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Excerpts from credible witnesses to supernatural events

Not every account of supernatural events should be believed, but some have the ring of truth.

After my post on what we should make of supernatural events in other religions, you may be wondering what kinds of events do occur. Are there credible reports of anything genuinely supernatural, or is it all embellished jump-scares and straight-up fabrications?

My reading on this has been pretty patchy, partly because my interests are more specifically in night hag syndrome, possession, and hauntings—which are certainly supernatural, but not the kind of supernatural events we’re talking about—and partly because finding good primary sources is hard. And partly because I have too little time. However, Jacob Howard has sent me some intriguing excerpts from a couple of good sources, including Witchcraft and Magic of Africa by Frederick Kaigh, and In Witch-Bound Africa: An Account of the Primitive Kaonde Tribe and Their Beliefs by Frank H Melland. Both were highly-educated men; Kaigh was a medical doctor while Melland was a magistrate. This gives their testimony prima facie plausibility compared to many other accounts you may find online. Moreover, neither were Christians to my knowledge, which makes their accounts doubly useful since they are something of a hostile witness.

An excerpt from Kaigh’s Witchcraft and Magic of Africa

This is an account of a Jackal Dance which Kaigh (allegedly—I believe him) witnessed. Emphasis is original to the best of my knowledge:

Suddenly a powerful young man and a splendid young girl, completely naked, leapt over the heads of the onlookers and fell sprawling in the clearing.

They sprang up again instantly and started to dance. My God, how they danced! If the dance of the nyanga was horrible, this was revolting. They danced the dance of the rutting jackals. As the dance progressed, their imitations became more and more animal, till the horror of it brought the acid of vomit to the throat. Then, in a twinkling, with loathing unbounded, and incredulous amazement, I saw these two turn into jackals before my eyes. The rest of their “act” must be rather imagined than described. Suffice it to say, and I say it with all the authority of long practice of my profession, no human beings, despite any extensive and potent preparation, could have sustained the continued and repeated sexuality of that horrid mating.

After it was at last completed, the male jackal trotted over to the body of the witchdoctor and sniffed at him, growling deep in its throat, while the female crawled miserably into the bush. Suddenly the male seemed to sense the absence of its mate, and leapt after her howling dismally.

Their departure was the signal for the onlookers to start growling and milling around, fighting for the willing females.

Though these did not actually change their shape, they imitated the lycanthropic pair with devilish accuracy till all, even the drummers, were too exhausted to continue. Their superhuman endurance at the loathsome business was clearly the result of drugging plus a powerful spiritual exaltation.

What particular drug they used I cannot tell, but I know there is a drug called bulandu, or bilandi, or bwlandi, or something like that (it is difficult to catch the exact pronounciation [sic]) which is specially infused for these secret dances.

That is what I saw with the same disillusioned eyes now glued to my very ordinary Oliver typewriter in a very ordinary study in Essex, once the home of many witches and, now that murder from the sky is gone, so very safe and sophisticated: such a contrast from the scenes we are reviving again.

Did it really happen?

As for the Dance of the Jackal, the nyanga’s part, and the bestial common climax, every magistrate and native commissioner knows perfectly well that it is a fact, along with many others of the same kidney.

But that awful lycanthropic thing: did that take place?

Is mass hypnotism possible? Could the trance of the nyanga have induced so real an image of a thing which did not actually occur? All my experience rebels against so convenient and specious an “explanation”.

There remain a hundred unanswerables.

Perhaps this is significant. The following day a girl was brought to me on a stretcher, desperately ill. Her flanks were deeply scarred by jackal claws: there was abundant evidence that she had been brutally assaulted and, in the polite language of the journalists, “interfered with”.

