The Persecution of Psychics Throughout History

Humanity has an interesting and contradictory history with people who claim to have the ability to access realms beyond the ordinary material world. Psychics have existed in just about every culture on this earth, and, most cultures in the past have been able to successfully integrate them into society. Unfortunately, Western culture in the last few hundred years has gone out of it’s way to persecute people who show or claim to possess extraordinary powers, and, to largely erase the historical presence and significance of psychics, oracles, mystics, divination and so forth.

Mystics, Oracles, Shamans, and Psychics in Ancient Times

People who have the ability to transcend the ordinary world and pick up knowledge or messages from the spiritual realm have gone by various names throughout history. Whether they were known as mystics, oracles, shamans, psychics, seers, mediums, clairvoyants, or by any other name, they were largely treated with great respect and reverence in the ancient world.

From tribal societies to the ancient city-states and Empires like Rome, psychics played a pivotal role in how society functioned. For example, few people know that the Roman Empire was largely guided and governed for over a thousand years by the divinational practices of the ‘Augurs’, mystics and priests who used Augury to determine everything from who should serve in political offices to participating in weddings to assure marriages got off to a positive start. Roman sibyls (better known as psychics) helped protect the Roman Empire itself from earthquake, war, plagues, and other calamities. Although often dismissed, the Oracle at Delphi was, for over 1,000 years, critical to important decisions made by rulers throughout Greece.

Though tribal shamans played important rolls to Native American tribes, their importance, the used of their powers to contact ancestral spirits, secure good hunts, assisting in health matters, is usually dismissed as pure superstition. In fact, the U.S. government went to get lengths to eradicate Native American spirituality through the forced education of Native American children in Christian and government run schools. The same was done in Australia to the Aboriginal people and their spiritual practices and history.

The Witch Hunts of Early Modern Europe

As Christianity spread across Europe, psychics, mystics and divination slowly disappeared from public life. witch pamphlet Those with clairvoyant gifts along with those who followed their own spiritual practices went ‘underground’ for fear of persecution. This state of anonymity didn’t last long, as the 15th century brought with it the burning fires of the Great Witch Craze. Suddenly, Europe was gripped with a fear of anyone who was conversed with spirits; predicted future events; provided spiritual counsel and were not priests; or performed healings with potions must be working with the Devil. How else could they be performing these supernatural feats unless they, themselves, were working with supernatural forces. It was a ‘miracle’ if it was within Church control, but it was the ‘devils work’ if the Church was not involved. The word applied to these heretics was "witches". Even today, many still equate psychic abilities with witchcraft or working with ‘demonic’ forces.

The first witchcraft act was passed in England in 1542. It ushered in over two hundred years of witch hunts and trials across Europe and North America. Persecutors took the form of either government officials, or, Inquisitors who were officials from the Church. Persecutors would then, In in an effort to justify their actions, turned to Biblical passages in both the Old and New Testaments which speak against sorcerers and mediums. However, nothing in the Bible says anything about torturing and killing supposed ‘sorcerers’. Killing and torturing so-called witches was something they came up with on their own.

The accused were often put through tests such as "dunking," wherein they would be tied and submerged in water. If the accused sank, they would be deemed innocent and posthumously pardoned, but, if they floated, they would be deemed guilty of witchcraft and subsequently executed. By the time the Great Witch Craze subsided an estimated 40,000 people, most of them women, had been executed for the crime of witchcraft.

The Early Modern period in Europe was a time of almost constant religious warfare, when Christians around Europe were quick to throw accusations of heresy at anyone whose beliefs differed from their own. The persecution of people branded as "witches" is seen by many scholars as an extension of this social and political climate, but it is hard not to admit that the fear and hatred directed at people with perceived psychic abilities had a special kind of vehemence and intensity.

The Great Witch Craze thankfully drew to a close as Europe moved into the Modern period, but persecution of psychics still continued on a more subdued scale. For example, laws against tarot divination in Europe, which were first enacted in the 1600s, stayed on the books until well into the 1900s. The Witchcraft Act of 1542 was amended a number of times (mostly to include updated punishments and include ‘magical acts’ and punish any form of divination) remained in force in Britain well into the 20th century. It was eventually repealed in 1951 – largely due to the efforts of a clairvoyant, Estella Roberts with the support of Winston Churchill.

By the late 1700s into the 1800s, most psychics no longer had to fear for their lives. But, they could still face arrest and conviction. One such case was that of” target=”_top”>Marie Anne Adelaide Lenormand, a professional French psychic in the late 1700s and early 1800s who was arrested on multiple occasions for the crime of fortune telling (largely because her predictions turned out to be accurate). A similar case occurred when, in 1941, Victoria Helen McCrae Duncan announced at a séance during World War II that the HMS Barham had sunk, which was something only a handful of people should have known. She caught the attention of law enforcement, who arrested her in 1944 under the British Witchcraft Act (and held in jail until the authorities felt she could no longer reveal information that might hurt the war effort).

