3.7.15

SOUND AS A BELL

Steven T. Parsons and Callum E Cooper (editors). Paracoustics: Sound and the Paranormal. White Crow Books, 2015.

This collection of papers by the editors and a number of contributors covers several areas of sound and the paranormal, after general discussions of the physics and psychology of sound.

The first area of discussion are the various knocks, raps and imitative sounds encountered in haunted houses; in many ways these, rather than visual experiences, constitute the essence of the haunting experience and a number of examples are given. There had always been a discussion as to whether these are subjective or objective sounds, and an area which has not been explored properly is whether some of these sounds are actually internal body sounds that the brain normally filters out.

Some of the raps are objective because they have been recorded; and in his paper Barry Colvin compares these sounds with normal percussive raps, and seems to show that they have different acoustic properties. This seems like an excellent area for experimental study.

Whether the alleged paranormal voices reported during the Enfield poltergeist belong in this section is rather doubtful. Perhaps they belong in the next chapter dealing with raps, voices and other sounds heard during séances. Here perhaps the role of fraud is more prevalent, for example in the case of trumpet and other forms of direct voice mediumship. For years that was the opinion of most members of the SPR. Raps of course were at the heart of the story of the Fox family which led to the birth of spiritualism. I suspect that the two girls at the heart of this had accomplices, or rather were themselves accomplices in a hate campaign directed by a young woman named Lucretia Pulver and her friends against her former employer.

The next area covered is that of various forms of Electronic Voice Phenomena and the editors provided a very comprehensive and balanced summary of this, though they could perhaps have added cases of alleged EVP involving aliens rather than spirits, such as those recorded by Phillip Rogers, the partially sighted musician and ufologist back in the 1960s (I can’t say that I found these very impressive, the aliens sounded more like little children, or someone imitating little children). There were also cases of alleged radio communication with aliens back in the 1950s.


Related to these are telephone calls from the dead, a topic first raised by Scott Rogo and Raymond Bayless. As with many of these anecdotal reports it is hard to know which of a number of possible explanations might apply; the story is just being made up; the sequence of events as become distorted in memory, empty lines and random calls are misperceived; the calls took place in dreams or dream like states or the recipient was the victim of a prank. Ufology also has its anomalous telephone calls, reports of which can be found in the works of John Keel, Brad Steiger etc.

Among the odd things reported over the phone is phantom music, which leads into wider discussions of that topic by C R Foley and Melvyn Willin, the latter discussing its role in out of the body and near death experiences. This music, which the late Scott Rogo called NAD, can range from the disquietingly eerie or even threatening, to the transcendental. It is interesting to note that a number of paleoanthropologists believe humans possessed vocal music long before abstract language, so there is something very primal in this. Of course all music emerges from the human mind, and perhaps this music of the mind can only be imperfectly reproduced by physical instruments.

These musical sounds are however only part of the sounds heard during OBE/NDE and these should be compared to those heard during aware sleep paralysis and in general hypnogogic/hypnopompic states. They might be compared with sounds heard during UFO experiences, as documented by Dan Butcher in his Reference Book of UFO Sounds which actually compares them to those in Out of Body Experiences.

Jack Hunter then discusses the role of music in generating alternate states of consciousness.

A rather different approach to sound and the paranormal is the study of the role of infrasound in producing uncanny feelings and experiences, a study pioneered Vic Tandy and continued by co-editor Parsons, who provides a discussion. Some of the original papers are reproduced as appendices. It is a pity that the original paper as reproduced here breaks off in mid-sentence on p209 (the following page being blank). Needless to say much of this is of a technical character.

Sadly there is no index but despite this, this will be a most useful book for anyone interested in psychical research. -- Peter Rogerson.

27.6.15

DINING AT THE GOBLIN'S MARKET

Joshua Cutchin. A Trojan Feast: The Food and Drink Offerings of Aliens, Faeries and Sasquatch Anomalist Books, 2015

In her book The Folklore of Guernsey (Guernsey Press, 1975) Marie De Garris includes a tale told by Edmund Vale in Blackwoods Magazine in 1922:

“ I remember a farmer in Guernsey, on whose land stood a giant dolmen, telling me that one morning early when he went into the field, he saw a tall stranger, with a great beard, sitting on one of the capstones of the dolmen. He rose on seeing the farmer and beckoned him. When the farmer came near he poured out a strange liquid into a tiny cup and set it down on the capstone. Neither spoke. Presently the stranger lifted the cup and of it, offering the remainder to the farmer. The latter, fascinated, if not awed, partook. The host then bowed to his guest, and to another not visible, and departed, never again to be seen. “And that” whispered the farmer into my ear, “was the sign”. And although he was not clear in any way what the sign was, it seemed to him a grave occasion, a momentous business” (p204-5)

That little story sums up rather the theme of Joshua Cutchin’s book, and that I should come across it while reading his book is one of those odd synchronicities which appear from time to time. 

