Sean Martin. Alchemy and Alchemists. Pocket Essentials, 2015.

This paperback book of 160 pages is a recently published addition to Pocket Essentials, a range of books produced in the same format on a wide range of diverse subjects. At first glance, to produce a pocket-sized guide to a subject as complex and mysterious as alchemy might seem to be an extremely difficult if not impossible task. The same might be said of alchemy itself, which, in the popular imagination, concerns the attempt to transform base matter or metal such as lead, into the noblest of metals, gold. Therefore, it would be useful to know whether this book uncovers the ultimate secret of the philosopher's stone, that mysterious alchemical substance which symbolises ultimate perfection, enlightenment, bliss, rejuvenation, immortality, and all the other related goals of what is called the Magnum Opus, or Great Work. The answer, as is so familiar to seekers of truth, is a definite Yes and No.

Although this book provides many historical examples of this transmutation being successfully accomplished, at least to the satisfaction of onlookers who had the opportunity to test the purity of the gold substance that was manifested in these cases, there is no case presented that may be taken as definitive 'proof' in the modern scientific sense. The author makes this interesting comment on the practical feasibility of such a physical transmutation: "In perhaps the supreme irony, particle physics has shown that it is theoretically possible to turn lead into gold, if the number of molecules in the lead atom were to be increased. This would require vast expense and particle accelerators, which obviously the medieval alchemist of popular imagination did not have".

In this quoted passage, Martin shows that science is not his strong point. It is a great howler of an error to say that atoms have molecules. The definition of the scientific term 'molecule' is: "A group of atoms bonded together, representing the smallest fundamental unit of a chemical element or compound that has the chemical properties of that element or compound". That is to say, molecules are made of atoms, not the other way round. What the author presumably meant to say was that atoms are made of subatomic particles, i.e. protons, neutrons, and electrons. Atoms must have an equal number of protons and electrons. But also, the lead atom has 82 protons, whereas gold has 79, so rather than increasing the protons in lead atoms to produce gold one would have to decrease them. Adding or subtracting one or more protons from an atom creates a different element, which goes some way to explain the potential for transmutation in physical and chemical terms. There is no need to labour this point further, but it is surprising that the author could make such a fundamental error, and even more so that it was not picked up during proof-reading and editing of the manuscript.

While science may be his weak point, Sean Martin's strengths lie in his overview and understanding of history, philosophy, psychology and universal mysteries. It is difficult to do justice to the breadth and depth of information that Martin manages to pack into this deceptively compact book. As the author of books on the Knights Templar and the Cathars, amongst other subjects, he is clearly adept at presenting deep and complex subjects with great clarity and wisdom. Take this sentence as an example: "The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung believed that, whatever sort of gold the alchemists were looking for, they had in fact discovered the unconscious, and that their frequently strong, challenging images were portraits of various states of consciousness that could lead us into a greater understanding of ourselves."

Also, regarding the need for discernment when deciphering the meaning of alchemical texts: "Alchemists were masters of wordplay. Many alchemical texts claim that they are 'hiding a secret openly', meaning that initiates will understand them, and that everyone else will see complete gibberish. (Gibberish, incidentally, is alchemical in origin; it was coined to describe the apparent incomprehensibility of the writings ascribed to Jabir, or Geber, as he was known in Latin.)"

As he says in his introduction: "It has been called the mightiest secret that a man (or woman) can possess, yet it has also been portrayed as a fraudulent, delusional quest for wealth and worldly power.....but has also been regarded as a Divine art, the highest gift of God, one that should only be practised by the sincere seeker and the pure of heart".

The book consists of five main chapters: Basic Ideas and Themes, Alchemy in the West, Alchemy in the East, Modern Alchemy, and the Golden Chain. Everything and everyone of importance is included, and much that will be new even to those readers with a good working knowledge of the subject. The title of the final chapter is explained thus: "Alchemy is a solitary path that does not lend itself to being taught in the environment of mystery schools or secret societies. For guidance, alchemists traditionally had their teacher, their intuition and the writings of other alchemists. Both the teachers and the writings form what is called the aurea catena or Golden Chain." There then follows a list of 130 known alchemists from Hermes Trismegistus down to the present century, with a summary of their lives and work. The book concludes with a very long and comprehensive list of suggested books for further reading, a few recommended websites, two pieces of music inspired by alchemy, and finally a full index of subjects and names.

