1848 AD: the Fox family home in New York state is the focus of very mild poltergeist phenomena - mostly rappings. Two of the sisters, Margaretta, 14 and Catherine, 12, decide to rap back and ask the presumed spirit questions, and in so doing, inadvertently start a brand new religion, Spiritualism. What could be the connection between the two widely separated events?
I see from the street map directory that there are three Spiritualist centres here in Brisbane, so the cult is still active, although its heyday was the period between the two World Wars. That it included an incredible amount of fraud and chicanery has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt. Just the same, we don't hear much about ectoplasm and apports these days, so I suspect that most mediums these days are quite sincere, in the sense that they genuinely believe they are channeling the spirits of the dead - even though a cynical psychologist would say they are really just contacting their own subconscious.
I must confess that I haven't attended any modern séance. However, extensive documentation exists for the form they took, at least during the cult's golden years, so let me describe one. For a start, in nine times out of ten, the medium would be female. This is a worldwide phenomenon. When necromancy, channeling, or spirit possession form the central core of the dominant religion, the practitioners are largely male. But when it is a fringe movement, the lads leave it to the ladies. Secondly, the séance would normally take place in darkness, or muted light, and the medium would go into an altered state of awareness, popularly referred to as a trance. Typically, she would make contact with a "spirit guide": a tutelary spirit, not necessarily a ghost, attached to her, who acts as a doorkeeper and messenger to call in the ghosts whom the clients wish to contact. Finally, the ghosts would speak through her lips, though often in a voice different from her normal one. It is worthwhile noting that these methods were not, by and large, introduced by the Fox sisters, who were mostly involved in rapping, but by the movement which sprang up in it wake.
Now let us examine that famous séance of 1000 BC, as described in chapter 28 of the First Book of Samuel. For a start, Saul told his officers to seek out a woman who was a medium. He just took it for granted that the practitioner would be a woman. Secondly, although the medium is traditionally known as "the witch of Endor", that term does not appear in any translation. The Hebrew phrase for a medium is ba'al ôb, the "owner of an ôb", a word often associated with yidde'ônîm, or "knowers". The context clearly shows that they refer to spirits of some description, but what kind? The Jews who translated the Old Testament into Greek in the second and third centuries BC had some idea; they translated ôb by the Greek equivalent of "ventriloquist". But by the time for an English translation arrived, these practices had vanished so long from the collective European consciousness that they were at a loss for the proper word, and were left to invoke one of the superstitions of their own day as a substitute. The King James Bible calls an ôb a "familiar spirit" ie a witch's attendant imp, usually in animal form. There is no evidence that the Canaanites ever held such a tradition.
Saul requested the medium to divine for him by an ôb and bring up Samuel, the deceased prophet. From this it is manifest that an ôb was the equivalent of a spirit guide. Then the woman said to Saul, "I see gods [or God] coming up out of the ground." When Saul asked what he looked like, she replied that he was an old man wearing a cloak. From this we must conclude that Saul did not see the phantom. As in a modern séance, it was visible only to the medium herself while in a trance.
Three hundred years later, the prophet Isaiah had a few words to say on the subject:
And when they say to you, "Consult the ôbîm and the yidde'ônîm who chirp and mutter," should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? (Isaiah 8:19)and
Then deep from the earth you shall speak,It would appear, therefore, that, when the ghost or spirit was speaking through the medium in her trance state, she spoke in an unnatural, low-pitched voice.
from low in the dust your words shall come;
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of an ôb,
and your speech shall whisper out of the dust. (Isaiah 29:4)
Thus, it would appear that when Spirtualism arose in the mid- to late nineteenth century, it copied exactly the methods employed by the Middle Eastern mediums almost three millennia before. The copying was almost certainly not intentional. As mentioned before, the church had always had difficulty understanding the events at Endor, and it was only with the advent of Spiritualism that they were able to see clearly what was involved. The modern mediums, working by trial and error, manage to develop the same system independently. I find that rather interesting. As Jean-Baptist Karr put it: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more it changes, the more it stays the same).