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Debating Spirit Possession: An Introduction

Jack Hunter

Monday, 5 November 2012

What is Spirit Possession?


Spontaneous Spirit Possession as the cause
of illness -illness is believed to be caused by intruding spiritual beings. Usually requires some form of ritual exorcism.

Deliberate Spirit Possession (Spirit

Mediumship) - provides a link to the spirit world for healing/divination and so on. consciousness (trance) and altered behaviours (performance).

Characterised by altered states of

Monday, 5 November 2012

A Denition
[Spirit Possession] commonly refers to the hold over a human being by external forces or entities more powerful than she. These forces may be ancestors or divinities, ghosts of foreign origin, or entities both ontologically and ethnically alien...Possession, then, is a broad term referring to an integration of spirit and matter, force or power and corporeal reality, in a cosmos where the boundaries between an individual and her environment are acknowledged to be permeable, exibly drawn, or at least negotiable (Boddy 1994:407)
Monday, 5 November 2012

Evaluating Theories
Spirit possession is a good case study
for evaluating the many different theories of religion. We will examine the following theoretical approaches:

Pathology Social Functionalism Cognitive Approaches

Monday, 5 November 2012

Spirit Possession as Pathology


The earliest anthropologists dened spirit possession as
pathological in nature.

James Frazer wrote:


The belief in temporary inspiration is worldwide. Certain persons are supposed to be possessed from time to time by a spirit or deity, while the possession lasts, their own personality lies in abeyance; the presence of the spirit is revealed by convulsive shivering and shakings of the mans whole body, by wild gestures and excited looks, all of which are referred not to the man himself, but to the spirit which has entered into him; and in this abnormal state all his utterances are accepted as the voice of the god or spirit dwelling in him or speaking through him (Frazer 1993 [1890]: 108)

Monday, 5 November 2012

Spirit Possession bears surface similarities to:


Epilepsy Dissociative Identity Disorder
(previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder)

Monday, 5 November 2012

Dissociative Identity Disorder

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iHJfIH20TY
Monday, 5 November 2012

But...
In many societies spirit possession is a desirable state that brings
high status (as we shall see).

A disorder is dened as a condition that disrupts normal

functioning. In many societies spirit possession is normal, so can it really be classed as a disorder?

There are neurophysiological differences between spirit possession


and disorders such as epilepsy and DID (Oohashi et al. 2002)

Moreira-Almeida et al. have compared DID patients with Brazilian

Spiritist mediums and found that mediums differed in having better social adjustment, lower prevalence of mental disorders, lower use of mental health services, no use of anti-psychotics, and lower prevalence of histories of physical or sexual childhood abuse, sleepwalking, secondary feature of DID, and symptoms of borderline personality (Moreira-Almeida et al. 2008:420)

Monday, 5 November 2012

But...
In many societies spirit possession is a desirable state that brings
high status (as we shall see).

A disorder is dened as a condition that disrupts normal

functioning. In many societies spirit possession is normal, so can it really be classed as a disorder?

There are neurophysiological differences between spirit possession


and disorders such as epilepsy and DID (Oohashi et al. 2002)

Moreira-Almeida et al. have compared DID patients with Brazilian

Spiritist mediums and found that mediums differed in having better social adjustment, lower prevalence of mental disorders, lower use of mental health services, no use of anti-psychotics, and lower prevalence of histories of physical or sexual childhood abuse, sleepwalking, secondary feature of DID, and symptoms of borderline personality (Moreira-Almeida et al. 2008:420)

Monday, 5 November 2012

But...
In many societies spirit possession is a desirable state that brings
high status (as we shall see).

A disorder is dened as a condition that disrupts normal

functioning. In many societies spirit possession is normal, so can it really be classed as a disorder?

There are neurophysiological differences between spirit possession


and disorders such as epilepsy and DID (Oohashi et al. 2002)

Moreira-Almeida et al. have compared DID patients with Brazilian

Spiritist mediums and found that mediums differed in having better social adjustment, lower prevalence of mental disorders, lower use of mental health services, no use of anti-psychotics, and lower prevalence of histories of physical or sexual childhood abuse, sleepwalking, secondary feature of DID, and symptoms of borderline personality (Moreira-Almeida et al. 2008:420)

Monday, 5 November 2012

Social Functionalism
Drawing on the work of theorists like
Emile Durkheim and A.R. RadcliffeBrown who suggest that religion performs the function of maintaining the social order/ structure.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Arguably the most inuential social

Social Protest

functionalist theory is I.M. Lewis theory of spirit possession as a form of socially sanctioned protest for low status, or peripheral, groups. disguised protest movements directed against the dominant sex. They thus play a signicant part in the sex-war in traditional societies and cultures where women lack more...direct means for forwarding their aims...the women who succumb to these afictions are...totally blameless; responsibility lies not with them, but with the spirits. (Lewis 1971:31)

womens possession cults are...thinly

Monday, 5 November 2012

Zar Possession

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKqLucGy1ro
Monday, 5 November 2012

But...
Not all traditions of spirit possession
practice t neatly into this scheme.

Susan Rasmussen explains how amongst the

Kel Ewey Tuareg women are not subjugated, but enjoy high status and prestige and yet continue to practice spirit possession (Rasmussen 1994:76) Lewis theory ts many spirit possession traditions, it should not be taken as a complete theory, rather it should be supplemented by other approaches.

