By Andrew Lang.
In the Revue des Deux Mondes, for 1856, M. Littré published an article on table-turning and 'rapping spirits'. M. Littré was a savant whom nobody accused of superstition, and France possessed no clearer intellect. Yet his attitude towards the popular marvels of the day, an attitude at once singular and natural, shows how easily the greatest minds can pay themselves with words. A curious reader, in that period of excitement about 'spiritualism,' would turn to the Revue, attracted by M. Littré's name. He would ask: 'Does M. Littré accept the alleged facts; if so, how does he explain them?' And he would find that this guide of human thought did not, at least, reject the facts; that he did not (as he well might have done) offer imposture as the general explanation; that he regarded the topic as very obscure, and eminently worthy of study,—and that he pooh-poohed the whole affair!
This is not very consistent or helpful counsel. Like the rest of us, who are so far beneath M. Littré in grasp and in weight of authority, he was subject to the idola fori, the illusions of the market-place. It would never do for a great scientific skeptic to say, 'Here are strange and important facts of human nature, let us examine them as we do all other natural phenomena,' it would never do for such a man to say that without qualification. So he concluded his essay in the pooh-pooh tone of voice. He first gives a sketch of abnormalities in mortal experience, as in the case of mental epidemics, of witchcraft, of the so-called prophets in the Cevennes, of the Jansenist marvels. He mentions a nunnery where, 'in the sixteenth century,' there occurred, among other phenomena, movements of inanimate objects, pottery specially distinguishing itself, as in the famous 'Stockwell mystery'. Unluckily he supplies no references for these adventures.' The Revue, being written for men and women of the world, may discuss such topics, but need not offer exact citations. M. Littré, on the strength of his historical sketch, decides, most correctly, that there is rien de nouveau, nothing new, in the spirit-rapping epidemic. 'These maladies never desert our race.' But this fact hardly explains why 'vessels were dragged from the hands' of his nuns in the sixteenth century.
In search of a cause, he turns to hallucinations. In certain or uncertain physical conditions, the mind can project and objectify, its own creations. Thus Gleditch saw the dead Maupertuis, with perfect distinctness, in the salle of the Academy at Berlin. Had he not known that Maupertuis was dead, he could have sworn to his presence (p. 866). Yes: but how does that explain volatile pots and pans? Well, there are collective hallucinations, as when the persecuted in the Cevennes, like the Covenanters, heard non-existent psalmody. And all witches told much the same tale; apparently because they were collectively hallucinated. Then were the spectators of the agile crockery collectively hallucinated? M. Littré does not say so explicitly, though this is a conceivable theory. He alleges after all his scientific statements about sensory troubles, that 'the whole chapter, a chapter most deserving of study, which contains the series of demoniac affections (affections démoniaques), has hardly been sketched out'.
Among accounts of 'demoniac affections,' descriptions of objects moved without contact are of frequent occurrence. As M. Littré says, it is always the same old story. But why is it always the same old story? There were two theories before the world in 1856. First there was the 'animistic-hypothesis,' 'spirits' move the objects, spirits raise the medium in the air, spirits are the performers of the airy music. Then there was the hypothesis of a force or fluid, or faculty, inherent in mankind, and notable in some rare examples of humanity. This force, fluid, agency, or what you will, counteracts the laws of gravitation, and compels tables, or pots, to move untouched.
To the spiritualists M. Littré says, 'Bah!' to the partisans of a force or fluid, he says, 'Pooh!' 'If your spirits are spirits, why do they let the world wag on in its old way, why do they confine themselves to trivial effects?'
The spiritualist would probably answer that he did not understand the nature and limits of spiritual powers.
To the friends of a force or faculty in our nature, M. Littré remarks, in effect, 'Why don't you use your force? why don't you supply a new motor for locomotives? Pooh!' The answer would be that it was not the volume and market value of the force, but the existence of the force, which interested the inquirer. When amber, being rubbed, attracted straws, the force was as much a force, as worthy of scientific study, as when electricity is employed to bring bad news more rapidly from the ends of the earth.
