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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)

Revised Bibliography

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The Hebrew Bible contains descriptions of many visions, especially those of God and His angel (or angels). When the appearance of God is mentioned as part of the biblical narrative, it is difficult to say if, in that specific case, the author thought that it was reality or a vision. The idea developed already at a very ancient period of Judaism that God has no shape, and, therefore, the appearance of God and His angels to the prophets was evidently understood by them as a vision (see *Prophecy). This is surely so in the case of Ezekiel's vision of God and the heavenly world. Prophets, however, have also seen visions of simple or imaginary objects and persons, which they interpreted in a symbolic way, the persons or objects themselves having already acquired a symbolic meaning. At the beginning of the Second Temple period visions were often interpreted to the prophets by an angel. This is also the manner of visions and their interpretation by angels in the later apocalyptic literature.

It may be asked if the later prophets at the beginning of the Second Temple period really believed they saw what they describe and interpret, or if visions merely became a literary form for prophecy or teaching. Sometimes, such descriptions evidently contained only a grain of actual vision (cf. the apocalyptic literature), and sometimes there was obviously no actual foundation (cf. the Vision of Seventy Shepherds in the Book of Enoch). In many cases (e.g., in the Fourth Book of Ezra), the question of an actual basis for a symbolic vision cannot be clearly answered, because this often depends on the extent to which the true author persuaded himself. The literary convention overcomes the religious or visionary experience in apocalyptic literature, because the authors did not write in their own names, but in the names of biblical persons of the past. A special type of vision in the apocalyptic literature is celestial journeys of biblical personalities, during which they visited both heaven and earth (heavenly paradise and hell). The oldest book which contains such visionary trips is the Book of Enoch; this book is thus the beginning of a chain leading to Dante. Chapter 14 in the book contains a description of God's heavenly palace, where Enoch sees the Glory of God. This is the oldest example in the tradition of visionary ascents to God's dwelling place following similar descriptions by biblical prophets, the earliest precursors of the heikhalot and the *Merkabah literature. A fragment describing God's dwelling place in the same spirit is also preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Jewish mystics in antiquity, as well as other persons, definitely had visionary experiences. Josephus refers to John Hyrcanus, who saw God announcing to him which of his sons would be his heir. Both Josephus and rabbinic literature relate that John Hyrcanus heard a heavenly voice in the Temple announcing the victory of his sons. This heavenly voice (*bat kol) is often attested in rabbinical literature; the incidents referred to are both from the Second Temple period and later. Rabbinic literature often mentions the appearance of the prophet Elijah (see *Elijah in the Aggadah); the oldest reference comes from Ben Sira (48:11; "blessed is he who sees him"). The Second Book of Maccabees often speaks about visions of angels, especially as signs for future victory. The story of the appearance of angels to Heliodoros and punishment meted through them, narrated in this book, are also famous.

[David Flusser]

In Medieval Hebrew Literature

Following the prophetic visions in the Bible, and the frequent appearance of angels and other divine beings in talmudic and midrashic literature, medieval literature contains many descriptions of different kinds of visions. They appear chiefly in mystical works, but they are also to be found in the fiction of the period (see *Fiction) as well as in its popular literature. The fundamental Jewish tenet that God and His guardian angels are always close to man served as a basis for the belief in the objective reality of such visions. There prevailed, moreover, a profound belief in the existence of *demonic powers, which were also held to reveal themselves supernaturally.

The earliest body of Hebrew mystical works – the heikhalot and the Merkabah literature – is essentially devoted to visions. The mystics who make the ascent to the Divine Chariot, a practice usually attributed in these texts to R. Akiva and R. Ishmael b. Elisha and their circle, behold and then describe the glory of the heavenly world, the hierarchy of the angels and other heavenly beings, the Throne of Glory (kisse hakavod), and the songs of praise sung by the angels. The visitors are usually guided by an angel, very often *Metatron, the angelic incarnation of the mortal Enoch, who did not die but was translated to heaven and became one of the greatest angels in the divine hierarchy. This motif of a visionary "guided tour" in the divine world reappears in the literature of the Middle Ages.

early middle ages

In the literature of medieval Europe, visions were most commonly seen in a dream; they might either occur spontaneously or be deliberately invoked. Whoever wished to invoke a vision would purify himself before going to sleep, and then ask she'elat ḥalom ("a question asked of a dream"), believing that his question would be answered by the nature of the dream that he was about to have. It was customary to make a she'elat ḥalom not only for matters relating to mysticism but also in connection with practical problems; and even questions of halakhah were answered in this way. A collection of such answers by *Jacob of Marvège is still extant, and it is known that other halakhists made similar compilations. The answer in the dream was frequently, although not always, accompanied by a vision.

