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Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times [Paperback]

Carol Zaleski
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 3, 1988 0195056655 978-0195056655
Dozens of books, articles, television shows, and films relating "near-death" experiences have appeared in the past decade. People who have survived a close brush with death reveal their extraordinary visions and ecstatic feelings at the moment they died, describing journeys through a tunnel to a realm of light, visual reviews of their past deeds, encounters with a benevolent spirit, and permanent transformation after returning to life.
Carol Zaleski's Otherworld Journeys offers the most comprehensive treatment to date of the evidence surrounding near-death experiences. The first to place researchers' findings, first-person accounts, and possible medical or psychological explanations in historical perspective, she discusses how these materials reflect the influence of contemporary culture. She demonstrates that modern near-death reports belong to a vast family of otherworld journey tales, with examples in nearly every religious heritage. She identifies universal as well as culturally specific features by comparing near-death narratives in two distinct periods of Western society: medieval Christendom and twentieth-century secular America. This comparison reveals profound similarities, such as the life-review and the transforming after-effects of the vision, as well as striking contrasts, such as the absence of hell or punishment scenes from modern accounts.
Mediating between the "debunkers" and the near-death researchers, Zaleski considers current efforts to explain near-death experience scientifically. She concludes by emphasizing the importance of the otherworld vision for understanding imaginative and religious experience in general.

Frequently Bought Together

Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times + The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883 + The Sacred Art of Dying: How the World Religions Understand Death
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Editorial Reviews


"Zaleski's command of the literature, her careful analysis of the narratives, and her recommendations for interpretation make this book a classic in the study of religious experience and popular religion."--The Journal of Religion

"Zaleski...has had the excellent idea of putting recent near-death narratives in perspective by comparing them with those of an earlier period....An extremely interesting piece of work, and one that offers many shrewd insights."--John Gross, The New York Times

"The most important book on the topic."--Virginia Quarterly Review

"The most thorough, scholarly, and convincing study thus far published concerning the cultural and religious implications of near-death experiences....The most important book on the topic."--Virginia Quarterly Review

"A sophisticated postmodern, hence nonphilosophical, book about that timeless philosophical problem. The problem is how to explain mental objects (for example, a vision of heaven or an encounter with a leprechaun)."--The New York Times Book Review

"The first historical perspective on the subject....A brilliant, historically rich, commonsensical book."--Jonathan Cott, Vogue

"An open-minded and scholarly study, impressive in its intelligence, fairness, humanity, and breadth."--Boston Phoenix

"A work at once scholarly and engrossingly readable....A rich and eminently successful work."--Robert Ellwood, Parabola

"Wide-ranging and profound, revealing the imaginative and symbolic content of such experiences as well as their relationship to particular cultural and religious beliefs."--Library Journal

"[Zaleski's] provocative book should be read by all people interested in near-death experiences."--The American Rationalist

