Possession is the takeover and control of a person’s mind and body by a Demon, condemned soul, ghost, spirit, or deity. There are different forms of possession; most are not Demonic. While possession is a universal and ancient belief, the approaches to it differ widely. In Christianity, possession is associated with malevolent spirits under the direction of the Devil that threaten not only a person’s health and life but his or her afterlife as well.
Since ancient times, there have been beliefs that gods and other spirits interfere in human affairs on a daily basis. The spirits may possess a person’s mind and/or body and cause him or her to carry out certain acts for the possessing entity’s own purpose. While possession usually is regarded as undesirable, some traditions hold that it shows the favor of the gods. Mediums, channelers, and trance prophets undergo a type of temporary and voluntary possession, in which they become a vehicle for discarnate entities to communicate through them. Another type of voluntary possession is spirit, such as the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost experienced as a religious altered state of consciousness.
Anything might be blamed on or credited to a possessing entity. Most possessions are temporary and end when the goal of the possessing entity is accomplished, but sometimes the entities present an ongoing problem that requires stronger measures. If possession creates problems, remedies of Exorcism, the expulsion or banishing of the entity, are sought from a trained practitioner, such as a priest, magician, or other expert. Some forms of possession are more psychiatric in nature, causing mental disturbances and personality changes.
In Demonic possession, a Demon takes up residence in a person’s body and influences or controls his or her thoughts, words, and actions. A possessed person can seem normal for periods of time and then exhibit bizarre, uncontrolled behavior attributed to the Demon. During the Demonic episodes, the victim is entranced, and, when they end, there is a transition period of a return to normalcy.
Possessed persons usually are under the influence of more than one Demon. Unless they are exorcised, the Demons cause extreme deterioration of health to the point of death, sometimes by suicide.
According to Catholic theology, Demons cannot possess a person’s soul, but they can influence a person to take actions that jeopardize his or her status in the afterlife, so that the soul goes to Hell. Souls of the damned already in hell are capable of possessing a living person in much the same way as Demons.
Christian History of Demonic Possession
There are few references to evil spirits in the Old Testament. In each case, the evil spirit was sent by God to punish and torment people. 1 Samuel 16:14–16 describes how an indwelling evil spirit was sent by the Lord tormented Saul, who was relieved when David played his harp:
Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him. Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the harp. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes upon you, and you will feel better.”
Demons and possession play a more prominent role in the New Testament. The Gospels and Acts tell how Jesus healed by casting out “unclean spirits,” a customary practice for healers at the time. Demons were believed to cause illness as well as their own torments. One who consulted Jesus was a deranged man who was possessed by Demons who identified themselves as Legion, after the unit of Roman soldiers numbering 6,000. Seeing that their possession of the man was at an end, the Demons begged Jesus to send them into a nearby herd of swine, and he did. The pigs went berserk and plunged over a cliff to their deaths, taking the Demons with them (Luke 8:30).
In no case in Scripture was a possessed person considered responsible for his or her condition on account of sin. As with Legion, most of the cases cited involve problems and illnesses caused by the possessing spirits. Luke 9:38–43 describes a case of apparent epilepsy in a boy who experiences convulsions believed to be caused by a Demon. Luke 11:14 describes a person who is rendered mute because of a Demon:
Jesus was driving out a Demon that was mute. When the Demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, “By Beelzebub, the prince of Demons, he is driving out Demons.”
Luke 13:10–13 tells of a woman who was crippled for 18 years by a Demon:
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
Faith makes a woman worthy of having her Demon possessed daughter exorcised in Matthew 15:21–28:
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from Demon-possession.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
By the end of the New Testament period, Demons were equated with the wicked Fallen Angels cast out of heaven with Lucifer. Early Christian theologians considered possession to be orchestrated by the Devil and carried out by the Demons who served him. Demons plagued the holy, such as saints, and fooled the innocent.
In the Middle Ages, Demonic possession became a major concern of the church. Anyone found showing signs of unusual behavior or change in personality was assumed to be possessed by the Devil. During the Inquisition, possession became a heresy—a reason to be arrested, tried, and, if found guilty, executed. Theologians said that the Devil worked through the agency of witches; the practice of Witchcraft also became a heresy. Witches were accused of using black Magic or animal Familiars to send Demons into people. Demons also preyed upon the weaknesses of people—their lust, greed, anger, and so forth— to find an entry point for possession.
Even eating certain foods, such as APPLEs, could result in possession, for Demons rode along into the body on the food. The apple was considered a favorite Demonic vehicle because it was the fruit involved in the fall of Adam and Eve. In 1585, the townspeople of Annecy, Savoy, France, became alarmed over an apple that gave out a “great and confused noise.” Believing it to be full of Demons, they pushed the apple into a river.
In 1614, the Catholic Church issued the Rituale Romanum to standardize procedures. Part of the Rituale Romanum was especially intended for Demonic possession, an all-out spiritual battle between the forces of good and evil. Revisions have been made to the text since then, and it continues in modern use. Only a priest, preferably one who is trained in exorcism, can perform it. The Protestant Reformation rejected the idea of Demonic possession, although in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were famous possession cases, many in France, which served as exorcism power contests between Catholics and Protestants to sway the faithful and win converts.
