A Few of History’s
Visionary Moments

By Henry Frost
HistoryAccess.com, 2009

History teems with mystical visions and strange communications, such as the inner voices that recommended a career path to Joan of Arc, and the image in the sky beheld by Emperor Constantine that changed the course of the Roman Empire.

What exactly were these events? Evidence of the bottomless reaches of the unconscious mind? Messages from the right side of the brain? Manifestations of the collective desires of a people? Evidence of psychosis? Communications from angels? From God?

Whatever they were, they have profoundly influenced humanity.

Here is a sampling of mystical events that had an impact on history or were generated by immersion in history.

Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc or Jehanne Darc)

The Maid of Orleans is one of the most riveting figures of history – “the noblest patriot of France,” writes Winston Churchill, “the most splendid of her heroes, the most beloved of her saints, the most inspiring of all her memories.”

She was born in northeastern France in approximately 1412 CE during the Hundred Years’ War between the French and English. She grew up in the village of Domremy; nothing is known about her early life other than the fact of her piety.

One summer’s day when she was about 13 she heard the voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret giving her instructions and predictions, sometimes accompanied by a bright light. The voices came to her periodically. After several years of this, Joan believed she had been given a mission to help the French dauphin, Charles, achieve his throne during the war.

In 1428 when she was 16 Joan attempted to meet the dauphin but was rebuffed. She refused to take no for an answer and a year later got in to see him. According to some sources she told Charles a piece of secret knowledge during their meeting: the content of his daily personal prayer to God. Had her consciousness been so cracked open by her spirituality – had her intuition been so expanded – that she could discern the very thoughts and feelings of others?

Joan impressed the dauphin and also found favor with local theologians, who concluded that she was genuinely hearing voices. Her virginity was verified by physical examination – two court ladies reported that she was “a true and entire maid.” (Virginity in that era was “regarded with superstitious awe,” writes historian Morris Bishop, “perhaps because there was so little of it.”) Charles, who had a strong mystical bent (as did many or most people in medieval Europe), gave her co-command of an army.

Joan now needed a battle sword. According to later testimony, she obtained one via an act that has never been fully explained – she sent a man to a certain monastery with instructions to dig in the ground behind the altar. There lay a sword. Its presence caused surprise among the monks. This was the Sword of Saint-Catherine-de-Fierbois, which has vanished from history.

In early 1429 Joan’s battle cry rang through the land: “France for the French!” She struck a resonant chord in the citizenry and soldiery, giving them, or encouraging them to call forth, a sense of their deepest powers. She instilled in strong men a willingness – an eagerness – to die for their cause and for her. On a more prosaic level, Joan, unschooled in military doctrine, pioneered innovative and aggressive battle tactics, which were widely adopted by French military leaders after her death.

Almost alone, writes historian Kelly DeVries, Joan “transfigured a losing French side” into winners. By 1453 France “had completely cleared even Normandy and Aquitaine of English soldiers.”

Charles was crowned king in July, 1429, with Joan at his side. The Hundred Years’ War continued. In 1430 Joan was captured by the Duke of Burgundy, an ally of the English. Charles made no effort to free her by ransom, a fact that has puzzled historians. Were he and his nobles embarrassed by the battlefield success of this village girl?

The Burgundians sold her to the English for the enormous sum of 10,000 livres tournois. Prosecuted for heresy and witchcraft, she was refused the aid of counsel or friendship, fed very little, and questioned and abused relentlessly for months. The court record is moving. As Morris Bishop writes, “Joan’s honesty, her sharp wit, her courage in facing the vindictive accusers in their awesome robes, shine through.” Scribes recorded the testimony of more than 600 witnesses; not one made a negative comment about her. Of the 42 prosecutors, 39 recommended clemency.

To no avail. She had made statements about mystical communications and in a moment of frailty had recanted them. (Was this the one moment of weakness of her life?) Then she retracted the recantation. She was now a relapsed heretic, and thus was, according to the judicial code of the day, a capital offender. On May 30, 1431, in the market square of Rouen, she was led from her cell – pale, frail, clad in a cheap robe – and tied to a stake atop a tall pile of wood. A man wearing a mask lit the kindling, and the smoke and flame consumed her. Her last word, gasped six times in the extremity of agony, was “Jesus.” Spectators, including soldiers, wept bitter tears. Her charred body was shown to the crowd to prove she was a woman; her remains were thrown in the Seine “to avoid their use in sorcery” writes Bishop.