Neither the mystic nor the ordinary Jew doubted the objective reality or the authenticity of angelic and demonic visions; even philosophers and Ashkenazi ḥasidic scholars (see *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz) devoted lengthy treatises to the nature of such visions, and also to those witnessed by the prophets. But most of the philosophers, and some of the Ḥasidim, believed the visions, albeit inspired by God, to be a product of the imagination of the individual. This view, however, was not widely accepted and both scholars and simple folk told and retold numerous stories of visions reported to have been seen.

One of the most common beliefs concerned the prophet Elijah, who did not die but ascended to the heavens. Following the pattern of talmudic literature, countless medieval folktales recount how he appeared to human beings in order to assist or to punish them. For scholars and mystics his most important role was that of teaching to mortal beings hidden truths which were known only to the *Academy on High. Thus, contemporaneous with the initial development of the Kabbalah in Provence in the 12th century are stories describing how Elijah appeared in the schools of the rabbis who were teaching the new ideas there.

At the same time, it was commonly believed, especially among the Jews of medieval Germany, Northern France, and Central Europe, that demons and the spirits of the dead appeared in visions to the living, either when they were awake or else in a dream. Many descriptions of such visions have been preserved in *Sefer Ḥasidim and other works written by the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz. The object of the visions was not always the same. Sometimes the dead appeared in order to request the completion of an act which they had begun in their lifetime but had not lived to finish; sometimes it was to pay a debt, or to complain of a fault in the way or the place in which they were buried. Sometimes they spoke of the other world, of the way that the righteous were rewarded and the wicked punished. Demons made their appearance either when invoked by magical means in order to perform a certain task, or else to punish those who had dealt too much in magic. One of the methods most widely used to invoke such visions was to pour oil upon a bright surface, whereupon the demons appeared and were obliged to answer any request asked of them. This practice was used even for such purposes as catching a thief or finding a lost article.

Later Middle Ages

There are manifold descriptions of visions in the kabbalistic literature written after the 13th century. The prophetic kabbalism of Abraham b. Samuel *Abulafia and his followers is merely one example; many other kabbalists had mystical experiences – sometimes when awake, sometimes when in a state of dream or trance – and in these visions they were granted revelations of hidden truths from the heavenly spheres. *Isaac b. Samuel of Acre describes in detail the frequent visitations which he received from Metatron, some in dreams and some while he was in the state between sleeping and waking; he also had revelations from even higher Sefirot. The 14th-century author of Sefer ha-*Kanah and of Sefer ha-*Temunah relates numerous stories describing how esoteric knowledge was revealed to members of the devout Kanah family, many of whom were mystics. The Castilian kabbalists that gathered around Jacob ha-Kohen b. Mordecai Gaon and his sons and disciples in the second half of the 13th century also give accounts of such contacts with higher beings.

The *Zohar contains numerous descriptions of visions revealed to Simeon b. Yoḥai and his followers. For example, while the mystics were sitting and studying the Kabbalah, heavenly fire surrounded them, the *Shekhinah rested upon them, and they saw allegorical visions of hidden truths. Some of these revelations also intimate the appearance of evil powers representing Satan, the sitra aḥra. Later kabbalistic writings, modeling themselves upon the Zohar and the descriptions which it gave, also narrated occurrences in the higher spheres as if they were visions actually witnessed by the kabbalists.

Visions of a completely different nature appear in some literary works, and particularly in Hebrew maqamāt and prose narratives, for instance in Ibn Zabarra or Al-Ḥarizi, or in some polemic writings, such as the Mostrador de Justicia of the Converso Abner de Burgos, where "a big man" appears in dreams for explaining the "craziness and stupidity" of the Jews that do not recognize the truth. Something equivalent appears also in a rhymed prose composition written as an answer to it by Samuel ibn Sasson, a poet from Carrion and a contemporary of *Santob de Carrion.