Across time and culture human beings have told stories about encounters with “the others”, who offer them food and drink. In many stories this food is best rejected. The tale that opens Cutchin’s book warns of this. In the early eighteenth century a Norwegian farm maid is guarding the herd when she hears the sound of strange music and sees a man she thinks is her employer coming down from the mountain. He tells her to leave the herd and come with him, to a place where they are joined by four blonde men, dressed in red shirts, black trousers and caps and blue stockings. Now the man she thought was her employer looks like the rest and she finds herself inside a mountain. There she meets a minister who urges her to eat and drink of their fare, as does his wife. Time and again she is tempted but refuses and she is eventually released. Though she thought only twelve hours had passed she was away for four days. In other tales the captive is warned by someone present, usually another human taken into the other-world, not to partake of the food and drink, lest they be lost for ever in the otherworld.

As Cutchin shows these stories are not just ancient lore, they occur in modern stories of encounters with aliens, abductions and encounters with Sasquatch. They also, though Cutchin does not say this, encountered in tales of Satanic Child Abuse. The drinks may be sweet or sour; the food tends to concentrate on a few items, mainly fruit and bread, but also in our modern age, pills. Of course none of this unearthly food is ever found to be really unworldly. Joe Simonton’s pancakes being mundane enough for example. Traditional lore suggests this is true of all other-world gifts.

The others do not just give, they take. It is well to leave offerings out for the “little people” and such ideas are barely secularised in stories told by people who claim to be “habituating” Sasquatch. In both cases those who refuse might live to regret it. In other lore the others just take the “essence” of food, leaving just some “dead” unappetising residue.

Cutchin traces connections to sleep paralysis, other-world ointments, sexuality, psychedelic substances such as ayahuasca and DMT, and to Hindu theories of diet. At times he goes into speculations where few are likely to want to follow, mainly because he makes the usual error of assuming that stories are some sort of quasi-scientific evidence.

What they are is evidence that human beings are a story telling species and that food and its offering are of profound importance. The offering of food, and of sex, and protection are the primary transactions out of which societies are constructed, and it is through the widening of such trades that human beings forge a habitat and become something more than just another wild animal. These primal transactions go back much further than modern humans and modern language, they must have been at the core of the very first stories ever told, perhaps they are “the story” which gave birth to complex language.

The foods which appear in these stories rarely include red raw meat from the outer wilderness, they seem to be agrarian and proto-agrarian foods, foods around which the first stories were told. The gathering and sharing of food therefore is the building of society, but they also offer temptations away from the band. Food and sex are also the primary temptations and as such tend to be related together. The theme of temptation runs through many of these stories. Nor must we forget that many would have been told in hungry times when people were completely obsessed with where the next meal was coming from.

Even today there is the sense of food being a source of dangerous temptation, especially when offered by the exotica, the outsiders. How many children are told not accept food from strangers and don’t we talk of forbidden fruit. These themes occur strongly in Christina Rossetti’s poem 'Goblin Market'.

“Nay, take a seat with us, 
Honour and eat with us,” 
They answer’d grinning: 
"Our feast is but beginning"

The partaking of food also implies an acceptance of allegiance both spiritual and temporal. Taking the fare of the 'others' implies an allegiance to them, who might be the forgotten dead of the wilderness, and the temptation to escape from the quotidian realities of the world into the fantasy world of fairyland, offering liberation from the restraints of society. This fairyland might well be the deeply ambivalent Pure Land wherein all the complexities, contradictions, pains and heartaches of the world are resolved. One only has to watch the headlines to know what sort of places such Pure Lands actually turn out to be, especially when they pretend to be preserving the Habitat while destroying everything that holds human societies together.

Our modern word for temptation is grooming, so you might ask what might it mean to be groomed by the nameless dead arriving in magical machines.