Reductionist theories abound with regard to this splendid woman. One scholarly idea posits a brain tumor that produced auditory hallucinations. Another theory: an endocrine imbalance brought on by puberty.

Frederic W.H. Myers, a leading English psychical researcher of the 19th century, found similarities between Joan’s saintly guides and the “daimon” of Socrates, mentioned by Plato and Xenophon, an interior voice that he heard and used from childhood, that steered him away from danger. (“Daimon” is not the best English translation of the Greek, writes scholar R.E. Macnaghten; “deity” and “divinity” are better.) Other figures of history have claimed or acknowledged the presence of such a voice in their lives, writes Sue Mehrtens of the Jungian Center for the Spiritual Sciences, including Jung, Napoleon, and Goethe.

What, then, is this deity? The voice of God? Of angels? Of the unconscious? Why are some people seemingly able to hear this powerful intuitive voice? Is it the case that some people can hear it and some only think they can? What is the difference between people who can hear a deity and people with schizophrenia? Is there a difference between a communication from a deity and a communication from God? Might the radical theory of Julian Jaynes be relevant here? He posits that up to about 3,000 years ago, a great many people heard voices that stemmed from the right-hand side of the brain. Was Joan’s gift a vestige of this capacity? (The author, philosopher, and provocateur Robert Anton Wilson [1932-2007] claimed for a time to have had encounters with magical/mystical entities but later said his experiences may have been “my right brain hemisphere talking to my left.”)

Joan of Arc has fascinated artists for centuries. Mark Twain was obsessed with her (a profile of Twain can be found here). Among other writers who have examined her story are Bertolt Brecht, Jean Anouilh, and George Bernard Shaw. Painters have often depicted her (see here and here for images). The 1928 silent movie “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) directed by Carl Dreyer, based on trial transcripts, penetrates to the essence of the God-obsessed medieval soul. The director Jean Cocteau writes that the film “seems like an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist.” The performance in the title role of actress Renee Maria Falconetti (known as Falconetti) “may be,” writes critic Pauline Kael, “the finest performance ever recorded on film,” although, to be sure, watching it – and feeling it – requires a readjustment of expectations, not only to the acting style of silent films, but to the medieval mind.

(A parenthetical note. Intuitive readings constitute a modest cottage industry today in the U.S. and Europe [and are quite popular world-wide] – regarded as hucksterism by many people; taken seriously by some. Carolyn M. Myss Ph.D. is a prominent intuitive based in Chicago. Myss is earthy, blunt, practical, and supremely self-confident. She comments, “Intuition is a fundamental survival skill that is inherent in everyone’s psyche. It is one of the senses. It’s a survival sense. It’s not a big deal. It’s not a gift. You don’t have to meditate for it. You don’t have to snort tofu, any of this nonsense. Nothing could be more ordinary.” Myss describes the work of a friend: “Therese Rowley, Ph.D., is a skilled intuitive residing in Chicago who specializes as a management consultant and an educator. She works with major corporations doing intuitive readings for top management on how to best organize their company….She also works with individuals to do life readings. Her style is that she receives impressions that come in the form of words or she receives the image of an archetype that eventually unfolds into a story that blends with the events of a person’s life. Her readings draw upon that same realm of energetic data that I rely upon, only my focus is specific to health and then to events that fill in a person’s life. Both styles incorporate the archetypal or symbolic realm. Intuitive abilities, as Therese and I have often discussed, develop with more precision as a person develops self-esteem.” Spirituality, Myss adds, can enhance intuitive insight.)

Several More Religious Visions

Visions have, of course, been major presences in religious history, and thus in history itself. The list of such events is long, including Moses seeing Mount Sinai in flames, Siddharta Gautama (the Buddha) under the bodhi tree, Saul on the road to Damascus, Jesus during his wilderness sojourn, sightings of Jesus after the crucifixion, and Muhammad at Mount Hira receiving the messages that form the Koran (which, unlike the Bible, is essentially the work of one man, “and is therefore,” write historians Will and Ariel Durant, “without question the most influential book ever produced by a single hand”).

