Category Archives: Psychology

Did long-ago people think that dogs have souls?

lab portrait

An online article soon to appear in the pages of the Journal of Archeological Science reports that about 8,000 years ago, some Siberian women had tapeworms, probably because of close contact with dogs whom the women cared for. Publicity for the new paper has revived attention to a controversial hypothesis about that closeness. As explained in a 2011 article in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology from the same team,

We suggest that some animals with unique histories were known as distinct persons with ‘souls’ and because of this at death required mortuary rites similar to those of their human counterparts.

A detailed and highly technical exploration of the physical evidence for this idea, based on human and canid (wolf and dog) burials in the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, near present-day Irkutsk, appeared last year in the well-regarded open-access journal PLOS ONE.

So, is it true that people have been thinking that dogs have souls for that long? How confident can anybody living now really be about that, even knowledgeable experts, writing in well-known peer-reviewed journals with respectable impact factors?

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Filed under Furred and feathered minds, Psychology, Religious beliefs of just folk

Yeats’ “Magic” is Jung’s science

Mage and spirits

Illustration by Moina Bergson Mathers

Early Carl Jung bookplate

Early Carl Jung bookplate

Carl Jung (1875-1961) was a pioneer in psychology, trained in medicine, who firmly grounded his scientific work in empirical and clinical observation. Yet Jung’s ideas about synchronicity, the collective nature of much of the unconscious, his technique of “active imagination,” his investigations of spiritualist seances, the I Ching, astrology, alchemy … in a few words, his lifelong fascination with the occult and integration of occult-friendly concepts into his scientific work, mark him as an unusual scientist. In contrast, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), the Irish writer and Nobel laureate in literature, immersed himself in the occult, unconstrained by scientific aspiration or self-identification.

This posting introduces a brief 7500-word essay, entitled “Magic,” that Yeats wrote in 1901, while Jung was still working at his first job as a psychiatrist. The full essay, reformatted and annotated, may be downloaded from the blog’s Unlinks page. Yeats anticipates several of the then as yet unknown Jung’s later ideas and methods.

 “Magic” offers a study in the synchronicity (“the coincidence in time of two or more causally unrelated events which have the same meaning,” as Jung would define his term) that surrounded the substantially independent emergence of parallel insights in two great thinkers of the last century. Continue reading


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Hunting for Thoreau’s Vampire in Vermont

reuben grave in contextjpg

On September 26, 1859, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal (volume 30, page 20),

The savage in man is never quite eradicated. I have just read of a family in Vermont– who, several of its members having died of consumption, just burned [?] the lungs & heart & liver of the last deceased, in order to prevent any more from having it.

“Consumption” is tuberculosis, from which Thoreau died a few years later, decades before the bacterial cause of the disease was identified. Until then, macabre incidents like Thoreau’s happened in New England. When a living person seemed to have their life force gradually sucked out, then family and friends might look to the graveyard to find someone who’s responsible.

With Hallowe’en upon us, it’s an apt time to investigate Thoreau’s report. Your Ob’d Uncertaintist set out to hunt a vampire in Vermont. Who could resist that? Something unusual happened there long ago, suggesting the essential truth of Thoreau’s story, but also hinting that a tale about superstitious caution may have improved in the retelling.

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Thinking that a dog remembers her dead

clea and dragon

click to enlarge

This is Clea, an older dog, an alpha Akita. She’s asleep on her dining room rug. On the floor beside her head lies a small plush toy, brushing her cheek. It is a whimsical dragon which belonged to Alexei, her brother, litter-mate, lieutenant and inseparable companion in life, who died about a year and a half ago.

It may seem obvious what is going in the picture, but it is not. Clea cannot share her mind with me. I must be careful not to presume too much about what she is thinking, careful not to make connections between the living Clea and the dead Alexei that may not be in her mind, but only in mine.

That would be projection and unwarranted anthropomorphization. Those are bad. Then, again, so is denial. In any case, there is nobody whom Clea can tell what she feels. In this post, I argue that we should listen anyway.

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Filed under Furred and feathered minds, Psychology

A real-life New England ghost story for Hallowe’en

The house as it once was

About ten years ago, a little girl living in the comfortable Boston suburb of Newtonville began talking with a nice grandmotherly lady upstairs whom nobody else in the house had met and whose feet always floated above the floor.

The girl’s parents researched the imaginary friend’s name, Mrs Woodman, along with another name they’d heard from their daughter, Gridley. They discovered that a real Jane Gridley Woodman had lived in their house at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The little girl’s Mrs. Woodman had seven children, as had Jane, with the same number of boys and of girls as Jane’s children.

The visits lasted for years. At some point, the apparition began to ask the little girl for a favor. It was just a hint at first, but Mrs Woodman became more and more insistent as time went on.

Here’s the link:

For a few comments on what happened, please read on.

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A classic anthropological adventure in Voodoo

Maya Deren Hallowe'en invitation art

A vever drawn by Maya Deren

In an earlier post, we met Stanford anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann, who immersed herself in the spiritual practices of modern witches and evangelical Christians to learn more about the psychology of religious experiences. She was not the first scholar to use herself as a guinea pig in this way. Maya Deren, a filmmaker and dancer, went to Haiti to document Voodoo rituals in the 1940’s and 50’s, and ended up being initiated into the religion.

Although Deren was not an anthropologist, she worked with those who were when she abandoned her film project to write Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Her book climaxes with Deren’s first-hand account of being possessed by the Voodoo goddess Erzulie.

Deren tells us what happened before and after she was overcome by the loa, the goddess, but she cannot describe the experience itself, because she wasn’t there. Erzulie was there instead. Continue reading

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