May 28, 2020

Review: Wonders in the Sky.

Authors Note: Yes, this week’s review touches on UFO’s in the form of unexplained aerial phenomena. We thought long and hard about reviewing this book when it arrived on our doorstep, and decided it does have merit from a historical astronomical perspective.

Delving into the world of archeo-astronomy is always a fascinating exercise for the desktop/arm chair observer. Sifting through piles of old observations and tales from skies of yore always makes one wonder; what did they see? Is there any basis to the old myths and legends in astronomical fact? Some events were well documented by multiple eye witnesses and may not be easily explained away by historical exaggeration or mass hallucination… just what was going on in ancient skies?

Enter this week’s review out from Tarcher/Penguin; Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times by Jacques Valee and Chris Aubeck.  This work represents a massive undertaking, compiling anomalous sightings in the sky from pre-history to the dawn of modern air travel in the late 1800’s. Of course, much lore and mythology makes its way into these pages, but a good deal of ancient astronomy can be found within, if one has the patience to weed through the text. In fact, many of these sightings from the archives have never been seriously approached from a scientific perspective. Perhaps, those with a scientific mindset will fault the authors for casting too wide a net; those who are UFO enthusiasts will probably say that the net wasn’t cast wide enough. The book is laid out in chronological order, and the events are even symbolically “tagged” by apparition type! Of course, science has little to say about visitations or revelations from sky beings or angels or the like; the authors are mostly silent on explanations for the phenomena and merely present them as interpreted in the text.

Of course, it has been a long hard road to separate artistic interpretation from unbiased observation throughout human history; a look at fancifully drawn moons or comets dragging banners behind them in Renaissance artwork highlights this tendency. Still, many of these sightings not only give us a unique insight into the mindset of medieval man, but also may describe real astronomical phenomena. One such example we came across was the sighting of a bright object near the Moon during the day as seen from Saint-Denis, France on January 13th, 1589.

It’s very likely that the “star” observed is the planet Venus, strikingly easy to see during the day if you have a nearby crescent moon as a guide.

Even during retellings of modern sightings, our own memories are notoriously inaccurate, often mixing up statements with bias. Many times, we’ve heard eye witnesses describe Venus as “Larger than a Full Moon,” or swear that a bright star or planet on the horizon was in motion. This optical illusion is easy to emulate, if one stares at a fixed point long enough.

So, just what astronomic objects would make the line-up as the usual suspects? Meteor showers and bolides are certainly striking to witnesses; one such meteor procession even made its way into an 1860′s painting. Showers such as the 1833 Leonids struck fear into the residents of the US eastern seaboard, as they filled up churches in fervent prayer awaiting the apocalypse. Bright aurorae may be terrifying to those in middle latitudes unfamiliar with the ethereal sight in the night time skies, and even today may elicit nervous calls to the local fire department. Atmospheric phenomena such as ball lightning, sprites, airborne pollen, and even high altitude birds or noctilucent clouds may come into play and look strange under the right circumstances. In fact, if a search of ye ole YouTube is to be believed, a high quality sighting of ball lightning is at least as rare as seeing extraterrestrials…

Farther afield, sightings may be attributed to very rare occurrences, such as close planetary conjunctions, near Earth objects, or even impacts on the Moon. The hunt for the elusive inter-Mercurial planet Vulcan also makes an appearance in the descriptions… apparently, all sorts of unexplained things were transiting the Sun in the 17th and 18th century!

Of course, strict interpretations of statements such as an object that hovered or remained visible for hours may not fit the bill of known astronomical phenomena, and astronomy doesn’t have much to say regarding voices, sky beings, or glowing apparitions that freed a local farmers cart from the mud. The connection is made that some of the incidents bear resemblance to modern day abduction reports, just insert “alien” where it says “demon”… It’s up to the reader to decide if the value of these reports speaks of some manner of physical or psychological phenomenon that we share with the ages. Today, in an era were automated all-sky cameras and patient observers monitor the heavens continuously, no flaming swords and battling armies carrying blazing banners are seen.

Still, we would recommend Wonders in the Sky for anyone interested exploring the dusty corners of ancient/medieval astronomy, or just looking for a good arm chair mystery. Kudos to the authors for bringing some of these bizarre and sometimes unique observations to light, some well documented or combed over and some described for the first time in this voluminous work. Keep an eye on the sky; you might just see something weird!


  1. [...] been the source of medieval pre-telescopic sightings of “apparitions near the Moon” as occurred on January 13th, 1589, for the town of Saint-Denis, [...]

  2. [...] from us bloggers, right? True, we review lots of sci-fi, and we did review “that one UFO book“… but I’ve only ever turned down one (unnamed) book, on the grounds that the only good thing [...]

  3. [...] we also found that, much like Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck’s historical account of UFO sightings Wonders in the Sky, we couldn’t put it down. It’s true that interest or the very mention of study into Ufology is [...]

  4. [...] one medieval UFO report of a ‘star’ burning near the daytime crescent Moon spied on June 13th, 1589 by residents of the French village of Saint-Denis was actually the planet Venus. You can wonder [...]

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