Believing in Fiction

This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 8, which is now available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. The Darklore anthology series features the best writing and research on paranormal, Fortean and hidden history topics, by the most respected names in the field: Robert Schoch, Nick Redfern, Loren Coleman, Robert Bauval and Daniel Pinchbeck, to name just a few. Darklore's aim is to support quality researchers, so it makes sense to support Darklore. For more information on the series (including more free sample articles), visit the Darklore website.

Stained Glass Yoda, by Chris Butler

Believing in Fiction

The Rise of Hyper-Real Religion by Ian ‘Cat’ Vincent

 


"What is real? How do you define real?" – Morpheus, in The Matrix

"Television is reality, and reality is less than television." - Dr. Brian O’Blivion, in Videodrome

Ever since the advent of modern mass communication and the resulting wide dissemination of popular culture, the nature and practice of religious belief has undergone a considerable shift. Especially over the last fifty years, there has been an increasing tendency for pop culture to directly figure into the manifestation of belief: the older religious faiths have either had to partly embrace, or strenuously oppose, the deepening influence of books, comics, cinema, television and pop music. And, beyond this, new religious beliefs have arisen that happily partake of these media – even to the point of entire belief systems arising that make no claim to any historical origin.

There are new gods in the world – and and they are being born from pure fiction.

This is something that – as a lifelong fanboy of the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres and an exponent of a often pop-culturederived occultism for nearly as long – is no shock to me. What did surprise me, however, was discovering that there is a growing area of sociological study of these beliefs... an academic realm which not only seeks to understand these developments, but also provides a useful perspective on modern belief for both the Fortean and the occult practitioner.

I first learned about this area of study from a 2007 interview on the excellent religion and pop culture focussed website Theofantastique with the Australian sociologist Dr. Adam Possamai,1 in which he talks about his research into what he has termed ‘hyper-real religion’.2 Fascinated, I acquired his introductory text to the concept, Religion And Popular Culture: A Hyper-Real Testament3 and, later, the mammoth 2012 collection of research and essays on the subject which he edited, Handbook of Hyper-Real Religions.4 The term ‘hyper-real’ itself draws on the work of ... Read More »

Plague Sunday at Eyam - the Black Death village

The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics to have occurred in human history, killing as much as 60% of Europe's total population. The bacterium yersinia pestis is now known to have been the cause of the pandemic. The mechanism by which Y. pestis was usually transmitted was established in 1898 by Paul-Louis Simond and was found to involve the bites of fleas whose mid-guts had become obstructed by replicating Y. pestis several days after feeding on an infected host. This blockage results in starvation and aggressive feeding behaviour by the fleas, which repeatedly attempt to clear their blockage by regurgitation, resulting in thousands of plague bacteria being flushed into the feeding site, infecting the host. [1] The initial outbreak took place 1346-53 but plague broke out again and again in smaller pockets for centuries afterwards.

In England the last widespread outbreak was the Great Plague of London of 1664-66. Although the outbreak is now thought to have been on the wane by the end of the summer of 1666 there are still many who would argue that the Great Fire of London (September 2nd to September 5th) did much to halt the spread of disease and cleanse the capital of infection.

Today, the 31st of August, a ceremony is held annually in the quiet and picturesque village of Eyam, in Derbyshire in the East Midlands of England. Eyam's Plague Sunday service has been held for more than three-hundred years now and commemorates the settlement's own devastating, heartbreaking, yet self-sacrificing brush with the Black Death.

Rector William Mompesson

In late August 1665 the tailor of Eyam, George Viccars, received an eagerly awaited package from London. Some accounts say that it contained a normal bail of cloth, others go further and claim that the fabric had been specifically ordered for a bridal gown. Within six days of laying the cloth out in his shop the tailor was dead. The fabric had brought the plague with it from London. By the end of September six others - all Viccars' neighbours - had also died. Not knowing or understanding about the outbreak in London, the villagers began to worry that some kind of curse was being visited upon them - the howling of spectral Gabriel Hounds, the appearance of white crickets, and cows straying into the church all being cited as ill omens. By the end of April 1666 seventy-three villagers had died and many were gathering their belongings in preparation for flight.

