The Sirius Mystery

by James Oberg

(Excerpted from UFOs and Outer Space Mysteries Donning Press, 1982 Chapter Six)
Web version published with permission of the author

The search for an extraterrestrial calling card has taken researchers to many strange places. Some have hiked the Andes to examine mysterious ruins while others have sought alien traces in deserts and jungles. Others have scoured the rare book rooms in libraries and pored over dusty volumes of Mesopotamian or Sanskrit legend. Some have analyzed UFO reports, others have tried to puzzle out the source and meaning of baffling long-delayed radio echoes.

Several specialists now claim they have found the long-sought "final evidence" of visits made to earth by ancient astronauts. The myths of the Dogon tribesmen of Mall, West Africa, contain astronomical knowledge which the native people could have neither learned by themselves nor guessed. Obviously, the researchers say, some more advanced civilization told them.

These fascinating Dogon legends speak of Jupiter's four moons and Saturn's rings, which were not seen by human beings until the invention of the telescope. They speak of the star Sirius and of a pair of invisible companions. One of them circles Sirius every fifty years, the legends declare, and is made of a metal that is the heaviest thing in the universe. Astronomers have discovered that such an object (called "Sirius-B") does exist but only the most sophisticated and sensitive instruments -- unavailable, of course, to the Dogons -- can detect it.

The planets circle the sun, the tribesmen believe (and astronomy confirms), in elliptical orbits. And planets with different kinds of people on them circle six other stars in the sky -- so the legends have it.

Who told the Dogons about Sirius and about the other space science secrets? Author Robert K. G Temple (The Sirius Mystery, St, Martin's Press, 1975) claims to be able to trace the Sirius-B myth back through Egyptian mythology to Sumerian mythology, thus establishing the certainty that the informants were extraterrestrials. Ancient astronauts entrepreneur Erich von Daniken endorses and adopts Temple's explanations in his latest book, Von Daniken's Proof.

But other observers disagree. Astronomers Carl Sagan and Ian Ridpath, for example, have suggested that the modern astronomical aspects of the complex Dogon mythology entered the lore only recently, probably shortly before the myths were written down in the 1930s. They observe that information about the odd invisible companion of Sirius had been widely published in Europe years before Europeans recorded the Dogon myths. As anthropologists have known for a long time, primitive tribes have a remarkable talent for absorbing interesting new stories into their traditional mythology.

In reply Temple produces evidence for the great antiquity of the Sirius cult. The number "fifty" has great signifance in ancient myths. He points out that the Dogon myths also describe a third star (astronomers would call it "Sirius C"), as yet undiscovered. These same myths, Temple claims, identify a planet circling that star as the home of Nommo, an alien creature who founded the Dogon civilization.

Temple's impressive research was encouraged by noted futurist Arthur C, Clarke (although Clarke now prefers the "modern influence" hypothesis). The book's advertising blurb quotes prolific science writer Isaac Asimov, who says, "I couldn't find any mistakes in this book. That in itself is extraordinary."

The star Sirius is certainly no stranger to mysteries. As the brightest star in the sky it was known and worshiped by ancient civilizations. Its appearance in the dawn sky over Egypt warned of the impending Nile floods and the summer's heat and marked the beginning of the Egyptian calendar.

Strangely, ancient records explicitly list Sirius as one of six "red stars." The other five are still seen as red but from the time of Arab astronomers to the present day Sirius has been blue-white.

Astronomers classify Sirius as a "class A" star, hotter and younger than our sun, Its brightness is due largely to its proximity; it is barely eight light- years away from the earth. This is only a stellar stone's throw by galactic standards and Sirius is only twice as far away from our solar system as are the nearest stars to the sun, the Alpha Centauri system.

Sirius figures prominently in the Dogon myths. The tribe has a periodic Sirius festival called the "Segui" ceremony; each celebration lasts several years (the last was in 1968-72.) The interval between ceremonies may be forty, fifty or sixty years.

Through the carbon dating of old ritual masks researchers have established the antiquity of the Segui ceremonies. Such criteria suggest that these periodic festivals have been going on for at least 600 years and possibly much longer.

But here's the rub: there is no archaeological evidence that the specific references to the twin hidden companions of Sirius are anywhere near that old. Furthermore, most Dogon symbology already has multiple levels of meaning; the sketches used to illustrate the Sirius secrets are also used in puberty ceremonies.

Clearly the Dogons (in common with many other cultures) were fascinated by Sirius, probably because its position in the sky was crucial to successful agriculture (it's the only star they have a name for.) Inevitably one must ask, if the Dogons had heard good stories about Sirius from other sources, would they ignore them or would they quickly adopt them into their own cultural myths?

