In spiritualism, the term Medium refers to a person with a psychic ability to produce phenomena of a mental or physical nature by "channeling" or communicating with a spiritual entity. Mediumship involves cooperative communication between a human and one or more discarnate, spirit personalities, often during a séance. Information may be attained, paranormal activities may occur, energies may be channeled, or the spirit may manifest itself materially. Mediumship can generally be separated into two forms: Physical mediumship and mental mediumship (sometimes called "telepathic mediumship"). Trance mediumship, one of the more well known types of mediumship, often falls into the physical mediumship category. As with most paranormal phenomena, mediumship has been the subject of extreme controversy. While many alleged mediums have been revealed as frauds, there is continued, and even increasing, interest in the phenomenon and those claiming the ability, reflecting the long-standing belief that the world consists of more than that which can be known through physical senses.
Human beings have attempted to contact spirits throughout most of history; shamans and witch doctors traditionally contacted spirits, and the oracles of ancient Greece were often consulted for advice; necromancy was also common. In eighteenth century Europe, Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg created controversy and accusations of heresy when he rejected orthodox theology in favor of his own visions. He believed that spirits could actively help people, and that mediumship proved the existence of life after death. Swedenborg was a respected inventor and scientist, but at the age of fifty six he entered into a spiritual phase in which he experienced dreams and visions. This culminated in a spiritual awakening, and he claimed that his eyes had been opened so that from then on, he could talk freely with angels, demons, and other spirits in the afterlife.
Mediumship, however, did not gain widespread popularity until the Spiritualist Movement in the mid-nineteenth century. The birth of modern Spiritualism is often traced back to the experiences of the Fox sisters in 1848, when the two young girls claimed to have made contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler in their New York State home. The Fox sisters would regularly hold séances, and the popularity of contacting the "other side" spread like wildfire throughout the United States and parts of Europe.
From the mid 1800s through the mid 1900s, mediums and séances were extremely popular with the public. Notable figures like Andrew Jackson Davis, Daniel Dunglas Home, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and Arthur Conan Doyle helped give spiritualism a sense of authenticity, and séances were even held in royal palaces, the White House, and the homes of highly respectable citizens. Mediums were nearly ubiquitous throughout the United States and portions of Europe.
As spiritualism grew in popularity, organizations were formed to investigate psychic phenomena like channeling. The Society for Psychical Research, for example, was founded in 1882, and attempts to investigate paranormal phenomena in a scientific and unbiased way. The Society has mainly investigated phenomena connected with telepathy and apparitions, in the hopes of finding scientific explanations for various spiritualistic occurrences.
In modern spiritualism, mediumship can be generally divided into two forms. Physical mediumship, where the medium is known as a "spirit communicator," generally involves the manipulation of energies and energy systems. Mental mediumship, where the medium is referred to as a "spirit operator," involves communication.
Mental mediumship is communication from a spirit that takes place within the medium's consciousness, without the use of any of the five physical senses. Because mental mediumship often occurs through telepathy, it is sometimes called "telepathic mediumship." The medium then relates what he/she sees, hears, or feels to the recipient, or sitter. The medium may use various states of trance to obtain this information.
Clairvoyance, or "clear seeing," is the ability to see anything which is not physically present, such as objects, animals, or people. This sight usually occurs "in the mind’s eye," and some mediums say that this is their normal vision state. Others say that they must train their minds with such practices as meditation in order to achieve this ability, and that assistance from spiritual helpers is often necessary. While some clairvoyant mediums say they can see a spirit as though the spirit had a physical body and were physically present, others say that spirits appears as a movie, television program, or photograph in their mind.
The term "clairvoyance," when used in a mediumistic sense, is often used to refer to seeing spirits and visions instilled by spirits, or, more colloquially, to refer to fortune telling. This definition is different from the official definition used by parapsychologists, which defines clairvoyance as "paranormal acquisition of information concerning an object or contemporary physical event" that derives "directly from an external physical source…, and not from the mind of another person."
Clairaudience, or "clear hearing," is referred to as the ability to hear spirit voices that are not audible to other people. In some cases, mediums say they hear the spirits' voices as though a person were sitting next to them. Others claim they hear spirit voices within their head/mind as more of a thought or a verbalization of a thought. In both cases, the voices are inaudible to others, even if they are seated in close proximity to the medium. The medium may also hear music or singing, in addition to spoken thought.
Clairsentience, or "clear feeling," is said to be the most commonly experienced form of mental mediumship. Clairsentience is the ability to sense physical attributes of a spirit presence. The medium may feel the presence of a spirit through a touch, a smell, temperature change, or a slight breeze. Some mediums say that they will feel the ailments the spirit had while alive.
