Shaman to Scientist

James Houran (editor). From Shaman to Scientist; Essays on Humanity's Search for Spirits. The Scarecrow Press, 2004.

Whatever their exact ontological status, ghosts are certainly social facts and can have immense human meaning. James Houran had earlier edited a collection which included some important papers on the subject. This anthology, concentrating more on a historical approach, is of less interest. Topics covered range from the anomalous experiences and the rise of shamanism in early cultures, ghost stories in classical and medieval cultures, brain structure and the world of spirits, poltergeist research in 19th and early 20th century Europe, American children's ghost stories, the modern obsession with orb photographs and similar techno-occultism.

The main problem with this sort of format is that rarely do papers have the space to develop their theme, and they vary in quality.

For Magonia readers perhaps John Potts paper on ghost hunting in the 21st century will be the most interesting. Potts looks at the rise of pseudoscientific ghost hunting societies often armed with all sorts of equipment and looking for technological 'proof' obtained through photographs of `orbs' or recordings of electronic voices. He argues that these groups rarely critically examine evidence, and tend to assume, rather than demonstrate, the correctness of their theories. He notes that these groups are part of a tradition in which new sciences or technologies are ascribed occult qualities, examples being electricity and radio. He hints of a hidden history of occultism/pioneer radio connections in the period before routine commercial broadcasting which looks worthy of further notice.

Christa Tuczay's article on classical and medieval ghost beliefs is of interest because it shows how different these beliefs were to our modern ones. Norse ghosts in particular were viewed as reanimated bodies rather than ethereal spirits. This hints that our modern notions of haunted houses might be more recent than is usually thought.

Today's ghosts are less the harbingers from heaven and hell than the product of only half-believed-in play-realities: passing things which fade like dreams in the daylight, or inhabitants of some enchanted realm. A number of writers have commented over the years on this enchanted boundary, in which at the time extraordinary experiences seem to take place, but which seems to fade away at a rate somewhere between waking from a dream and falling out of love. These realms seem to be constructed out of some interplay between altered states of consciousness and small group dynamics. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 87, February 2005

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