About the Author

Carol Zaleski is a Lecturer on the Study of Religion at Harvard University.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 275 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (November 3, 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195056655
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195056655
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.4 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #815,315 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fair and Fascinating study August 1, 2000
I imagine it would be difficult to write an unbiased book about near-death experiences, especially if you had a religious bone to pick. However, Carol Zaleski succeeds in writing a very scholarly, fair-minded book, and avoids the trap of attempting to envangelize the reader. Either you believe people have out-of-body experiences, or you don't and Zaleski doesn't attempt to convert you. What she does do (and this is what makes "Otherworld Journeys" so fascinating) is examine the influence of culture and religion on near-death experiences. A twentieth-century American will not report the same near-death experience as, say, a thirteenth-century Italian. Why that is true is for the reader to decide, in light of the evidence presented by this interesting and well-researched account.
I felt "Otherworld Journeys" was a definite keeper and well worth re-reading.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Scholary and dense but very informative June 4, 2004
Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experiences in Medieval and Modern Times by Carol G. Zaleski, is a scholarly look at "near death experiences" from the middle ages to the current times. It is a tad bit dated, but is still a wonderful jumping off point into this exciting area of study. She does her research very well, and presents a very thorough survey from both literature sources as well as first hand accounts, summarizing the major similarities between the time periods as well as their distinct differences. At the end she recounts some of the numerous theories out there surrounding NDE research, and gives her summation of the work she has completed. This book has a very scholarly tone to it, a very interesting read, but could be hard for some people to truly appreciate.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
_Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times_, published in 1987 by Oxford University Press, by religion scholar Carol Zaleski is a fascinating account of the near-death experience as found in literature from medieval and modern times. As the author notes the term "near-death experience" is defined as "the testimony of individuals who have revived from apparent death was well as those who have only come close to death" as explained by Raymond Moody. As the author notes definitions of such terms as death and deathbed visions, etc. often become blurry, thus it is necessary to use terms such as "near-death experience" and "otherworld journey" interchangeably. This book provides an excellent examination of such experiences and journeys in the literature from the medieval period as well as comparing it to modern accounts of near-death experiences. The author offers some useful reflections on the ubiquity of this phenomena and what this might have to say for the survival hypothesis. The author also examines cultural factors that might be involved in the near-death experience and how such factors play such an important role in interpretation. As such this book remains an important one for the study of near-death experiences and otherworld journeys from ancient and especially medieval times to the modern day.

In the "Introduction", the author lays out the role of near-death experiences and otherworld journeys in the literature of all cultures. For example, the author considers the role of the otherworld journey in accounts from those of the Prophet Mohammed, Zarathustra, Mani, William Blake, and others and shows that these individuals share many common features in their accounts.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent work, if by now somewhat dated September 7, 1999
Carol Zaleski's book is clearly one of the best books on NDEs, still quite relevant even though a bit dated. This is interesting reading not only for her balanced presentation of the pro and con viewpoints of leading researchers on NDEs, but also for her contrasting NDEs of the latter 20th century with NDEs experienced by Christians of medieval times.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Its a bit difficult, not a casual read February 27, 2006
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have started reading this book and I am sad to say its a bit difficult to read. There is no subject that intrigues me more than the near death experience, and I read everything I can find on the subject. This is one of those books that you have to read in dead silence or you will miss something in her very long, very complicated paragraphs. I suppose it is Carol's doctoral thesis or something. Its written in a flat accademic fashion that is a bit cold and technical. I am still going to plod through this book, but I will have to sit at a desk to do it, with pen, paper and dictionary in hand. I hope the information gleened will be worth the difficulty of getting through the research. I can only hope.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a rare jewel among plain stones February 4, 2010
This is the best book ever yet published on the subject of near death experiences in the English language, and probably any language. Saying that, it wins through mainly because it understands itself not to be a scientific study (it is not) but a scholarly work of comparative literature. I have read just about every book (in the English language) written on the near death experience worth reading, as well as many that were not worth reading. This is one of the very best. It charts the history of the near death experience through the Western Christian traditions, showing how it has formed itself, at least in Europe and America, out of those traditions.

This is far from being the whole mythic picture of NDEs, but Zaleski has done a wonderful job of showing how deep and evolving those roots are even from within Christianity. Go back 200 years and the experience is almost nothing like what it is today, with its "spiritual democracy" and "self empowerment" motifs, clearly developing in parallel with social changes in the intervening period. Folks who don't know this history, or who are blissfully unaware of it, often assume that there is a single changeless thing called a "near death experience" that remains constant and consistent across the world. This is not so. Any similarities that can be ascribed to "experiences at the boundary of death" are in fact VERY general, as anyone who cares to examine Thai experiences, Indian experiences, Chinese experiences, Melanesian experience, and the few other non-American groups who have ever been studied, will soon see for themselves. The myth of global consistency arises out of flawed methods of sampling. For instance, people will only report having an "NDE" if they know, first of all, what that term even means, and what it is taken to refer to.
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