Wary of being duped by charlatans, rulers throughout history have often banned the art of alchemy. As early as 144 BC the Chinese Emperor issued an edict forbidding the manufacture of gold, as did Pope John XXII in his bull of 1317: "Poor themselves, the alchemists promise riches which are not forthcoming; wise also in their own conceit , they fall into the ditch which they themselves have digged". In England, Henry IV made it illegal in 1403.

Yet, as Martin points out, for all the rulers who banned the art, many more either practised the art or at least encouraged it, attracted by the reputed gifts of infinite wealth, longevity and other strange powers. For example, King James IV of Scotland (1473-1513) carried out experiments at Stirling Castle, and Charles II had his own private laboratory beneath the royal bedchamber. Perhaps most famously of all, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1576-1611) was obsessed by the art, even to the neglect of affairs of state.

One of England's greatest scholars, Dr John Dee of Mortlake, expert in mathematics, astronomy, astrology, navigation and occult philosophy can certainly be considered to have been an alchemist. He was alleged to have found the philosopher's stone in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Dee and Edward Kelley, his brilliant but roguish assistant over many years, engaged in strenuous efforts to gain secret spiritual knowledge and to succeed in the alchemical manufacture of gold.

 It was claimed that they achieved their first successful sublimation on 19 December 1586. In that year they had arrived in Prague to a warm welcome from the aforementioned Rudolph II, who was greatly intrigued by their work. Their stay was cut short after several months when the Pope demanded that Rudolph dismiss them or even imprison and execute them.

After living for a while in Krakow, they became guests of King Stephen of Poland, having convinced him that he was the one to replace Emperor Rudolph II. Finally Stephen grew tired of their constant demands for money. Dee and Kelley fell out after Dee at last began to realise that Kelley was under evil influences. Having returned to England in 1589, Dee faced many more trying circumstances until he eventually died in poverty at Mortlake at the age of 81. All of this shows that Dee, for all his great learning and experience, had not mastered the art of sublimation. The greatest of riches that he found were in the form of knowledge, and for that which has come down to us we can all be grateful.

Other eminent medieval scholars such as Albertus Magnus, Moses Maimonides, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas and Francis Bacon were profoundly interested in the art of transmutation. Chaucer, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson wrote about the themes of alchemy, generally mocking those fraudulent 'puffers' (so called because of their use of bellows for their furnaces and their emission of hot air in making false claims). Even those thought of as rational scientists such as Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) were practising alchemists. Boyle, regarded as the father of modern chemistry, searched for the philosopher's stone and, during the 1650s while at Oxford, performed many experiments with mercury as a candidate for the mysterious substance. Newton, regarded as the father of modern physics, "...spoke of the art as concealing secrets that would be dangerous should they fall into the wrong hands, which has led some to believe that he understood, or intuited, the secrets of nuclear power".

 In this regard Newton was certainly ahead of his time, for we now know that the gold found within our planet was formed by intense nuclear reactions within massive stars which finally exploded with spectacular force as supernova, thus forming the heavier elements such as gold; alternatively that super-dense neutron stars colliding many billions of years ago, detectable to scientific instruments today as gamma-ray bursts, could produce vast amounts of gold.

 Whether Newton intuited these wonders or not, "... he saw Nature as a unity, a vast puzzle to be solved by the devout seeker. It is ironic that the world that Newton helped create has anything but a unified view of Nature, a world whose short-sightedness and materialistic greed threaten Nature herself, and humanity as a whole". For some reason known only to himself, in his old age Newton destroyed and burned a great many of his papers. One can only wonder what knowledge or insights they may have contained. The author suggests that modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, is returning us gradually to that lost unity, where consciousness itself is the vital ingredient, not matter itself. This indeed could be the elusive philosopher's stone, ultimately a latent quality in the seeker that is revealed or developed. It is the idea that the experimenter can actually manipulate matter through strong visualisation or imagination.

The alchemical work begins with the first matter. This is the Lesser Work: Nigredo. For Egyptian alchemists that prima materia may have been the black earth fed by the Nile. Al-kimia comes from the ancient name of Egypt, meaning "black land". So, in the laboratory, the practitioner would choose some material to work with. It could indeed be common soil, but Isaac Newton chose antimony as his first agent, whereas Nicholas Flamel used mercury.

