3.2. Of Prophets and Possession

IN THE FOREGOING theory of oracles, I am sure that the reader has seen the profound gap that I have jumped over in my argument. I have called the general bicameral paradigm a vestige of the bicameral mind. And yet the trance state of narrowed or absent consciousness is not, at least from the fourth oracular term and thereafter, a duplicate of the bicameral mind. Instead we have for the rest of the oracle’s existence a complete domination of the person and his speech by the god-side, a domination which speaks through the person but does not allow him to remember what has happened afterwards. This phenomenon is known as possession.

The problem it presents is not confined to far-off ancient oracles. It occurs today. It has occurred through history. It has a negatory form that seems to have been one of the most common maladies in the Galilee of the New Testament. And a good case could be made that at least some of the wandering prophets of Mesopotamia, Israel, Greece, and elsewhere did not simply relay to listeners something they were hearing in hallucination, rather that the divine message was coming directly from the prophet’s vocal apparatus without any cognition on ‘his’ part during the speech or memory of it after. And if we call this a loss of consciousness, and I shall, such a statement is quite problematic. Is it not also possible to say that it is not the loss of consciousness so much as its replacement by a new and different consciousness? But what can that mean? Or is that linguistic organization which speaks from the supposed possessed person not conscious at all in the sense of narratizing in a mind-space as described in I.2?

These questions are not solved by simple answers. The fact that we may regard possession by metaphysical essences as ontological nonsense should not blind us from the psychological and historical insights that examination of such idiosyncrasies of history and belief can give us. Indeed, any theory of consciousness and its origin in time must face such obscurities. And I do suggest that the theory in this book is a better torch for such dark corners of time and mind than any alternative theory. For if we still hold to a purely biological evolution of consciousness back somewhere among the lower vertebrates, how can we approach such phenomena or begin to understand their historically and culturally segregated nature? It is only if consciousness is learned at the mercy of a collective cognitive imperative that we can take hold of these questions in any way.

Our first step in understanding any mental phenomenon must be to delimit its existence in historical time. When did it first occur? 

The answer in Greece, at least, is very clear. There is no such thing as possession or any hint of anything similar throughout the Iliad or Odyssey or other early poetry. No ‘god’ speaks through human lips in the truly bicameral age. Yet by 400 B.C., it is apparently as common as churches are with us, both in the many oracles scattered about Greece as well as in private individuals. The bicameral mind has vanished and possession is its trace.

Plato, in the fourth century B.C., has Socrates casually say in the midst of a political discussion that “God-possessed men speak much truth, but know nothing of what they say,”1 as if such prophets could be heard every day around the streets of Athens. And he was very clear about the loss of consciousness in the oracles of his time:

. . . for prophecy is a madness, and the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona when out of their senses have conferred great benefits on Hellas, both in public and private life, but when in their senses few or none.2 

And so in the centuries that follow, supposed possession is the obliteration of ordinary consciousness. Four hundred years after Plato, in the first century A.D., Philo Judaeus categorically states, 

When he (a prophet) is inspired he becomes unconscious; thought vanishes away and leaves the fortress of the soul; but the divine spirit has entered there and taken up its abode; and this later makes all the organs resound so that the man gives clear expression to what the spirit gives him to say.3  

And so also in the century after that, as in Aristides5 saying that the priestesses at the oracle of Dodona

. . . do not know, before being seized by the spirits, what they are going to say, any more than after having recovered their natural senses they remember what they have said, so that everyone knows what they say except themselves.4  

And Iamblichus, the leading Neo-Platonist at the beginning of the third century, insisted that divine possession “participated” in divinity, had a “common energy” with a god, and “comprehends indeed everything in us but exterminates our own proper consciousness and motion.”5 Such possession, then, is not a return to the bicameral mind properly speaking. For when Achilles heard Athene a millennium earlier, he certainly did know what was said to him; that was the function of the bicameral mind.

This then is the very core of the problem. The speech of possessed prophets is not an hallucination proper, not something heard by a conscious, semi-conscious, or even nonconscious man as in the bicameral mind proper. It is articulated externally and heard by others. It occurs only in normally conscious men and is coincident with a loss of that consciousness. What justification then do we have for saying that the two phenomena, the hallucinations of the bicameral mind and the speech of the possessed, are related?