In his final chapter Joshua Cutchin suggests that this food is 'mirage food. by which the others can communicate (or is that possess) us. He takes this rather literally, but if we substitute the phrase 'false food', we can see that this makes an excellent metaphor. Today Laura would not even have to get off her backside to get the goblin’s false food, the Internet will supply it at the press of a button, no doubt delivered by a mindless drone on leave from dropping bombs, and it can offer you fruit so false that it would make the hardiest boggart vomit its guts out.

Folklore is not about aliens it is about us, and that is why it is important. So you can read this book as a source of modern fairy stories but you would be well advised to think hard on what these stories mean for us today. -- Peter Rogerson.

22.6.15

GOING APE

Bryan Sykes. The Nature of the Beast: The First Scientific Evidence on the Survival of Ape-men into Modern Times. Coronet, 2015.

Bryan Sykes is one of the pioneers of DNA ancestry, and in previous books has traced the migration patterns of modern humans around the world, and the peopling of the British Isles. Here he turns his attention to claims that there other kinds of hominids, humans and their relations in the world. He collects physical evidence in the form of skin, bone and other traces of DNA among alleged remains of creatures such as the yeti, bigfoot, the almasty and so on.

Based on a Channel 4 documentary, this book examines this possible DNA evidence. As the fact that the world of anthropology hasn’t been shaken to its foundations demonstrates no unambiguous evidence for such creatures was in fact found. The majority of the samples of Bigfoot weren’t even from the bears which probably give rise to most Bigfoot reports, but from cattle, dogs, deer and in one case a modern human. The vignettes of his interactions among the Bigfoot hunters demonstrate how far removed from his kind of science many of them are. One tell him that Bigfoot has telepathic abilities; another that she encountered a Bigfoot walking into the sea, however this was through remote viewing!

Perhaps the oddest of these claims was that a Bigfoot lived under an old tree and communicated by knocking. Things were getting sticky because the Bigfoot was getting jealous of the boyfriend of the woman who communicated with it and the knocking was getting more agitated. A local game warden that Sykes brought in to investigate had a more prosaic explanation: the sound was being carried down a nearby tree as its branches brushed together in the wind, the old log acting as a sounding board. It struck me that in another context these knockings or ‘raps’ would have been evidence of a poltergeist or spirit communication.

Not all the evidence was as weak as this. There was a flurry of interest in that some of the yeti DNA appeared to come not from an anomalous primate but from an anomalous bear, one which showed a relationship to a fossil ancestor of the polar bears, or was a polar bear/brown bear hybrid. This has now been challenged by another group http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-30479718 who argue that the DNA was from an ordinary Himalayan bear.

An even more interesting case is that of Zana, an alleged almasty captured in the Caucuses in the 1850s, who lived in captivity until 1892. She had two surviving sons and they left several descendants. Their mitochondrial DNA appears to be West African and suggests that Zana may have been wholly West African.

"ZANA"
Sykes however seems to try and argue that Zana was remembered as being very different from the average west African and her DNA was rather different. From this he suggests that she might have been a descended of some relict population that had left Africa before the modern human mainstream. However there are at least a couple of problems with this; first she was described as dark skinned, but a people who had been in the Caucuses many thousands of years before the majority of the population would have paler not darker than the mainstream and secondly they would have almost certainly interbred with the majority population many times over through the millennia.

In fact there is no actual evidence as opposed to assertion that Zana originated from the local area at all; she had passed round from one person to another several times over with just a legend that she had been captured in the wild. Such tales were used by showmen to display ‘wild men’ who were often just ordinary people with some form of learning difficulty or genetic malformation.

How tortuous her journey to Caucasus was we will never know, but we do know it involved probably removal from her people at a very early age, treatment as a wild animal or show freak, imprisonment, degradation, slavery, repeatedly the victim of rape and sexual assault. Her mutism is not evidence of her animal nature but of trauma on a scale which beggars comprehension. Yet she lived to see two of her children accepted into the community. She is not a cryptozoological specimen but a testament to human courage, endurance and survival against almost insupportable odds. Her descendants should be proud of her.

The search for surviving Neanderthals and the like is likewise futile. Because the recent evidence of some significant interbreeding shows that they too would not cryptozoological specimens, but just another human ethnic group, and would long have been assimilated into the human mainstream. Any surviving group of other hominids would have to be very different from us indeed, such as the famous “hobbits” of Flores.

