As far as historical anniversaries go, this is a bit of a peculiar one: 69 years ago today, the "Roswell Incident" — one of the most bizarre and elaborately mythologized episodes in both UFO and American conspiracy theory history — occurred. But while that event (which some believed involved a crashed extraterrestrial flying saucer) might be the most famous UFO-related event in history, it's far from the first. Because if there’s one thing that humans are good at, it’s taking peculiar experiences and giving them strange, out-there meaning; and, as it happens, stories and myths about unidentified flying (or falling, or annoying) objects are a strong part not only of American tradition, but of human history as well.
Let’s go on record here: I am not a believer of UFOs as alien phenomena from other planets. In general, it seems far more likely that experiences can be explained by military testing, weird natural phenomena, or just people being credulous. If there are other beings in the universe, I find it unlikely that they would waste their time terrifying humans in remote areas and buzzing planes. (Unless aliens get bored too, in which case I apologize.) But that doesn’t diminish the enormous cultural hold of alien activity across multiple centuries; we’ve been talking about intervention from the skies for thousands of years.
Here are some of the most radically influential (or just plain bonkers) UFO encounters in human history, from Roman falling wine jars to interfering World War II spacecraft.
74BC: Ancient Romans See An Unidentified Flying...Wine Jar
Plutarch is widely known as a biographer of Roman armies and histories — but his annals took an extremely bizarre turn in his recounting of a battle in Phrygia in 74 BC, between a Roman army and Mithras of Pontus. According to his records, the battle was thrown into utter disarray because a giant apparition dropped between the two armies out of the sky. It was apparently gigantic, made of some kind of flame, silver-colored, and shaped like a wine jar. Plutarch mentions that, understandably, "both sides were astonished at the sight, and separated."
1561: Flying Objects Do Battle Over Nuremberg
If you were in Nuremberg in 1561, apparently you’d have been witness to some kind of interstellar battle in the morning sky. (Though why alien armies would pick Nuremberg is anybody’s guess.) According to a broadsheet published at the time, inhabitants of the city were bewildered by what appeared to be flying cannons, crosses, spheres and other objects having some kind of massive clash in the morning of April XX.
Explanations of the phenomenon have ranged from some kind of bizarre natural event (a bat migration crossing over with moths, for instance) to mass hysteria or an astrological phenomenon called a "parhelion," or sun dog. Carl Jung even weighed in with a theory about the unconscious, and how the people of Nuremberg may have been looking for holy signs in the environment because of their tricky political situation. It’s also worth mentioning that the broadsheets of this time aren’t exactly reliable sources of information; they also reported that an English woman was giving birth to rabbits.
1897: An Alien Airship Crashes In Aurora, Texas
Americans were clearly already interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life as early as the 19th century: the Aurora story, published in Texas newspapers in 1897, is proof of that. Aurora resident S.E. Haydon decided to write about the incident, saying, essentially, that a craft had crashed, killing the pilot (clearly “not of this world”), who was then kindly buried in the local cemetery with Christian rites while the craft wreckage was, for reasons that are unclear, thrown down a well. (No, really.)
It’s now believed that Haydon, who curiously wrote nothing else about the bewildering incident, may have made up the story to get publicity for the remote town and encourage visitors, but it caused a minor furore at the time.
1940s: Foo Fighters (The UFOs, Not The Band) Confuse The Military
Yes, the band was named after these peculiar (and not entirely helpful) apparent UFO visitors, who were reported by military personnel to have interfered at numerous points in aerial battles in various theaters of war during WWII. What these small flying objects (often spheres) were doing getting in the way of a war that had absolutely nothing to do with them (as far as we know) is anybody’s guess.
But considering the atmosphere of ritual, heightened terror and extreme psychological pressure among air crews in WWII, it seems much more likely that the objects, whatever they were, were either benign, massively exaggerated, or some kind of experimental technology that utterly freaked everybody out.
1942: The Battle of Los Angeles Shocks The West Coast
In one of the stranger episodes in America’s relationship with UFOs, on the night of February 24, 1942, an entire city got onto battle footing when unidentified flying objects were rumored to be running around overhead. Already on edge about a supposed security threat, Los Angeles went into total blackout mode after radars supposedly detected an unidentified object west of L.A. The Los Angeles air raid systems were put on full alert, the sky lit up with lights and anti-aircraft bombs, and everybody wondered what the hell was going on.
Considering that this occurred as the Pacific theatre of World War II — from Australia to Japan to Papua New Guinea — was explosive at the time, you can’t blame the public for being a little paranoid. But while most initially believed the lights they saw in the sky to be enemy planes, historians now believe that stray meteorological balloon that caused a panic, which was further compounded when the light from anti-aircraft shells was mistaken for additional flying objects. However, some folks definitely believed that whatever object caused the confusion was extraterrestrial in nature.
1947: Something Crashes In Roswell
All of this set the groundwork for Roswell, now the most notorious chapter in American UFO history. A bizarre aircraft crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, and what happened afterwards has been at the center of American UFO myth-making ever since. The US Army released a famous statement, which they quickly took back, saying that they thought a flying saucer had crashed. It turns out, according to officials, that what they found wasn't a UFO; it was a device used for nuclear test monitoring. But that wasn't interesting enough for alien-watchers, who've elaborated every theory known to man about the incident. Likely the most famous interpretation of the aftermath was 1996's Independence Day, in which Will Smith punched an alien in the face and Area 51 was revealed to contain fully-functional alien spacecraft — so in a way, it’s fitting that the 20-year sequel is debuting around the anniversary of Roswell’s occurrence. It reminds me of the classic UFO-related proverb: Jeff Goldblum or it didn’t happen.