While the previous three types of mental mediumship are the most common, many spiritualists break down types of mental mediumship even further, including categories such as "clairalience" ("clear smelling") and "clairgustance" ("clear tasting"). Smells and tastes of the deceased person's life or environment may be experienced through these types of mediumship. Mediums will sometimes examine a person's aura, a subtle field of luminous multicolored radiation surrounding a person or object as a cocoon or halo. By noting variations in the hues of a person’s aura, a medium can describe his personality, needs, and illnesses. For example, the "shriveling" of the aura is considered a sign of impending death.
Where mental mediumship generally involves communication experienced only by the medium, physical mediumship is evident to all those around the medium. Involving the manipulation of physical systems and energies, physical mediumship can include levitation, automatic writing, the moving of tables or other objects, as well as ectoplasmic activities. Physical mediumship was an important part of the Spiritualist Movement in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries, where table rapping, materializations, and object manipulation were common occurrences during séances. Mediums would often [channel] a spirit, allowing the spirit to control their physical body to communicate to the living, a process different than possession, where control by a spirit is involuntary and generally unwelcome.
There are various manifestations of physical mediumship. Some of the more common types are:
Raps, also known as "percussion," were one of the first and most common types of physical mediumship, starting with the Fox Sisters in 1848. Raps and knocks could be heard coming from anywhere in the room, and were used to answer "yes" or "no" questions, or to acknowledge letters of the alphabet and laboriously spell out messages.
Ectoplasm is a substance taken from the medium's body and mixed with an etheric substance, which enables a spirit to affect physical matter. Ectoplasm is often light sensitive, and many séances were held in low light or total darkness to better observe ectoplasmic manifestations.
Levitation, or the movement of objects without normal means of support, is said to occur due to either telekinesis or through the use of ectoplasm. While inanimate objects are the most common subjects of levitation, mediums have also been known to levitate. Daniel Dunglas Home, a Scottish medium, was famous during the 1800s for his feats of levitation. During one séance, Home appeared to leave through one third story window and levitate himself outside to enter through a second window.
Séances have often been accompanied by the materialization of spirit hands, faces, or entire bodies, particularly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of the most famous materializations was that of Katie King, a spirit manifested during the séances of a young English medium named Florence Cook. During Cook's sessions, Katie would materialize, hold conversations, and even allow herself to be photographed. While William Crookes was investigating Cook's phenomena, he was able to cut off a lock of Katie's hair.
When using automatic writing to communicate with spirits, the medium generally holds a pen or pencil and, through a lack of conscious control, allows the spirit to communicate through their hand. Ouija boards may also be used. There are a vast amount of writings that claim to be spirit-written, including plays, poetry, essays, novels, and music. While some, like a novel allegedly written by a posthumous Mark Twain, appear to have little validity, others have the potential to be genuine.
In more recent times, mediums like John Edward and Colin Fry have hosted television programs instead of more traditional séances, claiming to help audience members contact deceased friends and family. Others, like Allison DuBois, use their psychic abilities to aid law enforcement in the capture of criminals. Many more modern mediums, such as Esther Hicks and Jane Roberts, have written books describing the spiritualistic material they have received during their sessions.
While many scientists and skeptics simply deny the existence of genuine mediums, arguing that individuals who claim to possess this ability are either self-deluded or charlatans who engage in cold or hot reading. Using these techniques, purported mediums ask vague questions in an attempt to elicit information from an audience member. By saying something like, "I sense a chest problem. Was there someone with a chest problem in your life?" the "medium" stands a good chance of getting "yes" for an answer.
From the early days of the Spiritualism Movement, there have been individuals and groups of scientists interested in determining the validity of paranormal phenomenon like mediumship. Some, like William Crookes, who investigated Florence Cook and Daniel Dunglas Home, became convinced that such phenomenon were genuine. The famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini worked fervently to expose fraud in mediumship. Groups like the Veritas Research Program at the University of Arizona have studied mediumship in controlled laboratory conditions, and claim that research supports the authenticity of some mediums, as well as the existence of life after death. Others argue that Veritas' studies have provided no evidence of survival of consciousness or mediumistic abilities, claiming that research methods were crucially flawed and deviated from accepted norms of scientific methodology.
It is indisputable that mediumship has a long history of fraud, aided by the human desire to contact loved ones who have passed on. Some frauds, like that of Eusapia Palladino, an Italian medium studied in 1908, have even fooled seasoned psychic investigators familiar with fraudulent mediums' techniques. Despite numerous instances where Palladino was caught in fraud, investigator Hereward Carrington remained convinced that those performances that could not be proven fraudulent were still genuine.
Despite the fact that many mediums have been successfully proven to be frauds, one cannot argue that all mediumship is a hoax. Parapsychologist Ciarán O'Keeffe says that "no definitive evidence has been presented that proves with absolute certainty that we are facing genuine mediumship ability," but that "nobody can tell you [if mediums have genuine abilities] for sure, and that many who try to convince one of the existence or fraud of mediumship have a vested interest (often financial) in doing so."
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