The belief in invisibility is an ancient one in religion, folklore,
and superstition. The soul or vital principle in human beings
could not be established visibly, and after death was presumed
to inhabit an invisible realm, also peopled by angelic
and demonic entities not visible to normal human sight. Even
in modern times, the concept of the astral plane and of heaven
and hell in some invisible dimension of space rather than a distant
position in the cosmos still persists, and has relevance to
the belief in apparitions or ghosts of the dead that may become
visible and then vanish under certain circumstances. In Spiritualism,
such appearances and disappearances of phantom
forms are claimed in the phenomena of materialization and
Although the concept of an invisible world that may sometimes
be made visible is at variance with the known scientific
machinery of vision and the function of the eyes, there remains
the philosophical problem that the actual nature of empirical
reality cannot be established scientifically through human
senses, although there is consistency in the common experience
of vision, touch, and other sensory impressions that are
validated by sensations in the brain. The idealist school of philosophy
stemming from Bishop Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, and
others holds that there are no physical objects existing apart
from thought and experience, and the theist claims that the
consistency of mental experience derives from divine law.
Much of the great body of superstition, folklore, and sorcery
relating to visibility and invisibility derives from the earliest experiences
of humankind and the prescientific observation of
natural phenomena incorporated in religious and magical beliefs.
Many of these beliefs appear untenable to scientifically
trained minds.
Invisibility in Folklore
A constant motif in folktales throughout the world is the
power of becoming invisible, giving the possessor of this power
special advantages in overhearing an enemy’s plans, winning
battles with powerful adversaries, or merely stealing valuable
objects unperceived. Usually invisibility was conferred by an
object or garment, such as a magic ring, stone, cap, shoes, or
cloak. Such magic possessions were sometimes associated with
other powers—the shoes that carry the wearer great distances
in a brief moment, the ring that could be rubbed to summon
up a genie, the cap that conferred wisdom, or vision of distant
or future events.
In Greek legend, the hero Perseus, who slew the Gorgon,
had magic shoes that carried him through the air, in addition
to a cap of invisibility. In the ancient Sanskrit story book Kathasaritsagara
(Ocean of Story) of Somadeva, the Brahmin Gunarsarman
becomes invisible by putting a magic ointment on his
eyes, and is thus able to penetrate the camp of King Vikramaskti.
The cloak of invisibility is known in folktales throughout Europe,
and even in the Apache Indian legends of America, where
Child-of-the-Water gets a cloak from Lizard, enabling him to
get near to the monster Buffalo without being seen. In Arthurian
legend, the king himself had a cloak of invisibility.
The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1932–36) compiled by
Stith Thompson lists 28 magic objects that confer invisibility,
including a stone, flower, serpent’s crown, heart of an unborn
child, belt, cloak, saint’s cowl, ring, helmet, sword, and wand.
For example, it was long believed that fern seed conferred invisibility,
but the seed itself was supposed to be invisible, so anyone
who could find this seed and carry it would also become invisible.
The fern was said to bloom at midnight on Midsummer
Eve, and to seed soon after. The seeker of the seed had to avoid
touching it, or letting it fall on the ground. A white cloth had
to be placed under the plant for the invisible seed to fall on. It
could then be wrapped up and carried around, rendering the
owner invisible. Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Beaumont, and
Fletcher all have references in their plays to fern seed conferring
invisibility, and this belief continued in folklore centuries
Another persistent folk belief was the power of the ‘‘Hand
of Glory.’’ This was the dried or pickled hand of a dead criminal
hanged on the gallows. Robbers were supposed to be invisible
if they carried this gruesome hand with a candle made from
the fat of a hanged man. Sometimes the fingers of the hand
were used as candles, and a finger lit for each occupant of the
house to be robbed, ensuring that they would remain motionless.
The Rev. Richard Barham, in his Ingoldsby Legends (1840
etc.) versified this belief in ‘‘The Nurse’s Story, The Hand of
On January 3, 1831, a gang of thieves attempted to rob the
house of a Mr. Napier in Loughcrew, County Meath, Ireland.
They broke into the house carrying a Hand of Glory and a candle,
believing that it would prevent the occupants from waking.
However, the Hand of Glory failed to keep the inmates asleep,
and the robbers fled, leaving their talisman behind.
