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Foreign Relations: 12 Notorious, Alleged UFO Incidents

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Long before Leonardo da Vinci sketched a flying machine or the Wright Brothers took flight at Kitty Hawk, there were reports of aircrafts soaring through the sky. Though some of those stories of Unidentified Flying Objects (or UFOs) may date as far back as Ancient Egypt, they are firmly ensconced in today's pop culture and accounts of their sightings remain fascinating for believers and skeptics alike. Here are 12 of the most intriguing incidents of alleged UFO sightings.

1. EGYPT // MID-1400S BCE

According to the Tulli Papyrus—the reported writings of Thutmose III, who reigned in the 1400s BCE—something unexplainable was spotted. An excerpt from the annals detailing the incident reads:

In the year 22, in the 3rd month of winter, in the sixth hour of the day, the scribes of House of Life noticed a circle of fire that was coming from the sky. From the mouth it emitted a foul breath. It had no head. Its body was one rod long and one rod wide. It had no voice. And from that the hearts of the scribes became confused and they threw themselves down on their bellies, then they reported the thing to the Pharaoh. … It was recorded in the scrolls of the House of Life.

His Majesty was meditating upon what happened. Now after some days had passed, these things became more numerous in the sky than ever. They shone more in the sky than the brightness of the sun, and extended to the limits of the four supports of the heavens … Powerful was the position of the fire circles. The army of the Pharaoh looked on with him in their midst. It was after supper. Thereupon, these fire circles ascended higher in the sky towards the south … The Pharaoh caused incense to be brought to make peace on the hearth … And what happened was ordered by the Pharaoh to be written in the annals of the House of Life … so that it be remembered for ever.

The validity of these writings remains uncertain. The original papyrus was lost and only copies of copies of it remain.

2. ROME // 218 BCE

One of the earliest reported UFO sightings can be traced back to about 218 BCE. Around 200 years later, Roman historian Livy recorded a number of strange incidents, likely using some lost list of those earlier sightings. One of the historian's writings included “A spectacle of ships (navium) gleamed in the sky” in Rome. In a report on UFOs [PDF], NASA’s Richard Stothers deemed these sightings "trustworthy and accurate," due to the time-consuming and costly nature of investigations into omens during this era.

3. SPAIN // 1433

On January 5, 1433, the entire court of King Juan II of Castile allegedly claimed to have seen a UFO. Fernán Gómez de Cibdarreal, the king’s physician, reportedly detailed the sighting in a letter. While its authenticity is uncertain, here is an excerpt:

I shall not tire your lordship with this narration, since we had just arrived [to Ciudad Rodrigo] when, walking on Wednesday the 5th of this month of January [1433], we suddenly saw a great flame of yellow fire attached to the sky move from one end to the other; it had inside like a black root and all its borders were more whitish than the middle; and it left with a great roar, causing horses and mules to ran in fear, and my own mule didn’t stop until it touched another mule.

4. NUREMBERG, GERMANY // 1561

BY HANS GLASER, 1561. IMAGE CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

This famous alleged UFO sighting is documented not only in words, but in a woodcut by Hans Glaser. The piece shows the sky full of strange objects and “immense” smoke rising from the earth. Glaser and many others reportedly claimed to have witnessed the occurrence in Nuremberg on April 14, 1561.

The artist included a description with his work as well as a message to skeptics. He wrote: "Although we have seen, shortly one after another, many kinds of signs on the heaven, which are sent to us by the almighty God, to bring us to repentance, we still are, unfortunately, so ungrateful that we despise such high signs and miracles of God. Or we speak of them with ridicule and discard them to the wind, in order that God may send us a frightening punishment on account of our ungratefulness."

5. TEXAS // 1897

"Texas’ most famous UFO crash" occurred in April 1897. On that day, a cigar-shaped object reportedly crashed into a windmill in Aurora, a small town just north of Fort Worth. The legend has conflicting claims. Some say the alien inside the craft survived, while others believe it died and the residents of the town gave it a Christian burial.

At the time of the crash, E.E. Hayden (sometimes reported as S.E. Haydon), a reporter from the Dallas Morning News, wrote that the spaceship “collided with the tower of Judge Proctor's windmill and went into pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the judge's flower garden. The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only one aboard and, while his remains were badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world."

