Pushing the boundaries of reality: Accounts of parateleportation among Western Desert Aboriginal people
Paper presented at the 17th World Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Manchester 2013 to the panel WMW13 The extended self: relations between material and immaterial worlds
This paper is essentially about paradigms and genuine scientific engagement with things we do not yet understand. It reflects my strong view that anthropology can make significant contributions to our understanding of consciousness and the full spectrum of the human experience. There are two key aspects that strongly position anthropology to make such contribution in my view: first is our relationship with peoples whose paradigms of the world are not confined by materialism and who instead view life to include both physical and extraphysical dimensions. In other words, we are consistently confronted with experiences and world-views that challenge us to go beyond our own cultural preconceptions. Second, is the requirement of our positioning as cultural translators, to not simply accept the paradigms and interpretations of our informants, but continuously seek to distill universal human principles that underpin cultural variation, and thereby develop new models of understanding the human experience.
I have on previous occasions focused on the out-of-body experience (projection of consciousness, astral projection) as a significant area of research (e.g. McCaul 2003, 2008). Not only does that experience go to the heart of our understanding of life beyond the physical dimension, but it is also both ubiquitous among indigenous cultures (Sheils 1978) and potentially achievable by the anthropologist. This latter aspect is relevant not only from our own disciplinary priority of participant-observation, but also means that the experience can be explored “from within” in accordance with Charles Tart’s proposal of state-specific sciences (Tart 1998). A full understanding of the OBE profoundly challenges the conventional materialistic paradigm and challenges us to develop new models of understanding reality (unless of course we seek to explain away the significant data about the experience from a position of fundamentalist reductionism).
This again advocates that there is a need for a broader paradigm if we want to genuinely understand the full range of experiences of consciousness, but the experiences it draws on are, in my view, of a different order than the by now very extensively reported and documented OBE (Vieira 2002). It was prompted by accounts of seemingly impossible human feats from among Aboriginal people of the Australian Western Desert region. They were the type of accounts that most non-Aboriginal people who heard them would smile at benignly while “knowing”, from within the security of their own paradigm, that they could be no more than “old wives tales”. If we move beyond that security, however, into the space of genuine scientific inquiry we need to consider whether these accounts are more than simple indications of cultural beliefs, but may in fact be pointing to an understanding of reality that reflects genuine experience rather than misguided tralatitious belief.
Life beyond the physical dimension features strongly among Australian Aboriginal people. The benign and malign actions of spirits, the ability of old people to connect with creation ancestors in their sleep through out-of-body experiences, and the ability of humans to influence the natural environment through song and ceremony are all widely reported and well documented (Berndt 1947, Elkin 1977). Significantly for the phenomenon discussed here, song appears to be a methodology for interdimensional communication, i.e. a way in which physical people evoke and obtain particular assistance from extraphysical people.
The ethnographic data for this paper is derived from the Western Desert of Australia. The Western Desert area is the largest homogenous cultural area in Australia stretching from just to the east of the coast of Western Australia at Broome to Oodnadatta and Coober Pedy in South Australia and from the Nullarbor Plain in the south to Yuendumu and Balgo in the north (see map). This vast area is marked by significant linguistic and cultural cohesion, argued convincingly by Berndt (1959) to reflect a single cultural bloc. This cohesion is expressed up until the present through significant mobility across this region including for the purpose of large ceremonial processes uniting people from the far-flung communities (Peterson 2000). The information discussed in this paper is from the south-eastern extent of this vast area, in South Australia where I have been working in Aboriginal affairs since 2000.
The Western Desert area is one of the main bastions of traditional Aboriginal culture in Australia and widely known for its conservative approach to ceremonial business. Men from many other areas where ceremonies are no longer practiced regularly travel to Western Desert communities to “go through the law”, i.e. to achieve full classificatory manhood by going through initiation ceremonies. As well as maintaining what could be considered the bedrock of classical Aboriginal religious structures through the standard male initiation processes, the Western Desert is also one of few areas in Australia that continues to produce a significant number of traditional healers (Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation 2003). Known as ngangkari, at least in the eastern part of the region, these healers could be broadly considered as part of the shamanic spectrum with much of their healing focused on managing subtle energies and battling extraphysical consciousnesses (spirits).
The phenomenon in the cultural context
Soon after starting work with Aboriginal communities in South Australia I heard the story of Aeroplane George – a story that I have since heard in slightly different variations at least half a dozen times. According to this story, Aeroplane George earned his name for his uncanny ability to travel at seemingly impossible speeds.
In all the versions I heard he was seen at one train station waving to people who had boarded a train, for example at Tarcoola. Next they saw him when they arrived at their destination, for example Cooper Pedy, waiting as the train pulled into the station. The specific stations in the stories varied, but the fundamental aspect of the story was always the same. And apparently it was not only Aboriginal people who experienced this. On his death in 1978 a newspaper reported that “many a tourist was puzzled at seeing George at Cooper Pedy and then upon arrival at Kulgera, they would be greeted by Aeroplane George. No one knows how George managed to travel so fast.”
