The projection of the astral body is the basis of many of the shamanic spirit flights and "ecstasies" spoken of throughout history. The art of astral projection allows consciousness to be extended to any destination within the seemingly boundless astral realms — energetic dimensions accessable by the mind. This can be done entirely within the Mind's Eye while retaining awareness of one's physical surroundings. The concept of a "seer" and his or her use of "second sight" is based on this ability. However, such adventures can also be accomplished as fully immersive "out of body" projections, and the astral body is the vehicle for such voyages.
Astral Projection in Ancient Times
Astral projection has always been a mainstay of shamanism, in which the shaman descends (or ascends) along some form of world axis to project his consciousness into another dimension. An ancient Lascaux Cave painting from 15,000 BC depicts a bird-headed shaman lying at a 37 degree angle prior to projecting his astral body into the spirit world. The bird head is likely a spirit mask and the bird is likely to have represented the shaman's familiar spirit, as a totem of a bird is also set alongside the shaman.
12,000 years later the same 37 degree angle projection posture appeared in an ancient Egyptian depiction of Osiris. The Egyptians believed that the astral body was the animating principle of the physical body, and that influences that affected one would also affect the other to some degree. The Egyptians had "Sleep Temples" in which afflicted individuals would lie inert — sometimes for days — and enter deep trance states and would emerge cured or with afflictions alleviated. The mechanism behind this method of healing is the same that takes place in "Ultradepth" hypnosis, in which the mind enters an extremely deep theta trance state on the threshold of dreaming, and the human energy body expands (or even separates) from the physical in order to accumulate life-force energy.
Hermeticism and the Ancient Greeks
There were many accounts of astral projection among the ancient pagan Greeks. Aristeus of Prokonnessos of the 6th century B.C. would enter a trance in which he was transported to another land. Pliny the Elder wrote that his body left his mouth in the form of a crow. Aristeus was said to be seen in several places simultaneously, a phenomenon later terms "bilocation," in which the projected astral double becomes visible to other observers.
Aristotle wrote of the projection of the astral double in his treatises De anima and De spiritu, stating that magicians could let their physical bodies lie inert and project their astral bodies at will to travel into spirit worlds, from which they could bring back knowledge. Hermotimus of Colophon was one such individual. He was said to be able to leave his body for years at a time and astral travel to remote locations, of which he would bring back prophetic knowledge. However, his enemies eventually took advantage of this situation and destroyed his physical body before he had returned.
Plato also discussed the idea of the astral body and of the astral plane in his teachings. In the Myth of Er he discussed the journey of a soul through seven planetary spheres. Neoplatonist Proclus spoke both of subtle "planes" and subtle bodies capable of carrying consciousness out of the physical shell.
The word astral derives from Latin astrum meaning star. Many of the philosophical and magickal schools of thought in antiquity developed the concept of Man as a Microcosm of the Universe (Macrocosm), linked by correspondences to the astral energies associated with the planets. In some alchemical illustrations one can see the illustration of the Macrocosm-Macrocosm concept linking human energy centers to the seven major planets emphasized in Hermetic astrology.
Germanic Lore & Norse Sagas
Germanic lore and the Nordic sagas contain many accounts of astral visions, astral projection, and prophecies gained through lucid dreaming. Odin himself was said in the Ynglinga saga to be able to transform his shape while his physical body lay inert, as if asleep (i.e., in a deep trance state), and then travel to distant lands. He was also able to take the form of a ferocious beast and fight in battles, but with the danger that any wounds sustained on the body of the beast would appear on his own physical body.
Seidr witches were also adept in entering deep trance states to work magick, communicate with spirits, or astral travel. In one saga two astral projecting Seidr witches become victims of this same danger of "repercussion"— while riding on the back of a monstrous whale and attacking a ship, injuries are struck to the astral doubles of the witches, causing the physical bodies of the witches on the high platform to fall dead from the same injuries.
Of great importance in Germanic lore was the guardian spirit known as a Fetch (Anglo-Saxon) or Fylgja (Norse), which was attached to an individual during its life. This was the same guardian spirit known to the Greeks as the Daimon or to the Romans as the genius. An astral projecting witch or sorcerer could even use the theriomorphic form of this spirit as the vehicle for travelling in the oneiric dimensions. In the strife-ridden Germanic sagas there are many accounts of astral projection or prophetic dreams in which the Fetches of witches, sorcerers or enemy combatants are seen in animal form, and are sometimes sent forth to attack the astral bodies of their foes.
The Dark Ages
For the most part, the coming of the Christian era and the resulting destruction or perversion of pagan knowledge resulted in a great deal of ignorance and confusion regarding the complex and multi-faceted nature of the soul— including the knowledge of the projectable astral body or "double." Much of the time Christian ecclesiastics were preoccupied with enforcing theological dogma at the expense of the truth. The resulting confusion is evident in the witch trials in which some ecclesiastics believed astral projecting witches capable of physically taking flight, while others denounced all such phenomena as deceptions of the devil but had no more meaningful explanations to offer for what was a relatively widespread phenomenon.
Numerous accounts also exist of Bishops or other ecclesiastics attempting to debunk accounts of astral projection, and then being baffled by the remote viewing capabilities of certain individuals. Sometimes the individuals with this ability were sorcerers — particularly Lapplanders — while others were respectable citizens or ecclesiastics themselves. Saint Augustine wrote that factually accurate remote viewing in a trance state was a phenomenon that was caused by demons, but added uncomfortably that "the facts are reported to us by people not unworthy of our trust, but by people whom we believe incapable of deceiving us."
When the Church could not cover up or ignore such phenomena they sometimes responded by declaring the ability to be proof of sainthood, as in the many cases of the "bilocations" of saints, in which projected astral doubles become visible to third parties.
Whatever one may think of his theology, Saint Augustine showed much more insight than many of his later ecclesiastics with regard to the nature of the astral body itself, which he called the phantasticum. As he wrote in The City of God: "I believe that the phantasticum of man — which modifies itself in the waking state or in sleep according to the innumerable diversity of objectives, and, without being a body, nevertheless takes, with surprising rapidity, forms resembling bodies — can present itself, under corporal appearance, to the senses of other men when the bodily senses of the man are dulled or exhausted, in an unknown and ineffable manner and in such a way that the body itself of the man is lying somewhere, alive certainly, but in a numbness of senses heavier and more profound than sleep."
The Medieval Era & Paracelsus
Despite the ever-present threat of persecution by the Church, a rebirth of magickal and occult knowledge took place in the later Medieval Era in Germany through such persons as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Johann Faust, and the ingenious German physician, alchemist, magician and astronomer Paracelsus. Abbot Trithemius, despite his vehement denunciations of occultists such as Johann Faust, was also steeped to the gills in occultism and wrote a number of works on magick.
It was Paracelsus who did the most to revive and expand upon the theory and knowledge of the astral body and its relationship to the physical. Paracelsus often used the term "astrum" to refer to astral matter, a living cosmic energy or etheric substance pervading the universe. One of the main teachings of Paracelsus — revived from pagan antiquity — was that the physical form was the material expression of the astral body, and that much of what affects the astral body has a corresponding effect on the physical. Paracelsus wrote a book about this dynamic called Von den astralischen Krankheiten (Diseases caused by Astral Influences). This phenomenon is the actual reason why physical healing can be induced by hypnosis or other arts that take advantage of the mind-body connection, such as energy arts.
Paracelsus also understood that the self-hypnotic art of scrying by staring into crystals, mirrors, or other devices would minimize external sensory input and induce a passive state of mind (a hypnotic state) in which the mind would be enabled to receive and perceive the wonders of the astral dimensions.