UFOs and Shamanism


by John Michael Greer

For more than six decades, UFO sightings have puzzled scientists and the public alike, and sparked countless investigations aimed at getting the phenomenon to surrender its mysteries. So far, this research has produced very little in the way of solid results. Many factors have shaped this outcome, but one of the most important is also one of the least recognized: the way the UFO phenomenon has been categorized in the collective imagination of the modern world has little to do with the phenomenon itself.

Since shortly after the phenomenon burst into public awareness in 1947, believers as well as debunkers have generally assumed that if UFOs exist, they must be spacecraft from another planet. That assumption feeds on popular beliefs about progress and space travel, and it seems like common sense to most people; its only downside is that it misses some of the most striking dimensions of the UFO phenomenon itself. While many different things seem to be able to cause UFO sightings, one crucial set of factors has its origins in the human mind.

Consider the following case from Rochdale, England, collected and published by British UFO researcher Joseph Dormer. The witness and her elderly mother were at home near dusk on a November day. When the mother went to draw the curtains, she saw an unusual craft hovering in the sky nearby, and called her daughter’s attention to it. They both observed a 100-foot-long cylindrical craft with portholes along its length. Figures in “silver space suits” moved inside the craft. The witness and her mother both watched the craft for what seemed like some minutes, and were unable to speak or move during that time. Abruptly, the craft “vanished into thin air.” The witness noted that an entire hour had gone by during the apparently short time she and her mother watched the craft. No other witnesses reported the same object.

The Oz Factor

UFO believers might claim that a spaceship from a distant world visited Rochdale that evening, and used advanced technology to show itself to two women. UFO debunkers might claim that the witness and her mother saw the planet Venus, and somehow misinterpreted it as a large, cylindrical UFO. Still, at least three points about this sighting report suggest that the witnesses experienced an apparition.

First, 100-foot-long material objects made of metal and glass do not vanish into thin air, while it’s a commonplace of folklore and tradition that apparitions very often do. Second, nobody else in Rochdale reported seeing the spacecraft that was apparently hovering above their roofs. When a 100-foot-long blimp flies over a town during daylight, many people notice it. Why did only two witnesses see such a remarkable object, if it was physically present? If it was an apparition, on the other hand, the entire account makes perfect sense.

The third point, however, is the crucial one. The witness and her mother were clearly in an altered state of consciousness during the experience, as shown by their inability to move or speak and the distortion of their time sense that made an hour pass by in what seemed like a few minutes. Evidence of changes in consciousness like this are extremely common in accounts of UFO close encounters.

English UFO researcher Jenny Randles coined the term “the Oz factor” for the very common report of UFO witnesses that they seemed to enter another reality just before sighting a mysterious object in the sky. Many witnesses experience the same inability to speak or move as the two women in the Rochdale case, and subjective distortions of time are even more common. Other signs of altered states of consciousness reported by UFO witnesses include unexplained total silence and seeing other people who appear to be frozen in place, or who pass by the scene of the encounter without apparently noticing anything.

Once altered states of consciousness are taken into account, many dimensions of the UFO phenomenon become clear. Consider the thousands of UFO sightings witnessed by passengers in a single car driving at night on a lonely road. “Highway hypnosis,” induced in drivers by the monotony and sensory deprivation of long road trips, is a common hazard faced by long-haul truckers and other people who drive long distances, especially at night. Many people have had the experience of suddenly realizing they are dozens of miles farther down the road than they thought, with no recollection of the road they have traveled; in some cases, dream imagery spills over into the process, leaving dim memories of improbable events to fill the gap. The relevance of this phenomenon to cases of the Barney and Betty Hill type should be obvious.

Seeking Astral Visions

Another method for entering altered states of consciousness has an even more precise relevance to the UFO phenomenon, though you have to know the classics of occult literature to learn about it these days. Occultists spend a good deal of time learning to evoke apparitions at will, for a variety of reasons; crystal balls, magic mirrors, and similar tools have been mainstays of occultism for centuries because they foster the altered states of consciousness in which apparitions are most easily experienced. Still, there is another very widely practiced method for reaching the same state: gazing up into the sky.

The knowledge lectures of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most prestigious British occult order in the late 19th century, include detailed instructions in this practice. In order to gain “astral vision” (the Golden Dawn term for visual apparitions) the student gazed into the sky without blinking for extended periods until he or she began to see images there. The same technique was a matter of public knowledge back in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when occult traditions were more widely studied than they are today, and such literary classics as Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Mel­ancholy discuss it as a matter of course.  The popular slogan “Keep watching the skies!” takes on a noticeably different meaning in this context.

