the Psychomanteum
the otherside of the mirror


In ancient Greece, there were curious institutions known as psychomanteums, or oracles of the dead, where people traveled allegedly to see and to consult with the spirits of deceased relatives and friends. The facilities are mentioned by Homer in The Odyssey, the historian Herodotus, the comic playright Aristophanes, the geographer Strabo and the travel writer-physician Pausanius, among others. Such accounts suggest that the procedures employed were not a form of mediumship but that seekers had their own firsthand, unmediated encounters with the departed.For millennia, scholars assumed that stories of the oracles of the dead were literary fabrications or that the operators of the facility were engaged in systematic fraud. In 1957, Sotirios Dakaris, a Greek classical archeologist, discovered the site of the most reknowned of these facilities, the Oracle of the Dead at Ephyra on the Acheron River in Epirus. When fully excavated, the oracle turned out to be an enormous subterranean complex of dormitory rooms, corridors, and a winding labyrinthine passageway opening into a central apparition hallway approximately fifty feet in length. The remnants of an enormous caldron surrounded by a ballustrade were found in this chamber. Dakaris concluded that the psychagogues, the technicians who conducted the sessions, concealed themselves in the caldron and pretended to be the spirits the seekers had come to see. I decided to test an alternative hypothesis: Throughout history metal cups, bowls and cauldrons have been highly polished on the inside surfaces, filled with water or oil and used as speculums for mirror gazing. Could lifelike apparitions of the departed be re-created by the use of mirror gazing?

A latter-day psychomanteum was constructed using a large wall mirror surrounded by a curtain to exclude reflections. Subjects sitting within the chamber are able to gaze into a clear optical depth without being distracted by reflections. Volunteer subjects who were known to be emotionally stable and who were interested in human consciousness were selected, primarily from among colleagues. Each volunteer was asked to choose one deceased person whom he or she had known and wanted to see again; each subject was assigned a different day to come to the psychomanteum to undergo the following procedure:

The subject and I took an extended walk in the countryside during which we explored, together, the subject's motivation for seeking this experience. Then, after alight lunch, there was an in-depth interview during which the details of the subject's relationship with the departed were brought to light and discussed fully. The mementoes brought by the subject were displayed and the meaning of each was discussed in depth. The subject was then conducted into the apparition chamber, instructed to gaze deeply into the clear depth of the mirror. Afterward, the subject was conducted into separate interview and allowed to describe his or her experience in full detail and to ventilate emotionally.

Thus far, well over a hundred subjects have been guided through this procedure at The Theater of the Mind with the result that over 50% of them experienced vivid visionary encounters with departed loved ones. There were a number of highly surprising features of these results: Thus far, all subjects have taken the reunions to be real events and not as fantasies or daydreams. Approximately twenty- five percent of the subjects encountered some other departed loved one than the one they had prepared to see. Approximately twenty-five percent of the subjects experiencing apparitions reported some further encounter with the departed after they returned to their own homes. Almost every subject said in one way or another that the reunion had helped them resolve unfinished business with the deceased. 

Thus far, this procedure has been successfully replicated by at least ten other investigators working independently. We can now say that the common human experience of seeing apparitions of the departed can be precipitated in psychologically normal subjects under controlled circumstances. The significance of this work is taken to be as follows: First, it yields a plausible explanation for historical reports of phenomena produced at oracles of the dead. Second, it will allow for electroencephalographic and other determination of brain activity during the experience of seeing apparitions of the departed. Third, it may be developed into a form of therapy for prolonged grief states.