SUPERSTITION AND FACT BY ANDREW LANG 1894
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A REMARK of M. Richet, the eminent French psychologist, may be said to strike the key note of the following essay. M. Richet is arguing (in 1884) for the genuine character of "Somnambulism," by which he means provoked somnambulism, hypnotic phenomena. "If the phenomena are simulated," says M. Richet, "then the skill, the perfection, the universality of the imposture, everywhere and always, constitute one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the records of science." This I chanced to read, after publishing an article on "Comparative Psychical Research" in the CONTEMPORARY for September, 1893. In that paper, having given a selection of reported "spiritualistic phenomena," from various ancient sources, including "spirit-rapping" and a "medium" of 1526, I argued, like M. Richet, that the universal similarity of the imposture, granting imposture, is a most curious phenomenon. But M. Richet was thinking of the ordinary and familiar features of hypnotism, which, as I understand, are now denied by no competent authority. The alleged occurrences which interest my inquiry are different from these, and include ghosts, physical movements of untouched objects, unexplained noises and disturbances, clairvoyance, the divining rod, crystal vision, and so forth.
The accounts of these have not been accepted by science, far from it; nor can one do otherwise than applaud science for being "sober and distrustful." However, M. Richet's contention applies to these outlying phenomena, ghosts, disturbances, clairvoyance, as much as to the accepted facts of hypnotism. The imposture in these affairs (if imposture there be, as a rule) is as uniform, and as widely diffused, as the supposed "simulation" of hypnotic facts. Further, we must note that many of the contested and disdained phenomena notoriously accompany persons subject to trance, to convulsive movements, and other abnormal nervous conditions. This is said to be so at present, and can it be by accident that this was always said to be so in the past? We hear of clairvoyance, of physical movements of objects, of commands transferred and obeyed from a distance, of "telepathic" hallucinations voluntarily produced, among the very people who display the ordinary and accepted phenomena of hypnotism. Now in old witch-trials, in old ghost and bogie stories, in the reports of anthropological observers among savages, we find the ordinary and accepted phenomena of hypnotism occurring among the witches, the "possessed," the ghost seers, the savage medicine-men. They, too, are not only subject to convulsion and rigidity, and trance, but they are clairvoyant. They produce phantasms of themselves at a distance, their presence is attended by unexplained noises and physical movements of objects. Now there must be some cause for this remarkable coincidence — namely, the uniformity of modern and ancient reports of phenomena still unaccepted by science—always accompanying other phenomena which science, since Puysegur, Braid, Esdaile, Charcot, and others, has been content to accept. At the lowest there must be a traditional system of imposture, or a common persistent sympathy in hallucination.
The old reports are often grotesque to the last degree. Thus Bovet, in his "Pandaemonium" (1684), gives an account of the Demon of Spraiton, in 1682. His authorities were "J. G. Esquire," a near neighbor to the place, the Rector of Barnstaple, and other witnesses. The "medium" was a young servant man, appropriately named Francis Fey, and employed in the household of Sir Philip Furze. Now, this young man was subject to "a kind of trance, or extatick fit," and "part of his body was, occasionally, somewhat benumbed and seemingly deader than the other." The nature of Fey's case, physically, is clear. He was a convulsionary, and his head would be found wedged into tight places whence it could hardly be extracted. From such a person the long and highly laughable tale of ghosts (a male ghost and a jealous female ghost) which he told does not much win our acceptance. True, Mrs. Thomassin Gidly, Ann Langton, and a little child also saw the ghost in various forms. But this was probably mere fancy, or the hallucinations of Fey were infectious. But objects flew about in the young man's presence. "One of his shoe-strings was observed (without the assistance of any hand) to come of its own accord out of his shoe and fling itself to the other side of the room; the other was crawling after it (!) but a maid espying that, with her hand drew it out, and it clasp'd and curl'd about her hand like a living eel or serpent. A barrel of salt of considerable quantity hath been observed to march from room to room without any human assistance," and so forth.
