spirit possession Unlike Demonic possession, in which a person is taken over by devils or evil spirits for harm, spirit possession is a voluntary, culturally sanctioned displacement of personality. The spirits—which may be deities, angels, Demons, “advanced” entities or the dead—are invited to enter a human being to communicate with the living. mediumship and channelling are forms of spirit possession. The person may maintain awareness or be in a deep trance.
In some societies, spirit possession is practiced by oracles and prophets, who go into trance and become possessed by deities in order to see the future. In certain shamanic traditions, shamans become possessed for prophecy and healing, the latter of which involves driving or sucking evil spirits out of the sick. most shamans, however, control spirits rather than allow themselves to become possessed by them (see Shamanism).
In Witchcraft the rituals of Drawing Down the moon and Drawing Down the Sun are a form of temporary spirit possession. The rituals involve the invoking of the Goddess (moon) into the high priestess and the God (Sun) into the high priest, who may then speak in trance.
For many people, the concept of possession by various gods serves as an important part of religious worship. To be possessed means that the god has found a person worthy to receive the spirit of the god. In India, possession by spirits permeates daily life. most often the possessed person is a woman, who attributes all sorts of personal problems—menstrual pain, the death of children, barrenness, miscarriage, her husband’s infidelities—to the intervention of the spirits. In many cases the woman has little family support and perhaps suffers harsh treatment from her husband, father or brothers, and so possession by a spirit gains her sympathy instead of condemnation for her troubles.
Others find they can control their relatives, large crowds, and even gain for themselves gifts of money, food or liquor. In some cases, subservient women use the possessed state to castigate their husbands and make them act more kindly. In such cultures, possession provides liberation for the women, allowing them to ask for more material goods and attention, air grievances, be more sexual and achieve some parity in their male-dominated societies (see African Witchcraft).
In Vodun, the possession of the faithful by the various gods is called “mounting the horse”—the horse being the victim who “manifests” the spirit, who “rides” him or her. Spirit possessions usually last only as long as the ceremonies, brought on by the feverish excitement of fast-beating drums and chanting. Similar possessions take place in Santería and mACumbA. In Haiti, if someone becomes recurrently possessed, at any time and any place, he or she is not considered to be filled with the spirit of the gods but to be psychologically unbalanced.
Spirit possession also occurs in Christianity. The word enthusiastic originally meant being filled with the holy spirit. After the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, on the first day of Pentecost, the Apostles were said to be possessed by the Holy Spirit. Fire appeared above their heads, and they spoke in different languages, or tongues, than those they knew. Speaking in tongues in an ecstatic state characterized early Christian worship, but by the middle Ages it represented Demonic possession more often than saintly enthusiasm.
In modern Christian worship, the Pentecostal movement has revived interest in speaking in tongues and ecstatic communion with God. The movement began on January 1, 1901 (the first day of the 20th century), when a group of Bethel College, Topeka, Kansas, reportedly received the Spirit. Various sects have sought communication with the Lord in this manner, with the so-called Holy rollers being perhaps the most famous in the first part of this century. Worshipers rolled and writhed on the floor, putting themselves in a state of self-induced hypnosis, and prayed that the Spirit would come to them. The congregation considered those who received the Spirit as blessed, much like the worshipers during a Vodun rite praise those who have been mounted by a god. Earlier critics of such worship would have found the participants possessed. The largest group of Pentecostals in the United States is the Assemblies of God, with thousands of members worldwide.
In Spiritualism, some trance mediums allow themselves to be possessed by spirits who speak through them. In some Spiritualist churches, spirit-possessed mediums deliver sermons in trance, as well as messages from the dead to members of the congregation. Channelling involves the invoking of highly evolved entries, who “possess” the channeler in order to speak to a human audience.
- Crabtree, Adam. Multiple Man, Explorations in Possession and Multiple Personality. New York: Praeger, 1985.
- Rogo, D. Scott. The Infinite Boundary. New York: Dodd, mead & Co., 1987.
- Wickland, Carl. Thirty Years Among the Dead. 1924. reprint, N. Hollywood: Newcastle Publishing Co., 1974.