possession A complete takeover of one's personality by a malevolent entity, allowing the entity to dominate; the victim becomes, even somewhat physically, that demonic being. Possession has been blamed on bewitchment, though causes probably were hysterical fantasies, physical and mental disorders and repressed sexual desire. In modern times, possession is still sometimes attributed to witchcraft, curses and the interferences of demons.
Early Christians enjoyed a much more intimate relationship with Christ and God, so consequently they feared personal, active intervention by the forces of evil. prayer, CHARMS and amulets were employed to keep the DEVIL at bay, since he was constantly on the prowl for unsuspecting victims.
Later Christian theology considered the idea of spirit possession heretical, so anyone found showing signs of unusual behavior or a different personality was automatically possessed (energumenus; the possessed person is an energumen) by the DEVIL.
During the witch hunts, there were two acknowledged ways to become possessed by the Devil: either the Devil passes directly into a person, or someone—usually said to be a witch or wizard—working with the Devil sends a demon into a victim through bewitchment. Many unfortunates were branded as witches or evil ones simply because they were old, ugly or on the social fringe (see HAG). Noted Julio Caro Baroja in The World of the Witches (1961):
there is a deep-rooted belief in various parts of Europe in the existence of people who quite involuntarily bring "bad luck" (mal fario) . . . or have the "evil eye." . . . panish writers of the 16th and 17th centuries worked out theories that the "evil eye" was the result of the presence of certain harmful properties in the eye or in other parts of the body of certain types of people . . . more particularly through those of elderly spinsters, cripples and certain types of sick people.
Such evil body parts were not necessarily the result of the unfortunate's own free will (see EVIL EYE). Terrible deformities, especially of the face, also led the general populace to believe the sufferer was marked by the Devil, much as the Elephant Man of 19th-century London was feared and mocked.
Most medieval thinkers, however, firm in their belief in man's sinfulness, assumed that the Devil used one of his human henchmen to torment the innocent. Every time a child sickened or had seizures—which now probably would be diagnosed as epilepsy—or livestock died, or crops failed, sufferers looked for a witch responsible. The witch usually was a poor old woman, angry with her station in life, argumentative with her neighbors and quite likely a midwife.
The witch was believed to transmit the demon through some tangible object, often a potion, CHARM or amulet. The most common means of sending the Devil to an innocent victim was through food. In his Dialogues, Pope Gregory the Great tells the story of a possessed servant girl. She apparently ate some lettuce leaves from the garden, and a Devil had been sitting on one when she consumed it. The demon complained about such treatment of an innocent bystander, but he was exorcised anyway.
HENRI Boguet, a great demonologist and witch judge in 17th-century France, found that apples, a treat in which the Devil could easily hide and that raised no alarm in the eater, were the best food for transmission. "In this, Satan continually rehearses the means by which he tempted Adam and Eve in the earthly paradise," Boguet commented in Discours des sorciers (1602), his authoritative legal textbook on demonol-ogy. He reported an incident at Annecy, Savoy, in 1585 where townspeople pushed an apple that was giving out a "great and confused noise" into the river. Boguet said that the apple was no doubt full of devils and that the citizens had successfully foiled a witch's attempt to possess someone.
Many modern occultists believe that people become possessed by evil spirits today by toying with the supernatural, such as through automatic writing. The spirits that are attracted usually take unpleasant shapes.
The Jesuit professor Malachi Martin, in Hostage to the Devil (1976), outlined the stages of possession: the actual entry point, when the evil spirit first enters the victim; a stage of erroneous judgments by the possessed in vital matters, perhaps including the making of unethical choices; the voluntary yielding of control by the possessed person to the invading spirit, even though he knows the spirit is alien to his personality; and finally, perfect possession. Although Martin acknowledged the original innocence of the victim, he stressed that possession cannot occur without the consent, however subliminal, of the possessed.
The Catholic Church defines the true signs of possession as displaying superhuman strength, often accompanied by fits and convulsions; having knowledge of the future or other secret information; being able to understand and converse in languages previously unknown to the victim; and revulsion toward sacred objects or texts. Early Puritan ministers and later Protestant clergy agree on these same signs, adding the complete ignorance of the possessed person about his fits and behaviors. In a treatise written in Rouen in 1644, in response to the possession of nuns at a Louviers convent, the author lists 11 indications of demonic possession, which would alert a priest to look for the sure signs:
1. To think oneself possessed.
2. To lead a wicked life.
3. To live outside the rules of society. (Many accused witches led mildly scandalous lives.)
4. To be persistently ill, falling into heavy sleep and vomiting strange objects (see ALLOTRIOPHAGY). Some theologians described such symptoms as merely illusions caused by a witch, not signs of possession.
5. To blaspheme.
6. To make a pact with the Devil. (Most demon-ologists found pact-makers were accused witches, not possessed victims; see DEVIL'S PACT.)
8. To show a frightening and horrible countenance. (The thinking was that since God and his angels were beautiful, man made in God's image, and not the Devil's, would be beautiful, too.)
9. To be tired of living (and probably contemplating suicide, a sin).
11. To make sounds and movements like an animal. (Many medieval sufferers believed they were vicious animals, most often wolves. Some resorted to running on all fours and even tearing at their victims with their teeth. From such stories arose the myths of LYCANTHROPY, or werewolves.)
To this list may be added the practice of lewd and obscene acts—or even just sexual thoughts—and the classic picture of a possessed person emerges. Many possessed victims smelled horrible as well, either of foul bodily odors or of sulphur, associated with the Devil's fiery home.
Other signs of possession include a complete change in body features, such as a distended stomach, wrenching of the face into horrible expressions or rapid weight loss. The victim may seem so wasted that death appears inevitable. The voice usually changes also, to a deep, rasping, menacing, guttural croak. Sometimes the evil spirit expresses itself through automatic writing. Other possessed victims levitated.
Examined in the light of modern medicine, the convulsions and seizures, the manifestations of another personality and even the paranormal experiences are most likely symptoms of epilepsy, hysteria, schizophrenia or some other psychological problem. Possession is not the automatic answer for unexplained behavior, nor is ExORCISM the preferred treatment. For the Catholic Church, only when the indications of possession are accompanied by striking paranormal phenomena and extreme revulsion toward sacred objects should they be considered manifestations of the Devil.
Even during the height of the witchcraft hysteria in the 16th and 17th centuries, debate raged over the existence of witches and whether they could cause people to be possessed by the Devil. "Celebrity" possession victims like Jeanne des Anges in Loudun were sometimes tricked into convulsing at the sight of a "holy" relic, when in fact the item was just a piece of wood or plain water. Ten years after Urbain Grandier's death for his role at Loudun, a Frenchman named Monconys visited Jeanne des Anges at the convent and found that the "blood" of her stigmata was merely red paint.
Famous cases of possession in the 16th and 17th centuries include Nicole of Laon, who used her possession by Beelzebub to indict French Huguenots; the possessions of nuns at the convents of Aix-en-Provence (see AIx-EN-PROVENCE POSSESSIONS), Louviers, Lille and Loudun; the WARBOYS WITCHES; and the witchcraft hysteria in Salem (see SALEM WITCHES). Exorcism of possessing demons continues today.
See SPIRIT POSSESSION.
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