The belief in invisibility is an ancient one in religion, folklore, and superstition. The soul or vital principle in human beings could not be established visibly, and after death was presumed to inhabit an invisible realm, also peopled by angelic and demonic entities not visible to normal human sight. Even in modern times, the concept of the astral plane and of heaven and hell in some invisible dimension of space rather than a distant position in the cosmos still persists, and has relevance to the belief in apparitions or ghosts of the dead that may become visible and then vanish under certain circumstances. In Spiritualism, such appearances and disappearances of phantom forms are claimed in the phenomena of materialization and dematerialization.
Although the concept of an invisible world that may sometimes be made visible is at variance with the known scientific machinery of vision and the function of the eyes, there remains the philosophical problem that the actual nature of empirical reality cannot be established scientifically through human senses, although there is consistency in the common experience of vision, touch, and other sensory impressions that are validated by sensations in the brain. The idealist school of philosophy stemming from Bishop Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, and others holds that there are no physical objects existing apart from thought and experience, and the theist claims that the consistency of mental experience derives from divine law.
Much of the great body of superstition, folklore, and sorcery relating to visibility and invisibility derives from the earliest experiences of humankind and the prescientific observation of natural phenomena incorporated in religious and magical beliefs. Many of these beliefs appear untenable to scientifically trained minds.
Invisibility in Folklore
A constant motif in folktales throughout the world is the power of becoming invisible, giving the possessor of this power special advantages in overhearing an enemy's plans, winning battles with powerful adversaries, or merely stealing valuable objects unperceived. Usually invisibility was conferred by an object or garment, such as a magic ring, stone, cap, shoes, or cloak. Such magic possessions were sometimes associated with other powers—the shoes that carry the wearer great distances in a brief moment, the ring that could be rubbed to summon up a genie, the cap that conferred wisdom, or vision of distant or future events.
In Greek legend, the hero Perseus, who slew the Gorgon, had magic shoes that carried him through the air, in addition to a cap of invisibility. In the ancient Sanskrit story book Kathasaritsagara (Ocean of Story) of Somadeva, the Brahmin Gunarsarman becomes invisible by putting a magic ointment on his eyes, and is thus able to penetrate the camp of King Vikramaskti.
The cloak of invisibility is known in folktales throughout Europe, and even in the Apache Indian legends of America, where Child-of-the-Water gets a cloak from Lizard, enabling him to get near to the monster Buffalo without being seen. In Arthurian legend, the king himself had a cloak of invisibility.
The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1932-36) compiled by Stith Thompson lists 28 magic objects that confer invisibility, including a stone, flower, serpent's crown, heart of an unborn child, belt, cloak, saint's cowl, ring, helmet, sword, and wand. For example, it was long believed that fern seed conferred invisibility, but the seed itself was supposed to be invisible, so anyone who could find this seed and carry it would also become invisible. The fern was said to bloom at midnight on Midsummer Eve, and to seed soon after. The seeker of the seed had to avoid touching it, or letting it fall on the ground. A white cloth had to be placed under the plant for the invisible seed to fall on. It could then be wrapped up and carried around, rendering the owner invisible. Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Beaumont, and Fletcher all have references in their plays to fern seed conferring invisibility, and this belief continued in folklore centuries later.
Another persistent folk belief was the power of the "Hand of Glory." This was the dried or pickled hand of a dead criminal hanged on the gallows. Robbers were supposed to be invisible if they carried this gruesome hand with a candle made from the fat of a hanged man. Sometimes the fingers of the hand were used as candles, and a finger lit for each occupant of the house to be robbed, ensuring that they would remain motionless.
The Rev. Richard Barham, in his Ingoldsby Legends (1840 etc.) versified this belief in "The Nurse's Story, The Hand of Glory."
On January 3, 1831, a gang of thieves attempted to rob the house of a Mr. Napier in Loughcrew, County Meath, Ireland. They broke into the house carrying a Hand of Glory and a candle, believing that it would prevent the occupants from waking. However, the Hand of Glory failed to keep the inmates asleep, and the robbers fled, leaving their talisman behind.
Invisibility in Sorcery and Witchcraft
A Manuscript (No. 2350) titled "Le Secret des Secrets" in the Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal in France, contains a chapter devoted to the secret of invisibility. It consists of a spell in Latin, which opens with over thirty mystical names, preferably to be written in bat's blood, and continues in a mixture of Christian and pagan tradition with an invocation translated as:
"O thou, Pontation! master of invisibility, with thy masters [here follow names of the masters], I conjure thee, Pontation, and these same masters of invisibility, by Him Who makes the universe tremble, by Heaven and Earth, Cherubim and Seraphim, and by Him Who made the Virgin conceive and Who is God and Man, that I may accomplish this experiment in perfectibility, in such sort that at any hour I desire I may be invisible; again I conjure thee and thy ministers also, by Stabuches and Mechaerom, Esey, Enitgiga, Bellis, and Semonei, that thou come straightway with thy said ministers and that thou perform this work as you all know how, and that this experiment may make me invisible in such wise that no one may see me. Amen."
