Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near Death Experience in Mediaeval and Modern Times
Zaleski (Carole)
Source: Zaleski (Carole) - Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near Death Experience in Mediaeval and Modern Times
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Introduction (Full Text; footnotes omitted)

  1. In nearly all cultures, people have told stories of travel to another world, in which a hero, shaman, prophet, king, or ordinary mortal passes through the gates of death and returns with a message for the living.
  2. In its most familiar form, this journey is a descent into the underworld. Countless figures of myth, sacred history, and literature are said to have ventured underground to the kingdom of death, to rescue its shadowy captives or to learn its secrets.
  3. The voyage to the underworld — portrayed in religious epics and enacted in rituals, dramas, and games — is often associated with initiatory death and rebirth. To represent states of ecstasy, divinization, and royal or prophetic consecration, on the other hand, many traditions favor the symbolism of ascent to higher worlds. Thus, legend attributes to the Prophet Muhammad a heavenly journey that sealed his status as God's messenger and established the model for later Islamic literature on the path of souls at death or in mystical rapture. So, too, the prophetic powers of Zarathustra and Mani, Enoch and St. Paul find expression in vivid tales of ascent to celestial spheres. In many different societies, moreover, ritual and spiritual practices aimed at achieving transcendence imaginatively act out or imitate the heavenly journey. The shaman dons an eagle feather or mounts a sky pole to achieve what Mircea Eliade calls a "breaking of the plane," and to recover the primordial human condition of free access to heaven. The Mithraic initiate, like Blake's sunflower, counts the steps of the sun, ascending a seven-runged planetary ladder from darkness to light. The philosopher of antiquity disdains the mud-ball on which he stands and contemplates the superlunary and ideal world, launching a mental "flight of the alone to the Alone."
  4. A third variety of otherworld travel, neither so lofty as celestial ascent nor so profound as descent into the abyss, but perhaps just as lively in its appeal to the imagination, is the fantastic voyage. From the fabled wanderings of Odysseus and St. Brendan to the fanciful travelogues of Sir John Mandeville, to the chronicles of Marco Polo, Columbus, and Ponce de Leon, this genre has provided great scope for the interplay of the historical and the mythic imagination. The protagonist of a fantastic journey tale sets forth to find another world by exploring the remote reaches of this world: the far east or west, the edge of the ocean, the Ultima Thule. He returns to tell of hidden treasures and elusive Edens, of fabulous prodigies, monsters, ghosts, demons, and angels that inhabit the periphery of normal life.
  5. From these three types of otherworld journey narration arise a multitude of overlapping forms and a vast array of mythical, mystical, dramatic, ritual, poetic, allegorical, and even satirical expressions. If there is such a thing as "otherworld journey studies," it is thus a field whose materials are almost endlessly varied and whose contributors, approaching from their separate disciplines, rarely see eye to eye.
  6. Scholars have investigated otherworld journey motifs in primitive and tribal religion; in Oriental, Mesopotamian, and Greek mythology; in the works of Homer, Plato, and Vergil; in the multiple strands of Hellenistic religion; in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature; and in Zoroastrian, Islamic, and medieval Christian traditions. During the nineteenth century, there developed within Dante scholarship a whole industry devoted to mining the otherworld vision stories of Christian, Zoroastrian, and Islamic literature and folklore in the search for sources of the The Divine Comedy. So many precursors were found and championed over the years that one might imagine that Dante needed little besides scissors and paste to construct his poetic journey.;
  7. The best scholarly treatments of otherworld journey literature focus on particular historical contexts, making use of comparative insights but keeping a fairly tight rein on speculative interpretation. Too often, however, generalizations about the otherworld journey come from authors who view all its varied forms according to a single model, whether taken from shamanism, psychoanalysis, depth psychology, or psychedelia. More taxing, but much more worthwhile, would be to build an interpretive theory on the basis of detailed historical and cross-cultural study, just as, for example, Victor Turner has done for pilgrimage. Despite the profusion of scholarly and informal writings on the other world, this comprehensive work has yet be done.
  8. For one who does not wish to tackle such an ambitious task, however, there remain smaller uncharted areas. Since no general theory of otherworld journey narration can be complete that fails to recognize its latest manifestations, we might search for contemporary parallels or vestiges. Perhaps the otherworld journey motif is "camouflaged" (as Eliade would put it) in the modern lore of space travel which, like the fantastic voyage legends of the past, exemplifies what might be called the lure of the edge.
