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A séance is a ritual whereby people attempt to communicate with spirits. Although attempts to communicate with the dead probably predate recorded history, the English word séance, first recorded in 1845, comes from the French word for 'session' or 'meeting', which itself comes from Old French seoir, 'to sit.' Most frequently associated with modern rituals whose aim is to contact the dead, the term is also applied generically in anthropological literature to describe the activities of shamans or their counterparts who seek to achieve the same goal. For example, the shamanic séance among the Dolgans, a small, Turkic-speaking ethnic group on the Taimyr Peninsula in northern Siberia, is called a kyyryy by the Dolgans, from the Yakut word kyyr, "to hop."[1]


The ritual most often associated with séances among Western cultures is said to originate in ancient Greece, with some later additions from Christian influence. Four, six, or more people sit around a wooden table.[2]

A clear glass bowl filled with olive oil is placed at the center of the table with a drop of blood. To enhance the chances of attracting a spirit the bowl is surrounded by four objects placed at the compass points. The north and south sides hold candles, a Bible is placed to the west, and a lily flower to the east. The Bible is opened to 1 Samuel, chapter 28 (this chapter details communication with a spirit), and a single piece of quartz is rested on the pages. Outside the circle is a bell (this drives away spirits), a steel knife (steel, especially with an edge, repels spirits), and some rock salt (salt thrown into a fire drives away spirits, including demons). These latter objects are regarded as tools for defense against undesired spirits.

Those participating in a séance place their hands flat on the table, with the little fingers of each hand touching the hands of the people on either side. During the séance, the participants focus on the bowl at the center of the table. Michel de Nostredame, the famous seer who was also called Nostradamus, sometimes used a bowl of water and this inspired the use of a crystal ball in the eighteenth century.

During the séance, the participants do not speak except for the medium. The circle of hands is maintained throughout and the participants focus on the central bowl. When the medium is finished the Bible is closed and the candles extinguished. The following day a bell is rung throughout the house to remove any spirits that remain.


Séances are believed to be more effective under certain conditions. These include holding them at night when spirits are thought to be more visible, or within an ambient atmosphere such as moving water or rain. Also in occult lore, the moon is believed to exert a powerful influence upon the dead.

It is thought that strong emotions such as anger or terror attracts spirits. Other attractants include fresh blood (menstrual blood is said to draw demons not spirits), quartz, or the presence of spiritually sensitive people, especially women and children. Iron and steel, on the other hand, is thought to repel spirits.


Contact with a spirit during a séance is thought to occur in various ways, with sensory perceptions said to be the most common. Of these, smell is said to be most frequent, followed by touch (a cold spot may be perceived), then auditory, and finally visual, the rarest. Indirect contact in the form of a dream, a candle burning blue or an agitated animal is thought to be another possible manifestation of contact.


  1. Boris Chichlo. "Dolgan Religion". Encyclopedia of Religion 4: p2394-2396.
  2. Séances with five people are avoided since Christ was crucified with five wounds, and five -– symbolized by the pentacle (the five-pointed star) -- is thought to draw sinister forces.