These answers are obvious: M. Littré's satire was not the weapon of science, but the familiar test of the bourgeois and the Philistine. Still, he admitted, nay, asserted strongly, that the whole series of 'demoniac affections' was 'most worthy of investigation,' and was 'hardly sketched out'. In a similar manner, Brierre de Boismont, in his work on hallucinations, explains a number of 'clairvoyant' dreams, by ordinary causes. But, coming to a vision which he knew at first hand, he breaks down: 'We must confess that these explanations do not satisfy us, and that these events seem rather to belong to some of the deepest mysteries of our being'. There is a point at which the explanations of common-sense arouse skepticism.
Much has been done, since 1856, towards producing a finished picture, in place of an ébauche. The accepted belief in the phenomena of hypnotism, and of unconscious mental and bodily actions—'automatisms'—has expelled the old belief in spirits from many a dusty nook. But we still ask: 'Do objects move untouched? why do they move, or if they move not at all (as is most probable) why is it always the same story, from the Arctic circle to the tales of witches, and of mediums?'
There is little said about this particular phenomena (though something is said), but there is much about other marvels, equally widely rumored of, in the brief and dim Greek records of thaumaturgy. To examine these historically is to put a touch or two on the picture of 'demoniac affections,' which M. Littré desired to see executed. The Greek mystics, at least, believed that the airy music, the movements of untouched objects, the triumph over gravitation, and other natural laws, for which they vouch, were caused by 'demons,' were 'demoniac affections'. To compare the statements of Eusebius and Iamblichus with those of modern men of science and other modern witnesses, can, therefore, only be called superfluous and superstitious by those who think M. Littré superstitious, and his desired investigation 'superfluous'.
When the epidemic of 'spiritualism' broke out in the United States (1848-1852) students of classical literature perceived that spiritualism was no new thing, but a recrudescence of practices familiar to the ancient world. Even readers who had confined their attention to the central masterpieces of Greek literature recognized some of the revived 'phenomena'. The 'Trance Medium,' the 'Inspirational Speaker' was a reproduction of the maiden with a spirit of divination, of the Delphic Pythia. In the old belief, the god dominated her, and spoke from her lips, just as the 'control,' or directing spirit, dominates the medium. But there were still more striking resemblances between ancient and modern thaumaturgy, which were only to be recognized by readers of the late Neo-Platonists, such as Porphyry, and of the Christian Fathers, such as Eusebius, who argued against the apologists of heathenism. The central classical writers, from Homer to Tacitus, are not superstitious; they accept the orthodox state magic of omens, of augurs, of prodigies, of oracles, but anything like private necromancy is alien and distasteful to them. We need not doubt that sorcery and the consultation of the dead were being practiced all through the classical period, indeed we know that it was so. Plato legislates against sorcery in a practical manner; whether it does harm or not, men are persuaded that it does harm; it is vain to argue with them, therefore the wizard and witch are to be punished for their bad intentions.
There were regular, and, so to speak, orthodox oracles of the dead. They might be consulted by such as chose to sleep on tombs, or to visit the cavern of Trophonius, or other chasms which were thought to communicate with the under world. But the idea of bringing a shade, or a hero, a demon, or a god into a private room, as in modern spiritualism, meets us late in such works as the Letter of Porphyry, and the Reply of Iamblichus, written in the fourth century of our era. If we may judge by the usual fortune of folklore, these private spiritualistic rites, without temple, or state-supported priestly order, were no new things in the early centuries of Christianity, but they had not till then occupied the attention of philosophers and men of letters. The dawn of our faith was the late twilight of the ancient creeds, the classic gods were departing, belief was waning, ghosts were walking, even philosophers were seeking for a sign. The mysteries of the East had invaded Hellas. The Egyptian theory and practice were of special importance. By certain sacramental formulas, often found written on papyrus, the gods could be constrained, and made, like medieval devils, the slaves of the magician. Examples will occur later. This idea was alien to the Greek mind, at least to the philosophic Greek mind. The Egyptians, like Michael Scott, had books of dread, and an old Egyptian romance turns on the evils which arose, as to William of Deloraine, from the possession of such a volume. Half-understood strings of Hebrew, Syriac, and other 'barbarous' words and incantations occur in Greek spells of the early Christian age. Again, old Hellenic magic rose from the lower strata of folklore into that of speculation. The people, the folk, is the unconscious self, as it were, of the educated and literary classes, who, in a twilight of creeds, are wont to listen to its promptings, and return to the old ancestral superstitions long forgotten.
