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VISIONS . Usage of the term vision goes back to the thirteenth-century Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas, who first used the word to refer to a "supernatural" manifestation. It describes a religious experience that involves seeing and, frequently, the other senses as well. The quality of the experience suggests that the content of the perception is real, a direct, unmediated contact with a nonordinary aspect of reality that is external and independent of the perceiver. "[Vision] is very real," says Lame Deer, a medicine man of the Sioux nation. "It hits you sharp and clear like an electric shock. You are wide awake and, suddenly, there is a person standing next to you who you know can't be there at all" (Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, New York, 1972, p. 65).

The explanation that visions are due to imaginings, pseudoperception, or errors of perception is an expression of the cultural difference between the visionary and the present-day Western psychologist in their views concerning the nature of reality, a topic that would stray too far afield here. But a stand should be taken against those psychiatrists who clinically equate vision with hallucination. In hallucination the content of what is reported is something to which nothing real corresponds; it is a delusion. For the health professional the presence of delusions is a sign of insanity, and in an application of the so-called pathology model of religious experience, visionaries are classified as mentally illa diagnosis often imputed to shamans. Yet in clinically healthy subjects visions dissolve spontaneously (as will be seen below), and, what is even more important for the institutionalization of the visionary experience, they can be induced and terminated ritually. This cannot be said of the hallucinations that are associated with insanity. Furthermore, one should be wary when encountering references to dreams in religious contexts. Semantically, the English word dream includes the notion that its content does not represent anything real. Non-Westerners, however, often set in opposition a dream category that is taken to be "real" or "valid" with one that is considered "ordinary." The latter category includes fleeting, or "invalid," dreams. The dreams referred to in such remarks as "Old Spotted Wolf had a painted lodge, which he was advised to make by the buffalo, in a dream" (George B. Grinnell, The Cheyenne Indians, vol. 1, 1972, p. 234), the dreams known from shamanistic traditions of flying, initiation, and dismemberment, and even the many revelatory dreams of the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) should all properly be considered visions.

Visionary Experience

Contrary to commonly held Western views, having a vision is not a singular or rare event. The father of this Western misconception is once more Thomas Aquinas, who held that the human world and the sacred realm are separated by a wide chasm. A report of a vision was therefore indicative of a rare event, something that could take place only under extraordinary circumstances. In reality, visions are known to all societies, and their use in ritual is widespread.

When a type of behavior thus crosses boundaries, irrespective of ethnic or religious divisions, one may have to look to physical rather than cultural reasons. After all, human beings constitute one species only. Humans all have the same kind of body, the same nervous system. And, indeed, countless reports and modern field observations by anthropologists indicate that, when a person has a vision, certain physical changes occur. In what is popularly called a trance, the pupils may widen, muscles become rigid, and breathing seem shallow. Some visionaries will fall into what appears to be a deep sleep or even a dead faint. In such a trance, as Barbara W. Lex, a medical anthropologist, maintains, two opposing arousals of the nervous system are experienced. Their alternating action produces relaxation, and this accounts for the trance's beneficial effect. Simultaneously, the brain synthesizes β-endorphins (the body's own painkillers), as this writer learned in a study in which the trance experience was induced in a religiously neutral environment. (See Ingrid Müller's M. D. dissertation, University of Freiburg im Breisgau.) These endorphins are thought to be responsible on the biological level for the joy, euphoria, and "sweetness" that are often reported in the visions of Christian mystics. As this writer learned from fieldwork, these physiological changes must be produced before the visions can occur. In some mysterious way, then, the body becomes a perceiving organ for the sacred dimension of reality.

This manner of viewing the visionary event runs counter to another cherished notion inherited from the Middle Ages, namely that humans are dualistic in nature, consisting of a body and a separate soul. Rather, it seems to modern science that human beings are biopsychological systems. This view echoes ideas put forth by Galen, a Greek physician of the second century ce, who contended that mind and matter are different aspects of the same stuff. In other words, not the soul but the entire human being is having the vision.