  9. Another possibility is that otherworld journey accounts might be found in contemporary culture, not only in camouflaged or self-consciously literary forms, but also in "literal" forms that claim to describe actual events. Indeed, this is true of at least one tenacious variety of otherworld journey narration, in which the protagonist dies and yet survives to tell the tale. Such eyewitness accounts of life after death1 can be found throughout the folklore and religious literature of the world. In Western culture, return-from-death stories developed within and alongside the apocalyptic traditions of late antiquity, flourished in the Middle Ages, declined during the Reformation, and reappeared in connection with some of the evangelical, separatist, and spiritualist movements of the nineteenth century. Today these tales have returned in full force in the form of "near-death" testimony, first popularized in the early 1970s by Raymond Moody's best-selling book Life After Life, and kept in the public eye since then by a flood of books, articles, talk shows, and films on the subject.
  10. Let us consider the opening statements of two accounts of visionary near-death experience:
    • My heart had stopped .... Everything was just completely black ... this void became the shape of a tunnel, and then before me was the most magnificent light; it's The Light in capital letters, and it's — very bluntly — the essence of God.
    • Four days ago, I died and was taken by two angels to the height of heaven. And it was just as though I rose above not only this squalid earth, but even the sun and moon, the clouds and stars. Then I went through a gate that was brighter than normal daylight, into a place where the entire floor shone like gold and silver. The light was indescribable, and I can't tell you how vast it was.
  11. The first of these narratives comes from Tom Sawyer, a heavy-equipment operator who lives in Rochester, New York. He is describing, to the audience of the television feature show "20/20," what he experienced during fifteen minutes in which he lay crushed under the weight of his pickup truck. The second passage has been attributed to Salvius, a sixth-century holy man who, according to the author of the History of the Franks, spent a night lifeless on a funeral bier, but revived when God sent him back to serve the Church as a bishop.
  12. Are these two accounts describing essentially the same experience? Are the differences between them merely incidental? What do the similarities and differences between these narratives, fourteen centuries apart, tell us about the history of otherworld journey narration, its recurrent features, its social function, and its ultimate significance?
  13. Such questions can be answered adequately only by examining accounts like those of Tom Sawyer and Salvius in historical context, so that they no longer appear either monolithically similar or, because of different idioms, completely unrelated. A closer look will reveal, for instance, that Salvius's vision is a work of hagiography and, as such, differs from many return-from-death narratives of the same period which feature the visit of a sinner or penitent to hell. Tom Sawyer's account has not been reworked into a literary form, but he nonetheless tells a story that, as the present study will show, reflects modern assumptions and concerns.
  14. The purpose of this study is to examine the return-from-death story in two widely separated settings: medieval Christendom and modern "secular" and pluralistic society. Comparative study will highlight features that are not otherwise obvious, putting into sharper relief the elements that are culturally specific and at the same time drawing attention to perennial aspects of otherworld journey narration. It will disclose some of the ways in which the otherworld journey narrative is shaped by the social and historical situation in which it occurs. Although this will not tell us the whole story about other-world journeys, it will provide a new perspective on the question of how we might interpret the literature of otherworld visions.
  15. Part I begins with a step backward, to get an overview of the otherworld journey as it recurs throughout the history of the world's religious traditions. The second chapter provides a more detailed introduction to its Western Christian forms, as represented by four classic and influential narratives: the Vision of St. Paul, the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, the Vision of Drythelm, and the Treatise on the Purgatory of St. Patrick. Part II is a thematic treatment of the medieval return-from-death story, beginning with the exit from the body and following the journey through the other world and back to life. The last chapter of this section considers the complexities of the relationship between the medieval visionary and his or her culture, and between the visionary experience and its literary expression.
  16. The material covered in part II ranges from the sixth to the early thirteenth centuries; after that period, the otherworld vision story tends to become a deliberate literary construction, self-conscious and systematic in its allegorical themes and classical allusions, and without the connection it formerly had to experience-based reports. Although it is scarcely possible to determine the authenticity of any given account, this study is concerned primarily with medieval and modern narratives that at least make the claim that they represent actual experience.
