Astrology, the Flu, and Free Will

One highly influential form of divination in the ancient world, which also had a major impact on the casting of spells and creation of charms, was astrology. The ancients, whether Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman, all paid close attention to the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets. They regarded this seven “wandering stars” in particular as divine entities whose movements had a powerful effect on earthly creatures. To a very great extent, Medieval European Christians inherited this perspective.

To many people today, especially those who have had enough of nonsensical Facebook posts about zodiac signs and personality types, the idea that the planets can affect our lives seems ridiculous. As Bailey points out, however, it is actually quite intuitive:

“That astral bodies imparted energies that could influence terrestrial ones was hardly an outlandish idea—one had only to note how the moon influenced tides or more basically how the rising sun warmed the air to be convinced of this fact. That the planet Mars could impart martial energies or that the power of Venus somehow facilitated amorous attraction or sexual fertility was widely accepted in the Middle Ages, and much more serious intellectual effort was spent working out exactly how these various forces operated. Although learned astrologers sometimes made predictions about the future, they would hardly have considered themselves diviners or magicians. Rather, they would have presented themselves as wise men and philosophers exploring the forces of nature.”[1]

In addition to tidal forces and solar heat, I would also add that skeptics should ask a nurse about working during a full moon.

As Medievals tangled with the precise workings of the influence of the stars on earthly life, they were quick to note that this influence was not direct. Lewis in The Discarded Image has an excellent passage on this:

“In accordance with the principle of devolution or mediation the influences do not work upon us directly, but by first modifying the air. As Donne says in The Exstasie, ‘On man heaven’s influence works not so But first it imprints the air.’ A pestilence is caused originally by malefical conjunctions of planets, as when

Kinde herde tho Conscience and cam out of the planetes And sente forth his forayers, fevers and fluxes.

(Piers Plowman, C. XXIII, 80.)

But the bad influence operates by being literally ‘in the air.’ Hence when a medieval doctor could give no more particular cause for the patient’s condition he attributed it to ‘this influence which is at present in the air.’ If he were an Italian doctor he would doubtless say questa influenza. The profession has retained this useful word ever since.”[2]

That’s right. When you say you have the flu, you’re actually taking part in an old tradition of ascribing airborne maladies to the influence of the planets. You astrologer, you.


So how did we get here? Clearly the Church no longer regards astrology as kosher. How did this happen?

The answer is partly that the Church always had certain objections to astrology, or at least to the abuse of it. Lewis outlines three of these objection:

“(1) Against the lucrative, and politically undesirable, practice of astrologically grounded predictions.

(2) Against astrological determinism…

(3) Against practices that might seem to imply or encourage the worship of planets—they had, after all, been the hardiest of all the Pagan gods.”[3]

Of these three objections, it was the second that caused the most debate among Medieval philosophers and theologians. Lewis devotes more room to this problem than either of the others, and Bailey concurs in regarding it as a highly problematic issue:

“The difficulty lay in rescuing some acceptable systems of astrology from the condemnations of earlier authorities, and from the dilemma that the determinative power of astrological forces seemed to conflict with the important Christian notion of human free will.”[4]

Christianity presents a notion of human responsibility, and an emphasis on moral decision-making, that seems reliant on some notion of free will. After all, if King David was compelled to sin with Bathsheba due to the lascivious influences of Venus, how can he be held accountable for his actions? How can Abraham be praised for his faithfulness when it was merely the stars that decreed his actions?

Here Christian theology and Medieval science appeared to be in conflict, and it took centuries to work out something like an acceptable solution. Bailey points to Albertus Magnus (c.1200-1280) as the first to propose this solution, but it was his pupil, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who explained it as part of his masterful theological system which determined the course of the rest of Medieval European thought.[5] It is to Aquinas we will turn in the next section, exploring the Medieval solution to this conundrum.