In May the young rector of Eyam, William Mompesson, called a village meeting. Although the exact nature of the disease was not known, Mompesson and others understood enough to recognise that it was passed from person to person. He told his parishioners that theirs was the only village in the whole of the county in the grip of the Black Death and that if they were to flee they would only spread the disease and cause others to die. That day the people of Eyam agreed to enter into what we would now call quarantine - a voluntary isolation from all others - until all sign of the plague was gone from the village.

Arrangements were made for supplies to be delivered. The Earl of Devonshire's men would take food to the village's southern boundary stone, to be collected as soon as they were at a safe distance. Other provisions were left at Wet Withens stone circle on Eyam Moor, and at a Holy Well - now known as Mompession's Well - at which coins were left in payment in the belief that the water would cleanse them of contamination. Holes were drilled in a stone, named the Coolstone - still extant - into which vinegar was poured and other coins were left in the belief that the vinegar would sterilise them. In order that Sunday service continue without the parishioners getting too close to each other, Mompesson chose the grassy slopes of a natural amphitheatre - nearby Cucklett Delph - or an outdoor venue for his sermons.

The Eyam Plague lasted fourteen months and claimed two-hundred and sixty lives - the rector's wife Catherine Mompesson among them - but not one person outside of the village contracted the disease. [2]

Today in Eyam a procession will troop through the village - many dressed in 17th century costume - singing Onward Christian Soldiers. They will make their way along an ancient track to Cucklett Heath and seat themselves there upon the grass where hymns will be sung and a sermon given, just as it was in the plague years. [3] [4] Mompesson's Well will be dressed, and flowers left on the grave of Catherine.

[1] G. Christakos, Interdisciplinary Public Health Reasoning and Epidemic Modelling: the Case of Black Death (シュプリンガー・ジャパン株式会社, 2005), pp. 110–14.

[2] Marc Alexander, The Companion to Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain (Sutton Publishing, 2002) pp. 87-89

[3] http://www.eyam-church.org/Eyam_Plague.html

[4] http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/eyam-plague-service/

A Reality Beyond Death?

The Matrix - Take the Red Pill

Excerpted from Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife, available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

For more fascinating stories like this one, like The Daily Grail's Facebook page, follow us on Twitter, and/or put us in your Google+ circles.

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We often think of our identity in terms of our physical body, but is it just something that we – as only a consciousness – simply use as a vehicle? This is an interesting idea, and has been with us throughout human history, largely built into the religious beliefs of cultures around the world. But we should be careful of falling into the trap of thinking about an afterlife existence based simply on the religious or cultural models we have been brought up with. Most people who were exposed to some sort of religion in their upbringing are imprinted with the fairly simplistic idea that surviving death means a transparent, ethereal version of you floats ‘up’ to a heaven of fluffy clouds, and lives there for eternity in happiness. Who knows, perhaps elements of this are correct – some of near-death experiences and other visions of an afterlife actually do correlate in some respects with these ideas. But perhaps also these experiences are filtered through an overlay of our own expectations and cultural beliefs, and the ‘true’ experience could be fundamentally different. It’s fun to consider some of these possibilities.

The way our view of an external realm ‘beyond reality’ can change is illustrated well by the science fiction blockbuster The Matrix, with Neo taking the red pill and ‘waking up’ into the ‘real’ world, despite having thought until that point that the computer-generated Matrix was the real world. Before the age of computers the idea that we might be inside some sort of virtual reality, with the ‘real us’ residing in another realm, was barely known. Certainly, versions of this idea existed before the computer age, notably in discussions of the strange world of dreams. For example, the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once remarked on the difficulty of distinguishing where ‘reality’ lies with the following words: “Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man”.

