Monday, October 31, 2011

Marian Apparitions at El-Zeitoun and Social Psi (Part 3)

The events of Zeitoun - the qualitative view

As discussed in the previous post, it is difficult to depict an accurate picture of the events of Zeitoun in terms of their objective scope and magnitude. However, the existing written material provides a relatively rich corpus describing the qualitative dimension of the events. Although this corpus was essentially created by believers, it is significant enough to offer important points of reference for anyone interested in analyzing the events, even from a non-religious perspective. However, to be able to use this material properly, the non-religious perspective needs first to be put in its proper perspective.

The most significant criticism put forward against the religious interpretation of the events was the article published by Persinger and Derr, which attributes the anomalous activities to geomagnetism, in light of the tectonic strain theory [1]. Persinger and Derr were able to establish a relatively significant correlation between seismic activities in the region and the events in Zeitoun.

This criticism is important as it provides an important clue to understand what happened in Zeitoun, but it is far from being enough to close the case, as a pseudo-sceptic article written by Bartholomew and Goode implies [2]. Persinger and Derr’s article is problematic on a number of levels. First, as discussed in the previous post, the exact number and dates of occurrence for the apparitions at Zeitoun are not known, and hence their correlation analysis could only be done with a very incomplete dataset. Second, as Persinger admits, the tectonic strain theory cannot account for specific anomalous occurrences, but only for clusters of occurrences [3]. Last, but not least is how one can account for a geomagnetic phenomenon happening nearly one hundred times, at the same place, over a three year period, and only at night? Any answer to this question is clearly beyond the tectonic strain theory.

If the religious interpretation of events is not satisfying for those who are not taking a religious approach, it is also clear that a pseudo-sceptic interpretation where the tectonic strain theory is stretch beyond its explanatory power is not warranted either.

What can be proposed, however, is that geomagnetism provides an important enabling condition for the phenomenon to occur, but it is not sufficient in itself to fully explain the phenomenon. As discussed previously on this blog, electromagnetism and geomagnetism oftentimes tend to be associated with UFO and psi events [4]. It is in this context that the qualitative descriptions of the events of Zeitoun are useful, as they point towards the notion that geomagnetism was indeed involved, but that “something else” needs to be included in the explanation. That “something  else” might actually be what has been discussed on this blob, and elsewhere, as a “social psi” effect [5]. But first, let’s look at the qualitative data.

There are six main qualitative aspects than can be identified about the Zeitoun events: (a) the so-called light “birds”, (b) the smell of incense, (c) the clouds, (d) phosphorescent-like luminosity, (e) the scintillating lights or “stars”, and (f) the main luminescent object (i.e. the apparition).

The light “birds”

Many witnesses reported that there were luminous objects that traveled through the sky of Zeitoun [6], which were at first construed as “birds” but were clearly not birds. Their actual nature remains unknown to this day. They were described as follow:

"Another phenomenon witnessed by the spectators is the appearance of bird-like creatures before, during, and after the apparitions, and sometimes on nights when there is no apparition at all. These creatures in some ways resemble doves. They are larger than doves; they are larger even than pigeons. Whence they come or whither they go no one can determine. It is known, says the keeper of the Cairo zoo, that pigeons do not fly at night. But these can hardly be any kind of natural bird.

First of all they fly much too rapidly. They fly without ever moving their wings. (Only one spectator interviewed thought he saw one bird flap its wings.) They seem to glide before, into, and around the apparitions. They never come to rest on the roof or trees, and on some occasions have been seen to disintegrate in the sky like wisps of cloud.

Varying in number on different nights, they have appeared singly, in twos, threes, and larger groups. Always in some kind of formation, the creatures fly in triangle, sometimes in the formation of a cross. Once twelve of them flew six abreast in two rows.

