does not mean that matters of darkness are not addressed.’ Indeed, he warns sagely, ‘Arguably this element is as strong, or stronger, in so-called spiritual seekers, because the very striving for “the light” carries the risk of bringing about an imbalance resulting from the denial of impulse and darkness.’

The book is divided into three parts. The first is theory, taking a historical approach to the various strands that make up the Western esoteric tradition. It has chapters on the expected subjects such as alchemy (specifically spiritual alchemy, i.e. as a psycho-spiritual discipline as opposed to proto-chemistry), the Kabbalah, and Western sex magick traditions (‘as rich and potent as their Eastern parallels’).

 
But Mistlberger includes more modern fields of study within the Western esoteric tradition. There is psychotherapy, in particular Depth Psychology, on the grounds that it shares much with the esoteric philosophies, both essentially seeking to bring unconscious material into consciousness, and with the psychotherapist occupying the role in today’s society that the shaman, priest and magician did in earlier times. In the chapter ‘Angels, Demons and the Abyss’, devoted to the ‘shadow psychology’ found within the Western esoteric tradition, he explores the common ground between demonology and psychotherapy (which, as he shows, developed from the former).

Mistlberger also brings Western philosophy into the picture, because of the major influence that philosophical ideas – particularly those of Kant and the German idealists – had on 19th century esotericism. He considers the major Western philosophers the equal of Eastern mystics, even though they derived their ideas from the intellect.

He emphasises the role of the Romantic movement (‘Most occultists of the nineteenth century were essentially Romantics with an esoteric focus’) that, drawing on Hermetic philosophy, had a great influence on nineteenth-century Transcendentalism which was, via the ‘New Thought’ movement (which brought in Eastern spiritual ideas), the direct ancestor of the New Age. I found the chapter tracing this development a particularly fascinating one.

The book’s second part, delightfully entitled ‘The Technology of Transformation’, applies the theory, with practical discussions of such areas as meditation, the use of magic to alter reality, and ‘inner planes work’ (lucid dreaming and astral travel), with exercises to develop these faculties and abilities.

The third and final part, entitled ‘Lore’ and described by Mistlberger as dealing with ‘the more “fringe” areas of the esoteric and occult,’ is a bit of a miscellany. There’s a chapter on the ‘Body of Light’, which is really a discussion, using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an allegory, of the apparent duality between spirit and matter (or consciousness and perception) and the problems and dangers that arise from it, both in everyday life and when on the initiatory path. In ‘A Brief History of Witchcraft’, Mistlberger challenges the perception that the medieval witch persecutions were nothing but the product of Christian dogmatism and misogyny – and that witchcraft in the accepted sense even existed. Part Three ends with a chapter on ‘Lycanthropy, Shapeshifting, and the Assumption of God-forms.’

Finally there are appendices dealing with aspects of the Tradition in more detail, such as ‘The Fall of Man according to Eight Traditions’ and ‘The Chief Grimoires of Magic’. The book ends with useful suggestions for further reading – most of which, thankfully, are about the history of the various traditions – and 35 pages of notes and references.

Of course, even given the book’s length – nearly 600 pages – such a sweeping survey of this multi-faceted subject will leave some thinking that not all aspects have been given their due weight.

Mistlberger himself acknowledges that astrology is ‘the most glaring omission’ from his book, even though it is the ‘oldest of all “occult arts”’. He pleads limitations of space, which strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. (There are a couple of pages on ‘experiential astrology’ in one of the appendices.)

Although Neoplatonic philosophy is one of the binding elements of the Western esoteric tradition, it is defined and described in the ‘practical’ part of the book (as part of the chapter ‘Magic and Manifestation’), whereas it might have been better in the ‘theory’ part. Similarly, a related core part of the tradition, Hermeticism, together with its important offshoot Rosicrucianism, is relegated to an appendix.

These criticisms aside, The Inner Light successfully achieves what it sets out to. Above all, it demonstrates that there is a solid intellectual and historical basis for the Western traditions, and that they provide insights into human life that give them real merit in terms of self-development. Mistlberger often leaves it for the individual reader to decide whether the concepts involved are objectively real or simply useful metaphors and symbols (as in the discussion of demons), arguing that the outcome is the same either way.

His writing is lucid, concise and lively. Throughout he explains complex ideas – such as German idealist philosophy and theological concepts of good and evil – clearly.
 
