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Demon possession

Basically, demon possession is the act of one or more demons of entering a human or animal body, alive or dead, or an object, with the intention of using it for a purpose, normally evil, but also as a punishment. This term is more commonly applied to living persons. It is said that a demonic possession can be "cured" by an exorcism that enables the exorcist to expel the demon/s from the possessed body or object.

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Demon possession in history

As back as we know by ancient inscriptions, Sumerians, Akkadians and Chaldeans, who shared some religious beliefs, described several procedures to protect people against demonic possession. There are also written cuneiform tablets about exorcisms to expel demons from humans once they had invaded their bodies. The priests who practised exorcisms in these nations were called Ashipy and Mashmashu. Nevertheless there are no descriptions of specific punishments against possessed persons as it happened later many times in Christian societies. Shamanic[?] cultures also believe in demon possession and shamans (witch doctors) perform exorcisms too; in these cultures often diseases are attributed to the presence of an evil spirit or demon in the body of the patient. In the Bible, the Old Testament mentions the Devil, but no allusion to demonic possession is made. Contrarily to this, the New Testament mentions several opportunities in which Jesus drove out demons from diseased persons, believed to be these entities responsible for those illnesses. Since that moment on, demon possession became a plague among Christians; lots of exorcisms and executions were performed on persons allegedly possessed; lots of "lunatics" or mentally ill people were accused of being demon-possessed and killed. The Malleus Maleficarum speaks about some exorcisms that can be done in different cases. In Christianity, animals were also believed to be able of being possessed; during the European Middle Age hundreds of cats, goats and other animals were slain because of the idea that they were either an incarnation of a demon or possessed by one.

Demon possession in Christianity

The concept of demon possession was evolving in Christianity from the mere act of driving out demons "by faith" to heal people, to a complex quantity of "symptoms". In the 4th Century Hilarius (Hillary[?] or St. Hillary) 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, expelling a demon from his camel to prove his theory. In the 5th Century Gregory (later Pope Gregory I[?], known as Gregorius Magnus or Gregory the Great) wrote about a nun that was possessed by a demon that penetrated her body via a lettuce she had eaten. Later, in the Middle Age, a list of symptoms required to confirm demonic possession was carefully prepared. Those symptoms are: #1- Ability to speak and/or understand one or more unknown languages; #2- Ability to find secret things, read the mind, and divine future happenings; #3- Ability to make physical efforts abnormal for that person; #4- The act of spitting or vomiting every object the demons would have obligated the person to swallow. Normally, only one of these symptoms was enough to determine possession. It was said by people of that time that possessed persons had an ugly and terrible aspect, wrathful eyes, bluish lips, foam coming off their mouth; their body was almost permanently shaking, when they spoke their tongue came abnormally out, their speech consisted mainly in curses and blasphemies, and they were able to imitate animal sounds as well as to speak with human-like voices with a strange sound and a different pitch of theirs. According to Catholic theologians demon possession is involuntary and allowed by God to test a person (for more details about God's tests on persons see Job). Involuntary possession, according to these theologians, cannot be negated because this would imply the negation of the cases mentioned in the New Testament (12, some of them repeated in more than one Gospel) and, by extension, the veracity of it. Voluntary possession can be also mentioned, favoured by drugs, alcohol and/or frantic dances, like those of certain ancient cults (i.e. the Bacchanals[?]), still practised in some Shamanic societies, and alleged to be also practised by witches during their Sabbaths. Another form of voluntary possession is that in which a person offers his/her body to be possessed by a demon to serve as a medium among him/her and the other attendants to the reunion.