Free Will and the Stars

In order to understand Aquinas’s explanation, we have to place ourselves in the Medieval mindset. To begin with, the distinction between material bodies and immaterial “intellectual substances” is important. In his Compendium of Theology¸ Aquinas begins his explanation of the influence with the stars by acknowledging the way higher bodies impact lower bodies:

“Among intellectual substances, therefore, some are divinely governed by others, that is, the lower by the higher. Similarly lower bodies are controlled, in God’s plan, by higher bodies. Hence every movement of lower bodies is caused by the movements of heavenly bodies. Lower bodies acquire forms and species from the influence thus exercised by heavenly bodies, just as the intelligible exemplars of things descend to lower spirits through higher spirits.”[6]

The way intelligible exemplars descend through spirits is not important. What is significant here is the simple acknowledgment that all material objects “lower down,” that is, towards the earth, are moved and shaped by heavenly bodies. The stars, being physical, effect physical things on earth. This might present a problem if one particular thing were not kept in mind:

“Furthermore, impressions left in lower bodies from the impact of heavenly bodies are natural. Therefore, if the operations of the intellect and will resulted from the impression made by heavenly bodies, they would proceed from natural instinct. And so man would not differ in his activity from other animals, which are moved to their actions by natural instinct. And thus free will and deliberation and choice and all perfections of this sort, which distinguish man from other animals, would perish.”[7]

So Aquinas succinctly states the problem: if the stars, through their actions on the physical things of the earth, also control our will and intellect, then we have no free will, no powers of deliberation, and are not to be distinguished from the animals. This is a high-stakes issue. All Biblical anthropology hangs on it.

Before we can take the next step with Aquinas, we have to step deeper into Medieval natural philosophy. Modern Christians tend to have a pretty simplistic explanation of what the soul is and what it does. Medievals had a more complex understanding. After acknowledging that man is a “rational animal,” that is, a living and moving being with the capacity to reason, C. S. Lewis goes on to explain the complexities of the human soul:

“Rational Soul, which gives man his peculiar position, is not the only kind of soul. There are also Sensitive Soul and Vegetable Soul. The powers of Vegetable Soul are nutrition, growth, and propagation. It alone is present in plants. Sensitive Soul, which we find in animals, has these powers but has sentience in addition. It thus includes and goes beyond Vegetable Soul, so that a beast can be said to have two levels of soul, Sensitive and Vegetable, or a double soul, or even—though misleadingly—two souls. Rational Soul similarly includes Vegetable and Sensitive, and adds reason.”[8]

All three kind or levels of soul are immaterial, but each Rational Soul in particular is directly created by an act of God, whereas as lower level souls possessed by animals and plants arise due to the inner workings of natural—though spiritual—forces.[9]

Just as our bodies have particular “faculties,” or abilities, such as a hand being capable of grasping or of punching or of lightly touching, so our souls have different faculties. Lewis goes on to describe two faculties of the rational soul in particular—intellect (intellectus) and reasoning (ratio):

“We are enjoying intellectus when we ‘just see’ a self-evident truth; we are exercising ratio when we proceed step by step to prove a truth which is not self-evident. A cognitive life in which all truth can simply be ‘seen’ would be the life of an intelligentia, an angel. A life of unmitigated ratio where nothing was simply ‘seen’ and all had to be proved, would presumably be impossible; for nothing can be proved if nothing is self-evident. Man’s mental life is spent in laboriously connecting those frequent, but momentary, flashes of intelligentia which constitute intellectus.”[10]

This means that man has both a faculty which completely overleaps sensory input (intellectus), and a faculty which joins these truths together and pushes them in new directions. Both these faculties belong to an immaterial part of man, one directly created by God, and not arising by natural processes. This allows Aquinas to resolve the problem of the effect heavenly bodies have on earthly ones:

“Nevertheless, since the will is not subject to the passions in such a way as necessarily to follow their enticement, but on the contrary has it in its power to repress passions by the judgment of reason, the human will is not subject to impressions emanating from heavenly bodies. It retains free judgment either to follow or to resist their attractions, as may seem to it expedient.”[11]

Thus, while man’s powers of growth, nutrition, and propagation may be effected by the heavenly bodies, or even his ability to sense the world around him, his will remains free. There is a rational core within man capable of resisting and even contradicting the influence of the heavenly bodies. Of course, not everyone has the strength of character to pull this off:

“Only the wise act thus; the masses follow the lead of bodily passions and urgings. For they are wanting in wisdom and virtue.”[12]

This has two important implications. First, astrology will still by and large be effective in predicting the general behavior of masses of humanity, even if it is not always accurate in predicting the actions of individual humans. Second, it is necessary to cultivate both wisdom and virtue to obtain true freedom from the forces of the world around you. Education, in the deeper sense of the term, is important.

