An Interview with Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson
Posted on 24 August 2015, 9:29
It seems safe to say that there are very few people living today with more experience and knowledge in psychical research and parapsychology than Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson, (below) an 83-year-old resident of Iceland, best remembered for coauthoring, with Dr. Karlis Osis, At the Hour of Death, a cross-cultural study, in India and the United States, of the experiences of dying patients, first published in 1977. Among other books and papers, he is the author of Modern Miracles: The Story of Sathya Sai Baba (1986), and The Departed Among the Living (2012). His latest book, coauthored with Loftur Gissurarson, Indridi Indridason: The Icelandic Physical Medium is due for release during September by White Crow Books.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Haraldsson for The Searchlight, a publication of The Academy for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies (see http://ascsi.org/ for more information about the Academy and its upcoming conference, September 25-27, in Scottsdale, Arizona). This is a slightly abridged copy of that interview.
After studying psychology at the University of Freiburg and the University of Munich, Haraldsson became a research fellow at the Rhine Institute in the University of Virginia, and then received his Ph.D. from the University of Freiburg. I put questions to him by email.
Dr. Haraldsson, how did you become interested in psychical research/parapsychology?
“My first and primarily love was philosophy with a thirst to know more about the world around me – and not less – and to know what I was and the nature of that mysterious evasive ‘I.’ I felt I did not understand either.
“When I was around 15, I became like reborn to myself, and became aware of some inner reality that was also mysteriously external, and so immensely greater than anything I had experienced or been aware of before. It started suddenly in heavy rain during the middle of the day, near some banks of pebbles on the seashore that lit up as the sun suddenly shone and reflected on them. Then I had the experience of being filled with light that was immensely delightful and beyond words. After a while this faded away but a vivid trace of it remained with me forever after and would sometimes – especially in my youth – sweep over me again. After that there was never a doubt that there existed a superior/supernatural reality that was sometimes closer and sometimes further away from my normal self. Somehow the two were connected, but how?
“When I was old enough to enter university there was no question as to what to study, namely philosophy, which I had anyway been reading about for a long time, not only the traditional academic philosophers but also the unorthodox: the Danish Martinus, Tibetan texts, Brunton, Ouspensky and theosophical writings, to name some.
“I spent four years on academic philosophy; in Copenhagen, in Edinburgh and two years in Freiburg. By the end of that period I felt I knew how matters stand with philosophy and that it was time to start something new. What philosophy taught me were the limitations to what we can know. Yes, we were homo sapiens, but primarily homo ignorance.”
Did your philosophy education include psychical research?
“Until this time I had not been particularly interested in psychic phenomena though I had experienced my share of them. In Freiburg I became aware of them as an interesting research area. Professor Hans Bender gave a course on parapsychology that was popular with students. He aroused my scientific interest.
“I returned to Iceland to work and earn money, mostly as a journalist. I edited one book about an Icelandic psychic who was also an influential politician, and got into correspondence with J. B. Rhine at Duke University. After some three years in Iceland I was off again, first to Berlin where the iron wall had just been built. Then I traveled for a year and a half through the Middle East and Asia and wrote my first book – exclusively travel/political/historical – With Rebels in Kurdistan. That was the beginning of a long association with the Kurds which was a whole world apart from philosophy and the paranormal.
“Late 1963 I returned overland from South India, through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, and then took the train from Istanbul to Freiburg. Now the intention was to study psychology. After a few years I obtained a Dipl. Psych. degree in psychology and later a Ph.D. with Hans Bender, whom I came to know personally. In the meantime I had on and off continued some correspondence with J. B. Rhine who invited me over to his Institute of Parapsychology after I had completed my Dipl. Psych. degree. Rhine´s institute was the Mecca of parapsychology at this time. With Rhine I stayed for a year and conducted my first two experiments both of which got published in due time.
“From then on I became more and more involved with research into the paranormal. There followed a year of internship in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia with Robert van de Castle, the dream researcher, and Prof. Ian Stevenson. With Stevenson I conducted my first studies of mediumship. From him I learned a lot. The medium was Hafsteinn Björnsson (1915-1977). Stevenson and Van de Castle became life-long friends and I wrote a tribute to both when they passed away.
“And I was lucky. As my time at the University of Virginia was coming to the end, Karlis Osis, director of research of the American Society for Psychical Research, invited me to join him on a major study of deathbed visions which he was planning. I gladly accepted. For comparative purposes this project was conducted in India as well as in the United States. It involved interviews with over 800 doctors and nurses; it was a highly memorable and interesting experience that had a lasting effect on me.
“Karlis Osis had a deep-seated interest in the question of survival. And what better way to study what may follow when we die – he argued – than to investigate the experiences people have just before they die? That is, when they find themselves on the threshold between life and death.”
