Aliens Have Landed – Really?


This is a longer version of something I wrote for an online astronomy course I’m doing.

Ancient monuments such as Stonehenge, Chacon Canyon and Chichen Itza were clearly built with astronomical functions in mind. There are many alignments in these structures which, when used, predict solstices, equinoxes, moon positions, star positions and even eclipses! Those who argue that they are evidence of alien intervention underestimate the knowledge-base of ancient civilisations.

Knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies was of vital importance. There were so many practical reasons for this knowledge. Firstly, the people needed a calendar in order to carry out activities such as crop planting and hunting in different seasons– the sun was a convenient object which determined the length of daylight in latitudes away from the equator. The moon was also a convenient ‘clock’ which went through phases in a predictable way and formed the time-interval of the month.

Knowledge of how the constellations changed throughout the year would consolidate understanding of time-intervals. Hence, in Ancient Rome, the year was divided up – first of all into ten months and later into the more familiar twelve months. We can see how much the religion of the Romans was incorporated into sky observations by noting the names of the months and days of the week.

Knowledge of the sun’s, moon’s and star’s movements was also important for navigation. The Ancient Greeks used instruments such as the astrolabe which enabled them to predict when a star would rise.

In the northern hemisphere the star named Polaris appears to be stationary and the other stars rotate round it. This would have been observed by prehistoric people and would have been a reliable means of navigation at night. The Great Bear constellation appears to rotate during the night and would also have been used for navigation and time-keeping before the advent of clocks.

Finally we should remember that religious beliefs were part and parcel of astronomical knowledge in ancient times. The structures I mentioned at the beginning were most likely overseen by priest-astrologers. For example, the Aztecs carved a Megalithic calendar stone known as Montezuma’s Watch which is 12 feet in diameter and intricately carved with astronomical details and life-cycles which are concerned with ceremonial ritual as well as astronomical alignments. According to Aztec religion the world passes through five ages and Quetzalcoatl – one of their gods – was the ruler of the second era. The priest-astrologers had to know when was the appropriate time for a human sacrifice!

Recent research has established that Stonehenge was a meeting place for thousands of people who came from as far away as Scotland.1 It was not only an observatory but a social centre for ceremony and feasting.

We may never know the details of our ancestor’s beliefs but we can be sure they included veneration of the sun, moon, stars and planets. There are many puzzles remaining as to the exact function of many of these structures but there is no need to invoke aliens to explain them. Indigenous people were very knowledgeable and there were vast numbers of people with the skills to build these wonders.

The Golden Ass; a timeless masterwork

Imagine a group of prehistoric homo sapiens -or even Neanderthals- grouped round a cave fire listening intently to a story-teller. Now shift forwards a century or few to the Roman story teller, Apuleius and you can sense the continuity. Telling each other stories will never die out because it is in our genes!

Written towards the end of the second century AD, The Golden Ass tells the story of the many adventures of a young man whose fascination with witchcraft leads him to be transformed into a donkey. The bewitched Lucius passes from owner to owner – encountering a desperate gang of robbers and being forced to perform lewd ‘human’ tricks on stage – until the Goddess Isis finally breaks the spell and Lucius is initiated into her cult. Apuleius’ enchanting story has inspired generations of writers such as Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Keats with its dazzling combination of allegory, satire, bawdiness and sheer exuberance, and remains the most continuously and accessibly amusing book to have survived from Classical antiquity.

I’m reading the Penguin Classic translation by Robert Graves and can highly recommend it. Lucius implores his lover to get him a magic potion to transform him into a bird. Unfortunately she gets the wrong potion by mistake. Here’s what happens next:

I stood flapping my arms, first the left then the right. . . but no little feathers appeared on them and they showed no sign of turning into wings. All that happened was that the hair on them grew coarser and coarser and the skin toughened into hide. Next my fingers bunched together into a hard lump and my hands became hooves, the same change came over my feet and I felt a long tail sprouting from the base of my spine. Then my face swelled, my mouth widened, my nostrils dilated, my lips hung flabbily down, and my ears shot up long and hairy. The only consoling part of this miserable transformation was the enormous increase in the size of a certain organ of mine. . . At last I was obliged to face the mortifying fact that I had been transformed not into a bird but into a plain jackass.

As a donkey he has lots of adventures and this gives Apuleius the opportunity to tell story after story including Cupid and Psyche. Brilliant (!) and has the immediacy of style which is timeless.