  17. The medieval narratives examined here correspond to what historian Peter Dinzelbacher calls the first phase of medieval Christian vision literature (lasting until the mid-thirteenth century), in which the visionary travels out of his or her body to visit heaven, hell, and purgatory, and returns to life transformed. In the second phase, which Dinzelbacher dates from the mid-twelfth century, most of the visionaries are well-known saints (usually women religious) for whom mystical and allegorical apparitions are a chronic experience. As Dinzelbacher shows, these seers play a more passive role, receiving otherworldly visitations rather than traveling out of their bodies to exotic realms. Readers who seek a more complete grounding in the social dynamics and demographics of medieval vision literature than the present comparative study can provide will find it valuable to consult Dinzelbacher's work, along with the writings of Jacques Le Goff on the evolution of purgatory in the religious imagination of Western Christian society.
  18. I have not attempted to write a continuous history of return-from-death narratives in Western culture, but rather to present two periods of peak interest in this subject and to learn from the contrasts and continuities between them; part III therefore shifts to the twentieth century, to examine contemporary near-death literature and its recent precursors. As a parallel to the thematic treatment in part II, part III traces the modern visionary's journey from apparent death to recovery, and from recovery to telling the story. Here, as in the chapters on medieval vision lore, we will learn of sudden exit from the body; travel across tunnels, paths, or fields; encounters with luminous guides and spirits; glimpses of heavenly bliss; reluctant reentry into life; and an aftermath of psychological and spiritual transformation. Yet we will find striking differences as well: gone are the bad deaths, harsh judgment scenes, purgatorial torments, and infernal terrors of medieval visions; by comparison, the modern other world is a congenial place, a democracy, a school for continuing education, and a garden of unearthly delights.
  19. If we are to succeed in negotiating the labyrinth of medieval and modern otherworld journey accounts, we must do more than simply tabulate these recurrent and contrasting motifs. We must search for a common thread that will not be deflected by variations in content and will help us to account for both similarities and differences without prejudice. That common thread is story: the otherworld journey is a work of the narrative imagination. As such, it is shaped not only by the universal laws of symbolic experience, but also by the local and transitory statutes of a given culture. The present study is intended to fix our attention on the narrative and imaginative character of otherworld visions, for only by holding on to this thread can we avoid the blind alleys down which so many discussions of religious visions and life after death2 have led.
  20. In part IV, I attempt to meet the problem of interpretation head-on. How do we evaluate the visionary testimony of individuals who believe that they have returned from the gates of death? The current wave of interest in near-death experience makes this a live issue. We can no longer treat other-world journey narration as a cultural fossil, buried safely in the past. With so many people turning to near-death literature in the hope of gaining insight into the meaning of death, theologians and scholars of religion have a responsibility to put this material in historical perspective and to reflect on its ultimate significance. To refuse the challenge to interpret near-death literature is only to widen the gap between academic theology and popular religious concerns. The result is a loss for both sides; not only does the public lose the benefit of historically informed discussion, but theology is deprived of a potentially revitalizing connection to contemporary experience.
  21. It would be premature at this stage to announce a comprehensive theory of otherworld visions. Instead, this study reviews the interpretations that have already been advanced — from medieval Christian vision theory to the current debate over explanations of near-death experience — and suggests some alternative views. Chapter 10 is an attempt to mediate between the near-death researchers and the critics who are determined to debunk their work; I propose a non-reductionist approach which gives credit to individual testimony while still taking into account the physiological, psychological, and cultural conditions that shape visionary experience in the face of death.
  22. In chapter 11, I offer some reflections on the symbolic character of otherworld visions and on the visionary and imaginative aspects of religious thought in general. If, as William James asserts in "The Sentiment of Rationality," the role of philosophy is to define the universe in a way that gives people a warrant and a point of reference for the use of their innate capacities, then it must also make a place for our imaginative powers. The traditional way to accomplish this has been to define the universe as an object that religious images describe. Unfortunately, for those who think critically about science, history, and world religions, such simple acceptance of religious imagery no longer seems to be a reasonable option. We can still say that the religious imagination guides us through life and as far as the threshold of a wider life, but we cannot claim that it supplies us with direct maps of an afterlife3. Without attempting to pronounce the final word on this complex subject, the last chapter indicates some directions for future exploration.

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
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