Saint Francis exorcised demons in Arezzo, fresco of Giotto

Exorcism (from Late Latin exorcismus, from Greek exorkizein - to adjure) is the practice of evicting demons or other evil spiritual entities from a person or place of which they have possessed (taken control of). The practice is quite ancient and still part of the belief system of many religions.

The person performing the exorcism, known as an exorcist, is often a priest, or an individual thought to be graced with special powers or skills. The exorcist may use prayers, and religious material, such as set formulas, gestures, symbols, icons, amulets, etc.. The exorcist invokes God and/or several different angels and archangels.

In general, possessed persons are not regarded as evil in themselves, nor wholly responsible for their actions. Therefore, exorcism is generally thought more as a cure than as a punishment.

History[edit | edit source]

The concept of possession by evil spirits and the practice of exorcism are very ancient and were widespread, and may have originated in prehistoric Shamanistic beliefs.

The Christian New Testament includes exorcism among the miracles performed by Jesus. Because of this precedent, demonic possession was part of the belief system of Christianity since its beginning, and exorcism is still a recognized practice of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox and some Protestant sects.

In recent times, the practice of exorcism has diminished in its importance to most religious groups and its use has decreased. Generally, it is currently found mainly in Eastern Europe and Africa, with some cases gaining media coverage; Anneliese Michel is perhaps the most recent of these. This is due mainly to the study of psychology and the functioning and structure of the human mind. Many of the cases that in the past which were candidates for exorcism are often explained to be the products of mental illness, and are handled as such. More generally, the change in worldview since the Age of Enlightenment, which put increased value on rationalism, materialism, and naturalism, has led to a decrease in the belief of God and the supernatural in some parts of the west, Europe especially.

Exorcism in Christianity[edit | edit source]

Jesus[edit | edit source]

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Exorcism:

"Assuming the reality of demonic possession, for which the authority of Christ is pledged, it is to be observed that Jesus appealed to His power over demons as one of the recognised signs of Messiahship (Matthew 12:23


Luke 11:20

). He cast out demons, He declared, by the finger or spirit of God, not, as His adversaries alleged, by collusion with the prince of demons (Matthew 12:24 ,12:27

Mark 3:22
Luke 11:15

,11:19 ); and that He exercised no mere delegated power, but a personal authority that was properly His own, is clear from the direct and imperative way in which He commands the demon to depart (Mark 9:24

cf. 1:25
etc.): "He cast out the spirits with his word, and he healed all that were sick" (Matthew 8:16

). Sometimes, as with the daughter of the Canaanite woman, the exorcism took place from a distance (Matthew 15:22

sqq.; Mark 7:25

). Sometimes again the spirits expelled were allowed to express their recognition of Jesus as "the Holy One of God" (Mark 1:24 ) and to complain that He had come to torment them "before the time", i.e the time of their punishment (Matthew 8:29

sqq; Luke 8:28
sqq.). If demoniac possession was generally accompanied by some disease, yet the two were not confounded by Christ, or the Evangelists. In Luke 13:32

, for example, the Master Himself expressly distinguishes between the expulsion of evil spirits and the curing of disease. Christ also empowered the Apostles and Disciples to cast out demons in His name while He Himself was still on earth (Matthew 10:1 ,Matthew 10:8

Mark 6:7
Luke 9:1

10:17 ), and to believers generally He promised the same power (Mark 16:17 ). But the efficacy of this delegated power was conditional, as we see from the fact that the Apostles themselves were not always successful in their exorcisms: certain kinds of spirits, as Christ explained, could only be cast out by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:15 ,17:20

Mark 9:27-28
Luke 9:40

). In other words the success of exorcism by Christians, in Christ's name, is subject to the same general conditions on which both the efficacy of prayer and the use of charismatic power depend. Yet conspicuous success was promised (Mark 16:17 ). St. Paul (Acts 16:18 ,19:12 ), and, no doubt, the other Apostles and Disciples, made use of regularly, as occasion arose, of their exorcising power, and the Church has continued to do so uninterruptedly to the present day."