According to other grimoires, invisibility may be achieved by simply carrying the heart of a bat, a black hen, or a frog under the right arm.
Another method is to construct and wear the Ring of Gygès, King of Lydie. It should be made of fixed mercury, set with a little stone found in a lapwing's nest, and around the stone the words "Jésus passant par le milieu d'eux s'en allat" are inscribed. A variant instruction for the Ring of Gygès is contained in the grimoire Le Véritable Dragon Rouge … plus La Poule Noire (1521), where the inscription is in magical symbols.
The Second Book of the Secrets of Albertus Magnus contains the following formula:
" If thou wilt be made Invisible.
"LVII. Take the Stone which is called Ophethalminus, and wrap it in the leafe of the Laurell or Bay tree. And it is called Lapis Obtelmicus, whose colour is not named, for it is of many colours, and it is of such virtue that it blindeth the sights of them that stand about. Constantinus carrying this in his hand, was made invisible therewith."
The seventeenth-century grimoire The Lemegeton of Solomon or Book of the Spirits contains the names of spirits who may be invoked in a crystal at a set hour and used for magical purposes by means of their mystical seals. These include:
"BAAL. This is the name of one of the most powerful of all kinds of demons. He may present himself as a man with a human head—or that of a cat or toad. Occasionally he is seen with all at once. Speaking in a hoarse voice, he gives knowledge of all kinds, and tells the means to obtain invisibility.
"GLASYALABOLAS is a powerful President, whose importance is belied by his appearance as a winged dog. In addition to teaching all sciences, he causes murder, makes men invisible and knows all about the past, present and future."
The Grimorium Verum (True Grimoire) of the sixteenth century or earlier, contains the following black magic instuctions:
" To Make Oneself Invisible. Collect seven black beans. Begin the ritual on a Wednesday before sunrise. Then take the head of a dead man and put one of the black beans in his mouth, two in his eyes and two in his ears. Then make upon his head the character of MORAIL. Afterwards bury the head with the face upwards, and for nine days before sunrise water it each morning with good brandy. On the eighth day you will find the spirit mentioned, who will say to you: 'What wilt thou?' You will reply: 'I am watering my plant.' Then the Spirit will say: 'Give me the Bottle, I desire to water it myself.' In response, refuse him, even although he will ask you again. Then he will reach out with his hand and will show you the same figure which you had drawn upon the head. Now you can be certain that this is the right spirit, the spirit of the head. There is a danger that some other Spirit might try to trick you, which would have evil consequences—and in that case your operation would not succeed. Then you may give him the bottle and he will water the head and depart. On the next day, which is the ninth, when you return you will find that the beans are germinating. Take them and put them in your mouth, or in that of a child. Those which do not confer invisibility are to be reburied with the head."
Invisibility in Spiritual Development
Invisibility is one of the siddhis or occult powers traditionally marking the progress of the Indian yogi on the pathway to higher spiritual development. Other siddhis include knowledge of past incarnations, access to the minds of others, knowledge of the time of one's death, and of hidden things, of movements and positions of stars and planets, freedom from hunger and thirst, the ability to walk through space and time, or to enter other bodies, and to become light or heavy at will, and to levitate.
In the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, a standard yoga treatise (ca. 3rd century B.C.E. , Chapter III, 21), it is stated:
"By Samyana [combined concentration-absorption-trance] on the form of the body, suspending the power of another to see it, there follows disappearance of the body."
However, such powers are regarded only as signs of progress, and their use for personal gain or to impress others is considered to be a serious obstacle to spiritual development.
In The Kingdom of the Lost (1947), J. A. Howard Ogdon offers an account of the use of such yoga techniques to create invisibility, The author suffered from schizophrenia, and after a period of voluntary treatment at a British mental hospital was improperly certified as a lunatic and confined to a mental institution. During his incarceration, he practiced hatha yoga intensively without the knowledge of the authorities, and perfected techniques of mental concentration and suggestion.
In 1941, he escaped from the institution in broad daylight in full view of some forty other patients and the hospital attendants. His pockets were bulging with food for his journey and he wore a raincoat and carried a full shopping bag, as well as a gas mask container (gas masks were issued to all civilians during World War II in Britain). He claims that through mental concentration he walked openly past fifty or sixty individuals and out through the front door of the institution without being perceived or challenged by anyone.