Thus Master Fey was "a powerful physical medium," like the "electric girl" whom Arago inspected. Her accomplishment ceased after she was brought to Paris, but there was evidence enough to attract the serious attention of Arago. The stories from Glanvil, the Mathers, and many others are familiar. The "physical phenomena" usually accompany convulsionaries and epileptics, as in the S. P. R.'s case of "Mr. H.," while "mediums" like Home are entranced and convulsed. Here, then, we have to account for the uniformity of evidence, old and new, in the early American colonies, in the England of the Restoration, in England of our own day, and abroad, and among savage races generally.
The most popular superstition is, of course, the belief in ghosts. Hence Mr. Tylor derives, ultimately, the whole of religion. His theory is very well known. Thinking savages "were deeply impressed by two groups of biological phenomena." They asked, what makes the difference between a living body and a dead one? Again, what causes waking, sleep, trance, disease, death? Next, what are the human shapes that appear in dreams and visions? They concluded that life can go away, and leave a man insensible or dead, while a phantom of the living man can appear [in dreams, one presumes] to people at a distance from him. The savage philosopher then mentally combines and identifies the life and the phantom. The result is, life is a soul, when at home, in the body; a ghost when abroad, out of the body. This wandering life is "shadow," or "breath," SKIA, PNEUMA, umbra, spiritus, anima. Having decided that shadows, dreams, trances, when reflected on, suggest the belief in wandering phantasms, separable selves, Mr. Tylor's duty is done. He gives abundant accounts of "veridical hallucinations," and of "clairvoyance;" but he expressly does not ask, Are these tales true, and, if so, what do they mean? Now it is evident that, if clairvoyance does occur, and if the phantasm of the clairvoyant is actually seen, in the place which he fancies that he visits, and if appearances of men at the hour of death are, verily, beheld at a distance, then the savage's philosophy had more to go upon than mere dreams, shadows, sleeping, waking, and the contemplation of death. He was really in touch with disputed, unaccepted phenomena, and these phenomena are of high importance. They would not, indeed, justify the savage theory that phantasm and life are identical, that life is soul at home and is ghost abroad. But, if accepted, they would demonstrate the existence of a new range of human faculties. These phenomena, the discarded—much more than sleep, dreams, drugs, and so forth, the accepted—would be the real basis of the savage theory of life, and death, and spirits. Take the Eskimo, and Pawnee, and Scandinavian superstition of a "sending"—the sorcerer's power to project his volition, unaccompanied by a phantasm. If Jung Stilling, whom, Mr. Tylor cites, did not fable in his tales of "sick persons who, longing to see absent friends, have fallen into a swoon, during which they appeared to the distant objects of their affection," and, if any one of many such stories is true, then friendly "sending" is possible. A French physician vouches for such "sendings," by a hospital nurse, as having been visible to himself. An instance given by St. Augustine is well known. About Catholic legends of "bilocation" —the visible presence of a man at a distance from the point where he really is — Mr. Tylor says that these things "fit perfectly in with the primitive animistic theory of apparitions." Probably they do, if the theory was founded on just such hallucinations, which do undeniably occur.
Mr. Tylor discusses savage examples of "deathbed - wraiths"—the vision which one or several men have of another who is dying. Cases may be found in Darwin's "Cruise of the Beagle": a Fuegian was the percipient; in Fison and Hewitt's work on the Kamilaroi and the Kurnai (Australian and Fijian); in Madagascar, and among the Maoris of New Zealand. "A party of Maoris (one of whom told the story) were seated round a fire in the open air, when there appeared, seen only by two of them, the figure of a relative left ill at home; they exclaimed, the figure vanished, and, on the return of the party, it appeared that the sick man had died about the time of the vision." It is superfluous to add that hundreds of living, civilized English men and women tell similar tales of their own experiences. Now, experiences of this kind are part of the basis of the primitive animistic theory. It reposes on psychical phenomena which, however we explain them, are by no means unusual, and an example occurred to, and was noted in his diary by, so eminent a Philistine as Lord Brougham.