Many other factors can play a role in fostering altered states of consciousness where apparitions are seen. The core point that has to be grasped, though, is that UFO apparitions can be caused by any method of entering into an altered state of consciousness. Because apparitions take much of their content from the mind of the person who perceives them, the presence of colorful UFO-related imagery from popular culture in the minds of most people nowadays guarantees that whenever people slip into an altered state, one of the likely results is a visionary experience like those reported by so many UFO witnesses.

Consider the following account of an abduction recorded in South Dakota early in the 20th century. The abductee, a nine-year-old boy, came down with a sudden unexplained illness that left him too weak to walk. While lying in his bed one day, he saw two humanoid figures descending toward him from the sky, each of them carrying a rodlike object with electrical sparks coming from one end.

Thunder Beings

The two beings called to the boy and told him to come with them, and he felt himself rising from the bed, feeling “very light.” Something “looking like a small cloud” descended to pick up the three of them. Once on board, the boy described looking down at his home from above.

The rest of the story is considerably less like today’s abductions. The boy grew up to be the Lakota holy man Black Elk, and the “thunder beings” who came for him took him on a medicine journey that became the source of his powers.

Visionary journeys of this sort appear throughout the world’s folklore, theology, and occult traditions, as well as in today’s UFO phenomenon. Countless shamans, saints, visionaries, and abductees report that their experiences begin with the arrival of one or more entities, nonhuman but usually humanoid, who extract them from their homes and take them into a place where ordinary rules no longer seem to apply. The Oz factor, with its pervasive sense of entering an alternate reality, pervades all these journeys.

The relationship between apparitions and abductions is emphasized by cases in which the “abduction” clearly took place in the realm of the mind. In one famous abduction case, the 1973 Maureen Puddy abduction, the physical body of the abductee remained in ordinary reality within sight of two UFO researchers while she experienced an abduction. This parallels one of the most common themes in shamanic and visionary experience, in which the shaman’s body lies inert while he or she undergoes strange experiences in a not-quite-physical place.

Body modification is another common feature in these otherworld journeys. Siberian shamans in their initiatory trances experience having their organs removed and replaced with new, magical organs, just as abductees undergo baroque medical procedures and experience having implants placed in their bodies. Visionaries around the world have claimed that they received spiritual gifts from their experiences, and a sizeable number of abductees believe that they have gained psychic powers after their abductions.

Journeys to the Otherworld

Still, these cross-cultural features are only half the story. Themes drawn from the experiencer’s own culture play a central role in structuring otherworld journeys. In medieval Europe, visionaries visited heaven, purgatory, and hell and encountered God, angels, and devils; in traditional Japan, Buddhist and Shinto mythology filled the same role; in Black Elk’s vision, that role was filled by the thunder beings and sacred mountains of the Lakota, and in abductee accounts, it’s filled by the spaceships and aliens of today’s UFO faith.

In his study of flying saucers as a modern myth, Jung drew attention to exactly these points while discussing Orfeo Angelucci, a popular contactee of the 1950s. Angelucci first saw a UFO in 1946, almost a year before the phenomenon caught the public imagination. In the banner year of 1952 he encountered another, a glowing red disk that nobody else could see, and had a telepathic conversation with its occupants, a pair of supernaturally beautiful and wise beings who instructed him about humanity’s place in the cosmos.

He had two other contacts the same year and received mystical teachings that drew heavily on Theosophy and other forms of popular occultism. In 1953 he spent a week in trance, after which he reported traveling in the spirit to the planetoid home of his teachers Orion and Lyra. In the wake of these experiences he quit his job as a mechanic, became a teacher of occultism, published a book titled The Secret of the Saucers (1955), and remained a leading figure on the contactee circuit well into the 1960s.

Jung pointed out that every detail of Angelucci’s narrative has parallels all through the literature of spiritual experience. From the first appearance of otherworldly powers in his life, through his initial contact, his period of instruction, and his trance journey to the Otherworld, Angelucci’s story is a classic account of the process of shamanic initiation. The only detail that differentiates it from nearly identical stories of Siberian and Native American shamans is that Angelucci’s Otherworld is found in outer space.

