What's on the other side?
Vision Serpents, totemic ancestors, crystal balls, and tape recorders… I investigate the many ways in which we’ve tried to contact the dead
Death, for thousands of years, was thought to herald a new phase in our existence. Until recently, people debated not the existence of an afterlife, but what exactly awaited us on the other side. Would we be made to atone for our sins, rewarded for the joy we bought to others, or would we be our own judges? Nobody can know for certain until his or her time comes – but that has not stopped us from trying to find out.
The Ouija board appeared in the 1850s. American inventor Elijah Bond patented the first model in 1890, but it’s unclear as to who actually came up with the idea. The Fox sisters – two girls who famously claimed rapping noises (which they later admitted were a hoax) were spirits making contact – certainly boosted its popularity in the mid-19th century. It was also used a lot during the First World War, when bereaved families attempted to contact loved ones who had died during the conflict.
The board usually has the alphabet printed on it in a circle around the edge, as well as the numbers one to 10 and the words ‘Yes’, ‘No’, and ‘Goodbye’. Participants gather around it and place their fingers lightly on a planchette. This moves to the appropriate letter or word according to the question asked, supposedly controlled by a spirit.
There’s a lot of advice available on how to use the Ouija. Many believe that it should never be used as there is too much potential for dangerous entities to come through and cause trouble, or for people with psychological problems to become dependant on the board’s answers to their questions. Tips for safe use include never asking the spirit to ‘prove’ its existence to the group; to always be respectful; and above all, to remember that spirits can and do lie. There are also plenty of superstitions connected to using the Ouija, such as how placing a silver coin inside the circle of letters will ensure no negative spirits come through. Those using the board are also advised to never ask when they will die, not to enquire about the location of buried treasure, or ask any questions about God.
We’re all familiar with the children’s game Bloody Mary: a child enters a pitch-black room, stares into a mirror, and repeats the words ‘Bloody Mary’ three times. A terrifying witch-like spectre is then meant to appear behind them, reflected in the mirror. This chilling party game mimics scrying – a time-honoured method of contacting the dead. Scrying involves the use of a polished or reflective surface such as a mirror (catoptromancy), a crystal (crystallomancy), or still water (hydromancy) to see visions from the spirit world. It takes its name from the Middle English word ‘descry’, which means ‘to catch sight of’. It is an ancient method that appears numerous times over the course of history in many different cultures, from the Aztecs to the present day. Ancient Egyptians used pools of water or ink; the Druids used crystals that were often made from beryl; 16th-century French seer Nostradamus used a bowl of water into which he would gaze to see the future; and a polished black obsidian mirror was used by John Dee – alchemist, imperialist, and consultant to Elizabeth I – for research into the occult.
To contact the dead, stand or sit in front of a mirror lit by candlelight, and gaze at your own features continually. Soon, they will begin to morph into those of someone from the spirit world. Alternatively, try filling a dark-coloured vessel with water, allow it to settle, and gaze into it. Or, use a crystal ball. As with any spiritual practice, it is always wise to ask your guides for protection before you start, and to visualise yourself surrounded by a white light.
Is anyone there?
As modern science has allowed us to send messages across the planet at the touch of a button, so too have methods for contacting the dead slowly infiltrated the world of technology. Of all such techniques, electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) is perhaps the most well known. This is when a recording device is used to capture the voices of spirits by asking questions aloud in the hope that the answers will be heard on replaying on the tape. Latvian psychologist Konstantin Raudive made more than 100,000 EVP recordings in the 1960s, and was one of the pioneers of this technique. Other modern methods used by paranormal researchers for spirit communication include using certain radio frequencies to hold conversations with spirits, seeing images of the deceased in the television, setting up a camcorder in a haunted location in the hope anomalies will be captured on the tape, and simply taking pictures with a camera.
There are plenty of stories of phantom phone calls, where messages from the recently deceased have been left on answerphones – or even of entire conversations that have been held over the phone with a relative, who is soon discovered to have passed over. Some people claim spirits have contacted them through their computer, by making messages pop up on screen.
A rather spooky method of contacting the dead, necromancy involves conjuring up the spirit – or sometimes the physical body, if the person died fairly recently – of the deceased in order to predict the future and gain useful information. The etymology of the word is Greek, and means ‘corpse’ (Nekros) and ‘prophesy’ (manteia). It’s a practice with a very long history across many cultures, including Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt. There is even an example in the Bible in Samuel I 28:3-25, where The Witch of Endor called up the ghost of the recently deceased prophet Samuel at the demand of Israelite King Saul.
Practitioners of necromancy summon the dead, sometimes using rather dark or grotesque methods, regardless of whether the spirit wishes to be called upon to share their wisdom. Perhaps the latter will be secrets they knew in life, or magic that would otherwise be unavailable to the living. Medieval methods often involved working within a circle, which supposedly provided the practitioner with protection from demonic forces. Traditionally, vestiges such as grave mould, or pieces of the corpse such as the fingernails or skull, were used in the rituals. The conjurer may have worn the deceased’s clothes, and performed incantations. In modern times, the practice of séances to call forth and communicate with the dead provides a comparison, all be it one that is much less grizzly.