Not only are these birds spotless white; they themselves emit light. They are like electrically illuminated birds which can be seen both in the brilliant light of the apparition and in the darkness of the sky above the apparition. They disappear as mysteriously as they appear and without sound of any kind."[7]

Another description is from Bishop Gregorius on the apparitions that took place between 27 April and 15 May 1968:

“Before the apparitions took place some birds that look like pigeons--I don't know what they are--appear in different formations. Sometimes two appear on the dome just as if they had come out of it. However, the dome is closed; the windows do not open. They might be seen flying eastward, then wheeling about and flying to the west, and while one watches them, they suddenly disappear. […]

They do not flap their wings; they glide. In a flash they appeared; and disappear the same way. They did not fly away but above and around the center dome. They did not fly away but above and around the center dome. They stay quite near and are close to the church when they vanish. Whatever formation they take, they keep. Sometimes as many as seven of them fly in the formation of a cross. They appear and disappear in this formation. They fly very swiftly. They are not light on one side, but are completely lighted. One does not see feathers at all--just something  lighted. They are radiating creatures, larger in size than a dove or a pigeon. Sometimes as one of them flies lower, it gets larger and larger. People realize these are not pigeons." [8]

Lastly, let’s mention that there is a famous photograph of these “birds” taken by Wagih Risk (shown below). However, the photograph was analyzed in detail by Vern Miller of the Brooks Institute of Photography of Santa Barbara, California in the 1990s, and it became clear that although it was a genuine picture of the phenomenon, the individual object’s shape is likely to have been altered to look like “birds” [9].

In themselves, these objects seem unexplainable, but if one keeps in mind that in April and May 1968 there was significant seismologic activity in Egypt [10], then a different picture emerges. Strange lights in formation have been noted in the Idu Peninsula (Japan) during the earthquakes of November 1930 and in 1957 during an earthquake in Leicestershire, England [11]. It is interesting to note that some of the early UFO sightings involving some sort of “flight formations” have an earthquake dimension as well. The famous Lubbock sighting of 25 August 1951, in northern Texas, were interpreted by some as being “birds”[12], and there was some significant seismic activity in the area in June of the same year [13]. The famous Washington D.C. sightings of 19-20 July 1952, where UFOs in formation were observed on radar screen, occurred just one day before a major earthquake in California with a magnitude of 7.6 [14]. Another case is the one of a pilot who saw seven objects in formation while flying between New Zealand and Australia on 13 January 1965 [15], which occurred at the same time of a wave of earthquakes in New Zealand [16]. More recently, UFO flight formations were reported in Chile on 12 and 25 September 2011 [17]; there was also a 5.9 earthquake near the coast of Chile on 14 September 2011, and another one of 5.6 magnitude on 28 September  2011 [18].
Lastly, we can compare the “flight formations” of Zeitoun to the description of the famous UFO sighting of Kenneth Arnold of 24 June 1947. As Devereux noted,

 “a brilliant flash of light occurred, centered on an area where Arnold saw nine bright lights. These traveled in an undulating fashion between (in all) three peaks of the Cascade mountains, hugging the terrain, frequently giving off brilliant blue-white flashes, usually preceding a change of motion. As Arnold obtained a closer view of them, the lights showed themselves to be generally discoid in shape, though with variations which may have been due to shape-changing characteristics, or difficulty of definition at long distances on Arnold’s part. The light varied in intensity, and maintained a rough formation. […] The location where the incident took place also speaks volumes. The Cascades Mountains are located directly on a tectonic plate margin.” [19]

A number of preliminary remarks need to be made here, before going further. It is clear that the science of earth-generated luminous objects is still in its infancy. Persinger proposed what he called the “tectonic strain theory” to explain the presence of luminous objects in the sky, as discussed above. The tectonic strain theory allows for objects to be seen far away from the epicenter of a seismic event, and it can happen a few days before or after such event. On the other hand, Devereux and his earthlight theory can only account for light near a geological fault. Both theories are based on different assumptions, and so they are not mutually exclusive but both have a limited empirical base to support themselves.

From a qualitative standpoint, the so-called “birds“ flying in formation share interesting resemblances with UFO events that occurred in space or time where geomagnetism seems to be more active than normal. This does not mean in any way or fashion that those “birds” should be considered as coming from outer space. Quite to the contrary, it points to a common enabling set of conditions that is generated from the Earth.