Mistlberger states that The Inner Light is aimed at ‘those spiritual seekers who desire some historical rigor and background theory’, as well as ‘academics or intellectually oriented students of the esoteric paths who desire to undertake some practical “inner work”’ and ‘the curious general reader or serious student of inner work.’ It’s a very broad target audience, but all of these groups should find the book of value, although some might be put off by its New Age look.
 
But Mistlberger’s overriding aim is clearly to knock some sense into the New Age. Let’s hope he succeeds. – Clive Prince.
 

8.12.14

FIRST READ: THE CASE OF MORRIS JESSUP

M. K. Jessup. The Case for the UFO: Unidentified Flying Objects. Arco, 1955.

M. K. Jessup. The Expanding Case for the UFO. Arco, 1957.

Morris Ketchum Jessup was perhaps the first person to use the term ‘UFO’ in a commercial publication, which is something of an irony as very little of these books was devoted to stories of unidentified flying objects, rather they were devoted to a great variety of Fortean topics, such as Fortean falls, unusual archaeological ruins, mystery meteors, disappearing ships and crews and the like. Much of the second volume was devoted to strange things seen on the moon, and to peculiar speculation about pygmies. All of these oddities were ascribed to the UFOs: they had taken the crew off the Mary Celeste for example, and beams from them were responsible for the Devil’s hoof prints in Devon in 1855. They were also responsible, he hinted, for poltergeists.
 
At 13 this stuff seemed reasonable; it provided a nice “scientific” explanation for a variety of strange, alleged experiences. These, of course, included the fictional tales told by Ambrose Bierce of disappearing people. Jessup had his own take on the UFOs; they came from the earth, or rather from near earth orbit. In fact they came from the giant space ships built by the descendants of the pygmies.

At this point you begin to suspect that Jessup was, er well, rather strange. In fact his sad life and death should be a warning to parents not to name your kid after a famous relative. Morris had been named after a relative, Morris Ketchum Jesup (with just the one p), who was a philanthropist and businessman, and the younger Morris seems to have lived in his shadow. He trained to be an astronomer, but dropped out of university and seems to have wandered around in a sort of semi-permanent gap year, (geographical exploration is how he put it), and ended up a divorced used-car salesman in Miami. Depression took hold and like James McDonald he shot himself.
 
Of course conspiracy theorists have had a field day with the notorious annotated edition of Case for the UFO - the co-called ‘Varo' edition which led to the ‘Allende File' and the story of the ‘Philadelphia Experiment'. The annotations are the ravings of the sort of person who writes in green ink in library books, and that Jessup took this seriously for even a fraction of a second suggests that he was already having mental health issues. Indeed I suspect that these were probably the reason for his dropping out of his studies back in the 1930s. His even odder book UFO and the Bible suggests someone trying to square the circle between his fundamentalist Christian upbringing and the science he had learnt at college. -- Peter Rogerson
 

4.12.14

GOD'S PLANET

Owen Gingerich. God's Planet. Harvard University Press, 2014

This book, consisting of three lectures delivered to the American Scientific Affiliation, "a fellowship of Christians in the sciences founded in 1941", is devoted to discussing the tensions between science and religion. Gingerich writes in the Prologue: "The relationship between the arena of science and the religious domain has been tense going back to the time of Galileo and beyond, but it has been particularly fraught in twentieth-century America, with issues relating to the age of the cosmos and the rise of life on earth".

The interactions between scientific observations and theories and religious beliefs are explored by considering the work of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), and Fred Hoyle (1915-2001).

Introducing the chapter on Copernicus, Gingerich notes that five centuries ago theology was considered the queen of the sciences. It is obvious, though, that today it is no longer regarded as a science, and is treated with contempt by many scientists. Stephen Jay Gould tried to alleviate this controversy, exacerbated by American Creationists, by writing a book entitled Rocks of Ages, in which he declared that there was no need for this dispute, as science and religion each belonged to its own domain or "magisterium". This is a very controversial idea, which is denounced by atheists such as Richard Dawkins (not mentioned in this book).

Gingerich begins his discussion of the development of the relationships between science and theology by asking why, if Copernicus's cosmology was right, it took a century and a half before most educated people accepted the idea "that the Earth moved and the Sun stood still". There were a number of reasons for this, apart from possible religious objections. One reason was that the Ptolemaic system, with Earth as the centre of the universe, could be made to work on calculating the positions of the planets by applying certain corrections. Also, Copernicus realised that if Earth orbited the Sun, there should be a parallax effect on the observed positions of the stars. This effect, though, was not convincingly measured until 1838. The demonstration of Earth's axial rotation had to wait for the first public swinging of Foucault's pendulum in 1851. Thus it was not until the 19th century that the present model of the solar system came to be generally accepted.

