Spirit possession

Spirit possession is the supposed control of a human body by spirits, aliens, demons or gods. The concept of spirit possession exists in many religions, including Christianity,[1] Buddhism, Haitian Vodou, Wicca, Hinduism, Islam and Southeast Asian and African traditions. In a 1969 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, spirit possession beliefs were found to exist in 74 percent of a sample of 488 societies in all parts of the world.[2] Depending on the cultural context in which it is found, possession may be considered voluntary or involuntary and may be considered to have beneficial or detrimental effects on the host. Within possession cults, the belief that one is possessed by spirits is more common among women than men.[3][4]

Ancient Egyptians

According to Augustin Calmet:

The Egyptians believed that when the spirit of an animal is separated from its body by violence, it does not go to a distance, but remains near it. It is the same with the soul of a man who has died a violent death; it remains near the body—nothing can make it go away; it is retained there by sympathy; several have been seen sighing near their bodies which were interred. The magicians abuse their power over such in their incantations; they force them to obey, when they are masters of the dead body, or even part of it. Frequent experience taught them that there is a secret virtue in the body, which draws towards it the spirit which has once inhabited it; wherefore those who wish to receive or become the receptacles of the spirits of such animals as know the future, eat the principle parts of them, as the hearts of crows, moles, or hawks. The spirit of these creatures enters into them at the moment they eat this food, and makes them give out oracles like divinities..[5] Porphyry, when consulted by Anebo, an Egyptian priest, if those who foretell the future and perform prodigies have more powerful souls, or whether they receive power from some strange spirit, replies that, according to appearance, all these things are done by means of certain evil spirits that are naturally knavish, and take all sorts of shapes, and do everything that one sees happen, whether good or evil; but that in the end they never lead men to what is truly good.[6]Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants

Ancient Greeks

African traditions

Central Africa

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Horn of Africa


Gurage people

Among the Gurage people of Ethiopia, spirit possession is a common belief. Wiliam A. Shack postulated that it is caused by Gurage cultural attitudes about food and hunger, while they have a plentiful food supply, cultural pressures that force the Gurage to either share it to meet social obligations, or hoard it and eat it secretly cause feelings of anxiety. Distinctions are drawn between spirits that strictly possess men, spirits that possess women, and spirits that possess victims of either sex. A ritual illness that only affects men is believed to be caused by a spirit called awre. This affliction presents itself by loss of appetite, nausea, and attacks from severe stomach pains. If it persists the victim may enter a trancelike stupor, in which he sometimes regains consciousness long enough to take food and water. Breathing is often labored. Seizures and trembling overcome the patient, and in extreme cases, partial paralysis of the extremities.[7]

If the victim does not recover naturally, a traditional healer, or sagwara, is summoned. Once the sagwara has determined the spirit's name through the use of divination, he prescribes a routine formula to exorcise the spirit. This is not a permanent cure, however, it is believed to allow the victim to form a relationship with the spirit. Nevertheless, the victim is subject to chronic repossession, which is treated by repeating the formula. This formula involves the preparation and consumption of a dish of ensete, butter, and red pepper. During this ritual, the victim's head is covered with a drape, and he eats the ensete ravenously while other ritual participants participate by chanting. The ritual ends when the possessing spirit announces that it is satisfied. Shack notes that the victims are overwhelmingly poor men, and that women are not as food-deprived as men are due to ritual activities that involve food redistribution and consumption. Shack postulates that the awre serves to bring the possessed man to the center of social attention, and to relieve his anxieties over his inability to gain prestige from redistributing food, which is the primary way in which Gurage men gain status in their society.[7]

