“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 the Fox 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
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.
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.
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)
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?
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.
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.
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 18:10–11; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116)
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.
Folks who knowingly fool Spiritualists with fake séances are another matter.
But I don’t see a point in going ballistic over fake mediums and wannabe prophets. Or emulating Marlowe’s fictional Faustus:
(April 29, 2018)
(April 21, 2018)
- “Materialism, Robots and Attitudes”
(April 15, 2018)
- “Spirit Photographs”
(April 11, 2018)
- “Planet 9, Maybe; Nibiru, No”
(September 29, 2017)
- “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism”
Karen Abbott, Smithsonian Magazine (October 30, 2012)
- “Choosing Light or Darkness” (March 11, 2018)
- “Predestination” (October 1, 2017)
- “Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art”
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (October 8, 2014)
- “Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia”
M. Aubert, A. Brumm, M. Ramli, T. Sutikna, E. W. Saptomo, B. Hakim, M. J. Morwood, G. D. van den Bergh, L. Kinsley, A. Dosseto; Nature (October 9, 2014)
- How I see art and being human