Even with the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, many still would not give up on punishing psychics. The Witchcraft Act was basically replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951. It took until 2008 before the Fraudulent Mediums Act was repealed. The history of British law closely reflects the feelings and attitudes of many in Europe and North America towards those who either were born with unique psychic gifts, or, choose to follow a different spiritual path.

The Spiritualist Try and Take a Stand

The Spiritualist Movement, beginning in the 1840, peaking in the 1920, and gradually going into decline into the 1950s (as the Spiritualist retreated to established churches and withdrew from public view) had a profound effect in how psychics were (and still are viewed) today. spiritualist pamphlet Linclon's Presidency The early part of the Spiritualist Movement was about public demonstrations of psychic ability, clairvoyance, material manifestations and so forth. These public demonstrations, designed to introduce the public to the possibility of an afterlife and a new type of spirituality, drew large crowds and often large donations.

One group had no interest in the spiritual part of Spiritualism, but a great interest in the ‘demonstrations’ and ‘performances’ – magicians. To performing magicians, Spiritualists were working on their side of the street, entertaining the public with ‘tricks’ and ‘magic’, which the public was willing to pay good money to see. Soon, the magicians (who would gradually morph into the ‘mentalists’) found ways to imitate Spiritualist demonstrations.

For decades, the Spiritualist had no central dogma, no established central church or agreed upon scriptures. Anyone could claim to be a Spiritualist or a follower of spiritualism. In order to keep pace with the magicians (and maintain an income), many claiming to be ‘spiritualists’ utilized clever, fraudulent methods to maintain the public’s interest (and garner a well paying cliental). The term ‘mixed medium’ came to be applied to those who may have had some psychic ability and experiences, but often utilized fraudulent means of convincing others of those abilities. Other ‘psychics’ were purely frauds riding on the coat tails of the Spiritualist movement. Due to the money that could be made, faking psychic abilities and ‘material manifestations’ did become popular, much to the regret of those dedicated to the Spiritualist movement. But, there was simply no authoritative was to sort out ‘fake’ spiritualists seeking to profit from the movement from those sincerely gifted and/or dedicated to understanding the afterlife and psychic mediumship.

Dedicated, sincere Spiritualists who believed in the movement, whether through direct psychic experience or from benefits reaped from personal readings by psychic mediums, tried to form an alliance with scientists. It was largely the Spiritualist who established the Society for Psychical Research in hopes of proving the reality of the afterlife and the validity of psychic mediumship, clairvoyance and so forth. Unfortunately, many ‘magicians’, mixed mediums, and others saw the Society for Psychical Research was a means to get ‘certified’ as a psychic (which meant making more money). When several high profile scientists were duped into saying they believed a certain person had genuine psychic abilities only to discovered they’d been hoaxed or fooled, the whole approach to the scientific exploration of psychic phenomena changed.

Stung by the humiliation of being duped by supposed ‘psychics’, scientists adopted a new unscientific method of proof. If a magician or mentalist could duplicate a psychic’s ability through trickery, or point out (in theory) how a psychic could have performed a certain feat (such telepathy or knowing personal details of a deceased person), then that psychic must be a fake (learn more by checking out Are Mentalists Psychics?. This is akin to saying that now that we can duplicate diamonds, all diamonds must be fake. Often, a magician/mentalist would figure out how to duplicate a psychic’s reading or ability, then rush to the press and release a story of how psychic so-and-so was revealed as a fraud. Well meaning Spiritualists, who genuinely wished to scientifically study psychic phenomena, began to quit the Society for Psychical Research in droves, never again willing to trust ‘scientific’ inquiry. They felt scientists, as a group, were changing the rules so as to make sure they could never be duped again by just ‘proving’ all psychics were frauds. Also, Spiritualist were gravely disappointed to see that any ‘scientific’ effort to investigate psychics or the possibility of an afterlife always began from the position ‘it’s all fake – we’re just here to prove it’.

A number of noted scientists from the 1700s up through the 1960s felt they had found fascinating proof that psychics did have some sort of as yet defined ability to acquire information about people, the past, the future. Those scientists who dared to step forward and claim they discovered/experienced proof that psychic abilities, ESP, telepathy, an afterlife were real, found themselves quickly shamed, harassed and basically ‘excommunicated’ by the mainstream scientific community (with assistance of the magicians). Pretty soon, every scientist knew that to speak positively about psychic phenomena, or even to attempt to do research in that field, meant being shamed and excommunicated from the scientific field itself (which translated to no funding for research, being branded as NOT a real scientist, and likely being banned from any paid scientific or research position). The shaming tactic proved so successful, it began to be utilized against anyone claiming to be psychic AND against anyone supporting the idea that psychics could be real.