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Jesus he:

"was devoted especially to "casting out demons," i.e., according to the folk medicine of the time, healing nervous and mental diseases. It would appear that Jesus shared in the current belief of the Jews in the nominal existence of demons or evil spirits; and most of his miraculous cures consisted in casting them out, which he did with "the finger of God" (Luke 11:20

), or with "the Spirit of God" (Matt 12:28 ). It would seem also that he regarded diseases like fever to be due to the existence of demons (Luke 4:39 ). One of the chief functions transmitted to his disciples was the "power over unclean spirits, to cast them out" (Matt 10:1 ), and his superiority to his followers was shown by his casting out demons which they had failed to expel (Mark 9:14-29 ) ... he drove out the unclean spirits, "rebuking" them (Matt 17:18

Luke 4:35

,4:39 ,4:41 ,9:42

compare ga'ar in Zech 3:2
Isa 1:2
Ps 68:30

) with some magic "word" (Matt 8:8 ,8:16

comp. "milla," Shab. 81b; Eccl. R. i. 8), even as he "rebuked" the wind and told the sea to stand still (Mark 4:39
and parallels). At times he cured the sufferers by the mere touch of his hand (Mark 1:25
Matt 8:8

,9:18-25 ), or by powers emanating from him through the fringes of his garment [1] (Matt 9:20 ,14:36 ), or by the use of spittle put upon the affected organ, accompanying the operation with a whisper (Mark 7:33 ,Mark 8:23

John 9:1-11
comp. Sanh. 101a; Yer. Shab. xiv. 14d
Loḥesh and Roḳ). By the same exorcismal power he drove a whole legion of evil spirits, 2,000 in number, out of a maniac living in a cemetery and made them enter a herd of swine to be drowned in the adjacent lake (Luke 8:26-39
and parallels; comp. Ta'an. 21b; Ḳid. 49b; B. Ḳ. vii. 7)."

In the time of Jesus, non-New Testament Jewish sources report of exorcisms done by administering drugs with poisonous root extracts or other by making sacrifices. (Josephus, "B. J." vii. 6, § 3; Sanh. 65b). They do not report of Jesus being an exorcist, but do mention that exorcisms were done by the Essene branch of Judaism (Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran).

See also Demonic possession#Demonic possession in the Bible.

Roman Catholicism[edit | edit source]

Painting by Francisco Goya of Saint Francis Borgia performing an exorcism.

An ancient ritual method, known from the African Rite, was called exsufflation (blowing out the spirit from the possessed).

Solemn exorcisms, according to the Canon law of the church, can only be exercised by an ordained priest (or higher prelate), with the express permission of the local bishop, and only after a careful medical examination to exclude the possibility of mental illness. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) enjoined: "Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite". Things listed in the Roman Ritual as being indicators of possible demonic possession include: speaking foreign or ancient languages of which the possessed has no prior knowledge; supernatural abilities and strength; knowledge of hidden or remote things which the possessed has no way of knowing, an aversion to anything holy, profuse blasphemy, or sacrilege.

The Catholic Church revised the Rite of Exorcism in January 1999, although the traditional Rite of Exorcism in Latin is allowed as an option. The act of exorcism is considered to be an incredibly dangerous spiritual task; the ritual assumes that possessed persons retain their free-will, though the demon may hold control over their physical body, and involves prayers, blessings, and invocations with the use of the document Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications. Other formulas may have been used in the past, such as the Benedictine Vade retro satana. In the modern era, the Catholic Church authorizes exorcism exceedingly rarely, approaching would-be cases with the presumption that mental or physical illness is in play.

Anglicanism[edit | edit source]

In the Church of England, every diocese has an official exorcist, who will usually be an elderly priest and from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the church. In The Episcopal Church the Book of Occasional Services discusses provision for exorcism; but it does not indicate any specific rite, nor does it establish an office of "exorcist". [2] Diocesan exorcists usually continue in their role when they have retired from all other church duties. Anglican exorcisms sometimes take the form of a mass for the dead if it is suspected that the souls suffering in Purgatory are responsible for the disturbance. Anglican priests may not perform an exorcism without permission from the Diocesan (regional) bishop. Exorcism is an extremely dangerous ritual and must not be performed unless the bishop and his team of specialists (including a psychiatrist and physician) are convinced that the individual's problem is not a form of mental illness or a behavioural disorder. The theological danger of exorcism is that if the cause of illness is not demonic in nature, the patient will perceive the continuation of their condition as a sign that they are rejected by God and beyond divine healing. They may interpret the continuation of their distress (which may be behavioural or physiological in origin) as a sign of damnation. They may enter into a state of despair which is spiritually dangerous as one cannot enter into a trust relationship with God because one feels divine rejection or unworthiness.

