Mediums

“Séances date back to the 1800s…. Spirits were manifested, tambourines flew, ectoplasm impossibly erupted from entranced mediums. Then, after forty years of this, rather embarrassed by what they’d started, one of the sisters, Margaret Fox, confessed that they were frauds. The miracles which had started it all off had been a scam. But her confession made very little difference and spiritualism continues to appeal to many people today.”
(“Derren Brown: Séance,” Derren Brown (2004))

‘Chat with the dead’ séances popularized by Margaret Fox and her sisters are still endemic in American culture. So are religious beliefs and practices they inspired.

Their contribution to my country’s story began with a prank in 1848, when the two younger Fox sisters were living in Wayne County, New York. Kate and Maggie convinced their mother and older sister Leah that they’d made contact with a spirit.

Friends of the Fox family, enthusiastic Quakers, believed the girls: and helped launch spiritualism. Leah took charge as their manager and the girls grew up, enjoying considerable success as mediums. Until their story started unraveling.

Kate and Maggie developed serious drinking problems, denounced spiritualism, and eventually died.1

I suppose a melodrama could be based on their lives. Whether their fictional personas would be victims or villains would depend on an author’s viewpoint.

Either way, I’m pretty sure the Fox sisters faked their séances. Many years later, apparently after a change of heart, Maggie explained how they created their first illusion:

“When we went to bed at night we used to tie an apple to a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor…. Mother listened to this for a time. She would not understand it and did not suspect us as being capable of a trick because we were so young.”
(Maggie Fox, quoted in New York World (October 21, 1888) (via Wikipedia)

Kate had been 12 and Maggie 15 when they did their ‘apple on a string’ trick. That’s ‘old enough to know better.’ But I suspect we’re looking at an adolescent prank that got seriously out of hand.

I’m quite the Fox sisters knew their spirit rapper was a trick. But I don’t know why they did it. Another question is why their parents and other adults acted as they did.

My guess is that many Americans were looking for an alternative to gloom and predestination. Can’t say that I blame them.2

“…Departing, Leave Behind Us….”

Important as they are in American history, the Fox sisters weren’t the first folks to say they talked with spirits.

We’ve had mediums of one sort or another for upwards of two dozen millennia.3

That’s assuming some of today’s educated guesses about why folks decorated cave walls in Australia and Indonesia are right.

Maybe they are. Or not.

We know that folks left pictures of skulls and bones on cave walls. They painted pigs and dogs, too. And geometric symbols. And hands. Lots and lots of hands.4

Some of the markings were and are hard to reach. The folks who made them almost certainly thought their work were important. We’re not looking at prehistoric doodles.

What we don’t know is why they left those images and symbols.

I think there’s a lesson in what we’ve learned about hieroglyphs and Alcheringa.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Egyptian writing from around the 31st to 6th centuries BC used pictures of birds, animals, and objects. Hieroglyphs endured long after folks living in the area forgot their meaning.

Assuming that hieroglyphs were ideograms or pictograms, like today’s “telephone” and “baggage claim” symbols, made sense. Seeing them as ideograms also suggested that ancient Egyptians were very interested in birds, feathers and insects.

In 1799, Napoleon’s troops found a stone tablet, about the size of a movie poster, with hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek marks on one side. Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion’s analysis of the Rosetta Stone let scholars start reading hieroglyphs.

Hieroglyphs, it turns out, can be ideograms, phonograms or logograms: depending on context. Ancient Egyptians hadn’t been obsessed by birds, feathers, bugs and more birds.

We’re not sure how, or if, Egyptian hieroglyphs relate to the Greek, Latin and other alphabets we use. But at least now we can read what ancient Egyptians wrote.

Perceptions and Knowledge

We can make educated guesses about why folks left pictures and designs on cave walls in Indonesia, Australia and elsewhere.

But without something like a Rosetta Stone, I strongly suspect we can’t be sure what they meant to their creators.

Even then, we’d have to first understand the artists and their culture. Sometimes that takes time. And rethinking our own perceptions and attitudes.

Baldwin Spencer Gillen learned about the Alcheringa from folks who apparently had tried explaining what we call “the dream times” or “dreamtime” to a foreigner. With very limited success.

Nearly a century later, European scholars were realizing that Alcheringa isn’t what we think of as “fantasy.” (August 4, 2017)

One more example: a ‘hashtag’ symbol cut into a cave wall.

We can be very nearly certain that Neanderthals made it.

Carving it into the wall took time and effort, so it’s there for some reason.

We don’t know what that reason was.

Researchers have suggested plausible answers. Maybe it was the neanderthal equivalent of a coat of arms or medieval hallmark. Or a “no exit/turn around” sign. Or something completely different. For all I know, it could be a very early tic-tac-toe grid. (May 5, 2017)

We’d know more about the ‘hashtag’ and Indonesian cave paintings if we could interview the folks who made them.

