EXORCISM . The English word exorcism derives from the Greek exorkizein, a compound of ex (out) plus horkizein (to cause to swear, or to bind by an oath). Whereas in Greek the word sometimes is used simply as a more intensive form of the root, meaning "to adjure," English derivatives usually designate a "swearing out" of invasive spiritual forces from the body in a formal rite of expulsion. Thus exorcism cannot fully be understood without reference to the concept of spirit possession, the state that it redresses.
The spirits to be exorcised most commonly are conceived either as demons or as restless ghosts. These evil spirits penetrate into the bodies of their victims and completely control, or at least strongly influence, their actions. Possessing spirits may also cause physical illness by interfering with the body's normal physiological processes or mental illness by affecting the will, intellect, and emotions. Yet in many cultures, spirit possession is diagnosed only retrospectively. That is, the victim often must display abnormal behavior for some time before friends and family diagnose her as possessed by a spirit. Both cross-culturally and transhistorically, spirit possession afflicts women more often than men. This pattern has been the subject of much discussion among specialists who study the phenomenon.
The forms and prevalence of exorcism within a given culture are intimately related to the question of how the invading spirits are conceived. In certain contexts, possession by neutral or beneficent spirits is highly valued, and in these settings exorcisms are unlikely to be an important constituent of the local culture. Within other religious contexts, however, spirit possession is understood as the work of evil spirits or demons dedicated to the downfall of humanity, and exorcism thus is viewed as a vitally important form of healing. Lastly, many cultures, both historically and worldwide, consider possessing spirits to be the ghosts of the dead. Responses to possession in these cases may involve ambivalent attitudes toward the invading spirit. Communities invariably wish to heal the victim through exorcism but also may feel compassion toward the dead spirit that has invaded the living. Moreover witnesses to exorcisms of ghosts frequently use the occasion to interrogate the spirit about the details of the afterlife.
Exorcisms vary widely. Whereas some rites are purely verbal formulae, many employ objects, gestures, and actions thought to be of particular power against invasive spirits. In some contexts, exorcism may be accomplished simply through the charismatic power of a particularly powerful or righteous individual. Many cultures use dance and music as essential elements of exorcism rituals. In this article, the word exorcism may refer either to the procedure itself or to its end result, the liberation from spirits that it accomplishes.
From its origins, Christianity has included a strong belief in spirit possession by demons, understood as primordial forces of evil and followers of the devil. Thus exorcism has a long history within Christianity, particularly (though not exclusively) among Catholics. These traditions continue to the modern day.
In the New Testament
The Greek verb exorkizein appears only once in the New Testament, in Matthew 26:63, where the high priest "adjures" Jesus to reveal whether he is the Christ. Yet the action of expelling demons frequently does appear in the New Testament canon. Exorcism is among Jesus' favorite miracles in the Synoptic tradition, comprised of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, yet no exorcisms appear in the latest gospel, John. The Acts of the Apostles, by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, also recounts exorcisms by Jesus' followers after his death and employs the noun exorkistes to refer to some Jews who attempt to cast out demons using Jesus' name (Lk. 19:13). Indeed in respect to exorcism, the emerging Jesus Movement was much in accord with developments in other Jewish sects of the period, many of which had begun to place a greater emphasis upon exorcisms and charismatic forms of healing than had been the case in earlier Jewish tradition.
In the earliest gospel, Mark, an exorcism is Jesus' first miracle:
And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. (Mk. 1:23–26)
Mark subsequently presents Jesus as famed for his exorcism ability, pairing this miracle with Jesus' eloquence in preaching as his two main sources of appeal throughout his travels in Galilee (Mk. 1:39). Mark's gospel thus uses exorcism as a way of demonstrating Jesus' uncanny power as a complement to his teaching: Jesus is shown as battling against malign spiritual forces both physically and pedagogically.
The most complete account of exorcism is that of the Gerasene demoniac, recounted in all three synoptic gospels (Mk. 5:1–20; Mt. 8:28–34; Lk. 8:26–39). The tale concerns Jesus' encounter with a man possessed by a multitude of evil spirits. The man was living in the cemetery on the edge of a city—among the tombs of the dead—because his disordered state of mind and superhuman strength rendered him unfit for the society of the living. Jesus interviews the spirits inside the man, which speak through his mouth, and elicits their collective name, Legion. Jesus then commands the spirits to depart from the man but gives them permission to enter into a herd of pigs foraging nearby. The possessed pigs then plunge themselves into the sea and drown, prompting the local herdsmen to flee and tell the story throughout the city. A group of people then come out to Jesus and ask him to leave. The passage reveals much about conceptions of possession and exorcism in this time period, including the disruption of identity and of bodily control characteristic of demoniacs; the importance of learning the demons' names in order to gain power over them; and Jesus' charismatic use of a simple verbal command to accomplish the expulsion. However, the conclusion of the tale suggests that Jesus' action is regarded with considerable fear and ambivalence by the local community.
The Synoptic Gospels report that during his lifetime Jesus empowered his disciples to cast out demons as well. Yet upon occasion this power failed them, as in the case of a dumb and deaf spirit that had entered a child, tormenting him with convulsions. After the disciples proved unable to heal the boy, Jesus successfully completed the task through prayer and fasting (Mt. 9:17; Mt. 16; Lk. 9:40). Jesus' followers continued to perform exorcisms after his death. The Acts of the Apostles describes several cases accomplished through a noteworthy diversity of means. Paul exorcises a slave girl through a verbal rebuke similar to those used by Jesus (Acts 16:18), but Peter heals the possessed simply by having them gather in his shadow (Acts 5:16). Paul also exorcises spirits through handkerchiefs impregnated with his power of supernatural healing (Acts 19:11–12). Simply invoking the name of Jesus was considered a powerful method of exorcism, one even employed by non-Christians, according to Acts. Chapter nineteen describes some Jews in Ephesus who attempt to cast out demons in Jesus' name, though without success.
Late antiquity and the Middle Ages
As in Jesus' own early career, exorcism was an important element in winning new converts for the early generations of the Jesus Movement. The second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr characterized exorcism as a particularly impressive gift among Christians, noting that any demon, no matter how powerful, became submissive when conjured in Jesus' name. Indeed exorcism became a competitive arena in which Roman Christians claimed triumph over Jewish and pagan rivals, suggesting that their conjurations of demons were more efficacious than any other form of healing. Peter Brown has shown in "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity" (1982) that the essential mark of the early Christian holy person was his or her charismatic ability to exorcise, and Christian saints became closely associated with this activity. Thus when a little girl in fourth-century Syria wished to parody a monk in order to entertain her companions, she did so by pretending to exorcise them with all due solemnity.
With the Christian community growing in numbers, the church began to require the exorcism both of adult converts and of infants at baptism. The earliest Catholic baptismal liturgy incorporated exorcisms; one function of godparents, in cases of infant baptism, was to answer for the child when the exorcist asked, "Do you renounce the devil and all his works?" In consequence of this development, by the third century a designated exorcist was required in every Christian community. Documents from this time period make note of a formal order of exorcists that constituted a lowly step on the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Fourth Council of Carthage in 398 ce is the first surviving text to prescribe the rite of ordination for an exorcist: "When an Exorcist is Ordained: Let him accept from the hand of the priest the little book in which the exorcisms are written, and let the priest say to him, 'Take this and memorize it, and may you have the power of laying on hands upon an energumen, whether baptized or a catechumen'" (Caciola, 2003, p. 229).
As Christianity spread into northern Europe and became a dominant institution in the medieval west, exorcism practices continued to evolve. Whereas the order of exorcists slowly declined in importance and eventually disappeared from view, descriptions of exorcisms performed by saints vastly increased. Medieval hagiographies frequently mention exorcisms performed during their subjects' lifetimes as well as postmortem exorcisms accomplished by the saints' relics or tombs. This development accelerated after the twelfth century, when accounts of demonic possession saw an exponential increase in hagiographical texts. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153 ce), for example, was credited with many personal exorcisms, whereas Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179 ce) provided detailed advice on how to exorcise a possessed woman in one of her letters. Some of the best surviving accounts of exorcisms during this time period are set at saints' tombs, and certain shrines became known as centers of exorcistic healing. The arm relic of John Gualbert of Florence (999–1073 ce), for example, was famed for its exorcistic properties, and the miracle accounts recorded at his shrine in the later Middle Ages include a number of healings of the possessed. In some cases, families traveled considerable distances for an exorcism of a relative, vowing particular devotion to the saint if he or she provided aid to the possessed at the end of the pilgrimage.
Exorcisms by living saints or their relics were not the only means of casting out demons, however. Medieval people also employed a number of other techniques, often in a somewhat improvisational manner. Friends, family, and religious professionals might try to cast out the demon through prayer and fasting; by showing the demoniac religious paintings; by placing relics or books of Scripture on the victim's head or body; through anointing with holy water, holy oil, or blessed salt; or by giving the demoniac a consecrated Eucharistic wafer.
Medieval popular culture included its own notions of spirit possession and of appropriate remedies as well. Many contemporary texts attest to the northern European belief that demons could invade dead bodies, animate them, and use them for nefarious purposes. In such cases, the preferred solution to the problem was to destroy the corpse as fully as possible. In Mediterranean regions, the spirits that possessed the living were often identified as ghosts rather than as demons. As for cures, the possessed sometimes were immersed in a running body of water as a form of cure. In some areas local men made names for themselves as secular exorcists and healers, each with his own unique formula, rhyming jingles, and other procedures. Thus medieval cultures held diverse notions of spirit possession and exorcism in addition to purely ecclesiastical definitions.
The emergence of a liturgical rite in the fifteenth century
The fifteenth century marked an important turning point in the history of exorcism within the Catholic Church. At this time, as Caciola (2003) has shown, the church began to use formal scripted, liturgical exorcisms, numerous examples of which are preserved in manuscripts. The change likely stemmed from a desire on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to standardize practices of exorcism at a time when the number of reported possessions remained high. In so doing the church also arrogated control over the process of exorcism to the ecclesiastical hierarchy rather than allowing decentralized and improvised practices of exorcism to persist.
Liturgical exorcisms are a species of clamor, a family of ritual forms that cry out to God for aid against oppressors. Other examples of this kind of ritual include excommunications, humiliations, and maledictions. These exorcisms also are intimately related to the baptismal liturgy, repeating verbal formulations from the baptismal rite as well as other elements, such as the blessing of salt and water. A third textual precedent for these rites is Jewish conjurations, particularly the inclusion of exhaustive compendia of the names of God. Indeed liturgical exorcisms are rife with lists of all kinds: those that recount events from the life of Jesus; that call upon the aid of all the saints and the hierarchy of angels; that cast the demon forth from each body part; and that imagine vivid apocalyptic scenarios of demonic defeat and eternal torment. Several manuscripts of exorcism suggest the use of demonic language in order to gain control over the possessing spirit, incorporating brief spells composed of unintelligible words that are said to have been personally composed by the devil. After conjuring the demon in its own language, the exorcist may then proceed to inquire into its precise status, its reason for invading the victim, and its requirements for a successful expulsion. The following quotation from a manuscript held in Munich gives a sense of how a typical liturgical exorcism begins:
Take the head of the possessed person in your left hand and place your right thumb in the possessed person's mouth, saying the following words in both ears: ABRE MONTE ABRYA ABREMONTE CONSACRAMENTARIA SYPAR YPAR YTUMBA OPOTE ALACENT ALAPHIE. Then hold him firmly and say these conjurations: I conjure you, evil spirits, by the terrible name of God Agla.… I also conjure you by the great name Pneumaton and by the name Ysiton, that you ascend to the tongue and give me a laugh. If they do not respond, then know that they are mute spirits. The exorcist should diligently discover and require whether it is incubi, or succubi, or even dragons that possesses the obsessed person; whether they are attendants of Pluto, or servants of Satan, or disciples of Astaroth; if they are from the east or the west; from noonday or evening; from the air, earth, water, fire, or whatever kind of spirit. (Caciola, pp. 248–249)
It was believed that once the demon was made to answer questions about itself (either through use of the demonic language or through some other constraint) it would be easier to exorcise.
