Excerpted from Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO by David J. Halperin, published by Stanford University Press. ©2020 by David J. Halperin. All Rights Reserved.

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.

Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures … their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.

Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures. … The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. …

And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went … and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.

— The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Chapter 1

There was once a group within the Jewish people—a group of men, almost certainly—who called themselves “descenders to the chariot,” the Hebrew word for “chariot” (merkavah) being shorthand for the fantastic entity that Ezekiel described in the first chapter of his book. In their convoluted, half-intelligible writings, these people spoke of undertaking mystical journeys to the merkavah-chariot on its home territory, of going there to view it as Ezekiel had. One might naturally assume that territory to be in heaven. Strangely, though, they called their journey to the merkavah a “descent” and the return from it an “ascent.”

Who they were, when and where they lived, what exactly they did when they “descended to the chariot,” and why they thought of themselves as descending to something that ought to be in the sky—these are mysteries hardly less impenetrable than Ezekiel’s vision itself. Some researchers place them in Roman or Byzantine Palestine early in the Common Era, others in Islamic Iraq several hundred years later. But all agree that these “merkavah mystics,” as they’ve come to be known, bequeathed to medieval Judaism a peculiar Hebrew literature called Hekhalot (Palaces), in reference to the seven concentric “palaces” within which they imagined the merkavah to be enclosed. It’s from this literature that we know them.

Were they ancient abductees? Not exactly. The relation between the experiences described in the Hekhalot literature and those of modern abductees is subtler and more complex than that, with major differences that must be given full weight. But there are also continuities, leading us into a broad range of religious phenomena that seem to encompass both.

“Rabbi Ishmael said: What are those songs to be uttered by one who seeks to gaze on the vision of the merkavah, in order that he may descend safely and ascend safely?” Thus begins The Greater Treatise of the Palaces, a Hekhalot text that’s not so much a book as a chaotic swirl of hymns, incantations, sacred names and unearthly landscapes, with a few snatches of narrative woven in. Rabbi Ishmael and his teacher Rabbi Nehunyah ben Hakanah are the main characters. Both men were historical figures, rabbinic scholars who lived in Palestine around 100 CE. Their involvement with the merkavah and the “descent” to it was a fiction, concocted centuries after their deaths. But fiction can sometimes be a projection of a reality known to the writer, and that may be what’s happening here.

Rabbi Ishmael is often the narrator. In one episode, he tells how at Rabbi Nehunyah’s command he assembled the other rabbis at an entrance of the Jerusalem Temple. There he and nine fellow initiates sit at Nehunyah’s feet while Nehunyah lectures on “the ways of the merkavah, descent and ascent, how the one who descends [to the merkavah] makes the descent, how the one who ascends can make the ascent.”

That “descent” is a deeply frightening experience. Reading the Hekhalot, you’re apt to wonder why anyone would want to make it at all. The angels you run into along the way are monstrous and horrible: “taller than mountains,” their bows drawn, sharp swords in their hands. Their noses drip fire; their eyeballs, bolts of lightning. “Their horses are horses of darkness, horses of deep darkness, horses of gloom, horses of fire, horses of blood, horses of hail, horses of iron, horses of the misty cloud . . . and they eat glowing coals out of their mangers.” (Translated by James R. Davila; all other translations are my own)

These are not Hallmark greeting-card angels; they’re as savage in their habits as they are terrifying in their appearance. Pushing other creatures into rivers of fire is standard behavior for them. They do it to each other; they do it to the human visitor who’s slipped up in some way, revealing his unfitness to “see the King [God] in His beauty.” But with the right magic, a human being can do the same to an angel who refuses his demands. “I will push you into the lava flow of pressing fire and set up another in your place,” one of the descenders warns an angel, and there’s no reason to think this an empty threat.

In a “heaven” so saturated with aggression and brutality, treading gingerly is a must. Voyagers need the exact names of the angels they will pass, the right seals to show them so they’ll be let through. All this information Rabbi Nehunyah provides, until he mentions a detail his hearers don’t understand. They beg Rabbi Ishmael to intercede, to “bring him back . . . from the vision he is viewing” so that he can clarify what he’s trying to say.