Darwin's On the Origin of Species was first published in 1859 but many people, particularly in America, still refuse to believe in evolution. Gingerich notes that a recent Gallup poll (11 February 2009) shows that only four out of ten Americans believe in evolution and, for frequent churchgoers, the number is one out of four.

Since Darwin's time, there has been great progress in revealing the development of life on Earth, but the main concern in this chapter is the tension between the scientific findings and theories, and religious belief. Gingerich tells us that the vast majority of naturalists at the time of Darwin's voyage in HMS Beagle built their work firmly on the assumption that each organic form was created by the Deity. He notes that when Pope John Paul II spoke to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 he took the evolutionary picture seriously, but recognised the deeply significant transition to a spiritual being. Gingerich certainly does not agree that science and religion are incompatible. He reports being astonished by a biologist from the University of Chicago declaring: "Evolution demands atheism."

The chapter on Fred Hoyle is concerned with the universe and the theological implications of different cosmologies. There was the Big Bang theory which was ridiculed by Hoyle, who invented the steady state theory in which the universe has always existed and its expansion is caused by the spontaneous creation of hydrogen atoms. He eventually had to give up this when it was realised that there were too many problems with it.

An interesting question about Hoyle is whether or not he was an atheist. He advanced the hypothesis that the laws of science had been designed to promote the origin of life. Gingerich believes this hypothesis to be true. "The mere fact that the universe is comprehensible to our minds is also powerful evidence for a superintelligent designer." -- John Harney


29.11.14

HIT AND MYTH

Grace Banks and Sheena Blackhall. Scottish Urban Myths and Ancient Legends. Hoistory Press, 2014.

This book follows on from titles covering contemporary legends and rumours in Kent by Neil Arnold, and London by Scott Wood. However, the addition to the title of the words 'and Ancient legends' radically changes the nature and scope of the book, making it quite different from its predecessors. Many, indeed probably most of the tales related here fall into the 'ancient legend' category and sit uneasily with the contemporary legends and rumours, even though some of them seem to have been rather self-consciously updated. The story 'The Rocking Chair' is billed as an old Scottish legend retold in a contemporary Glasgow tower-block setting with lines like "I'll nae get a penny aff the social for ye noo", and the protagonist putting off the devil's demands to dance with her by demanding "I need a foot massage and a chiropodists and wee fishies tae nibble aff the hard skin". Apparently "I'm washing my hair" just doesn't hack it these days!

There are some urban myths here: an all-too-brief account of the Glasgow Vampire, a playground panic predating the Liverpool Leprechauns by a decade; gangland corpses entombed in the Kingston Bridge over the Clyde (plausible enough, although I am unpersuaded by the authors' claim that 'X-rays' revealed their presence); a version of the escaped lunatic and the severed head story from Stirlingshire; and a curious chess-playing phantom hitchhiker.

The book is arranged in chapters divided regionally, which while fine for the 'ancient legends', rather hides the significance of the urban myths, which really need to be treated thematically, as Scott Wood has done in his excellent London book. However, for someone interested generally in Scottish myth, legend and off-beat history this is an interesting and often amusing collection of stories. I just think it would have been better if it had just been called something like 'Scottish Tales and Legends', leaving the urban myths, of which I am sure Scotland is replete, for another day -- John Rimmer


23.11.14

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

Greg Taylor (Editor). Dark Lore VIII. Daily Grail Publishing, 2014.

This is the latest in the annual series of compilations of essays on a wide range of paranormal, fortean and anomalistic topic.

Mike Jay's article, 'Dreaming While Awake' discusses a topic that is at the heart of many Fortean and 'Magonian' phenomena - hallucination. Although simply meaning perceptions that have no external stimuli, the word has become so overladen with negative meanings that researchers are reluctant to use it as an explanation for the kinds of phenomena under discussion. Jay discusses how the word was first used as an attempt to secularise visionary phenomena, particularly in connection with Charles Bonnet syndrome, but it increasingly became a way of pathologising such visions, aquiring an almost totally negative connotation. By the twentieth century hallucinations were seen almost entirely in the context of mental disorder to some degree, but Jay argues that the visionary experience is a normal part of the working of the human brain, producing a 'virtual reality'.

Martin Shough's article on ball-lighting will be familiar to Magonia readers, as it is based on his article, A Social History of Ball Lightning, published in Magonia 81, May 2003. He describes the way in which a controversial phenomenon with many analogies to the UFO phenomenon has received scientific respectability, despite displaying most of the characteristics that have meant that UFOs have lurked permanently on the edges of science.