6. MISSOURI // 1941

One 20th-century incident became a hidden family secret. In April 1941, Rev. William Huffman of Red Star Baptist Church in Cape Girardeau, Missouri was asked to minister at the site of a plane crash. There, Huffman said, he found a saucer with three alien bodies. His granddaughter later recounted the story to local news outlet KFVS, claiming that her grandfather had been sworn to secrecy after the incident.

7. WASHINGTON // 1947

Kenneth Arnold’s reported 1947 sighting is well-known for many reasons, including coining the phrase "flying disc." Just weeks before Roswell—one of the most famous incidents of all time—Arnold was flying his plane near Mount Rainier in Washington State when he said he observed a line of crescent-shaped objects in the sky. He estimated that they were clocking 1700 MPH and described their movements as being like "a saucer if you skip it across water."

8. ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO // 1947

Arnold’s sighting was the first in a series, which also includes the famous Roswell UFO report. According to CNN, the Air Force initially claimed to have found remnants of a flying saucer at the site in New Mexico. Later, they claimed the debris was from a weather balloon and then, much later, that it was an apparatus to detect Soviet nuclear tests. Today, the sighting has cult status, inspiring movies and TV, including the show Roswell. Conspiracy theorists consider it to be one of the most famous UFO cover-ups in history.

9. WEST VIRGINIA // 1952

From UFO reporting to urban legend: As the tale goes, on September 12, 1952, a fireball reportedly fell from the sky and a monster with fiery eyes was found at the crash site in Flatwoods, West Virginia. Descriptions of the Flatwoods Monster vary, though it’s believed to be 10 feet tall, with a glowing green body.

10. BRAZIL // 1957

Antonio Vilas (sometimes spelled "Villas") Boas’ report is one of the first recorded alien abductions in the modern age. On October 16, 1957, Boas, a Brazilian farmer, was working alone in a field when he says a reddish light in the sky zoomed toward him. He ran toward his tractor, but four small figures lifted him off the ground.

He gave a long, detailed description of the encounter, including the way the creatures communicated: "No resemblance whatever to human speech ... I can think of no attempt to describe those sounds, so different were they from anything I have ever heard before ... Those sounds still make me shiver when I think of them! It isn't even possible for me to reproduce them ... my vocal organs are not made for it."

He also claims to have had sexual relations with a naked female in the aircraft, although the two did not kiss. He reportedly was returned to his field about four hours after the abduction and was found to have suffered from radiation poisoning.

11. NEW HAMPSHIRE // 1961

Married couple Barney and Betty Hill also claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Under hypnosis, the pair shared similar accounts of the incident. Betty said, "I was taken on board. Barney was taken into one room and I was taken into another. The one who did the testing we called 'The Examiner.' First, they put me on a stool and they checked my eyes, ears, nose, throat. They put me on a table and said they wanted to check my nervous system. Then, they tried to insert a needle-like instrument in my navel, which caused pain so they stopped doing it. Barney's exam was very much like mine in the beginning except they were interested in his bone structure."

Betty also claims the creatures showed her a star map depicting where they came from. She even redrew it under hypnosis, but at the time, it didn’t correlate with any known area of space. However, years later, statistician David Saunders claimed her drawing resembles the Zeta Reticuli system in the constellation Reticulum, confirming (at least in the eyes of her supporters) some of Hill’s story.

12. KENTUCKY // 1976

On January 6, 1976, three women claimed to have been abducted from a car. In 2010, Mona Stafford, the only living witness, recalled her story to Central Kentucky News. She claimed the three women were driving when they thought they saw a plane crash. Wanting to help, they drove closer, only to find an object in a treetop. The car seemed drawn toward the craft, and hours later the women came to the Hustonville city limits. Their eyes and skin were burning, and the hood of the car had bubbled up.

Separated, the women each detailed identical accounts of the incident. And under hypnosis, they recounted the same tale of being removed from the car and examined.

In the years that followed, Stafford claims she and one of the other women were unable to use the telephone. The women were drawn to high places and often watched the sky, with Stafford explaining, "I still feel like that. Like something’s calling me, and I go out. I’m not a prophet, I’m not predicting nothing, but there’s something in me that says something’s going to happen this time."