Invisibility in Sorcery and Witchcraft
A Manuscript (No. 2350) titled ‘‘Le Secret des Secrets’’ in
the Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal in France, contains a chapter devoted
to the secret of invisibility. It consists of a spell in Latin,
which opens with over thirty mystical names, preferably to be
written in bat’s blood, and continues in a mixture of Christian
and pagan tradition with an invocation translated as
‘‘O thou, Pontation! master of invisibility, with thy masters
[here follow names of the masters], I conjure thee, Pontation,
and these same masters of invisibility, by Him Who makes the
universe tremble, by Heaven and Earth, Cherubim and Seraphim,
and by Him Who made the Virgin conceive and Who is
God and Man, that I may accomplish this experiment in perInterspace
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fectibility, in such sort that at any hour I desire I may be invisible;
again I conjure thee and thy ministers also, by Stabuches
and Mechaerom, Esey, Enitgiga, Bellis, and Semonei, that thou
come straightway with thy said ministers and that thou perform
this work as you all know how, and that this experiment may
make me invisible in such wise that no one may see me. Amen.’’
According to other grimoires, invisibility may be achieved
by simply carrying the heart of a bat, a black hen, or a frog
under the right arm.
Another method is to construct and wear the Ring of Gygès,
King of Lydie. It should be made of fixed mercury, set with a
little stone found in a lapwing’s nest, and around the stone the
words ‘‘Jésus passant par le milieu d’eux s’en allat’’ are inscribed.
A variant instruction for the Ring of Gygès is contained
in the grimoire Le Véritable Dragon Rouge . . . plus La Poule Noire
(1521), where the inscription is in magical symbols.
The Second Book of the Secrets of Albertus Magnus contains
the following formula
‘‘If thou wilt be made Invisible.
‘‘LVII. Take the Stone which is called Ophethalminus, and
wrap it in the leafe of the Laurell or Bay tree. And it is called
Lapis Obtelmicus, whose colour is not named, for it is of many
colours, and it is of such virtue that it blindeth the sights of
them that stand about. Constantinus carrying this in his hand,
was made invisible therewith.’’
The seventeenth-century grimoire The Lemegeton of Solomon
or Book of the Spirits contains the names of spirits who may be
invoked in a crystal at a set hour and used for magical purposes
by means of their mystical seals. These include
‘‘BAAL. This is the name of one of the most powerful of all
kinds of demons. He may present himself as a man with a
human head—or that of a cat or toad. Occasionally he is seen
with all at once. Speaking in a hoarse voice, he gives knowledge
of all kinds, and tells the means to obtain invisibility.
‘‘GLASYALABOLAS is a powerful President, whose importance
is belied by his appearance as a winged dog. In addition
to teaching all sciences, he causes murder, makes men invisible
and knows all about the past, present and future.’’
The Grimorium Verum (True Grimoire) of the sixteenth
century or earlier, contains the following black magic instuctions
‘‘To Make Oneself Invisible. Collect seven black beans. Begin
the ritual on a Wednesday before sunrise. Then take the head
of a dead man and put one of the black beans in his mouth, two
in his eyes and two in his ears. Then make upon his head the
character of MORAIL. Afterwards bury the head with the face
upwards, and for nine days before sunrise water it each morning
with good brandy. On the eighth day you will find the spirit
mentioned, who will say to you ‘What wilt thou’ You will reply
‘I am watering my plant.’ Then the Spirit will say ‘Give me the
Bottle, I desire to water it myself.’ In response, refuse him, even
although he will ask you again. Then he will reach out with his
hand and will show you the same figure which you had drawn
upon the head. Now you can be certain that this is the right
spirit, the spirit of the head. There is a danger that some other
Spirit might try to trick you, which would have evil consequences—and
in that case your operation would not succeed.
Then you may give him the bottle and he will water the head
and depart. On the next day, which is the ninth, when you return
you will find that the beans are germinating. Take them
and put them in your mouth, or in that of a child. Those which
do not confer invisibility are to be reburied with the head.’’
Invisibility in Spiritual Development
Invisibility is one of the siddhis or occult powers traditionally
marking the progress of the Indian yogi on the pathway to
higher spiritual development. Other siddhis include knowledge
of past incarnations, access to the minds of others, knowledge
of the time of one’s death, and of hidden things, of movements
and positions of stars and planets, freedom from hunger and
thirst, the ability to walk through space and time, or to enter
other bodies, and to become light or heavy at will, and to levitate.
In the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, a standard yoga treatise (ca.