I already had an interest in so-called paranormal phenomena at that time and so I registered that story among many others involving spirits and out-of-body experiences, all of which seemed to be treated as common-place and natural by the Aboriginal people I spoke with.
It was not until several years later, however, that I spoke with a Pitjantjatjara man called Murray, who actually claimed to have experienced what Aeroplane George had. After telling me about the making of a traditional healer and the significance of the out-of-body experience in his culture, he spoke about an experience he once had as a young man when some old men showed him and a group of youngsters something he referred to as walpa (“wind”). He described this as a skill that involved using an emu feather and certain songs, which allowed them to all travel from Ernabella to Alice Springs and back in 2 or 3 hours. A return trip from Ernabella to Alice Springs is about 660km through the desert as the crow flies.
On this trip the group apparently passed through hills, cars and buildings. They went into a bank vault and saw all the money but were not allowed to pick any up. There were lots of white people there, but they did not see any of the Anangu (the term by which these Western Desert people describe themselves). Murray said that this was the skill Aeroplane George used. He said he and others were a bit ambivalent about this skill as it could be used to steal things or commit other crimes. In other words it had to be used with caution and could be dangerous in the hands of unscrupulous individuals.
Despite my long-term interest in such matters, this account seemed quite fanciful to me. I had studied OBEs for many years, had met many people who had experienced them and had experienced my own. I knew that traversing matter is a common feature of those experiences. In that state it makes sense as the consciousness is using a body that is more subtle than physical matter and can therefore pass through it. So I double checked. Was he talking about travelling in his spirit body? No, he was very clear that this was not a “spirit journey”. His physical body had gone on this trip.
It would have been easy to dismiss this experience as one step too far, but doing so would have been hypocritical. If I were to only accept those accounts I could relate to from a basis of personal experience, my position would be just another variation on the classic paradigmatic limitations of inquiry. And I should emphasis here that I am not advocating blind acceptance of all beliefs and accounts of experiences, but open minded and genuine inquiry.
I discovered that Elkin reported the phenomenon of ‘fast travelling’ in his classic and still unrivaled account of Australian Aboriginal shamanism (Aboriginal Men of High Degree, Elkin 1977) as occurring among numerous groups across Australia. He in turn drew parallels between the accounts he had recorded and accounts recorded from Tibet (David-Neel 1965). Clearly, the phenomenon was not isolated in its occurrence or simply the result of a localized delusion.
I consulted the work of Vieira (2002), who focuses on the OBE, but nonetheless provides a comprehensive discussion of concomitant phenomena. Among them is the phenomenon he terms parateleportation, which he defines as follows:
a phenomenon composed of dematerialization, levitation, apport and rematerialization, in which the intraphysical consciousness suddenly disappears and reappears in another location; the act or process of transporting objects, human beings or subhuman animals through space, without any mechanical means. (Vieira 2002:195)
Vieira then identifies 24 frequent characteristics of this experience, including relevantly:
- that the phenomenon is not planned or desired by the person experiencing it,
- that the phenomenon usually only involves one person,
- that the person experiencing it usually has no self-awareness or recollection of the period between disappearance and reappearance.
The account given me by Murray of course differs on all these counts as the experience was deliberately induced by a group of men and experienced as a conscious journey. Similarly the apparent ubiquity of Aeroplane George’s feats suggests some degree of conscious control over the phenomenon.
A parallel, however, is found in Vieira’s observation that the experience is often referred to by references to “whirlwind” or “wind” in ancient traditions and Murray’ Pitjantjatjara name walpa (“wind”) for it.
A key reference in Vieira’s analysis is Fodor (1962) who provides a summary of accounts of the experience in historic texts and in the context of mediumistic sessions. Accepting the consistency with which the phenomenon has been reported in the mediumistic literature as carrying some weight, it certainly appears as if in rare circumstances human bodies can traverse space, including physical objects in ways as yet not understood. Many of the mediumistic accounts bear out Vieira’s suggestion that the phenomenon usually involves an unconscious medium. The usual pattern appears to be that the dematerialization is provoked by extraphysical consciousnesses while the medium is in a trance state. Even in the remarkable case of the spontaneous parateleportation of the famous Brazilian medium Carlos Mirabelli who was waiting at one train station when he suddenly disappeared in front of numerous witnesses and was then found at his final destination, 90kms away, circa two minutes later, there is no suggestion that he intended to induce the phenomenon or recalled any of his journey (Goes 1937).
A partial exception among the cases reported by Fodor, is one that took place in 1871 which involved the serial parateleporation first of a Mrs Guppy and then of two other mediums whose séance had in fact provoked the whole affair. The latter two both recalled interactions with other physical people at brief stops in the course of being parateleported from one location to another and then returned, i.e. they disappeared from the local of their séance, found themselves elsewhere where they interacted with people and objects and were then returned to the original location. In fact, both returned with physical objects (Fodor 1962:112-121), providing support to Murray’s expressed belief that he could have taken money from the bank if he had wanted.