Demonic possession cases continue in present times. Church attention to possession cases dropped in the 20th century. In the 1970s, public attention was renewed by William Peter Blatty’s novel and film The Exorcist, based on a real case in 1949 (see St. Louis Exorcism Case). The numbers of reported possession cases began to rise. A sharp increase was seen at the turn of the 21st century, perhaps in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, and rising global fears over terrorism and war. The church increased the training of exorcists (see International Association of Exorcists).
Catholic clergy dealt with most cases, but some Protestant and evangelical ministers perform varying types of exorcism. Lay Demonologists also investigate cases and work with clergy in exorcisms, usually as assistants or witnesses.
Causes of Demonic Possession
According to the Catholic Church, the chief causes of possession are the following:
• making a Pact with the Devil or Demons
• participating in occult or spiritualist rites, including playing with divination devices such as a Ouija™ or doing automatic writing
• offering or dedicating a child to Satan
• being the victim of a witchcraft spell or Curse
Engaging in these activities, as well as leading a deliberately sinful life, give Demons the right and license to take up residence, according to the church. Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder are not considered to be caused by Demonic possession.
The church teaches that God allows possession to happen for a variety of reasons:
• to Demonstrate the truth of the Catholic faith
• to punish sinners
• to confer spiritual benefits through lessons
• to produce teachings for humanity
Signs of Demonic Possession
The Catholic Church defines the true signs of possession as
• displaying superhuman strength and Levitation, often accompanied by fits, convulsions, and contortions
• having knowledge of the future or other secret information
• being able to understand and converse in languages previously unknown to the victim
• exhibiting revulsion toward sacred objects or texts
Exorcists develop discernment that enables them to determine whether or not a person is truly possessed, rather than suffering from mental illness or stress. A DemonIAC’s eyes will be rolled back into his head and his or her voice will be altered to an evil, mocking tone. The person will scream insults, profanities, and blasphemies at the exorcists and witnesses.
How a possessed person behaves depends on the type of Demon involved, and the exorcist’s skill at recognizing the signs. There are three types of possessing Demons, clausus (Latin for shut), apertus (Latin for open), and abditus (Latin for hidden). If a Demon is clausus, it can resist prayer for a short time before eventually revealing its presence in an entranced condition and rolled-back eyes. The possessed person does not move or speak out but is still possessed. If a Demon is apertus, it will keep the possessed person’s eyes open and will laugh at and mock the exorcist, claiming that the person’s condition is only psychological. An abditus Demon is capable of hiding deep within a person’s interior and can show no signs for hours in an exorcism.
In all cases, a possessed person will not recall his or her behavior during possessed episodes.
Stages of Demonic Possession
Demonic possession can progress through stages:
• Infestation, the actual entry point, when the Demon first enters the victim and begins to exert an influence in the environment, such as unpleasant phenomena.
• Oppression or vexation, in which the victim weakens and makes unethical or immoral choices or serious mistakes on vital matters. As oppression worsens, the victim voluntarily yields control to the Demon, even though he or she knows it is alien to his or her personality.
• Full-blown Demonic possession. The Demon tries to cause the victim to commit heinous acts, such as murder or suicide. The victim’s appearance and behavior alter in radical ways. A host of unpleasant phenomena manifest: lewd and obscene acts and thoughts; cursing and swearing; screaming in rage; spitting, vomiting, and urinating; foul smells; horrible facial expressions; physical contortions; unusual strength; speaking in tongues; prophesying; emaciation through rapid weight loss; Levitation; and so forth. If presented with holy objects or splashed with holy water, a victim recoils.
Remedies for Demonic Possession
Exorcisms can be performed at any stage, and sometimes the offending entity can be expelled before full possession is reached. Some cases require repeated exorcisms and last for years before a person is liberated. In addition to the exorcism rites, the possessed person and his family must pray and make an effort to regain a spiritual life. Once Demons are expelled, they stay out, but they can return if invited back through a relapse of sin and behavior.
Dangers of Demonic Possession
Severely possessed people are in danger of dying (see Michel, Anneliese). According to the church, if they die before their Demons are expelled, they are not necessarily condemned to hell. If they die in a state of grace, they will go to heaven. Once a victim is dead, the Demons depart.
Those present at an exorcism—the exorcists, assistants, and witnesses—are in danger of suffering possession from departing Demons, who may seize an opportunity to occupy a new host. At the very least, the Demon, speaking through the victim, may hurl their secret fears and vices in their faces. Exorcists and Demonologists also can suffer mishaps, such as strange accidents, while they are working on cases. Good health and a virtuous life are important defenses in dealing with possession cases. Nonetheless, some untrained paranormal investigators, attracted by the danger, have involved themselves in the field, thus opening themselves and their families to unpleasant problems. Exorcists stress that amateurs should not meddle in possession.