The Legacy of the Solution

Aquinas, following in his teacher’s footsteps, provided a very sensible solution to the theological problem presented by the notion of astrological determinism. But while it may seem sensible, it was by no means universally accepted:

“Yet for various reasons this solution was not entirely successful. Doubts remained about the exact nature and extent of astral influence, and some authorities denied such influence altogether. The very skeptical theologian and natural philosopher Nicholas Oresme (ca. 1325-1382), for example, maintained that the astral bodies projected no forces toward the earth aside from light and heat.”[13]

In the centuries that followed, the discussion faded into obscurity. One the one hand, the issue of determinism was being fought over by Reformed theologians and Remonstrants who were much more concerned with salvation than the stars. On the other, the Copernican revolution so thoroughly altered our understanding of the structure of the solar system that the old explanations for the stars influenced the earth no longer applied. Both the theological and the scientific halves of the conundrum drifted apart into new contexts.

This calls into question just why we still object to astrology. It seems that the most obvious answer is simply that we believe it is unsupported by science. Modern natural philosophers have called the notion superstitious, and Christians have agreed with them, lumping the once respectable discipline in with tarot cards and palmistry. This objection, while perhaps more definitive, is far less interesting.

The beautiful thing about the theological conundrum that astrology presented was that it forced Christians to show how theology and science were related. For Medievals, these were not hugely divided disciplines which would never ordinarily interact. The world the Bible described and the world natural philosophy described were one in the same, and so theological issues were in fact very likely to have an impact on scientific views, and vice versa.

That, I think, is a sense of unity worth recovering—the idea that the God who made the heavens is the same God who was incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and so the truths of His world and the truths of his Word are not separate from one another. Perhaps it is good that the problem of astrological determinism died, but it also exactly the sort of theological-scientific problem we should expect to see in God’s universe.


[1] Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe, pgs. 93-94.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image. (2009 printing from Cambridge University Press.) pg. 110.

[3] Lewis, pgs. 103-104.

[4] Bailey, pg. 98.

[5] Bailey, pg. 98.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Compendium of Theology, translated by Cyril Vollert, with New Introduction by Richard Munkelt. Angelico Press. Pg. 133/chapter 127.

[7] Aquinas, pg. 134/chapter 127.

[8] Lewis, pg. 153.

[9] Lewis, pg. 154.

[10] Lewis, pg. 157.

[11] Aquinas, pg. 135.

[12] Aquinas, pg. 135.

[13] Bailey, pg. 98.


Dante, Courtly Love, and the Contemplative Life

This quarter in the eighth grade great books course I teach, we are spending several weeks on Dante’s Inferno. The class covers the medieval period in general, a period I find fascinating. And in some ways, Dante is the distillation of the best of medieval literature, cosmology, and theology. It’s fun.

Dante himself is quite the character. In the Divine Comedy, the work of which the Inferno is only the first third, he portrays himself wandering through a dark wood, plagued by vicious beasts, trying to get to the top of a mountain. He is met in those woods by the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, who is going to take him through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to reach God. But it turns out that Virgil has been sent to Dante by Beatrice, the love of Dante’s life.

Fun fact: Dante met Beatrice when she was eight and he was nine, she married another man, and died three years later at the age of twenty-four. Dante had been married to someone else for five years at that point, and would end up having several kids with this other woman. Yet throughout his life, Dante maintained that he was madly in love with Beatrice, and had been since the day they met. He wrote a collection of love poetry in her honor that he published five years after she died, and finished the Divine Comedy, in which she had a starring role, only a year before his own death.

So, that’s interesting. Actually, it’s less weird than it sounds, if only slightly. This was the era of courtly love poetry, when falling in love with married women was the thing to do. In a lot of the stories of knights in shining armor fighting for the honor of fair ladies, said fair ladies were often married to another man. Now, a good Christian knight would never try to act on his love in an unbecoming manner–say, by sleeping with the lady whom he loved so madly. No, he would just admire her from afar, and fight in her honor. In theory. There was that whole Lancelot thing. Also Tristram and Isolde. And maybe one or two others. But most of the time it was platonic.

To modern sensibilities, this concept is wildly foreign. In what possible context could this be interpreted as a good thing, especially in the eyes of such a heavily churched culture, especially coming from such a self-consciously Christian guy as Dante? Well, there actually might be an explanation.