The epoch of the rise of modern spiritualism was analogous to that when the classical and oriental spiritualism rose into the sphere of the educated consciousness In both periods the marvelous 'phenomena' were practically the same, and so were the perplexities, the doubts, the explanatory hypotheses of philosophical observers. This aspect of the modern spiritualistic epidemic did not escape attention. Dr. Leonard Marsh, of the University of Vermont, published, in 1854, a treatise called The Apocatastasis, or Progress Backwards. He proved that the marvels of the Foxes, of Home, and the other mediums, were the old marvels of Neo-Platonism. But he draws no conclusion except that spiritualism is retrogressive. His book is wonderfully ill-printed, and, though he had some curious reading, his style was cumbrous, jocular, and verbose. It may, therefore, be worth while, in the light of anthropological research, to show how very closely human nature has repeated its past performances.
The new marvels were certainly not stimulated by literary knowledge of the ancient thaumaturgy. Modern spiritualism is an effort to organize and 'exploit' the traditional and popular phenomena of rapping spirits, and of ghosts. Belief in these had always lived an underground life in rural legend, quite unharmed by enlightenment and education. So far, it resembled the ordinary creeds of folklore. It is probable that, in addition to oral legend, there was another and more literary source of modern thaumaturgy. Books like Glanvil's, Baxter's, those of the Mathers and of Sinclair, were thumbed by the people after the literary class had forgotten them. Moreover, the Foxes, who started spiritualism, were Methodists, and may well have been familiar with 'old Jeffrey,' who haunted the Wesleys' house, and with some of the stories of apparitions in Wesley's Arminian Magazine.
If there were literary as well as legendary sources of nascent spiritualism, the sources were these. Porphyry, Iamblichus, Eusebius, and the life of Apollonius of Tyana, cannot have influenced the illiterate parents of the new thaumaturgy. This fact makes the repetition, in modern spiritualism, of Neo-Platonic theories and Neo-Platonic marvels all the more interesting and curious.
The shortest cut to knowledge of ancient spiritualism is through the letter of Porphyry to Anebo, and the reply attributed to Iamblichus. Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus, was a seeker for truth in divine things. Prejudice, literary sentiment, and other considerations, prevented him from acquiescing in the Christian verity. The ordinary paganism shocked him, both by its obscene and undignified myths, and by many features of its ritual. He devised non-natural interpretations of its sacred legends, he looked for a visible or tangible 'sign,' and he did not shrink from investigating the thaumaturgy of his age. His letter of inquiry is preserved in fragments by Eusebius, and St. Augustine: Gale edited it, and, as he says, offers us an Absyrtus (the brother of Medea, who scattered his mutilated remains) rather than a Porphyry. Not all of Porphyry's questions interest us for our present purpose. He asks, among other things: How can gods, as in the evocations of gods, be made subject to necessity, and compelled to manifest themselves?
How do you discriminate between demons, and gods, that are manifest, or not manifest? How does a demon differ from a hero, or from a mere soul of a dead man?
By what sign can we be sure that the manifesting agency present is that of a god, an angel, an archon, or a soul? For to boast, and to display phantasms, is common to all these varieties.
In these perplexities, Porphyry resembles the anxious spiritualistic inquirer. A 'materialized spirit' alleges himself to be Washington, or Franklin, or the lost wife, or friend, or child of him who seeks the mediums. How is the inquirer, how was Porphyry to know that the assertion is correct, that it is not the mere 'boasting' of some vulgar spirit? In the same way, when messages are given through a medium's mouth, or by raps, or movements of a table, or a planchette, or by automatic writing, how (even discounting imposture) is the source to be verified? How is the identity of the spirit to be established? This question of discerning spirits, of identifying them, of not taking an angel for a devil, or vice versa, was most important in the Middle Ages. On this turned the fate of Joan of Arc: Were her voices and visions of God or of Satan? They came, as in the cases mentioned by Iamblichus, with a light, a hallucination of brilliance. When Jean Bréhal, Grand Inquisitor of France, in 1450-1456, held the process for rehabilitating Joan, condemned as a witch in 1431, he entered learnedly into the tests of 'spirit-identity'. St. Theresa was bidden to try to exorcise her visions, by the sign of the Cross. Saint or sorcerer? it was always a delicate inquiry.