We have recently reviewed the revival of interest in the complex character Richard Shaver, with the recent anthology and biographical study by Richard Toronto, and a study of Ray Palmer's involvement in the 'Shaver Mystery' by Fred Nadis. Blair Mackenzie Blake here gives a sympathetic review of Shaver's life and works and his ambiguous relationship with Palmer. He asks if Shaver's nightmare descriptions of the subterranean world of the dero and their mind-scrambling technology might be a unconscious analogue of his experiences in the Ionia Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where he may have undergone electro-convulsive therapy. With the republication of two books of Shaver's 'rock pictures' we seem to be in the middle of a major re-evaluation of Shaver's contributions to science fiction, conspiracy theory and Fortean thought. I think we will hear much more of him.

The porous boundary between fiction and belief is also touched on in 'Believing in Fiction', by Ian 'Cat' Wilson Vincent [see comment, below]. He looks at how religious and philosophical belief systems have entered into the real world from popular cultural sources. He cautiously avoids L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics, Jack Parsons and the OTO, noting that they did not derive their systems from one particular work. Instead he dates the start of 'hyper-real beliefs' from the Church of All Worlds, derived from Robert Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land. He follows the theme through Kenneth Grant's occult Tryphonian Trilogy, which influenced many occult practitioners, particularly through 'chaos magic'. Perhaps the most widely know 'hyper-real' religion is Jedi, from the Star Wars universe, which seems to be on the verge of becoming boringly mainstream. Later films like Matrix and Avatar also seem to be developing cultist followers; and finally to Slenderman, which is perhaps transforming from a internet meme to a dark sacrificial cult.

Joanne Conman's demolition of the accepted story of Egyptioan astrology and Robert Schoch's cosmological analysis of the cult of Mithras and the Gobleki Tepe remains are beyond my competence to judge, and I will leave it to others. Other archaeological topics covered include discussion of a remarkable structure in Indonesia, which may be a natural feature, an artificial structure or some sort of combination of the two. Martin Clemens description of the 'Mountain of Light' draws links to Churchward's Mu, and almost inevitably, Gobleki Tepe. It also provides an interesting example of the politicisation of archaeology.

Closer to home, in 'Walking in the Shadow of Death' Lucy Ryder looks at the 'corpse roads' which cross the English countryside (indeed one passes the front door of Magonia Towers!) Also on the theme of pathways to the grave, Dark Lore editor Greg Taylor presents an enlightening review of strange light phenomena witnessed at the moment of an individual's death, and considers if they may have an objective source.

Life beyond death is looked at in 'Life, Death and Raymond' by Robert Schoch, examining the death of Raymond Lodge, son of physicist and SPR grandee Sir Oliver Lodge, and the evidence it was said to present in favour of survival. Other chapters look at the Tibetan Book of the Dead; and in 'Portals of Strangeness' Raymond Grasse asks what Fortean phenomena, whatever their origins, actually mean in the modern world.

Like all the other titles in this series, it is unlikely that any one reader will find every article is of equal interest, but they will certainly find enough of interest to them to make this a very worthwhile addition to their Fortean library. -- John Rimmer


21.11.14

CREEPY TALES

Joshua P Warren and Andrea Saarkoppel. It Was a Dark and Creepy Night: Real Life Encounters With the Strange, Mysterious and Downright Terrifying. New Page, 2014

This collection of about 150 brief “told as true” stories, shows how folklore in the US (and I assume elsewhere) is increasingly mingling traditional themes such as crisis apparitions, haunted houses, premonitions etc., with themes derived from popular media, examples of the latter including shadow beings, reptoids and I think I detect a hint of Slenderman in some stories.

The lack of any attempt at verification means these stories will have little value for the psychical researcher. There are also issues for the folklorist, in that the role of the authors (note not editors) clearly goes far beyond a simple tidying of language, grammar and spelling, to “slight embellishment could be provided to flesh out descriptive details”, so that we don’t know if the drama in some of the more dramatic stories comes from the original narrator or from the authors/editors.

That being said, this collection really is for entertainment only and lies in the honourable tradition of the folk storyteller and there is no doubt that many of these tales are appropriately creepy! - Peter Rogerson


18.11.14

BELIEF AND BELIEVING IN ET

David A. Weintraub. Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It? Springer, 2014

Although the title suggests that this book is solely concerned with religious attitudes to the possibility of extraterrestrial life, it also gives a detailed survey of the methods used by astronomers to attempt to discover extrasolar planets and to identify any that might be capable of supporting life.