To explain these appearances as "ghosts," which, again are the visible life and spirit of a man, was a natural speculation: the facts exist, though the theory does not hold water. The modern explanation of those who think that the idea of a mere chance coincidence of death on one side and hallucination on the other does not hold water, is "telepathy." At a distance the healthy man feels, from a distance the dying man causes, some mental "impact" which results in a hallucination of the dying man's presence. This is modern, but perhaps not quite so recent as some suppose. It is, in effect, the hypothesis of Herbert Mayo, M.D., Professor of Anatomy and Physiology in King's College, and of Comparative Anatomy in the Royal College of Surgeons, London, F.R.S., F.G.S., etc. He sets it forth in his book on "The Truth contained in Popular Superstitions" (Blackwood, London, 1851). In the fallow leisure of his life Dr. Mayo took up Reichenbach's writings, and believed in "Od force," animal magnetism, and other very dim and dubious theories. Starting from Zschokke's amazing anecdotes about his own power of occasionally seeing, when he met a stranger, minute facts in the stranger's life, Dr. Mayo "assumed it to be proved that the mind, or soul, of one human being can be brought, in the natural course of things, and under physiological laws hereafter to be determined, into immediate relation with the mind of another person." "Suppose our new principle brought into play; the soul of the dying person is to be supposed to have come into direct communication with the mind of his friend, with the effect of suggesting his present condition," which the reported visions, however, seldom or never do. If the seer be awake, the contact "originates a sensorial illusion." Mayo says that his theory will bo held to rest on "few and trivial instances." "That," he replies, "is only because the subject has not been attended to. For how many centuries were the laws of electricity preindicated by the single fact that a piece of amber, when rubbed, would attract light bodies!" Messrs. Gurney and Myers have used the same illustration. It is clear that Mayo is the modern inventor of "telepathy," whatever we may think of the value of his theory. But cases are not really few. They abound through all history, and among all tribes of men, in all known conditions of culture. There are the facts; the savage and the ordinary citizen explain them by speaking of ghosts; raffines, of "veridical hallucinations;" many people talk of "chance coincidence," and the question is, Have we not too many coincidences for the doctrine of probabilities?
Unluckily, good evidence is becoming more difficult of attainment. The public are learning what the, so to say, genuine symptoms of telepathy and of psychical experience are. Fictitious ghost-stories are being written, as by Fitzjames O'Brien, on correct psychical lines; thus uniformity of evidence is no longer a good test of honesty, when some semi-hysterical lady chooses to vouch for a bogie. Our best chances are among the uneducated and savages. Their evidence is unsophisticated, but, alas, it has other conspicuous drawbacks! Consequently one is inclined to believe that the testimony for abnormal occurrences is least likely to be contaminated when it is found in the works of men who (another drawback!) are dead, and cannot be cross-examined. I do not attempt to disguise the difficulties in the way of collecting evidence. They may even prove fatal to the study. Yet, only yesterday, I met three sane and healthy English people who had simultaneously seen a ghost, in broad daylight, sans le savoir! They had each remarked on the presence of a young and pretty girl in a room where (as was incontestably demonstrated) there was only an old and plain woman, whom, of course, they also beheld. It was not till next day that they woke and found themselves famous, for what they had seen, though they knew it not, was the right thing to see—the traditional "ghost" of the place. But about this legend they were absolutely ignorant.
These are the kind of experiences, I fancy, on which "the primitive philosophy of animism" is really based, or these, at least, must have confirmed it. The essence of the evidence is just what we regard as the essence of the evidence in anthropological studies at large—the undesigned uniformity of testimony. Defending anthropological evidence, Mr. Tylor says:
"It is a matter worthy of consideration that the accounts of similar phenomena of culture, recurring in different parts of the world, actually supply incidental proof of their own authenticity. . . . The test of recurrence comes in. . . . The possibility of intentional or unintentional mystification is often barred by such a state of things as that a similar statement is made in two remote lands by two witnesses, of whom A. lived a century before B., and B. appears never to have heard of A."
