Numerous accounts throughout history describe the encounter with an unusual light as an encounter with a being, a personified light. The light often seems to be as alive as a living being, only more superior to an ordinary human. We have to distinguish between a wide range of shapes as well as of situations in which the light is perceived.
Relatively common, compared with other types of light-experiences, are near-death experiences (NDEs). The oldest reported NDE is probably the experience of the soldier Er, described by Plato in his Politeia (X: 614–16). The soldier sees a very bright light, a column shimmering in all the colours of a rainbow, and feels he is travelling into a wonderful area. This column of light, called by Plato the “spindle of necessity”, draws all souls into reincarnation. Independent of any interpretation the experienced light shines with a new, very special, quality – quite different from both sunshine and artificial light. The different types of light are expressed in the Latin words for light, lux and lumen, the first meaning the effect of light and the second, the cause of the light, the shining object.
This other light is said to be different from physical light in that it shines more strongly than sunlight. A Salteaux-Indian in Canada describes the light in the other world thus: “The daylight would not be as bright as in the country to which I travelled” (Hallowell, 1940: 30–31). Some people see – by way of a golden gate – an entrance to a beautiful garden: “There were very high ornamental golden gates”, as Mrs G.U. Dunn, who had had an NDE at the age of seven, put it (Fenwick & Fenwick, 1996: 255). White, golden, and silver are the most common colours of the true light. This light has been seen in landscapes as well as in people: “… I rose out of my body like a white cloud the same shape as my body, but without weight”, in the words of another percipient (Green, 1968: 32). “I was fully clothed but did not cast a shadow”, writes Dennis Stone, who had his experience at the age of 13 in 1938, during an attack of meningitis (Fenwick & Fenwick, 1996: 252).
An historical example of an apparition surrounded by light was published in the book Theorie der Geisterkunde (1808, Theory of Ghosts and Spirits) by the German physician and ophthalmologist Heinrich Jung-Stilling: a schoolmaster was taking care of a pupil, who had contracted tuberculosis. He asked the dying pupil to appear to him after his death and to tell him about the resurrection which they had been discussing. About three weeks after the pupil’s death, at ten o’clock in the evening the master had gone to bed, and was still sitting up when he suddenly became aware of a bluish light shining on the wall opposite his bed. Slowly the light turned into a shape, a person he recognised as his deceased pupil (Jung-Stilling, 1808: 267–69; for the full report see Puhle, Vol. 4, 2013: x:7).
Lights around the dying sometimes seem to emanate from their body. One example is that of the dying mother who appears as an entity rushing, “at the speed of light”, to her daughter at the time of her death (Fenwick & Fenwick, 2008: 103–104).
There are also cases of encounters with deceased persons in the presence of an unusual light. Beloved ones, who have passed on, occasionally appear in a light, soon or a long time after their death. This is sometimes reported by individuals unaware of the other person’s death. An example is the 12-year-old girl who tells her father about her wonderful experience when she ‘died’, so wonderful that she did not wish to return. She talks about grandiose beauty and fantastic light and love. She also says that her brother was with her and took her in his arms and hugged her, but this puzzled her as she didn’t have a brother. Now the father feels unable to resist revealing the family secret to her: she did indeed once have a brother – he died three months before she was born (Kübler-Ross, 1989; full report also in Puhle, Vol. 4, 2013: ix:7).
It has often been claimed, albeit without scientific evidence, that living persons radiate a certain light, a colour, or several colours around the head and/or the body, known as an aura. This phenomenon is well known with holy people, and it is regarded by the Catholic Church as an important criterion for the holiness of an individual – hence their term ‘halo’, from the Latin ‘halos’ (Greek ‘halōs’): “disc of the sun or moon” (OED). However, it can also occur in ordinary life, as the case of Helen Nelson shows us. After her NDE she no longer saw the sun as simply shining. Her perception was raised to such a height that for her the sun was now burning. And family members as well as outsiders noticed that something had also changed in her face, that her eyes sparkled and radiated a special shine. A stranger stopped her on the street and asked who she might be, because she had such a strong light around her head (Vital Signs, September 1981: 6 and 14).
In autumn 2009, I was witness to a distinctive change in the intensity of the eye colour of a dying person well known to me: after a massive heart attack and a successful operation, her eyes radiated an intense blue, which I had not seen in anybody’s eyes before. What nobody knew then was the fact that she had also developed kidney cancer and would not recover from it.
As previously mentioned, Fritz Albert Popp’s discovery of a weak-light radiation emanating from living as well as from dying cells gives some credence to the notion of the ‘light of the soul’, although the biophotons measured by Popp are so weak the human eye could never perceive them. It can nevertheless be speculated that it is this physical phenomenon which we somehow sense intuitively or via what we call psi.
