Human beings have been making depictions of "the supernatural realm" since at least as far back as the Palaeolithic (depicting, at least, in such a way as to withstand the ravages of time - we would not, for example, be able to detect drawings made with sticks and sand in the archaeological record). Some of the earliest known depictions of "non-ordinary beings" can be found in the caves of Algeria.
The paintings seem to depict anthropomorphic creatures with animal characteristics - horns, tails, etc. Creatures that are neither human nor animal, but something more than the sum of their parts. Beings such as this are referred to as therianthropes. The inspiration for these enigmatic images may well have come from encounters with beings during altered states of consciousness achieved through any number of techniques (I have spoken a little about rock art and psychedelics in an earlier post).
The spirits depicted in the above image were drawn by the Iglulik Eskimos. "They represent deities which through terrifying and frightening their natural state can be captured and tamed by shamans and thus transformed into benevolent 'helping spirits' or familiars" (Lewis, 1971).
Different cultures, from different time periods and geographic locations have depicted the spirit world for thousands of years.
The psychic photography of the Spiritualist movement represents a more recent attempt at embodying the disincarnate. Cultural Historian Marina Warner has discussed at length the evolution of the western depiction of the supernatural in her book Phatasmagoria (2008). Key elements she has highlighted include the use of metaphors and analogies concerned with light, air, mist, clouds, wings, etc. when describing the denizens of the invisible world. Spiritualist photographs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries clearly partake of a cultural tradition in western art - they are a culmination of motifs and iconography that have developed over centuries of attempts to picture the invisible. At the core of this tradition, however, is the experience of the supernatural - the inability to convey the precise nature of the experience and the necessity to draw analogies with bright, fluid and etherial aspects of the physical world.
I am not suggesting that all Spiritualist photographs are the product of "fraud" or "trickery" but am rather pointing towards a wider frame-work in which to understand and interpret such images. I would even consider the blatantly "fraudulent" (again, a term that I think may need re-evaluating) photographs, which clearly show that the spirit-form is nothing more than a doll, such as those taken of the medium Helen Duncan and the spirit-child Peggy (see below), to be objects worthy of investigation.
Belief in the ability to imbue objects with independent agency is both ancient and widespread. What we are seeing in these photographs is a vestigal practice - a pre-christian survival that shares commonalities with other cultural and beliefs systems, across the world, but shares nothing with the positivistic empirical world-view that evaluates their validity as proof of the existence of spirits and mediumistic ability.
In Ancient Egyptian tombs, archaeologists have uncovered thousands of small humanoid figurines called shabti figures. These figurines were essential companions to the deceased as they journeyed forth into the afterlife. Because it was believed that the afterlife was much the same as the world of the living, deceased individuals would be called up to work in the fields and on the land on their arrival there. The purpose of the shabti was to come to life and carry out the work in place of the deceased, their work was primarily agricultural (Spencer, 1991, 68). These little figurines possess agency - they are more than just models. They were believed to have the power to come to life and to serve (much as the Swedish Tomtar statuettes, discussed in an earlier post, are said to).
Ancient Egyptian belief in the power of representation provides fascinating insights to our understanding of the depictions of supernatural beings:
"The Ancient Egyptians believed that once a word was written down it was inherently magical and could make whatever was written true, especially when spoken aloud, an act which breathed life into the words. Thus the representations on the walls could come alive and make real what they depicted and had to be chosen with care lest some dangerous being came into existence in the tomb" (Dodson & Ikram, 2008, 15)
Representation gives life to abstract concepts - it enables a manifestation to occur - entities that can only be grasped in the mental realm are condensed into the material. Again, in the tombs of the Ancient Egyptians we find this power put into use. Tombs are adorned with depictions of the deceased and engraved with their names - the act of creating a likeness of the deceased allows for that individual to "live on" after death. Indeed the link between the effigy and the soul of the deceased was a strong one, and tombs often house small shrines at which offerings of food and drink would be deposited. These carvings became a point of merging between the world of the living and the invisible world of the dead - a false door to the other world.
It is possible, therefore, that we could be missing the point when we dismiss the photographs of Helen Duncan and her doll Peggy as evidence of fraudulence. Marina Warner writes of Peggy:
"...the photograph shows a ghastly crude mask, with huge white face and heavily daubed mouth wrapped in an old sheet, every inch a Hallowe'en bogey. That these ghosts could ever have persuaded anyone, that these makeshift clumsy apparitions could ever have been recognized as the lost loved child by the child's own mother, reveals the depth of people's need to reach some peace with the dead" (2008, 246)
To my mind it is not so difficult to believe. The doll may act as a conduit, a vessel or a focus point through which a spirit can be channelled. The idea is not a new one, and parallels to it are in evidence throughout the ethnosphere. If spirits are believed to be disincarnate, as they very often are, then there is no reason to assume that a spirit cannot incorporate itself into an inanimate object - like pouring water into a vase - in much the same way as the Egyptians believed the spirit of the deceased could inhabit its likeness carved in stone.
When viewed from the Ancient Egyptian perspective representation and reality are blurred - an image IS what it depicts in a very real sense. A photograph of a materialised spirit is a materialised spirit, a painting on a cave wall of a horned being from another world is just that, and a model of a deceased individual is what it appears to be.
Dodson, A & Ikram, S. 2008. The Tomb in Ancient Egypt. Great Britain: Thames & Hudson.
Lewis, I.M. 1971. Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism. United Kingdom: Penguin Books Ltd.
Warner, M. 2008. Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century. Great Britain: Oxford University Press.
Spencer, A.J. 1991. Death in Ancient Egypt. Great Britain: Penguin Books Ltd.