I do not have a truly robust answer. I can only meekly maintain that they are related (1) because they are serving the same social function, (2) because they yield similar communications of authorization, and (3) because the little evidence we have on the early history of oracles indicates that possession in a few institutionalized persons at certain locations is a gradual outgrowth from the hallucinations of gods by anyone at those locations. We can therefore at least suggest that possession is a transformation of a particular sort, a derivative of bicamerality in which the rituals of induction and the different collective cognitive imperatives and trained expectancies result in the ostensive possession of the particular person by the god-side of the bicameral mind. Perhaps we could say that, to retrieve the older mentality, developing consciousness more and more had to be obliterated, inhibiting the man-side with it, leaving the god-side in control of speech itself. 

And what of the neurology of such a mentality? From the model I have presented in 1.5, we must naturally hypothesize that in possession there is some kind of disturbance of normal hemispheric dominance relations, in which the right hemisphere is somewhat more active than in the normal state. In other words, if we could have placed electrodes on the scalp of a Delphic oracle in her frenzy, would we have found a relatively faster EEG (and therefore greater activity) over her right hemisphere, correlating with her possession? And particularly over her right temporal lobe?

I suggest that we would. There is at least a possibility that the dominance relations of the two hemispheres would be changed, and that the early training of the oracle was indeed that of engaging a higher ratio of right hemisphere activity in relation to the left as a response to the complex stimulus of the induction procedures. Such a hypothesis might also explain the contorted features, the appearance of frenzy and the nystagmic eyes, as an abnormal right hemisphere interference or release from inhibition by the left hemisphere.6  

And a comment can be added here about sexual differences. It is now well known that women are biologically somewhat less lateralized in brain function than men. This means simply that psychological functions in women are not localized into one or the other hemisphere of the brain to the same degree as in men. Mental abilities in women are more spread over both hemispheres. Even by age six, for example, a boy can recognize objects in his left hand by feel alone better than in his right hand. In girls both hands are equal. This shows that haptic recognition (as it is called) has already been primarily localized in the right hemisphere in boys but not in girls.7 And it is common knowledge that elderly men with a stroke or hemorrhage in the left hemisphere are more speechless than elderly women with a similar diagnosis. Accordingly we might expect more residual language function in the right hemisphere of women, making it easier for women to learn to be oracles. And indeed the majority of oracles and Sibyls, at least in European cultures, were women.

Induced Possession

Institutionalized unconscious speaking in the prophets of oracles as if by a god becomes, as we have seen in III.1, erratic and silent toward the first centuries of the Christian era. It falls to a siege of rationalism, to volleys of criticism and ramming irreverence in comic drama and literature. Such public (indeed urban) suppression of a general cultural characteristic often results in pushing it into private practice, into abstruse sects and esoteric cults where its cognitive imperative is protected from such criticism. And so with induced possession. With the oracles mocked into silence, such the quest for authorization that there is a widespread attempt in private groups to bring back the gods and have them speak through almost anyone.

The second century A.D. saw a growing number of such cults. Their seances were sometimes in official shrines, but increasingly more often in private circles. Usually one person called a felestike or operator tried to incarnate the god temporarily in another called a katochos, or more specially a docheus, or what in contemporary lore is called a medium.8 It was soon found that if the phenomenon was to work, the katochos should come from a simple unsophisticated background, something that runs through all the literature on possession. Iamblichus in the early third century, the real apostle of all this, states that the most suitable mediums are “young and simple persons.” And so, we remember, were the uneducated country girls chosen to train as priestesses for the oracle at Delphi. Other writings mention adolescents such as the boy Aedesius, who “had only to put on the garland and look at the sun, when he immediately produces reliable oracles in the best inspirational style.” Presumptively, this was due to careful training. That such induced bicameral possession has to be learned is known from the training of oracles as well as a comment of Pythagoras of Rhodes in the third century, that the gods come at first reluctantly, then more easily when they have formed the habit of entering the same person.

What was learned, I suggest, was a state approaching the bicameral mind as a response to the induction. This is important. We do not ordinarily think of learning a new unconscious mentality, perhaps a whole new relationship between our cerebral hemispheres, as we think of learning to ride a bicycle

Since this is the learning of a now difficult neurological state, so different from ordinary life, it is not surprising that the cues of the induction had to be wildly distinctive and have an extreme difference from ordinary life. 

