Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 2

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this second part we ask “the epistemic/ontological question”: in studying these experiences, how far should we be concerned with the ontology? Would to do so be an abandonment of the scientific materialism which underpins the discipline, and therefore a slide back into theology? Or can there be a bigger model of materialism – a “complicated materialism”, to use Ann Taves’ expression – in which these phenomena might be suitably explicable? Or, as Bowie puts it, can we use “empathetic engagement” to adopt the ontology for research purposes? You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons and David Hufford. Part 1 can be downloaded here.

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Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.


4 replies
  1. Avatar
    Daniel Gill says:

    Some really important new books which I have lately read.. Journey Of A Healer: Mediums And Sorcerers Of South Viet Nam by Hien Van Nguyen.. more along this thread is Chongho Kim’s Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox which disputes the category of shamanism and postulates a Korean religious culture closer to sorcery .. anyway.. I also recommend Sinister Yogis by David Gordon White and The Lovelorn Ghost And The Magical Monk by Justin Thomas McDaniel. On the topic of spiritualism, Hien’s book is on Vietnamese syncretism of Victorian spiritualism and Vietnamese traditional mediumship. Pivotal to read along this line of thinking about religion is Rudolf Otto’s Idea Of The Holy in which he first coined the word numinous that coincided with the fear of the ghost which he called daemonic-dread. I could recommend more books but I think those are some of the best and most cutting edge. These books challenge our notions of what religion is.

      • Avatar
        Daniel Gill says:

        two quotes about Korean shamanism/sorcery . One of them from the book by Chongho Kim another by a different author (his book is mediocre).

        Soh Bosal started the kut ritual with a drum, sitting together with Oki’s Mother on the mat. It was a very cold and windy night even though it was spring. Everything seemed to be frozen in the spring cold. It was so cold that I came back to the car for a rest while Soh Bosal performed the first phase of the kut. I was not keen to observe the first phase, because it just consisted of routine procedures. I took a cigarette out of my pocket and put it in my mouth. Suddenly I felt a strong haunted feeling in the air around me. It felt as if a ghost was going to jump in front of the windscreen. I was so scared that I felt goose bumps appearing on my skin, and a shiver ran down my spine. I turned on the car’s interior light and looked in the rear vision mirror, because it felt as though a ghost was about to enter the car through the rear windscreen and squeeze my neck from the back seat. I locked all ofthe doors. But still the spooky feeling did not go away. So I switched on the radio and turned up the sound … I began to talk to myself … [What] is the reason I was possessed by a haunted feeling just now? … What did Mirim’s Mother say to you? She said, “I do not like to see kut rituals, where there seem to be lots of ghosts around. I feel as if worms are going around my body.” Yes! The haunted feeling … Chisun’s Grandmother said to me, “… The waves of life made me know this way.” … Linda … asked me in a letter “Why do they take responsibility for the ‘dark’ side of life?” … I continued to talk to myself… Because of the dark side of social life, there is a cultural domain dealing with the experience of misfortune in Korean culture. In contrast to ordinary domains, the field of misfortune is full of darkness and dampness. Look at this kut for Oki’s Mother! Isn’t it full of darkness? … It is my impression that shamanism looks like a poisonous creature. Korean shamanism is very colourful: its dances and music are dynamic, and costumes are full of bright colour. However, most adult Koreans know that its poisonousness. This is why Yongki’s Mother said, “I’m not going to a kut ritual because I am afraid of being possessed by the spirits!” (kwisine ssiuiulggaba). Is there any ordinary Korean who likes to be possessed? This is why they don’t like to be involved in shamanic practices. This is why shamanism has been stimatized in Korean history. This is also why my research has encountered such strong resistance in the field. The field which I have been investigating is the field of misfortune! Why do people seek shamanic practices even though they don’t like shamanism? How can this paradox be explained? Yes! Like cures like. The mode of shamanic healingis homeopathic. It is like using derivates of poison when one is bitten by a venomous snake. In Korean society, there is no one who suffers from misfortune more than the shaman, and no man or woman ever wants to be a shaman. The shamanic illness, an extreme of misfortune, makes the shaman a healer. … the Stick held by Oki’s Mother still showed no sign of being possessed, even though it sometimes shivered a little bit. Soh Basal asked again, “Is it like something has come?” Oki’s Mother replied shakily, “Well… I don’t know. The Stick shivered a little bit… ”

        from Korean Shaman Rituals by Jung Young Lee,

        Our special interest lies in the initiation process of charismatic shamans who are primarily confined to the mid-central part of Korea where Seoul is located. The initiation process of shamans is known by many different names such as Gansin, Sini naerinda, Sini orunda, Sini tanda, and so on. Perhaps these terms are best translated in English as the ‘intrusion of spirit in the body’, even though it is usually understood as the possession of spirits . When the spirit enters or approaches the body , it is known as Sinju or the spiritual master or spiritual self who becomes a counterpart of the shaman’s soul. Here, the spirit master acts as yang or the active principle and the soul of the shaman is yin or the receptive principle. Both of them coexist together as wife and husband. In other words, it indicates the intimate union of two souls, the male and female, or the male god and the female shaman or the female god and the male shaman. … To say this another way, the mystical union between god and shaman is primarily sexual. It is rather interesting to examine the term ‘Sini tanda’, which literally means to place god over shaman’s body, which seems to indicate the proper position for sexual intercourse. … We occasionally hear people talk about the loss of soul or or the escape of soul (T’al-hon). To me [sic] these terms are inadequately applied to the Korean shamans. It is not the state of no soul or escape of soul but the state where the soul is completely receptive to the coming of spirit. When the spirit comes in, there is a mystical union, the oneness of two, which creates the experience of ecstasy. … This wedding with god is known as ‘Naerim gut’ or ‘Kangshin gut’ which formalizes the initiation of shamanhood.


        Chongho Kim experienced possession illness during his fieldwork and his book is extremely good. He didn’t cite Rudolf Otto but he came upon some interesting descriptions of initiation. he also discusses the noetic quality of shamanic knowledge as opposed to reason and spends a good portion of the book articulating the problematic nature initially of shamanic knowledge. very great book.

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