December 14, 2016
At parapsychology events I sometimes come across Erlendur Haraldsson, the distinguished Icelandic psychology professor and psi investigator who, among many other topics, published a study of Satya Sai Baba (with Karlis Osis). I’m trying to get him to contribute an article for the Psi Encyclopedia on the Icelandic medium Indridi Indridason. I’m sure he will eventually, but in the meantime, here’s a look at his book on the subject that came out last year (co-written by Loftur Gissurarson).
Indridi was a farmer’s son with very basic education. Aged 21, he came to Reykjavik in 1904 to become a printer’s apprentice. He had no notion of becoming a medium, and got into it accidentally after being invited to take part in an experimental table-tipping circle that his sister had become interested in. Things really started rocking when he sat at the table, and from this time he sat frequently for sittings organised by the newly formed Experimental Society, in which a wide variety of strong effects were recorded. In 1909 he became ill, and he died three years later aged 28.
The phenomena were phenomenal, as one might say, rivalling the effects for which DD Home had been famous. Here’s a selection:
- Raps, cracking sounds in the air; knocks responding to the sitters demands, some of them loud and heavy, and knocks heard on the body of the medium.
- Gusts of wind, cold or hot, were common, strong enough to blow paper, sometimes far away from the medium.
- Olfactory (odor) phenomena sometimes occurred: a sudden fragrant smell in the presence of the medium, sometimes other smells, such as seaweed. The odor would sometimes cling to a sitter after being touched by the medium.
- Movements and levitations were frequent, of objects, small and large, light and heavy, and over short or long distances within a room or hall and sometimes quite high. Some of these objects moved as if thrown forcefully, at other times their trajectories were irregular. Sometimes objects were found to tremble. Curtains were pulled back and forth on request by the sitters.
- Levitations of the medium. Many instances of levitation are reported, often with the medium holding onto another person. During violent poltergeist phenomena, the medium was dragged along the floor and thrown up into the air, so that his protectors had difficulty pushing him down.
- Playing of musical instruments as if by invisible hands, and sometimes while they were levitating and moving around in mid-air.
- Light phenomena. Fire-flashes or fire-balls, small and large fire-flashes on the walls. Luminous clouds as large as several feet across, sometimes described as a ‘pillar of light’ within which a human form appeared.
- Materializations. The shadow or shape of materialized fingers were seen, or a hand or a foot, or a full human figure. Sitters touched materialized fingers, limbs or trunks that were felt as solid. Once a monster-like animal (mixture of a horse and a calf) was observed outside a séance.
- Dematerialization of the medium’s arm. The medium’s shoulder and trunk was inspected through touch by several sitters, yet the arm was not detected.
- Sense of being touched, pulled and punched by invisible hands, also of being kissed.
- Sounds heard around the medium, laughter, footsteps, buzzing sounds, clatter of hoof beats and the rustling noise of clothes as if someone was moving.
- Direct writing. Writing appeared on paper without human touch.
Unlike Home's, most of Indridi's sittings were held in darkness. The group tried red light a few times, but dropped it because it caused the phenomena to diminish. However, some violent poltergeist phenomena that occurred during the winter of 1907-8 took place in full light, as did some successful table tipping sessions.
Even Home did not produce some of the effects seen with Indridi, including direct voice – voices, that is, that were clearly independent of his own, coming from different parts of the room. Each had its own characteristics and manner of speech. Some spoke in foreign languages such as Norwegian and French. One frequent communicator, a French-speaking woman, often burst into song. Her identity was eventually revealed as Maria Malibran, a famous mezzo-soprano who sang leading roles in opera houses in Europe and America and died in 1836, and who no one in the circle had apparently heard of before.
More than one voice could be heard singing together, and not just in séances, but spontaneously outside:
Once in the middle of the day, as often occurred, Indridi was at my home. While he was there I played on the harmonium a melody by Chopin. Indridi sat to the left of the harmonium. I expected that Mrs. Malibran knew the melody that I was playing for I heard her humming it around Indridi. Then I saw him falling into trance… I heard many voices, both of men and women singing behind me, but especially to my right with Indridi being on my left. I did not distinguish individual words, but the voices I heard clearly, both higher and lower voices, and they all sang the melody that I was playing. This singing differed from ordinary singing as it sounded more like a sweet echo. It seemed to come from afar, but was at the same time close to me. No single voice was discernible except the voice of Malibran. I always heard her distinctly.The group seems to be have been conscientious about establishing controls and writing up its results, but probably not to a standard that would carry much weight. What gives the claims about Indridi somewhat more authority is the energetic intervention by Gudmundur Hannesson, a highly regarded scientist who later became professor of medicine at the University of Iceland and founded the Icelandic Scientific Society. Gudmundur was known for integrity and impartiality, and also for a strong disbelief in the claims of mediums. To get to the bottom of the mystery he persuaded the group to let him carry out strictly controlled investigations, constantly increasing and varying them to try to catch Indridi out. His reports describe very detailed examinations of the séance room. Every item was scrutinised. The medium was stripped and his clothes examined. The doors were locked and sealed. He wrote: ‘Nothing seems too trivial to be suspected that it may in some way serve the purpose of the impostors. This is no joke, either. It is a life and death struggle for sound reason and one’s own conviction against the most execrable form of superstition and idiocy. No, certainly nothing must be allowed to escape.’
