Will Thinking Make It So? An Interview With Mitch Horowitz

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Much of today’s writing about spirituality is loaded with nonsense. Often it consists of little more than wild speculation, shoddy reasoning, and the repetition of a few stale truisms.

A very small number of writers and editors have climbed above this morass to combine spiritual depth with intellectual acumen and literary polish. Mitch Horowitz is one of them. A writer and publisher of many years’ experience with a lifelong interest in man’s search for meaning, he is vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin in New York and the author of the acclaimed book Occult America: White House Séances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation. His website is mitchhorowitz.com.

Horowitz’s latest work, published in January 2014, is One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. It is a wide-reaching and insightful history of the mind power movement and how it has changed contemporary society. In November 2013, I conducted an interview with him by e-mail about this book.


Richard Smoley (RS): Your book is entitled One Simple Idea. Could you tell us what this one idea is?

Mitch Horowitz (MH): The idea is the very American concept that thoughts are causative – which later came to be called “the power of positive thinking.” This notion has appeared, with varying degrees of orthodoxy and literalism, at different times throughout human history. New Englanders in the 1830s and 1840s used this idea to launch a vibrant culture in “mental healing,” in which trances, prayer, and affirmations were seen as a means to heal the body.

During much of the nineteenth century allopathic or mainstream medicine in America was in an abysmal state. The traditional medicine of the day often relied on painful and dangerous regimens of bloodletting, weeping wounds, draining of bodily fluids, and ingestion of toxins and harmful narcotics. Mental healing was seen as a gentler alternative.

By the late nineteenth century, experimenters in mental healing began asking what other powers the mind might possess. The mental healing culture came to believe that our thoughts could influence or shape our personal experiences, extending to matters of wellbeing, success, and, finally, money. This principle of mind power has traversed the cultural landscape, reshaping much of our religion, therapy, and ideas of self-help.

RS: The story of positive thinking, as you describe it, begins in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Do you see any precedents for this approach in earlier forms of philosophy or occultism?

MH: You can find threads of the mind-power thesis within Egyptian-Greek Hermeticism, within certain strands of Neoplatonism, within elements of Idealism, Transcendentalism, and Swedenborgianism – and, significantly, within some of the experiments launched by students of the eighteenth century Viennese occult healer Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer believed that all of life was suffused with an invisible energy called “animal magnetism.” He theorised that if you placed a subject into a trance state – in a practice later called hypnotism – the patient’s “animal magnetism” could be manipulated to produce bodily cures. Mesmer’s students in Paris refined the master’s ideas: They edged away from Mesmer’s theory of an ethereal bodily fluid and believed that it was the mind itself that was bringing about the cures. Mesmer’s best students formed our earliest conceptions of the subconscious mind, which they believed not only could produce healing but, under certain conditions, could bring on displays of clairvoyance, telepathy, and even astral travel. The tumult of the French Revolution cut short many of these experiments – but the ideas of mesmerism began travelling to the United States. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Americans – who love remaking ideas and finding new and broader ways of using them – took the mind-power thesis even further. American experimenters came to see the mind as a tool of metaphysical power that could be used for attracting and influencing circumstances.

RS: One of the central figures in your story is Phineas P. Quimby. Could you tell us about who he was and why he was so important?

MH: Quimby was one of the earliest and most impactful founders of New England’s mental cure scene. He was a nineteenth century clockmaker who spent most of his adult life in Maine. In the early 1830s Quimby suffered from tuberculosis, which was worsened by the side effects from harmful treatments, such as mercury ingestion. One day Quimby took a raucous horse-and-buggy ride in the Maine countryside and unexpectedly found that the excitement of the ride lifted the symptoms of his tuberculosis. Quimby marvelled at the effects of his mood on his body. He believed that this private insight revealed a mind-body connection – and searched for a theoretical model to confirm it. That confirmation arrived for him in 1836 when lecturers began visiting Maine extolling the ideas of mesmerism. Quimby believed that mesmerism revealed the connection between mind and body. He worked the rest of his life as a mental healer, refining and applying various methods, especially arousing the confidence of a patient in his ability to recover. Quimby was extremely influential on the New England scene until his death in 1866.

RS: One of Quimby’s disciples, Warren Felt Evans, introduced the concept of the New Age in a book of his called The New Age and Its Messenger, published in 1864. Could you talk a little bit about how the positive-thinking movement shaped the New Age?

MH: Evans was among a circle of Americans who were dedicated to the ideas of the eighteenth century Swedish mystic and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg believed that earthly events mirrored and were controlled by laws and events in the spirit world. In Swedenborg’s view, the material and spirit worlds formed a continuum. When figures such as Quimby and Evans began experimenting with mental healing, they believed they were, in effect, channelling and applying cosmic laws. The early mental healers did not possess a psychological vocabulary – they often spoke and thought in religious terms. Hence the ideas of Swedenborg – who described a universe of spiritual laws and influences – made innate sense to mental healers. Evans believed that humanity stood on the brink of a New Age of therapeutic spirituality – of whom the “messenger” was Swedenborg. The founding idea of New Age spirituality, as articulated by Evans and his contemporaries, was the philosophy of mind power. This later came to be called positive thinking and New Thought.

RS: In the early generations, the positive-thinking movement centred on healing. Around the turn of the twentieth century, it shifted toward “prosperity thinking” and the attainment of material success. Why did this change come about?

MH: The early twentieth century French hypnotherapist Émile Coué observed that the, “French mind prefers first to discuss and argue on the fundamentals of a principle before inquiring into its practical adaptability to every-day life. The American mind, on the contrary, immediately sees the possibilities of it, and seeks… to carry the idea further even than the author of it may have conceived.” This was the pattern for most of America’s spiritual experiments, and it highlights the transformation of mental healing into the prosperity gospel. American enthusiasts came to believe that the mind could improve health – and they began seeking ever-greater ways of applying the mind’s power.

The person who first hit upon the idea of using mind-power methods to attract money was actually an English writer and political activist, Frances Lord. She visited America in the late 1880s to take part in the suffragist movement. But Lord also grew interested in mental healing – and she proposed expanding its boundaries to prosperity. Lord wasn’t a “think and grow rich” exponent; rather she believed that if labourers and working people could alter their thought patterns they could balance out economic inequality.

Critics rarely see that the prosperity gospel had its earliest roots in the ideals of the Progressive Era. Lord and her American contemporaries – who included Wallace D. Wattles, a socialist activist and the author of The Science of Getting Rich, and suffragist Elizabeth Towne – believed that the mind could serve as a force for social equity. As the twentieth century opened, the industrial economy produced a mass wave of consumer goods; and at the same time the state of American medicine greatly improved. Hence, money, rather than health, moved to the front of the American mind – and became the focus of the positive-thinking movement.

RS: The positive-thinking movement sometimes seems indifferent to social issues: poor people are poor and sick people are sick because of their own wrong attitudes. Has there been any response to this problem from within the movement itself?

MH: In the positive-thinking movement’s early days, from the late nineteenth to the turn of the twentieth century, it showed deep concern for social issues. Surprising figures adopted the positive-thinking gospel, including black nationalist Marcus Garvey, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and many figures that identified themselves as socialists or radicals, such as Ralph Waldo Trine and Wallace D. Wattles. These people believed that the patterns of the mind were one element – and certainly not the only one – in alleviating social oppression; they believed that working people, women, and minorities needed to claim a dramatic new sense of self-worth. That tendency faded as the movement became more geared toward a philosophy of individual advancement. Within today’s New Thought churches you continue to find large numbers of very liberal people. Attendees at New Thought churches include actors, artists, experimenters, gay and lesbian congregants, and many people who work to create social openings. So the core movement has remained liberal in its makeup. However, the popular mainstream literature to emerge from the positive-thinking movement, by authors such as Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale (pictured above), and Dale Carnegie, evinces almost none of its earliest reformist aims.

RS: The positive-thinking movement is also sometimes criticised for its callousness: since you create your reality with your thoughts, it must be your fault if bad things happen to you. Is this a valid criticism? If so, is there any valid response to it?

MH: It is a valid criticism – and it is one of the problems that I try to deal with in the book, especially in the final chapter, “Does It Work?”, where I explore the failings and efficacy of the movement. In short, I believe that the positive-thinking movement’s embrace of what is called the Law of Attraction was both a theological and ethical mistake, and it overshadowed the movement’s greater promise. I believe that no one should endeavour to frame life as the product of one overarching mental super law. That simply doesn’t square with the personal experience of most sensitive people. We all encounter a mixture of joys and tragedies in life, and these experiences are attributable to myriad and sometimes inscrutable factors – not solely to tendencies or accidents of thought. We live under many laws, influences, and events. However, if the positive-thinking movement can move away from this “mind is all” concept, then we can newly appreciate the movement’s very powerful insights. As has been borne out in many reaches of the sciences, the mind provides a little-understood but persistent and traceable impact across various aspects of existence, from health to relationships to addiction recovery. The impact of the mind can also be seen – most controversially – in the findings of quantum physics. This last point is very contentious, and I try to explore it in an accurate and non-sensationalistic manner in the book.

RS: One little-known figure that you highlight toward the end of your book is Vernon Howard. Could you tell us about him and why you find him interesting?

MH: Vernon Howard was a late-twentieth century spiritual philosopher who I see as probably the most remarkable and unclassifiable figure to emerge from America’s recent metaphysical culture. Howard was loosely a part of the positive-thinking movement insofar as his books of the 1950s and early 1960s were in the mould of typical New Thought literature in which you were counselled to use your mind to attain influence, prosperity, and power. But in the mid-1960s, Howard underwent a remarkable spiritual maturation. From that point until his death in 1992 he produced an extraordinary output of writings and talks that distilled the core principles of the world’s ethical and religious philosophies. Howard taught that we live from a false, conditioned nature, which prods us to seek conventional modes of success, which, in turn, prop up our ego and self-image. This puts us on a constant cycle of seeking recognition from a world filled with people who are themselves frightened and desperately seeking approval, and who often lash out in hostility to cover their fears.

If we can see through this painful predicament, Howard wrote, we can experience a sense of our true nature, which emanates from what we call God. We experience this true self when we reach the limits of our conditioned responses to life. No other figure that I have encountered possessed a voice as practical and vivid – or an intellect as piercing of human foibles – as Howard’s.

RS: In your book, you posit Ronald Reagan as a kind of culmination of the positive-thinking movement, in both good and bad ways. Could you talk a little about how Reagan fits in with this movement, how it shaped his politics, and how the movement has shaped American politics today?

MH: Reagan is a continual mystery to journalists and biographers because he seems to them to possess no internal barometer or motivating influence. Many observers have wondered about his inner nature, about what made him tick psychologically. My contention in the book is that Reagan, to be fully understood, must be seen as a product of the positive-thinking culture. The core assumptions and phraseology of positive thinking are at the back of much of his personal philosophy. Reagan also reflects many of the movement’s strengths and weakness: He was capable of continually reconceiving of himself at different times in life to meet the challenges that he faced, and it gave him a surprising resilience and adaptability when climbing out of near-poverty as a young man and when confronting the new realities of US-Soviet relations during the Gorbachev era, during which Reagan dramatically shifted from flinty cold warrior to global peacemaker. Yet it could also contribute to an unnerving blindness in matters of policy, when Reagan would emotionally fixate on a single fact, story, or anecdote and use it to buttress sweeping political convictions, such as the belief in widespread welfare fraud or in the efficacy of the Star Wars missile defence system.

In the political realm, Reagan ushered in an age where presidents had to sing praises to the limitless potential of the American public. In President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address he declared, “This is a country where anything is possible.” That was a direct echo of Reagan, who routinely described America as a nation where “nothing is impossible.”

RS: Even if you grant that the mind has the power to shape reality, it’s also true the mind has many facets that are not accessible to the conscious ego. What level of mind is actually shaping reality, and how can we have access to it?

MH: That’s a very intriguing question. We have a strange habit of putting a name on concepts – such as “ego” or “unconscious mind” – and then thinking we have identified a clearly definable thing and can proceed to talk about it as though we all agree upon it, as if it were an apple tree. Yet we know very little about the mind and its agencies. We can’t even agree on what produces the so-called placebo effect and how it works, though for more than a century medical researchers have tracked the persistence of some kind of physical relief related to mental expectancy. One of the things I argue in the book is that we do seem to be able to enter an exquisitely sensitive and suggestible state where mental properties are heightened. This is sometimes called the hypnagogic state, experienced in the period just before drifting off to sleep or awakening, or in times of deep relaxation or comfortable sensory deprivation. Émile Coué, and others who worked with affirmations to recondition the mind, believed this hypnogogic state possessed unique potential for autosuggestion or self-hypnosis. I won’t go into the data here, but serious psychical researchers have also detected what appear to be heightened instances of clairvoyant perception and telepathic conveyance in subjects during this state.

One Simple Idea coverIt’s difficult to place precise labels on what is occurring at such times but there does seem to be a state of relaxation from which the mind is unusually receptive – and which may point to the mental-emotive condition from which we can produce or revise self-conceptions, and maybe do something more.

RS: All things considered, how much truth do you see in the “one simple idea” of positive thinking?

MH: As I’ve suggested above, and as I explore in the book, I am convinced that the mind harbours some shade of influence, not only in matters of self-worth but also in circumstances of outer life, as well. I believe that our repeated thoughts – when held with determination and emotional conviction – can evince a shade of influence on external events. This is a very delicate claim, which presents more questions than answers. But I believe that if we look historically across broad disciplines – from psychology to medicine to the physical sciences – and if we consider, with care and discretion, the empiricism of personal experience, we find ourselves facing an ever-broadening conception of the mind’s influence.

Historically, the modern assessment of the mind’s reach continually broadens and never recedes. The mind is, of course, one factor among many under which we live. We are affected by environment, chance, physiology, economy, and accident. But grappling with this idea – that the mind, like other factors, produces a shade of practical impact on our experience – can help deepen and expand our sense of ourselves, and our questions about what it means to be human.

„For further discussion of New Thought and its history, see New Dawn 142

One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life by Mitch Horowitz (Crown 2014) is available from all good bookstores and online retailers in hardback and on Kindle.

If you appreciated this article, please consider a digital subscription to New Dawn.


RICHARD SMOLEY has over thirty-five years of experience studying and practicing esoteric spirituality. His latest book is Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History. He is also the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity; The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe; The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; and Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney). Smoley is the former editor of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. Currently he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America and of Quest Books.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 142 (Jan-Feb 2014)

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Eternal Atlantis



For more than one hundred years, mostly independent researchers who argued that Atlantis had in fact been destroyed by a great flood were ridiculed by mainstream scientists. Conventional scholars were convinced that Earth changes were incremental, requiring thousands and millions of years.

They belittled Plato’s statement that Atlantis was engulfed by the sea “in a day and a night” as imaginative fantasy, and scoffed at any suggestion civilisations have ever succumbed to natural forces. These professional debunkers were in for a rude shock during late December, last year, however, when a relatively small-scale re-enactment of the Atlantis catastrophe was played out in the Indian Ocean.

A single earthquake sent super-waves traveling at speeds of five hundred miles per hour across the sea to claim more than three hundred thousand lives in a dozen countries. The infra-structure of Sri Lanka, much of Indonesia and large parts of southern India were shattered beyond repair, without massive outside aid from the rest of the world. Multiply that disaster by a factor of ten and some appreciation may be had for the cataclysm that struck Atlantis. Had the Indian Ocean catastrophe been followed by just one more similarly destructive tsunami, the region would have been beyond reconstruction. Photographs and videos of the killer waves that came ashore resembled the last moments of Atlantis, before the geologically unstable island on which she perched so precariously was similarly overwhelmed.

Exactly ten years before the Indian Ocean tsunami, two worlds changed forever. One of them was Earth. When Jupiter was struck by a barrage of meteors in the summer of 1994, their impact on the scientists of our planet was hardly less dramatic. Until then, most of them believed with the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy that “the perfect timing and positioning required make the possibility of collision extremely slight.” Nonetheless, a comet six miles in diameter disintegrated in the Jovian gravitational field. Its pieces broke free and began a final pass, in tandem, around the Sun. During mid-July, stony remnants of the dead comet returned. A line of twenty one fragments, each about one-and-a-half miles across, hit the planet at more than thirty seven miles per second.

Disbelieving observers watched, as columns of flame shot several thousand miles high into the atmosphere. Ejected fireballs larger than Earth itself exploded in full view of the Hubble Space Telescope. Impact of the cometary debris generated energy ten thousand times more powerful than mankind’s entire nuclear arsenal. For more than a year following these collisions, Jupiter was still pock-marked by their resultant super-heated gas-bubbles, one of which was large enough to have swallowed our planet whole. Centuries of calm assurance that Earth possessed some special immunity from outer space threats had been dramatically replaced by a more sober appreciation for our precarious position in the solar system.

These two event-horizons of our time – one in outer space, the other from inner space – combined to provide some inkling of what happened to Atlantis, while underscoring the fragility of human civilisation, then and now. That is the great value in examining the Atlantean catastrophe: It is very up-to-date, because it is an eternal story. Numerous cultures around the world remembered four major floods followed by mass-migrations. This tradition was shared by such diverse peoples as the Incas of Peru, the Celtic Irish, Classical Greeks, the Aztecs of Mexico, and many others beside.

The close fit results when we compare their folk memories with what science now recognises as a quartet of natural catastrophes that ravaged the Earth beginning more than five thousand years ago. But when physical archaeology was added to myth, astronomy and geology, a new light on the ancient past suddenly winked on. Its brightness uncovered the hitherto unseen causes that brought history into existence. And clearly exposed was a common theme that over and over again threaded together and made sense of all the diverse twists and turns in a vast human drama – Atlantis. The name was as inescapable as it was powerfully revealing.

Applying that sunken realm to the four separate global calamities we now know occurred explains the beginning and development of civilisation, while simultaneously defining Atlantis within the credible parameters of real history, not speculative fantasy. It suffered not one but several different catastrophes, each one separated by many centuries, until a fourth destruction finally obliterated the kingdom.

The Age of Atlantis

My book, Survivors of Atlantis, describes these event-horizons for the first time, and elucidates them via traditions from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Morocco, the Canary Islands, Ireland, Wales, Scandinavia, pre-Columbian North America, Mesoamerica and pre-Conquest South America. Survivors of Atlantis relates another story yet to be told. This is the war Plato said the Atlanteans launched in a bold bid to conquer the world. Their hitherto neglected military adventure was intimately connected with and actually determined by the natural calamities which eventually overwhelmed them. The chaos men brought about on Earth was mirrored in the angry heavens.

When the Atlantean Age suddenly ended around 1200 BCE, Pre-Classical Civilisation everywhere collapsed or went into irreversible decline, from Pharaonic Egypt and Homeric Greece to the Hittite Empire and China’s Shang Dynasty. Atlantis was one more victim of the worldwide catastrophe. And, like the others, it was an identifiably Bronze Age city, according to Plato’s description. Survivors of Atlantis describes each of the four global cataclysms, as uncovered by science and graphically related in the folk memories of peoples whose shores were washed by the Atlantic Ocean. In so doing, the lost empire comes into clearer focus than ever before. The legacy of its enduring influence on our current civilisation stands out for the first time in bold relief. And we come to realise that the story of Atlantis is the story of the world.

