Category Archives: Richard Blake

Space Aliens: Do They Walk Among Us?


Space Aliens: Do They Walk Among Us?
Richard Blake

Though what he really said is open to doubt, the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi gave his name to an elegant and seemingly convincing argument against the existence of intelligent life on other planets. There are 200 billion stars in our galaxy alone. 20 billion of these are like our own sun. Let us assume that one in five of these has planets – and we find new exoplanets every year – and let us assume that one in a hundred of these one in five has one planet with liquid water: that gives us 40 million earth-like planets. I will not carry on with the assumptions, but it seems reasonable that there should be around a hundred thousand other advanced civilisations in our galaxy alone.

This being so, the “Fermi Paradox” asks, where are they? So many other civilisations – so many of them presumably older and more advanced than our own – and they have not visited us. Nor, after generations of scanning with radio telescopes, have we detected any unambiguous signals from them. Either intelligent life on other planets does not exist, or it is so rare and so far apart in time or distance or both, that we shall never find it.

Writing in 2008, Nick Bostrom of Oxford University takes the argument to conclusions that are either depressing or exhilarating. He proposes a set of Great Filters, each of which limits the emergence of intelligent and technologically-advanced life. The most obvious filters are in the past. We shall soon be able to estimate how many planets in our galaxy have liquid water. We still have do not know how life begins. Obviously, it began here. But we have never been able to create a self-replicating organic process in our laboratories. It may be very unusual. It may also be very unusual, once begun, for this process to evolve beyond the very simple. Then it may be very unusual for larger and more complex living structures to evolve, and hardest of all for anything to emerge with the right combination of mind and appendages to enable the birth of a technological civilisation.

Or the Great Filter may be in the future. It may be that civilisations like our own are reasonably common – but that they invariably blow themselves up shortly after finding how to split the atom.

Bostrop’s conclusion is to hope that, when we get there, we shall find that Mars is, and always has been, a sterile rock. Independent life of any kind on a neighbouring planet would suggest a universe teeming with life, and some probability of civilisations like our own. This being so, the lack of contact would put his Great Filter in the future, and would suggest that we are, on the balance of probabilities, heading for self-extinction. No life at all on Mars, now or in the past, would let him keep hoping that the Great Filter is in the past, and that we may have a splendid progress before us.

The main counter-argument to the Fermi Paradox is that aliens have made contact with us. Since at least the 1940s, there have been thousands of reported sightings of unidentified flying objects and their crews. The problem with this counter-argument is that the claims of UFO sightings all appear to involve some kind of deception. Most lights in the sky turn out to have a human or astronomical origin. Most claims of physical contact are made by frauds or persons of unsound mind. In the past few days, I have watched dozens of YouTube videos that claim to show various kinds of alien encounter. Every one of them strikes me as fraudulent.

The wider claim of a conspiracy between governments and aliens can be dismissed at once. The most obvious deal between these parties is that our rulers give resources to the aliens, and they give our rulers a more advanced technology. But I can see no discontinuous leap in any technology. Everything we have now would have seemed marvellous to a man in 1948. But all of it has plainly grown out of what we already had in 1948. There are no warplanes with anti-gravity paint on them, no telepathy machines, no teleportation. Our rulers continue to get old and decrepit, and to die. Many people claim to have seen Elvis Presley since 1977. No one claims to have seen a rejuvenated and renamed Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, or any of the Rothschilds or Rockefellers. Bill Gates looks authentically past the bloom of youth.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that every reported sighting is untrue. I cannot say which ones are true. But I do find it likely that some are true. The problem with modern claims is that they involve a mass of intellectual “white noise.” We live in a civilisation where primitive space travel is an established fact. We can easily imagine more sophisticated forms of travel between stars. We are willing to consider the possibility of life beyond the stars. Many of us want to believe in life beyond the stars. Therefore thousands of reported sightings that involve some kind of deception. How to decide if any may be true?

