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The popular image of the hypnotist as a charismatic and mystical figure can be firmly dated to this time.Inevitably, these magical trappings led to Mesmer’s downfall, and for a long time, hypnotism was a dangerous interest to have for anybody looking for a mainstream career.
Although we now know that his notion of “animal magnetism”, transferred from healer to patient through a mysterious etheric fluid, is hopelessly wrong, it was firmly based on scientific ideas current at the time, in particular Isaac Newton’s theories of gravitation.Those who believe that hypnosis can be used to perform miracles or control minds are, of course, simply sharing the consensus view that prevailed for centuries.Recorded history is full of tantalising glimpses of rituals and practices that look very much like hypnosis from a modern perspective, from the “healing passes” of the Hindu Vedas to magical texts from ancient Egypt.This conundrum – does hypnosis have a real, physical basis, or not? Important shifts were happening elsewhere, however. First of all, the centre of hypnotic gravity moved from Europe to America, where all the most significant breakthroughs of the 20th century took place.Secondly, hypnosis became a popular phenomenon, something that was increasingly available to the layman, outside of the laboratory or clinic.These practices tend to be for magical or religious purposes, such as divination or communicating with gods and spirits.
It’s important to remember, however, that what we see as occultism was the scientific establishment of its day, with exactly the same purpose as modern science – curing human ills and increasing knowledge.On the other hand, it’s only in the last few decades that we’ve come to realise that!Hypnosis itself hasn’t changed for millennia, but our understanding of it and our ability to control it has changed quite profoundly.From a Western point of view, the decisive moment in the history of hypnosis occurred in the 18th Century (coinciding with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason).The work of Franz Mesmer, amongst others, can be seen as both the last flourish of “occult” hypnosis and the first flourish of the “scientific” viewpoint.The history of hypnosis, then, is really the history of this change in perception.