“Drink and Be Merry”!
Sooner or later, almost everybody sees something in the sky, night or day, that they cannot explain. I have seen three Somethings—and I offer these tellings always to invite explanations or points of view that might show where I’m missing something. To this day I have no remotely-likely idea based in our normal (!) world about what these extraordinary flying objects were—only the clear and absolute certainty that I saw them. Obviously, my long bafflement has outweighed trepidation about sharing them at all; but I have a writer’s itch for moments when hard-nosed looking brings us to sheer wonder.
The first sighting happened in spring 1963. Setting: my hometown of Stoneham, Massachusetts, a quiet green suburb less than eight miles north of Boston, the home of Logan International Airport. As our house stood that close to Logan, there was almost always a commercial jet airliner (or military aircraft) circling overhead for its turn to land, in the process crossing through bright blue patches of sky above the boughs of maple, oak, chestnut, birch and pine trees that lined our streets and open fields.
Some were no more than contrails at high altitude: others soared slowly southward at about a thousand feet over our house, descending gear-down into Boston with their features, colors and commercial marks clear against the sky. Quite normal, but peppered in those Cold War days with a sudden shattering out-of-nowhere thunderbolt, the sonic boom of some jet-fighter’s scramble-practice. Every one of them struck you like the sure first impact of nuclear war (Boston a target with its port, Navy Yard, and metropolitan surround of new high-tech industries driven by MIT), and then it dissolved in anticlimactic relief. Our protection from socialism was often terrifying.
One sunny spring afternoon in my eighth year, I stepped through our back door onto the small wooden porch and looked out on the day. Eastward to the left was a long patch of bright clear sky, and as usual a commercial airliner was sliding level and quietly through it—its 1000-ft. altitude likely the lowest level for circling the airport, and no more than two miles away on its northward leg. Cockpit and passenger windows, engines, tail-fins and markings were as plain as its colors, the usual silver belly and painted fuselage sharp against the blue.
Directly behind this airliner, moving smoothly along and keeping the same very close distance from its tail, I saw three sharply defined, opalescent, milky-white disks. Each disk, identical in color and shape, was a perfect flat-bottomed upper half of a circle, and each was about twice the size of (say) a military fighter-plane in relation to a large commercial jet. They were not only trailing along in silent, close and steady single file right behind the airliner—they were each taking alternating turns “winking out,” leaving nothing but blue sky in each one’s place until it reappeared in two or three seconds, and another of the three discs took its seemingly-random turn at the trick. Cruising along, their blank but milky-white opalescence had an otherworldly glow. In less than 30 seconds, the aircraft and its triple trail of white winking objects cruised steadily out of sight, and that was that.
Except that I ran back into the house to find my WWII Air Force veteran father, and told him fully and calmly what I’d seen. He listened, looked amused, and then gave his best theory: military tow-targets? But, attached to a commercial airliner? He shrugged with no better idea. Yet those are the facts of what I saw, and I’m still eager for any credible explanation.
Even with a lifetime of enjoyable star-gazing, I saw no such thing again for 55 years until just last spring (2018), where I live now in Crete. Setting: about eight semi-rural miles east of Crete’s largest city Heraklion. The island is roughly rectangular, the place is about dead-center on the north-facing coastline, and out here a spacious valley (Amnisos, once a chief Minoan port) spreads its small town and farming-fields inland, from a straight four-to-five miles of open beach. Homer says Odysseus once dropped by to ask deities directions.
My little house is near the top of a steep hill that forms this valley’s western side, and the view looks east across miles of beach and open sky toward a flat-topped headland (“Bad Mountain”) that closes the valley, with a small fenced-off military base on its summit. Other nearby hilltops also have radar and electronic systems on show. Another military base, for fighters and ground-unit training, stands perhaps two miles behind my hill, and no farther away from here along the north coast is Crete’s busiest airport (Venizelos International). So, this airport’s single runway receives and launches dozens of airliners and military aircraft per week. In approach or departure (depending on the wind), their line of flight is always directly over and parallel to the same beach for miles—hence, right past our house.
The point is that safety makes this area some of the most controlled and secure air-space on the island. Without very official permission, you cannot bring so much as a helicopter or small plane into it (let alone play around here with your new drone) without looking at deserved jail-time. In my first summer stays around here forty years ago, companies could still hire a small plane to drag a commercial tail-banner across the sea-view during crowded tourist seasons, but that was outlawed years ago exactly because of increasing airline and military flights. So except for that traffic, these skies are always officially clear of intrusions.