Possession of Animals
In the Catholic tradition, animals have the potential to become possessed, but reported cases are not common. The best biblical example is that of Jesus driving Demons out of a man and into a herd of swine, which then commit suicide by drowning themselves in the sea (Mark 5:1–13). Animals that become possessed by Demons act strangely and may exhibit self-destructive behavior, such as running in front of vehicles. If a possessed animal dies or is sacrificed, the Demon departs.
Possession by Djinn
According to Islam, there are two principal causes of possession by Djinn, and both are forbidden by Allah. The Djinn can possess a person out of lewdness, desire, love, capriciousness, trickster horseplay, and whim. It will attack the weak, vulnerable, and insane; “under Satan’s touch” describes madness. Sometimes possession of this sort is permitted by the victim, but it is still forbidden. Without permission, the possession becomes a grave offense of oppression, and the Djinn must be rebuked and informed that it has broken the laws of Allah.
In the second case, Djinn may possess a person out of revenge, if they feel they have been wronged or injured. Humans may inadvertently urinate on them, pour water on them, or kill them, causing the Djinn to react by punishing the humans. In that case, the Djinn should be informed that the harm was accidental, and the Djinn are not permitted to occupy the person’s home, property, or body.
In possession, Djinn can make people speak in unintelligible languages, have supernormal strength, and run unnaturally fast. The Djinn will rain blows upon people and make them have fits.
Minor Djinn called ZAR possess women and cause sickness, marital discord, and rebelliousness.
Other Demonic Possession outside of Christianity
Beliefs in the ability of negative, interfering spirits to possess people are universal. Views on possessing Demons and their purposes vary, as do remedies against them. In Hinduism, possession permeates every facet of daily life. The victim is most often a woman, who attributes her personal problems—menstrual pain, barrenness, the death of children, miscarriage, abuse by husbands or fathers, the husband’s infidelities—to the intervention of evil spirits. Exorcism techniques include blowing cow-dung smoke, pressing rock salt between the fingers, burning pig excreta, beating the victim herself or pulling her hair, using copper coins as an offering, reciting prayers or mantras, and offering gifts of candy or other presents.
In Japanese tradition, fox fairies cause similar negative conditions (see huli jing; kitsune). The spirits communicate their requirements for departure, usually offerings of special foods.
Elsewhere, negative spirits and even mischievous deities are held responsible for all bad things that happen. Sometimes, the possessed victims gain social status by becoming possessed, which entitles them to privileges, attention, and gifts.
Possession by the Holy Ghost
Voluntary possession by the divine presence is accepted in traditions of Christianity. The word enthusiastic originally meant being filled with the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, or the supreme state of oneness with God. After the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, on the first day of Pentecost (the date seven weeks after Passover, in the Jewish calendar), the apostles became possessed with the Holy Ghost. Acts describes how flames appeared above their heads and they spoke in tongues previously unknown to them. Speaking in unknown tongues, called glossolalia, and other ecstatic communion with God characterized early Christian worship but by the Middle Ages had come to signify the work of the Devil instead.
In modern Christianity, the Pentecostal movement has revived interest in ecstatic religious practices. The movement began on January 1, 1901, when a group of worshippers at Bethel College, Topeka, Kansas, reportedly received the Holy Spirit. Members of Pentecostal churches may speak in tongues, engage in long prayer revivals, perform faith healing, and even roll and writhe on the floor as the spirit fills them.
Such voluntary and temporary possessions are a “religious altered state of consciousness.” Their phenomena are similar to cases of Demonic possession, in which the possessed person exhibits rigidity of limbs, speaking in foreign languages or tongues, dilation of pupils, visions, insomnia, fasting, self-infliction of pain, sensations of a burning death, and catatonia. These states of consciousness can have 40-day cycles, imitating the 40-day withdrawal of Jesus into the desert.
Voluntary Spirit Possession
In some non-Western cultures, including shamanic traditions, voluntary possession as a means to communicate with spirits and deities serves as the centerpiece of religious worship and is used to obtain beneficial help in solving problems, divining the future, curing illness, and restoring happiness and harmony in life. Possession by a god shows the possessed to be worthy of the god’s notice and protection.
In the Caribbean and South America and lands where tribal Africans were taken to be slaves, worship of the religions of their ancestors—now practiced as Vodun, Santeria, candomblé, or Umbanda—involves the possession of the faithful by the gods to obtain true communion and protection. Black slaves transported to Brazil by the Portuguese in the 1550s found their tribal religion had much in common with the spiritual practices of Indian tribes along the Amazon River. Forced to syncretize the worship of the gods, or orishas, into the veneration of Catholic saints to escape persecution, the blacks continued to follow the old ways and rituals in secret. By the time the slaves won their independence in 1888, more than 15 generations of Brazilians—black, white and Indian—had heard the stories of the orishas and how their magical intervention had snared a lover, saved a marriage or a sick baby, or eliminated a wicked enemy.
Worshippers, entranced by rites of chanting and drumming, are temporarily possessed or “mounted” by a god or spirit, becoming the entity’s “horse.” They take on that spirit’s personal characteristics, such as facial expressions, body postures and gestures, preferences for certain foods or colors, perfumes, patterns of speech, use of profanity, smoking, and so forth.
