Many cultures and religions contain some concept of demonic possession, but the details vary considerably. The oldest references to demonic possession are from the Sumerians, who believed that all diseases of the body and mind were caused by “sickness demons” called gidim or gid-dim. The priests who practised exorcisms in these nations were called ashipu (sorcerer) as opposed to an asu (physician) who applied bandages and salves. Many cuneiform clay tablets contain prayers to certain gods asking for protection from demons, while others ask the gods to expel the demons that have invaded their bodies.
Shamanic cultures also believe in demon possession and shamans performing exorcisms. In these cultures, diseases are often attributed to the presence of a vengeful spirit (or loosely termed demon) in the body of the patient. These spirits are more often the spectres of animals or people wronged by the bearer, the exorcism rites usually consisting of respectful offerings or sacrificial offerings.
Christianity holds that possession derives from the Devil, i.e. Satan, or one of his lesser demons. In Christianity, Satan and his demons are actually fallen angels. In modern medicine, it is now suspected that an underlying cause of what sometimes appears to be demonic possession is actually anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.
Oppressions and possessions of the devil are placed in the rank of apparitions of the evil spirit among humans. It is oppression when the demon acts externally against the person whom it besets, and possession when it acts internally, agitates them, excites their ill humor, makes them utter blasphemy, speak tongues they allegedly have never learned, reveals allegedly unknown secrets to them, and apparently inspires them with obscure knowledge of philosophy or theology.[A 1]
Other claims include access to hidden knowledge and foreign languages (xenoglossy), drastic changes in vocal intonation and facial structure, the sudden appearance of injuries (scratches, bite marks) or lesions, and superhuman strength. Odd odors, lack of pain density, and self-mutilation have also been reported. Unlike in channeling, the subject has no control over the possessing entity and so it will persist until forced to leave the victim, usually through a form of exorcism.
Additionally, there is a form of monomania called demonomania or demonopathy in which the person believes that he or she is possessed by one or more demons.
In the Christian Bible
The Old Testament
The Catholic Encyclopedia says that there is only one apparent case of demonic possession in the Old Testament, of King Saul, but it relies on an interpretation of the Hebrew word “rûah” as “evil spirit”, an interpretation that is doubted by the Catholic Encyclopedia. Others theologians such as Ángel Manuel Rodríguez say that mediums like the ones mentioned in Leviticus 20:27 were possessed by demons.
The New Testament mentions several episodes in which Jesus drove out demons from persons. The 1902 work Demonic possession in the New Testament by Rev. William Menzies Alexander attempted to explain accounts of possession in the Synoptic Gospels, outlining their historical, medical and theological aspects.
Antoine Augustin Calmet, a French Benedictine monk writing in the 18th century, commented that the Jews attributed the greater part of their maladies to the works of demons and were persuaded that demonic torments were a punishment for some crime either known or unrevealed.[A 2] He also states:[A 3]
Although the Jews were sufficiently credulous concerning the operations of the evil spirit, they at the same time believed that in general the demons who tormented certain persons were nothing else than the souls of some wretches, who, fearing to repair to the place destined for them, took possession of the body of some mortal whom they tormented and endeavored to deprive of life– Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants
Catholic exorcists differentiate between “ordinary” Satanic/demonic activity or influence (mundane everyday temptations) and “extraordinary” Satanic/demonic activity, which can take six different forms, ranging from complete control by Satan or some demon(s) to voluntary submission:
- Possession, in which Satan or some demon(s) takes full possession of a person’s body without their knowledge or consent, so the victim is therefore morally blameless.
- Obsession, which includes sudden attacks of irrationally obsessive thoughts, usually culminating in suicidal ideation, and typically influences dreams.
- Oppression, in which there is no loss of consciousness or involuntary action, such as in the biblical Book of Job in which Job was tormented by a series of misfortunes in business, family, and health.
- External physical pain caused by Satan or some demon(s).
- Infestation, which affects houses, things, or animals; and
- Subjection, in which a person voluntarily submits to Satan or some demon(s).
In Hostage to the Devil, Malachi Martin describes a type of demonic attack called “familiarization”. He writes:
|“||The possessing spirit in “familiarization” is seeking to “come and live with” the subject. If accepted, the spirit becomes the constant and continuously present companion of the possessed. The two “persons”, the “familiar” and the “possessed”, remaiqn separate and distinct. The “possessed” is aware of his “familiar”.||”|
True demonic or satanic possession has been characterized since the Middle Ages, in the Roman Ritual, by the following four typical characteristics:
- Manifestation of superhuman strength.
- Speaking in tongues or languages that the victim cannot know.
- Revelation of knowledge, distant or hidden, that the victim cannot know.
- Blasphemous rage, obscene hand gestures, using Profanity and an aversion to holy symbols or relics.
The Bible indicates that people can be possessed by demons but that the demons respond and submit to Jesus’ authority:
In the synagogue, there was a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, 34 “Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” 35 “Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him. 36 All the people were amazed and said to each other, “What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!” 37 And the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area. (Luke 4:33-35 NIV)
When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. 30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. (Luke 8:27-33 NIV)
It also indicates that demons can possess animals as in the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac:
Official Catholic doctrine affirms that demonic possession can occur as distinguished from mental illness, but stresses that cases of mental illness should not be misdiagnosed as demonic influence. Catholic exorcisms can occur only under the authority of a bishop and in accordance with strict rules; a simple exorcism also occurs during Baptism (CCC 1673).
Since Jesus is reported (in the New Testament) to have encountered people who were demonized and to have driven the “evil spirits” out of these demoniacs, Saint Hilary of Poitiers of the 4th century asserted that demons entered the bodies of humans to use them as if they were theirs, and also proposed that the same could happen with animals.
