Term derived from Latin visus, past participle of videre, to
see, indicating the appearance to human beings of supernatural
persons or scenes. Of great frequency in early and medieval
times, and among primitive or semi-civilized races, visions
seem to have decreased proportionately with the advance of
learning and enlightenment. Thus, among the Greeks and Romans
of the classic period, they were comparatively rare, although
visions of demons or gods were occasionally seen. On
the other hand, among Oriental races, the seeing of visions was
a common occurrence, and these visions took more varied
In medieval Europe, visions were almost commonplace, and
directions were given by the church to enable men to distinguish
visions of divine origin from false delusions which were
either self-generated or the work of the demons andor the
Visions may be roughly divided into two classesthose
which are spontaneous and those which are induced. The great
majority belong to the latter class.
In 1854, Joseph Ennemoser, in his work The History of Magic,
enumerated causative factors in the appearance of visions to an
individual (1) a sensitive organism and delicate constitution;
(2) a religious education and ascetic life (fasting, penance, etc.);
(3) narcoticsopium, wine, incense, narcotic salves (witchsalves);
(4) delirium, monomania; andor (5) fear and expectation,
preparatory words, songs, and prayers.
Among the visions induced by prayer and fasting and the severe
self-discipline of the religious ascetic, must be included
many historical or traditional instancesthe visions of St.
Vision (Ocular and Inner) Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony, St. Bernard Ignatius, St. Catherine
of Siena, St. Hildegarde, and Joan of Arc. It may be noted
that the convent has often been the special haunt of religious
visions. A wave of apparitions of the Virgin Mary began in
France early in the nineteenth century and several hundred incidents
have been reported in the intervening decades to the
present time. (See Garabandal; Medjugorje)
But the most potent means for the induction of visionary appearances
are those discovered and used by indigenous people
around the world. Over the ages people have indulged in narcotic
substances, especially those with hallucinogenic properties,
from opium and hashish to peyote. They have also used
a variety of spiritual, psychic, and physical disciplines. Thus
some fakirs, yogis, and other practitioners have been known to
gaze for hours at a time at one object or remain for months in
practically the same position, or practice various mortifications
of the body, so that they may fall at length into a visionary state.
Another ancient method of inducing visionary experience was
staring into a shiny object such as a crystal or magic mirror.
The narcotic salves with which some anoint themselves are
said to be similar to the witch unguents used in the Middle
Ages, which induced in the witch the hallucination that she was
flying through the air on a goat or a broomstick. Opium is also
said to produce a sensation of flying, as well as visions of celestial
delight. Alcoholic intoxication can induce visions of a more
negative nature, most notably of insects or animals, as those
who have experienced delirium can attest. Nitrogen may have
a similar effect. The vapors rising from the ground in some
places, or those found in certain caverns, are said to exercise
an influence similar to that of narcotics.
Native Americans practiced external methods of inducing
visionssolitude, fasting, and the use of salves or ointments.
The vision quest was a popular activity of young men in many
tribes. In some African, West Indian, and Arabic countries certain
dances produced altered conferences, helping participants
toward the desired visionary ecstasy. Rhythmic and repetitive
music also assisted this process.
Spontaneous visions, although less common, are yet sufficiently
numerous to merit attention here. The difficulty is, of
course, to know just how far fear and expectation may have
operated to induce the vision. In many cases, as in that of the
seer Emanuel Swedenborg, the visions may have commenced
as visions of the night, hardly to be distinguished from
dreams, and so from vision of an internal nature to clearly
externalized apparitions. Swedenborg himself declared that
when seeing visions of the latter class he used his senses exactly
as when awake, dwelling with the spirits as a spirit, but able to
return to his body when he pleased. The artist Benvenuto Cellini,
like Swedenborg, had a number of spontaneous visions,
though little of the same positive results.
Visions are by no means confined to the sense of sight.
Taste, hearing, smelling, and touch may all be experienced in
a vision. Joan of Arc, for instance, heard voices encouraging
her to be the deliverer of her country. Examples may be drawn
from the Hebrew Bible, as the case of the child Samuel in the
temple (I Sam. 34), and instances could be multiplied from all
ages and all times.