Under possession, the worshipper may endure great extremes of heat and cold, dance unceasingly for hours, suffer from cuts and bruises with no pain, and even tear off the heads of live chickens used for sacrifice with his or her own teeth. Often the possessed issue prophesies and deliver pronouncements about local affairs. The worshipper becomes the deity and is accorded all appropriate rights and honors. Once possession subsides, the special treatment ends and the worshipper resumes his or her ordinary life.
Candomblé closely resembles the ancient Yoruban practices from Africa. The term candomblé probably derives from candombe, a celebration and dance held by the slaves on the coffee plantations. The first candomblé center was organized in 1830 in Salvador, the old capital city of Brazil and now the capital of the state of Bahia, by three former slaves who became the cult’s high priestesses. The slave women inherited the formerly all-male ceremonial duties when the men spent their time in slave field labor. Also serving as mistresses to the white Portuguese, the women claimed the exercise of their magical rites helped maintain their sexual skill and prowess. These “Mothers of the Saints” trained other women, called the “Daughters of the Saints,” ensuring that the men were excluded from major responsibilities.
Candomblé ceremonies involve invocations to the gods, prayers, offerings, and voluntary possession. Healing is emphasized. Devotees believe the moment of greatest spiritual healing occurs when a person becomes one with his or her orisha during initiation into the cult. Such possession is often intense, requiring constant aid from the other worshippers. The priest may beg the orisha to treat the initiate gently, offering a pigeon or other sacrifice to the orisha in return for his or her mercy. The stronger the orisha the more violent the possession.
Umbanda was founded in 1904 and has its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism in addition to African tribal religions. The teachings of spiritism—that communication with discarnate spirits is not only possible but necessary for spiritual healing and acceptance of one’s earlier incarnations—also plays a large part in the practices of umbanda.
The term umbanda probably derives from aum-gandha, a Sanskrit description of the divine principle. Umbanda incorporates the worship of the Catholic saints with the beliefs of the Brazilian Indians. The orishas go by their Catholic names and personae.
In addition to the orishas, possessing entities include the exus and pomba giras, caboclos, pretos velhos, and criancas.
The exus are the spirits of the wicked and dangerous dead and of suicides. Their female counterparts are the pomba giras. Their light is diminished. They are sometimes equated with Demons by outsiders, but their nature is not evil and satanic, more that of a trickster. The caboclos are the spirits of dead Indians. They possess good herbal knowledge, pride, and strength and are valued when decisiveness is needed. The pretos velhos are the spirits of dead Afro-Brazilian slaves. They have a gentle nature and are good for personal matters and healing, especially concerning herbal remedies.
The criancas are the spirits of children who died between ages three and five. They are consulted for personal matters and healing.
Quimbanda, formerly called Macumba, involves black magic in which lower spirits are contacted.
Vodun entered the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Saint-Domingue, now divided into the nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, with the millions of black African slaves, encompassing members of the Bambara, Foula, Arada (or Ardra), Mandingue, Fon, Nago, Iwe, Ibo, Yoruba, and Congo tribes. Their religious practices perhaps first amused white masters, but soon fearful whites forbade their slaves not only from practicing their religion but gathering in any type of congregation. Penalties were sadistic and severe, including mutilation, sexual disfigurement, flaying alive, and burial alive. Any slave found possessing a fetish (a figurine or carved image of a god) was to be imprisoned, hanged, or flayed alive. To save the blacks from the “animal” natures that they were believed to have, masters baptized their slaves as Catholic Christians. In front of whites, blacks practiced Catholicism, but among each other, the gods of their ancestors were not forgotten. Rites held deep in the woods, prayers transmitted in work songs, and worship of saints while secretly praying to the gods preserved the old traditions while giving them a new twist.
The syncretic practices that evolved featured worship rites in which voluntary possession was invited of the loas or mystères, the old gods and ancestral spirits. The priest or priestess, called houngan and mambo, respectively, acts as intermediary to summon the loas and help them to depart when their business is finished. The houngan and mambo receive total authority from the mystères. The possessed lose all consciousness, totally becoming the possessing loas with all their desires and eccentricities. Young women possessed by the older spirits seem frail and decrepit, while the infirm possessed by young, virile gods dance with no thought to their disabilities. Even facial expressions change to resemble that of the god or goddess. Although sacred, possession can be frightening and even dangerous, causing mental imbalance and deterioration of health.
Similar in practice to Vodun, Santeria centers around the worship of the ancient African gods (mostly Yoruban) who were blended with Catholic saints. Santeria is derived from the Spanish word santo, or “saint”; practitioners are called santeros and santeras. The orishas who possess worshippers have complex human personalities, with strong desires, preferences, and temperaments. When possessed, the devotees assume the orishas’ supernatural characteristics, performing feats of great strength, eating and drinking huge quantities of food and alcohol, and divining the future with great accuracy.
The santeros wield enormous power, having knowledge that can change a person’s life either through their own skill or by the help of the orishas. To use that power for good or evil rests with the santeros alone.
