Yesterday afternoon, while I was waiting for my bus I heard a loud WOOSH overhead and saw a gigantic silver bird–it must have been 40-feet across–land on top of Federal Reserve Building across from the station. It then made a noise unlike any other I head before, a “screeeeeeee-reeeeeeeeeee screeeeeeee-reeeeeeeeeee!” that shattered windows all over Midtown Atlanta, much to the amazement of everyone present. As we watched this monster in horror, we felt and then heard a rumbling in the streets. Without warning, a herd of ferrets, each the size of a double-decker bus, came tearing around the corner. Also, they were breathing fire. The silver bird and gigantic flaming ferrets then did battle with Laser Tag for the rest of the afternoon. Luckily, I snapped a picture of the battle:
What do you think the chances are that this actually happened? Less than none, I’m betting. Congratulations! You’ve earned your critical thinker merit badge!
A similar story has been sitting on my desk for quite a while, and it’s time to purge it from my “to do” list. Did you know that there was a massive battle between the Genovese military and UFOs in 1608? Me neither. This story seems to pop up every few years on the Internet, especially in forums where people are looking for evidence of otherworldly visitations long before the 20th century’s first flying saucers appeared. What UFOlogists are looking for in these apparitions are depictions that are “uncontaminated” with modern notions of UFOs. At first glance, this logic might seem to make sense; however, UFOlogists seem to forget that their interpretations of these sightings are still contaminated with expectations wrought of modern UFO lore. The post that first brought the Genovese story to my attention appeared on Above Top Secret. The source of the story, Discours des terribles et espouvantables signes apparus sur la mer de Gennes, was written shortly after the reported events, and several versions are available online.
I faced a couple of barriers when I decided I wanted to look into this story. First, my 17th-century Mediterranean history is a little shabby (as is yours, admit it). Second, I don’t read archaic French. I ran the original test through Google Translator, and found that Google doesn’t either, translating the title into: “Speech and of the terrible espouvantables signs appeared on the Mer de Gennes.” Third, I’m not all that familiar with the specific type of publication, a “chapbook,” that this account first appeared in. Fourth, except where people are simply copying and pasting modern interpretations of the supposed UFO encounter, there seems to be no single, straightforward, consistent or universally agreed upon modern translation. As is often the case with folklore, embellishments and additions accumulate, and this is complicated by the fact that the French text has been subjected to numerous translations; take the ATS source above–it seems to be a translation from archaic French to Italian to English. Where to start?
Oh, as they say, merde.
The first thing I’m going to do is not worry too much about which modern version of the story I choose as my starting point. When we eventually go back to the earliest versions of the story, whatever we learn there will shed light on the accuracy of all subsequent versions. So, let’s start with the event as it is described by Albert Rosales at UFOinfo.com in his catalog of ancient UFO sightings.
Location. Genoa, Italy
Date: August 22 1608
Locals reportedly saw a bizarre creature emerging from sea right off the coast. It was described as a human shaped figure covered in scales and with what appeared to be “snakes” protruding from its hands. Canon fire was directed towards the creature without any apparent effect. Around the same time off the coast of Nice in France fishermen saw an object that descended towards the sea, a blood-like substance was seen to drop from the object. Others saw three “vessels” moving at high speed above the city. The three vessels then approach the local fortress and descend to the water causing a great boiling of the sea and emitting ochre-red vapor. To the great stupor of those present, two humanoid beings, with large heads and large luminous eyes dressed in red scaly combination outfits emerge from the vessels. These humanoids appeared to be connected to their vessels by long tubes. The humanoids spent several hours involved in “strange” work around their vessels. Meanwhile soldiers in the fortress shot cannon at the intruders without any apparent effect.
HC addendum Source: CUN Genoa, Also Jean Pierre Petit France Type: E & B
Location: Near Marseilles, France
Date: August 25 1608
Three days later, a single vessel appeared near Marseilles over the fishing village of Martigues, and again displayed the same erratic flight maneuvers that had been displayed over Nice. It stopped in midair and two beings got out, appearing to engage in an aerial duel of some kind. The following week there was a heavy fall of red rain, and in the months after churches were packed with worshipers begging to be spared whatever disastrous fate that was about to befall them. While accounts of these events are sometimes ambiguously worded, it is remarkable that so many people in three separate locations could have imagined such strange occurrences at a time when no flying machines existed.
