Rituals of possession and agency in North India. Investigating the success of traditional mediums in Garhwal Himalays
Based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in a number of rural communities in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, this paper discusses three forms of ritual possession performances, namely those involving village and house/lineage deities, as well as those taking places within practices of divination and involving personal gods and goddesses. In a scenario in which coexisting practices and systems of cure shape the lives of individuals and institutions, the paper investigates the reasons for the continuing success of traditional mediums. In order to do so, we will pay particular attention to the fact that these rituals allow for different degrees of reflection on events, problems and illnesses which trouble people’s everyday lives. Moreover, mediums and their rituals entail a certain degree of agency, negotiations, debates and the expression of power relations between people and between people and deities. Finally, engaging with ongoing anthropological debates on the nature and social role of phenomena of possession, the paper argues that instances of possession are at once the product of specific socio-cultural relations and understanding, whilst, at the same time, participate in the production – as contexts of reflection, interpretation, action – of “social reality”.
Fiona Bowie Department of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Bristol
Afterlife Geographies and the Nature of Evidence
This paper will consider descriptions of the nature of afterlife existence with a particular emphasis on geography or topographies. I ask what might constitute the nature of evidence when considering the status and veridicality of such reports. Consistencies across time and cultures may be considered as evidence of the existence of such planes, if not scientific proof. One can, however, treat them ethnographically. The similarities and differences in descriptions of the afterlife geographies will be assessed in relation to claims concerning how these planes are created and sustained. Material will be drawn mainly from communications from discarnate entities communicated mediumistically, in particular the accounts given by Galen Stoller in My Life after LIfe and the discarnate interlocutors of medium Cynthia Sandys. I also touch on the therapeutic and social benefits related to acceptance of these messages and the challenges they can pose to the religious, consumerist and scientific status quo.
Jane Derges Department of Anthropology, University College London
Sensing the divine: illness and meaning making amongst members of an Anglican Spirituality Group
During research among members of an Anglican Spirituality Group in the UK, a surprising number identified themselves as ‘wounded healers’; individuals who had experienced significant physical, emotional or existential life crises before becoming healers. They described how a divine or cosmological presence was ‘sensed’ at these points of crisis, providing both comfort and a coherent explanation of causality that was often lacking elsewhere. These sensations were ‘felt’ not only in terms of a presence at the time of crisis, but also as explicit physical, tactile sensations in the body, or through visual phenomena. Although many had previously an internalized, existential sense of self through emphasis on a more intellectualized tradition of religious thought and meaning making, it was their personal experiences of emotional crisis or illness that had shifted this meaning making from an exclusively intellectual one, to a more embodied explanation of causality that posited divine intervention as a central and core experience. This ethnographically focused presentation will attempt to define the relationship between individual crisis, embodied agency and the development of a positive personal theology, through the connection of bodily sensations to religious experiences; namely a ‘sensing’ of the divine.
Hannah Gilbert University of York
Spiritual Experience and Identity in Modern Bristish Spirit Mediumship
Spirit mediumship was introduced into mainstream Western culture in the 1840s in North America. The catalyst for this introduction stemmed from an incident involved two teenage girls who would themselves go on to become practising mediums for many years. Spirit mediumship found its way to Great Britain in the early 1850s, and a number of British individuals would follow suit by providing their own mediumistic demonstrations to the public. While much of the literature suggests that mediumship simmered out following WWII, the 21st century nevertheless sees spirit mediumship as having a well recognised position within contemporary Western culture. A significant numbers of Westerners seek the services of spirit mediums, as well as consuming demonstrations or representations of spirit mediums through a variety of media. The personal and experiential side of mediumship has often been neglected by academic researchers. This has resulted in a lack of insight into and engagement with those who are actual practitioners of spirit mediumship. This paper will reflect on interviews conducted with spirit mediums for my doctoral research project, and will argue that their biographies contain a wealth of insight into a complex personal spirituality and public practise. It will seek to demonstrate that personal experience and identity are significant influences on both an individual’s understanding of their mediumistic abilities, and how they go on to perform it to those unable to experience spiritual contact.
