Spirit possession is a term for the belief that animas, demons, gods, or spirits can take control of a human body. The concept of spirit possession exists in many religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Haitian Vodou, Wicca, Hinduism, and Southeast Asian and African traditions. Depending on the cultural context in which it is found, possession may be considered voluntary or involuntary and may be considered to have beneficial or detrimental effects to host. Within possession cults, the belief that one is possessed by spirits is more common among women than men.
Among the Gurage people of Ethiopia, spirit possession is a common belief. Distinctions are drawn between spirits that strictly possess men, spirits that possess women, and spirits that possess victims of either sex. This affliction presents itself by loss of appetite, nausea, and attacks from severe stomach pains. If the victim does not recover naturally, a traditional healer, or sagwara, is summoned. Once the sagwara has determined the spirit’s name through the use of divination, he prescribes a routine formula to exorcise the spirit. This is not a permanent cure, however, it is believed to allow the victim to form a relationship with the spirit. Nevertheless, the victim is subject to chronic repossession, which is treated by repeating the formula.
In Haitian Vodou and related African diaspora traditions, one way that those who participate or practice can have a spiritual experience is by being possessed by the Loa (or lwa). Some spirits are believed to be able to give prophecies of upcoming events or situations pertaining to the possessed one, also called Chwal or the “Horse of the Spirit.” Practitioners describe this as a beautiful but very tiring experience. According to tradition, the practitioner has no recollection of the possession and in fact when the possessing spirit leaves the body, the possessed one is tired and wonders what has happened during the possession. Often, a chwal will undergo some form of trial or testing to make sure that the possession is allegedly genuine. As an example, someone possessed by one of the Guédé spirits may be offered piment, a liqueur made by steeping twenty-one chili peppers in kleren, a potent alcoholic beverage. If the chwal consumes the piment without showing any evidence of pain or discomfort, the possession is regarded as genuine.
Certain sects of Taoism, Korean shamanism, Shinto, some Japanese new religious movements, and other East-Asian religions feature the idea of spirit possession. Some sects feature shamans who supposedly become possessed, or mediums who allegedly channel beings’ supernatural power, or enchanters who it is said imbue or foster spirits within objects, like samurai swords. In folk religion, especially in western Japan, misaki are connected to the faith in spirit possession, the onryō of people who die of unexpected deaths and are not prayed for would frequently possess humans and cause calamities.
The concept of spirit possession exists in the culture of modern Rajasthan, in India. Some of the spirits allegedly possessing Rajasthanis are seen as good and beneficial, while others are seen as malevolent. The good spirits are said to include murdered royalty, the underworld god Bhaironji, and Muslim saints & fakirs. Bad spirits are believed to include perpetual debtors who die in debt, stillborn infants, deceased widows, and foreign tourists. The supposedly possessed individual is referred to as aghorala, or “mount”. Possession, even if by a benign spirit, is regarded as undesirable, as it is seen to entail loss of self-control, and violent emotional outbursts.
The animist traditions of the island of Bali (Indonesia) include a practice called sanghyang, induction of voluntary possession trance states for specific purposes. Roughly similar to voluntary possession in Vaudon (Voodoo), sanghyang is considered a sacred state in which hyangs (deities) or helpful spirits temporarily inhabit the bodies of participants. The purpose of sanghyang is believed to be to cleanse people and places of evil influences and restore spiritual balance. Thus, it is often referred to as an exorcism ceremony.
Roman Catholic doctrine states that angels are non-corporeal, spiritual beings with intelligence and will. Fallen angels, or demons, are able to “demonically possess” individuals without the victim’s knowledge or consent, leaving them morally blameless.
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