Iamblichus, in his reply to Porphyry's doubts, first enters into theology pretty deeply, but, in book ii. chap. iii. he comes, as it were, to business. The nature of the spiritual agency present on any occasion may be ascertained from his manifestations or epiphanies. All these agencies show in a light, we are reminded inevitably of the light which accompanied the visions of Colonel Gardiner and of Pascal. Joan of Arc, too, in reply to her judges, averred that a light (claritas) usually accompanied the voices which came to her. These things, if we call them hallucinations, were, at least, hallucinations of the good and great, and must be regarded not without reverence. But modern spiritualistic and ghostly literature is full of lights which accompany 'manifestations,' or attend the nocturnal invasions of apparitions. Examples are so common that they can readily be found by any one who studies Mrs. Crowe's Night Side of Nature, or Home's Life, or Phantasms of the Living, or the Proceedings of the Psychical Society. Meantime Homer, and Theocritus in familiar passages, attest this belief in light attendant on the coming of the divine, while the Norse Sagas, and the well-known tale of Sir Charles Lee's daughter and the ghost of her mother (1662), speak for the same belief in the pre-Christian north, and in the society of the Restoration. A light always comes among the Eskimo, when the tornak, or familiar spirit, visits the Angekok or sorcerer. Here, then, is harmony enough in the psychical beliefs of all time, as when we learn that lights were flashed by the spirits who beset the late Rev. Stainton Moses. Unluckily, while we have this cloud of witnesses to the belief in a spiritual light, we are still uncertain as to whether the seeing of such a light is a physical symptom of hallucination. This is the opinion of M. Lélut, as given in his Amulette de Pascal (p. 301): 'This globe of fire . . . is a common constituent of hallucinations of sight, and may be regarded at once as their most elementary form, and their highest degree of intensity'. M. Lélut knew the phenomenon among mystics whom he had observed in his practice as an 'alienist'. He also quotes a story told of himself by Benvenuto Cellini. If we can admit that this hallucination of brilliant light may be produced in the conditions of a séance, whether modern, savage, or classical, we obtain a partial solution of the problem presented by the world-wide diffusion of this belief. Of course, once accepted as an element in spiritualism, a little phosphorus supplies the modern medium with a requisite of his trade.
Returning to Iamblichus, he classifies his phantasmogenetic agencies by the kind of light they show; greater or less, more or less divided, more or less pure, steady or agitated (ii. 4). The arrival of demons is attended by disturbances. Heroes are usually very noisy in their manifestations: a hero is a poltergeist, 'sounds echo around' (ii. 8). There are also subjective moods diversely generated by diverse apparitions; souls of the dead, for example, prompt to lust (ii. 9). On the whole, a great deal of experience is needed by the thaumaturgist, if he is to distinguish between one kind of manifestation and another. Even Inquisitors have differed in opinion.
Iamblichus next tackles the difficult question of imposition and personation by spirits. Thus a soul, or a spirit, may give itself out for a god, and exhibit the appropriate phantasmagoria: may boast and deceive (ii. 10). This is the result of some error or blunder in the ceremony of evocation. A bad or low spirit may thus enter, disguised as a demon or god, and may utter deceitful words. But all arts, says our guide, are liable to errors, and the 'sacred art' must not be judged by its occasional imperfections. We know the same kind of excuses in modern times.