Protestant denominations[edit | edit source]

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Most traditional Protestant denominations such as Southern Baptists, would disagree with the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism entirely, particularly because of the end of the rite which states: "The priest may repeat the exorcism at his discretion". Protestants say that rituals (in which the exorcism is highly coated) do not hold the power themselves as the Bible clearly states that God alone has the power to "exorcise" Satan and He may delegate this power to his children. In the New Testament, it states that if you "resist the devil he will flee from you". (James 4:7) God is considered - as in Catholicism - the only true exorcist and his children merely his obedient tools in which to use. Therefore God has ultimate power and control, which in the Southern Baptist interpretation eliminates the need for multiple attempts of an exorcism.

Some Protestant denominations also recognize possession and exorcism, although the practice is generally less formalized than it is in the Catholic Church. While some denominations perform exorcism very sparingly and cautiously, some may perform it almost routinely, as part of regular religious services (especially Pentecostal denominations). Some denominations hold that all Christians have the authority to perform exorcism, not just the clergy.

A test which is often used to determine whether a mental disturbance is psychological or spiritual in nature is to pray over the person for the healing of their affliction and throw holy water on them. If the person reacts violently or uncharacteristically in response to prayer in the name of Jesus, it is often taken as a good indication that the affliction is demonic in nature.

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck researched exorcisms (initially in an effort to disprove demonic possession), and claims to have conducted two himself. He concluded that the Christian concept of possession was a genuine phenomenon. He derived diagnostic criteria somewhat different from those used by the Roman Catholic Church. He also claimed to see differences in exorcism procedures and progression.

Contemporary exorcist Richard Rossi filmed exorcisms with multiple cameras for documentation. Rossi's footage and clinical approach is considered by many the best extant evidence of exorcism in recent years. The footage has been used in university courses on animism and paranormal studies, and has been used on national television programs and purchased by National Geographic. (Some of the footage appears in the award-winning documentary "Quest for Truth" (1992). Rossi has also trained teams of exorcists.

Exorcism in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons)[edit | edit source]

Many Latter-day Saints (Mormons) believe in exorcism,

"While [in Colesville, New York, Joseph Smith] challenged Newel Knight to pray vocally. In the attempt, Newel was attacked by an evil spirit that lifted him from the floor 'and tossed him about most fearfully.' Neighbors gathered, and then saw the Prophet command the devil in the name of Jesus Christ to depart. Newel felt great relief and gladly accepted baptism. (This exorcism was the first miracle performed in the restored church.)" "The Knight Family: Part I By William G. Hartley,

Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy opined, "Some blame their problem on demonic possession. While there is no doubt that such has occurred, let us take care not to give the devil credit for everything that goes awry in the world! Generally speaking, the mentally ill do not need exorcism" "Myths about Mental Illness"

In Latter Day Saint tradition, the act of casting out evil spirits is performed by a worthy male member of the church who holds the Melchizedek Priesthood though a Presthood Blessing, after a comfromation from the Holy Ghost.

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Exorcism in Judaism[edit | edit source]

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In kabbalah and European Jewish folklore (which does not believe in possession by demons), possession takes on a different (and often much more positive) context. A person may be possessed by a spirit called a dybbuk — which is believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person, returned from Gehenna (a Hebrew term for the in between world or purgatory that all spirits go to before entering heaven. It literally refers to the valley outside Jeruselem where the city's garbage and dead bodies were burned. The word later came to mean "the valley of dead", and became very loosely translated as "hell" by later Christian researchers). According to those beliefs, on rare occasions a soul which has not been able to fulfill its function in its lifetime is given another opportunity to do so in the form of a dybbuk. The soul then seeks out and "attaches" itself to a living person who is going through things or in a similar "life position" to what the soul was in during its lifetime.

It is believed there are good dybbuks and bad, with a good dybbuk's "attachment" performing more the role of a "spiritual guide" there to help the person through their current trials and tribulations that the soul was attracted to. These "good" possessions are usually referred to as a 'sod ha'ibbur.

