The literature dealing with putative extraterrestrial contact in antiquity is reasonably copious, but Robert K. G. Temple’s The Sirius Mystery (New York, 1976) holds a position of honour within it. Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, Düsseldorf, 1968) is perhaps better known to the general reading public; and the works of the late Zecharia Sitchin have their enthusiastic admirers, especially in the United States. But the influence of The Sirius Mystery has been widely and persistently felt. Keywords from the book—Sirius B, Dogon, Nommo, Oannes—have joined pyramid, Nazca lines, and Mu in the trade jargon of the ‘alternative historiography’. One of the most successful among the more recent books in the genre, Bauval and Gilbert’s The Orion Mystery (London, 1994), pays obvious tribute to Temple even in its title. Far beyond the alternative historiography’s core readership, many people have heard it suggested that there is something curious about the Dogon and the esoteric knowledge their initiates possess, something connecting southern Mali (or ‘the Western Sudan’, as some sources quaintly put it) with the stars. And the references in Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (New York, 1981) place Temple in the enviable position of having supplied a notable twentieth-century novelist with ideas he used in his most significant work.
The occasion for The Sirius Mystery was provided by an anthropological paper, Un système soudanais de Sirius, written by Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen and first published in the Journal de la Société des Africanistes in 1950. Griaule and Dieterlen report that certain esoteric beliefs among the Dogon, a people inhabiting what was then the French Sudan and is now the Republic of Mali, incorporate unexpectedly sophisticated ideas about natural science and in particular about astronomy. Their Dogon informants apparently thought of the earth as orbiting the sun, not the other way around; they drew Jupiter with its four Galilean satellites, and Saturn with a ring; we learn from a book by the same two authors, Le Renard pâle, that they were aware of the circulation of the blood; and, most impressively, they knew that the bright star Sirius has a small but heavy companion body, ‘Sirius B’ or ‘Digitaria’ (named for a plant that bears very tiny seeds), which orbits Sirius and cannot be seen with the naked eye. Many of these facts can only be discovered using fairly modern instruments: Sirius B was not observed until 1862, and was only photographed in 1970. Since no such instruments were or had been at the Dogon initiates’ disposal, the hypothesis Temple advances—with considerable energy—is that their knowledge derives from extraterrestrials, visitors from a planet in the Sirius system, who imparted it to human beings in the distant past.
Other explanations are possible, of course, although it is not my present purpose to expound them at any length (still less to adjudicate between them). Griaule and Dieterlen may have misunderstood or misreported Dogon beliefs. Even if they did not, it seems hard to rule out the possibility that the Dogon priests had learnt of Jupiter’s moons and Sirius’s companion from terrestrial sources. It is not, perhaps, a compliment to the education system in the French empire that there are people who feel the only way some of its African subjects could have learnt any science was from space aliens. (Nos ancêtres les Nommos étaient amphibiens...) The information can only have been conveyed to them relatively recently, in that case: the absolute earliest date would be 1844, when Friedrich Bessel of the Königsberg Observatory first proposed the existence of a companion star to explain irregularities in Sirius’s proper motion. It may be thought that a century (or, more probably, only a few decades) is too short a time for an idea to be incorporated into a traditional belief system; but there are cases suggesting it is not. The Soviet ethnographer Daniil Tumarkin, for instance, was able in 1977 to record a myth in a Papua New Guinean village recounting how ‘the culture-heroes of Papuan folklore had received Pisin [the Neo-Melanesian Pidgin language] from the eagle deity, in times of immemorial antiquity, as a means of inter-tribal communication’ (Dyachkov, Leontiev, and Torsuyeva, Язык ток-писин (неомеланезийский), Moscow, 1981)—even though it is quite impossible that Pisin had been known there for more than a few generations. I do not know of any reason why comparatively recent information could not have been worked into Dogon beliefs, too.
We are thus not compelled to believe that the astronomical knowledge ascribed to the Dogon is extraterrestrial in origin. On the other hand, the argument is perhaps as strong as any analogous argument we are likely to encounter in the alternative historiography,—and stronger than most. We are not asked to examine a blurred photo of a petroglyph and agree that it does look awfully like a space helmet. No-one, so far as I am aware, has conclusively shown that seminars on modern astronomy were being conducted in the Bandiagara Escarpment during the years of the Belle Époque; nor has it been definitely established that Griaule and Dieterlen misrepresented their Dogon sources. Even if they did, it is important to note that the error would be theirs and not Temple’s. The section of his book dealing with the Dogon draws its information from published work by the most eminent authorities writing on Dogon affairs in any language; and his interpretation of their findings does not seem wilful or forced. Short of moving to Mali, learning to speak one of the Dogon languages or dialects, and himself gaining the confidence of some initiated elders, it is hard to see what more he should have done. A reader could not be blamed for concluding that it is at least plausible the Dogon were indeed visited at some point in the past by beings from the neighbourhood of Sirius.
