Mowing devils, old hags, and phantom airships

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Venus

Nick at Mercurius Politicus has an excellent post up on the The Mowing-devil, an English pamphlet from 1678 which is famous among forteans because it contains an illustration of something that looks a lot like a crop circle, three centuries before the term was coined. If it is an account of the mysterious appearance of a circle in a farmer's field, then it is evidence that crop circles long preceded the activities of circlemakers Doug and Dave, and so are presumably a real, and as yet unexplained, phenomenon.

But Nick's analysis suggests that the anonymous writer of the The Mowing-devil was not presenting an account of a strange but true event, but rather a cautionary tale about class relations in rural England. He concludes that

In short, The Mowing-Devil is probably not the representation of an early crop-circle that enthusiasts want it to be. In focusing on the woodcut, they’ve missed a much more interesting side to the text that tells us something about late seventeenth-century popular politics and religion.

Deleriad, a folklorist, made an interesting comment:

Although your analysis of the narrative is pretty reasonable I think it’s also worthwhile applying Hufford’s notion of the experiential source hypothesis. Put simply, it works on the basis that people explain anomalous experiences within the pre-existing worldview of a particular culture. So for example, encounters which might once have been explained in terms of fairies are nowadays explained in terms of aliens, lights in the sky which were explained as zepplins at the dawn of the 20th century are now explained as UFOs and so on.

Now, I'm aware of David Hufford's work, though mainly by reputation: The Terror That Comes in the Night (1982), a study of old hag folklore in Newfoundland, is a book I've heard much about. Hufford's experiential source hypothesis (ESH) was put forward as an alternative to the prevailing cultural source hypothesis (CSH), which would explain supernatural claims almost entirely in terms of pre-existing beliefs, or else misperceptions, hoaxes or hallucinations.1 According to the CSH line of thinking, as I understand it, The Mowing-devil is probably best explained by something like Nick's suggestion, or maybe there was an early modern Doug and Dave having a laugh, or something like that. The ESH, by contrast, would posit that that something odd happened in Hertfordshire -- for example, a circle appearing overnight in a field of crops -- and that the writer of The Mowing-devil described it in terms that he and his audience could understand -- for example, a devil with a flaming scythe who appears after a farmer's ill-tempered rejection of a workman's offer to mow the field. To simplify grossly, a CSHer would say there's no reason to believe that anything freaky is going on here, so let's look for a mundane explanation; an ESHer would respond that this attitude risks throwing the extraordinary baby out with the ordinary bathwater.

So what should historians make of all this? I don't think we can make much at all.

Deleriad notes that 'lights in the sky which were explained as zepplins at the dawn of the 20th century are now explained as UFOs', a reference to the phantom airships which are one of my particular interests.2 The trouble is that, in general, all we have in this case are the explanations themselves. When Hufford interviewed people who woke up in the middle of the night to find they were being suffocated by an old hag sitting on their chest, he could ask them if they'd ever heard of something like that happening before -- that is, whether they were aware of the cultural tradition of the old hag. He found that a significant proportion were not, from which he concluded that perhaps the old hag was, in some way, something real. But I can't do that with the phantom airships: these events took place nearly a century ago. There are still some people alive today who were alive back then, but even if any of them witnessed a phantom airship -- which is extremely improbable -- they would have been only very young, and it wouldn't be very meaningful if they now failed to remember hearing about the airship menace before they had their sighting.

So, the best I can do is to argue from probabilities. I can show, for example, that airships were being constructed by the media as a threat to Britain before the phantom airship scares of 1909 and 1913, that such ideas were widespread. So it's likely that phantom airship witnesses had come across the idea that German airships were something which one might see in the skies over Britain one day. I can also show that, in all but a vanishingly small number of cases, it's most improbable that real airships were seen, either German or British: these are all accounted for. I can further show that, in some cases, phantom airships were probably misperceptions of mundane (or rather, celestial) phenomena. For example, in early February 1913, Venus was almost at its most brilliant (as in the photo at the top of this post), and lingered long after sunset in the western sky. And it happens that many of the airships seen in the same period, in South Wales for instance, were flying to the west in the evenings, low on the horizon, and shining a bright searchlight. But nobody reported seeing Venus and the airship at the same time. Venus is so startlingly bright near maximum elongation that the explanation has to be that it and the airship were one and the same.

So far, so CSH. But there definitely other incidents which are less clear-cut. For example, on 21 February, a man saw an airship near Selby in Yorkshire. Since he saw it between 10pm and 11pm, it can't have been Venus, which set at least half an hour earlier. Even more interestingly, his horse was startled by the airship's light. It's probably safe to assume that horses were not particularly aware of Germany's growing Zeppelin fleet (!), and so would only have been spooked by something real. Another intriguing case took place on the last day of February. The captain and crew of the Hull trawler Othello had a close encounter with an airship in the North Sea: so close that they feared it would crash into their mast. It circled their ship twice and then -- after flashing its searchlight in response to a blast on the siren -- headed west. But in this case it certainly wasn't Venus. Sailors would have been very familiar with the sight of the planet, and anyway they reported that the Moon and stars were not visible. It would seem they experienced something, but what?