Porphyry went on to ask questions about divination and clairvoyance. We often ascertain the future, he says, in dreams, when our bodies are lying still and peaceful: when we are in no convulsive ecstasy such as diviners use. Many persons prophesy 'in enthusiastic and divinely seized moments, awake, in a sense, yet not in their habitual state of consciousness'. Music of certain kinds, the water of certain holy wells, the vapors of Branchidæ, produce such ecstatic effects. Some 'take darkness for an ally' (dark séances), some see visions in water, others on a wall, others in sun or moon. As an example of ancient visions in water, we may take one from the life of Isidorus, by Damascius. Isidorus, and his biographer, were acquainted with women who beheld in pure water in a glass vessel the phantasms of future events. This form of divination is still practiced, though crystal balls are more commonly used than decanters of water. Ancient and modern superstition as in the familiar case of Dr. Dee, attributes the phantasms to spiritual agency
Is a divine being compelled, Porphyry asks, to aid in these efforts, or is it only the soul of the seer, as some believe, which hallucinates itself, by the aid of points de repère? Or is there a blending of the soul's operations with the divine inspiration? Or are demons in some way evolved out of something abstracted from living bodies? He seems to hint at some such theory of 'exuvious fumes' from the 'circle,' as more recent inquirers have imagined. The young appear to be peculiarly sensitive to vapors, invocations, and other magical methods, which affect the human constitution, and the young are usually engaged as seers. Hence visions are probably subjective. Ecstasy, madness, fasts and vigils seem particularly favorable to divination. Or are there certain mystic correspondences in the nature of things, which may be detected? Thus stones and herbs are used in evocations; 'sacred bonds' are tied (as in the Eskimo hypnotism and in Australia); closed doors are opened, the heavenly bodies are observed. Some suppose that there is a race of false and counterfeiting spirits, which, indeed, Iamblichus admits. These act the parts of gods, demons, and souls of the dead. Again, the conjurer plays on our expectant attention. Omitting some remarks no longer appropriate, Porphyry asks what use there is in chanting barbarous and meaningless words. He is inclined to think that the demon, or guardian spirit of each man is only part of his soul,—in fact his 'subliminal self'. And generally, he suspects that the whole affair is 'a mere imaginative deceit, played off on itself by the soul'.
Replying as to divination, Iamblichus says that the right kind of dreams are between sleeping and waking when we hear a voice giving directions. A modern example occurred in the trial of the Assynt murderer in 1831. One Kenneth Fraser, called 'the dreamer,' said in the trial: 'I was at home when I had the dream. It was said to me in my sleep by a voice like a man's voice, that the pack (of the murdered peddler) was lying in sight of the place. I got a sight of the place just as if I had been awake. I never saw the place before, but the voice said in Gaelic, “the pack of the merchant is lying in a cairn of stones, in a hollow near to their house”. The voice did not name Macleod's house.' The pack was, however, not found there, but in a place hard by, which Kenneth had not seen in his dream. Oddly enough, the murderer had originally hidden the pack, or some of its contents, in a cairn of stones, but later removed it. In the 'willing game,' as played by Mr. Stuart Cumberland, the seeker usually goes first to the place where the hider had thought of concealing the object, though later he changed his mind. Macleod was hanged, he confessed his guilt.
Iamblichus believed in dreams of this kind, and in voices heard by men wide awake, as in the case of Joan of Arc. When an invisible spirit is present, he makes a whirring noise, like the Cock Lane Ghost! Lights also are exhibited; the medium then by some mystic sense knows what the spirit means. The soul has two lives, one animal, one intellectual; in sleep the latter is more free, and more clairvoyant. In trance, or somnambulism, many cannot feel pain even if they are burned, the god within does not let fire harm them. This, of course, suggests Home's experiments in handling live coals, as Mr. Crookes and Lord Crawford describe them. Compare the Berserk 'coal-biters' in the saga of Egil, and the Huron coal-biter in the preceding essay. 'They do not then live an animal life.' Sword points do not hurt them. Their actions are no longer human. 'Inaccessible places are accessible to them, when thus borne by the gods; and they tread on fire unharmed; they walk across rivers. . . . They are not themselves, they live a diviner life, with which they are inspired, and by which they are possessed.' Some are convulsed in one way, some in another, some are still. Harmonies are heard (as in Home's case and that of Mr. Stainton Moses). Their bodies are elongated (like Home's), or broadened, or float in mid-air, as in a hundred tales of mediums and saints. Sometimes the medium sees a light when the spirit takes possession of him, sometimes all present see it. Thus Wodrow says (as we have already shown), that Mrs. Carlyle's ancestor, Mr. Welsh, shone in a light as he meditated; and Patrick Walker tells the same tale about two of the fanatics called 'Sweet Singers'.
