Psychics have endured something of a rocky history, their fortunes never quite being guaranteed. They have enjoyed positions of power and found themselves the centre of ridicule and they have acted as right-hand men and women to rulers, or peddled their gifts as parlour tricks.
As a result, art has recorded the psychic in many different guises, portraying them through a variety of art forms such as poetry, painting, sculpture and, more recently, through the media of film and television. Interestingly, the way they have been portrayed has been in direct correlation with the way society has viewed them at the time. However, there have been a couple of depictions that have cast very long shadows.
The Early Shamans
The earliest of examples of psychics are thought to be the shamans of Neolithic times. These tended to be tribal elders who had some ability with herbs and healing. However, they were also thought to be able to interact with forces of Nature in a way that was beyond the powers of normal men.Often, this would involve ritual dances, sacrifice and incantations – and the ingestion of hallucinogenic substances, leading to an altered state of consciousness. Shamans believed this allowed them to strengthen and more fully transmit their psychic abilities.
Often, as part of the ceremonies, Shamans would wear animal skins – particularly deer-skins, with the head and antlers still in place. This was partly to give them a more fearsome appearance – but also because Shamans would often summon the spirits of animals to learn from them or to issue them with certain tasks and commands. Cave art from that era often depicts the Shaman as half man, half animal – usually captured in the early stages of this transformation.
In addition, these figures are often painted in a separate, sacred colour – differentiating them from all the other figures in the picture. Colours such as red or blue are the ones most commonly reserved for depictions of the tribal Shaman, indicating their power and the esteem in which they were held. Similarly, sculptures and figurines found from that era also depict the Shamans as powerful and fearsome, often featuring sacred stones and other revered materials.
The High Priests of Ancient Egypt
Similarly, the High Priests of Ancient Egypt are often found in hieroglyphic displays, occupying space that is usually the monopoly of Pharaohs. High Priests were often as powerful as the Pharaohs themselves, owning significant amounts of land and acting as advisors in public matters, such as war, and private matters, such as divining whether the Pharaoh’s next child would be male or female.
Again, art featuring High Priests tended to reflect their influence and position within Egyptian society. Sculptures and pottery that bore the image of a High Priest would often be inset with precious stones or lined with gold, while pictures would often find them portrayed as level with the Pharaoh, while other individuals would be placed in a physically lower position on the wall or parchment that the scene was set upon.
Generally, in the years where psychics were seen as powerful members of the community, the art that depicted them was reverential. Even in the smaller communities, art was used to suggest allegiance to a particular psychic, shaman or witch-doctor; tribes would often daub their clothing, equipment or weapons with a symbol that represented their shaman and his beliefs.
However, the Old Religions’ days were numbered and, with the advent of Christianity, that position of power that they’d previously enjoyed within their community was about to be challenged.
The Rise of Christianity
Christianity inspired a fervour to spread ‘The Word’ across the globe as quickly as possible. By the time it reached Britain’s shores, the early Christians had their strategies worked out. At this time, Britain was very much a Pagan country, relying on psychics and wise-men to make predictions, cure illnesses and offer guidance. The Christian settlers found the Ancient Britons very resistant to embrace the Bible and its teachings, so they set about undermining the roots of the older religions.
There are plenty of examples of this sort of manipulation in art from the Dark Ages. A picture of a Siberian Shaman, drawn by the explorer and Christian, Nicolaes Witsun, shows a Shaman with horns growing from his head and with clawed feet. Titled, ‘The Priest of the Devil’, this is typical of artwork of the time. The Church was determined that Christianity should be the only religion in existence in Britain at this time and used every method possible to associate the Old Ways with Satanism and Devil worship.
A particularly powerful weapon in their arsenal was artwork; the majority of the population were illiterate, which is why drawings, etchings and paintings carried such weight. Depictions of psychics in these times tended to portray them as twisted beings; sometimes monstrous mixes of animals and humans and sometimes as malformed people.
This campaign of artistic assault had the desired effect and gave rise to the Witch Hunts, resulting in the deaths of a huge number of innocent men and women. It also resulted in one of the most enduring artistic images ever associated with psychics: that of the crooked, broken-toothed old crone. Artwork from this time also started the association with black cats, broomsticks and the iconic pointed hat. This image has lasted well beyond the outlandish prejudices of the time and has come to represent something else entirely. However, when they were first created, they were used to depict the inner and outer malevolence of anyone who dared to dabble with religions beyond the confines of Christianity.
Today, art is trying to reinstate an air of mystery to the psychic world. After the mockery and ridicule psychics discovered during the Victorian era, artistic media seem to want to humanize, yet mystify modern psychics. Although the idea of the gypsy head-scarf and the crystal ball may be gone, modern psychics are often depicted as slightly ‘other’, regardless of the fact that they may be wearing everyday clothing.
Psychics really have fallen in and out of favour and the way they have been represented in art has depicted that. However, the image of the green-skinned hag is no longer directly associated with psychic practices; a change in attitude that has rendered a harmful image into a harmless icon.