Voluntary Possession in Mediumship and Channeling
During the 19th century, belief in diabolical possession declined in the West, while belief in spirit possession increased. Mediumship involves communicating with the dead and other spirits. In physical mediumship, the medium allows a form of temporary possession to take place, in which the spirits use the medium’s body and voice to communicate directly. In mental mediumship, communication is impressed on a medium’s thoughts.
In order for the temporary possession to take place, mediums enter into altered states of consciousness that range from dissociated states, in which they are fully aware of what happens, to deep trance, in which they have no awareness of events. Entranced mediums may exhibit physical symptoms similar to religious altered states of consciousness. Once the trance is ended, there is a period of transition in the return to normal awareness. Mediumship takes a physical and sometimes mental toll and can adversely affect health.
Though mediumship is voluntary, it sometimes begins as involuntary episodes in which spirits take over a person. Over time, a medium learns how to control spirit access. There are many ways of inducing entranced states for mediumistic possession, including drugs, fasting, meditation, and prayer.
Channeling is essentially the same as mediumship and is a newer term, usually applied to contact with highly evolved human spirits or nonhuman spirits, angels, and extraterrestrials, rather than the dead. Religious critics of both mediumship and channeling contend that the true identities of the possessing spirits are Demons intent on deception and Demonic possession. Catholics and others are counseled not to consult psychics and mediums.
Voluntary Possession in Spiritualism and Spiritism
Life everlasting for the spirit and the ability to contact such spirits through mediums, proving their survival, underlie spiritualism, a religious movement that began in the mid-19th century and swept both sides of the Atlantic. It declined in popularity in the 20th century but still continues today.
A central feature of spiritualism is communication with the dead through mediums. One of the purposes of mediumship is to validate the tenets of spiritualism: belief in an immanent God as the active moving principle in nature, the affirmation of the essential goodness of human beings, a denial of the need for salvation, and the repudiation of Hell. Rather, the dead go to Summerland, a place of perpetual summer where the departed spirits spend eternity.
Spiritism evolved from spiritualism in the mid-19th century. Its chief proponent was a French writer and physician named Hippolyte-Léon-Denizard Rivail, who knew Latin and Greek and wrote under the pseudonym Allan Kardec.
Trained as a doctor, Kardec believed that certain illnesses have a spiritual cause and can be treated psychically through communication with spirit guides. Specifically, he said that persons suffering from epilepsy, schizophrenia, and multiple personality showed signs of spirit interference or possession, either from the dead or from remnants of the patients’ own past lives. Kardec theorized that within each person’s personality are what he called “subsystems” of past lives inherited with each new incarnation. Sometimes, these subsystems dominate the present life, blocking out reality and controlling the body for extended periods. Successful treatment depends not only on counseling and therapy but on communication with these spirits to understand their presence and persuade them to depart the victim.
Kardec’s theories were fashionable in France for a while but did not catch on in the rest of Europe. They found enthusiastic audiences in Brazil.
Possession as Physical or Mental Illness
In ancient times, Demons and spirits were held to be the cause of diseases and illnesses, both physical and psychological. The oldest extant text on epilepsy, On the Sacred Disease, attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460–ca. 370 B.C.E.), but probably authored by several of his students, states that bizarre emotions, behavior, and sensations commonly believed to be due to Demonic possession were instead due to a brain disease. It is likely that some cases of alleged Demonic possession were either cases of epilepsy or of Tourette’s syndrome, a rare neurological disorder.
According to Catholicism, the New Testament distinguishes between illness and possession, in descriptions of Jesus both performing the casting out of unclean spirits and healing the sick. However, some physicians and medical professionals even into modern times have postulated Demonic interference as a cause of certain health problems.
Epileptic seizures are characterized by unconsciousness, violent behavior, vomiting, and visual, auditory, and olfactory hallucinations that may seem supernatural. Epileptics report feeling the presence of God, angels, or other spirits, including the dead. They may smell terrible stenches resembling brimstone or rotting flesh. Tourette’s syndrome, often misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, starts in childhood and manifests with facial contortions, upward eye rolling, bizarre growls, barks, and grunts, and verbal outbursts of a sexual, blasphemous, or scatological nature— all characteristics of Demonic possession.
Schizophrenia sufferers, who also experience altered states of consciousness and various hallucinations, may project fragments of their own personality as external “Demons” or spirits. A theory about multiple personality sufferers, however, holds that the repression of a great deal of hatred, common in the disorder, acts as a magnet for evil influences. Obsession always represents an abnormal condition, and once one admits the existence of spirit influence, the idea of spirit obsession cannot be ignored. Severe physical or psychological trauma may so upset the victim that a “window” in the mind opens, allowing spirit influences to enter. In many cases of multiple personality, some psychiatrists find that only exorcism, perhaps simply invoking the Lord’s name, eliminates one or more of the troubling personalities so that the patient can eventually become one person.