The liturgy continues with insults to the demon, commands for it to depart, and prayers for divine aid, as well as Bible readings interspersed with lists of body parts, saints, angels, and the names of God. Throughout the rite, the exorcist is frequently directed to make the sign of the cross over the victim or to sprinkle him or her with holy water. The rite usually concludes with a prayer of thanksgiving and a plea for future protection against similar attacks. This basic template was to persist as the basis for the liturgy of exorcism for centuries.
The Reformation and beyond
The Reformation period saw a notable increase in demonological phenomena, most notably the witch hunts that came to a peak in this time period. Whereas the reformers accepted the possibility of demonic possession, they nevertheless opened a vigorous debate over the efficacy of liturgical exorcism as a remedy. Protestant texts satirized the splashing of holy water and frequent crossing of demoniacs performed by Catholic exorcists, deriding them alternately as "superstition," "empty rituals," or "magic." Yet beneath this general atmosphere of rejection lay a diversity of attitudes toward exorcism. Some reformers, like John Calvin (1509–1564) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), rejected all ritual exorcism; others, however, were less radical in their approaches. Martin Luther (1483–1546), for example, defended the use of traditional rites of exorcism during infant baptisms, deeming them a kind of prayer on behalf of the infant for divine protection. Most Protestant groups eschewed liturgies of exorcism for adults but did not reject simpler forms of exorcism through prayer and fasting, viewing them as acceptable pleas for divine aid against possessing demons.
Among Catholics, belief in the benefits of ritual exorcism continued to flourish unabated. Many elements of the liturgy that was formulated in the fifteenth century were codified in 1614 in the official Roman Ritual. Also during this time period, plural possessions and group exorcisms became a common Catholic form of the phenomenon, usually in a convent setting. The most famous case is the 1634 account of possessed nuns of Loudon studied by Michel de Certeau in The Possession at Loudon (1996), but plural possessions also occurred in Spain, Italy, the Low Countries, and France from the mid–sixteenth century through the early seventeenth century.
Some possession cases became closely bound up with the witchcraft persecutions; demonological literature taught that witches could send demons to possess their enemies. The priest of Loudon, Urbain Grandier (1590?–1634), ultimately was convicted of having bewitched the nuns. For this crime, he paid with his life. Likewise the eighteenth-century Puritan witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts, originated with charges that the witches had caused their young accusers to be possessed.
A significant aspect of exorcism in this time period is the degree to which spectacular cases of possession and exorcism entered into public discourse and became causes célèbres. Due to the spread of print technology, for the first time such events could be widely known about and discussed. The publicity provided by pamphlets and broadsides, combined with the fractious confessional politics of the day, made exorcism a vehicle of Catholic polemic against Protestants and Jews. This dynamic was first noted by Daniel Pickering Walker in Unclean Spirits (1981). Thus Nicole Obry, a young Catholic woman who became possessed in 1565 and was publicly exorcised in the city of Laon, regaled the vast crowds attending the event in the voice of her possessing demon, which confessed that it was close friends with the Huguenots (preferring them even to the Jews) and that it sustained the greatest torment when young Nicole was given the Eucharist. Here insults to other religious traditions were combined with an endorsement of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.
Nicole's case was widely copied, most notably in the subsequent generation by the famous demoniac Marthe Brossier (1573–16??). Protestant groups were unable to engage in widespread counterpropaganda, however, because they rejected exorcism for the most part. In England, the Protestant minister John Darrell became famed in the 1590s for exorcisms achieved through prayer and fasting, but the accounts of these cases lack the explicitly propagandistic elements of the Catholic cases. In a slightly different polemical vein, a sixteenth-century Catholic exorcist conjured the demons afflicting a group of young Roman girls who had been converted from Judaism. These demons explained their presence as the result of a curse laid upon the girls by their fathers who, angry at the loss of their children, summoned forth demons to possess them.
Exorcism declined in Europe during the eighteenth century, though it never entirely disappeared. Indeed professional exorcists like German Johann Joseph Gassner (1727–1779) continued to appear. Among the educated classes, however, symptoms that traditionally had led to a diagnosis of demonic possession increasingly came to be regarded as indicators of natural pathologies like hysteria, epilepsy, or melancholia. Although naturalistic diagnoses for "possessed behaviors" had been available since the twelfth century, the eighteenth century saw a more definitive shift in favor of medical epistemologies. In consequence exorcism was less frequently indicated as a cure.
The contemporary Christian Churches
Perhaps the best-known modern image of the rite of exorcism derives from the 1973 film The Exorcist, based on the 1971 novel of the same title by William Peter Blatty (b. 1928). Though the account is fictionalized, Blatty's story of a demonically possessed little girl was based upon a 1949 case of prolonged exorcism of a young Lutheran boy by a Catholic priest. The film spurred a revival of interest in exorcism in the United States, and Catholic bishops began receiving more and more requests for the procedure. Only a small proportion of such requests were granted because twentieth-century Catholic officials regard genuine demonic possession as an extremely rare phenomenon that is easily confounded with natural mental disturbances. In recognition of this stance, the Vatican in 1999 updated the ritual of exorcism for the first time since 1614, advising consultation with doctors and psychologists in order to rule out organic pathologies; however, the twenty-seven-page exorcism ritual was left largely intact.
Whereas the Catholic hierarchy preaches restraint in regard to exorcism, certain Catholic communities reject this stance along with many other features of the modern church. The most active Catholic exorcists of the late twentieth century belonged to conservative groups that rejected the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), especially the abandonment of the Latin Tridentine Mass. These exorcists contended that the new Mass left the faithful unprotected against demonic attack and believed that as a result of Vatican II, the number of possessions had increased exponentially.
Some modern American Protestant groups have become interested in possession and exorcism as well. The beginnings of modern Pentecostalism in the early twentieth century fostered a broad, interdenominational movement of Christian charismatics who placed direct spiritual interventions at the center of their theology. Some modern charismatics practice exorcism or "deliverance," as documented by Michael Cuneo in American Exorcism. Although deliverances can take many different forms according to the individual practitioner, the majority are simple prayer sessions for the victim's relief. The most extensive deliverances include a clairvoyant discernment of spirits, in which a specialist intuits what type of demon is afflicting the individual: a demon of lust, stubbornness, greed, or other sin. In rare cases, the demon may be identified as an entity of "intergenerational evil," an inherited demon dedicated to afflicting a particular bloodline; such a diagnosis is particularly likely when the individual requesting deliverance has a family history involving violence or mental illness. More formal rites of deliverance often begin with a binding of the devil, in which the indwelling demon is adjured, in the name of Jesus, to remain calm and desist from thrashing about inside the victim. Next is the prayer phase, which may be accompanied by fasting and a laying on of hands. As with Catholic traditionalists who practice exorcism, Protestant charismatics interested in deliverance tend to be social conservatives opposed to the increasing theological liberalism of the mainline churches.
Judaism does not have a strongly attested focus on spirit possession and exorcism before the middle of the sixteenth century. At that time belief in possession by reincarnate spirits of the dead began to emerge in the Sephardic Jewish community of Safed in the Galilee. These ideas eventually were disseminated to eastern European Jewish communities, becoming particularly vigorous among eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Hasidic groups. The most familiar term for the possessing spirit, dybbuk, came into use only in the late seventeenth century, but it is employed by scholars of Judaism to refer to possession by a ghost even in earlier epochs.
The earliest account of an exorcism in Jewish tradition is 1 Samuel 16:14–23. The text recounts how after the spirit of YHWH departed from King Saul, an evil spirit began to torment him. Saul's counselors suggest that music may be able to soothe his affliction, and David is brought to him to play the lyre. The sweet strains of the music succeed in exorcising the spirit from Saul whenever he feels invaded by its presence.
This is the sole account of spirit possession and exorcism in the Hebrew Bible. By the Second Temple period, however, the invasions of demons and forms of spiritual healing had become more prominent within Judaism. These phenomena were central features of the career of Jesus, for instance, as he traveled through the Jewish communities of first-century Palestine. The Qumran texts likewise place significant emphasis upon demonic attacks and human counterattacks, often in the form of protective spells, whereas scattered tales in rabbinic literature recount exorcisms by particularly righteous Jewish teachers.
Surviving bits of material culture testify to the contemporary interest in exorcism as well, particularly a number of bowls inscribed with Aramaic exorcisms that utilize a legalistic language of divorcing the spirit. Josephus (37–c. 100 ce) provides a story about contemporary Jewish exorcism techniques that he ascribes to traditions originating with King Solomon. According to this author, an exorcist named Eleazar gained fame for the efficacy of his cures and even was called upon to demonstrate his prowess before the emperor Vespasian (9–79 ce) along with all his court and army. Eleazar's secret was to draw the demons out from the possessed person's body by employing a certain root, discovered by Solomon, which was encased in a ring. By holding the ring to a demoniac's nose, he allowed that person to inhale the scent of the root, then he extracted the demon from the victim's body through the nostrils.
Accounts of exorcism are rare in medieval Jewish sources, although—as attested in the articles collected by Matt Goldish in Spirit Possession in Judaism (2003)—many scholars believe that the practice itself persisted. Medieval Catholic exorcisms include elements drawn from Jewish tradition, such as the use of lists of the names of God and the acronym AGLA (for Atah Gibbor Le-ʿolam Adonai, "You are mighty forever, my Lord"). This interreligious borrowing may suggest that Jewish exorcism traditions remained in common use. An early-sixteenth-century compilation of Jewish magical and exorcism texts, the Shoshan Yesod ha-ʿOlam, testifies to a vigorous tradition of spiritual healing; the book likely incorporates many older traditions that are not attested in surviving earlier literature. The exorcisms here are liturgical in character, involving verbal conjurations of demons and commands to depart. One formula adjures the demon, by the seventy-two names of God, to reveal its own name and parentage, then requires it to depart from the human body and enter into a flask that the exorcist is directed to have handy.
The emergence of dybbuk possession in the sixteenth century
In the sixteenth century spirit possession underwent a significant resurgence and evolution within Jewish thought. Beginning with the case of a young boy in the 1540s, the Galilean village of Safed became the epicenter of a new series of sensational possessions and exorcisms, several of which were associated with the circle of the qabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572). Not only was possession suddenly a renewed topic of reportage, but the terms in which it was envisioned seem to have shifted. Whereas earlier Jewish attestations of exorcism usually refer to the possessing spirit as a demon, the cases in Safed (which in the early twenty-first century have received sustained treatment from Jeffrey H. Chajes in Between Worlds ) constitute the first detailed descriptions of possessing spirits conceived as transmigratory souls of the dead.
Already in the late fourteenth century, Spanish qabbalistic literature had begun to explore the notion of ʿibbur, "pregnancy," as a form of spirit possession. The term was used to designate the invasion of a living human being by the transmigrating spirit of a deceased person, thus suggesting the coexistence of two souls within a single body. The sixteenth-century Safedian qabbalists expanded upon this tradition significantly. Although ʿibbur could involve either benign or maleficent dead spirits, the concern here is with the latter.
