Demonic Possession Defined And Explained

Although most people associate demon possession with the 1973 film “The Exorcist,” this paranormal phenomena has had a stronghold throughout the centuries on more than just popular culture. Many religions and cultures believe in some type of control by the devil or other demonic beings.

The oldest known reference to demon possession comes from the Sumerians who believed that all illnesses were caused by “sickness demons” called gidim. During the Middle Ages, both Christians and Catholics alike were obsessed with finding evidence of and warding off demon possession. Animals were even believed to have the ability to be possessed. Exorcisms (and executions) were performed on people who were considered possessed, and hundreds of “possessed” animals were also slain.

Those who believe in possession contend that there are two different ways of becoming possessed by the Devil. The Devil can pass directly into a person, or someone (in collaboration with the Devil) can send a demon into the victim.

The Physical Symptoms of Demon Possession

A list of symptoms was prepared in the Middle Ages that helped confirm demonic possession. According to this list, people or animals are possessed if they:

  • have the ability to curse in languages that are unknown to the possessed
  • have the ability to make abnormal physical efforts
  • have the ability to read minds or predict future happenings
  • fear of holy objects
  • lack the ability to say the word Christ
  • spit or vomit excessively.

At the time this list was compiled, only one of the above symptoms was needed in order to prove demon possession. However, there are inconsistencies within some of the alleged symptoms. For instance, there are reports of those who were possessed openly speaking of Christ. These discrepancies only added to the confusion of determining whether or not demon possession was present.

Demonic Possession and Religion

Jesus is reported to have encountered several people in the New Testament who were under the spell of demon possession, and he drove out the evil spirits accordingly. Though it should be noted that the Bible never actually refers to people as being possessed (despite several different translations of the Bible throughout centuries). Instead, the Bible refers to the “possessed” as being “demonized” or “having a demon.”

In the Middle Ages, Christian theology deemed the idea of demonic possession heretical, making anyone who displayed unusual behavior automatically suspect.

At that time, people held the belief that there was a war being fought between God and the Devil for their souls.

Today, most religions contend that demonic possession appears as a form of mental illness, though they are careful to distinguish that someone with mental illness should not necessarily be misdiagnosed as being possessed by demons. Still, Catholic exorcisms occur only under a bishop’s strict authority, and mini-exorcisms are held in the typical Catholic baptism.

There is a great deal of controversy about what various religions actually believe when it comes to demon possession.

Demonic Possession in Medicine

Many of the symptoms of demonic possession are also associated with mental illnesses, such as:

  • dissociative identity disorder
  • hysteria
  • mania
  • psychosis.

Therefore, throughout history, those accused of demon possession were most likely mentally ill, rather than actually possessed.