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The Case for Possession:The Relationship between Culture and Belief by Cynthia Pettiward

Allowances must be made for the fact that paranormal phenomena tend to be linked with the type of culture where they occur. Thus, reincarnation has been most frequently recorded in countries where it is believed in, for instance in India, China, Ceylon, Alaska, and what used to be Tibet. In Brazil, where Spiritism is more popular than any other creed, political organisation or philosophical school, there is more emphasis on the influence of spirits, whether reincarnating or possessing, than there is in European countries. One may well argue that this is a pointer towards the subjective nature of such phenomena, and so, up to a point, it is. Not only is the culture an important factor, but the temperament and psychological makeup of the individual will influence what he experiences. Varieties of psychical experience tend to be tailored to the individual experiencing them, so that a man whose visual sense is acute will be sensitive to phenomena of a visual type; another will owe most of his revelations to dreams, a third to clairaudience. Some people dream of precognitive or retrocognitive episodes, characteristic of the way their minds work. My own precognitive messages tend to be of a punning type, - ‘whittle’ for ‘acquittal’ in a dream, and so forth - a linguistic approach.

In telepathic communication ideas may be conveyed visually, or by touch or even by smell, or a voice may be heard speaking, or the concept of an object may be communicated by non-sensory means. In order to demonstrate the possibility of communicating with distant persons telepathically, many thousands of experiments have been carried out in which the percipient has had to reproduce or explain a simple drawing conveyed to him by the mind of the communicator. But the same drawing can convey a visual image to one percipient and a non-visual idea to another. For instance, a drawing of a volcano, telepathically sent out, was identified as ‘a black beetle’ by one percipient: it can be seen how this could be: the beetle’s head is facing the bottom of the page, the two curved flanks of Fuji-Yama are the antennae, the strokes representing smoke and flames are the body and the legs. Another percipient to whom the same drawing was telepathically sent identified it as ‘something hot and violent’. He had received the idea of a volcano.

Theories about the nature of an after-life are also bound up with culture patterns and with racial characteristics. What one culture teaches can contradict the beliefs of another. It may be that ‘what you believe IS’ or it may be that ‘what IS (for you) causes you to believe it.’ The question is a philosophical one on which I am not qualified to pronounce. At any rate there is little doubt that where a certain belief is held, parapsychical phenomena tend to accord with that belief. Thus, ‘vendetta’ is an Italian word which is used also by non-Italians to convey a type of vengeful behaviour particular to Mediterranean races. In this country we may often seek revenge, but the almost ritualistic system of ‘vendetta’ is not deeply ingrained in our mode of life. If it were so we might have devised a word for it.

Now I find in Brazilian accounts of an after-life that tremendous stress is laid on this compulsive desire for vendetta, and it seems to me that this is a Mediterranean type of after-life which could be congenial to the Portuguese of Brazil, but which is barely mentioned in the annals of other cultures, whether Christian, Buddhist or Hindu. This story of possession told by Dr Ferreira (‘obsessāo’ is the Portuguese term he uses) is very characteristic of the frame of mind of the patients he deals with, and of their desire for vengeance, and it underlines my point by stemming from an Italian source:

In an apparently very happy family the wife, Senhora A., was suddenly seized with violent attacks of jealousy, imagining that she had a rival and that her husband spent the household money on this woman. Their home-life was ruined; the wife refused all food and sleep, thinking that her rival was attempting to poison and suffocate her. At last she had to be put into Dr Ferreira’s hospital, where she was forcibly fed. Mediums were called in to give voluntary help. After much difficulty the entity possessing Senhora A. consented to speak. Unlike typical possessing spirits this entity knew that she had died. She had been a woman named Mafalda Lorenzi and had lived in Naples. The story is a long and complex one, but the gist of it is that Senhora A.’s mother had done a good deal of harm to Mafalda’s family and therefore Mafalda had, in the next world, concentrated on ruining Senhora A’s life. This is typical of vendetta, when the blamelessness of the victim is not taken into consideration and family honour ranks above individual charity. A corroboration of this story came from Naples, where Mafalda’s family was known, and where the original facts were vouched for.
In Dr Wickland’s book, on the other hand, which comes from the U.S.A., no spirit seems to be acting out of a desire for revenge, though cruelty is very common. Hatred and violence are less specifically directed:

‘Women! Someday I am going to get hold of the rest of them, and shake them up.’ (A common type of sentiment found in the Wick- land material, but unlike the deliberately-planned acts of revenge of spirits reported by Ferreira.)

This case-history, from Wickland, illustrates a marital problem, but here the discarnate is trying to prevent a rival from marrying the discarnate’s husband. She does not realise that she has died, and that her husband is consequently free.
A widower, whom I will call Ted Carter, was engaged to marry a young woman whom I will call Jean. During her engagement Jean became more and more mentally deranged and expressed dislike of her fiancé in the strongest terms. She was at last treated by the Wicklands as a suspected case of possession.

