When the infamous radio production of War of the Worlds convinced thousands of credulous New Yorkers that the Martians had landed, it became obvious that the world was squarely in the grip of alien-mania. More recently, a Newsweek poll revealed that 48 percent of Americans believed in UFO’s. Alien-mania, as Cornell professor Jodi Dean notes, may be a by-product of the stresses and excesses of modern living. Similarly, Carl Jung postulated before his death that the thousands of reported yearly UFO sightings were actually visions of mandalas in the sky conjured by overstressed and oversensitive individuals longing for cosmic harmony. Nevertheless, many respected astrophysicists and astronomers, bolstered by sound scientific knowledge, take the possibility of extraterrestrial life quite seriously. Some, like Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke, even speculate that real contact with an alien civilisation is immanent.


Aliens don’t just haunt the present but seem to have disturbed our ancestors as well. Robert Temple’s Sirius Mysteries started a wave of speculation (some of it crack-pot) in the 1970’s. The book related ‘evidence’ of an ancient amphibious race that had visited earth four millennia ago, starting with an odd (but actual) account given by two innocuous French anthropologists who visited Africa’s Dogon tribe in the 1930’s. The anthros were surprised to learn that Dogon priests knew about Sirius’s “heavy” companion star and about a third “invisible” star in the Sirius system from which an fish-like race of amphibians, the Nommos, had originated. Although the account of the two Frenchmen held up under scrutiny, the scientific community scoffed at Temple’s book – after all, they claimed, Sirius-B (indeed a dense white-dwarf star), was discovered in 1862 and the Dogon may have picked up this news from some dusty missionaries. This doesn’t, however, account for the fact that Sirius’s third companion star (a red-dwarf, invisible to telescopes) was only discovered in 1995. And that’s not where the so-called Sirius mystery ends.


Temple’s book aside, the ancient peoples of the ‘cradle of civilisation’ (North Africa and the Near East) were truly Sirius-obsessed. In Egypt, Sirius (known as Sothis, the Dog-Star) was consecrated to the goddess Isis (who is sometimes depicted with a fish tail) and initiations into its mysteries were highly secretive. Babylonian priests of the goddess Ishtar (who, like Isis, was also associated with Sirius) are also intriguingly described in clay tablets as wearing fish-garb. Elsewhere, in Minoan Crete, the helical rising of Sirius marked an unrestrained yearly festival in honour of a decidedly alien-looking Bee-goddess.


To make matters even more Sirius, the celebrations of the star’s mystery cults often included the consumption of mysterious hallucination-inducing beverages and frenzied ecstatic dancing. Hardly surprisingly, such hallucinogenic sacraments, where they are used today, still facilitate visions of strange green men (many of whom relate odd facts about the stars).


When respected Harvard professor Michael Harner took ayuhasca with the Conibo Indians in 1963 he reported visions of reptilian extraterrestrials who pointed out their home world in the night sky. His subsequent investigation revealed that myths of interstellar visitors (so-called ‘lords of the outer darkness’) were common amongst the many hallucinogen-using tribes of the Amazon-basin. Mycologist Gordon Wasson, ethno-botanist Terence McKenna and anthropologist Jeremy Narby have accordingly written volumes on the topic. Their collective evidence (coupled with DNA co-discoverer Francis’ Crick’s theory of directed panspermia and Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance) suggest that the original alien visitors may still be with us. These, they write, may have been none other than a primordial strand of DNA or even a stray mycelium spore that was carried into our solar-system on some interstellar breeze, carrying with it a stored bio-energetic trace-memory of its place of origin.


Even outside the domain of hallucinogen-using Amazonian shamans, ancient Sirius cults and madcap ethno-botanical speculation, the alien meme retains scientific potency. In 1961 astronomer Frank Drake calculated that approximately 1 million solar systems in the Milky Way galaxy alone could harbour conditions favourable to intelligent life. New evidence about the intensely radioactive conditions present in large parts of our galaxy has reduced this number somewhat, but the number of possible galactic earth-like planets continues to number in the hundreds (if not thousands).


To think that Earth is the only planet in the universe with life is, in any event, inexcusably egocentric. Life in the universe may not even require earth-like conditions to flourish and DNA may not be the only organic coding for life. Given how little we actually know about the universe, anything is possible. Perhaps, as depicted in the farsical Men-in-Black movies, humans are only one among myriads of sentient species that have sprung-up in the cosmos like fungi.