Substitute "similar abnormal experiences" for "similar phenomena of culture," and Mr. Tylor's argument is identical with my own. I shall substitute another word in the next sentence. "How distant are the countries, how wide apart are the dates, how different the creeds and characters of the observers in the catalogue of the facts of psychical phenomena, needs no further showing," to readers of Mr. Tylor's foot-notes. Here I only put " psychical phenomena" in place of "facts of civilization." As to the said psychical phenomena identical with those of modern tales, Mr. Tylor himself quotes stories on the authority of heathen philosophers, as Cicero, Christian fathers, Catholic histories of saints, Maoris, Malagassies, modern Germans, Shetland ladies, English people, and so forth. One can add vastly to Mr. Tylor's cloud of instances, but they are various enough, and distant enough from each other in creed, country, climate, and culture. "Narratives of this class," of the "veridical hallucination," or common deathbed-wraith, "which I can only specify without arguing on them, are abundantly in circulation," says Mr. Tylor. But the truth or falsity of these narratives makes the whole difference in the discussion of the origin of religion. If they are false, Mr. Tylor (if we accept his argument) traces religion to mistaken savage theories of normal facts. If they are true (and if we accept Mr. Tylor's hypothesis), religion is based on savage theories of abnormal facts—facts which show in man transcendent faculties beyond what can be explained by physiological causes as at present recognized.
We have touched on "physical manifestations," abnormal movements of objects, and on the common deathbed-wraith. We may now turn to "clairvoyance," or the alleged power of beholding places and events distant in space. Mayo and, of course, many other writers accept the existence of clairvoyance— "the patient discerns objects through any obstructions—partitions, walls, or houses—and at an indefinite distance." Of course science does not swallow this, though cases in abundance have been recorded between Mesmer's time and our own, by physicians who seem, otherwise, sane and competent. Even inquirers who admit the facts, in certain cases, do not necessarily admit clairvoyance, but prefer a theory of thought-reading.
For example, a distinguished statesman, from whom I have the story, once tested a so-called clairvoyants in the house of a celebrated physician. He did not ask her to describe his own house, which was well known to many, but he bent his thoughts on a very curiously decorated room in the house of a friend at a great distance. The clairvoyante, an uneducated woman, gave a correct description of arrangements so peculiar that I have never, myself, seen anything of the kind. This performance might be explained by cunning, a good guess, or as an illusion of memory on the part of the narrator (which, frankly, I cannot believe), or as "thought-transference," or as clairvoyance. However it be, this kind of effect-vision from a distance, is very commonly reported to occur in witch-trials, among savages, and generally wherever there are persons in abnormal conditions of trance. The least sophisticated evidence, in one way, is that of savages; they, at least, have not yet heard of Psychical Research, and cannot frame their fictions "in a concatenation accordingly." I may cite a missionary, the late Mr. Leslie. In his privately printed book, "Among the Zulus," he tells us how he lost some cattle, how he consulted a Zulu diviner, how, after burning some herbs and making other similar preparations, the Zulu gave a complete and clairvoyant account of the situation of the cattle, of the day of their return, and of certain accidents that befell some of them. The Rev. Mr. Leslie's Covenanting ancestors would have been horrified by this transaction. Mr. Tylor cites, from the Vatnsdaela Saga, a similar consultation by Ingimund, a Viking. He shut up three Finns for three days in a hut; their bodies became rigid, and, awakening in three days, they described Vatnsdael "as they that saw it." Copious accounts of Finnish clairvoyance occur in works by early travellers. Mr. J. Mason Browne, on the Coppermine River, "was met by Indians of the very band he was seeking, these having been sent by their medicine man, who, on enquiry, stated that he saw them coming, and heard them talk on their journey." This instance lures us on into Second Sight, a gift as popular as ever in one of the Western Isles, which it may be better not to name. But second sight is merely a state between telepathy and clairvoyance. Thus, in Theophilus Insulanus, a Skye man, returning from a voyage, receives, in Mull, a present of venison. "I'll test my mother-in-law, who is second-sighted, with this," he said, and in effect the woman in Skye did see him, with what looked like a piece of meat in his hand. This was, if anything, clairvoyance. The second-sighted talk much of spectral dogs, shrouds, coffins, and other funereal symbols. Mr. Tylor very judiciously says, "Those who discuss the authenticity of the second-sight stories as actual evidence must bear in mind that they prove a little too much," as they vouch for spectral hounds and " symbolical omens. The learned Messrs. Gurney and Myers have tackled this matter of "symbolical omens," and Hartmann, Kirk, and others tackle phantom dogs.
