The abstracts on this page are from past and forthcoming presentations by members of the Afterlife Research Centre to give an idea of the work we are currently doing.
Afterlife Geographies and the Nature of Evidence ARC Workshop, Ethnographic Approaches to Mediumship, University of Bristol, 4th July 2011
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.
The Awakening Letters: Exploring the Mediumship of Lady Cynthia Sandys Exploring the Extraordinary, University of York, 24th-25th September 2010
Lady Cynthia Sandys (1898-1990), born Cynthia Mary Trench-Gascoigne, was a non-professional medium who for more than 60 years 'channelled' letters from deceased family members and acquaintances. Although her mediumship was an essentially private affair, Lady Sandys did publish, together with the editorial help of novelist and friend Rosamond Lehmann, two pamphlets, Letters From Our Daughters: Part 1 Sally and Part 2 Patricia (College of Psychic Studies, Occasional Papers nos. 1 & 2) and two edited selections of the letters: The Awakening Letters: Varieties of Spiritual Experiences in the Life After Death, Jersey: Neville Spearman (1978), and The Awakening Letters: Volume Two, Saffron Walden, Essex: C.W. Daniel (1986). The freshness and intimacy, detail and variety of activities described in these communications make them extraordinarily interesting to researchers of the afterlife. While some of her immediate family remain sceptical as to the origins and content of the 'letters', the themes addressed and descriptions of post-mortem existence that emerge are consistent with data from other sources, including Theosophical and Spiritist literature, NDEs and Interlife accounts from hypnotic regression, as well as other channelled material. Lady Sandys' daughter has kindly given me access to the archive of 'letters', and this talk/paper contains a preliminary account of the range and content of the material, some examples taken from the unpublished letters, with discussion of ways in which these extend and complement our understanding of the post-mortem landscape, and some suggestions as to how we can read such material methodologically through a process of 'cognitive, empathetic, engagement'.
Trance Mediumship: A Portrait Forthcoming Video Presentation at Exploring the Extraordinary Conference 2011
Altered states of consciousness are fundamental to Spiritualism. It is through specific ASCs that mediums claim to be able to both communicate with the world of spirits and incorporate spiritual entities, facts that have been acknowledged by anthropologists studying a wide range of cultures around the world (Bourguignon, 1973; Kelly & Locke, 2009). The ASCs usually associated with mediumship are often broadly termed "trance states" (Kelly & Locke, 2009, pp. 8-19). Kelly & Locke (2009) identify "a variety of experiences and behaviours [encompassed by the term trance], including hallucinations, obsessive ideas, dissociation, compulsive actions, transient loss of contact with the sensory environment, physiological collapse, and a number of other aspects" (Locke & Kelly, 2009, p.30), from their reading of the anthropological literature on trance. They define possession trance as a state "in which the central element is the apparent temporary displacement of the ordinary personality by that of a possessing spirit, force, or god... Cessation of the trance generally appears to leave the fully possessed individual amnesic for the period of possession" (Locke & Kelly, 2009, pp.30-31). This short ethnographic documentary aims to explore these so-called trance states through in depth video interviews with contemporary trance mediums from Bristol (both in and out of trance). Particular emphasis will be placed on the phenomenological experience of trance, the mechanisms believed to be involved in the process of spirit incorporation and the physiological characteristics of trance of the trance state
Mediumship, Trance and the Afterlife: Altered States of Consciousness in the Study of Mediumship ARC Workshop, Ethnographic Approaches to Mediumship, University of Bristol, 4th July 2011
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.
Numinous Conversations: Psychical and Anthropological Interpretation of Spirit Communicators Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence, University of Kent, Canterbury, 6th-7th May 2011
The issue of the ontology of discarnate entities is rarely discussed in academia. There are, however, two disciplines that have paid special attention to trying to understand them: psychical research (now known as parapsychology) and anthropology. In the early days of psychical research the investigation of mediumship, and the ostensible spirits that communicated through the entranced mediums, was of key concern to researchers. At around about the same time (the latter half of the 19th century) ethnographers began to report the exotic practices and beliefs of peoples living in non-European societies. Amongst these reports were accounts of individuals entering into ecstatic trance states during which deities and spirits would communicate with onlookers. Practices such as these posed significant theoretical problems for interpretation by anthropologists: how could these apparent entities be interpreted in the burgeoning positivistic rationalism of the late 19th century? Since then, of course, theories and methodologies have developed significantly, but the issue of spirit possession and mediumship remains a moot point. The aim of this short talk will be to explore some of the different theoretical and methodological interpretations of spirit communicators that have been offered by parapsychology and anthropology over the past 150 years.
The Anthropology of Spirit Mediumship Spooksfest, York, 11th-13th March 2011
Spirit mediums (and indeed anyone involved with the paranormal), are very often stereotyped and misunderstood, particularly when appearing in the popular media. It is my aim in this talk to demonstrate, through the lens of anthropological theory, that spirit mediumship is an exceedingly rich, varied and important human phenomenon, which the popular media gives us only the slightest glimpse of. I think that it is important to realise that the type of mediums we are most familiar with (generally termed “platform” or “mental” mediums), are just one facet of a social phenomenon that is practically universal across human populations (Klass, 2001; Dawson, 2010). As we would expect, this universality comes with a wide and exciting breadth of cultural differences which render stereotyping utterly meaningless. When we think of mediumship, then, we should be thinking in terms of the wider cultural picture - and this is where I feel that anthropology can be of great benefit to parapsychology.