A rough overview of the many types of light witnessed is now appropriate. We can distinguish 21 light forms:
• a bright, unexplained (‘supernatural’) light, not seen by a second person nearby
• light balls
• light beams
• illumination of places
• light forms
• a bright, unexplained light, which changes into an apparition of a person, human or other
• a light around a living person (aura, halo, gloriole)
• a light around, or radiating from, a dying person
• a light around, or near, an apparition (illumination of the environment)
• an illuminated apparition
• an apparition in heightened colours
• a light around, or near, a dying person or during an NDE
• a light around, or near, a deceased person
• a light recognized as a deceased person
• a light changing into something bigger, or into a person or figure
• a light figure recognized as, or associated with, a deceased person
• one’s own body as a bright, transparent new body – as perceived from inside the new body
• one’s own body as a bright, transparent new body – as perceived from outside the new body
• an angel
• a religious figure (Jesus, Buddha)
• a light figure – understood as something other than a human or religious figure.
Experiences with unusual light confront us with the old pantheistic idea that spirits live everywhere, in everything and in every being in the world. In the past, according to magical thinking, ‘things’ were not dead, but alive and even able to act. The whole world was believed to have been filled with life-spirits. Humans, besides the physical body, possessed another mostly invisible body of a spiritual nature.
This holistic magical worldview has today been replaced by a reductionist point of view in contemporary mainstream thinking, one negating spirits, souls, or even a consciousness. Surprisingly, the term ‘mind’ has survived the scrutiny of current mainstream science, and terms such as mindfulness flourish today. But to the general public, the traditional ideas of a spirit and a soul are still alive in the majority of cultures. The nature of life, spirits, and souls has always been associated in most cultures with light – sometimes with visible light, though more often with an inner light – so it is not surprising that experiences with unusual light are still frequently reported.
There is a wealth of traditional knowledge and folklore about strange lights and what they mean. Hovering dots of lights were once suspected to be ‘fairy lights’, caught in numerous romantic paintings, often related to Midsummer nights. Still reported are balls of light, understood as souls of the deceased. In some cases, a ball of light seems to emanate from the body of a living being (see Case 794). Other types of light have also been documented – e.g., “a firework bursting into stars, a firefly, a crown”, and “a bright oval surrounding the words, ‘Wednesday, October 15, Death’ ” – we read in Phantasms of the Living (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, Vol. I, 1886: 503). The authors continue: “There are instances of strong and unique hallucinations of light or noise which have too markedly coincided with some external crisis for the hypothesis of telepathic origin to be ignored” (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, Vol. I, 1886: 503–504).
Since the 1940s countless sightings of lights, then called UFOs, have been reported, and it has become a huge area of its own. A well known case occurred in 1981 in Scandinavia, in the Norwegian valley of Hessdalen. The sightings of strange lights there, most frequent over the following three years, are still being reported, though rarely. Several international researchers have been involved, including the Swedish psychical researcher and journalist Jan Fjellander. There have been numerous films, photographs, and interviews, and – most important – several local witnesses. To integrate this single case into our collection would result in a discrete volume in itself. But we can look at one example of a star-like light at least, also interpreted as a UFO. The report comes from three eye-witnesses: Wilma Young, then 64, and her companions Brenda, 69, and Rose, then in her 70s. On 24 November 2004, the three women shared the same, or a closely similar experience. They lived in Scotland and were on their way home to Fife, after a meeting at a spiritualist church in Renfrew, near Glasgow. The investigators Peter McCue and Julia Taylor found out about it through letters and verbal conversation:
As the women were driving, Brenda referred to a big bright light in the sky. At first, Wilma assumed it was the North Star. According to Wilma, Brenda then said, “Well, it’s moving!”…. Wilma recalls that two objects came from the ‘star’ (or it could be that the ‘star’ split into two objects). The objects came towards the car and took up positions on either side of it, keeping pace with the vehicle. That seemed to go on for two minutes. Then Wilma noticed another big ‘star’, from which three more objects emerged (or it may be that the ‘star’ split into constituent objects). At about that point, the original UFOs shot away and disappeared within a second. The new UFOs came towards the car, although perhaps not quite as quickly as the first two had. One of them took up a position above the vehicle (perhaps 10–12 feet above it), while the other two flanked it, with all three seeming to fly at the same level…. The underside of the UFO that was over the car was very bright, and had a fishbone-like pattern. Wilma felt intimidated. After about three minutes, the three UFOs shot away and disappeared.
Brenda recalls seeing what she first took to be a star-like light, although it appeared to be larger than a star. Looking at the object, she noticed that it seemed to have a triangular shape. There were lights along the base and going round the back of it. A cigar-shaped object of about the same size then appeared. Then another triangular object came into view, which was similar to the first one, but larger. Brenda’s recollection is that these objects remained in view for 10–15 minutes, but she doesn’t recall seeing any of them moving. She’s had no other UFO experiences.