The answer, I suggest, is to look into the past. Despite a scientific consensus growing since before 1600, the general idea, until then, was that our planet was the largest object in the universe, and was at the centre of the universe. Angels might visit from the skies, but hardly anyone imagined there was any place above the skies from which natural beings might arrive. So, are there any records of UFO sightings from before our own Age of Science?

There are many. I will give two of these. I could give more, but have decided to give the only two I can find that I can be sure have not been forged in modern times. When I was a boy, I read and believed Erich von Daniken. I then discovered that most of his alleged evidence from ancient times was based on doctored or just fabricated documentation. I therefore take two records of sightings that are in Latin – a language I can read – and that can be found in published texts of undoubted repute. For your benefit, I give both English translations and images of the pages where the originals can be found.

My first account is by Agobard, a bishop of the ninth century. Note that he refuses to believe the story he has heard. Note also, however, the claim of flying vessels, engaging in some kind of trade.

We have seen and heard many overcome by such madness, separated by such stupidity, that they believe and say there is a certain place called Magonia, from which [place] ships come through the skies, in which [ships] are carried back to that place [Magonia] the crops which were ruined by hailstones and lost in storms – these sky-sailors making payment to the Tempestarii [Masters of the Storms?], and having in exchange wheat and other crops. From these [people] so blinded by deep stupidity, that they are able to believe such things can happen, we have seen many at an assembly, showing off four captives – three men and one woman – as having fallen from these ships. These they showed in chains for several days in this assembly, as I have said, in my presence, saying that they should be stoned to death. But, truth overcoming them after much debate, the people who had shown the prisoners were confounded, in like manner to the words of the prophecy, that the thief is defeated when captured. (Bishop Agobard of Lyons, d. c840, “Liber Contra Insulam Vulgi Opinionem de Grandine et Tonitruis,” c.II – given on p.148 in Patrologiae Latinae, Vol. 104, Migne Edition, Paris, 1864)

My second account is by Gervase of Tilbury, writing in the early thirteenth century.

In our own day appears new corroboration of the greatness of the sea which is above the sky. This is well-known, but wondrous even so. On a feast day in Great Britain, when the people had finished attending a service and were leaving the church, and it was dull and dark outside, because the sky was covered in dense cloud, there appeared the anchor of a ship above the tombstones. Its hook stuck under a fence, and the stretched cable went high into the sky. Everyone was amazed by this vision, and spoke much about it. At last, they saw the cable begin to move as if someone were trying to move the anchor. When the anchor remained stuck, a voice was heard in the heavy air as of sailors when they seek to recover a stuck anchor. Without delay, the work going nowhere, the crew chose one sailor, who came down the cable. He came down hand-over-hand just as our own sailors do. As soon as he let go, he was seized by those who were standing close by. He died in their arms, suffocated by the damp of our heavy air as if drowned in the sea. The sailors who remained above decided that their companion had drowned. After one hour they cut the cable and sailed away leaving the anchor behind. Afterwards, following prudent advice, it was decided to make iron fittings for the church doors out of this anchor in commemoration of the event. They can still be seen there. (Gervase of Tilbury, c1200, Otia Imperalia, Hanover, 1856, pp.2-3)

These accounts are widely-spaced in time. They seem to owe nothing to each other. They prove no theological point. One of them is sceptical. They both speak of ships in the sky. One of them speaks of a crew member unable to breathe our air. It is a rebuttable presumption that both are garbled accounts of UFO sightings. They are of undeniable authenticity. If I had the relevant language skills, I have no doubt I could find similar accounts in Arabic and Chinese. I will not look for these, because I am unable to vouch for their authenticity. But the Latin is enough for me.

Why might aliens be interested in us? I have no idea, and see no value in speculating. Why they seem to have taken less care in the past to hide themselves than nowadays is easier to answer. When I was a very young boy, the women in my family would get dressed and undressed in front of me, confident I would never remember anything when I grew older. As I did grow older, they behaved with greater modesty. In the same way, it makes sense that an alien mission of some kind would show itself to intelligent but untechnological beings, making greater efforts at concealment only when these beings began a rapid course of technological progress. What these aliens might be doing here is unknown. But the evidence that they are here begins to mount long before the 1940s.