Talking With the Spirits:An Experiential Exploration of Contemporary Trance & Physical Mediumship Exploring the Extraordinary, University of York, 24-25th September 2010
Anthropological approaches to the study of spirit mediumship groups, and related practices, have usually tended to focus on social-functional interpretations; arguing that spirit mediumship groups function as a means to enable female practitioners to protest against their traditional roles as “mothers, wives and sexual partners” in oppressive male-oriented societies (Skultans, 1974; Lewis, 1971). Such approaches, however, have failed to address the experiential core of these groups: members believe that they are able to make direct contact with the world of spirits, whether through communicating with spiritual entities channelled via entranced mediums, witnessing ostensibly paranormal phenomena in the context of séances, or through falling into trance themselves and experiencing direct communion with the “numinous”. The experiential element cannot be removed from an analysis of mediumship, as it represents the primary motive for séance attendance as the members themselves perceive it, to ignore it would be to detrimentally reduce the complexity of the phenomenon. This paper will detail the experiences of an anthropologist exploring this experiential component while conducting fieldwork for his undergraduate dissertation (Hunter, 2009). The fieldwork itself was conducted at the Bristol Spirit Lodge, a centre established specifically with the aim to promote and develop trance and physical mediumship. The fieldwork methodology was one of immersive participant observation informed by the work of Edith Turner (1993; 1998; 2001), who has advocated the necessity of complete immersion in ritual if its functions and effects are to be adequately understood. In an attempt to understand the role of experience for the members of the group, participant observation was carried out in séances and mediumship development sessions as a means to gain an appreciation of the types of experience encountered by both sitters and mediums. Interviews and questionnaires were also employed as a method for achieving an insight into the subjective experiences of sitters and mediums regularly attending séances at the Lodge. This paper will present the research findings and describe the experiences of the researcher while engaged in the field. The importance of participation and its benefits for the researcher exploring experiential aspects of mediumship groups will be the central theme of the presentation.
Master Sun, Master Moon: Complementary Forms of Mediumship among the Jaguares of the Vale do Amanhecer
ARC Workshop, Ethnographic Approaches to Mediumship, University of Bristol, 4th July 2011
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.
Mediunidade e Cura no Vale do Amanhecer. (Mediumship and Healing in the Vale do Amanhecer)
Faculdade de Medicina, Universidade de São Paulo (FM-USP), Brazil,
Medical Anthropology, 20th August 2010
In addressing clinical approaches to mediumship and possession, I illustrate how these phenomena have been gathered into Western medical categories and thus reduced in their cultural, historical, and geographical variability. Exploring recent anthropological approaches that are calling for context-sensitive analysis I present the features of ethnographic approaches to mediumship and possession. Drawing on ethnographic material from the Vale do Amanhecer, through a presentation of case studies, I discuss the mediums’ conceptualizations of illness and healing. I argue that an analysis of discourses about mediumship and of the notions of Self may deepen our understanding of healing processes.
Hybridism: the Process of Glocalisation in the Vale do Amanhecer
Annual Conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth ASA09, University of Bristol,
6th- 9th April 2009.
The Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of the Dawn) is a rapidly expanding Brazilian religion representing one of the clearest manifestation of religious hybridism. In its complex belief system elements of Christianity, Brazilian indigenous beliefs, and European Spiritism, appear merged together with Afro-Brazilian traditions, Western esotericism, classical mythologies, and new forms of millenarian spirituality. In the Temples of the Amanhecer such complexity is produced through and performed in a large number of rituals, whereby mediums offer spiritual healing to patients. Religious hybridism is here analysed as the product of an ongoing negotiation between the global and the local. In contexts in which cross-cultural contacts are intensifying, in the border zones in and between cultures, religious traditions find themselves interacting with one another and undergoing a process of transformation, often resulting in the production of new hybrid religious forms. Ritual performance is at the core of a process of re-semantisation. This analysis highlights how the process of globalisation produces transformation not only in religious systems, but also in contemporary religious experience within a context of religious pluralism.
Identities: Religious Experience in the Vale do Amanhecer
31st Congress of Americanistic Studies, Perugia, Italy, 5th – 10th May 2009. Later published in Quaderni di Thule IX. Rivista Italiana di Studi Americanistici. Atti del XXXI Convegno Internazionale di Americanistica”. 2009
Brazil is experiencing a rapid expansion of religions emerged from processes of hybridization and based on mediumistic phenomena. These new religions are increasingly attracting people from different religious, ethnical and social backgrounds. In order to understand the growing interest towards mediumistic practices our analysis should focus on religious experience in the context of socio-cultural changes produced by Modernity and globalization. Particularly, I explore the dynamics of negotiation between symbolic systems and individual identity. Grounding my discussion on my ethnographic research conducted among the mediums of the Vale do Amanhecer, I examine the process through which religious symbols, beliefs, and practices, are used by individuals in the construction of a sense of Self.
Fireflies and Shooting Stars: visual narratives of daimonic Intelligence
'Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence', Centre for the study of myth, University of Kent, May 2011
A Matter of Spirit: an imaginal perspective on the paranormal
'Breaking Convention', Anthropology, University of Kent, April 2011
The Imaginal World of Ibn 'Arabi: A Platonic Context for research methods
'Paranormal Cultures', University of Sussex, Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies, June 2010