In the case of a negative dybbuk, the spirit is not there to help as much and cause the same mistakes and chaos that it originally experienced during its own lifetime.

In the case of exorcism, there are generally two types - though both take on a much less negative confrontational manner than in the Christian context.

Briefly, the first involves a non-invasive approach (which generally is applied to the non-negative type of attachment but can be used in both) and involves treating the person and attached entity as a whole. Helping "him" to identify his goal or path in life (his true identity and purpose) and guiding them along it. In the case of a positive attachment, the spirit will leave when the "path" or purpose is significantly engrained and pursued. In the case of a negative, the pursuant of the "path" keeps it in check and eventually causes it to loose its connection (sometimes referred to as the "void" in the host) thereby forcing it to move on.

The second approach is a little more confrontational, but still far less that those commonly seen in Christian rites. It involves 10 people (including the rabbi) who surround the possessed individual. Each person (including the rabbi leading the ritual) represents the 10 kabbalistic sephirot. The rabbi that leads the ceremony also requires a shofar, which is interestingly used in a manner similar to the bell in buddhist and other east Asian meditative practices. The group repeatedly recites Psalm 91 and then the rabbi proceeds to blow the shofar in a specific pattern. This "shocks" both the possessed and the possesser, causing a loosening between the two enabling the addressing of each individually. The rabbi then enters in to dialogue with the spirit to find its purpose, and the group proceeds to heal it through dialogue and prayer meant to have it feel it has accomplished its goal. This is also done for the possessed. As Rabbi Gershon Winkler puts it: "We don't drive anything out of anybody. What we want to do is to heal the soul that's possessing and heal the person. It's all about healing -- we do the ceremony on behalf of both people."

Exorcism in Hinduism[edit | edit source]

The Hindu tradition also holds its beliefs and practices pertaining to the practice of exorcism. These beliefs are particularly connected with the ancient dravidian (indigenous) beliefs of ancient India. Of the four vedas (holy books of the Hindus), the "Atharvana" veda is said to contain the secrets related to magic & medicine. Many of the spells described in this book are for casting out demons & other evil spirits. These beliefs are particularly strong & practiced even now in West Bengal, Orissa and southern states like Kerala.

Exorcism in Islam[edit | edit source]

Possession by evil spirits (jinn) or the Devil (Shaitan) and exorcism is said to have been a part of Islam since its beginning.

It is believed that jinn can gain control only over those who do not hold true to God. According to Islamic scholars, "The Jinn enters the one seized by fits and causes him to speak incomprehensible words, unknown to himself; if the one seized by fits is struck a blow sufficient to kill a camel, he does not feel it." (ibn Taymiyyah, Majmoo al-Fatawa.)

Islamic clergy caution against the overuse of exorcism, citing that most cases are due to psychological and physical causes mistaken for possession. Real cases of possession are very rare and the faithful are warned to watch out for exorcists who encourage a diagnosis of possession too quickly, as they may merely be seeking profit.

Islamic authorities also deny the possibility of possession by souls of deceased persons, and warn that evil spirits may make this claim in order to encourage sinful behavior among the living.

Exorcism in the Qur'an and Sunnah[edit | edit source]

There is no explicit statement in the Qur'an referring to possession by jinn. The closest is the following Qu'ranic verse which compares the state of sinners on the Day of Judgment to the state of those made insane by the Devil:

Those who eat Ribâ (usury) will not stand (on the day of Resurrection) except like the standing of a person beaten by Shaitan (Satan) leading him to insanity. That is because they say: 'Trading is only like Ribâ,' whereas Allah has permitted trading and forbidden Ribâ. So whosoever receives an admonition from his Lord and stops eating Ribâ shall not be punished for the past; his case is for Allah (to judge); but whoever returns to Ribâ, such are the dwellers of the Fire -- they will abide therein. (Qur'an (Yusufali tr.), al-Baqara, 275)

Some cite this verse as proof against Muslims who deny the possibility of jinn possession.

There are also Sunnah (traditional statements that are not part of the Qur'an) about the Prophet Muhammad and his followers expelling evil beings from the bodies of believers by using verses from the Qur'an, supplications to Allah, and holy Zamzam water. This example is related by Ya'la ibn Murah:

I saw Allah's Messenger (sallallahu àlaihi wa sallam) do three things which no one before or after me saw. I went with him on a trip. On the way, we passed by a woman sitting at the roadside with a young boy. She called out, 'O Messenger of Allah, this boy is afflicted with a trial, and from him we have also been afflicted with a trial. I don't know how many times per day he is seized by fits.' He (sallallahu àlaihi wa sallam) said: 'Give him to me.' So she lifted him up to the Prophet.