The qabbalists explained that the soul of a sinful person might not be permitted to enter into Gehenna directly upon death but instead would wander, disembodied and subject to beatings from angels of destruction. Seeking refuge from the angels, such a spirit would seek to enter into a physical body—either animal or human—for shelter; human bodies could be made vulnerable to such invasion through certain sins. Exorcism of the spirit should ideally be conducted in the presence of witnesses, a minyan of ten men. Because the ritual did not follow an invariant form, elements such as extensive suffumigation of the victim with strong incense, the blowing of the shofar (ram's horn) into the possessed's ear, and invocation of the names of God were used to force the dybbuk to reveal its own name and background. Once the identity of the spirit was established, the exorcist might converse with it, asking questions about its own former life and sins as well as seeking information about the afterlife. The dybbuk was often adjured to exit the victim by the big toe, lest the victim choke if it left via the throat. After the departure, the victim was to be given a protective amulet to wear to fend off further spiritual infestations. Texts recounting famous exorcisms served hagiographic functions, glorifying the rabbi who performed a successful expulsion. This is true not only of sixteenth-century Safed but of the later history of the dybbuk phenomenon as well.
It is notable that, in cases of dybbuk possession, the compassion of rabbinic exorcists was directed not only toward the possessed victim but also toward the possessing spirit. Because the latter was conceived as human, it too merited a degree of concern and healing. Thus even as the exorcist cast the demon out from the body it possessed, he often sought to discover how to help the dybbuk achieve tikkun, or rectification. If the spirit were permitted to enter Gehenna, it could then find rest and cease tormenting other living beings. This sympathetic feature of Jewish dybbuk exorcism could not find a counterpart in earlier Jewish traditions or in Christian traditions, which conceive of the possessing spirits as unredeemable and demonic.
The ʿibbur form of possession appeared in 1575 in Ferrara, Italy, where the spirit possessing a Jewish woman claimed it was the ghost of a recently executed Christian. Scholars are divided as to whether this and subsequent Italian cases resulted from a dissemination of Lurianic notions of possession and exorcism or arose from other contingencies. In the seventeenth century the Italian rabbi Moses Zacuto (1625–1697) became well known as an exorcist, engaging the topic repeatedly in his correspondence.
By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries dybbuk possession had become common in eastern European Hasidic communities; the term dybbuk is first attested in a Yiddish pamphlet published around 1680 in Volhynia. Sholom Anski's (1863–1920) 1910s play The Dybbuk; or, Between Two Worlds, which is set in a Hasidic context, popularized and romanticized the notion of ghostly possession. Like Blatty's The Exorcist, the story ultimately may have influenced the course of the religious phenomenon on the ground. Cases of dybbuk possession reminiscent of Anski's narrative have been reported in modern Israel and have begun to be studied by modern folklorists and anthropologists.
Competing Exorcism Forms in Egypt
In modern Islamic Egypt, spirit possession may be managed by one of two means: through Qurʾanic healing or participation in a zār cult. Islamic demonology is extensive, and the choice of which form of healing to pursue is in part a reflection of how the inhabiting spirit is identified.
Zār, a relatively recent invention dating only to the 1870s, is a form of participatory ritual group healing found in several East African countries. Dominated by women, zār cults involve regular meetings at which participants dance to drumming with the goal of entering into individual trance states. Islamic authorities in Egypt often denounce zār as a vulgar superstition held by women too ignorant to realize that their actions are un-Islamic. Participants, however, regard the meetings as fully compatible with Islamic tradition.
Strictly speaking, the zār cult is not a complete form of exorcism but rather a recurrent form of pacification. The goal of the ceremony is to learn to coexist with the spirit, or zār master, by temporarily lessening the intensity of the spirit's hold upon the individual. As documented by Gerda Sengers in Women and Demons (2003), the beginning of involvement with zār is customarily a private initiation ceremony paid for by the possessed victim and attended by friends, family, and other women who are possessed. After an opening prayer drawn from the Qurʾān, several different drum bands perform in sequence; their purpose is to get the participants dancing and help spur the onset of a trance. The new "zār bride," dressed in a long white tunic, is led by the kudya, a zār specialist who has assisted in the diagnosis of the victim's illness and identification of her invading spirit, or zār master. These may be of several kinds, including (among others) Gado, master of the toilet; the atheist zār master known as the Red Sultan; the Sultan of the Sea, who affects the brains; and even Christian zār masters. (The latter are easily identified because they make their victims desire alcohol, which normally is forbidden to Muslims but allowed to those possessed by Christian zār masters at zār ceremonies.) Zār masters often have negative qualities and cause distress or illness, but they are distinct from the more purely evil Islamic demons and devils known as jinn and shayatin.
Participants in the zār dance not with one another but with their individual zār masters. Thus the action, while collective, is not truly communal. After the private zār ceremony—sponsored by the family of the new initiate—the initiate will likely join a regular public zār group or hadrah. The hadrah meets regularly, usually on a weekly basis, and each participant contributes funds to pay for the drummers and to support the kudra. The repetition of the dance ritual each week keeps the zār master quiet within the victim, allowing her to pursue her normal life in all other ways.
Qurʾanic healing is a true exorcism that definitively drives out the invasive spirits, which in this case are often jinn or shayatin, though they can be zār masters as well. The healing usually is conducted by a sheik who specializes in Qurʾanic exorcism on the grounds of a mosque, perhaps in an upstairs room or other chamber; as with zār ceremonies, these usually are group meetings with several possessed persons in attendance at once. Paticipants are segregated by sex, either by some form of barrier or by designating different days of the week for gatherings of men and of women. Nevertheless in Egypt—as in other parts of the world—spirit possession tends to afflict women more often than men. Qurʾanic healers consider themselves as a more orthodox alternative to the zār cult, which they tend to deride as superstitious, corrupt, and anti-Islamic.
The rite begins with a rapid sequence of prayers, recited either by the sheik himself, one of his assistants, or the whole group. As the prayers go on, some of the possessed are likely to become excited and to begin writhing and crying out. At this point the assistants direct their prayers more loudly and forcefully at that individual; they may strike her with a stick while repeatedly shouting at the jinn to get out immediately. Eventually the exorcist or his assistant conjures the demon, asking its name, other details of its identity, and its reasons for possessing the victim. One may be possessed by a jinn for a variety of offenses, including such sins as hitting a cat. If the demon turns out not to be Muslim, it is given the chance to convert. The spirit is then required to enter into the possessed person's finger and to indicate its presence there by lifting that digit. The exorcist then pricks that finger with a needle, drawing a drop of blood and forcing the spirit out with it. After the rite, the victim is often counseled to adopt a higher level of piety in everyday life by, for example, dressing more modestly or praying more often.
Regionalism on the Indian Subcontinent
The linguistic and cultural diversity of the Indian subcontinent is paralleled by a wide degree of variance in exorcism practices. Certain spirit possession beliefs are widespread in India, such as the frequency with which ghosts as well as demons possess the living; the predominance of women among the possessed; the belief that possession may sometimes be caused by another person's act of sorcery; and the retrospective diagnosis of the onset of possession as occurring at a moment when the victim was alone and felt a sudden fear. Regional variations in possession beliefs—and especially in exorcism techniques—however, are legion. Indeed even within a single locale there may be several different exorcism techniques in play.
North India: The Balaji temple
The North Indian town of Mehndipur, Rajasthan, is home to the Balaji temple, dedicated to the monkey god Hanumān. The latter deity is an apt choice for a divine exorcist, for he is a heroic figure drawn from the epic Rāmāyaṇa, which recounts his devoted service to Rāma during a protracted battle with the Sri Lankan demon Rāvaṇa. The Balaji temple is famed throughout Rajasthan and neighboring states for its successful exorcisms, attracting the possessed from as far away as Delhi. Indeed the Balaji temple has long been a popular pilgrimage destination: it invariably is filled with supplicants come to ask the monkey god for release from possessing spirits of the dead, from demons of the Hindu pantheon, and even sometimes from Muslim jinn.
Exorcisms performed at the temple are collective in character. Together caregivers and temple priests intone prayers to Hanumān, with the goal of initiating the victims into an altered state of consciousness or trance (peshi). Though the latter often involves convulsions, loud shrieking, and other extreme behaviors, peshi is held to be a prerequisite for healing. Victims may return to the temple for several successive days before achieving peshi, but once the catharsis of trance is achieved and then exited, the victim is likely to be considered on the road to complete healing. The process may be swift or slow, depending on the number and nature of the possessing spirits. After the exorcism, the newly healed individual may report having received from Hanumān a protective spirit, or dut, to help guard against future attacks.
In South India, possession most frequently afflicts new, young brides; the spirit usually (though not invariably) is described as the ghost of a young man. Thus the possession state frequently has a sexual aspect that is explicitly articulated within the local understanding of these events. The ghosts or peys that afflict the victims often died unmarried; indeed a common reason for becoming this type of restless, possessing spirit is suicide because of unfulfilled love. These lonely ghosts of the untimely dead may become attracted to a lovely young bride with a still-fresh scent of sexual initiation about her and try to "catch" or possess her, often gaining entry through the woman's hair. Afterward the spirit becomes jealous and impels the woman to reject the sexual advances of her husband: this act often is the initiating event in a diagnosis of possession.
The exorcism ritual used to cure such afflictions usually involves a controlled, benign counterpossession. Here exorcists are specialists in dance techniques that enable them to enter into a state of trance, during which they incarnate a female deity like Kālī or Ankalaparamecuvari. The rite is known as "dancing the goddess." Because these deities are of superior power to the possessing ghost or demon, once the medium has become voluntarily possessed, the incarnate goddess is able to drive out the pey through a combination of supernatural threats and material sacrifices. The negotiation between the two possessed individuals may consume many hours, with the goddess-exorcist demanding that the pey leave and hurling insults at it and the ghost attempting to retain hold of the possessed woman and requiring various gifts or sacrifices before agreeing to exit. The exorcists who "dance the goddess" may resort to physical violence against the pey, beating the possessed or pulling her hair in order to convince the spirit inside that it must acquiesce and depart. This form of exorcism conceives of the struggle for healing as properly a battle between supernatural beings—the ghost versus the goddess—who nonetheless act through and on human bodies. The long hours of music, the dance, the confrontation between the two possessing personalities, and the ultimate triumph of the goddess-exorcist provides healing for the possessed victim as well as entertainment for the local village.
This counterpossession model of exorcism is supplemented by local practices with a more restricted geographic range. In the South Arcot District of Tamil Nadu, for instance, exorcisms sometimes are conducted by troupes of musicians known as pampaikkarar. The exorcism in this instance begins with a singer attempting to lure the possessed woman into a state of trance, after which the ghost who is possessing her may be interviewed. The details of its biography, death story, and the circumstances surrounding its possession of the victim are elicited; indeed the ghost is encouraged to explain its restlessness and its desires. As the music continues into the night, it is not uncommon for bystanders to dance the goddess, thus combining the better-known ritual with the more localized practice.
After the possessing spirit and its grievances have been identified, the musicians negotiate with it, promising a sacrifice in return for its pledge to depart. The spirit is asked to identify the specific lock of the victim's hair in which it resides; this tress is then tied into a knot over the protestations of the pey, which may complain that the action is painful. Afterward the sacrifice, a chicken, is offered, with its severed head being placed in the victim's mouth. This action shocks and frightens the pey and represents the beginnings of the actual expulsion. The possessed is then handed a large stone, said to represent "the weight of the pey's desire," and is herded toward the nearest tamarind tree. After the possessed person reaches the tree, the rock is laid at its roots, and the knotted lock of hair that contains the spirit is cut from the possessed woman's head and nailed to the trunk. Following this the exorcism is complete and the victim is considered healed. The culminating actions of the exorcism have been interpreted by Isabelle Nabokov in her article "Expel the Lover, Recover the Wife" (1997) as representing the final "divorce" of the lonely ghost from its victim and its "remarriage" to the tamarind tree, understood as a female entity in Tamil culture. When the pey's desire is given to the tamarind and the pey is severed from the woman and united with the tree, the affections of the lonely ghost are thereby redirected to a nonhuman object.