Others may have thought that they must use the most vile and base substance as prime matter, such as dung or urine. Indeed, Hennig Brand, the German alchemist, inadvertently discovered the element phosphorus in 1669 after boiling down large amounts of human urine, thinking that its yellow colour may indicate the presence of gold. He heated the residues on his furnace until the retort was red-hot, and liquid dripped out, spontaneously bursting into flames. He found that he could store this strange liquid in glass jars, where it solidified and gave off a pale-green glow. This inspired him to name the substance 'phosphorus' from the Greek word meaning 'light bearing'. Brand kept his discovery secret, as did all alchemists, while he continued to try to extract gold from the substance he had discovered. No doubt he must have thought he had discovered the "philosopher's stone", for it came from a man, containing life force, and miraculously emitted light.

In Jungian alchemy this would be the raw unrefined state of the unconscious before any inner work was undertaken. The semi-mythical first century adept Mary Prophetissa equated this stage with a spiritual or metaphorical death. In any case it corresponds with the confused and conflicted state of the alchemist at the beginning of the work.

The second stage, Albedo, deals with whitening or cleansing the matter, and its inner meaning could be physical discipline, fasting or abstinences to prepare for full realisation of the soul.

The final stage, or Greater Work, is the climax in which the philosopher's stone or elixir is achieved, and the alchemical marriage takes place, the wedding of king and queen or sun and moon. Because of all the esoteric variables, the work would be repeated again and again, even for many years or a lifetime, in the quest for ultimate success and completion.

Thus the deeper meaning of alchemy, the efforts that one must make within the crucible of one's life through all its ups and downs, blessings and adversities, to keep going and make sense of it all within the Cosmic play, this is the real gift of this book. Sean Martin puts it in these words: "The final stage of the work, the rubedo, is left up to the individual. This is the opportunity to take one's knowledge a step further, to consciously marry the disparate elements of one's experience and weld them into a complimentary whole, or as Gerard Dorn said, to 'become transmuted into living philosophical stones'. Once this is achieved, then we have completed the Great Work, we have redeemed ourselves, and, in doing so, redeemed the Cosmos. Alchemists of all ages would agree with the old Hebrew proverb that 'he who saves one life saves the world entire.' " -- Kevin Murphy



Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall. A Colorful History of Popular Delusions. Prometheus Books, 2015.

Robert Bartholomew, in association with several collaborators, has written a series of books on a number of popular panics, rumours and dubious beliefs, most recently a comprehensive discussion of schoolyard panics. In this present title he and Peter Hassall offer a generalised round-up of irrational mass actions, arranging them in a typology ranging from vague rumour and gossip, to full scale riot.

The authors see these panics and delusions as fitting into two basic types: ‘social panics’ and ‘enthusiasms’. The former include such phenomena as stock market bubbles, racist or religious pogroms inspired by rumour, such as the ‘well-poisoning’ and ‘blood libel’ anti-Semitic rumours, and urban legends of tainted food or deadly gang-initiation rituals. These are frequently fuelled by fear in times of societal change and are often manipulated by political and social forces.

‘Enthusiasms’ are provoked by an irrational movement towards an object, person or idea rather than a fear of it, and are often wish-fulfilments. In this category is included enthusiasms ranging from hula-hoops to UFOs and Bigfoot, as well as religious sects and cults and visions of the Virgin Mary. However the authors are careful to point out that these categories are not mutually exclusive, and ‘enthusiasms’ such as UFO or religious ‘enthusiasm’ can often be the result of severe social and cultural change.

Sometimes popular enthusiasms, far from being unplanned and spontaneous, are the result of carefully planned promotion, and have virtually no social significance. The ‘pet rock’ craze of the mid-70s is instanced as one such, being entirely the result of a successful money raising gimmick by an American advertising executive.

But perhaps even with this we can see a social background which allowed its incubation: more people living in densely populated cities with little room for animate pets and leading increasingly isolated lives which provide little opportunity for social contact. A nice trouble-free pet rock that doesn’t need too much looking after, and won’t bite or annoy the neighbours on the other side of the thin party-wall would certainly be some people’s idea of the perfect pet. Of course, if you found that you were spending too much time with your rock, and sought some human company, you could always have taken it along to the All-Breed Pet Rock Show in Michigan. What a dating opportunity that would have been!

One classic example of the ‘Madness of Crowds’ that is inevitably cited in books such as this is the great Tulip Mania in Holland, from 1634 to 1637. However it is pointed out that the economist and historian Peter Garber suggests that the ‘mania’ has been exaggerated, and that the overall movements were not very much out of line with the normal variations of stock and commodity prices., and that many of the most expensive tulip bulbs retained their high value long after the market turbulence had settled.