In terms of power-politics, it was not much different from our own, tragically. By 1198 BCE, the day Atlantean militarists waited for so long finally arrived. The powerful Egyptian king, Merenptah, had died of old age. He was followed by no less than five rulers in quick succession, including the club-footed Siptah and Tewosret, a short-reigned queen. These prolonged political crises destabilised the XIXth Dynasty, and Atlantean strategists prepared to take advantage of the situation. Now the Egyptians were preoccupied with the accession of a new pharaoh and all the powerful implications, good and evil, a change of divine leadership inevitably brought. This time they had special cause for worry. A frightening omen appeared following the death of King Sethnahkt, who had just founded a new dynasty, the XXth. An immense, dark cloud began to cover the sky at unnatural speed from the west. The Sun turned blood red, then disappeared. Broad daylight was reduced to twilight, accompanied by a rain of black dust that fell for weeks over the entire land. “Men walk about like ravens,” the Egyptian scribe recorded. “No one can keep their garments clean anymore.”

These ominous conditions boded ill for the Atlanteans, too. In the midst of organising an invasion of the Nile Delta, such signs and wonders in the heavens presaged disaster for someone. Having been born and raised on a geologically active island, they recognised the “black dust” as ash-fall blown in on the prevailing westerlies from some major volcanic event outside the Mediterranean. Naturally and anxiously, their thoughts turned to the ever-smoking mountain of their far-off homeland, Mt. Atlas.

Their worst fears were confirmed when waves of human migration deluged through the Pillars of Heracles. Panicked refugees streamed by the hundreds of thousands along North African shores or in ragged flotillas of boats and ships overcrowded with dispossessed families traumatised by disaster. Most of them were fellow Atlanteans, and they had a report to make. “You can’t go home again,” they said, “because home is no longer there.” With hardly more than one day’s warning, the island of Atlantis had been torn by earthquake and sky-fire before the angry sea swallowed it whole. The accompanying devastation was so pronounced and widespread, that the entire region, including all foreign coastal areas raked by a series of ruinous tsunami waves, had been rendered uninhabitable. The occupied areas of Italy, Tripoli and the Mediterranean islands swelled with new populations of survivors, compromising living conditions everywhere.

But the exiles brought with them more than tales of woe. Important sections of the home fleet escaped the catastrophe, carrying warriors and supplies, as well as crowds of displaced persons. The Sea People armada at Cyprus and Rhodes was appreciably reinforced by these new arrivals of warships and marines. More than before, the conquest of Egypt was needed to resettle the streams of refugees, their growing numbers making increasing demands on the limited resources of the occupied territories. Bolstered with fresh battle-cruisers, munitions and soldiers, the Atlantean commanders resolved to strike at once, while the Egyptians were still distracted by their royal interregnum and celestial portents. Nearly two thousand years before, the Atlanteans conquered Egypt for the first time as fugitives from a natural calamity. They would do so again. Let the fall of “black dust” be a sign of doom for the new pharaoh!

The Fall of Atlantis

Like other aggressors before and since, however, the Atlanteans would go down in defeat against a surprisingly capable leader, Rameses III. But the story of their military debacle and simultaneous destruction of their capital spread far beyond Egypt. In Ireland, there were tales of a “Sea People” known as the Tuatha de Danann. Their leader was Ogma, from Tir-nan-Og, the Irish Atlantis.

According to a classic authority on early Ireland, Henry O’Brien, the Tuatha de Danann arrived at the south coast of Ireland in 1202 BCE. This date compares remarkably well with the final Atlantean catastrophe that occurred around the turn of the 12th century BCE. O’Brien, who wrote in 1834, knew nothing, of course, about the untranslated wall-texts at Egypt’s Medinet Habu or late 20th century oceanography and astrophysics confirming the ultimate destruction of Atlantis precisely in the same period he determined entirely from Irish folk tradition. His conclusions were supported in the next century by a fellow countryman, Michael Bailey, a leading dendrochronologist, whose investigation of Irish peat bogs revealed that a major climate change with disastrous ecological consequences took place around 1200 BCE. Bailey’s research contributed importantly to scientific understanding of the worldwide cataclysm that brought the curtain down on Bronze Age civilisation. O’Brien believed that the strange, obelisk-like towers still found in Ireland were erected by the Tuatha de Danann, citing the 10th century Book of Leccan, which tells of “the Tuathan tower”. Ruins of several such towers are found, appropriately enough, in County Roscommon, at Moy-tura, where the Tuatha de Danann decisively defeated their immediate enemies. Known more correctly as Moye-tureadh, the battle-area is translated as “the Field of Towers”.

Hostilities among the various Atlantean groups in the midst of their disasters might in part be explained by their different origins, however related. The Tuatha de Danann told of four, great cities – Findias, Gorias, Murias and Falas – all simultaneously overtaken by a natural catastrophe and dragged to the bottom of the sea. They appear to have been located on separate islands in the Atlantean Empire, from which various groups contested each other for control of Ireland. Gorias, for example, was probably in the Gorgon Isles associated with the Canary Islands.

The 16th century scholar William O’Flaherty recorded that the Milesians, the last of the pre-Celtic invaders, arrived before 1000 BCE. His general time-parameter, too, coincides with a Late Bronze Age Atlantis. Their leader was Eremon, a name synonymous for all Ireland. It appears to be a linguistic inflection on Euaemon, the fourth king of Atlantis in Plato’s dialogue, the Kritias. “The Book of Invasions” tells how Eremon established Tara as the capital of his new kingdom. Originally known as Tea-mhair, he named it after his wife, Tea. Together with her sister, Tephi, Queen Tea made Tara the spiritual centre of ancient Ireland. The women are described as daughters of the royal house in the Blessed Isles lost beneath the sea.

The Milesians chief deity, Macannan Mac Lir, was a worldwide wanderer from Annwn famed throughout Celtic myth as “Land under Wave”, from the Brythonic an (“abyss”) and dwfn (“world”). Also known as the “Revolving Castle” (Caer Sidi), it was a fortified island of great natural beauty with fresh water streams and a circular-shaped city surrounded by concentric walls lavishly decorated with gleaming sheets of precious metal. The central palace was called Emahin Ablach, “Emhain of the Apple Trees”. His home-away-from-home, however, was at the Isle of Man, where Reel Castle allegedly covers his grave site.

Although a god and supposedly immortal, he preferred death to eternity when Ireland went Christian. Before then, he traveled in a chariot as “the rider of the crested sea”, and was the divine patron of sailors. He founded Llyr-cestre, modern Leichester, and was head of the “three Chief Holy Families of the Isle of Britain”, known equally in Wales as “the Children of Llyr”. Today, he is better remembered as the figure of tragic disillusionment in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Resemblances between Macannan Mac Lir and Poseidon, the Atlantean sea-god, are unmistakable. Both crossed the waves in a chariot, were patrons of sailors, and progenitors of royal families. Their islands were identically configured into concentric walls sheeted in decorative metal, while “Emhain of the Apple Trees” echoes Atlas’ Garden of the Hesperides with its golden apple trees. The medieval Fate of the Children of Tursun likewise describes an island called “the Plain of Happiness”, where trees bearing golden apples grew in the “Garden of Hisberna”. In the lost “Druidic Books of Pheryllt” and “Writings of Pridian”, Ynys Avallach, or Avallenau were “more ancient than the Flood, when all the rest of mankind had been overwhelmed.”

Avallenau was also the name of a Celtic goddess of orchards, reaffirming the Hesperides’ connection with Atlantis. Avalon was additionally referred to as Ynys-vitrius, the “Island of Glass Towers”, an isle of the dead, formerly the site of a great kingdom in the Atlantic Ocean, the same story embraced by Portuguese Gauls as their foundation-myth. Another Irish memory of Atlantis preserved in The Voyage of Maeldune, presented below, mentions the “Island of Apples”. Britain’s Geoffrey of Monmonth characterised an identically named place he additionally called “Fortunate” in his 12th century Vita Merlin. Atlantis was often referred to by Classical writers other than Plato (Strabo, Pliny, Aelian, etc.) as “the Fortunate Isle”.

It was remembered in several other Irish epics, such as The Voyage of Bran. It told of “a distant isle, the plain on which the hosts hold games. Pillars of white bronze shine through eons of beauty. It is a lovely land through all the ages of the world, a silvery land on which dragon stone and crystal rain. Sweet music strikes the ear. The host races along Magh Mon, a beautiful sport. Coracle races against chariot.” Bran’s kingdom describes no other island than Atlantis, from its vast plain to horse races, similarly described by Plato.

“Pillars of white bronze” suggest orichalcum, the high-grade, gold-alloy copper he reported was the extraordinary product of Atlantean metallurgy. It is mentioned again in other Irish accounts of Atlantis, such as the 9th century “Travels of O’Corra”, which told of a bright metal unlike any other, findrine, found at Formigas. The island “had a wall of copper all around it. In the centre stood a palace from which came a beautiful maiden wearing sandals of findrine on her feet, a gold-coloured jacket covered with bright, tinted metal, fastened at the neck with a broach of pure gold. In one hand she held a pitcher of copper, and in the other a silver goblet.” Here, again, is encountered the central palace surrounded by walls adorned by precious metals, together with typical mineral opulence, especially copper, described in the Kritias.

The unique metal occurs again in “The Voyage of Maeldune”, where it is referred to as bath. The seafaring Maeldune lands at “a large, high island with terraces all around it, rising one behind one another; a shield-shaped island.” As he explored the island, he found “a broad, green race course”. But there were several other islands in the vicinity. The next one he visited was the “Island of the Apples” mentioned above. A third featured a city surrounded by a high wall, while a fourth was divided in two across its centre by a massive wall of gleaming brass. The last island had no less than four concentric walls arranged in rings encircling each other. The outer wall was decorated with gold, the second with silver, the third with copper and the innermost wall with crystal.

It is clear that the four places Maeldune visits are not separate locations, but alternating rings of land and water on one, large island – a self-evident representation of Atlantis remarkably presented in an Old Irish account. But it was not the only one. Others recalled Rath-cruachain, a circular, stone fortification with walls thirteen feet thick at the base and surrounded by five concentric ramparts. Its bronze, golden and silver palace was the centre of the fortress-like city, which one day vanished under the sea. Even the Atlantean sacred numeral occurs in Rath-cruachain‘s five walls.

Stonehenge’s Connection to Atlantis

If Eremon-Euaemon was the Atlantean-Milesian monarch of Ireland, Late Bronze Age Britain was ruled by the eighth refugee king mentioned in Plato’s account of Atlantis. Mestor, whose name meant, “the Counselor”, may have been associated with Europe’s most famous megalithic site, which gave counsel, as it were, regarding the movements of the heavens. According to archeo-astronomers, Stonehenge was a kind of astronomical computer primarily oriented to the positions and phases of the moon. Indeed, it resembles the concentric city-plan of Atlantis itself, even to the inclusion of Atlantean sacred numerals, Five and Six, repeated throughout its design.

Archaeologists believe the structure was first laid out by 3000 BCE, began to reach the apex of its construction 1,400 years later, and was suddenly discontinued around 1200 BCE. Its development, use and abandonment parallel Atlantean immigration at the close of the 4th millennium BCE, the zenith of Atlantis as the foremost Bronze Age civilisation, and final destruction in 1198 BCE. Not coincidentally, Atlas was depicted in Greek myth as the founder of astronomy; hence, his representation as a titan supporting the sphere of the heavens on his shoulders. He therefore signified the birth and florescence of astronomy at the city named after him – Atlantis.

Its impact on Britain was no less dramatic than in Ireland, as suggested by native folk memories of foreigners arriving from an oceanic catastrophe in the deep past. Comparisons between Irish versions and their Welsh counterparts are often very close, suggesting a common event that was experienced independently by two different peoples. For example, the story of Murias, the Tuatha de Danann’s sunken homeland, was almost identically known in Wales as Morvo. But British renditions of Atlantis throw a new light on the fate of its survivors.

Llyon Llion was the Lake of Waves, which overflowed its banks to inundate the entire Earth. Before this former kingdom was drowned, the great shipwright, Nefyed Nav Nevion, completed a vessel just in time to ride out the cataclysm. He was joined in it by twin brothers, Dwyvan and Dwyvach, who, landing safely on the coast of Wales, became the first Welsh kings. This myth is less the slight degeneration of an obviously earlier tradition than it is an example of the Celtic inclination toward whimsical exaggeration, making a mere lake responsible for the world flood. In all other respects, it conforms to other Atlantean deluge accounts, wherein surviving twins, like those listed in Plato’s Atlantis story, become the founding fathers of a new civilisation.

Hu-Gadarn is mentioned in the Hanes Taliesan, the “Tale of Taliesan,” where he is known as Little Gwion. If this affectionate diminutive seems derivative of the Trojan capital, Ilios, (Wilion in Hittite and perhaps the Trojan language, as well), the impression is deepened when Hu-Gadarn says, “I am now come here to the remnant of Troia.” Troy was allied with Atlantis through common blood-ties. Hu-Gadarn is regarded as the first ancestor of the Cymry, the Welsh people.

His Atlantean identity is no less apparent: “I have been fostered in the Ark,” he confesses. The Hanes Taliesan reports, “He had been fostered between the knees of Dylan and the Deluge,” arriving in Wales after a worldwide flood whipped up by a monstrous serpent.

Llys Helig is a stony patch on the floor of Conway Bay, sometimes visible from the shore during moments of water clarity, and still locally regarded as the site of a kingdom formerly ruled by Helig ap Glannawg. He perished with Llys Helig when it abruptly sank to the bottom of the sea. The stones taken for the ruins of his drowned palace are part of a suggestive natural formation that recalls one of several Welsh versions of the Atlantis disaster. Others speak similarly of Llyn Llynclys. A large, dark pool of fathomless water in the town of Radnorshire is supposed to have swallowed an ancient castle known as Lyngwyn.

In the Preiddu Annwn, “the Spoils of Annwn”, King Arthur and his men escape from Caer Wydyr, the “Fortress of Glass”, which sank beneath the waves soon after. A “Tower of Glass” appears in the Historium Britanum by medieval chronicler Nennius. Standing majestically in the midst of the sea, Turris Vitrea echoes only the voices of outsiders, and seems utterly abandoned – a Celtic device symbolising death. Similar Welsh tales told of Caer Feddwid, the “Court of Carousal”, and Caer Siddi, opulent island-kingdoms featuring fountains and curative fresh water springs, as similarly described in Plato’s Atlantis dialogue.

The “Tale of the Lowland Hundred” tells of Cantref y Gwaelod, an island forty miles long and twenty miles across. It was filled with fruit trees, natural hot springs, forests and ringed by a great range of mountains. A system of sluices created alternating rings of land embankments and moats with canals bridged over by connecting walk-ways. The island had a capital, Caer Gwyddno, which extended political control over sixteen neighbouring islands and cities. But a disaster overtook the city, and it sank beneath the ocean, drowning most of its inhabitants. King Gwyddno Garanhir, along with a party of survivors, landed on the Welsh coast, and eventually became the first royal family of Wales. A rocky ridge running some seven or eight miles out to sea before its disappearance under water was said to mark the direction in which Caer Gwyddno lay at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Remembered in some parts of Wales as Llyn Syfaddon, Llyn Savathan was the extensive kingdom of Helig Voel ap Glannog, whose great possessions, extending far into the sea from Priestholm, had been suddenly overwhelmed by the sea. His name is remarkable, because it contains the “og” derivative of Atlantean deluge-heroes in other parts of the world. Another Welsh flood tradition, Llys Elisap Clynog, not only repeats the “og” theme, but seems to include Plato’s second king of Atlantis, Elasippos.

So many similar accounts deeply rooted in the folkish consciousness of both Ireland and Wales were never regarded by their peoples as mere fables, but revered instead as sacred traditions of ancestral beginnings. Myths such as these may not yield their truths to the archaeologist’s spade, but can disclose themselves to any honest mind, as they were intended.

Folk memory of Atlantis is deeply rooted in the mythic traditions of numerous peoples impacted by the military adventures of its massive armed forces, the nuclear-like destruction of its homeland, and the migration of its survivors to numerous lands which formerly comprised their world empire.

Frank Joseph will speak at the Metaphysical Ancient Discoveries Symposium from May 16-17, 2015 in Grabill, Indiana, USA. For further info on this event and tickets, go to www.ancientmysteriesinternational.net.

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FRANK JOSEPH has published more books about the lost civilisation of Atlantis than any other writer in history. These and his other titles dealing with archaeology, military history and metaphysics have been released in thirty-seven foreign editions around the world. He was the editor-in-chief of Ancient American, a popular science magazine, from its inception in 1993 until his retirement fourteen years later. He lives today with his wife, Laura, in the Upper Mississippi Valley of the United States.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 89 (Mar-Apr 2005)

© New Dawn Magazine and the respective author.
For our reproduction notice, click here.

The Changing Face of Russian Psi Research



Were the Soviets really experts in paranormal research? Were they, as some researchers claimed during the Cold War, light years ahead of the rest of the world in the field of parapsychology? If so, what kind of work are the Russians up to today?

The mysterious case of Robert Toth may shed some light on the matter.

The Toth Incident

Robert C. Toth, a Los Angeles Times correspondent, was arrested and detained in Moscow on June 11, 1977. He had been given papers by a Soviet scientist named Valery G. Petukhov, who claimed to be Chief of the Laboratory of Bio-Physics at the State Control Institute of Medical and Biological Research. The papers supposedly disclosed ‘state secrets’ and Toth, of course, had obtained them illegally. He was arrested before he had a chance to examine them properly.

The papers were supposed to offer proof of Petukhov’s grounding breaking scientific research in the field of parapsychology. When living cell undergo division, Toth had been told, they emit certain particles that can be “detected and measured.” These particles can “carry information,” and their function could “explain the basis for telepathy” and other phenomena of this nature.

Toth claimed that seconds after he had been given the papers, a small car pulled up beside him, from out of which emerged five men, dressed as civilians. They threw him inside the vehicle, which then sped off. “Our car drove through red lights and down one-way streets the wrong way to a militia [police] station,” writes Toth. “My captors were firm and polite, offering me cigarettes… I was ushered into a room with an inspector who declined my requests to phone the US Embassy but said a Soviet Foreign Ministry official would be called.”

Toth was detained for a period of several days. He was interrogated by police officers and KGB officials. A senior researcher of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Professor I.M. Mikhailov, was asked to provide expert testimony on the information Toth had been given by Petukhov. “This material is secret and shows the kind of work done in some scientific institutes of our state,” he declared.

Suddenly told he was free to go, Toth caught the next flight back to America. The Toth incident hit newspapers all over the world, including The Washington Post and The New York Times. The story was quickly forgotten, however – at least by the public. “But,” writes the late Martin Ebon, “intelligence analysts understood that Toth had gotten into his hand, if only for a few moments, one of the tips of the enormous iceberg of top secret Soviet research into psychic powers of the human mind.”

The Psi Warfare Gap

Another possibility is that the Toth incident was a Soviet orchestrated conspiracy – a set up, in other words. Between 1969 and 1971, during the height of the Cold War, American intelligence sources discovered the Soviets had a deep interest in parapsychology, were researching the subject extensively, and that this research was being well-funded by the Soviet military and the KGB.

In 1967, it was learned, the Soviets were spending an estimated US$500 million a year on parapsychological related research. The money was being used to fund fourteen separate research institutes. This naturally worried the Americans, who deduced a hostile intent behind the Soviet’s actions.

As to why the Soviets were spending so much money on psi research, a brief explanation needs to be given. In the aftermath of World War II, Soviet authorities feared the prospect of becoming involved in yet another war – this time with the West – much in the same way that the US authorities were greatly concerned about a possible ‘communist takeover’ and nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Acting as an important catalyst for the Soviet ‘psychic boom’ was a story that appeared in the French periodical Constellation, entitled ‘Thought Transmission – Weapon of War’. The article, published in 1959, told of supposed telepathy experiments that were being conducted by the US military. The article claimed that the ‘receivers’ in the experiment, located onboard the submerged nuclear submarine Nautilus, had successfully managed to pick up telepathic transmissions from the ‘senders’ back on land.