But that isn’t an option.

Or is it?

Scholars and Storytellers

I haven’t read about an archeologist whose research included séances.

That’s odd, considering 19th century fascinations with Egyptology and speculative necromancy.

Or maybe not. I get the impression that many serious scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries were trying to distance themselves from pop spirituality.

Storytellers, happily, needn’t stick to “just the facts.” The adventures of an archaeologist-spiritualist duo could make many a rousing tale.

Something along the lines of “The Ghostbreakers” and “Phantom of Chinatown.” Or “Poltergeist” meets “The Mummy.” Or an Iron Man spinoff: “Raiders of the Lost Arc Reactor.” They don’t make movies like that any more. Not quite. And that’s another topic.

Remembering Endor

Endor was an important Canaanite city around the time Seti I was restoring order and stability in Egypt.

The last I heard, we’re still not sure who did what during the religious and social upheavals of Akhenaten’s reign. And that’s yet another topic.

We’re pretty sure Endor was in the Jezreel Valley. The city’s exact location got lost somewhere during the last three millennia.

That’s not surprising. Endor isn’t there any more. Considering what happened during and after the Late Bronze Age Collapse, it’s a wonder we know as much about the city as we do. (May 12, 2018; May 26, 2017)

Folks in my branch of Western civilization probably recognize Endor mainly as the home of a medium. We don’t know her name.

She’s “a woman in Endor” in my Bible’s translation of 1 Samuel 28:325. Most English-speaking folks probably think of her as the “witch of Endor:” a more colorful, if less accurate, title.

Whether she’s called a medium, witch, necromancer or ’êšeṯ ba‘ălaṯ-’ōḇ bə-‘Êndōr, consulting ghosts and spirits is a bad idea. (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:1011; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116)

For one thing, there’s little or no guarantee that you’ve reached the intended person. Not all spiritual beings are ‘good guys.’ (Catechism, 329330, 391395, 414)

Noticing that something is a bad idea is one thing. Believing that someone who acts badly is a bad person — is another bad idea. (Catechism, 17761794, 1861)

That’s one reason I don’t fling epithets at spiritualists. Or materialists.

I’m sure that Western materialism and America’s Spiritualism — Spiritualist religious beliefs, not the philosophical position — don’t accurately reflect reality.

That doesn’t keep me from accepting that folks can sincerely believe materialist or Spiritualist ideas.

Folks who knowingly fool Spiritualists with fake séances are another matter.

Deliberately presenting something that’s not real as truth is yet another bad idea. (Catechism, 2476, 24822484)

But I don’t see a point in going ballistic over fake mediums and wannabe prophets. Or emulating Marlowe’s fictional Faustus:


1 Celebrities and sensations of yesteryear:

2 Free will, God and Holy Willie; my view:

3 Mediums, fortunetelling and all that:

4 Art, artists and understanding:

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Progress and Vagueness

First, the good news. I’ve made some progress today.

The not-so-good news is that today’s progress amounts to 30 words that I probably won’t delete before evening.

On the other hand, I expect I’ll have more words finished at day’s end than I started with. That’s better than some days. But not as good as some others.

If that all sounds rather vague, I’m not surprised. I’ve been feeling rather vague today. Maybe the weather has something to do with that.

It’s a gray, overcast drizzly sort of day. Ideal for not going outside and working on a sunburn. And with that profound thought, I present links to vaguely-related posts:

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Homer, Hegel, History and Hope

Folks who saw virtue in unquestioning devotion to established values didn’t like the 1960s. No institution, custom or belief seemed safe from scrutiny.

Even the idea of progress — a cherished heirloom from the Age of Enlightenment — was challenged, disputed, and ultimately rejected.

Visions of a technotopia, where our greatest challenge was deciding how to spend our leisure time, were fading.

Hopes for nuclear power’s abundant clean energy were giving way to fears of an atomic holocaust and reactor meltdowns. Assuming that pollution didn’t kill us first. (July 28, 2017; February 17, 2017)

Perhaps even more disturbing for social Luddites, the nation’s youth seemed ill-suited for their assigned role as torchbearers for liberty, conformity and suburban living.

Earnest articles and op-eds warned that television was rotting the minds of America’s youth. And popular music was subverting values which so many held dear:

“…Creature comfort goals
They only numb my soul
And make it hard for me to see….”
(“Pleasant Valley Sunday” The Monkees (1967))

“…If the mind is baffled
When the rules don’t fit the game,
Who will answer?…”
(“Who Will Answer?” Ed Ames (1967))

“…Go ahead and hate your neighbour
Go ahead and cheat a friend
Do it in the name of heaven
You can justify it in the end…”
(“One Tin Soldier” Dennis Lambert, Brian Potter (1969))

Some felt it was the end of civilization as they knew it. I think they were right.1

America has changed. So has the world. I think some changes were improvements. Some aren’t turning out as well as I’d hoped. And many are simply change: which happens, whether we like it or not.