‘At the time the patient entered the Institute Mrs. Wickland clairvoyantly saw the spirit of a woman of the brunette type possessing the patient who was a decided blonde. This spirit was so interblended with the patient that it was difficult for Mrs Wickland to determine… whether the patient was light or dark.’

When Mrs Wickland described this spirit both Jean’s mother and Ted Carter recognised her as the latter’s deceased first wife.

‘The patient proved very obdurate; screaming spells alternated with obstinate stubborn moods; it was not safe to leave her alone; she declared herself insane, and wanted only to die, for if she lived she would ‘have to marry that man.’

On one occasion an apparently discarnate entity expressed herself through Jean, who was in a state of semi-trance, and said forcefully:

“He shall never marry her! He shall never have her! I will drive her to an insane asylum, or I will kill her, but he shall never have her!”

This entity tormented Mrs Wickland for a long time, and condemned her husband and Jean for their ‘treacherous behaviour.’

Dr Wickland urged Mrs Carter’s spirit, controlling Mrs Wickland, to cease tormenting Jean. Finally she understood her situation and reluctantly agreed to leave. She became weak, declared she was dying, and went through, once more, the symptoms of her physical death from pneumonia, symptoms which at the time had been witnessed both by Ted Carter and by Mrs Carter’s mother. (This ‘pseudo-death’ by a spirit is a not uncommon feature among those who are unaware that they have died.)

Jean recovered quickly, married Ted, and was well and happy at the time the case was recorded. The fact that she was in semi-trance indicates that she was a psychic sensitive, like most possessed patients. This case is strongly reminiscent of Ferreira’s account of Maria Branca which I shall analyse later.

Proceeding from these examples I should like to suggest that the conception of the nature of an after-life varies from culture to culture, and, as in the case of a moral code, one type of after-life could be characteristic of one culture, another of another, and they could be mutually exclusive, though intermingling where races intermingle.

In West Africa Ju-Ju practitioners say that they harness the spirits of the earthbound and then send them on errands whose purpose is to damage their enemies. Voodoo or Vodun in Haiti and Jamaica is based on ritual possession by the ‘gods’ of those regions.

I realise that I am laying myself open to a charge of gullibility in advancing this. If people believe these things are going to happen and then see them happen, why should their experiences not be simple suggestion or hallucination or imagination? Or, contrariwise, why should they not believe they are going to happen because evidence shows that they do? In answer to this I suggest that one should read, for example, Ju-Ju in my Life by James H. Neal, for I think this book would effectively dispose of any such criticisms in the case of Ju-Ju. Neal was severely injured and finally driven from Africa by Ju-Ju-controlled evil spirits, having originally, like most Europeans, scoffed at the whole idea as barbarous nonsense. The sequel to many months of persecution was that he was thrown violently down some stairs by invisible hands, belonging, so the African witch-doctors asserted, to a ghost who was the slave of one of the Ju-Ju masters. Neal only escaped with his life.

In what used to be Tibet, belief in reincarnation was not only universal, it also appeared to be borne out by the facts. It is well- known how the Dalai Lamas are chosen for the probability of their being reincarnations of preceding Dalai Lamas, because each was born at the time when his predecessor died, and he, though only a small child, was able unerringly to single out objects which had belonged to the previous holder of the title. This creed is held by Tibetan Buddhists to the extent that almost all Lamas believe themselves to be reincarnations of previous Lamas, and are recognised as such by signs that appear infallible to those who have known these predecessors. Reincarnation is not, however, a commonly acknowledged tenet of European thought, and it may well be that this doctrine suits the Oriental mind better than the Western and that such phenomena happen more often in the East. The doctrine is essential to Karmic thought. All the more significant, then, when such cases occur in England, France, or the U.S.A. A notable European instance is that of the little girl Linda Martell, which is hard to explain away. This little girl, who died not long ago in Guernsey at the age of five, was born with spina bifida. From the age of three she showed remarkable gifts of clairvoyance and of healing. At this age she spoke like an adult and was said to ‘have the eyes of an old woman.’ She told her mother that she had died before, and she seemed to be more closely linked in memory to an earlier life than is usual. The case of Joan Grant’s former life in ancient Egypt is well-attested by her book, The Winged Pharaoh.

I will deal rather more in detail here with the literature of reincarnation, for it is well-documented. This theory holds that an individual being who has lived his life on earth and died, enters, at some stage before birth, the body of an unborn child, and lives yet another life. Some hold that many lives are lived in this way, with educational intent. You keep on coming back till you have learned not to make the same mistakes. In some cases it is hard for us to discern what the educational intent may be. What characterises reincarnation is that the reborn spirit has no other body than the one in which he lives during his second or third or fourth stint on earth. The body, or successive bodies are temporary habitations of the same continuing spirit; the brain the habitation of its mind. If this possibility is accepted, it becomes easier to understand how a spirit may be parasitic upon a physical body, as appears to happen in possession.