Temple's book mentions the absorption of a Christ-figure into the traditional Dogon Pantheon, obviously a recent addition. Sagan has recounted numerous examples from Arizona and New Guinea -- and other scholars have noted similar instances -- of the rapid assimilation of new stories, songs and lore into the eclectic mythology of Stone Age peoples. Such assimilation occurs most frequently when the subject is one of particular interest to a people -- as Sirius is to the Dogons.

The main problem with the alleged antiquity of the Dogon "Sirius secrets" legend is that they are reminiscent of European Sirius speculations of the late 1920s. Europeans too believed that the "white dwarf' Sirius-B star was the heaviest thing in the universe, although in later years astronomers were to find thousands of similar objects along with even heavier and denser objects such as neutron stars and black holes. Europeans too talked about the discovery of a third star in the Sirius system; later investigations, however, ruled out that possibility.

The Dogon beliefs about Jupiter and Saturn sound familiar too. To be specific they sound like the kinds of astronomical conclusions one might draw from studying the heavens through a small portable telescope. (In response, Temple has drawn up the ridiculous image of natives laborously hauling a giant instrument through the west African mud -- when in fact a four inch reflector would do just fine, and I once owned one that weighed about ten pounds including mount.) The Dogons hold that Jupiter has four moons when in fact it has at least 12, plus a ring, as any true extraterrestrial would have known. Saturn is not, as the Dogons insist, the farthest planet in the solar system. At least three are farther and at least one of them has rings too.

So what is the alternative to the extraterrestrial hypothesis for the Dogon myths7 The Dogons could have learned of European Sirius lore in the 1920's from traders, explorers or missionaries, many of whom are avid amateur astronomers. (Temple claims missionaries didn't show up until 1949.) The Dogons were not isolated. Many served in the French army in World War I and some of them could have returned years later with colorful embellishments for their native legends.

But the extraterrestrial hypothesis will not fade away so easily. Robert Temple, who spent eight years studying mythology, is convinced that he can trace the Sirius-B information back to the Sumerians. This of course would destroy the modern influence explanation totally.

Unfortunately the ancient records contain no clear, unambiguous references to this Sirius lore although the works of historians, astronomers and philosophers were explicit and detailed on innumerable other subjects. But that doesn't stop Temple. He says the references are there but recorded in riddles which he alone has been able to decipher. "The ancient peoples were not concealing information from us out of spite," he writes. "their purpose in disguising their secrets was to see that the secrets could survive."

To penetrate this supposed disguise (which might not be a disguise at all, other classical scholars maintain), Temple resorts to ancient puns, to hidden meanings, to "garbled versions" which he must amend to fit the theory, to the exchange of consonants in innocent-looking words, to similar-sounding words from different civilizations thousands of miles or thousands of years apart and to other equally questionable tactics.

Using similar techniques other writers have "discovered" dozens of different, often contradictory "ancient secrets" about Atlantis, primitive Christianity, forgotten wisdom, ancient visitors and numerous other things. Classical mythology has been a Rorschach test into which people have projected nearly any notion that appealed to them. We need more reliable evidence -- especially theories that can be tested.

Temple has made very few verifiable assertions about mythology (and The Sirius Mystery is overwhelmingly about ancient myths, not about the Dogons or modern astronomy). One such rare claim is that "the oasis (Siwa) and Thebes are both equidistant from Behdet ... This proves that geodetic surveys of immense accuracy were thus practiced in ancient Egypt with a knowledge of the earth as a spherical body in space and projections upon it envisaged as part of the Sirius lore."

This sounds significant and convincing until one measures the distance on a map and discovers an "immensely accurate equality" of a twenty percent difference! Other Temple claims, including some wild assertions from The Secrets of the Great Pyramid, can as easily be checked and as easily demolished.

But didn't Isaac Asimov check over the book for just such factual errors, as the publisher claims? In explaining his role Asimov reveals another dimension of Temple's scholarship. "Robert Temple on three different occasions, by mail and phone, attempted to get support from me and I steadfastly refused," Asimov wrote. "He sent me the manuscript which I found unreadable. Finally, he asked me point-blank if I could point out any errors in it and partly out of politeness, partly to get rid of him, and partly because I had been able to read very little of the book so that the answer was true, I said I could not point out any errors. He certainly did not have permission to use that statement as part of the promotion, I'11 just have to be even more careful hereafter."