Sidama people

The belief in spirit possession is part of their native culture of the Sidama people of southwest Ethiopia. Anthropologists Irene and John Hamer postulated that it is a form of compensation for being deprived within Sidama society, although they do not draw from I.M. Lewis (see Cultural anthropology section under Scientific views). The majority of the possessed are women whose spirits demand luxury goods to alleviate their condition, but men can be possessed as well. Possessed individuals of both sexes can become healers due to their condition. Hamer and Hamer suggest that this is a form of compensation among deprived men in the deeply competitive society of the Sidama, for if a man cannot gain prestige as an orator, warrior, or farmer, he may still gain prestige as a spirit healer. Women are sometimes accused of faking possession, but men never are.[8]

East Africa


Digo people

The Digo people of Kenya refer to the spirits that supposedly possess them as shaitani. These shaitani typically demand luxury items to make the patient well again. Despite the fact that men sometimes accuse women of faking the possessions in order to get luxury items, attention, and sympathy, they do generally regard spirit possession as a genuine condition and view victims of it as being ill through no fault of their own. However, men sometimes suspect women of actively colluding with spirits in order to be possessed.[9]

Giriama people

The Giriama people of coastal Kenya believe in spirit possession.[10]


In Mayotte, approximately 25 percent of the adult population, and five times as many women as men, enter trance states in which they are supposedly possessed by certain identifiable spirits who maintain stable and coherent identities from one possession to the next.[11]


In Mozambique, a new belief in spirit possession appeared after the Mozambican Civil War. These spirits, called gamba, are said to be identified as dead soldiers, and allegedly overwhelmingly possess women. Prior to the war, spirit possession was limited to certain families and was less common.[12]


In Uganda, a woman named Alice Auma was reportedly possessed by the spirit of a male Italian soldier named Lakwena, meaning messenger. She had ultimately led a failed insurrection against governmental forces.[13]

Southern Africa

South Africa

A belief in spirit possession appears among the Xesibe, a Xhosa speaking people from Transkei, South Africa. The majority of the supposedly possessed are married women. The condition of spirit possession among them is called inwatso. Those who develop the condition of inwatso are regarded as having a special calling to divine the future. They are first treated with sympathy, and then with respect as they allegedly develop their abilities to foretell the future.[14]


The Sukuma people of Tanzania believe in spirit possession.[15]


A now extinct spirit possession cult existed among the Hadimu women of Zanzibar, revering a spirit called kitimiri. This cult described in an 1869 account by a French missionary. The cult faded by the 1920s and was virtually unknown by the 1960s.[16]

West Africa

African diasporic traditions

Haitian Vodou

In Haitian Vodou and related African diaspora traditions, one way that those who participate or practice can have a spiritual experience is by being possessed by the Loa (or lwa). When the loa descends upon a practitioner, the practitioner's body is being used by the spirit, according to the tradition. Some spirits are believed to be able to give prophecies of upcoming events or situations pertaining to the possessed one, also called Chwal or the "Horse of the Spirit." Practitioners describe this as a beautiful but very tiring experience. Most people who are possessed by the spirit describe the onset as a feeling of blackness or energy flowing through their body as if they were being electrocuted. According to Vodou believers, when this occurs, it is a sign that a possession is about to take place.

According to tradition, the practitioner has no recollection of the possession and in fact when the possessing spirit leaves the body, the possessed one is tired and wonders what has happened during the possession. It is also believed that there are those who feign possessions because they want attention or a feeling of importance, because those who are possessed carry a high importance in ceremony. Often, a chwal will undergo some form of trial or testing to make sure that the possession is allegedly genuine. As an example, someone possessed by one of the Guédé spirits may be offered piment, a liqueur made by steeping twenty-one chili peppers in kleren, a potent alcoholic beverage. If the chwal consumes the piment without showing any evidence of pain or discomfort, the possession is regarded as genuine.


