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A diabolical business
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Demons: metaphorical and real
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In 2015, a British court sentenced John Thomson-Glover to three years in prison for hiding cameras in a school to film pupils when they were undressed. The judge described him as ‘essentially a good man, brought low by the demons that possess him’. Of course the judge did not mean that Thomson-Glover was literally a victim of demonic possession and, if he had been, he should not have been held responsible for his actions.
possession is often used metaphorically like this – indeed, we are more likely to encounter the idea in this sort of context than in any other. Yet the potency of the expression relies on the long tradition of belief in actual demonic possession. The phenomenon can be traced through history and around the world, and for many religious groups today the idea of demonic possession, as a literal and terrifying event, is very much alive. It has changed little over the centuries, as we shall see from the stories which follow.
A familiar pattern
If Thomson-Glover had been possessed by demons, he would have been expected to be writhing on the floor, swearing obscenely, and speaking in a strange voice. He would not have been meticulously drilling holes in walls to spy on children as they showered. The account above given by Einhard, an intellectual working in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century, is far more typical of what we would expect of a possessed individual.
flatform Nude 'Kathalia' Vince Camuto sandals Possession generally involves bizarre physical contortions and changed voices, as described by Einhard. The possessed might harm themselves or others, utter blasphemies and speak or act in licentious, flagrantly sexual ways. They show disgust or terror at the presence of holy or sacred objects. They often reveal hidden knowledge (gnosis), speak languages they do not know and might have wounds such as scratches and bite-marks that appear without visible cause.
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Past and present
The idea of people possessed by evil spirits against their will is at least as old as the Babylonian and ancient Assyrian cultures. Often there is thought to be a special way a person has become possessed. It might be the result of a curse cast on them by a sorcerer, or some unfortunate mishap such as stepping over a dead body. Or the demons can have been invited, in a Satanic ritual. More often, at least in recent Christian tradition, there is no initiating moment that can be identified – they just find their way in, like disease.
Spirits invited and invading
sandals 'Kathalia' Camuto flatform Nude Vince Indeed, the earliest accounts of possession by evil spirits are often just descriptions of illness that people assumed to be caused by spirits because they knew of no other cause. We shall not deal here with these accounts that use demons as scapegoats for regular types of illness. Instead, we shall focus on some of the well-documented instances of possession of the type that Einhard describes.
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In many societies, shamanic ritual and religious ecstasy play an important part in spiritual life. Shamans are individuals with a special role in a community. Considered emissaries or messengers between the human and spirit realms, they can travel or provide a conduit between the two by going into a trance or state of ecstasy, a type of altered consciousness. The physical signs associated with shamanistic ecstasy are remarkably similar to those of demonic possession. It appears that there is a state that some people can enter, often at will, in which they might ‘speak in tongues’ (called glossolalia), move energetically, contort their bodies and enter a different state of consciousness.
Letting the demons in . . .
These rituals differ from the type of possession we shall be concerned with in that the spirits have been invited to enter the host and will be dismissed at the end of the ritual. The human host remains in overall control and makes use of the spirits. The same is true of mediums who claim to contact or channel the spirits of the dead. On the contrary, in cases of possession the spirit usually comes uninvited and refuses to leave. Forcing an uninvited spirit to vacate a possessed person is extremely difficult.
Societies that make a habit of using shamanistic ecstasy or other forms of altered consciousness usually have rituals which help to lead people into the altered state. These might involve chanting, rhythmical music, rituals for cleansing (bathing, fasting, chastity), wearing special costumes, eating particular foods and sometimes using drugs to produce hallucinations. These preparations can be seen as opening a door that allows the person’s mind to be taken over, either by an aspect of themselves or by a spirit from within or outside themselves – however we care to interpret it.
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affected person might consider themselves to be absent, and another spirit to have taken over their body. Or they might see themselves to be used as a conduit through which a spirit can speak and act, with them taking a back seat while it happens. ‘Possession’ is an aggressive act, whereas acting as a conduit might be cooperative. The range of activities the ‘other’ might engage in can range from the benign and revelatory – bestowing the rules of a divinity, showing a vision of paradise – to the hostile and destructive – committing acts of violence or desecration, for instance. There are two recognized states: the person may be lucid, aware of what is going on and able to remember it later, or they may be unconscious. In most of the possession cases we shall discuss later, possession takes over completely and the victim is unconscious – often with their eyes closed – during the bouts of spirit activity.
the ritual is over, the person communicating with or channelling spirits has a way of dismissing them and taking back full control of his or her body. This is not the case for the possessed individual, who is sometimes never rid of their demons.
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In or on?
In Western tradition, demons or spirits are often seen as inhabiting the body, taking it over by entering into it. In the Haitian vodun (or voodoo) tradition, the possessing spirit, or loa, is considered instead to ride on the priest or priestess, who is called the ‘horse’. In weekly Saturday rituals, vodun practitioners call loa to appear. The loa can be boisterous or even violent, leading the ‘horse’ to thrash and flail about or convulse. The individual’s behaviour during possession reflects the character of the loa – so, for example, someone possessed by a snake-like spirit might writhe on the floor. Once the particular loa is recognized – by identifying itself, or from the style of its riding – appropriate props and offerings are brought to it.