A number of Bartholomew’s previous titles have been extensive accounts of various episodes of ‘mass hysteria’, and many of them are summarised here. These largely involved groups of people, often children or adolescents, in confined communities. The witch hysteria of New England and outbreaks in convents in France are well-documented instances, but the authors also describe less well-known examples such as the Cotton Disease hysteria in Lancashire in the eighteenth century, and the whole town of Morzine, which suffered repeated hysterical outbreaks seemingly connected with its equivocal status between France and Italy.

More modern outbreaks include school panics such as occurred in a school in Louisiana in the 1960s when rumours circulated that girls were going to be subjected to virginity tests, and in the 1980s in schools in the Palestinian Territories which were thought to be under attack from poison gases.

The section on ‘Immediate Community Threats’ includes accounts of the ‘Halifax Slasher’, the ‘London Monster’ from the late eighteenth century and the ‘Mad Gasser of Mattoon’. I was a little disappointed to see no mention of Spring Heel Jack in this section. ‘Moral Panics’ summarises most of the well-known cases, with a summary of the McMartin ‘Satanic Abuse’ panic, which seems to be increasingly mirrored in current events. It also takes a particular look at the ‘video nasties’ scare in the 1980s, but does not link it to the almost identical earlier ‘horror comics’ panic which produced a similar political over-reaction. Curiously, the comics panic can be traced back to a case of schoolyard rumour, the ‘Glasgow Vampire’.

I am rather dubious about the chapter on riots, where a number of very disparate incidents with widely different origins seem to be shoehorned in to make up a category. I don’t think that the Stonewall riots or the 2011 British urban riots really occupy the same category as disturbances following sporting victories or defeats, which would fit better into consideration of ‘enthusiasms‘.

The final category is called ‘Small Group Panics’ and again is rather a hotchpotch of diverse incidents which I think would fit into some of the other sections of this book. It includes the Hopkinsville alien goblins, familiar to ufologists, a few cases of military false alarms, the Betty and Barney Hill case, other UFO and Bigfoot confrontations and a couple of well-know ghost incidents.

Perhaps the most significant part of this section is its introduction, which examines the phenomenon of ‘fantasy prone’ individuals, a subject with massive significance for the topics we cover in Magonia.

Despite these few caveats, this is a fascinating account of human belief and delusion, with accounts of many very strange incidents, and makes many important points about the power of irrationality and ‘vision and belief’. Of interest to all Magonians. -- John Rimmer



On Wednesday 16th September our friends from AFU, Clas Svahn and his colleagues Karl-Anton Mattsson and Hakon Ekstrand came to pick up the third and largest tranche of my Fortean collection; something in the region of 3,400 books at a quick guestimate. They had clearly had a harassing journey up to Manchester, having suffered from an overnight stomach bug. Then a minor traffic accident led to problems with the hire car firm. This caused them to be late ringing me up and missing my emails, so I assumed they were coming later in the afternoon and went for an early lunch - only to be held up where I was having lunch and to come home to find them waiting for me, fortunately only for five minutes. The huge van which they used last year was unavailable, but that at least a good chunk of the material could be packed in my own boxes and saved some time.

This last collection included the vast bulk of my books on ghosts and local ghost stories as well as quite a lot of material on cosmology and related topics.

Owing to the various transport problems it will next year before this collection reaches Norrkoping. Joining it will be the massive library of the late Steve Moore of Fortean Times.

I would urge any of our readers who have or know of collections of material on any of the many topics covered by the Archives for the Unexplained (or as I like to think, Archives of Fortenea and the Unexplained). These include just about anything to do with fortenea, ufology, cryptozoology, psychical research, parapsychology, ghosts, folklore, historical mysteries, unsolved crimes, conspiracy theories, history, philosophy and sociology of science, and the esoteric. Its coverage includes books, pamphlets, periodicals, case reports, letters, archives, photographs, films and even artifacts.

Bob Rickard provides an overview of this huge collection in Fortean Times for August 2015 pp46-49. In that article Bob notes the difficulties that he had in trying to establish a similar repository in Britain and why he has decided to throw in his lot with AFU.

I am sure there is nowhere else with scope both in terms of topics covered or the range of depth, from little kiddies’ books and mags to the most advanced treatises and in the international coverage.

