"An artist is someone who produces things that people
don't need but that he - for some reason - thinks
it would be a good idea to give them."
-Andy Warhol

If it can be said you can't judge a book by its cover, it too can be said you can't judge a book by its title. Or at least in the case of Visions and Prophecies (Time-Life Books). If you happen to pick up this selection from The Mysteries of the Unknown series (Volume 6) expecting it to deliver prophecies and visions, disappointment will be yours. If your pursuit is to gain knowledge on the psychic arts though, you just hit the proverbial jackpot.

The Science of Fortune-telling
The editors of Time-Life Books have scoured the psychic frontiers to bring together in this volume oodles of information regarding the telling of fortunes. From haruspicy (the examination of chicken innards) to the Tarot for predicting fate, they recount the various "sciences" of divination. Although they don't detail each practice with the in-depth information afforded to the better known ones (palmistry, Tarot, numerology), they do a good job of coverage. Some of the minor arts they delve into are Aeromancy (prophecy through the observation of atmospheric phenomena), Podomancy (prophesy through the study of the soles of the feet), and my favorite, Transataumancy (prophesy through interpreting events seen or heard accidentally). Evening news, anyone? There are 44 of these minor arts alone included here, and it leaves one wondering if there is nothing that doesn't have prophetic significance to somebody.

Besides palmistry there are two other major techniques covered here which base predictions on a subject's physiology. The first, physiognomy, studies contours of the face. Widely practiced in China, this art has been credited for everything from diagnosing illness to forecasting the future. In eighteenth century Vienna, a physician by the name of Gall practiced what he initially called organology in which he autopsied scores of heads in his pursuit of developing a science of fortune-telling. A persuasive lecturer, he soon had so many followers it was common practice for the upper-class to state in their wills that their heads were not to be sawed open. By 1822 Gall's theories had spread to America where the science was called phrenology, and its fans founded the Central Phrenological Society. By 1836 an American by the name of Orson Fowler picked up the phrenological ball and running with it, opened a publishing house in New York dedicated to expanding phrenology's influence. A smashing success, by the twentieth century the Fowlers' empire stretched clear across North America. Unfortunately, the Great Depression was a force too great even for phrenology and the family empire unraveled.

What sets this book apart from others in the Mysteries series, is the absence of criticsm. Other volumes allow naysayers a voice with the fervor of equal opportunism. Visions doesn't afford its reader that kind of healthy dischord. Where are the detractors of Alphitomancy (the swallowing of a specially baked barley loaf for purposes of divination), Hippomancy (deciphering the future through the gait of horses during cermonial processions), and Zoomancy (foretelling future events through the interpretation of reports about imaginary animals and sea monsters)?

The Untapped Mind
Psychic Powers (Time-Life Books) is the second volume in the Mysteries of the Unknown series which delivers the goods Visions and Prophecies does not. It covers the phenomenon of psychic visions, extra sensory perception (ESP) and telepathy. An early champion of research in the US was the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who leant his support in a national atmosphere suspicious of anything hinting of spiritualism. In the US spiritualism reached its height of popularity in the late 1800s, which it didn't hang on to for long as one spiritualist after another was exposed as being fraudulent. The arena of psychic study was so suspect that at least one University banned the journal of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) from its shelves. By 1930 psychic research had gained wider acceptance with Duke University actively testing subjects, and in 1971 the Apollo 14 mission included exercises designed to test the telepathy of astronauts as they visited the moon.

In it he sees himself "reborn in the year 2100,

flying across North America at fantastic speed and

exploring a devastated New York City."

Today, though not accepted by everyone, the notion of ESP hardly seems beyond the realm of possibility. In nature animals moving in herds or fish in schools have been observed to move in symmetry that can only be explained by some unseen form of communication. One Uri Geller achieved fame in the '70s when he took his telepathic talents to the stage, earning the ire of scientists. Among other things, he's known for stopping clocks, bending spoons and moving objects with his mind. Today Geller is employed by mining companies, using his special talents to detect minerals beneath the earth's surface as he flies an airplane overhead. It gives one pause.

Phenomena also covered here are psychic crime fighters, dowsing (water witching) and a technique called Kirlian photography which captures auras in photographs. Developed in 1939 by a Soviet scientist, it's basically a process which photographs its subject while a high-voltage electrical charge shoots through it. Debunkers of Kirlian Photography call the auras "corona discharge imagings", which is a scientific way of saying they're the result of all that high-voltage electricity. Aura or not, the images created in the process are stunning, and the editors have included six pages of them.

Like other books in the Mysteries series the editors allow critics a voice. James Randi is one such naysayer, a man who's dedicated his life to exposing psychics as mere tricksters. Randi would appear equipped for the task, having been a professional magician himself.

The Future Revealed
Whether the craft of fortune-telling or keys to untapped powers of the mind are your forte, Visions and Prophecies along with Psychic Powers are both good volumes to begin with. Though slim, they're packed with information that provide overviews to both topics. As stated earlier, Visions and Prophecies lacks the predictions one might expect by the title, but there are a few accounts of historical "prophets" - Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, Jeane Dixon - largely thrown in the opening chapter to lend a bit of history on the subject at hand. One passage, regarding a vision Edgar Cayce had in 1936, has gained significance since September 11, 2001. In it he sees himself "reborn in the year 2100, flying across North America at fantastic speed and exploring a devastated New York City." Rearrange the numerals in the year, and you'll know what I mean.

It's true a book can't always be judged by its title. That's okay, though. Once in a great while a gem comes along with content more intriguing than you'd ever have predicted by its title alone.

posted 03/08/02