The concept of spirit possession is also found in Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian folk religion. According to tradition, one such possessing spirit is Pomba Gira, who possesses both women and effeminate males.[17]

Asian traditions


According to the Indian medical literature and Tantric Buddhist scriptures, most of the "seizers," or those that threaten the lives of young children, appear in animal form: cow, lion, fox, monkey, horse, dog, pig, cat, crow, pheasant, owl, and snake. But apart from these "nightmare shapes," it is believed the impersonation or incarnation of animals could in some circumstances also be highly beneficial, according to Michel Strickmann.[18]

Ch'i Chung-fu, a Chinese gynecologist writing early in the thirteenth century, wrote that in addition to five sorts of falling frenzy classified according to their causative factors, there were also four types of other frenzies distinguished by the sounds and movements given off by the victim during his seizure: cow, horse, pig, and dog frenzies.[18]

East Asian religions

Certain sects of Taoism, Korean shamanism, Shinto, some Japanese new religious movements, and other East Asian religions feature the idea of spirit possession. Some sects feature shamans who supposedly become possessed, or mediums who allegedly channel beings' supernatural power, or enchanters who it is said imbue or foster spirits within objects, like samurai swords.[19] The Hong Kong film Super Normal II (大迷信, 1993) shows the famous story of a woman in Taiwan who possesses a dead body to live her predeterminated remaining life.[20][21] She is still working in the Zhen Tian Temple in Yunlin County.[22]

Chinese traditions

See Chinese spirit possession, Shi (personator)

Inner Mongolia

See Shamanism of the Solon People

Indian traditions


The concept of spirit possession exists in the culture of modern Rajasthan. Some of the spirits allegedly possessing Rajasthanis are seen as good and beneficial, while others are seen as malevolent. The good spirits are said to include murdered royalty, the underworld god Bhaironji, and Muslim saints & fakirs. Bad spirits are believed to include perpetual debtors who die in debt, stillborn infants, deceased widows, and foreign tourists. The supposedly possessed individual is referred to as a ghorala, or "mount". Possession, even if by a benign spirit, is regarded as undesirable, as it is seen to entail loss of self-control, and violent emotional outbursts.[23]



Tamil women in India are said to experience possession by peye spirits. According to tradition, these spirits overwhelmingly possess new brides, are usually identified as the ghosts of young men who died while romantically or sexually frustrated, and are ritually exorcised.[24]

Indonesian traditions


The animist traditions of the island of Bali (Indonesia) include a practice called sanghyang, induction of voluntary possession trance states for specific purposes. Roughly similar to voluntary possession in Vaudon (Voodoo), sanghyang is considered a sacred state in which hyangs (deities) or helpful spirits temporarily inhabit the bodies of participants. The purpose of sanghyang is believed to be to cleanse people and places of evil influences and restore spiritual balance. Thus, it is often referred to as an exorcism ceremony.


The women of the Bonerate people of Sulawesi, Indonesia practice a possession-trance ritual in which they smother glowing embers with their bare feet at the climax. The fact that they are not burned in the process is considered proof of the authenticity of the possession.[25]

Japanese traditions

See Misaki

Malaysian traditions

Female workers in Malaysian factories have allegedly become possessed by spirits, and factory owners generally regard it as mass hysteria and an intrusion of irrational and archaic beliefs into a modern setting.[26]

The anthropologist Aihwa Ong noted that spirit possession beliefs in Malaysia were typically held by older, married women, whereas the female factory workers are typically young and unmarried. She connects this to the rapid industrialization and modernization of Malaysia. Ong argued that spirit possession is a traditional way of rebelling against authority without punishment, and suggests that it is a means of protesting the untenable working conditions and sexual harassment that the women were compelled to endure.[26]

Sri Lankan traditions

The Coast Veddas, a social group within the minority group of Sri Lankan Tamil people in Eastern Province, Sri Lanka, enter trances during religious festivals in which they are regarded as being possessed by a spirit. Although they speak a dialect of Tamil, during trances they will sometimes use a mixed language that contains words from the Vedda language.[27]