Cultural Resonance

It’s traditional to call on the evidence of these visionary experiences to support claims of the reality of the cultural forms they echo. Preachers in medieval Europe, for example, made much use of contemporary accounts of otherworld journeys to argue for the reality of heaven, hell, Satan, and the like; UFO researchers who use abduction accounts to back up the extraterrestrial hypothesis are thus in good company. Still, many of the cultures that pay close attention to these visionary experiences draw more from them than confirmation of an existing worldview. Thus Black Elk’s people, for example, embraced his vision and those of other visionaries of the same period in an effort to make sense of the catastrophic changes that followed the white invasion of the Great Plains.

They were by no means unwise to do so. Jung’s essay on flying saucers points out the role that visionary experience can have in pointing to the unresolved issues and cultural struggles of an age. For that matter, it may not be accidental that during a period when the abortion issue has been a flashpoint throughout American culture, hundreds of people have experienced brutal reproductive surgery at the hands of beings who look remarkably like human fetuses.

Thus the current epidemic of abduction experiences provides no support for the claim that flesh-and-blood aliens from a distant world are visiting Earth. Rather, it finds its meaning in the cultural crisis of the present time, a crisis that has seen the collapse of traditional forms of spirituality alongside the failure of rationalist materialism to make good on its claim to take religion’s place. In other times, the disintegration of familiar religious forms sparked the rise of new spiritualities at the hands of individuals whose experiences parallel those of shamans, prophets, and mystics around the world. Contactees, abductees, and witnesses of close encounters count in these same ranks.

This suggestion gains powerful support from research conducted by Dr. Alex Keul and Ken Phillips into the background of UFO witnesses. The Anamnesis Protocol, a systematic questionnaire given to UFO witnesses, people who have had other strange experiences, and control groups who have had no unusual experiences at all, has shown consistent psychological differences between people who experience strange things and people who do not.

UFO witnesses are no more likely to believe that UFOs are from outer space, to be members of religious groups, or to be interested in the paranormal. Rather, compared to control groups, people who report a close encounter with a UFO are significantly more likely to be dissatisfied with their lives, to have problems with nervousness, to recall their dreams, to have had flying dreams or dreams about UFOs, and to report experiences of ESP, especially after their UFO encounter. These may seem like a grab bag of unrelated psychological traits, but they are nothing of the kind. In cultures around the world, these are recognized as among the hallmarks of a potential shaman.

Neglected Visionaries

Over the last 2,000 years, people with the talent for shamanic experience have had very few options in the Western world. From the early Middle Ages up to the first stirrings of the modern world, those whose visions happened to match up well enough with the religious orthodoxies of their time ended up in monasteries and convents, where their experiences were treated as signs of sanctity, while others risked execution as heretics and witches. More recently, with the hardening of prejudices against altered states of consciousness, those who had such experiences learned to hide them, or else they landed in mental institutions where they were drugged and electroshocked into a semblance of normality.

In societies less hostile to the human talent for visionary experience, such people have a valued place as shamans, medicine persons, mystics, and the like. Many cultures of the past had a wealth of traditional lore and technique that can be used by visionaries to direct their gifts into constructive channels. Unfortunately, such resources have not been available to many modern people who have undergone shamanic experiences. The abductee movement is the result, an interpretation of a common, and potentially valuable, human experience in terms of the popular narratives and worldview of the modern industrial world.

In failing to provide its potential shamans with more useful tools for understanding and using their gifts, the modern world has neglected a valuable resource. The apparitions that stalk through the collective dreams and nightmares of a society, waiting to be observed by its shamans and seers, can serve as an early warning system for social stresses. Just as psychotherapists elicit the dreams of their patients in order to open the door to insights not otherwise accessible to the conscious mind, the waking dreams of a society’s visionaries cast an unexpected light onto the popular imagination and collective consciousness of their time.

 Signs of the Times

It’s for this reason that in many other societies — ancient Rome and imperial China are good examples — reports of strange occurrences, apparitions, and visions were assiduously collected as a way to track subtle changes in public opinion and the relationship between the people and their government. No Roman augur or Chinese mandarin would have been deaf to the messages of 60 years of UFO apparitions as they mirrored back hopes of world peace, fears of nuclear holocaust, deep ambivalences toward technology and scientific progress and, most recently, a massive loss of faith in government and a sense of widening schism separating politicians from their constituents. To the extent that the endless disputes between UFO believers and debunkers have kept these messages from being heard, we are all the poorer.

John Michael Greer has been a student of magic and the unexplained for more than 30 years, and is the author of 18 books, including The UFO Phenomenon: Fact, Fantasy, and Disinformation (Llewellyn, 2009), from which this article is excerpted. He lives in Oregon.

Image credit: Frank G. Carpenter | Wikimedia Commons