The ritual trance, or ecstasy, as an altered state of consciousness, is responsible for even basic perceptions of a nonordinary quality. "Hearing" voices is not plain hearing. Those who experience voices can readily distinguish them from ordinary speech. "I do not hear it in so many words," explained a German university student who reported being possessed by demons and hearing Jesus and Mary speaking to her; "I am given to know." (See Felicitas D. Goodman, The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, New York, 1981.) "Seeing" also takes place on a different level. As a blind !Kung San explained, the great god kept his eyeballs for him in a little pouch, giving them to him only during the medicine dance; and when the dance was over, he had to return them to the god. That is, he could see only while in trance. A changed quality is also reported during experience with an incubusthat is, when a spirit has sexual intercourse with a human being. In classical Greek tradition such sexual contact might make a diviner out of a woman, as happened when Apollo "raped" Cassandra. The Inquisition endlessly quizzed women accused of witchcraft concerning intercourse with Satan. When given the chance, these women testified that this was not like making love in ordinary reality.

Under certain circumstances, about which very little is known, clinically healthy human beings may inadvertently create the necessary biopsychological preconditions for a visionary experiencethat is, they may "stray" into it. When this happens, as this writer found during fieldwork observations of a millenarian movement in the Yucatán, in Mexico, a regular pattern will assert itself, which, if experienced in its entirety, will take about thirty-five or forty days. The trance episode is apparently most intense at the beginning, and what is seen by participants during this time typically is white. The man who started the Yucatán millenarian movement initially saw white demons. A woman from another apostolic congregation in the same area saw "white angels on white horses galloping by, carrying white flags, very, very white." From the New Testament it is known that when the women went to Jesus' tomb, whatever they saw therean angel, two angels, two men, or one young manthe vision was bathed in dazzling light, white as snow. The initial vision of Kotama, the founder of Sūkyō Mahikari, one of the "new religions" of Japan, was of a white-haired old man standing in a white cloud. The next phase of the trance is characterized by a gold or orange glow: The Yucatecan apostolic saw burning candles; Kotama's old man was washing clothes in a golden tub. Finally, there is a "double" vision, with ordinary and nonordinary perception overlapping. The Yucatecan went to the cathedral in Mérida and saw a procession of priests whose heads were those of demons. The woman from the other apostolic congregation saw a big Bible fastened above the entrance to the hospital where she was taken. The prophet Muammad watched the angel Gabriel astride the horizon, and no matter which way he turned, the angel was always there on the horizon. The widely reported voices are probably also part of this last phase in many instances, as another superimposition of a visionary (i.e., auditory) perception on the ordinary environment. Kotama's episode, for instance, concluded with a voice telling him his new name and giving him instructions. Eventually the vision dissolves, leaving only ordinary reality as the perceptual field.

Not everyone goes through the entire visionary sequence. It is possible to stray into it anywhere along the way. But whether complete or not, its extraordinary and impressive character can result in a conversion experience for the visionary and if the social configuration is right, religious innovation follows. According to legend, the Buddha's enlightenment came at daybreak after a sequence of visions in which he saw first all his own rebirths, then other beings dying and passing into the five destinies of existence, and finally the chain that bound all beings to continued, recurrent death and rebirth. Muammad's prophethood was heralded by a complete visionary sequence. First he experienced "true visions" resembling the brightness of daybreak. Several days later the angel Gabriel came to him with a coverlet of brocade (gold?) with some writing on it and commanded him to read it. Still later, Muammad beheld Gabriel on the horizon. A hundred years ago Wovoka, the Ghost Dance messiah, told of his vision that, "when the sun died, I went up to heaven and saw God and all the people that had died a long time ago. God told me to come back and tell my people they must be good and love one another, and not fight, or steal, or lie. He gave me this dance to give to my people." And in this century, the cargo cults of Melanesia have been characterized by spontaneously occurring visions. Leaders of various cults have told of hearing voices, seeing lights, and meeting native gods and fairylike beings of the forests and waters. They have spoken, too, of journeys to heaven (an idea borrowed from Westerners) and of visits to the Hiyoyoa, their own otherworld.