And they certainly were different: anything odd, anything strange: bathing in smoke or sacred water, dressing in enchanted chitons with magical girdles, wearing weird garlands or mysterious symbols, standing in a charmed magic circle as medieval magicians did, or upon charakteres as Faust did to hallucinate Mephistopheles, or smearing the eyes with strychnine to procure visions as was done in Egypt, or washing in brimstone (sulphur) and seawater, a very old method which began in Greece, as Porphyry said in the second century A.D., to prepare the anima sfiritalis for the reception of a higher being. All these of course did nothing except as they were believed to do something ? just as we in this latter age have no ‘free wil’ unless we believe we have.

And what was done, this ‘reception of the god’, was not psychologically different from the other forms of possession we have examined. Consciousness as well as normal reactivity in the katochos was usually in complete suspension so that it was necessary to have others look after him. And in such a deep trance, the ‘god’ would supposedly reveal past or future, or answer questions and make decisions, as in the older Greek oracles.

How was it to be explained when these gods were incorrect? Well, evil spirits might have been invoked instead of true gods, or other intrusive spirits might have occupied the medium. Iamblichus himself claims to have unmasked in his medium an alleged Apollo who was only the ghost of a gladiator. Such excuses reverberate throughout the subsequent decadent literature of spiritualism.

And when the seance did not seem to be working, the operator as well often went through an induction of purifying rites that put him into a hallucinatory state, such that he might ‘see’ more clearly or ‘hear’ from the unconscious medium something that perhaps the medium did not even say. This kind of doubling-up is similar to the prophetes‘ relationship to their oracles, and explains various reported levitations, elongations, or dilations of the medium’s body.9 

By the end of the third century, Christianity had suddenly flooded the pagan world with its own claims to authorization and began to dissolve into itself many of the then existing pagan practices. The idea of possession was one of those. But it was absorbed in a transcendental way. At almost the same time that Iamblichus was teaching the induction of gods into statues, or young illiterate katochoi to “participate” in divinity and have “a common energy” with a god, Athanasius, the competitive Bishop of Alexandria, began claiming the same thing for the illiterate Jesus. The Christian Messiah had heretofore been regarded as like Yahweh, a demigod perhaps, half human, half divine, reflecting his supposed parentage. But Athanasius persuaded Constantine, his Council of Nicaea, and most of Christianity thereafter, that Jesus participated in Yahweh, was the same substance, the Bicameral Word made Flesh. I think we can say then that the growing church, in danger of shattering into sects, exaggerated the subjective phenomenon of possession into an objective theological dogma. It did so to assert an even greater claim to an absolute authorization. For Athanasian Christians the actual gods had indeed returned to earth and would return again.

Curiously, neither the oracle at Delphi nor the Sibyls were doubted as contacting a heavenly reality by this expanding Christian Church. But such pagan seances as induced divine possession in simple boys seemed theologically rowdy, the mischief of devils and shady spirits. And so as the church arches up into political authority over the Middle Ages, voluntary induced possession disappears at least from public notice. It goes even further underground into witchcraft and assorted necromancies, emerging into notice only from time to time.

Its contemporary practice I shall come to in a moment. But first we should examine a cultural side effect of induced possession, a disturbing phenomenon I shall call 

Negatory Possession 

There is another side to this vigorously strange vestige of the bicameral mind. And it is different from other topics in this chapter. For it is not a response to a ritual induction for the purpose of retrieving the bicameral mind. It is an illness in response to stress. In effect, emotional stress takes the place of the induction in the general bicameral paradigm just as in antiquity. And when it does, the authorization is of a different kind.

The difference presents a fascinating problem. In the New Testament, where we first hear of such spontaneous possession, it is called in Greek daemonizomai, or demonization.10 And from that time to the present, instances of the phenomenon most often have that negatory quality connoted by the term. The why of the negatory quality is at present unclear. In an earlier chapter (II.4) I have tried to suggest the origin of ‘evil’ in the volitional emptiness of the silent bicameral voices. And that this took place in Mesopotamia and particularly in Babylon, to which the Jews were exiled in the sixth century B.C., might account for the prevalence of this quality in the world of Jesus at the start of this syndrome.

But whatever the reasons, they must in the individual be similar to the reasons behind the predominantly negatory quality of schizophrenic hallucinations. And indeed the relationship of this type of possession to schizophrenia seems obvious.

Like schizophrenia, negatory possession usually begins with some kind of an hallucination.11 It is often a castigating ‘voice’ of a ‘demon’ or other being which is ‘heard’ after a considerable stressful period. But then, unlike schizophrenia, probably because of the strong collective cognitive imperative of a particular group or religion, the voice develops into a secondary system of personality, the subject then losing control and periodically entering into trance states in which consciousness is lost, and the ‘demon’ side of the personality takes over.

