Spiritual possession

From Academic Kids

Spiritual possession is a concept of many religions and tales, where it is believed that a spiritual beings may take temporary control of a human body, resulting in noticeable changes in behaviour.

The term demonic possession is used when the spirit is malignant (a demon), whereas incorporation or channelling may be used in the case of supposed benign spirits.


Religious views

Some religions — in particular, most Abrahamic religions — do not admit the existence of beneficial spiritual possessions; so, if they admit the concept at all, they automatically consider any spiritual possession as malign. Many of those religions have ritual practices to drive out (exorcize) the evil spirit.

Charismatic Christianity does contain a tradition of individuals being possessed by the Holy Spirit, and either Speaking in tongues, or experiencing some other manifestation of possession.

Many other creeds, including Shamanism and many African and Afro-American religions, teach that spiritual possession may be benign as well as malign, and their rituals often include incorporation: either of spiritual deities, such as the Orisha of the Yoruba, or of the ghosts of deceased people, as in Kardecism. Depending on the religion, the person who is possessed may be a priest, or a specially gifted medium, or a lay member.

Scientific view

Science does recognize that "possession" exists, but only in the sense that some people occasionally behave in a way that fits the expected behavior of a possessed people. However, in spite of many attempts, it has not been able to find any reproducible proof of the existence of "spiritual beings"; therefore, it finds much easier to explain such altered mental state by natural causes, such as stress, mental illness, intoxication, use of drugs, etc.. Just as migraine headaches have recently been proposed as a fitting explanation for many historical cases of spiritual visions, it may be that many cases of spiritual possession were in fact epileptic attacks.

Some cases of demonic possession may also be explainable by purely psychological or social causes, e.g. hysteria — roughly, a grown-up versions of children tantrums. In fact this explanation was liberally mis-applied since the 19th century. In the past, demonic possession may also have been alleged (by the subject or by others) for the purpose of excusing behavior which would otherwise be severely punished — not unlike a defendant falsely claiming temporary insanity in today's court of law.

Incarnations are often feigned by dishonest priests and mediums for fraudulent puposes, e.g. by pretending to communicate with someone's deceased relatives in exchange for payment of "donations". The famous U.S. escape artist Houdini was instrumental in exposing several such frauds in the 1920s.

Historical cases

The Salem witch trials (1692) followed a notable string of cases of alleged demonic possession.

Spiritual possession in fiction

Spiritual possession, especially malign, has been a favorite theme of fictional works, especially in horror novels and films. The movie The Exorcist (1973) may be the best-known example of the latter. Spiritual possession, though not neccessarily malign, also appears as a secondary theme in The Dune Chronicles, a series of novels written by Frank Herbert.

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