Early History of Hypnotherapy

by Dr. William J. Brian, Jr. M.D.

The early history of hypnosis actually begins before any recorded history exists. In the religious and healing ceremonies of all primitive peoples on the face of the earth there exist the elements essential to place the subjects into a hypnotic trance. It is assumed, therefore, by the study of ceremonies of primitive peoples who still exist in Africa, Australia, and elsewhere that even before history was recorded, induction’s were accomplished by rhythmic chanting, monotonous drum beats, together with strained fixations of the eyes accompanied by catalepsy of the rest of the body.

Such primitive ceremonies had the essential of a central focus of attention, with surrounding neurology areas of inhibition, which two factors are responsible for 95% of the induction of the hypnotic trance. Whether these were called religious ceremonies, healing ceremonies or a combination of religious and healing ceremonies is actually immaterial. The fact is that trances did exist and were hypnotic in character, although the word “hypnosis” was never applied to them since it was not in use until Braid coined the term in 1842.

All world travelers are familiar with the Hindus, Fakirs, Yogis, snake charmers, and Eastern magicians who induced themselves and others in cataleptic states by eye fixation and other mesmeric techniques, and were able to perform unusual physical feats and eliminate pain.

An interesting incident was reported by James Esdalie, MD, author of Hypnosis in Medicine and Surgery, in which he describes a method for production of anesthesia by a famous Eastern magician of the era:

“June 9th, 1845 – I had today the honor of being introduced to one of the most famous magicians in Bengal, who enjoys a high reputation for his successful treatment of hysteria, and had been sent for to prescribe for my patient (whose case will be afterwards given), but came too late; the success of my charm, Mesmerism, having left him nothing to do.

Baboo Essanchunder Ghosaul, deputy magistrate of Hooghly, at my request introduced me to him as a brother magician, who had studied the art of magic in different parts of the world, but particularly in Egypt, where I had learned the secrets of the great Soolevmann, from the moolahs and fuqueers, and that I had a great desire to ascertain whether our charms were the same, as the hakeems of Europe held the wise men of the East in high estimation, knowing that all knowledge had come from that quarter. I proposed that we should show each other our respective charms, and after much persuasion, he agreed to show me his process for assuaging pain. He sent for a brass pot containing water and a twig with two or three leaves upon it, and commenced muttering his charms, at arm’s length from the patient.

In a short time he dipped his forefinger into the water, and with the help of his thumb, flirted it into the patient’s face; he then took the leaves, and commenced stroking the person from the crown of the head to the toes, with a slow drawing motion. The knuckles almost touched the body, and he said that he would continue the process for an hour or longer if necessary; and it convinced me that if these charmers ever do well by such means, it is by the mesmeric influence, probably unknown to themselves. I said that I was convinced of the great efficacy of his charm, and would now show him mine; but that he would understand it better if performed on his own person. After some difficulty, we got him to lie down, and to give due solemnity to my proceedings. I chanted, as an invocation, the chorus of the “Kings of the Cannibal Islands!” I desired him to shut his eyes, and he clenched his eyelids firmly, that I might find no entrance to the brain by that inlet.

In a quarter of an hour he jumped up, and said he felt something disagreeable coming over him, and wished to make his escape. He was over-persuaded to lie down again, however, and I soon saw the muscles around his eyes begin to relax, and his face became perfectly smooth and calm. I was sure that I had caught my brother magician napping, but, in a few minutes, he bolted up suddenly, clapped his hands to his head, cried he felt drunk, and nothing could induce him to lie down again; “abiit, excessit, evasit, erupit!” Next day I saw him, and said, “Well, you were too strong for my charm last night, I could not put you to sleep.” “Oh! Yes Sahib,” he answered, “You did; I allow it; it is allowed that you put me to sleep.”

As Moll has pointed out, these hypnotic phenomena are also found to have existed several thousand years ago among the Persian Magi as well as up to the present day among Indian Yogis and Fakirs.

The oldest written record of cures by hypnosis was obtained from the Ebers Papyrus which gives us an idea about some of the theory and practice of Egyptian medicine before 1552 BC. In the Ebers Papyrus, a treatment was described in which the physician placed his hands on the head of the patient and, claiming superhuman therapeutic powers gave forth with strange remedial utterances which were suggested to the patients, and which resulted in cures. King Pyrrhus of Egypt, The Emperor Vespasian, Francis I of France and other French kings up to Charles X practiced healing in this manner.

The Egyptians are thought to have originated the “Sleep Temples”, in which the priests gave similar treatment to their patients through the use of suggestion. These temples became very popular in Egypt, and spread throughout Greece and Asia Minor.

Hippocrates, the Greek physician referred to most frequently as “the father of medicine” and whose oath all graduating physicians take, is known to have discussed the phenomenon saying, “the affliction suffered by the body, the soul sees quite well with the eyes shut.”

The Romans borrowed trance healing from the Greeks, as they did much else of the Greek culture during the period of the rise of the great Roman Empire. Many men of great learning and wisdom were imported from Greece as Roman slaves to teach the young in Roman households. Among the Romans, Aesculapius often threw his patients ‘into a “deep sleep” and allayed pain by stroking, with his hand.

The advent of Christianity had a great deal to do with the decline of the use of hypnosis and trance healing because hypnosis was then considered to be witchcraft, and trance healing if practiced at all was done secretly. Nevertheless, in spite of this Jesus employed hypnosis to perform many of His miracles. A complete discussion of this is to be found in my book entitled, Religious Aspects of Hypnosis, published by Charles C. Thomas and Co. Springfield, Illinois in 1962.

In the tenth century, Avicenna, a great physician, stated, “The Imagination can fascinate and modify man’s body either making him ill or restoring him to health.”

About the middle of the sixteenth century, a man named Theophrastus Paracelsus brought forth a new theory regarding the production of diseases. This theory stated in effect that certain heavenly bodies, especially the stars, influenced the behavior of men. He also postulated that men influenced each other, which is still a basic concept in the study of “behavior psychology.”

Van Helmont, Maxwell from Scotland, and Santanelli from Italy, said virtually the same thing about 1600, and laid the foundation for the concept of animal magnetism, which was later to have been made so famous by Mesmer. It can be proved that almost every ancient civilization has been familiar with hypnosis in one form or another. LeCron points out that it is described in some of the Mantras of India written in ancient transcript; that the Mongols, Tibetans, and the Chinese all had knowledge of hypnosis; and that even a detailed description of it is given in the Kalevala, the great epic poem of the Finns.