Later Writings

The motif of visionary ascents to higher spheres, with an angel or some other divine being as a guide, appeared very frequently in Hebrew literature after the works of Dante became popular, and after *Immanuel b. Solomon of Rome followed Dante in describing a visit to heaven and hell (although even before Dante, Abraham *Ibn Ezra had dealt with a similar theme in his Ḥai Ben Mekiẓ). In Italy from the Renaissance on, many Hebrew writers composed works of a similar nature, one of the most notable being Abraham b. Hananiah de Galicchi *Jagel's Sefer Gei Ḥizzayon ("Book of the Valley of Visions"). The author, who was in prison at the time, relates how his dead father visited him and took his soul upon a visionary tour of the heavens. There many secrets were revealed to them, different spirits told them stories, and answers were given to their theological questions.

The Shekhinah, Metatron, and other heavenly beings appear frequently in the later Kabbalah, usually in order to reveal divine secrets. After the 16th century they were often described as *maggid (heavenly mentor), and important kabbalistic works were written as if dictated by them, as for example Joseph *Caro's Maggid Meisharim and Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto's Zohar Tinyana.

Visions constituted an important element in the *Shabbatean movement founded by the prophet *Nathan of Gaza, and many of its adherents described the different messianic visions that were revealed to them. Belief in visions persisted in the ḥasidic movement as late as the 18th century, and several stories of *Israel b. Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov describe how his soul ascended to heaven and the visions he experienced there.

[Joseph Dan]


Scholem, Mysticism, 119–56 and passim; idem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition (1960); E. Gottlieb, in: Fourth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Papers, 2 (1968), 327–34; R. Margaliot, She'elot u-Teshuvot min ha-Shamayim (1957); R.J.Z. Werblowsky, Joseph Karo; Lawyer and Mystic (1962), 38–83; J. Dan, in: Tarbiz, 32 (1963), 359–69; A.Z. Aescoly (ed.), R. Ḥayyim Vital, Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot (1954).

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Avision consists of something seen other than by ordinary sight. Throughout the centuries, mystics, prophets, and ordinary people from all religions have experienced visions from their deities or higher levels of consciousness that have informed them, warned them, or enlightened them. From Genesis to Revelation in the Bible, God uses visions and dreams as a principal means of communicating with his prophets and his people. In Numbers 12:6, God declares, "If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make Myself known to him in a vision and speak to him in a dream." And in Joel 2:28: "And it shall come to pass afterward that I shall pour out my spirit upon flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions."

The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides (11351204) conceived of revelations received through visions as a continuous emanation from the Divine Being, which is transmitted to all those men and women who are endowed with a certain imaginative faculty and who have achieved a certain moral and mental standard. The revelatory transmission is filtered through the medium of the active intellect, first to the visionary's rational faculty, then to his or her imaginative faculty. In this way the distribution of prophetic illumination occurs in conformity with a natural law of emanation.

Roman Catholic scholarship holds that there are two kinds of visions. One is the imaginative vision, in which the object seen is but a mental concept of symbol, such as Jacob's Ladder leading up to heaven. St. Teresa of Avila (1511582) had numerous visions, including images of Christ, which church authorities have judged were of this symbolic kind of vision. The other is the corporeal vision, in which the figure seen is externally present or in which a supernatural power has so modified the retina of the eye as to produce the effect of three-dimensional solidarity.

In 1976 an extensive survey conducted by the administrators of the Gallup Poll indicated that 31 percent of Americans had experienced an "otherworldly" feeling of union with a divine being. The survey was based on in-home interviews with adults in more than 300 scientifically selected localities across the nation, and a further breakdown of the percentages revealed that 34 percent of the women polled and 27 percent of the men admitted that they had had a "religious experience."