In the third part of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso, Dante ascends through the heavens one heavenly sphere at a time. Just as in Hell below, people are here placed into separate spheres based on their character. In the sphere of Mars, for instance, are those who fought for the faith. Above them, on Jupiter, are righteous rulers. But at the top, on Saturn, the last real planet in medieval cosmology, we find… monks?

Actually, this sphere is usually labeled “The Heaven of the Contemplatives.” Contemplatives are pretty much what they sound like–people who spend their lives in contemplation, either of God himself or of various divine mysteries. This would certainly include monks as we normally think of them, but it would also cover other people who led a similar lifestyle of meditation on holy things.

This is actually a huge part of the medieval view of the world. The best thing you could be was not one of those adventurous knights, not some righteous king like Arthur or Charlemagne, nor even necessarily a regular priest or bishop, caught up in the affairs of your parish or bishopric. No, medievals considered a life of contemplation to be the pinnacle of human existence.

There are several reasons for this, but one major reason is grounded in their philosophy of the soul. Medieval philosophy said that there were three kinds of souls–vegetable, animal, and rational. The vegetable soul was the kind of life that grew, but didn’t do much else. You know, like veggies. The animal soul belonged to life forms that could move around and act on their environment. But the last kind of soul, belonging to men and angels, and perhaps just a few others, was the rational soul. This kind of soul was capable of reason.

This view had certain implications. Lifestyles that primarily involved action, that involved working or fighting or other such things, were things we held in common with the beasts. Ruling, which engaged more of one’s reasoning abilities, would be higher up the chain. After all, you were using the faculties that distinguished you from lower creation. But higher up, higher even than wise and just rulers, would be people who did nothing but use their reasoning faculties. These were the people who contemplated the deep and holy things of life, using that faculty which God gave to his children and his servants above all others.

So what does this have to do with courtly love? Well, imagine a kind of love which was not focused on your merely animal drives, one which demanded instead that you meditate upon your beloved, use reason to contemplate her. Imagine, if you will, a contemplative rather than an active love. In fact, imagine a love where the actual activities of romance are ruled out, but not a higher and more platonic admiration. So, yeah, imagine you are in love with a married woman.

It’s kind of twisted, but it makes a weird sort of sense. If reason is the best part of our nature, and animal instincts to some extent reduce us to the level of beasts, then a love which is elevated to a solely rational level is a higher love. Of course, in practice it becomes something that is either creepy, if unrequited, or adulterous, if the lady returns your affections. It’s dangerous, and there’s no doubt it led to all sorts of excesses as well as some very sketchy fiction at the time. Dante even placed a couple adulterers in Hell who were inspired to sin thanks to reading courtly love poetry. But it does make that twisted sort of sense.

Now, no society is really simple, especially one as diverse and cosmopolitan, yet weirdly provincial, as medieval Europe could sometimes be. This little chain of reasoning no doubt leaves out quite a lot, and paints a very uneven portrait of a culture shaped by people from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of weird quirks and personal histories. Still, it’s a striking and surprisingly coherent story. It’s just the sort of thing to make you wonder what weirdly alien practices we take for granted as a society, and how strange some of our values might be in the light of history. What might our descendants think of us seven hundred years from now?

In Praise of the Weird

In my testimony, I made an offhand reference to my onetime belief in extraterrestrial life. In a previous version of that post, I was actually going to devote a sizable space to my interactions with UFO, Bigfoot, Nessie, and other paranormal studies over the course of my life. It plays a bigger part in the story than you might think. While ultimately I chose to sideline that theme, I do believe those issues are worthy of attention for thinking Christian in a secular culture. Here I want to present an explanation as to why I think this is the case.

          First Things First

Definitions. To someone unfamiliar with the lay of the land, these fields are filled with a bewildering array of terms that either entirely unknown, or used in a more specific way than people with less exotic interests are accustomed to. Here’s quick intro to those.

Forteana and Fortean. Charles Fort was a nineteenth century student of everything weird. Forteana is the discipline—or vague collection of pseudo-disciplines—named for him. It encompasses everything from aliens to lost civilizations to ghosts to psychic powers to conspiracy theories to alternate dimensions to cryptozoology. That would be the subject of this post. Fortean is just the adjective version of the word.