Scholarly Interpretations of Exorcism
Exorcism has long attracted attention from academics, thus becoming a category of scholarly analysis as well as of religious practice. The comments below identify some major strands in the interpretation of exorcism emanating from within the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, and history. Many of these analyses have tried to address the question of why women predominate in reports of possession and exorcism.
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the foundational literature of cultural anthropology gave prominent place to divergent cultural conceptualizations of spirits, their capabilities, and human responses to them. This focus was characteristic of the early anthropological approach to so-called "folk" religions, viewed as largely indistinguishable from culture, in contradistinction to "historical" religions, based on scriptural canons and textual precedents. Thus the anthropological literature on spirit possession and exorcism has a long and complex history within the discipline.
A well-known modern anthropological analysis of spirit possession and exorcism is I. M. Lewis's important 1971 work, Ecstatic Religion. Lewis was struck by the frequency with which socially marginal groups, particularly young women, were involuntarily overtaken by spirits, a phenomenon he termed "peripheral possession." He further noted that, while in a state of possession, the women often gained prestige and were able to act in more assertive ways than was the case in their regular daily lives. Thus they might openly critique their husbands or relatives, shirk household duties, or act in ways deemed immodest or inappropriate for their cultural settings. Lewis suggested that the reason for women's predominance among the spirit possessed in nearly all cultures is related to a covert desire for status enhancement. Women's possessing spirits allowed them to articulate resentments and desires that they normally would have had to suppress while simultaneously permitting them to disavow personal responsibility for their transgressive actions. This dynamic only reached its fullest expression, however, in the process of exorcism, which in many cultures takes the form of bargaining with the spirits to depart. The spirit may demand a series of concessions before agreeing to leave, often in the form of material gifts of direct benefit to the possessed woman: a feast, new clothes, or some other special treat.
Many scholars have suggested alternatives to Lewis's analysis or raised critiques to his approach. Bruce Kapferer, in his 1983 study of exorcism in Sri Lanka, A Celebration of Demons, argued that Lewis overvalued individual motivations and self-determination and undervalued broader cultural forces that symbolically align women with the sphere of the demonic and the unclean. Other scholars, including Janice Boddy in her review article "Spirit Possession Revisited" (1994), have called for a reframing of the question that moves "beyond instrumentality" to discuss broader notions of gender, body, and social organization that mitigate a narrowly functionalist view. Others, like Isabelle Nabokov (1997), have vigorously disputed the notion that exorcism acts to advance the interests of marginal groups, interpreting its symbolism as, rather, a means of asserting the hegemony of dominant cultural values. Nevertheless Lewis's "social deprivation analysis" remains a dominant influence in anthropological studies of exorcism. Lewis renewed his analysis in a follow-up study published in 1986, Religion in Context ; this work in turn was reissued in an expanded edition in 1996.
The interest of psychologists in possession and exorcism originates with Sigmund Freud, who in the 1920s wrote about the seventeenth-century case of the painter Christopher Haizmann. (A translation of this work is in Brian Levack, Possession and Exorcism .) Regarding accounts of Haizmann's possession as descriptions of a "demonological neurosis," Freud presented an elaborate interpretation centered on Haizmann's depression due to the death of a close relative, whom Freud assumes to be Haizmann's father. The devil, Freud writes, entered into a contract with Haizmann in which he agreed to serve as the painter's father figure for a term of nine years. Freud argues that the use of the number nine in relation to a span of time reveals Haizmann's adhesion to a feminine aspect in relation to his father, indeed "a long-repressed phantasy of pregnancy" (nine being the number of months of gestation), combined with a strong castration anxiety (Levack, 1992, p. 90). Haizmann's eventual release through exorcisms and a pilgrimage to a shrine to the Virgin Mary signal Haizmann's salutary turn toward another substitute parent, the mother. Through maternal intervention, Haizmann is sufficiently healed to enter into a religious order, thus finding a more appropriate father substitute in these "fathers of the church."
Nevertheless Freud's interest in these phenomena set the stage for further psychohistorical and ethnopsychological investigations into possession and exorcism. Understandings of spirit possession as a culturally constructed idiom for expressing repressed or illicit desires, as forms of wish fulfillment, as involving supernatural parent or lover substitutes, or as representative of sexual anxieties and identity disturbances are now a significant component of the scholarly literature. Once again the predominance of young women among the possessed has proven particularly provocative to scholars because the notion of physical penetration by a spirit, often conceived as male, lends itself both to a psychosexual analysis and also potentially to a diagnosis of disturbed gender identity.
Exorcisms have been regarded as having therapeutic value in part because they are couched in the same idiom as the patient's own expression of neurosis while nonetheless orchestrating the same kind of emotional buildup and catharsis that underlay Freud's early psychoanalyses. The emphasis upon social reintegration that is central to many exorcism rites has been seen as a cipher for the reintegration of the individual sufferer's psychic or sexual self: "the expulsion of the masculine and the resumption of an unfragmented conventional sexual identity," according to Lyndal Roper in Oedipus and the Devil (Roper, 1994, p. 191). Conversely, the psychological commonplace of "exorcising inner demons" forces a convergence between religious and psychoanalytic idioms. Exorcism and therapy are thereby defined as different terms for the same healing process.
Historians have turned their attention to spirit possession and exorcism relatively recently as part of the movement toward cultural history (sometimes called history of mentalities). Whereas the dominant anthropological and psychological interpretations of exorcism focus upon the victim's experiences and desires, the leading historians working on this problem emphasize the societal power relations deployed in the performance of exorcism. (Indeed Freud's psychoanalysis of Haizmann has been sharply criticized by Eric Midelfort in his article "Catholic and Lutheran Reactions to Demon Possession in the Late Seventeenth Century" [Levack, 1992] as anachronistic and individually overdetermined, with too little consideration given to the structure of the contextual society.) Thus the focus of historians has been less on the person who is the object of the exorcism and more on the ways practices of exorcism fuel larger social processes. It has been seen then as either a dynamic or a static social force, depending on the context.
An example of exorcism's potential to propel change is provided by the many scholars who have elucidated its value as a catalyst for conversion. These historians have pointed out how successful public exorcisms can be instrumental in recruiting new believers to the religion of the exorcising group. The rite often seems to have functioned in this way when practiced within a context of intense competition among rival religious systems. As a visible, materially enacted battle with supernatural referents, exorcism easily can become a testing ground for the power of one deity, doctrine, or practice over another. In other cases, however, exorcism may be used to reaffirm a potentially threatened continuity with the past. Thus as noted above the fifteenth-century rise of liturgical exorcism has been shown to be linked to a broader struggle on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to reaffirm its traditional authority at a moment of significant instability and stress. Here innovation in the performance of exorcism acted to reinforce the institutional prerogatives of the Catholic Church.
Perhaps the most elegant historical study of exorcism has been penned by the French social theorist Michel de Certeau. The author's article "Language Altered: The Sorceror's Speech" in The Writing of History (1988) focuses on the ways in which early modern exorcists reasserted the hegemony of written traditions by turning to them for neat categorizations of the untidy, real-life possession cases unfolding before them. Certeau begins by noting that a diagnosis of possession was usually applied to a woman soon after she manifested a "disturbance of discourse." No longer an individual, well-bounded subject, the possessed woman was viewed as displaced from herself. The invading spirit disrupted the continuity of the victim's selfhood by speaking through her mouth: her lips and tongue pronounced the spirit's sentiments and experiences. Thus for Certeau, the speech of the possessed woman was a logical paradox that existed outside normally comprehensible speech patterns. The speaking entity was both male and female, mortal and immortal, powerless and powerful, the victim and the Other.
The processes of exorcism and conjuration of the spirit, Certeau suggests, were a means of resolving this logical paradox by identifying the indwelling spirit. Thus the first goal of an exorcism always was to categorize the speech of the victim as the discourse of a specific, indwelling demon known in advance from exorcistic and demonological literature: Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Leviathan. Through this process, the exorcism transformed the garbled speech of the possessed woman into the recognizable voice of a well-known demon. Naming the demon in turn gave the exorcist power over it: the conjuration could then proceed as a series of conversations between the exorcist and the indwelling demon. Hence the exorcist only can gain mastery by identifying the speech of the victim with a specific demonic name, but in the process the possessed woman's identity is occluded. Exorcism is an assertion of power, Certeau suggests, insofar as it superimposes traditional categorizations over the creative potential of a paradox. It thus acts as a potent tool of social control.
Biblical Literature, article on New Testament; Christianity, overview article; Christianity and Judaism; Dybbuk; Egyptian Religion, overview article; Jesus Movement; Judaism, overview article; Qurʾān, overview article.
Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. Madison, Wis., 1989. An exploration of the role of fertility and gender roles in Sudanese spirit possession and the zār cult.
Boddy, Janice. "Spirit Possession Revisited: Beyond Instrumentality." Annual Review of Anthropology 23 (1994): 407–434. An excellent review essay of the major anthropological literature and interpretations.
Bourgignon, Erika, ed. Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change. Columbus, Ohio, 1973. A classic collection of articles with an interdisciplinary perspective.
Brown, Peter. "Sorcery, Demons, and the Rise of Christianity." In Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, edited by Mary Douglas, pp. 17–45. London, 1970. The relationship between exorcism and the expansion of the early Christian Church.
Brown, Peter. "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity." In Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity, pp. 103–152. Berkeley, Calif., and Los Angeles, 1982. How successful exorcisms functioned to cement the saintly reputations of holy men in late antiquity.
Brown, Peter. "Town Village and Holy Man: The Case of Syria." In Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity, pp. 153–165. Berkeley, Calif., and Los Angeles, 1982. Expands upon the previous article with a more specific geographical focus.
Caciola, Nancy. "Wraiths, Revenants, and Ritual in Medieval Culture." Past and Present 152 (1996): 3–45. A study of the medieval popular-culture belief that demons can possess and move dead bodies.
Caciola, Nancy. "Spirits Seeking Bodies: Death, Possession, and Communal Memory in the Middle Ages." In The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, edited by Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall, pp. 66–86. Cambridge, U.K., 2000. An exploration of stories of possession by ghosts in medieval popular culture.
Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y., 2003. A study of medieval spirit possession, both benign and malign; chapter five explores the history of exorcism and gives detailed descriptions of the rite.
Certeau, Michel de. "Language Altered: The Sorcerer's Speech." In The Writing of History, translated by Tom Conley, pp. 244–268. New York, 1988. A close study of the process of categorizing spirit possession through the qualification of the possessed woman's speech as demonic.
Certeau, Michel de. "What Freud Makes of History: 'A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis.'" In The Writing of History, translated by Tom Conley, pp. 287–307. New York, 1988. A historian meditates on Freud's discussion of Haizmann.
Certeau, Michel de. The Possession at Loudon. Translated by Michael Smith. Chicago, 1996. Closely examines the famous case of plural possession among the nuns of Loudon in the seventeenth century.
Chajes, Jeffrey H. "Judgements Sweetened: Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern Jewish Culture." Journal of Early Modern History 1–2 (1997): 124–169. A general discussion of early modern Jewish belief in possession by ghosts.