Now, an objection to both these texts is that they are taken from longer works filled with other marvellous accounts that I would dismiss out of hand. Am I not giving my belief in an arbitrary way? I do not think I am. If a monk is said to have converted the heathen by cooking meat without fire, or by raising a man from the dead, this can be dismissed as involving some kind of deception. Our knowledge of how the world works has no room for miracles. But there is nothing miraculous about a UFO sighting. As said, if a man says now that he saw a flying saucer, our default response should be sceptical. When a writer of the middle ages reports a sighting, what he says should be taken into consideration.

Another objection to my general point is that the texts may record folk memories of a long-vanished human civilisation on this planet. The flying ships may be distant Echoes from Atlantis. There is an easy reply to this objection. Since about 1500, we have made obvious and irreversible changes to the planet. We have introduced tobacco and tomatoes to Europe, and horses to South America and rabbits to Australia. We have extracted all the mineral resources that can be easily got at. If the human race vanished tomorrow, and all our cities fell to dust or were overspread by jungle, it would still be obvious to any alien visitor that the Earth had once supported an advanced civilisation. The fact that we took control, after 1500, over a virgin planet indicates that ours is the first advanced civilisation on this planet.

This being so, anomalies like the Baghdad batteries and these accounts of flying ships are more easily explained as echoes of low-scale alien visitation. Those mediaeval chronicles raise an arguable case. The burden of proof is on the doubters.

Here, then, is my answer to the Fermi Paradox. The universe may well be teeming with life. And I certainly look forward to exploring those Pyramids on Mars.

 

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Jerome and His Women


Joan O’Hagen
Jerome and His Women
Black Quill Press, Sydney, 2015 (pb)
ISBN: 9780646943701 

Review by Richard Blake

This novel explores the background to one of the most important events in history. When Constantine established Christianity as the preferred state religion in 313, he was saving Western civilisation. Until then, the religious settlement in the Roman Empire was divided both vertically and horizontally. The vertical division marked off the educated elite. For those at the top, the pagan cults were approaches to the concept of a Supreme Being and a universal moral law. Those at the bottom took these cults at face value, with their alarming or simply scandalous mythologies, and their frequent lack of mutual sympathy.

Christianity was a universal religion. For all its sectarian tendencies, it crossed every boundary of language and race and class. It was a way of life, and it had philosophical content. Once spread beyond the frontiers, it did much to humanise the barbarians, who would otherwise have invaded as pure savages. It also provided a check to misgovernment. The Jews aside, it is hard to think of any religious group that had been able to face down a determined pagan emperor. Once Constantine himself was dead, the clergy could rally the faithful as they pleased – usually for the Empire that they now dominated, but also against any emperor who in their opinion went too far. Read more

Gay Sex in the Roman Empire


Gay Sex in the Roman Empire
Richard Blake

There are two opposed beliefs about homosexuality—or gay sex, or the more neutral and perhaps accurate term all-male sex—in the Roman Empire. The first is that the Ancient World fizzled out in an orgy of bum fun, and that we need to be careful not to let this happen to us. The second is that the Ancient World was one big al-fresco bath house. Though held by opposite sides, neither belief in its essentials contradicts the other. Both, however, are false.

Too much Gay Sex?

I move to the first of the beliefs. Where do you begin with a set of claims so completely unfounded on the evidence? I suppose you look to the evidence. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar both had a taste for all-male sex. So did Mark Antony. So did Hadrian. So had most of the famous Athenians – Euripides being one of its most notable enthusiasts. No signs there of moral or any other weakness. If Mark Antony came to a bad end, it was because he married an ambitious foreign woman.

A growing prejudice against all-male sex becomes visible in the fourth century, when Constantine established Christianity as the official faith. He made the first laws against it. Within a century, the Goths were across the Rhine and had sacked Rome. Oh, and one of Constantine’s own sons had a taste for Gothic boys!

