Behavioral Manifestations

The behavioral manifestations of such "possessions," or displacement of a person's soul or other key element by another entity, vary widely but fall into two main groups: (1) negative changes in physical health or behavior or, on the other hand, enhanced powers, and (2) alterations in state of consciousness and behavior. Bourguignon (1973) refers to the second type as Possession Trance and to the former simply as Possession (or non-Trance Possession). These two types have different geographic distributions and are linked to different sociocultural and economic variables. Also, where they occur in the same society, they are likely to have different distributions within the population. The second type, Possession Trance, is significantly linked to female participation.

Trance (or dissociation), not linked to possession belief (non-Possession Trance), may be sought intentionally, as in the vision quest of North American Indians.

As such it refers to communication with spirits, usually in visions. These may be auditory rather than visual in nature. Although at times women have sought visions, the typical seeker was a young man. Austerities (isolation, exposure, fasting, and so forth) were used to induce the trance state.

Trance may also occur spontaneously. How it will be interpreted and evaluated will depend on the particular cultural context. A distinction between Possession Trance and non-Possession Trance corresponds roughly to a distinction between possession religions and shamanism (e.g., de Heusch, 1981). Others (e.g., Lewis, 1989) generalize the term more widely, applying it to all who control spirits, regardless of their manner of interaction. The terms "shaman" and "shamanism" are also used differently in different ethnographic regions. Since these terms are used quite inconsistently in the ethnographic and historical literature, shamanism is currently a contested category (Bourguignon, 1989a; Kehoe, 2000).

As noted, for physical or behavioral changes to be interpreted as due to possession, a belief in possession must be available. Such beliefs, if not traditional in a given community, may be adopted in contact situations. It should be emphasized that "possession" is not directly observable; it is an interpretation of behavior made by participants, and it is statements of participants that must be obtained by an outside observer or researcher to discover it. There are situations in which it may appear that an entity speaks through an individual—that is, an example of "possession"—but where, upon investigation, the individual may claim to be repeating what he hears, and fully remembers the message after the event (for a description of this situation among the Hunza of Northern Pakistan, see Sidky, 1994). Amnesia, actual or normative, full or partial, is frequently associated with Possession Trance, but not with Trance where Possession is absent. In this case, what the trancer sees or hears must be remembered in order to be communicated to the group. Ritual trancing is not idiosyncratic behavior, but is carried out in a group context, often on behalf of the group.

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