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.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. March 20, 2010

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