Dr. JAMES HERVEY HYSLOP, an American psychologist famous for his research of obsession cases, states in his book Contact with the Other World (1919) that if people believe in telepathy, then invasion of a personality over distance is possible. And if that is true, he found it unlikely that sane and intelligent spirits were the only ones able to exert influence from beyond. Hyslop also stated that persons diagnosed as suffering from hysteria, multiple personality, dementia praecox, or other mental disturbances showed, in his view, unmistakable signs of invasion by discarnate entities. He called on medical practitioners to take such situations into account during treatment. The American psychiatrist Dr. M. Scott Peck, a graduate of Harvard University, claims that two of his patients suffered from possession in addition to their other symptoms of multiple personality. In both cases, Peck found the spirits to be evil, actively working to destroy the mind of the host patients.
In People of the Lie (1983), Peck describes these patients, their awareness from the beginning of an alien presence, and the exorcisms that eventually cleared the way for spiritual healing. When the Demonic entities finally revealed themselves, the patients’ faces were completely transformed into masks of utter malevolence. One patient became a Serpent, with writhing body, hooded reptilian eyes, and darting efforts to bite the exorcism team members. But what really overwhelmed Peck was not the performance but the feeling that a tremendous weight—an ageless, evil heaviness, or the true Serpent—was in the room. He reports that everyone present felt such a presence, only relieved when the exorcism succeeded.
Peck’s experiences have corroborated those of the California psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Allison, trained at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine and Stanford Medical Center. According to Allison, some cases of multiple personality may be the result of spirit possession, both nonthreatening and Demonic. His controversial book Minds in Many Pieces (1980) discusses some of these patients and the inexplicable paranormal occurrences surrounding them. At least one personality in each patient—sometimes the primary but usually a secondary one—displayed striking psychic abilities.
One case cited by Allison was that of a young man who began hearing a voice in his head after being struck on the head by a heavy object. He had convulsive seizures that could not be explained neurologically. The voice told him he was about to die. Under hypnosis, the voice identified itself as the Devil and said it had entered the man when he was on military duty in Japan. The man had rushed into a burning house to rescue someone and was blown out by an explosion. The Devil entered him at that time and was the cause of all his physical and mental problems. Allison consulted a religious expert, who opined that the spirit was not the Devil but a stupid but evil entity who thought it was the Devil. He performed an exorcism, and the man was relieved of all symptoms.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Dr. Titus Bull, a well-respected physician and neurologist in New York City, treated many of his patients spiritually as well as physically. With the assistance of a medium, Mrs. Carolyn Duke (a pseudonym), Bull claimed to treat and sometimes cure schizophrenics, manic-depressives, and alcoholics. As had his predecessor Dr. CARL A. WICKLAND, a pioneer in the spiritual exorcism of unwanted spirits as treatment for mental disorders, Dr. Bull believed that the possessing spirits were not necessarily evil but merely confused. With help from either the doctor or other spirits, the entities could pass on to their proper plane, leaving the victim in peace and finding happiness themselves. On the basis of his experiences, Bull found that spirits enter the victim through the base of the brain, the solar plexus, or the reproductive organs. He also postulated that pains suffered by the living might be pains produced by the obsessing dead spirit, especially if that spirit suffered in life.
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- Goodman, Felicitas D. The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel. Oreg.: Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981.
- ———. How About Demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
- Ibn Taymeeyah’s Essay on the Jinn (Demons). Abridged, annotated and translated by Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips. New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2002.
- Kapferer, Bruce. A Celebration of Demons. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
- Kelly, Henry Ansgar. The Devil, Demonology, and Witchcraft: The Development of Christian Beliefs in Evil Spirits. Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf & Stock, 1974.
- Martin, Malachi. Hostage to the Devil. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
- Oesterreich, T. K. Possession: Demonical and Other among Primitive Races, in Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Modern Times. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1966.
- Peck, M. Scott. Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist’s Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism and Redemption. Detroit: Free Press, 2005.
- ———. People of the Lie. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.
- Wickland, Carl. Thirty Years among the Dead. 1924. Reprint, N. Hollywood, Calif.: Newcastle, 1974.
- Wilkinson, Tracy. The Vatican’s Exorcists: Driving Out the Devil in the 21st Century. New York: Warner Books, 2007.
- Zaffis, John, and Brian McIntyre. Shadows of the Dark. New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2004.
A possession is a complete takeover of one’s personality by a malevolent entity, allowing the entity to dominate; the victim becomes, even somewhat physically, that Demonic being. Possession has been blamed on bewitchment, though causes probably were hysterical fantasies, physical and mental disorders and repressed sexual desire. In modern times, possession is still sometimes attributed to witchcraft, Curses and the interferences of Demons.
Early Christians enjoyed a much more intimate relationship with Christ and God, so consequently they feared personal, active intervention by the forces of evil. prAyer, charms and Amulets were employed to keep the Devil at bay, since he was constantly on the prowl for unsuspecting victims.
Later Christian theology considered the idea of spirit possession heretical, so anyone found showing signs of unusual behavior or a different personality was automatically possessed (energumenus; the possessed person is an energumen) by the Devil.