When the US Navy denied the story, the Soviets assumed they were lying, deciding to take it seriously. Not wanting to be left behind in the field of psi research, the Soviets took immediate action. The father of Soviet parapsychology, the physiologist Leonid L. Vasiliev, who, in 1923, had been ordered by Joseph Stalin to investigate telepathy, made the following remark in April 1960, while addressing a group of top Soviet scientists: “Today the American Navy is testing telepathy on their atomic submarines. Soviet scientists conducted a great many successful telepathy tests over a quarter of a century ago. It’s urgent that we throw off our prejudices. We must again plunge into the exploration of this vital field.”

One theory is that the Nautilus story was a clever piece of American disinformation, aimed to lead the Soviets astray, so that they would start to invest money and energy into a decided waste of time. “Whether telepathic communication experiments were ever carried out aboard the USS Nautilus is a topic that generates much doubt and dispute among paranormal enthusiasts,” explains W. Adam Mandelbaum in his book The Psychic Battlefield.

Regarding the Toth incident, the parapsychologist Elmar R. Gruber has some interesting comments to offer: “The feeling remains that the Soviets were attempting to impart deliberate disinformation in their power game with the Americans… Did they intend to create the impression that they were far more advanced in this field than the Americans?”

Intentional or not, the impression was certainly there, as proven by a now declassified 1972 Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) report, entitled ‘Controlled Offensive Techniques’. The report begins by stating that parapsychology in the Soviet Union is very different to that in West, the former being a “multi-disciplinary field consisting of the sciences of bionics, biophysics, psychophysics, psychology, physiology and neuropsychology.” The Soviets had named this field ‘psychotronics’. The nearest English equivalent to the word is mind (psycho) energy applications (-tronics).

The report mentions that Soviet scientists had explored “detrimental effects of subliminal perception techniques,” which, using “telepathic means,” might be “targeted against the US or allied personnel in nuclear missile silos.” The report continues: “The potential applications of focusing mental influences on an enemy through hypnotic telepathy have surely occurred to the Soviets… Control and manipulation of the human consciousness must be considered a primary goal. Soviet knowledge in this field is superior to that of the United States.”

Psychic Discoveries Behind The Iron Curtain

The year 1970 marked the publication of a now classic book on Soviet psychic research. Called Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, it was written by two Western journalists, Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder. During their stay in what was then the Soviet Union, Ostrander and Schroeder travelled far and wide, interviewing numerous scientists who were conducting groundbreaking research in the field of parapsychology.

When Psychic Discoveries was first released, it caused quite a stir, sparking both public and government interest in ‘psychic warfare’. Had it never been written, the US government’s fear of ‘Soviet psychic mind control’ would probably not have reached the extreme that it did.

Kirlian photography, dowsing, telepathy, eyeless sight, telekinesis, hypnosis – these are just some of the subjects that Ostrander and Schroeder investigated and wrote about. Their book showed that Soviet scientists had already managed to gain a practical understanding of how these types of phenomena were possible, while the rest of the world was lagging far behind.

So what had the Soviets discovered about the unknown powers of the human mind? And how did they approach the study of this enigmatic subject?

Experiments In Distance Influence

Existing in the Soviet Union were two different types of parapsychology – one official, the other secret. The former was allowed to exist in public, while the latter was taking place at well-funded, top secret state-controlled research institutes, and was largely military-based. Parapsychologists who wanted to do research in non-military areas often had difficulty obtaining funding.

To divert attention away from the real research they were doing, the Soviets had established, in Moscow, a military-based parapsychology centre called the Institute of Problems of Information Transmission. To help it look authentic, the Soviets made sure it was well-guarded at all times. As for the real research, that was being conducted in a remote region of western Siberia, near the pioneer town of Novosibirsk, in a massive research facility named Akademgorodok, ‘Science City’.

Built after World War II, Science City was composed of around 40 scientific centres, and housed tens of thousands of scientists and their families. It was developed, says Martin Ebon, “with such single-mindedness that even the names of the streets and city squares reflect its nature. For example, one could take a bus down Thermophysics Street, get off at the corner of Calculators Street, and walk across the Institute of Hydrodynamics Square.”

One of its scientific centres was called the Institute for Automation and Electrometry. Located here was the mysterious Special Department 8, where entry was not permitted unless one had access to a special code. Security was such that the code was changed on a weekly basis. For the sixty or so scientists employed at No. 8, their job was to investigate telepathy and distant influence, otherwise called ‘biocommunication’.

For psi to be possible, thought Soviet scientists, there had to be an exchange of energy taking place. At No. 8, writes Ebon, “physicists sought to discover the nature of ‘psi particles’, the elusive elements that some Soviet scientists regarded as essential to the function of such psychic techniques as biocommunication and bioenergetics.”

In one series of experiments, telepathic communication was tested among people. Experiments in telekinesis were also conducted. Some of the subjects used were Tibetan monks and Siberian shamans, who had been carefully selected by the KGB for their remarkable psychic abilities. The American journalist Jim Marrs says the KGB “laboriously screened more than a million people in an effort to locate ‘super naturals’, persons with the greatest amount of psychic power.”

In another series of experiments – which were conducted at No. 8 before it was closed down in 1969 – August Stern, one of the scientists who worked there, and his colleagues tested the properties of biophotons, to see if they could account “for some inexplicable forms of communication.” Photons, by the way, are the smallest physical units of light, the quanta of electromagnetic radiation. Biophotons are a type of photon that radiate from living cells. In this experiment, bacteria was placed on two sides of a glass plate, “to see whether a fatal disease could be transmitted through the glass” with the help of biophotons. “There were also experiments with photon waves, in which frogs’ eyes were used as a more sensitive measuring instrument than a machine,” recalls Stern, who migrated to France in 1977.

Due to the shutting down of No. 8, the photon communication experiments conducted by Stern and his colleagues were not fully realised. Several years later, however, three Soviet scientists attempted the same problem, achieving impressive results. Their names were Vlail Kanachevy, Simon Shchurin and Ludmilla Mikhailova. In their experiments, two groups of cells were used, one of which was contaminated with a virus, the other of which was not. They were placed adjacent to each other, but remained physically separate. When the two groups were isolated by quartz glass, which ultra-violet waves are able to penetrate, the non-contaminated cells suddenly became contaminated; they ‘caught the disease’, in other words. When regular glass was used, which ultra-violet waves cannot penetrate, this did not occur; the non-contaminated cells remained healthy.

These results confirmed what many Soviet scientists in the field of bioenergetics had previously theorised – that living cells can ‘communicate’ with each other over distances, and in a non-chemical way. When the affected cells were attacked by the virus, says Shchurin, they “virtually cried out loud about the danger” and “their cry freely penetrated the barrier of quartz glass… Something highly improbable happened. These waves were not only perceived by the neighbouring cells, they also conveyed the sickness to the neighbouring cells.”

The KGB Takes Control

No later than 1970, the KGB had taken control of the country’s research in parapsychology. It should be mentioned, however, that the KGB was an integral part of everyday life in the Soviet Union, permeating society on all levels, so their influence on psi research was not exactly sinister.

During the 1970s, more and more KGB-controlled parapsychology research institutes were established. Because the nature of Soviet psi research was becoming increasingly secret, many Western parapsychologists lost contact with their colleagues ‘behind the iron curtain’. In addition, rumours began to circulate about sinister ‘mind control’ experiments being conducted in clandestine Soviet labs, as well as the development of dangerous ‘psi weapons’ to be used against the West. As mentioned in Psychic Discoveries, a Czech engineer named Robert Pavlita claimed to have invented a ‘psychotronic generator’, which could apparently store, enhance and radiate ‘psychotronic’ energy.

Also known as ‘bioplasmic’ energy, Soviet scientists claimed that this energy was behind all manner of psychic phenomena, that it filled and animated all living things, and could also be harnessed for healing purposes. Using a process called Kirlian photography, the ‘bioplasmic body’ – or aura – could allegedly be photographed. The Austrian-American scientist Dr. Wilhelm Reich called this energy ‘orgone’. He invented a device called an ‘orgone energy accumulator’, consisting of a box lined with alternating layers of organic and inorganic materials, which was apparently able to trap this energy.

“A psychotronic generator can influence an individual or a whole crowd of people. It can affect a person’s psyche mentally and emotionally. It can affect memory and attention span. A psychotronic device can cause physical fatigue, disorientation, and alter a person’s behaviour,” asserts the Soviet biologist Edward Naumov. According to Ostrander and Schroeder, “certain generators can arouse fear, anxiety, anger, insomnia, depressions and suicidal thoughts and even lead to cerebral thrombosis.” The KGB, says Naumov, spent more than half a billion roubles on developing psychotronic technology.

When it comes to alleged Soviet mind control technology, nothing can compare to the immensity of project ‘Woodpecker’. Apparently, using an array of giant transmitters, the Soviets began to beam extremely low frequency (ELF) modulated signals all over Western Europe, Australia, North America and the Middle East. These transmissions, claims Tim Rifat, were designed to “permanently rewire the neural networks in the brains of the entire Western population, thereby destroying their social cohesiveness…” The KGB, it is said, had copied the brain frequencies of pathological criminals, mental patients, clinically depressed people and socio-psychopaths, whose brain wave maps they had studied. It is these negative frequencies that were beamed down on the West – from the early 1980s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Assuming it was real, project Woodpecker appears to have been a tremendous success!

Apparently, the Soviets were not the only ones who managed to create advanced ‘psi weapons’ and large scale ‘mind control’ devices; so had countries in the West – most notably the US. This technology was allegedly used against the Soviet Union, in an attempt to bring about its destruction.

Soviet journalist Emil Bachurin claimed in Young Guard magazine that Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB, spoke of several “psi weapons centres” in Canada, adding that “Canadian research must be surpassed.” The information was given to Bachurin by a KGB general. Other members of the Soviet intelligence community have mentioned the existence of advanced ‘psi weapons’ created by the West, even claiming that such devices have been used many times against civilian populations in the Soviet Union.

Comments made by the late Aleksander Lebed, a distinguished General and popular politician, seem to support such charges. As mentioned in New Dawn No. 43, Lebed insisted that Western secret services had carried out a series of psychological operations (or PSYOPS) against the Soviet Union, involving “tech­nologies of psycho-semantic pro­gramming,” brainwashing and hypnosis. One such psychological operation, claimed Lebed, was the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, which had been artificially organised by the West.

Modern Psi Research

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, some interesting psi experiments have been conducted in Russia, many of which involved animals and other living things. The Russians have long tried to develop biological ‘psi detectors’ – and so far they’ve been partially successful. Their theory is that psi is primarily a biological process, and that living systems react far more strongly to mental influence than do material systems. Researchers in the US have also attempted to develop psi detectors, or ‘thought switches’ – electronic devices that respond to mental intention.

The eminent American parapsychologist Dean Radin has already managed to construct a prototype of such a device, which, he says, “incorporated a new type of physical detector, involving a matrix of random-number generators, and some advanced statistical and signal-processing techniques to detect the predicted psi-influence.” As Radin explains in his book The Conscious Universe, countless laboratory experiments have shown that random number generators – devices that produce a stream of random digits – can be influenced by a focused mind. These ‘electronic coin flippers’ are designed to operate in a truly random fashion, producing an equal number of ‘heads’ and ‘tails’. Due to the influence of consciousness, however, these devices begin to function in a more ordered way, producing statistically less probable results, such as more heads than tails, for instance.

Georgi Gurtovoy, head of the Laboratory on Applying Isotopes in Ophthalmology in Moscow, and Alexander Parkhamov, a physicist, have done some interesting research on the distant influence of living systems that produce random fluctuations. Some of their instruments have been able to register micro-PK effects. They have also carried out anomalous distant influence experiments involving a species of fish called Gnathonemus petersii. These fish are known for their ability to emit pulsed electric signals, which they use to assist navigation in the darkness. Psychics were asked to slow down the rate of the fishes’ pulses – allegedly with much success.

Also compelling are the experiments of Sergei Speransky, a toxicologist at the Institute of Hygiene in Novosibirsk. His findings seem to confirm the existence of ‘morphogenetic fields’, as proposed by the controversial British biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake. In one experiment, a population of mice that had grown up together in the same cage were split into two groups. The mice in one group were fed as usual, while the mice in the other group were made to starve. Almost instantly, noticed Speransky, the non-starving mice began to consume much more food than before, as though trying to compensate for their ‘friends’. There appeared to be a telepathic link between the two groups. Had the non-starving mice picked up a signal from the starving mice, warning them that food was scarce and that they needed to increase food consumption and storage within their bodies?

Out of the thirty experiments conducted, twenty-seven had a positive outcome. Speransky then carried out an additional series of experiments, so as to refine his methodology, varying weight, sex and other variables. Once again, the results were nothing less than astonishing. Speransky concluded that the “biological significance of the rapid increase in weight in mice which received signals about starvation from their ‘friends’ is clear: a danger of starvation has to give them an additional stimulus to be sated.”

It’s interesting to note that the famous British biologist Sir Alister Hardy had formulated a similar theory to Speransky’s, stating that telepathic communication between animals might play a role in evolution and adaptation. Animal habits, he suggested, might be spread by “telepathic-like means.” He further suggested that a “psychic pool of existence” might operate among members of a species.

This brings us back to the work of Sheldrake. He believes morphogenetic fields contain the information that is required to shape the form of living things, much in the same way that certain frequencies of sound ‘contain the information’ to create complex geometric patterns in sand. We are reminded here of the bioplasmic body, which, as mentioned in Psychic Discoveries, was thought by Soviet scientists to be “some kind of matrix, some kind of invisible organising pattern inherent in living things.” Morphogenetic fields also serve a social function, shaping behaviour on both an individual and group level.

Furthermore, due to a process called ‘morphic resonance’, remarkable forms of ‘communication’ – not limited by space or time – are able to occur within a species. “The fields organising the activity of the nervous system are likewise inherited through morphic resonance, conveying a collective, instinctive memory,” writes Sheldrake. “Each individual both draws upon and contributes to the collective memory of the species. This means that new patterns of behaviour can spread more rapidly than would otherwise be possible.”

A Revolutionary New Approach

When, in the 1920s, parapsychology was beginning to establish itself as a legitimate scientific field in the Soviet Union, Leonid Vasiliev greatly influenced the course of its development – more so, by far, than anyone else. In his highly influential books, articles and presentations, he continued to assert that the study of psi phenomena should be approached in a purely physiological manner, as he feared it would be exploited by proponents of “religious superstition.”

Nowadays, parapsychology in Russia is undergoing a gradual yet fundamental transformation, thanks partly to a growing interest in transpersonal psychology. New approaches to psi research are being sought out, with an emphasis on Asian religious concepts. Scientists, moreover, are no longer so averse to ‘spiritual’ ideas. Ever since the end of the totalitarian communist regime, explains Gruber, “spirituality and religion, the pre-eminent features of the Russian soul, which were forced underground for so many decades, are again raising their claims to be the guiding principles in the understanding of man and his position in the world.”

Russia’s leading expert on parapsychology, Alexander Dubrov, who is regarded as the spokesman for the modern approach to psi research, believes there is more to psychic phenomena than biology and neurophysiology. Psi phenomena, he says, is a quantum-mechanical process, and man is a ‘quantum subject’. Be that as it may, says Dubrov, the physical side of psi and the psychophysics of altered states of consciousness should also be taken into account, so as to gain a complete understanding of the matter.

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Lucid Viewing – The Way Forward in Remote Viewing, How it all Started – In Russia, www.bibliotecapleyades.net/vision_remota/esp_visionremota_9a.htm

Compare Martin Ebon, Amplified Mind Power Research in the Former Soviet Union, 1996-7, www.biomindsuperpowers.com/Pages/Ebon1.html

Deep Black Magic: Government Research into ESP and Mind Control, Ingo Swann on CIA/ESP Connection, 1995, www.mindspring.com/~txporter/iswann.htm

Rupert Sheldrake, Biologist and Author, Morphic Fields and Morphic Resonance – an Introduction, 2005, www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/morphic/morphic_intro.html

Elmar R. Gruber, Psychic Wars: Parapsychology in Espionage – and Beyond (Blandford, UK, 1999)

Jim Marrs, Psi Spies (AlienZoo Publishing, US, 2000)

Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder, Psychic Discoveries (Marlowe & Company, USA, 1970

Adam Mandelbaum, The Psychic Battlefield: A History of the Military-Occult Complex (St. Martin’s Press, USA, 2000)

Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (HarperCollins, USA, 1997)

Tim Rifat, Remote Viewing – What is it, Who uses it and How to do it (Vision Paperbacks, UK, 2001)

Holly DeNio Stephens, The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture (Cornell University Press, 1997)


LOUIS PROUD is a writer and researcher specialising in anomalous, or Fortean, phenomena. His articles have appeared in New Dawn, Paranormal, FATE, and Nexus magazines, and he has been interviewed on such programs as “VERITAS Radio,” “Paranormal Realms,” and Whitley Strieber’s “Dreamland.” He is the author of Dark Intrusions and The Secret Influence of the Moon, and his latest book is Strange Electromagnetic Dimensions: The Science of the Unexplainable. Louis lives in Burnie, Tasmania, Australia. Visit his blog http://louisproud.net and check out his YouTube Channel.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 104 (Sept-Oct 2007)

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Separating Myth From Truth in Today’s Dietary Debate: An Interview With Sally Fallon Morell



Sally Fallon Morell, the best-selling co-author of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition And The Diet Dictocrats, says people should eat more saturated fat, such as full-fat dairy products and fatty cuts of meat and offal, to lose weight and improve their health.

Sally has a growing grassroots following in Australia and regularly tours the world to publicise nutrition pioneer Weston A. Price’s philosophy of Traditional Foods. During her talks she emphasises that governments and the agricultural industry had conspired to demonise animal foods to make people buy processed products filled with refined carbohydrates, sugars, soya products and vegetable oils.

Naturopath and regular New Dawn contributor Huw Griffiths caught up with Sally during her Australian tour and she kindly obliged to an interview to discuss the US foundation she heads as well as important messages on nutrition and disease.

HUW GRIFFITHS (HG): Good Day Sally. It’s great to meet you and a warm welcome to Australia. I think my first question must be what many of our readers must be wondering. Just who are you, what is the Weston Price Foundation, and what have you come to Australia to talk about?

SALLY FALLON MORELL (SF): Well, there are three things that I’d like to put on my tombstone. I am the author of Nourishing Traditions which is a nutritional cookbook, I am the founding president of the Weston Price Foundation, and I’m the founder of the campaign for real milk, but in addition to that I’ve kind of become the lightening rod or the spokesperson for a return to traditional diets and a sloughing off of the whole cholesterol theory and the theories of heart disease which has totally screwed up the way we eat and the way that we practice medicine.

The Weston A. Price Foundation was established to provide accurate information about nutrition, to counteract the misinformation being put out by our governments and the health industry, to present the work of Weston Price to the public, and to demonstrate the scientific validation of traditional foodways.

I basically do a seminar on traditional diets and try to answer the question as to what are the characteristics of healthy diets and then to show people the practical steps that they can take towards adopting a healthy diet for themselves.

HG: Much of what you have to tell us about our dietary habits seems to fly in the face of “conventional wisdom.” Even on the TV the other day I saw Dr. Manny Noakes (the leader of the CSIRO team that published the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet) suggesting that the sort of advise you were giving the public was ‘irresponsible’ and ‘not based on any good science’. How do you respond to this sort of criticism?

SF: What they are saying is not based on any science at all. It is a religion, it is an act of faith and when in fact you start to look at the genuine science of it all it’s actually very different from what they are saying. The people promoting the low fat very high carbohydrate food, especially those who are influencing the diets of growing children, they’re the ones who are being irresponsible. They’re being irresponsible because children cannot grow up healthy and strong on that kind of diet and they are consequently creating tremendous health problems with it all.