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Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo
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The Funky History of George Washington's Fake Teeth
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo

George Washington may have the most famous teeth—or lack thereof—in American history. But counter to what you may have heard about the Founding Father's ill-fitting dentures, they weren't made of wood. In fact, he had several sets of dentures throughout his life, none of which were originally trees. And some of them are still around. The historic Mount Vernon estate holds the only complete set of dentures that has survived the centuries, and the museum features a video that walks through old George's dental history.

Likely due to genetics, poor diet, and dental disease, Washington began losing his original teeth when he was still a young man. By the time he became president in 1789, he only had one left in his mouth. The dentures he purchased to replace his teeth were the most scientifically advanced of the time, but in the late 18th century, that didn't mean much.

They didn't fit well, which caused him pain, and made it difficult to eat and talk. The dentures also changed the way Washington looked. They disfigured his face, causing his lips to noticeably stick out. But that doesn't mean Washington wasn't grateful for them. When he finally lost his last surviving tooth, he sent it to his dentist, John Greenwood, who had made him dentures of hippo ivory, gold, and brass that accommodated the remaining tooth while it still lived. (The lower denture of that particular pair is now held at the New York Academy of Medicine.)

A set of historic dentures
George Washington's Mount Vernon

These days, no one would want to wear dentures like the ones currently held at Mount Vernon (above). They're made of materials that would definitely leave a bad taste in your mouth. The base that fit the fake teeth into the jaw was made of lead. The top teeth were sourced from horses or donkeys, and the bottom were from cows and—wait for it—people.

These teeth actually deteriorated themselves, revealing the wire that held them together. The dentures open and shut thanks to metal springs, but because they were controlled by springs, if he wanted to keep his mouth shut, Washington had to permanently clench his jaw. You can get a better idea of how the contraption worked in the video from Mount Vernon below.

Washington's Dentures from Mount Vernon on Vimeo.

There are plenty of lessons we can learn from the life of George Washington, but perhaps the most salient is this: You should definitely, definitely floss.

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Brazen Heads: The Curious Legend Behind Fortune-Telling Automata
A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Fortune-telling automata—think Zoltar—were a fixture of penny arcades and amusement parks for generations of schoolchildren. But these creations owe their origin in part to the literary legend of the brazen head, an imaginary all-knowing mechanical device supposedly endowed with the ability to answer any question and predict the future. Called brazen because they were made of brass, their popularity peaked in the Renaissance, when plays and romances featured them and thinkers pondered the supposed mysteries of their making.

"A NATURAL MAN'S HEAD"

The most frequently referenced brazen head is the one allegedly made by 13th century Franciscan friar and philosopher Roger Bacon, although stories of its creation don't appear until centuries after his death. The anonymous 16th century prose romance The famous historie of Fryer Bacon describes the magical object as a precise brass replica of a “natural man’s head,” including “the inward parts,” and tells how Bacon, struggling to give it speech, summoned the Devil to ask him for advice. Satan announced that the head would speak after a few weeks, as long as it was powered by “the continuall fume of the six hottest simples,” a selection of plants used in alchemical medicine.

The tale formed part of the plot of the popular play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, written by English dramatist and pamphleteer Robert Greene and first performed around 1589. In both accounts, Bacon’s ultimate purpose was to build a magical wall of brass around Britain to protect it against any invasions; the all-knowing head would have assisted him in the task. There is, however, a crucial difference: In the play, the “monstrous head” isn’t built by alchemy nor by natural magic, but by “necromantic charms." In both sources, when the magical creation finally speaks, Bacon is fast asleep and misses its words—“Time is,” “Time was,” and “Time is past.” The opportunity to question his creation about the secrets of the universe is gone, and the head explodes, destroying itself.

Never mind that Bacon was an expert in geometry and mathematics and one of the pioneers of the scientific method; rumors that he had built a brazen head “by the hand of the Devil” persisted well into 17th century. The extent of Bacon's magical doings during his lifetime is a subject of much debate, but his association with the demonic may come in part from his experiments in optics, which resulted in impressive tricks of perspective judged to have been done “by power of evyll spirites,” in the words of the 16th century mathematician Robert Recorde. And while there is no record of Bacon ever creating an actual brazen head, he was fascinated by early astronomical clocks—also made of brass, and also offering information about the cosmos.

