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Definition: Exorcism from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

The expelling of evil spirits by prayers and incantations. An ancient practice taken over by the Christian church, after the example of Christ and the Apostles who healed those possessed of evil spirits. The use of this rite in the ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH is now carefully regulated, but the practice itself has been sensationalized by stories and films of the supernatural, such as the horror movie The Exorcist (1973).

And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out.

Matthew 10:1

Summary Article: Exorcism
from Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices

In the most literal sense, “exorcism” refers to the ritual process of expelling a spirit that is controlling or possessing a person, animal, object, or a geographic domain. The Greek term (exorkízom), from which the English is derived, refers to ordering someone who is under an oath (for example, in Matthew 26:63, Jesus is adjured to tell the truth about his messianic status). This is the underlying process of exorcism across a variety of religious traditions, which typically involves one or more specialists binding the possessing being(s) in some way and then forcing it (or them) to leave the host. This can range from a crisis exorcism of one spirit from an individual (Shoko 2006, 354) to a public exorcism of an individual (Singleton 1975, 305-307) to an annual ritual exorcising the spirits from a village (Kalsang 1999, 194ff.).

Catholic priest Pamphile Fanou (right) of the Cotonou archdiocese holds an exorcism session in Cotonou, Benin. (Fiacre Vidjingninou/AFP/Getty Images)

Exorcism is found in every major religion on every continent (Betty 2005; DeWoskin 1981; Nasir 1987). In mainstream Christianity, Judaism, and Islam spirit beings that possess hosts are considered evil and the normal recourse is exorcism. In other religious traditions, some spirits are evil and need to be exorcised while others are good or helpful to the individual or community and therefore welcome to possess human hosts (Vodou and other Afro-Caribbean popular religions). In some religions exorcists are specially trained to bind and cast out spirits. In some cases the specialists may limit their duties exclusively to exorcism, though more frequently they perform exorcisms as one of the tasks within their full scope of responsibilities.

While the specifics of exorcism vary from tradition to tradition, it is possible to identify several common elements. First is the need to identify when exorcism is appropriate. In some cases this means that the person goes through several stages of illness and attempted remedies prior to the decision to attempt an exorcism (Nasir 1987, 160; Nguyên 2008, 306). In others the symptoms are recognized immediately as possession and exorcism is the only recourse (Singleton 1975, 305). The symptoms may indicate the nature of the possession and, if so, the type of specialist needed for exorcism.

Once the need for an exorcism is confirmed, in most cases the exorcist, the possessed, and sometimes the community of the possessed will prepare for the ritual. Frequently the exorcist is a trained individual with perhaps an assistant or two (Nguyên 2008). In some cases, however, it is part or all of the community of the possessed that participates in the exorcism (for example, a local parish community in Tanzania, Singleton 1975; an entire village in the Baithak ritual in Pakistan, Nasir 1987).

The exorcist may partake of special foods or substances, fast, meditate, or recite prescribed prayers to prepare. The victim may follow similar procedures, including being required to sacrifice something of value to demonstrate commitment to the process. The victim’s community (nuclear or extended family, clan, or village) may also need to prepare in some way, perhaps through a community ritual to cleanse them as a whole from ritual defilement or atone for taboo violations.

An appropriate location (for example, the special compounds in Madagascar of the Lutheran Church called tob, Roschke 2006) and time (for example, the evening for the woto ceremony among the Tourag of Niger, Rasmussen 1994, 75) for the ritual may be indicated by the nature of the possession, or may need to be discerned by the exorcist or the victim’s community. Prior to the ritual itself there may be additional preparations for the location where the exorcism will take place. Additionally, the exorcist may rehearse the ritual or engage in additional preparation, depending on the type of exorcism needed.

Once all participants are deemed ready, the ritual itself is performed. The exorcism itself requires a means to either entice or force the spirit to leave the host. Enticing may involve providing a suitable alternate host (whether human, animal, or object) and some enticement or persuasive element to convince the spirit to leave the current host for the new one.

When the spirit can only be removed by force, a variety of means may be used. They may be mediums whose controlling spirits are more powerful than those controlling the victim, and when possessed themselves they are able to force the lesser spirit(s) to leave (Nguyên 2008; Singleton 1977). They may use magical rituals to force more powerful spirits to obey them, and then command them to banish the weaker spirits from the possessed (Heissig 1986). Alternately, they may also utilize consecrated paraphernalia such as oil or holy water, special incense, animal parts (feathers, horns, teeth), or religious symbols (crucifixes, statues, bells) that are believed to have power to force the possessing spirits to leave the victim. Or they may cast powerful magical spells through ritual actions, offerings, or sacrifices. These spells, when properly done, force the possessing spirit(s) to leave.

One of the most disturbing exorcism practices is physically torturing the victim to effect the exorcism. In some cases the participants believe that only the possessing spirit feels the effects of the torture (Betty 2005, 16). In other cases they believe that the spirit will react to the physical misery of the victim and depart to find a more acquiescent host. It is disturbing that the beatings, burning with boiling water or oil, and other gruesome acts can result in permanent injury or even death of the possessed when not properly handled.

After the exorcism, those close to the victim observe the efficacy of cure, since exorcisms are not always effective (Rasmussen 1994, 74). When the cure is incomplete, the initial exorcism might be repeated, or more powerful exorcisms are applied until the community is satisfied either that the possessed is delivered or that delivery is simply not possible. The latter may be due to a variety of reasons, such as the spirits claiming the host for some purpose (for example, to become a medium) or the host being a scapegoat for the entire community.

Christians have long noted that Jesus did not perform rituals to exorcise demons; he simply commanded them to leave and they did (Berends 1975, 361; Singleton 1975, 304-305). The apostles followed his lead, commanding spirits to leave in Jesus’ name without engaging in the ritual activities of their forbearers (Acts 8:6-7; 16:16-18). The ability of Pentecostal Christians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to expel demons has powerfully impacted the growth of the churches on those continents over the past century (Anderson 2006; Asamoah-Gyadu 2004; Bergunder et al. 2001; Hollenwager 1980, 71-72).

Until the 1600s, many branches of Christianity included exorcistic formulas in baptismal rituals. Exorcism continues today among Christians who believe in spirit beings and possession, though not without internal examination and debate (Theron 1996; Warrington 2004). In the United States there is contention among practicing Christian medical professionals on when or whether exorcism is appropriate for the treatment of dissociative disorders (Rosik 2003). In Africa there are questions on the extent to which Catholic Christians should accommodate themselves to traditional beliefs in exorcistic practice (Shorter 1980) and the extent to which they should performed exorcisms in traditional idiom but interpret them in anthropological or psychological terms (Singleton 1977).

Finally, despite the assumption that medical, psychological, and social advances of modernity would eventually displace religious practices such as exorcism, this has simply not been the case in many countries of the world (for example, England, Malia 2001; Ghana, Onyinah 2004; India, Bergunder et al. 2001; Japan, Young 1990; Panama, Moore 1983; the United States, Whitehead 1995; Vietnam, Nguyên 2008; more generally see Goodman 1988 and Wilkinson 2007). Given this reality, perhaps a more appropriate question is the extent to which contemporary scientific perspectives can be integrated within the various beliefs and traditions related to exorcism.

See also:

Pentecostalism; Possession; Roman Catholic Church.

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  • Moreau, A. Scott
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