Possession Beliefs in Western Thought

A difficulty with the concept of "possession" arises from its history in the Western tradition, since ideas of some types of demonic and other possessions come to us from both Hebrew and Greek sources. For example, the New Testament (Mark 5:1-17) describes Jesus exorcising a mad man, whose possessing spirits then went into a herd of swine who drowned themselves. This account has been related to its political context: the Roman occupation of Palestine (Crossan, 1994, p. 89). Luke (11:14-15) tells of a mute man who was able to speak once the spirit that possessed him was driven out. Numerous exorcists were active in Galilee at the time, where there was probably a mass of manuals and other literature available to them.

The popular view of the day, as expressed in the New Testament, was that evil spirits caused illness, physical and mental, by possessing people (Guinebert, 1959). The sophisticated view of the time, expressed by Jewish writers such as Flavius Josephus and Philo Judaeus, was rather that it was the souls of evildoers who possessed individuals, a view that was elaborated later in Jewish history, where a tradition of negative spontaneous possession and exorcism continued.

As for the Greek tradition, where evidence is also limited, sources available to scholars have been interpreted as dealing with Possession Trance, rather than possession as evidenced in mental or physical illness. The examples given by Dodds (1957) refer to the Phythia, that is, the Delphic oracle of Apollo, whose prophecies were believed to be coming from the god (see also Maurizio, 1995). Dodds also considers the cult of Dionysius, particularly as reflected in Euripides' play, the Bacchae. The French classicist, Jeanmaire (1951), compares the fragmentary evidence on Greek Dyonesian religions with the zar cult of modern Ethiopia. In both cases there appears to be a curative function, and women are put into Possession Trance with the use of drum rhythms. Here, rather than exorcism, we find rituals of initiation and attempts at meeting the demands of the possessing spirit, thus turning a negative presence into an ally. In addition, Johnston (2001) describes a form of Greek divination using child mediums.

In the Christian tradition, demonic possession and exorcism have, at times, played a significant role, sometimes involving important political issues. The case of the possessed nuns of London in 17th-century France represents a dramatic example (de Certeau, 2000).

As a result of this background, Western observers at times have been tempted to read evidence of "possession," where, in fact, such an understanding may not have corresponded to the particular local tradition.

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