Sep 22, 2016

The Globetrotter's Guide to Exorcism


By Lance Higdon

September 12, 2016

In Marcel Camus's Black Orpheus, a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in Brazil, the entire film's plot turns on an inadvertent exorcism. The crucial moment comes when the hero, Orfeu, having found his way to an Afro-Brazilian religious ritual, summons the spirit of his dead lover through song; after Eurydice takes possession of the body of a woman who stands behind him, out of sight, they speak. As in the original myth, Orfeu can't keep from looking, and no sooner does he lay eyes on the possessed than he loses Eurydice to the afterlife forever.

To a Western European audience, the scene presents what may be an unfamiliar paradigm for the indwelling and expelling of spirits. Indeed, Camus's inclusion of the Candomblé ceremony underscores how, for much of the world, possessions and exorcisms don't involve crucifixes or Roman collars—and, in some creeds, relations with spirits aren't forbidden pursuits but paths to happiness.

Judaism and Islam, being Abrahamic religions, share Christianity's adversarial attitude toward possession. Jesus was Jewish, of course, and exorcisms in the Gospels (such when he drives demons into a herd of pigs) are consonant with the practices of other messianic groups of the era, such as the Essenes. The Bible also includes an unflattering episode involving seven Jewish brothers who attempt an exorcism in Jesus' name but only garner black eyes from their would-be deliveree. Later Jewish rabbinical literature details rituals for expelling both demons and dybbukim, which were believed to be displaced souls looking for new bodies. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, was renowned as an exorcist (which may explain Matisyahu's turn as a dybbuk-rebuker in The Possession).

Islam has an elaborate taxonomy of spiritual beings: Malaika are good; djinn, not so much. The Islamic model for the ruqya (exorcism) parallels features of the Rituale Romanum: recitation of scripture (traditionally, the final surahs of the Qur'an, called the Al-Mu'awwidhatayn), prayers to Allah, and sprinkling holy water. If the djinn is especially powerful, however, the afflicted may seek the aid of Christian exorcists; as VICE reported in 2012, the Coptic Orthodox priest Father Samaan Ibrahim regularly ministers to Muslims at the church he built in the Cairo slum known as Garbage City.

Move outside of monotheism, though, and the tenor of possession changes. In a world where there are multiple spiritual beings operating in varying hierarchies of power, possession can be less a hostile takeover and more a direct access to supernatural knowledge. In such shamanistic theologies, both the entrance and exit of spirits into a person can be managed by the same intercessor.

"For American audiences, when people think possession, they think demonic possession," Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and author of several books on paranormal phenomena, said in an email to VICE. "They go back toThe Exorcist and all that. But in fact, if you take a step back and you realize that America isn't the entire world, then you realize that people of most cultures have some belief that humans can be possessed by entities both benevolent and malevolent."

Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, offers colorful examples of both desired and undesired possession. It's entirely acceptable to extend an invitation to a kami (a divine spirit associated with some element of nature) in order to glean hidden wisdom or prophetic insight; legendary accounts attribute Empress Jingu's campaign to conquer Korea to an oracle she delivered while possessed. Katsune-tsuki, however, is a different story.

Translating to "fox possession," katsune-tsuki occurs when the spirit of an evil fox (called a yokai) enters a host's body (typically through their chest or underneath their fingernails). This possession can transpire through either simple misfortune or the malevolent spell of a katsune-tsukai (a sorcerer with foxes at his command); either way, the possessed displays a range of symptoms, which can be simple (a sudden aversion to eye contact) or complex (periodic verbal dialogues between the fox and the human).

To exorcise such spirits, Shinto priests can take several approaches, none of which involve yelling at the fox in Latin. First, the priest may attempt to scold the yokai into leaving, or bring in a few dogs to lick the person from head to toe, thereby scaring the fox into a hasty exit. Alternatively, a clever priest will play on the animal's appetite and set up a spread of rice and sweets a short distance away from the possessed person. The fox goes to snack. The person goes free.

Every inhabited continent hosts a shamanistic tradition—Shinto and Buddhism in Asia, indigenous religions of Africa and Asia, Hinduism on the Indian subcontinent. The African diaspora, in particular, introduced distinct hybridizations of indigenous and colonial religion.

"All of the four major African diaspora faiths—Candomblé, Umbanda, Santería, and Voodoo—are syncretized with Catholicism to varying degrees," Dr. Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, told VICE by email, "to the extent that most of the spirits (lwas in Voodoo) are associated with Catholic saints, such as [associating] St. Patrick, who cleared Ireland of snakes, with the Voodooiwa Danballa, who is believed to be a giant serpent that envelops the earth."

Even when these hybridized shamanic traditions come into contact with new competitors in the spiritual marketplace, as has happened frequently with the expansion of charismatic Christianity into the Global South, unexpected parallels can emerge between traditions that ostensibly share nothing more than a belief in the spiritual world.

"The main non-Christian religions in Latin America are those of the African diaspora, which are religions of spirit possession," Chesnut said. "When a believer is possessed by an unwanted spirit, a priestess or priest will attempt to expel the uninvited spirits in a manner reminiscent of [a] Pentecostal exorcism: laying on hands, squeezing the head of the possessed, and ringing bells in their ears. However, instead of invoking God or the Holy Spirit, the priestess might invoke a more powerful spirit (Orisha in Santería) to help expel the invader spirit."

Whatever kind or however many spirits may possess and release a person in all these traditions, there is a scientific basis for any cures they may offer, even if they're temporary.

"The idea of resolution and release in psychology is well founded," Radford said. "The idea that to confront what you're dealing with and work through it, and having an external authority come to you and say, 'I'm an expert here, this is how you solve it' can be very comforting to people. There's no doubt that that can work."

"The placebo effect occurs in many contexts, often just in rituals," he concluded. "A doctor looking you in the eye and putting his hand on you—that can be a placebo effect. And you don't have to take a pill or put on a fake ointment to have it be effective."


VICE creative services, in partnership with the new FOX series THE EXORCIST, presents a series around real-life exorcisms. Don't miss THE EXORCIST starting Fridays Sept 23 on FOX. This article was created independently from VICE's editorial team.


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