Cryptozoology is the study of animals not yet acknowledged to exist by mainstream science. This is actually the most legitimate of Fortean studies, as it frequently deals with animals that actually do exist, or did at one time. Before the great apes were discovered, they held a place similar to bigfoot in the popular imagination. The komodo dragon was thought to be a mythical creature, and the okapi was likewise thought to be an animal from folklore. All of these were discovered to exist. Other cryptids, or animals studied by cryptozoologists, include large black cats in East Texas, the Tasmanian Tiger (presumed extinct by mainstream science), and anacondas of unusual size. Bigfoot and his many relatives, as well as a plethora of lake monsters, are of course included.

A UFO is just an unidentified flying object. If you have seen something in the sky and didn’t know what it was—in other words, if you ever look up at the night sky—you have seen a UFO. That may sound simplistic, but the distinction between, “Was that a satellite or spacejunk?” and, “Little green men landed in my back yard!” is actually surprisingly murky. A large number of UFO sightings just involve unidentified lights that are too large or move too erratically to be ordinary planes. Some of these are explainable by ball lightning or other phenomena, others not so much.

Another common sighting is the black triangle. These have super common for a while, but are generally laughed off as just another case of crackpot UFO nuts hallucination. The government in particular denies all knowledge of such an aircraft, and they have totally never tested any kind aircraft that fit that description.


Which serves to illustrate the difference between UFOs and aliens. The theory that UFOs are flown by creatures from another planet is referred to as the extraterrestrial hypothesis, and it’s not the only hypothesis in town. Many UFO cases can be easily explained by the government not telling us every time it tests a new spy plane, and many others can be explained by poorly understood atmospheric phenomena, like ball lightning. Others most assuredly are the product of drugs or fevered imaginations, but that doesn’t have to mean all of them are.

But even among those who believe there are genuine, non-government intelligences behind UFO sightings, there are plenty of other explanations. Abduction stories bear an uncanny resemblance to older stories of the fay folk, and some Christians have claimed that they are demons. It’s not unusual for UFO believers to claim the beings they contact are from another dimension instead of another planet. And, my favorite theory, Nazis. Seriously. They’re still out there, they have crazy technology, and they spend the weekends doing flyovers of Kansas farmhouses.

But I digress.

Paranormal is vague term, encompassing everything from extrasensory perception/ESP—which runs the gamut from reading minds to seeing the future—to ghosts of all kinds, to astral projection (sending your soul out on a journey), to strange powers, to some UFO sightings, and back around to cryptozoology. In some cases, paranormal is just a synonym for Forteana, but it usually has more of a spiritual or psychic bent. Literally, it just means “beside the normal.”

Speaking of the spiritual and the psychic, occult is an often abused term. Occult comes from a Latin word meaning “hidden,” and essentially consists of any brand of hidden knowledge about the cosmos, especially the kind of hidden knowledge that gives you power. Picture people pondering over the secret name of God, as in the Jewish Kabbala, or ascribing a deeper meaning to Masonic rituals. Alchemy was actually more of an occult, spiritual discipline designed to lead to enlightenment (sort of) than it was about turning lead into gold. This broad realm of activities does include ritual magic and the invocation of spiritual entities up to and including demons, but there are a lot of Christians that read deep and dubious meaning into supposedly important, yet forgotten, Biblical symbols who would also fit the bill.

There are more places we could go in the realm of Forteana, but this covers most of the major bases. I didn’t mention conspiracy theories, but that’s only because the term is pretty self-explanatory. It is just as important as the others. Having laid the groundwork, then let’s dive into just why these things are important.

Question Your Assumptions

Most of our knowledge about the world does not come from firsthand experience. Unless you are an astronaut, you have never seen the earth circling the sun. No one has seen an atom, however much evidence has been accumulated for their existence. (Hint: It’s a lot.) We trust that Antarctica and most other continents exist because everyone says they exist. We may even know people who claim to have been to these strange lands, but our belief in them is largely based in the trust we have in the people making the claims, not our own experience of them.

But the general consensus is not always right. Turns out Aristotle, Ptolemy, and the entire scientific, philosophical, and religious establishment was wrong about the whole sun-goes-around-the-earth thing. Also turns out that black triangle UFOs really do—or did—exist, and a lot of sightings of sea monsters are based on a real critter—the oarfish.