Chajes, Jeffrey H. Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism. Philadelphia, 2003. A detailed study of the history of Jewish possession and exorcism with emphasis on the shift toward dybbuk possession in the sixteenth century; chapter three presents Jewish technologies of exorcism.
Crapanzano, Vincent, and Vivian Garrison. Case Studies in Spirit Possession. New York, 1977. A classic collection of anthropological articles.
Csordas, Thomas. The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing. Berkeley, Calif., and Los Angeles, 1994. Discussion of Catholic Pentecostal faith healing.
Cuneo, Michael. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York, 2001. Investigation into the relationship between contemporary American popular culture images of exorcism and the rising demand for real-life exorcisms.
Dyer, Graham. The Divine and the Demonic: Supernatural Affliction and Its Treatment in North India. London, 2003. A general study of supernatural illness and healing in India with focus on the psychology of the emotions involved in these processes; discussion of the Balaji temple.
Goldish, Matt, ed. Spirit Possession in Judaism: Cases and Contexts from the Middle Ages to the Present. Detroit, Mich., 2003. This excellent collection brings together contributions from most of the modern scholars working on this topic.
Kakar, Sudhir. Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors. Delhi, India, 1981. A psychoanalytic approach to Indian religion with discussion of the Balaji temple.
Kapferer, Bruce. A Celebration of Demons: Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka. Bloomington, Ind., 1983. Detailed exposition of exorcism ceremonies in Sri Lanka with attention to notions of gender and impurity in Sinhalese ideas about possession.
Levack, Brian, ed. Possession and Exorcism. New York, 1992. A wonderful sampling that includes Freud's study of Haizmann and a number of other foundational articles.
Levi, Giovanni. Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago, 1988. The story of an unlicensed, popular exorcist in early modern Italy.
Lewis, I. M. Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropoloigical Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1971. A classic in the anthropological study of possession with particular attention to gender issues and "social deprivation" analysis.
Lewis, I. M. Religion in Context: Cults and Charisma. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1996. An extension of the positions advanced in the previous work with more range.
Mageo, Jeannette, and Alan Howard. Spirits in Culture, History, and Mind. New York and London, 1996. Focuses on possession in the cultures of various Pacific islands.
Midelfort, Eric. A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Palo Alto, Calif., 1999. Discusses early modern European concepts of madness, spirit possession, and folly.
Nabokov, Isabelle. "Expel the Lover, Recover the Wife: Symbolic Analysis of a South Indian Exorcism." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 3, no. 2 (1997): 297–316. A fascinating case study of a local exorcism ritual.
Obeyesekere, Gananath. "The Idiom of Demonic Possession: A Case Study." Social Science and Medicine 4, no. 1 (1970): 97–111. A psychoanalytic approach to Indian spirit possession.
Patai, Raphael. "Exorcism and Xenoglossia among the Safed Kabbalists." Journal of American Folklore 91, no. 361 (1978): 823–833. Close reading of a case studies in early modern Jewish exorcism with particular focus on the process of verifying the possessing ghost's identity.
Roper, Lyndal. Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality, and Religion in Early Modern Europe. London, 1994. Covers a broad array of topics, including exorcism.
Sengers, Gerda. Women and Demons: Cult Healing in Islamic Egypt. Leiden, Netherlands, 2003. A detailed study of the zār cult and Qurʾanic healing based on fieldwork in Cairo, Egypt.
Sluhovsky, Moshe. "The Devil in the Convent." American Historical Review 107, no. 5 (2002): 1379–1411. A close study of plural possessions in early modern Europe.
Tambiah, Stanley. "The Magical Power of Words." In Culture, Thought, and Social Action: An Anthropological Perspective. Cambridge, Mass., 1985. An important discussion of mantras and "demonic language" in Sri Lankan exorcisms.
Walker, Daniel Pickering. Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries. Philadelphia 1981. Focuses on the uses of public exorcisms for purposes of interreligious propaganda.
Wooley, Reginald. Exorcism and the Healing of the Sick. London, 1932. How possession relates to illness in the Christian tradition.
Nancy Caciola (2005)
To exorcize, according to the received definitions, states Edward Smedley in The Occult Sciences (1855), is "to bind upon oath, to charge upon oath, and thus, by the use of certain words, and performance of certain ceremonies, to subject the devil and other evil spirits to command and exact obedience. Minshew calls an exorcist a conjuror; and it is so used by Shakespeare; and exorcism conjuration. It is in the general sense of casting out evil spirits, however, that the word is now under-stood."
The History of Exorcism
The trade of exorcism has probably existed from very early times. In Greece, Epicurus and Aeschines were sons of women who lived by this art, and each was bitterly reproached, the one by the Stoics, the other by Demosthenes, for having assisted his parent in her "dishonorable" practices. A reference in the biblical Acts of the Apostles (19:13) concerns the failure and dis-grace of "certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists," who, like the apostles, "took upon them to call over them that had evil spirits the Name of the Lord Jesus."
The ancient Jewish historian Josephus observed:
"God enabled Solomon to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also, by which distempers are alleviated, and he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return. And this method of cure is of great force unto this day; for I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal, in the presence of Vespasian and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers. The manner of the cure was this. He put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he adjured him to return unto him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantation which he composed. And when Eleazar would persuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such a power, he set, a little way off, a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon as he went out the man to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man."
Some alleged fragments of these incantations of Solomon appear in the Codex Pseudepigraphus of Fabricus, and Josephus himself has described one of the antidemoniacal roots, in a measure reminiscent of the perils attendant on gathering the mandrake. Another fragment of antiquity bearing on this subject is the exorcism practiced by Tobit, the father of the Jewish hero Tobias, upon which it is by no means easy to pronounce judgment. The seventeenth-century Dutch scholar Grotius, in a note on that history, states that the Hebrews attributed all diseases arising from natural causes to the influence of demons. (These facts are derived in great measure from the Dutch theologian Balthasar Bekker's ingenious, though forgotten, four volumes Le Monde Enchanté (1694), which discuss the necessity of exorcism.)
Belthasar Bekker related an instance of exorcism practiced by Jews to avert the evil influence of the demon Lilis (or Lilith ), whom some rabbis claimed was the wife of Satan. During the 130 years (states Elias, in the Thisbi ) that elapsed before Adam was married to Eve, he was visited by certain she-devils, of whom the four principal were Lilis, Naome, Ogére, and Machalas; these encounters produced a fruitful progeny of spirits. Lilis visited the bedroom of women recently delivered and endeavored to kill their babies, boys on the eighth day after their birth, girls on the twenty-first. To chase her away, the attendants drew circles on the walls of the room with charcoal and within each they wrote, "Adam, Eve, Lilis, avaunt!" On the door of the room they also wrote the names of the three angels who preside over medicine (Senoi, Sansenoi, and Sanmangelof), a secret that was apparently taught them, somewhat unwittingly, by Lilis herself.
A particular ecclesiastical order of exorcists does not appear to have existed in the Christian church until the close of the third century, and the eighteenth-century German theologian Johann Mosheim attributed its introduction to the prevalent fancies of the Gnostics. In the tenth canon of the Council of Antioch, held in 341 C.E., exorcists were expressly mentioned in conjunction with subdeacons and readers, and their ordination described by the fourteenth Council of Carthage. It involved delivery by the bishop of a book containing forms of exorcism and directions that the exorcists should exercise the office upon energumens, (demoniacs), whether baptized or only catechumens. The fire of exorcism, as St. Augustine termed it, always preceded baptism. Catechumens were exorcised for 20 days previous to the administration of this sacrament. In the case of catechumens who were not also energumens, these exorcisms were not directed against any supposed demoniacal possession. They were, as Cyril described them, no more than prayers collected and composed from Holy Writ to beseech God to break the dominion and power of Satan in new converts and to deliver them from his slavery by expelling the spirit of wickedness and error.
In the Greek Church, before baptism the priest blew three times on the child to displace the devil from his seat, and this may be understood as symbolic of the power of sin over the unbaptized, not as an assertion of their real or absolute possession.
The exorcists formed one of the minor orders of the Roman Catholic Church. At their ordination the bishop addressed them as to their duties, and concluded with these words: "Take now the power of laying hands upon the energumens, and by the imposition of your hands, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the words of exorcism, the unclean spirits are driven from obsessed bodies."
One of the most complete manuals for Roman Catholic exorcists ever compiled was a volume of nearly 1,300 pages entitled Thesaurus Exorcismorum et Conjurationum … (1608). It contained the following tracts: "Practica Exorcistarum" (two parts), "Flagellum Daemonum," "Fustis Daemonium," "Complementum Artis Exorcistiae," and "Fuga Satanae."
From the first of these treatises, it appears that the energumens were subjected to a very severe corporal as well as spiritual discipline. They first underwent "pre-exorcisms" consisting of confessions, postulations, protestations, concitations, and interrogations. The exorcisms themselves were eight in number.
All these were accompanied with appropriate psalms, lessons, litanies, prayers, and adjurations. Then followed eight "postexorcisms." The first three were to be used according to how determined the demon was to retain possession. If the demon was very obstinate, an effigy of it, vile and horrible, was to be drawn, with its name inscribed under it, and be thrown into the flames, after having been signed with the cross, sprinkled with holy water, and fumigated. The fourth and fifth were forms of thanksgiving and benediction after liberation. The sixth referred to incubi and succubi. The seventh was for exorcising a haunted house, in which the service varied during every day of the week. The eighth was to drive away demoniacal storms or tempests and called for throwing into a huge fire large quantities of various herbs.
The "Flagellum Daemonum" treatise contained in the Thesaurus Exorcismorum gave numerous cautions to the exorcist himself not to be deceived by the arts of the demon, particular-ly when dealing with possessed women. If the devil refused to tell his name, the demoniac was to be fumigated. If it was necessary to break off the exorcism before the evil spirits were wholly expelled, they were to be adjured to quit the head, heart, and stomach of the energumen and to abscond themselves from the lower parts of the body.
In the "Fustis Daemonum" the exorcist was directed to verbally abuse the evil spirit if it persisted in staying. After this railing latinity, redoubled precaution was necessary, and if the demon still refused to tell its name, the knowledge of which facilitates an exorcism, it was to be called the worst names imaginable and the demoniac fumigated. The seventh exorcism in this treatise called for, among other things, anointing the demoniac with holy oil, and if all adjurations failed, the possessed was to be strenuously exhorted to patience. In the last form, dumbness was attacked; a very effectual remedy against this infirmity was declared to be a draught of holy water with three drops of holy wax, swallowed on an empty stomach.
Father Zacharias Vicecomes, in his Complementum Artis Exorcistiae (1608), explains the signs of possession or bewitchment. He also discusses how to discern the evil spirit's departure; sometimes it puts out the light, now and then it issues like a flame, or a very cold blast, through the mouth, nose, or ears. Vicecomes then enumerates various prescriptions for emetics, perfumes, and fumigations calculated to promote these results. He concludes with a catalog of the names of some of the devils of commonest occurrence: Astaroth, Baal, Cozbi, Dagon, Ase-roth, Baalimm, Chamo, Beelphegor, Astarte, Bethage, Phogor, Moloch, Asmodaeus, Bele, Nergel, Melchon, Asima, Bel, Nex-roth, Tartach, Acharon, Belial, Neabaz, Merodach, Adonides, Beaemot, Jerobaal, Socothbenoth, Beelzebub, Leviathan, Lucifer, Satan, and Mahomet.
