Ancient origins

Demonic Possession and the Ancient Practice of Exorcism on the Rise

Belief in malevolent spirits inhabiting the human body has persisted across cultures for millennia. During the Middle Ages, exorcisms were commonplace to rid individuals of supposed demonic possession. In modern society, the view is that these practices are outdated, and possession is regarded as a manifestation of mental illness. Despite this, the Catholic Church has reported a surge in requests for exorcisms. Is this truly evidence of a revival in cases of demonic possession, or is it simply a media-fueled phenomenon?

While the practice of exorcism has a long history in many different religions, it is most commonly associated with the Christian faith. In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Jesus is depicted as exorcising demons from possessed individuals. The early Christian church also believed in the reality of demonic possession and considered it a serious spiritual affliction. During the Middle Ages, exorcism became a formalized practice within the Catholic Church, with specific guidelines and rituals established for performing the ceremony.

Jesus restores possessed man, graphic collage from engraving of Nazareene School, published in The Holy Bible, St.Vojtech Publishing, Trnava, Slovakia, 1937. Source: fluenta / Adobe Stock

Demonic Possession on the Rise?

In 2013, the Roman Catholic Church announced that they were training up a  new army of exorcists  to meet the growing demand for experts to rid people of evil spirits. The Church claims that the “unprecedented rise” in requests for exorcism comes from more people dabbling in the ‘dark arts’ with the help of information found on the internet.

“Diabolical possessions are on the increase as a result of people subscribing to occultism,” said Fr Francesco Bamonte, the president of the Italy-based International Association for Exorcists. “The few exorcists that we have in the dioceses are often not able to handle the enormous number of requests for help,” he told La Repubblica. In 2018, the Vatican-backed International Association of Exorcists , said the increase represented a “pastoral emergency.”

“Demonic” possession is said to manifest itself in people babbling in languages foreign to them, shaking uncontrollably and vomiting nails, pieces of metal and shards of glass, according to those who believe in the phenomenon. They must undergo the official Catholic rite of exorcism, which involves a consecrated priest invoking the name of God, as well as various saints and the Archangel Michael, to cast out their demons, and using holy water, rosary beads, and the sign of the cross.

Gabriele Amorth (1925 – 2016 AD) was a Catholic priest and exorcist of the Diocese of Rome who reported he had performed over 160,000 exorcisms in the course of his ministry. He attributed the number of exorcisms performed to his opinion that “People have lost the Faith, and superstition, magic, Satanism, or ouija boards have taken its place, which then open all the doors to the presence of demons.”

The Catholic Church is not the only religious organization to conduct rites to rid a person of demonic possession. Virtually every religious and cultural tradition worldwide has espoused the idea of spirit possession and the need for some form of exorcism, and this custom dates back thousands of years.

Small Miracle Altar of Mariazell depicting an exorcism. Source: Universalmuseum Joanneum

Small Miracle Altar of Mariazell depicting an exorcism. Source: Universalmuseum Joanneum

Exorcisms Through Time

While exorcism is most commonly associated with the Christian faith, it is also practiced in other religions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. In Islam, exorcism is known as ruqyah, and involves reciting specific verses from the Quran to expel the demon. In Judaism, exorcism is known as the Baal Shem Tov, and involves the use of specific prayers and rituals. In Hinduism, exorcism involves the use of mantras and the worship of specific deities. In Buddhism, exorcism involves the use of prayer, meditation, and visualization techniques.

In ancient Mesopotamia, it was believed that all forms of sickness came from powerful spirits entering a person’s body and attaching to a person.  Assyrian tablets make reference to the use of incantations and prayers to the gods, as well as direct challenges to demons, which were believed to inflict every type of disease, both physical and psychological. Ancient Babylonian priests performed rituals by destroying a clay or wax image of a demon. 

Accounts from ancient Persia, dating back to around 600 BC, offer evidence of exorcism using prayer, ritual, and holy water by the religious leader Zoroaster, who was considered the first magician, and who founded the religion Zoroastrianism.

In Christianity, there are many references to Jesus performing exorcisms, and the ability to cast our evil spirits was a sign of a true disciple. In one well known story, Jesus encountered a madman and commanded that the foul spirits leave him; the spirits then entered into a herd of pigs, which ran over a cliff and drowned in the waters below.

Brutality in Exorcisms

The Middle Ages (500-1500AD) saw a revival of ancient superstition and demonology and mental illness was seen to be the result of evil possession.  The barbaric treatment of mental illnesses was primarily left to the clergy who exorcised patients through a variety of techniques which caused physical pain, such as scourging. 

The best-known case of possession in Western European history took place in the French town of Loudun in 1632 AD. A group of nuns at the Ursuline convent in Loudun were alleged to be possessed by demons and displayed convulsions, shouting, barking, and fits of laughter. A local priest named Urbain Grandier was accused of being the cause of their possession. Grandier was arrested, tried, and ultimately executed for sorcery, despite his claims of innocence.

According to The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley, during the exorcisms performed on the nuns, they were subjected to physical abuse, including being slapped, pinched, and pricked with needles. Some were even forced to drink their own urine or eat excrement as a means of purging the demon from their bodies. These practices were highly controversial and were ultimately condemned by the Church.

In 1614, the Church established guidelines for exorcism that aimed to prevent abuse and ensure that only trained clergy were performing exorcisms. In 1999, the Vatican issued a revised Rite of Exorcism that emphasized the importance of distinguishing between genuine possession and other forms of mental or physical illness.

Painting of Saint Francis Borgia performing an exorcism, as depicted by Goya (Public Domain)

Painting of Saint Francis Borgia performing an exorcism, as depicted by Goya (Public Domain)

Over the centuries, the rites of exorcism have included the use of prayers, commands, fumigations, holy water, hellebore, rue, salt, and roses.  However, exorcisms have also attracted their fair share of skepticism.  Many scientists believe that so-called demonic possession is simply a form of mental illness, such as hysteria, mania, psychosis, Tourette’s syndrome, schizophrenia or personality disorder.  Skeptics claim that the illusion that exorcism works on people experiencing symptoms of possession is attributed to the power of suggestion, or the placebo effect, which has also been used to explain phenomenon such as faith healing.

Beliefs in spirit possession have remained virtually unchanged since the beginning of civilization and still exist to this day. But whether possession by demonic forces is real or simply the result of a medical or psychological imbalance is still hotly debated.

Top image: Priest conducting an exorcism. Source:   lunamarina / Adobe Stock

By Joanna Gillan

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