The visions of John Pordage (16071681) and the Philadelphia
Society, or, as they called themselves later, the Angelic
Brethren, a British organization stemming from the
mysticism of Jakob Boehme in 1651, were noteworthy in this
respect because they included the taste of brimstone, salt, and
soot. In the presence of the Angelic Brethren, pictures were
drawn on the windowpanes by invisible hands and were seen to
Physiological explanations of visions have, from the earliest
times, been offered. Plato observed
The eye is the organ of a fire which does not burn but gives
a mild light. The rays proceeding from the eye meet those of
the outward light. With the departure of the outward light the
inner also becomes less active; all inward movements become
calmer and less disturbed; and should any more prominent influences
have remained they become in various points where
they congregate, so many pictures of the fancy.
Democritus held that visions and dreams are passing
shapes, ideal forms proceeding from other beings. Of deathbed
visions Plutarch said
It is not probable that in death the soul gains new powers
which it was not before possessed of when the heart was confined
within the chains of the body; but it is much more probable
that these powers were always in being, though dimmed
and clogged by the body; and the soul is only then able to practise
them when the corporeal bonds are loosened, and the
drooping limbs and stagnating juices no longer oppress it.
The Spiritualist theory of visions can hardly be called a
physiological one, save insofar as spirit may be regarded as refined
matter. An old theory of visionary ecstasy on these lines
was that the soul left the body and proceeded to celestial
spheres, where it remained in contemplation of divine scenes
In modern times, the idea of the soul as an entity distinct
from the physical body has been studied under the name of
out-of-the-body travel. Stemming from this concept is the
modern study of near-death experiences, in which individuals
regarded as clinically dead have been revived and have described
visionary experiences (see death).
Similar to this was the doctrine of Swedenborg, whose spirit,
he believed, could commune with discarnate spirits (the souls
of the dead) as one of themselves. To this may be traced the
doctrines of modern Spiritualism, which thus regarded visions
as actual spirits or spirit scenes, visible to the ecstatic or entranced
subject whose spirit was projected to discarnate planes.
The question whether or not visions are contagious has been
much disputed. It has been said that such appearances may be
transferred from one person to another by the laying on of
hands. In the case of those Scottish seers who claimed second
sight, such a transference may take place even by accidental
contact with the seer. The vision of the second person is, however,
less distinct than that of the original seer.
The same idea prevailed with regard to the visions of magnetized
patients in the days of animal magnetism. Insofar as
these may be identified with the collective hallucinations of the
hypnotic state, there is no definite scientific evidence to prove
Visions occur to people of all cultures and all states and positions.
They come to the irreligious and educated, and by no
means have they been confined to the ignorant or the superstitious.
Many men of genius have been subject to visionary appearance.
While Raphael was trying to paint the Madonna, she
appeared to him in a vision. The famous composition known
as the Devils Sonata was said to have been dictated to Tartini
by the devil himself. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also had visions.
William Blakes portraits of the Patriarchs were done
from visionary beings which appeared to him in the night.
There have been a number of such instances.
Barrett, Sir William. Death Bed Visions. London Methuen,
Besterman, Theodore. Crystal-Gazing A Study in the History,
Distribution, Theory and Practice of Scrying. London William
Rider, 1924. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books,
Fielding-Ould, Fielding. The Wonders of the Saints in the Light
of Spiritualism. London John M. Watkins, 1919.
Halifax, Joan. Shamanic Voices A Survey of Visionary Narratives.
New York E. P. Dutton, 1979.
Hall, Manly P. Visions and Metaphysical Experiences. Los Angeles
Philosophical Research Society, n.d.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Visions
Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. London Chatto &
Windus, 1954. Reprint, New York Harper & Row, 1970.
Klonsky, Milton. William Blake The Seer and His Visions. New
York Crown Publishers, 1977.
Lewis, David. The Life of S. Teresa of Jesus. London, 1970.
Muldoon, Sylvan J., and Hereward Carrington. The Projection
of the Astral Body. London Rider, 1929.
Pordage, John. Truth Appearing Through the Clouds of Undeserved
Scandal. N.p., 1655.
Ring, Kenneth. Life at Death; A Scientific Investigation of the
Near-Death Experience. New York William Morrow, 1980.