Spirit Mediums and the Art of Suggesting Stories



Fredrik Barth called attention to two ways ritually transmitted knowledge gains value: knowledge he associated with the figure of the ‘Guru’ valued for being widely shared versus knowledge associated with the figure of the ‘conjurer’ or ‘initiator’ valued for the opposite reason. In this article, I argue that there is another kind of ritual knowledge-transmitter who holds an appropriately ‘in-between’ position: the spirit medium. During ‘demonstrations’, mediums in the Spiritualist tradition offer signs from the spirit world for their audiences to recognise in relation to their deceased loved ones. Whereas Gurus (in Barth’s typology) are likely to be storytellers and conjurers are not, mediums are distinct for telling what I call ‘protonarratives’. Protonarratives are character sketches joined with allusions to events or signs that suggest stories. They are not narrative in form, but can evoke stories that live in listeners’ memories.

Keywords: narrative, protonarrative, ritual, knowledge, Fredrik Barth, Spiritualism, Australia




How to Cite

Tomlinson, M. (2024). Spirit Mediums and the Art of Suggesting Stories. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 48(2), 6–26. https://doi.org/10.30676/jfas.137686