Oceanic traditions


The Urapmin people of the New Guinea Highlands practice a form of group possession known as the "spirit disco" (Tok Pisin: spirit disko).[28] Men and women gather in church buildings, dancing in circles and jumping up and down while women sing Christian songs; this is called "pulling the [Holy] spirit" (Tok Pisin: pulim spirit, Urap: Sinik dagamin).[29][30] The songs' melodies are borrowed from traditional women's songs sung at drum dances (Urap: wat dalamin), and the lyrics are typically in Telefol or other Mountain Ok languages.[30] If successful, some dancers will "get the spirit" (Tok Pisin: kisim spirit), flailing wildly and careening about the dance floor.[29] After an hour or more, those possessed will collapse, the singing will end, and the spirit disco will end with a prayer and, if there is time, a Bible reading and sermon.[29] The body is believed to normally be "heavy" (Urapmin: ilum) with sin, and possession is the process of the Holy Spirit throwing the sins from one's body, making the person "light" (fong) again.[29] This is a completely new ritual for the Urapmin, who have no indigenous tradition of spirit-possession.[31]


The concept of spirit possession appears in Chuuk State, one of the four states of Federated States of Micronesia. Although Chuuk is an overwhelmingly Christian society, traditional beliefs in spirit possession by the dead still exist, usually held by women, and "events" are usually brought on by family conflicts. The supposed spirits, speaking through the women, typically admonish family members to treat each other better.[32]


Roman Catholic doctrine states that angels are non-corporeal, spiritual beings[33] with intelligence and will.[34] Fallen angels, or demons, are able to "demonically possess" individuals without the victim's knowledge or consent, leaving them morally blameless.[35]


Spirit possession appears in Islamic theology and tradition. Jinn are said to be creatures with free will, made from smokeless fire by God (Arabic: Allah) with the ability to possess humans. Since they are, unlike the demons (shayāṭīn), are morally ambivalent, spirit possession is not necessarily harmful. According to Moroccan belief, a jinn-possessed may acquire supernatural powers. Other jinn may possess humans with no harmfull intents, but because they fell in love with an individual. In this case, it is tried to appease the jinn. At an intended possession, the covenant with the jinn must be renewed.[36] According to traditional beliefs, the possessed person speaks differently and acts in a strange and sometimes violent manner. One verse in the Quran describes that on judgment day, the behavior of those who earn high interest on loans "as if they were possessed or controlled by a satan". Exorcism and removal of jinn from possessed people is done by a religious person.[37][38][39][40][41][42]


Although forbidden in the Hebrew Bible, magic was widely practiced in the late Second Temple Period and well documented in the period following the destruction of the Temple into the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries C.E.[43][44] In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is a disembodied spirit that wanders restlessly until it inhabits the body of a living person. The Baal Shem could expel the harmful dybbuk through exorcism.[45] Jewish magical papyri were inscriptions on amulets, ostraca and incantation bowls used in Jewish magical practices against shedim and other unclean spirits.



Wiccans believe in voluntary possession by the Goddess, connected with the sacred ceremony of Drawing Down the Moon. The high priestess solicits the Goddess to possess her and speak through her.[46]

Scientific views

Cultural anthropology

The works of Jean Rouch, Germaine Dieterlen, and Marcel Griaule have been extensively cited in research studies on possession in Western Africa that extended to Brasil and North America due the slave trade.[47][48]

The anthropologist I.M. Lewis noted that women are more likely to be involved in spirit possession cults than men are, and postulated that such cults act as a means of compensation for their exclusion from other spheres within their respective cultures.[4]

Physical anthropology

Anthropologists Alice B. Kehoe and Dody H. Giletti argued that the reason that women are more commonly seen in Afro-Eurasian spirit possession cults is because of deficiencies in thiamine, tryptophan-niacin, calcium, and vitamin D. They argued that a combination of poverty and food taboos cause this problem, and that it is exacerbated by the strains of pregnancy and lactation. They postulated that the involuntary symptoms of these deficiencies affecting their nervous systems have been institutionalized as spirit possession.[3]


