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Demonic possession is where individuals are supposed to be possessed by malevolent preternatural beings, commonly referred to as demons or devils. Symptoms of demonic possession commonly claimed by believers include erased memories or personalities, convulsions (i.e. epileptic seizures or “fits”) and fainting as if one were dying. It is also worth noting that in most cases of supposed demonic possession, the individual displayed sporadic hand movements, as if playing a piano. [1]

Demonic possession is not a recognized valid psychiatric or medical diagnosis.[2] The DSM-5 indicates that personality states of dissociative identity disorder may be interpreted as possession in some cultures, and instances of spirit possession are often related to traumatic experiences-suggesting that possession experiences may be caused by mental distress.[3] Some have expressed concern that belief in demonic possession can limit access to health care for the mentally ill.[4]

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


Oppressions and possessions of the devil are considered by many religions to be evidence of the existence of demonic entities or evil spirits. The term oppression is used 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.[47]

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. Odd odors, lack of sensitivity to pain, and self-mutilation have also been reported.[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.

Additionally, there is a form of monomania called demonomania or demonopathy in which the person believes that he or she is possessed by one or more demons.[8]

Abrahamic religions

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.[9] 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.[10][11]

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.[12] Others theologians such as Ángel Manuel Rodríguez say that mediums like the ones mentioned in Book of Leviticus 20:27 were possessed by demons.[13]

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.[14]

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:[15]

In Hostage to the Devil, Malachi Martin describes 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:[18][19][20]

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.[23] 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 theologians, demonic assault can be involuntary[15] and allowed by God to test a person, as seen in the Biblical figure Job, who was tormented by Satan as part of God's test. 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."[24]

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.[25][26]

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'.

Various types of creatures, such as jinn, shayatin, 'afarit and ruh, found within Islamic culture, are often held to be responsible for demonic possession. Usually, Iblis, the leader of evil spirits, only tempts humans into sin by following their lower desires.[27][28] Even not directly attested in the Quran, the notion of jinn possessing humans is widespread among Muslims and also accepted by most Islamic scholars.[29] There are various reasons given, why a jinn might seek to possess an individual, such as falling in love with them, taking revenge for hurting them or their relatives or other not defined reasons.[30][31] Since jinn are not necessarily evil, they are distinguished from cultural concepts of possession by devils/demons.[32] In return, the shayatin are apparently inherently evil.[33] To prevent such entities from doing further harm, an exorcism is required.

Antoine Augustin Calmet, a French Benedictine monk writing in the 18th century, commented that 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.[48] He also states:[49]


In traditional Buddhism, four metaphorical forms of "māra" are given:[34]

  • Kleśa-māra, or Ma̋ra as the embodiment of all unskillful emotions, such as greed, hate and delusion.(the Demons of delusions/defilement and unwholesome states)
  • Mṛtyu-māra, or Māra as death. (the Demons of the Lord of death)
  • Skandha-māra, or Māra as metaphor for the entirety of conditioned existence.(the Demons of contaminated aggregates)
  • Devaputra-māra, the deva of the sensuous realm, who tries to prevent Gautama Buddha from attaining liberation from the cycle of rebirth on the night of the Buddha´s enlightenment.(the Demons of sons of deva Gods/desire and temptation)[35]

And in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, 50 types of skandha related demons (Fifty skandha-māras) been mentioned that can possess practitioners. Also flying demons from Devaputra-Mara can confuse the practitioner, make them and their students believe they have achieved Enlightenment, then mislead them to wrong doings, wrong teachings, dangers, crisis and even death.[36]

In Buddhism, a demon can either be a being suffering in the hell realm[37] or it could be a delusion.[38]

A 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 of possession they will also prescribe actions to appease the demon, like giving away food and clothing in its name.[39] It is believed that the demon will depart to a different realm once this is done.[37]

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 lack of contact with physicians and medicine served to strengthen such ideas.[48]

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,[40] Tourette syndrome, epilepsy,[41] schizophrenia,[42] conversion disorder or dissociative identity disorder.[43] It is also not uncommon to ascribe the experience of sleep paralysis to demonic possession, although it's not a physical or mental illness.[44] The symptoms vary across cultures.[45] Demonic possession is not a valid psychiatric or medical diagnosis recognized by either the DSM-5 or the ICD-10.[2] The DSM-5 indicates that personality states of dissociative identity disorder may be interpreted as possession in some cultures, and instances of spirit possession are often related to traumatic experiences--suggesting that possession experiences may be caused by mental distress.[3] Some have expressed concern that belief in demonic possession can limit access to health care for the mentally ill.[4]

Notable cases

In chronological order:

See also

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