I know that some disquiet has been expressed about manuscripts and archives going abroad, but the trouble is that there is very little that is safe in this country. Public libraries are closing at an increasing rate, and special collections are seen as financial assets to be sold off, not treasures to be kept. County record offices are likely to be under such financial pressure that all but the most essential historical resources will be turned away. Even when kept, archives are often weeded of “irrelevant “material. University libraries are also weeding out 'Special Collections'.

The situation in the private sector is little better, rent costs are putting collections under pressure. Of course most of our sort of material is in private hands and all too often lost or dispersed. Sadly on a number of occasions collectors' surviving partners have deliberately trashed such collections and thrown them on the tip. Others have been dispersed across the book trade. I would love to know what happened to the collection of really obscure old material held by the late Arthur Tomlinson of DIGAP. The same goes for a guy called Cliff Poole who occasionally turned up at DIGAP in the 1968-74 period, and I seem to think had inherited some of the archive of Eric Frank Russell (the bulk of which is in the University of Liverpool).

Little seems to be being done in the US, as far as I know APRO's archives are still unavailable, little or nothing has been done with Lucius Farish bequest, CUFOS seems at least half dead and there are rumours that the library of the American Society for Psychical Research is inaccessible and might well have been sold off. So what AFU is engaged is a kind of permanent rescue archaeology.

If you have a collection you would like to give to a good home and you are in the UK I suggest you contact Bob Rickard on bobrickard@mail.com  If you are outside the UK I suggest you contact AFU direct: http://www.afu.info/afu2/



Etzel Cardena, John Palmer and David-Macusson-Clavertz (Editors.) Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century. McFarland, 2015.

This large, 400-plus page work presents 31 papers under nine headings, which seeks to update the original Handbook of Parapsychology, edited by Benjamin Wolman and published by McFarland in 1985, itself an update of a work first published in 1977.

The present volume, like its predecessor, is aimed at a specialist readership, university trained parapsychologists and much of it is devoted to experimental parapsychology and is highly dependent on statistics, so it is clearly at the Nature level rather than the New Scientist. A relatively small number of the papers are more accessible to the general reader; these will be found in part 7, devoted to research on survival of bodily death. In this section those dealing with reincarnation, ghosts and poltergeists and electronic voice phenomena should be of interest to Magonia readers.

This book will no doubt, along the original, be indispensable to those wishing to take university level courses in parapsychology, and to those with a university level scientific education who wish to begin a serious study of the topic. However when it comes to the more general scientific community, I am not sure that it will be very successful.

The reason for this, is that the general impression throughout is that parapsychology has become even more insular than it was. The language, vocabulary and basic concepts are not those of mainstream science. In many of the papers a whole set of a priori assumptions are made. Of course in many sciences there are specialised vocabularies, but they are, essentially inter-learnable. Furthermore they are not ideologically based; studies of high energy physics, polymer chemistry, or the search for extra-solar planets, can be undertaken by people with a wide range of philosophical, religious or political views. Even in highly contentious debates such as those or the role of inheritance versus environment in intelligence or on climate change, the two sides at least have a common vocabulary and an agreement that at least in broad terms ‘intelligence’ or ‘climate’ exist.

Parapsychology on the other hand involves sets of phenomena and concepts that many mainstream scientists would deny exist, and that these contentious ideas are used to build a deeper infrastructure. There seems little interest to relate the alleged phenomena of parapsychology to concepts rooted in other scientific fields, and in many (though not all) of the papers there is an implicit ideological programme to provide evidences (in the theological sense) for forms of Cartesian dualism. This biases both the range of anomalies discussed (the chapter on ghosts includes grey aliens and Bigfoot for example), and the research strategies employed (still no attempts to see if psi like correlations exist between powerful computers), and in the reluctance to seek greater integration with mainstream science.

It is telling that there is almost no input in this volume from a sceptical position. The only exception is a curious paper by Douglas Stokes which argues that the evidence accumulated suggests that the best explanation for the actual pattern of results in experimental parapsychology is experimenter fraud by a number of charismatic and possibly psychopathic individuals (or more likely, I would add, those who are employed by or subordinate to them). I am not entirely certain whether this is meant as a serious proposition or as an ironical reductio ad absurdum of the sceptics’ position.

The result is the sort of defensiveness one sees in the introduction, which constantly adopts the tone of “we really are a science, despite what the nasty critics say”, along with the whining and rather self-pitying tone, which adds nothing to the dignity of the subject. In a world in which millions of people are fleeing real and horrendous persecution, the use of that world to describe parapsychologist’ little local difficulties with skeptics is gratuitous and offensive.