He (sallallahu àlaihi wa sallam) then placed the boy between himself and the middle of the saddle, opened the boy's mouth and blew in it three times, saying, 'In the name of Allah, I am the slave of Allah, get out, enemy of Allah!' Then he gave the boy back to her and said: 'Meet us on our return at this same place and inform us how he has fared.' We then went. On our return, we found her in the same place with three sheep. When he said to her, 'How has your son fared?' She replied: 'By the One who sent you with the truth, we have not detected anything (unusual) in his behavior up to this time.... (Musnad Ahmad (vol: 4, p. 170), and al-Haakim, who declared it Saheeh)

On the nature of jinn[edit | edit source]

In Islamic belief, jinn are intelligent creatures made from fire. Much like human beings, they have free will to choose between right and wrong. While a jinni may possess a human for pure wickedness, it may also do it for other reasons. Shaikh al-Islam ibn Taymiyyah suggests that a jinni may do it in order to experience the physical world, for reasons of desire or love. In this case, a jinni may not have a malicious intent, or may be unaware of the harm it is causing. A jinni might also use possession for revenge. Jinn are said to be quick to anger, especially when they believe themselves to have been purposely harmed (since jinn are usually invisible to humans, a person can accidentally injure a jinni).

Faiths opposing exorcism[edit | edit source]

In Sikhism, exorcism is not permitted and is seen as a violation of the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Code of Conduct). If a Sikh person were to be found practising exorcism, an ordained Ghiyanhi (priest) would have the power to strip that individual of any ties to the Sikh faith. This anti-exorcism stance separates Sikhism from what are viewed as the exorcism rituals of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Taoism, and Shintoism.

Exorcism-related deaths[edit | edit source]

Exorcism has been known to cause considerable physical harm to the exorcee, particularly when it is performed by those who believe that exorcism is necessarily a violent process. Some of the most notorious recent cases are listed below.

Exorcism in fiction[edit | edit source]

A still of one of the images of Captain Howdy that appears briefly on screen during The Exorcist.

Poster for the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Exorcism has been a popular subject in fiction, especially horror.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Jewish Encyclopedia: Jesus: "Jesus wore the Ẓiẓit (Matt. ix. 20)"; Strong's Concordance G2899; Walter Bauer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, 3rd ed., 1979: "κράσπεδον: 1. edge, border, hem of a garment - But meaning 2 is also possible for these passages, depending on how strictly Jesus followed Mosaic law, and also upon the way in which κράσπεδον was understood by the authors and first readers of the gospels. 2. tassel (ציצת), which the Israelite was obligated to wear on the four corners of his outer garment, according to Num 15:38f; Dt 22:12." ... Of the Pharisees ... Mt 23:5.
  2. "Concerning Exorcism", Book of Occasional Services, Church Publishing.
  • [William Baldwin, D.D.S., Ph.D.], "Spirit Releasement Therapy". ISBN 1-88-265800-0. Practitioner & Instructor of Spirit Releasement Therapy, containing an extensive biliography.
  • [Shakuntala Modi, M.D.], "Remarkable Healings, A Psychiatrist Discovers Unsuspected Roots of Mental and Physical Illness." ISBN 1-57174-079-1 Gives cases, and statistical summaries of the kinds of maladies remedied by this therapy.
  • [Irene Hickman, D.O.], "Remote Deposession". ISBN0-915689-08-1 Considered a basic primer for direct or remote deposession.
  • Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil. ISBN 0-06-065337-X.
  • M. Scott Peck, Glimpses of the Devil : A Psychiatrist's Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption. ISBN 0-7432-5467-8
  • Max Heindel, The Web of Destiny (Chapter I - Part III: "The Dweller on the Threshold"--Earth-Bound Spirits, Part IV: The "Sin Body"--Possession by Self-Made Deamons--Elementals, Part V: Obsession of Man and of Animals), ISBN 0-911274-17-0, www

External links[edit | edit source]

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