Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board: Levitation Games

The variation worked in my town like this:

Four people (girls, usually) would sit around a fifth, first chanting “I think she’s sick” then “I think she’s dead” while place two fingers under her body at strategic points. They would then chant “Light as a feather, stiff as a board” in intense concentration, ending by lifting the girl in the middle, who now appeared to be weightless.”

Science tells us that it’s all about distribution of weight, etc (the trick is mostly down to having the lifters in the right position) but it sure LOOKED like magic. An English boarding school guy (recorded by Opie) observed kids doing it in 1940 and wrote “Whether by self hypnosis or not I do not know, but the lifters, with a few fingers only under the armpits and knees, certainly lifted the seated one with ease and grace…it was more like real magic than anything I have ever seen.”

But by 1940, the trick was already a very old one. Opie also dug up a report where a guy (samuel Pepys, if you’re keeping score) wrote of a discussion of “enchantments, spells and charms” from 1665, in which’d he’d heard of French girls sitting around a seated one and lifting her up after chanting

Voyci un Corps mort,
Royde come un Baston
Froid comme Marbre
Leger comme un esprit
Levons te au nom de Jesus Christ

This loosely translates to pretty much the same chant heard now. Pepys marvelled that they even got it to work on the cook of the house, “a very lusty (fat) fellow.” I’m especially interested in his concluding remark: “I enquired of him whether they were protestant or catholic, and he told me they were protestant, which made it the more strange to me!”

It is sometimes said that this was done as a means to ward off the plague, but that strikes me as just one of those plague stories that goes around without any basis in fact (a la Ring Around the Rosy ), except that 1665, when Pepys wrote his diary, was a plague year. You can read the diary here. Interesting that there was an explicit mention of this to lift the person in the name of Jesus Christ; people tend to complain that this is some form of devil worship or the occult nowadays. Perhaps the religious invocation in the chant was a form of guarding against the plague. My French isn’t good enough to tell if there’s anything about protection in there, but I don’t THINK there is. I think I see “cold as marble” and “light as a ghost” in there before “levitate in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Plenty of variations of how to play (and why it works) go around today – the chant changes somewhat, and some variations involve counting down from 100 or having everyone hold their breath. How did YOU do it?

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11 Comments

  1. telophase

    Back in my day (Central Texas, late 70s/early 80s), the variation was that whoever sat at the head of the person lying down to be lifted (and who would eventually cradle the neck and upper shoulders, so as not to hurt them), would rub the subject's temples with a circular motion while inventing a story of the person's death, the more elaborate the better out of a superstitious feeling that if we gave a plausible story, it might come true. Thus death dates 200 or 300 years in the future were common, as were funny demises. (I could reliably get a laugh by winding up with "She fell off a cliff, followed by a herd of stampeding buffalo. She died anyway.")

    After the death, the story would wind up with "Now, she's light as a feather" (the other girls repeating "Light as a feather" in unison). "Stiff as a board" (the other girls repeating "Stiff as a board" in unison.) And then we'd lift – often getting the subject up to waist height before starting to giggle and dropping here. :)

    Pillows beneath the subject were a must.

    Occasionally someone would make the ritual more elaborate by lighting candles and spinning some story about … I forget what, but probably included demons and devils, but those times were rare, as they tended to end with us creeping ourselves out and abandoning the game. Once all the candles in the room flickered in unison from no apparent source, and we all ran out of the room screaming and made no attempt to continue the game.

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  2. pat moffett

    west wales, uk late 1960s
    lead would chant 'she looks ill', surrounding girls would repeat. followed by 'she IS ill' – repeat. then "she looks dead', 'she IS dead' then she's rising.

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  3. J Endsor (formally known as J Chant)

    I did this twice at school. I live in the UK and it was in a science room one lunch time. A girl in my class said she wanted to try it and so we all agreed. Both times were in a "science room", it was the best place to do it as the blinds were black-out blinds, this meant our concentration wasn't broken by light enetering the room. We closed all the blinds so that it was dark. The first time we lifted a girl and the second time we lifted a boy. Everyone around the outside was female (as we tried it a third time with mixed genders and it didn't work).

    The girl in the middle layed down on the floor and was told to relax. 6 of us kneeled around her. One and the head, One at the feet and two either side by the chest and knees. We were told to place two fingers from each hand under her body (our index and middle fingers). We then had to lift her normally to prove it was impossible before the "chant". We closed our eyes and were told to say "This is the art of Levitation. 1, 2, 3" and then try to lift her. It was impossible, she was WAY too heavy!

