By Richard Smoley
The supernatural: the images that come to mind when that word is uttered often are ones that arouse anxiety or dread. Why?
To begin with, you can only be afraid of something that you believe is real. A child has a nightmare and wakes up; the parent consoles by saying “it was all just a dream” or “it was all imaginary.” What is imaginary cannot hurt you, and there is no reason to fear it. Only what is real can hurt you.
But, then, what exactly is real? This is a long and difficult question to answer, but as a partial answer we can say that in order for something to be accounted as real or true, it must accord with our preconceptions of what is possible and what is not. As it turns out, these preconceptions vary wildly from place to place and from age to age.
For example, over the centuries the views of Western civilisation has swung back and forth about witchcraft. It is a widespread but incorrect belief that the persecution of witchcraft started with Christianity. The Jewish Mosaic Law was quite specific in its condemnation: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exod. 22:18). The pagan world was no more tolerant: the Code of Hammurabi, dating to the early second millennium BCE, discusses a procedure regarding charges of witchcraft, and the Twelve Tables, the founding legal documents of the Roman republic, dating to the fifth century BCE, assumed its existence; later edicts in the time of the empire entailed prosecution for witches.
By contrast, in Christianity during its first 1,400 years, charges of witchcraft were comparatively scarce, and belief in witchcraft was condemned at least as often as witchcraft itself.
The witch scare of the early modern era – which has persisted, off and on, to the present – began in earnest in 1484, with the propagation of a bull by Pope Innocent VIII authorising two inquisitors, Jacobus Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, to deal with witches in certain parts of northern Germany. Sprenger and Kramer followed up by publishing a lurid but highly influential work called the Malleus maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witchcraft”) in 1486, spelling out methods for detecting and punishing witches.
Although the Catholic Inquisition spearheaded the witch craze, over the decades the inquisitors themselves became increasingly sceptical of witchcraft charges. The largest numbers of condemnations of supposed witches took place in countries like Germany, which were battlegrounds of contending denominations, rather than in Spain and Italy, where the Inquisition was strongest.
Why should the law, Jewish, pagan, or Catholic, occupy itself with witchcraft at all? Today the preoccupation with such a thing seems exceedingly odd. But it is not at all odd if we consider that the worldview of those eras assumed not only the existence, but also the efficacy, of witchcraft.
It would be hard to deny that witchcraft, benign or malevolent, is practiced. People cast spells; this is not in doubt. On this point we would agree with the ordinary European of the year 1500. However, we might disagree about whether the spells work. In the Europe of the early modern era, it was generally assumed, by the learned as well as the ignorant, that witches could do good or harm with their spells. A society that believes that something can do harm is likely to try to forbid that thing: hence witchcraft laws.
The belief in witchcraft did not persist. The history of the early modern era is a history of disillusionment, first in the Catholic hierarchy – whose corruption, assailed for centuries, finally led it to lose its monopoly on the faith of Europeans – and then in its worldview. The witch hunt craze, which peaked in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, was a major part of this disillusionment. Witchcraft charges became so numerous, so problematic, and in the end so ridiculous that by 1700 European society had ceased to believe them.
Consequently, witchcraft laws and persecutions faded into oblivion during the eighteenth century. In Britain, for example, the Witchcraft Act was passed in 1735. Replacing earlier laws that entailed penalties for witchcraft, it went in the opposite direction, making it illegal to claim to be a witch. Since witchcraft was impossible, claiming to be one, or alleging that someone else was, was held to be fraudulent in and of itself.
The 1735 act, which sat on the books for over two centuries, was overturned for extremely peculiar reasons. In 1944 a medium named Helen Duncan claimed to have contacted the spirit of a sailor who had drowned on the HMS Barham. She was jailed for this announcement, allegedly on the ground of being a false medium (under the Witchcraft Act) but in fact because she had been a genuine one: she made her statement before the sinking of the Barham had been made public. Duncan’s case led to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, leading to another curious reversal.
Once the act was repealed, many people came forward claiming to be witches. They also claimed to be part of an ancient tradition – the Old Religion – that had flourished in the British Isles long before the coming of Christianity. The most famous of these individuals was Gerald Gardner, a retired customs official who said he belonged to a coven that met in the New Forest in southern England. Gardner’s works, including High Magic’s Aid, Witchcraft Today, and The Meaning of Witchcraft, launched the contemporary movement known as Wicca. While membership figures for this movement are hard to come by (many Wiccans practice alone, and many others conceal their practices for fear of scorn), one estimate holds there were some 362,000 in the US in 2008. In the UK census of 2011, over 56,000 identified themselves as Pagans, nearly 12,000 as Wiccans, and another 1,300 said their religion was “Witchcraft.”