To us, at present, the point is that cases of clairvoyance and telepathy are freely reported among the symbolical visions. Exemplary cases are those of the Eskimo mediums called Angakut (plural of Angekok).
The Angekok passes a noviciate of fasting till he sees his tornak (Manitou), or "cabinet spirit." after which he is capable of ilimannek, or spirit-flight, including clairvoyance. We may all have heard of the Davenport brothers, humbugs, who were always tied up before they "manifested." The Angekok undergoes the same bondage, and it is an interesting inquiry whether the Davenports and their likes borrowed from savages, or independently evolved this part of their private hanky panky. Well tied up, his head fastened between his legs, while the company sing (as in some idiotic modern seance), the Angekok summons his "cabinet spirit," or tornak, who, like many sprites, brings "a peculiar sound, and the appearance of fire." Even so Mr. Welsh, the famed preacher, ancestor of Mrs. Carlyle, was surrounded by a supernatural flame when he meditated alone in his garden. It will surprise no student of "levitation," of St. Catherine and St. Francis, and Mr. Home, and Lord Orrery's butler, when presently "the Angekok is lifted up within the house, and then soars out into the open air." But in other cases only the Angekok's soul goes forth, and practises clairvoyance. When children play at Angekokism, occasionally the charm works, physical manifestations follow, and blocks of wood in the hut become endowed with motion. When the trance is over, the Angekok is found to be released from his bonds. He can discern spirits and, in fact, has all the usual accomplishments of the finished medium, especially clairvoyance in trance. Other savage evidence may be produced in any desired quantity, while Martin, in his "Western Isles" (dedicated to Queen Anne's husband), describes the trances, convulsions, and turned-in eyeballs of Highland clairvoyants, all strictly in accordance with modern hypnotic science.
Here it may be as well to dismiss the idea that I take the Angekok, and his savage friends in general, at their own valuation. They are, no doubt, impostors, and their trick of being tied up (which they practise even when aiming at clairvoyance for their own ends) interests us because it has been revived by civilized quacks. But I am inclined to believe that, if no cases of clairvoyance had ever occurred, savage mediums would not so universally lay claim to that accomplishment.
In the same way, I doubt if "veridical death-wraiths" would be so commonly attested, in all stages of culture, if such things were never observed. The same remarks apply to the noisy rapping Poltergeist, "the elf who goes knocking and routing about the house at night." Grimm has collected old German examples from 856 A.D. downward. In Kirk's "Secret Commonwealth" there are more ancient instances; the thing is as common as blackberries in modern tales. The phenomenon takes two forms: in the first, the objects which make the noise are visibly moved, and perhaps, in all modern "dark seances," this is done by imposture and confederacy. In other cases the noise of heavy furniture being tossed about is loud enough, but even immediate inspection—as by Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford—discovers no disturbance of the objects. In the second sort of cases, then, the noise must be hallucinatory, but how the hallucination is produced wo do not know. Ambroise Pare, in the sixteenth century, says that fiends cause all the varieties of such uproar as vexed the Wesleys after his time. This is exactly the primitive animistic theory. Dyaks, Singhalese, Siamese, and Esths, according to Mr. Tylor, agree as to "such rapping and routing being caused by spirits." Modern spiritualists (whose reasoning faculties really seem, in this matter, to be on the most primitive level) agree with Ambroise Pare and the Dyaks. Hartmann advances another hypothesis of nervous force. These theories do not concern us here, but the uniformity of evidence to the facts does concern us.
The similarity of physiological condition among the persons in whose presence these impressions of noises, movements, and so forth are most common, has already been noticed. These people "suffer from hysterical, convulsive, and epileptic affections." Tasmanians, Karens, Zulus, Patagouians, Siberians, all, when selected as "medicine men" have such "jerks" as modern mediums display, and as afflict some young ladies when they dabble in table-turning and "the willing game."