To refute the often-heard suggestion that people with little formal education are more likely to undergo such experiences, the poll disclosed little difference in the educational level of the respondents: college background, 29 percent; high school, 31 percent; grade school, 30 percent. According to the pollsters, "Whether one regards these experiences as in the nature of self-delusion or wishful thinking, the important fact remains that, for the persons concerned, such experiences are very real and meaningful. Most important, perhaps, is the finding that these religious experiences are widespread and not limited to particular groups [or] one's circumstances in liferich or poor, educated or uneducated, churched or unchurched."

According to a press release issued by the Gallup office in Princeton, New Jersey, these kinds of experiences "appear to have a profound effect on the outlook and direction of a person's life." A 29-year-old office worker in Lynnwood, Washington, told a Gallup interviewer that she had been reading the Bible one night and was unable to sleep. A vision appeared to her that rendered her frozen, motionless. "I saw an unusual light that wasn't therebut was," she said. "There was a greater awareness of someone else being in that room with me. And ever since, it is as if someone else is walking with me."

A spokesperson for the Gallup Poll commented: "One of the most interesting aspects of these phenomena is that they happen to the nonchurched and the nonreligious as well as to persons who attend church regularly or who say religion plays an important role in their lives."

On January 23, 1994, USA Today published the results of an analysis of the most comprehensive data available at that time of private religious experience based on a national sociological survey conducted for the National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, which reveals that more than two-thirds of Americans claim to have had at least one mystical experience. According to Jeffrey S. Levin, an associate professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, Virginia, such experiences as visions and the feeling of being connected to a powerful spiritual force that elevates one's consciousness are reported less by those people who are active in church or synagogue. All types of mystical experiences have been around since "time immemorial," Levin acknowledges, but "some kind of stigma" may have prevented people from reporting them. However, while only 5 percent of the population has such experiences somewhat regularly, such occurrences are becoming "more common with each successive generation."

As these many polls and surveys demonstrate, visions come to the religious, the non-religious, and the antireligious alike. To the psychologist, these experiences may be revelations of the personal unconscious of the individual and attempts at psychic integration or psychic wholeness. Dr. Robert E. L. Masters and Dr. Jean Houston were among the first researchers to have recognized that throughout history people have sought altered states of consciousness as gateways "to subjective realities." At their Foundation for Mind Research, which they established in 1966, they concluded on the basis of hundreds of experiments with normal, healthy persons that the "brain-mind system has a built-in contact point with what is experienced as God, fundamental reality, or the profoundly sacred." (Time, October 5, 1970).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, scientists have begun asking if the "brain-mind system," with its built-in contact point with God or a greater reality that produces such mystical experiences as visions, can be better explained in terms of neural networks, neurotransmitters, and brain chemistry. Philadelphia scientist Andrew Newberg, who wrote the book Why God Won't Go Away (2001), says that the human brain is set up in such a way as to have spiritual and religious experiences. Michael Persinger, a professor of neuroscience at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, conducts experiments with a helmet-like device that runs a weak electro-magnetic signal around the skulls of volunteers. Persinger claims that four in five people report a mystical experience of some kind when they don this magnetic headpiece. Matthew Alper, author of The "God" Part of the Brain (1998), a book about the neuroscience of belief, goes so far as to declare that dogmatic religious beliefs that insist that particular faiths are unique, rather than the results of universal brain chemistry, are irrational and dangerous.

Daniel Batson, a University of Kansas psychologist who studies the effect of religion on people, states that the brain may be the hardware through which religion is experienced, but for certain neurotheologians to say that the brain produces religion "is like saying a piano produces music." In his book The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith (2000), Robert Pollack concedes that religious experience may seem irrational to a materialistic scientist, but he argues that irrational experiences are not necessarily unreal. In fact, he states, they can be just as real, just as much a part of being human, as those things which are known through reason.

Numerous believers in the possibility of experiencing visions and religious apparitions argue that if God created the universe, wouldn't it make sense that he would wire the human brain so it would be possible to have mystical experiences?