I often climb my little roof to drink the view, the weather and stars. One quiet April mid-morning last year, I was looking northward out to sea from there. Nothing unusual: a fair-enough bright day although with a ceiling of gray cloud at about two thousand feet. Then, down from beyond the crest of this hill to my upper left (with the mouth of the airport runway and the sea not two miles below), and hardly fifty feet off the ground as it descended that slope toward the ocean, sailed a slow-moving silent object that had no visible aerodynamic reason to be in the sky or moving through it. I actually rubbed my eyes, slapped my cheek, and cursed that my camera was in the house—but determined not to move for as long as I could watch this thing.
Shape: for lack of a better comparison, it looked like an upright oil-drum or ashcan with no surface features: no wings, props, visible engines, nothing that humans call essential for flight. Size: close as it seemed, but without any good reference in simultaneous sight, I have to guess it was as big as an average school-bus. Color: a deep dull brick-red from top to bottom—and no lights, no windows, no markings or control-features whatsoever. I was plain-sight watching a kind of big flying upright ashcan fly slowly, lazily down the slope toward the sea, and right into the airport’s approach corridor. Normally in this area you can hear a dog bark two miles off (between roaring air-traffic, and there wasn’t any)—and from this thing, not a sound.
It descended from the hill and sailed out over the near sea, in a kind of tentative wandering way that first made me guess it was moved only by the wind. This is for sure a place to feel winds from mild to wild, but this morning was still, very clear below high clouds, and quiet as they come. Now a second phase began. For as this ungainly thing descended closer to the sea’s surface without disturbing the water at all, it changed form altogether. In a few seconds, this blunt heavy-looking object became a white roundish point of flickering light about the same size, flickering but steadily and distinctly there. It descended, hovered on the water almost right in front of the airport runway’s mouth, moved slightly this way and that, or up and down—but it was there in plain sight for a solid ten minutes. I fought the torment of wanting my camera for the sake of not missing one moment.
Surely this thing would dissipate into nothing, or fall into the sea like a leaky balloon? It did not. It hovered and flickered and moved at that one spot in plain sight, as just described. “Okay. Now,” I thought—“Just show me some clearly unnatural moves, some kind of apparent controlled flight, so I can make myself a tinfoil hat.”
A few minutes later, slowly, and with a half-drifting tentative course like before, this flickering white point rose away from the ocean’s surface, right through the airport approach, and started climbing at a slant farther out to sea and toward the gray ceiling of clouds. I watched and squinted and never lost sight of it until, at last, it vanished up into the gray.
I haven’t crafted the hat yet, but feel free to think that I should.
Setting: Same place as the incident just above, a bright hot August blue-sky day last summer (2018)—except that this time I was down on that same four-mile stretch of Amnisos beach, in my wife’s delightful company. Like that day’s low number of tourists around us, we were swimming and sunning, and as usual, every few minutes another international jet-airliner was gliding down loud and slow, from right (east) to left (west) through our northward view of sea and sky. By this point in final approach, they are always at most about 500 feet above the water and less than a mile away in front of you; so, again, it’s easy to see every aircraft feature.
The great majority of airliners first come into view far off to the east, flying in close parallel with the coastline as they ease down into Heraklion. I happened to be facing that way and my wife as I knelt on our blanket doing something, and I looked up to watch a particular jet coming in—because it was making a fairly rare approach straight out of the north, and then banking steeply to get on that final, beach-parallel landing corridor almost over our heads. Because this airliner was still in a radically-steep turn as it came in close and audible just beyond the top of Bad Mountain—the plane now not one mile away—I said something like “Look at this cowboy!” to my wife, who turned instantly around and then saw what I saw.
Imagine something about the size of a jeep following right on the tail of a passenger jet. This thing quite suddenly just appeared in the blue sky, flying along smoothly right behind this common airplane: a flickering but intense white orb or rough sphere of about that comparative size. In the sunshine it seemed as bright as a torch, if not incandescent. It had no other features, no sound we could separate from jet-roar—but there it clearly was in tandem with the tail of the steeply-banking plane. We watched so intently that we did not notice if anybody else was seeing it: we must have frozen, because we did not even raise a pointing hand.
As soon as the airliner managed to level off toward a normal landing—an outcome that this time, looked not wholly sure—this white flickering orb stopped dead in the air behind it, and let the jet go on its way. The orb hovered still in place in front of the whole beach for three or four seconds, and then from zero miles per hour it shot away at brain-bending speed back into the clear blue eastern distance, flying parallel with the coast of Crete till it was gone. I fixed my eyes on it and know that I saw it receding into spatial distance, rather than blinking out or vanishing all at once.
