Possession and Healing

In recent years there has been a great and continuous increase in the literature dealing with possession, both descriptively and analytically. This corresponds also to the worldwide distribution of the phenomena in question, as well as to greater interest in various aspects of this complex subject by researchers. Beginning in the 1960s, with the development of transcultural psychiatry, Possession Trance religions and shamanism have been considered with regard to their functions as healing systems (e.g., Kiev, 1964; Prince, 1964). More recent studies have focused on a broad range of other issues, such as communication, discourse analysis, women's position, political resistance, reflections of history, and social change. Not only do new Possession Trance religions spring up, but even among established religions, such as Haitian vodou, new spirits make themselves known. The focus of analysis varies with the individual researcher and the specific local situation.

The rather rough grouping into two types of possession (see above) includes a variety of subtypes—for example, the concerns with healing are much more prominent in East Africa then in West Africa. The African Diaspora, as in Brazil, has produced an emphasis on mediumistic capacities, in which suffering—though not necessarily illness—is seen as leading to spiritual development. The Jewish, Christian, and Moslem traditions see possession almost entirely as negative, due to demonic or other hostile forces, and as requiring exor-cism—that is, the driving out of the invading spirit that produces manifestations that are interpreted as hostile to religion. There are, however, some exceptions. For example, the Protestant tradition understands glossolalia (speaking in tongues) as a sign of possession by the Holy Ghost. The Anastenaria ritual of Northern Greece (Greek Macedonia and formerly also Thrace) involves a healing tradition in which participants are possessed by Saints Constantine and Helen while they dance on burning embers. This practice is sanctioned within the Greek Orthodox Church (Danforth, 1989).

In mystical Judaism, some scholars (Goldish, personal communication, 2003) read the voice of a supernatural entity (maggid), that speaks to or through mystics and prophets as possessions, while others do not (e.g., Bilu, 1996).

Islam, on the whole, has been tolerant of local spirit beliefs. Thus, in various parts of North Africa as well as in Sub-Saharan Africa, spirit cults are active in which

Possession Trance is part of the ritual activity, and initially harmful spirits are transformed into allies and helping spirits through the ritual process. This is true of the zar cult in Sudan (e.g., Boddy, 1989), Egypt (e.g., Salima, 1902), and the Gnawa of Morocco (Chlyeh, 1999; Welte, 1990). This last is one of many groups whose history reveals it to be a cult of the Sub-Saharan Diaspora. Traditionally, men have been primarily drummers and women mediums and healers. However, Welte (1999) argues that, as a result of the worldwide pauperization of peoples, men are now expressing depression in psychosomatic symptoms interpreted, and treated, as possession and requiring exorcism.

As noted earlier, there is a frequent linkage between possession beliefs and altered states of consciousness (trance). However, its precise nature varies substantially. If we consider possession belief, trance state, and a third variable, illness, then the following examples show this variation very clearly. Thus, in the zar cult of Eastern Africa (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia), as mentioned earlier, various types of illness or strange behavior may be diagnosed as spirit possession. These include fugue states, stomach aches, infertility, apathy, seizures, and many other symptoms. On the basis of divination, the possessing spirit is identified and will then be invited; that is, possession trance is ritually induced. Over time, through cult initiation, the spirit is placated and turned into an ally. The result is a life-long cult membership. In Possession Trance, the women enact complex personalities of individual zar spirits.

By contrast, Corin (1998) describes the Zebola cult of the Congo, and particularly of Kinshasa. Here illness is explained as due to the malevolence of others. It is redefined as spirit possession by means of divination. During divination, the spirit manifests itself, speaks through the woman in Possession Trance, identifies itself, and reveals the causes of the illness. A lengthy process of initiation follows; it seeks to control the spirit by inhibiting manifestations of trance. This is accomplished, among other things, through medications, as well as the teaching of complex dance performances. The woman then maintains a relationship with the spirit which is now her protector.

Haitian vodou presents quite a different picture. Here illness and bad dreams are seen as harassment by vodou spirits (lwa) to encourage the victim to seek initiation. Possession Trance may also occur spontaneously, and then require divination for the identification of the spirit. Initiation and ritual participation are seen as religious and familial obligations. Possession Trance, in which the complex characters of spirits are acted out, are part of long-term relationships between humans and their spirits who need to be fed, as well as entertained, in order to give humans the support they need in their difficult lives.

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