Jack Hunter Department of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Bristol
Mediumship, Trance and the Afterlife
In most mediumship traditions altered states of consciousness (ASCs), commonly referred to as “trance”, play a central role. It is through ASCs that mediums claim communication with the invisible world of spirits and deities, and it is from these communications that notions of the nature of the spirit world are drawn. It is important, therefore, as anthropologists with a particular interest in afterlife beliefs that we understand the processes by which information about the afterlife is accessed. This short presentation will give a brief overview of the current state of our understanding of trance and its relation to afterlife beliefs, and will conclude by assessing the significance of this knowledge for our ethnographic approach to the study of mediumship.
Terence Palmer School of Theology & Religious Studies, University of Bangor
Spirit Possession and Telepathic Hypnosis
Spirit possession is a topic of supreme interest to anthropologists who study the phenomenology of spirit possession in shamanic practices in traditional religions around the world. The theories pertaining to spirit possession are generally centred in cultural belief systems and social consensus within the ethnic group or tribe. In modern Western societies the predominant theory is that spirit possession is an autogenic manifestation of a disturbed mind and treated accordingly. This theory is often transposed into the ethnographic cultural and societal context when the spirit possession is seen to be uninvited and destructive. However, there is scientific research that provides a conceptual framework that can accommodate spirit possession in all cultures and societies where the ontological status of possession entities is open to re-evaluation. This paper is an introduction to the experimental method and the discoveries of 19th century researcher F.W.H. Myers whose research revealed that telepathic hypnosis is a scientifically validated reality. This paper proposes that there is an explanation for spirit possession according to this concept. Examples of some of Myers experiments are presented.
Emily Pierini Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol
Master Sun, Master Moon: complementary forms of mediumship among the Jaguares of the Vale do Amanhecer
This paper explores two forms of mediumship practised in the Brazilian religion of the Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of the Dawn): the conscious one of the medium of indoctrination and the semi-conscious one of the medium of incorporation who manifests spiritual beings. They work in pair in religious rituals aimed at the release of discarnate spirits from the physical plane and at the healing of patients, providing them with the awareness of spirit evolution through communications with spiritual beings embodied by trance mediums. Drawing on ethnographic material from my fieldwork I will present the Vale do Amanhecer’s discourse, namely the ‘mediumistic science’, addressing conceptualizations of mediumship, possession, illness and healing. Approaches to spirit possession and mediumship shifted from those regarding these phenomena as pathologies to those considering their therapeutic aspects. This repositioning becomes possible when focusing on mediums’ experiences. I will discuss how the process of mediumship development in particular, may have therapeutic effects in some cases of mental disorders, alcohol and drug addictions. The process of learning how to deal with mediumship is indeed defining a medium’s lived experience and perception of the Self, as well as her mediumistic performance. A focus on embodiment, sensory and extrasensory experiences is essential since they play a crucial role in this process.
Carine Plancke Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale, College de France, Paris
Restoring the relation to the spirit world: Violence and desire in Punu trance-dance performances
Although dancing often conditions or facilitates the occurrence of possession trances, it is generally addressed by scholars on mediumship in a rather limited way. In this presentation, concerning water spirit possession among the rural Punu of Congo-Brazzaville, the interdependence of the two phenomena will be explored as it conditions the restoration of the relation to the spirit world by way of a deep affective involvement of the possessed and the other performers. Possession trance is described by the Punu as an experience of being beaten by the spirit. During water spirit performances possessed people move out off the dance rhythm and perform uncontrolled, often repetitive movements without observable stylization. The words spoken by the possessed however are very stereotyped and typically express the anger and dissatisfaction of the spirit because of the disrespect of his or her wishes. In opposition to the violent character of the trance experience, the dancing in its continuous circular and rhythmically marked progression connects the participants while taking them in an energetic wave. The songs that accompany the dancing glorify the fertility-bringing water spirit world in an associative chain of images and the ending formulas literally voice the joy and the desire for the presence of the spirits. The continuous, flowing motion of the singing and dancing as it is tied to the desire for this aquatic world and rhythmically resounds with it calls for the arrival of the spirits. Their intervention then leads to more intensified dancing in order to integrate the chaotic out-of-rhythm movements of the persons in trance. It is this necessary relation between dance and trance in its affective attuning that conditions the success of a spirit celebration. Hence, in the Punu case, mediumship and its capacity to join spirits and humans cannot be accounted for outside of its relation to the dance community that desires the water spirit world.
