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While spirit mediums and trance channellers come and go, there has never been anyone else quite like Catherine Elise Muller (more commonly known as Helene Smith). Born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1861, Catherine`s father was a Hungarian merchant with a talent for learning languages and her mother was prone to seeing "visions". From an early age, Catherine had a vivid imagination and extremely intense daydreams. She would tell her parents of her visions of brightly coloured landscapes, bizarre images, and bright lights and openly speculated about being a changeling.
It was in 1891 that she was first introduced to Spiritualism and quickly showed a remarkable talent for automatic writing. She also showed a knack for mediumship and communicated with different spirits (including the ghost of Victor Hugo). Table-tipping, spirit writing, clairvoyance, Catherine did it all. Her spirit guide, Count Cagliostro (more commonly known as ``Leopold``) acted through her body and she claimed not to remember anything that occurred while she was in one of her trances . Interestingly enough, Catherine never charged for her séances and supported herself as a shop-worker despite her growing fame throughout Geneva.
Over the next few years, some astounding revelations came out of Catherine`s séances. These revelations seemed to move through specific "cycles" including an Oriental cycle in which she remembered her previous life as Simandini, the wife of Prince Sivrouka Nayaka of India (she spoke in a form of Hindustani during these trances). There was also a Royal cycle in which she remembered having been Queen Marie Antoinette of France, complete with French language, different handwriting, and recall of life in the French court (her humble life as a shop-worker was supposedly part of her karmic debt for the excesses of her life as the French queen). Catherine`s most remarkable claim occurred in November, 1894 when she stated that her spirit had been transported to the planet Mars. Not only did she describe the Martian plants and animals in detail, she also provided examples of the Martian language (complete with written samples). She later reported visits to Venus and Uranus (and provided samples of the different languages spoken there).
It seemed only natural that she become the subject of interest by Theodore Flournoy, professor of psychology at the University of Geneva and an early psychic researcher. He had investigated spirit mediums across Europe and Catherine became his most famous case. He became part of her spiritualist circle in 1895 and managed to gain her trust (a process made easier since Catherine declared that he was the reincarnation of Prince Sivrouka). Their association continued until 1900 when he published his book From India to the Planet Mars: a study of a case of somnabulism in which he provided a critical review of Catherine's mediumship (he changed her name to Helene Smith in the book and it is by this name that she is most famous).
It's a fascinating book still and represents an early classic in septicism (although he loses a few skeptical points by suggesting that Helene had genuine psychic powers). Sadly, from the perspective of Catherine and her supporters, Flournoy concluded that there was nothing supernatural about Catherine/Helene's trances. Not only were her revelations based on her own romantic ideas and misconceptions, but her Martian language was based on Earth languages (although it's still one of the most memorable examples of idioglossia on record). Despite the book being a best-seller and generating tremendous interest in Catherine, she and her supporters felt betrayed by Flournoy and terminated all contact with him.
Until his death in 1920, Flournoy continued his work with other psychics and also remained one of the seminal researchers in the area of dissociation and the unconscious. Carl Jung regarded him as an early mentor and credited him with spurring his own work into unconscious phenomena.
As for Catherine? It was in 1900 when an American spiritualist (inspired by Flournoy's book) offered Catherine a generous salary that enabled her to quit her job and become a full-time spiritualist. Until her death in 1932, she continued her séances and proceeded on to a "Biblical" cycle in which she began painting while in trances. While her paintings tended not to be that memorable, she was seen as an icon by later Surrealist painters who considered her to be an inspiration for their own art. So, in a sense, her work lives on in art galleries around the world. Otherwise, even spiritualists tend to view her as a bit of an embarrassment. Needless to say, the scientific community never battered down her door trying to learn about life on other worlds.
Flournoy's book remains a classic and, for a time, was much better known than Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams which came out the same year. Even stripped of the supernatural elements, Catherine Elise Muller remains an amazing example of the power of human imagination and its capacity for self-deception. It's something that we should continue to remember.
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