She told the very usual story that she had been carried off by baboons and raped by the whole baboon village. They were NOT baboon scratches. Witchcraft and Magic of Africa, pp 32–33

An excerpt from Melland’s In Witch-Bound Africa

The witch-doctor undertakes this test [Chisoko] at night. The people having been summoned, sit round him, and he dances, singing his incantations. He has with him a basket, in which are placed medicines. After much singing, he takes the basket and places it on the head of a member of the audience (resting on the head, not reversed and placed over it). The basket still contains the medicines: the doctor then says: “If you are innocent, the basket will come off,” and pulling the basket from the head of the person being tried (who is still sitting) it comes away easily. When the guilty person is reached, the basket sticks to his (her) head, so that when the doctor tries to pull it off it will not come away, but, instead, pulls him (her) up from the ground. Walking backwards—facing the person who is being tried—the doctor thus raises him (her) and pulls him (her) all over the space where the trial is being held.

This trial is used for serious cases of witchcraft such as owning and using tuyewera or mulombe, and the punishment is death (by beating to death and burning; or by burning to death). In Witch-Bound Africa, pp 226–227

Around the interwebs

There is a lot of interesting stuff easily found on Google. One place that yields especially fruitful accounts is Reddit; for example, the skinwalkers subreddit has many stories of varying quality.

Patrick Chan also has a handy compilation of excerpts from Clyde Kluckhohn’s Navajo Witchcraft—though the information in his book is not based on eyewitness accounts from what I can tell.

How you evaluate these sorts of stories somewhat depends on how you evaluate testimonial evidence in general. Obviously they could all be made up whole cloth; or some could be the the ravings of crazy people; or just embellished stories of unusual but natural events; or some could be completely true. Many of them have the ring of truth to my ear, but I would much rather see a proper research project done on this.

The balance between skepticism and credulity

One important caveat to bear in mind is that people may recount a story faithfully, yet interpret events quite wrongly. To take a simple yet highly analagous example, many people think David Blaine can really levitate. But since Blaine is a professional magician, we can safely say that it is just a trick—something other professional magicians will attest. In the same way, I suspect a lot of the stories you’ll find online are of this nature, and that too much credit is given to supernatural explanations by at least some Christians.

However, healthy skepticism does not rule out supernatural power, even if most accounts of supernatural events are spurious, or attributable to natural trickery.

4 comments

  1. Rolo Baez

    Interesting. What credible resources would you recommend on possessions and hauntings?

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Rolo, I can’t personally recommend any, but I asked Jacob Howard and he kindly gave me quite a comprehensive list, which I’m reproducing below verbatim:


    On possession:

    I’ve read the following:

    T.K. Oesterreich’s “Possession: Demoniacal and Other Among Primitive Races, in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modern Times.” I would consider this one an essential. Blatty relies heavily on it in “The Exorcist.” Oesterreich himself believes possession to be auto-suggestive, so his analysis is weak, but this puppy is full of data (sometimes dated, but useful nonetheless).

    John L. Nevius’ “Demon Possession and Allied Themes: Being an Inductive Study of Phenomena of Our Own Times.” A classic by a missionary to the Chinese. Shifts from cessationism to believing in modern possession based on reports from trusted converts to Christianity. Better analysis than Oesterreich but less detail.

    “Demon Experiences: A Compilation.” (I can’t find an editor on this one). Short book containing first-hand accounts of demonic activity from missionaries. Too brief for in-depth study but useful as a broad overview.

    Wm. Menzies Alexander’s “Demonic Possession in the New Testament: Its Relations Historical, Medical, and Theological.” Disappointing treatise by a medical doctor. He eccentrically only accepts possession when accompanied by a confession of Jesus as the Christ. He naturalizes and dismisses all other accounts (Biblical and otherwise).

    William A. Matson’s “The Adversary, His Person, Power, and Purpose: A Study in Satanology.” Rather introductory, but it has a decent section on Genesis 6 and accepts modern diabolism.

    E.W. Stevens – “The Watseka Wonder: A Narrative of Startling Phenomena Occurring in the Case of Mary Lurancy Vennum.” Short documentation of an alleged case of (deceased) spirit possession. Sometimes interesting.

    Those are the ones I’ve read through. The ones I own but have not gotten to yet include:

    John Warwick Montgomery (ed.) – “Demon Possession: A Medical, Historical, Anthropological and Theological Symposium.” What I’ve skimmed through looks good. A range of Christian professionals commenting on modern possession.