The literal view of demonization is held by a number of Christian denominations. In charismatic Christianity, deliverance ministries are activities carried out by individuals or groups aimed at solving problems related to demons and spirits, especially possession of the body and soul, but not the spirit as ministries like Ellel Ministries International, Don Dickerman Ministries and Neil T. Anderson explicitly teach that a Christian can not have demons in their spirit because the Holy Spirit lives there, though they can have demons in their body or soul due to inner emotional wounds, sexual abuse, satanic ritual abuse. This is usually known as partial possession or demonic infestation, as opposed to outside demonic oppression which does not reside in any of the 3 parts of a person: body, soul, spirit.
The New Testament’s description of people who had evil spirits includes a capacity for hidden knowledge (e.g., future events, innermost thoughts of the people around them) (Acts 16:16) and great strength (Act 19:16), among others, and shows those with evil spirits can speak of Christ (Acts 19:16, Mark 3:11). According to Catholic theologians, demonic assault can be involuntary and allowed by God to test a person (for more details about God’s tests on persons see Job). Involuntary demonic assault, according to these theologians, cannot be denied because this would imply the negation of the cases mentioned in the New Testament (12, some of them repeated in more than one Gospel). However, in the overwhelming majority of cases of alleged demonic possession in modern times, the victim can suffer due to any of a number of personal initiatives: occult practices, mortal sin, loss of faith, or psychological trauma, among others. Furthermore, Malachi Martin goes as far as to say “…no person can be Possessed without some degree of cooperation on his or her part,” and “The effective cause of Possession is the voluntary collaboration of an individual, through his faculties of mind and will, with one or more of those bodiless, genderless creatures called demons.”
In previous centuries, the Christian church offered suggestions on safeguarding one’s home. Suggestions ranged from dousing a household with holy water, placing wax and herbs on thresholds to “ward off witches occult,” and avoiding certain areas of townships known to be frequented by witches and Devil worshippers after dark.
T. B. Joshua, a Nigerian pastor, has one of the most prominent ‘deliverance’ ministries, releasing hundreds of videos on YouTube and his Christian television station, Emmanuel TV, purporting to show individuals being ‘delivered’ from apparent ‘demonic possession’.
According to islamic belief, supernatural creatures like Jinn and devils can cause possession or change the behavior of humans. While a particular devil tempts humans mind to follow lower desires and causing therefore suffering, disobience to Godor reduction of their own state of soul, an evil Jinn (also called a satan or devil, because of its devilish behavior) is said to be able to enter humans bodies.
Possession by Satan
Satan (identified with Iblis) is according to Islam allowed trying to incite humans and Jinn to do evil. Therefore, he and his subordinate demons whispers to the hearts of beings with free will, trying to lead them astray from Allah and their spiritual development or hunts them against each other. He does not possess humans physically. If a person feels depressed or feels being trapped in a doubtful situation, the person should tell others about what happened, because otherwise Satan could abuse this situation and will whisper to the lonely heart.
Possession by Jinn
Even though the Quran does not mention physical possession by Jinn, in folklore it is believed a Jinn can haunt or possess a human being, causing illness, hallucinations or aggression. Such a possession is believed to be caused by harming a Jinn (even unintentionally), summoning them or when a Jinn falls in love with a human, wanting to become his/her husband/wife. Thereupon it requires an exorcism to get rid of the jinn.
In traditional Buddhism, four metaphorical forms of “māra” are given:
- Kleśa-māra, or Ma̋ra as the embodiment of all unskillful emotions, such as greed, hate and delusion.(the Demons of delusions/defilement and unwholesome states)
- Mṛtyu-māra, or Māra as death. (the Demons of the Lord of death)
- Skandha-māra, or Māra as metaphor for the entirety of conditioned existence.(the Demons of contaminated aggregates)
- Devaputra-māra, the deva of the sensuous realm, who tries to prevent Gautama Buddha from attaining liberation from the cycle of rebirth on the night of the Buddha´s enlightenment.(the Demons of sons of deva Gods/desire and temptation)
And in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, 50 types of skandha related demons (Fifty skandha-māras) been mentioned that can possess practitioners. Also flying demons from Devaputra-Mara can confuse the practitioner, make them and their students believe they have achieved Enlightenment, then mislead them to wrong doings, wrong teachings, dangers, crisis and even death.
In Buddhism, a demon can either be a being suffering in the hell realm or it could be a delusion.
A practitioner will go to the local Buddhist healer for treatment. The healer will commonly take their pulse and urine while offering counsel – the aim being to divine the origins of the patient’s suffering. In the case of possession they will also prescribe actions to appease the demon, like giving away food and clothing in its name. It is believed that the demon will depart to a different realm once this is done.
Medicine and psychology
According to Augustine Calmet, several obsessions and possessions noted in the New Testament were simple maladies or fantastic fallacies which made it believed that such persons were possessed by the devil. The ignorance of the people maintained this prejudice, and their being totally unacquainted with physicians and medicine served to strengthen such ideas.[A 2]
Those who profess a belief in demonic possession have sometimes ascribed to possession the symptoms associated with physical or mental illnesses, such as hysteria, mania, psychosis, Tourette syndrome, epilepsy, schizophrenia,conversion disorder or dissociative identity disorder. It is also not uncommon to ascribe the experience of sleep paralysis to demonic possession, although it’s not a physical or mental illness. The symptoms vary across cultures. Demonic possession is not a valid psychiatric or medical diagnosis recognized by either the DSM-5 or the ICD-10. The DSM-5 indicates that personality states of dissociative identity disorder may be interpreted as possession in some cultures, and instances of spirit possession are often related to traumatic experiences–suggesting that possession experiences may be caused by mental distress. Some have expressed concern that belief in demonic possession can limit access to health care for the mentally ill.
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