3rd century B.C.E., Chapter III, 21), it is stated
‘‘By Samyana [combined concentration-absorption-trance]
on the form of the body, suspending the power of another to
see it, there follows disappearance of the body.’’
However, such powers are regarded only as signs of progress,
and their use for personal gain or to impress others is considered
to be a serious obstacle to spiritual development.
In The Kingdom of the Lost (1947), J. A. Howard Ogdon offers
an account of the use of such yoga techniques to create invisibility,
The author suffered from schizophrenia, and after a period
of voluntary treatment at a British mental hospital was improperly
certified as a lunatic and confined to a mental institution.
During his incarceration, he practiced hatha yoga intensively
without the knowledge of the authorities, and perfected techniques
of mental concentration and suggestion.
In 1941, he escaped from the institution in broad daylight
in full view of some forty other patients and the hospital attendants.
His pockets were bulging with food for his journey and
he wore a raincoat and carried a full shopping bag, as well as
a gas mask container (gas masks were issued to all civilians during
World War II in Britain). He claims that through mental
concentration he walked openly past fifty or sixty individuals
and out through the front door of the institution without being
perceived or challenged by anyone.
Naturally such a claim from a former mental patient must
be treated with caution, but it is clear that Ogdon was an intelligent
and well-read individual with a very rational view of his illness.
The possibility of establishing an atmosphere of mass suggestion
is not implausible. Some modern hypnotists have
claimed to make individuals invisible to a hypnotized subject,
so that he or she apparently sees right through them, even if
they may be sitting in chairs.
Scientific Aspects of Invisibility
Aside from the fantasies and wish-fulfillment stories of folklore,
or the interference with normal visual perception by
means of hypnosis, the possibility of scientific techniques of invisibility
has long been a matter for speculation. There are
many accounts of seeing apparitions, but no adequate scientific
explanation of how invisible forms can become visible, then
again vanish. Where do they come from and where do they go
Ingenious theories have been advanced of intra-atomic space
or interlocking universes, but outside the realm of science fiction
literature there is no evidence for extra-dimensional
Spiritualists claim that phantom forms of the dead may
manifest at séances using a subtle substance exuded by the medium
in a vapor or cloud-like flow, becoming more solid and
eventually taking on the form of a deceased person and having
the appearance of a living individual as in the case of ‘‘Katie
King.’’ This substance is known as ectoplasm, is said to be sensitive
to light, and to recoil suddenly upon the medium if handled
roughly. The process of becoming visible then vanishing
again is known as materialization and dematerialization. Few
today would argue for the existence of ectoplasm, or materializations.
Since such claimed phenomena usually occur in subdued
light or darkness, there is opportunity for fraud, and
many cases have been detected. There remain a few reported
cases of apparitions appearing in daylight.
Any scientific method of producing invisibility in human beings
would involve apparently insuperable difficulties of interference
with the light refracting characteristics of various types
of human tissue and organs, and to be fully effective, the individual
would need to be transparent as well as invisible. Unless
the invisibility process also applied to inanimate material such
as clothing, the invisible being would be obliged to travel
naked, a problem vividly portrayed in H. G. Wells’ science fiction
novella The Invisible Man (1897).
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Invisibility
A high level of skepticism is therefore inevitable in considering
the claim that a top secret U.S. Navy experiment in 1943
succeeded in rendering the destroyer Eldridge and its crew temporarily
invisible and teleporting it from its berth in Philadelphia
to Norfolk, Virginia. Some of the crew members were said
to have disappeared without trace, others to have gone mad,
or to have met alien beings. Authors Charles Berlitz and William
Moore suggest that the experiment involved using an intensified
force field around the ship, deriving from the principles
of Einstein’s Unified Field Theory.
Another book, Invisible Horizons (1964) by Vincent Gaddis,
attempts to link the Philadelphia Experiment story with the
Bermuda Triangle mystery. All this is fascinating but highly
speculative and lacking firm evidence. The Office of Naval Research
firmly denies the whole story, and the Department of
the Navy, Office of Information, states ‘‘ONR has never conducted
any investigations on invisibility, either in 1943 or at
any other time.’’ A 1984 movie The Philadelphia Experiment further
fictionalized the story.
Berlitz, Charles, and William Moore. The Philadelphia Experiment
Project Invisibility. N.p., 1979.
Moore, William L., and Charles Berlitz. The Philadelphia Experiment.
New York Grosset & Dunlap, 1979.