It’s absurd to try correlating national greatness or decline with sexual customs. Ancient civilisation didn’t collapse because its rulers were too worn out from buggering each other to take up swords. The ultimate cause may have been a mild global cooling, which lowered the Malthusian ceiling. By this, I mean that falling crop yields made it harder for populations to maintain their accustomed standards of living. There was an undoubted growth of rural impoverishment that left populations open to the pandemic diseases that swept through the Mediterranean world from late in the second century. Population decline was then worsened by various forms of misgovernment, and by the need to hold frontiers that had only made sense in an age of economic and demographic expansion. Rather than bursting through in unstoppable floods, the barbarians seem eventually to have wandered, in small bands, into a demographic vacuum.

Gay Heaven?

I move now to the second false belief, which is that the Ancient World was like the set of a Bel Ami porn film. I once watched a television documentary in which it was seriously maintained that straight sex was out of fashion in Athens during the classical period. I thought of writing in to ask what books the researchers had been reading. A better response, though, is to look at the circumstances of ancient civilisation—at the wider forces that shaped sexual morality.

Because it lasted over a thousand years, and flourished on three continents, you should be careful with generalisations about ancient civilisation. But one good generalisation is that free men were expected to marry and beget children. These were societies with high death rates. They needed high birth rates not to die out. They particularly needed large numbers of young men to fight in their endemic wars of conquest or survival. Those men who wouldn’t breed were sometimes punished. Those who couldn’t were expected to adopt the surplus children of their poorer friends and relatives.

There were also strong prejudices against men who took the passive role in oral and anal sex. Take, for example, this epigram somewhere in Martial:

Secti podicis usque ad umbilicum
Nullas reliquias habet Charinus
Et prurit tamen usque ad umbilicum.
O quanta scabie miser laborat:
Culum non habet, est tamen cinaedus.

[Of his anus, split right up to the belly button,
Nothing remains to Charinus.
And still he longs for it right up to his belly button.
O behold the poor dear’s itching:
No arse left, yet still he longs to be fucked.]

On the other hand, the ancients didn’t have our concept of gay and straight. Latin has a large and precise sexual vocabulary—though you won’t find meanings in the standard dictionaries. See, for example: Irrumator, one who presents his penis for sucking; Fellator, one who sucks; Pathicus, the passive partner in anal sex, Exoletus, the active partner; Cinaedus, a male prostitute; Catamitus, a boy prostitute or lover; Glabrarius, lover of smooth-skinned boys; Tribas, a woman with a clitoris large enough to serve as a penis—and so it continues. The Greek vocabulary is larger still. There is no word in either language that means “homosexual.” Sodomitus is a late word, brought in by the Christians, and may not have had its present meaning until deep into the Middle Ages.

So long as legitimate children were somehow begotten, and so long as he didn’t disgrace himself by taking the passive role, what else a free man did was legally and morally indifferent. Elsewhere in his works, Martial boasts of sleeping with boys, and scolds his wife for thinking ill of him. In Athens and some other classical city states, it was a social duty for men in the higher classes to have sexual affairs with adolescent boys. We all know about the Spartans. In Thebes, an army was formed of adult sex partners. If anyone had said that all-male sex was in itself wrong, he’d have been laughed at. The Jews, who did say this, were despised. The Christian Emperors may have made laws against it. They were mostly enforced against political enemies when no other charges were credible or convenient.

Indeed, while there was a prejudice, and sometimes laws, against sexual passivity, it’s obvious that, once in private, men did as they pleased. One of the fundamental rules of the man-boy affairs in Athens was no anal penetration and no fellatio. Sex was supposed to involve mutual masturbation or intercrural friction. You can imagine how that rule was kept in private. There were problems only if the truth got out. Philip of Macedon, for example, kept a boy as his lover. One day, in public, he poked the boy in the stomach and asked why he wasn’t yet pregnant. The boy was so outraged that he murdered the King.