During the witch hunts, there were two acknowledged ways to become possessed by the Devil: either the Devil passes directly into a person, or someone—usually said to be a witch or Wizard—working with the Devil sends a Demon into a victim through bewitchment. many unfortunates were branded as witches or evil ones simply because they were old, ugly or on the social fringe (see hAg). Noted Julio Caro Baroja in The World of the Witches (1961):
there is a deep-rooted belief in various parts of Europe in the existence of people who quite involuntarily bring “bad luck” (mal fario) . . . or have the “Evil Eye.” . . . panish writers of the 16th and 17th centuries worked out theories that the “Evil Eye” was the result of the presence of certain harmful properties in the eye or in other parts of the body of certain types of people . . . more particularly through those of elderly spinsters, cripples and certain types of sick people.
Such evil body parts were not necessarily the result of the unfortunate’s own free will (see Evil Eye). Terrible deformities, especially of the face, also led the general populace to believe the sufferer was marked by the Devil, much as the Elephant man of 19th-century London was feared and mocked.
Most medieval thinkers, however, firm in their belief in man’s sinfulness, assumed that the Devil used one of his human henchmen to torment the innocent. Every time a child sickened or had seizures—which now probably would be diagnosed as epilepsy—or livestock died, or crops failed, sufferers looked for a witch responsible. The witch usually was a poor old woman, angry with her station in life, argumentative with her neighbors and quite likely a midwife.
The witch was believed to transmit the Demon through some tangible object, often a potion, ChArm or amulet. The most common means of sending the Devil to an innocent victim was through food. In his Dialogues, Pope Gregory the Great tells the story of a possessed servant girl. She apparently ate some lettuce leaves from the garden, and a Devil had been sitting on one when she consumed it. The Demon complained about such treatment of an innocent bystander, but he was exorcised anyway.
HenriBoguet, a great Demonologist and witch judge in 17th-century France, found that Apples, a treat in which the Devil could easily hide and that raised no alarm in the eater, were the best food for transmission. “In this, Satan continually rehearses the means by which he tempted Adam and Eve in the earthly paradise,” Boguet commented in Discours des sorciers (1602), his authoritative legal textbook on Demonology. He reported an incident at Annecy, Savoy, in 1585 where townspeople pushed an apple that was giving out a “great and confused noise” into the river. Boguet said that the apple was no doubt full of devils and that the citizens had successfully foiled a witch’s attempt to possess someone.
Many modern occultists believe that people become possessed by evil spirits today by toying with the supernatural, such as through automatic writing. The spirits that are attracted usually take unpleasant shapes.
The Jesuit professor MalachiMartin, in Hostage to the Devil (1976), outlined the stages of possession: the actual entry point, when the evil spirit first enters the victim; a stage of erroneous judgments by the possessed in vital matters, perhaps including the making of unethical choices; the voluntary yielding of control by the possessed person to the invading spirit, even though he knows the spirit is alien to his personality; and finally, perfect possession. Although martin acknowledged the original innocence of the victim, he stressed that possession cannot occur without the consent, however subliminal, of the possessed.
The Catholic Church defines the true signs of possession as displaying superhuman strength, often accompanied by fits and convulsions; having knowledge of the future or other secret information; being able to understand and converse in languages previously unknown to the victim; and revulsion toward sacred objects or texts. Early Puritan ministers and later Protestant clergy agree on these same signs, adding the complete ignorance of the possessed person about his fits and behaviors. In a treatise written in rouen in 1644, in response to the possession of nuns at a Louviers convent, the author lists 11 indications of Demonic possession, which would alert a priest to look for the sure signs:
1. To think oneself possessed.
2. To lead a wicked life.
3. To live outside the rules of society. (many accused witches led mildly scandalous lives.)
4. To be persistently ill, falling into heavy sleep and vomiting strange objects (see AllotrIophAgy). Some theologians described such symptoms as merely illusions caused by a witch, not signs of possession.
5. To blaspheme.
6. To make a pact with the Devil. (most Demonologists found pact-makers were accused witches, not possessed victims; see Devil’s pACt.)
7. To be troubled by spirits.
8. To show a frightening and horrible countenance. (The thinking was that since God and his angels
were beautiful, man made in God’s image, and not the Devil’s, would be beautiful, too.)
9. To be tired of living (and probably contemplating suicide, a sin).
10. To be uncontrollable and violent.
11. To make sounds and movements like an animal. (many medieval sufferers believed they were vicious animals, most often wolves. Some resorted to running on all fours and even tearing at their victims with their teeth. From such stories arose the myths of Lycanthropy, or werewolves.)
To this list may be added the practice of lewd and obscene acts—or even just sexual thoughts—and the classic picture of a possessed person emerges. many possessed victims smelled horrible as well, either of foul bodily odors or of sulphur, associated with the Devil’s fiery home.
Other signs of possession include a complete change in body features, such as a distended stomach, wrenching of the face into horrible expressions or rapid weight loss. The victim may seem so wasted that death appears inevitable. The voice usually changes also, to a deep, rasping, menacing, guttural croak. Sometimes the evil spirit expresses itself through automatic writing. Other possessed victims levitated.
Examined in the light of modern medicine, the convulsions and seizures, the manifestations of another personality and even the paranormal experiences are most likely symptoms of epilepsy, hysteria, schizophrenia or some other psychological problem. Possession is not the automatic answer for unexplained behavior, nor is Exorcism the preferred treatment. For the Catholic Church, only when the indications of possession are accompanied by striking paranormal phenomena and extreme revulsion toward sacred objects should they be considered manifestations of the Devil.
