19.1.17

SURVEYING THE NEW FRONTIER

Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets. Pantheon Books, New York, 2016

Most scientific speculation about the possibility of establishing settlements on other planets usually involves the consideration of Mars as the most likely, but the authors have examined these ideas and have concluded that the proposed methods of making Mars habitable are not practicable and remark: "These are fun ideas to think about, but the time and cost are too colossal to take seriously."

Chapter 2 is particularly interesting, as it deals with some of NASA's problems with the way in which it was organised, and its tendency to concentrate on the inner solar system, rather than any possibilities offered by the outer planets, in particular the result of taking a short-term approach, where colonies would have to be reliant on constant assistance and supplies from Earth.

The most spectacular and tragic result of bad management in NASA was the crash of the Space Shuttle Challenger on 28 January 1986, killing its seven occupants. The Shuttle was launched despite the fact that five engineers had warned their superiors that the weather at the launch site was too cold and that this would probably cause the rubber O-rings on the boosters to fail, which is what happened.

Most of the book is devoted to considering the possibility of establishing a permanent self-maintaining colony on Titan. The authors remark, optimistically perhaps: "There's plenty we don't currently know about Titan. But we do know that, if you could get there, we could live there."

Although it at first seems an unpromising place to establish a colony, many scientists have imagined what it would be like to live there. It would be possible to survive without space suits and walk around in warm clothing and oxygen masks, even though the temperature is about -180 C. The atmospheric pressure is about 50% greater than on Earth, and the air is four times denser, and gravity is only 14% of the gravity on Earth.This would make it possible to fly by flapping wings attached to one's arms or by using an electrically powered propeller.

There are plenty of interesting ideas on the possible organisation of colonies on Titan,which are developed by imagining what might happen in the near or distant future. Many readers will probably try to imagine what it would be like to live in colonies on Titan but they must be aware that it will not be possible for them to return to Earth, having become accustomed to low gravity.

Not content with devising ingenious methods for colonising Titan, the authors finally turn their attention to what perhaps might be the possibility of going further. "Beyond our solar system's outermost planets, the next stop is a long way off ." Indeed it is. This would be accomplished by a version of the space warp, familiar to readers of science fiction. Few scientists will consider it possible, but at least some readers will find it interesting, and many readers will at least be entertained by the more credible ideas discussed. The authors have succeeded in presenting their arguments without lapsing into crankiness. Recommended. -- John Harney


14.1.17

NOT AT ALL THAT JAZZ

Cécile Révauger. Black Freemasonry: From Prince Hall to the Giants of Jazz. Inner Traditions, 2016

This is a translation of a French work, the original of which was entitled Blacks and Freemasons: How Racial Segregation was Established Among the American Brothers. Presumably to make it more palatable to an American audience, Inner Traditions have chosen to highlight the cosier jazz angle, which not only ducks the book’s less comfortable central theme but is also, as I’ll come to, a bit of a swizz.

Cécile Révauger has the right credentials for this study, being both a professor of history at Bordeaux University and a Freemason of France’s Grand Orient, which untypically, and in keeping with the French Republic’s egalitarian and secular values (which Révauger wears proudly - at times even smugly - on her sleeve), is open to women and atheists.

Her subject is the Freemasonry practised within the USA’s black community - named ‘Prince Hall Freemasonry’ after its founder - which operates in uneasy parallel with that of the predominantly white Establishment. (Throughout Révauger refers to the latter as ‘white Freemasonry’ - not a label it would give itself but one that reflects the reality of the situation, even today.) Although sharing the same structure, constitutions and rituals, the two are entirely autonomous and serve separate communities.

It is, as Révauger points out at the start, an area neglected by Masonic historians. Research is made difficult not only by the many gaps in the historical sources but also the Prince Hall lodges’ reluctance to allow outsiders, Révauger included, access to their archives. Her research is therefore based chiefly on the lodges’ own publications and interviews with their officials and historians. Because of these limitations, she hasn’t attempted a chronological history but, apart from the early chapters on Prince Hall Freemasonry’s origins, has organised her study thematically. However, the lack of information also limits a proper evaluation of some of those themes, and there are several places where I felt that Révauger has drawn over-firm (and often overoptimistic) conclusions from incomplete or ambiguous evidence.

Révauger gives little attention to Freemasonry’s esoteric side as ‘black Freemasonry overall seems to be more militant than esoteric in its essence.’ Consequently, her book is more of a social history, focussing on Freemasonry’s place in the Afro-American story. (She eschews the term ‘Afro-American’ as it ‘conflicts with the French approach, which places individuals on an equal plane as citizens of one nation and considers any kind of classification based on ethnicity as discriminatory.’ She prefers ‘black Americans’, although I’m not sure how identifying a group by skin colour rather than geographical origin is any less of an ethnic classification.)

PRINCE HALL
The book’s first part outlines black Freemasonry’s origins (as far as they can be pieced together), beginning with the figure – rendered enigmatic by the scant biographical material – of Prince Hall himself. He was (most likely) a freed slave born (maybe) in Barbados in 1748 (or 1735), who settled in Boston, where in 1775 (-ish) he was initiated into Freemasonry, (probably) a military lodge operating under the Grand Lodge of Ireland. Hall then wanted to form a lodge for black Bostonians, which required the sanction of a grand lodge; rebuffed by Massachusetts’ Masonic authorities, he appealed to the Grand Lodge of England, which granted a charter to Hall’s ‘African Lodge’ in 1784. Around the turn of the nineteenth century – exactly when and why is unclear – this rebranded itself the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, assuming the authority to issue charters in its own right, beginning Freemasonry’s expansion within America’s black community.