Always the patients are uneducated, usually illiterate, and all believe heartily in spirits or demons or similar beings and live in a society which does. The attacks usually last from several minutes to an hour or two, the patient being relatively normal between attacks and recalling little of them. Contrary to horror fiction stories, negatory possession is chiefly a linguistic phenomenon, not one of actual conduct. In all the cases I have studied, it is rare to find one of criminal behavior against other persons. The stricken individual does not run off and behave like a demon j he just talks like one.

Such episodes are usually accompanied by twistings and writhings as in induced possession. The voice is distorted, often guttural, full of cries, groans, and vulgarity, and usually railing against the institutionalized gods of the period. Almost always, there is a loss of consciousness as the person seems the opposite of his or her usual self. ‘He’ may name himself a god, demon, spirit, ghost, or animal (in the Orient it is often ‘the fox’), may demand a shrine or to be worshiped, throwing the patient into convulsions if these are withheld. ‘He’ commonly describes his natural self in the third person as a despised stranger, even as Yahweh sometimes despised his prophets or the Muses sneered at their poets.12 And ‘he’ often seems far more intelligent and alert than the patient in his normal state, even as Yahweh and the Muses were more intelligent and alert than prophet or poet.

As in schizophrenia, the patient may act out the suggestions of others, and, even more curiously, may be interested in contracts or treaties with observers, such as a promise that ‘he’ will leave the patient if such and such is done, bargains which are carried out as faithfully by the ‘demon’ as the sometimes similar covenants of Yahweh in the Old Testament. Somehow related to this suggestibility and contract interest is the fact that the cure for spontaneous stress-produced possession, exorcism, has never varied from New Testament days to the present. It is simply by the command of an authoritative person often following an induction ritual, speaking in the name of a more powerful god. The exorcist can be said to fit into the authorization element of the general bicameral paradigm, replacing the ‘demon.’ The cognitive imperatives of the belief system that determined the form of the illness in the first place determine the form of its cure.

The phenomenon does not depend on age, but sex differences, depending on the historical epoch, are pronounced, demonstrating its cultural expectancy basis. Of those possessed by ‘demons’ whom Jesus or his disciples cured in the New Testament, the overwhelming majority were men. In the Middle Ages and thereafter, however, the overwhelming majority were women. Also evidence for its basis in a collective cognitive imperative are its occasional epidemics, as in convents of nuns during the Middle Ages, in Salem, Massachusetts, in the eighteenth century, or those reported in the nineteenth century at Savoy in the Alps. And occasionally today.

Now, again, with any alteration of mentality as striking as this, we cannot escape the neurological question. What is happening? Are the speech areas of the right nondominant hemisphere activated in spontaneous possession, as I have suggested they were in the induced possession of the oracles? And are the contorted features due to the intrusion of right hemisphere control? The fact that the majority of instances (as well as most oracles and Sibyls) were women, and that women are (presently in our culture) less lateralized than men is somewhat suggestive.

At least some instances of possession begin with contortions on the left side of the body, which may indicate this is true. Here is one case reported at the beginning of this century. The patient was a forty-seven-year-old uneducated Japanese woman who would become possessed by what she called the fox, six or seven times a day, always with the same laterality phenomena. As it was then observed by her physicians:

At first there appeared slight twitchings of the mouth and arm on the left side. As these became stronger she violently struck with her fist her left side which was already swollen and red with similar blows, and said to me: “Ah, sir, here he is stirring again in my breast. ” Then a strange and incisive voice issued from her mouth: “Yes, it is true, I am there. Did you think, stupid goose, that you could stop me?” Thereupon the woman addressed herself to us: “Oh dear, gentlemen, forgive me, I cannot help it!”

Continuing to strike her breast and contract the left side of her face .. . the woman threatened him, adjured him to be quiet, but after a short time he interrupted her and it was he alone who thought and spoke. The woman was now passive like an automaton, obviously no longer understanding what was said to her. It was the fox which answered maliciously instead. At the end of ten minutes the fox spoke in a more confused manner, the woman gradually came to herself and assumed back her normal state. She remembered the first part of the fit and begged us with tears to forgive her for the outrageous conduct of the fox.13

But this is one case. I have not found any other patient in which such distinct laterality phenomena were in evidence. 