Also: mass visions of the Buddha in South Vietnam in 1963 after the self-immolation of the monk Thich Quang Duc, Emperor Constantine’s startling vision at the Battle of Milvian Bridge (see below), and the many visionary ideas of Hinduism as articulated in the “Veda” and the “Upanishads” and by the religion’s adepts. Even Taoism, which has a minimal metaphysical element, has probably been touched by visions – the scholar Geoffrey Parrinder believes that early Taoists relied heavily for their ideas on visionary insights obtained in trances. Visions are also central to many cults and smaller religions including Rastafarianism.

The Bible, as noted, offers many striking visions. One of the most vivid is described by the prophet Ezekial:

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures….As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire….

Among the other visions in the Bible are those described by Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Zechariah, and Daniel; the ecstatic visions recorded by John of Ephesus in the Book of the Revelation; the departure of Elijah from the Earth as described in the Second Book of Kings (“….and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven….”); and the strange behavior of the Star of Bethlehem depicted in the Book of Matthew: “And, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”

Mention might be made in this context of the many Christian saints who experienced visions. One of the most interesting of these is St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She began experiencing modest visions as a child; intense illuminations started when she was in her 40s. The latter experiences persuaded her to denounce corruption in the church, criticize Christianity, Judaism, and Islam for being “dried up” and lacking in compassion, celebrate human sexuality as a beautiful gift and not merely a procreative tool, promote holistic medicine, see the equality of men and women, downplay the role of Eve in the fall of Adam, and cast off feelings of personal doubt based on her supposed “proper place” as a woman. “Her power and influence,” writes author Rosemary Ellen Guiley, “made her one of the most important women of her time.” Among her patrons was Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor. She has not been canonized but in 1979 Pope John Paul II referred to her as an “outstanding saint.”

Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge

Emperor Constantine of Rome was challenged for leadership in 312 CE by a general named Maxentius. Constantine reportedly commanded between 25,000 and 100,000 troops; the army of Maxentius supposedly was much larger. They fought at the Milvian Bridge near Rome.

Before the engagement, according to the ancient Christian historian Eusebius, Constantine saw a brilliant light in the sky in which he detected a Christian cross imprinted with the message Hoc Vinces (“In this sign wilt thou conquer”).

Christianity had been gaining momentum in the Roman Empire for years but was still a distinctly minority religion, competing with polytheism and Mithraism. Constantine was interested in Christianity before his vision but wasn’t convinced it was the right path for him and his empire.

Upon seeing the light and the cross, he felt fresh courage for the battle, and ordered his troops, many of them pagans, to paint or carve the sign of the cross on their shields. He won the battle and kept his job. Over the next few months, as he warmed up to the Gospels, he helped issue the Edict of Milan, affirming that Christianity was lawful. Without this support the religion might have withered on the vine.

Some other battles marked by visions:

In 776 CE, when the Franks fought the Saxons at the Battle of Sigisburg in Carolingian lands, Frankish soldiers saw two shield-like shapes in the sky.

At the Battle of Agincourt in France in 1415 Englishmen saw the image of St. George over the field.

In 1461, during the Wars of the Roses, at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in England, participants saw, according to a chronicler, “….three suns in the firmament shining full clear, whereof the people had great marvel, and thereof were aghast.” (Students of UFOs are intrigued by these suns and by various other visions over the course of history.)

A legend from the First World War says that English troops saw protective angels in the sky as they conducted a difficult retreat in Mons, France.

George S. Patton saw his ancestors in the clouds during the First World War.

An American journalist named Charles W. Alexander (1836-1927) foisted a series of false military visions starting in 1865. For example, one of his magazine pieces described an inspirational visit by an angel to George Washington during the bleak Valley Forge winter of 1777-1778. The piece was fiction. Alexander’s tale received new life in the U.S. in 2001 in the wake of 9/11.

The ‘Time Pockets’ of Prof. Toynbee

Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975) sat on a hill in Greece in 1912 and watched a battle unfold in the valley below. The encounter had occurred more than 2,000 years earlier.

In 1912, Toynbee was embarking on one of the most notable scholarly careers of the 20th century. He would become an eminent English historian and classicist, author of the multi-volume “A Study of History” published from 1934 to 1961. (The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Flow,” wrote in 1993, “[Toynbee] has fallen out of favor because his vision was too broad to satisfy the current vogue for specialization. Yet his ‘Study of History’ is a masterpiece that will be read long after most contemporary monographs are forgotten.”)