Well, who knows? Maybe it was a scoutship from Zeta Reticuli. Maybe it was an interdimensional being. Maybe it was a fire-breathing dragon. Maybe it was a time-travelling flying disc from Nazi Antarctica. Maybe it was an old hag on her way to Newfoundland. But since none of these has been proven to actually exist, by scientists, folklorists, or anybody else, I can't use them as part of a historical explanation. And it's not my job to prove the existence (or, for that matter, the non-existence) of these things. As a historian, it seems to me, I must adopt a position of methodological naturalism as regards these events.

But this doesn't matter in the least, because more interesting (to me, anyway) than what people might have really seen, is what they believed they saw -- or at least what the newspapers told us they believed they saw. What does it tell us, that people thought there were airships flying around their night sky? Even if they witnessed a real, anomalous phenomenon but interpreted it within their own cultural reference frame, as the ESH would have it, why that interpretation and not another? And did this interpretation have any consequences?

Historicizing rumor [...] may reveal an intellectual world of fears and fantasies, ideas and claims that have not been studied before.3

The Nightmare

By the way, I've met the old hag myself. I occasionally suffer from sleep paralysis, which sometimes happens in that hazy zone between sleep and consciousness. Your body is rigid, you can't move or speak, and you feel a crushing weight on your chest, suffocating you. It's quite terrifying, but it's not uncommon: perhaps a fifth of the population experience it at least once in their lives. I've also had associated hypnagogic hallucinations, which are somewhat rarer. On at least three occasions I 'saw' the face of an entity, which I felt was malevolent. Once it was an old hag. Another time, it was a demonic figure. And another, a grey. In terms of the ESH, this is a bit confusing -- it's like the whole catalogue of old hag traditions in one brain. If there was a real entity attacking me, then why did I interpret it as something different each time? Simpler by far to go with the CSH: I was already well aware of hypnagogic hallucinations when I had my experiences, and I already knew something of the variety they can take (for example, they may help explain alien abduction reports). Easier to believe my mind was playing tricks on me than that all these different supernatural creatures were taking turns to scare me in my sleep. Or to put it another way, what's the more parsimonious explanation: that I saw something real and my subconscious changed what I saw to fit some image I already held in my mind, or that my subconscious just created what I saw to fit some image I already held in my mind? I think the latter.

And that's why I can't quite see the point of the experiential source hypothesis: it's not actually an alternative to the cultural source hypothesis, but actually requires it, in order to work at all. In the historical context, it seems unnecessary, or at least unprovable, which amounts to much the same thing. But I'm open to being persuaded otherwise.

Image sources: dermod; Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781).


  1. In other words, a sceptical viewpoint. David J. Hufford, The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centred Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 13-4. 

  2. A quibble: strictly speaking, 'UFO' isn't an explanation, it's a non-explanation. An unidentified flying object is just that, unidentified. Of course, UFO is usually interpreted to mean 'alien spacecraft', which is an explanation. 

  3. Luisa White, Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa (Berkeley, Los Angeles and California: University of California Press, 2000), 86. 

9 thoughts on “Mowing devils, old hags, and phantom airships

  1. Fascinating material on the phantom airships, which have long interested me as well. And by the way, although I haven't seen the 'old hag,' I'm also a sufferer of sleep paralysis, so I empathize!

  2. Post author

    Yeah, it's not much fun, is it! Luckily I don't experience it much these days, only once or twice in the past few years. About 6 or 8 years ago, though, I went through a period of sleeping on my back for some reason, and it was a lot more frequent then (apparently that's a common correlation). And that's also when I had the hypnagogic hallucinations. So eventually I went back to sleeping on my side -- that seems to provide protection against the the old hag!

  3. Avinash Machado

    Why the difference in terminology between the American and British Airship sightings? The American ones are generally referred to as the Mystery airship or Great Airship sightings, while the British ones are known as the Phantom Airship sightings? Is it a cultural difference or something?

  4. Post author

    It's a good question. I don't think the difference arises directly from the original accounts themselves, because 'phantom airship' was just one of a number of terms used in the British press (I'm less familar with the American case). I think it was settled upon by later researchers, and this is because of the different way the airships were presented: in America, as something to be marvelled at; in Britain, as something to be feared.

    What's interesting is that both historians and ufologists both use 'phantom airship', and yet the two groups seem to have done so independently of each other, because they don't refer to each others' literature. I wonder why that is.

  5. Avinash Machado

    Good points. Yes the fear factor might have played a role in the popularity of the term Phantom Airship and also Scareship. One more thing I noticed is that the American sightings were more detailed. There are many reports where the Airships landed and the crew introduce themselves to the onlookers by name etc. In most of the British cases the Airships are generally seen in flight. There are hardly any cases where the crew is seen. Sort of adds to the sinister atmosphere of the sightings.

  6. An interesting subject and I agree with Deleriad's hypothesis in that the knowledge acquired in the times that we reside has a direct impact upon our perceptions of unexplained phenomenon. The more our culture is educated in UFO's (especially relevant in recent times given the information release from such sources which historically were classified 'top secret') the more prevalent and detailed the sightings become.

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