Demonic possession

Demonic possession is believed by some, to be the process by which individuals are possessed by malevolent preternatural beings, commonly referred to as demons or devils.

Descriptions of demonic possessions often include erased memories or personalities, convulsions (i.e. epileptic seizures or “fits”) and fainting as if one were dying.[1]

Cultural origins

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.[2] The priests who practised exorcisms in these nations were called ashipu (sorcerer) as opposed to an asu (physician) who applied bandages and salves.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5][6]


Obsessions and possessions of the devil are placed in the rank of apparitions of the evil spirit among humans. It is obsession 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. Also odd odors and lack of pain density and self mutilation.[7] 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.

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.[8] Others theologians such as Ángel Manuel Rodríguez say that mediums like the ones mentioned in Leviticus 20:27 were possessed by demons.[9]

New Testament

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.[10]


According to Antoine Augustin Calmet, 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:[11]

  1. 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.
  2. Obsession, which includes sudden attacks of irrationally obsessive thoughts, usually culminating in suicidal ideation, and typically influences dreams.
  3. 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.
  4. External physical pain caused by Satan or some demon(s).
  5. Infestation, which affects houses, things, or animals; and
  6. Subjection, in which a person voluntarily submits to Satan or some demon(s).

In Hostage to the Devil, Malachi Martin also mentions a type of demonic attack called "familiarization". He writes:

True demonic or satanic possession has been characterized since the Middle Ages, in the Roman Ritual, by the following four typical characteristics:[13][14][15]

  1. Manifestation of superhuman strength.
  2. Speaking in tongues or languages that the victim cannot know.
  3. Revelation of knowledge, distant or hidden, that the victim cannot know.
  4. 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:

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.[18] 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[11] 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 " 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."[19]

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.[20][21]

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 God or reduction of their own state of soul,[22][23] an evil Jinn (also called a satan or devil, because of its devilish behavior)[24] 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.[25][26] 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.[27]

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.[28][29][30] Thereupon it requires an exorcism to get rid of the jinn.


In Buddhism, a demon can either be a being suffering in the hell realm[31] or it could be a delusion.[32]

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 possession they may use medications, like sleeping pills, to take care of the symptoms. They will also prescribe actions to appease the demon, like giving away food and clothing in its name.[33] Afterward, it is believed that the demon will depart to a different realm.[31]

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,[34] Tourette syndrome, epilepsy,[35] schizophrenia,[36] conversion disorder or dissociative identity disorder.[37] It is also not uncommon to ascribe the experience of sleep paralysis to demonic possession, although it's not a physical or mental illness.[38] Demonic possession is not a valid psychiatric or medical diagnosis recognized by either the DSM-5 or the ICD-10.[39]

Additionally, there is a form of monomania called demonomania or demonopathy in which the patient believes that he or she is possessed by one or more demons.[40]

Notable cases

In chronological order:

Notable frauds

List of dissertations

See also


  1. Ferber, Sarah (2004). "Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France". London: Routledge: 25, 116. ISBN 0415212642.
  2. Sumerian "gidim"
  4. "An Exorcist Tells his Story" by Fr. Gabriele Amorth translated by Nicoletta V. MacKenzie, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1999.
  5. Daniela J. Lamas, "When the brain is under attack", The Boston Globe, 27 May 2013.
  6. "A Young Reporter Chronicles Her 'Brain On Fire'", NPR, 14 November 2012.
  7. Sarchie, Ralph; Cool, Lisa Collier (2001). Beware the Night: A New York City Cop Investigates the Supernatural. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9781466834217.
  8.  Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Demoniacal Possession". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  9. Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, "Old Testament demonology." Ministry: International Journal for Pastors 1998 (7:6), pp. 5-7.
  10. Alexander, William Menzies (2003). Demonic Possession in the New Testament. Kessinger Publishing.
  11. 1 2 p. 33, An Exorcist Tells his Story, by Fr. Gabriele Amorth, translated by Nicoletta V. MacKenzie; Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1999.
  12. Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil, Harper, San Francisco, 1992, p. 260.
  13. p.25, The Vatican's Exorcists by Tracy Wilkinson; Warner Books, New York, 2007
  14. The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio; Doubleday, New York, 2009.
  15. The Roman Ritual Translated by Philip T. Weller, S.T.D.; Copyright 1964
  16. "Luke 4:33-37 (New International Version)". By Retrieved July 5, 2013.
  17. "Luke 8 - The Healing of a Demon-possessed Man". By Retrieved July 5, 2013.
  18. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-23. Retrieved 2011-02-14.
  19. Martin, Malachi, Hostage to the Devil (San Francisco, Harper, 1992, preface p.xx.)
  20. Broedel, Hans Peter (2003). The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft. Great Britain: Manchester University Press. pp. 32–33.
  21. Barajo, Caro (1964). "World of the Witches". Great Britain: University of Chicago Press. p. 73.
  22. Michael Anthony Sells Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qurʼan, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings Paulist Press, 1996 ISBN 978-0-809-13619-3 page 143
  23. Georges Tamer Islam and Rationality: The Impact of al-Ghazālī. Papers Collected on His 900th Anniversary, Band 1 BRILL 2015 ISBN 978-9-004-29095-2 page 103
  24. Mirza Yawar Baig, Understanding Islam - 52 Friday Lectures: Keys to Leveraging the Power of Allah in Your Life (Standard Bearers Academy 2012 ISBN 9781479304189), p. 507
  25. Dr. Sultan Ahmad Islam In Perspective Author House 2011 ISBN 978-1-449-03993-6 page 180
  26. Quran 114:4
  27. ʻUmar Sulaymān AshqarThe World of the Jinn and Devils Islamic Books 1998 page 203
  28. Kelly Bulkeley, Kate Adams, Patricia M. Davis Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity Rutgers University Press 2009 ISBN 978-0-813-54610-0 page 148
  29. ʻUmar Sulaymān AshqarThe World of the Jinn and Devils Islamic Books 1998 page 204
  30. G. Hussein RassoolIslamic Counselling: An Introduction to theory and practiceRoutledge 2015 ISBN 978-1-317-44124-3
  31. 1 2 Hinich Sutherland, Gail. "Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism". Oxford Bibliographies. doi:10.1093/OBO/9780195393521-0171. Retrieved 30 April 2015.
  32. "Tibetan Buddhist Psychology and Psychotherapy". Tibetan Medicine Education center. Retrieved 30 April 2015.
  33. Plakun (2008). "Psychiatry in Tibetan Buddhism: Madness and Its Cure Seen Through the Lens of Religious and National History". Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis & Dynamic Psychiatry. 36 (3): 415–430. ISSN 1546-0371.
  34. Maniam, T. (1987). Exorcism and Psychiatric Illness: Two Case Reports. Medical Journal of Malaysia. 42: 317-319.
  35. Pfeifer, S. (1994). Belief in demons and exorcism in psychiatric patients in Switzerland. British Journal of Medical Psychology 4 247-258.
  36. Tajima-Pozo, K., Zambrano-Enriquez, D., de Anta, L., Moron, M., Carrasco, J., Lopez-Ibor, J., & Diaz-Marsa, M. (2011). "Practicing exorcism in schizophrenia". Case Reports.
  37. Ross, C. A., Schroeder, B. A. & Ness, L. (2013). Dissociation and symptoms of culture-bound syndromes in North America: A preliminary study. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 14: 224-235.
  38. Beyerstein, Barry L. (1995). Dissociative States: Possession and Exorcism. In Gordon Stein (ed.). The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Prometheus Books. pp. 544-552. ISBN 1-57392-021-5
  39. Henderson, J. (1981). Exorcism and Possession in Psychotherapy Practice. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 27: 129-134.
  40. Noll, Richard. (2006). The Encyclopedia of Schizophrenia and Other Psychotic Disorders. Facts On File Inc. p. 129. ISBN 0-8160-6405-9
  41. Demonic possession of Elizabeth Knapp, Cotton Mather's widely cited report on the demonic possession of Elizabeth Knapp of Massachusetts (1701)
  1. p.125
  2. 1 2 p.127
  3. p.128

Further reading

  • Forcén, Carlos Espí; Forcén, Fernando Espí. (2014). Demonic Possessions and Mental Illness: Discussion of Selected Cases in Late Medieval Hagiographical Literature. Early Science and Medicine 19: 258-79.
  • Hartwell, Abraham (1599). A True Discourse Upon the Matter of Martha Brossier of Romorantin, pretended to be possessed by a Devil. 2018. ISBN 1987654439. 
  • McNamara, Patrick, (2011). Spirit Possession and Exorcism: History, Psychology, and Neurobiology. 2 volumes, Praeger. Santa Barbara, California.
  • Westerink, Herman. (2014). Demonic Possession and the Historical Construction of Melancholy and Hysteria. History of Psychiatry 25: 335-349.
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