Friday, April 8, 2011

G is for ... Ghoul

A ghoul, colloquially, is a person with a macabre interest in death or destruction - the tendency to slow down and rubberneck when driving past the scene of an accident is a ghoulish impulse. The term originates with the Arabic ghul, from ghala, to seize, and describes a variety of djinn that ate the dead and could change its shape - a monster that lured unwary travellers to their deaths in the desert.

This morbid prolegomena, happily, need concern us no longer; the ghoul I wish to discuss today is a ghoul of an entirely different kind - a highly idiosyncratic definition, coined by a highly idiosyncratic man.

Tom Lethbridge not only shared Timothy Leary's initials: like Leary, he is now deceased; like Leary, he worked within a university; like Leary, he dwelled in Cambridge; and, like Leary, his unusual interests led him down a path that yielded an elaborate pseudoscientific theory at the cost of his academic credibility. There, however, the similarities end. Lethbridge was keeper of Anglo-Saxon antiquities at the Archaelogical Museum of Cambridge, and his Cambridge was in England, not Massachussets. Where Leary's theories - behold, it rhymes - concerned opening what Aldous Huxley would call "the doors of perception", Lethbridge's researches concerned an entirely different mode of perception altogether: dowsing.

For those unfamiliar with the term, dowsing involves using a rod - traditionally, a Y-shaped twig of hazelwood was used by English dowsers - to locate, or 'divine,' hidden underground deposits of minerals, water sources, and other entities. The dowser holds the twig by the arms of the Y, slightly under tension, and passes the rod over the ground. Upon identification of the desired substance, the rod responds by moving or twitching, much in the way a fishing float does when a fish takes the bait. More violent movements have been reported, with the divining rod acting as if magnetized by a powerful field.

A traditional dowser complete with rod

As mentioned above, dowsers claim to be able to locate all kinds of things with the rods, and indeed use all kinds of rods to do so - modern dowsers often use L-shaped metal or wire rods, for example. The successes they have demonstrated are not explicable in terms of conventional science; fortunately for conventional science, they are also sufficiently inconsistent that they can be rejected as hoaxes or misinterpretations of natural phenomena. Such "explanations" are no more than an oblique restatement of the mechanist-materialist credo; Lethbridge, to his credit in my opinion, attempted a genuinely open-minded research into the subject.

Lethbridge's method of dowsing was a little different from the traditional "witching rod" - he employed a pendulum, and, by varying the length of the string, he was able to 'tune' his pendulum to divine different materials. He'd set off walking with his pendulum, and when he reached a place where the appropriate material was, the pendulum would commence gyrating. Gradually, Lethbridge fleshed out a whole "language" of pendulum swings at differing lengths, and developed a highly sophisticated interpretation of these. One fascinating aspect of this was his assertion that the pendulum responded to 'vibrations' or emanations from objects
not perceptible by us at all - things in other realms of existence. One of Lethbridge's more startling conclusions was that entities continue to exist, in a form measurable by an appropriately 'tuned' pendulum, after their physical death; not only that, but he identified further realms beyond that.

There is a striking similarity between Lethbridge's contention of invisible emanations around us, and Leary's of unopened circuits in our consciousness; perhaps the two had something else in common, after all.

Although Lethbridge did believe the soul was immortal, he did not accept that ghosts were the restless spirits of the departed. Rather, his research into ley lines - originally described in Alfred Watkins' The Old Straight Track - led him to conjecture that elements within the English landscape channeled and concentrated the scientifically undectectable energies to which his pendulum responded, and that there existed places where these energies allowed for the recording of more vivid impressions that could be accessed by a sufficiently sensitive individual at a later time as direct sensory experiences. Lethbridge himself experienced the mildest such experience when he identified a specific area near his home that was associated with a profound and irrational mood of depression; dowsing the area, he was able to map its contours. He called the region that induced this mood a "ghoul," and later elaborated his theory to suggest that more vivid experiences - sightings of ghosts, and even the totally immersive experiences known as "timeslips" - might be the influence of more powerful "ghouls," deceiving the senses and luring the unwary into ... All of a sudden, I have a strange feeling of deja vu...


Laurie Peel said...

Interesting and entertaining post!

Erin Kane Spock said...

This was really fascinating (and not too long :P ).
I have heard of divining rods, but not dowsing. The pendulum sounds like the scrying crystal used by so many mystical subcultures.
When I was younger I lived in Ireland. I was told (in the way you'd imagine - a wizened old woman with few teeth and a shawl over head) that our wood was on a ley line. I wonder what Lethbridge would have found there.