Huston Smith (1919 ), author of The World's Religions (first published as The Religions of Man in 1958), was six weeks short of earning his Ph.D. in naturalistic theisma philosophical system that emphasizes science over religionwhen he happened to read philosopher Gerald Heard's (18891971) sympathetic treatment of the mystical experience in Pain, Sex and Time (1939). Smith said that he experienced an epiphany when he read Heard's argument that mysticism is the true experience of God. He completed his degree in naturalistic theism, but for the next 45 years he has sought out the mystic path in every religion he has encountered. In Why Religion Matters: The Future of Faith in an Age of Disbelief (2001), Smith seeks to explain the differences between science and religion. Where science attempts to define reality through numbers, formulas, and facts, religion strives to know it through spiritual practice and devotion. "Scientism," the belief that only science has all the answers, ultimately fails when it attempts to answer the questions that have troubled humans since the beginning of human existencewho are wewhy are we here, and how should we behave while we are here?

Writer Eddie Ensley believes that the visionary dimension of spirituality has the ability to transform a person and reconnect humanity to its innate yearning for God. Ensley, of Native American descent, states in Visions: The Soul's Path to the Sacred (2000), that human beings are "fashioned to see God" and nurture a "deep desire for this mystery and an ability to be open to it and receive it." Ensley, who has a master's degree in pastoral ministry from Loyola University in New Orleans, also says that the Christian, Jewish, and Native American ancestors "understood the subtle interrelationships of flesh and spirit more accurately than we do. When they received visions, they knew what to do with them."

Because sociological, psychological, and religious research have all discovered that visions are much more common than scholars once believed, Ensley is of the opinion that such experiences should be treated differently by both the church and society at large. "People who have mystical experiences are not crazy," he said. "Some research suggests that they tend to be (mentally) healthier."

Numerous studies substantiate Ensley's high opinion regarding the mental health of visionaries. Among such studies is one conducted by psychologists at Carleton University of Ottawa, Canada, published in the November 1993 issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, in which they reported that those individuals examined who had "seemingly bizarre experiences," such as mystical visions, missing time, and so forth, were just as intelligent and psychologically healthy as other people. Recognizing that their findings contradicted the previously held notion that such individuals had "wild imaginations" and could be "easily swayed into believing the unbelievable," the psychologists who had administered an extensive battery of psychological tests to the subjects found that they tended to be "white-collar, relatively well-educated representatives of the middle class."

Albacete, a Roman Catholic priest and a professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, acknowledges that until recently psychiatric orthodoxy held the view that the more "sensational a person's religious experience (voices, visionsextraordinary missions), the more pathological the underlying conflict." Then, in 1994, the American Psychiatric Association softened its position and officially recognized the "religious or spiritual" as a normal dimension of life.

"As a believer and as a priest, as well as a former scientist," Albacete says that he finds himself "somewhat nervous about this blurring." He suggests that it is only right that psychiatrists and neurologists should find it difficult to incorporate the transcendent into scientific methodology and that they should look upon mystics and visionaries as if they were suffering mental disturbances. "If the religious experience is an authentic contact with a transcendent mystery, it not only will but should exceed the grasp of science," he reasons. "Otherwise what about it would be transcendent?"

Albacete quotes Monika Grygiel, who told him that as a psychiatrist, she experienced "great poverty before the mystery perceived in the religious experience." As a psychiatrist who was also a person of faith, she said that her hope was that she would not "destroy the patient's extraordinary experience, but help him or her integrate it into the rest of life as harmoniously as possible."

Delving Deeper

Alper, Matthew. The "God" Part of the Brain. Rogue Press, 2001.

Benson, Carmen. Supernatural Dreams & Visions. Planfield, N.J.: Logos International, 1970.

Ensley, Eddie. Visions: The Soul's Path to the Sacred. New Orleans: Loyola Press, 2001.

Newberg, Andrew, Eugene G. D'Aquili, and Vince Rause. Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine, 2001.

Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matters: The Future of Faith in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001.

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Term derived from Latin visus, past participle of videre, to see, indicating the appearance to human beings of supernatural persons or scenes. Of great frequency in early and medieval times, and among primitive or semi-civilized races, visions seem to have decreased proportionately with the advance of learning and enlightenment. Thus, among the Greeks and Romans of the classic period, they were comparatively rare, although visions of demons or gods were occasionally seen. On the other hand, among Oriental races, the seeing of visions was a common occurrence, and these visions took more varied shapes.

In medieval Europe, visions were almost commonplace, and directions were given by the church to enable men to distinguish visions of divine origin from false delusions which were either self-generated or the work of the demons and/or the devil.