Gershom Scholem, the past century’s greatest scholar of Jewish mysticism, explains what’s going on here. Nehunyah has been in ecstatic trance, telling his pupils what he sees in his vision of the things that Ezekiel once saw. He must be brought out of his trance so that he can respond to their questions, and Rabbi Ishmael knows exactly how to do it. A myrtle branch, infected with just the slightest taint of impurity, is placed on Nehunyah’s knees. At once Nehunyah is dismissed from the world of his vision, back to normal consciousness.

Fiction, of course—glamorized, transferred into the distant past. The setting in the long-destroyed Temple is enough to guarantee that. But as I’ve said, fiction can be a projection of the writer’s reality, and this story has the authentic feel of a shamanistic séance. The shaman journeys in spirit through fantastic and inaccessible realms. His body remains with the people who’ve gathered to witness his feats, while he reports to them on what his soul encounters along its way. 

A parallel close at hand suggests itself: the hypnotic regression of the UFO abductee.

There are differences. The abductee is passive, put into a trance rather than actively creating it. The realm into which he or she journeys is that of memory, not of present events but of the past relived. Yet like the shaman, like the descender, the abductee is in two places at once, the therapist’s couch and the extraterrestrial spaceship. This duality, this drama played out on two planes simultaneously, is a staple of films about alien abduction, from the 1975 TV movie The UFO Incident—a powerful and authentic portrayal of the Betty and Barney Hill episode—to the 2009 thriller The Fourth Kind. The stability of this feature, through nearly thirty-five years of “abduction” cinema, suggests that it reflects something fundamental about the phenomenon. 

Abduction and the “descent” have something else in common. Both focus on an aerial vehicle that is not, as one might expect, a means for flying somewhere else. The UFO, like Ezekiel’s “chariot,” is itself the goal. In only about a quarter of abduction stories do we hear of some travel beyond the UFO, often though not always to other worlds, after the real business in the spaceship’s examination room is done.

Several of these supplementary journeys share an odd feature that “comes as a surprise even by the standards of UFO abduction stories” (Thomas E. Bullard) and leads us back to the merkavah by another path. Instead of flying up into outer space, the witness goes down, whether inside the UFO or not. Bullard gives several examples, including a UFO that “plunged into the sea and came out again, then entered huge crystalline caverns which broadened into a vast underworld” and an abductee’s recollection of how “beings escorted him to a beach, unlocked a rock and led him through a tunnel stretching beneath the sea.” In her 1977 hypnotic regression, Betty Andreasson was frankly puzzled by her sense of having traveled outward and at the same time inward. “Did you leave this earth and go through space—to another planet?” one of the investigators asked her. “Or did this all happen on this earth?”

Betty: “I left this earth, yes, I left this earth. I believe we were in space, and somehow I believe we were in the center of the earth. Now how can you be in both?”

How indeed? And how can it be that Ezekiel’s chariot, which by any rational accounting is part of the appurtenances of heaven, is reached by a process of descent? Writing nearly sixty years ago, Scholem called this “a very curious and so far unexplained change of phraseology.” Sixty years of research have done nothing to explain it. But we’ve already seen two of Budd Hopkins’s abductees insist on having gone down rather than up to the UFO. Hopkins, though perplexed at their conviction—“How’d you get there, underground?”—still couldn’t shake it.

“I don’t know! I don’t know. We’re down underground.”

There’s evidently something about the experience that, at least on occasion, creates a perception of descent so compelling as to overwhelm all realistic awareness that one ought to be going in the other direction. This was the case for some abductees at the end of the twentieth century—and, it would appear, for the merkavah mystics hundreds of years earlier. The lines, faint and shadowy, begin to be drawn.

David J. Halperin has published five nonfiction books on Jewish mysticism and messianism, as well as the coming-of-age novel Journal of a UFO Investigator: A Novel (2011). He taught Jewish studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, until his retirement in 2000. View his blog about UFOs, religion, and related subjects at www.davidhalperin.net.