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The enchanted renegades: female mediums’ subversive wisdom

Amidst the tapestry of history, there exist threads often overlooked, woven by the hands of remarkable women who defied the constraints of their time. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amidst the burgeoning intellectual and cultural movements of Europe, the fascinating phenomenon of female mediumship emerged as one such thread in the history of Western psychology.

When considering the pioneering intellectual figures of the era, prevailing narratives often cast their achievements as monuments of male genius. The likes of Charcot, Freud, and Jung have long persisted as emblematic icons of modern thought, perpetuating a mythos of masculine dominance in the annals of history.

But peer deeper into the cultural undercurrents, and you’ll find eccentric, queer feminine forces that disrupted masculine regimes of knowledge. In dimly lit parlors of 19th-century Europe, the spiritualist séance cultivated a uniquely democratic forum where traditional gender hierarchies dissolved under trance’s transfigurative epistemology. Common housewives and daughters, through spirit possession, could channel poetic tongues, cosmic landscapes, and incarnated personae that far eclipsed their modest social status.

Hélène Smith was an unremarkable Genevan clerk who, through spiritualist séances, produced outpourings of poetic tongues, alien landscapes, and revivals of historical figures that enchanted and bewildered the rationalist thinkers observing her (interpreters of her séances have included the “fathers” of French psychoanalysis, linguistics, and surrealism: Jacques Lacan, Ferdinand de Saussure, and André Breton). Smith’s embodied possessions erupted with what could be seen as a distinctly queered grandiosity–not only upending norms around feminine expression, but channeling esoteric mysteries that transcended the grasp of her renowned observers. Her glossolalia (she created a variety of extra-planetary languages), past-life narratives (she notably incarnated Marie-Antoinette), and visionary artworks (paintings of her supernatural visions) asserted a chthonic, feminine gnosis challenging modern understandings of the psyche.

Spiritualism had emerged in the 1840s as a ceremonial practice for communing with the dead. In many ways, spiritualist exploration of the séance ritual represented a subversive evolution of Western esotericism’s enchanted worldviews. While eccentric, radical philosophies of nature’s divine embodiment had circulated through esoteric undercurrents for centuries, the 19th century saw mediums democratizing access to such landscapes. Common individuals, and most particularly women, were believed among adherents to host manifestations of the supernatural through their own consecrated bodies and psyches.

The Fox sisters are known today as having originated the Spiritualist movement in Hydesville, New York, in 1848. The movement spread rapidly: as the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung recounted in a 1905 lecture, “in Europe, spiritualism took the form chiefly of an epidemic of table-turning. There was hardly an evening party or dance where the guests did not steal away at a late hour to question the table.”
Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox. Library of Congress. New York, 1852. Public Domain.

Spiritualism’s rise coincided with scientific disenchantment narratives claiming to secularize occult forces into clinical phenomena like hysteria. Yet paradoxically, medical theorists like Jean-Martin Charcot reframed the feminine body itself as a site of profound mystery—a threshold where cosmic wonders could inscribe themselves through stigmata, seizures, and automatic scripts. Séances erupted this sanctified feminine materiality into public discourse. Women mediums’ incomprehensible corporealized phenomena unsettled masculine knowledge constructs. The feminine body’s passions and flows became mouthpieces for ancient, prophetic teachings that masculine authorities anxiously reframed yet could not fully grasp.

At Charcot’s institution, the hysterical female body became a paradoxical site for the material relocation of the sacred and magical. Associating hysteria and a dermatological condition called dermographism, medical authorities conducted various experiments during which they inscribed signs of the devil, or the name Satan, on the hysteric’s body to indicate that previous sightings of this mark had been ill-understood manifestations of hysteria.
L. Trepsat. Dermographisme: démence précoce catatonique. Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtrière. Paris, 1904, p. 196. Public Domain.

In this light, spiritualist mediumship unfolded privileged modes of knowledge. Mediums like Smith produced otherworldly speeches and visions that scientific observers labored to secularize and inadvertently drew nourishing power from.

Hélène Smith’s Uranian script, deciphered by Théodore Flournoy in his work.
Nouvelles observations sur un cas de somnambulisme, 1900, p. 185. Public Domain.

Hélène Smith was not an isolated phenomenon, but emblematic of women medium’s intrusions into masculine knowledge structures at a time when the boundaries between ESP (extra-sensory perception) phenomena and psychology emerged. Through their consecrated embodiments, spiritualists like her did not merely dissolve identities into passivity, but unleashed agential mysteries into philosophies that pre-encoded the sanctified feminine’s marginalization. Their refusal to cohere sparked foundational questionings at the origins of modern understandings of the mind. The enchanted renegades transmuted subversive wisdom through acts of self-dissolution—twinning pathways of submission and subversion into an undecidable, uncanny, and impossibly alive feminine force.

Featured image credit: “Un salon the Paris au mois de mai 1853.” L’Illustration, Paris, May 1853. Public Domain.

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