Temple's book is indeed extremely long and many other researchers have echoed Asimov's assertion that it is "unreadable." But was anything left out? The author mentions that he could have made the book much longer but restrained himself "lest I blow this book up into a pufball of miscellaneous odds and ends" -- which prompted one reviewer to remark that Temple had stopped much too late to avoid that fate.

But even after hundreds of pages of myths and interpretations Temple fails to make a connection between ancient Egypt and the modern Dogons; instead he "assumes" it. Nor does he establish a connection between the Dogon creator Nommo and the star Sirius. Temple claims that bas-reliefs of the Sumerian demigod Oannes, which depict a "fish man," prove Nommo, whom the author identifies as the ancestor of the Dogon Nommo myths, was an amphibious extraterrestrial. Unfortunately he neglects to mention other bas-reliefs which show "fish-deer" and "fish-lions" and which consequently suggest that the fish motif was symbolic, not descriptive.

Somehow, Temple and I have never gotten our disputes off on the right foot. When I set him a draft of a sharply critical review written for Astronomy magazine, he replied with a blistering counterattack in a letter to my editor: "A virulent attack against my honesty, integrity, and intelligence," he called my review. "Mr. Oberg has entirely misrepresented me and made violent distortions of my argument.... He shows a total ignorance or disregard for almost every fact in my book, and there is hardly a single thing in his review which is remotely accurate." The review was indeed consequently modified in parts where Temple explained portions of his book I may have misinterpreted.

Here is an example of how hard it can be to critically examine the claims in the book. There is one passage (page 65) which I took to mean implied additional confirmation of Temple's hypothetical aquatic inhabitants of the Sirius system: "It is worth pointing out that in the event of planets in the Sirius system being watery, we must seriously consider the possibility of intelligent beings from there being amphibious... Beings of this type would be a bit like mermaids and mermen.... Perhaps the 'sirens' are, figuratively, a chorus of mermaids recalled from earlier times....They are called in Greek Seiren....It is interesting that the Greek Sirius is Seirios."

I assumed, reasonably I.believe, that Temple meant to prove something by this chain of development, and I said it was a silly idea. In a response published in Fate magazine, he denied intending that: "I refer, entirely in passing, to the Greek word for siren and its similarity to the word for Sirius, drawing absolutely no conclusions of any kind." If so, I wonder why that passage was ever "worth pointing out" in the book in the first place.

Another claim: that in Egypt the oasis of Siwa and the ancient Nile City of Thebes are both equidistant from the shrine city of Behdet, in the delta -- and the same exact distance, too. To Temple, this proved that "geodetic surveys of immense accuracy were thus practiced in ancient Egypt with a knowledge of the earth as a spherical body in space and projections upon it envisaged as part of...the Sirius tore." (And presumably, that the Egyptians then located their river deltas, eases, and river ports deliberately on geometric rather than purely geographical grounds, I'm tempted to ask?) But my own measurements, which I published, showed the distances to be nowhere close, in error by tens of miles, at least ten percent -- hardly "immense accuracy."

Temple replied in Fate: "The pattern published in my book was drawn by a professional cartographer who earns his living by drawing reliable maps for an international corporation." He allegedly found the distances "to be nearly equal to one another" -- although no quantitative definition of "nearly equal" was ever offered. "Perhaps (Oberg) is unaware," Temple went on, "that the differential curvature of the earth variously distorts distances shown on maps. The cartographer took all such factors into account. Did Oberg? I suspect not."

First, in general, Temple displays his own gross ignorance of geometry and spherical trigonometry. At the latitude of Egypt, over distances of several hundred kilometers, planetary curvature introduces distortions only on the order of fractions of kilometers, not the tens of kilometers worth of inaccuracies I found in Temple's claim.

Second, while it is difficult to obtain precise locations of many archeological sites referred to in The Sirius Mystery, Temple himself shows a map that gives the location of Behdet (31.23 degE, 31.50 degN) and Thebes (32.63 degE, 25.70 degN). For Siwa, I called Dr. Farouk EI-Baz of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, and his maps showed it at 25.50 degE, 29.22 degN (that's the oasis center, with the modern town about ten kilometers SE).

So it merely remains for any interested reader to check and see which of us is correct. Using spherical trig, I got 612.3 km for the Siwa-Behdet leg and 654.8 km for the Thebes-Behdet. Temple claims his expert cartographer found these distances "nearly equal." I wonder.