Petrus Stampa's "Fuga Satanae" treatise in the The Sauvus Exorcismorum is very brief and does not contain any significant additional information.
According to a treatise on practical exorcism entitled Histoire admirable de la possession et conversion d'une Penitente…. (1613), Sr. Madeleine de Demandolx de la Palud was exorcised over a four-month period. She was under the power of five princes of the devils—Beelzebub, Leviathan, Baalberith, Asmo-deus, and Astaroth—as well as many lesser demons. Beelzebub lived in her forehead, Leviathan in the middle of her head, Astaroth in the back of it. Her head made unnatural, perpetual movements and pulsations. After the exorcism her head barely moved.
A second sister of the same convent, Louise Capeau, was also possessed by three devils of the highest degree: Vérin, Grésil, and Soneillon. Vérin, through the proceedings of the exorcists, appears to have turned state's evidence, for, in spite of the remonstrances and rage of Beelzebub, he gave important information and instruction to his enemies and appeared to sincerely repent that he was a devil. The daily Acts and Examinations, from November 27 to the following of April 23, were specially recorded by the exorcist himself, and all the conversations of the devils were recorded verbatim. The whole business ended in tragedy, and Louis Gaufridi, a priest from Marseilles who was accused of witchcraft on the occasion, was burned alive at Aix-en-Provence.
An exorcism case of almost unparalleled atrocity occurred at Loudun in 1634 when Urbain Grandier, cure and canon of that town, was mercilessly brought to the stake partly by the jealousy of some monks, partly to gratify the personal vengeance of Cardinal Richelieu, who had been persuaded that this ecclesiastic had lampooned him, an offense he never forgave. Some Ursuline nuns were tortured and confessed themselves possessed, and Grandier was the person accused of effecting their possession. A certain Tranquille, one of the exorcists, died within four years of the execution of his victim, in a state of reputed possession, perhaps distracted by self-accusations of remorse.
The last acknowledgment of exorcism in the Anglican Church during the progress of the Reformation occurs in the first liturgy of Edward VI, which gives the following form of baptism:
"Then let the priest, looking upon the children, say, 'I command thee, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, that thou come out and depart from these infants, whom our Lord Jesus Christ has vouchsafed to call to His holy baptism, to be made members of His Body and of His Holy congregation. Therefore, thou cursed spirit, remember thy sentence, remember thy judgment, remember the day to be at hand wherein thou shalt burn in fire everlasting prepared for thee and thy angels. And presume not hereafter to exercise any tyranny towards these infants whom Christ hath brought with His precious blood, and by this His holy baptism calleth to be of His flock."'
On the remonstrance of Martin Bucer (1491-1551), arguing that exorcism was not originally used for any but demoniacs, and that it was uncharitable to imagine that all who came to baptism were demoniacs, it was thought prudent by reformers to omit it altogether in subsequent liturgies.
The seventy-second canon issued the following restriction on exorcism: "No minister shall, without the license of the bishop of the diocese, first obtained and had under his hand and seal … attempt upon any pretence whatever, either of obsession or possession, by fasting or prayer, to cast out any devil or devils: under pain of the imputation of imposture or cosenage, and deposition from the ministry."
Exorcism in the Modern World
Exorcism became news in modern times with the publication of William Peter Blatty's novel The Exorcist in 1971 and the subsequent Warner Brothers movie, scripted by Blatty and released in 1974. Much of the powerful background of Blatty's book and the film stem from authentic research, using as a source the classic study Possession: Demoniacal and Other, by T. K. Oesterreich (1930). Blatty's book was a best-seller, clearing 200,000 hardcover copies in the summer of 1971 and several million in paperback in the two following years.
The runaway success of the movie revived the interest in the role of the devil in Christian theology and created a industry of paperbacks on Satanism, black magic, and related topics. Devil possession became almost fashionable, and priests revived long-forgotten rites of exorcism. Many churchmen and psychologists were divided over whether treating devils as real entities aided the recovery of psychoneurotic individuals or actually encouraged the spread of hysterical possession.
In Britain, a 17-year-old boy claimed that he was possessed by evil after seeing the movie The Exorcist and afterward killed a girl, age 9. In 1975, 31-year-old Michael Taylor was exorcized at St. Thames Church, Barnsley, England, but went home "possessed with the devil" and brutally murdered his wife. He was found guilty but insane. Similar cases have been reported in other countries.
Christopher Neil-Smith, a London vicar, has performed more than three thousand exorcisms in Britain since 1949. In his book The Exorcist and the Possessed (1974), he claims that evil should be treated as an actual force rather than an abstract idea.
In 1963 the bishop of Exeter, England, convened a commission to consider the theology, techniques, and the place of exorcism in the life of the Christian Church. The commission's findings were published in 1972 and included suitable forms of prayer and exorcism. It was suggested that every diocesan bishop should appoint a priest as diocesan exorcist, and suitable training should be established. No exorcism should take place without the explicit permission of the diocesan bishop, nor should exorcism be performed until possible mental or physical illness had been excluded. A program of training and safeguards was drawn up by which the theological and liturgical questions could be properly evaluated without sensationalism.
Through the 1980s the subject of exorcism was kept alive within evangelical Christianity, especially Pentecostalism. Quite the contrary to the official oversight given exorcism within the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and mainline Protestant traditions, any minister (and on occasion layperson) could emerge as an exorcist, and exorcism services, such as those conducted by Bible teacher Derek Prince, became attractions at Pentecostal events. Exorcism services also became a part of missionary activity in places where either Spiritualism (Philippines) or polytheistic faiths (Africa) were widespread. Exorcism has become somewhat institutionalized in charismatic churches, where it is referred to as "spiritual warfare."
Basham, Don. A Manual for Spiritual Warfare. Greensburg, Pa.: Manna Books, 1974.
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Brooks, Pat. Out! In the Name of Jesus. Carol Stream, Ill.: Creation House, 1972.
Deutch, Richard. Exorcism: Possession or Obsession? London: Bachman & Turner, 1975.
Ebon, Martin, ed. Exorcism: Fact Not Fiction. New York: New American Library, 1974.
Huxley, Aldous. The Devils of Loudon. London: Chatto & Windus, 1952. Reprint, New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Nauman, St. Elmo, Jr. Exorcism Through the Ages. New York: Philosophical Library, 1974.
Neil-Smith, Christopher. The Exorcist and the Possessed. Corn-wall, England: James Pike, 1974.
Oesterreich, T. K. Possession: Demoniacal and Other. London: Kegan Paul; New York: R. R. Smith, 1930. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1966. Reprint, New York: Cause-way Books, 1974.
Petitpierre, Dom Robert. Exorcism: The Findings of a Commission Convened by the Bishop of Exeter. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1972.
Shepard, Leslie. How to Protect Yourself Against Black Magic and Witchcraft. New York: Citadel, 1978.
Strachan, Françoise. Casting Out the Devils. London: Aquarian Press, 1972.
White, Elijah. Exorcism as a Christian Ministry. New York: Morehouse-Barlow, 1975.
On September 11, 2000, newspapers around the world carried the story about how Satan had invaded the Vatican in Rome and screamed insults at Pope John Paul II (1920– ) through the agency of a teenage girl, reported to have been a "splendid girl in terms of purity and goodness" before being possessed by the devil at the age of 12. The 19-year-old began shouting in a "cavernous voice" during a general papal audience in St. Peter's Square. Despite the efforts of the pope to quiet the attack, the Prince of Darkness laughed at the Holy Father's efforts to drive him away. When Vatican guards attempted to constrain the girl, she violently pushed them back in a display of superhuman strength.
Vatican exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth said that he and another exorcist, Father Giancarlo Gramolazzo, had previously worked with the girl and that the pope had spent half an hour with her the day before the incident and had also exorcised the teenager. However, it soon became apparent when the girl began insulting the pope and speaking in unknown tongues during the papal audience that neither of the exorcisms had managed to banish Satan. Vatican sources were quick to remind the media of Pope John Paul II's successful exorcism of an Italian woman named Francesca Fabrizzi in 1982.
Later in September 2000, Reverend James Le Bar, an exorcist for the Archdiocese of New York, commented that there had been a "large explosion" of exorcisms in recent years. In New York alone, he said, the number had accelerated from none in 1990 to a total of 300 in the last 10 years. Reverend Le Bar said that as men and women have diminished self-respect for themselves and decreased reverence for spirituality, for other human beings, and for life in general, one of Satan's demons can move in and "attack them by possessing them and rendering them helpless."
On November 26, 2000, an Associated Press story datelined Mexico City, Mexico, stated that a steady procession of men and women believing themselves to be possessed pass through the doors of the city's Roman Catholic parishes seeking exorcism from the eight priests appointed by the archbishop to battle Satan and his demons. Reverend Alberto Juarez told of seeing a young woman who began to speak in a man's voice and then growl like a dog. Father Enrique Maldonado spoke of houses where he witnessed locked doors open and objects move about the rooms. Reverend Daniel Gagnon stated that he had once considered himself scientific, pragmatic, but he had changed his mind. "Psychology is where you begin, but there is an area that science cannot explain," he said.
The casting out of demons and the healing of the sick and the lame were two of the great facets of the apostolic commission that Jesus (c. 6 b.c.e.–c. 30 c.e.) gave to his followers, but the practice of performing an exorcism on candidates for baptism was first recorded by the church father Hippolytus (c. 170–c. 235) in third-century Rome. The priest or layman instructing those who would join the church was instructed to lay his hands upon the heads of the catechumens and pray. It was then supposed that it would be impossible for a demonic entity to remain quiet and unnoticed at this time, thereby betraying its presence and presenting the unfortunate human host for the process of exorcism.
According to the September 1, 2000, issue of the National Catholic Reporter, the first mention of "exorcist" as an office in the Roman Catholic Church exists in a letter of Pope Cornelius in 253. Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell states that in the early medieval liturgies, there were three kinds of common exorcisms—the exorcism or blessing of houses or objects, of those about to receive baptism, and of people believed to be possessed by demons. In various parts of Europe, the priest conducting the exorcism might also use the rites to banish such pre-Christian deities as Thor and Odin.
Accounts of demonic possession were commonplace in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia from the earliest times. Although there are no accounts of demonic possession or of exorcism in the Old Testament, the casting out of demons is an integral part of Jesus' ministry and it is an important aspect of the earthly assignments that he gives to his followers. ("Then he called together his twelve apostles and sent them out two by two with power over evil spirits" [Mark 6:7]. "Finally, Paul…turned and said to the spirit, 'In the name of Jesus Christ, I order you to leave this girl alone!'" [Acts 16:18]. The New Testament also refers to Jewish exorcists who begin to cast out demons in Jesus' name (Mark 9:38–40): "'Teacher, we saw a man using your name to force demons out of people. But he wasn't one of us, and we told him to stop.' Jesus said to his disciples: 'Don't stop him! No one who works miracles in my name will soon turn and say something bad about me. Anyone who isn't against us is for us.'"
Neither Jesus nor those who cast out demons in his name is called an "exorcist" in the New Testament, and the word "exorcise" is never used anywhere in the Bible in the context of banishing demons. By contrast to shamanic exorcisms of evil spirits in tribal cultures, which can last for hours or days; the rituals of demonic banishment in ancient Egypt or pagan Europe, which were dramatic ordeals of lengthy duration; or the rites of exorcism of the Roman Catholic Church, which can go on for many days, months, even years, Jesus' exorcisms consisted of his/her simple and direct command to the demon to leave its unwilling host body.