In clinical psychiatry, trance and possession disorders are defined as "states involving a temporary loss of the sense of personal identity and full awareness of the surroundings", and are generally classed as a type of dissociative disorder.[49] People alleged to be possessed by spirits sometimes exhibit symptoms similar to those associated with mental illnesses such as psychosis, hysteria, mania, Tourette's syndrome, epilepsy, schizophrenia, or dissociative identity disorder,[50][51][52] including involuntary, uncensored behavior, and an extra-human, extra-social aspect to the individual's actions.[53] In cases of dissociative identity disorder in which the alter personality is questioned as to its identity, 29 percent are reported to identify themselves as demons.[54] A 19th century term for a mental disorder in which the patient believes that they are possessed by demons or evil spirits is demonomania or cacodemonomanis.[55]



See also


  1. Mark 5:9, Luke 8:30
  2. Bourguignon, Erika; Ucko, Lenora (1969). Cross-Cultural Study of Dissociational States. The Ohio State University Research Foundation with National Institute of Mental Health grant.
  3. 1981 Kehoe, Alice B., and Giletti, Dody H., Women's Preponderance in Possession Cults: The Calcium Deficiency Hypothesis Extended, American Anthropologist, New Series,. 83(3): 549–561
  4. Lewis, I.M. 1966 Spirit Possession and Deprivation Cults. Man, New Series: 1 (3): 307–329.
  5. Calmet (1751), pp. 237–238
  6. Calmet (1751), p. 266
  7. Hunger, Anxiety, and Ritual: Deprivation and Spirit Possession Among the Gurage of Ethiopia Author(s): William A. Shack Source: Man, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Mar., 1971), pp. 30–43
  8. Hamer, John and Irene Hamer 1966 Spirit Possession and Its Socio-Psychological Implications among the Sidamo of Southwest Ethiopia. Ethnology 5 (4): 392–408.
  9. Gomm, Roger 1975 Bargaining from Weakness: Spirit Possession on the South Kenya Coast Man, New Series: 10 (4):530–543
  10. Reluctant Muslims: Embodied Hegemony and Moral Resistance in a Giriama Spirit Possession Janet McIntosh The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Mar., 2004), pp. 91–112
  11. Lambek, Michael 1988 Spirit Possession/Spirit Succession: Aspects of Social Continuity among Malagasy Speakers in Mayotte. American Ethnologist: 15 (4): 710–731
  12. Igreja, Victor, Beatrice Dias-Lambranca, and Annemiek Richters 2008. Gamba spirits, gender relations, and healing in post-civil war Gorongosa, Mozambique. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14: 353–371.
  13. Allen, Tim 1991 Understanding Alice: Uganda's Holy Spirit Movement in Context. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. 61 (3): 370–399
  14. O'Connell, M.C. 1982 Spirit Possession and Role Stress among the Xesibe of Eastern Transkei Ethnology, 21 (1): 21–37.
  15. Hysteria in Sukuma Medical PracticeR. E. S. Tanner Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 25, No. 3 (July 1955), pp. 274–279
  16. Alpers, Edward A. 1984 "Ordinary Household Chores": Ritual and Power in a 19th-Century Swahili Women's Spirit Possession Cult The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 17, No. 4 (1984), pp. 677–702
  17. Hayes, Kelly E. 2008. Wicked Women and Femmes Fatales: Gender, Power, and Pomba Gira in Brazil. History of Religions. 48 (1): 1–21.
  18. Michel Strickmann (2002), Chinese Magical Medicine, edited by Bernard Faure, Stanford University Press, p. 251.
  19. Ed. Oxtoby & Amore, "World Religions: Eastern Traditions," 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press, 2010. pp. 9, 256–319.
  20. zh:朱秀華借屍還魂
  21. 朱秀華借屍回陽記
  22. 豐原鎮天宮全球資訊網
  23. Imitation Is Far More than the Sincerest of Flattery: The Mimetic Power of Spirit Possession in Rajasthan, India Jeffrey G. Snodgrass Source: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Feb., 2002), pp. 32–64