    D.P. Walker – “Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries.” Looks to be older case reports of possession. Probably secular analysis.

    Frederick M. Smith – “The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization.” A large monograph on Eastern possession states. I get the impression that the author might be a practitioner of Eastern religion.

    Brian P. Levack – “The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West.” Looks to be a largely historical overview. Probably secular.

    Matt Goldish (ed.) – “Spirit Possession in Judaism: Cases and Contexts from the Middle Ages to the Present.” Case studies in possession by a range of authors.

    Sarah Ferber – “Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France.” Historical overview. Probably secular.

    Vincent Crapanzano and Vivian Garrison (eds.) – “Case Studies in Spirit Possession.” Multiple case studies but I’ve been told the contributors are very Freudian in their analyses.

    Philip C. Almond – “Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England: Contemporary Texts and their Cultural Contexts.” Historical overview. Probably secular.

    I.M. Lewis – “Ecstatic Religion: A Study in Shamanism and Spirit Possession.” Supposed to be a classic.

    Gabriele Amorth – “And Exorcist Tells His Story” and “An Exorcist: More Stories.” A Roman Catholic exorcist’s case studies.

    M. Scott Peck – “Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist’s Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption.” I know Steve likes this one.

    Felicitas D. Goodman, Jeannette H. Henney, and Esther Pressel – “Trance, Healing, and Hallucination: Three Field Studies in Religious Experience.” Two of these appear to involve spirit possession.

    John Richards – “But Deliver Us from Evil: An Introduction to the Demonic Dimension in Pastoral Care.” Steve says this one is really good. An Anglican exorcist.

    Bettina E. Schmidt and Lucy Huskinson – “Spirit Possession and Trance: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” Broad overview but probably secular analysis.

    Felicitas D. Goodman – “How About Demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World.” Short monograph by an anthropologist. I believe Goodman is open to spirit possession.

    Etzel Cardena and Michael Winkelman (eds.) – “Altering Consciousness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives.” This 2 vol. anthology appears to contain a chapter or two on possession.

    Edith Fiore – “The Unquiet Dead: A Psychologist Treats Spirit Possession.” Just like it sounds, I guess.

    Jean Lhermitte – “True or False Possession? How to Distinguish the Demonic from the Demented.” I believe this is a Catholic guide on diagnosing spirit possession.

    Terence Palmer – “The Science of Spirit Possession.” I believe this guy is a hypnotherapist.

    Gabor Klaniczay and Eva Pocs (eds.) – “Demons, Spirits, Witches.” 3 vol. anthology on topics related to demons. Eastern European perspective, I believe.

    David M. Kiely and Christina McKenna – “The Dark Sacrament: True Stories of Modern-Day Demon Possession and Exorcism.” Supposed to be cases from two exorcists, one Catholic, one Protestant.

    Okay, I think that’s all. I left out books on witchcraft or general occult matters, even though there is some overlap. Now, I’ll type up my ones on hauntings/poltergeists (it’s much shorter).

    I haven’t read any of these yet:

    James Houran and Rense Lange (eds.) – “Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives.” Supposed to be excellent.

    Herbert Thurston – “Ghosts and Poltergeists.” Case studies. I believe Thurston is Catholic.

    William G. Roll – “The Poltergeist.” Case studies and original investigations.

    Alan Gauld and A.D. Cornell – “Poltergeists.” Supposed to be a classic.

    Edmund D. Gurney, Frederick W. H. Myers, and Frank Podmore – “Phantasms of the Living.” (2 vols.) Covers a broad range of topics but includes cases of apparitions.

  3. Jacob Howard

    I should note that references to “Steve” indicate Steve Hays over at Triablogue. In addition to the books I recommended, he has his own (broader) occult bibliography in this post: http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2009/02/bell-book-candle.html

    Jacob

  4. Rolo Baez

    Sorry for the very belated response, but thank you both so much for the extensive list. This is a very fascinating subject.

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