Révauger explores that community’s motives for wanting to take up Freemasonry. Many have seen it as ‘Uncle Tom-ism’, a fawning emulation of white ways, but Révauger prefers to explain the appeal by two elements that in her view give Freemasonry a special meaning for Afro-Americans. First, both cultures place an emphasis on oral over written tradition. More importantly, in the post-slavery era the Masonic emphasis on the value of work ‘allowed blacks to recover the dignity needed to realize their desire to become part of American society.’ Maybe, but I didn’t find Révauger’s argument particularly persuasive, rather one of several examples of her choosing the most positive interpretation from several, equally plausible, possibilities.

One reason I wasn’t convinced is Révauger’s repeated observation that Prince Hall Freemasonry’s main appeal has always been to middle class Afro-Americans, as a vehicle for elevating their status within the community. As she puts it, ‘Black Freemasonry, which is strongly elitist, maintains a bourgeois prerogative’ - although on the positive side it ‘encourages their involvement in the society of their time and thereby promotes their social ascent.’

The second part, ‘A Militant Tradition’, examines that involvement, particularly in movements to improve the lot of Afro-Americans. However, this raises a perennial problem: when Freemasons involve themselves in social or political affairs, is it because they are Masons – either inspired by Freemasonry’s ideals or as part of a specific Masonic programme – or do they just happen to be Masons? Although Révauger shows that there were certainly militant black Masons, she doesn’t establish that this was part a tradition of militancy.

For example, she makes much of the Masonic affiliation of two pioneers of education for young black Americans, Booker T. Washington (1856-1913) and W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), who was also the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. However, she notes that both were invited to join - ‘on sight’ in Masonic jargon – because of their work, perhaps a sign of Freemasonry’s approval of their endeavours but equally explicable by a desire to sign up prominent members of the community. Either way, neither man was originally inspired by their Freemasonry.

The same goes for black Freemasonry’s part in the anti-slavery and civil rights movements. While many black Masons, including Prince Hall himself, were active in the abolitionist movement, and individual lodges served as stations on the ‘Underground Railway’ for escaped slaves, there doesn’t appear to have been any central co-ordination or policy: some (like Hall) urged emancipation through legal channels, while others encouraged revolt. Prince Hall Freemasonry’s active involvement in the civil rights struggle of the twentieth century is easier to show, as it established official ties with the NAACP, becoming its second largest donor. However, Révauger doesn’t demonstrate that it was a driving force in either movement.

The third part, which deals with Prince Hall Freemasonry’s role in the Afro-American community, for example in charitable works, includes the chapter ‘Jazzmen and Black Artists’. This fails abjectly to deliver on the expectations raised not only by the book’s subtitle but also the jacket blurb’s promises of revelations about ‘the deep connections between jazz and Freemasonry’ and ‘how many of the most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century were also Masons, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, and Paul Robeson.’ In fact, in Armstrong’s case, Révauger concludes that he almost certainly wasn’t a Mason.

Although recommending a study by Raphaël Imbert (only available in French) on jazz’s ‘spiritual dimension’, including the significance of Masonic ideals and symbolism, typically Révauger avoids this aspect, concentrating instead on the role of black entertainers in social activism. Just two, in fact (neither jazzmen): Nat King Cole, a not particularly vocal member of the NAACP, and the more overtly political Paul Robeson, who was made a Mason ‘on sight’ after he’d established his reputation for activism – and become famous.

The bulk of the chapter consists of potted biographies of black musicians and singers (not just from the jazz world – it includes an opera singer and several bluesmen) who are known to have been Masons (and including Armstrong, despite Révauger’s reservations), which say nothing about the relevance, if any, of their membership to their artistry. As Révauger admits, ‘To the extent that musicians released no public statements about their Masonic membership, and by reason that the Prince Hall Grand Lodges have never made their archives available to researchers in any systematic fashion, it is quite difficult to precisely evaluate the importance of Freemasonry in these men’s lives.’ She isn’t to blame for the publisher choosing to hang the book on the jazz connection, but even so it barely merits the little space she has given it.

There’s a chapter on women and Prince Hall Freemasonry. There are groups, such as the Eastern Star and the Heroines of Jericho, open to the wives and female relatives of Masons, but – as in Freemasonry generally (excepting Révauger’s own obedience) – they are recognised ‘only as benevolent companions responsible for implementing charitable activities on behalf of their Masonic husbands and relatives.’ However, she finds that these groups are treated slightly less peripherally than in white Freemasonry.

The relationship between black and white Freemasonry – as the original title indicates, the real point of the book - is, unsurprisingly, a recurring theme, and is explored most fully in the last and longest part, ‘The Parted Brothers’.

Racism has tainted American Masonic history as it has the nation’s history in general. As Révauger observes, ‘white Freemasons had no fear of displaying racist positions that defied the most elementary principles of Masonic universalism,’ and from the outset ‘displayed unrelenting scorn for the black lodges.’ However, they didn’t overtly base their hostility on race but rather on technical challenges. Foremost among them was the stipulation that a Mason must be ‘free-born’ which, interpreted literally, excluded even emancipated slaves after the Civil War. As new generations made that objection untenable, mainstream Freemasonry switched to other lines of attack, for example questioning the legitimacy of Hall’s original charter. However, Révauger shows that these were merely pretexts, as similar obstacles were easily overcome in the case of white lodges.

