In Search of the Extra-Terrestrial

In the final days of August 2016, a press release from the Russian Academy of Sciences told the world that an interesting radio signal of startling power and steadiness had been detected coming from outside our solar system. Detected, that is, in 2015.

Even the scientists of SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) were impressed, although they wondered what had taken their Russian counterparts so long to broadcast the news. SETI checked the target area of the sky with the Allen Telescope Array but heard nothing.

Even so, speculation surged. Even to the extent of speculating about encountering a Type II civilization on the Kardashev scale, indicating a civilization capable of harnessing the entire energy output of its sun. Earlier this year, a dimming star found elsewhere in the sky had prompted talk of “alien megastructures” obscuring its light. (Wouldn’t Alien Megastructures be a cool name for a rock band?)

Alas, the signal found in 2015 emanated from much closer than the interstellar deeps. It descended from on high, the Russian Academy of Sciences confirmed a week later, from a Russian military satellite.

An eye attuned to myth can find much of interest in this story. The cosmos has ever been a mythic place to imagine. Particularly of interest is the patch of sky where the signal was said to originate: the constellation of Hercules.

We all know who Hercules is. Disney even made him funny. Like us, the ancient Greeks (who called him Heracles) held the son of Zeus as a hero, one of the greatest. Unlike us, however, they were clear that heroes are not always good, not always worth idealizing. Hercules accomplished many great tasks and Twelve Labors (two of which were extras), made Olympus safe from dangerous giants, and was said to be the founder of the Olympic Games. He was also a serial rapist and murderer whose temper ultimately resulted in his own fiery death. He even killed his own family. Those Labors were accomplished as a penance.

This more complex understanding of the hero allows us to wonder what mainstream scientists cannot: What is actually the message hidden in this “extraterrestrial” signal sent by an orbiting eye designed for the uses of war? There could be many sides to it. (I’m reminded of the film Contact, in which the alien signal carried layer upon buried layer, each awaiting patient discovery.)

My own mind’s eye follows the news from constellation back to Earth, where “heroism” of the burly, aggressive, unregulated variety posts sentries above to watch us. No, not extraterrestrial, these events seem to whisper, but extra-terrestrial, a scoop on our own heroic pretentions, a signal from ourselves only intended for us.

Yet perhaps that stellar image of Hercules standing on Draco the dragon’s head holds a valuable higher look at the state of the world below him. Myth is a giant, even heroic, magic mirror that shows us how we are. Will we seek the heroic in the sky, then, whether far away or in orbit? Or can we find it within us, here on the ground, where our capacity for reflection and remembrance softens and humanizes our violent impulses?

At his best, Hercules demonstrated more than once what the ancient Greeks called xenia: friendliness toward the stranger. His name means Glory of Hera, a nod to the goddess who keeps the world in good order. The hero serving the Goddess as he learns divine humility: that is a terrestrial image worthy of telescopic amplification.

Craig Chalquist is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Immanence Journal. You can read more about xenia in myth and contemporary events in his upcoming article in our first edition. 

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