Just as an example, they’ve taken whole milk out of the schools because they say that it makes children fat, but there was a recent scientific study done in Sweden where they put children on a low-fat diet and compared them to children on a normal diet. The children on the low-fat diet ended up getting fatter; they ate more sugar and had more insulin resistance. We’re just setting our children up for obesity and diabetes with these low-fat diets.

They know the body has to have fat. There is fat around every cell membrane of your body and that fat has to be mostly saturated fat and if you don’t give the body that fat it will make it out of carbohydrates and it will crave carbohydrates to get that fat. The big problem is that those carbohydrates don’t have the vitamins in them that the fats carry, such as vitamins A, E, D and K. You’re just giving the body a very poor substitute, when these vitamins are so vital; they’re needed for cell signalling, immunity, hormone production, and growth. So we’re seeing a growing number of the signs of deficiency in the many diseases and conditions that we see so much of these days.

For these people to be out there saying that “We don’t need or eat saturated fats any more” is a bit like trying to say that the human body has been genetically and dramatically changed in the last ten years, or something like that! We absolutely need saturated fat in our diet. Every cell in our body is surrounded by it.

Your lungs can’t work without saturated fat, nor can your kidneys and the organ with the highest amount of saturated fat in it is the brain. These people who vilify saturated fat are demonstrating that they don’t know anything at all about bio-chemistry. People these days have been educated to believe that diets that have saturated fat in them are the diets of the devil and that they have to keep themselves pure by not eating saturated fat. People look at you incredulous when you tell them these days that they have to eat saturated fat.

I call it ‘food puritanism’, in a way it’s just like when Galileo and Copernicus were first saying that the sun was the centre of the solar system and were persecuted on the basis that to say this was against all common sense.

HG: It’s difficult to know where to start with the questions, but perhaps one of the cornerstone campaigns for which you are best known and recognised is the Real Milk Movement. Just what exactly is it and why is it so important?

SF: The Campaign for Real Milk is a project of the Weston Price Foundation. Real milk has all the fat in it, it comes from cows on pasture and is unpasteurised. Milk is a magic food. It has everything in it that a child needs in order for it to grow normally. You can live on raw milk and nothing else. It’s a curative food; it contains numerous components that assist the body to absorb all of the nutrients properly. It helps put dietary calcium in the right place, it helps get rid of bad bacteria and it supports the immune system and when you pasteurise milk all those attributes are destroyed.

We know all this from the science. A recent study for example has found that the one factor in preventing asthma in children was their access to and ability to consume raw milk. Asthma can be a life-threatening disease and it afflicts around thirty percent of our children. So we really think that raw milk is a key to the nutrition of our children because we historically have gotten calcium and related nutrition from milk.

I’m not however saying that milk is necessary. There are cultures that don’t drink milk, but they tend to have very different types of diets that Western children tend not to eat.

The other reason that our campaign is important is because it restores the connection of consumers to the farm and is a way of restoring small pasture based farms, because the people who are looking for real milk are also looking for milk from cows that are reared on genuine pasture. It also gives farmers a tremendous income, at least this is what has happened in the States where the real milk movement is absolutely huge. In fact its growing at about forty percent a year and we have literally saved hundreds of farms.

HG: Dietary fats are a confusing issue and always have been, but from what I understand you are saying most of the animal, and therefore saturated, fats that have been demonised over the last few decades are, in fact, not only nourishing, but good for us, whereas many of the ‘new’ (for want of a better word) fats such as margarine and canola oil are in fact bad for our health. So how can, for example, the CSIRO, be so far adrift from you on the matter of whether the former type of fats do or do not in fact drive up cholesterol levels which they say inevitably lead to conditions such as atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease?

SF: The demonisation of saturated fats has been a deliberate campaign of the vegetable oil industry and in order to do so have set up this cholesterol and heart disease myth (and it is a complete myth). The levels of cholesterol in your blood have really no bearing on your predisposition to heart disease. I’m not saying that we aren’t prone to heart disease, we obviously are, but cholesterol levels are not the thing that we should be looking at.

Secondly, the amount of saturated fat that we are eating in real life, not in institutions, where people are fed under very strange conditions, bear no relationship to the amount of cholesterol in your blood. This was borne out by the International Atherosclerosis Project, where they looked at fifteen thousand autopsies in thirteen countries and they didn’t find any relationship at all between the diet of the person, the level of cholesterol in their blood and the degree of blockage in their arteries. There was just no correlation!

We’re simply looking in the wrong place for answers. There are so many other avenues for possible research as far as heart disease is concerned and the really sad thing is that this cholesterol theory has been used to demonise the very types of foods that were so prized by traditional cultures and that were both necessary and sacred to the rearing of healthy children and healthy people.

Cholesterol is in fact the body’s repair substance and if a person has either weak arteries or a tendency towards inflammation then the body, which is a lot wiser than any of us, produces more cholesterol and that is used for repair. So blaming cholesterol for heart disease is a bit like blaming the outbreak of a fire on firemen because they always seem to be around when a fire breaks out.

Our biggest concern right now though are these cholesterol lowering drugs which are not saving lives, but are causing a tremendous amount of suffering with the side-effects.

What has shocked me, however, both over in New Zealand and in Australia, is the type of coercion that is put on people. Now, in the United States a lot of pressure is put on people, but from what I hear here you have to take these drugs or, for example, you can’t get your pilot’s licence, or you can’t get your insurance. We had one women in New Zealand tell us that her doctor told her that if she didn’t take her cholesterol-lowering drug or if she had any kind of heart problem, that she would not be insured.

It seems to me that if you can’t say “No!” to taking a drug, then there is a real problem and the implications are staggering. So the next thing that you’re going to have are mandatory drugs for children and in essence a giving way to a dictatorship of the doctors. So what we’re simply trying to do is to give people the facts and to reinforce the fact that the only way that we’re going to change this is for individuals to say “No”!

In fact, a lot of people have woken up to these issues in the States to the extent that the medical industry is not getting the same levels of compliance and have taken to hawking their drugs all over the rest of the world as a result. It’s almost as if doctors have become the new god, or in fact the ‘new devil’.

HG: Setting aside the morality of killing animals for meat (which I guess is a matter of personal choice)… Is meat eating a preferred thing to do as far as health is concerned, or can we acquire all the nutrition that we need from a vegetarian diet?

SF: You don’t absolutely have to eat meat to be healthy, but you do absolutely need some animal food in your diet. That would be dairy products, raw dairy products, eggs and fish. But there’s nothing wrong with eating meat as long as you eat it with sufficient fat and not eat lean meat.

Meat is a wonderful source of complete protein, zinc, iron, B12. It’s a healthy food and there is nothing wrong with eating it, but I just want to go back to the question of personal morality because they may not admit it, but most vegans and vegetarians believe that they have the moral high ground and that they’re better people than the people who eat meat.

What I’d like to point out though is that the products produced from slaughtered cows are used in many ways that are hidden from the public. They are used in modern building materials, in plastics, in cosmetics, the hydraulic break fluid in aeroplanes, there is even a membrane in your telephone that is made from cattle products, so there is no way that anybody in modern society can say that they don’t use the products of slaughtered animals.

With our ancestors it was even more so. They absolutely had to kill animals, not only for meat, but for tools, hides and furs in order to be warm and stay healthy. So we have always had to slaughter animals for our survival and well-being. What bothers me is the hypocrisy of saying “Oh, I don’t eat meat,” to look better, when the reality is that you wouldn’t be here if it had not been for your ancestors having to slaughter animals.

We’re also really concerned about the industrial system that has trivialised animals in the way that they have been made into units of production with a very cruel and heartless system. So we’ve put our money where our mouth is. We, through our local chapters, help people find animal products that are raised humanely.

HG: Whoever is right on whatever disputed dietary issue, it would seem that children are always the most vulnerable of the lot. We not only play dice with their lives and health by lacking certainty as to how we should nourish them, but by getting things wrong in our own diet, we kind of muck it up for future generations via the genes as well. Do you have any absolutely certain guidelines for diets for children and if so, where can they be accessed?

SF: Yes, we really set up the Weston Price Foundation because of our concern for children’s diets. All traditional cultures that were healthy put an awful lot of emphasis on nutrient dense foods for pregnant women, nursing women and growing children because you can’t go back, later in life and build a healthy kidney or a healthy inner ear. You have to build health during these crucial periods. The vegetarian, the vegan, low-fat and US government guidelines and other diets that are being heavily promoted today are seriously lacking in important nutrients.

We show the science in this and we do have diets for pregnant women and for growing children. We have a whole section on our website on children’s health and this is where our most important emphasis is. This is why so many people come to us, often out of desperation over their heartbreaking condition with their children’s health. They ask us what can they do about this or that problem, where nothing has helped these children. I can’t say that we have helped one hundred percent of the children, but we have helped a large proportion with our diet, it really does work. 

HG: One matter that sticks out like a sore thumb over the years is the issue of whether margarine is (or is not) a safer alternative to butter as far as health in general (but cardiovascular disease in particular) is concerned. And now the National Heart Foundation is issuing press releases headlined “Australia leads the way with virtually transfat free margarine.” This kind of publicity would suggest that even margarines weren’t as good for us as they were hyped up to being, but that they’re OK now. Or should we be circumspect about this type of publicity?

SF: Definitely be circumspect. First of all, butter absolutely does not cause heart disease and we know that it doesn’t do that because while butter consumption plummeted throughout the twentieth century, heart disease went up. Indeed, one study demonstrated that margarine eaters had twice the rate of heart diseases as butter eaters.

Getting the transfats out of the margarine is a good publicity stunt, but you’re still using all of these suspect oils. Look for ‘mono’ and ‘triglycerides’ on the label which don’t have to be labelled as fats yet they’re always partially hydrogenated transfats. You just should not use any type of margarine or spreads, you should just use the traditional fats that have kept people healthy for thousands of years.

The first recorded heart attack in the US was in 1921, it was a new disease and it grew to epidemic proportions especially after the Second World War when Americans started abandoning animal fats in significant amounts.

HG: What about coconut oil? I’ve been an avid fan of it (for cooking) for years, yet it is still accused of being bad for us (courtesy of being a saturated fat) by most of the public and private sector dietary experts. There is now so much overwhelming evidence to support its credentials as a superior health food (such as that it prevents heart disease, lowers cholesterol, is an anti-microbial and even that it acts as an antidote to some poisons). So which or who is right and how can we be so sure?

SF: Well, we have a lot of science backing us up on the healthfulness of coconut oil, but let me just say that the parts of the world that use a lot of coconut oil have amongst the lowest rates of heart disease and cancer. Once again, coconut oil is a competitor to the vegetable oils and it’s been demonised. Mary Enig, a colleague of mine, and I have actually written a book on coconut oil called Eat Fat, Lose Fat in which we present a lot of the evidence. So the evidence is there whether people want to believe it or not.

HG: A lot of what the Weston Price Foundation is about is the benefits of traditional diets among various peoples from around the world. Just very briefly, how can you explain what all this was about and how should we go about finding out what these diets are all about and how we can apply the relevant learning from them to our own diets?

SF: The work of Weston Price and all the diets are very different in their particulars, but what we look at is the underlying characteristics and I’ll just give you the first three; there were no processed or devitalised foods, all of them contained animal foods, but the most important one was the very high levels of nutrients in these foods. They had very high levels of vitamins and minerals, but the really significant thing was the very high levels of vitamins A, D and K which are found in organ meat, animal meat and some types of seafood, and you absolutely have to have some of these foods in your diet to be healthy, and the moment that you start to industrialise your agriculture and put your animals inside they go away.

The one that we’re most excited about right now is vitamin K which Dr. Price called the X Factor. He studied it, but didn’t quite know what it was, but it dovetails perfectly with what we now know about vitamin K. Vitamin K is in the fat, butter fat and organ meats of grass fed animals and what it does among many other things is prevent heart disease by preventing the calcification of the arteries. It’s also critical for the myelinisation of the nerves and it supports learning capacity.

Now we have developed a system where we have heartlessly and thoughtlessly put our animals inside and taken them off green grass. Mother Nature though always gets her revenge and her revenge for what we have done to her animals is that she has given us an epidemic of heart disease and a generation of children who can’t think and there is no way to solve this except to get these foods back in the diet, especially women and especially when they are either pregnant or nursing.

Doing seminars is the only way that I know how to break through this wall of ignorance and start to make some changes. The alternative is what I call the natural selection of the wise, that is the people who don’t eventually return to these traditional diets are actually going to die out. Their children won’t reach maturity or the parents will be infertile. This of course is something that we’re already seeing.

What we are seeing now, however, is the sort of thing that we came across in New Zealand, where the libraries are only stocking books that recommend pregnant women adopt low fat diets with lots of whole grains, which of course are very hard to digest. I’m sure the picture is the same here in Australia too.

HG: Sally, you clearly have a busy agenda and a lot of touring to do before your advice hits a critical level of awareness amongst the consumer mainstream and can be widely embraced. So, apart from your tours, your book Nourishing Traditions and the behind the scenes work done by the Weston Price Foundation, what else do you suggest might be done to advance your new (or maybe the better description should be ‘traditional’) dietary paradigm?

SF: Weston Price’s dying words were, “You teach, you teach, you teach.” You see we’ve lost that primitive instinct that primitive people had and the only way that we can reach people now is by teaching and showing them the science. So we’ve prepared a lot of educational materials and flyers. We urge people to become members and to recommend them read our magazine so that they are up to date on things. We’re just trying to enlist everyone who becomes a member to help us teach. Even if you only teach two other people by providing them with our literature, you’ve started them with this process and it’s a geometrical process whereby more and more people can learn about it.

HG: Sally, it’s been very kind of you to spare the time to talk to us and share your goodwill and knowledge. We really appreciate it.

Find out more about the Weston Price Foundation by visiting www.westonaprice.org

If you appreciated this article, please consider a digital subscription to New Dawn.


HUW GRIFFITHS is a British-born naturopath who came to Australia in the early ‘90’s with his wife and two sons. His interest and passion for natural and traditional health therapies was developed and nurtured alongside an international career in marketing and communications.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 104 (Sept-Oct 2007)

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New Dawn Special Issue Vol.9 No.2

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Conversations with My Father
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The Secret History of Astrology



The history of astrology is in many ways the history of a polemic. The question of whether astrology works, as crucial as it is, is soon buried under other issues, such as what this might have to say about human free will and whether the stars and planets that govern our fates are benign, malevolent, or neither. These issues have been debated for thousands of years.

Before we get into them, however, we should probably begin with why astrology is the way it is. To do this, we have to imagine what ancient people saw and how they explained it. In the first place, they would have found that there are seven bodies in the sky that move (or, as we would say today, appear to move) around the earth. These are the sun and the moon as well as five planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The rest of the planets are invisible (except for Uranus, under some circumstances) to the naked eye.

The number seven is significant: probably there is no other number that has so much lore and mystery about it. But the explanations for its importance are never very clear. Of all the reasons given for the prominence of seven, there is only one that makes a great deal of sense. In his magisterial History of Magic and Experimental Science, Lynn Thorndike writes, “The number seven was undoubtedly of frequent occurrence, of a sacred and mystic character, and virtue and perfection were ascribed to it. And no one has succeeded in giving any satisfactory explanation for this other than the rule of the seven planets over our world.”

So we have a system of seven planets, imagined as moving in concentric spheres around the earth. Of these, the most important is the sun; the second is the moon. Ancient humans observed that the sun appeared to move in a tight band of the sky, known as the ecliptic. By the time it made a full circuit, returning to the same point in the sky, somewhat more than twelve cycles of the moon had passed. (The solar year is 365.242 days long; the lunar year is 354.37 days.) Thus there were slightly more than twelve moons in a solar year, making the solar and lunar years extremely hard to reconcile. But twelve was the closest whole number to the truth, so it seemed reasonable to make a year with twelve months. It also made sense to divide the ecliptic into twelve parts. These were marked out by constellations, which were given specific names, mostly of animals. They are now the twelve signs of the zodiac.

The Evolution of Astrology in History

When did people start to make these calculations? When was this system set up? It appears that we owe to the Egyptians the schema of a twelve-month solar year (they added some intercalary days to the twelve lunar months to make up the full 365). But the most common and consistent traditions say that astrology itself came from Mesopotamia. The time is somewhat harder to fix, but one consideration might tell us something. Over the years the sun moves slightly in relation to the constellations of the zodiac, and every 2,150 years the sign in which the vernal (Spring) equinox appears will change. The full cycle, the time the sun takes to return to the same point in the zodiac (known as a Platonic year, because Plato was the first to mention it, in his dialogue the Timaeus) is approximately 25,800 years.

The starting point of the zodiac is placed at the vernal equinox – 0 degrees of Aries. But at the vernal equinox (from the perspective of the northern hemisphere, where astrology developed), the sun does not rise with 0 degrees of Aries behind it, and it has not done so for a long time – not, in fact, since around 2000 BCE. (Today it rises with either Pisces or Aquarius in the background, depending upon whom you ask). Since this is the natural starting-point of the zodiac, we can assume that whoever set up this system must have begun here. We can speculate that astrology as we know it arose in Mesopotamia around 2000 BCE.

And, in fact, the earliest evidence we have for astrology does indeed come from that part of the world. Although the Roman author Pliny the Elder cites a claim that the Babylonians were following and recording the stars for 490,000 years, the earliest astrological evidence we have is from the second millennium BCE. It consists of omen lists, which correlate various natural events, particularly the positions of the planets, with events on earth. Here is one example: “When the Moon occults Jupiter…, that year a king will die (or) an eclipse of the sun and moon will take place. A great king will die. When Jupiter enters the midst of the Moon there will be want in Abarrú” – and so on.

Notice two things about this prediction. In the first place, it focuses on great events, like a famine or the death of a king. There was not yet any personal astrology as we know it. In the second place, the reasoning was inductive: when one thing happened, another thing was going to happen. While this was not, strictly speaking, scientific reasoning, it was like scientific reasoning in that it attempted to correlate one thing – the relations of planets – with another thing – events on earth. There was probably very little theorising about causes, that is, about why one thing should affect the other. But then, as Western philosophy has found again and again, the concept of causation is an extremely problematic one to this day. (For more on this, see my book The Dice Game of Shiva, chapter 4.)

It was the Greeks who made astrology into what we know today. In his History of Western Astrology, Jim Tester contends that the twelve equal signs as we know them from Aries to Pisces was standardised in the fifth century BCE, at the time of Greece’s Golden Age. And it was definitely the Greeks who (at least in the West) first came up with the concept of natal (birth) astrology (or, to use the scholarly name, genethlialogy).

While looking at all this, it’s important to remember that the sciences were not distinguished as they are today. Astrology and astronomy were the same discipline, and two of the greatest Greek astronomers, Hipparchus of Nicaea and Claudius Ptolemy, were also astrologers. (Astronomers also tended to be astrologers up to the seventeenth century.) Meteorology was part of the same package, and the planets were used to predict the weather. Aristotle in his Politics tells of the Greek philosopher Thales, who “knew by his skill in the stars while it was yet winter that there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year; so, having a little money, he gave deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletus, which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest-time came, and many were wanted all at once and of a sudden, he let them out at any rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money. Thus he showed the world that philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort.”