Even during the height of the witchcraft hysteria in the 16th and 17th centuries, debate raged over the existence of witches and whether they could cause people to be possessed by the Devil. “Celebrity” possession victims like Jeanne des Anges in Loudun were sometimes tricked into convulsing at the sight of a “holy” relic, when in fact the item was just a piece of wood or plain water. Ten years after Urbain Grandier’s death for his role at Loudun, a Frenchman named monconys visited Jeanne des Anges at the convent and found that the “blood” of her stigmata was merely red paint.
Famous cases of possession in the 16th and 17th centuries include Nicole of Laon, who used her possession by Beelzebub to indict French Huguenots; the possessions of nuns at the convents of Aix-en-Provence (see AIx-en- ProVenCe PossessIons), Louviers, Lille and Loudun; the WArboys WItChes; and the witchcraft hysteria in Salem (see Salem Witches). Exorcism of possessing Demons continues today. See spIrIt possession.
- Ebon, Martin. The Devil’s Bride, Exorcism: Past and Present. New York: Harper & row, 1974.
- Huxley, Aldous. The Devils of Loudun. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952.
- martin, malachi. Hostage to the Devil. New York: Harper & ow, 1976.
Possession is the takeover and control by an outside influence, such as a spirit, a god, a dead person, or a DEMON. Possession is not the same as obsession, which is a heavy influence but not a complete takeover. 256 poppet The belief that a person’s mind and soul can be influenced by a departed spirit, whether of god, demon, or man, is ancient and universal. Possession happens in three dominant ways:
• Involuntary, in which a god or a spirit takes over a person (or animal) and causes them to act in certain ways to serve the spirits’ purposes.
• Through Witchcraft or Sorcery in which a person or animal is bewitched or cursed and thus suffers illness or misfortune.
• Voluntary, such as through magical Ritual or an induced trance in which a god or a spirit is invited to make a temporary possession for purposes such as Prophecy, empowerment, divine favors, enlightenment, and channeling.
In the first two ways, possession can end only by EXORCISM by a qualified person. In voluntary possession, the possession is brought to an end when its purpose is fulfilled.
Widespread beliefs about demons hold that they are capable of causing frequent upsets and mischief, as well as serious illness and trouble, by taking possession of a person. The unwary, the careless, and the vulnerable are particularly at risk as are people whose health is poor or who flout social conventions, mores, and laws. A troubled relationship might be caused by a pesky demon that has laid siege to a person, causing her or him to say and do things that she or he would not ordinarily do. Even problems such as alcoholism, gambling addiction, and drug addiction have been blamed on interfering malevolent spirits that become attached like leeches to the energy field of a person.
The Christian church recognizes demonic possession that is the result of witchcraft or sorcery under the aegis of the devil or else is the consequence of sin. In earlier centuries, a person who exhibited unusual behavior or expressed ideas radically different than those currently acceptable was often deemed to be demonically possessed. The devil claimed victims by passing directly into a person’s mind and soul or by using a witch or a wizard to send a DEMON into the victim through Bewitchment. Witches were said to transmit demons to the innocent victim through a Charm, a PHILTRE, an AMULET, or, most likely, food. APPLES were especially popular since they seemed innocuous and were readily available.
As evidence of demonic possession, the victims may levitate, exhibit superhuman strength, forswear all religious words or articles, and speak in tongues. This last trait offers the strongest proof to the Catholic Church, allowing the attending bishop to permit an exorcism. The formal ritual is performed by a priest and done in the name of the Lord, sending the devil and his minions back to hell.
Epidemics of demonic possession occurred in Europe and even the American colonies from the 15th through the 18th centuries. Many of the afflicted were nuns, leading modern experts to theorize that repressed sexuality was a factor in the outbreaks, and hysterical children. The witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, were the result of fabricated stories by “possessed” children.
Voluntary possession serves as a means to communicate with spirits and deities and is a centerpiece of some religious worship. Possession by a god shows the possessed to be worthy of the god’s notice and protection. For example, in Vodoun, the gods, or loas, possess entranced people who dance or perform superhuman feats.
Mediumship and channeling are forms of voluntary spirit possession in which spirits of the dead speak through a medium or entities (Angels, extraterrestrials, etc.) speak through a channeler. Communication takes place in deep trance during which the possessing agents use the human vocal chords, as well as in light trance, automatic writing, and so forth.
In ritual magic, voluntary possession can takes place when gods are invoked. In high magic, the magician seeks to become infused with divine energy, consciousness, and enlightenment, such as in the ritual of the Holy Guardian Angel. In Wicca, the ritual of Drawing Down the Moon involves a trance possession in which the High Priestess channels an inspirational message from the Goddess.
- Ebon, Martin. The Devil’s Bride, Exorcism: Past and Present. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. 2d ed. New York: Facts On File Inc., 1999.
- Rogo, D. Scott. The Infinite Boundary. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1987.