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Swing Low Sweet UFO: Kenneth Arnold, St. John’s Day and Chariots of Fire

REALITY, n. The dream of a mad philosopher. That which would remain in the cupel if one should assay a phantom. The nucleus of a vacuum. The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, born April 24, 1842

Every day on Mysterious Universe is UFO day, but today, June 24, is the official UFO Day. According to Wikipedia, in 2001, June 24 was designated World UFO Day in honor of Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting of nine crescent-moon shaped craft flying over Mt. Rainer in Washington State that ushered in the modern UFO era.

So how are we expected to celebrate UFO day? All we have to do is look up, watch the skies and maybe see something as unidentifiable as Kenneth Arnold describes:

“The sky and air was clear as crystal. I hadn’t flown more than two or three minutes on my course when a bright flash reflected on my airplane. It startled me as I thought I was too close to some other aircraft. I looked every place in the sky and couldn’t find where the reflection had come from until I looked to the left and the north of Mt. Rainier where I observed a chain of nine peculiar looking aircraft flying from north to south at approximately 9,500 foot elevation and going, seemingly, in a definite direction of about 170 degrees.” – Kenneth Arnold’s statement via Project 47

While considering those “mirror bright” discs on that midsummer afternoon, it’s doubtful that Arnold realized that on that very same day an ocean away Europeans were celebrating St. John’s Day in honor the birth of Saint John the Baptist. He was Jesus’s “cousin” whose birth was prophesied by an angel as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah  making him one of the most supernatural figures in the Bible.

Here’s how Europe honors the patron saint of baptism, bird dealers, converts, epileptics, farriers, hail, hailstorms, Jordan, Knights Hospitaller, Knights of Malta, lambs, monastic life, motorways (because he said “Make straight the way of the Lord”), printers, spasms and tailors. As a baptizer, he is associated, naturally enough, with the healing qualities of water and sacred wells and springs.  Naturally, they celebrate his day by setting a whole bunch of fires.

“Fire-festivals have been most generally held all over Europe is the summer solstice, that is Midsummer Eve (the twenty-third of June) or Midsummer Day (the twenty-fourth of June) …Whatever their origin, they have prevailed all over this quarter of the globe, from Ireland on the West to Russia on the East, and from Norway and Sweden on the North to Spain and Greece on the South…. According to a medieval writer, the three great features of the Midsummer celebration were the bonfires, the procession with torches round the fields, and the custom of rolling a wheel … and he explains the custom of trundling a wheel to mean that the sun, having now reached the highest point in the ecliptic, begins thenceforward to descend.

In the case of the wheel that figures so prominently at Midsummer — without a common source, isn’t it a very curious symbol to so preoccupy an entire continent? The old Roman solstice festival of Summanas honoured the aspect of Jupiter responsible for casting thunderbolts at night. …”In Glamorgan [Wales] a cart-wheel swathed in straw used to be ignited and sent rolling down the hill. If it kept alight all the way down and blazed for a long time, an abundant harvest was expected. … In Poitou [France] also it used to be customary on the Eve of St. John to trundle a blazing wheel wrapt in straw over the fields to fertilize them. .At Lower Konz  if the fiery wheel was successfully conveyed to the bank of the river and extinguished in the water, the people looked for an abundant vintage that year…On the other hand, they believed that, if they neglected to perform the ceremony, the cattle would be attacked by giddiness and convulsions and would dance in their stalls.” – Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1922

It might sound like midsummer’s madness to celebrate the saint of baptism with fiery wheels until you discover that John the Baptist was said to represent the return of the prophet Elijah, one of the few Bible immortals who gets to heaven without actually dying.

The story of his depelijah-elisha-aparture to heaven goes like this:  Elijah, in company with Elisha (Eliseus), approaches the Jordan. He rolls up his mantle and strikes the water (2 Kings 2:8). The water immediately divides and Elijah and Elisha cross on dry land. Suddenly, a chariot of fire and horses of fire appear and Elijah is lifted up to heaven in a whirlwind.

And that’s just the end of the tale.  This Elijah character is a major player in all things Biblically paranormal:

According to Wikipedia Elijah appears in the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, Mishnah, New Testament, and the Qur’an. According to the Books of Kings, Elijah raised the dead, brought fire down from the sky, and ascended into heaven in a whirlwind (accompanied by chariots, not in one). In the Book of Malachi, Elijah’s return is prophesied “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord,”[4] making him a harbinger of the Messiah and the eschaton (the end of days)  in various faiths that revere the Hebrew Bible.John the Baptist by Leonardo de Vinci

Then, just a few short months before the Messiah shows up, this cousin John is born to the old and barren sister of the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth. From then on there always seemed to be a little confusion about just which one of these miracle babies was the real deal.

The Jews of Jesus’ day expected Elijah to come before the Messiah; indeed, some modern Jews continue to await Elijah’s coming as well, as in the Cup of Elijah t he Prophet in the Passover Seder. This is why the disciples ask Jesus in Matthew 17:10, ‘Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?.’ The disciples are then told by Jesus that Elijah came in the person of John the Baptist, Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist. — Matt. 17:11-13

Maybe they were convinced, I’m not so sure I would have been. These mysterious births and reiterations of Elijah seems a little suspicious to me. Like maybe they’re alien’s sitting up there in the Mothership taking turns at playing Messiah’s for us easily conned Earthlings. Not to mention the whirlwind and the raising people from the dead (skills that Elijah passed on to Elisha–the guy who watched him get sucked up by the whirlwind–by simply leaving his “spacesuit” behind when he flees in the “whirlwind. (After that Elisha gets the garment he raised the dead and made bears eat people when he summoned them, which doesn’t seem exactly human or saintly.)

However, maybe it’s not such a mystery that St. John’s Day and World UFO Day collide. Could be that the fiery whirlwind and chariot to heaven are the original inspiration for the straw ones that are burned on St. John’s Day. And the flying saucers just the latest iteration an old, old story.  Maybe the actual memory  is lost to mankind, but the symbols continue to haunt us. So on this UFO Day I plan to follow St. John’s direction and Kenneth Arnold’s example and look up and maybe we’ll see something mirror bright and miraculous come into view.