In puzzling about the neurology of negatory possession, it can be helpful, I think, to consider the contemporary illness known as Gilles de la Tourette’s Syndrome,14 or, occasionally, “foul-mouth disease.” This bizarre group of symptoms usually begins in childhood at age five or sometimes earlier, with perhaps merely a repeated facial twitch or bad word out of context. This then develops into an uncontrollable emission of ripe obscenities, grunts, barks, or profanities in the middle of otherwise normal conversation, as well as various facial tics, sticking out the tongue, etc. These often continue through adult life, much to the distress of the patient. Such persons often end up refusing to leave their homes because of their horror and embarrassment at their own intermittent uncontrollable vulgarity. In one case I knew of recently, the man invented a cover of having severe bladder problems requiring him to urinate often. Actually, every time he dashed to the Men’s Room while at a restaurant or to the bathroom in a house, it was the welling up of profanity that he went to relieve himself of by shouting it at toilet walls.15 To be profane myself, the linguistic feeling within him may not have been unlike the prophet Jeremiah’s fire shut up in his bones (see 11:6), although the semantic product was somewhat (but not altogether) different.

What is of interest here is that Tourette’s Syndrome so clearly resembles the initial phase of stress-produced possession as to force upon us the suspicion that they share a common physiological mechanism. And this may indeed be incomplete hemispheric dominance, in which the speech areas of the right hemisphere (perhaps stimulated by impulses from the basal ganglia) are periodically breaking through into language under conditions which would have produced an hallucination in bicameral man. Accordingly it is not surprising that almost all sufferers from Tourette’s Syndrome have abnormal brain wave patterns, some central nervous system damage, and are usually left-handed (in the majority of left-handed persons there is mixed dominance), and that the symptoms begin around the age of five when the neurological development of hemispheric dominance in regard to language is being completed.

Now all of this says something important but unsettling about our nervous systems. For while I believe the neurological model in I.5 to be in the right direction, we are getting further and further away from it. It is very improbable that modern spirit possession is everywhere engaging right hemisphere speech centers for the articulated speech itself. Such an hypothesis is contrary to so many clinical facts as to rule it out except in highly unusual cases.

A more likely possibility, perhaps, is that the neurological difference between the bicameral mind and modern possession states is that in the former, hallucinations were indeed organized and heard from the right hemisphere; while in possession, the articulated speech is our normal left hemisphere speech but controlled or under the guidance of the right hemisphere. In other words, what corresponds to Wernicke’s area on the right hemisphere is using Broca’s area on the left hemisphere, the result being the trance state and its depersonalization. Such cross control could be the neurological substrate of the loss of normal consciousness.

Possession in the Modern World

I wish now to turn to induced possession in our own times to demonstrate with some conclusiveness that it is a learned phenomenon. The best example I have found is the Umbanda religion, the largest by far of the Afro-Brazilian religions practiced today by over half the population of Brazil. It is believed in as a source of decision by persons of all ethnic backgrounds and is certainly the most extensive occurrence of induced possession since the third century.

Let us look in on a typical gira or “turn around, ” as an Umbanda session is so aptly called.16 It may be taking place at the present time in a room above a store or in an abandoned garage. Perhaps a dozen or fewer mediums (70 percent are women), all dressed ceremoniously in white, come out from a tiring room in front of a white-draped altar crammed with flowers, candles, and statues and pictures of Christian saints, an audience of a hundred or so being beyond a railing on the other side of the room. The drummers beat and the audience sings, as the mediums begin to sway or dance. This swaying and dancing is always in a counterclockwise motion, that is, beginning with motor impulses from the right hemisphere. There follows a Christian type of service. Then drums are once more pounded furiously, everyone sings, and the mediums begin to call their spirits; some spin to the left like whirling dervishes, again exciting their right hemispheres. There is the explicit metaphor here of the medium as a cavalo or horse. A particular spirit is supposed to lower himself into his cavalo. As this is happening, the head and chest of the cavalo, or medium, jerks back and forth in opposing directions like a bronco being ridden. The hair falls into disarray. Facial expressions become contorted, as in ancient examples I have cited. Posture changes into the likeness of any of several possessing spirits. The possession accomplished, the ‘spirits’ may dance for a few minutes, may greet each other in the possessed state, may perform other actions suitable to the type of spirit, and then, when the drumming stops, go to preassigned places, and, curiously, as they wait for members of the audience to come forward for the consultas, they snap their fingers impatiently as their hands rest beside their bodies, palms outward. In the consultas the possessed medium may be asked for, and may give, decisions on any illness or personal problem, on getting or keeping a job, on financial business practices, family quarrels, love affairs, or even, among students, advice about scholastic grades.

