I recently finished listening to a fascinating audiobook called Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. It was written by a Scottish journalist named Charles Murray, in 1841, and was apparently one of the first studies on crowd psychology. Murray examines all kinds of crazy beliefs that large groups of people have shared throughout history.
One of the insane, widely accepted fields of study examined in the book is alchemy. It seems like a lot of scientists and philosophers believed in this for a long time. Alchemy was a precursor to chemistry in a way because it partially centered around attempting to change the physical properties of elements. People studying this tried to transform water into other substances. An emphasis was also put into magically changing other metals into gold.
Another main focus of alchemists was finding the elixir of life, or the philosopher’s stone. Most people have probably heard about this from the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (Or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, depending on where you live.) In it, Nicholas Flamel creates the philosopher’s stone. He was a real person who lived in the 14th and 15th centuries, but obviously, he didn’t find or invent this elixir of life as far as we know. He may have studied alchemy, but some historians are skeptical about his apparent writings on it being attributed to him. This magical stone would supposedly grant eternal life to whoever wielded it. I’m not surprised that people believed in this for so long. Most of us probably want to live forever, right?
Another crazy idea explored in Extraordinary Popular Delusions is divination, or using sorcery to tell the future or give advice. I had no idea that there were so many different kinds of it! There is divination via almost everything you could possibly imagine. Look online if you’re interested. There are alphabetical lists. To figure out what to do in any situation, or predict the future, sorcerers would examine everything from human or animal entrails to toe nail clippings, dust, needles, atmospheric conditions, statues, and plenty of other seemingly mundane things. There was divination by axes, frogs, bumps on the skin, dogs, wheels, bodily fluids, lightning, fruit, dizziness, and so on. You probably get the picture. Divination is why some of us gaze into crystal balls for wisdom and inspiration. People use just about anything to divine the future and how they should act.
One other popular delusion is witches. For hundreds of years, primarily women, but also men, were executed for witchcraft. People appeared to have been so paranoid about it that there were many mundane, ambiguous things that they saw as black magic. Wiping dust off of a stool, arguing, or even behaving “strangely” could get you killed. These are just a few of the ample examples.
However, I was surprised to discover that people were executed with much less frequency than you might believe. It was apparently a regular occurrence. But in the infamous Salem witch trials, over 200 were accused of witchcraft, but only 20 were executed, within about a year. 1 is too many in my opinion. However for most of my life, I thought that people were being slaughtered left and right for casting spells. The approximate truth is that only tens of people were murdered for this in most places. It just took place over hundreds of years, and across a large portion of the world. But there were at least a few times when hundreds of executions occurred over only a year. Estimates vary widely, but in total, somewhere between 3 000 and 40 000 people were killed. The lower numbers are apparently more accurate.
People were so insane about witches that they had elaborate theories about them. They claimed that these evil sorcerers would commune with Satan. People even accused them of having sex with him and bearing his children during fucked up demon fertility rituals! Tests for witchcraft were weighed against the accused too. There were many different types, but for example, if you were drowned and died, you were a witch. Yet if you survived, you were still a witch.
If that isn’t crazy enough for you, believe it or not, people used to think that werewolves existed! Yup, we were terrified of them. People accused others of transforming into enormous, murderous monster/wolf hybrids in the dead of night. Humans didn’t always believe that these creatures are just myths from ancient stories, designed to scare children. Innocent people were almost undoubtedly executed because others were convinced that they were going to turn into werewolves who would rip them apart while they slept.
Another crackpot idea that people used to have is that magnetism had exponentially more power than it does. This is where the term, “animal magnetism” came from. Apparently, a German doctor named Franz Mesmer devised the theory that magnetism is a natural force within all living creatures, which is why it was called mesmerism. It supposedly bestowed magical power to accomplish tasks like attracting lovers, dealing with emotions, and even healing diseases and wounds.
One of the last delusions that Charles Murray explores is the worshipping of dead people’s body parts! Yes, you read that correctly. I found this to be fascinating. Pious believers would scour the Earth looking for the remains of saints or holy figures. People still do similar things today, like those who worship Jesus’ supposed shroud of Turin, his footprints, statues with water marks that apparently look like the Virgin Marry, or Elvis’ jewelry. Anyway, in the book, Murray describes how people bought John the Baptist’s feet for thousands of dollars, and prayed to the feet of a dead man.
I thought that Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds was a captivating book. These are just a few of the countless collective delusions examined by Charles Murray. To me, it shows their power like a sledgehammer hit to the head. It’s incredible to learn the extent of human beings’ ability to accept ideas that seem bat-shit crazy to most of us now.
This helps me understand how people behave in similar ways today and in recent history. In terms of mob mentality, the Nazis at least pretending to believe Hitler’s ideology makes a little more sense. It also helps me understand other widely accepted worldviews that I think are ludicrous today. These beliefs include alien abductions, bigfoot, every god and religion, psychics, astrology, conspiracy theories like chemtrails, 9/11 truth, the moon landings having been faked, and the world being flat. I don’t claim to be 100% correct about these topics, and it’s not my place to tell anyone what to think. But my examination makes them seem ridiculous to me. That being said, I think that the most important takeaway from this book is that throughout human history, enormous masses of people have had beliefs that are widely accepted as complete bullshit today. It’s phenomenally easy for humans to delude ourselves, and as far as I know, we have barely changed biologically or psychologically over at least the past 100 000 years. I’m not an evolutionary biologist or an evolutionary psychologist. But maybe madness and delusions are part of human nature.