The influential 17th century philosopher René Descartes also wondered how we could actually know what reality is, given that our senses can be so unreliable, and yet it is only through these senses (and then subsequent interpretation by the brain) that we comprehend the world ‘out there’. Descartes deduced that all we can be sure of about ‘reality’ is just one thing – that if we think, then we must in some way exist, at the very least as just a mind. He summarized this view with his well-known maxim ‘cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’). Beyond that, for all we know, we could just be a ‘brain in a vat’ – a piece of meat hooked up to sensors that trick our mind into thinking it is undergoing experiences in a virtual world. The Matrix took all these older ideas and made them new again by making them the centerpiece of a movie about a false reality (spoiler warning for the young kids out there):

The fact that all of our sensorial experience of ‘reality’ must necessarily be filtered subjectively through the brain – and thus isn’t ‘reality’ at all (for example, we apprehend the world very differently to an infrared-sensing rattlesnake) – was enunciated in Hindu culture via the term maya (illusion): the idea that we can never identify or comprehend the actual truth or reality of the world, only (at best) a fragment of it.

But in the 21st century, the ‘simulation argument’ – the suggestion that all of what we think of as ‘reality’ is actually a simulation, and that until now we have been unaware of the fact – has gone mainstream. Not only through the popularity of The Matrix, but through first-hand experience: many computer gamers now spend several hours a day immersed in the virtual worlds of first-person shooters. As an example of how things are progressing in the world of virtual reality immersion, see this recent demonstration: ... Read More »

Mysterious Forces: Exploring the Poltergeist Phenomenon

Poltergeist

Christopher Laursen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia whose dissertation focuses on poltergeist phenomena. I first met him at the Parapsychological Association’s 2012 conference, and have been glad that his web magazine, the Extraordinarium, has allowed me to continue following developments in his research over the past few years. His PhD dissertation, titled Mischievous Forces, looks at the shifting perspectives on poltergeist phenomena in the 20th century, focusing on changing research paradigms in the United States and UK during this period. It’s with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to interview him via email regarding his work and recent developments in his studies, including an online survey of people who have experienced purported poltergeist phenomena (Click Here to take the survey).

DM: What is a poltergeist? How accurate is what we see in the popular media?

CL: Poltergeist refers to a strange phenomenon in which there are unusual noises, such as knocking or scratching sounds, and movements of objects, as if they were displaced or thrown by an invisible being. There can be spontaneous fires and appearances of liquids or objects among other things. These manifestations happen repeatedly, but they tend to be time-limited. They start happening out of the blue, and then just as mysteriously, they tend to disappear a month or two later. Sometimes the anomalous phenomenon lasts just a few days, and I’ve also seen reports in which manifestations stretch across years. It is something that has been recorded as early as the fourth century, and it is likely to have been experienced even earlier in history. Furthermore, the phenomenon has occurred all around the world, albeit under different names and interpretations that are culturally specific.

The historical reports I have read certainly have had their share of strange moments, but most of them are a catalogue of relatively mundane anomalous events. The tea cup slides three inches across the countertop. A bar of soap bends around a corner to fly from the kitchen shelf into the living room. A woman enters her bedroom to find the curtains aflame. Three knocks are heard from the ceiling at 11:40 p.m., but no one is upstairs. There isn’t anywhere near the level of paranormal fury that has been depicted in most TV shows and movies.

This isn’t to say that anomalous events do not bring tension to those who experience them; emotions and anxieties are heightened in many cases since no one really knows what’s going on or what’s going to happen next. In other cases, people are

Our Alien DNA

DNA Coding

In 1960, a young astronomer by the name of Frank Drake pointed the Green Bank radio telescope at the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani…and listened for the sounds of an alien civilization. Drake's little experiment marks the official beginning of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Since that time, SETI has continued to scan greater parts of the sky, listening over wider and wider bands of the radio spectrum, but the silence has been deafening. While many have taken this as a likely sign that the cosmos is largely empty, it may be more likely that SETI's search has been far too restricted in its scope, relying on just one particular 20th century technology that is already fading in use. As the psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna once dryly noted, "To search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant".

To broaden the search, other technologies of transmission have been suggested, such as lasers. But even those ideas seem limited to our cultural ideas of an 'advanced', artificial technology - but which seem likely to be considered as quaint just a century or two into our future. What if, however, aliens had already left a message for us, 'hidden in plain sight', since the dawn of history? What if we only had to look within ourselves?