“Did you see that?” I asked my wife. “Yes,” she answered. “Did you see that?” “Yes.” “What the freak was that?” We talked over every detail and thoroughly agreed on the description you’ve just read. We saw nobody else apparently aware of any of this. But to this day, neither we nor friends we tell have any idea what it was—not least because nothing that flies subject to human laws (let alone aerodynamic ones) had any business in that sky so close to such a busy airport.
There you have them—a triplet of discs, a flying ashcan and an orb—and I hope your path too leads to wonder beneath mysterious skies.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the 9 pages here of a Photo-Journey through this story’s ancient Mediterranean world! Here’s a link to a short new talk on YouTube, “New History, New Hope”—on why it’s important that the story we tell ourselves about ourselves (our cultural tradition) has a living relation to demonstrable facts, new discoveries and understandings. Surely, we have hindsight for a reason? Isn’t learning the key to both survival and evolution?
Your life under sail is in good hands with crusty captain Ramose: his peers are the true “sea-kings” of the age, because their skills against all odds disperse the benefits of international contact. Now comes the trip’s biggest leap across open sea, and for pesky fun on the way Ramose poses a WHAT AM I? riddle, below.
…Launching out north and west for Sicily, for the first time we lost all land. Seven frightening nights we rocked out there against the wind, tiny creaking toys: the moon was waning-weak and if the sailors were nervous, so was I. Ramose wasn’t just sailing aslant each sun that set ahead of us. One eye on a cloud or star, he sniffed wind, fished out seaweed, dragged a reckoning-rope; then he ordered turns and turns-again, as if he saw interlocking rivers in the waves. Turns in the middle of nowhere! Breezing up-deck past me with a riddle-tune, adept of the world:
No wing or oar can reach me,
no colors like my own:
no sailors ever beach me,
except as skull and bone…
Fans of these fields might know what our ship’s company do not—that making for Sicily takes them past yet another half-known but astounding age of matricultural achievement. Today you can walk the gigantic stone temples of Neolithic Malta and its handful of isles (active for 2100 years after 3600), whose people imagined their Earth Mother in sculptured masterpieces full and fertile, sleeping on Her side, dreaming the world…
Not long ago in these waters, a whole Minoan fleet paid the price of Crete’s mistakes. But thanks to Brown University’s R. Ross Holloway (1982’s Italy & The Aegean 3000-700 BC, and The Archaeology of Sicily 1991), we can see little Thapsos building up and reaching out in post-Minoan times. The gifts we bring are two-fold: family rescued out of Achaian hands back at Knossos, and new ways of building in the Cyprus-style warehouses shown below.
Local people, then, are linking themselves back into the greater world, in time even crafting market knock-offs of fancy eastern styles of pottery. The so-called “breasted tree” design in the vessel below has Cretan and Canaanite cousins, where the worship of life goes on eternally now through wheeling seasons…
So for now there seems a future here even if, like Crete, the place isn’t far enough from a giant and restless volcano (Aetna). Deucalion leaves an offering most dear toward that future (the family’s in the book), and the boat turns back toward sunrise, coasting now carefully homeward…
If Thapsos rises looking eastward, Mycenaean/Achaian Pylos grows too, gazing west back across the Adriatic. One of multiple power-centers competing on the southern future-Greek mainland (like Tiryns and Mycenae), Pylos records show a fortified warrior-aristocracy with a figure called wanax its emerging kind of king: his hold on loyalty, the flow of wealth derived from often-predatory adventure. In time here, Sacker of Cities will honor heroes who pass the loot in gold and goods, horses, women and children (rationed on figs while they pound flax for textiles).