Though Sykes remains impressed by ‘eyewitness testimony’ he has to concede not only the lack of real physical evidence, but that to many of its practitioners cryptozoology, like ufology, is a religion rather than a science. And as with ufology they not so much interested in evidence to help solve a scientific puzzle as ‘evidences’ for some quasi-theologically held world view. Bigfoot is almost certainly not a paws and pelt creature but an inhabitant of the goblin universe of the human imagination.

The book sadly lacks an index. -- Peter Rogerson.


17.6.15

BAPHOMET: ACTING THE GOAT

Nikki Wyrd and Julian Vayne. The Book of Baphomet. Mandrake, 2015.

In reading and reviewing this book, the phrase 'curate's egg' kept coming to mind. That means to say I found the book to be good in parts. It is a stimulating but rather odd concoction of writings by a male and female couple who have evidently been practitioners of Chaos Magick for many years and are initiated Wiccans, as well as being enthusiastic users of mind-altering substances in their rituals and relate some of their experiences in sufficient detail to make parts of this book a veritable head-trip. If you are curious to know how to use toad venom as a magical sacrament and the effects thereof, you will find it in this book.

For all of the authors' apparent erudition, it takes them several billions of years and over 30 pages to mention their headline subject. The first chapter, The Song of Life, is something like a creative writing essay on the evolution of the cosmos. Here is an example of their vibrantly poetic writing style: "Sex is the amphetamine of evolution. A handy way of shaking your chromosomes about and getting variation both faster and in a way that is likely to favour the previous set of variations that worked best. It's a biological epic win and has swept through life on this planet like a dose of the pox. As soon as complex cells had started fucking the whole system goes into overdrive". I'm not sure that Darwin would have dared use such terminology, but times have changed, and humanity has, it is alleged, evolved since those days of Victorian restraint.

On page 32, before we come to the subject of Baphomet, the authors state how the book itself evolved: "This book decided to emerge as a collage. Instead of a simple coherent history or linear narrative, we formed a many coloured patchwork of words, experiences and ideas. Our two bodies and their third mind gave rise to a multitude of perspectives, a chorus of voices". 

Within its many chapters there are indeed many perspectives on the mystery of Life on Earth, its origins and possible purpose. Through occult knowledge, gnosis, science, history of the Knights Templar and Freemasonry, we are led to the modern day where Pagans, Wiccans, and Chaos Magicians are free to celebrate and even worship the Great Spirit in any way they wish.

The emergence of the "secret knowledge" known only to initiates is such a complex and diverse subject that the authors must be congratulated on keeping their book so compact, a handy size and under 230 pages in total. Also, it has to be mentioned that the book is physically appealing with a solid hard cover with impressive artwork.

As to who Baphomet actually is, the short answer would be the embodiment of the Great Spirit, the anima mundi representing all Life on Earth, and indeed its Creator. There are several visual symbols, usually goat-headed with two large horns, female breasts and male genitalia. Pan, the goat-headed god, means "All", after all! The concept is of the human being animal and spiritual, male and female, mixture of good and evil, wild and tame, and all the other opposites one can think of. It is our work to unite these opposites in harmony within ourselves, although one may argue that it is an eternal process, the intrinsic nature of life itself, while ever seeking unity.

If, as Crowley asserts, the name Baphomet means the "hieroglyph of perfection", as "the Devil of the Book of Thoth", and also as "Father Mithras", the cubical stone which was the corner of the Temple, the nature of Baphomet is that all of these attributions may be true.

Dr Hugh J. Sconfield, a scholar who worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls, argued in his book The Essene Odyssey that the word Baphomet, rendered in Hebrew, is code for the word meaning Wisdom, or Sophia in Greek.

At the end of the book, the authors provide some Magickal exercises that one may undertake to invoke Baphomet. The rather sinister image of Baphomet as 'Devil' would certainly deter most seekers of Truth, but to those who are grounded and initiated it may be one way of communing with the Great Spirit. For others, a gin and tonic and a walk in the park might do the trick. Ultimately, as in Gnosis, it's up to you! - Kevin Murphy

11.6.15

HITTING THE BUFFERS

John Horgan. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Basic Books, New York, 2015

John Horgan, in his preface to this new edition of this book, first published in 1996, insists that he was right to assert that significant progress in scientific discovery was coming to an end. Scientists these days are just filling in the details.