A paper published last year in Icarus, the prestigious journal of planetary science, asked if it was possible that terrestrial life on Earth had been 'seeded' from beyond the Earth - and if so, does the building block of that life, DNA, contain any sort of message from our alien creators. Using mathematics, the authors of the paper - "The "Wow! signal" of the terrestrial genetic code" - looked for evidence of a statistically strong 'informational' signal in the genetic code, with surprising results:

Here we show that the terrestrial code displays a thorough precision-type orderliness matching the criteria to be considered an informational signal. Simple arrangements of the code reveal an ensemble of arithmetical and ideographical patterns of the same symbolic language. Accurate and systematic, these underlying patterns appear as a product of precision logic and nontrivial computing rather than of stochastic processes (the null hypothesis that they are due to chance coupled with presumable evolutionary pathways is rejected with P-value < 10–13).

The signal displays readily recognizable hallmarks of artificiality.

(For counter-comments against the claims of the paper, see this Pharyngula blog post).

Interestingly, this was not the first time that Icarus had featured a paper entertaining the idea of 'biological SETI'. In 1979 the journal - under editor Carl Sagan - published a paper titled "Is bacteriophage φX174 DNA a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence?", written by Japanese biochemists Hiromitsu Yokoo and Tairo Oshima. Given how crazy the idea sounded, Sagan asked a young protégé, David Grinspoon (now a prominent astrobiologist in his own right), to check out the paper to assess whether it was legitimate. Here's how Grinspoon describes the paper in

Consecration of the Host - You Are Legion, For You Are Many

The Numbskulls by Jamie Smart

 

Back in March Science Writer and blogger Ed Yong gave a TED talk on the subject of parasites and the fascinating ways in which they can sometimes "subvert and override the wills of their hosts" (a full video of the talk posted here on DG). In his talk Yong spoke about how rodents infected with the brain parasite toxoplasma gondii effectively become “cat-seeking missiles”; seeking out felines and getting themselves eaten just so that toxo can then develop and reproduce inside the cat. As much as one third of the global human population may be infected with toxo. Although mild flu-like symptoms occasionally occur during the first few weeks following exposure, toxo generally produces no symptoms in healthy human adults (toxoplasmosis can be fatal to infants and those with weakened immune systems, however). Opinions are currently divided among researchers as to what, if any, influence toxo has on the behaviour of infected humans (although links to schizophrenia are amongst the effects which have been hypothesised [1]). But, says, Yong in his TED talk, even if it isn’t from toxo,Given the widespread nature of such manipulations [of hosts by parasites], it would be completely implausible if humans were the only creature not under the same thrall.”

While the idea of mind control via a parasite may seem like science fiction, there is an example we're all already familiar with: rabies. The rabies virus induces aggressive, violent behaviour in the infected, increasing the chances of the host biting other animals. The rabies virus is transmitted via the saliva of the infected into a new host. It's a somewhat crude (and oversimplified) example but its one that is pretty much universally accepted and understood.

Not all parasites make themselves so conspicuous however, in fact it may come as a surprise to you that there may be as many as ten times more bacterial cells in your body than there are human cells [2]. 90 trillion or so microbes are your constant passengers; you are a walking ecosystem [3]. The human microbiome (to give it its proper scientific name) is the aggregate of micro-organisms that reside on and inside us; from between our toes, to the tips of our eyelashes, to our gastrointestinal tracts. Some of these organisms perform tasks which are known to be beneficial to us, the host, but the majority have thus far been too poorly researched for us to understand what, if any, role they play in shaping our lives [4]. That however is changing, especially when it comes to the gut–brain axis.

The gut–brain axis refers to the biochemical signalling taking place between the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system, involving intestinal microbiota (gut bacteria) which have been shown to play an important role in brain function. Changes in gut bacteria are now being investigated as possible contributors to, or triggers for the worsening of, autism [5]. A 2013 study carried out by the University of California found that subjects who regularly ingested beneficial "probiotic" bacteria showed altered brain function [6]. Earlier this year researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, Tucson published that they had found that people living in cold, northern latitudes have bacteria in their guts that may predispose them to obesity [7]. How we process information, how we interact with others and the world around us, even our outward appearance, may all be controlled to some degree by our microbiome. Gut bacteria has even been proven to alter sexual preference (although only in fruit flies thus far) [8]. How much of what we think of as "us", might actually be "them"?