A form of channelling, automatic writing is a technique that allows spirits to communicate through the written word. All the psychic needs is a pen or pencil and a piece of paper – it is then just a matter of tuning in to the spiritual realm, and allowing the pen to move across the page, writing words, numbers, symbols, or drawing pictures. It often takes a lot of practice for the messages to come through effortlessly; instead, more often than not the words will pop into the psychic’s head before she writes them down. Automatic writing can be used to contact the dead, spirit guides, or to channel information from the higher self.
Born in Illinois in 1883, Pearl Curran – a girl with an unassuming education who grew up in a normal family – became famous for supposedly channelling the spirit of a 17th-century English woman named Patience Worth. Beginning in 1913 and ending in 1937 when she died, Pearl used a mixture of automatic writing and dictation to record around four million words in total – quite often using archaic phrases and terms that were no longer in use.
Although a traditional African religion, during the time of the slave trade Haitian practitioners syncretised elements of voodoo with those of Roman Catholicism, such as the worship of saints, to keep their employers appeased. Hence, voodoo blends elements of Christianity with West African beliefs. The religion has a Creator God named Papa Bon Dieu (Bondye in Haitian voodoo) or ‘good god’. Although benevolent, the creator is very distant and doesn’t communicate with humans directly, so intermediary spirits, the lwa or loa, work with those on Earth instead. These are honoured and praised through rituals, offerings, and prayers, and in return they help and guide people.
Advice and wisdom from the loa – which range from the warlike Petro Loa to the Loco Loa, which gives healing properties to trees and plants – is imparted through possession, usually accompanied by singing, dancing, and drumming. Each loa has distinctive behaviour with which it can be identified. At first, there can be conflict between the loa and the person it is possessing, which manifests in lurching movements and passionate dancing, before full possession takes place and the loa’s advice can be easily channelled. When the particular loa has been identified, the person being ridden by its spirit is given the associated paraphernalia. For example, Papa Legba – which is the intermediary spirit between humans and the loa, and gives permission for communication to occur – will be given a cane, a straw hat, and a pipe. In this way, the spirits participate in the rituals, which are overseen by the Houngan or Mambo (the priest or priestess), rather than being passively worshipped.
Dreamtime, or Alcheringa, is the Aboriginal story of creation. It signifies the time in which the first ancestors appeared on the Earth. According to Dreamtime, in the beginning the Earth was featureless, flat, and dull. Then, ‘totemic ancestors’ – creatures that were half human and half animals or plants – came out from under the ground from where they had slumbered for countless centuries in search of water and food. As they hunted, these giant beings carved ravines into the rocks and countryside, and eventually the land as we know it was created. They also laid the foundations for how people should behave culturally, and in society. Songs, dances, the stories of creation, and teachings on how people should treat the land are still observed and enjoyed today. Aboriginals believe in reincarnation, that we are all related to these ancestors, and that memories from the Dreamtime can be accessed through dreams, which allows people to reconnect and communicate with their ancestors in the present day.
The Vision Serpent
One of the main ways in which the Ancient Mayans communicated with their gods (of which there were hundreds) and their ancestors was through ritualistic bloodletting, often self-drawn from the tongue, earlobes, or genitals. This could be done in private, but was normally performed by the Mayan nobles in public in order to demonstrate their closeness to the spirit world. The let blood was collected and poured pieces of paper, which were soaked in the blood, and then burned. The smoke that ascended from the bowl provided a portal to the heavens through which the person could talk to the spirit world. They would enter a trance-like state and have visions, often of the Vision Serpent: this a snake that was symbolic of the link between heaven and Earth. The god or ancestor would appear through its mouth and impart its wisdom.
Spiritualist churches appeared in the United States in the 1850s; Britain’s first church was created in 1853 in Yorkshire, and by the 1870s there were many more scattered across the country. Mediums conduct the service, and convey messages from the spirit world to people in the audience. They also run private sessions, lead séances, and in some cases perform transfiguration – this is when, upon entering a deep trance, the medium allows a spirit to change their features and/or voice in order to communicate with the rest of the group.
Andrew Jackson Davis
One of the founders of Spiritualism, Andrew Jackson Davis was a teacher and writer who lived in the 19th century. Davis had a profound moment of spiritual enlightenment in 1844 when, in a trance-like state, he suddenly felt compelled to leave his house. He awoke the next day in New York State’s Catskill Mountains – mysteriously 40 miles from home. It was here, still in a semi-trance, that he claimed he met and communicated with the spirits of two (dead) men: 18th-century Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg, and Greek physician and philosopher, Galen – the latter of which gave Davis a magic staff which he said would help with his healing work.
How to… Automatic Writing
- Start with a clear intention, and decide with whom you wish to communicate.
- Imagine a bright white light surrounding you, and ask your guides for protection before you begin.
- Sit somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed. Set the paper and pen – or computer – before you, and close your eyes and relax for a few moments, breathing deeply. Try to use the same pen in each session.
- Relax your hand over the paper or keyboard and allow the messages to come through. Don’t try to interpret what you’ve written until you wish to end the session.
- Keep trying if you have no success the first time, as you will get better with practice.
- Stop when you feel ready to do so, or if you feel uncomfortable at any time.
- Thank your guides and the spirits you have been communicating with at the end of the session.