Spirit possession is the supposed control of a human body by spirits, ghosts, demons, or gods. The concept of spirit possession exists in many religions, including Christianity, 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. 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 the demon gods is more common among women than men.
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.. 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. - Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants
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.
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.
The belief in spirit possession is part of the 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.
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.
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. However, 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.
Ch'i Chung-fu, a Chinese gynecologist writing early in the 13th 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.
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; mediums who allegedly channel beings' supernatural power; or enchanters are said to imbue or foster spirits within objects, like samurai swords. The Hong Kong film Super Normal II (, 1993) shows the true famous story of a young lady in Taiwan who possesses the dead body of a married woman to live her pre-determined remaining life. She is still serving in the Zhen Tian Temple in Yunlin County.
The Urapmin people of the New Guinea Highlands practice a form of group possession known as the "spirit disco" (Tok Pisin: spirit disko). 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). 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. If successful, some dancers will "get the spirit" (Tok Pisin: kisim spirit), flailing wildly and careening about the dance floor. 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. 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. This is a completely new ritual for the Urapmin, who have no indigenous tradition of spirit-possession.
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.
Roman Catholic doctrine states that angels are non-corporeal, spiritual beings with intelligence and will. Fallen angels, or demons, are able to "demonically possess" individuals without the victim's knowledge or consent, leaving them morally blameless.
Spirit possession appears in Islamic theology and tradition. Although opposed by some Muslim scholars, sleeping near a graveyard or a tomb is believed to enable to come into contact with ghosts of the dead, visiting the sleeper in dreams and providing hidden knowledge. Other creatures thought to be able to possess humans are jinn. They are much more physical than spirits, but still due to their subtile bodies (composed of fire and air (marijin min nar)), able to possess the body of humans. Since such jinn are said to have free will, they can have their own reasons to possess humans and are not necessarily harmful. At an intended possession, the covenant with the jinn must be renewed. Possession by afarit (spirit of the underworld) are said to grant the possessed some supernatural powers, but drives them insane. Another category, sometimes linked to possessions, are infections by the whisperings of demons (shayatin), but affecting the soul instead of the body.
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. 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. Jewish magical papyri were inscriptions on amulets, ostraca and incantation bowls used in Jewish magical practices against shedim and other unclean spirits.
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 Brazil and North America due to the slave trade.
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.
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.
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. 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, including involuntary, uncensored behavior, and an extra-human, extra-social aspect to the individual's actions. 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. 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. See also Bicameralism (psychology).