While these spontaneous episodes of visionary experience dissolve without the aid of ritual, there is another class of vision in which this is not the case. This is the so-called shamanistic illness, reported predominantly in Asia but also in Africa, North America, and, sporadically, other areas as well. Medical anthropologists suspect that in some instances the triggering mechanism may be biochemical, for example, resulting from a socially prescribed change in nutrition, but such causes cannot often be pinpointed. Its onset is variously signaled by high fever, swelling of either the limbs or the entire body, prolonged unconsciousness, and inability to eat; at times, there is also an indomitable urge to flee into the wilderness. These changes are preceded, accompanied, or followed by visions. The condition, which may linger for years, is classed not only as an illness but also as a sign that the sufferer is destined, singled out by an agency of the sacred ranges of reality, for a future as a religious specialist. Cure is effected by a ritual that is usually initiatory in nature.

One example among many comes from the German ethnographer Peter Snoy. In his book Bagrot (Graz, 1975), Snoy tells of a Yeshkun shaman from the Karakoram Mountains (part of the Himalayan system). When this man was about twenty he was walking home one day when suddenly he saw five fairies dancing in the fields. They did not talk to him, but the next day he had the unconquerable urge to run away into the mountains to join them. He started raging, and five men finally managed to tie him up. He was kept tied up in his house for a whole year, and the fairies visited him several times each day, descending through the smoke hole and singing and dancing for him. Eventually, the man's village arranged an initiation feast for him. A goat was sacrificed, and he drank its blood, which the fairies told him was milk. And for the first time he danced, performing what is in his society an important part of shamanistic séances. Subsequently, the man worked as a healer and diviner.

Reporting from Africa, the British social anthropologist Adrian Boshier, in "African Apprenticeship" (in Parapsychology and Anthropology, New York, 1974), tells the story of Dorca, a Zulu sangoma, that is, a diviner and healer. For three years, Dorca was sick in bed. During this time her spirit left her body every night, and she saw many things and visited places where she had never been. One night in a vision her dead grandfather came to see her. He told her that he liked her very much and that his spirit would enter her body so that she would be able to help her people. She refused, but spirit sangoma s came to her every night, showed her beads and herbs and a feather headdress she was to make, and sang her a song that she was to learn. Finally her grandfather's spirit threatened to kill her if she continued to resist. Her mother thereupon took her to the house of an aunt who was also a sangoma. There Dorca sang the spirit song and danced for many hours. This was the beginning of her training as a sangoma.

In most non-Western societies, visions are an integral part of religious ritual. As Lame Deer says, "By themselves these things [rituals] mean nothing. Without the vision and the power this learning will do no good" (1972, p. 13). It is understandable, therefore, that such societies cannot rely on the fortuitous occurrence of visionary experiences but need ways for inducing them.

Many strategies for inducing visions utilize rhythmic stimulation. Inuit (Eskimo) ritual specialists use drums, as do various Siberian shamans, for whom the drum represents the magic horse on which they ride to the beyond. Such stimulation is so effective that by merely shaking a gourd rattle and using traditional postures, a visionary experience can be induced in volunteers in a religiously neutral environment. (See this writer's article "Body Posture and the Religious Altered State of Consciousness: An Experimental Investigation," Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 1984.) Other methods involve sensory deprivation, as used by the Shakers and by the Spiritual Baptists of Saint Vincent Island in their mourning ritual; isolation and fasting, as practiced by the Oglala Indians and other societies; and fasting and self-mortification, as in the initiation ritual of the Plains Indians, during which adolescents seeking a vision would fast, bathe in icy streams, and crawl naked over jagged rocks in order to acquire a guardian spirit. Christian mystics employed similar strategies. The German monk Suso (Heinrich Süse, c. 12951366), for instance, was able to achieve several visions daily for a period of about sixteen years by fasting extensively and by sleeping in a tight undergarment through which nails protruded into his skin.