Astoundingly, it took until 1989 for a white Grand Lodge, that of Connecticut, to give official recognition to the state’s Prince Hall Grand Lodge. Since then, others have followed, and today the grand lodges in all but nine states recognise their black counterparts as legitimate, if distinct and autonomous – those nine, tellingly, all in southern states that practised slavery.

Despite this rapprochement, and some extremely rare exceptions of black men being initiated into white lodges and vice versa, US Freemasonry remains effectively segregated. This isn’t solely down to white prejudice: Prince Hall Freemasonry has, for understandable reasons, adopted a ‘separatist reaction’, asserting its autonomy and taking pride in its place in Afro-American culture, keeping itself almost exclusively black, although it does seem to have been a little more open than white Freemasonry to other ethnic minorities: Révauger cites New York lodges that included Jewish, Hispanic and Italian members. (The Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Texas does now permit white men to join – provided they have black wives.)




At times Révauger’s enthusiasm for her case seems to get the better of her historian’s objectivity. A notable example is in a section entitled ‘The Living Legends of White Freemasonry’, in which she seeks to show that its racism went beyond simple institutional prejudice and that it at least tacitly condoned the ugliest and most extreme manifestations of white supremacism, although she cites only two examples in support of her argument (both nineteenth century, so hardly living!).

First, she slams white Freemasonry for admitting Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, although she acknowledges that he wasn’t a particularly active or high-ranking Mason (so not quite one of its legends). Her second example, though, truly is one of the monumental figures of US Freemasonry: Albert Pike (1809-91), composer of its ‘bible’, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite.

Révauger asserts that, simultaneously with being that Rite’s Sovereign Grand Commander, Pike served as the KKK’s chief justice. However, her source for this, and a horribly racist quote attributed to Pike, is a single, unreferenced footnote in a 1989 Masonic quiz book by Prince Hall historian Joseph Walkes. She concludes, rather perversely, that ‘Walke’s assertion about Pike’s dual membership remains to be verified, but nothing allows us to dismiss it as erroneous,’ and puts the ‘silence’ about Pike’s KKK connections in biographies and Masonic encyclopaedias down to a cover-up. Yet she goes on to acknowledge that Pike encouraged the expansion of Prince Hall Freemasonry, albeit as a separate system, for example assisting his (in her words) ‘black friend’ Thornton A. Jackson in founding its Supreme Council in Washington, D.C. Now, I don’t know whether or not Pike held racist views and, if so, to what degree, but more evidence than this is needed before such a damning pronouncement.

Such criticisms aside, this is probably as good an overview of Prince Hall Freemasonry as can be written at the present time, given the dearth of accessible sources that prevents a full historical narrative and a proper evaluation of its significance.

Although this edition is packaged and promoted for a general audience, it was written for a fairly academic readership, with a scholarly tone – heavily referenced, and with appendices reproducing key historical documents and giving statistics on Prince Hall Freemasonry today - and assuming some background knowledge of Freemasonry’s history and organisation, particularly the various competing obediences and rites, against which the Prince Hall story is set.

Cécile Révauger’s conclusion is that, despite its bourgeois pretensions, Prince Hall Freemasonry has ultimately been a good thing for black Americans: ‘By giving members self-confidence and inspiring them to take action, the lodge encouraged its members to seek advancement, both for themselves and for American blacks in general.’ She succeeds in showing that this long-ignored strand of Freemasonry’s story is both fascinating and important. Her book also offers an unusual perspective on the story of America’s black community and the history of race relations in the USA. It’s not one for jazz aficionados, though. – Clive Prince


11.1.17

THE IRISH PANTHEON

Morgan Daimler. Gods and Goddesses of Ireland—A Guide to Irish Deities. Moon Books, 2016.

Here's a question to test your general knowledge: How many Gods and Goddesses of Ireland could you name? I asked myself this question on being presented with this book and had to admit I knew none of them for certain. Any educated person could name at least a few Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, such as Osiris, Anubis, Isis, Hathor etc., and those of Ancient Greece such as Zeus, Hermes, Aphrodite and Athena.

Obviously, Ireland's pantheon has been somewhat obscured down through the ages for various reasons. Now, as Christianity, in particular the Catholic Church, has lost a great deal of its power and control of the population, interest in Paganism and the old ways is increasing. There have, of course, always been Pagans amongst us preserving and honouring ancient lore.

As Morgan Daimler, a practising Pagan, says in her introductory notes to this slim paperback publication, "...the Gods of Ireland have always been powerful forces that can bless or challenge, but often the most difficult thing is to simply find information about them". Moreover, "...many books freely blend fact with fiction in a way that can be very confusing to readers." Here is the difficulty with a subject such as this. Some would argue that all information about ancient Gods is in the realm of fiction and imagination.