Oil painting of Roger Bacon in his observatory by Ernest Board
Ernest Board, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Bacon was a disciple of bishop Robert Grosseteste, another polymath alleged by literary legend to have made a brazen head, in his case by using “astral science” with the purpose of predicting the future. There are many similarities between the stories—particularly the fact that Grosseteste was also asleep when the brazen head delivered its cryptic words—so it’s likely that the two tales may have influenced one another over the years. And like Bacon, Grosseteste wasn’t exactly a sorcerer: Centuries after his death, he remains an influential figure in mathematical physics, still remembered as a crucial name in the development of Oxford University, where he lectured.

Even a saint was said to have made a brazen head. Renaissance sources tell us that 13th century Saint Albertus Magnus spent 30 years building a man of brass able to correctly answer any question, but according to one version of the story, the automaton was so loquacious that a disciple of Saint Albertus—the famed Thomas Aquinas—knocked it to pieces to stop its constant chattering.

Yet the earliest known written reference to something like a brazen head predates the Renaissance, and appears in the 12th century Chronicle of the Kings of England by William of Malmesbury. The historian attributes the creation of this head to Gerbert of Aurillac, who would become Pope Sylvester II in 999. We’re told that Gerbert traveled to Spain to “learn astrology and other sciences of that description from the Saracens,” and that he stole a book of spells from a Saracen philosopher before making a pact with the devil, who was responsible for his rise to the papal throne. “By a certain inspection of stars,” Gerbert built a head that accurately answered “yes” or “no” to any question—including one about its creator’s death. (Gerbert may have been clever enough to create an omniscient figure, but he failed to ask it the right questions: Told that he would only die after singing mass in Jerusalem, death nevertheless caught him by surprise days after having sung mass not in the city of Jerusalem, but in Jerusalem Church in Rome.)

William’s account is key to how the legend of the brazen head was received and interpreted. As a Christian monk, he regarded Islam as unholy. When Gerbert meddled with Saracens (a term medieval Europeans commonly used for Arabs and later Muslims) he was understood to have opened a door to the occult, introducing a “demonic” object to the Western world. William also perhaps strengthened the connection to paganism in the text by mentioning Daedalus, the cunning craftsman of Greek mythology, who fathered Icarus—and an impressive number of ancient automata.

INGENIOUS DEVICES

There was, indeed, some truth behind these stories. Ancient automata were not a mere mythical creation, but a real product of the inventiveness of some very early engineers. In the 4th century BCE, Archytas of Tarentum created a steam or compressed-air-powered dove; 3rd century BCE Philon of Byzantium designed a wine-pouring maid; and 1st century CE Hero of Alexandria produced a series of mechanical devices that included coin-operated machines, puppets, singing birds, and even a miniature theater able to stage a tragedy. This Greco-Alexandrian tradition was carried forward by Arab-Islamic engineers, such as the Banū Mūsā brothers in 9th century Baghdad, whose Book of Ingenious Devices contains designs for several different automata.

If many Christians regarded these inventions as devilry, it wasn’t just for their seemingly unnatural qualities, but also for their pagan origins.

Back in early modern England, Protestants used the brazen head motif for their own political purposes. In Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Bacon—who like Gerbert, Grosseteste, and Albertus Magnus was an intellectual working on advanced ideas of philosophy and nature—is presented as a necromancer. The influential play is an example of Reformation propaganda: The Middle Ages are depicted as a breeding ground for magic and the occult, and Catholics are portrayed as credulous and superstitious, as opposed to Protestants, who are praised as advocates of progress.

MAGICAL RELICS

A wizard at Musée Mécanique, San Francisco
Musée Mécanique, San Francisco
Allison Meier, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The fascination with fortune-telling heads didn’t end with the Renaissance, however. Centuries later, the legend of Bacon’s brazen head still breathed in the works of Daniel Defoe, Lord Byron, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Defoe describes how brazen heads were “the usual sign” that marked the dwellings of fortune-tellers and astrologers in 1665 London. What may have been false advertising in the 17th century became reasonably accurate in the penny arcades of the 20th century, where the fortune-telling business was actually performed by machines.

Many of these more recent fortune-telling creations still trade on tropes of the exotic—elderly gypsy women, Central European magicians, or Eastern mystics. While such automata are increasingly rare, several now live in museums, such as the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco or the Tibidabo Automata Museum in Barcelona. Although not the brazen heads of legend, they’re still functioning, ready to tell us our future—as long as we don't fall asleep.

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