Gods and Ghost-Light: Ancient Egypt, Electricity, and X-Rays

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Abstract

In 1892 the celebrated physicist and chemist William Crookes commented on the existence of “an almost infinite range of ethereal vibrations or electrical rays,” which he believed could revolutionize telegraphic communications (174). A few years later, and aided by Crookes's experiments with vacuums, the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen successfully produced X-rays, a hitherto unrecorded form of electromagnetic radiation, which he tantalizingly described as “a new kind of invisible light” (Röntgen 413; Warner 256). Crookes was quick to speculate as to “the possibility of links between roentgen rays and the cerebral ganglia,” that an undiscovered organ in the brain might be “capable of transmitting and receiving . . . electrical rays” (Lyons 105; Crookes 176). X-rays, he thought, might prove a psychic counterpart to higher wavelength radio waves, allowing the transmission of messages telepathically rather than telegraphically, and even communication with the world of the spirits (Lyons 105). Crookes theorized that the parapsychological was intimately entwined with the findings of contemporary physics, occupying different zones of the same electromagnetic spectrum. An ardent Spiritualist, he believed that the ether, the “impalpable, invisible entity, by which all space is supposed to be filled” and which contained countless “channels of communication” also sustained “ghost-light . . . invisible to the naked eye” and acted as a medium that allowed “ethereal bodies to rise up” (Crookes 174; Warner 253–56). In other words, the matter through which light and electrical signals passed was envisaged as the same substance which allowed the spirits to fluctuate between visible and invisible forms. These links between the electromagnetic field and the occult, endorsed by Crookes and certain other members of his circles such as the Society for Psychical Research, anticipated turn-of-the-century associations between electricity, radiation and ancient Egypt which, through its reputation as the birthplace of magic, was central to Victorian conceptions of the supernatural.

Details

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)119-135
JournalVictorian Literature and Culture
Volume45
Issue number1
Early online date13 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017