A case in point is the description of 'the Dagda', one of the foremost Irish Gods and the only one, apparently, given a definite article as well as a name. His name itself is an epithet that means 'Good God', a God who is good at all things. He is described as "being a large man, sometimes comically so, with a tremendous appetite and immense capacity. It was said that to make his porridge he needed 80 gallons of milk as well as several whole sheep, pigs and goats, and that he ate this meal with a ladle large enough to hold two people lying down". In addition, he was said to have been red-haired, immensely strong and capable of prodigious building feats. Your typical Irishman of popular imagination, in fact. That's the great thing about the Irish Gods and Goddesses. They are human characters writ large. Their modern-day descendants can be encountered occasionally in Wetherspoons, and other pubs, performing prodigious drinking and talking feats. I believe they are now known as the 'Magonians'!

The Dagda had a daughter called Brighid, although it's not recorded who her mother was. Brighid is a major Goddess of Ireland, appearing with many variants of her name, such as Brigit and Brigid, all familiar names often used for Irish girls. Her Old Irish name Brig has a variety of meanings, such as authority, strength, vigour and power. As the author says, with some understatement, she is a complicated deity, seen as an individual and as three sisters sharing the same name. One wonders if perhaps an Irishman of olden days married a set of identical triplets and could only be seen with one at a time. Well, why not? Those old Gods got up to all kinds of shenanigans.

Image result for brigid goddess three
BRIGIT DEPICTED AS A TRIPLE GODDESS, IN A MODERN SCULPTURE

According to a 9th Century source, among the Irish any Goddess was called a "Brigit". To add further confusion, in later times Brighid was syncretized with the Catholic Saint Brigid..."making it hard in many places to distinguish the mythology of one from the other". It is noteworthy that the sacred day dedicated to Brighid is Imbolc, usually celebrated on 1st February, is often called Brigid's Day, and marks the beginning of spring, being mid-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

Imbolc is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, the others being Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Lughnasadh corresponds to the harvest festival in late summer, and is dedicated to the God Lugh, another of the major Irish deities, and one of the best known. He was one of the High Kings of the 'Tuatha de Danann' ('People of the Goddess Danu'), a supernatural race in Irish mythology. They dwell in the Otherworld, yet interact with humans in many and various ways. Their enemies are the Fomorians, who represent the destructive forces of nature. So, in general, the Irish deities are seen as representing the multiple nurturing aspects of nature through their myriad identities. They gradually morphed into the 'Aos Si' or the Fairies of popular folklore. Ireland is particularly noted and loved for this culture, as well as the famous 'gift of the gab' propensity for telling stories, often embellished in the re-telling.

Much of Irish mythology was recorded by Christian monks, who recorded the legends of ancient kings, warriors and heroes from the distant past but sometimes modified the material. In the earliest writings these Gods were referred to simply as 'Tuatha De', meaning 'People of God', but later on that phrase was used by monks to refer to the Israelites as the Biblical 'People of God'. The phrase 'Tuatha de Danann' was therefore introduced to refer specifically to the ancient Irish tribe of Gods and Goddesses. Danann or Danu may have the meaning of 'Earth Mother' and has similarities to the names of deities in other ancient cultures and religions. The etymology of the name has been much debated by scholars, and her identity remains a mystery.

As can easily be seen from this brief review, the more one reads about Irish mythology, the more confusing and complex it becomes. There are so many different sources and versions of names, attributes, and stories about these ancient entities. Were they great humans who were later deified? Were they extra-terrestrials or 'fallen angels'. Are they natural forces of nature? Or are they complete fabrications of the collective imagination? Probably all of those, but nonetheless entertaining and instructive.

What Daimler presumably means by 'fact' in her introduction is 'authentic' with regard to sources for information presented and collated. This book shows she has done extensive research into the ancient texts and scholarly analysis. She certainly knows her stuff as a prolific author of many books pertaining to the related subjects of Paganism, Fairy Witchcraft, and Irish Mythology generally. Yet she is more than a specialist author. She has hands-on experience as a priestess of the Goddess Macha, tutelary deity of Ulster. Over more than 25 years of honouring the Irish Gods she has found great spiritual value and experience in learning how to connect to them in a modern context. Practical tips are given for those wishing to do likewise.

In Gods and Goddesses of Ireland Morgan Daimler provides a concise guide to the Irish deities that is approachable and accessible, rather like a mini-encyclopedia, with names arranged by category and alphabetical order. Her motivation to do so was born out of a long search over many years for "this exact book: a text that would let me quickly look up basic information about Irish deities". I would say she has succeeded in that aim. This book does that, and more. It is worth reading for the knowledge alone, for as the author says, "...something valuable can be gained here. Ultimately no knowledge is ever wasted". The bonus is that you will also be entertained. – Kevin Murphy


7.1.17

TALES FROM THE VALE

Mike White. The Veiled Vale; Strange Tales from South Oxfordshire. Two Rivers Press, 2016.

The ‘Vale’ of the title is the Vale of White Horse, an area which is now part of Oxfordshire, but until the changes in county boundaries in 1973 was part of Berkshire. Some of the more revanchist elements in that county refer to its as ‘Occupied North Berkshire’. The area is named after the prehistoric hill-figure known as the Uffington White Horse. The Horse is just one of many prehistoric sites which feature, with their own stories and legends, many of them centring around the live of King Alfred, or prehistoric standing stones which have gathered legends about them.

The Vale was the location of a number of battles between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms led by Alfred and the Danish invaders. The village of Kingston Lyle manages to combine both, in possessing a standing stone with holes worn through it. One is alleged to have been used as a trumpet by the King to summon his troops for the battle of Ashdown in 871. The stone is worn smooth where generations of passers-by have tried to raise the call, and Mike White has attempted this. The legend of the stone claims that if he had, and the sound was heard at the White Horse pub, he would be entitled to be King of England. The brief author biography at the front of the book suggest he did not succeed.