Medicine, too, had a link to astrology. The ancient and widespread idea that the human being, the microcosm, corresponds to the universe, the macrocosm, led the Greeks to assign the signs of the zodiac to different parts of the body. Aries, the first sign, was assigned the head; to Pisces, the last, were ascribed the feet. This enabled physicians to diagnose illnesses and prescribe treatments based on the patient’s horoscope and the positions of the planets. The connection between astrology and medicine lasted a long time, up until the eighteenth century. Before then, even sceptics admitted that it was useful to consult the stars for medical purposes. And astrologers who were attacked for the inaccuracy of their predictions retorted that the doctors did no better.

It was natal horoscopes that gained the most ground, and they became popular in the last centuries BCE and in the early centuries of the Common Era. This period, which saw the rise of Hellenistic civilisation in the Mediterranean world, was, like ours, a time of tremendous technical and intellectual progress. It was also a time of political consolidation: small, previously independent states were united, first under Alexander the Great and his heirs, and later under the Roman Empire. As in our age, the world became more integrated – and the individual occupied a smaller piece of it.

These facts may explain the tremendous rise in those centuries in devotion to the goddess Tyche or Fortuna – Fortune – whose caprices seemed to reflect a world where the individual was under the dominion of powers far away. It was also the time when personal astrology – particularly the natal horoscope – established its place in Western culture. People began to see their fates in more deterministic ways than they had done in previous centuries.

‘Gods’ & Planetary Spheres

In those days, as we’ve seen, the planets were believed to surround the earth in concentric spheres. The soul taking incarnation in a birth was thought to descend through each of these planetary spheres in turn, assuming characteristics of that sphere as it passed. The relations of the planets to one another, and their place in the zodiac, thus dictated individual fate and character.

Few modern astrologers would say this is why their art works, but on the other hand, there are also few other explanations that are much clearer or more sensible. We can take this idea of the soul’s descent as a metaphor for how one’s character may be fixed by the planets in the zodiac. Like most metaphors, it casts some light on what it portrays – and at the same time, it is only a metaphor.

The history of astrology, as I’ve suggested, is the history of polemic, and just from looking at what I’ve just said above, we can see one of the bases for this polemic. The soul descends through the realms of the planets, and in those days the planets were gods. Plato in his Timaeus said that it was the gods of the planets that formed human beings, not the true, high God above (who, according to Plato, is himself perfect and could not have formed imperfect things like humans). Plato’s pupil Aristotle also held that the planets were subordinate gods.

If this is true, then exactly who are these gods and how are they disposed toward us? Already in Plato the planetary gods are ambiguous figures, responsible for both the good and the evil in our natures. Later thinkers were to paint them in even more negative terms. The Hermetic texts – writings of late antiquity said to preserve the wisdom of the Egyptians – portrayed the keepers of these heavenly gates as the sources of vice in the human character. One Hermetic text describes the liberation of the soul at death as an ascent through the planetary spheres (as opposed to birth, when the soul descends): “Then the human being rushes up through the cosmic framework, at the first zone surrendering the energy of increase and decrease; at the second, evil machination, a device now inactive,” and so on through the seven spheres. Each sphere has a vice that is connected with its respective planet – “energy of increase and decrease” being connected with the moon, which waxes and wanes throughout the month, and “evil machination” with Mercury, the god of cleverness. The Gnostics, too, saw these intermediary planetary powers as inimical “archons” that imprisoned humankind spiritually.

This ambiguous, or inimical, nature of the planetary gods led some to criticise astrology. Plotinus, the Neoplatonic philosopher of the third century CE, argued that if the planets are gods, it is absurd to conclude they can do evil (as some planets, particularly Mars and Saturn, are said to do). As a matter of fact Plotinus did not reject astrology entirely, allowing that it was useful for divination, because the planets are part of the cosmos and serve to reflect its harmony as a whole. But then his critique was not directed at astrology as such; the section of his Enneads discussing this matter is entitled “Are the Stars Causes?”, indicating it was the causative aspect of the planets that he had problems with. (Again we see how problematic the idea of causation can be.)

Free Will Vs Fate

By contrast, Plotinus’s disciple Porphyry embraced astrology (he even wrote a three-volume work on the subject, now lost). Dealing with the issue of free will versus fate, Porphyry used some of Plato’s texts to argue for a kind of mix between the two: the soul chooses its fate before incarnation, but this fate, immutable once one is born on earth, is reflected in the horoscope.

Origen, a third-century church father, also focuses on free will. Like most Christian theologians, he is at pains to uphold the doctrine of free will and opposes anything that might challenge it. Yet he too stops short of rejecting astrology altogether, because if he did, he would have to reject natural philosophy as a whole (into which astrology was intricately interwoven at the time).

Origen also contends that astrologers, in order to make perfectly accurate predictions, would have to be able to calculate horoscopes very precisely – within four minutes or so. The technology of the time did not allow them to do this; time was kept by sundials and water-clocks, which were not precise enough. Nor were astronomical observations. Hence, Origen said, astrology could not work.

If we back away and look at this issue from a distance, we can actually see that, given what we know now, astrology should not have worked much of the time, given the limitations of the observations of the stars (there were no telescopes), and given the fact that the outer planets were unknown. To this we can add likely mathematical errors made by astrologers themselves, which must have been extremely common in all periods. In the sixteenth century, the celebrated prophet Nostradamus was derided by his astrological peers for his sloppiness in calculating charts.

In any event, Christianity has always had an ambivalent, and frequently critical, posture towards astrology. Astrology and its practitioners were condemned when they came too close to sorcery and when they seemed to be criticising the doctrines of free will and divine sovereignty. But the science of the stars remained an important part of the medieval curriculum, partly because it was an integral part of the system of the seven “liberal arts” that the Catholic Church inherited from classical antiquity. (There is a persistent rumour that the pope’s bathtub in the Vatican is adorned with the signs of the zodiac, but I have not been able to verify this.)

Although I could go into more detail about the history of astrology from late antiquity to the present, in fundamental ways the debate has not changed much. Some issues certainly have faded away. No one regards the planets as gods anymore, so we do not wonder about whether they are personally good or evil. And computers make it possible to calculate charts with extreme accuracy, either with one of the many dedicated software packages on the market or through many free sites on the Internet (astrodienst.com being one of the best-known). Finally, while the issue of free will versus determinism continues to haunt us, it does not have quite the theological weight that it once did. We no longer feel quite so obliged to justify the ways of God to man as people did a couple of centuries ago.

Scientific Efforts to Validate Astrology

Nonetheless, we are still forced to ask, does astrology work? Has there been any genuine scientific effort to test the validity of astrology? There haven’t been terribly many. Some studies have attempted to correlate astrological charts with the results of personality tests, without positive results (but of course that presupposes the personality tests themselves have anything more than a vague degree of accuracy). One famous study, designed by Shawn Carlson at the University of California at Berkeley and whose results were published in 1985 in the journal Nature, concluded from such indications that there was no validity to astrology. But a statistical reevaluation of Carlson’s findings by Suitbert Ertel, professor of psychology at the University of Gőttingen, that was published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 2009, reversed Carlson’s conclusions and argued the study validated astrology instead.

Another famous case involved the French researcher Michel Gauquelin, who attempted to correlate planetary positions in birth charts with success in certain professions. He calculated the charts of nearly 1,100 members of the French Academy of Medicine to see if any planetary aspects showed up beyond the range of statistical probability. And indeed Gauquelin found that physicians had Saturn in prominent positions in their charts far more than could be explained by chance. A study he conducted on athletes showed a similar “Mars effect” for them.

Gauquelin’s findings were vigorously – and viciously – attacked by the clique of “sceptical inquirers.” Some of these actually attempted to replicate Gauquelin’s findings – and corroborated them. But then these supposedly objective scientists changed the parameters of their own study to alter the results and make Gauquelin look wrong, causing great scandal even in the community of sceptics.

The heat and vitriol generated by these studies prove one thing and one thing only: that we are a long way from any true scientific evaluation of astrology. Astrologers – and a large section of the public – believe in it, while sceptics mock it at every chance. In order to have genuinely trustworthy results, those who actually want to find out the truth would have to outnumber those who are angling for their own pet conclusions – and I suspect that they do not.

Speaking for myself, I am not a scientist and have not done any scientific studies on this or any other subject, but I have often been struck by the validity of astrology, both for my personal life and for a perspective on larger events. To take one example, in 2001 I decided to cast a chart for the presidency of George W. Bush, based on the time of his inauguration in Washington. I noticed that Mars was badly aspected. “My God!” I thought. “It looks like we’re going to have a war.” (Mars is the planet of war.) Then I told myself, “That’s ridiculous. Who are we going to go to war with?” Events to come provided the details.

How Astrology is Supposed to Work

Another question remains. If astrology does work, how does it work? Tradition held that the planets send out certain vibratory influences that affect events on earth. Scoffers retort that the gravitational pull of the planets (apart from the sun and moon) is too small to have any influence whatsoever on us on earth. That may or may not be the case: the old occult theory did not talk about gravitational effects per se, and actually predated Newton’s theory of gravity. In any event, today it’s probably more common to explain astrology through C.G. Jung’s concept of synchronicity – which he defined as an “acausal connecting principle” between apparently unrelated events. In his essay “Synchronicity,” Jung discussed astrology. He conducted a study of several hundred married couples, and found that cases in which the husband’s sun or ascendant was conjunct the wife’s moon (classical markers for marriage) occurred three times more often than would be predicted by chance.

Nevertheless, Jung’s theory leaves a great deal to be desired. Synchronicity, as he describes it, is not strictly acausal; rather it posits a hidden cause – the psychic forces Jung called the archetypes that underlies apparently unrelated but significant events. And so we return to that bane of sceptics – occult causes. But then Newton’s gravity, when it first appeared, was also derided by the sceptics of the day as an occult cause.

We are pushed toward one final, and highly disturbing, conclusion – one that I have already hinted at in this article. The notion of cause and effect is in itself extremely problematic. The classic critique came from the Scottish philosopher David Hume. He said that when looking at things that were said to be causes, he saw no property they had in common (as, say, red or round objects do). From this he concluded that causation was a relation, and this relation consisted of “constant conjunction.” One event follows another (sometimes after an interruption) on a regular basis, so we infer that the one caused the other. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said he had been roused by Hume from his “dogmatic slumber,” went on to argue that causation does not exist in the world as it really is, but rather is an innate “category,” or feature, of the human mind that leads us to perceive reality this way.

No one has ever really refuted Hume’s and Kant’s conclusions. Science, it is true, is somewhat humbler and more furtive about asserting causal relations than it used to be: it tends to speak in terms of association rather than causation – “smoking was associated with lung cancer in X cases” rather than “smoking caused cancer in X cases” – but this only points up the strength of the philosophers’ criticisms. Whether it’s a matter of determining the causes of cancer or of asking whether the planets can presage a war, we are left with “constant conjunction.” In that respect, we haven’t gone far beyond the Babylonians.

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Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, Edited by Richard McKeon, Random House, 1941

Brian P. Copenhaver, ed. and trans., Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation with Notes and an Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1992

Ken McRitchie, “Reappraisal of 1985 Carlson Study Shows Support for Astrology,” Center of the Universe at the Edge of the World website; theworldedge.blogspot.com/2009/07/reappraisal-of-1985-carlson-study-finds.html

Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, Translated by F.E. Robbins, Loeb Classical Library, 1940

Jim Tester, A History of Western Astrology, Boydell, 1987

Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, vol. 1, Columbia University Press, 1923


RICHARD SMOLEY has over thirty-five years of experience studying and practicing esoteric spirituality. His latest book is Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History. He is also the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity; The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe; The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; and Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney). Smoley is the former editor of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. Currently he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America and of Quest Books.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 141 (Nov-Dec 2013)

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Mystery Thailand: Monks, Magic & the Spirit World



What country is the most occult in the world? Lying smack dab in the heart of Southeast Asia, Thailand arguably fits the bill. This is a country that truly believes in spirits and supernatural power. Thailand has it all. With sorcerers who collect oil from the chin of corpses to perform black magic, spirit mediums who channel Hindu deities, a festival to the gods involving possessed devotees sticking sharp objects through their bodies, and monks who use their supernatural powers to charge amulets, this country is about as occult as it gets.

Buddhism is the main religion in Thailand and much of Asia, although in Thailand there is a syncretistic mix of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Animism. Therefore, the people worship and pay homage to a number of Hindu deities and local animistic spirits right alongside the Buddha and famous monks. Thailand is a melting pot of many different religious beliefs. However, Buddha and the community of monks (Sangha) are elevated above the rest. Buddha is always at the top of peoples’ spirit altars and famous monks are revered as much or more than Hindu deities.1 In Thailand, monks are revered for possessing supernatural power and for their high standing in the spiritual hierarchy. It is for these reasons that Buddhist monasteries (Wats) are considered sacred ground where no evil spirit would dare step foot. Due to their exalted status, monks are also protected from harm by evil spirits.

Karma, Heaven & Hell

Buddhists believe in the concept of karma, whereby any good action leads to merit (beneficial karma) and any bad action leads to demerit (negative karma). This concept is very important in the minds of the Thai people because your store of karma, positive or otherwise, determines not only your success and happiness in this and future lives, but also determines your place in the afterlife.

Indeed, there are supposedly 136 levels of hell in the Buddhist cosmology, none of which are very pleasant. Based on the kind of sinning you did when alive, a judge in the afterlife will send you to one of these hells. For instance, adulterers in this life, it is said, will climb a thorn tree continually in the afterlife. The adulterer tries to reach his/her lover at the top of the tree but upon reaching the top the adulterer is taken away and placed back at the bottom to begin the arduous journey once more. Those who were greedy or stole will become hungry ghosts (Phii Pret) who are continually hungry but unable to satisfy their hunger. Others may have their heads turned into animal heads and undergo disembowelment or other such horrors.2

Conversely, if your store of good karma is high, you may end up spending time in the company of deities in one of the many magnificent heavens. There you can enjoy hours of bliss and pleasure until your store of good karma has run out and it’s time to be reborn. If your karma is good enough, you may even be exalted to the status of a deity yourself in the afterlife.3 With what’s at stake, you can imagine that acquiring good karma is important to the Thai. Mostly though, it’s not the afterlife they are worried about, but success in this life.

This gives monks a prominent place in society and in peoples’ lives. For by giving alms (food or money) to monks, or by donating to a monastery, you can acquire beneficial karma. Helping monks in some way is thought to generate a great deal of merit. This not only helps you have a better afterlife and future life on Earth, but also gives you instantaneous protection and good luck in this life.4 Even just being in their presence as they meditate or chant is thought to be auspicious and beneficial for one’s karma.5

Beneficial Energy Radiated by Monks

Monks are thought to radiate a kind of beneficial, protective energy. Monks gain their power through a variety of means. One way is through meditation and chanting sacred Pali texts (which comprise the Buddhist scriptures). During the time they are engaged in one of these activities, monks generate a beneficial force/energy which radiates outwards, and nearby things can become charged with this energy.6

The entire lifestyle of monks emanates a kind of sacredness and austerity, if not holiness. A Buddhist monk lives a lifestyle whereby he eats his meals before noon, regularly chants holy texts based on the life of Buddha, meditates and studies. Monks also abide by an amazing 227 precepts, or rules, formulated on the teachings of the Buddha Gautama. Among these, four are critical: 1. Abstain from intercourse 2. Do not steal 3. Do not intentionally kill any human creature and 4. Do not lie about your magical power.7 Surely, some of their holy power in the eyes of commoners stems from their obedience to these and a great number of other rules they adhere to. As scholar and specialist in the social and cultural history of Thailand, Barend Jan Terwiel, says:

Many of these rules of behaviour are closely related to the ideas on the monks’ sanctity current among the rural population. The traditional knowledge of the rules can in general be described under two rubrics: activities that are prescribed and those that are forbidden. In the view of the Wat Sanchao people [the area studied by Terwiel] the monks’ prescriptions are intended to increase their beneficial power, while the prohibitions are there to prevent the loss of this sacred protective force.8

It is interesting to note that part of a monk’s magical power is thought to stem from their celibacy.9 Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, Jeffrey Kripal, shares an interesting observation related to comic book superheroes in his landmark book Mutants and Mystics. He writes that “the superpowers of a comic book hero and the sexual powers of its creator (or most devoted readers) are inversely related: the more superpowers, the less sex; the less superpowers, the more sex.” In other words, the powers of sexuality and of supernatural power “are the same power on some deeper metaphysical level.” The same energy that manifests outwardly in sexual desire and orgasm can also be internally “transformed into a kind of radiation” which transforms the body and leads to supernatural power.10

Although not a specifically Thai belief, it is widely believed that a serpent power, or kundalini energy, is located at the base of the spine (also the position of the sex organs) ready to be activated through meditation or other spiritual practice. Once activated, this supernatural energy winds its way up through the chakras and explodes out of the crown chakra to produce enlightenment. This power is said to transform the body and may lead to psychic or other spiritual power.11 It seems the sexual organs and sexual energy can be powerfully expressed internally. This could be a key reason why celibacy is seen as important in many religious traditions, including Thai Buddhism, as a way to increase spiritual sanctity and power.

The late Professor of Anthropology, Buddhism and Thai Studies at the National University of Singapore, Pattana Kitiarsa, focused on a different factor. He said that monks acquire their perceived supernatural power “during extended periods of wandering in the forest and dwelling away from the mundane.”12 These forest dwelling monks are relatively isolated from the outside world and have the ability to focus on meditation and improving themselves spiritually. Furthermore, many learn and practice magical incantations from a Master Teacher. They use this knowledge and power to help others.

Blessings, Offerings & Spirit Shrines

Monks, due to their powers, are called upon regularly to perform services. When moving to a new house, or having built a new house, it is customary to invite monks over to bless the establishment. The same goes for the erection of a new spirit shrine. A common sight in Thailand, spirit shrines are small houses erected on a post or platform, and always near the main house. They provide a shelter for the spirit of the land, known as Phra Phum, meaning ‘lord of the land’. This spirit is said to protect the house and land and bring prosperity to it.13 A picture or figurine of the Phra Phum is placed inside this miniature home and offerings are regularly made to it.14

The wife of a department store president in Bangkok explained why a spirit house to Phra Phum was erected outside the department store:

We have to do it for our fortune. Most of the Thai people believe in Buddha… and they believe in the spirits. So (the spirit houses) are for our staff, for their families and for our customers too. When they come here, they can have peace. They are safe. They are protected.15

The owners consider the store’s success to be in large part due to the careful tending of the spirit house and the regular offerings they make there. Every year Buddhist monks are called in to bless the spirit house. This blessing is the same for a household who erects a shrine to the venerable Phra Phum. During the ceremony, a candle and incense is lit and placed on a table in front of the shrine. At the same time the Phra Phum spirit is informed of the ceremony. Then, a sacred cotton thread (sai sin) is attached to the top of the shrine and unwound towards the house making sure it doesn’t touch the ground. The thread is unwound in a clockwise direction around the house and then is taken through a window and wound around the Buddha image which has been placed on a pedestal for the ceremony. The monks hold the string which is also wound around a vessel of water. While holding the string the monks chant auspicious texts from the Pali Canon.16 As Barend Terwiel explains:

It is believed that beneficial, protective power is emitted by the monks as they chant the Pali texts and that this travels through the cotton thread. This power is reinforced by the Buddha image and causes the water to be charged.17

Foremost Thai scholar Phya Anuman Rajadhon describes the sai sin “as an electric wire, carrying the sacred words as recited by the monks at one and the same time to every place and corner where the sacred cord reaches.”18 The vessel of water around which this cord has been placed during the recitation of holy texts becomes charged with beneficial power and is sprinkled around the home. It is thought “capable of warding off illness, unhappiness and misfortune.”19

The entire area of the house and spirit house is consecrated via the monks’ chanting which emanates a beneficial force that travels through the cord to consecrate all areas and bring happiness and blessings upon the residence and people therein. Furthermore, this will ensure that the spirit of the land is happy and that no evil spirits intrude upon the residence.