Servants of the Pierced Hearts stand by as people venerate the relic of Pope Joh

At the beginning of July 2014 a paper entitled Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis: is there a microbial component to religious rituals? was posted on the open access, peer-reviewed online journal Biology Direct (full text here). The paper puts forward the following hypothesis:

Some microorganisms would gain an evolutionary advantage by encouraging human hosts to perform certain rituals that facilitate microbial transmission. We hypothesize that certain aspects of religious behaviour observed in human society could be influenced by microbial host control and that the transmission of some religious rituals could be regarded as a simultaneous transmission of both ideas (memes) and organisms. We call this a “biomeme” hypothesis

Practices such as the touching and kissing of holy relics, drinking from or bathing in sacred waters, and ritual flagellation or piercing of the body are postulated as a possible means of transmission of specific parasites. The practice of fasting, "known to reduce total gut bacteria and affect the gut microbiome composition", could have a part to play in a parasite's life cycle, or else its effect upon the host. The veneration, or eschewing, of certain domestic animals could be a means of controlling which parasites the host is exposed to. Even celibacy in holy men and women could be linked to parasitic passengers; "it has been noted that many parasites eliminate their hosts reproductive potential as they channel all available resources to maximize their own reproductive success."

The hypothesis is completely unproven. It is mere leap of logic or flight of fantasy, depending on your own perception. Responding to one of their learned reviewers (all of whom seem entertained by the hypothesis but highly sceptical), the paper's authors state "We also agree with Dr. Koonin that our hypothesis is outrageous and may be incorrect, however we believe that it’s still an interesting one and worth considering. [...] What makes our hypothesis perceived as more outrageous [than others] is that religion is indeed a taboo subject in human society."

This response seems to suggest that the idea of parasitic control being a factor in some acts of religious behaviour would be inherently anti-religious; that it would somehow undermine the previously perceived purpose of those acts. But, why should that be the case? If proven to be true, would it not demonstrate that ritualistic religious behaviour had a provable, physical root? If the feelings of community, of belonging, and so on that people get from religious participation were proven to be caused by parasites controlling their hosts (just as the tapeworm Flamingolepis liguloides turns brine shrimp from solitary into social creatures [9]) would that not make them all the more real? No longer mere traditions, superstitions, or "brainwashing" as some would have it, these acts would have a concrete demonstrable cause and purpose. Some would argue it could be the death of religion, others would call it proof of a creator.

John Reinhard Weguelin – The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat (1886)

If we, the host, could in fact be the product of our passengers - those whose cells outnumber our own by ten to one - in so many ways, who is to say which of the behaviours and effects caused by "them" are the real "us"? If ritualistic religious behaviour could be eradicated, say via antibiotics just as an example, then what else would we choose to change? What if non-religious ritualistic behaviour was proven to have a similar root? Would we choose to eradicate peoples' desire to attend football matches? Muddy music festivals? Do we pick and choose which are positive and negative traits? Intelligence, body type, mental health... Do we legislate? Do we immunise? What does a homosapien look and like at the end of all that? What are we without our 90 trillion strong microbiome? Is it still what you and I think of today as human?

I fully acknowledge that is all ridiculous and outlandish speculation on my part, of course; a writer's imagination going into overdrive, but that's because parasitic control is an incredibly inspiring topic. Indeed, in his TED talk, Ed Yong said "I'm a writer and fellow writers in the audience will know that we love stories. Parasites allow us to resist the allure of obvious stories; their world is one of plot twists and unexpected explanations."

Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis... is itself, in effect, a work of speculative fiction; building upon existing research and ideas with a series of "what if"s. One of my favourite passages in the paper reads as follows:

It seems that something like Toxoplasma gondii would be a good preliminary candidate for the role of our hypothetical microbe that promotes religious behavior as it is prevalent and widespread (as religious practices are) and its infection is associated with some behavioral traits and it is capable of latently residing in the human brain. Coincidentally, the sacred status of cats, definitive hosts of Toxoplasma gondii was part of the ancient Egyptian religious tradition for centuries. To our knowledge, no research on the association between toxoplasmosis or similar infections and religiosity has been performed, thus such an association could have been overlooked

The entire great civilisation of Ancient Egypt motivated by cat parasites. That couldn't be true, surely? You just keep telling yourself that when you're checking your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram today and seeing images of cat after cat after cat.

Putting this piece together I was curious as to whether Ed Yong would have read (or even heard about) Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis... so I dropped him an email asking if he'd like to comment upon the hypothesis. He very kindly sent me this response:

It is clear that parasites and microbes can manipulate animal behaviour but it is very hard to confirm such manipulations, even in species that can be experimented upon. Hypotheses like this will remain cute just-so stories until they can actually be verified

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3515034/

[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange-but-true-humans-carry-more-bacterial-cells-than-human-ones/

[3] http://discovermagazine.com/2007/jun/your-body-is-a-planet

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_microbiome

[5] http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/treatment/treatment-associated-medical-conditions/gi-disorders

[6] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130528180900.htm

[7] http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/02/14/geographic-variation-of-human-...

[8] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/11/01/gut-bacteria-change-the-sexual-preferences-of-fruit-flies/

[9] http://dailyparasite.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/flamingolepis-liguloides.html

A Gnostic Vision of the Conquest: A Review of Graham Hancock's War God

[Before you read this book review, know that I not only intend to offer my opinion on the novel, but also explore the historical events of the Mexican Conquest in some depth. If you are a complete neophyte in the topic & want to enjoy Graham's War God without 'spoilers', then I suggest you close this link & open the Amazon page to order it instead, since my ultra-ultra short review is "I liked it, get the book" anyway --same goes for anyone daunted by the prospect of reading a 3000+-word-long essay, which will only reinforce your decision to buy War God. For the undecided (and the masochists) please enjoy]

Broken spears lie in the roads;
We have torn our hair in our grief
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
Are red with blood.

Worms are swarming in the streets and plazas,
And the walls are spattered with gore
The water has turned red, as if it were dyed
And when we drink it,
It has the taste of brine

We have pounded our hands in despair
Against the adobe walls,
For our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead
The shields of our warriors were its defense.
But they could not save it.

We have chewed dry twigs and salt grasses:
We have filled our mouths with dust and bits of adobe.
We have eaten lizards, rats and worms
When we had meat, we ate it almost raw.
[...]
Weep my people
Know that with these disasters
We have lost the Mexican nation
The water has turned bitter
Our food is bitter
These are the acts of the Giver of Life.

~From the book The Broken Spears, chapter XV

As a literary fan, I honestly don't know which would be harder: To write a completely fictional story, or a fictionalized account of a true historical event. The open-ended freedom of pure fiction could turn into a double-edged sword in the hands of an inexperienced writer; whereas with fictionalized events, you wouldn't be allowed to surprise the reader by deviating too much from what was actually recorded in the History books – unless you're Quentin Tarantino, that is.

Which is why I was very interested in reading Graham Hancock's War God, his second published work of fiction & a novelized exploration of an event I probably know better than most: The Spanish Conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. ... Read More »

The Last Alchemist

Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin in his lab

"Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change", said the fictional chemist Walter White on the hit television show Breaking Bad. "Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that's all of life, right? It's the constant, it's the cycle. It's solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation". Walter White's words paint him as much a latter-day alchemist, ruminating on the mysteries of life and metamorphosis, than as the criminal crystal meth technician that he was.

His words also serve as a succinct description of the questions that drove real-life drug chemist, Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin, who entered the state of physical dissolution at around 5pm on June 2nd, 2014, just a couple of weeks short of his 89th birthday. Shulgin too was fascinated by the study of change - in his case, how the mind and consciousness could be modified so profoundly through interactions with the most nuanced changes to molecules. "I was always interested in how, if you move one carbon atom, for example, on amphetamine, you can change it from being a strong stimulant to a psychedelic," he once told a reporter. "How is it that the difference of one atom produces such a dramatically different result in the human? The answer is, nobody knows."