Sex and Slavery

Learn Greek or Latin or BothThen we have slavery, and the total power of an owner over his slaves. A slave-owner could demand whatever he liked, and expect the world not to be told about what he liked. Even if physically injured, slaves were universally expected to do as they were told and not complain. Obviously, slaves of both sexes, and of all ages and shapes, were taken to bed. They were taken willingly—but, if not willingly, there was hardly anyone important who cared.

One exception to this rule can be taken as an instance of the absolute power of a master over his slaves. In his Naturales Quaestiones (I,16), Seneca the Younger tells the story of Hostius, a very rich man who used his slaves for sex. His taste was for both sexes, and he was as eager for the passive as for the active part. He would choose his men, a ruler in his hand to measure them. His house was a place of continual orgies.

Seneca tells his story for two reasons. The first is that Hostius had his bedroom filled with concave mirrors, so he could see multiple and enlarged images of himself in action:

Haec autem ita disponebat, ut cum uirum ipse pateretur, auersus omnes admissarii sui motus in speculo uideret ac deinde falsa magnitudine ipsius membri tamquam uera gaudebat….. et quia non tam diligenter intueri poterat, cum caput merserat inguinibusque alienis obhaeserat, opus sibi suum per imagines offerebat.

[These mirrors were so placed that, when he was buggering a man, he could watch every movement of his partner, and rejoice as if the image of his enlarged penis were the truth…. When he was being buggered, and sucking off another man at the same time, he was able to watch himself taking in a man through every orifice.]

The second reason for the story is that Hostius eventually went too far in his demands, and was murdered by his slaves. The Emperor then refused to let them be prosecuted. There is no hint in the passage that using slaves for sex might in itself be wrong. Hostius is denounced merely for his exhibitionism and the unusual demands he made of his slaves. They were accepted objects of desire. It was more unusual than usual for this to be otherwise. In The Satyricon (LXXV), Petronius has Trimalchio say about his early life as a slave:

Tamen ad delicias ipsimi annos quattuordecim fui. Nec turpe est, quod dominus iubet. Ego tamen et ipsimae satis faciebam.

[I was my master’s lover during fourteen years. And what of it? Nothing wrong in what a master orders. Indeed, I also saw to his wife.]

As for prostitution, Rome and the larger cities were filled with brothels, mostly staffed by slaves, many offering every sexual act imaginable. When Bible quotes failed, Christians were warned away from the brothels on the grounds that they might accidentally sleep with their own abandoned and enslaved bastard children.

Lesbianism

I haven’t mentioned all-female sex. Nor, though, did most ancient writers. Everyone knows about Sappho. But we are more interested in her sexuality than any of the ancient critics. At best, the surviving writings about her deal with her tastes in casual asides, and only to explain the meaning of her text. This may seem curious. Women are at least as inclined to have sex with each other as men with each other—and human nature doesn’t change much in its fundamentals between different times and places. And the ancients were hardly reticent about sex. The reason, I think, is that, for the ancients, sex wasn’t sex unless an ejaculating penis was somewhere involved. Nothing else counted.

Let me cite another of Martial’s epigrams. This one is about a woman called Philaenis. In other epigrams, she is called lusca—that is, she has only one eye. In this one, she is called tribas—again, a woman with a very large clitoris. The opening lines go:

Paedicat pueros tribas Philaenis
Et tentigine saevior mariti
Undenas dolat in die puellas….

[Philaenis buggers boys,
And, crueller than a lustful bridegroom,
Deflowers eleven girls a day….]

As with the lines about Charinus, you could take this out of context as a sneer against same-sex intercourse. Martial ridicules Philaenis, though, not because she has sex with girls, but because she has abandoned the role assigned her by Nature, and is behaving like a man. Note how he begins with her apparently equal taste for sex with boys. This is not an anti-lesbian work, but an assertion of gender stereotypes. Later in the epigram, he takes issue with her taste for exercising in the gymnasium. Women were not supposed to behave like men. Whatever else they did—so long, of course, as it did not involve the wrong penis—wasn’t worth discussing. It seems that husbands didn’t regard lesbian affairs as adultery. It may also be that they weren’t worried if their women had sex with eunuchs—who were often cut late enough to be capable of erection and orgasm, though not to be capable of disgracing a man with bastard children.