Reading through this and many other works on parapsychology suggests to me that it is not an ordinary science at all. It is not however an ordinary pseudo-science either. For example it commands a much higher order of scholarship than pseudo-science. I suggest that we think of parapsychology as an example of what we might call “testimonial science”, by analogy with political parties, which exist not to actually compete for power, but to represent particular client groups or simply to preserve the purity of an ideological position and not to make the messy compromises of the day to day politics. My suspicion is that though parapsychologists often use the language and conventions of science their heart is not really in it and that they see their main role as cultural warriors against ‘materialism‘, often itself a shorthand for a variety of moderneties,.

It is sometimes thought, often by themselves, that parapsychologists long for a return to Cartesian dualism. Nothing could be further from the case, Descartes project of radical dualism had as it aim the complete disenchantment of the material world, which could be seen entirely in terms of mechanism, while a separate ‘spiritual’ world, which only interacted with the material world through the human pineal gland, was envisaged in order to preserve a ghost of human dignity and Catholic doctrine. The aim of at least some parapsychologists’ is the radical re-enchantment of the world. If the price of that is believing , as Stephen Braude suggests in this volume, that it is at least a theoretically possibility that mega-PK might cause storms, earthquakes, plane crashes (and presumably economic collapse), I suspect the price of that re-enchantment would be immeasurably too high.

It might be better for parapsychology to present itself as something related; a another form of testimonial scholarship, that is to say scholarship the primary purpose of which is to provide a voice for groups, cultures, experiences which have historically been neglected (e.g. women’s studies, African-American studies, LBGT history etc.). If this is the case then it might well be better to concentrate on studying anomalous personal experiences, without making any assumptions as to their nature and causation, rather than engaging in ever more recondite laboratory research, in the vain hope that by make ever obeisance to the sacred totem of statistics, cargo in the form of scientific recognition will fall from the sky or the academic ivory tower. - Peter Rogerson



Eric Ouellet. Illuminations: The UFO Experience as a Parapsychological Event. Anomalist Books, 2015.

In this interesting book, Eric Ouellet, a sociologist (professor of Military Sociology at the Royal Military College of Canada) and a parapsychologist, looks at UFO phenomenon as being generated by parapsychological events. He contrasts the idea of parapsychological events or explanations as opposed to paranormal ones, as the latter involves evoking the idea of non-human intelligences such as ghosts, elementals, demons, etc. He argues that we do not know that such entities exist, but we do know that human beings do.

In effect his hypothesis is that 'true UFOs' are manifestations of human psychokinesis, rather like mega-poltergeists. He draws on the theories of Walter von Lucadou, who argues that there is a sociological dimension to poltergeist cases. Von Lucadou suggests that these cases involve a series of steps:
  • Surprise: Something strange and uncanny crashes into our everyday world (in polt cases strange noises are heard, things start moving around etc.)
  • Displacement: Instead of being attributed to the pk as a means of gaining attention by the focus, the events are attributed to non-human entities or forces. This is exacerbated by the appearance on the scene of “naïve investigators” who help promote such theories.
  • Decline: More critical people arrive on the scene, and either explain away the events or realise they are the result of the conscious or unconscious actions of the focus, possibly leading to their problems being properly examined
  • Suppression: Various authorities step in and say the matter is solved (it’s all due to trickery etc.) and the “indeterminacy” which allows psi events to take place is abolished.

Ouellet tries to apply these theories to a number of UFO events, such as the Washington DC flap of 1952; the French wave of 1954; the Betty and Barney Hill case, the Belgian wave of 1989/90, along with some lesser known Canadian cases. Although there are some interesting insights, for example that the Hill’s UFO had some of the appearance of a bus, such as those used by the freedom riders in the civil rights movements, the search for foci becomes more than strained.

This book certainly evoked a feeling of nostalgia in me, because I was thinking on similar lines back in 1970! These ideas were also of course, at the centre of the writings of Jerry Clark and Loren Coleman forty years ago, and you can probably trace them back to the writings of Tom Comella i.e. Peter Kor in Palmer's Flying Saucers fifty years ago. There is nothing new in ufology.

Of course the real trouble with Ouellet’s hypothesis is that while we know human beings exist, we certainly don’t know that psychokinesis or morphic fields or other psi processes exist, they are simply speculations invoked to explain a variety of anomalous experiences.

