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Second Sight

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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A term denoting the opposite of its apparent significance, meaning in reality the seeing, in vision, of events before they occur. "Foresight" expresses the meaning of second sight, which perhaps was originally so called because normal vision was regarded as coming first, while supernormal vision is a secondary thing, confined to certain individuals.

Though we hear most of the "second sight" among the Celts of the Scottish Highlands (it is much less familiar to the Celts of Ireland), this species of involuntary prophetic vision, whether direct or symbolical, is peculiar to no people. Perhaps our earliest notice of symbolical second sight is found in the Odyssey, where Theoclymenus sees a shroud of mist about the bodies of the doomed Wooers, and drops of blood distilling from the walls of the hall of Odysseus. The Pythia at Delphi saw the blood on the walls during the Persian War; and, in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, blood and fire appear to Circe in her chamber on the night before the arrival of the fratricidal Jason and Medea. Similar examples of symbolical visions occur in the Icelandic sagas, especially in Njala, before the burning of Njal and his family. In the Highlands, and in Wales, the chief symbols beheld are the shroud, and the corpse candle or other spectral illumination. The Rev. Dr Stewart, of Nether Lochaber, informed the present writer that one of his parishioners, a woman, called him to his door, and pointed out to him a rock by the sea, which shone in a kind of phosphorescent brilliance. The doctor attributed the phenomenon to decaying sea-weed, but the woman said, "No, a corpse will be laid there to-morrow." This, in fact, occurred; a dead body was brought in a boat for burial, and was laid at the foot of the rock, where, as Dr Stewart found, there was no decaying vegetable matter.

Second sight flourished among the Lapps and the Red Indians, the Zulus and Maoris, to the surprise of travellers, who have recorded the puzzling facts. But in these cases the visions were usually "induced," not "spontaneous," and should be considered as "clairvoyance" (q.v.). Ranulf Higdon's Polychronicon (r4th century) describes Scottish second sight, adding that. strangers "setten their feet upon the feet of the men of that. londe for to see such syghtes as the men of that londe doon." This method of communicating the vision is still practised, with success, according to the late Dr Stewart. The present writer once had the opportunity to make an experiment, but to him the vision was not imparted. (For the method see Kirk's. Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, 1691, 1815, 1893.) It is, by some, believed that if a person tells what he has seen before the event occurs he will lose the faculty, and recently a second-sighted man, for this reason, did not warn his brother against taking part in a regatta, though he had foreseen the accident by which his brother was drowned. Where this opinion prevails it is, of course, impossible to prove that the vision ever occurred. There are many seers, as Lord Tarbat wrote to Robert Boyle, to whom the faculty is a trouble, "and they would be rid of it at any rate, if they could." Perhaps the visions most frequently reported are those of funerals, which later occur in accordance with "the sight," of corpses, and of "arrivals" of persons, remote at the moment, who later do arrive, with some distinctive mark of dress or equipment which the seer could not normally expect, but observed in the vision. Good examples in their own experience have been given to the present writer by well-educated persons. Some of the anecdotes are too surprising to be published without the names of the seers. A fair example of second sight is the following from Balachulish. An aged man of the last generation was troubled by visions of armed men in uniform, drilling in a particular field near the sea. The uniform was not "England's cruel red," and he foresaw an invasion. "It must be of Americans," he decided, "for the soldiers do not look like foreigners." The Volunteer movement later came into being, and the men drilled on the ground where the seer had seen them. Another case was that of a man who happened to be sitting with a boy on the edge of a path in the quarry. Suddenly he caught the boy and leaped aside with him. He had seen a runaway trolly, with men in it, dash down the path; but there were no traces of them below. "The spirits of the living are powerful to-day," said the percipient in Gaelic, and next day the fatal accident occurred at the spot. These are examples of what is, at present, alleged in the matter of second sight.

"The sight" may, or may not, be preceded or accompanied by epileptic symptoms, but this appears now to be unusual. A learned minister lately made a few inquiries on this point in his parish, at the request of the present writer. His beadle had "the sight" in rich measure: "it was always preceded by a sense of discomfort and anxiety," but was not attended by convulsions. Out of seven or eight seers in the parish, only one was not perfectly healthy and temperate. A well-known seer, now dead, whom the writer consulted, was weak of body, the result of an accident, but seemed candid, and ready to confess that his visions were occasionally failures. He said that "the sight" first came on him in the village street when he was a boy. He saw a dead woman walk down the street and enter the house that had been hers. He gave a few examples of his foresight of events, and one of his failure to discover the corpse of a man drowned in the loch.

The phenomena, as described, may be classed under "clairvoyance," "premonition," and "telepathy" (q.v.), with a residuum of symbolical visions. In these, "corpse candles" and spectral lights play a great part, but, in the region best known to the writer, the "lights" are visible to all, even to English tourists, and are not hallucinatory. The conduct of the lights is brilliantly eccentric, but, as they have not been studied by scientific specialists, their natural causes remain unascertained. It is plain that there is nothing peculiar to the Celts in second sight; but the Gaelic words for it and the prevailing opinion indicate telepathy, the action of "the spirits of the living" as the main agents. Yet, in cases of premonition, this explanation is difficult. Conceivably an engineer, in 1881, was thinking out a line of railway from Oban to Balachulish, at the moment when four or five witnesses were alarmed by the whizz and thunder of a passing train on what was then the road, but was later (1903) usurped by the railway track. (For this amazing anecdote the writer has the first-hand evidence of a highly educated percipient.) If the speculation of the engineer was "wired on," telepathically, to the witnesses, then telepathy may account for the premonition, which, in any case, is a good example of collective second sight. That second sight has died out, under the influence of education and newspapers, is an averment of popular superstition in the south.

The examples given, merely a selection from those known to the present writer, prove that the faculty is believed to be as common as in any previous age.

The literature of second sight is not insignificant. The Secret Commonwealth of the Rev. Mr Kirk (1691), edited by Sir Walter Scott in 1815 (a hundred copies), and by Andrew Lang in 1893, is in line with cases given in Trials for Witchcraft (cf. Dalyell's Darker Superstitions of Scotland, and Wodrow's Analecta). Aubrey has several cases in his Miscellanies, and the correspondence of Robert Boyle, Henry More, Glanvil and Pepys, shows an early attempt at scientific examination of the alleged faculty. The great treatise on Second Sight by Theophilus Insulanus (a Macleod) may be recommended; with Martin's Description of the Western Isles (1703-1716), and the work of the Rev. Mr Fraser, Dean of the Isles (1707, 1820). Fraser was familiar with the contemporary scientific theories of hallucination, and justly remarked that "the sight" was not peculiar to the Highlanders; but that, in the south, people dared not confess their experiences, for fear of ridicule. (A. L.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Second Sight'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​s/second-sight.html. 1910.
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