HC addendum Source: http://www.subversiveelement.com/UfoNiceFrance.html Type: B?
We’ll start with the last assertion first:
“While accounts of these events are sometimes ambiguously worded, it is remarkable that so many people in three separate locations could have imagined such strange occurrences at a time when no flying machines existed.”
It would be remarkable if so many people in different locations could have such experiences independently of one another in such a short period of time. But that’s not what we have here. We have a single account, variously republished in a number of chapbooks (or “canards” in French–I believe the English term only arrives later). Chapbooks were inexpensive little books meant for wide popular consumption, not durability (much like modern newspapers are not meant to last, but be printed in volume). There could be as few as eight pages in one of these little pocket-sized books. As I said, there are a number of retellings/partial translations of the purported source, identified as the Discours des terribles et espouvantables signes apparus sur la Mer de Gennes on a number of UFO sites, but I can’t rely on them to check the story’s accuracy. The first thing to do is identify the original. I enlisted Eve’s assistance, which is always a good idea.
We first noticed that a surprising number of editions of this story exists, most dating from 1608 and 1609. Most printings actually provide a city of publication and refer to the source of the text it is republishing. A chapbook printed by Parisian bookseller might read: “Jouxte la copie de Lyon” (“following the Lyon edition”). Ideally, you would be able to work backward through the various editions to get to the source; however, in this case, there are references to more editions than actually seem to have survived. We found that one version had been copied from a Lyon printing, but we could not find any reference to any extant copy of that edition. Eve and I turned the Internet inside out…hitting WorldCat, GoogleBooks, JSTOR, every dang database and resource at our disposal to try and find it. No go.
All was not lost, however. While we seemed unable “follow the begats,” as it were, back to the original, we did find that these earliest versions of the story were remarkably consistent with one another, with changes barely more substantive than varied spellings, which at any rate had not yet been standardized. The remarkably stable text suggests a common source.
We contacted historian Yannis Deliyannis, who has looked into the Discours and discusses it in some detail on his blog, Chronicon Mirabilium. We asked him if he had some information about the publishing history of the chapbook. He reports that six contemporary versions of the account are known to exist, two are referenced by other sources and are known to have existed but were lost, and a final, the Genoan edition, is only mentioned as the source for one version of the chapbooks, but there is no corroboration that the book exists. Deliyannis suspects that this lost apocryphal version may have been invented to lend credibility to the edition that claimed to be based on it. We agree; there need not be a Genoan edition. Deliyannis also notes that the number of times that this little book was reprinted suggests that it was a very popular chapbook.*
Even if we can’t go all the way back to the purported “Genoa” edition, we can look at the editions that do exist and come up with a pretty faithful version. And by “we” I mean “other people,” namely, my co-editor Eve, fellow Brittain postdoc Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Yannis Deliyannis.
(Translation of the “Discours des terribles et espouvantables signes apparus sur la Mer de Gennes“ by Eve Siebert, perfected by Yannis Deliyannis, with thanks to Jennifer Orth-Veillon for her help early on.) Eve’s insight that English and French words share a lot of common roots was OED ninjacraft at its most deadly!)
Our direct translation differs from the the modern UFOlogical version in several significant ways. How does Rosales’ version of the Discours square with what originally appeared? Let’s see:
“Locals reportedly saw a bizarre creature emerging from sea right off the coast. It was described as a human shaped figure covered in scales and with what appeared to be ‘snakes’ protruding from its hands. Canon fire was directed towards the creature without any apparent effect.”