Unlike some similar compilations of local legends and folklore, this is no scissors and paste job. The author has done a good deal of hands-on investigation, particularly of the many ghost stories from the area. Although he takes the reports seriously, he looks at them with a critical eye when necessary. He observes that in many cases – particularly historical reports – the germ of the tales seems to circulate and spread across a number of locations, settling in suitably atmospheric houses or lonely lanes.

But he is sympathetic to the nature of these stories, relating as they do to themes of family, relationships, class and conflict. Military ghosts range from troops on Roman soldiers, invading Vikings, up to the ghosts of memories of World War II airmen haunting the numerous former airfields of the region. The numerous tales of witchcraft are related in a sympathetic manner, aware of the social and historical background to such events.

There are a number of UFO accounts related here as well, including what is probably Britain’s most implausible ‘abduction’ event, which allegedly on July 19th June, 1978, at Stanford in the Vale, between Swindon and Oxford. A family of five claimed (at least the father did) to have seen a UFO and experienced missing time. Of course, the moment a freelance abductionist/hypnotist turned up this became an exciting tale of abduction and a journey to the planet Janos, which was in danger of destruction after one of its moons had blown up. Mike White points out that this is a remarkably similar scenario to the plotline of the 1955 film This Island Earth.

The ‘researcher’s’ account of this, published in 1980 as The Janos People, was probably the most universally panned UFO title of the year. If you’re interested it’s available on Amazon at prices ranging from 1p. to £483.27. Even at the lower figure it’s overpriced! Although the author is rightfully sceptical of this particular case, other UFO cases he describes are more convincing, and he reports them in a straightforward way, respectful of the witnesses but aware of the problems they pose.

The book is arranged in short chapters for each town or village covered, and here I would raise my only minor quibble - it would have been helpful for an outline map of the area to have been included in the book, to allow those unfamiliar with the area to find their way around at a glance. Between the place-specific entries there are a number of longer pieces on particular topics, such as local eccentrics, out of place animals, and a good straightforward description of the concept of leys, and tho questions it raises.

The author injects many of his accounts with good natured humour, and is never cynical or dismissive of the stories he records. The book is nicely decorated with small prints, made by the founder of the publishing company, from ordinary desk rubber erasers, a couple of which I reproduce here. This is a delightful book, for residents of the Vale, visitors to the area, and those interested in the wealth of lore and legend that haunts this island. – John Rimmer.



5.1.17

BELIEVE THE CHILDREN?

Thomas J Carey and  Donald R Schmitt. The Children of Roswell: A Seven-Decade Legacy of Fear, Intimidation, and Cover-Ups. New Page Books, 2016

To start off, I wish to reiterate that this is a book review, and as much as I can, I have endeavoured to steer as neutral a course as possible, considering that the Roswell incident is currently about as clear and straightforward as John F Kennedy’s assassination. Therefore, please keep this in mind whilst perusing these words. Thank you.

For the hermits among you, this affair was kicked off by a headline in the local newspaper, The Roswell Daily Record of the town of Roswell, New Mexico. It said "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region". This was in the issue dated 8th July 1947. RAAF stood for Roswell Army Air Field, which was the base for the world’s first (and at that time, only) nuclear bomber unit, the 509th Bombardment Group.

Later that day, the story was changed by the 8th Air Force that the object recovered was not, as had been initially suggested, some form of flying disc but instead was the debris from a weather balloon that had crash-landed in the vicinity. A press conference was convened where debris said to have come from the balloon was displayed by the Information Officer, Major Jesse Marcel. Despite the outre nature of the original statement, press men and women accepted that this was a case of mistaken identity and the issue went away until the late seventies, when inhabitants of the town of Roswell and its environs were interviewed and the book The Roswell Incident laid out the first tale of a flying saucer that crash-landed and was subject to a cover-up as the remains of it and the crew were spirited away by the military. There is more, but if it were to be included here then this would become yet another book about this notorious subject.


Many, many witness interviews and statements are what this book consists of. This makes the absorption of data a touch confusing. It can be an issue when a novel has a large cast of characters; when it’s a whole town, even a small one, there are lots of names and families to keep track of. Detail is vital, especially when one is trying to make a case against the official narrative, but this does come at the reader thick and fast. So much so that it made me wonder if there is a less dense way of imparting this type of data. Otherwise, there are copious footnotes and an index; items that are valuable and, yet surprisingly, can be left out of many tomes of this type. One increasing frustration of books these days, especially in this field, is spelling. There were a few mistakes, but some attention could make sure that there are none at all.

Initially the flood of testimony that confirms that the crash consisted of several alien bodies plus one who was barely alive, coupled with reports of materials that defied any mutilation inflicted upon them by the townsfolk, does seem to confirm that the initial report by the military was correct and that a flying disc had indeed crashed. The narrative that the bodies were child-size, the stuff of the downed vehicle was almost supernatural in nature and that the military from the base were required to be heavy-handed with their warnings to locals not to reveal what they knew flows throughout.