Naturally such a claim from a former mental patient must be treated with caution, but it is clear that Ogdon was an intelligent and well-read individual with a very rational view of his illness. The possibility of establishing an atmosphere of mass suggestion is not implausible. Some modern hypnotists have claimed to make individuals invisible to a hypnotized subject, so that he or she apparently sees right through them, even if they may be sitting in chairs.
Scientific Aspects of Invisibility
Aside from the fantasies and wish-fulfillment stories of folklore, or the interference with normal visual perception by means of hypnosis, the possibility of scientific techniques of invisibility has long been a matter for speculation. There are many accounts of seeing apparitions, but no adequate scientific explanation of how invisible forms can become visible, then again vanish. Where do they come from and where do they go? Ingenious theories have been advanced of intra-atomic space or interlocking universes, but outside the realm of science fiction literature there is no evidence for extra-dimensional worlds.
Spiritualists claim that phantom forms of the dead may manifest at séances using a subtle substance exuded by the medium in a vapor or cloud-like flow, becoming more solid and eventually taking on the form of a deceased person and having the appearance of a living individual as in the case of "Katie King." This substance is known as ectoplasm, is said to be sensitive to light, and to recoil suddenly upon the medium if handled roughly. The process of becoming visible then vanishing again is known as materialization and dematerialization. Few today would argue for the existence of ectoplasm, or materializations. Since such claimed phenomena usually occur in subdued light or darkness, there is opportunity for fraud, and many cases have been detected. There remain a few reported cases of apparitions appearing in daylight.
Any scientific method of producing invisibility in human beings would involve apparently insuperable difficulties of interference with the light refracting characteristics of various types of human tissue and organs, and to be fully effective, the individual would need to be transparent as well as invisible. Unless the invisibility process also applied to inanimate material such as clothing, the invisible being would be obliged to travel naked, a problem vividly portrayed in H. G. Wells' science fiction novella The Invisible Man (1897).
A high level of skepticism is therefore inevitable in considering the claim that a top secret U.S. Navy experiment in 1943 succeeded in rendering the destroyer Eldridge and its crew temporarily invisible and teleporting it from its berth in Philadelphia to Norfolk, Virginia. Some of the crew members were said to have disappeared without trace, others to have gone mad, or to have met alien beings. Authors Charles Berlitz and William Moore suggest that the experiment involved using an intensified force field around the ship, deriving from the principles of Einstein's Unified Field Theory.
Another book, Invisible Horizons (1964) by Vincent Gaddis, attempts to link the Philadelphia Experiment story with the Bermuda Triangle mystery. All this is fascinating but highly speculative and lacking firm evidence. The Office of Naval Research firmly denies the whole story, and the Department of the Navy, Office of Information, states: "ONR has never conducted any investigations on invisibility, either in 1943 or at any other time." A 1984 movie The Philadelphia Experiment further fictionalized the story.
Berlitz, Charles, and William Moore. The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility. N.p., 1979.
Moore, William L., and Charles Berlitz. The Philadelphia Experiment. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1979.
- Abaris magic arrow made him invisible. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 1]
- agate confers this power. [Rom. Folklore: Brewer Dictionary,15]
- Ariel invisible spirit plays tricks on the castaways. [Br. Drama: Shakespeare The Tempest ]
- Cheshire cat vanishes at will; grin the last feature to go. [Br. Lit.: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ]
- chrysoprase put in mouth, renders bearer invisible. [Gem Symbolism: Kunz, 67–68]
- Emperor’s New Clothes supposed to be invisible to anyone unworthy of his post. [Dan. Lit.: Andersen “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in Andersen’s Fairy Tales ]
- fern seed makes bearer invisible. [Western Folklore: Brewer Dictionary, 406]
- glory, hand of severed hand of hanged man renders bearer invisible. [Western Folklore: Leach, 477]
- Gyges’s ring confers this power. [Gk. Folklore: Brewer, Dictionary, 497]
- Harvey six-foot rabbit invisible to everyone but the play’s protagonist. [Am. Lit.: Benét, 444]
- heliotrope effective if drunk with proper invocations. [Medieval Folklore: Boland, 43]
- Invisible Man (Griffin) character made invisible by chemicals. [Br. Lit.: Invisible Man ]
- Mambrino’s Helmet golden helmet makes wearer invisible. [Span. Lit.: Don Quixote ]
- Perseus’s helmet made him invisible when he killed Medusa. [Gk. Myth.: Metamorphoses ]
- Reynard the Fox’s ring when ring becomes green, Reynard is invisible. [Medieval Lit.: Reynard the Fox ]
- tarnhelm golden helmet that allowed its wearer to assume any form or even become invisible. [Ger. Opera: Wagner The Ring of the Nibelung ]
- tarnkappe cloak taken from the Nibelungs by Siegfried grants the wearer invisibility and strength. [Ger. Lit.: Nibelungenlied ]