After leaving the church service, we made our way to the Forth Road Bridge, to find the road closed with a notice and traffic cones. Our driver said she didn’t know this road…. She asked us to look out for any road signs, since there was no other traffic and the road was unlit, except by our headlights. We seemed to travel some distance. One of my companions said she could see the North Star, but it got brighter and came towards us with another one. They passed over us and disappeared. Not long after, three such lights came towards us, and the middle one hovered above the car. I was in the back seat and able to see it by leaning forward. It then went out of view. The road was still unlit, except by the lights of our car. But in the distance, to the left, it looked as if there was a small lit village or caravan park.
(McCue & Taylor, Paranormal Review 37, January 2006: 11–13)
The descriptions of the percipients are not quite identical, the exact location of the events could not be identified, and neither were the investigators able to find out if there had been other sightings of unknown bright objects with fishbone-like undersides in central Scotland. Wilma is a believer in UFOs and recalls psychic experiences in her life. We have to leave the conclusion open, as McCue and Taylor do, as to whether the lights were objects of the physical world or experiences in the psychic realm shared by three friends.
Another very popular topic that cannot be integrated into this analysis of light-cases due to its extent concerns orbs, or little light spots on photographs. I cite just one first-hand example, from a German woman, an artist working as a nurse. Monika experienced a type of light phenomenon which has become quite common since the 1990s, when digital cameras came on the market and became popular. The orb phenomenon, i.e. a little bright circle or dot – often several of them – on photos, has been discussed extensively, but allows no conclusive interpretation in terms of an encounter with something numinous. Monika, nevertheless, finds a natural explanation for the ‘orbs’ on her holiday photos, while her friend sees a deeper meaning in it. Monika sent me two emails concerning the orb:
I have told you about my holiday in Croatia and sent you some photos as well. On one of those photos you can see orbs, which I [had] guessed to be just technical effects. Now [a] friend of mine has said these orbs [could] be signs of light from angels, and I was very glad about this. If that is true, then angels surely must have been involved.
Two days later, she wrote to me again:
This photo I took in the late afternoon on the lagoon in Medulin, in Croatia. There were no people around, so I took the shot of the stone figure on its own in the afternoon light.
(Monika Lauinger-Wendering, emails, 4 and 6 October 2009)
Quite rightly, Monika had been suspicious at the beginning, since the most likely explanation would indeed have been a technical effect, caused by dust particles. Studies have shown how easily such effects can be produced by normal means. But understanding orbs as something less profane than dust is of course much more meaningful, especially when information about causes for such phenomena has yet to receive public recognition. (Puhle, 2004: “Orbs”). There is as yet no evidence that orbs are more than just dust, or that they are the souls of the deceased. Such interpretations resemble the last traces of very old beliefs, and are literally the dust of a vanishing, non-materialistic Weltanschauung.
Endless attempts have also been made to catch light figures on camera. They are associated with ghosts. Psychical researcher Maurice Grosse collected the ghost photos sent in to the SPR, most of them taken before the time of digital cameras. Going through the collection with him, I discovered several he had investigated in greater detail, finding no normal explanation for them (see Puhle, 2004: “Brown Lady” and “Geisterfotografie”). Some ghostly figures look like transparent shapes and can give the impression of subtle bodies like etheric or astral bodies. Others have recognizable features, but only rarely. As in the case of orbs, the possibility of technical errors also applies here, the more so after the arrival of digital cameras in the 1990s. More than just balls and figures of light on photos, there are various other unexplained lights such as shapeless whitish lights, stripes, and foggy clouds, all said to be ghosts.
The idea of a deceased soul appearing on a photograph is not so far fetched, as there are countless reports of ghosts appearing in light, who are more intense and energetic. We have many testimonies about apparitions: “She was vibrant”; “His eyes were sparkling”; “Her face was very animated. Her eyes were shining, her skin … glowing, and her teeth … sparkling”. Or the whole experience pops up “Like a light bulb”; “He brightened up considerably” and was “glowing with peace”; “They were bathed in a very bright, clear white light. The light was indescribable! It was brighter than anything I’ve ever seen, and it should have hurt my eyes, but it didn’t”; “There was a lot of light around her face and her head” (Guggenheim & Guggenheim, 1995: Chapter 8); “He was kind of glowing, almost radiant”; “She was glowing! There was a white, bright aura – a big circle of light – surrounding her”; “She had a beautiful, brilliant white dress on…. Her face radiated a brilliant light…. and her eyes just glowed with love”; “He looked peaceful, golden, and beautiful” (Chapter 9); “He had a glow, a celestial radiance” on his face; “His blonde, curly hair was full of light”; “She was glowing and radiating love” (Chapter 10); “Her face was glowing and there was light around her”; “She was wearing a bright white robe that was illuminated and glowing. It looked very soft, like an angel’s robe”; “Everything was very vivid, very intense, and very bright. I … felt a bright light surrounding and trailing behind us like a jet stream”; “It was very bright, but there were no earthly surroundings” (chapter 11).
“Electric Light Phenomena Associated with a Dying or Deceased Person” is an extract from Light Changes: Experiences in the Presence of Transforming Light by Annekatrin Puhle Ph.D.