When people avoid the writer’s attempts to interview them, they are said to do this as a result of the initial intimidation by Army officers and NCOs. Points to note, however, are that these interviews are conducted mostly with people who are advanced in years and who, as a result, may not be the most reliable subjects; one of the authors seems to have been less than honest about his professional qualifications which also casts a pall over the reliability of anything written and rather glaringly, by the army initially announcing to the world that the object recovered was a flying disc, the story was tainted at its inception. There is also the not inconsiderable point that a good deal of witness testimony concerns a third party. With the best will in the world, these things have to colour this volume and the information contained within.

Where to go from here? Despite the unavoidable cramming together of witnesses and statements, the authors work towards a clearly-defined conclusion; that creatures from elsewhere came to our world, possibly attracted by the atomic weapons stored nearby, and suffered a calamity. The army moved in, confiscated any and all proof of their existence then proceeded to terrorise the local populace into silence. Looked at like this it seems like the only conclusion that readers could arrive at.

The glaring issues of aged witnesses however, especially those who quote others long gone, the question mark hanging over the reliability of one of the writers and the fact that the whole story was already affected heavily by the mention of flying saucers by the army do have to be taken into account when attempting to gauge what is true and what is not. It may be prudent to look elsewhere for the truth of what, if anything, happened near Roswell in 1947.

If it was the army’s aim to spread disinformation by telling the local press that what came down was a flying saucer, then congratulations to them for a job extremely well done. -- Trevor Pyne

2.1.17

AND I'D LIKE TO THANK...

Over the last few years I seem to have developed a New Year tradition of reporting on the ‘top ten’ reviews in terms of the number of on-line hits recorded on this blog over the previous twelve months,. I see no reason to stop now.

We posted 86 separate reviews in 2016, and as you might expect the ones published earlier in the year by and large have now received the greatest number of hits, but that was not an invariable rule. The major factor in determining how popular a particular post is, is whether or not it had been linked to by other websites in our field. And an appreciative hat-tip here to the Anomalist site for its frequent acknowledgement of Magonia reviews. If it isn't on your list of favourites, put it there now.

So to open the golden envelope and make the awards:


At number 10 is Peter Rogerson’s review of Strange Intruders, looking at the wide variety of creatures and critters and generally weird people who make life ‘interesting’ for those unfortunate enough to come across them.

Number nine is my review of Robert Schneck’s second round-up of American weirdness, The Bye Bye Man, featuring amongst other odd characters and strange events, the now-legendary and totally unrelated John ‘Skinny’ Rimmer.

Eighth on the list is Accused: British Witches Throughout History, by the Willow Winsham which looks at the history of British witchcraft trials through the careful, and sympathetic examination of the lives of individuals caught up in witchcraft panics, from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries.

John Harney took his courage in both hands and entered into the world of penis theft in Frank Bures’ The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death and the Search for the Meaning of the World's Strangest Syndromes. This earned him seventh place in our Hall of Fame.

Susan Lepselter’s The Resonance of Unseen Things was a UFO book that was not really about UFOs, but rather an insider’s view of the wilderness areas of America where the UFO and abduction legends are born, and the people who shape, and are shaped by, these stories. My review of it was number six on our list.

Did ancient civilizations nearly destroy the earth millennia before we got the chance to do so? Does Nick Redfern really believe this, or is he just messing with our minds? Hard to tell, as John Harney found out when reviewing Weapons of the Gods: How Ancient Civilizations Almost Destroyed the Earth, in fifth place for 2016.

A bit out of the usual run of Magonian titles, 1177 B.C. The Year Civilisation Collapsed, by Eric Cline is an examination of a historical mystery which is as baffling as any Fortean phenomenon, but with the added complication that we know it actually happened. Kevin Murphy’s review puts it at number four on the list.

Peter Rogerson’s review of Michel Zirger and Maurizio Martinelli’s biography of the semi-mysterious George Hunt Williamson stirred up quite a controversy in the comments section, pushing this title to the year’s number three spot.

At number two is Peter’s review of a collection of essays examining the case against any form of post-mortem existence, The Myth of an Afterlife, compiled an edited by Michael Martin and Keith Augustine. This again sparked off some controversy in the comments.

Now a fanfare for number one, which has received twice as many hits as any other review published in 2016. This is a book that more or less finished off the entire abduction industry. Jack Brewer’s The Greys Have Been Framed: Exploitation in the UFO Community, examines forensically the work of the so-called ‘researchers’ who have manipulated people in order to manufacture the abduction experience for their own ends. The most important UFO book of the year – perhaps any year.

That’s what our readers have been looking at this year. Why not click through to some of those reviews and see if you agree with our reviewer’s opinions. And perhaps leave a comment or two yourself. 2017 dawns, onward and upward, and a Happy New Year to all Magonians. -- John Rimmer

21.12.16

THE LOTUS POSITION

Donald S. Lopez, Jr. The Lotus Sutra: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2016

When Lopez, who for twenty years has taught a course at the University of Michigan called ‘Introduction to Buddhism’, was asked to write about The Tibetan Book of the Dead for Princeton’s continuing excellent ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’ series, he consented if they would let him follow it with an account of a ‘more authentically Buddhist’ text. They agreed on condition that he chose one that was sufficiently famous.  The only ones he could think of that are generally known by their English titles are the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. (I suppose that he passed over the Dhammapada because it is only known by its Pali name.) Though the Heart Sutra is only one page long, he had already written two books about it. The Diamond Sutra is notoriously impenetrable.