In summary, there is in my view sufficient supportive information to warrant taking seriously the accounts by Aboriginal people. In fact, it appears that the Aboriginal cultural context could provide a privileged environment for its study, because unlike the generally spontaneous and involuntary occurrence among western mediums, Aboriginal people appear to have a ceremonially encoded methodology that offers high levels of control and replicability of the experience.
I want to conclude this paper with a brief discussion of the importance of paradigms in understanding this phenomenon, and multidimensional phenomena more broadly.
It is in my view incumbent on a researcher to start with the hypothesis that the account is genuine. Fantasy, fraud, deceit or delusion are of course all possibilities, but in my view they do not represent sound or productive starting points. We may eventually arrive at the conclusion that those are factors in play, but in my view we need to precede this conclusion with careful inquiry. In my case, I did not have the opportunity to pursue the account with further research. Ideally, the participant-observer would of course not only seek other informants on the topic, but participation in the described ceremony.
For the purposes of this paper, I will assume that the accounts about Aeroplane George and by my informant are accurate. In that case they clearly point to a reality that is broader than our conventional paradigm allows for. The differences between the way the experience manifests in Aboriginal culture and the way it does at the fringes of our cultures (i.e. in the “spiritualist” circles) could plausibly be explained on the basis of the different world views in operation.
Firstly, mediums in our culture are already operating outside the mainstream paradigm. Every aspect of mediumship is subject to derision, criticism or incredulity by the majority of the other members of the medium’s cultural group. Within its own reality, much of the mediumistic tradition is passive, which means the medium enters a trance to allow the work of spirits (or of God depending on the tradition) to be done through them. It is the extraphysical consciousnesses (spirits) who are in control.
In Aboriginal culture, on the other hand, the phenomenon of “fast travelling” is embedded in an overall world view in which it is not only plausible but something to be expected (Elkin 1977:). The creation narratives of the Dreaming, which provide the blue-print for human society are replete with accounts of “supernatural” feats by the creation beings. In the traditional philosophy, every human being who participates in ceremony across a life-time has the potential to ultimately embody these creation beings who are considered both the spiritual and “genetic” origin of humanity. In other words, anything that was done by the creation beings is potentially available to human beings as well. Reaching a state where a person can induce this and other kinds of paranormal phenomena is consequently built into the expected life trajectory for at least some members of the community and accepted by all.
A second significant difference is the notion of agency. I believe the ultimate question of the locus of agency in Aboriginal culture is fairly complex and would involve careful consideration of kinship networks and the position of the individual as a link in the chain of ancestral traditions. This would go beyond the scope of this brief paper. What is most relevant here is that, unlike the European medium, the Aboriginal ceremonial leader knows that he (or she) can achieve particular results through the “technology” of song and ritual. I use the term technology here to indicate the clear causal link between certain ceremonial actions and an expected outcome. In singing the requisite songs the human actor is evoking and drawing on powers that surpass him – the ancestral beings – but rather than submit to their superior powers, my interpretation of the Aboriginal context is that the humans are in a sense temporarily aligning themselves and essentially occupying the same ontological space as those creation ancestors.
Beyond this brief comparison of distinct cultural differences around the same phenomenon, what should be the working paradigm of the anthropologist in their analysis? In brief my view is that it should allow for an engagement with the experience as a possible reality. I expect there are numerous ways in which this could be construed. Personally, I do not profess any expertise in quantum mechanics, but imagine that this field may offer models that could explain de- and rematerialisation. My personal preference is for a paradigm originally stipulated by Vieira (Vieira 1994) that I have adopted following long-term study of subtle energy (chi, qui, prana) and the projection of consciousness. This paradigm essentially considers the manifestation of life (consciousness) to occur on a range of interconnected yet seemingly distinct energetic frequencies. In addition to the gross physical dimension we are all aware of every day, there are other more subtle dimensions that we can access through projections of consciousness or perceive if we have developed the appropriate senses. From this perspective, physical matter is simply one way in which energy can manifest, and while it is more solid and stable than some of the other forms, it can nonetheless behave like those more subtle energies on certain occasions.
There are other key elements to this paradigm which I will not go into here, but it is important to emphasise that while it may be simple to summarise the paradigm as I just have this does not mean that it is a simplistic model or that the reality it points to is unremarkable. On the contrary, the reality it points to is vast, complex and awe-inspiring and it is precisely for this reason that every attempt at deepening our understanding of it is valuable. In the case of parateleportation, the challenge for us as European trained anthropologists is in the first instance to maintain an open mind. This is the first challenge before we can even contemplate the next step, which is to explore the possibility of pursuing the experience ourselves so as to understand it, and the reality described by our informants from the inside.
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