Devil’s Twists & Witches' Rings: The History of Crop Circles
Examining the truth of the scientific evidence tells us much about the nature of the formations and rules out the dismissal of the phenomenon as a hoax, but it does not answer questions about why the phenomenon is occurring or what it might mean. Crop Circles evoked strong responses from those who first came upon them, and the way in which they occur allows them to host a broad spectrum of theoretical interpretations. The theories put forth in response to Crop Circles echo the mindset of the time; they are, as Fideler has noted, a kind of Rorschach test reflecting the psyche of the day and telling us more about the nature of the observer than the observed.12
Crop Circles came to prominence in the late 1980s, partly due to their sudden explosion in frequency and increase in geometric complexity. But this sudden appearance overshadows a longer historic record which serves to refute the dismissal of the phenomenon as a hoax. Archival records of the phenomenon are numerous: an infamous woodcut from 1678; American anthropological records as early as 1853; an 1880 Nature magazine article from England; and newspaper reports from Australia in the 1960s and the Canadian Prairie in the 1970s.13 Farmers in Europe and North America have recorded their observance of them during the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s onward to today; air force pilots and others reported seeing them during World War II.14 The earliest historical accounts of the discovery of formations attribute them to nefarious spirits, and even as late as a hundred years ago, Crop Circles were referred to by the farmers of the English countryside as ‘Witches’ rings’ and ‘Devil’s twists’. Nearing modernity, theories sprang up that emphasized the possibility of natural causation of the phenomenon by weather or wind–theories that were more suitable to the new scientific palette of the day. Today our wide variety of explanations reveal the diverse and fragmented character of modernity. Our historical responses to the phenomenon reflect the way in which human psychology responds to the new and unknown–they offer us a mirror of the psyche and demonstrate to us qualities of our own nature.
Mowing Devil (1678): The first medieval descriptions of the phenomenon were vivid and intense, even fearful.15 In an English pamphlet from 1678, a woodcut shows a field of oats flattened into a circle being reaped by a ‘Mowing Devil.’ The accompanying text describes its words as being the “true relation of a farmer,”
...that very Night, the Crop of Oat shew'd as if it had been all of a flame: but next Morning appear'd so neatly mow'd by the Devil or some Infernal Spirit, that no Mortal Man was able to do the like. ...But not to keep the curious Reader any longer in suspense, The inquisitive Farmer no sooner arriv'd at the place where his Oats grew, But to his admiration he found the Crop was cut down ready to his hands; And [as] if the Devil had a mind to shew his dexterity in the art of Husbandry, And scorn'd to mow them after the usual manner, he cut them in round circles, And plac't every straw with that exactness that it would have taken up above an Age for any Man to perform what he did that one night: And the man that owns them is as yet afraid to remove them. (16)
As one early twentieth century witness of the phenomenon who spoke about what he saw with the older farmers around him was told, “‘You don’t want to worry about them boy, you often see them - the old men used to call them ‘Devil Twists’ ...The farmer then gave me a pitch fork and told me to try to raise the fallen corn. I stood in the circle but I faced a futile task, as fast as I raised the corn stalks they sprang back into place.”17 In attributing the formations to the work of devils or other ‘Infernal Spirits,’ we find our first, natural fear-based attempt to avoid meeting the phenomenon head on.
Robert Plot (1686): A professor of chemistry at Oxford and first keeper of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, Robert Plot, L.L.D. recorded his observations of Crop Circles in a work entitled The Natural History of Straffordshire in 1686. His crisp drawings illustrate the same geometric forms characteristic of the earliest modern Crop Circles including rings, spirals and squares within rings. Further, as with the size of the modern phenomenon, they varied from "near fifty yards, whereas [to] not above two yards diameter.” The downed area of crop defining the ring was, as today, “from the least to the biggest, seldom broader than a yard.” Additionally, Plot found the presence of the same germinal improvement in the affected area that we find today: “the earth underneath having been highly improved with a fat sulpherous matter . . . ever since it was first stricken, though not exerting its fertilizing quality till some time after.” By his account, Plot provides early scientific documentation of the phenomenon. His theory was that the formations were caused by natural storm phenomena and he illustrates his hypothesis as a trumpet-like effect coming from the clouds to produce the effects.
Nature magazine (1880): Another historical account of Crop Circles as being caused by wind storms comes from an August 1880 edition of British Nature magazine:
The storms about this part of Surrey have been lately local and violent, and the effects produced in some instances curious. Visiting a neighbour's farm on Wednesday evening (21st), we found a field of standing wheat considerably knocked about, not as so entirety, but in patches forming, as viewed from a distance, circular spots. Examined more closely, these all presented much the same character, viz., a few standing stalks as a center, some prostrate stalks with their heads arranged pretty evenly in a direction forming a circle round the centre, and outside these a circular wall of stalks which had not suffered. I send a sketch made on the spot, giving an idea of the most perfect of these patches. The soil is sandy loam upon the greensand, and the crop is vigorous, with strong stems, and I could not trace locally any circumstances accounting for the peculiar forms of the patches in the field, nor indicating whether it was wind or rain, or both combined, which had caused them, beyond the general evidence everywhere of heavy rainfall. They were to me suggestive of some cyclonic wind action, and may perhaps have been noticed elsewhere by some of your readers. Guildford, July 23, 1880 (18)
Canadian Prairies (1970’s): In addition to innumerable eyewitness observances of Crop Circles from England and around the world in this century, a Canadian Armed Forces report describes their discovery of a formation in Duhamel, Alberta in 1967 and numerous newspaper reports from the Prairies in that era do the same:
UFO's left nothing but their footprints. (Headline, Brandon Sun, Manitoba, 9-20-74)
A probable U.F.O. landing near Estevan was reported Tuesday. (Estevan-Mercury, Saskatchewan, 10-9-1974)
The Fairies must have got confused at Landenburg . . . the circles were slicked down like hair on a wet dog, but still fresh and green. (Bert McKay, Regina Leader-Post, Saskatchewan, Oct. 1974)
12 As Fideler wrote of them in 1991 they are a kind of psychological Rorschach test.
13 See The Secret History of Crop Circles, T. Wilson, 1998, Pringle, 1999, online databases.
14 See Andreas Mueller www.cropcirclescience.org and Canadian Crop Circle Research Network www.cccrn.ca, as well as Wilson’s Secret History of Crop Circles.
15 There are several other early accounts including one from 1686: found in A Natural History of Staffordshire, written by Professor Robert Plot, LLD, the first "keeper" of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum and a professor of chemistry at Oxford. (for more on this including illustrations see bltresearch.com/otherfacts.html).
16 The pamphlet is subtitled Strange News Out of Hartford-Shire and is from August 22nd, 1678.
17 T. Wilson, The Secret History of Crop Circles, p. 145.
18 Rediscovered by Peter Van Doorn and reprinted in the January 2000 issue of the Journal of Meteorology (ISSN 0307-5966: Volume 25, p. 20-1). Mr. Van Doorn made this discovery while doing archival research on ball-lightning phenomena. He heads the Ball Lightning division of the Tornado Storm and Research Organization (www.torro.org.uk).
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