Buddhist scriptures are all supposed to be the actual words of the Buddha. Originally they were all memorised, and chanted by monks in chorus on holy days. It was not until perhaps four centuries later that they began to be written down.

The Saddharma-Pandarika, to give its Sanskrit title, is one of the Mahayana or Northern Buddhist scriptures, which scholars consider were not composed at all, let alone written down, until many centuries after the time of the Buddha. Like many other Mahayana sutras, its own text insists that it is, in fact, an authentic discourse of the Buddha, ‘devoting many of its pages to the attempt to convince the reader of this, promising all manner of munificent rewards to those who believe and threatening all manner of misery to those who do not.’ It appears that the Buddha had supernatural foreknowledge of the eventual appearance of doubters, and guarded himself against them.

The Lotus Sutra is a boisterous work, quite unlike the solemn contemplation that one expects and usually gets from a Buddhist scripture. It is famous for its tale of the three chariots: a man saw that his house was on fire whilst his children were playing inside, but they ignored his shouted appeals to escape, being unaware of the danger. So he told them that awaiting them outside were three chariots, one drawn by a sheep, one by a deer, and a third by an ox. Eager to see these presents they came out, to find that there was only one, ox-drawn, chariot. This parable is often quoted as an example of how lying may be justified, but the original intention was to say that, though early Buddhism had taught that there were three paths to nirvana, in reality there is only one. This and other parables are interspaced with material that is meant to be understood as factual, such as that, whilst the Buddha is discoursing, ‘a massive stupa, miles high and miles wide, emerges from the earth and floats on the air above the assembly.’

Buddhism virtually died out in the land of its birth, but flourished in some other eastern countries. There were at least six translations of the Lotus Sutra into Chinese, and may have been as many as fourteen. Great merit was believed to accrue from writing or reciting it. Initially this meant in the afterlife, but miracles in this world also came to be attributed to it. A certain nun used to recite the whole Lotus Sutra twice a day (I estimate that, if you recited very fast, it would take about three hours to do it once). When a lustful man tried to enter her cell one night, ‘his lower extremities were seized with a burning pain and his male member dropped off.’



In Japan, the Lotus Sutra came to occupy a central place in the culture, inspiring artworks, poems, songs, and volumes of miracle tales. ‘On the Kunisaki Peninsula, there is a complex of twenty-eight temples, one for each of the chapters of the sutra. Connecting the temples is a path lined with 69,384 statues, one for each character in the sutra.’

By the thirteenth century, the most powerful Buddhist sect in Japan had become the Tendai, whose practice was based on both the Lotus Sutra, and the Pure Land school based upon visualization of the Buddha Amitabha. The latter came to be regarded as superior, since ‘in the degenerate age, the only possible path to salvation was to rely on the power of Amitabha by calling his name: Namu amida butsu, “Homage to Amitabha Buddha”.’

A monk who initially belonged to the Pure Land school, Nichiren (born 1222), became sceptical of the power of Amitabha when his teacher died writhing in pain. By the age of twenty-one he was ‘proclaiming the unique supremacy of the Lotus Sutra over all other Buddhist scriptures and sects that promoted them. Those sects, by holding other sutras to be equal or superior to the Lotus Sutra, were guilty of the grave sin of slandering the dharma. Nichiren took it as his task to rescue the devotees of other texts from this sin, whether they liked it or not.’

In medieval Japan, it was generally believed that religion helped to prop up the state, and rituals to this end were routinely commissioned by the emperor. In addition to the regular scriptures, such works were composed as The Promotion of the Zen for National Defence. Nichiren contributed a Treatise on the Establishment of Righteousness for the Peace of the Nation, which asserted that Japan would be conquered by the Mongols unless the government relied on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, and averred that recent natural calamities (pestilence and famine) were the result of the rulers’ patronage of other Buddhist s
ects. This did not endear him to his rivals, and when, perhaps inevitably, he was arrested, he told the court that ‘he thought that those Buddhist temples that did not extol the Lotus Sutra should be burned down and that their head monks should be beheaded.’ He was sent to Sado Island, a brutal place reserved for the worst enemies of the state.

Here he was nevertheless able to write several major works. Previously, it had been supposed that reading the sutra, without necessarily following its precepts, was enough to bring miraculous good fortune and a place in heaven. Nichiren took this a step further and suggested that merely repeating the name of the sutra was sufficient. Hence, devotees chant ‘Hail to the Lotus Sutra’, in Japanese Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, over and over again.

In 1274 he was pardoned and released, in part because his behaviour had been so disruptive, even for a penal colony. He died in 1282, not before the Mongols had indeed twice tried to invade Japan, failing both times because typhoons had destroyed their ships. The country’s various Buddhist sects all claimed credit for this.

Factionalism, of course, seems to be inevitable in religion. Even among the Nichiren followers who accepted that the Lotus Sutra was all that mattered, there were ‘those who held that the two halves of the sutra were of equal value (called itchi) and those who held that the latter half was superior to the former half (called shoretsu). This latter group in turn split into several groups, divided over what parts of the second half of the sutra were superior to the first half.’

Things came to a climax in 1536, when a lecture by a Tendai was heckled by a Nichiren monk named Matsumoto: ‘This led to an extended debate, which Matsumoto apparently won. Angered by Matsumoto’s rudeness and chagrined by his apparent victory, the Tendai monks sought revenge . . . At the end of five days of fighting between tens of thousands of warrior monks, all twenty-one of the Nichiren temples had been destroyed by Tendai troops (allied with local aristocracy), and the southern district of Kyoto, the Nichiren stronghold, had been destroyed by fire.’