Yet, as stated above, both the tectonic strain theory and the earth light theory cannot account for the concentrated nature of the Zeitoun events. To have “birds” flying in formation at the exact same place for months is beyond pure geophysics. As well, why luminous lights would travel in formation is also beyond the explanatory power of these two theories.

The study of the qualitative dimension will be continued in the next post. 

Notes for part 3

[1] As proposed by Persinger, Michael & J. S. Derr. (1989). “Geophysical variables and behavior: LIV. Zeitoun (Egypt) apparitions of the Virgin Mary as tectonic strain-induced luminosities”. Perception and Motor Skills 68(1): 123-128.

[2] Bartholomew, Robert E. and Erich Goode. (2000). “Mass delusions: prominent cases over the last 5 centuries”. Skeptical Inquirer 24(3). [On line at], accessed 17 Aug 2011.

[3] Persinger, Michael A. (1985). “Geophysical variables and behavior: XXVI. A response to Rutkowski's critique of the tectonic strain hypothesis for UFO phenomena”. Perception and Motor Skills 60(2): 575-582.

[4] For a substantive discussion on this issue, please refer to “The Materiality of UFOs” on Internet at:

[5] Ouellet, Eric. (2011). “Social Psi and Parasociology”. Australian Journal of Parapsychology 11(1): 73-88.

[6] Among others see Palmer, Jerome. (1969). Our Lady returns to Egypt. San Bernardino, CA: Culligan Publ.; Nil, Michel. (1979). L'apparition miraculeuse de la Saint Vierge à Zeitoun, 1968-1969. Paris, Ed. Tequi; Zaki, Pearl. (1977). Our Lord's Mother Visits Egypt in 1968 & 1969. Cairo, Egypt: Dar El Alam El Arabi.

[7] Palmer, pp. 12-13.

[8] Palmer, pp. 24-26.

[9] Kamel, Youssef G., John P. Jackson & Rebecca Jackson. (1996). A Lady of Light Appears in Egypt. Colorado Springs: St. Mark's Avenue Press, p. 223.

[10] See  Persinger, Michael & J. S. Derr.

[11] Devereux, Paul. (1989). Earth Lights Revelation. London: Blandford, pp. 22.

[12] Clark, Jerome. (1988). "The Lubbock Lights", in The UFO Book. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, pp. 342-350.

[13] Northrop, Stuart A. and Allan R. Sanford. (1972). “Earthquakes of Northeastern New Mexico
and the Texas Panhandle”. New Mexico Geological Society Guidebook 23:  148-160.

[14] See Housner, G.W. (1953). “Analysis of the Taft accelerogram of the earthquake of 21 July 1952”. Office of Naval Research, 5th Technical Report (N6 onr-244). Pasadena: California Institute of Technology, p. 16.

[16] Gibowicz, S. J. (1974). “Two earthquake swarms on the Kermadec Ridge”. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 17(4): 913-927.

[18] From a query on IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions of Seismology) at

[19] Devereux, p. 54.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Marian Apparitions at El-Zeitoun and Social Psi (Part 2)

The data issue

The events that occurred in Zeitoun, Egypt, are now over 40 years old. This makes it an historical case. Although many witnesses should still be alive today, they could be quite hard to find (and it would certainly be costly to try to find them out). Furthermore, as shown by the field investigation conducted by Michel Nil [1] in 1978, only 10 years after the events, many witnesses could not remember some key details such as the dates that the anomaly occurred. Hence, conducting a field investigation, at this point in time, would be of dubious value, and so focussing on existing material remains the most sensible option.

The written data is, surprisingly, also difficult to find. Although there are many Internet sites that discuss the events, they are taking their information pretty much from the same source; an Internet site maintained by a group of believers linked to the Coptic Orthodox Church at  Like in the case of UFO websites, many unsubstantiated claims are uncritically carried from one website to the next. The case in point is the alleged visit to St. Mary’s Church in Zeitoun by the then Egyptian president Nasser [2]. According to Michel Nil, there are also few publications in Arabic about the Zeitoun events, and most of them are relatively short brochures [3]. The situation of publications in other languages is not much better [4].