This is sort of close. In the original, however, a variety of monsters appear, popping up in the ocean with two snakes in each hand. Some are in human form and some are more dragon-like, and they are all covered in scales. Also, Rosales does not mention the terrifying cries that these creatures are supposed to have emitted. Most importantly, while UFOlogists always mention that canon were used against the apparitions (perhaps the idea that the military got involved suggests authenticity to them), they never mention what is called the “true remedy.” The Capuchins order processions, fasting, and the saying of the Forty Hours, the latter being the “nuclear option” of penance. These details demonstrate that within the story, the apparitions respond to prayer, underscoring the religious, not factual-historical, nature of the text. I take it back; Rosales’ account is not close at all.
“Around the same time off the coast of Nice in France fishermen saw an object that descended towards the sea, a blood-like substance was seen to drop from the object.”
No. This is wrong. No flying object is associated with the rain of “true and natural blood” described in the Discours. There are no fisher-folk. What is reported is a rain of blood throughout the south of France. The phenomenon of a “red rain” is well-known. In August and September 2001, a widely reported red rain fell in the Indian state of Kerala. Despite widespread accounts that alien cells discolored the water, the real culprit seems to have been “lichen-forming alga spores of local origin.” Red rain can also be caused by wind-born red dust and by other terrestrial mechanisms. The red rain in the south of France, as far as I can tell, is the only event in these stories that is historically verifiable. The naturalist Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc investigated a red rain there in 1608 and decided that it was, charmingly, butterfly droppings.
Back to Rosales:
Others saw three ‘vessels’ moving at high speed above the city. The three vessels then approach the local fortress and descend to the water causing a great boiling of the sea and emitting ochre-red vapor. To the great stupor of those present, two humanoid beings, with large heads and large luminous eyes dressed in red scaly combination outfits emerge from the vessels. These humanoids appeared to be connected to their vessels by long tubes. The humanoids spent several hours involved in “strange” work around their vessels. Meanwhile soldiers in the fortress shot cannon at the intruders without any apparent effect.
This scene takes place back in Genoa. Three carriages appear, each pulled by six fiery dragons. (You do not get to change the carriages to “vessels” unless you want to argue that they are dragon-powered UFOs.) There is no mention of them charging the fortress, boiling the sea, or emitting a vapor, red or otherwise. They are being manned by the same apparitions that were seen earlier, still with flying serpents in their hands. There is no mention of their head size, their eye-luminosity, their “scaly combination outfits,” or doing “strange work” in the air while connected to tubes. They merely bellow loudly, scaring a few people to death. Again, the narrator mentions that after the Te Deum was sung, nobody ever saw the carriages again. What is interesting is that the first part of this episode seems to be a description of an image that often accompanies the account of Genoa:
The problems are numerous. 1) I haven’t seen a source of this image and don’t assume that it accompanies any original edition of the text. 2) It’s not a photograph, so nobody should treat it like it’s an accurate depiction of anything. 3) I don’t even know if it is contemporary to the chapbooks. It doesn’t resemble any Renaissance print I’ve ever seen, though, to be fair…I’m an Americanist who has experience mostly with Renaissance commonplace books in English. (As we shall see, this image only later came to be linked with the story.)
Three days later, a single vessel appeared near Marseilles over the fishing village of Martigues, and again displayed the same erratic flight maneuvers that had been displayed over Nice.
Woah, cowboy! Erratic flight maneuvers? You’re just making things up there. Two men appear in the sky. They are armed and have shields (and no, not like the starship Enterprise). No vehicles, no UFO acrobatics. Two people engaged in combat for two hours, with a brief time-out for a rest. (I swear it’s in there.) A few days later, they are back, wailing on each other “so that they seemed like blacksmiths beating on the anvil.” The next day, they appear on horseback and do combat. On the third day, the combatants reappear, this time in fortresses in the sky. They fire cannon at each other for seven hours, and when the air clears of smoke and the smell of gunpowder, the men are gone.
In the modern version of the story, then, we see a number of important elements suppressed, especially the religious significance applied to the events, the efficacy of prayer as a remedy, and the appearance of dragons. At the same time, elements that fit more closely into the modern UFO narrative are either stressed (“Look–things flying!”, “Look–lizard people!”) or added (“red scaly combination outfits” and EVAs). The modern story, at least as it is retold by UFOlogists, is nothing like the original.