But we do know that human beings exist, and indeed we can re-interpret Ouellet’s scenarios in psycho-social terms, and indeed the pattern that he and von Lucadou have developed closely fits those of classic social panics, such as those described in Evans and Bartholomew’s Outbreak.
The 1952 wave might go as follows:
  • Surprise: The American public, made fearful of possible Soviet nuclear bombers getting through is advised to watch the skies and begins to interpret ambiguous stimuli as something strange and threatening.
  • Displacement: The stimuli are interpreted less as Soviet bombers but the less immediately threatening “alien spaceships” (which in 1952 meant Martians). “Naïve observers” such as Donald Keyhoe add to this idea and it is used by various people to draw attention to their personal problems or promote their ideologies.
  • Decline: Nothing happens, the bombers don’t get through, the aliens don’t land, and there is no unambiguous evidence.
  • Suppression: The authorities explain the whole thing away as conventional stimuli. The same no doubt can be said about many of the other cases.

So this is a book which I would have probably given a rave review to back in the early 1970s, but it has been overtaken as time and theories move on. -- Peter Rogerson.



Brendan Nolan. Dublin Urban Legends. History Press, Dublin. 2015.

Most cities of the world have "urban legends", those stories often told in pubs and other situations where conversation, perhaps affected by alcohol, verges on the fantastic. That is to say, a story that started as a fantasy or figment of someone's imagination when repeated often enough becomes accepted as fact. Such legends may have become more embellished and exaggerated with each verbal re-telling, so often one is tempted to research the origins and authenticity of such legends, only to become even more confused. How can we separate fact from fiction when there are so many versions and interpretations, especially in this Internet world?

Brendan Nolan has has set out to do just this in Dublin Urban Legends. He is well qualified for this task, having formerly been a journalist and now working as a professional story teller. The style of his writing is very much in the verbal tradition, with a light-hearted Irish whimsicality, intelligence and humour giving life and sparkle to the text.

The book contains all of the Dublin classics, such as 'The Man Who Never Was', and many not so well known, in 27 chapters each devoted to one particular legend. Perhaps the Dublin legend best known internationally is 'Bloomsday', when thousands of devotees and admirers of James Joyce commemorate 16 June 1904, the setting of Joyce's masterpiece Ullyses. People dress up in period costume and act out some of the scenes in the novel. Whether they were 'real' or straight from Joyce's imagination is not the point. Nolan quotes Joyce as saying that he always wrote about Dublin because if he could get to the heart of Dublin, he could get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is the universal, he said, as any Dubliner could tell you.

Another legend worthy of mention concerns the blowing up a British symbol of imperialism, Nelson's Pillar on O'Connell Street in 1966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Uprising of 1916. The top portion of the pillar, and Nelson's separated head, fell to the ground. The head had its own colourful existence for a few months, being kidnapped by students of the National College of Art and Design, who demanded a ransom for its return and in the meantime made some money by renting it out for publicity purposes. Finally, the Dubliners folk group accompanied the head on the back of a lorry when it drove down O'Connell Street to return the head to the authorities. It currently resides in the Dublin City Library.

A rather obvious "legend" arose on 1 April 2006. Not noticing the significance of the date, many listeners to an item on RTE radio believed the report that a dual-carriagway was to be constructed through Phoenix Park. The piece was made more believable by the addition of the sounds of pneumatic drills and the voices of many "protesters" in the park. To add to the ridiculousness, it was also suggested that white rinos from the Zoo inside Phoenix Park would be allowed to roam freely in the park, once a fence had been erected on both sides of the new dual-carriageway. The radio programme informed listeners of impending Government plans contained in a report entitled Amended Programme for Rail, Integrated with Luas; First Official On-Line report. No one noticed the acronym. Even the local evening paper got in on the act, causing a great many members of the public to phone, write and generally protest to the media, until on 3 April it was revealed to have been an April Fool's hoax. Most people smiled and carried on, but the proposal to build a major road through the park is still feared by many, thus providing an Urban Legend.

The most famous legend may be the story of how a theatre owner invented the word "quiz" in 1791 as a bet that he could introduce a new word into the English language within 24 hours. Nolan devotes that last chapter of his book to a thorough investigation of the origins of the word and how the theatre manager, Richard Daly, won his bet. The story goes that on a Saturday night Daly sent out a team of all his staff, actors and stagehands, to chalk the letters "Q-U-I-Z" on all the shop fronts and doors and windows where they could be seen next morning by the populace of the city. Being a Sabbath, the shops would be closed all day and word would quickly spread about this strange new word that had appeared all over the city. Most of the city's estimated population of 200,00 would have seen the word or heard about it, causing much conversation and speculation about what it meant. To this day, most Dubliners would assert that the word was coined in their city. However, the journalistic researcher in Nolan contends with the story teller when he states: "The first confirmed use of the word quiz is from 1781, ten years earlier, and meant an odd person. Daly may have come across it and decided to make it his own..."