Visions may be roughly divided into two classesthose which are spontaneous and those which are induced. The great majority belong to the latter class.

In 1854, Joseph Ennemoser, in his work The History of Magic, enumerated causative factors in the appearance of visions to an individual: (1) a sensitive organism and delicate constitution; (2) a religious education and ascetic life (fasting, penance, etc.);(3) narcoticsopium, wine, incense, narcotic salves (witch-salves); (4) delirium, monomania; and/or (5) fear and expectation, preparatory words, songs, and prayers.

Among the visions induced by prayer and fasting and the severe self-discipline of the religious ascetic, must be included many historical or traditional instancesthe visions of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony, St. Bernard Ignatius, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Hildegarde, and Joan of Arc. It may be noted that the convent has often been the special haunt of religious visions. A wave of apparitions of the Virgin Mary began in France early in the nineteenth century and several hundred incidents have been reported in the intervening decades to the present time. (See Garabandal; Medjugorje )

But the most potent means for the induction of visionary appearances are those discovered and used by indigenous people around the world. Over the ages people have indulged in narcotic substances, especially those with hallucinogenic properties, from opium and hashish to peyote. They have also used a variety of spiritual, psychic, and physical disciplines. Thus some fakirs, yogis, and other practitioners have been known to gaze for hours at a time at one object or remain for months in practically the same position, or practice various mortifications of the body, so that they may fall at length into a visionary state. Another ancient method of inducing visionary experience was staring into a shiny object such as a crystal or magic mirror.

The narcotic salves with which some anoint themselves are said to be similar to the witch unguents used in the Middle Ages, which induced in the witch the hallucination that she was flying through the air on a goat or a broomstick. Opium is also said to produce a sensation of flying, as well as visions of celestial delight. Alcoholic intoxication can induce visions of a more negative nature, most notably of insects or animals, as those who have experienced delirium can attest. Nitrogen may have a similar effect. The vapors rising from the ground in some places, or those found in certain caverns, are said to exercise an influence similar to that of narcotics.

Native Americans practiced external methods of inducing visionssolitude, fasting, and the use of salves or ointments. The vision quest was a popular activity of young men in many tribes. In some African, West Indian, and Arabic countries certain dances produced altered conferences, helping participants toward the desired visionary ecstasy. Rhythmic and repetitive music also assisted this process.

Spontaneous Visions

Spontaneous visions, although less common, are yet sufficiently numerous to merit attention here. The difficulty is, of course, to know just how far "fear and expectation" may have operated to induce the vision. In many cases, as in that of the seer Emanuel Swedenborg, the visions may have commenced as "visions of the night," hardly to be distinguished from dreams, and so from vision of an "internal" nature to clearly externalized apparitions. Swedenborg himself declared that when seeing visions of the latter class he used his senses exactly as when awake, dwelling with the spirits as a spirit, but able to return to his body when he pleased. The artist Benvenuto Cellini, like Swedenborg, had a number of spontaneous visions, though little of the same positive results.

Visions are by no means confined to the sense of sight. Taste, hearing, smelling, and touch may all be experienced in a vision. Joan of Arc, for instance, heard voices encouraging her to be the deliverer of her country. Examples may be drawn from the Hebrew Bible, as the case of the child Samuel in the temple (I Sam. 3:4), and instances could be multiplied from all ages and all times.

The visions of John Pordage (1607-1681) and the "Philadelphia Society," or, as they called themselves later, the "Angelic Brethren," a British organization stemming from the mysticism of Jakob Boehme in 1651, were noteworthy in this respect because they included the taste of "brimstone, salt, and soot." In the presence of the "Angelic Brethren," pictures were drawn on the windowpanes by invisible hands and were seen to move about.

Physiological explanations of visions have, from the earliest times, been offered. Plato observed:

"The eye is the organ of a fire which does not burn but gives a mild light. The rays proceeding from the eye meet those of the outward light. With the departure of the outward light the inner also becomes less active; all inward movements become calmer and less disturbed; and should any more prominent influences have remained they become in various points where they congregate, so many pictures of the fancy."

