Posts Tagged ‘ghosts’

daimonic realityFairies, flying saucers, angels, visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ghosts, crop circles and other assorted Forteana; it’s all fascinating stuff, even if you don’t believe in any of it, but as Patrick Harpur tells us in the opening of this book, these are not topics for respectable discussion. Intellectually they’re shunned, relegated to the idle conversations and the popular beliefs of “ordinary people”. Yet here too, we find certain of these things to be ‘in vogue’ while others are ‘out’.

Talk of the Faerie, for example, at least outside of the West of Ireland, might get you laughed at, while it’s odds on we all have a compelling ghost story or two to tell and will solicit from our listener a rapt attention, even if neither of us believes in ghosts. Strange that, don’t you think?

Me? I still have a fondness for the nostalgia of the Faerie, but I put that down to my Celtic ancestry. Then again belief in the objective reality of angels is widespread in the United States, but far less so in Europe. As for those poor old fairies, they seem antiquated now, replaced by talk of flying saucers and aliens which in turn seem suspiciously contemporaneous with our own development of space technology and powerful weaponry.

What this suggests is there’s a cultural dimension to anomalous phenomena, and it is to this that Patrick Harpur draws our attention. But rather than seeking to prove or disprove the existence of such things, he tells us such an obsession is to miss the point, that indeed to become embroiled with the ins and outs, say of flying saucers, or crop circles, is to follow a path of ever decreasing circles, one in which the daemonic will have a field day with your emotions, and even your sanity. Instead, he says, the importance lies at a deeper level, in the realms of  the collective psyche, and it’s only when we attain such a transcendent perspective do we see patterns emerging, that the bewildering multiplicity of the Forteana themselves are all expressions of the same thing, indicative of a breaking through of the ‘Daemonic’ into waking reality.

Harpur uses the term Daemonic here in the purely psychological sense, meaning a constellation of apparently autonomous psychical or ‘imaginative’ energy, and not to be confused with ‘Demonic’ in the more religious sense, meaning something entirely malevolent. In other words the Daemons and their associated Fortean manifestations are figments of the imagination, but this is not to dismiss them as unreal, because people are always reporting things they cannot explain. The problem, says Harpur, is our understanding of and our respect for the power of the human imagination.

We all possess an imagination, but this is built upon a foundation of the collective imagination of our culture, which is bounded and shaped by its traditions and by its myths. But, says Harpur, the myths themselves arise from a deeper layer still, one that has its own reality, independent of whether we can ‘imagine’ it or not, or believe in it or not, and it’s from this place the Forteana – the Daemons – arise to beguile and at times frighten us.

The idea of a ‘non-literal’, purely imaginary reality is a difficult one to grasp. The ego must reject it, for even if it were to exist, it would seem, from its reported manifestations, to be a very chaotic place, totally unhelpful to our rational and scientific enterprise, so we had better shun it, demonise it, or society will surely fall apart. But in the same way as when we suppress troublesome thoughts they come back at us as neuroses, so too shunning the Daemonic causes it to break through and disturb the smooth running of our rational lives. In this way the Daemons, manifesting as Forteana, can be viewed as a kind of collective neurosis.

In order to understand this better, Harpur takes us back to the lessons of Greek myth, which, in a nut-shell comes down to having a respect for the independent reality of an imaginary realm as described in stories of the interrelations between a pantheon of Daemonic deities and their various goings on, also of an ‘otherworld’, the place the soul journeys to after death, or nightly in dreams.

These realms exist, says Harpur, but not literally so, not objectively, yet if we deny them in ourselves, or collectively as a society, the Daemonic will find ways of challenging the smugness of our preconceptions regarding the true nature of that reality. Things will go bump in the night, we will see flying saucers, and the most extraordinary crop circles will come pepper our growing crops every summer, and we will fall out endlessly over whether it’s men with rollers doing it, or some other mysterious agency.

Contrary to popular belief, those most inclined to flights of imaginative fancy are least likely to be doorstepped by the supernatural. To exercise the imagination, for example in the pursuit of the creative arts, say writing or painting, seems sufficient to propitiate the Daemons and keep them on our side. On the other hand, it is the hard headed refuseniks with blunted imaginations the Daemons are more likely to tease by revealing themselves in whatever forms they can borrow from the collective psyche. A healthier approach then is for us to give such things some headroom, grant them the courtesy of a little respect, even if we do not entirely believe in them.

As with all Harpur’s books, I found this one a hugely enlightening read. It is a deeply thought, seminal thesis and lays the ground for his later and similarly themed “Philosopher’s Secret Fire – A History of the Imagination”. It has a foundation in Jungian psychology, Romanticism and Myth, all of which makes for fascinating reading, and for further reading if you’re so inclined. But if you’re hung up on any one topic of the supernatural in particular, seeking to winkle out concrete proof of its objective reality, the book is unlikely to satisfy you.