Bettina E. Schmidt School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies, University of Wales Trinity Saint David
The Discourse of being ‘possessed’ in Brazil: speaking about mediumship, trance and possession in Afro-Brazilian religions
The Brazilian discourse about ‘possession’ is centred on the nature of the spiritual or divine entity. While spiritual entities are regarded as individual and firmly bounded entities, divine beings such as the Orixás (African deities) are without a firm boundary. It is therefore impossible to ‘become possessed’ by them. Consequently, the extra-sensual experience connected to Orixás requires a specific terminology to acknowledge the complex relationship between human body and divine entity and the human consciousness. In my paper I will present data from my research among devotees of Afro-Brazilian religions in São Paulo (in 2010) that focussed on the understanding of the ways how people refer to the experience of ‘being possessed’ or ‘being a medium’.
Gregory Shushan Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, University of Oxford
'Shamanism, Near-Death Experience, and Afterlife Conceptions in Indigenous Societies: A Theoretically Eclectic Ethnohistorical Approach'
My current research examines the relationship between afterlife conceptions and conceptually-related anomalous experiences in small-scale societies worldwide. The purpose is to determine the extent to which the conceptions are consistent (a) cross-culturally; (b) with culturally-embedded shamanic ‘other world’ experiences; and (c) with the spontaneous, evidently universal near-death experience (NDE). While this paper will emphasise methodological issues, it will also review the nature and progress of the research so far, and place it in the context of my earlier study (Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism, and Near-Death Experience, Continuum 2009) which compared afterlife conceptions in selected early civilizations during periods of little or no cultural contact with the others (Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, Mesopotamia through the Old Babylonian period, Vedic India, pre-Buddhist China, and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica). It was found that in addition to culture-specific elements, there are cross-culturally consistent thematic elements between the conceptions in all these civilizations; and that these correspond to the most frequently reported elements of the near-death experience. The present project focuses on the interface of ‘anomalous’ experiences and indigenous ‘religious’ beliefs in small-scale societies around the world, as found in the earliest ethnographic reports. Given the differences in social organizationand scale between such societies and early civilizations – as well as the high degree of cultural independence between them – this work is essential in further testing the conclusion that (in spite of postmodernist paradigms) afterlife beliefs cross-culturally appear to be almost universally formed not only by a combination of culture-specific socio-cultural and environmental factors, and universal cognitive factors, but also universal anomalous experiential factors.
Daria Trentini School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
‘We will not abandon the tradition of spirits’: Spirit possession and Islam in an urban context
This paper is based on one year fieldwork I spent with Ancha, a spirit healer in the city of Nampula, in northern Mozambique. Two main kinds of spirits commonly manifest themselves in the city. The spirits from the mountains are considered to be Africans, Makua, and are inherited from the mother’s lineage, providing diviners and healers with their knowledge of herbs, plants and barks. Secondly, possession by Muslims spirits leads healers to reframe their identity in Islamic terms: they undertake certain Islamic behaviours, speak ‘Arabicisized’ languages and implement Islamic books as a way of sophisticating divinatory practices. By endorsing these ethnographic data, I examine the place and significance that spirits healers have in an urban setting where historically local matrilineal ideology has dialogued since the period of the slave trade with different types of Islam shaped by doctrinal (Swahili, Sufism and Waahabi) and racial factions (African and Indian). Throughout the paper I explore questions such as: is possession a ‘meta-cosmology’ which brings together acts and practices which are generally conceived in separate frames? Or, rather, does the language of possession retain and reproduce the boundaries between the local matrilineal ideology and Islam? I will respond to these questions by intertwining the story of Ancha with the exploration of the historical and social worlds in which possession occurs. The story of possession I am going to describe will unveil the multiple meanings through which Islam is locally experienced undermining therefore the straightforward explanations by which possession and Islam have often been examined.
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