Shipping News

01 18 boston harbour mapToday I want to tell you about UFO sightings, and also USO’s (which are unidentified submerged objects) because on this day in 1644 in Boston Massachusetts, a USO was seen by several people to rise out of the harbour and fly away. It was one of a string of similar sightings and the circumstances are somewhat tragic. In early January, a ship had been blown up in the harbour and five men were killed. All the bodies were recovered, save one.

Sixteen days later, three men, who were approaching Boston harbour in their boat, saw two lights rise out of the water on the exact spot where the explosion happened. They said that the lights then assumed the shape of a man and sailed off across the water, close to the shore, for about fifteen minutes, then they disappeared. A week later, the lights were seen again, this time by several people. They were a little further off, but this time they floated for about twelve minutes before disappearing into the sea at the point where the ship had been. The sightings continued. One evening, at about eight o’clock, people in the north of the city saw the two lights again emerge from the site of the wreck. They floated off towards the, then uninhabited, Nottle’s Island where they merged and parted several times, sometimes shooting out flames or sparks. They finally disappeared behind the island. Meanwhile, further south in the city, people were having a different experience. They heard a voice on the water. It seemed to shift it’s location and called out, perhaps twenty times: “Boy! Boy! Come away! Come away!” Reports continued for about three weeks. All these events were recorded by John Winthrop, who was several times governor of Massachusetts and had been instrumental in founding the colony. He was a serious fellow, and I have no reason to doubt that he believed the stories.

There was a lot of debate in Boston over what might have been the cause of the phenomena. It was generally believed that the man whose body had been lost was, in life, a necromancer. They thought it must be his unquiet spirit that was responsible for the lights and voices. They also decided that it was probably him that blew up the ship.

The 1644 sighting though was not the first, not even the first in Boston. In 1639, three men in a boat (I have no idea whether it was the same three men), saw a ‘great light’ at Muddy River. It grew to be about three yards across, then contracted into the shape of a pig. It ran up and down in the sky for two or three hours. When it had gone, they found that their boat had drifted a mile, against the tide, and they were back where they had started from. We have no way of knowing exactly what everyone saw in Boston. The way people interpret what they see, depends very much on their world view. The Bostonians were seventeenth century Puritans who probably tended to interpret anything they didn’t understand as demons and witchcraft. You only need to take a look at the Salem Witch Trials to see that. But there are other, older, and even stranger sightings of objects in the sky.

01 18 nürnberg 1561On April 14th, 1561, around dawn, in the town of Nuremberg, Germany, citizens saw the sky filled with many oddly shaped objects that moved about erratically. They saw two crescents come out of the sun. They saw spheres, rods, cylinders and blood red crosses which all seemed to fight with each other in the sky for about an hour. They then seemed to grow tired and fell to the ground where they: “wasted away on the earth with immense smoke” Then there was a black spear in the sky, pointing to the west. A week later a broadsheet was published describing the event along with a woodcut illustration by Hans Galser. It is a very confusing account. “Whatever such signs may mean,” it says “God alone knows.” It is impossible to imagine what it might have been that they were looking at, but there are several reports from around that time of strange things in the sky. Sometimes battling spheres, sometimes fighting knights. There was, at that time, a massive war going on between the Catholics and Protestants, so it is likely that conflict was uppermost in their minds when they were trying to interpret what they saw.

Here is an even older report from Cloera in Ireland from the year 956:

“There happened in the borough of Cloera, one Sunday, while the people were at Mass, a marvel. In this town is a church dedicated to St. Kinarus. It befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky, with a rope attached to it, and one of the flukes caught in the arch above the church door. The people rushed out of the church and saw in the sky a ship with men on board, floating before the anchor cable, and they saw a man leap overboard and jump down to the anchor, as if to release it. He looked as if he were swimming in water. The folk rushed up and tried to seize him; but the Bishop forbade the people to hold the man, for it might kill him, he said. The man was freed, and hurried up to the ship, where the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed out of sight. But the anchor is in the church, and has been there ever since, as a testimony.”

There do seem to be numerous reports of sky ships whose anchors become caught in part of a church, sometimes it is the altar rail. An almost identical account was reported by Gervase of Tilbury at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Only in his story, the man who swims down through the sky to release the anchor, drowns in our atmosphere as we would drown in water. His shipmates cut the anchor rope and sail away. The idea of sky ships, which are sailed by storm wizards, dates back even further, to at least the eighth century. They were supposed to sail about gathering up booty after a storm and take it back to their home in the sky. Maybe they are some remnant of the story of Odin’s Wild Hunt, that rode across the stormy sky. Maybe it is a story about the new religion foiling and suffocating the old. But that’s just a guess.

01 18 bosch temptaion of saint anthony detail