I’m cautiously optimistic about our future, partly because I know a bit about our past.

The Walls of Troy

That’s part of Troy VII’s acropolis: what’s left of it after the Trojan War and Late Bronze Age collapse.

Until around the 19th century, most folks thought the Trojan War had happened pretty much the way Homer described it in the Iliad: the non-mythic parts at any rate.

Then some European scholars took what they’d been learning about ancient history, and compared that to Homer’s account. Parts, at least, didn’t match what they expected. Either their educated guesses were wrong, or Homer’s epic poem was basically fictional.

Quite a few decided that they knew more about history than some ancient chap. Some also figured the Iliad, fictional or not, was composed by some other poet.

Academic one-upmanship — it’s a real word — followed. A humorist’s opinion probably made as much sense as many: Homer didn’t compose the Iliad. It was some other Greek in Homer’s day — whose name was Homer.

There’s still considerable debate about how much of the Iliad is strictly factual. Even Thucydides figured Homer had stretched the facts a bit, and that’s another topic.

I think poets of ancient Greece were a bit like today’s screenwriters: more interested in drama and spectacle than accountant-like precision.

Professional scholars weren’t the only folks who wondered if Troy really existed: and if it did, where we might find “the lofty gates of Troy.”

Frank Calvert, an Englishman born in Malta, learned about Hisarlik, a hill in what’s now northwestern Turkey that might conceal Troy’s ruins.

Frank and his brother Frederick bought a farm that included part of the hill. They uncovered part of what Frank thought was Troy.

A German archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, met Calvert and thought the Englishman was right. Schliemann dug into the hill and uncovered what had been a city. More exactly, he excavated Trojan ruins from at least two periods.

Schliemann had also, regrettably, obliterated what we are pretty sure had been significant parts of the city. Archeologists are much more careful these days. As I keep saying, we do learn. Eventually.

It’s still not unanimous, but these days most academics think Troy was real and Hisarlik is where the city used to be.2

The Trojan War was real, too, and almost certainly part of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. We haven’t had a catastrophe quite like it since. (November 3, 2017)

“Nothing Stands Still”

Descendants of folks who survived the Collapse eventually returned and lived where Troy had been.

But the city never fully recovered. Partly, I think, because the river which flowed past Troy kept carrying water and sediment to the sea.

The site’s a few miles inland now. Troy’s natural harbor long since filled in and became farmland.

The Hellespont is still part of an important trade route, but today’s major east-west crossing point is Istanbul. Another three millennia or so, and some other place may be the region’s major metropolis. It’s like the fellow said:

“πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει”
“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
(Heraclitus, As quoted by Plato in “Cratylus”)

Learning From the Past: Or Not

Our cultures and tech change. So do our jobs, roles we play in society. But human nature doesn’t change. Not that I can see. Whether that’s hopeful or not may depend on attitude:

“Perhaps the cause of our contemporary pessimism is our tendency to view history as a turbulent stream of conflicts — between individuals in economic life, between groups in politics, between creeds in religion, between states in war. … History has been too often a picture of the bloody stream. The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.”
(Will Durant, As quoted in “The Gentle Philosopher” (2006) by John Little at Will Durant Foundation)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
(“The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress,” George Santayana (1905-1906))

“What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”
Lectures on the Philosophy of History,” Georg Hegel (ca. 1830s) Introduction, as translated by H. B. Nisbet (1975))

The Durant and Santayana quotes are closer to what I think than Hegel’s. I am quite sure that we’re not doomed to ignorance and futility.

But I can appreciate Hegel’s viewpoint.

The Enlightenment was in progress when Hegel was growing up. Enlightenment ideals, valuing liberty and reason, offered hope for a better future. (November 6, 2016)

As an adult, Hegel saw the French Revolution’s bright promise of Enlightened and rational government produce the Cult of Reason and mass executions.

Napoleon sorted that mess out. He had been a military commander for the Revolutionary government before having himself elected Emperor of the French.

Meanwhile, Europe’s other leaders continued having their subjects slaughter each other in a seemingly-endless succession of turf wars. Napoleon followed suit, which brings me back to Hegel. He saw Napoleon just before the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt.

Hegel was a 30-something university professor at the time. Napoleon won, adding the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire.

Hegel’s brother joined Napoleon’s army and was killed a half-dozen years later, when Napoleon learned why invading Russia is a bad idea.

German states joined other countries for the War of the Sixth Coalition. Or War of Liberation, depending on who’s telling the story.

Hegel published the second volume of “Wissenschaft der Logik,” “Science of Logic” around that time.

