Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times
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Dozens of books, articles, television shows, and films relating "near-death" experiences have appeared in the past decade. People who have survived a close brush with death reveal their extraordinary visions and ecstatic feelings at the moment they died, describing journeys through a tunnel to a realm of light, visual reviews of their past deeds, encounters with a benevolent spirit, and permanent transformation after returning to life.
Carol Zaleski's Otherworld Journeys offers the most comprehensive treatment to date of the evidence surrounding near-death experiences. The first to place researchers' findings, first-person accounts, and possible medical or psychological explanations in historical perspective, she discusses how these materials reflect the influence of contemporary culture. She demonstrates that modern near-death reports belong to a vast family of otherworld journey tales, with examples in nearly every religious heritage. She identifies universal as well as culturally specific features by comparing near-death narratives in two distinct periods of Western society: medieval Christendom and twentieth-century secular America. This comparison reveals profound similarities, such as the life-review and the transforming after-effects of the vision, as well as striking contrasts, such as the absence of hell or punishment scenes from modern accounts.
Mediating between the "debunkers" and the near-death researchers, Zaleski considers current efforts to explain near-death experience scientifically. She concludes by emphasizing the importance of the otherworld vision for understanding imaginative and religious experience in general.
divine mediator from heaven to earth. For an advance scout to the other world, one would A Wide-AngJe View 2? have to look to earlier prophetic or apocalyptic seers; thus, we shall see that the Christian return-from-death story, like its Jewish counterpart, evolved from apocalyptic precursors into didactic tales about ordinary men and women who were sent back from the other world. In addition, among other influences on these narratives should be counted the indigenous folklore and
proposed that the man is a prehistoric shaman of sorts, embarked on a trance-induced journey to other worlds; close by, a pole with a bird perched on top resembles a widespread shamanic image of ascension and flight.7 Whether this shamanic reading is justified cannot be decided here, but it is tempting to imagine that the world's first art may have been intended to portray, along with hunting emblems and fertility icons, scenes of visionary transcendence of death.8 The shaman is, in fact, the
light, and virtually all who experienced it felt drawn to tt.H In some reports, light acts almost as a vehicle. One near-death experiencer— communicating her story through nationally televised packets of light—told of riding a "laser beam of light" that rushed her past planets and luminaries 124 OtherworW Journeys at a tremendous speed.65 For those who begin their journey in darkness, the light may have an attractive power, pulling them toward its source: There was this panic, the panic of
Through local chapters, newsletters, and informal correspondence, IANDS provides a community in which near-death experiencers can meet and share with others the fruits of their visionary conversion. Jayne Smilh, whose ecstatic near-death vision was described earlier, told a conference in Charlottesville how her odyssey in search of religious fellowship finally led her to IANDS: When you've experienced total unconditional love, and then you are back in this world and can't find it anywhere, it
factors, such as drugs, exhaustion, and toxic conditions (including those discussed above), each of which works to impede the brain's ability to receive and sort out external impressions. The result is that the central nervous system, while hyperaroused by stress, is starved for stimuli. Obeying a biological imperative—for unless it is fed it will die—the brain turns inward in search of substitutes for its sensory nourishmenl. It must make do with emergency rations, made from random blips in the