Democritus held that visions and dreams are passing shapes, ideal forms proceeding from other beings. Of deathbed visions Plutarch said:

"It is not probable that in death the soul gains new powers which it was not before possessed of when the heart was confined within the chains of the body; but it is much more probable that these powers were always in being, though dimmed and clogged by the body; and the soul is only then able to practise them when the corporeal bonds are loosened, and the drooping limbs and stagnating juices no longer oppress it."

The Spiritualist theory of visions can hardly be called a physiological one, save insofar as spirit may be regarded as refined matter. An old theory of visionary ecstasy on these lines was that the soul left the body and proceeded to celestial spheres, where it remained in contemplation of divine scenes and persons.

In modern times, the idea of the soul as an entity distinct from the physical body has been studied under the name of out-of-the-body travel. Stemming from this concept is the modern study of near-death experiences, in which individuals regarded as clinically dead have been revived and have described visionary experiences (see death ).

Similar to this was the doctrine of Swedenborg, whose spirit, he believed, could commune with discarnate spirits (the souls of the dead) as one of themselves. To this may be traced the doctrines of modern Spiritualism, which thus regarded visions as actual spirits or spirit scenes, visible to the ecstatic or entranced subject whose spirit was projected to discarnate planes.

The question whether or not visions are contagious has been much disputed. It has been said that such appearances may be transferred from one person to another by the laying on of hands. In the case of those Scottish seers who claimed second sight, such a transference may take place even by accidental contact with the seer. The vision of the second person is, however, less distinct than that of the original seer.

The same idea prevailed with regard to the visions of "magnetized" patients in the days of animal magnetism. Insofar as these may be identified with the collective hallucinations of the hypnotic state, there is no definite scientific evidence to prove their existence.

Visions occur to people of all cultures and all states and positions. They come to the irreligious and educated, and by no means have they been confined to the ignorant or the superstitious. Many men of genius have been subject to visionary appearance. While Raphael was trying to paint the Madonna, she appeared to him in a vision. The famous composition known as the "Devil's Sonata" was said to have been dictated to Tartini by the devil himself. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also had visions. William Blake 's portraits of the Patriarchs were done from visionary beings which appeared to him in the night. There have been a number of such instances.


Barrett, Sir William. Death Bed Visions. London: Methuen, 1926.

Besterman, Theodore. Crystal-Gazing: A Study in the History, Distribution, Theory and Practice of Scrying. London: William Rider, 1924. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1965.

Fielding-Ould, Fielding. The Wonders of the Saints in the Light of Spiritualism. London: John M. Watkins, 1919.

Halifax, Joan. Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979.

Hall, Manly P. Visions and Metaphysical Experiences. Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, n.d.

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. London: Chatto & Windus, 1954. Reprint, New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Klonsky, Milton. William Blake: The Seer and His Visions. New York: Crown Publishers, 1977.

Lewis, David. The Life of S. Teresa of Jesus. London, 1970.

Muldoon, Sylvan J., and Hereward Carrington. The Projection of the Astral Body. London: Rider, 1929.

Pordage, John. Truth Appearing Through the Clouds of Unde-served Scandal. N.p., 1655.

Ring, Kenneth. Life at Death; A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience. New York: William Morrow, 1980.

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A supernatural vision is a charism (gratia gratis data) through which an individual perceives some object that is naturally invisible to man. The term "supernatural" is used to distinguish true visions from illusions or hallucinations caused by pathological mental states or diabolical influence. The term "charismatic" is used to exclude the illuminations that ordinarily accompany mystical activity (cf. St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, bk. 2, ch. 11, 17, 24; St. Teresa of Avila, The Life, ch. 2829; Interior Castle, 6th Mansions ch. 9). St. Augustine, and after him, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Thomas Aquinas, divided visions into corporeal, imaginative, and intellectual.