By the 1930s many, if not all, cities in the U.S. and Canada had laws on the books preventing anyone from practicing fortune telling for a fee (code word for psychic readings or any form of divination such as tarot or astrology) within city limits. Many counties in the U.S. and Canada enacted similar laws. In short it meant: Accept payment or donation for a psychic/tarot/astrology reading, go to jail. The general public couldn’t sort out the ‘real’ psychics from ‘fake’, so all were banned from earning a living by assisting others with their gifts anywhere near major cities and towns. Many local church groups were behind drives to push psychics out of civilized areas out into unincorporated areas.

The historical clash between Spiritualists, scientists and magicians was this: The mentalists and magicians reclaimed center stage in Las Vegas, because they admit to using tricks and advocate no form of spirituality. They even created a new career opportunity, a profitable one, called ‘debunking psychics’ and other paranormal, supernatural phenomena – not by scientifically studying the phenomena, but by duplicating it and/or creating an explanation for it. No science required. The mainstream scientific community was happy, it got to protect a new, sacred cornerstone of science: That the world, the universe, is ONLY material and there is no such thing as spirituality, no such thing as ‘metaphysical’. Those who challenge that sacred tenet can and will be branded forever as a heretic and cast out – and if you do produce/discover some proof, we’ll send a magician to humiliate you. Many orthodox, traditional Christian religions were happy. There was no longer a challenge to their version of heaven and the afterlife.

Many of the laws against psychics, tarot readers and astrologers who practice their trade are still on the books in numerous cities, towns and counties throughout North America.

Psychics in the Modern Era

Psychics living in the Western world today rarely have to fear imprisonment. But, they do still face a variety of restrictions. Many areas require that psychics undergo licensing procedures, and some places, such as New York City, still make fortune telling as a misdemeanor offense. Psychics often have to present a list of disclaimers before providing services for fear of lawsuits under Fraudulent Mediums Act or Consumer Protection Regulations which governs Europe. Due to the fact psychics have no regulating agency, anyone can claim to be psychic and there are still those who do so with fraud in mind. So, some regulation of psychic services does seem reasonable. Unfortunately, many who just don’t like psychics try to use laws and regulations to just eliminate psychics by eliminating their ability to accept a fee or donation.

On the East Coast of the United States, in the state of New York, there is a small town called Lily Dale. It is a town founded by Spiritualists in the late 1800s where members committed to psychic mediumship could practice their gifts, pray and generally be undisturbed. To this day, people calling themselves Christians protest outside the entrance to the town, and, generally try and discourage visitor from meeting with mediums (other protesters claim they are there to pray for the lost souls inside and those that enter the town). These protests go on almost every day, especially when the town has it’s annual festival.

Though there does seem to be a gradual shifting of public attitudes towards the better about physics, psychics often still face harassment from skeptics, both in person at demonstrations in the U.S. and online on sites such as Wikipedia. As Patricia Pearson notes in her book, Opening Heaven’s Door:

"Psi, short for psychic, refers to a number of cognitive abilities that can’t be accounted for through identified senses, including clairvoyance, telepathy and precognition. Don’t look these up on Wikipedia, because there’s an interesting cultural subplot going on at the moment in which paranormal topics are edited by activist skeptics in a manner that presents them as having been debunked."

Despite the persecution and prejudice, psychic phenomena continues to occur – as have many paranormal phenomena. Hauntings and ghosts continue to be experienced and people continue to report telepathic experiences. Many people continue to state they feel they were born with clairvoyant abilities, where others discover their psychic gifts later in life (many the result of near death experiences or traumatic circumstances). Divination, such as tarot and astrology continue to thrive and psychic mediums working with spirit guides continue to surprise people with information they should not know. This doesn’t just continue to happen in Western society, but also on the other side of the world (see Buddhists and Psychics).

psychic Elizabeth

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While the witch hunts in early European (and American) history tried to stamp out psychics by executing them, the modern day witch hunt tactics are to simply deny that psychics exist; harass those who claim they are psychic; punish and shame those who support the idea that any form of psychic abilities could be real. Psychics who have web sites up know full well that they are under constant attack from either those who consider what psychics do is ‘evil’, or, from skeptics wishing to discredit and/or shame them into leaving the web. Yes, not being burned at the stake or imprisoned is a huge improvement for psychics wishing to share their ill understood gifts. However, psychics have a LONG ways to go to regain their formerly respected place in society.

Would you like to chat with someone who has experience in Wicca? Maybe have a spell cast for you? Contact Psychic Elizabeth at 1-866-327-9032. Elizabeth is a clairaudient, has been since childhood, and practices a few different forms of divination. You may also enjoy checking out or call 1-800-340-8374 – they offer a wonderful, free service to help match you to the psychic who best meets your needs and questions.

Resources You May Appreciate:

Fenton-Smith, Paul. The Tarot Revealed: A Beginner’s Guide. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2010.

Pearson, Patricia. Opening Heaven’s Door: Investigating Stories of Life, Death, and What Comes After. New York: Atria Books, 2014. (Witch hunts) (Victoria Duncan) (laws against psychics) (laws against psychics) (laws against psychics)