Even intense concentration in combination with nothing more than certain breathing techniques may bring about visions, as has been learned from the Chinese Daoist philosopher and mystic Zhuangzi (369286? bce). Zhuangzi told of a master called Ciqi, who "sat leaning on his armrest, staring up at the sky and breathingvacant and far away." The changes wrought in him were striking to his companion, who asked, "What is this? Can you really make the body like a withered tree and the mind like ashes? The man leaning on the armrest now is not the one who leaned on it before" (quoted in Poetry and Speculation of the Rg Veda by Willard Johnson, Berkeley, 1980, p. xxvii). Ciqi explained that by virtue of this change he was able to hear the piping of the earth and the piping of the heavens.

Other societies employ a number of different psychedelics to achieve visions. The use of such drugs goes back to antiquity and is widely distributed geographically. Mushrooms such as the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) were probably known to Mesolithic Paleosiberians (about 8000 bce). Mesoamerica and South America are particularly rich in plants that contain the requisite alkaloids, and many societies there utilize them ritually. But there are also reports of their religious application from every other continent. At first glance, the use of psychedelics seems to represent an easy way of achieving visions, and for this reason many North American Indians reject them. As Lame Deer said contemptuously, "Even the butcher boy at his meat counter will have a vision after eating peyote" (1972, p. 64). Actually, though, matters are not quite that simple. Many of the substances bring about an undifferentiated condition of intoxication, and seeing the right vision requires training. Thus Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, in his book Amazonian Cosmos (Chicago, 1971), discusses the use of Banisteriopsis caapi by the Desana Indians of South America. He tells that during intoxication, the Desana religious specialist needs to learn to see the Milky Way as a road, the hills and pools as communal houses of the spirits, and the animals as people. Those who are unable to go so far in their visions see only clouds and stones, "and the birds laugh at them." In another instance reported by Reichel-Dolmatoff, during a communal rite of the same society, the men take the drug, and the priest, who has abstained, talks them through their visions.

Forms of Visions and Types of Society

It appears that, cross-culturally, the neurophysiology of visionary experience remains the same. Neither does the form in which it is expressed vary much, if one contemplates only the religions of a particular type of society, of agriculturalists, for instance. However, salient differences appear when comparing the religious expression of one societal type with that of another, that of agriculturalists, for example, with that of hunters. There are, of course, syncretic patterns, for societies change, and so do their religions. But it is still possible to recognize certain fundamental forms.

(In the following passages, the "ethnographic present" is used in giving examples from non-Western societies, although in many instances the rituals mentioned have fallen victim to Western conquest and aggressive missionizing.)

Visions of hunter-gatherers

The way of life of the hunter-gatherer is the most ancient and venerable of all human adaptations. Humans' antecedents were hunters and gatherers for a million years or more before any cultivation of the soil was introduced. In such societies that are still extant, visionary experiences are varied, involving a highly sophisticated use of religious trance. Hunter-gatherers understand the ordinary and the nonordinary aspects of reality to be closely intertwined, indeed to coexist in time and space, as one Pygmy elder from the Ituri rain forest expressed it. All adult men can easily switch from seeing ordinary reality to seeing its nonordinary aspect, having learned to do so early on, usually during initiation rites. In the sacred range a man can see the "spirits," that is, the nonordinary aspects of stones, mountains, waters, and winds, of plants, insects, and animals. He sees the spirits of the unborn, one of which he has to take to his wife before she bears his child. The spirits of the dead gather around when a feast is being prepared or during a medicine dance, and they need to be invited to take part. An individual spirit of a dead loved one may appear to teach a man or a woman a new song, game, or ritual. A murderer's essence may loiter at the tomb of his victim, and beings of curious shape may warn the living of danger. If they penetrate someone's body, they make him ill by leaving behind a bone, visible to the healer, who will remove it in a curing ritual by sucking it out. People also tell of seeing strange neighbors, such as the "no-knees" of the San, beings who catch the sun as it sets and kill it. After the sun has been cooked, the no-knees eat it and throw its shoulder blade to the east, where it rises once more.