When Jesus triumphs easily and immediately over the evil beings that have infested a human body and soul in the many encounters described in the gospels, the possessing entities are always demons, never Satan himself. Although these are victories that diminish Satan's earthly powers, it may be that the great showdown between Jesus, the Son of God, and Satan, the Lord of the Earth, is building for the great final battle between good and evil at Armageddon at the time of the Apocalypse.
Although accounts of exorcism are not to be found in the Old Testament, later Jewish tradition employs a ritual that involves the sounding of the shofar, the reciting of prayers, and the anointing of the afflicted person with oil and water over which passages from Psalms have been read. As in Christian exorcism, it is important that the true identity of the demon be learned so that it can be addressed by name and ordered out of the body of its victim. In the Kabbalist tradition, the exorcist also demands to know the nature of the sin that led the demon to attach itself to a human body so that after expulsion the soul can be rectified and placed at rest.
John L. Allen, Jr., a staff writer for the National Catholic Reporter, acknowledged (September 1, 2000) that in a few well-publicized cases "failure to make a careful assessment of possible brain dysfunction before performing exorcism has resulted in disaster." Allen then mentions a 1976 case in which two Bavarian priests were convicted of negligent homicide when medical treatment for a 23-year-old epileptic was discontinued in favor of exorcism and the young woman died. He also refers to a 1996 case in which a Korean Protestant exorcist in California was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison for inadvertently trampling a woman to death during a four-hour exorcism.
Vatican exorcist Gabriele Amorth said that he always asks for a person's medical history and consults a psychiatrist if he feels such information will be useful before beginning an exorcism. He argues, however, that only performing an exorcism can provide certainty, because it is in the response to the rites that one can detect the presence of a demon.
While many priests appear to have the attitude that a little exorcism could never hurt anyone, Father Joseph Mahoney, a Catholic chaplain in Detroit who works with individuals suffering from multiple personality disorder, sees it quite differently. He believes that an exorcism can be "extremely destructive" when applied to patients with undiagnosed multiple personality disorders, and he refers to research carried out by the Royal Ottawa Hospital in Canada, which concluded that the process of exorcism could create new personalities in such subjects.
In January 1999, the Vatican issued a revised Catholic rite of exorcism for the first time since 1614, reaffirming the existence of Satan and revamping his image for the millennium. Officials stressed that the church was not revising scriptural references to the Devil or suggesting that people should cease believing in the Evil One. But priests who conduct exorcisms should now deal with evil as a force lurking within all individuals, rather than one that threatens people from without.
Father Malachi Martin, a Jesuit who served as an advisor to three popes, has authored a number of books dealing with demon possession and exorcism, including Hostage to the Devil. When he was asked why there has been such a spectacular rise in the number of people possessed by demons and in need of exorcism, he replied that it was as St. Paul (d. 62–68 c.e.) had declared: "There is a spiritual war on, a war with the spirits…a war with the invisible forces that want men's souls."
Describing the process of exorcism, Martin explained that an exorcism was a confrontation, not a mere exercise in prayer. The exorcist was at war with the demon. Once begun, the process must be finished. If the exorcist should stop the rites for any reason, the demon will pursue him.
The exorcism continues with a kind of conversation between the demon and the exorcist, who is attempting to learn as quickly as possible the demon's name. Often the entity's name is a reflection or a symbol of that demon's function, and it must be forced to admit it.
The demon systematically ridicules human love and faith and constantly probes the exorcist for any signs of weakness, any area of his past that might be open to reproach. Objects in the room may move, windows shatter, doors open and close. "At a certain moment," Martin told journalist Wen Smith, "everybody in the room knows there's something in the room that wants you dead. It's a horrible feeling knowing that unless something happens, you are going to die—now."
Martin freely admitted that not all exorcisms end in triumph for the exorcist. Sometimes the demon remains in control and the victim remains possessed. Even when the demon is expelled from its unwilling human host, it may still wander about seeking other vulnerable men and women to inhabit. And the exorcist himself may continue to pay a price for interfering in the demon's possession of its host body. Martin said that he had been flung out of bed, knocked off stools, and had his shoulder broken—reminders that the demon was still around and very angry with him.
On September 22, 2000, the 1973 horror film The Exorcist was rereleased with added footage that had been excised from the original, and priests across the nation braced themselves for a tidal wave of cases of alleged demonic possession. Arguably the most frightening movie ever made, the film was based on the best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty and was directed by William Friedkin. As many motion picture reviewers and commentators have discussed, the film presentation of demonic possession touched a kind of collective primal fear in its audiences that was made all the more horrible by the fact that the victim was a smiling, cherubic, innocent young girl. Demons became all the more real when people realized that possession could occur to their child, to their spouse, even to them. Father Merrin, the exorcist in the film, uses the actual Roman Ritual of exorcism that was created by the Roman Catholic Church in 1614, and the repetitious chanting of the actors performing the rites gave the presentation an added aura of reality and of participation in a supernatural event.
Reverend Bob Larson, an evangelical preacher and author who runs an exorcism ministry in Denver, told the New York Times (November 28, 2000) that he had 40 exorcism teams across the country and that his goal was that "no one should ever be more than a day's drive from a city where you can find an exorcist." Larson could not see why anyone would be "freaked out" over the idea of an exorcism: "It's in the Bible. Christ taught it."
Michael W. Cuneo, a Fordham University sociologist, has been studying the subject of exorcisms for many years. His research indicates that as recently as the 1960s, exorcism in the United States was nearly completely abandoned as a church rite. Then, in 1973, the motion picture The Exorcist changed that. By the mid-1980s, there was a "proliferation of exorcisms being performed by evangelical Protestants." In the 1990s, Cuneo says that there is an "underground network" of exorcists numbering in the hundreds, and a "bewildering variety of exorcisms being performed."
Reverend Martin Marty, a Lutheran minister and an analyst of religious trends and customs in the United States, commented that exorcisms were "all over the place" and the driving out of evil spirits has a long and varied history. Marty noted that the godparents at the baptismal service in many Christian faiths are asked, on behalf of the child they sponsor, if they renounce the devil and all his works and ways. That, he explained, is a mild version of exorcism. And exorcism is a smaller part of modern Western religions than it was in ancient Babylon, Egypt, and Greece. There are witchdoctors in African societies who perform exorcisms, medicine people among Native American tribes who are exorcists, and shamans throughout Asia who banish evil spirits.
As long as there are human beings who believe in supernatural powers, there will be exorcists who will be summoned to rid the innocent of the demons who have possessed them. A survey of its readers conducted by Self magazine in 1997 revealed that 65 percent of those surveyed believed in the Devil; and the results of a Gallup poll released in June 2001 indicated that 41 percent of adult Americans believe that the Devil or his demons can possess humans.
Bamberger, Bernard J. Fallen Angels. New York: Jewish Publication Society, Barnes & Noble, 1995.
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.
Dickason, C. Fred. Demon Possession & The Christian. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1989.
McGinn, Bernard. Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.
The act of driving out or warding off demons or evil spirits from persons, places, or things that are, or are believed to be, possessed or infested by them or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice. According to Catholic belief, demons are fallen angels who have rebelled against God. Excluded from friendship with God, they retain, nevertheless, their natural power of acting upon men and the material universe for their own evil purposes. This power is limited by Divine Providence, but it has been given wider scope in consequence of the sin of mankind. Exorcism is nothing more than a prayer to God (sometimes made publicly in the name of the Church, sometimes made privately) to restrain the power of the demons over men and things. This article summarizes the history of and present practice of the church in regard to exorcism, then adds some theological points.
History. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians as well as other ethnic groups sometimes attributed certain diseases to demoniacal possession, and they believed in the efficacy of magical charms and incantations for banishing the demons. In the Old Testament, the Book of Tobia relates a devil that was said to have killed the seven husbands of Sara (6.14). Subsequently, "the angel Raphael took the devil, and bound him in the desert of upper Egypt" (8.3).
Acknowledging the reality of demonic possession, Jesus drove demons out of their victims, not by collusion with Beelzebub, the prince of devils, but by the finger of God (Mt 12.22–30; Mk 3.22–27; Lk 11.14–26). Christ also empowered the Apostles and Disciples to cast out the demons in His name (Mt 10.1; Mk 6.7; Lk 9.1). He committed this same power to believers, generally (Mk 16.17), but the exercise of such power was subject to certain conditions, namely, prayer and fasting (Mt 17.20; Mk 9.28). The Acts of the Apostles records how Paul drove a divining spirit out of a girl who brought her masters much profit by soothsaying (16.16–18; cf. 19.12). No doubt, the other Apostles exercised this power too.
After the apostolic age, the primitive Christians continued to exercise demons. Justin Martyr (100?–165?) speaks of numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world, who were exercised by Christian men in the name of Jesus Christ even though they could not be exorcised by those who used incantations and drugs (2 Apol. 6). Tertullian (160?–230?) complains of the ingratitude of
the pagans, who called the Christians enemies of the human race, even though the Christians exorcised the pagans without reward or hire (Apol. 37). Origen (185?–254?) remarks that the name of Jesus expelled myriad evil spirits from the souls and bodies of men (Contra Celsum 1.25). Lactantius (d. beginning of the 4th century) writes that the followers of Christ, in the name of their master and by the sign of His passion, the cross, banished polluted spirits from men (Instit. 4.27). Cyril of Jerusalem (315?–386?) notes that the invocation of the name of God scorches and drives out evil spirits like a fierce flame (Catech. 20.3). These remarks are typical of the attitude of the early Church, for which an exorcism was an invocation of God against the harassment of devils. Frequently the invocation was accompanied by some symbolic action, such as breathing upon the subject, or laying hands upon him, or signing him with the cross. The invocation might be expressed by calling upon the name of Jesus, or cursing the devil, or commanding him to depart, or reading a passage from Sacred Scripture.
Not only did the early Church exorcise demoniacs, but it also subjected catechumens to exorcism as a preparation for baptism. Catechumens were not considered to be obsessed as demoniacs were; but as a consequence of
original sin (and of personal sin in the case of adults), they were subject more or less to the power of the devil, whose "works" and "pomps" they were called upon to renounce. This exorcism preceding baptism may be explained then in two ways: it was a symbolical anticipation of deliverance from the power of the devil through baptism, and it was a means of restraining the devil from impeding the reception of the Sacramant (cf. St. Thomas, Summa theologiae 3a, 71.2). Cyril of Jerusalem describes one manner of exorcism before baptism by which the catechumen was stripped and anointed with exorcised oil from head to foot (Catech. 20.3).
Present Practice. Today the Church maintains its traditional attitude toward exorcism. It recognizes the possibility of diabolical possession, and it regulates the manner of dealing with it. The Code of Canon Law allows authorized ministers to perform solemn exorcisms not only over the faithful, but also over non-Catholics and those who are excommunicated (c. 1152). A solemn method of exorcising is given in the Roman Ritual. In most of the Eastern and Western rites, exorcisms continue to serve as a preparation for baptism. Exorcisms also form a part of the blessing of such things as salt, water, and oil; and these, in turn, are used in personal exorcisms and in blessing or consecrating places (e.g., churches) and objects (e.g., altars, sacred vessels, church bells) connected with public worship or intended for private devotion. In exorcising and blessing these objects, the Church prays that those who use them may be protected against the attacks of the devil.
Bibliography: j. forget, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 1903–50) 5.2:1762–80. a. rodewyk, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 3:1314–15. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq, and h. i. marrou (Paris 1907–53) 5.1:964–978. a. stenzel, Die Taufe (Innsbruck 1958). l. bouyer, The Paschal Mystery: Meditations on the Last Three Days of Holy Week, tr. m. benoit (Chicago 1950).