Mr. Tylor's asks whether it is probable that savages and charlatans have some method or knowledge, lost by the civilized ; for this loss would be a case of degeneration. But, first, there is nothing odd in such degeneration of faculty: the Australian black has senses of sight and hearing, and powers of inference from what he sees and hears, which notoriously excel those of civilized man, and make the native "tracker" a rival of Sherlock Holmes. The cultivation of these senses to the highest point enables the black to survive in his condition of society. In the same way the cultivation of trance, and of whatever uncanny powers trance may lend, is highly serviceable to the savage. This accomplishment leads straight to wealth and power; it is a notable factor in chiefship, and in the evolution of rank. The chief often develops out of the medicine man, and supernatural attributes clung to royalty as late as the days when "Charles III." touched for scrofula in Italy (1761-86).
Now, in civilized society of the Middle Ages, convulsions and trance led either to the stake or to canonization; while since 1710, or so, they have been medically treated, and would not even qualify a man for knighthood, still less increase his wealth and political power. Thus the abnormal phenomena, if any, have been neglected. Yet, in fact, the savage and the charlatan, such as Mesmer, did hold, darkly, a secret, a piece of knowledge, namely, hypnotism, which civilized science has, at last, deemed worthy of recognition. Perhaps the savage and the quack knew even more than science has yet recognized. Certainly sane and educated men testify that certain patients display faculties as abnormal as any of those claimed for his own by the Angekok.
Among these is what used to be called "divination by the mirror" or crystal, and is now called "crystal-gazing." Nobody knows how far back the practice of looking for visions in a clear deep may go: the Egyptians have long used a drop of ink, the Maoris a drop of blood; wells of water have been employed, and in the Dordogne, a black hole in an old wall serves as a background for visions of the Virgin. The polished coal ball of Kelly and Dr. Dee still exists, similar things have ever been an element in popular superstition.
In this case the explanation of old was, naturally, animistic. Dee believed that there was a spirit, or a crowd of spirits, in his various specula. An old writer tells us "how to get a fairy" into one of these crystal balls. Folly, and superfluous rites, clustered about the crystals. Now it is an ascertained matter of fact that a certain proportion of men and women, educated, healthy, with no belief in "spiritualism," can produce hallucinations, pictures, by looking into a crystal ball.
Some observers can discover the elements of these pictures in their memory. Others cannot trace any connection between what they see and their past experience. They are not hypnotized; they are, in all respects, their waking selves, at the time of gazing. There are a few who profess to be clairvoyant when they gaze—to see distant historical events, or contemporary events occurring at a distance. These assertions require a monstrous deal of evidence; the most prolonged experience of a seer's probity can scarcely permit us to believe such remarkable statements. But the ordinary crystal-gazer merely illustrates a human faculty, like the strange mental visualization of fignres which was first noticed scientifically by Mr. Galton. We are to believe the reports of these arithmetical visualizes, yet, for my own part, I never visualized a figure, any more than I ever saw anything but reflections in a crystal ball. The report of the crystal seer, when he or she merely beholds pictures —pretty, poetical, but perfectly unconnected with fact—is just as good as the reports of people who internally see the months in colored diagrams, and so forth. We only have their words for it; for crystal vision we have also the uniform coincidence of anthropological testimony, all the world over. If there be any cogency in this argument, a great factor in folklore and in popular superstition is based on actual facts of various kinds. Where savage belief, and popular superstition, and, we must add, ecclesiastical opinion went wrong, was, not in accepting the existence of certain abnormal phenomena, but in the animistic interpretation of these phenomena. The Angekok who claims possession of a tornak, the witch who believes she has a familiar spirit, the magistrate who burns her for having one, the modern medium with his "control," are all in the primitive animistic stage of philosophy, with the seers of hallucinations who believe in "ghosts." What nucleus of fact there may be in their theory we cannot at present determine; we can only say that "there are visions about,"- and wait for time to bring clearer information, or once more to wipe out the whole interest in such matters among the educated. At present we seem to be gaining a little free space for the flight of fancy, a brief escape, perhaps, from an iron philosophy of the hard and fast. This is quite enough to be thankful for while it lasts; if it does not last, why, "things must be as they may," and we can endure our limited destiny.
The chief reason for believing that an accepted extension of human faculty may be imminent is this: A certain set of phenomena, long laughed at, but always alleged to exist, has been accepted. Consequently the still stranger phenomena—uniformly said to accompany those now welcomed within the scientific fold—may also have a measure of fact as a basis for the consentient reports.—Contemporary Review.