In this context, the literature in English and French on the topic can be considered as a representative source of data for this study. After reviewing this literature it appears that there are only few substantive original sources that document the events: (a) the English version of the report from the Coptic Church investigation [5], (b) Jerome Palmer’s 1969 book Our Lady returns to Egypt [6], Francis Johnston’s When Millions Saw Mary [7], and (d) Pearl Zaki’s Our Lord's Mother Visits Egypt in 1968 & 1969 [8]. It is to be noted that these texts were produced by believers, and that their intent was less about providing a detailed documentation of the events, and more about “proving” that the phenomenon was indeed a manifestation of the Virgin Mary. But it is also important to note that the notion of “proof” for these believers has a somewhat different meaning that in the scientific context.

Although they documented objective aspects like the description of the events, the miraculous cures, statements from the authorities, and newspaper clippings, the focus is very much on the witnesses’ inner experience of seeing the Virgin Mary. This focus should not surprise anyone, as any religious belief is fundamentally based on mystical experience (this is quite similar to many UFO books, which are written by believers in the ETH, and have a narrative constructed to “prove” the ETH by focussing on technological aspects). Lastly, let’s underline that these publications also cover with great care the process of official acknowledgement by the Coptic religious authorities (once more, the parallel with UFO books is striking, except that the authorities in this case reject the acknowledgement of the ETH as an explanation, so the believers continue to lobby for recognition, and a spend a lot of energy trying to show that there is a significant cover-up).

Once more, given that such anomalies tend to put the mainstream press and scientific establishment in an uncomfortable position, ignoring the events is a preferred strategy for these people who have greater access to the public discursive space. This explains why only believers do care writing about such anomalies. Other texts about Zeitoun add a few more details and a few more original interviews with witnesses, but they are largely built on either one of the main sources listed above. Furthermore, the limited amount of sources about these very public events is likely due to both linguistic challenges, and Western-centric and pro-Roman Catholic attitudes.

The events occurred in an Arabic-speaking country, making the collection of data quite difficult for most researchers who are not fluent in Arabic. But more important, the events occurred in the context of Orthodox Christianity, not Roman Catholicism, and most researchers in Marian studies are either priest in the Catholic Church or at least grew-up in a Catholic environment. If one acknowledges that the Virgin was indeed paying substantive attention to the Orthodox Church, then the Roman Catholic claim of being the “only true religion” can be indirectly challenged. Furthermore, these apparitions were not “typical”, in that they were no communication between the entity and one or a few young people (usually teenage girls). In fact, there was no obvious message communicated in Zeitoun. These factors are likely to make the events “less interesting” for those who are working within the “normal” frames of reference found in Marian studies, something that Michel Nil also noted [9]. A parallel can be made with UFO research where a great deal of writing can be found on a very thin case like Roswell, while a very well documented and fascinating case like the Belgian UFO wave of 1989-1990 is essentially ignored outside the French-speaking world. Clearly, what makes an anomaly worth of interest is very much dependent on social and cultural factors rather than the intrinsic “objective” qualities of the phenomenon.

Lastly, let’s note that there is at least one advantage of doing a research on an historical case many years after the fact: there is another and much more recent case that can be used for comparison purpose. On 11 December 2009, in a neighbourhood of Giza (not far from Cairo) a similar apparition occurred and it was filmed in color. It is usually referred to as the “Lady of Warraq”, and the film is easily accessible on the Internet [10].  What is found in that film (made from a cell phone camera) matches a number of pictures taken during the Zeitoun events as well as many descriptions that were transcribed in a various written sources. More on this particular event in a later post.

The events of Zeitoun – the quantitative view

Among the surprises I had researching this case is that there is no complete list of apparitions. The Coptic Church investigation identified 27 apparitions during the period of 2 April 1968 to 4 May 1968, with a number of nights having more than one apparition occurring [11]. Other sources noted that there was a decline in the number of apparitions throughout 1968 to one or two a week [12].  The frequency went down to once a month by early 1970, according to Johnston [13]. However, based on Zaki’s research, between 21 August 1969 and 11 June 1971 there were 17 apparitions [14]. According to Johnston, the last apparition occurred on 29 May 1971 [15].