Now the evidence that possession is a learned mentality is very clear in these Brazilian cults. In a bairro playground, one may occasionally see children in their play imitating the distinctive back-and-forth jerking of the head and chest that is used for inducing and terminating spirit possession. If a child wishes to become a medium, he is encouraged to do so and given special training, just as were the young country girls who became the oracles at Delphi and elsewhere. Indeed, some of the many Umbanda centers (there are 4000 in Sao Paulo alone) hold regular training sessions, where the procedures include various ways of making the novice dizzy in order to teach him or her the trance state, as well as techniques similar to those used in hypnosis. And in the trance state, the novice is taught how each of several possible spirits behaves. This fact of a differentiation of possessing spirits is important, and I wish to comment further on it and its function in culture.

The vestiges of the bicameral mind do not exist in any empty psychological space. That is, they should not be considered as isolated phenomena that simply appear in a culture and loiter around doing nothing but leaning on their own antique merits. Instead, they always live at the very heart of a culture or subculture, moving out and filling up the unspoken and the unrationalized. They become indeed the irrational and unquestionable support and structural integrity of the culture. And the culture in turn is the substrate of its individual consciousnesses, of how the metaphor ‘me’ is ‘perceived’ by the analog ‘I’, of the nature of excerption and the constraints on narratization and conciliation. 

Such vestiges of the bicameral mind as we are here considering are no exception. A possession religion such as the Umbanda functions as a powerful psychological support to the heterogeneous masses of its poor and uneducated and needy. It is pervaded with a feeling of caridade, or charity, which consoles and binds together this motley of political impotents, whose urbanization and ethnic diversity has stranded them without roots. And look at the pattern of particular neurological organizations that emerge as possessing divinities. They remind us of the presenting personal gods of Sumer and Babylon, interceders with those above them. Each medium on any particular night may be possessed by an individual spirit from any of four main groups. They are, in order of frequency:

the caboclos, spirits of Brazilian-Indian warriors, who advise in situations requiring quick and decisive action, such as obtaining or maintaining a job;  

the pretos velhos, spirits of old Afro-Brazilian slaves, adept at handling long drawn-out personal problems;

the crian?as, spirits of dead children, whose mediums make playful suggestions;

the exus (demons) or, if female, pombagiras (turning pigeons), spirits of wicked foreigners, whose mediums make vulgar and aggressive suggestions.

Each of these four main types of possessor spirits represents a different ethnic group corresponding to the ethnic hybridism of the worshipers: Indian, African, Brazilian (the criangas are “like us”, and European, respectively. Each represents a different familial relationship to the petitioner: father, grandfather, sibling, and stranger respectively. And each represents a different area of decision: quick decisions for choices of action, comforting advice on personal problems, playful suggestions, and decisions in matters of aggression respectively. Even as the Greek gods were originally distinguished as areas of decision, so the spirits of the Umbanda. And the whole is like a network or metaphor matrix of four-way inner-related distinctiveness that binds the individuals together and holds them in a culture.

And all this, I suggest, is a vestige of the bicameral mind, as we go through these millennia of adjusting to a new mentality.

True possession, as described by Plato and others, has always been held to go on without consciousness, thus differentiating it from acting. But the training of the persons of oracles must have admitted of degrees and stages toward such a state. In the Brazilian possession religions, apparently, this is exactly what happens. The young novice may begin by acting out possession in play, then proceed with his training until eventually he can separate what a spirit would say from what he himself would normally talk about. Then there occurs a stage of passing back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness. And then with full possession, perhaps the connecting up of Wernicke’s area on the right hemisphere with Broca’s on the left, the much-desired state of unconsciousness, with no remembrance of what happens. This, however, is true of only some mediums. And in any pseudobicameral practice as extensive as this, it is to be expected that there will be many different qualities and degrees of acting and trance even within the same individual.


A final phenomenon that is weakly similar to induced possession is glossolalia, or what the apostle Paul called “speaking in tongues.” It consists of fluent speech in what sounds like a strange language which the speaker himself does not understand and usually does not remember saying. It seems to have begun with the early Christian Church17 in the asserted descent of the ghost of God into the assembled apostles. This event was regarded as the birthday of the Christian Church and is commemorated in the festival of Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter.18 Acts 2 describes what is probably its first instance in history as a great rushing wind roaring with cloven tongues of fire, in which all the apostles begin to speak as if drunk in languages they had never learned.

