Anthropology: The Growth of Spiritualism in Various Cultures

The harvest moon of 2021 rose on Monday September 20th, beginning a three-day period where the moon appears to be full. The cool winds and drop in temperature create an atmosphere of a change in the seasons. The harvest moon arrives in the same astronomical period as the autumnal equinox, beginning on September 22nd. Fall begins in the northern hemisphere, and spring in the southern. The autumnal equinox is a complex and highly meaningful period. Fall harvest is traditionally a significant time for farmers, using the abundant moonlight to their advantage. The harvest moon originates from Native Americans using the pattern of the moon to determine when it was time to harvest corn. The three-day period of bright moonlight in the evening hours, allowed farmers to continue their harvest for longer hours.

This September moon is also perceived as an abundant season, recognizing the importance of the moon and its positioning. Historically, the moon in every civilization has been a symbol   of spiritual, agricultural, and seasonal wealth. The Romans personified the different elements and planets as gods and goddesses. The Latin Luna, in ancient Greek and Roman religion, was a personification of the moon as a goddess.  The Romans described the moon as “replenishing the earth when she approaches it, filling all bodies, and when she recedes, empties them.” Women and the moon are associated with the moon’s periods of fertility and growth.

The Spiritual Moon

The Autumn Equinox
The Harvest is a significant period for recognizing the spirit of harvest, life and death.

The harvest moon, in many respects, is thus considered a particularly lucky full moon. The brightness  it brings and the symbolism around it, create a hopeful atmosphere. Festivals and cultural celebrations are common during the fall seasons. The abundance of food has historically marked a period of community and gratitude. This September moon celebrates balance and abundance and acknowledges the change in the seasons, marking a space between the warm months and an anticipation for the colder ones ahead. The cool breeze is coming to replace the warm air of spring and summer. After the crops are harvested, plants will die back and the ground will rest during the upcoming winter.

That makes the harvest also a special time for spiritual and soulful reflection on life and death,
abundance and loss, as the seasons change. Harvest festivals promote birth and rebirth, and additionally, various fall festivals and celebrations promote the acceptance and importance of
death. Spiritualism and seasonal phases are interconnected as communities have adapted and
discovered new ways to connect with the earth and universal processes.

The Season of Recognition

There are many cultural meanings to the harvest moon. The fall harvest has grown in meaning as a time of rebirth and death; a significant period where differing communities share similar rituals of appreciating abundance and giving recognition to their lost ones. These celebrations are interconnected with the spirit of fall and the historical development of spiritualism. Communities have adapted different rituals in the face of death, placing cultural emphasis on seasonal change. The full moon harvest, and the birth of spiritualism have interconnected meanings. As human civilizations evolved, there became a greater commitment and focus to understanding death. The rise and fall of crops in the fall season has become the season of reflection and recognition.

The Day of the Dead

The spiritual symbolism of the autumn equinox has great and encompassing meanings, extending far past the celebration of harvest. The cooler air also symbolizes a time for remembering and honoring dead spirits. One of the best known celebrations for the dead is Dia De Los Muertos, a two-day festival honoring departed family members. It is a holiday for both life and death, a celebration of both and an acknowledgment of the importance of each. The first day begins with the day of the little angels, Dia de los Angelitos. Families are reunited with lost children. The second day, Dia de los Difuntos, honors the lives of adults.

The final day is a public festival, Dia de los Muertos. Calaveras is known as a prominent symbol during the Day of the Dead. The skulls are often drawn with a smile, made up with flowers and colorful paint. The historical meaning of the day of death extends its roots to Mexican heritage and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. These cultures understand the value of death as being a part of life. Their customs are like the Romans and the Native Americans, utilizing the harvest as a time for celebration and appreciation.