The idea for the book began to take shape in 1989, when Horgan interviewed the British physicist Roger Penrose about The Emperor's New Mind, which became a best seller despite Horgan's opinion that it was dense and difficult.

Penrose's ideas about the human mind are discussed in some detail in the chapter on neuroscience, together with those of other scientists, including physicists as well as neurologists. Penrose considers that the mind is too complex to be explained in detail using available theories. He told Horgan that a computer capable of thought would have to rely on mechanisms related to quantum mechanics, not in its present form but on a deeper theory not yet discovered. In The Emperor's New Mind he was arguing against the assumption that the mystery of consciousness, or of reality in general, could be explained by the current laws of physics.

Neuroscientists had been concerned with finding out how the brain worked, but considered consciousness to be not physical, but metaphysical, and thus not a proper subject for scientific investigation. This attitude changed when Francis Crick, who was noted for his work, with James Watson, on discovering the structure of DNA in 1953, proclaimed, in collaboration with Christof Koch, in 1990, in Seminars on the Neurosciences, that consciousness should be made the subject of empirical investigation. Horgan remarks that "they had transformed consciousness from a philosophical mystery to an empirical problem".

One factor which makes the study of consciousness particularly interesting is the clashes which occur between strictly scientific and philosophical approaches to the question. For example, Colin McGinn believes that most major philosophical problems are beyond our cognitive abilities, but Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained (1992) described consciousness as an illusion. I must comment here that to me the notion of a non-conscious illusion seems self contradictory. This seems to be a problem in that discussions on consciousness tend to be ambiguous or just incomprehensible.

One of the more interesting chapters is on what Horgan calls chaoplexity, by which he means "chaos and its close relative complexity". He traces this as "a full-blown pop-culture phenomenon" to the publication in 1987 of Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick, a former New York Times reporter. One aspect of chaoplexity is that many phenomena are inherently unpredictable because very small influences can eventually lead to unpredictable and enormous consequences. This became popularly known as the butterfly effect.

Computers may, if anything, hasten the end of empirical science

The positive side of chaoplexity is the use of sophisticated mathematical techniques using powerful computers to produce models of complex systems to predict how they are likely to develop. However, Horgan concludes that chaoplexologists "have not told us anything about the world that is both concrete and truly surprising" and that computers "may, if anything, hasten the end of empirical science".

In his epilogue to the book, Horgan, rather surprisingly for one who gives the impression of being a nuts-and-bolts scientific type, tells us of what he says could be called a mystical experience. One day, years before he became a science writer, he was lying on a lawn when he became insensible to his surroundings and felt he was hurtling toward what he was sure was the ultimate secret of life, and became convinced that he was the only conscious being in the universe. For months after this experience, he was convinced he had discovered the secret of existence: "God's fear of his own Godhood, and of his own potential death, underlies everything".

The notion that there will eventually nothing of importance left for scientists to discover is obviously a controversial topic, and the author's interviews about it with various scientists, including details of their appearance and mannerisms, which makes some of them seem almost human, is very informative and entertaining. Most of the arguments presented, though, seem to me to be more philosophical than scientific. -- John Harney


7.6.15

MARK, MY WORDS


Robert Conner, The Secret Gospel of Mark: Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and Four Decades of Academic Burlesque, Mandrake of Oxford

Robert Conner seems to be specialising in books about controversies stirred up by New Testament scholar Morton Smith. Earlier this year I reviewed his Magic in Christianity, which largely examined Smith’s idea that Jesus was, essentially, a sorcerer. In this book he turns to Smith’s other claim to fame/notoriety, his discovery of the one-time existence of a ‘secret’ version of Mark’s Gospel.

The discovery held some very unwelcome implications for Christians and scholars alike, and since Smith’s death in 1991 allegations of fraud, only whispered in his lifetime, have become ever louder. In this slim volume of just under 150 pages, Conner gives his assessment of the controversy. As he sums up: ‘The “Secret” Mark saga is complex, encumbered nearly from the start by specious claims, misinformation, silly arguments, and gay bashing.’