The War of the Sixth Coalition ended in 1814. Napoleon was exiled to Elba, ushering in an era of peace — which lasted until the War of the Seventh Coalition in 1815.

Several wars, epidemics and a cholera pandemic later, Hegel was living in Berlin. He got sick and died. Doctors said it was cholera, possibly because the disease had reached Berlin by that time.

A lifetime immersed in Europe’s turf wars, epidemics and politics might leave anyone a trifle less than optimistic about humanity’s capacity for learning from mistakes.

“…The Future, Far as Human Eye Could See….”

“…For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be…
“…Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world….”
(“Locksley Hall,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1835))

I’m not sure why I think Tennyson’s imagined “Federation of the world” isn’t entirely a poetic pipe dream.

I’ve known folks around my age, with similar backgrounds, and some who aren’t, who apparently feel that government leaders don’t learn, or can’t. Others see climate change, genetically modified organisms, vaccines or the Internet as a dire threat.

There’s probably considerable overlap among those groups.

I think folks who fear that it’s the end of civilization as we know it — are right.

But unlike many, I think that’s a good thing. Partly because I think we may finally have seen the end of Western civilization’s empire-collapse-rebuild cycle. (April 15, 2018; February 5, 2017; July 24, 2016)

And partly because I think God didn’t botch humanity’s design. (July 23, 2017)

“We Should Work Together”

We’re made “in the image of God,” matter and spirit, body and soul. Each of us is a person, made from the stuff of this world and filled with God’s’ ‘breath.’ (Genesis 1:2627, 2:7; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355, 357, 362368)

God gave us dominion over this world, and let us decide how we’ll act. The first of us made a really bad decision. We’ve been dealing with its consequences ever since. The mess we’re in isn’t God’s fault. (Genesis 1:26; Catechism, 390, 396401)

Our circumstances have changed, but not our nature. We still have “dominion” — and the responsibilities that go with it. (January 21, 2018; August 20, 2017)

What we decide to do is still up to us. We all have free will. We can decide that loving our neighbor, and seeing everyone as a neighbor, makes sense. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1704, 1730, 1789)

That’s not easy for me. But easy or not, I think it’s a good idea. So is passing along what we’ve learned, and some of our goals.

“…In this sense the future belongs to you young people, just as it once belonged to the generation of those who are now adults…. …To you belongs responsibility for what will one day become reality together with yourselves, but which still lies in the future….”
(“Dilecti Amici,” St. John Paul II (March 21, 1985))

“…The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”
(“To the United Nations Organization,” St. John Paul II (October 5, 1995))

Building a close approximation of St. John Paul II’s “civilization of love” will take many generations of hard work, and willingness to remember that truth and love matter.

“…For our part, the desire for such dialogue, which can lead to truth through love alone, excludes no one, though an appropriate measure of prudence must undoubtedly be exercised. We include those who cultivate outstanding qualities of the human spirit, but do not yet acknowledge the Source of these qualities. We include those who oppress the Church and harass her in manifold ways. Since God the Father is the origin and purpose of all men, we are all called to be brothers. Therefore, if we have been summoned to the same destiny, human and divine, we can and we should work together without violence and deceit in order to build up the world in genuine peace.…”
(“Gaudium et spes,” Second Vatican Council, Bl. Paul VI (December 7, 1965) [emphasis mine])

Working together to build a better world.

It won’t be easy, but I think it’ll be worth the effort:


1 Change happens, so does how we see it:

2 Troy, Homer, and all that:

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May 5, 2018: Pre-Brillig Writing Progress

My first serious try at writing a book started several years back, if you count thinking about how I’d do it and learning about ‘book length’ style and format conventions.

Actual writing, entering and saving words, started about a month ago. (April 3, 2018)

I wrote well over a thousand words during one day: re-read it the next, and started over. My progress, such as it, has been like that ever since.

I’ll get a few hundred words written one day and re-write that down to nearly nothing the next. Some days I leave rewriting, if any, until anther time.

Other days I delete more than I write. For me, that’s progress. I could worry that I’m not following some famous or respected author’s method. But that doesn’t make sense to me.

Some of the best ‘how to’ advice I’ve seen was from a published author who described the usual ‘organize your time/information/desk/whatever’ stuff.

He said folks should try whatever seems reasonable to see if it works. And that the ‘right’ way to write is the one that works for a particular author.

That make sense. To me, anyway.

Yesterday I ended the day’s writing with a bit over two dozen more words saved than when I’d started. That’s good news.

So, in a very different way, is an ongoing visit from #2 daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. I’ll be enjoying their being here again today, and don’t expect to get much writing done until after brillig. If then.

I therefore will stop writing, post this, share the following excerpt and inevitable links to more of this blog — and enjoy the visit.

“…’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
(Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll (1871) via Wikipedia)

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