gates of distance

The Gates by <a href='' target='_blank'>Hagar Sadan</a>
The Gates by Hagar Sadan

On an internet forum discussing the film Avatar, a contributor asked about the clairvoyant ability of the Na’vi, wondering if they had the spiritual capacity evident among the Zulu of South Africa. As this contributor observed, “For the Zulu, one tribe who served as a model for the Na’vi, it’s called Opening the Gates of Distance.” The contributor provided a reference to Andrew Lang, “Opening the Gates of Distance,” a chapter in his classic text of anthropological theory in the study of religion, The Making of Religion (1900), which was available on the website,, of the Abréactions Associations, formed in 1901, with its office on Rue Fénelon in Paris.

As a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research, Lang (1844-1912) was interested in examining contemporary evidence of clairvoyance, telepathy, and other psychic phenomena. Describing himself at one point as a “psycho-folklorist,” Lang was fascinated with the modern spiritualist séance as an ethnographic site, noting that his interest in mediums was purely anthropological. Challenged by an academic colleague, Edward Clodd, with the verse, “the devils also believe and tremble,” Lang playfully confessed, “I don’t believe, but I tremble.” Certainly, Lang was not alone in this anthropological interest in spiritualism, although he does not seem to have become an adherent like Darwin’s competitor in the development of evolutionary theory, Alfred Russel Wallace. While commending E. B. Tylor for his fieldwork in actually attending séances, Lang pursued his own research on spiritualism by textual analysis. In The Making of Religion, he embarked upon a textual investigation of spiritualist phenomena by drawing upon the Zulu expression, “opening the gates of distance,” which he found in the missionary-ethnographer Henry Callaway’s Religious System of the Amazulu (1868-1870) and used for the title of his chapter on spiritualism. As Lang explained:

“To open the Gates of Distance” is the poetical Zulu phrase for what is called clairvoyance, or vue à distance. This, if it exists, is the result of a faculty of undetermined nature, whereby knowledge of remote events may be acquired, not through normal channels of sense. As the Zulus say: “Isiyezi is a state in which a man becomes slightly insensible. He is awake, but still sees things which he would not see if he were not in a state of ecstasy (nasiyesi).”

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