Mar Saba
In 1958, in the library of the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, Smith came across a copy of a letter written by the first-century Bishop of Alexandria, Clement. (Although the copy was made in the seventeenth century, this was the usual practice when old documents began to deteriorate.) The letter concerned a ‘more spiritual’ version of the Gospel of Mark containing secret teachings of Jesus, which was withheld from rank-and-file worshippers, some passages from which were quoted by Clement. Smith took photographs of the document back to America and, over 15 years of study concluded, first, that it really was a copy of a genuine letter by Clement and, more sensationally, that the quotes were indeed from an alternative version of Mark.

The document itself has disappeared, after being moved from the monastery to the library of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem. This has, inevitably, led to accusations that it never existed, even Smith’s photographs being part of his hoax. However, as Conner shows, the blame lies with the Patriarchate – or an individual librarian – which has either hidden or destroyed the original because of the threat it poses to established thinking.

Smith’s discovery raised several challenges to the conventional understanding of the origins of Christianity and its sacred texts. First, because of the suggestion that Jesus had secret teachings that were reserved for an elite. Secondly, as evidence that the gospels were subjected to editing and censorship. And finally because of the dynamite content of the excised passages quoted by Clement.

The major one tells what is clearly another version of the raising of Lazarus, although the resurrectee is only described as a ‘young man’ who ‘was rich’. One of New Testament scholarship’s great mysteries is why this pivotal miracle is only found in John’s Gospel. Smith’s discovery supplied an answer: it was in one other – in fact, the first to be written – but was removed because it was for initiates’ eyes only.

Worse for traditionalists, in ‘Secret Mark’ the young man later comes to Jesus ‘wearing a linen cloth over his naked body’ and spends the night with him receiving some kind of special teaching. Smith concluded that this was a ritual reserved for the closest disciples - and even suggested that there was a homosexual element to it. Small wonder Smith’s books on the subject (one academic, one popular, both published in 1973) raised the hackles of Christians everywhere, particularly those of a fundamentalist persuasion.

For those uncomfortable with any or all of these notions, the secret gospel has to be a forgery. And the forger can only be Smith; for various reasons it couldn’t have been a hoax foisted on him by others.

From his study of the evidence, Conner is firmly on Smith’s side. Assessing the authenticity of the ‘Clement letter’ is a highly specialised exercise that requires very detailed knowledge of, among other things, the Greek of the era - expertise that Conner has but which is conspicuously lacking in Smith’s most strident critics. His verdict is that the letter is almost certainly genuine – and, more importantly, that the extracts really are from an alternative gospel written by the same hand as canonical Mark.

Clement of Alexandria
Beginning with background on the Mar Saba monastery and Clement of Alexandria, Conner takes the reader through the controversy, from Smith’s conclusions about the letter to the academic response and the ‘firestorm of invective and denial from Catholic and evangelical quarters.’

Connor demonstrates that attempts to shoot the letter down on the grounds of vocabulary and style are ‘in the very best case shoddy procedure, in a slightly worse case mere incompetence, and in the worst case, academic fraud pure and simple.’

Conner makes the important point that Smith’s opponents never start with the letter itself, but with his interpretation of it, on the backward logic that if the conclusions he drew from it can be shown to be wrong then that proves it’s a fake.

A particularly compelling aspect of Conner’s argument is that, when it comes to the interpretation, he doesn’t slavishly follow Smith, persuasively arguing that he made some major mistakes. In particular Conner disagrees with the most controversial of Smith’s conclusions, that the nocturnal ‘sequel’ to the raising of the young man represented a secret ritual – a special kind of baptism reserved for a favoured few – and his speculation that it may have included a homosexual element. If Smith himself misinterpreted the letter then the forgery hypothesis is fatally undermined.

Conner shreds ‘ill-considered, pseudo-academic responses’ such as The Gospel Hoax by Stephen Carlson (a lawyer) and The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled by Peter Jeffery (a Benedictine oblate and, errr, musicologist), which set out to prove Smith a fraud. Conner declares the latter ‘simply the most bizarre thing in any category of literature that I have ever read.’

He highlights the part that homophobia played in the Christian responses: they assume Smith to be gay – and therefore conspiring to ‘gay’ Jesus – although, in fact, nobody knows his sexual orientation. As Conner pointedly observes, ‘Jeffery speculates endlessly about the sexuality of confirmed bachelor Morton Smith, but makes no comment at all about the confirmed bachelor Jesus of Nazareth.’

