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Contacting the spiritual world

Paper amulet in the shape of a black cat, England, 1914-1918

Paper amulet in the shape of a black cat, England, 1914-1918

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Contact with the spiritual world remains a part of everyday life for many people - think of religious activities such as the Muslim call to prayer or the bells announcing Christian Sunday services. Over time, and across many cultures, belief in the spiritual world has also had a medical aspect. Most medical traditions have at some time in their history called upon the spirit world in an effort to combat or prevent disease.

Communicating with the spiritual world

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When illness was believed to arise from disturbed or angered spirits, the special knowledge, experience and skills of a shaman or medicine man would have been sought as treatment. These individuals were believed to have special powers, which enabled them to communicate with the spiritual world and uncover the causes of and cures for disease.

Techniques for understanding the spirit world: divination

The techniques used in an effort to consult the spirit world are known as divination, and are shared by many cultural traditions. This can involve the examination of sacrificed animals, the behaviour of birds or the casting of stones, dice or cards. The most widely recognised practice of divination is probably astrology, which is practised in different forms across the world. This is based on the belief that the stars and planets control human lives; understanding their positions therefore supplies guidance on matters of health.

Visiting a place for healing: shrines

To Christians and Hindus particularly, but also to other believers, contact with spiritual power over matters of ill health could involve travel to special healing shrines. These are dedicated to certain gods or patron saints who are believed to offer cures for specific medical conditions.

The continued belief in spiritual healing

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People still seek personal contact with the spirit world to deal with their health problems. In many African, south and east Asian, and other indigenous cultures, shamans and medicine men remain an important port of call for ill people and their families. And although biomedicine no longer looks to the spirits when explaining and treating disease, visits to holy shrines such as Lourdes, the Catholic shrine in France, show no sign of declining.

The use of prayer today

While most people in the West visit a doctor when they are ill, surveys suggest that over half of us, in all religious traditions, still pray for our recovery. Some people also feel the need for spiritual protection not only during times of sickness but as they face the problems of everyday life. We might not consider good luck charms as amulets - spiritually charged objects believed to keep spirits at bay - but many people, whether athletes, soldiers or students, continue to carry ‘charms’ which they believe will bring them good fortune.

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Bibliography

C Chilson and P Knecht (eds), Shamans in Asia (London: Routledge, 2003)

V I J Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Oxford: Blackwell,1993)

R Porter (ed.), The Cambridge History of Medicine (Cambridge, University of Cambridge Press, 2006)

K Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Belief in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London: Penguin, 1991)

Glossary:

Biomedicine

The name given to the medical practice that is based on the sciences of the body, such as physiology (the functioning of the body).