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Unhappy Spirits

Journalist and author Tiziano Terzani had first-hand experience with the occult nature of Thai society. Travelling around Southeast Asia in search of fortune tellers, he settled for a while in a beautiful house in Bangkok that was built over a pond. The house had no spirit altar, but he was told that the protecting spirit of the house belonged to a huge meat-eating turtle who lived in the pond upon which the house was built. He was told by the previous residents to feed the turtle everyday to keep it happy. However, after moving in the turtle seemed disturbed by his presence and failed to show itself. The turtle hid itself, preventing Terzani from making offerings of food to it.

With the spirit unhappy, misfortune loomed in the air. Indeed, Terzani reports that the people who worked at the house “began complaining of one ailment after another: the gardener coughed non-stop, the cook could not stand on her feet, and my secretary had a constant headache. Some of their relatives had road accidents; two died.”20 Terzani didn’t waste any time, knowing that in the eyes of everyone these misfortunes were due to the wrath of the unhappy turtle spirit. He went to a famous Buddhist monastery to bow before the Buddha. He then had monks come to his house and consecrate it via chanting and the sacred thread which was wound around the house and pond. After the monks left, he reports, a swarm of wild bees came and made a honeycomb in a tree in the garden. This was a sign of great luck for the house, and sure enough the troubles ceased. The monks’ beneficial power consecrated the residence and protected it from misfortune.

We have to ask ourselves: Was the angry spirit of the turtle really causing the illnesses and misfortunes that affected the workers at the house? Or were they psychologically conditioned to believe that unhappy spirits cause illness, so when they saw the turtle was not coming around and being fed they manifested illness psychosomatically via a reverse placebo effect?

Another event where monks are called to is a death. Especially when someone dies a sudden or violent death, it is believed their spirit can remain on Earth and cause harm to others. Their life being unexpectedly and abruptly ended makes their spirit unwilling to leave this world due to unfinished business or a yearning for worldly things. Plus, they may be angry for not having a chance to finish their life. Also, during a funeral other evil spirits of the land (Phii) may be attracted to the ceremony. Thus, monks are called in to chant Buddhist scripture from the Pali Canon. The recitation by monks of these sacred texts is believed to keep the evil Phii at bay and protect everyone participating at the funeral from attack or possession by the angry spirit of the deceased or other lurking spirits.21

Why are Amulets Popular?

Monks are also tasked in Thailand with consecrating and imbuing amulets with power. These are usually worn around the neck and contain images of famous monks, deities, or kings and may also contain mystical designs (Yantra) or sacred mantras that are associated with the specific power of the amulet. The mantras and designs are different depending upon the intended purpose of the amulet (i.e. protection from danger, success in business, finding a lover, etc…) Amulets can be constructed of many different materials. Some are clay tablets imprinted with the image of the Buddha, or a famous monk, etc. Others are made of silver and gold. Still others are made from objects like a bullet or the tooth of a tiger. Sacred ingredients often go into making amulets, such as “ash obtained from burning the oldest handwritten sacred books of the monastery,”22 sacred powders, rare metals, wood from a temple, or even human flesh.23

You can buy these amulets online and prices range considerably. Just to give you an example, for $220 you can buy a locket which contains an image of a diva (a master of seduction). The locket contains sacred writing and powerful magical herbs and powders. Of course, it is empowered by a senior monk by chanting sacred words over it. You could say that in this way it is “charged” with power by a monk. Its suggested uses include Seduction, Personal & Corporate Spying, Gambling, and Love & Marriage. By wearing it, it is believed you can be successful in these endeavours!24

Most of the amulets on the market are for helping people gain success in business, increase their luck in gambling, love and marriage, and accrue wealth. Another common theme is protection. If you work in a dangerous job, you might want to consider an amulet that protects you. Some of the more powerful amulets made or empowered by the most esteemed monks are even said to protect one from bullets! Apart from the inherent powers of amulets’ ingredients and designs, all their different powers are endowed via the correct chants, or magical incantations spoken by a powerful monk.25

There are some amazing stories of people who were saved from death by protective amulets. One such story is of a man who had a kind of amulet known as a takrut placed under the skin of his arm by one of the most revered magic monks around, Luang Pho Khun, of Wat Baan Rai, Dan Khun Thot, Nakhon Ratchasima province. A takrut is a kind of amulet that is essentially a tiny scroll or sheet of paper on which is drawn a mystical design or some sacred mantra. Luang Pho Khun uses a thin sheet of gold and inserts it underneath the skin on the upper right arm for protection.

Professor Pattana Kitiarsa tells of a businessman who ran a competitive business and wanted protection from enemies who might wish to harm him and his business. Attacked one night by an unknown gunman, he found himself under fire from an M16 rifle. Bullets pelted his body and he fell to the ground unconscious. However, he later regained consciousness and found that none of the bullets had pierced his skin and he only suffered from minor pain. Amazed, he thought of Luang Pho Khun’s amulet inserted underneath the skin of his right arm and attributed it to his miraculous escape from death.26 Other such stories abound.27

Another remarkable story regarding Luang Pho Khun’s protective amulets involves the collapse of the Royal Plaza Hotel in downtown Korat, Thailand. In this disaster 137 people died and another 227 were injured. Subsequent media reports focused on those survivors who were wearing amulets blessed by Khun and his fame and reputation were enhanced.28 And so it is that the belief in the supernatural and the benefit of amulets is driven by the culture, and popular media in particular. Stories of the monks’ powers and miracles connected to them are presented on TV and in the popular press. Endorsements by politicians or military leaders also contribute to the thriving amulet industry in Thailand.29 Advertisements are key, too, in promoting amulets.

The BBC reported on one popular series of amulet that was advertised on the side of Bangkok’s tallest building – the Baiyoke Tower. Considering the Thai amulet business is estimated to be worth upwards of 22 billion baht ($650 million) a year, the aggressive advertising is not surprising.30 Buddhist temples, or monasteries, often sell amulets to pay for temple construction projects or to acquire money for charity. However, it’s just as much a commercial business with amulets being sold all over Thailand for profit. Thai amulets are even revered in other parts of Asia such as China and Hong Kong, where celebrities and others dish out loads of cash for them. One Hong Kong celebrity, Cecilia Chung, reportedly spent around 1 million baht (around $32,000) for one amulet.31

One wonders why the amulet business is so lucrative. A possible answer, already alluded to, is that the amulets work. Whether it’s protection from danger or winning money at a casino, success stories of wearing certain amulets abound. This leads more people to believe in their power. The media, which propagates such stories, feeds the craze. On a deeper level though, amulets serve a basic psychological purpose. Amulets provide “protective assurance” and peace of mind to people hoping to be successful in business, gain wealth, or avert danger.32 It gives them psychological comfort in a perilous and fraught world. The amulets, you could say, help them believe in something (like protection or the success of their business dealings), thus erasing doubts which might otherwise cause anxiety and depression.


We see that monks are a key part of Thai society, in the main providing spiritual nourishment and advice. Other services they offer that I did not discuss include using magic to combat sorcery, enhancing one’s lifespan, forecasting the future, and providing tips for picking winning lottery numbers.33

Some of these other services have led to controversies and scandals. For instance, one of the rules Buddhist monks are supposed to abide is not handling money.34 Although this rule is routinely broken due to the necessities of modern life, every once in a while a scandal breaks out that reminds people of the danger of corruption that can come when a monk accrues a great deal of wealth through the provision of his services to the public.

A recent scandal involves a monk who accrued millions of dollars, regularly travelled in a private jet, did drugs, and had sex with teenage girls.35 In other words, he was living the life of a rock star. This invariably outrages Thai Buddhists who believe in the sanctity of the monks. With this in mind, some see the wealth acquired by some monks as blasphemy. Pravit Rojanaphruk, writing for The Nation, expresses this sentiment:

…look at how many temples in Thailand are needlessly and lavishly built in poor communities upcountry. This money could go to help build a hospital, school, library or even an agricultural cooperative – but it goes instead into building and maintaining grand, pricey and fancy temples and nothing is being done to condemn it…36

Again, he writes:

Next, there’s widespread belief in praying for health, wealth, and whatever you want from monks, Buddha statues, Hindu statues, Buddhist and Hindu amulets by those who are supposedly Buddhists. Never mind if the Buddha himself said one should depend of oneself and not on others. Such practice is not just un-Buddhist in its thinking, but also constitutes one of the roots of a culture of bribery as people invariably promise to give something in return if and when their wishes are granted.37

Monks are supposed to renounce all desire for the pleasures of this life and instead live a modest life filled with compassion for others, all the while focused on the goal of trying to obtain release from future worldly existence (nibbāna or nirvana). It’s sort of a catch 22 when you take into consideration that Thai people believe that the more they give to monks, the better their karma and future life. Monks – usually on behalf of the temples they reside – will in all probability continue to receive lots of money.

Although Buddhism dominates life in Thailand, the people still retain a strong animistic belief system. Buddhist monks aren’t the only ones Thai people turn to in times of need. The Thai people also believe in the power of spirits to protect, harm, or confer blessings. Shrines to these powerful spirits collect thousands of dollars in donations from Thai people who are eager to give offerings to the spirits in return for what they ask for. Who are these great and powerful spirits? Why do the Thais spend so much money placating them? And what do these spirits want in return for their services?

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  1. P. Kitiarsa, Mediums, Monks, & Amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism Today, University of Washington Press, 2012, 11
  2. M. Guelden, Thailand: Into the Spirit World, Times Editions Pte Ltd, 1995, 50-52, 71; C. Lamar, “Spend a lovely day with the kids at Thailand’s hell torture theme park.” IO9, 5 June 2012, http://io9.com/5915890/spend-a-lovely-day-with-the-kids-at-thailands-hell-torture-theme-park
  3. Barend J. Terwiel, Monks and Magic: Revisiting a Classic Study of Religious Ceremonies in Thailand, 4th ed. NIAS Press, 2012, 240
  4. Ibid., 127
  5. Thailand, 43-46
  6. Ibid., 43; Monks and Magic, 130
  7. Monks and Magic, 109-110
  8. Ibid., 112
  9. Ibid., 113
  10. Jeffrey J. Kripal, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, University of Chicago Press, 2011, 168-171
  11. Gopi Krishna, The Evolutionary Energy in Man, Stuart & Watkins, 1970. (www.kundaliniawakeningsystems1.com/downloads/kundalini-the-evolutionary-energy-in-man_gopi-krishna_(89pg).pdf)
  12. Mediums, Monks, & Amulets, 37
  13. Thailand, 89; The Phra Phum is one of the many kinds of spirits (Phii). Although this will be the subject of a future article, it suffices to say that the Phii can grant protection, help someone in some way, or cause harm if angered.
  14. Phya A. Rajadhon, Popular Buddhism in Siam and Other Essays on Thai Studies, Thai Inter-Religious Commission for Development, 1986, 128-129
  15. Thailand, 83
  16. For more information about this ceremony, see: Monks and Magic, 211-213; Other places and things can also be blessed in this way, like a car or airplane.
  17. Monks and Magic, 212
  18. Popular Buddhism, 59
  19. Monks and Magic, 213
  20. T. Terzani, A Fortune-Teller Told Me, Three Rivers Press, 1997, 35
  21. J. Gorin, “Worship of Phii in Thailand: Spirit Cults and their Relationship to Buddhism,” ReliJournal 14 December, 2012. http://relijournal.com/buddhism/worship-of-phii-in-thailand-spirit-cults-and-their-relationship-to-buddhism/
  22. Monks and Magic, 70
  23. Mediums, Monks, & Amulets, 118
  24. Thailand Amulet, “Mae Nang Prai Pasanee (Ongk Kroo) – Civet Oil Phial, Hand Inscription, 2 Takrut Maha Sanaeh, Wan Dork Tong Powders – AC Perm Prai Dam.” SKU 02349, Retrieved June 24, 2013, from http://thailandamulet.net/#!/~/product/category=3848009&id=23875141
  25. Monks and Magic, 116-117
  26. Mediums, Monks, & Amulets, 89-90
  27. For other stories, see: Monks and Magic, 270 note 1; Thailand, 131
  28. Mediums, Monks, & Amulets, 90-92
  29. Ibid., 92-94
  30. J. Head, “Thailand’s frenzy for amulets,” BBC News, 3 September 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6976705.stm
  31. W. Woo, “The Price of Faith?” Retrieved June 24, 2013, from http://waynedhamma.blogspot.kr/2013/05/the-price-of-faith.html
  32. Mediums, Monks, & Amulets, 109, 113
  33. Ibid., 39
  34. Monks and Magic, 126
  35. L. Intathep, “Pilot lifts lid on monk’s depravity,” Bangkok Post, 7 July 2013, www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/358796/monk-depraved-life-revealed
  36. P. Rojanaphruk, “Thai Buddhism: Much deeper things have gone wrong,” The Nation, 10 July 2013: www.nationmultimedia.com/politics/Thai-Buddhism-Much-deeper-things-have-gone-wrong-30210084.html
  37. Ibid.


DANIEL NEIMAN is a paranormal researcher, author, and teacher. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Nebraska. In college he became interested in abnormal psychology and wanted to be a clinical psychologist. However, his interest then took a turn towards the paranormal aspects of reality and he devoted his life to studying and writing about the paranormal and what it teaches us about reality. Although interested in all areas of the paranormal, his focus is on other-dimensional experiences and altered states of mind. He has written articles for the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation (www.nderf.org) and blogs at www.world-mysteries.com. His recently published book about the paranormal and reality is entitled Enter The Light. He also has his own website www.anomalousexperience.com where he invites people to submit their own paranormal experiences.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 140 (Sept-Oct 2013)

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Australia: The End of Freedom? We are Sleepwalking into a Surveillance State



The leaked classified documents by Edward J. Snowden beginning in June 2013 unleashed waves of alarming revelations across the world of covert government mass surveillance and data mining on a global scale.

Considered “the most spectacular intelligence breach in history” by one publisher,1 Snowden’s disclosures tore a wide opening in the veil of international secret government spying and surveillance. The bombshell leaks catalysed immediate protest on pressing concerns of the culture of government secrecy amid reinvigorating crucial public and political awareness of communications security and privacy invasion issues.

However, the protestations appeared to achieve very little, if anything, toward effective reforms to protect user privacy. The initial blow up of public dissent in response to details of the revelations has largely subsided. While several corporations have since demonstrated a measure of transparency, the entire global surveillance landscape remains exceedingly opaque.

Was the initial reaction an overreaction of which more rational minds have since come forth and restored sensible judgment toward the revelations?

The leaked sources themselves offer very little clue as the documents packed one bombshell revelation after the other. Just the first two disclosures in June 2013 showed the US National Security Agency (NSA) secretly spying on millions of American citizens and revealed a mass surveillance data mining program giving government intelligence agencies near unbridled access to milk the central servers of cooperating Internet companies.2

In further testimony of the deep Orwellian dimensions of the NSA were the statements by two of the agency’s former employees turned whistleblowers – William Binney and Thomas Drake. The former intelligence officers alleged at a recent German inquiry committee the NSA has a “totalitarian mentality” that covets nothing less than “total population control.”3

It was also revealed the NSA isn’t the world’s only intelligence powerhouse conducting clandestine surveillance operations. The United States is partnered with Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand in a grand alliance of national security intelligence collectively known as the Five Eyes. The Five Eyes agreement came after World War II and continued during the Cold War period to this day.4

The leaked documents need no embellishment as to the incendiary content they contain. The revelations are certainly not what an informed citizenry would idly allow to lapse without scrutiny. Yet in the months since the first leaks exposed the machinations of the NSA and its partners, we’ve seen diminishing public engagement and concern around the world. This has been no less apparent in Australia as professor of international law at the University of Sydney, Ben Saul, recently warned:

Amidst global concern about security agencies having too much power and always pushing the boundaries of what they say they need, it is pretty extraordinary that Australia is sleepwalking into more surveillance powers without proper consultation and scrutiny.5

This “extraordinary” acquiescence is a crucially important development in the progression of government surveillance, as is the manner in which the disclosures have been processed in public discourse. This is of particular interest to clarifying why in light of the revelations we see public scrutiny fading and governments enabled to push through controversial data retention laws.

As such, it is important that any discussion examine these issues, viewed through the prism of Snowden’s document leaks. To note, while many types of surveillance exist, the focus of this analysis will primarily be on government electronic surveillance as revealed through Snowden’s revelations, including the Australian Government’s recent proposed national security law reforms and mandatory data retention measures.

National Security Agenda & Data Retention Laws in Australia

The Australian Government’s National Security Committee agreed in August 2014 to back controversial new laws that would require telecommunications companies to retain customer data for two years.

At this time of writing, the laws – that are claimed to contain measures to protect the country from terrorist and security threats – are expected to go to parliament later in the year. An interim data retention measure may be introduced much earlier.

News Limited broke the story on the committee meeting discussions sounding this dire warning:

Every phone call you’ve ever made. Every word you’ve ever googled. Every Facebook status you’ve ever posted. All your phone and internet records will soon be stored by the government for two years, in what some consider a scary play for Big Brother authority.6

The government was quick to respond to media breaking news following the committee meeting. In an attempt to allay public fears and arrest runaway media rumours of covert mass surveillance and privacy invasion, the government retorted that “metadata” and not “content data” would be the target of collection and storage.

The collection, we were all assured, would only include a few simple transactional details of the targeted activity such as time, date and location of emails. Details of a phone call would include the caller’s location and the number they dialled, the duration of the call but no content of the conversation itself. All apparently safe and security friendly.

However what the messaging didn’t articulate is the fact that metadata can be “used to build ‘pattern-of-life’ profiles of individuals.”7 Contrary to what the government would have us believe, metadata is a very useful resource for building complete pictures of peoples’ lives.

NSA’s former General Counsel Stewart Baker provided a key insight when he said:

…metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.8

Clearly, metadata will provide authorities with much more detail of a person’s life than what the government claims. As it were, a leaked secret industry consultation paper in the weeks following the National Security Committee meeting revealed there was consideration for retaining broadly more user data than what the government were openly discussing.9

Interestingly, on 8 April 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the EU’s highest court, struck down a rule that required telecom companies to store the communications data of EU citizens.10 The court viewed that the Data Retentive Directive interfered with the “fundamental rights… for private life and to the protection of personal data” and could provide “very precise information on the private lives of the persons whose data are retained.”11

As the press release shows, the EU Court certainly regards data retention measures a tangible threat to the privacy and civil liberties of effected citizens.

Big Brother in the Land Down Under

Australia is a land of contrasts, an island nation surrounded by large open oceans. From the lush and fertile areas along the eastern seaboard of the mainland to the tropics across the north that house a vast and arid outback interior. The country is home to a number of exquisite landscapes and unique geographical features.

The many unique species of flora and fauna is the result of Australia’s geographic isolation from the rest of the world. But while the country and its inhabitants may be isolated on the global map, it is very much merged and immersed with the rest of the world through modern globalisation and high speed technologies enabling deep connections far beyond our natural ocean borders.

Incidentally, the emergence of the global digital and electronic surveillance grid has given rise to the global surveillance society. Australians are no less citizens of this borderless digital community, be they targets of clandestine surveillance on home soil or of interest to intelligence agencies abroad.

In a chilling revelation published by The Sydney Morning Herald in December 2013, it was found that telecommunications company Telstra had:

…installed highly advanced surveillance systems to ‘vacuum’ the telephone calls, texts, social media messages and internet metadata of millions of Australians so that information can be filtered and given to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.12

It was also revealed that the Australian Government’s electronic spying agency, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), formerly known as the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), was using the same technology supplied from an information technology company in Melbourne to colonise undersea fibre optic cables to harvest data traffic in and out of Australia.13

Also in December 2013 The Guardian revealed that the ASD had offered to share personal details about Australians, including their “medical, legal or religious information” with its Five Eyes network.

