Possession Religions as Worship and Tradition

To see Possession Trance only in medical terms would be a mistake. Behavior that might be seen as pathological in the Western or bio-medical system, may be seen in terms of a mythico-religious system in a traditional society. Hollan (2000, pp. 546-547) notes that "possession behavior that is culturally normative, no matter how bizarre or irrational it appears from a Western point of view, should never be considered pathological or psychotic [It] is culturally constituted symbolic behavior "

As Suryani and Jensen (1993, p. 46) write: "In Bali, ritual possession is common, controlled, desirable, socially useful, highly valued, socially reinforced by society and individually satisfying." Balinese Possession Trance occurs in numerous contexts: the work of traditional healers (balian), masked ritual dramas, kris dancers, hobby horse dancers, little girl trance dancers, and so forth. Among forms of Possession Trance considered aberrant and sometimes requiring biomedical intervention are incidents of collective dissociation among school girls and attacks of amok among men.

Traditional people may be caught in a conflict between two different explanatory systems (Kleinman, 1980). Possession Trance linked to long-term relationships with one or more spirits involves the development of what appear to be secondary or alternative personalities. This may be seen by psychiatrists as D(issociative) I(den-ity) D(isorder), often referred to as Multiple Personality (Bourguignon, 1989b; Suryani & Jensen, 1993). Bizarre behavior and speech may be diagnosed as psychotic by psychiatrists. It might be noted that Suryani herself is both a Western-trained physician and psychiatrist and a balian, a Balinese trance healer.

In recent years, for example, zar beliefs and practices have been brought to Israel by Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia. As reported by Witzum, Grizaru, and Budowski (1996), some women who had brought zar illness behavior from Ethiopia were inappropriately referred to mental health clinics, hospitalized, and treated with anti-psychotic medications. By contrast, having their behavior labeled as zar possession provided them and their families means of coping with distress and avoided the stigma of mental illness. The zarritual serves as a curing ceremonial.

Kahn and Kelly (2001) conducted a study of Xhosa-speaking psychiatric nurses in South Africa and note "their dual allegiance to apparently competing and largely incommensurate mental health paradigms" (pp. 34-35). Here it is health care workers, as well as patients, who are involved in the conflict between competing explanatory systems. A major category of Xhosa traditional healers are diviners, who are "called" to their profession by an initiatory illness, involving possession by ancestor spirits and who in their divination practices go into Possession Trance.

Possession Trance rituals, however, do not necessarily deal with illness and curing. They may serve to alleviate many different kinds of stress, such as marital or financial problems or concern over school examinations. They may also be experienced as forms of devotion and fulfillment of obligations to the spirits inherited in family lines or revealed to specific individuals. As such they reflect participants' sense of self and of belonging.

For Caribbean people in the United States, for example Haitians, Cubans, and Jamaicans, their Afro-Christian religions, in which rituals center around various forms of Possession Trance, have become significant elements in their reaffirmation of their ethnic identities. This is illustrated by the fact that, in the United States, some members of the educated middle class among these groups are now identifying themselves with religious practices that were primarily linked to the poor in their homelands. These were negatively sanctioned and often denied by the earlier generations of their families (see K. Brown, 1991; Palmie, 1991).

Pentecostal and Charismatic churches have a long and variable history in this country. Here the faithful experience possession by the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues (glossolalia), and manifest other "Gifts of the Spirit." They are associated with healing only to a limited extent. They have widespread appeal as well in Latin America and Africa, where they may be in competition with established Possession Trance religions.

Any consideration of rituals of Possession Trance and, often also of Trance, must not neglect the esthetic aspects of what are more or less complex performances. The most famous are to be found in Bali, but also in India on the one hand and in the Afro-American traditions of Brazil. Possession Trance rituals only rarely involve the use of masks, as in the trance dramas of Bali. More frequently the possessed individuals act out the personalities and activities of the possessing spirits in interactions with the audience, in dance, and costumes, all of it accompanied by music, frequently drumming, the whole constituting a dramatic performance.

Moore (1982) discusses music and dance as expressions of religious worship, with specific reference to Cumina and Revival, two religious groups in Jamaica. He notes that to participants these art forms are vehicles "for self expression and release of inner tensions.. .[a]psychic outpouring [that] restores vitality and refreshes the whole person" (p. 299).

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