The most spectacular institutionalized visionary experience of hunter-gatherers, however, is the spirit journey, a perfect expression of the hunter's life way, in which individual initiative is of paramount importance. The Pygmies embark on this journey by "crossing a river." On the "other side," they may visit the realm of the spirits of the dead, where everything is reversed but still as orderly as is earthly existence. For the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert the great god used to let down a cord from the sky by which he allowed the medicine man to climb up to visit him. Nowadays, however, during the medicine dance, medicine men send their spirits out to fly into the veld while their bodies lie lifeless, for there is nothing to hold them up. They might see the spirits of the dead there, or the great god, or perhaps they go because they need to order a lion to stop disturbing people by roaring at night. An Australian medicine man takes a postulant up to the sky by assuming the form of a skeleton and fastening a pouch to himself into which he places the postulant, who is reduced to the size of a very small child. Sitting astride a rainbow, the medicine man pulls himself up with an arm-over-arm action. When near the top, he throws the young man out onto the sky as part of his initiation. An Inuit shaman will swim muscle-naked through rock to the underworld in order to seek out Tornassuq, the earth spirit, and inquire of him the reasons for recent misfortunes of his band. Other spirit journeys, as told of by North American Indians, are undertaken to recover a lost soul, whose absence makes its owner sick.

Visionary experiences serve many important functions within hunter-gatherer society. On the individual level, a vision bestows well-being and strength as well as power to speak impressively, to cure and to divine, and to protect the group against danger from the outside. For the community, visions are a part of many rituals. A spirit journey, for example, is an important communal event. When an Inuit shaman starts out on his trip, the entire village is present, and all are there when he comes back to tell of his adventures. Among the Salish, a tribe of North American Indians, the dramatization of the journey in a spirit canoe in quest of a lost soul is a most impressive performance. What was perceived in a vision is represented on cave walls, or on rocks, painted on bark, or carved in bone for all to see. For a while, such innovative iconography will be confined to the originating group, but unencumbered by written tradition, it eventually diffuses to neighboring bands and even to the wider cultural area, continually reinvigorating religious life.

Visions of horticulturalists

About ten to twelve thousand years ago human beings began growing some of their own food instead of merely collecting it. The areas cultivated were no more than gardens, hence the name horticulturalist. Horticulturalists also continued hunting, some extensively, others less so, depending on the ecology of their respective region. While European tradition retains no memory of the hunter-gatherer past, the horticulturalist way of life is reflected in recorded history. What is known of the Celtic, Germanic, and Greek societies clearly indicates their horticulturalist character. Societies of this type survive in Southeast Asia and, especially, in Mesoamerica and South America. Their members' visions have much in common with those of hunter-gatherers, but not all horticulturalists learn the behavior. Instead, there is a more or less pronounced tendency for religious specialists to assume the spiritual role that is performed by all male hunter-gatherers.

