Introduction

The English term "possession" includes both the concept of ownership and of control and domination. Belief in possession by spirits, that is, the possibility that an individual's actions and behavior may be controlled by spirits or demons, is attested in English usage from the 16th century. These beliefs have left their traces in everyday language. Belief in spirit possession is both ancient and very widespread as seen in the historical and ethnographic record. One of the remarkable features of this system of beliefs and associated ritual practices is its very great flexibility and innovative potential. This is demonstrated by its expansion and diffusion, where decline and indeed disappearance might have been expected. In a large-scale, cross-cultural study, some form of such beliefs was found to be present in 77% of 488 sample societies (Bourguignon, 1973). Given the terminological confusion at the time of this research and a great deal of ad hoc generalization in the literature on the basis of single ethnographic cases, such systems of belief needed to be studied in the larger context of their behavioral and sociocultural correlates. Once the geographic distributions and the cultural linkages had been identified, the special features of specific ethnographic instances could be studied in depth. A distinction between beliefs and behaviors revealed that certain types of behaviors reflect general human physiological and psychological features and that these are not necessarily associated with possession beliefs. A broad sampling of human societies made it clear that what may be considered pathological in Western bio-medicine is often conceptualized in radically different ways in other cultures.

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