In a corporeal vision, also called an apparition, the eyes perceive an object that is normally invisible to the sense of sight. This may be caused by an external object or by some power impressing an image directly on the sense of sight. A corporeal vision could be caused directly by God or mediately through an angelic power. It could also be caused by the devil or be a purely natural phenomenon (optical illusion). Imaginative vision is a phantasm supernaturally caused in the imagination without the aid of the sense of sight. It may occur during sleep, or in waking hours when it is usually accompanied by ecstasy. The vision may be symbolic (the ladder in Jacob's dream), personal (vision of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary), or dramatic (the vision during the mystical espousal of St. Catherine of Siena). Signs of the supernatural origin of imaginative visions are that they produce greater virtue in the soul; they cannot be produced or dismissed at will; they leave the soul in great peace (cf. St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, 6th Mansions, ch. 10; J. G. Arintero, The Mystical Evolution, v. 2, ch. 7). Imaginative visions can proceed also from diabolical influence or purely natural causes. In an intellectual vision a simple intuitive knowledge is produced supernaturally without the aid of any impressed species in the internal or external senses (see species, intentional). The impression may last for hours or days, unlike the lower types of vision, which are usually transitory. It may occur during sleep or in waking hours, but only God can produce it, since only God has access to the human intellect. It gives remarkable certitude to the visionary. The vision is often a simple mental intuition of some truth or mystery that is seen by the intellect without any form or image (cf. St. Teresa of Avila, The Life, ch. 27; Interior Castle 6th Mansions, ch. 8).

Apparitions of Christ, Mary, and the blessed are to be considered as representations effected through the instrumentality of angels (cf. St. Thomas, In 4 sent. 44 sol. 3 ad 4). Visions of the divine essence are to be considered as "some kind of representation" (cf. St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, 7th Mansions, ch. 1) and not an intuitive vision of the divine essence, although some theologians admit the possibility of a transitory beatific vision in this life (cf. St. Thomas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 175.3). Angels or demons could be permitted by God to assume some material form, as of a cloud, vapor, or rays of light. The same explanation can be offered for the appearance of those who are dead, for the separated human soul is a purely spiritual substance (cf. St. Thomas, ibid. 1a, 51.2 ad 2; Suppl. 69.3). The appearance of persons still living on earth is an apparent bilocation and is to be judged accordingly (see mystical phenomena).

Like charisms, visions are primarily for the good of others. They are not proofs of sanctity and are not to be sought or desired, since they are not necessary for salvation or sanctity. On the other hand, illuminations that are concomitant with the mystical state are primarily for the benefit of the mystic who receives them and they may be desired.

The word of a visionary cannot be taken as certain proof that a vision was supernatural in origin. It could have been the result of diabolical intervention or the pathological state of the individual. Even in devout souls it is possible for the subliminal activity of the subconscious to influence the conscious mind so that the individual is unwittingly a victim of illusion. In such instances the most that can be granted is a negative approval, namely, that there is nothing in the vision contrary to faith and morals.

Bibliography: john of the cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, bk 2, v.1 of Complete Works, ed. P. silverio de santa teresa and e. a. peers, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 1953). teresa of avila, Complete Works, ed. p. silverio de santa teresa and e. a. peers, 3v. (New York 1946), v.1 The Life, 10300; v.2 Interior Castle, 199351. thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 171175. j.g. arintero, The Mystical Evolution in the Development and Vitality of the Church, tr. j. aumann, 2 v. (St. Louis 194951) 2:304333. a. royo and j. aumann, The Theology of Christian Perfection (Dubuque, IA 1962) 655658. r. garrigou-lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, tr. t. doyle, 2 v. (St. Louis 194748) 2:280-288. a. f. poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, tr. l. l. smith (6th ed. St. Louis 1950) 266297.

[j. aumann]

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683. Visions and Voices

  1. Bernadette Soubirous had a vision in a grotto of the Blessed Virgin. [Ger. Lit.: The Song of Bernadette ; Magill I, 903]
  2. Wieland driven by mysterious voices, he kills his wife and children. [Am. Lit.: Magill II, 1131]


Voracity (See GLUTTONY .)

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Visions ★½ 1990

A man's ability to “see” murders before they happen leads police to suspect him of committing them, and he must clear himself. 90m/C VHS . Joe Balogh, Alice Villarreal, Tom Taylor, A.R. Newman, J.R. Pella; D: Stephen E. Miller.

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Visions (Magazine)

Monthly publication containing articles on psychic phenomena, energy fields, and unorthodox healing. It was published by the American National Institute for Psychical Research. Last known address: 11222 La Cienega Blvd., Inglewood, CA 90304.

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