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Sunday 15 September 2013

Reinventing Ezekiel's Wheel

Ezekiel was a priest who was exiled to Babylon along with King Jehoiachin of Judah in the sixth century BC. Ezekiel experienced a number of visions, and his account of these form one of the main prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures. The best known of Ezekiel’s visions is the first, involving an encounter with a heavenly figure seated on a throne borne by four strange creatures, each of which has four faces and is supported by a “wheel within a wheel”.

This is one of the most striking images to be found in any of the Hebrew prophetic books, and as such has appealed to artists throughout the centuries. This depiction by William Blake (who had mystical visions of his own) emphasizes the mystical and symbolic nature of Ezekiel’s vision.

To many people, however, Ezekiel’s vision is nothing less than an extraterrestrial flying machine. As with other “ancient astronaut” theories, you often hear people says things like “Of course, that idea originated in 1968 with Erich von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods”. Well, no it didn’t. All von Däniken did was to pitch the idea in populist, uncomplicated language that was capable of appealing to a huge mass-market audience. But the idea was by no means a new one.

I’ve already mentioned how ancient astronaut theories were pushed by Desmond Leslie as long ago as 1953, in one of the most famous of the early UFO books – Flying Saucers Have Landed, coauthored with George Adamski. Sadly the book is remembered solely for Adamski’s contribution, even though Leslie’s chapters are a lot more sophisticated and intelligent. British readers of my generation may also remember the work of W. Raymond Drake – the first of whose “Gods and Spacemen” books was published in 1964, four years before Chariots of the Gods. To my mind, Drake’s books were more insightful than von Däniken’s, and better researched. But writers like Drake and Leslie never achieved the mass appeal of von Däniken, and people forget (or were never aware) that they predated him by several years.

Although it’s frustrating that people give all the credit to the wrong person, if you look at it another way then von Däniken’s achievement is really quite impressive. He took an idea that had previously been confined to a small niche audience, and brought it to the attention of the whole world. In Fortean circles, however, everything he had to say was old hat. In his book Great World Mysteries, published in 1962, the British Fortean writer Eric Frank Russell wrote “...anything strange seen soaring above the clouds automatically became a fiery chariot. Some imaginative writers have seized on this fact and turned out stories depicting biblical characters as enlightened visitors from another world.”

To someone brought up in a technological, materialistic culture, it may seem obvious that ancient accounts of supposedly mystical experiences are garbled descriptions of extraterrestrial hardware. But the opposite is equally true – a modern-day account of extraterrestrial hardware may be a garbled description of a mystical experience. This is the line taken by the psychologist C.G. Jung in his 1959 book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Jung uses Ezekiel’s vision as an example of what UFOs might be, not the other way around!

Perhaps the most mainstream reference to a “nuts and bolts” interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision is this short choral work composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1956. By that time Vaughan Williams was 84 years old, and very much the grand old man of English classical music. The piece is a setting of the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, and the only unusual thing about it is the title the composer chose to give it: A Vision of Aeroplanes (the word “aeroplane” literally refers to an aircraft with a fixed horizontal lifting surface, but in the mid-20th century it was used loosely to mean any form of flying machine).

In an article about Vaughan Williams in issue 241 of Fortean Times (October 2008), David Sutton describes A Vision of Aeroplanes as “a cataclysmic sounding piece of musical prophecy – aeronauts from the future – for choir and organ”. But it’s odd that this particular composer should have chosen such a materialistic interpretation of the text, since the same FT article also describes Vaughan Williams as “a visionary in the tradition of Blake” (and for Blake’s distinctly non-materialistic interpretation, see above).

While most of the “nuts and bolts” proponents have been content to say “Ezekiel’s description sounds a bit like a flying machine”, some writers have gone further. In 1974, for example, an aeronautical engineer named J.F. Blumrich produced a full-length book called The Spaceships of Ezekiel. According to the author’s Foreword, this started out as an attempt to debunk the spaceship theory popularized by Eric von Däniken, but ended up supporting it – together with a fairly specific engineering design based on a line-by-line analysis of the Biblical text.

Although Blumrich’s book was the first detailed analysis to draw widespread attention, it wasn’t the first of its kind. Something very similar was attempted by Arthur W. Orton in 1961, in a 14-page article entitled “The Four-Faced Visitors of Ezekiel”. This appeared in Analog Science Fiction magazine, cover-dated March 1961 in the US and July 1961 in the UK. Again, Orton employed a line-by-line analysis of Ezekiel’s text to come up with a specific engineering design (although Orton’s design looks nothing like Blumrich’s).

The main point I wanted to make was that, contrary to popular opinion, Erich von Däniken wasn’t the first person to suggest a nuts-and-bolts interpretation of the Book of Ezekiel. Numerous lesser known authors put forward similar ideas throughout the 1950s and 60s – but on closer examination even they were merely “reinventing the wheel”. As long ago as 1902, a Baptist minister from Texas named Burrell Cannon was granted a patent for his Ezekiel Airship, which was supposedly based on the description provided in the first chapter of the Biblical account!


Ross said...

Jung did, indeed, consider many UFO "contactee" experiences to be intrapsychic, mystical experiences rather than objective encounters with extraterrestrials and their spacecraft. It's not often noted, however, that Jung also believed in the reality of "nuts 'n' bolts" alien craft visiting Earth, as he made clear in his book on flying saucers (the same one you cite). As a psychiatrist with a deep interest in the psychology of religion and mysticism, Jung was more interested in exploring the mystical side of the UFO experience, but he was firmly convinced of the physical reality of alien "flying saucers."

Andrew May said...

Yes, from the last chapter of Jung's book (UFOs considered in a non-psychological light) it's clear that he was open-minded about the possibility that at least some UFOs have an objective material existence that can't be explained away in mundane terms.