And yet this is just the conclusion that Temple does not draw. More than that: he dismisses it. ‘It is more satisfactory,’ he writes, ‘not to have to presume the preposterous notion that intelligent beings from outer space landed in Africa, imparted specific information to a West African tribe, then returned to space and left the rest of the world alone. Such a theory never really struck me as possible.’ Instead, he gives over a large section of his book to tracing ‘Sirian’ themes in the ancient beliefs of the Greeks, Sumerians, and above all Egyptians. And the style of argument in this part of the volume could hardly be more different from the restrained and reasonable style we appreciated in the ‘Dogon’ chapters. The current, reputable scholarly sources start to vanish. The references to Robert Graves and Sir E. A. Wallis Budge pile up. Mountains of argument rest on the most obscure or trivial parallels: the numbers fifty or seventy, the syllable an, any mention of a throne, or a tooth, or a boat, or light and dark. The exposition swerves between Colchis and Dodona, Sanskrit etymologies and minor Classical epic, Uruk and Akhet Aten. The crucial claim that the ancestors of the Dogon migrated to Mali from a Mediterranean location, that they are in fact ‘Minyans in the middle of West Africa’, is justified by blank assertion and a single throwaway remark from Graves. The argument becomes, in places, almost impossible to follow. Before, when we were dealing with the Dogon, Temple’s writing—whether or not one agreed with him—was lucid and comprehensible. Now, suddenly, all is chaos.
The reason for this deterioration is obvious: it is because Temple’s case here is so much weaker than it was with the Dogon. There is no ring around Saturn to be found in these materials, no unseen Digitaria star, no elliptical orbit with Sirius at one of its foci—or, rather, all these things and much besides can indeed be found, but only at the price of increasingly strained metaphorical readings of texts that are themselves late and doubtful (the Hermetic literature, for instance). It is not that Temple prefers cloudy and difficult proofs over transparent ones: if so, he could have written less clearly in his Dogon section. It is simply that he is now having to apply a great deal more force to extract any of the conclusions he wants from the evidence that is at hand.
And so the reader naturally arrives at the question posed in the title to this note. Why does our author put himself to all this unnecessary trouble, when arguing that the Dogon themselves experienced extraterrestrial contact would have been so much easier? Why is the idea of Sirian intelligences imparting their knowledge in West Africa ‘preposterous’, if the idea of them doing so in the ancient Near East is not? Why doesn’t Robert Temple think the Dogon were ever visited by aliens?
And a probable answer suggests itself just as naturally. It is a commonplace, in the literature of ancient contact with extraterrestrials, that such contact must have been of colossal and decisive importance: so much so that we will never, having understood it, look upon history in the same way again. Perhaps the intervention from beyond the moon, when it came, was enormously destructive. But it is just as frequently seen as creative and helpful: the literature often tells us, as Temple does, that the aliens ‘have founded many of the elements of our own human civilization.’ Temple says of his research that it ‘began harmlessly with an African tribe’, but has ended up ‘demonstrat[ing] the possibility that civilization as we know it was an importation from another star.’ I know of no basis for accusing Temple of being prejudiced against West Africans as such. (His whole premise, after all, is that some people in West Africa have faithfully preserved knowledge that the rest of the world has forgotten.) Contact between Sirians and Dogon would be inadequate for his purposes not specifically because the Dogon are African, but because such contact would be too ‘harmless’: it would change too little of the history we already know. ‘Extraterrestrials have visited the earth, and the consequences for religious conceptions in part of southern Mali were epoch-making!’
And, if such a thing can happen once, perhaps it can happen again. Temple writes, of interstellar contacts in the future rather than the past, that ‘For years I have thought that those organizations which spend millions of dollars on “peace” and attempts to find out what is wrong with human nature that it should indulge in so perverse a thing as conflict, would be better advised to donate their entire treasuries to the space programmes, and to astronomical research. [...] The answer to the question: “Is mankind perverse?” will be known when we can compare ourselves with other intelligent species [...]. The answers lie out there somewhere with other stars and other races of beings.’
For someone who associated the idea of alien contact with hopes on this scale, having his attention first drawn to Griaule and Dieterlen’s Dogon researches must have been strangely double-edged. On the one hand, here we have colourable evidence—not just a recitation of how many stars there are—that alien intelligences may actually exist: we have a legitimate problem, one to which the best experts cannot supply a definite answer, where the explanation could in fact be aliens. (KIC 8462852 and its ‘megastructures’, in our day, might seem to offer a comparable thrill—except that no-one, to my knowledge, suggests that the megastructuralists have ever visited the earth or are even aware of its existence.) But, on the other hand, the evidence seems to imply that extraterrestrial contact, if it occurred, did not have the global and transcendent consequences that Temple hopes it will. The aliens just ‘imparted specific information’ in one particular locality, ‘then returned to space and left the rest of the world alone.’ This, if our interest in aliens stems from a hope of the kind that Temple expresses, is grossly unacceptable. Contact with aliens has to be a vastly significant global event, something that shapes and reshapes civilizations: any other kind would be ‘preposterous’, impossible, not to be thought of. In fact, it would miss the whole point of contact with aliens. I suggest that this ultimately accounts for the divided nature of Temple’s book—calm and reasoned when he is setting out the Dogon evidence, then frenetic and undiscriminating when he is insisting that the consequences of alien contact cannot have been restricted to the Dogon. And it also, of course, explains why he cannot permit himself to think that the Dogon themselves were ever visited by aliens.