Toynbee traveled to Greece to visit the sights of antiquity, and in January, 1912, sat at a spot overlooking an ancient battlefield. The day was sunny. Abruptly, to Toynbee’s surprise, the weather turned foggy – a “sinister mist,” he called it – the same sort of conditions, he knew, that had prevailed at this site in the spring of 197 BCE (the exact date is uncertain) at the Battle of Cynoscephalae when the legions of Rome met the troops of Philip V of Macedon. The fog was so thick in 197 BCE that neither army could immediately see the other. On this day in 1912, Toynbee was filled with the feeling that in the fog below him, two mighty armies were trying to find one another.

The fog lifted for Toynbee, as it had done for the soldiers, and the scholar watched, perhaps rapturously, perhaps in horror, possibly with some combination of these feelings, as the Roman cavalry massacred the Macedonians.

Toynbee waited many years to write about his experience. (Maybe he delayed in order to first establish his scholarly reputation with mainstream writings.) He claimed he had slipped into what he called a “time-pocket” – an overwhelming surge of historical imagination with strong overtones of the visionary.

Toynbee experienced several other such moments in his life. One day, visiting the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, he sat in the stone ruins of a large open-air theater and suddenly felt the venue was peopled with a crowd of citizens of the Roman Empire – “a tumultuous throng,” he writes: “….The breath came into the dead and they lived and stood upon their feet.” The crowd shouted abuse at the apostle Paul. Then the scene died down and Toynbee was “carried up again instantaneously to the current surface of the Time-stream from an abyss nineteen centuries ago.”

(See the film “Patton” [1970] for a riveting sequence wherein the great general describes a similarly mystical connection to the past: “I was there,” says Patton, a believer in reincarnation, referring to an ancient battle. See the appendix section of “Golf in the Kingdom” by Michael Murphy [1972] for a long list of famous people in history who believed in reincarnation.)

The likeliest explanation for Toynbee’s “time-pockets” is that his unconscious mind, aflame with knowledge, came to the surface in a firestorm. His deepest self spoke clearly to him, basing its voice and images on the scholarship that Toynbee had accumulated over years of work in library stacks. Perhaps, at certain times, the unconscious speaks to a chosen few. Perhaps preparation of the conscious mind can help this happen.

The author Colin Wilson speculates about Toynbee’s mystical voyages in his books “The Occult” (1971) and “Beyond the Occult” (1988). Wilson believes that human beings possess large powers to fully apprehend the strangeness, complexity, and richness of the universe and of the past – mostly untapped powers, he says. Development of such talents is, or can be, the next step in human evolution, Wilson maintains. He believes that Toynbee’s time-pockets are indications of these powers.

“I am reasonably convinced,” Wilson writes, “….(we possess) latent power to reach beyond the present….We are living in an information universe. Mediums and psychics are always obtaining pieces of information that they have ‘no business knowing.'”

Wilson continues (with his customary brio),

This leaves no possible doubt that the information is somehow “there for the asking,” as if stored on microfilm in a library, but that most of us do not know how to ask….(Geology professor William Denton) believed that this information includes every event that has ever occurred in the history of the universe, and that everyone can gain access to it if he goes about it in the right way.

Additional thoughts:

Colin Wilson is one of the few contemporary commentators who has taken Toynbee’s visionary adventures seriously and reflected upon them in print. The book “The Superhistorians: Makers of Our Past” by John Barker (1982) includes a discussion of Toynbee but (oddly) ignores the mysticism.

“The Future of the Body” by Michael Murphy (1992) is a massive examination of the history of remarkable human functioning (including the paranormal) with speculation about its future prospects.

An interesting film that may relate to Toynbee is “Altered States” (1980) directed by Ken Russell based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky (1978). (Were Chayefsky and Russell inspired by Colin Wilson’s 1971 writing about Toynbee? Perhaps so.)

Ghost Dancing and the
Wounded Knee Massacre

During an eclipse of the sun on January 1, 1889, a Native American mystic named Wovoka (c. 1854-1932) experienced a vision in which he saw God. Some sources say he “rose from the dead” at this time; this rising was apparently from a coma induced by scarlet fever.

Wovoka’s vision included a coming flood that would inundate white people. Indians would be saved by performing a ritualistic dance; their ancestors would be resurrected, and a bright new era would commence, hastened into existence by performance of the dance. This vision contained certain concepts of the Book of Revelation, with which the Indian sage was familiar.