Weintraub begins by giving an account of the history of thinking about the possibilty of other worlds, which began, in the west, "with the birth of rational science in the form of metaphysics and philosophy", in the sixth century BCE, when Aristotle summed up the results of several centuries of Greek philosophy and concluded that we are alone in the universe. This conclusion was based on the belief that Earth was composed of four elements -- earth, water, air and fire. Beyond Earth's atmosphere the universe was made entirely of a fifth element, aether. According to Aristotle aether is perfect, eternal, unchangeable and immutable, thus making it impossible for life to develop.
 
Not everyone agreed with him of course, but his belief that Earth was the centre of the universe and the only abode of life remained highly influential until the work of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) supporting, with astronomical observations and mathematical calculations, the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun. His calculations enabled astronomers to predict future celestial events, and enabled Jesuit astronomers to reform the Julian calendar, this being adopted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, thus becoming known as the Gregorian calendar, which is still in use today.

As scientific observations, theory and speculation gradually started to replace theological arguments in thinking about extraterrestrial life, it was eventually realised that it was extremely unlikely that intelligent beings could exist elsewhere in the solar sytem. The next stage in the search for alien life was thus based on the search for extrasolar planets, which gradually became more practicable with the development of the necessary technology.

We are given an interesting account of the discovery of these planets, beginning with the first, inevitably unsuccessful, attempts. In 1963 astronomer Peter van de Kamp claimed to have discovered a planet 1.5 times the mass of Jupiter orbiting one of the nearest stars, known as Barnard's Star. Other astronomers failed to cofirm this. However, in 1995, astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland, announced that they had found a Jupiter-mass planet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi. This time their discovery was confirmed by other astronomers, and about 50 exoplanets had been discovered by 2000. In December 2013 the number had reached 1,056 exoplanets in 802 planetary systems.

These results and other work, such as studies of the composition of meteorites, suggest that there must be many planets where life as we know it here on Earth would be possible.

Part II of this book is devoted to discussion of religious beliefs about extraterrestrial life, by which is usually meant intelligent life. It will probably become obvious to most readers that this subject, in most religions, is of concern mainly to a minority of theologians, and that most of them obviously cannot think of anything interesting to say about it.

Weintraub starts with Judaism. There is very little in Jewish scripture that might be interpreted to refer to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. He notes, however, that Rabbi Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410), in his philosophical work Light of the Lord, writes that space is infinite, and thus contains a potentially infinite number of worlds, and there is nothing in physics, nor in scriptural or Talmudic writings that can deny the existence of extraterrestrial life. The general consensus of Jewish thinkers is that the God of Judaism is universal, but Judaism is only for humans on Earth.

The discusion on Christianity is mainly concerned with Roman Catholicism, before going on to describe the thinking of other Christian sects. Most of the arguments about the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds are concerned with the question of whether Jesus died only to redeem Earth people from the guilt of original sin. This posed the problems of trying to imagine alternative means by which intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe could attain salvation. Of course, an easy way out would be to assume that no such beings exist. Weintraub remarks: "A few modern thinkers have tried to address this issue, though most of them have devoted very little thought to solving the theological problems".

Protestant Christians generally accept the possibility of extraterrestrials, but think it unlikely that they would have a similar religion. The more fundamentalist varieties of Christianity base their ideas of interpreting the Bible on it being literally true and unfailingly accurate. They thus believe that there is no extraterrestrial life.

Islamic scholars have noted that the Qu'ran states that the Earth is not the only world that God has created. For example, verse 42:29 states: "And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the living creatures that He has scattered among them: and He has power to gather them together when He wills". So Islam generally accepts the idea of extraterrestrial life but, like most other religions, cannot agree on what forms religions might take on other worlds.

Hinduism and Buddhism deal with ideas and beliefs very different from those of most westerners. For example, in Hinduism the amount of good or bad karma generated during one's life can determine how one will be reborn. Thus one need not necessarily be reborn on Earth.

Probably most people who read this book will believe that the question of extraterrestrial life is a scientific one rather than a subject for theological speculation. However, Weintraub concludes that most religions would not be adversely affected by contact with alien intelligent beings, and suggests that we can learn a lesson by thinking how we would interact with them and "learn to live more more peaceably with 'terrestrial intelligences' with which we are well acquainted and whose religious beliefs and practices differ from our own". -- John Harney


MAGONIA RECOMMENDS