High styles again derive from Crete. You judge whether that’s by hook or crook, in the goods of the new-found grave of Pylos’ Griffin Warrior (click on his ring):
If a seat reflects honor at a Mycenaean socio-political gathering, the majority of images we have show seated women. But, while priestesses still work the land through country sanctuaries alongside priests, women’s political or other powers are unclear. For Deucalion and Pyrrha, there’s a “tone of trade” here different from any other place:
…They had a woman of court, Eritha, to handle our gifts, which house-pride would only accept as trade. We looked to make an inside friend, and Eritha poured wine, a hard Achaian jaw to her handsome forties, a peaked cap that let brown locks curl down her temples to her blue robe. She began to moan last year’s crops, pointing from her terrace mouths to feed along the bay…
In short, she needed twice the usual trade-lots for her countryside’s speckled chunks of purple basalt. Pyrrha calmly mentioned droughts in Cyprus, crews and cargoes lost in storms, and we had not doubled our demands…
–This is all I can do for you. Most people don’t mind, Eritha shrugged. Pyrrha minded, but she managed to regain old terms with a bribe of Gaza myrrh, and a Meshwesh jug of something quite reliable. And still Eritha wore some kind of a cheated smile, as we were marched and driven out…
Well, at least it sweetens return to the post-Minoan islands like the Cyclades. Yes, the waters of the Aegean Sea (4 times saltier than the Atlantic) really are that luminous crystal-blue. And, if night finds you under sail between islands, you’ll see the indigo “wine-dark sea” Homer mentioned, with bright pools of phosphorescence rising and falling all around you, like a dark mirror of the starry sky…
Pelasgoi (or Pelasgians, “people of the open sea,” the general name for these islands’ earliest tribes) were mixing traits of the east (Anatolia) and western mainland for at least 2000 years before Crete’s Minoans came on the scene with their thalassocracy or trade-protective fleet. The Cyclades’ small family groups lived well on seafood (some with 50-man boats), sheep and goats, pigs, emmer wheat, wild barley—and no doubt their artists’ quick observant eye and good humor taught Crete a thing or two. Their spiritual and social ways, like Crete’s too, centered on Earth Mother and their ancestors:
In the whole Cycladic-Minoan town found buried under Theran ash on Santorini, you can see the rich, eye-ravishing, egalitarian hybrid of life-ways these combinations produced—and not a king in sight. Yet, hopping islands homeward from Kythera and Naxos toward Miletus, Deucalion and Pyrrha see “a tide…dragging the anchor of the islands.”
As in Crete, where once stood a thriving Minoan-built center of community and trade, they find mostly ruins from Thera volcano’s devastations, and the new presence of mainland Mycenaeans.
Their eyes remember “negotiation, kinship alliances, the movements of women,” but now they see “intrusion, force, the mainland corporate state.” Those terms come from archaeologist John Younger’s 2013 review of many scholars who studied Minoan-vs.-Mycenaean differences in the Cyclades. They described Minoan building that facilitated mixing, light influence and trade—while, as in conquered Crete, later times saw more signs of separation, more-exclusive feasting practices, crudely commercial installations and, in spite of the possible benefits, a lack of “conceptual connection” between mainland ways and islanders’. With Crete’s protection gone, fear of conquest is giving more weight to the warriors—and isle by isle, new opportunists work that fear to their manly advantage…
Coasting their way southeast at last through the Dodecanese (“Twelve Isles”), the stops are old Minoan-familiar ports, Miletus, Cnidus and Caunus: homes of the Carians (“people of Great Mother Car”), whose sailing-sons or Leleges had a major role in Crete’s broad “loose confederacy.” Now, it’s more of same: Mycenaean raiders (whose home-records list the slaves taken here) in their waters, and at their backs the predatory might of the Hittites…
Some dreadful new kind of world is closing in—and yet, for a few feasting moments, it’s welcome-back to certainties in Cyprus…
But People of the Sea is a story, in part, of a man and people learning their way out of violence: the cutting edge of their world, and a challenge no stranger to ourselves. Naturally, then, the betrayals of an older wiser way come from within Deucalion, from within the families around him—and they’re no sooner landed than all of them suffer a new kind of shocking surprise, from Karfi men whom Deucalion himself helped turn toward a self-destructive answer…
Here in closing are three reflections born of the story so far—and, a glimpse of “what’s coming” indeed.
1) There’s a vast old world of different cultures out there, all interconnected, and they have spiritual and social ways to mix, learn and benefit across differences;
2) The signs tell a rising tide of change toward kings and violence; and,
3) The West’s ancient matricultural web is going to need all its memory and strengths to survive what’s coming…
The map at left shows the highways of trade between Egypt and the East. Sea Peoples/Philistines built their share of the land on a promise from a real Pharaoh: keep order on those roads, or else. The gilgal or early Israelite gathering-camp at right relates, according to archaeologists, to their “separatist” claim upon the whole multicultural region from sea to Babylon, on a promise from a god known only to them. Outsiders were free to be servants, to leave, or to die.
Yet in fact, with so much in common—from intense religious life to bad experience with Egypt, from their tribes’ fierce joyful independence to their mutual hatred of kings— the old narrative of a fated Culture War between Philistine “pagans” and The Chosen Of The One True God no longer holds. The more archaeologists dig, the more they use the word “entanglement” as the real daily norm. (In parallel, it’s clear now that The Trojan War wasn’t fought over Helen.)
Something more thumpingly obvious must have come between these worlds. That’s what People of the Sea searches out in the lives of human families on all sides.
The changes they bring to us are as luminous as liberating.
