Are Extraterrestrials a Greek thing?
I had a slight worry earlier today. I have an idea that I think has cross-over relevance between SETI and Ancient History about ancient speculations on extraterrestrial life. I was slightly alarmed when I read Jean Schneider’s new pre-print on arXiv, The Extraterrestrial Life debate in different cultures. In it Schneider argues that arguments about life on other worlds can be traced back to ancient Greece. It sounds like an idea I’ve been kicking around for a couple of months. It was a topic raised by the atomists like Democritus and Leucippus who said that in an infinite cosmos with an infinite number of atoms there must be infinite worlds. Plato rejected this idea, as did Aristotle who argued for a hierarchical cosmos. Schneider says debates in other cultures are derived from this and then asks why it should be only the Greeks who speculated on offworld life.
His conclusion is that the Greeks developed philosophy and that made the difference. It enabled abstract concepts and debate in way that he doesn’t see in other cultures. I’m not convinced by this argument. He puts a great deal of emphasis on Euclid as an example of abstraction, but there was debate about the nature of the cosmos long before Euclid wrote his Elements. In fact I think that there is a great change in the nature of Greek cosmology in the Hellenistic period where mathematical abstractions start to matter. They don’t seem necessary for discussion of extraterrestrials in the Classical period and earlier.
That’s something that deserves a longer reply in an article. I think his arguments are interesting but don’t quite work as they stand. Even more interesting is his statement that there’s no non-western speculation extraterrestrials. If you only accept western-style philosophical speculation as being of interest then that would be a dull claim. That would be like saying “there’s no non-western western-style philosophy on alien life”. if you have a broader view of what counts, like a simple belief in life on other worlds then it’s an interesting claim. At the moment I think he’s surprisingly right.
Schneider mentions some Chinese writings on other worlds. If we’re going to be strictly Popperian about it, that means he’s wrong. Still, two passages is nothing like the volume of material from Europe, so that think that he’s right enough to look deeper into this. What other cultures do have other inhabited worlds? I thought Africa would be a good place to start looking. Africa has a rich and diverse collection of cultures, so it’s reasonable to think something can be found there. I started searching on the internet. That’s when I remembered the internet is not a library. It’s the internet. If you want aliens you’ll find them.
The easiest African example to find is the Dogon of Mali. These are the tribe that are said to have had pre-telescopic knowledge of a companion star to Sirius. From this it’s only a short step to conclude that they genuinely have been contacted by aliens. The claim is that an unknown alien species crossed the vast reaches of space to arrive at Earth, spoke to one tribe and left no other trace other than a pretty useless bit of information about the orbit of Sirius. For some people this is much more credible than the anthropologist interviewing them mucking up the interview. I don’t know of an anthropologist who does think he’s infallible, and the Dogon seem to be a case of feeding the right answers to your informants. Their view of the cosmos was remarkably similar to the views of the time in Europe. It seems odd that they independently made exactly the same mistakes as Europeans of the same era.
The Dogon/You-cannot-be-Sirius thing almost kills the internet as a useful source for genuine African beliefs about extraterrestrials. It’s nearly all Dogon. Fortunately there are places like the Encylopaedia Mythica. From there I found out about the Sonjo of Tanzania who had creator gods Naka and his sister Nebele. Nebele created everything except humanity. This annoyed Naka so rather than do any work of his own he decided Nebele was a woman and therefore his property. This made all Nebele’s work his by default. The breaking point of the relationship came when Naka attempted to brand Nebele like an animal, so she left for a different world.
That’s all I have from Africa. There’s simply too much pseudoscience to make the internet a useful source of mythology. Searching the Americas or anywhere else using the internet is futile. I could stamp my feet and whine about fantasy pasts rendering ‘real’ myths invisible. In reality there’s a slightly comic element to the problem. Many of the sites contributing to the flood of fabricated findings also complain about scientists covering up the truth. It’s possible that they do. It’s hard to tell because pseudoarchaeology is effectively, and unintentionally, hammering many diverse African cultures into monoculture shaped by the wishes of the west. I don’t think the answer is to silence pseudoarchaeologists — if that were possible. Instead it would be better to improve the availability and accessibility of alternative views.
Hindu cosmology all seems a plausible source for extraterrestrial tales, when I can find a readable book on the subject. There are other worlds in Hindu thought, but I don’t know if these are sequential worlds, so that there’s only world at a time, or if all worlds are thought to exist at the same time. Another line of thought is shamanic trips to the moon. There are tribes in Greenland where the shaman would walk to the Moon. That’s weird but it’s because of where they lived. When you’re that far north the Moon appears to roll across the southern horizon, making walking to it feasible. As far as I remember the belief was that the Moon was divine as himself. That’s not the same as visiting people on the Moon.
One reason is I think that Jean Schneider has found something notable is because of a paper I read by Eirik Saethre on UFO beliefs in Australian aboriginal communities. They believed in UFOs, but there was a curious bolted-on aspect to the way they were integrated into native life. It was almost as if they were a white equivalent of the local warnayarra, rainbow serpents associated with waterholes. The UFOs were pretty much as described as being like the UFOs they saw on the X-Files. That sounds like a classic flying saucer phenomenon. Generalising all Aboriginal cosmology from one part of fieldwork is a Bad Idea, but it’s opened an interesting question: Does the idea of extraterrestrial life often occur in aboriginal societies?
If you know of any non-Greek or Roman myths that involve travel to other worlds, I’d love to hear them. If they can be sourced to pre-contact times then that’s even better.