From all this it follows, Iamblichus holds, that spiritual possession is a genuine objective fact and that the mediums act under real spiritual control. Omitting local oracles, and practices apparently analogous to the use of planchette, Iamblichus regards the heavenly light as the great source of and evidence for the external and spiritual character and cause of divination. Iamblichus entirely rejects all Porphyry's psychological theories of hallucinations, of the demon or 'genius' as 'subliminal self,' and asserts the actual, objective, sensible action of spirits, divine or daemonic. What effect Iamblichus produced on the inquiring Porphyry is uncertain. In his De Abstinentia (ii. 39) he gives in to the notion of deceitful spirits.
In addition to the evidence of Porphyry, Iamblichus, Eusebius and other authors of the fourth century, some recently published papyri of the same period throw a little light on the late Greek thaumaturgy. Thus Papyrus cxxv. verso (about the fifth century) 'contains elaborate instructions for a magical process, the effect of which is to evoke a goddess, to transform her into the appearance of an old woman, and to bind to her the service of the person using the spell. . . .'
Obviously we would much prefer a spell for turning an old woman into a goddess. The document is headed, y , 'the old serving woman of Apollonius of Tyana,' and it ends, , 'it is proved by practice'.
You take the head of an ibis, and write certain characters on it in the blood of a black ram, and go to a cross-road, or the sea-shore, or a river-bank at midnight: there you recite gibberish and then see a pretty lady riding a donkey, and she will put off her beauty like a mask and assume the appearance of old age, and will promise to obey you: and so forth.
Here is a 'constraint put on a god' as Porphyry complains. Reginald Scot, in his Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), has a very similar spell for alluring an airy sylph, and making her serve and be the mistress of the wizard! There is another papyrus (xlvi.), of the fourth century, with directions for divination by aid of a boy looking into a bowl, says the editor (p. 64). There is a long invocation full of 'barbarous words,' like the medieval nonsense rhymes used in magic. There is a dubious reading, or ; it is suggested that the boy is put into a pit, as it seems was occasionally done. It is clear that a spirit is supposed to show the boy his visions. A spell follows for summoning a visible deity. Then we have a recipe for making a ring which will enable the owner to know the thoughts of men. The god is threatened if he does not serve the magicians. All manner of fumigations, plants, and stones are used in these idiotic ceremonies, and to these Porphyry refers. The papyri do not illustrate the phenomena described by Iamblichus, such as the 'light,' levitation, music of unknown origin, the resistance of the medium to fire and sword points, and all the rest of his list of prodigies. Iamblichus probably looked down on the believers in these spells written on papyri with extreme disdain. They are only interesting as folklore, like the rhymes of incantation preserved in Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft.
There were other analogies between modern, ancient, and savage spiritualism. The medium was swathed, or tied up, like the Davenport Brothers, like Eskimo and Australian conjurers, like the Highland seer in the bull's hide. The medium was understood to be a mere instrument like a flute, through which the 'control,' the god or spirit, spoke. This is still the spiritualistic explanation of automatic speech. Eusebius goes so far as to believe that 'earthbound spirits' do speak through the medium, but a much simpler theory is obvious. Indeed where automatic performances of any sort—by writing, by the kind of 'Ouija' or table pointing to letters, as described by Ammianus Marcellinus (xxix. 29)—or by speaking, are concerned, we have the aid of psychology, and the theory of 'unconscious cerebration' to help us. But when we are told the old tales of whirring noises, of 'bilocation,' of 'levitation,' of a mystic light, we are in contact with more difficult questions.
In brief, the problem of spiritualism in general presents itself to us thus: in ancient, modern, and savage thaumaturgy there are certain automatic phenomena. The conjurer, priest, or medium acts, or pretends to act, in various ways beyond his normal consciousness. Savages, ancient mystics, and spiritualists ascribe his automatic behavior to the control of spirits, gods or demons. No such hypothesis is needed.