The spirit journey of the hunter-gatherer has undergone significant permutations in various horticulturalist societies. Their legends tell of full-fledged spirit journeys like those of the hunter-gatherers: of the Teutonic god Óðinn (Odin) who travels the earth, of a famous medicine man of the South American Guaraní who calls on First Woman in her maize garden in the mythical East. But horticulturalists cannot explore such distant ranges with impunity. Just as Orpheus cannot retrieve Eurydice from the underworld, no Amazonian Akwe-Shavante can ever visit the village of the spirits of the dead, although some have had offers from the spirits of friendly departed relatives to take them there. Instead, horticulturalists undertake a lesser experience, an actual journey that culminates in the desired vision. Initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece descended into caves; the Huichol Indians of Mexico travel over land in search of peyote; adherents of Shinto climb Mount Fuji. Even the North American Indians' vision quest and their search for the guardian spirit is of this nature. The spirit journey may also be entirely vicarious, as when the Brazilian Yanomamö Indians send their friends, the miniature hekura spirits who live under stones and in mountains, to enemy villages to eat the souls of the children there. (See Napoleon A. Changnon, Yanomamö: The Fierce People, New York, 1977.) Visions are given shape in paintings on rock and in carvings, embroidery, and clay. They invest the practitioner not only with personal stature but also with power that leads to success in curing, hunting, and war, all in the service of the com-munity.

Visions of nomadic pastoralists

Nomadic-pastoralist societies appear in a number of different adaptations. Some such societies arose from hunters who had attached themselves to wild herds of animals, such as reindeer, or from hunters who had acquired pet animals, such as horses, which had expanded into domesticated herds. Other nomadic-pastoralist societies arose as extensions of agriculturalist societies, and still others developed in which only the men are pastoralists, while the women cultivate the soil. The visionary experiences of nomadic pastoralists correlate with the differences in their origins.

Among reindeer herders, for instance, such as the Evenki of northern Siberia, the hunter's richly appointed sacred dimension is still preserved, although it is accessible only to the shaman. In his visions, the shaman constructs the fence that surrounds his clan's territory and protects it against enemy shamans. He communicates with the ruling spirits, the "masters" of waters, mountains, forests, and species of beasts. In his spirit journeys he guides departing souls to the lower world, at which time he must ask the mistress of that world for permission for the soul to enter. He also travels to the upper world, where he calls on Grandfather Spirit and the supreme spirit ruler of all animal and plant life as well as on the spirits of the sun, moon, stars, thunder, clouds, sunset, and daybreak. He even knows the way to the storehouse of the unborn, which is guarded by Bear. In addition, he masters the art of the vicarious spirit journey by swallowing his helping spirits and then sending them out to hunt down a disease spirit or fight an enemy shaman. He is healer and diviner, and the marvelous ritual dramas of his visions were, until their destruction by Soviet authorities, at the heart of his society's social life.

Traditions die hard, however. The Hungarian horse nomads have been cut off from their own cultural area in Inner Asia for over a millennium. By the year 1000 they had been converted to Roman Catholicism, and their economy changed radically. Yet to this day they retain a clandestine shamanistic tradition, with one táltos (shaman) fighting the other in visionary battles, and with "women of knowledge" who are able to see the spirits of the dead.

In passing to a discussion of nomadic-pastoralist societies with important ties to agriculture, this article leaves the visionary world of the hunters entirely behind. The Nilotic Dodoth, for instance, whose women garden while the men tend the cattlea pattern found only in Africahave but one god. This god is so remote and vague that little is known about him. He communicates with humans by such messengers as shooting stars, and no shaman ever visits him, although his worshipers send him sacrificial oxen. The most important ritual specialist among the Dodoth is the diviner, whose oracles have a literal quality: "[Lomotin] would see it raining in a dream, then see a red ox being sacrificed and he would know, when he awoke, that the sacrifice of such an ox would bring rain. He was uncannily right" (Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Warrior Herdsmen, New York, 1965, p. 173).

For the Tuareg, nomads of the Sahara and nominally Islamic, God (Allāh) is equally a distant overseer, who sends the spirits of Islamic saints as messengers, or angels, who are often identified with lightning. In a faint outline of pre-Islamic religion, Tuareg men have dealings with spirits called kel asouf, which attach themselves to their hair, help them divine, and are seen doing battle with each other.