The Moon Festival

Eastern and Southeastern cultures in Asia celebrate festivals in the autumn months. China celebrates the Mid-Autumn festival, the moon festival. Korean culture also has a holiday for the moon. Their celebration consists of homages to ancestors and home. Mooncakes are a popular tradition inspired by the moon. The cake is shaped in the image of the moon and represents the powerful symbolism of what the moon can provide; spiritual power, rebirth, reunion.

All Saints Day

The day of the dead additionally extends its roots in ancient Europe as a pagan celebration of the dead and the fall season. With the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, these traditions developed Catholic ideologies. The celebration of the day of the dead became known as All Saints Day and All Souls Day, recognizing the living and the dead on the first two days of November. All Saint’s Day pays respect to all the saints in the church that have attained an afterlife. Roman Catholics and other Christians observe saints day as any saints in the church in heaven, recognized or unrecognized by the Church. “For All the Saints” is a traditional hymn that is still widely sung in Christian churches around that holiday. It characterizes believers who have died as now living in the glory of Heaven, and anticipates the coming of one’s own death and joining them in eternal life-the same themes of appreciation, rebirth and reunion common to other harvest time observances.

1 “For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever bless’d.
Alleluia, alleluia!

2 Thou wast their rock, their refuge, and their might,
thou, Christ, the hope that put their fears to flight;
’mid gloom and doubt, their true and shining light.
Alleluia, alleluia!

3 Oh, bless’d communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine,
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia, alleluia!

4 The golden evening brightens in the west.
Soon, soon to faithful servants cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of paradise the bless’d.
Alleluia, alleluia!

5 But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day;
the saints triumphant rise in bright array,
as God to glory calls them all away.
Alleluia, alleluia!

6 From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Alleluia, alleluia!”

The Growth of Spiritualism

The 19th century spiritulists attempted to communicate with the dead.
Spiritualism became popular after the US Civil War. Americans needed comfort after the great number of deaths in the country.

The period following the U.S. Civil war sparked a newfound interest in the spiritual world. Due to the unimaginable levels of death and widespread fear, there became a revival of interest in the spirit world. “The Civil war resulted in approximately 750,000 American fatalities, nearly equal to the total number of American deaths in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish American War, World WarI, World WarII, and the Korean War Combined.”

The nation had never experienced this volume of death and what that meant for all the loved ones left behind. The type of comfort that community members connected with was spiritual ideologies. The meanings of death shifted during the nineteenth century, creating a more ritualized process of letting go of the dead. The emergence of the funeral parlor and techniques to preserve bodies were developed to further respect death and its process.

The Civil War reimagined the way North America understood grief. Many Americans left at home were forced to accept that their loved ones would never come home alive-and further, that even their bodies would not be returned, since many were buried or simply left behind on the battlefields where they died. Families had to find security in their own mourning rituals. Spiritualism was not a new practice, as observed above, it has been a focal point for many cultures historically. An article on spiritualism in the nineteenth century wrote “spiritualist activity increased rapidly in America at a time when bereaved citizens were seeking new assurance of continuity and justice after death and when traditional religion was becoming less able to offer this assurance”. The ritual seances became popular as a medium to reach out to loved ones and possibly get a response.

Give Me Back My Dead

To make sense of the violence and mistrust in the United States, Americans created rituals to comprehend the events surrounding the Civil War. A common practice was writing letters of consolation to loved ones. The central focus of a lot of spiritual writing was to describe the reconstruction of broken and disfigured bodies of loved ones, so that spirits could be made accessible again. Spiritualism provided a blanket of comfort and community for families mourning together. Seances to connect with spirits emphasized a new cultural environment where dead spirits were welcome and celebrated. Seances are not celebrations of death but an attempt to communicate through a central medium where the living and the dead can both cross. These sessions were often community centered and ritualized.

The Rise of Spiritualism in the Early 20th Century

The image depicts men and women attempted to speak to the dead.
Seances were rituals to attempt to talk to loved ones in the spirit world.

A similar agony to the Civil War spread throughout Europe after WWI, when that continent experienced a similar bloodbath.  Men coming home and loved ones mourning for their lost loved ones-who, as in the Civil War, often buried anonymously where they fell, were faced with a daunting question of what is next, what the future looks like now. Spiritualism became a popular practice in 20th century Europe, integrating the culture as a major “religious” practice. The acceptance of ghosts and spirits and the hope in this newfound practice deterred many from traditional Catholic practices, contributing to an erosion of traditional religion. Spiritualism is different from religions because it is recent and does not have a common body of theology. However, there is a strong acceptance of heaven as the human afterlife. Although there is not a specified theology, spiritualists have common understandings on key topics. Spiritualists believe that souls survive bodily death and live in the spirit world. These souls can communicate with the material world through mediums. Additionally, these spirits have cognitive capacities because they are interested and aware of what was left behind in the material world.

The 1918 Pandemic

The first identified case of  Influenza was in Spring 1918. The influenza pandemic infected one third of the world population, spreading globally between 1918 and 1919. Influenza did not have a vaccine to protect from widespread infection and there were no antibiotics to treat the infected. The world was limited to non-medical intervention such as isolation, quarantine, and spiritualism. This Spanish Flu followed closely behind WW1, providing another traumatic period of suffering and confusion. Considering there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this flu, citizens were ordered to wear masks and isolate them. The flu pandemic extended the populations’ interest in death and the possibility of talking to the recently deceased.

Woman in Spiritualism

Spiritualism flourished in the 1800s, expanding through methods of text, formal organization,

lectures, and missionary activities. Many prominent spiritualists were women, opening the
opportunity for  women to engage in religious type practices for the first time. Women were
perceived to exhibit similar traits to spirits and therefore were better communicators. The
The characteristics of mediums were described as  “passive, impressionable, sensitive”. These traits historically have been related to feminine energy, opening an avenue for women to have more significant roles in public life.

The population of spiritualists in the 1850s and 1860s is approximated to be 46,000 to 11 million followers in the United States. The significance of this social phenomenon is the power gained by embracing their spiritual and divine energy to bring more peace and comfort to their communities. The high death rates of children and fallen soldiers in the Civil War brought grief to a more public and formal light. Spiritualism, therefore, was a unique and socially progressive movement as mediumship provided women’s roles as religious leaders and became a growing and accepted practice.

The Ouija Board

The Ouji board is a form of medium.
The Ouji board was designed to be an-at-home way to talk to spirits.

The first advertisements for the Ouji board, promoted a device that supposedly could answer questions about the past, present, and future. The board was designed for individuals to conduct seances without formal mediums, becoming popular in 1890. The idea of the Ouji board was for a small group of people to sit in front of and ask questions about the spirit they were attempting to contact. The board provided access to anyone wanting to communicate with the spiritual realm, increasing the cultural significance of this ritual. The rituals of spiritualism changed historically due to the shift in social and political life and additionally the cultural influences over the 18th and 1900s.

Covid 19 Spirituality

The catastrophic and universal effects of the COVID -19 pandemic closely parallel that of the Spanish flu of 100 years before. The pandemic has created a series of devastating effects on the social, cultural, economic, and psychological atmosphere of our world. Although there are more advanced strategies to contain the flu, the change in social behavior has affected many communities in the past year. As populations are forced to isolate and quarantine, strategies have been created to cope with forced social isolation. There has been a consistent rise in spiritual and religious practices to promote mental health and healthy living through stressful events.

Humans are adaptable creatures, relying on new tactics to respond to their changing atmosphere. The most recent pandemic has increased the general importance of mental health and perception. The more spiritual changes have not focused on external spiritualism, but rather, an understanding of faith through the physical, psychological, and mental point of view. Isolation is not a natural human phenomenon. However, faith and spiritual connectiveness has found a new revival of importance. The cultural significance of this recent tragedy is a new modern perspective on life, death, and overall health. Although communities are not focused on mediums, spirituality has, once again, increased due to extreme death and communal tragedy.

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