[e. j. gratsch]
Theology. The New Testament's witness to Christ's decisive victory over the powers of evil, a victory proclaimed by the Savior Himself in word and deed (cf. Lk 11.20; Jn 12.31), is the foundation for any theology of exorcism. The authority and ability to cast out devils was entrusted to the Twelve (Mk 3.14–15; cf. Mt 10.1; Lk9.1), though all "those who believe" are also envisioned as sharing this power (Mk 16.17; Lk 10.17–19; cf. Origen, Contra Celsum 7.4). Satan's loss of power is, in fact, a continuing sign of man's Redemption (1 Jn 5.18). This conviction is echoed by the Fathers (e.g., Tertullian, Apol. ; Hilary of Poitiers, In Ps. 64.10) and by the schools of the Middle Ages (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 90.2).
In the performance of an exorcism it is always the Church that prays through the instrumentality of the exorcist, so that the efficacy of the rite is analogous to that of the sacramentals. At the same time, it is obvious from the Gospels themselves that the exorcist's faith and integrity play a determining role in the outcome of the exorcism (Mt 17.14–20; Mk 9.13–28; Lk 9.37–43). For this reason the Church exercises the greatest caution in authorizing clerics who have received the power of exorcism through Holy Orders to put it to use. This is not true, of course, of the exorcisms employed during the rite of baptism, but of those uses of the power that an apparently authentic instance of possession has required. Of those cases of possession against which exorcism proves to be ineffective, one can only say that an error of judgement has been made as to the true nature of the phenomenon or that for reasons of His own, God has withheld the rite's efficacy. Recourse to this latter explanation should be infrequent, to say the least, since the question of the Church's ability to carry on the essential work of its founder and master is at issue.
See Also: baptism (liturgy of); diabolical obsession; diabolical possession (in the bible).
[l. j. elmer]
Liturgy. In liturgy and theology an exorcism is the Church's prayer that the power of God's Holy Spirit free a person from sin and evil and from subjection to the devil, the spirit of evil. In popular understanding exorcism generally refers to the driving out of a demon who has possessed a person. The Church, however, is reluctant to admit a supernatural possession in particular cases, since most apparent cases can be explained by pathological conditions. Both modern biblical scholarship and current psychological theory and practice are inclined to admit a supernatural explanation only when a natural explanation has been proved impossible. A practical indication of this reluctance is the 1972 abolition of the office of exorcist with the other minor orders (Paul VI Min-Quaedam).
Exorcisms in the form of prayers for protection from evil do remain in the baptismal rituals. The Rite for Infant Baptism (Ordo Baptismi parvulorum, May 15, 1969; second editio typica, June 24, 1973), for example, contains a prayer of exorcism at the end of the prayer of the faithful and litany, prior to (optional) anointing with the oil of catechumens (which functioned historically as an exorcism). But where the first edition spoke of freedom from the power of darkness (a potestate tenebrarum ), the second speaks rather of "original sin" (ab originalis culpae labe, BaptCh 49).
More elaborate exorcisms may be found in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Exorcism is described as showing the "true nature of the spiritual life as a battle between flesh and spirit" (Chr InitAd 101) and the formulas (ibid. 113–118; 373) speak of preservation from sin and evil. The scrutinies, intended to purify and strengthen the candidate (ibid. 154), contain rites of exorcism whereby "the Church teaches the elect about the mystery of Christ who frees from sin. By exorcism they are freed from the effects of sin and from the influence of the devil, and they are strengthened in their spiritual journey and open their hearts to receive the gifts of the Savior" (ibid.156). The ritual's formulas (ibid. 164, 171, 178, 379, 383,387) reflect this understanding.
Similarly, the blessing of baptismal water in the rituals and the blessing of water at the beginning of the order of Mass in the Sacramentary no longer contain an exorcism of water (or of the salt, use of which is optional).
Scepticism regarding demonic possession and deemphasis of exorcism in no way imply denial of the power of evil customarily spoken of as the devil or Satan.
Bibliography: r. bÉraudy, "Scrutinies and Exorcisms," in j. wagner, ed., Adult Baptism and the Catechumenate. Concilium 22 (1967) 57–61. j. cortÉs and f. gatti, The Case against Possessions and Exorcisms (New York 1975). l. mitchell, Baptismal Anointing (London 1966). r. woods, The Occult Revolution (New York 1971).
In the United States today, a surprising number of groups and individuals believe not only that demons, or evil spirits, exist but that they routinely cause trouble in the lives of ordinary women and men. Many of these groups and individuals attempt to counteract demonization through exorcism, a religious rite aimed at expelling evil spirits or, at the very least, restraining their influence. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, exorcism was more widely practiced in the United States than perhaps ever before. Its popularity, especially in certain Christian circles, may be attributed to a curious conjunction of religious conviction, the influence of the broader therapeutic culture, and the enormous suggestive powers of the entertainment industry.
As recently as the late 1960s, Roman Catholic exorcism was all but dead and forgotten in the United States—a fading ghost long past its prime. It was rarely spoken of and even more rarely assumed to possess any practical significance. By the mid-1970s, however, the ghost had sprung miraculously back to life. Suddenly, thousands of people were convinced that they themselves, or perhaps a loved one, were suffering from demonic affliction. Exorcism was in hot demand. What brought this about? A number of factors, but none more important, arguably, than the release of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist and the publication of Malachi Martin's Hostage to the Devil. The dramatic (and seductively grotesque) arrival of demons on the screen and the best-selling page helped create an unprecedented popular demand for Catholic exorcisms. The chances of anyone actually procuring an exorcism through official Catholic channels during the seventies and eighties, however, were exceedingly slim. Relatively few bishops believed in the possibility of diabolic possession, and no more than two or three Catholic dioceses in the United States at any given time over this period had bona fide priest-exorcists at their disposal. There was, however, a considerably greater chance of obtaining a Catholic exorcism through unofficial channels. Beginning in the mid-1970s, a small (but significant) number of maverick priests, most of whom inhabited the right-wing fringes of American Catholicism, attempted to respond to the burgeoning market for Catholic exorcisms by going into business on their own. For the most part, the exorcisms performed by these priests were clandestine, underground affairs, undertaken without the approval of the institutional Catholic Church and without the rigorous psychological screening that the church (at least in theory) required. In subsequent years the institutional Catholic Church took more aggressive action on the demon-expulsion front. Since the mid-1990s approximately a dozen priests have been appointed to the office of exorcist in American Catholicism; and in January 1999 the Vatican published a revised version of the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism, which superseded an earlier rite that had stood virtually unchanged since its publication by Pope Paul V in 1614.
For all its Hollywood-dusted glamour, Roman Catholic exorcism has been just a small part of the total picture. During the mid- to late 1960s, a number of prominent charismatic Christians (including Don Basham, Erwin Prange, and Francis MacNutt) began practicing a modified form of exorcism, which they referred to as deliverance. (Deliverance had been widely practiced by classical Pentecostals earlier in the century, but by the early 1950s it had fallen into a state of relative dormancy.) Most charismatic deliverance ministers made a distinction between demonic possession and affliction. While it was highly unlikely that true spirit-baptized Christians could actually become possessed, which meant falling completely under the sway of Satan, they argued, there was no reason to think that they could not be tormented or afflicted in some area of their lives by demonic powers. Deliverance eventually gained broad (if not universal) acceptance within the charismatic-renewal movement, and by the mid-1970s thousands of middle-class charismatics from virtually all of the nation's mainstream Christian churches were having their personal demons expelled. While charismatic deliverance was undoubtedly motivated by genuine religious conviction, it was also more in tune with the times than most of its practitioners would have cared to admit. Despite being cloaked in the time-orphaned language of demons and supernatural evil, the ritual was very much at home in the brightly lit, fulfillment-on-demand culture of post-1960s America. It could be engaged in as often as anyone wanted and for virtually any reason under the sun. If an individual charismatic complained of being afflicted by demons of cigarette-smoking or demons of marital infidelity or demons of anything in between, the solution was close at hand.
Exorcism experienced a major growth burst during the eighties and early nineties, this time in connection with mounting concerns on the part of many Americans that a satanic conspiracy was stalking the land. Indeed, one could describe, with a measure of sarcasm, the ten-year stretch from 1983 to 1993 as Satan's decade in America. From California to New York, alarm bells rang out: Satanists seemed to be lurking everywhere, torturing helpless toddlers in day-care centers, brainwashing adolescents through the sinister lyrics of heavy-metal music, sowing destruction through the drug trade, and savaging their own children in Black Mass orgies. These satanic scares were exploited by the popular media, which found them an irresistible (and highly profitable) source of entertainment, and once again, thousands of people, believing that they themselves or someone they knew had fallen victim to demonic influence, sent out calls for emergency assistance. This time, however, the demon-expulsion front got some unexpected reinforcements. Partly because of the heightened satanism scares of the day and partly for more complex theological reasons, exorcism had succeeded during the 1980s in gaining favor within certain sectors of evangelical Protestantism, and by the early 1990s several hundred evangelical-based exorcism (or deliverance) ministries had sprung up across the country. Some evangelical deliverance ministers, especially socalled "third-wavers" such as C. Peter Wagner and Charles Kraft, have been influenced by Pentecostalism and the charismatic renewal movement in their practice of exorcism, but most are strict theological conservatives who believe that the time has arrived for all Christians in America to commit themselves to a full-fledged campaign of spiritual warfare against the satanic realm.
Charismatic and evangelical exorcism is usually performed in private, following the norms of a typical client-practitioner relationship. Occasionally, however, entire auditoriums of people may be relieved of their demons all at once in what are referred to as public or mass exorcisms. Public exorcisms are usually accompanied by dramatic and visceral manifestations: vomiting, thrashing, wailing, and so forth. The majority of exorcism ministers (in both private and public settings) are men; the majority of subjects on the receiving end of exorcism are women. During the 1990s Christian exorcism in general underwent a kind of professionalization; it was incorporated by many Christian psychotherapists into their regular practice. Given the dearth of long-term, follow-up studies, the actual therapeutic benefits of exorcism (quite apart from the putative purpose of casting out demons) is very much an open question.
Although exorcism in the United States has experienced its greatest growth of late in specifically Christian circles, the ritual is also practiced in diverse forms in various other communities of faith. In many American urban centers today, one may find a wide variety of Afro-Caribbean exorcisms, Afro-Latin exorcisms, Asiatic folk exorcisms, and even New Age exorcisms. Exorcism (broadly conceived) is embroidered in the ceremonial complexes of Santería, vodou, syncretistic pentecostalism, Puerto Rican spiritualism, and more than a dozen other faiths. The driving away or the subduing of demons is accomplished through the use of cathartics or emetics, the recitation of spells, bodily massage or manipulation, shamanic sucking, and incantatory chanting. In some ritual contexts, demon expulsion is a deadly earnest enterprise, and demons themselves are regarded as literally real spiritual entities, with their own personalities and appetites and sometimes even their own telltale odors. In other contexts, it is rather more playful and metaphoric, with the boundaries between the natural and supernatural realms fluid and negotiable. In virtually all contexts, exorcism is a culturally scripted performance, with a carefully calibrated choreography of roles, behaviors, and expectations.
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Michael W. Cuneo
Exorcism ★½ Exorcismo 1974
A satanic cult in a small English village commits a series of gruesome crimes that have the authorities baffled. 90m/C VHS, DVD . SP Paul Naschy, Maria Perschy, Maria Kosti, Grace Mills, Jorge Torras, Marta Avile; D: Juan Bosch; W: Juan Bosch, Paul Naschy; C: Francisco Sanchez.