Satanism, Exorcism and the Movies
In the twenty-first century, attitudes toward witchcraft have come full circle. In the medieval era, its existence was denied; in the early modern era, it was believed to exist but was persecuted; in the eighteenth century, its existence was again denied, and today, free from fear of legal penalties (at least in the US and the UK), many individuals are stepping forward and identifying themselves as witches. But since the law in these countries and other lands does not acknowledge the reality of witchcraft, witches can cast spells white and black with impunity.
Satanism, that great bugbear of fundamentalist Christians, has also come forward in recent centuries. Although rumours of Satanic rites go back at least to medieval times (a Satanic cult is said to have thrived at Louis XIV’s Versailles in the seventeenth century), Satanism first came to widespread attention with the novel Là-bas (“Down There”) by the French author J.-K. Huysmans. Published in 1891, the book included a vivid description of a Black Mass that Huysmans had supposedly witnessed. The current fascination with the Satanic dates from the 1960s. Anton LaVey launched the notorious Church of Satan in San Francisco in 1966. One year later, Ira Levin published Rosemary’s Baby, which became the best-selling horror novel of the decade and inspired Roman Polanski’s even more popular film of the same name, which appeared in 1968.
Levin no doubt wanted his book to succeed, but later on he was dismayed by its long-term effects, since it led to a genre of horror films lending perhaps undue credibility to the existence of the Evil One. “I feel guilty that Rosemary’s Baby led to The Exorcist, The Omen,” he said in 2002. “A whole generation has been exposed, has more belief in Satan. I don’t believe in Satan. And I feel that the strong fundamentalism we have would not be as strong if there hadn’t been so many of these books… Of course, I didn’t send back any of the royalty checks.”
As Levin noted, Rosemary’s Baby set the stage for The Exorcist, a 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty that was made into a movie two years later; it is probably the most disturbing film in the Satanic genre. It was released in Germany in 1974. Two years later, a twenty-three-year-old woman, Anneliese Michel, died of dehydration and malnourishment after having sixty-seven exorcisms performed on her over the course of ten months. Her knee ligaments had ruptured from the six hundred genuflections she had performed during each of the ceremonies. Her death led to manslaughter convictions for the four priests who had exorcised her (evidently without success). The story, heavily altered, inspired another Satanic horror movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which appeared in 2005.
Strangely, recordings of Anneliese’s voice made during her periods of possession strikingly resembled those of Linda Blair, who played the possessed young girl in The Exorcist. (A recording has been uploaded onto YouTube for your listening pleasure.) Was Anneliese’s possession – if that is what it was – a sign that Satan is abroad in the world, or was it a copycat performance of something she had seen in a film? Without question, Anneliese was disturbed – she had had seizures even before The Exorcist was released – but it would seem that art in this case inspired life rather than imitating it.
Today exorcism is becoming increasingly fashionable. In 1997 the Catholic archbishop of Calcutta ordered an exorcism to be performed on the dying Mother Teresa on the premise that her illness may have been due to demonic attack. The Catholic Church has increased the number of exorcists it is training in Spain and Italy. According to a January 2014 article in the British newspaper The Telegraph, the church claims that “the rise in demonic cases is a result of more people dabbling in practices such as black magic, paganism, Satanic rites and Ouija boards, often exploring the dark arts with the help of information readily found on the internet.”
Like the inquisitors of the sixteenth century, the Catholic authorities today are comparatively sceptical about demonic possession and attack, insisting these phenomena are extremely rare. In fact, Michael Cuneo, a sociologist at Fordham University in New York and author of American Exorcism, points out that the vast majority of exorcisms, at least in the US, are being carried out by fundamentalist Protestants, sometimes with disastrous results. In 1995, Pentecostal ministers in San Francisco pummelled a woman to death in order to drive out her demons. In 1998, a seventeen-year-old girl in Sayville, New York, was suffocated to death by her mother in an effort to destroy a demon inside her.
Powerful (Uncontrolled) Thoughts
Perhaps it is all due to dark rites. Perhaps the priests of the twenty-first century are hearing sinister, scratchy voices out of girls’ mouths because misguided youth are fiddling with Ouija boards. Or perhaps the epidemic of demonic attacks are due to one of the oldest afflictions mankind has suffered – mass belief.