Indeed by telling you supernatural events are essentially imaginary, you may be so indignant you’ll miss the more profound message regarding the subtle reality of the imaginal realm itself. You’ll miss the core insight that the difference between the literal and the non-literal is at times not so easily discerned, that the one sometimes bleeds through into the other, and the proper place for a human being, psychologically speaking, is with our head in both camps, then we can tell the difference, discern perhaps a glimmer of meaning in it, and hopefully live as we should.


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My reading material is a bit left of field, and it has been for the past decade or so. Currently I’m reading Myres’  Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903), also Gurney’s Phantasms of the Living (1886), and a little more up to date Fontana’s Is there an Afterlife?(2005) I’m on the fence so far as this sort of thing is concerned, but I find the early history of the Society for Psychical Research, and the biographies and life-works of its leading lights fascinating. The research outlined in these works, and the conclusions they seem to draw regarding the true nature of the human personality is compelling, but there’s also something in us that would have us disregard such startling material – no matter how weighty the evidence – because,… well,… we live in a rational, physical world and for their talk of a discarnate dimension, it doesn’t help much when your mortgage is screwed, your pension is screwed, and you’re wondering how you’re going to stump up the fees to send your boys to university.

But I digress.

My family are very polite about my reading habits. My books lie around all over the place – I’m a bit careless in that respect – okay so the weird stuff is mixed in with Louis Lamour, Niall Williams and John LeCarre, but the strangeness of some of my reading has perhaps led to my being labelled as a bit “alternative”, or a bit “mystical”. Now,… when someone has an experience they don’t understand, something that doesn’t seem rational or logical, you can understand them wanting to share it with someone, preferably someone who won’t laugh at them. So,… if you see, let’s say, a ghost, who would you tell? Or would you not tell anyone? Would you keep it to yourself for fear of being labelled gullible, unreliable? Me? I’d blog it to my unknown reader, but other than that who is there? A minster of religion perhaps? Or a close relative who reads weird stuff? I mean it’s not always an explanation you’re after is it – just the simple act of sharing the experience with another human being helps in the acceptance of it.

Several weeks ago now a close female relative confided in me – quite out of the blue – that she had woken at dead of night to see a figure in her bedroom – a woman, unknown to her. It was quite real, she assured me,…  startling, terrifying – yet she was unable to move or even speak to her husband lying asleep beside her. What did I think? What was it? Was she going mad? Was it real? Was it a ghost? Would it happen again?

It reminded me of a story told by my newly married grandmother of waking to see the figure of a man staring at her – this would have been in the 1920’s. The story goes she recounted the experience to my grandfather the following morning, describing the spooky interloper to him, and my grandfather told her it sounded like his own father who had long since passed over. One smiles at these tales, repeats them perhaps on Samhain nights, when the family gathered round and feeling perhaps for one day of the year at least a little philosophical, but mostly we shrug and get on with our rational workaday lives,… until someone tells us a similar tale and wants some reassurance that they’re not going mad.

Then, as if this were not enough, my own good lady – no more sober, nor level headed a person on earth – told me that the other night, she thought yours truly was gawping at her from her side of the bed and what the bloody hell did I think I was doing? However, she found herself unable to remonstrate with me as she might normally have done, as she felt unable to speak or even to move. Then she heard the toilet flush and yours truly – the real version – came shuffling back to bed.  The apparition, or whatever it was disappeared. The experience shook her and it took her most of the following day to gather the words to recount it to me.

Ghosts or what?

The answer to these enigmas come from the books I’m reading. It was Gurney I think who first mentioned the hypnopompic hallucination. You’re coming out of sleep – perhaps disturbed from it by a careless spouse going to the loo at dead of night, or perhaps even just snoring too loudly, and you see a figure in the room. I’ve never experienced such a thing but those who do  are adamant that the figure, the apparition is real, and clearly defined – in spite of the fact that it’s dead of night and pitch dark. In one striking case listed by Gurney a man is asleep in his room, in India, in the 1800’s and wakens to see a native standing by his bed. The native drops at once into a squatting posture. The man, alarmed, leaps from bed and takes the potential sneak-thief by the throat, only for the sneak-thief to shape-shift into a dirty laundry bag, tied at the top. In his long study of so called Phantasms, Gurney calls these borderland cases, in that they occur in that strange hinterland between sleep and waking, and they’re rather more common than one might suspect. They are less the product of of some external, supernatural agency, more the product of the unconscious, dreaming mind. Having said that, they’re still considered a rare phenomenon, one that requires the connivance of a mind that is more than commonly adept at visualisation.

Naturally, if you were to experience such a thing yourself, you might jump to the conclusion that you’d had a brush with the afterlife, but the consensus is that such phantasms are simply the stuff of dreams projected into physical reality, though no less startling and fascinating for all of that. It’s odd though, that they should be so rare, and yet I’m given two fresh first hand examples from my own family, and within weeks of one another.


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