The messenger complex is reminiscent of Judeo-Christian tradition, and, indeed, both Judaism and Islam have their roots in nomadic pastoralism. Angels as messengers abound in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, from the one that spoke to Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, to the heavenly host who announced the birth of Jesus and the white-haired angel wearing a golden girdle who appeared to John according to the Book of Revelation. Muammad's numerous contacts with the angel Gabriel have been mentioned before.

Spirit journeys are reported both of Moses and of Muammad, with the former, for instance, going up Mount Sinai and there encountering God, and the latter rising through the night, ascending to heaven, and conversing with God. Traces of these journeys are even contained in the New Testament, as in Matthew 4:13: "Then Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights and afterwards he was hungry. And the tempter came to him."

The spirit journey was later taken up by the Islamic ūfī mystics. The first one of these to give a personal account of such experiences was Najm al-Dīn (c. 11451223), the famous mystic and teacher of the city of Khorezm, an important center of learning at the time. Among the many mystic experiences he reported are visions of Muammad as well as numerous spirit journeys. (See Die fawāʾih al-ğamāl wa fawāti al-ğalal des Nağmuddīn al-Kubrā, translated by Fritz Meier, Wiesbaden, 1957.) Kubrā's spirit journeys were not metaphorical but were entirely real to him. He experienced the sensations of being lifted off the ground into the air, of being borne aloft by angels, and of flying. It was not his body that flew but "he himself, his heart or holy spirit, which leaves the body through a hole on the right side, opened by the formula of contemplating God." Once in heaven, he encountered God's properties at various locations, and while passing them he incorporated them into his being. Kubrā, who traveled widely and who carried Classical Greek and medieval Christian ideas back with him to Inner Asia, no doubt also knew about the Jewish mystics of his time, such as Mosheh ben Naman (Nahmanides) and perhaps also of the Italian friar Francis of Assisi.

By the early thirteenth century, however, mysticism was no longer part of European popular culture but was, rather, an enterprise of the intelligentsia, who induced mystical experiences for personal enlightenment. In fact, Moses ben Naman was criticized for having made mysticism accessible to the masses, because it gave rise to visionaries, who supposedly were followed blindly by the credulous. Thomas Aquinas's premise that visions are a rarely occurring bridge between the human and the divine must be seen in this context. Barely two generations later, Suso warned some nuns not to attempt any mystic experiences, although he himself had extensive visions. Once, while in a faint, "it seemed to him in a vision that he was being conducted to a choir, where the mass was being sung. A large number of the heavenly host was present in that choir, sent by God, where they were to sing a sweet melody of heavenly sound. This they did, and they sang a new and joyous melody that he had never heard before, and it was so very sweet that it seemed to him that his soul would dissolve for great joy" (Briefbüchlein, translation by this writer). The mystics soon found themselves in opposition to orthodoxy in all three monotheistic traditions, and within the century both Franciscans and ūfīs were being executed for blasphemy. The pagan traditions of popular culture, with its legends of a wild huntsman and witches' sabbaths, deteriorated without institutionalization or support from the larger society, eventually to be wiped out by the Inquisition.

Visions of agriculturalists

As humans turn to tilling ever larger open fields and to the consuming task of exerting control over their habitat, the institutionalization of the visionary experience disappears entirely, and even spontaneous occurrence is suppressed because of its perceived threat to the written tradition. It is difficult, for instance, to gain recognition for a new shrine from the Vatican authorities, because claims of "genuine" visions are rarely credited. The predominant experience in the religions of large agricultural societies, such as Chinese popular religion, Christianity, and Hinduism, is instead spirit possession.

The urban adaptation

The situation in modern urban centers is similar to that in agriculturalist religions. Large urban movements such as pentecostalism or Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian healing cult, as well as some Japanese "new religions," rely on possession. If visions occur at all, they usually come about outside the religious context, as was the case with the near-death experiences investigated by the physician Raymond A. Moody, Jr.