One additional disturbing note: That distance has been computed based on a true geodetic oblate spheroid, but even assuming a flat surface would only have introduced an error of a few tenths of one percent at most (Temple obviously didn't know that, or he wouldn't have asserted that measurements even less accurate than that were proof that ancients took Earth's sphericity into account.).

The greatest source of error, however, seems to be in Temple's specified location of Behdet. Precise maps at the NASA space photo interpretation lab in Houston list "Behdet" as an ancient name for modern Damanhur, located today at 31.03 degN, 30.28 degE, i.e., more than a hundred kilometers away from where Temple locates his "Behdet" at 31.50 degN, 31.23 degE. Damanhur is 521.0 km from Siwa and 625.9 km from Thebes, a deviation of 20%.

Am I getting too picky here? Perhaps so -- it does seem like a trivial point, arguing over how different two meaningless geographical distances really are. There are innocent available explanations: typographical error or miscopied notes, for example. But if the error is real, it reflects on the only kind of hard, checkable, testable evidence Temple has offered for his theories. A critical analysis has to investigate the accuracy of such claims, so as to judge the validity of the book's conclusions.

Temple offered another line of reasoning. "We have in the Dogon information a predictive mechanism which it is our duty to test, regardless of our preconceptions." One example: "If a Sirius-C is ever discovered and found to be a red dwarf, I will conclude that the Dogon information has been fully validated." (OK, I'll bite--but if such a star is not discovered, Temple has risked no converse conclusions.)

Another example: "The Dogon also mention a period of rotation of Sirius- B...one year...this rotation is astronomically possible but whether it is correct or not we cannot yet know. Here, then, is another datum to be investigated when it is possible." (OK, but if it's not true then Temple may suddenly discover that, as in another similar case, "the Dogon information... must be not only garbled (or perhaps concealed in line with a secretive tradition) but only partially true."-- in other words, no disproof would follow the failure of his prediction.)

That's one major characteristic of classical pseudo-science, its ability to incorporate any result and its ability to be immune from disproof from any result. Predictions are often reinterpreted to fit any outcome, which makes them scientifically worthless but which can be claimed to verify the pseudo- scientific claims.

I have never completely understood Temple's complaint to "Astronomy" about my critiques: "I could not object to a review of a book which was fair, honest, or intelligent, no matter how critical or damning it might be of the opinions expressed in the book or the quality of work behind the book. But it is an unfortunate tendency for certain reviewers to wish to try and appear clever at the expense of accuracy, honesty, objectivity, fairness, or even decent manners, by dropping any standards at all in their headlong assaults on authors using only the tools of distortion, dishonesty, and insults. And this is what Mr. Oberg has done." Whew! (I must confess I've felt that way about some other people, tool).

Such words would have more persuasion behind them (to me they're merely an emotional appeal to sympathy) if Temple had ever admitted anywhere in print that he had found (or had been shown) any errors in his book or articles or public statements -- but if he has done so, I haven't become aware of them.

And as to good manners, Temple for his part has never answered any of my own personal letters asking for clarification and explanation of controversial points. Instead, he closed his response to my own article in 1979 with a brushoff: "In my view it is pointless to attack someone in print unless you can substantiate what you are saying. Since Oberg cannot do so, we need not concern ourselves with criticisms of The Sirius Mystery." I certainly concur with the first of those sentences!

If I were alone in picking on Temple's thesis, he might be able to argue a case for ad hominem persecution. But other observers have also written skeptically about the "Sirius Mystery."

A series of articles has appeared in the Griffith Observer, an astronomy magazin e issued monthly by the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. September 1976 saw Tom Sever's "The Obsession with the Star Sirius," and editor Ron Oriti's "On Not Taking it Seriously." October 1977 saw Marvin Luckermann's "More Sirius Difficulties," on ancient calendar systems and an alternate, non- extraterrestrial explanation for the ancient fascination with the number fifty (the article quotes Michael Astour's book Hellenosemitics as saying, "This exorbitant figure, very popular in Greek myths, has its explanation: it is the number of seven-day weeks in one lunar year. The proof is supplied by (the Odyssey), where Helios is said to possess 7 herds of 50 cows each and 7 herds of 50 sheep, a transparent allegory of the days and nights of the year.") In September 1980, Dr. Philip C. Steffey did an in-depth analysis of Dogon astronomical traditions in "Some Serious Astronomy in the 'Sirius Mystery,' " which criticized Temple's book as "inadequate and full of factual errors and misrepresentation of critical material."