Having demolished the case for a hoax, Conner gives some of his own thoughts about the significance of ‘Secret Mark,’ in particular the identity of the resurrected young man. He is clearly the Lazarus of John’s Gospel; Conner provides evidence that both accounts are drawn from the same, Aramaic source. However, from a penetrating analysis, Conner also identifies him as the mysterious ‘beloved disciple’ in John’s Gospel, canonical Mark’s equally enigmatic ‘certain young man,’ dressed only in a linen cloth, who flees naked from the garden when Jesus is arrested, and the rich man who prompts Jesus’s ‘camel through the eye of a needle’ saying. Clearly this individual, whoever he was, was extremely important in the last days of Jesus’ mission, but for some reason was such an embarrassment to the early Church that it edited him out of the gospels as much as it could. Fascinating, thought-provoking stuff.

Conner’s final chapter is a lament on the revival of fundamentalism in the USA and its influence on ‘Jesus studies’, and on the increasingly poor quality of New Testament scholarship.

The Secret Gospel of Mark is an important book. However it has the same problem as Magic in Christianity: is it aimed at a popular or scholarly audience? There is a mismatch between the chapters dealing with the ‘hoax’ controversy, which are sharply written with a pungent wit (I particularly liked ‘the whine list of believers’), and the more scholarly ‘analytical’ chapters, in which Conner brings in specialist terms without any explanation. Phrases such as ‘the use of chiasmus to create epexegetical frames’ aren’t going to carry the general reader along. On the other hand, the fact that Conner, while possessing all the necessary expertise, doesn’t hold an academic position - and takes it upon himself to pronounce on the current state of the profession, often witheringly – won’t, unfortunately, give the book a warm welcome there either.

It’s a great shame, as ‘Secret Mark’ is of vital importance to anybody with an interest in the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity – if it’s genuine it changes the game fundamentally – and Conner’s book is by far the best assessment of the debate about it and the issues it raises, by somebody with the skills to do the job, and therefore should be read by scholars and laypersons alike. -- Clive Prince. 
 


1.6.15

THE BRAINS IN SPAIN

Nigel Watson reports:
 
From the 27 to 28 May 2015, La Casa Encendida ('The House on Fire'), Madrid, held a series of talks by UFO experts about the historical origins and foundations of modern UFO beliefs and theories.

The star guest was Jacques Vallee, and it was great to actually meet the inspiration for so much on this website and who influenced the creation of Magonia magazine, and Peter Rogerson’s INTCAT project.

In 2010, with Chris Aubeck a fellow speaker and organiser of the meetings, Jacques wrote ‘Wonders of the Sky’ that chronicles 500 anomalous events from Ancient Egypt right up to 1879. This certainly indicates that UFOs and related events are nothing new. Indeed, in 2003, Chris set up the online Magonia project to collect old newsclippings and reports of UFO-type events from the past, resulting in a massive 30,000 to 40,000 items being posted, with more being added everyday.

Jacques knows there is something unusual going on. “I don’t have a personal theory,” he says. “I’m not trying to sell a theory. I can’t give an answer, but there does seem to be a non-human consciousness that seems to be amongst us that is an enigma that science needs to study.”

His view of alien abductions is that “I believe witnesses have real experiences, my problem with them is that with the use of hypnosis to obtain alien abduction ‘memories’ it can damage the perception of normal life.”

“As civilisation has developed people integrate the UFO phenomenon into their lives as folklore and mythology, and it seems to act as a control system. The question is are we creating this control system or is something outside us that is manipulating us?”

Chris Aubeck, spoke about the issue of trying to unveil the clouds of folklore and mythology that has attached to the subject of luminous and non-luminous objects seen in the sky. “We need to exclude such things as Reptilians, Roswell, Pyramids, Faces on the Moon, Anunnaki and the Bermuda Triangle from our data analysis,” he said.

Chris also spoke about his own work on the theme of meteorites being being found covered with hieroglyphics and containing ‘alien’ bodies inside, and noted he had found 65 cases of people between 1880-1920 who claimed to be from other planets (most of whom were locked up rather than being invited to daytime TV shows as they would be today!).

Theo Paijmans from Holland presented a talk on the influence of early or proto-science fiction literature on UFO-type sightings in the 19th and early 20th Century. He noted how the expectations and anticipations of the ‘industrial imagination’ connected to the proto-UFO sightings of the 1880s onwards, as well as with the growing body of proto-science fiction that was so popular at that time. He showed some wonderful illustrations from these works in his presentation.