Shulgin though, was no Walter White. His concern was not with power or making money (so much so that wife Ann once quipped that a little money would have been nice), and for the most part his experiments synthesizing new drugs were done on the right side of the law (he held a Schedule 1 license until 1994). It was always that question, about the change in consciousness produced by chemical modifications, that drove him throughout his life. And as such, the test subject for the synthesized psychedelics that he invented was always, primarily, himself (as well as another willing subject, wife Ann). Their seminal books TiHKAL and PiHKAL ('Tryptamines/Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved') provide a permanent record of their bio-assay experiments; a typical entry, such as that for the tryptamine DIPT, includes the chemical procedure to synthesize the drug, followed by comments on the qualitative aspects and duration of the experience (18mg: "Wild effects noted in an hour. Remarkable changes in sounds heard"; 250mg: "Shortly after I ingested the substance I heard a spirit say, 'Once in a lifetime.' She encouraged me to believe that I would have more life after the experience. But, there was a feeling of foreboding"). Each entry finished with a personal commentary, which might touch on anything from chemistry notes to possible applications of the drug. Not all experiences were interesting or enjoyable though, as one might expect when experimenting with the effects of newly designed chemicals – the Shulgins suffered, on various occasions, nausea, periods of unconsciousness, and terrifying psychological symptoms.

This combination of precise chemistry skills with the drive to self-experimentation and self-exploration evokes the label of 'alchemist' all too easily. And Sasha Shulgin's physical appearance ... Read More »

A Very English Apocalypse: Current 93 at Halifax Minster

(photo by Tim Green)

The Minster Church of St. John the Baptist Halifax is a beautiful parish church, which has served West Yorkshire for over 900 years. Its classical Medieval form, gargoyles and exquisite stained glass windows are both typical of the great churches of England and carry with them the weight of England’s tumultuous ecclesiastical history. As befitting such a building, it has a very fine roof.

On 10 May 2014ce, Current 93 came in and blew the roof off of the place.

(photo by Cat Vincent)

Current 93 - named for Aleister Crowley's magickal current - have been a powerful, if sometimes overlooked, influence on industrial and dark ambient music and British magic and mysticism since their founding in 1982. Essentially a series of collaborations between founder and sole continuing member David Michael Tibet and a continually shifting collection of musicians (including the likes of Nick Cave, Björk, Steve Ignorant of Crass, Marc Almond, Antony Hegarty, Andrew W.K. and Tiny Tim), their sound has shifted from their original tape-loop-based work of their early productions to a style which Tibet has called ‘apocalyptic folk’ - and the Apocalypse, especially in the original Greek sense of ‘an unveiling’, is something Tibet is particularly interested in.

Despite the enduring Englishness of Current 93’s symbolism (Enid Blyton's childhood character Noddy, picnics, fields of oil seed rape, British folk music and practices), Tibet was actually born and raised in Malaysia. Interested in the mystical from his youth, he has pursued these interests enthusiastically - his studies include reading Crowley at 13, training in Nyingmapa Tantric Buddhism (probably the reason he was given his surname of Tibet by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge during his brief stint in Psychic TV) and learning to read Hebrew, Akkadian, Ancient Greek and Coptic in order to better study early Christian works. Tibet considers himself a Christian, albeit one happy to work with these eclectic influences... and also to be the creator of what I truly think is one of the finest curses I have ever encountered: the track ‘Benediction’ from the first C93 album I ever heard, the long-time banned Swastikas For Noddy.

 

What drove me on then as now was my sense that time was running out, that the apocalypse was also personal and that playing hide and seek behind all the cartoon messiahs was the Messiah with both peace and a sword.

-David Tibet

The Halifax concert was unquestionably a powerful manifestation of this compassionate-yet-cataclysmic apocalyptic spirit. It began with bells...