On the other side, however, are phenomena not automatic, 'spiritual' lights, and sounds; interferences with natural laws, as when bodies are lifted in the air, or are elongated, when fire does not fasten on them, and so on. These phenomena, in ancient times, followed on the performance of certain mystic rites. They are now said to occur without the aid of any such rites. Gods and spirits are said to cause them, but they are only attained in the presence of certain exceptional persons, mediums, saints, priests, conjurers. Clearly then, not the rites, but the peculiar constitution of these individuals is the cause (setting imposture aside) of the phenomena, of the hallucinations, of the impressions, or whatever they are to be styled. That is to say, witnesses, in other matters credible, aver that they receive these peculiar impressions in the society of certain persons and not in that of people in general. Now these impressions are, everywhere, in every age and stage of civilization, essentially identical. Is it stretching probability almost beyond what it will bear, to allege that all the phenomena, in the Arctic circle as in Australia, in ancient Alexandria as in modern London, are, always, the result of an imposture modeled on savage ideas of the supernatural?
If so we are reduced to the choice between actual objective facts of unknown origin (frequently counterfeited of course), and the theory,—which really comes to much the same thing,—of identical and collective hallucinations in given conditions. On either hypothesis the topic is certainly not without interest for the student of human nature. Even if we could, at most, establish the fact that people like Iamblichus, Mr. Crookes, Lord Crawford, Jesuits in Canada, professional conjurers in Zululand, Spaniards in early Peru, Australian blacks, Maoris, Eskimo, cardinals, ambassadors, are similarly hallucinated, as they declare, in the presence of priests, diviners, Home, Zulu magicians, Biraarks, Jossakeeds, angakut, tohungas, and saints, and Mr. Stainton Moses, still the identity of the false impressions is a topic for psychological study. Or, if we disbelieve this cloud of witnesses, if they voluntarily fabled, we ask, why do they all fable in exactly the same fashion? Even setting aside the animistic hypothesis, the subject is full of curious neglected problems.
Once more, if we admit the theory of intentional imposture by saints, angakut, Zulu medicine-men, mediums, and the rest, we must grant that a trick which takes in a professional conjurer, like Mr. Kellar, is a trick well worthy of examination. How did his Zulu learn the method of Home, of the Egyptian diviners, of St. Joseph of Cupertino? Each solution has its difficulties, while practical investigation is rarely possible. We have no Home with us, at present, and the opportunity of studying his effects carefully was neglected. It was equally desirable to study them whether he caused collective hallucinations, or whether his effects were merely those of ordinary, though skilful, conjuring. For Home, whatever his moral character may have been, was a remarkable survival of a class of men familiar to the mystic Iamblichus, to the savage races of the past and present, and (as far as his marvels went) to the biographers of the saints. 'I am one of those,' says the Zulu medicine-man, in Mr. Rider Haggard's Allan's Wife, 'who can make men see what they do not see.' The class of persons who are said to have possessed this power appear, now and then, in all human history, and have at least bequeathed to us a puzzle in anthropology. This problem has recently been presented, in what may be called an acute form, by the publication of the 'Experiences of Mr. Stainton Moses'. Mr. Moses was a clergyman and schoolmaster; in both capacities he appears to have been industrious, conscientious, and honorable. He was not devoid of literature, and had contributed, it is said, to periodicals as remote from mysticism as Punch, and the Saturday Review. He was a sportsman, at least he was a disciple of our father, Izaak Walton. 'Most anglers are quiet men, and followers of peace, so simply wise as not to sell their consciences to buy riches, and with them vexation, and a fear to die,' says Izaak.
In early middle age, about 1874, Mr. Moses began to read such books as Dale Owen's, and to sit 'attentive of his trembling' table, by way of experiment. He soon found that tables bounded in his presence, untouched. Then he developed into a regular 'medium'. Inanimate objects came to him through stone walls. Scent of all sorts, and, as in the case of St. Joseph of Cupertino, of an unknown sort, was scattered on people in his company. He floated in the air. He wrote 'automatically'. Knocks resounded in his neighborhood, in the open air. 'Lights' of all varieties hovered in his vicinity. He spoke 'automatically,' being the mouth-piece of a 'spirit,' and very dull were the spirit's sermons. After a struggle he believed in 'spirits,' who twanged musical notes out in his presence. He became editor of a journal named Light; he joined the Psychical Society, but left it when the society pushed materialism so far as to demonstrate that certain professional mediums were convicted swindlers.