In general, it seems that as human beings develop various adaptations to their habitat beyond that of hunting and gathering, the frequency and rich variety of visionary experience in their world begins to diminish. Indeed, this reduction appears to be in inverse proportion to their control over the habitat, for as control over ordinary reality increases, the grasp on the sacred dimension as it is expressed in visions starts to slip away. In the spirit journey the initiative belongs to humans; in spirit possession humans are manipulated. Institutionalization of the visionary experience causes it to dissolve even fasterin the West, ending with the mystics. Since the biological capacity described earlier remains intact, however, a resurgence of all modes of ecstasy may be seen as more leisure time becomes available in the postindustrial era. Tendencies toward such a development are evident in the countercultures of both the United States and Europe.

See Also

Angels; Cargo Cults; Drums; Hierophany; Images; Psychedelic Drugs; Revelation; Shamanism; Spirit Possession.


A well-written biography of Francis of Assisi incorporating much recent research is Adolf Holl's The Last Christian, translated by Peter Heinegg (Garden City, N. Y., 1980). The Complete Works of Saint Teresa of Jesus, 3 vols., translated and edited by E. Allison Peers (New York, 1946), contains illuminating accounts of the mystic experiences of Teresa of Ávila. In the section entitled "Interior Castle" she describes her pioneering attempt to protect her nuns from the Inquisition by pointing to illness as a possible cause for visions. Hans Peter Duerr's Dreamtime (Oxford, 1984), reviews the prehistory and later struggles of pagan religion in Europe that involved contact with the sacred dimension, with special regard to the role of women. The footnotes in particular contain a wealth of interesting material. An excellent study of Sufism is Annemarie Schimmel's Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1975).

Carlos Castaneda's work, especially The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (Berkeley, Calif., 1968) and A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan (New York, 1971), whether entirely reliable ethnographically or not, still represents a graphic description of the feel of altered states of consciousness. For an unimpeachably authentic view of American Indian visionary experience, Black Elk Speaks (1961; reprint, Lincoln, Nebr., 1979), as told by the holy man of the Oglala Lakota through John G. Neihardt, the poet laureate of Nebraska, remains unsurpassed. The anthropologist Michael Harner, in The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing (New York, 1980), provides instructions for self-experimentation on the basis of what he learned in his fieldwork with Indian societies of South America. The interest of the counterculture in such experiments is reviewed in Tom Pinkson's study A Quest for Vision (San Francisco, 1976). A readable collection of case histories of near-death experiences was put together by Raymond A. Moody, Jr., in Life after Life (New York, 1975).

New Sources

Amat, Jacqueline. Songes et visions. L'au-delà dans la littérature latine tardive. Paris, 1985.

Benz, Ernst. Vision und Offenbarung. Gesammelte Swedenborg-Aufsätze. Zürich, 1979. Vision as revelation in the experience of Swedenborg.

Casadio, Giovanni. "Patterns of Vision in Some Gnostic Tractates from Nag Hammadi." In Actes du IVe Congrès copte, II. De la linguistique au gnosticisme, pp. 395401. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, 1992. Including a selected bibliography on visions in Gnosticism.

Couliano, Ioan Petru, Expériences de l'extase. Paris, 1984. A typology of visionary experiences from Greek antiquity until Middle Ages.

Goodman, Felicitas. Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality. Bloomington and Indianapolis, Ind., 1988. An theory of religion based on the study of religious trances and controlled dreams in a cross-disciplinary perspective.

Holm, Nils G. Religious Ecstasy. Stockholm, 1982. A collection of essays by Scandinavian scholars tackling visionary experiences in psycho-physiological research and historical case-studies from primal cultures to Book religions.

Zinser, Hartmut. "Ekstase." In Handbuch religionswissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe, vol. 2, pp. 253258. Stuttgart, 1990. Stuttgart, 1990.

Sogni, visioni e profezie nell'antico cristianesimo edited by the Institutum Patristicum augustinianum. Rome, 1989. Dreams, visions and prophecies in early Christianity and Gnosticism.

Felicitas D. Goodman (1987)

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