Gudmundur was especially interested in the movement of objects. He ordered from abroad some phosphorescent tape which glowed well in the dark (nothing like this was to be found in Iceland), and fixed it on some objects to enable him to track their movements in the dark. One was a zither, a rather bulky stringed instrument, which he saw move in an entirely unnatural way: at lightning speed or floating with varying speeds in different directions, in straight lines, curved lines, and sometimes spiral lines.
The investigations were interrupted by the medium’s illness, by which time, however, Gudmundur had seen enough. He was completely stumped.
Often I could see no conceivable possibility that anybody, inside or outside the house, was moving the things… the movements were often of such a nature that doing them fraudulently would have been exceedingly difficult, eg. taking a zither, swinging it in the air at enormous speed and at the same time playing a tune on it. This was, however, frequently done while I was holding the hands of both the medium and the watchman [controller], and there seemed no way for anybody to get inside the net.
What do we make of this? I should say, to begin with, that having once spent quite a long time reading up on physical mediumship – and getting horribly tangled up in the controversies – I no longer pay it much attention. I think the effects are real, having been described by enough credible people in circumstances of sufficient control to the point where they can’t be explained away as clever tricks. I’m also aware that those people who have directly witnessed these phenomena find them so totally convincing as to be baffled that anyone else could ever doubt it. Nevertheless, for those who haven’t, these sorts of psychokinetic claims defy belief, and it seems impossible to report them in a manner that lays scepticism completely to rest. It’s easy to get bogged down in claim and counter-claim. (James Randi’s confrontations with Uri Geller in the 1980s arguably helped kick-start the sceptics movement). So although I wrote about Eusapia Palladino in Randi’s Prize, I don’t think that now I’d waste time trying to convince anyone about her or any other physical medium.
That said, features of Indridi’s mediumship make it rather intriguing. One is the location. A thing about Iceland that’s easy to forget is that it’s very small. In 1905, when Indridi’s séance phenomena started, the entire population would have been not much more than 100,000, equivalent to a small city like Oxford or Cambridge. There was no tradition of spiritualism before Indridi. Neither Indridi nor anyone else would have had access to the kind of conjuring equipment needed to stage what would have been extremely complex tricks.
In addition is the fact that Indridi’s mediumship was so short, just five years. With other physical mediums the power of the effects seemed to fall off with time. You also find – often in the later years of the medium’s career – the involvement of a sceptic, who publishes a report on the basis of a cursory investigation (or pure conjecture) that becomes the received text for critics (Kathleen Goligher, Rudi Schneider and Ted Serios all come to mind). In Indridi’s case, the phenomena started strong and, far from falling off, were at their peak when he became ill and had to stop. And although the reports stirred up a great deal of controversy in Icelandic society – as is usual in such cases – by the time he died, of tuberculosis in 1912, no one with sufficient polemical skill had emerged to kill them off for posterity with some damning counter-evidence.
So we’re left with a virtually uncontaminated case that offers evidence of powerful phenomena, some of it witnessed under rigorously controlled conditions, and for which, as far as I know, there are no meaningful documented claims of fraud, or even plausible conjectures. Since Indridi was never on the radar of the sceptic community, there are no handy quotes that can be used to contaminate the Wikipedia article about him, of the ‘Ruth Brandon has written…’ variety. Of course, because most sittings were held in darkness – which sceptics treat as a kind of all-purpose ‘explanation’ – I don’t think Indridi Indridason’s story represents any kind of threat. But for anyone who’s interested in this kind of thing, it’s fascinating reading.
Erlendur Haraldsson & Loftur R. Gissurarson, Indridi Indridason: The Icelandic Physical Medium (Hove: White Crow Books, 2015)