Australia’s surveillance agency offered to share information collected about ordinary Australian citizens with its major intelligence partners, according to a secret 2008 document leaked by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden.14

The Guardian also noted the ASD had indicated it could share unfiltered bulk metadata with its partners adding that random collection was inconsequential:

“DSD can share bulk, unselected, unminimised metadata as long as there is no intent to target an Australian national,” notes from an intelligence conference say. “Unintentional collection is not viewed as a significant issue.”15

As previously discussed, metadata can be used to build profiles of individuals. The fact that security agencies and respective governments exhibit an almost insatiable appetite for metadata is an unspoken admission of its inherent value for effective surveillance purposes.

Recall in August 2014 the government backed new data retention laws and boosted Australian intelligence agencies with $630 million of funding as part of a national security package. Then consider what the leaked documents show about the collection of bulk metadata and intelligence sharing between the Five Eyes alliance and we can begin to join the dots to see where this is all heading.

Even Australian airlines are being drafted into new national security measures where they will be requested to submit passenger departure information in advance to officials so they can be screened for potential risks prior to arriving at the airport. As The Daily Telegraph learned, there will be a roll out of facial recognition and biometric screening at the departure gates of all major airports in the country.16

In striking evidence of shifting Australian opinion toward agreeing with the government’s reforms is a poll that was published by The Australian in late August 2014. The results of the survey showed an overwhelming 77 percent of the 1,207 respondents indicated they would support new laws making it an offence to travel to designated countries without a valid reason; requiring travellers to prove they had not been in contact with any terrorist groups.17 A very timely poll given it was conducted around the time of some barbaric media imagery coming out of the theatres of violence overseas.

This is not to suggest legitimate reasons for the prevention of terrorist threats are not warranted, but as Cameron Stewart’s opinion piece in The Australian warned,

….the government must ensure such a law does not become a clumsy dragnet that captures the innocent who simply visit their homeland but who subsequently struggle to prove it was for legitimate reasons.18

The push for data retention laws also come in the wake of an “explosion in surveillance devices being used by NSW Police,” according to civil rights groups. It has been found that the number of surveillance devices used in the state doubled in just the past three years. Civil right groups contend that the surge in the use of surveillance devices is evidence terrorism laws introduced in NSW in 2002 “are now being misused as a daily policing tool.”19

The federal government’s data retention proposals, however, will simply remove this pesky formality as plans to combat terrorism will be expanded “to fight ‘general’ crimes.”20

Of further concern are details of the apparent high number of requests for metadata by Australian authorities from telecommunication and Internet providers. In a separate report on the impact of the Snowden revelations, The Privacy Surgeon claimed that:

Australian authorities, for example, made an extraordinary 685,757 requests for communications metadata in 2013, almost three times the number of requests per head of population made by the UK, and more than a hundred-fold greater than Germany.21 Extraordinary numbers indeed. The feeding frenzy on metadata needs little discernment to recognise the encroaching pervasive surveillance state in the land down under.

In another concerning development, according to Stewart in The Australian, it appears the compulsory metadata retention proposals will win bi-partisan support. Moreover, given these proposals are “big reforms and the relative silence that has so far accompanied them suggest most Australians agree they are necessary.”22

It is perhaps a deafening “silence” that a future generation will reflect on with indictment. Namely the missed opportunity we had to exercise crucial democratic processes to sway the direction of government surveillance in Australia in the interest of protecting crucial civil liberties and privacy rights for all Australians.

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Global Breadth of the Surveillance Network

While we examine Australian domestic and extraterritorial spying activities in collaboration with their intelligence partners, it is also useful to look at the broader international apparatus of the global surveillance network.

The scope and breadth of the intelligence partnerships and their extraterritorial surveillance ambitions are remarkable. Commenting on the forward expansion aims of the NSA, journalist and author Pratap Chatterjee observes:

What the FBI does, however intrusive, is small potatoes compared to what the National Security Agency dreams of doing: getting and storing the data traffic not just of an entire nation, but of an entire planet.23

A story in The Washington Post on 1 July 2014 showed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had given the NSA “permission to spy on almost every country in the world” with leaked documents containing a list of 193 countries of apparent interest to US intelligence.24 From the opening of the story we read:

The latest revelation to come from the documents obtained by Edward Snowden… shows the true breadth of the US government’s electronic spying apparatus, a web of surveillance that covers the entire globe.25

Editor Glenn Greenwald documents a number of Snowden’s revelations in his book No Place to Hide. Contained in the collection are several secret references revealing the surveillance ambitions of the NSA and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). These include discussions among the intelligence partners about their audacious “New Collection Posture” and plans to “collect it all,” “know it all” and “exploit it all.”26

The documents also include a listing of corporate partnerships with the NSA with one classified slide presentation stating the agency has “alliances with over 80 major global corporations.”

A leaked Snowden document on 18 June 2014 revealed a number of “third party partners” cooperating with the security agencies – far more than what was previously known. A classified presentation in Greenwald’s No Place to Hide lists 33 third party countries.27

Collaborative reporting by The Intercept and Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information revealed the NSA’s partnership with Germany and Denmark together with details of their participation in a program codenamed RAMPART A.28 According to Dagbladet Information:

These partnerships are among the NSA’s closest-guarded secrets, and play a central role in the NSA’s ambition to be able to intercept any electronic communication, anywhere in the world.29

The publications claim the third party partners under RAMPART A are allowing the NSA to access and install surveillance equipment on their fibre-optic cables and thus share massive amounts of phone and Internet data with the agency.

The leverage to capture extraordinary volumes of data from this program alone is tremendous. Citing comments from security expert and technologist Bruce Schneier:

If you look at a map of the Internet, there are surprisingly few trunks. Most data flows through a surprisingly small number of choke points. If you get access to them, you get access to everything.30

According to The Intercept, participating countries in RAMPART A are incentivised for their cooperation in the program. Third party partners are rewarded with “access to the NSA’s sophisticated surveillance equipment, so they too can spy on the mass of data that flows in and out of their territory.”31

What “mass of data” are Agencies Spying On?

We are living in an era of big data. Personal information is the new currency. Customer and user data is a treasured asset to governments and corporations. For governments the value is ultimately power and control. For corporations it is more commonly about maximising efficiencies, productivity and profits.

Herein is an overview of the high volumes and types of data flows and other transaction details surveilled each day as revealed in Snowden’s leaked secret documents.

A classified document showed that a program called SHELLTRUMPET had processed its one trillionth metadata record over a five year period, with almost half of this volume in the previous calendar year alone and an ongoing two billion call events each day.32

A classified presentation slide from GCHQ boasted the agency “has massive access to international internet communications” claiming: “We receive upwards of 50 billion events per day (…and growing).”33

The Intercept claims that the program RAMPART A:

…enables the NSA to tap into three terabits of data every second as the data flows across the compromised cables – the equivalent of being able to download about 5,400 uncompressed high-definition movies every minute.34

According to The Washington Post, the NSA gathers:

…nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world…. enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals – and map their relationships – in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.35

In Greenwald’s No Place to Hide a leaked document shows the NSA had claimed to have “access to a broad range of Facebook data via surveillance and search activities.”36

Another document reveals PRISM’s standard Stored Communications collection package had given “new capability” for “much more complete and timely collection response from SSO” (Special Sources Operations).

The capability enables PRISM to collect data from Microsoft’s SkyDrive (now updated to OneDrive) which is a cloud service that allows users to store and access Word/PowerPoint/Excel files online from various devices without having MS Office installed on the device. PRISM’s capability was also expanded to collect Skype data.

In a quite chilling admission, the secret documents revealed that Microsoft was working with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to develop these and other surveillance capabilities.

For security agencies to have this vast surveillance access to user data amid confirmation of corporate complicity in the collection of customer data, should give any Internet user pause for concern at how their digital footprints are being accessed and for what reasons.

Further concerning revelations of the diabolical spying dragnet comes from Der Spiegel when in September 2013 the publication broke the story on the NSA monitoring, collecting and storing millions of financial transactions from a wide range of banks and credit card companies.

The leaked documents revealed that while spying on “the global financial system,” the surveillance programs gathered data that contained very specific and personal details of individuals that went beyond the target mandate:

According to the document, the collection, storage and sharing of “politically sensitive” data is a highly invasive measure since it includes “bulk data – rich personal information. A lot of it is not about our targets.”37

The article further mentions that the personal information collected had assisted with achieving successful “blacklist” outcomes:

The collected information often provides a complete picture of individuals, including their movements, contacts and communication behaviour. The success stories mentioned by the intelligence agency include operations that resulted in banks in the Arab world being placed on the US Treasury’s blacklist.

According to Der Spiegel, few if any financial transactions escape the data trawls:

By all appearances, the NSA collects everything that it can in the sensitive financial sector – at least that’s the message of a presentation from April. The agency sets out to access “bulk global financial data,” which is then fed into the Tracfin database, the presenter noted.

There remains no doubt in light of these revelations that the worldwide move toward a cashless society is enabling a surveillance system capable of monitoring just about every human digital transaction.

Normalisation & Acceptance of Government Surveillance

To see public pressure on governments fall by the wayside is a disturbing development in light of Snowden’s revelations. We read earlier from Ben Saul, professor of international law at the University of Sydney, who warned, “Australia is sleepwalking into more surveillance powers…” Australian journalist and broadcaster Antony Funnell agrees:

Despite the global uproar which followed last year’s Snowden spying scandal, governments all around the world are showing little interest in scaling back on their spying and tracking activities.

On the contrary, the Australian Government, with the agreement of the Labor Opposition, is currently pushing for increased surveillance powers for Australia’s security services, including a foreshadowed requirement that telcos retain their customers’ call data for up to two years, just in case that data is required for reasons of state security.38

There are few that see the writing on the wall, but see it they can. In a relatively short period of time since the initial revelations broke in June 2013, we see diminishing public engagement and concern. We look to Will Parkhurst’s application of the theory of the Panopticon for some insights.

Will Parkhurst offers an interesting view of the Snowden revelations. As he explains, the leaked secret documents had two unintended consequences: One is the restoration of the traditional Panopticon into a modern digital Panopticon “that forces citizens to become complicit in their own subjugation.” The other is the disclosures have encouraged broad public discourse that has begun “to normalise the role of surveillance as a benevolent observer” and mask its intrusive and invasive potential.39

First Parkhurst builds on Michel Foucault’s conceptualisation of social control and the Panopticon where architecture of the prison made prisoners feel like they were permanently being watched regardless of whether anyone was on guard duty. Prisoners had no way of knowing if there was anyone guarding the prison tower. The Panopticon penitentiary imbued prisoners with a sense of permanently being watched, and through a process of gradual internalisation, prisoners began to accept the rules and norms imposed by the institution.

Parkhurst explains how Snowden’s disclosures, which generated broad public knowledge of government surveillance programs, gave visibility to the digital Panopticon, similarly imbuing users with a sense of being watched under the permanent gaze of Big Brother. As such this has created the modern digital Panopticon with social control effects much like the Panopticon prison, thereby imposing the rules and norms of the institution on users. Similarly through a process of gradual internalisation, the general public accepts the rules and norms of government surveillance.

How this scenario is playing out in reality seems almost the work of a genius, as if the Snowden leaks were allowed on purpose. How many times have we read or heard someone say in response to the revelations: “Well if they are watching it doesn’t matter to me as I have nothing to hide and so have nothing to fear”? Of course the vast majority of Internet users aren’t committing criminal acts online but that is just the point.

Behaving as a law abiding digital citizen gives users a sense of complacency and diminishes the personal threat of any consequences of a spying Big Brother. Such a user would unlikely feel urged to pursue any anti-surveillance activities and may actually view such action as overreaction or paranoia.

An example of this perception of public overreaction and paranoia appeared in a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald in which retired Independent National Security Monitor barrister Bret Walker SC opined:

There’s widespread, if irrational, community resistance to the security agencies… having access to stored data. The importance of it as an investigative resource shouldn’t be endangered by that very strong distrust.40

Take this line of reasoning and proliferate abroad through various media and academic channels and what we see is, as Parkhurst postulates, a public discourse surrounding government surveillance programs that has “normalised” and “legitimised” government digital surveillance. Moreover this public discourse and normalisation of surveillance “sets the stage for the expansion of the norms that are policed within the digital panopticon.”

Sure there are the voices of anti-surveillance featuring in the public debate, but it appears at this current juncture that dissenters and their views are being marginalised, if even completely drowned out by the dominating spin doctors propagating cautionary acceptance. With a general public seemingly apathetic toward potential privacy invasion and accepting the norms of government surveillance, there will unlikely be any sustained and effective campaign to challenge it.

Instead, as we have already seen, governments are not scaling back their spying and data mining programs. Rather, in full public view, they are pressing on and introducing laws to strengthen intelligence agency surveillance powers!

In a stroke of irony the revelations that should have urged and energised strong public opposition to government surveillance has instead lulled the majority into conforming to their agenda. The document leaks have lost their impact over time. Exposure has bred familiarity and the public has simply become desensitised. As initial public outrage fades and diminishing opposition lapses into cautionary acceptance, a pervasive surveillance state in Australia looms.

The Technologies Facilitating a Pervasive Surveillance Society

Intelligence agencies enjoy powerful leveraging tools to conduct their mass electronic surveillance and data mining programs. Beside the fact that some telecom corporations have demonstrated complicity in surveillance operations, there is the global system of interconnected computer networks and high speed information and communications technologies that link billions of devices and their users around the world.

The spectre of a global Big Brother was the focus of a recent investigative report by The Washington Post that revealed there is already now on offer to governments newly advanced surveillance systems giving them the ability to track the movements of mobile phone users anywhere and everywhere around the world.41

The advent of the Internet and the rapid transformation that accompanied it is no exception to the globalised surveillance apparatus, as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange recently remarked:

The web accelerated the network’s proliferation into every aspect of modern daily life in advanced societies. The speed of that transformation has left global society unaware of the political and societal implications of using a one-world network as the central nervous system of humanity. Foremost among those implications was the globalisation and totalisation of surveillance.42

In a special report for CNN, technologist Bruce Schneier called it outright: “The Internet is a surveillance state,” indeed “ubiquitous surveillance… efficient beyond the wildest dreams of George Orwell.”43

Orwell would certainly marvel if not feel aghast at the new world of modern surveillance technologies amid the advent of highly automated systems of data capture, storage and analytics. Indeed, many modern devices we use daily are creating detailed digital records of our movements in real time. Common consumer devices such as computers, smartphones, iPads, credit cards, smart cards and wearable technologies are all effective instruments for generating volumes of sensitive personal digital data.

It’s quite the crafty design as the enabling technologies have become smaller, faster and more powerful – modern surveillance has become increasingly pervasive and invisible. Concealed beneath the flashy amusement arcade of innovative ‘smart’ technologies and associated novel devices is an all-seeing spying and surveillance Panopticon.

In the pervasive surveillance society “everything will be monitored” claims Daniel Taylor, “…as a whole new world of multidimensional surveillance is upon us.”44 We already engage surveillance like a dangerous liaison with our preoccupation for everything digital and mobile. As journalist and author Pratap Chatterjee observes:

Today, the surveillance state is so deeply enmeshed in our data devices that we don’t even scream back because technology companies have convinced us that we need to be connected to them to be happy.45

The smart technologies facilitating pervasive surveillance are also trending from handheld mobile devices to wearable tech to the embeddable and implantable. Implantable devices are not an uncommon treatment procedure in the medical profession but outside this field the technique is appreciably less common. This is beginning to change.

Fears of RFID chip implants “becoming widespread in humans” have surfaced in the wider debate about invasive surveillance techniques, as this warning from Dr. Katina Michael, an associate professor at the University of Wollongong, reveals:

They point to an uber-surveillance society that is big brother on the inside looking out. Governments or large corporations would have the ability to track people’s actions and movements, categorise them into different socio-economic, political, racial, religious or consumer groups and ultimately even control them.46

The pervasive surveillance society is no longer a future probability but a very present and disturbing reality. As Martin Hirst, associate professor at Deakin University observes: “…we are clearly living in a well-established surveillance society.”47 Hirst warns:

Everything you do is subject to surveillance… We are under constant watch, both physically and electronically. Surveillance is the new normal. It’s everywhere and this ubiquity makes us take it for granted.48

His view is shared by Antony Funnell: “Mass surveillance is now a part of our social, economic and political lives – governments and companies snoop on us like never before.”49

The institutions and frameworks safeguarding our citizen freedoms and freedom of speech and the press appear to be coming under attack as privacy steadily erodes amid a strengthening surveillance drive in the name of national security.50

Edward Snowden’s disclosures provide material cause for a much more rigorous public debate and challenge of the government’s proposed national security reforms than the polite and cautionary acquiescent discourse we’ve seen so far. The proposed data retention laws and increased powers pose serious threats to the security and privacy of all Australians.

If Snowden’s poignant revelations of the clandestine machinations of intelligence agencies worldwide cannot engage and energise a citizen response to effectively challenge government spying agendas, there will be little if any turning back the quickening tide of unchecked state surveillance and privacy invasion.

With pubic interest and concern fading as ongoing conversations continue to normalise and legitimise a role for mass surveillance in our country, a permanent pervasive surveillance society is inevitable. Citizens of liberal democracies around the world still have an open window of opportunity and influence.