In light of this rather sketchy data, if one makes a count there should have been over 90 apparitions, although the period going from mid-1968 to mid 1969 had to be extrapolated based on qualitative comments [16].

The Count:

2 April - 4 May 1968: 27
5 May - Mid-1969: 50 (?)
Mid-1969-mid 1971: 17

Approximate total:  94 apparitions

I had to build from scratch a list of apparitions using information found in the various documents consulted. I have only 34 apparitions that I can link to a specific source, roughly 36% of the estimated total. They are:

2 April 1968
Many (Among others, Zaki pp. 4-5)
3 April 1968
Brune, p. 7
6-7 April 1968
Kamell et al., p. 56; Nil, p. 117
8-9 April 1968
Palmer, p. 15, Kamell et al., p. 60; Nil, p. 114
10 April 1968
Bayless, p. 7, Kamell et al. P. 66; Nil, p. 115
11 April 1968
Brune, p. 8; Nil, p. 115
12 April 1968
Nelson, p. 6; Nil, p. 115
13 April 1968
Johnston, p. 6; Nil, p. 44
19 April 1968
Bayless, p. 25
27 April 1968
Johnston, p. 7
29-30 April 1968
Palmer, p. 21; Johnston, p. 19; Bayless, p. 9; Nil, p. 115
4-5 May 1968
Johnston, p. 5; Bayless, p. 10; Kamell et al. P. 71
6-7 May 1968
Palmer, p. 32
9 May 1968
Palmer, p. 35
13 May 1968
Johnston, p. 29
15 May 1968
Johnston, p. 7
28 May 1968
Palmer, p. 50
30 May 1968
Johnston, p. 28
31 May 1968
Bayless, p. 24
1 June 1968 (2 app)
Palmer, p. 48; Johnston, p. 8; Bayless, p. 10
4 June 1968
Nil, p. 98
8-9 June 1968
Johnston, p. 5; Bayless, p. 9
13 August 1968
Zaki, p. 7
15 August 1968
Nil, p. 80
11 September 1968
Nil, p. 80
6 October 1968
Nil, p. 120
5 January 1969
Palmer, p. 32
4 April 1969
Egyptian Gazette
6 January 1970
Johnston, p. 25
14 February 1970
Johnston, p. 25
6 March 1970
Johnston, p. 25
12 September 1970
Johnston, p. 25
29 May 1971
Johnston, p. 25

Another issue about this count is what is actually meant by “apparition”. The phenomenon was not consistent in its visible characteristics. It ranged from the “full-blow” apparition to only a subset of it. For instance, Johnston states that the phenomenon was:

"generally preceded by mysterious lights, flashing and scintillating silently over the church like a canopy of shooting stars. One witness described them as a 'shower of diamonds made of light'. [...] Minutes later, formations of luminous doves would appear and fly around the floodlit church. Eyewitnesses described them as 'strange bird-like creatures made of light' which flew with astonishing swiftness without moving their wings. They always maintained a definite formation and disappeared suddenly like melted snowflakes. Shortly after, a blinding explosion of light would engulf the church roof. As it dwindled, it shaped itself into the brilliant form of Our Lady. Invariably, she would be seen in a long white robe and veil of bluish-white light [17].

Zaki met a nun who counted 17 “apparitions” for the period between mid-1969 to mid-1971, while she also counted luminous birds on 24 nights, and lights, stars and other luminous phenomena on 85 nights for that same period [18].This illustrates quite well that the count is very much dependent on how the various witnesses defined the notion of “apparition”. Hence, the above count should be taken as an illustration more than as a reliable count.