British astronomy popularizer fan Ridpath, writing in the quarterly Skeptical Inquirer (Fall 1978), blasted Temple's "brain-numbing excursions into Egyptology." The Dogon legend connected with Sirius, wrote Ridpath, "is riddled with ambiguities, contradictions, and downright errors, at least if we try to interpret it literally." And does the Dogon mythology ever really say that Nommo, the founder of their culture, came from Sirius -- which is at the crux of Temple's reconstruction? "It does not!" Ridpath asserts. "Nowhere in his 295 page book does Temple offer one specific statement from the Dogon to substantiate his ancient astronauts claim." Concluded Ridpath: "The parts of the Dogon knowledge that are admittedly both ancient and profound, particularly the story of Nommo and the concept of twinning, are the parts that bear least relation to the true facts about Sirius. The parts that bear at least a superficial resemblance to astronomical facts are most likely trimmings added in this century. Indeed, in view of the Dogon fixation with Sirius it would surely be more surprising if they had not grafted on to their existing legend some new astronomical information gained from Europeans. We may never be able to reconstruct the exact route by which the Dogon received their current knowledge, but out of the confusion at least one thing is clear: they were not told by beings from the star Sirius."

Carl Sagan's contribution to this discussion was in his book Broca's Brain (1979). "At first glance," Sagan admitted, "the Sirius legend of the Dogon seems to be the best candidate evidence available today for man's past contact with advanced extraterrestrial civilization." But Sagan then finds both astronomical and mythological holes in the hypothesis. "There is some evidence," he points out, "that the Dogon like to frame pictures with an ellipse, and that Temple may be mistaken about the claim that in Dogon mythology the planets and Sirius-B move in elliptical orbits." Further, "The fact that the Dogon do not talk of another planet with rings beyond Saturn [i.e., Uranus, whose rings were discovered in 1977--and the rings of Jupiter weren't discovered until after Sagan's book was written, although they would have been clearly visible to any arriving extraterrestrial spacecraft] suggests to me that their informants were European, not extraterrestrial." Concludes Sagan, "There are too many loopholes, too many alternate explanations for such a myth to provide reliable evidence of past extraterrestrial contact.

Nevertheless the Sumerian Oannes myths, first described by Sagan and Shklovskiy in Intelligent Life in the Universe in 1966, are as intriguing as ever. In a recent book, The Once and Future Star (Hawthorn Books, 1977), George Michanowsky identifies "Oannes" as a Hellenized version of the Sumerian name Ea; he theorizes that the myths may refer to a gigantic supernova. Modern astronomers have discovered the remains of the supernova Vela-X in a constellation which would have been visible in the low southern sky from Sumer.

The mystery of the ancient "red" Sirius also remains baffling. Some astronomers speculate that the white dwarf Sirius B might have been a flaming red giant only 2000 years ago although current astrophysical theories decree that any such transformation in less than 100,000 years is impossible. Other ancient astronomical records make no mention of Sirius being red.

Meanwhile the Dogon myths continue to baffle investigators. The obviously advanced astronomical knowledge must have come from somewhere, but is it an ancient bequest or a modern graft? Although Temple fails to prove its antiquity, the evidence for the recent acquisition of the information is still entirely circumstantial.

Dogon descriptions of Jupiter, Saturn and Sirius remind one of Jonathan Swift's uncanny description of the two undiscovered moons of Mars. But that isn't the only parallel. Swift appears to have taken the idea of two close (although not necessarily small) moons of Mars from Voltaire's novel Micromegos in which an extraterrestrial visitor tells earthmen about the undiscovered Martian moons. And from what star system does the visitor come? You guessed it -- Sirius!

In 1977 two radio astronomers were interested enough in the Sirius mystery to direct their telescopes at the star system in hopes of picking up any artificial radio signals. None were detected, That was not surprising since, judging from the age and energy of the stars in the Sirius system, astronomers believe it is unlikely that any earthlike planets could exist there long enough for life to emerge and develop.

So where does this leave the mysteries of Sirius? The antiquity of the Dogon astronomy is not so obvious as ancient astronaut enthusiasts claim but neither has it been disproved. The ancient records are filled with unanswered astronomical questions -- including the "red Sirius" and the possible Sumerian Ea-Oannes references to the spectacular Vela-X supernova. The Dogon myths may or may not be related to these other putties (or even to Kepler's supernova, which has been seriously suggested.) It seems likely that we will never know for sure.

Whatever their place in the search for extraterrestrial contact, the Dogon myths are certainly odd. The Stone Age storytellers speak by their campfires of other people on other planets and of other mysteries. Our mysteries may be different but our questions are the same and we are no wiser.


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