This alteration of mentality happening to the likes of the apostles became its own authorization. The practice spread. Soon early Christians were doing it everywhere. Paul even put it on a level with prophecy (I Corinthians 14:27, 29). From time to time in the centuries since Paul, glossolalia as a search for authorization after the breakdown of the bicameral mind has had its periods of fashion. 

Its recent practice, not just by the sects that are theologically extremely conservative, but also by members of mainline Protestant churches, has pushed it into some scientific scrutiny with some interesting results. Glossolalia first happens always in groups and always in the context of religious services. I am stressing the group factor, since I think this strengthening of the collective cognitive imperative is necessary for a particularly deep type of trance. Often there will be what corresponds to an induction, particularly hymn singing of a rousing sort, followed by the exhortations of a charismatic leader: “If you feel your language change, don’t resist it, let it happen. “19

The worshiper, through repeated attendance at such meetings, watching others in glossolalia, first learns to enter into a deeptrance state of diminished or absent consciousness in which he is not responsive to exteroceptive stimuli. The trance in this case is almost an autonomic one: shakes, shivers, sweat, twitches, and tears. Then he or she may somehow learn to “let it happen.” And it does, loud and clear, each phrase ending in a groan: aria ariari isa, vena amiria as aria!20 The rhythm pounds, the way epic dactyls probably did to the hearers of the aoidoi. And this quality of regular alternation of accented and unaccented syllables, so similar to that of the Homeric epics, as well as the rising and then downward intonation at the end of each phrase, does not ? and this is astonishing ? does not vary with the native language of the speaker. If the subject is English, Portuguese, Spanish, Indonesian, African, or Mayan, or wherever he is, the pattern of glossolalia is the same.21

After the glossolalia, the subject opens his eyes and slowly returns from these unconscious heights to dusty reality, remembering little of what happened. But he is told. He has been possessed by the Holy Spirit. He has been chosen by God as his puppet. His problems are stopped in hope and his sorrows torn with joy. It is the ultimate in authorization since the Holy Spirit is one with the highest source of all being. God has chosen to enter the lowly subject and has articulated his speech with the subject’s own tongue. The individual has become a god ? briefly. 

The cruel daylight of it all is less inspiring. While the phenomenon is not simply gibberish, nor can the average person duplicate the fluency and structure of what is spoken, it has no semantic meaning whatever. Tapes of glossolalia played before others in the same religious group are given utterly inconsistent interpretations.22 That the metered vocalizations are similar across the cultures and language of the speakers, probably indicates that rhythmical discharges from subcortical structures are coming into play, released by the trance state of lesser cortical control.23  

The ability does not last. It attenuates. The more it is practiced, the more it becomes conscious, which destroys the trance. An essential ingredient of the phenomenon, at least in more educated groups where the cognitive imperative would be weaker, is the presence of a charismatic leader who first teaches the phenomenon. And if tongue speaking is to be continued at all, and the resulting euphoria makes it a devoutly wished state of mind, the relationship with the authoritative leader must be continued. It is really this ability to abandon the conscious direction of one’s speech controls in the presence of an authority figure regarded as benevolent that is the essential thing. As we might expect, glossolalists by the Thematic Apperception Test reveal themselves as more submissive, suggestible, and dependent in the presence of authority figures than those who cannot exhibit the phenomenon.24

It is, then, this pattern of essential ingredients, the strong cognitive imperative of religious belief in a cohesive group, the induction procedures of prayer and ritual, the narrowing of consciousness into a trance state, and the archaic authorization in the divine spirit and in the charismatic leader, which denotes this phenomenon as another instance of the general bicameral paradigm and therefore a vestige of the bicameral mind.

Aria ariari isa, vena amiria asaria
Menin aeide thea Peleiadeo Achilleos

My comparison of the sound of speaking in tongues with the sound of the Greek epics to their hearers (the second line above is the first line of the Iliad) is not just an ornature of my style. It is a very deliberate comparison. And one that I intend now as a lead-in to the next chapter. For we should not leave our inquiry into these cultural antiques without at least noting the oddity, the difference, the true profundity, and ? ultimately ? the question of and for poetry.