    Next starting from the girl at the head and going round in a clockwise direction (I don't know if the direction is important) we each repeated the following words. "She looks pale. She looks dead. She is dead." then we tried once more "This is the art of Levitation. 1, 2, 3" and we all started to lift her up.

    She felt so incredibly light! It didn't even feel like she was touching my fingers anymore. None of us opened out eyes or said a word, and we moved in sync somehow. We all stood up and held her at shoulder height. We paused and then as if on cue we all started to bring her back down to the ground again. It felt amazing and although we were each a bit spooked at first it really opened my eyes to what kinds of things are really possible! I don't know if it was science or magic and just a illusion…but it definitely works!

    The second time we lifted the boy, someone opened their eyes as we were lifting him and the concentration of the circle was broken and we dropped him. But luckily we hadn't gotten very far so he wasn't hurt.

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  4. Zdrine

    Central Illinois, lates 1960s. We used to do this with one person laying flat on the floor and 4 to 6 people surrounding them. Most of the time it worked, until someone invariably started laughing or broke the concentration of everyone else. The person being lifted – no matter their size – felt incredibly light until our concentration was broken. Then they felt heavy and we dropped them, sometimes from several feet off the ground. It was a spooky, fun thing for us. It seems a thing of the past. I never hear of anyone doing this today.

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  5. Zdrine

    Central Illinois, lates 1960s. We used to do this with one person laying flat on the floor and 4 to 6 people surrounding them. Most of the time it worked, until someone invariably started laughing or broke the concentration of everyone else. The person being lifted – no matter their size – felt incredibly light until our concentration was broken. Then they felt heavy and we dropped them, sometimes from several feet off the ground. It was a spooky, fun thing for us. It seems a thing of the past. I never hear of anyone doing this today.

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  6. Anonymous

    Australia early 1970s
    In our early teens, we underwent a mania of levitation, and would spend many lunch-breaks in one of the classrooms, in a small ante-chamber that allowed no light.
    We would be positioned in the same manner as other contributors have described above, no more than 6 persons for each "session", with one person rubbing the temples of the subject. We would repeat after this person a rather long "mantra", which I don't fully recall, but concluded with the words "she looks ill, she is ill, she looks dead, she is dead, we are now entering the valley of the dead" and upon the count of three we would lift.
    In most cases, being being teenagers, the attempt would end in giggles. HOWEVER on a number of occasions we succeeded in lifting the subjects – against all possible odds, and after trying unsuccessfully beforehand to lift with our fingers
    I was myself lifted on at least one occasion, and when this succeeded, I experienced a most extraordinary and indescribable lightness, there were absolutely no pressure points and I quite literally felt that I was floating. This experience would only last as long as the group's concentration remained intact – if any of the members "broke" the spell, then the subject would then collapse – very suddenly and heavily! – into our arms or, more often, onto the floor.
    I have since become a lawyer, and can only describe myself as an "evidence-based" person, fairly skeptical of so-called paranormal activities, and I have no faith Christian or otherwise, yet to this day I do not understand what occurred, or explain what we did according to the "ordinary" rules of physics.
    At the time, we considered it just a game, and simply accepted it as yet another inexplicable part of our world. With time and maturity, however I consider it rather more baffling and humbling.

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  7. Anonymous

    UK Sutton Coldfield early 1970s – At school, in the lunch hour, much as described above.

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  8. Anonymous

    Ohio, 2012 we do this with a girl sitting criss-cross (Indian style) and it works every time, but the times we tried light as a feather, we failed. Probably because we ha no concentration then…

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  9. Anonymous

    We did this at my birthday party once when I was a kid (Chicago, late 80s/early 90s). We just did the "Light as a feather, stiff as a board" part over and over though. I can't remember if the person was sitting down or lying down but it did work.

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  10. JC / England

    We played this often when we around 10 or 11 years old at Cuffley Jr School in Hertfordshire, England. We would try it with mixed boys & girls, sometimes specifically going for a particularly ''big'' kid to lift! We could easily lift to shoulder height. It was completely unnatural to be able to do this. I had it done to me & often took part in the lifting too. It worked fine & was fascinating. We got bored with it by I'll always remember it!

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  11. coral deacon

    do u put your finger up there bum?

    Reply

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