Donovan (2000) suggests that although

Monday, 5 November 2012

Cognitive Theories
Emma Cohen suggests that spirit possession
is a product of normal cognitive processes, which explains its cross-cultural presence (a panhuman cognitive function.) operation of cognitive tools that deal with the representation of contamination (both positive and negative.) tools that deal with the world of intentional agents. (Cohen 2008:2)

Pathogenic Possession results from the

Executive possession mobilises cognitive

Monday, 5 November 2012

But...

Is this approach overly reductive?

Monday, 5 November 2012

What is being left out?

The experience of the possessed Complexity of the phenomenon


(social, cultural, biological & experiential)

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Experience of the Possessed


Janice Boddy suggests:
Such approaches [physiological and social-functional] may prove fruitful in assessing and translating specic cases of possession illness, but since they neither account for possession forms, nor adequately credit the taken-forgrantedness of spirits in the everyday lives of the possessed, ultimately they distort and impoverish what they propose to understand. If the aim of the enterprise is to comprehend the scope of possession phenomena, to situate them in their cultural contexts, ethnographers must attend to their informants experiences of possession and not seek merely to explain them away as something at once less dramatic and more clinical than they appear (Boddy 1988:4)
Monday, 5 November 2012

Unusual Experiences
Once were out in the Lodge...I sit down [and] feel a calmness wash over and the music starts. I love the rst couple of tracks but usually nd theyve gone very quickly...Im still very much aware of the room but nd that Ive often missed bits of time...For the rst half of the evening I have absolutely no awareness of whats going on externally...Often now, when they are talking Ill go back into myself and I get a strange sensation of vertigo and being detached from the conversation, not just intellectually but physically as well (Interview with Jon in Hunter 2009:74).

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Experience of the Possessed

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRlUy2dyBQA
Monday, 5 November 2012

Complexity: Performance
Although in the early moments of the trance there may be some uncontrolled movements, the medium must quickly gain control if his or her activity is to be interpreted as representing possession by a supernatural being. It is certainly not enough to fall on the oor and thrash around, or stagger about, or make incoherent sounds, or give other evidence of having some kind of unusual psychological experience. The meaning of this kind of behaviour is ambiguous in Batuque beliefs...In order to prove that an encantado is really present, the medium must dance, sing the proper songs, and interact with the other participants in the ceremony in an acceptable manner. The behaviour that is most admired in the accomplished medium is very often the behaviour that appears the least frenzied and the most normal to the outside observer (Leacock & Leacock 1975:171-172).

Monday, 5 November 2012

Complexity: Performance

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrCFtojoy7Q
Monday, 5 November 2012

Complexity: Performance
[f]ull possession behaviour is highly

skilful requiring mastery of playing and of subtle, specialised kinds of communally signicant communication (Levy et al. 1996:18)

Monday, 5 November 2012

So What is Going on?


Trance is not a single, easy to dene,
phenomenon but rather represents a continuum of psychobiological changes that vary from slight emotional arousal to the ideal possession state (Halloy 2010:68) phenomenon that emerges at the intersection of biology, culture, society and psychology.

Need for multiple perspectives on a

Monday, 5 November 2012

Cognitive Empathetic Engagement


Fiona Bowie suggests:
...we need to re-evaluate the relationship between rst, second and third order discourses, and to propose a dialogue that is respectful and tentative, rather than hegemonic and dismissive of the native point of view (Bowie in press)

Monday, 5 November 2012

References
Boddy, J. (1988). Spirits and Selves in Northern Sudan: The Cultural Therapeutics of Possession and Trance. American Ethnologist, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 4-27. Boddy, J. (1994). Spirit Possession Revisited: Beyond Instrumentality. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 23, pp. 407-434. Bowie, F. (In Press). Building Bridges, Dissolving Boundaries: Towards a Methodology for the Ethnographic Study of the Afterlife, Mediumship and Spiritual Beings. Cohen, E. (2008). What is Spirit Possession? Dening, Comparing and Explaining Two Possession Forms. Ethos, Vol. 73, No. 1, pp. 101-126. Donovan, J.M. (2000). A Brazilian Challenge to Lewiss Explanation of Cult Mediumship. Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 361-377. Frazer, J.G. (1993 [1890]). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Hertordshire: Wordsworth Editions. Halloy, A. (2010). Comments on The Mind Possessed: The Cognition of Spirit Possession in an Afro-Braziliain Religious Tradition by Emma Cohen. Religion and Society: Advances in Research, Vo.1, pp. 25-80. Leacock, S & Leacock, R. (1975). Spirits of the Deep: A Study of an Afro-Brazilian Cult. New York: Anchor Press. Levy, R.I., Mageo, J.M., Howard, A. (1996). Gods, Spirits, and History. In J.M. Mageo, & Howard (eds) (1996). Spirits in Culture, History, and Mind. London: Routledge. Lewis, I.M. (1971). Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism. London: Penguin Books. Moreira-Almeida, A. et al. (2008). Comparison of Brazilian Spiritis Mediumship and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Vol. 196, No. 5, pp. 420-424. Oohashi, T. et al. (2002). Electroencephalographic Measurement of Possession Trance in the Field. Clinical Neurophysiology, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 435-445. Rasmussen, S.J. (1994). The Head Dance: Contested Self, and Art as Balancing Act in Tuareg Spirit Possession. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 64, No. 1, pp. 74-98.

Monday, 5 November 2012

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