The power of the mind is now taken as a given not only in alternative spirituality but in mass culture as well. Practically all of the literature on mind power, positive thinking, and similar beliefs focuses on the individual’s use of mind power to, say, materialise the perfect lover or a cheque for a million dollars. As most people who have tried it have discovered, this only works so well – if only because controlling the mind, as has long been recognised, is the hardest thing of all to do.
If thoughts have power, what kind of power do collective thoughts have? We have already seen that belief in things like witchcraft has come and gone several times over the past few centuries. If there is any truth at all to the idea of mind power, it would follow that collective belief would create a kind of mind-space that all the members of a given culture inhabit, whether they like it or not, or know it or not. As the spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti once observed in a conversation: “Suppose one is brought up as a Catholic, hmm? You have all the paraphernalia of rituals; accepting authority; accepting Jesus as the only saviour, son of God; and the Virgin Mary; and ascending to heaven, physically. These are all dogmas, asserted by the church and accepted through two millennia, two thousand years, as an actuality… In India, there is the same old thing in a different form, which is not only a belief but, to the believer, it is an actuality.”
It is an actuality to the culture as well. That is why, for example, we can read a court transcript from five hundred years ago and see a man confessing to changing himself into a toad – as well as a jury that takes him at his word.
In the Western world the situation is ambiguous. While religious allegiance continues to decline, we cannot necessarily say the same about belief in the occult in general. People continue to see dead relatives, experience miraculous rescues at the hands of angels, and – on the negative side – experience what feel very much like demonic attacks. The explosion of occult horror movies has fed the collective imagination with vivid pictures of evil – particularly over the last forty years. This in turn has fed into the claims of fundamentalist religion, which finds it extremely useful to use these sources of terror to attract new victims. Against this background, it is easy to understand why cases of alleged demonic possession are on the rise.
The Real and Imagined
To what extent are these phenomena real, and to what extent are they figments of the imagination? The boundary between the two categories is not easy to draw. A whole fabric of preconception underlies our collective experience of what is real. We have only the most limited degree of control over these preconceptions, in part because we are so oblivious to them. Nor do we have any clear idea, at a deep level, of how and why these collective beliefs change. Of course we are convinced that we today have the truth and that everyone who lived centuries before was ignorant and credulous. But is this belief itself a sign of our own collective delusion?
In any case, we not only continue to have the supernatural with us, but we have the fear of the supernatural with us too. The best approach may be a middle path between denial and credulity. The esoteric traditions have long recognised the reality of occult phenomena, but have also stressed that they not be given too much importance. One Buddhist tale tells of a young monk who goes to his master and says, “I had a vision of the Buddha during my meditation!” The master replied, “Just keep meditating and it will go away.”
In the mid-twentieth century the English author Christopher Isherwood found a spiritual home in the Hindu tradition known as Vedanta. At one point he approached his teacher and said that he was experiencing certain supernatural visions. The swami responded that as Isherwood progressed on the spiritual path, he could expect more of these visions. He also told him that he “must take no particular notice of them, and not regard them as a matter of self-congratulation. They have no special significance. The psychic world is all around us, full of sub-creatures, earth bound spirits, etc. To be able to see them is just a knack, a minor talent. Dogs see spooks all the time, it is dangerous to let them interest you too much. At best, they are a distraction from the real objectives of the spiritual life. At worst, they may gain power over you and do you harm.”
In any event, whether dealing with the supernatural or with anything, the last thing you need is fear.
“Ira Levin.” Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_Levin; accessed Feb. 24, 2014.
Christopher Isherwood, My Guru and His Disciple, Vintage Classics, 2013.
Oliver Libaw, “Exorcism Thriving in U.S., Say Experts”, ABC News, Sept. 11, 2013, http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=92541; accessed Feb. 24, 2014.
David Edmund Moody, The Unconditioned Mind: J. Krishnamurti and the Oak Grove School, Quest, 2011.
Jacobus Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of Witchcraft, Translated by Montague Summers. Folio Society, 1968.
Nick Squires, “Rise of the Exorcists in the Catholic Church,” The Telegraph, Jan. 4., 2014, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/vaticancityandholysee/10550800/Rise-of-the-exorcists-in-Catholic-Church.html; accessed Feb. 24, 2014.
“Really Scary! The Real Exorcism of Emily Rose”; www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZfg57LZ34g; accessed Feb. 24, 2014.
RICHARD SMOLEY latest book is How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible. He is the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe; Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity; The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History; The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness; and Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney). A frequent contributor to New Dawn, he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America. Visit his blog at www.innerchristianity.com/blog.htm.
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