It is also interesting to note, even if one should not be surprised by it, that the number of witnesses followed the general pattern of the apparitions. There were only a few witnesses the first day, as it was a completely unexpected event. It eventually grew to a very large gathering. Nil interviewed a witness stating that there were about 100 people on the night of 13 April 1968 [19]. Nelson estimated that there was between 1,000 and 1,500 people on 15 April 1968 [20]. After that the phenomenon was discussed for the first time in the mainstream press, through the 23 April 1968 article in the Arabic-language newspaper Watani , the crowd grew significantly. The Bishop Athanasius estimated that there were 100,000 people on the night of 29/30 April [21]. It finally reached an estimated 250,000 nightly onlookers after a few weeks, according to Johnston [22]. By the end of 1968, it was estimated that the crowed was down to 10,000 people nightly [23]. By June 1971, there were only a handful of people according to Zaki [24]. It should be noted that it is notoriously difficult to estimate properly the size of a crowd, especially at night, and the higher figure might have been over-estimated. However, this provides a good illustration that not only the phenomenon was a very public event, but also the interest in the phenomenon can be correlated directly with its intensity. Graphically, with the limited information available, the apparitions and crowd pattern for the entire 3-year period would have approximately the following shape:

Note that the crowd numbers are in increments of 10,000 people, and the time line in 3-months increment starting in February 1968 and ending in August 1971. Also, the apparent crowd decline preceding the apparition decline is only a product of the limited information available, and it should not be inferred from this graph.

From a quantitative view of the Zeitoun events, there are two additional observations that can be made with a fair degree certainty. First, the events seemed to have been very intense at the beginning (during April and May 1968), but started to decline sometime after the official investigation ended and the phenomenon was declared authentic by the Coptic Church on 5 May 1968. Second, the phenomenon was resilient enough to last for 3 years, with a declining cycle of occurrences and intensity.

References for Part 2

[1] Nil, Michel. (1979). L'apparition miraculeuse de la Saint Vierge à Zeitoun, 1968-1969. Paris, Éditions Tequi.
[2] I could find only one source on this point, and it is an undated interview with an unnamed witness by Father François Brune about two undated visits by Nasser to Zeitoun. He apparently signed the Church’s Visitors book, but this book is now missing. From Brune, François. (2004). La Vierge de l'Égypte. Paris: Le jardin des livres, p. 21. Given the rather imprecise nature of this information, it is almost impossible to corroborate it.

[3] Nil, p. 113-114.

[4] DeVincenzo, Victor. (1988). "The apparitions at Zeitoun, Egypt (1968): an historical overview". Journal of Religion and Psychical Research 11(January): 3-14, p. 4.

[5] Gregorius, Bishop Anba. (1969). St. Mary's transfigurations at the Coptic Orthodox Church of Zeitun, Cairo. Cairo: al-Mahabba Bookshop.

[6] Palmer, J. (1969): Our Lady returns to Egypt. San Bernardino, CA: Culligan Publ.

[7] Johnston, Francis. (1980). Zeitoun (1968-1971): When Millions Saw Mary. Chulmleigh, England: Augustine Pub,

[8] Zaki, Pearl. (1977). Our Lord's Mother Visits Egypt in 1968 & 1969. Cairo, Egypt: Dar El Alam El Arabi.

[9] Nil, pp. 152-154.

[10] For internet links and references, see

[11] Anonymous. (1977). « Apparition miraculeuse de la Sainte Vierge à Zeitoun ». Le Monde copte, no. 1 [online at, consulted 2 September 2011]; Bayless, Raymond. (1981). "Marian Apparitions at Zeitun, Cairo," Journal of the Southern California Society for Psychical Research 2: 6-34, p. 8.

[12] Johnston, p. 19.

[13] Johnston, p. 25.

[14] Quoted in Bayless, p. 21.

[15] Johnston, p. 25.

[16] Based on the assumption of a gradual decline from twice a week to once a month, and calculated as twice a week for the first 3 months (26 occurrences), once a week for the next 3 months (13 occurrences), once every other week for another 3 months (about 7 occurrences), and once a month for the last 3 months (3 occurrences), an approximate total of 50 occurrences can be proposed for the period  ranging from mid-1968 to mid-1969.

[17] Johnston, p. 4.

[18] Quoted in Bayless, p. 21.

[19] Nil, p. 44.

[20] Nelson, Cynthia. (1973). "The Virgin of Zeitoun". Worldview 16(9): 5-11, p. 5.

[21] Bayless, p. 16.

[22] Johnston, p. 5.

[23] Johnston, p. 19.

[24] Quoted in Bayless, p. 22.