Material History of American Religion Project

The invisible lady

ear1.jpg (44256 bytes)Philosophers and theologians have debated for centuries over the reliability of the senses. Do the ear, eye, nose, and the rest accurately capture reality, or can they be fooled? While the philosophers have debated, magicians and ventriloquists have played with the fallibility of the senses. In their play, project scholar Leigh Schmidt argues, they have participated in a rationalist critique of religion.

These images--from David Brewster's Letters on Natural Magic (London, 1832), illustrate a favorite acoustical illusion of the Enlightenment period---prevalent from the 1790s into the 1850s. The illusion was known in this incarnation as the Invisible Lady, and in an earlier version as the Acoustic Temple. In both there was considerable play off the supposed priestcraft of the ancient oracles, the treachery by which priests turned very mundane voices into divine utterances. In showing how an audience could be fooled by mechanically manipulated voices, these illusions helped to question the reliability of voices attributed to all gods, prophets, and priests.

ear2.jpg (36780 bytes)Schmidt further unpacks these ideas in his article on the religious history of ventriloquism, in this web site’s Electronic Journal section.

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