(In general, though, Japanese monks were forbidden to bear arms. This led to the development of martial arts, as they were obliged to devise ways of killing people using only their bare hands. This contrasted with European monks, who were merely forbidden to shed blood, so that they invented the mace, a metal club with which one could brain an opponent without actually shedding his blood.)

In the late nineteenth century Japan underwent a nationalist reaction in which Buddhism was vilified as a foreign import. In their own defence, ‘the various sects of Japanese Buddhism had to cooperate with each other, something that had not occurred in the many centuries of Buddhism in Japan.’ Nichiren had declared of his rivals that ‘Nembutsu followers will fall into the Avici hell, Zen followers are devils, Shingon will destroy the nation, and the Ritsu are enemies of the state.’ In an attempt to back-track on this, some of the characters were reread to give ‘Because we contemplate the Buddha, ceaselessly devils are quieted; because our words are true, traitors who would destroy the nation are subdued.’

Despite the best efforts of the religious sects, the Japanese were losers in World War Two. A leading Nichiren Shoshu (as they were now called) blamed the defeat on the failure of the nation to give proper reverence to the Lotus Sutra. In the years that followed, though, Japan was more subtly able to invade America with Judo, Mah Jongg and Suzuki motorcycles.

Though Lopez gives considerable space to the first appearance of the Lotus Sutra in the United States, in the form of an extract in a small magazine in 1844, this can have had little impact. But disciples of Nichiren had always thought that his version of Buddhism would or should conquer the world, and in 1975 the Soka Gokkai International was founded to facilitate this. To some extent it has succeeded.

I don’t know about America, but from personal observation it had a vogue in London in the 1980s. It had progressed from being a key tool for gaining liberation from material things of the flesh, to becoming a key tool for gaining material things of the flesh. The reader may recall the first episode of Absolutely Fabulous, where Jennifer Saunders’ character tells her daughter ‘I chanted for this place’ (her luxury apartment). In addition to Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, the more devout were encouraged to read daily part of the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra – in medieval Japanese, of course. If any one of them knew what it meant, or even what it was, they never explained it to me.

One woman told me that she had joined solely with the intention of picking up men, only to be frustrated to find that there weren’t any. The curious fact that in this country it appealed specifically to women is ironic, given that Buddhism has always been inherently sexist. In the early days, in India, it was said that the doctrine could have flourished for one thousand years, but thanks to the decision to admit women to the monastic order it would only last for five hundred. -- Gareth J. Medway

11.12.16

IT WAS HERE A MINUTE AGO

Tony Jinks. Disappearing Object Phenomenon: An Investigation. McFarland and Co, 2016.

If you are like me, you will find from time to time that things in the house go missing; the keys you knew were on the table, the rail-card which should be in your pocket or that book that you just can’t find. Sometimes these occur, or are remembered to have occurred, in odd circumstances, the glasses you put down next to you seconds ago and which when you next look are no longer there, only to turn up in the back shelf of a shed you haven’t been in for months. The psychical researcher Mary Rose Barrington called things like this 'just one of those things' or 'jottles'. Now Tony Jinks an Australian neuroscientist and psychologist with an interest in the paranormal has written the first full length book on the subject.

He distinguishes a number of varieties of the experience; the flyaway when an object disappears and is never seen again, walkabouts where the object disappears in one place and then reappears in another; comebacks when an object disappears from a place and then returns there some time later, a turn-up where an object is suddenly found in an unexpected place, a windfall, the sudden appearance of an object that is not yours and trade-in in which one object disappears and another appears in its place.

Jinks has collected a data base of 385 such cases, though this is not presented here, rather a number of examples are given through the text; the things missing (in descending order) are jewellery, food and beverages, keys, clothes, computer items, grooming items, utensils, small household goods, books and magazines, toys, minor nondescript items, money, telephones, spectacles, TV remote controls, watches, tools and building materials, credit etc. cards, medicines, cigarettes, reefers and other drugs, purses and wallets, media, artwork, linen and bedding, musical instruments, ornaments and finally furniture. The bulk of these are, of course, small items that easily get lost. Motor cars, washing machines and fridges seem noted for their absence.

Jinks discusses the various levels of significance of the items concerned and examines both normal and paranormal explanations. Though he recognises the role that anomalies of memory and perception must play in many of these cases, he seems reluctant to accept that this is all that is involved. Of course different cases probably have different explanations.

The exotic “natural” explanations follow, involving all sorts of science fiction notions about parallel universes, teleportation, wormholes, higher dimensions and the like, none of which are there any reasons to believer operate at kitchen sink level. We then get mention of zero point energy, however even if it could be harnessed, it is doubtful you could raise the temperature of a glass of water by even 1 degree by it, let alone fling things into other dimensions.

The most likely set of explanations of these phenomena is that our perceptions and memories are more subjective that we think, and many cases are just due to absent mindedness, distraction, errors of memory and that the world we perceive is always largely subjective being based on memory and expectation as much as on current input. Some may have more unusual solutions, for example small objects near open doors might be taken by birds for example and in the States there always the racoons. – Peter Rogerson.

MAGONIA RECOMMENDS