Sex and Climate Change

Now to the much wider forces. I said above that a prejudice against all-male sex emerged around the fourth century. I also mention climate change. I suspect there is a connection. A man is capable of having sex three or four times a day—even if only with himself. Whether he has time or inclination is another matter. Other things being equal, if he is having sex with a man, he will not, for a while at least, have sex with a woman. In an age when population is not in catastrophic decline, the moralists and authorities will tend to overlook all-male sex. It is, in demographic terms, a waste of seed, but there is plenty to waste. When population is in catastrophic decline, a prejudice is likely to emerge against all-male sex. Or it is likely to emerge when there is no decline, but there are settlement opportunities that require a population growing at full speed.

Therefore no mention of all-male sex in the poems of Homer. There was a world to be conquered and settled. No mention either in the pre-Classical age of Greece. There were cities to be built on the coast of modern Turkey and all over the Western Mediterranean. All-male sex is a luxury that becomes affordable in the Classical age. It begins to go out of fashion in the plagues that closed the Antonine Age of the Roman Empire. It comes into fashion again in the High Middle Ages, when population is growing. It goes out again after the Black Death, when new bodies are needed to fill every level in society. The Victorians abominated all-male sex, when they had vast and almost empty continents to fill with emigrants. We celebrate it, now that our countries are bursting with people. The writings of the moralists and lawyers mostly track the workings of these wider forces.

Of course, this is a general hypothesis, and should not be used as an explanation in itself. There are cultural and religious forces that are partly autonomous. For example, all-male sex should have gone out of fashion much more than seems to be the case after the time of Alexander, when there were new settlement opportunities, and everyone agreed that populations were in decline. The persecution of homosexuals in England after the Second World War took place against a rising birth-rate and a closing off of opportunities for emigration. But it is a useful hypothesis. If I didn’t already have a doctorate, it would keep me busy for a few years on a PhD thesis.

But I digress. The ancients were often more liberal about sex than we are. But they were not generally more liberal. They were governed by prejudices quite as strong as our own. But they were different prejudices. If they didn’t care about the gender of sexual partners, they were obsessed by many of the attendant circumstances.

What I Like about Edward Gibbon


What I Like about Edward Gibbon
by Richard Blake

Edward Gibbon (1737-94) was born into an old and moderately wealthy family that had its origins in Kent. Sickly as a child, he was educated at home, and sent while still a boy to Oxford. There, an illegal conversion to Roman Catholicism ruined his prospects of a career in the professions or the City. His father sent him off to Lausanne to be reconverted to the Protestant Faith. He came back an atheist and with the beginnings of what would become a stock of immense erudition. He served part of the Seven Years War in the Hampshire Militia. He sat in the House of Commons through much of the American War. He made no speeches, and invariably supported the Government. He moved for a while in polite society – though his increasing obesity, and the rupture that caused his scrotum to swell to the size of a football, made him an object of mild ridicule. Eventually, he withdrew again to Switzerland, where obesity and his hydrocele were joined by heavy drinking. Scared by the French Revolution, he came back to England in 1794, where he died of blood-poisoning after an operation to drain his scrotum. Read more

The Tyburn Guinea, Reviewed by T.T. Rogers


Please note: This is an unrevised and unfinished fragment of a novel by Richard Blake. The Kindle version will soon be free from Amazon. In the meantime, you can download a free pdf from here.

In late 17th. century London, fledgling playwright Sarah Goodricke finds herself in the middle of a hanging procession and encounters a strange Irishman, who asks her to help speed the death of one of the condemned and then deposit a mysterious unopened package in the deceased’s breeches. We do not find out what is in the package – nor does the author, yet, as this is an unfinished story, released as a sample for new readers. Read more

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