Welcome back aboard! You’ve already come a long way—like our Cyprian diplomat Pyrrha, her new post-Minoan partner Deucalion “Sweet Wine,” and others in their company (including a Libu or Libyan leader and people from Sicily, hoping for their homes)—out of the ruins of Crete (Days 1-4 here) to new homes in Alashiya-Cyprus (Day 5), to Syria’s Ugarit (6) and the cities of Byblos, Ascalon and Gaza (7).
Crusty old master Ramose cares for nothing but his ship’s safe passage, and his pastime taking pokes at passengers’ pretensions. The land has turned our boat toward the sun and the most powerful nation of this world, where (in these islanders’ matricultural, king-suspicious eyes) a vast priesthood and a state of ranked and vested interests endow their Pharaohs with power-absolute, that he may take and conquer where they will. Everybody says Egypt shaped this world: fewer confess where the petty Baal-kings of Canaan find their grandest example.
Ramose threads the mouth of The Nile, whose changeable marshes and canals can “dead-end in crocodile swamp or bring you a town with gold-peaked buildings.” As ever, the “tourists” stick out as they gaze open-mouthed at works in stone that seem beyond human construction—and this visit reaches only the Lower Nile’s vast “breadbasket,” through a gauntlet of inspections, officials and judicious gifts.
The visit, like the state here, narrows down to the sanction of a single seated individual while others stand, bow and plead: this time, just for refreshment of trade-connections. Deucalion’s struggling to learn, because he’s drowning (an almost-priest) in the gilded glyphs that speak urgent unintelligible messages everywhere—“I must have been dazed. Even a window looking at a one-tree marsh felt like relief, and there were none in the great hall for business….”
In their quarters there’s a glimpse of yet-more works by dispossessed Minoan artists. Well, if old Cretans bear old Egypt a grudge as one player in their downfall, this world as it is needs facing, so life can go on. Now we’re coasting westward, next stop the island Pharos, with a past as powerful as its future.
This image of modern Balos, Crete, gives a fair idea of early Pharos—except that you don’t see the massive breakwater forming Pharos’ first great sheltered harbor with a half-ring of 24-ton stone blocks. By Deucalion’s time in the wake of the Thera volcano catastrophe, this first colossus was half-shattered. But 1990s underwater archaeology by a Franco-Egyptian team supports scholar Dorothy I. Sly and others (see Philo’s Alexandria, 1996) that this construction dated back to Middle Minoan times (after 2000 BCE): a massive cooperative project between two “highly sophisticated shipping cultures” using Cretan design and Egyptian labor. So began the centuries here of cosmopolitan traffic:
Another link with old home can mean opportunities. From the last days of Knossos we see a Cretan officer leading a troop of African, probably Libyan or Libu men:
When Night of the Griffin (Day 4 here) destroys ancient Knossos, some of them join Deucalion to leave these lives they want no longer. Such is Merire on the boat with him now, rejoicing that his country’s coast is coming into sight—and such is the long coastal-African journey that here, in his far Meshwesh tribal country, is where they’ll winter.
This is the matricultural homeland of Great Mother Ngame, “Dripping Rain,” some say the mother of the islanders’ Athene. Her men wear the textiles and web-of-X tattoos of their families and their connections: this woman bears a palm in a bull-horned planter, her cap of likely goatskin like the young ones dedicated to Athene:
There’s trade in grain and olive oil, in citrus-wood and the tasty fish-sauce garum. But now comes promise of a trade very high in the hopes of Pyrrha and Cyprus’ women. For only here in this stretch of Meshwesh Libu’s actual coast grew the plant—much, it’s believed, like Giant Fennel (below)—called sylphium.
A little medicine decocted from sylphium was “so much a surer thing against childbirth than wild carrot, or a pessary, or wool soaked in lemon and oil” that by Roman times, the traffic for it driven by demand wiped out the species. For now, with its new trade built on the miracle-return of Merire’s family, it has the promise of a powerful long-term instrument.
After all, if signs of troubling patriarchal change bear out in these lifetimes and beyond, people like Pyrrha who look and build ahead have a will to hold on to tribe-protective ways as old as evolution—practices lumped by patriarchal time into the dismissive empty syllables of “fertility cult.”
Ahh, yes: that heathen multi-deity polyamorous sex-obsessed worship of base blind natural lust without ethics, real comfort or consequence, from which we are saved by kings, chaste obedience, and rumors of reward after all our suffering.
Unless of course women’s skills and powers in sexuality and reproduction might actually foster optimum conditions for many happy children: “happy” meaning a number in balance with natural conditions, but not enough for forced-labor-gangs and predatory war.
What happens to this knowledge? Time and tale will tell.