He remarks on the great popularity of quizzes, in pubs and community centres, all over Ireland, the UK, and other countries, and that even now after over 200 years people still discuss the word and its origins, mostly believing that it originated in Dublin.

After much eloquent and entertaining verbiage throughout his book, Nolan concludes with the remarkably succinct: "Quiz. Legend." With that, he encapsulates the essence of his research, which is that no matter what 'facts' are presented to debunk the veracity of an urban legend, when it has been around long enough it remains forever in the common consciousness and provides much pleasure in the re-telling. -- Kevin Murphy



John Marenbon. Pagans and Philosophers: The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz. Princeton University Press, 2015.

The problem discussed in this book arose as a result of the rise of Christianity, when philosophers and theologians began to discuss the relationship between pagans and Christians. Pagans, for the purposes of this book, are defined as those who were not Christians, Jews or Muslims. The central issue of the Problem of Paganism is the discrepancy between the status of some pagans as moral, intellectual and cultural heroes and their being denied salvation, according to Christian doctrines. As the author notes: "Either the doctrines must be altered or negotiated, as they often were--many medieval writers considered that people like Virgil had been saved--or it must be explained how, despite appearances, they do not make God unjust". This kind of argument often occurs in discussions about God and is an example of theodicy, a word which I was surprised not to find mentioned anywhere in this book.

Although the book appears to be mainly about the development of Christian theology, we are told that it is really about the history of philosophy. The period considered by Marenbon is from about 200 to 1700, which for the purpose of this work he calls the Long Middle Ages.

In 410, Rome was sacked by the Goths, who though not pagans but Christians, were adherents of the Aryan heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Although by this time most Romans were Christian, their faith seemed weak and, and this inspired Augustine to produce his most ambitious work, the City of God (begun about 412 and finished about 14 years later) in which he examined the main strands of the problem of paganism--wisdom, salvation and virtue--which influenced all later discussion.

Marenbon remarks that Augustine's answer to the problem about pagan salvation is to deny its possibility, except to those who were really hidden Christians. He contrasts his thinking on this with that of Boethius (thought to have been born in 476), particularly in his Consolation of Philosophy. This work was written when he was in prison on charges including treason and sentenced to death. It takes the form of a dialogue between Boethius the Prisoner and a figure of Philosophy, a woman 'with burning eyes that saw more clearly than the run of humans'.

For scholars, the main problem of that work is that it is not obviously written by a Christian, with the result that there are several different interpretations of it. Marenbon's interpretation is that Boethius follows philosophy's path in his reasoning, which is also the Christian path, to the point where human understanding fails, where the Christian path is the right one.

There is a rather demanding chapter on the arguments among medieval university theologians on the question of whether those who know nothing of Christianity can be saved. It is tempting to imagine the reactions of modern atheists and, indeed, many Christians to such ideas.

The last major philosopher considered is Leibniz, who agreed with those who argued that some would be given no chance to be saved would mean that God would be unjust and concluded that 'there are an infinity of ways open to God which give him the means to satisfy both his justice and his goodness'.

This is clearly a book for readers who are seriously interested in the history of religious thought, and the development of philosophy, but it is obviously not intended for the casual reader. -- John Harney



Over the past few months, I and a number of other people including several Magonia writers have been working on a series of short ebooks on Fortean, ufological and paranormal topics. Called UneXplained Rapid Reads (that uppercase 'X' is crucial!) They are intended to be read on a Kindle or other device, perhaps to lighten (or indeed enlighten) the morning commute. You can see the full details and list of all current and forthcoming titles at the Rapid Reads website here: http://www.unexplainedrapidreads.com/

My contributions to the series so far are an account of the mischevious 'Liverpool Leprechauns' who dropped into my home city in the 1960s, and the sinister figure of Spring-Heeled Jack, who haunted Victorian England. I am now working on 'UFOs, The Magonian Perspective', which is challenging, as it is making me think about things which I have taken for granted for years!

The range of topics is wide, and even Fortean old-timers should find them useful as a brief introduction to those phenomena with which they are unfamiliar. Here are my two titles, to get you started: