You might think that the story of Pharaoh Sety I of Egypt’s 19th Dynasty ends with his death. But you’d be wrong, at least according to one 20th-century British woman, Dorothy Eady. Dorothy, who believed herself to be the reincarnation of Sety’s lover Bentreshyt, is the only reason we know about this story at all. Dorothy Eady’s past life, which she discovered piecemeal over time, became her obsession. It shaped everything about her. She spent the first half of her life searching for her spiritual home, Abydos, and the second half making amends for Bentrshyt’s sin. Perhaps most shockingly, Dorothy, now called Omm Sety, would resume Bentreshyt’s sexual love affair with King Sety 3200 years after their deaths! More on that in a bit. Today we’re using the story of Omm Sety as a gateway into the history of past lives in Britain and America.
Marissa: Let’s go back to 1300 BCE to Upper Egypt. The landscape is bleak and the surroundings, remote, in this region called Abydos. Even so, Abydos had always been a holy place. At this point (3300 years ago) there is already several mysterious, ancient structures that tower up from the desert. These occasionally attract pilgrims from the rest of Egypt. One-hundred yards from an ancient fortress, in a humble peasant’s home, a baby girl is born. Her father is a soldier and her mother a seller of vegetables who suffers from ill health. Her mother’s ancestors had immigrated from Syria. As a result, she has an unusual appearance, with blond hair and blue eyes. Smitten with their love for each other and for their new little bundle, they name their baby Bentreshyt (meaning Harp-of-Joy).
Elizabeth: One day when Bentreshyt is still a child, her father is sent on a long mission to the capital, Memphis. While he is away, his beloved wife, Bentreshyt’s mother, passes away. Upon his return, Bentreshyt’s father is destroyed by grief. He has little time to grieve, however, since he is quickly deployed to Thebes. He surrenders his daughter to a local temple dedicated to the worship of Isis. They care for her tenderly and she is inducted into the priesthood of Isis as a sacred virgin. Bentreshyt grows into a young woman, one who was happy to forgo all earthly pleasures in service to Isis and Osiris.
Marissa: Abydos, as a holy place, was frequented by the 19th-Dynasty Pharaoh, Sety. His Majesty was building a magnificent temple adjacent to his Abydos palace. On a visit to Abydos to supervise the building, King Sety takes a walk in the beautiful temple gardens. During his walk, Sety happens upon a beautiful girl, our priestess, Bentreshyt. Later, it was said that “for him [she] was like a fresh lotus carried by the north wind and offering her perfume to His Majesty’s nostrils.”
Elizabeth: You can guess what happens next. Yes, they forget themselves and His Majesty defiles the virgin priestess. They continue to meet in the beautiful temple gardens to consummate their love. Their secret is discovered before long, as Bentreshyt’s belly begins to swell. Meanwhile, Sety leaves Abydos on official business. The Chief Priest eventually takes note of Bentreshyt’s pregnancy. In 19th-Dynasty ancient Egypt, the defiling of the church’s property is one of the gravest crimes one could commit. Both Bentreshyt and Sety would need to be punished in this life and the next. The helplessness of her situation soon sets in. In despair, Bentreshyt takes her own life.
When His Majesty returns to Abydos, filled with anticipation and hope at seeing his love again, he learns of her suicide instead. His grief is immense. He collapses in the garden where they had first met, tears rolling down his face. He lives on for some time, suffering several more traumatic incidents until his death in 1279 BCE. Upon Bentreshyt’s death, he never again returned to Abydos. His temple and palace sat unused for the rest of his reign. The sands of time blasted and crumbled them into ruins for the next 3000 years.
Marissa: You might think that the story of Bentreshyt and King Sety ends here, with their deaths. But you’d be wrong, at least according to one 20th-century British woman, Dorothy Eady. Dorothy, who believed herself to be the reincarnation of Bentreshyt, is the only reason we know about this story at all. Dorothy Eady’s past life, which she discovered piecemeal over time, became her obsession. It shaped everything about her. She spent the first half of her life searching for her spiritual home, Abydos, and the second half making amends for Bentrshyt’s sin. Perhaps most shockingly, Dorothy, now called Omm Sety, would resume Bentreshyt’s sexual love affair with King Sety 3200 years after their deaths! More on that in a bit. Today we’re using the story of Omm Sety as a gateway into the history of past lives in Britain and America.
I’m Marissa C. Rhodes
And I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik
Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig
Elizabeth: We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Lauren, Hanna, Iris, Colin, Susan, Edward, Agnes, Denise, Jessica, Karen, Maria, and Audrey! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more.
Marissa: Today’s episode will be a little all over the place because, frankly, the history of past lives is sprawling, theoretical, theological, and a little whacky. But I’ve boiled it down for you. First we’ll recount the story of Omm Sety. Then we’ll dig into the intellectual and social history of past lives in America and Britain, including reincarnation, past life regressions, and some other stories of past lives remembered. Buckle up!
Let’s fast-forward 3200 years to 20th-century England. Dorothy Eady was born in London in 1905 to Reuben Eady, a tailor with a penchant for show business, and his wife Caroline. Dorothy was an only child. When she was three years old, she took what appeared to be a fatal fall down the stairs. Her parents summoned a doctor as she lay unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. The doctor arrived, checked her vital signs and pronounced her dead. He then moved her little lifeless body to a spare bedroom while he waited for the coroner to arrive.
Elizabeth: Some time later, Dorothy shot straight up, awake and most definitely alive. While her parents were traumatized and endlessly annoyed with what they assumed was an incompetent physician, they were ecstatic that they had their daughter back. But she was somehow changed. Her voice sounded strange and she insisted that she wanted to “go home.” Her parents were perplexed because, well, she WAS home. The next year was difficult for her parents as they dealt with Dorothy’s behavioral issues and strange demands.
When Dorothy was four, her parents took her to the British Museum for a fun family outing. As soon as the child saw the New Kingdom exhibits in the Egyptian galleries, she yelled out in joy and relief that she had finally found her “home.” Her parents were, understandably, alarmed. It took everything in them to coax little Dorothy out of the Egyptian galleries at closing time. She spent most of her day lounging around on the sarcophagi and kissing the feet of a statue of Osiris. (This was 1909 and folks were allowed to do that back then, which is wild.)
Marissa: At one point, while reading a book, she became entranced by an image of Sety’s Temple, a structure in ruins in Abydos. Dorothy immediately said THAT was where she lived but that it looked different from how she remembered. She remembered it having a beautiful garden and being surrounded by trees. Dorothy spent almost all of her free time at the New Kingdom exhibits in the British Museums. When she wasn’t roaming the halls of the museum, she was reading about New Kingdom Egypt, teaching herself hieroglyphs, and dreaming of her “home” in Abydos.
Eminent Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge noticed her one day and took her under his wing, as a sort of mentor. He noticed that she was bright and encouraged her to continue studying Egypt. He was amazed at her proficiency in learning hieroglyphics which were extraordinarily complicated. He remained her mentor until she moved to Egypt as a young adult.
At home, Dorothy’s parents grew increasingly worried. At the age of 15, Dorothy claimed to have been visited in the night by the figure of a mummified Pharaoh Sety I. Some sources indicate that she also suffered from foreign accent syndrome, speaking in a strange pattern that sounded decidedly unBritish. Such sources also claim that Dorothy was institutionalized several times on account of her nightmares, sleep-walking, and strange behavior. (I don’t know that Dorothy denied this but it was certainly not a part of the story that she often told).
Elizabeth: Though she left school at 16, Dorothy attended art school for some time, performed for her father’s theater troupe (I told you he had a penchant for show business), and traveled around as a “student of life.” By the time she was a young adult, she was living in London and working for an Egyptian magazine as a political cartoonist. Here she met her future husband, Imam Abdel Meguid. Meguid was from a wealthy and notable Egyptian family. The two bonded over their support of Egyptian nationalism. The couple moved to Egypt in 1933 and married in a lavish ceremony in the fashionable district of Cairo.
Marissa: Their marriage was doomed from the start. Unbeknownst to her husband and his family, Dorothy was being visited more often by the spirit of Sety I. Family members, such as Dorothy’s mother and father-in-law, witnessed Sety’s materialized form. Dorothy often worried what would happen if her husband discovered these nocturnal visits. Moreover, she was increasingly distracted by the Egyptian world around her, choosing to wile away the days in poor parts of Cairo where the old folkways still remained. Her husband’s family were aghast at her behavior. Dorothy became pregnant very early in her marriage and gave birth to a son who she insisted on naming Sety, a strange and taboo choice according to her husband’s family. Escaping the inevitable decline of his marriage, Meguid arranged to take a year-long teaching job in Iraq, leaving little Sety with his mother.
Elizabeth: Dorothy took advantage of this freedom. She moved to an apartment close to the pyramids at Giza. She began following the ancient Egyptian religion in earnest, bringing offerings to the gods every day. She visited the pyramids often, bringing her baby son. Dorothy spent so much time exploring the ancient structures that she befriended the archaeologists and laborers who were excavating in the area. They were impressed by her knowledge, intuition, and artistic abilities. Through these connections, she was hired as a draftsperson by Egypt’s Department of Antiquities. Dorothy brought her son with her to work so the laborers began calling her Omm Sety (mother of Sety), which was the common way to address women in the local villages. Omm Sety was the first woman to ever be employed by the Department.
Marissa: During this time, her visitations from Sety were transformed. He took on physical form. They were able to touch, speak, and make love like any other couple. He calls her Bentreshyt and the two essentially pick up where they’d left off millennia before. Ancient Egyptians believed that what we might call “the soul” has many parts. Sety explained that his astral form was able to take on human form (he called it “putting on flesh”) by taking some of Omm Sety’s sekhem (vital force) each time he visited.
Elizabeth: Omm Sety’s and His Majesty’s (calling King Sety this so we don’t get mixed up) had long conversations about life after death. These conversations (many of which were recorded by Omm Sety in a diary for posterity) are really interesting. Omm Sety asks His Majesty what happens after death. He describes a variation of heaven (Amenti) that most of us would be familiar with but it’s much more complex and confusing than just all the good people go to be with their beloved family members and all the bad people don’t. For the most part he affirms the principles of ancient Egyptian religion but not always. He recounts meeting the god Horus but speaks less about the other gods. And he’s not all-knowing or all-powerful.
He tells Bentreshyt that during this brief brush with mortality when she was a child, a part of Bentretshyt’s soul came to inhabit the body of young Dorothy.
Marissa: One important conversation Omm Sety had with His Majesty determined the shape of the rest of her life. He told her that they must make amends for his and Bentreshyt’s grave sin of the flesh and that he’d consulted powerful authorities over the world of the dead. He informed her there was, indeed, a way for them to spend eternity together. To make this happen, he told her they must stop their sexual liaison and that she must live the rest of her mortal life as a celibate devotee of Isis. He also informed her that, at some point, she would need to go home to Abydos.
Elizabeth: Omm Sety did just that. They discontinued their sexual relationship (though His Majesty still visited her regularly. She moved to a remote shack near the Sety Temple ruins and lived there without electricity or running water for the rest of her life. Before long, her reputation as a folklorist and amateur Egyptologist had landed her another post in the Antiquities Department. She worked on rescuing and restoring the Sety Temple, cataloging the ruins, and reconstructing Sety’s nearby palace, called Heartsease. During her time there, she practiced the ancient Egyptian religion faithfully, bringing offerings to Isis and Osiris each morning. She continued to experience supernatural phenomena, always related to uncovering the ancient Egyptian past. In April 1981. Omm Sety died in her sleep.
During her lifetime, Omm Sety was beloved by all of the Egyptologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and antiquarians who met her. In fact, even academics quietly relied on her knowledge of Abydos in forming their hypotheses about the past. Tourist groups often visited her home, eager to meet the ancient Egyptians who had been reborn into the body of a 20th-century British woman. She was friendly to them but didn’t seem to particularly relish the attention. In fact, she never shared most of her supernatural experiences with anyone except her most intimate friends. We know about them after her death because she faithfully documented every day of her life in her diaries. Today Omm Sety has her own fan club of sorts. They have their own websites and social media groups where they discuss her life, read her books and books about her, and curiously dig into her many mysteries.
Marissa: So… this story is fantastical and eccentric but, believe it or not, past lives have a history. Dorothy Eady is not the only woman who has claimed to remember her past lives (though in many ways her story is exceptional which we’ll get to). In fact, this phenomenon popped up all over Britain and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The earliest modern claims to past life memories come from mid-nineteenth-century Spiritualists and other religious and intellectual radicals who floated between the margins and the mainstream religious culture (depending on the vagaries of religious trends.)
The theological underpinning of the past life phenomenon is, obviously, reincarnation. You can’t have past lives if you’re not constantly being reincarnated to live them. Reincarnation is most often associated with “Eastern” or Asian religions, especially Indic culture, and Hindu and Buddhist theology. But there is also a “Western” or European tradition of reincarnation dating back to the ancient Mediterranean. Greco-Roman philosophers such as Pythagoras, Plato, Iambichlus, and Proclus treated rebirth at length. Origen of Alexandria, a Christian theologian living in the third century CE, incorporated Greco-Roman ideas of rebirth into Christian theology. Religious studies scholar Lee Irwin claims that Origen was the first of many Christian theologians who would contest the orthodox Christian theories of the after-life. Many of them were dismissed as heretical by the church. Such was the fate of Origen’s theology when, 300 years after his death, the Fifth Ecumenical Council declared his theories anathema (which is a formal curse by the Pope denouncing a doctrine.) During the medieval period, Gnostic Christian groups and Jewish Kabbalah continued to promote theologies of rebirth. Until the mid-nineteenth century, ideas of reincarnation would be inseparable from religion, not any particular religion, but religion generally (Don’t worry we’ll get out of the theology weeds soon.)
Elizabeth: We can find an earlyish example of a semi-secular belief in reincarnation in Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon (1769-1821) was a believer in reincarnation. He was convinced that he was a Roman Emperor in a past life. Some writers believe that he may also have believed he was the reincarnation of Charlemagne.
Marissa: In 1809 he told papal emissaries, “Take a good look at me! In me you see Charlemagne. Je suis Charlemagne, moi! Je suis Charlemagne!… Tell the Pope that I am keeping my eyes open; tell him that I am Charlmagne, the Sword of the Church, his Emperor, and as such I expect to be treated.” Now this is a claim made by popular historians and Spiritualists today but most academic historians are on the fence about whether Napoleon genuinely believed he was reborn. Even if he did, he was admittedly quite eccentric, so this hardly suggests any kind of mainstream belief in reincarnation in Europe.
Elizabeth: Reincarnation theory was first imported to America by George Keith. Keith was a Scottish Presbyterian-turned Quaker-turned Anglican who lived briefly in the Philadelphia/New Jersey area during 1688-1693. The area surrounding Philadelphia and Jersey was filled with Quakers in the 17th century and many are still there today. After a few years in the colonies, Keith broke from the Quaker church over their involvement in slavery and his reincarnation theory called “soul revolution.” Soul revolution was originally the idea of a German esotericist named Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (d1698). Keith had been influenced by Helmont during his visit to England. Back in Philadelphia, Keith amassed a small group of followers who agreed with his unorthodox ideas. They co-wrote An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning Buying or Keeping of Negroes. In the following century, Quakers came to incorporate abolitionism into their repertoire but at this point in their organization, it was too progressive for them. As for reincarnation, the “soul revolution” theory split the Philadelphia Quakers until George Fox forcefully rejected reincarnation. Keith was excommunicated from the London Quaker Meeting and joined the Anglican church.
Marissa: Keithians were not the only radicals who were influenced by European esotericists to believe in reincarnation. In the 1820s, a highly spiritual intellectual group called the New England Transcendentalists began to coalesce as part of a larger Unitarian movement. By 1836, the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, MA was packed with influential American intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley, Edgar Allan Poe, Amos Branson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. The Transcendentalists were diverse and eclectic but they tended to favor individualism, nature, idealism and the pursuit of knowledge. They dabbled in Indian religion, adopting many of its tenets. Their belief in reincarnation, however, came from both “East” and “West.” Ralph Waldo Emerson articulates the Transcendentalist view on reincarnation thusly:
“The soul comes from without into the human body, as into a temporary abode, and it goes out of it anew it passes into other habitations, for the soul is immortal… It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again. Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals… and there they stand looking out of the window, sound and well, in some strange new disguise.”
Elizabeth: Under the aegis of Transcendentalists (thank heavens because I’m over talking about theology) the American and British conception of reincarnation was untethered from religion. Scholar Lee Irwin puts it well: “The agency for reincarnation is “naturalized” in the sense that deity recedes and natural law implies a cycling of souls whose life conditions reflect past life experience. The goal of human life is not a disembodied ascent to a higher domain, as an escape from physical life, but an emphatic embrace of physical life as the evolutionary locus of embodied consciousness.” So basically, instead of regarding their bodies as prisons that their souls are waiting to escape, Transcendentalists viewed indefinite and repeated physical lives on Earth as “the goal.” The human soul needs these many lives to learn about existence and evolve into better and better humans over time. (It almost sounds Darwinian doesn’t it?!)
Marissa: It is here, in the mid-1800s New England among Transcendentalist circles, that Americans began to recall past lives. They treated these recollections, however, as intellectual curiosities to explore existence. Thoreau, for example, wrote in a letter to Harrison Blake that the night sky in New England reminded him of how it looked to him when he was an Assyrian shepherd. He wrote: “I lived in Judea eighteen hundred years ago, but I never knew there was such a one as Christ among my contemporaries… And [Nathaniel] Hawthorne too, I remember as one with whom I sauntered in old heroic times among the banks of the Scamander amid the ruins of chariots and heroes… As far back as I remember I have unconsciously referred to the experiences of a previous state of existence.”
Elizabeth: Thoreau believed that experiencing his past lives allowed him to contemplate divine truths. He wrote in his journal, on May 24, 1851: “Our most glorious experiences are a kind of regret. Our regret is so sublime that we may mistake it for triumph. It is the painful, plaintively sad surprise of our Genius remembering our past lives and contemplating what is possible. It is remarkable that men commonly never refer to, never hint at, any crowning experiences when the common laws of their being were unsettled and the divine and eternal laws prevailed in them. Their lives are not revolutionary; they never recognize any other than the local and temporal authorities. It is a regret so divine and inspiring, so genuine, based on so true and distinct a contrast, that it surpasses our proudest boasts and the fairest expectations.”
Marissa: Louisa May Alcott also recalled past lives. She wrote: “think immortality is the passing of a soul through many lives or experiences: and such as are truly lived, used, and learned, help on to the next, each growing richer, happier and higher, carrying with it only the real memories of what has gone before. . . . I seem to remember former states and feel that in them I have learned some of the lessons that have never since been mine here and in my next step I hope to leave behind many of the trials I have struggled to bear here and begin to find lightened as I go on. This accounts for the genius and great virtue some show here. They have done well in many phases of this great school and bring into our class the virtue or the gifts that make them great or good. We don’t remember the lesser things. They slip away as childish trifles, and we carry on only the real experiences.”
Elizabeth: The Transcendentalists were not the only heirs to European esotericism. While Transcendentalism was a philosophy or world view, Theosophy is perhaps more properly called a religion. Theosophy was founded by Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky. Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 with Henry Steel Olcott. Theosophy is an absolutely wild religion but we don’t have time for that here. But their theory of reincarnation is worth noting because it’s one-way. Spirits are reborn time and again so they can progress forward, getting closer to perfection. But, unlike other karmic theologies, Theosophy does not allow for regression into lesser forms. It’s all about progress. This progressivism allowed some intellectuals to reconcile Theosophy with Darwinian science.
Marissa: What’s important for us to know for this episode is that Theosophy introduced Eastern religious culture, and reincarnation specifically, to Americans and Britains. This is best exemplified by the Akashic records. These are mental records stored on a non-physical plain, essentially a compilation of every intention or action made by any souls or any event that ever happened, is happening, or will happen. Blavatsky introduced the concept but never called them Akashic records. The name came from Theosophy practitioners and scholars who identified the same concept within Buddhist teachings.
The concept of Akashic records had a life of its own. By the time of Blavatsky’s death, the records became a subject of fascination for many. Theosophist clairvoyants, many of whom teetered on the cusp of mainstream popularity, claimed they could read the Akashic records. They made a living off books, lecture circuits, and professional reading services wherein they revealed the records secrets. For example, in 1904, Austrian theosophist Rudolf Steiner wrote about the lost cities of Atlantis and Lemuria using the Akashic records as his evidence.
Elizabeth: Let’s be clear, though. Up to this point, the folks dabbling in reincarnation, past lives, and Akashic records were often highly educated and fairly eccentric. What about everyone else? Well, their introduction to reincarnation came to the mainstream through Spiritualism. Transcendentalists and Theosophists were often interested in Spiritualism and there was a lot of cross-pollination between the three. We’ve done many episodes about Spiritualism and the Second Great Awakening but in case you’re new here, here’s a summary: America and Britain both experienced extensive religious revivalism during the middle third of the 19th century. This revivalism spawned several utopian communities, religious practices, and even new religious groups including Mormonism, Spiritualism, Seventh Day Adventists, and more. Spiritualism is a religion based on mediumship and communication with the dead. The Big Bang of Spiritualism was the Fox sisters’ communication with spirits in Hydesville, NY through rappings on the walls. Spiritism, just to make it more confusing, is a specific branch of Spiritualism that has more European influence. Spiritists generally believe in reincarnation while other Spiritualists are less likely to ascribe to this belief.
Marissa: Spiritists were influenced extensively by French esoteric writer Hippolyte Rivail. Rivail was better known by his pen name, Allan Kardec. Kardec wrote so extensively on mediumship that by 1857, he had constructed a comprehensive Spiritist ideology. Rivail believed that human spirits had the ability to choose their mother, their gender, their new bodies. Of course, Spiritualism is a peculiarly American movement. By 1860, there were about 2 million American Spiritualists. But, as we’ve demonstrated before on the show, Spiritualism was international, and Rivail’s ideas were received happily by many American Spiritualists. Spiritualism had always been, and still is, an eclectic, inconsistent, and often contradictory network of beliefs.
This eclecticism became problematic as Spiritualism became increasingly institutionalized. The National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC) was founded in America in 1893. But only one generation later, the church split over the reincarnation debate. Reincarnation theory had become increasingly popular and a sizable contingent of Spiritualists were becoming disaffected with the NSAC’s dismissive position in reincarnation. In 1913, NSAC members who believed in reincarnation left in protest to form the National Spiritual Alliance. Canadian-born medium Amanda Flower(s) and other believers in reincarnation split off from the NSAC to found the Independent Spiritualist Association in 1924. This did not entirely resolve the issue of reincarnation for the NSAC, however, because in 1930 they were compelled to issue a public statement rejecting reincarnation theory.
Elizabeth: This statement was enraging to most members in the New York chapter of the Association, where belief in reincarnation had become the norm. The reincarnation issue also brought the issue of race into play. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Rivail’s French brand of Spiritism had become incredibly influential in the Afro-Caribbean world. Rivail’s theories on reincarnation integrated seamlessly with African Igbo traditions that had been preserved in the Caribbean. This blend, embodied in creole religions like Voodoo, Santeria, Candomblé, and Umbanda, was imported into American cities by waves of Caribbean immigrants during the nineteenth century. Spiritists elicited criticism from white mainstream America for blurring the color line. Anglo spiritual mediums often had non-white spirit guides and connected with Black and Brown historical figures in their past-life regressions.
The NSAC chose to back their white members at the expense of the Black and Brown members, articulating an offensive position on race shortly after their rejection of reincarnation (not a coincidence that these two statements came out the same year). These policy statements led the New York chapter of the association to break off. They created the General Assembly of Spiritualists that same year. I want to point out that, today, white mediums’ engagement of Black and Brown spirit guides or claims to a Black or Brown past life smacks of colonization and appropriation (it seems icky in our contemporary climate). But in the 1920s and 1930s, Anglo mediums were radical in their willingness to grant Black and Brown voices authority in the spirit world. This willingness to cross racial boundaries was exceptional in Jim Crow America.
Marissa: Despite the NSAC’s attempts to homogenize and codify Spiritualist theology, Spiritualism resisted orthodoxy. Twentieth-century Spiritualism often resembled a wild mosaic of Theosophist, Transcendentalist, and Rivailist beliefs, especially when it came to reincarnation. At the same time, Spiritualist and Spiritualist-adjacent practices like clairvoyance, hypnotism, and astrology were making headlines and becoming popular recreational activities. To a certain extent, there has always been a recreational aspect to Spiritualism. As we learned in Averill’s episode on the Fox sisters, American and British audiences clamored for the circus that was Spiritualism during the nineteenth century as well. But 20th century Spiritualism was impacted by a highly developed tabloid media, television exposure, and the most sensationalist of journalism. In this environment, mediumship, aura-reading, and past life regression served as sites where these eclectic traditions battled and mediated orthodox Christianity and American popular culture.
Elizabeth: For example, famous American clairvoyant Edgar Cayce gave a reading to a wealthy man named Arthur Lammers in 1923. Lammers was interested in researching the metaphysical, something he had in common with many people who sought out mediumship in the 20th century. Cayce, a devoted Christian, gave readings in trance and purportedly had no memory of the messages he delivered. On this occasion, Cayce came to and was shocked to hear that he had substantiated astrology and reincarnation while in trance. Cayce objected:
“I said all that?… I couldn’t have said all that in one reading”
Lammers clarified “No. But you confirmed it. You see, I have been studying metaphysics for years, and I was able by a few questions, by the facts you gave, to check what is right and what is wrong with a whole lot of the stuff I’ve been reading. The important thing is that the basic system which runs through all the religions, is backed up by you.”
Marissa: Indeed Cayce’s stenographer recorded that he said the following:
“In this we see the plan of development of those individuals set upon this plane, meaning the ability to enter again into the presence of the Creator and become a full part of that creation.
Insofar as this entity is concerned, this is the third appearance on this plane, and before this one, as the monk. We see glimpses in the life of the entity now as were shown in the monk, in this mode of living. The body is only the vehicle ever of that spirit and soul that waft through all times and ever remain the same.”
Though it wasn’t immediate, this interaction eventually transformed Cayce’s career. In an attempt to reconcile his readings with Christianity, Cayce established several institutions designed to pursue metaphysical inquiry. Despite his best efforts, Cayce’s abilities continued to develop outside of the bounds of orthodox Christianity. Cayce secured a place in popular history with the publication of a 1942 viral magazine article about his work. He worked himself ragged doing as many as 8 readings per day through the 1940s. His organizations drew members from Asian religions, every denomination of Christianity, including Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Christian Science. By the time of his death, Cayce was known for identifying past lives, reading Akashic records, dabbling in divination, astral projection, and analyzing auras. Traditionalist Christians softened to the idea of reincarnation as they were intrigued or impressed by recreational performances by clairvoyants and hypnotists like Edgar Cayce and Helen Duncan.
Elizabeth: In a sense, the pattern of Cayce’s life is replicated in American popular culture. Belief in reincarnation grew rapidly among Christians in post-WWII Britain and America. The best examples we have of this growing interest is the hypnosis hype. Hypnosis has a long history of its own and it experienced immense popularity in the nineteenth century with hypnotists like Jean-Martin Charcot who hypnotized people in front of live audiences. But by the 20th century hypnosis had earned bona fide credentials. From 1958 to 1987, the American Medical Association (AMA) encouraged hypnosis for therapeutic uses. In 1960, the American Psychological Association followed suit. At the same time, hypnotists’ audiences got larger and some began performing on television. In this semi-medical, semi-popular environment, therapeutic and celebrity hypnotists experimented with various forms of hypnotic regression, past life regression being among them. This environment gave way to one of the most sensationalized instances of reincarnation.
Marissa: Colorado housewife Virginia Tighe agreed to do a hypnotic regression in 1952. She was guided back to childhood and then birth by a hypnotist named Morey Bernstein. Unexpectedly, while under trance, Tighe regressed further than expected, into a past life. In an Irish accent and speaking in the first person, she relayed the life story of Bridey Murphy, an Irish woman born in 1798 County Cork. Tighe described Murphy’s marriage and death by a fall in 1864. She remembered seeing her own coffin and being reborn in America years later.
Elizabeth: America was rapt. The Denver Post published a series about Bridey Murphy. Tighe and Bernstein sold movie rights and published a book called The Search for Bridey Murphy in 1956. The book was a bestseller, inspiring numerous spin-offs, cartoons, and songs. This eventually inspired journalists to pore over every detail of Tighe’s life to either prove or disprove her claims. They found a jackpot of inconsistencies.
No record was ever found of Bridey’s birth or death. She mispronounced her supposed husband’s name: Sean. The place where Bridey’s husband worked and the church they purportedly attended did not exist during Bridey’s supposed lifetime. But the nail in the coffin was that Tighe had a childhood neighbor named Bridie Murphy Corkell whose life resembled the Bridey Murphy story. Experts suggest that Tighe’s stories were the result of cryptomnesia and not a past life at all.
Marissa: But there was no unringing that bell. Americans were increasingly convinced that reincarnation was plausible and they paid good money for past life regression, spirit paintings, and other reincarnation-friendly practices. In 1975, occultist Marcia Moore published the hit book Hypersentience in which she rejected hypnotism and past-life regression opting, instead, for the terms hypersentience and retrocognition. Moore’s reports of retrocognition offered dramatic and lifelike narratives of the past lives of her subjects. But for every one of these examples, there are two examples of past life regressions wherein the sitter describes past lives as Cleopatra, Winston Churchill, or Hitler. Even more common is a crossover between history or myth. So many believers reported lives in the lost city of Atlantis that reincarnation scholars felt compelled to address the phenomenon. One theory was that the generation born around 1910 contained the souls of many former Atlanteans. Due to the cyclical nature of reincarnation, it was suggested that humans moved through time in cohorts. It would, therefore, be logical if vast numbers of people died in a civilization-ending disaster, that many of them would appear around the same time in their new lives. (Kind of like how everyone arrives to the checkout line in the grocery store at the same time)
Elizabeth: One 2009 PEW survey found that 22% of American Christians believed in reincarnation. For many of them, their belief was, and still is, reinforced by their lived experience. Believers report instances of deja vu or being drawn to a specific geographic location as evidence of past life experiences there. Children are thought to be particularly sensitive to sensing their past lives. This was first noticed by the Akan people whose tradition holds that children remember their past lives until adolescence. And then, again, by Transcendentalists Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody who were involved in experimental education of children in the Boston Temple school. Several of the children reported memory of past lives.
In the 1980s, psychiatrist Ian Stevenson launched a large-scale study (over 2,500 cases) into Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP) in children. He found that children who reported living past lives usually had no other evidence of ESP but they had various behaviors in common. They often displayed childhood phobias rooted in past life trauma. Most children reported violent deaths and identified birth marks that matched the placement of past life injuries. Children who reported living past lives also tended to have insatiable interests based on past life experience and they sometimes even rejected their own parents in grief for their past life parents.
Marissa: This all sounds very similar to Dorothy Eady’s childhood experiences, doesn’t it? Much like Dorothy/Omm Sety, the children all claimed to be ordinary people. Not one of them claimed to be a notable figure in the past. Like Dorothy’s parents, most parents of children in the study rejected their child’s claims and demonstrated no belief in reincarnation. Unlike Dorothy Eady, however, Stevenson found that most of the children in his study recalled past lives around the age of 3 but then did not mention them again by age 6.
Elizabeth: But in so many ways, Omm Sety’s case is unique. While many instances of past life recall contain an icky colonial element (middle aged white ladies claiming ownership to a black or brown past, for example), Omm Sety’s case is somewhat different. She was a resolute and devoted anti-British, anti-colonial agitator in Egypt. She exhibited a genuine dedication to ancient Egyptian religion and kept her past life experiences mostly to herself during her lifetime. She claimed no other past lives and Bentreshyt was/is an unknown, ordinary person, not Cleopatra or Pocahontas. She was an invaluable resource to Egyptologists and archaeologists who consulted her before digs or after their anthropological treasures had been unearthed. She was happiest living alone without modern amenities and among her treasured cats with very little attention and very few personal possessions. Whatever my thoughts on reincarnation, I have absolutely no doubt that Omm Sety believed in her past life as Bentreshyt.
Marissa: Before Spiritualism and all of its cognate theologies, the Christian end goal had always been to escape the bonds of Earthly life to live as one with the creator in a non-physical world. But it appears as if the goal is, increasingly, a do-over, a new human life where one can right wrongs and rectify past mistakes, even if they are unaware that’s what they’re doing. To me, this suggests that as humans, we’d rather be living life, alive and on Earth, than anywhere else. We keep coming back for more.
A Scientific Report on “The Search for Bridey Murphy.”. AMA Arch NeurPsych. 1956;76(4):453.
Bender, Courtney. “American Reincarnations: What the Many Lives of Past Lives Tell us about Contemporary Spiritual Practice,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 75, Issue 3, September 2007, Pages 589–614, https://doi.org/10.1093/jaarel/lfm037
Campbell, Bruce F. (1980). Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Clarke, Peter B. Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements, Routledge, 2005.
Doyle, Arthur Conan (1975) The History of Spiritualism. Arno Press. New York
El Zeini, Hanny. Omm Sety’s Egypt. St. Lynn’s Press, 2006.
Irwin, Lee. Reincarnation in America: An Esoteric History, Lexington Books, 2017.
Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History, 2007.
Park, Robert L. Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science, Princeton University Press, 2008.
Porter, Jennifer E. “Science” and Spiritual Vibrations: Contemporary Spiritualism and the Discourse of Science,” McMaster University, Doctoral Thesis.