When we created CTCW we were trying to figure out a way to describe it, to describe what we are, what we do. Is what we are interested in best described as Supernatural? (Sadly, if you do an internet search for that, you get the TV show for the first several pages.) Occult? Some folks thought that the word would scare people off. (Then again, my suggestion “This-S**t-is-Real-Con” would also offend people.) Paranormal? (Does this imply that it’s not normal? Our basic premise is that it IS normal for humans to interact with the energetic world.) Metaphysical? (Too closely associated with poets and philosophers). So, we chose the cumbersome “Changing Times- Changing Worlds” to express our hope that the world will change, as it always does, and that it will change by become more accepting of the reality of those non-physical things currently resisted by science, but known to us.
Once the scientists have accepted what we know, and attached their own words for it, as is clearly happening with Quantum Mechanics, it will be accepted. Frankly, the “logical” knots into which sceptics tie themselves in order to refute psychic phenomena is exhausting. “It isn’t real because it can’t be in the way we define science.” Every example is decried as ‘coincidence’, every pattern is proclaimed a badly designed experiment. What a waste of energy! We tend to be less interested “how it works”- what makes it work, than in how we can do it better.
Not everyone rejects the uncanny (yet another word). I was reminded of this recently while reading a book Folk Belief and Traditions of the Supernatural, a collection of articles, the first of which, by Arngrímur Vídalín, explores the words describing this sort of folklore. It’s a good place to start; any time we are discussing any subject, it’s good to attempt to make sure that we agree on what the words we use mean. He discussed ‘supernatural’, ‘monstrous’, ‘fantastic’, and ended up preferring ‘paranormal’. Can something supernatural become natural if they are functioning ‘in the natural world’, something natural (like Vlad Tepes) become supernatural (like Dracula)? He went into some detail about ‘monstrous’, which may be important as it focuses on our reaction to the unexplained thing. (Which is the monster, Frankenstein or Adam? The average movie goer would probably say the huge, patchwork creature.) Monstrous indicates abnormality, as well as a assumption of wrongness. Fantastic implies that these experiences are of the imagination, and only imaginary. He rejects Supernatural because “the ‘supernatural’ necessarily implies an origin defying natural law.”
Vídalín reminds us that before modern times people had a greater acceptance that things they’d never encountered existed if you traveled far enough. With the internet, photography, and nearly instant communication, we accept the reality of elephants, rhinoceros, alligators, and gorillas, as well as different climates and technologies. How is a dragon more fantastic than a crocodile? a unicorn more than a rhino or narwhale? We have better techniques for analyzing, for example, dinosaur bones, yet in our short lifetimes, they have been transformed from the monochromatic images of my youth to colorful, possibly feathered, creatures. How will they seem to change in the next decades? It was only this year I learned that what we’ve been calling a blobfish only looks that way because of decompression when it’s brought up from it’s natural habitat to surface pressure. (Shame on us!)
When animals speak in fairy tales, it’s ‘fantastic’, but many birds can imitate human speech, and even communicate on a basic level. How is Koko the Gorilla who spoke with American Sign Language less believable than a speaking animal- it’s all in the context? We are constantly learning how much more intelligent many species are than we’d ever imagined, octopus solve problems, ravens tell their friends which humans to like and dislike, Shelly Hanson’s stories about helmet conch showing empathy and solving problems. Considering the variation from individual to individual, both in animals and humans, I feel it unlikely that there have never been extraordinary examples who inspired these ‘unbelievable’ stories.
The more we learn about the human body, and the mind/ body connection, the more possible some weird stories become. The ‘horror’ of zombies is not that it is possible to make someone appear dead and revive them after burial, but that someone would use this as a technique to create slave labor. Lack of empathy is what makes a person monstrous, not how they look, although we like to think we can identify a monster by how they look.
He did not mention, but I’ll add another observation about how hard it is to trust our own senses. In the pre-modern world, people were aware that there were things they didn’t know because they had limited access to information. In the computer age, we’ve come to believe that we can know it all. How many of us can identify a dozen different dinosaurs because we’ve seen convincing pictures of them? But now, with AI and photoshop, we know that much of the information we encounter has been generated to conform to what we want to believe, sometimes to sell us something, sometimes simply for the joy of being able to have control over what people believe. We may be skeptical, but never underestimate the power of (misinformed) people in large groups.