Being able to dismiss the modern version of the UFO story leaves us with another problem. Did strange beasties appear in the sky over the Mediterranean in 1608?
Of course the hell not.
Let’s start the analysis with what we would expect the record to reflect if these apparitions had occurred. There would be multiple, mutually confirming independent reports, including Church, civil, and military records, about the goings on. This type of archival research can only be conducted on-site. Luckily, Diego Cuoghi has visited the archives of Genoa to investigate the original story. He found no evidence that anything remarkable whatsoever was reflected in the Senate records of the day. Cuoghi’s research is really rather good, as he identifies the time and place when modern UFOlogists changed the story of the carriages to ovals and when the image of the battle was first–and forever–linked to the story: 1970s France. And let’s face it, with the exception of Tokyo, where this sort of thing happens every other day, someone would have mentioned Gamera and Zigra having it out on the front lawn.
Of course, other scholars would not have bothered to go so far as to actually search the archives. Most would have recognized the fantastic elements for what they were. They would recognize the long-standing tradition of visions in the sky dating as far back as Revelation (clearly influencing this text) and the subgenre of visions of aerial combat presaging disasters. They would have fit the Discours squarely within that tradition. In one collection of 500 French chapbooks/canards examined by Jean-Pierre Seguin at the Bibliothèque Nationale in the 1960s, 51 entries were stories of celestial visions. Seguin’s abstract offers his take on the context and content of this massive collection, and they offer a good guide to the UFOlogist who is interested in getting to the truth:
The Bibliothèque Nationale has some five hundred news-sheets, of the kind called ‘broadsides’ or ‘coqs’, printed between 1529 and 1631, date of publication of the first Gazettes. The stories found in these sheets, some true and some imaginary, some very long and detailed, others quite short and unprecise, differ considerably according both to the subject matter and to the author’s personality. Yet, they all have in common certain fixed characteristics — which they share with contemporary daily newspapers. But, the XVIth and XVIIth century reporters as well as their readers were more concerned with the ‘moral’ of the news item than with its novelty, its oddness or its sensational aspect. The analysis of this ‘moral’ contributes to a better understanding of those troubled times.
So, it turns out that this type of literature was not meant to be taken literally, but understood in terms of the moral lesson it delivered; in the case of the Discours, the message is “pray and repent.” It should therefore not be used as evidence of alien visitation.
*Deliyannis has found a probable sister text, an account of a Maltese dragon that contains similar language and themes as the Discours. He also identifies a possible historical event that might have initiated the story, albeit heavily embellished, though he cautions that his conclusion is speculative.
Thanks to Eve, Jennifer, and Yannis for their critical contributions to this entry. Without you, nothing!
Cuoghi, Diego. “L’UFO DI GENOVA DEL 1608: Negli Articoli e Nelle testimonianze.” Blog. http://bit.ly/yEJWCm
Davis, Jennifer R. and Michael McCormick. The long morning of medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies. 2008. Online. http://bit.ly/wUxSRa
Deliyannis, Yannis. Chronicon Mirabilium. Blog.
Dunning, Brian. “Alien Downpour: The Red Rain of India.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 21 Sep 2010. Web. 12 Mar 2012. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4224
“Forty Hours’ Devotion.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Online. http://bit.ly/wNUCQQ
L’INFORMATION EN FRANCE AVANT LE PÉRIODIQUE: 500 CANARDS IMPRIMÉS ENTRE 1529 ET 1631 (suite et fin) Jean-Pierre Seguin Arts et traditions populaires, T. 11e, No. 3e/4e (Juillet-Decembre 1963), pp. 203-280. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41003032
Rosales, Albert. “2357BC – 1869 HUMANOID SIGHTING REPORTS.” Website. http://bit.ly/w0pQZ7
Sampath, S. T.K. Abraham, V. Sasi Kumar and C.N. Mohanan. “Coloured Rain: A Report on the Phenomenon.” 2001. http://bit.ly/jHoxli