Is there any one case you have been involved with that stands out in your mind as especially convincing?
“The case of the fire in Copenhagen in 1905, described by the medium Indridi Indridason (1883-1912) and the Danish communicator Emil Jensen, immediately comes to mind. At this time there was no telephone or radio communication across the wide Atlantic Ocean between Iceland and the rest of Europe. News arrived only by ship. This remarkable case reminds me of Swedenborg´s remote description of the fire in Stockholm when he was in Gothenburg. However, the Indridason/Jensen case is much better documented. Not only that. Over a century after it occurred I was able to trace Emil Jensen (1848-1898) by searching census records and archives in Copenhagen. Everything that Emil Jensen had said about his life in 1905, seven years after he had passed away, was proved correct. Jensen had lived in the Great King Street most of his life and there the fire had broken out, namely close to his home, as in the case of Swedenborg.”
What has been the highlight of your career?
“The study of deathbed visions with Karlis Osis was the first such highlight. After lots of interviews, fieldwork and analyses we wrote At the Hour of Death, which has since appeared in some 20 editions/translations. It was last published in 2012 by White Crow Books. It is still the most extensive study conducted of deathbed visions.
“Deathbed visions are rather common among the dying. Deceased loved ones, friends and relatives appear to some of the dying in their last hours. They express the purpose that they have come to take the patient away into the realm of the dying. And when that happens the dying are happy to go. They experience being received by their loved ones.
“Was it all hallucinatory? We gathered as best we could information about each patient´s medication, temperature, the nature of his/her disease, etc., in short all that might possibly produce hallucinations. The analyses of this great body of data did not support the hypothesis that the bulk of the deathbed visions was caused by hallucinatory factors. That being rejected we were left with the survival side of our model of what happens in deathbed visions.
“My surveys of psychic experiences and apparitions of the dead in Iceland (The Departed Among the Living) is another of my favorite projects. The great European Values Study had revealed that 25 percent of the population of Western Europe had personally ‘felt that they had really been in touch with someone who had died.’ In the USA this figure was 30 percent. What had these people experienced? We sought answers by interviewing 450 persons who reported that they had experienced an encounter with someone who had died.
“Another highlight was my study of Sathya Sai Baba, whom I first learned about during the study of deathbed visions in India. Equally – perhaps more important – is my research of children’s´ claims of past-life memories that Stevenson encouraged me to conduct. On that I have written numerous papers and book chapters.
“Then – of course – very prominent for me are my studies of the mediumship of Indridi Indridason, about whom I have now written a book. Also my studies and experiments with the mental medium Hafsteinn Björnsson.
“All these major projects are summed up in my autobiography that still exists only in Icelandic. Many of these studies offer challenging evidence for survival of death and the existence of a supernatural reality that have to be considered seriously.”
What did you find most interesting about the mediumship of Indridason?
“Most remarkable were the frequent phenomena of direct voices. And sometimes there were two voices – a female soprano and male bass voice – singing together. The direct voice phenomena are rare with mediums but were more common with Indridi Indridason than any other kind of phenomena, and were also observed outside his séances and in full daylight. There were also massive movements and levitations of objects and the medium, and frequent appearance of lights in various forms and colors, sometimes with a human form appearing in a pillar of light. All the classical forms of physical mediumship were there in a country where they had never been observed before.
“The group round Indridi Indridason – the Experimental Society – consisted mostly of academics who took all thinkable precautions to prevent the possibility of fraud, which Indridi gladly accepted, and still the phenomena continued.”
We don’t seem to have the same quality of mediumship today that we had in Indridi’s day. Do you have any ideas as to why this is?
“Some psychic/spiritual phenomena appear epidemic. They have their primary period and purpose and after a while we may only find traces of them. But they may turn up again.”
Are you fully retired now or are you still doing research?
“Formally retired but as busy as ever, writing papers and books, and lecturing frequently in many countries as can be seen on my homepage: http://www.hi.is/~erlendur/english. Retirement can be a very fruitful and productive time as one is then relieved of all teaching and administrative duties.”
What is the general worldview in Iceland?
“National surveys reveal widespread belief and experiences of the paranormal to about the same degree as in Italy and the U.S., but considerably higher than in the rest of Europe. About 70 percent of the population believe in an afterlife, which is about the same percentage as in the U.S. and Ireland and considerably higher than in the rest of Europe. Some people go to church but to a much lower extent than in the United States. Funerals are particularly well attended.”
Indridi Indridason: The Icelandic Physical Medium by Erlendur Haraldsson and Loftur Gissurarson is published by White Crow Books and will be available in September 2015
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.
Next Blog 7th September