Pliny and Herodotus collected information from travelers, but how is one to tell how much exaggeration is in a traveler’s tale? One of my friends had an owl carry off his sow’s piglets (one by one) and an eagle can lift 20 pounds, so stories of a bird carrying off a child (or trying to) may not be impossible. How can we know? Most of us were told as children that ghosts aren’t real, and magick doesn’t exist. It makes the world seem a safer place to know what because we get angry at the people we love, that doesn’t make bad things happen to them. But as we learn more about empathy and energy, we find that the observer does change the outcome of what they observe. Some cultures feel that jealousy brings on bad luck through the evil eye. But when you see a ghost (as nearly one in five Americans admit to having done) it’s harder to disbelieve. When you learn to dowse (as nearly 90% of people who try are able to do), when you’ve discovered the utility of homeopathic remedies (10% of the population use them), when you consider the efficacy of the placebo effect (30-40%) it is harder to reject the impossibility that invisible energies interact with the physical world. I wish I had a buck for every person I have met who started to play with magick and dropped it like a hot potato when they noticed that it was working. People seem to be more afraid of having power than being powerless if power is magical rather than financial or political.
This still leaves us wondering how to talk about it. When someone asks me if I’m a witch, I always turn it around and tell them that if they tell me what the word means when they use it, I’ll tell them if that is what I am. (Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.) But many of these words are not only ambiguous, they carry a huge load of judgemental baggage, such as ‘witches worship the devil’, or the popular modern version ‘you may not know that using tarot cards is worshiping the devil, but it is’. (Way to pad your definitions!) Is magick unnatural? Clearly not since often our first experiences with it are accidental, and require no materials or incantations. Are people psychic? Almost everyone shows some sort of psychic talent, but as with other talents, it’s hard to get good at it without practicing, and without teachers or training program, most of us are self taught. Super-natural means beyond the natural, para-normal means “next to” or not normal, meta-physical means with or after physics. Occult simply means hidden, and when something has been forbidden for centuries, it’s not surprising that much to do with magic and psychic phenomena have been hidden. (I will also point out that most forms of healing were forbidden by the Church, because their ability to heal was a huge selling point for the start-up religion, and they were trying to avoid ‘comparison shopping’.) We can look at word roots, and translations, but, will we ever be able to agree on what these loaded words mean? Somehow I doubt it. We can’t decide what to call sandwich meats on a long bun, it’s different region to region. How can we expect to agree on what witches or supernatural is?
The word shaman came from the from the word samān from a Tungusic language, and I’ve heard people argue vehemently that it should never be used for anyone other than the (I think) eleven living spirit workers who were trained in that tradition. While I agree that cultural appropriation is wrong, I fail to see how using that word for spirit workers from other cultures exploits or takes anything from those shaman. It’s convenient to have a word that most people can recognize to describe spirit workers and what they do (not only because keyboards don’t usually contain umlauts). I’m more likely to get picky about the difference between shamanic and shamanistic. While I do several shamanistic activities, I am emphatically NOT a shaman.
As far as I can tell, most of these terms for paranormal activity indicate a level of hard-to-define phenomena, things that are weird, unusual, and make us feel a trifle uncomfortable. (I particularly dislike the way the Winchester brothers on the TV show Supernatural defined anything spooky as demonic, and generally diabolical from a Christian perspective. Before the show I rather liked the word.) Words are handles we use to grab concepts. If we can’t describe something with words, it’s almost impossible to think about it, it’s ineffable. Yet to share our experiences, to build on the knowledge, skills, and experiences of others, we need to be able to communicate about this. As an example of meeting this need, one of our speakers, Thor Halvorsen, has spent a lot of time trying to get various paranormal words introduced into American Sign Language. The deaf have the experiences and the abilities, but without the words to describe them, how will they be able to communicate about them? Those of us who use them need words for incantations, as we use names to connect energy to the person whose name it is. I get frustrated when I learn about books in languages I don’t know that haven’t been translated yet! We need words to be able to communicate with each other, language, idioms, and world-views. Communication is contact. I’d love to see more discussion about this on the FB group or other places we can talk about Epistemology, or how we know what we know.
Some of the definitions I pulled from the internet, I’m sure you can find others.
1: of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe
especially: of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil
2a: departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature
b: attributed to an invisible agent (such as a ghost or spirit)
Paranormal: not scientifically explainable
1a: of, relating to, or resembling that of a world other than the actual world
b: devoted to preparing for a world to come
2: devoted to intellectual or imaginative pursuits
Unearthly : not earthly: such as
a: not mundane : ideal
b: not terrestrial
1: existing outside of nature
2: exceeding what is natural or regular : extraordinary “wits trained to preternatural acuteness by the debates—”
G. L. Dickinson
3: inexplicable by ordinary means. especially: psychic
In its earliest documented uses in the 1500s, it tended to emphasize the strange, ominous, or foreboding, but by the 1700s, people were using it more benignly to refer to fascinating supernatural (or even heavenly) phenomena. Nowadays, people regularly use it to describe the remarkable abilities of exceptional humans.
Uncanny: Strange, mysterious, unsettling (inexplicable, unbelievable)
Monstrous: large, ugly, or frightening; having the ugly or frightening appearance of a monster.
- (of a person or an action) inhumanly or outrageously evil or wrong.