More critically, it’s not always scientific facts the majority is wrong about. As Christians in what appears to be an increasingly secularized country, we have to assume that we few are right where the majority are wrong. Atheists did the same thing several centuries ago. In any given setting, the possibility always exists that the cultural consensus is deeply wrong about the most important things in life. Sometimes this can have disastrous consequences, from Jonestown to the Third Reich.

Forteana makes us aware of this fact. It asks us to question how we know what we know. Who says this particular thing does not exist? Who says the world works this way? Are they actually trustworthy? Sometimes they are, and the conventional explanation is the best. But there are other times when the authorities or the general population deny, or affirm, the existence of a phenomenon not because they have gone through a process of rational though or sought out evidence and tested hypotheses, but because it is more convenient for them. As in the case of experimental stealth aircraft, we see that sometimes the government is not telling the truth. Is this necessarily a problem? Maybe not, but it is certainly worth noting.

More importantly to the Christian, when we question why hold the beliefs we do, we often uncover which of those beliefs are the true bedrock. Many Christians deny the existence of ghosts, spiritual phenomena, and monstrous beings out of hand, without stopping to think that the Bible often affirms the existence of such things. Why should we be surprised if people see them today? Why do accept the word of scientists who say such things shouldn’t exist over what are sometimes very convincing firsthand accounts? This reveals an underlying faith in modern skepticism and materialism that may not be consistent with Biblical faith. If that is the case, perhaps it is time to reevaluate our professed views.

Studying Fortean phenomena doesn’t only help us reevaluate the sources of our beliefs, it also helps us understand the complex nature of belief. Why do UFO cults form? What is attractive about that? The answers to such questions are deeply practical, because we too have certain spiritual desires that need to be met, certain questions that need to be answered, and those non-rational longings play into our beliefs. A Christian may sometimes find himself in doctrinal position or a community, not as a result of faithfulness to Christ or his word, but because other very human and very fallible motivations are at play. We need to be familiar with such things, and be able to draw such comparisons for our own good and the good of our communities.

One particular place I think this comes out rather strongly is by looking at the appeal of the occult. People go into the occult looking for a hidden order to the universe, something that gives them a sense that life is not beyond their control. They want to empower themselves with the sort of knowledge only a chosen few have, and by performing certain actions, they believe they can reach a kind of enlightenment or perhaps a power over what goes on in their lives.

Do these impulses ever crop up in Christianity? Have you ever been around a teacher or community that dealt in hidden knowledge, that promised power over your life through deep study of certain secret truths about God or the Scriptures? While by no means pervasive in American Christianity, I sometimes think such things are far more common than we realize.

And of course, Forteana helps us uncover human motivations in another very obvious way. What could bring a person to devote their entire life to the pursuit of something, like Bigfoot, for which they will be ostracized from respectable society? What makes them willing to endure the scorn of academia and the general population? Why do they make martyrs of themselves over something so manifestly insane? And, on a related note, is there something attractive about belonging to that fringe community? Is there something that makes people want to join the club of those “in the know,” or who believe that “The Truth is Out There?” This line of questioning is not exactly irrelevant to Bible believing Christians in an unbelieving world, one which often thinks our ideas are just as kooky. And, with the diversity of the American church, sometimes those beliefs are kooky.

The study of Forteana can, in a very practical way, serve as a sort of intellectual immune system, helping us question why we believe what we believe, and holding us up to higher standards in our reasoning. It’s a field that is based on questioning assumptions, and sometimes that is exactly what is needed. Without a certain amount of practice doing so, we may find ourselves prey to the hoaxers of the world—including our own deceptive hearts.

Moving Forward

Forteana serves another purpose, not just for Christians, but for society in general. Science is built on fresh thinking, on looking at old subjects in new lights. Discoveries are made because people study something no one has ever studied before, or studies an old subject from a new angle.

Cryptozoology in particular is a prime example of this. Cryptozoologists take rumors of creatures which others might dismiss out of hand, and refuse to do so. Many times their search proves fruitless, but as in the case of the okapi and komodo dragon, sometimes it pays off. Science needs people willing to chase down the rumors, to follow up on the forgotten cases, to take a chance on something that might seem hopeless. That’s what drives us forward. Take two examples in particular.

