A medium is said to be someone who is able to bridge the physical world and the spiritual world to engage in communication with spirits. These may take the form of the spirits of the deceased, spiritual beings such as angels or nature spirits, or gods of some sort. When most people in the West think of a medium, they think of a type of medium which grew out of the 19th century Spiritualist movements, which drew from other traditions but were fundamentally Western in scope. The medium, however, is an important figure in many other traditions, particularly in many African spiritual traditions, and many of the traditions which grew out of the African Diaspora.
Although many shamanic practices and spiritualists involve some level of communication with the spirit world, the medium differs by acting as an actual bridge between the worlds for those who cannot freely communicate with spirits themselves. One of the most common uses of a medium, for example, is for a person to speak with a deceased relative. As they are unable to contact the relative themselves, they visit a medium who can relay their questions and receive answers through them.
Different mediums work in different ways, ranging from the very quiet and subdued to the flashy and energetic. Some mediums enter a trance when they are speaking with the spirit world, shutting out the physical world completely and speaking without any memory of what they are saying. Others allow their bodies to be inhabited temporarily by a spirit so that the spirit may communicate with others freely. Still others communicate by using some sort of external device, such as a pen and paper, which they allow the spirit to guide.
Written descriptions of people who appear to have been mediums can be found as far back as the Old Testament, where the Witch of Endor is said to have brought the spirit of the prophet Samuel to speak with King Saul, to allow him to question Samuel about a battle. They continued to exist throughout history, but saw a real revival in the West as Spiritualism took off in the mid-19th century. Many a Spiritualist claimed to be a medium, and séances, where the dead were summoned to speak to the assembled crowds were held throughout major cities.
By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a number of people had shown how stage magic tricks could be used to mimic many of the effects the medium employed. This robbed the medium of much of their credibility, and Spiritualists gradually abandoned the practice in favor of channeling. Channeling is seen as a slightly different take on the medium, with the channeler receiving information and history from long dead people or from supernatural spirits, often for the purpose of relating it to the world at large in the form of books or educational seminars.
Mediumship is looked at as a paranormal practice, and therefore is discounted by most scientists as being completely unfounded in reality. Critics claim that most of what the medium says is acquired by means of a number of techniques, including cold reading, and that accompanying effects are simply stage magic. Those who perform the role of a medium without believing in the actual spiritual connection of it, for entertainment reasons, are generally referred to as mentalists.