I continued Theo’s theme with a talk about the enthusiasm for flight during the 19th Century inspiring new inventions, science fiction stories and sightings of anything in the sky as being of ‘phantom airships’ piloted by secret inventors. I also mentioned how the German menace influenced sightings during WWI that I chronicle in my book ‘UFOs of the First World War’.

Jesus Callejo reviewed the story of how humanity has always dreamed of flying, and the gadgets and inventions that have been designed and built since 500 AD to make the dreams a reality. Such attempts were often fatal either because their prototypes drastically failed, or were condemned as the work of the Devil making their inventors flee for their lives.

Another speaker was Juan Jose Sanchez-Oro, a professional historian who graduated from the Universidad de Complutense, who spoke about the evolving role of otherworldly beings in belief and folklore over time. Unfortunately, I missed his talk.

The event hosted at La Casa Encendida, contained rooms full of alien related exhibits and film shows, making it a ufological delight. It was certainly a great opportunity to meet other ufologists who have been exploring historical cases and their wider context. It was also a wonderful opportunity to see and taste the delights of Madrid. A reminder of some of the Anglo-French UFO meetings of the 1980s!
 
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28.5.15

NORTHERN ECHOES: MEETING THE SHAMANS


A slightly different type of 'Northern Echoes' this time. I thought it might be interesting to discuss an older book which does not fit into the 'First Read' format - at 21 I'd read an awful lot of other stuff by then - but which like the books I'd read as a early teenager, had quite an effect on my thinking about Magonian-type topics, as well as politics and culture generally.

Ernest(o) de Martino. Magic: Primitive and Modern. Tom Stacy, 1972.

This was a book which had quite an influence on me as a 21 year old student, introducing me to shamanism and to radical ideas of what one might later see as a proto-post modernist nature.

Ernesto de Martino (1908-1965) was an Italian anthropologist and philosopher who undertook an intellectual journey from fascism to communism, perhaps seeing both as forms of civic religion.

In this book, first written in 1948 de Martino was concerned with the reality of magical powers. Anthropologists had traditionally viewed them as error, fraud and evidence of the “pre-logical thinking” of “primitive” people. De Martino on the contrary argued that they could well be “real”, at least in some cultural and historical contexts. He gave examples from ethnological accounts of shamanism and related phenomenon, and from psychical research, his knowledge of which was, however, rather hazy.

De Martino argued that in small scale traditional societies, where human beings were being in danger of being overwhelmed by nature, magic was a means of “preserving ones presence in the world”. In these societies magic was real, it worked. But perhaps not so in modern mass society. De Martino seems to saying if we envisage the world as organic and magical it will be so, but if we think of it as a mechanism, it will act as a mechanism.

These kind of radical relativist ideas had quite an appeal to me for a number of years, as witness the notorious Doves Are Just Middle Class Pigeons! They seemed to gel with ideas of people like Thomas Kuhn or even Charles Fort. For a time I entertained the idea that maybe anomalies were not actual things, but as it were “holes in reality”. Some people argued that consciousness created reality, others that society created consciousness, so could society if not create, then at least organise reality.

So I constructed an idea that the shaman ventured out of socially constructed reality into the “wilderness” beyond in order to gain access “energy” which could be brought into the community.
Over time these ideas became much less literal, though you can see that the idea of “habitat and wilderness” still informs much of my thinking.

Looking back at de Martino’s book after many years, what struck me was how obscure much of it was, something that would be even more true of later post-modernist thinkers. It is never exactly clear what de Martino actually thought. One reason for this, and for its appeal to young people in the 1970s, was that it reflected his own intellectual turmoil. The parapsychology looks a lot less impressive, and one has to be careful about some of the ethnography, compiled by Europeans who wanted to portray non-western cultures as exotic, primitive and instinctual.

Yet there is something here in de Martino’s arguments about the nature of the precarious world. In our modern air conditioned society we live in a given world which all seems secure. Yet events, such as the death of person out of time, or a major health or related crisis can lead to the fall of this “given world”, into a chaotic realm where anything now seems possible, and in which magical thinking reasserts itself as a narrative that seeks to restore order and meaning to a chaotic world.


MAGONIA RECOMMENDS