Before the band came out a carillon of bells played on the speakers, resonating in the Minster’s glorious acoustic space, as the aisles filled with an eclectic mix of music fans, pagans and goths (including one fine lady in full Edwardian costume). Finally, the band took their places and Tibet - a puckish, tiny figure in trilby and bare feet - sang out the first lines in his distinctive, querulous voice;

“The Invisible Church...”

(photo by Cat Vincent)

Never a band to excessively dwell on their musical past, the majority of the gig comprised a performance of the latest album I Am the Last of All the Field That Fell (A Channel) - the music mostly led by the playing of pianist Reinier van Houdt, a performer who never forgot that the piano is a percussion instrument. There’s a resonance to those songs and Tibet’s voice, even beyond that provided by the setting - a sense of what the Sufis call a zab’bat, a ‘forceful occasion’. Tibet is far from what one would consider a normal front man in the classic rock sense - often he wandered into the aisle of the church to just stand and watch the band as they played, sometimes singing from there (especially in the sorrowful ‘With These Dromedaries’, with its heart-wrenching line "I saw Jhonn pass by" - referring to his late friend and abiding influence Jhonn Balance of Coil). The gig ended with two rousing encores of past works - ‘Imperium V’ and ‘Black Ships Ate The Sky’. By the time the last notes echoed in those old church walls, the audience, the band, Tibet - even that ancient space itself - seemed transformed, carried into a future of possible apocalyptic times, somehow, the better and stronger for it.

I'm not an evangelist… Current is about trying to explain myself to myself and to work out my own salvation.

-David Tibet

The album I Am the Last of All the Field That Fell (A Channel) and other Current 93 works are available from copticcat.com


Post Script: Synchronicity fans might care to note the gig took place on John Constantine's birthday.

Can Science See Spirits?

Medium in Trance in Singapore. Photo by Fabian Graham

Spirit Mediumship: A Complex Phenomenon

I. Neuroimaging Studies

by Jack Hunter

Spirit mediumship is a complex, near universal phenomenon (see Talking With the Spirits: Ethnographies from Between the Worlds for a cross-cultural snapshot of just a few of the world’s mediumship traditions), which, despite over 130 years of investigation from psychical research and the social sciences more generally, continues to evade scholarly attempts to pin it down and neatly explain it. Countless attempts have been made, however, from the debunkers who suggest that all mediumship is a mixture of fraud and delusion, to the social anthropologists who argue that spirit mediumship is a purely social phenomenon, performing specific social functions, and certain parapsychologists who suggest that spirit mediumship offers proof of survival after death. And yet, none of the theories that have been put forward quite seem able to offer a fully satisfying explanation for what is going on.

In this series of short articles I would like to highlight some of the reasons why spirit mediumship is such a difficult phenomenon to get a grip on through outlining some of the research that has been conducted, and pointing out gaps in our understanding of the underlying processes. This first article will present an overview of the, really rather sparse, neuroimaging data on spirit mediumship, and will briefly discuss what it does and doesn’t tell us about the phenomenon.

Background

It was long suspected that mediums might exhibit unusual neurological activity, and yet despite countless studies of the neurophysiological correlates of other forms of altered consciousness, such as meditation, very few neurophysiological studies of spirit mediumship have actually been conducted. Altered States researchers Edward F. Kelly and Rafael Locke have suggested that despite the potentially fruitful use of EEG and other physiological monitoring devices for classifying and differentiating specific altered states of consciousness and their physiological correlates, there are unfortunate technical and social difficulties associated with attempting such studies in the field. Technological difficulties include the problems associated with trying to monitor and record brain activity naturalistically in the field setting using cumbersome equipment, while social difficulties include getting spirit mediums, and other practitioners, to agree to participate in such studies. Fortunately, since Kelly & Locke first published their research prospectus in 1981, technological advances have made it possible to measure EEG in the field (see Oohashi et al. below), but other forms of neuroimaging still rely on heavy-duty equipment which is impractical for field studies. Despite these difficulties, however, a small number of studies have been successfully carried out specifically looking at the neurophysiological correlates of mediumistic states of consciousness.

Neurophysiological Speculations

Even before the advent of neuroimaging studies of mediums, American psychologist Julian Jaynes, drawing on his theory of