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Note: All links and web pages accessible at time of publication

  1. GNM Press Office, ‘Guardian Faber acquire world rights for definitive book on Edward Snowden and the biggest leak in history’, The Guardian, 3 October 2013 at www.theguardian.com/gnm-press-office/guardian-faber-acquire-world-rights-for-edward-snowden-book
  2. Glenn Greenwald, ‘NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily’, The Guardian, 6 June 2013 at www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/06/nsa-phone-records-verizon-court-order and Baton Gellman and Laura Poitras, ‘U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. internet companies in broad secret program’, The Washington Post, 7 June 2013 at: www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/us-intelligence-mining-data-from-nine-us-internet-companies-in-broad-secret-program/2013/06/06/3a0c0da8-cebf-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html
  3. Antony Loewenstein, ‘The ultimate goal of the NSA is total population control’, The Guardian, 11 July 2014 at www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/11/the-ultimate-goal-of-the-nsa-is-total-population-control and Derek Scally, ‘NSA whistleblowers’ testimony electrifies Bundestag committee’, The Irish Times, 5 July 2014 at www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/nsa-whistleblowers-testimony-electrifies-bundestag-committee-1.1855972
  4. See ‘Five Eyes’, Wikipedia at http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Eyes
  5. Sophie Morris, ‘George Brandis’s creeping spy powers’, The Saturday Paper, 5 July 2014 at www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/politics/2014/07/05/george-brandiss-creeping-spy-powers/1404482400
  6. Harry Tucker, ‘Big Brother is watching: Why the government wants to keep your metadata’, News Limited, 5 August 2014 at www.news.com.au/technology/online/big-brother-is-watching-why-the-government-wants-to-keep-your-metadata/story-fnjwnfzw-1227014368716
  7. James Ball, ‘NSA stores metadata of millions of web users for up to a year, secret files show’, The Guardian, 1 October 2013 at www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/30/nsa-americans-metadata-year-documents
  8. Lindy Stephens, ‘Invitation to Attorney-General George Brandis: metadata one-on-one’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 August 2014 at www.smh.com.au/it-pro/government-it/invitation-to-attorneygeneral-george-brandis-metadata-oneonone-20140807-101j20.html
  9. Ben Grubb, ‘Secret data retention discussion paper leaked’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 2014 at www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/secret-data-retention-discussion-paper-leaked-20140827-108yyh.html
  10. Press Release, ‘The Court of Justice declares the Data Retention Directive to be invalid’, Court of Justice of the European Union, 8 April 2014 at http://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2014-04/cp140054en.pdf
  11. Ibid
  12. Philip Dorling, ‘Telstra’s data ‘vacuum’’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December 2013 at www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/telstras-data-vacuum-20131205-2yucb.html
  13. Ibid
  14. Ewen MacAskill, James Ball and Katharine Murphy, ‘Revealed: Australian spy agency offered to share data about ordinary citizens’, The Guardian, 2 December 2013 at www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/02/revealed-australian-spy-agency-offered-to-share-data-about-ordinary-citizens
  15. Ibid
  16. Simon Benson, ‘Facial scanners to screen potential terrorist: Australians will be scanned leaving and arriving in the country, under sweeping new laws’, The Daily Telegraph, 6 August 2014 at www.dailytelegraph.com.au/travel/travel-news/facial-scanners-to-screen-potential-terrorists-australians-will-be-scanned-leaving-and-arriving-in-the-country-under-sweeping-new-laws/story-fnjjv9zk-1227014744368
  17. AFP, ‘Australia steps up efforts against radicalisation’, Yahoo News, 26 August 2014 at https://au.news.yahoo.com/a/24814110/australia-steps-up-efforts-against-radicalisation/
  18. Cameron Stewart, ‘New legislation justified but must not be abused’, The Australian, 6 August 2014 at www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/new-legislation-justified-but-must-not-be-abused/story-e6frg6zo-1227014640406
  19. Kirsty Needham, ‘Metadata access in new national security laws raises civil liberties concern’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 August 2014 at www.smh.com.au/comment/metadata-access-in-new-national-security-laws-raises-civil-liberties-concern-20140808-1021ee.html
  20. Latika Bourke and James Massola, ‘Data storage could be used to fight ‘general crime’, Tony Abbott says’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 2014 at www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/data-storage-could-be-used-to-fight-general-crime-tony-abbott-says-20140806-3d78h.html
  21. Simon Davies et al, ‘A Crisis of Accountability: A global analysis of the impact of the Snowden revelations’, The Privacy Surgeon, June 2014 at www.privacysurgeon.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Snowden-final-report-for-publication.pdf
  22. Ibid Cameron Stewart, at www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/new-legislation-justified-but-must-not-be-abused/story-e6frg6zo-1227014640406
  23. Pratap Chatterjee, ‘Mining your information for big brother’, Asia Times Online, 15 October 2013 at www.atimes.com/atimes/World/WOR-01-151013.html
  24. See ‘List of foreign governments and organizations authorized for surveillance’ at http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/world/list-of-foreign-governments-and-organizations-authorized-for-surveillance/1133/
  25. Paul Waldman, ‘Latest NSA revelations show global reach of U.S. surveillance’ The Washington Post, 1 July 2014 at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2014/07/01/latest-nsa-revelations-show-global-reach-of-u-s-surveillance/
  26. Glenn Greenwald, ‘No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State’, 2014 at http://hbpub.vo.llnwd.net/o16/video/olmk/holt/greenwald/NoPlaceToHide-Documents-Uncompressed.pdf
  27. Ibid
  28. Anton Geist et al, ‘NSA ‘third party’ partners tap the Internet backbone in global surveillance program’, Dagbladet Information, 19 June 2014 at www.information.dk/501280 and Ryan Gallagher, ‘How Secret Partners Expand NSA’s Surveillance Dragnet’, The Intercept, 18 June 2014 at https://firstlook.org/theintercept/article/2014/06/18/nsa-surveillance-secret-cable-partners-revealed-rampart-a
  29. Ibid Anton Geist et al at www.information.dk/501280
  30. Ibid
  31. Ibid; Ryan Gallagher at https://firstlook.org/theintercept/article/2014/06/18/nsa-surveillance-secret-cable-partners-revealed-rampart-a
  32. See page 100 of Glenn Greenwald, ‘No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State’, 2014 at http://hbpub.vo.llnwd.net/o16/video/olmk/holt/greenwald/NoPlaceToHide-Documents-Uncompressed.pdf
  33. Ibid
  34. Ibid Ryan Gallagher at https://firstlook.org/theintercept/article/2014/06/18/nsa-surveillance-secret-cable-partners-revealed-rampart-a
  35. Barton Gellman and Ashkan Solltani, ‘NSA tracking cellphone locations worldwide, Snowden documents show’, The Washington Post, 4 December 2013 at www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-tracking-cellphone-locations-worldwide-snowden-documents-show/2013/12/04/5492873a-5cf2-11e3-bc56-c6ca94801fac_story.html
  36. Ibid Glenn Greenwald at http://hbpub.vo.llnwd.net/o16/video/olmk/holt/greenwald/NoPlaceToHide-Documents-Uncompressed.pdf
  37. Laura Poitras et al, ‘Follow the money: NSA Monitors Financial World’, Der Spiegel, 16 September 2013 at www.spiegel.de/international/world/how-the-nsa-spies-on-international-bank-transactions-a-922430.html
  38. Ibid Antony Funnell, ‘1984 and our modern surveillance society’ at www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/futuretense/1984-and-our-modern-surveillance-society/5631512
  39. Will Parkhurst, ‘The NSA Revelations and the Establishment of the Digital Panopticon’, Medium, 5 March 2014 at https://medium.com/@w_parkhurst/the-nsa-revelations-and-the-establishment-of-the-digital-panopticon-66f5d4b66692
  40. Ibid Kirsty Needham, at www.smh.com.au/comment/metadata-access-in-new-national-security-laws-raises-civil-liberties-concern-20140808-1021ee.html
  41. Craig Timberg, ‘For sale: Systems that can secretly track where cellphone users go around the globe’, The Washington Post, 24 August 2014 at www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/for-sale-systems-that-can-secretly-track-where-cellphone-users-go-around-the-globe/2014/08/24/f0700e8a-f003-11e3-bf76-447a5df6411f_story.html
  42. ‘Global mass surveillance should be discontinued immediately’, Global: the international briefing, 2014, at www.global-briefing.org/current-issue/
  43. Bruce Schneier, ‘The Internet is a surveillance state’, CNN, 16 March 2013 at http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/16/opinion/schneier-internet-surveillance/index.html?hpt=hp_c2
  44. Daniel Taylor, ‘Wearable Tech: The Surveillance Grid of the Future’, Old Thinker News, 31 March 2014 at www.oldthinkernews.com/2014/03/30/wearable-tech-the-surveillance-grid-of-the-future/
  45. Pratap Chatterjee, ‘Mining your information for big brother’, Asia Times Online, 15 October 2013 at www.atimes.com/atimes/World/WOR-01-151013.html
  46. Iain Gillespie, ‘Human microchipping: I’ve got you under my skin’, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 April 2014 at www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/human-microchipping-ive-got-you-under-my-skin-20140416-zqvho.html
  47. Martin Hirst, ’Someone’s looking at you: welcome to the surveillance economy’, 26 July 2013, at http://theconversation.com/someones-looking-at-you-welcome-to-the-surveillance-economy-16357
  48. Ibid
  49. Antony Funnell, ‘1984 and our modern surveillance society’, Future Tense, 29 July 2014, ABC at www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/futuretense/1984-and-our-modern-surveillance-society/5631512
  50. See Michael West, ‘Australian politicians need reminding they ought be transparent with the public’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 August 2014 at www.smh.com.au/business/australian-politicians-need-reminding-they-ought-be-transparent-with-the-public-20140808-101vnj.html


STEVEN TRITTON has written through several genres on a variety of subject areas including alternative news, human interest stories, and topical issues. Steven co-authored Australia’s Security Nightmares (Collaborative Publications) contributing a chapter on raising awareness about national security challenges in 2012. Steven also authored an article on human microchip implants in New Dawn 145 (July-August 2014). Steven can be contacted at surrealist2k@yahoo.com.au.

The above article appeared in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 8 No 5

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Who is Afraid of Conspiracy Theories?



In his book Philosophical Investigations, philosopher of science Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated that words are more than designations or labels. They are signals in a context of activity, and are invested with many assumptions about the roles and social status of speakers and listeners.

In the 20th century, men often called women “girls.” This term, while indeed referring to something real – to women – was more than merely a label; it was demeaning and implicitly conveyed a subservient status. Wittgenstein called the common sense view of words standing for things, the “naming theory of language.” However, he pointed out, if words were merely labels, you could not teach language to children. If you pointed at a table and said “table,” how would a child know you are referring to the piece of furniture and not to the rectangular shape of its top, or the table’s colour, or its hardness, or any number of other attributes? Language is taught in the context of activity. You say to the child, “the cup is on the table,” “slide the cup across the table top,” “I am setting the table for dinner,” and slowly the child learns what a table is and how the word table is used.

Wittgenstein’s observation may seem simple, but it posed a profound challenge to all of Western philosophy since Plato, who had asked: What is beauty? What is truth? What is justice? Wittgenstein’s critique of the naming theory of language suggested these were the wrong questions. What needs philosophical investigation is who uses such words in what circumstances and with what implications.

The term conspiracy theory did not exist as a phrase in everyday conversation before 1964. The conspiracy theory label entered the lexicon of political speech as a catchall for criticisms of the Warren Commission’s conclusion that US President Kennedy was assassinated by a lone gunman with no assistance from, or foreknowledge by any element of the United States government. Since then, the term’s prevalence and range of application have exploded. In 1964, the year the Warren Commission issued its report, the New York Times published five stories in which conspiracy theory appeared. In recent years, the phrase has occurred in over 140 New York Times stories annually. On Amazon.com, the term is a book category that includes in excess of 1,300 titles. In addition to books on conspiracy theories of particular events, there are conspiracy theory encyclopedias, photographic compendiums, website directories, and guides for researchers, sceptics and debunkers.

Initially, conspiracy theories were not an object of ridicule and hostility. Today, however, the conspiracy theory label is employed routinely to dismiss a wide range of anti-government suspicions as symptoms of impaired thinking akin to superstition or mental illness. For example, in his 2007 book on the assassination of President Kennedy, former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi says people who believe JFK conspiracy theories are “as kooky as a three dollar bill in their beliefs and paranoia.” Similarly, in Among the Truthers, Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay refers to 9/11 conspiracy theorists as “political paranoiacs” who have “lost their grip on the real world.” Making a similar point, if more colourfully, in his popular book Wingnuts journalist John Avlon refers to conspiracy believers as “moonbats,” “Hatriots,” “wingnuts,” and the “Fright Wing.”

As these examples illustrate, conspiracy deniers adhere unwittingly to the naming theory of language. They assume that what qualifies as a conspiracy theory is self-evident. In their view, the phrase conspiracy theory as it is conventionally understood, simply names this objectively identifiable phenomenon. Conspiracy theories are supposedly easy to spot because they posit secret plots that are too wacky to be taken seriously. Indeed, the theories are deemed so far-fetched they require no reply or rejoinder; they are objects of derision, not ideas for discussion. In short, while ridiculing conspiracy beliefs, conspiracy deniers take the conspiracy theory concept itself for granted.

This is remarkable, not to say shocking, because the concept is both fundamentally flawed and in direct conflict with English legal and political traditions. As a label for irrational political suspicions about secret plots by powerful people, the concept is obviously defective because political conspiracies in high office do, in fact, happen. Officials in the Nixon administration did conspire to steal the 1972 presidential election. Officials in the Reagan administration did participate in a criminal scheme to sell arms to Iran and channel profits to the Contras, a rebel army in Nicaragua. The Bush-Cheney administration did collude to mislead Congress and the public about the strength of its evidence for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. If some conspiracy theories are true, then it is nonsensical to dismiss all unsubstantiated suspicions of elite intrigue as false by definition.

This fatal defect in the conspiracy theory concept makes it all the more surprising that most scholars and journalists have failed to notice that their use of the term to ridicule suspicions of elite political criminality betrays the civic ethos inherited from British legal and political traditions. The Magna Carta placed limitations on the King, guaranteed trial by one’s peers, assigned historic revenue sources to London, and in other ways recognised the dangers of unrestrained political authority. More generally, the political institutions of the English speaking peoples presuppose political power is a corrupting influence which makes political conspiracies against the people’s interests and liberties almost inevitable. One of the most important questions in Western political thought is how to prevent top leaders from abusing their powers to impose arbitrary rule or tyranny. The men and women who fought for citizens’ rights, the rule of law, and constitutional systems of checks and balances would view today’s norms against conspiratorial suspicion as not only arrogant, but also dangerous and historically illiterate.

The founders of English legal and political traditions would also be shocked that conspiracy deniers attack and ridicule individuals who voice conspiracy beliefs, and yet ignore institutional purveyors of conspiratorial ideas, even though the latter are the ideas that have proven truly dangerous in modern history. Since at least the end of World War II, the citadel of theories alleging nefarious political conspiracies has been, not amateur investigators of the Kennedy assassination and other political crimes and tragedies, but political elites and governments. In the first three decades of the post-World War II era, officials asserted that communists were conspiring to take over the world, Western governments were riddled with Soviet spies, and various social movements of the 1960s were creatures of Soviet influence. More recently, Western governments have accepted US claims that Iraq was complicit in 9/11, failed to dispose of its biological weapons, and attempted to purchase uranium in Niger so it could construct nuclear bombs. Although these ideas were untrue, they influenced millions of people, fomented social panic, fuelled wars, and resulted in massive loss of life and destruction of property. If conspiracy deniers are so concerned about the dangers of conspiratorial suspicions in politics and civic culture, why have they ignored the conspiracism of top politicians and administrators?

In my book Conspiracy Theory in America, I reorient analysis of the phenomenon that has been assigned the derisive label of conspiracy theory. In a 2006 peer-reviewed journal article, I introduced the concept of State Crimes Against Democracy (SCAD) to displace the term conspiracy theory. I say displace rather than replace because SCAD is not another name for conspiracy theory; it is a name for the type of wrongdoing which the conspiracy theory label discourages us from speaking. Basically, the term conspiracy theory is applied pejoratively to allegations of official wrongdoing that have not been substantiated by public officials themselves.

Deployed as a derogatory putdown, the label is a verbal defence mechanism used by political elites to suppress mass suspicions that inevitably arise when shocking political crimes benefit top leaders or play into their agendas, especially when those same officials are in control of agencies responsible for preventing the events in question, or for investigating them after they have occurred. It is only natural to wonder about possible deception when a US president and vice president bent on war in the Middle East are warned of impending terrorist attacks, and yet fail to alert the public or increase the readiness of their own and allies’ armed forces. Why would people not expect answers when Arabs with poor piloting skills manage to hijack four planes, fly them across the eastern United States, somehow evade America’s multilayered system of air defence, and then crash two of the planes into the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon in Washington, DC? By the same token, it is only natural to question the motives of President Bush and Vice President Cheney when they dragged their feet investigating this seemingly inexplicable defence failure and then, when the investigation was finally conducted, they insisted on testifying together, in secret, and not under oath. Certainly, citizen distrust can be unwarranted and overwrought, but often citizen doubts make sense. People around the world are not crazy to want answers when a US president is assassinated by a lone gunman with mediocre shooting skills who manages to get off several lucky shots with an old bolt-action carbine that had a misaligned scope. Why would there not be doubts when an alleged assassin is apprehended, publicly claims he is just a patsy, interrogated for two days but no one makes a recording or even takes notes, and then shot to death at point-blank range while in police custody at police headquarters?

In contrast, the SCAD construct does not refer to a type of allegation or suspicion; it refers to a special type of transgression: an attack from within on the political system’s organising principles. For these extremely grave crimes, English legal and political traditions use the term high crime and included in this category is treason and conspiracies against the people’s liberties. SCADs, high crimes, and antidemocratic conspiracies can also be called elite political crimes and elite political criminality. The SCAD construct is intended not to supersede traditional terminology or monopolise conceptualisation of this phenomenon, but rather to add a descriptive term that captures, with some specificity, the long-recognised potential for representative democracy to be subverted by people on the inside – the very people who have been entrusted to uphold the constitutional order.

If political conspiracies in high office do, in fact, happen; if it is therefore unreasonable to assume conspiracy theories are, by definition, harebrained and paranoia; if constitutional systems of checks and balances are based on the idea that power corrupts and elite political conspiracies are likely; if, because it ridicules suspicion, the conspiracy theory label is inconsistent with the traditional Western ethos of vigilance against conspiracies in high office; if, in summary, the conspiracy theory label is unreasonable and dangerous, how did the label come to be used so widely to begin with?

Most people will be shocked to learn the conspiracy theory label was popularised as a pejorative term by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a global propaganda program initiated in 1967. This program was directed at criticisms of the Warren Commission Report. The propaganda campaign called on media corporations and journalists around the world to criticise conspiracy theorists and raise questions about their motives and judgments. The CIA informed its contacts that “parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately generated by communist propagandists.” In the shadows of McCarthyism and the Cold War, this warning about communist influence was delivered simultaneously to hundreds of well-positioned members of the press in a global CIA propaganda network, infusing the conspiracy theory label with powerfully negative associations. In my book, I refer to this as the “conspiracy theory conspiracy.”

For a more detailed exposition on the above, read Prof. Lance DeHaven-Smith’s Conspiracy Theory in America (University of Texas Press, 2013), available from all good bookstores and online retailers.

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LANCE DEHAVEN-SMITH is Professor in the Reubin O’D. Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University. A former President of the Florida Political Science Association, deHaven-Smith is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Battle for Florida, which analyses the disputed 2000 US presidential election, as well as The Hidden Teachings of Jesus: The Political Meaning of the Kingdom of God (Phanes Press, 2001). His latest book is Conspiracy Theory in America (University of Texas Press, 2013). DeHaven-Smith has appeared on Good Morning America, the Today Show, NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, CBS Nightly News with Dan Rather, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and other US TV and radio shows. His website is www.dehaven-smith.com.

The above article appeared in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 7 No 6

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New Dawn 149 (March-April 2015)




Man & Superman

The Secret Programs to Create Real Life ’X-Men’. Len Kasten investigates US government experiments designed to transform men into Supersoldiers.

DARPA: The Pentagon’s Blue-Sky Think-Tank

David Thrussell explores some of the latest hi-tech projects of the mad scientists at America’s controversial top secret military research agency.

New Silk Roads & the Eurasian Century

For more than 1,500 years, across thousands of kilometres, the Silk Road connected East and West. Reg Little looks at China’s plan to revive this ancient route.

Gallipoli: The Untold Story

Gerry Doherty & Jim Macgregor explain why the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, that cost thousands of young lives, was purposefully designed to fail.

Biophotonics: The Science Behind Energy Healing

Do light frequencies hold the key to well being? Katrin Geist examines the research breakthroughs on biophotonic emissions.

Entangled Minds

Telepathically Entering Another Person’s Lucid Dreams. Rev. Gary Duncan reports on a series of groundbreaking experiments to control the dream world.

Reprogramming Your Robots

Frank DeMarco outlines a simple technique for identifying hidden problems in a person’s life, and how to rectify them.

The Enneagram: An Ancient Theory of Everything

Imagine if there was a secret to always successfully completing a cycle of activity? Darren J. Carville reveals the formula and shows how you can apply it.

J.G. Bennett: A Quest for the Masters of Wisdom

Andrew Phillip Smith on the life of one of the greatest British spiritual explorers of the twentieth century.



Hypnotic Handshakes & Jedi Mind Tricks
By Neil Kramer

Going Beyond the Physical: Your Inner Senses
By Chris Thomson

How WiFi & Other EMFs Cause Biological Harm
By Kevin Samson

The ‘Gift’ of Disease
By Ross Bishop

Health Briefs




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