Sources and Types of Beliefs

Possession beliefs are rooted in conceptions of the human being as consisting of several elements (such as body, mind, personhood, self, name, identity, soul or souls, even part souls), where one or more of these may be replaced, temporarily or permanently, by another entity. More rarely, a second entity may also be thought to enter the body without displacing the first, even though the behavioral manifestations are those of this additional presence. Such an explanation for possession by the spirit of a dead sinner (dybbuk) is found in the Jewish tradition. A belief in entities that may possess individuals is also required, be they hostile or benevolent, spirits of the dead, sometimes of animals or witchcraft beings. High gods are rare among the spirits that are believed to possess humans. It is apparent that beliefs in spirit possession are linked to complex cosmologies, although the details of such esoteric systems may be known only to ritual specialists. For the ritual participants, such cosmologies may be more implicit than explicit. The behavior acted out is largely learned and structured by local expectations.

Understanding the human being as consisting of several potentially separable parts may be used to account not only for "spirit possession," but also for dreams, hallucinations, seizures, and death.

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