‘Making Sense of Demonic Possession’. Author Article by Brian Levack

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the era of the Reformation, thousands of Europeans were thought to be possessed by demons. In response to their horrifying symptoms – violent convulsions, displays of preternatural strength, vomiting of foreign objects, displaying contempt for sacred objects, and others – exorcists were summoned to expel the evil spirits from victims’ bodies. This compelling article by author Brian Levack investigates possible explanations for possession and exorcism, reaching back to the fifteenth century and forward to our own time. Levack reveals that modern day instances of exorcism are on the rise, with celebrity exorcists operating in Italy, Poland, and Latin America. The questions that have stood for centuries still demand answers: What are possession and exorcism? How have these phenomena persisted until the present day? 

The Devil Within by Brian Levack

The Devil Within by Brian Levack

Ever since the beginning of Christianity, the belief has existed that demons can enter the bodies of human beings and take control of their physical movements and mental faculties. Those people who reportedly have experienced such possessions, known as demoniacs, have displayed a wide variety of symptoms, including convulsions, rigidity of the limbs, and vomiting extraneous substances such as pins, nails, or stones. A few demoniacs have, according to the reports of some observers, levitated. Demoniacs have reportedly conversed in languages of which they had no previous knowledge, spoken in deep voices that were different from their normal voices, displayed contempt for sacred objects, uttered blasphemies, gone into trances, and foreseen the future. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the era of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, there was an ‘epidemic’ of such possessions. Some of the hundreds of cases that were reported were group possessions in which many people in small, close-knit communities, such as convents and orphanages, displayed the same symptoms.

In The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West, I focus on this early modern period of European history, although I also deal with possessions in Christian communities in Europe and America from Biblical times to the present day.  My main goal is to make sense of this bizarre, pathological behaviour. Of course, for most people living at the time, the afflictions experienced by demoniacs made perfect sense, since they believed that the Devil or one of his demonic subordinates had the power to enter people’s bodies against their will. Other contemporaries, however, including many who believed in the existence of the demons, posed alternative rational, natural explanations why these demoniacs acted the way they did. The most common ‘rational’ explanation of what was ‘really happening’ during possessions was that these people were either physically or mentally ill: that they were either epileptics or victims of hysteria. In the view of most modern psychiatrists, demoniacs were simply experiencing some sort of personality disorder, such as dissociative identity disorder, commonly known as multiple personality syndrome. Another rational explanation is that demoniacs were faking their possessions so that they could engage in anti-social or anti-religious behaviour without being prosecuted for a criminal or religious offence. They were able to do so because demoniacs were not legally or morally responsible for anything they said or did while possessed, because the Devil was believed to have forced them to speak or act. The only human being who could be held responsible for causing a possession was a witch who commanded the Devil to enter the body of another person. Many of the cases of witchcraft in the Reformation era began when demoniacs accused a person of causing their possession by means of witchcraft.    

Medical fraud can contribute to an explanation of some possession cases, but they cannot account for all the symptoms displayed by demoniacs, especially those that reflected the religious views of the possessed. The key to understanding this phenomenon is to recognize that all demoniacs, either consciously or unconsciously, were following scripts that were encoded in their religious cultures. They were, in a sense, performers in a sacred drama. Demoniacs learned their scripts from observing other demoniacs or by reading the many published narratives of other possessions or by hearing sermons that related the details of famous possessions. Some of them acquired knowledge of possession scripts from their exorcists, who suggested what they might say or do while in the state of possession. Nuns in convents often imitated the symptoms of those who had already exhibited some of the signs of possession.  In the most famous case of possession in seventeenth-century Europe, the nuns in a convent at Loudun in France, after witnessing the convulsions and sexual gestures of the Mother Superior, Jeanne des Anges, began to act in a similar manner. This group possession resulted in a mass exorcism, and it led to the execution of a parish priest, Urbain Grandier, in 1634 for having caused the possession of the nuns by means of witchcraft.

The scripts followed by Catholic and Protestant demoniacs and by the exorcists who tried to dispossess them were different. Catholic demoniacs, for example, were repulsed by the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which is the most distinctive feature of Catholic sacramental culture. Protestant demoniacs on the other hand often reacted violently to hearing or even seeing a copy of the Bible, which was the foundation of Protestant faith. Catholic exorcists appealed to the Virgin Mary and other saints to help them expel the invasive demons, whereas Protestants, who emphasized the sovereignty of God to whom individuals prayed directly, left that task to God alone.  Catholic demoniacs, especially young Catholic women, tended to display unconventional or prohibited sexual behaviour during their possessions, whereas Protestants, who did not believe in a hierarchy of moral offences, exhibited a wide range of sinful activities, including disobedience and playing cards. In more general terms, Catholics emphasized the innocence of demoniacs, whereas Protestants stressed their sinfulness. This helps explain why there were far more Catholic than Protestant demoniacs, since admitting one’s guilt might lead to the assumption that they were predestined to eternal damnation.

The incidence of demonic possession declined notably in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but in the late twentieth century the number of reported cases increased dramatically. Celebrity exorcists in Italy, Poland, and Latin America have been in large part responsible for this increase.  The demoniacs who have flocked to these exorcists have not, however, displayed many of the classic symptoms of possession. They have not, for example vomited pins or blasphemed.  In most cases they have been plagued by medical or psychological problems and have sought the assistance of exorcists who promised to cure them. The early modern period of Western history, the main period with which my book deals, remains ‘the golden age’ of demonic possession.

– Article by Brian Levack

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