The evidence for his marvels is the testimony of a family, perfectly respectable, named Speer, and of a few other witnesses whom nobody can suspect of conscious inaccuracy. There remain, as documents, his books, his MS. notes, and other corroborative notes kept by his friend Dr. Speer, a skeptic, and other observers.
It is admitted that Mr. Moses was not a cautious logician, his inferences are problematic, his generalizations hasty. As to the facts, it is equally difficult to believe in them, and to believe that Mr. Moses was a conscious impostor, and his friends easy dupes. He cannot have been an impostor unconsciously in a hypnotic state, in a 'trance,' because his effects could not have been improvised. If they were done by jugglery, they required elaborate preparations of all sorts, which must have been made in full ordinary consciousness. If we fall back on collective hallucination, then that hallucination is something of world-wide diffusion, ancient and continuous, for the effects are those attributed by Iamblichus to his mystics, by the Church to her saints, by witnesses to the 'possessed,' by savages to medicine-men, and by Mr. Crookes and Lord Crawford to D. D. Home. Of course we may be told that all lookers-on, from Eskimo to Neo-Platonists and men of science, know what to expect, and are hallucinated by their own expectant attention. But, when they expect nothing, and are disappointed by having to witness prodigies, the same old prodigies, what is the explanation?
The following tabular statement, altered from that given by Mr. Myers in his publication of Mr. Moses and Dr. Speer's MS. notes, will show the historical identity of the phenomena. Mr. Moses was the agent in all; those exhibited by other ancient and modern agents are marked with a cross.
Rev. D. D. Iamblichus St. Eskimo Australian 'Spontaneous Stainton Home Joseph of (Glanvil, Moses Cupertino Bovet, Telfair, Kirk) 1. X X ? X
2. X X X X X
3. X X X X X X X
4. X X
6. X X
7. X X
8. X X X X
9. X X X
10. X X X X X
11. X X
12. X X X
1. 'Intelligent Raps.'
2. 'Movement of objects untouched.'
3. 'Levitation' (floating in air of seer).
4. Disappearance and Reappearance of objects. The 'object' being the medium in some cases.
5. Passage of Matter through Matter.
6. Direct writing. That is, not by any detected human agency.
7. Sounds made on instruments supernormally.
8. Direct sounds. That is, by no detected human agency.
11. Objects 'materialised.'
12. Hands materialised, touched or seen.
There are here twelve miracles! Home and Iamblichus add to Mr. Moses's répertoire the alteration of the medium's height or bulk. This feat still leaves Mr. Moses 'one up,' as regards Home, in whose presence objects did not disappear, nor did they pass through stone walls. The questions are, to account for the continuity of collective hallucinations, if we accept that hypothesis, and to explain the procedure of Mr. Moses, if he were an impostor. He did not exhibit before more than seven or eight private friends, and he gained neither money nor dazzling social success by his performances.
This page in the chapter of 'demoniac affections' is thus still in the state of ébauche. Mr. Moses believed his experiences to be 'demoniac affections,' in the Neoplatonic sense. Could his phenomena have been investigated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Parker, Messrs. Maskelyne and Cook, and Professor Huxley, the public mind might have arrived at some conclusion on the subject. But Mr. Moses's chief spirit, known in society as 'Imperator,' declined to let strangers look on. He testified his indignation in a manner so bruyant, he so banged on tables, that Mr. Moses and his friends thought it wiser to avoid an altercation.
This exclusiveness of 'Imperator' certainly donne furieusement à penser. If spirits are spirits they may just as well take it for understood that performances 'done in a corner' are of no scientific value. But we are still at a loss for a 'round' and satisfactory hypothesis which will colligate all the alleged facts, and explain their historical continuity. We merely state that continuity as a historical fact. Marvels of savages, Neo-platonists, saints of Church or Covenant, 'spontaneous' phenomena, Mediumistic phenomena, all hang together in some ways. Of this the Church has her own explanation.
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