I think it is worth recording in some detail one of Dr Ian Stevenson’s Twenty Cases suggestive of Reincarnation (1966) in order to show the patient study that has gone into his work, and his refusal to take any statement on trust. Dr Stevenson interviewed all the persons involved himself. This is the story in outline:

In 1951, six months after the brutal murder of a little boy called Munna, another child, Ravi Shankar, was born in a different district of the same city, Karauj, in India. This child, asserting that he was Munna, gave a circumstantial account of the murder, of which he began to speak when he was barely three. He repeatedly asked for toys belonging to Munna, which he could never have seen; he showed terror of Munna’s murderers, whom he was able to name correctly. He had the scar of a knife-wound on his neck which, he said, was that of Muana’s death-wound - Munna’s head was found severed. He also correctly named the exact place where the murder had taken place, and said he had been eating guavas shortly before his death. This was true of Munna.

Far from any encouragement being given to these assertions, Ravi Shankar’s father beat him severely when he alluded to his previous life and sent him away from home, so that the boy became afraid to speak of the affair.

Dr Stevenson visited both families in 1964, interviewed the relevant witnesses, and tabulated his findings. He was shown, for instance, by Munna’s mother, a slate, a toy-pistol, a wooden elephant, a statue of Krishna and other toys, which had belonged to the dead boy, and for which Ravi Shankar had asked. Dr Stevenson points out that the circumstances in which Ravi Shankar lived would not have made it likely that he would have similar toys in his own home (he was of a lower caste), nor had he ever been to the home of Munna.

Among the other severely and critically investigated cases, Dr Stevenson observed that of Corliss Chotkin, in Alaska, where the scars of operation stitches appeared on the body of an apparently reincarnated great-uncle. In another case an extraordinary ability to sew and to use a sewing-machine without instruction appeared in a boy of four who was apparently a reincarnation of an older sister, to whom the machine had belonged.

Reincarnation is considered to be a reasonable theory; it could account for some cases of apparent injustice; it could account for the mystery of infant prodigies, who, like Mozart, do not need to be taught the rudiments of their trade, but seem, in some strange way, to possess them already; it could, again, explain some impossible human relationships, on the supposition that the participants are trying to readjust an intolerable situation, the outcome of some character defect, which they must learn to master.

It will certainly be objected that since on resuming earth conditions as a baby, say in 1950, to begin your stint ‘B’ you do not remember that you ill-treated your wife during your stint ‘A’, that ran from, say, 1790 to 1870, you could not fairly be expected to improve on your earlier performance. To this I would reply:

1. That the nature of memory is far more subtle than anything we understand at present, and I have referred to this already. On some level beyond our present comprehension the soul knows what it has to do to be saved, and perhaps this is one way of considering ‘conscience.’

2. There seems good evidence that though in repeated ‘caterpillar’ phases we are unaware that we are going through a formative process such as might be served by reincarnation, in our discarnate phase or phases we have some choice in the matter and can see what we are about. Here I quote from Helen Greaves’ The Testimony of Light. The information is given by the discarnate Frances Banks:

“After talking with savants I have been privileged to meet here there seems no reason for me to change my earthly acceptance of the fact of repeated lives, and therefore of a possibility of previewing the presentable future, even when in a material body. When a soul (or that portion of a soul which seeks enlargement of experience) reincarnates, it is at a certain stage in its Divine Blueprint. It will seek a trial of strength in some experiences, a leading role in human affairs in others, an emotional compensation in personal relationships and so forth. Therefore, up to a point, it fixes its own ‘coming events’ because they will afford it the necessary experience it has come to gather, and these will be commensurate with the over-all pattern associated with its progress. It must react in a way consistent with its stage of development and thus on its path will be mapped highlights of attainment, humble or elevated in its particular sphere of influence, together with failures and despondencies which, to the Inner Eye, can be foreseen.”

3. Each soul is a component of a Group Soul, to which it contributes the good or evil effects of its individual evolution. You may, in reincarnating, be experiencing the Karma, not of your individual development, but that of some other component of your Group-Soul. The postulate of the Group-Soul is often advanced in discarnate communications. (F.W.H. Myers, Frances Banks, and many others.)

The belief in reincarnation has been traditional in classical and in biblical times. Malachi prophesied the return of Elijah in the person of John the Baptist, while Jesus clearly accepted that this prophecy had been fulfilled.

Origen (185-254) in his De Principiis has a worked-out theory of repeated incarnations for purification until they are no longer needed and the spirit is no longer compelled to return. Nemesius, in the fourth century, refers to the Greek philosophers in support of the hypothesis and, a few decades later, St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) discusses sympathetically the possibility of Plotinus having been a reincarnation of Plato who himself believed in reincarnation. The possibility was envisaged by orthodox Judaism:

“And King Herod heard [of Jesus] and he said, That John the Baptist was risen from the dead . . . Others said, That it is Elias. And others said That it is a prophet, or as one of the prophets.”

I have stressed the veridical nature of the evidence for reincarnation because of its obvious bearing on the whole question of survival. It would seem to be a planned type of survival, while possession gives proof of confusion.

Taken from The Case for Possession: Do the Dead Influence the Living? By Cynthia Pettiward published by White Crow Books.

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