Wovoka, a member of the Pauite tribe in Nevada, began to preach his vision, and became known as the Paiute Messiah. The Ghost Dance religion, or movement, took shape. It spread quickly through many tribes of the American West and Midwest, giving energy and hope to cultures shattered by contact with whites. Dancing sometimes went on for days at a time. Celebrants beheld ancestors, sun-dappled prairielands, and herds of buffalo stretching to the horizon.

The Sioux people of the Dakotas injected an aggressive edge into the new religion. Anthropologist James Mooney writes, “It was only where chronic dissatisfaction was aggravated by recent grievances, as among the Sioux, that the (Ghost Dance) movement assumed a hostile expression….(The Sioux were) already restless under both old and recent grievances, and more lately brought to the edge of starvation by a reduction of rations.”

Sitting Bull (c.1831-1890), chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, was skeptical about the efficacy of the dance, but felt compelled to endorse it for his band, which was living at the Standing Rock Reservation straddling the border of North and South Dakota. Leaders of other Sioux tribes also sanctioned the ritual.

The Sioux danced passionately in the summer and autumn of 1890. By mid-November, writes historian Dee Brown,

Ghost Dancing was so prevalent on the Sioux reservations that almost all other activities came to a halt. No pupils appeared at the schoolhouses, the trading stores were empty, no work was done on the little farms. At Pine Ridge the frightened agent telegraphed Washington: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy….We need protection and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined at some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done at once.”

Officials blamed Sitting Bull for what one white man called a “pernicious system of religion.” The chief was marked for arrest, and on December 15, 1890, several dozen tribal police officers surrounded his cabin and ordered him out. “All right,” he called, “let me put on my clothes and I’ll go with you.” A crowd of Ghost Dancers gathered in the vicinity, outnumbering the cops. One of the dancers, Catch-the-Bear, fired a shot, and in the resulting melee, Sitting Bull was killed. Whether he was murdered or shot while attempting to escape remains in dispute.

About 100 Hunkpapa Sioux, leaderless, fled to the Standing Rock camp of the Minneconjou Sioux, led by Chief Big Foot, Sitting Bull’s half-brother and a Ghost Dancer. Learning of Sitting Bull’s death, filled with foreboding, hoping to find safety, Big Foot gathered up the Hunkpapa and Minneconjou people, about 120 men and 230 women and children, and started down the road for the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. This group was intercepted on December 28 by federal troops and confined to a cavalry camp on Wounded Knee Creek.

The camp was controlled by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, outfit of the late Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who had been killed 14 years earlier at Little Big Horn. Custer’s memory was a vivid presence in the unit. The soldiers were abusive toward the Indians, who wondered, writes Dee Brown, “if revenge could still be in their hearts.” Sleep did not come easily for the Sioux on the night of December 28-29 – wolves howled in the dark, and perhaps ghosts gathered.

In the morning the soldiers began disarming the Indians. This action was protested by a medicine man named Yellow Bird, who danced a few steps of the Ghost Dance and reminded the braves of an idea popular among the Sioux (but not part of Wovoka’s original vision): that the bullets of the soldiers could not penetrate their clothing.

In the weapons search, the soldiers uncovered two rifles, one of which, a Winchester, belonged to a Minneconjou named Black Coyote. This man, according to a witness named Turning Hawk, seized his rifle and fired a shot. Some accounts suggest this was an accidental discharge.

The soldiers fired back. The Indians, mostly weaponless, ran from the scene in panic.

On a hill overlooking the camp, the cavalry had set up two Hotchkiss machine guns, and soldiers now opened up with these powerful weapons. “We tried to run,” said Louise Weasel Bear, “but they shot us like we were a buffalo.”

According to an estimate cited by Dee Brown, almost 300 of the 350 Indians were killed outright by gunfire or died afterwards of wounds or exposure. Twenty-five U.S. soldiers died, “most of them,” reports Brown, “struck by their own bullets or shrapnel.” This was the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890 – the “battle” of Wounded Knee, said the U.S. Army. It was the last major violent encounter of the American Indian Wars. In the wake of the massacre, Native Americans lost faith in the Ghost Dance.

A Sioux holy man named Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) viewed the post-massacre carnage. He was interviewed by John G. Neihardt for the book “Black Elk Speaks”:

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there.

See here and here for music videos of “Ghost Dance” by Robbie Robertson & The Red Road Ensemble; see here for a video about the Wounded Knee Massacre. ●