First, the deep seas. The oceans are the most unexplored part of this planet, and every time we dive deeper into those unknown regions, we come back astounded by new discoveries. Part of our interest, though, is driven by stories of giant sharks, and squids the size of islands, of aquatic sentient life, or sunken cities. Old rumors of sea monsters keep us going back, wondering what strange new thing could be down there. Those stories, and others like them, imbue that study with a sense of adventure, of wonder, drawing attention, drawing resources, and drawing bright-eyed young kids into the strange and fascinating world of marine biology. It is that openness to possibility that keeps us going.

Second, consider animals once thought extinct. Mainstream science has given up hope on the thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger. This unique marsupial has been thought extinct for generations. But imagine if it wasn’t, if somewhere out there this creature still existed. Could we bring it back from the edge? Could we preserve this piece of God’s creation for future generations? Isn’t that worth trying? But currently, it’s only people on the fringes that are giving us that chance. And, oddly enough, though one has yet to be captured, there is more evidence out there for the thylacine’s continued existence than might once have been expected.

This same theme takes another form in East Texas. It is a known fact among people who live in the Piney Woods that there are large black cats, usually referred to as panthers, lurking in the forests. Mainstream science, however, denies that they exist. If they are assumed to be melanistic jaguars, this skepticism seems well-founded, as jaguars are not known to live anywhere near this far north. If, however, they are jaguarundis—a slightly smaller feline species with a more slender build—then the long history of sightings seems more reasonable. Jaguarundi territory does, in fact, reach into South Texas. If this is the case, then what does this tell us about the ability of large mammals to survive in semi-populated areas? How does this effect how we view human interaction with the environment? And what does this tell us about how thoroughly we really know our own backyards?

In the questioning of old assumptions and the openness to new possibilities, Fortean studies in general and cryptozoology in particular keep science on its toes. We need a source of fresh ideas just as much as we need someone to question unexamined orthodoxies. It keeps us moving forward, and prevents us from accepting misunderstandings as the truth, simply because they have been around a while, or we’re too lazy to take a look at them.


Forteana has served as an important part of my intellectual immune system for a lot of years, and has kept me looking forward to the future as a realm with exciting possibilities. But it has also done two more things for me that I think are deeply valuable.

As I’ve alluded to elsewhere, there was a time in my life when the community I was in felt tightly insulated from the rest of the world, isolated from any sort of dissent or simple conversation about any number of issues. That same community seemed to undermine my faith through some of its teachings and practices. But when you are deep in a cultural bubble, things often seem far more desperate than they really are. What can seem like an oppressive system with absolute power over your life is often not, if you can just take a single step outside.

Forteana did that for me. I had left behind such things for many years, for a variety of reasons. But at some point, when things were at their darkest, and I couldn’t really find a way forward, I stumbled across a podcast called Expanded Perspectives. In that very rough time, I dove into stories of yowies and the almasty, of Slenderman and Missing 411 cases. I reintroduced myself to old UFO cases, and new ones that had happened since I turned my mind to other things.

It was like a breath of fresh air to a suffocating man. I was surrounded by a thousand unquestioned assumptions and no one to talk to about them, and in one enormous flood, a whole world of outrageous ideas, of theories upending everything the world took for granted, came sweeping in and gave me a new lease on life. It was a window into an outside world—so refreshing, so new, and so inspiring.

And that was the second thing Forteana did for me, and has done for pop culture generally. These fringe topics are fodder for story ideas, whether you’re looking for a political thriller, a monster movie, a ghost story, a fantasy adventure, or just a solid mystery. All these beasts, beings, and phenomena set the imagination on fire and turn it loose. For someone who thrives on the new and the strange, that’s bread and butter. I began reading so much more after I got back into Forteana, and my habit of writing had a revival soon after. There are so many more interesting things than UFOs, crypto, and the paranormal, but that was the spark that brought me back.

Forteana not only helps us keep our worldview tidy, it serves as a release valve for the imagination. Human beings occasionally need that escape into the extraordinary, that vacation in the land of the weird so that they can come back into the real world and cope with day to day life. While hanging out with bigfoot and the greys didn’t bring me back around to spiritual health, it certainly helped put a stop to the downward spiral. When you have trouble finding the truth, sometimes it helps to just know the truth is out there.