  24. Nabokov, Isabelle 1997 Expel the Lover, Recover the Wife: Symbolic Analysis of a South Indian Possession. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 3 (2): 297–316.'
  25. "Crazy Women are Performing in Sombali": A Possession-Trance Ritual on Bonerate, Indonesia Author(s): Harald Beyer BrochSource: Ethos, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 262–282
  26. Ong, Aihwa 1988 The Production of Possession: Spirits and the Multinational Corporation in Malaysia American Ethnologist 15 (1): 28–42.
  27. Jon Dart (Samarasinghe, S. W. R. de A[edit]), p. 83
  28. Robbins, Joel (1998). "Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Desire among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea". Ethnology. University of Pittsburgh. 37 (4): 310–311. doi:10.2307/3773784. JSTOR 3773784.
  29. Robbins, Joel (1998). "Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Desire among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea". Ethnology. University of Pittsburgh. 37 (4): 311. doi:10.2307/3773784. JSTOR 3773784.
  30. Robbins, Joel (2004). Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society. University of California Press. p. 284. ISBN 0-520-23800-1.
  31. Robbins, Joel (1998). "Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Desire among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea". Ethnology. University of Pittsburgh. 37 (4): 312. doi:10.2307/3773784. JSTOR 3773784.
  32. Hezel, Francis X. 1993 Spirit Possession in Chuuk: Socio-Cultural Interpretation. Micronesian Counselor 11
  33. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 328.
  34. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 330.
  35. p. 33, An Exorcist Tells his Story by Gabriele Amorth translated by Nicoletta V. MacKenzie; Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1999.
  36. Muḥammad Maʻrūf Jinn Eviction as a Discourse of Power: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Modern Morrocan Magical Beliefs and Practices BRILL 2007 ISBN 9789004160996 p. 2
  37. Quran 55:14–15
  38. ( سورة البقرة, Al-Baqara, Chapter No. 2, Verse #275)
  39. ( سورة إبراهيم, Ibrahim, Chapter No. 14, Verse No. 11 and Verse #22)
  40. ( سورة الحجر, Al-Hijr, Chapter No. 15, Verse #42)
  41. ( سورة النحل, An-Nahl, Chapter No. 16, Verse #99–100)
  42. "Search truth". Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  43. Gideon Bohak Ancient Jewish magic: a history 2008
  44. Clinton Wahlen Jesus and the impurity of spirits in the Synoptic Gospels 2004 p. 19 "The Jewish magical papyri and incantation bowls may also shed light on our investigation.79 However, the fact that all of these sources are generally dated from the third to fifth centuries and beyond requires us to exercise particular ..."
  45. "Dybbuk", Encyclopædia Britannica Online, retrieved 10 June 2009
  46. Margo Adler, Drawing Down the Moon. Penguin, 1997.
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  51. J. Goodwin, S. Hill, R. Attias "Historical and folk techniques of exorcism: applications to the treatment of dissociative disorders" Archived 8 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine,
  52. Ferracuti, Stefano; Sacco, Roberto (1 June 1996). "Dissociative Trance Disorder: Clinical and Rorschach Findings in Ten Persons Reporting Demon Possession and Treated by Exorcism". Journal of Personality Assessment. 66 (3): 525–539. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa6603_4. PMID 8667145.
  53. Michel Strickmann (2002), Chinese Magical Medicine, edited by Bernard Faure, Stanford University Press. p. 65.
  54. Erlendsson, Haraldur (2003). "Multiple Personality Disorder - Demons and Angels or Archetypal aspects of the inner self". Academia.edu.
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    • Calmet, Augustine (1751). Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants: of Hungary, Moravia, et al. The Complete Volumes I & II. 2016. ISBN 978-1-5331-4568-0.
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