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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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Possession and Exorcism

Paul Kiritsis - Friday, August 17, 2012

An exorcism

One ancient disease theory that we have yet to mention is spirit possession, the belief that a foreign entity has penetrated the human body and taken control of the part of the mind that identifies with the ego, the “I”. In souring the literature on spirit possession, it immediately becomes evident that indigenous cultures utilize three primary methods to expel them from the body and reinstate the individual ego to the throne of its pneumatic kingdom. The first method is purely mechanistic and may involve violent or brutal physical acts whereby the magical healer–termed an exorcist in this context–will attempt to drive the possessing spirit or force out of the victim through lashings, beatings, lacerations or by drawing blood. The second involves transference of the foreign entity into another vessel, usually that of an animal, and the third outright expulsion through successive conjurations supernatural in nature. Exorcism as a strictly therapeutic process pertains to only the last of these and has been a dominant feature of the cosmogonies of many Mediterranean countries in which dogmatic religion has played a dominant role (i.e. Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about spirit possession is that its anatomical features are identical irrespective of time or sociocultural and historical milieu. What we find in nearly all cases is that the ruling personality or character is jettisoned and replaced by a foreign persona, usually that of another individual, a famous historical personage or a malevolent demon. The victim will usually assume a tone and style of voice along with mannerisms unique to the invading entity and a radical shift in temperament that concretizes the spiritual transplantation in the eyes of the phenomenal world. In a large number of cases the individual that suffers spirit possession acquires abilities not usually accessible to human beings and their waking consciousness such as Herculean strength and movement and paranormal powers like telekinesis. There is no standardized norm when it comes to the regularity, period, and intensity of individual episodes and attempts to expel the foreign entity aren’t always successful. 

Spirit possession might be thought of as a kind of intrapsychic parasitism; just as a cancer, a virus, a bacterium, or a fungus can live in or on the body and emerge when the defences of the immune system are at their weakest so too can a parasitic spirit live co-inhabit the seat of the soul with the individual ego and take complete control of consciousness when the latter becomes weak or begins to vibrates at a much lower level than usual. The victim usually experiences this invasive assault passively and through an ethereal agency either lucid or somnambulistic in nature. In the first type, the lucid, the victim feels another presence within his or her being with an overpowering will that cannot under any circumstances be hindered from acting or speaking. Hence we would not be incorrect in saying that there are two entities inside a single body, both acutely aware of one another’s presence and each struggling to attain the ascendency over the other. The somnambulistic type is slightly different; here, consciousness can only be appropriated by one entity at a time and so the invading entity can flit in and out of its victim’s self whilst the latter remains completely ignorant of its imminence. In former times the Catholic Church decreed that possession could only be used to denote this form of spirit possession. All other forms were simply phenomena of obsession, a word that did not originally connote the persistence of ideas, images, and desires as understood by dynamic psychiatry today.

Spirit possession has many faces and can be understood from different perspectives. It can manifest as a spontaneous, artificial, overt or latent episode. Spontaneous cases of possession are malefic and characterized by what the victim perceives to be an unwillful and sometimes immoral theft and misappropriation of their personal consciousness that might be reversed through the arbitration of an exorcist. On the other hand possession deemed artificial is ultimately benign in disposition and engendered wilfully by the personal conscious for the sake of bringing a cause or goal to fruition. There are innumerable examples of this synthesized form of possession: the Delphic Bee or Pythia who engaged in oracular divination at the sanctuary at Delphi in classical Greece; the seers, mystics, and psychics that assume hypnagogic states and commune with other beings on spiritual planes; and the medicine men or shamans of many indigenous cultures all employ a state of artificial passion nowadays understood as a temporary shift in the trajectory of consciousness. The last two are self-explanatory; overt possession describes a psychic condition in which the foreign entity overpowers the personal ego of the victim and makes avid use of his or her physical senses to convey its messages and latent possession is merely the unconscious subsistence of an evil spirit that announces its presence through the proliferation of physiological, neural or mental dysfunction. Latent possession, according to many exorcists, is difficult to detect and victims can live in ignorance of the fact for months and even years before a tangible manifestation occurs. As a therapeutic method the potentiality of a successful exorcism rests on an articulated proclamation; hence the invading spirit must declare itself before the requisite acts can be implemented.

In hindsight we might think of exorcism as an ancient psychotherapeutic method aimed at extracting the disease-object–in this case a foreign spirit–from the afflicted individuals. Exorcists were, for the most part, united in the way they went about their business. Before beginning a strung-out preliminary process that involved fasting and a series of magical invocations, prayers, and chants, the exorcist must truly believe in the objective reality of the possession, in his own powers, and in the eternal being that stands above everyone and everything and on whom he is dependent for his spiritual strength and success. Often the exorcist appealed to the eternal being for protection and used the latter’s name when addressing the antagonist. He employed a forceful, aggressive method that concomitantly addressed the indigenous and the invading entities; solemn reassurance was offered to the former whilst the latter was the recipient of a barrage of abuse in the form of threats and insults. The final outcome of the exorcism was often dependent on the nature of the intruding spirit. If the encroaching entity had an agenda and was open to negotiation, a bargain could be sealed but if it was malevolent and as stubborn as the exorcist performing the ritual, the psychological warfare could go on for many years before a final outcome was determined.

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