Cases of demon possession in the Bible

Here follows a list of all cases of demon possession and Jesus' ability to expel demons mentioned in the New Testament: Matthew 4:23-25: demon-possessed persons are healed by Jesus (also Luke 6:17-19); Matthew 8:16-17: Jesus heals many demon-possessed ones (also Mark 1:32-34 and Luke 4:40-41); Matthew 8:28-34: Jesus sends a herd of demons from two men into a herd of pigs (also Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39, both referring to only one man); Matthew 9:32-34: Jesus makes a dumb speak (also Mark 3:20-22); Matthew 12:22-28: Jesus heals a possessed blind and dumb man (also Luke 6:17-19 and Luke 11:14); Matthew 12:43-45: Jesus tells an allegory of nasty spirits coming back home, that is the human body where have lived before (also Luke 11:24-26); Matthew 15:21-28: Jesus expels a demon from the body of the daughter of a Canaanite woman (also Mark 7:24-30); Matthew 17:14-21: Jesus heals a lunatic by driving out a demon from him (also Mark 9:13-29 and Luke 9:37-43); Mark 1:21-28: Jesus expels a nasty spirit from a man (also Luke 4:31-37); Mark 1:32-34: Jesus heals many demon-possessed people; Luke 7:21: Many people is cleansed from evil spirits by Jesus; Luke 13:10-17: Jesus expels Satan in the form of a spirit of disease from the body of a woman. John's Gospel does not mention any case of demonic possession, and some healings in the name of Jesus are mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, but no allusion to demon possession is made. Note that in the Gospels demonic possession is taken as responsible for physical and mental disease, like in more ancient cultures. (All biblical references were taken from the Biblia Vulgata; the text can slightly vary according to other translations, but the context is the same.)

Demon possession in medicine

In Medicine, and more properly in Psychiatry, demon possession is considered a form of insanity. It can be a "simple" hysteria, a mania, a psychosis or a case of split personality (schizophrenia), depending on the patient's symptoms. Specifically, there is a mental disease called demonomania or demonopathy; it is a monomania in which the patient believes that he or she is possessed by one or more demons. From another point of view, those who accuse others of being demon-possessed have to be mentioned too. In cases like those of the witches of Salem or the nuns who accused father Urbain Grandier, we are facing a collective hysteria, involving more than one person "contagiously" convinced of that "truth". In particular cases (sometimes a small number of persons, i.e. some members of a family or a small group of friends, but generally one person) the accusation of demon possession is caused because of the diseases above-mentioned or the phenomenon of collective hysteria. Another case that is necessary to mention is that of simulation; simulation is generally considered a psychological alteration of the human behaviour rather than a psychiatric disease, but there are in Medicine cases of simulators mentally ill that act by compulsion. It was common the case of children and teenagers accusing people of having bewitched them and feigning to be demon-possessed, and later apologising for that; unfortunately, due to the processes carried out by the religious tribunals, generally those innocents had already lost their lives, and that was the cause of many of those apologies: the feeling of being guilty, or remorse. There were several cases of simulation in England, most of them between 1533 and 1697, until accusations made by children were prohibited ca. 1718; there were cases of simulation in France and America too; it is thought that the collective hysteria that generated the accusation against Urbain Grandier was started by a case of simulation. It rests to say that a person easy to influence can be convinced by third parts of being demon-possessed. Hysteria is the first step to all other diseases previously mentioned, and it is more common in women than in men, thus the number of "demon-possessed" people and accusers was higher in women than in men; so it was the number of people killed by those accusations too.

Medicine can explain some aspects of the "symptoms" shown by those persons allegedly possessed; it is known that "supernatural strength" is common in some cases of insanity (maniacs, energumens, etc.). Although some scientists still put in doubt the reality of telepathy and other mental abilities (that are today subject of study at many institutions in different countries), it is a matter of fact that they exist, so it is acceptable that the "possessed" person has telepathic abilities to "discover" secrets or read minds; telekinesis has been also proved to exist, and it could explain the fact that those persons can move objects (or those objects apparently "move by themselves, by the demon's action"); the ability to see the future is called now premonition[?], and it is accepted that some persons have that ability. There is no need to explain that the objects swollen by the patient (in case this happened) were not demonic suggestions but voluntary acts of insanity, being the patient convinced that having been obliged. The ability to speak and understand strange languages never learnt and unknown in the environment in which the patient lives is what most has complicated scientists; it has been an attempt to explain it by means of Genetics, conjecturing that it is possible that some unknown ancestor of the patient spoke that language, and it was genetically transmitted; it could not be proved yet, but the possibility is not closed. Finally, the great problem comes when the "possessed" one does not believe in science but in religion, whichever this is. Then sometimes the intervention of an exorcist can be successful, but it depends on whether the patient wants to be freed from the "demon" or not, and the authority and mental strength the exorcist can show in front of the person.

Demon possession in fiction

The theme of demon possession has been by far better exploited by cinema than literature. Maybe the most known title on the subject is "The Exorcist" (both book and movie), which portrays a typical mediaeval case of demonic possession in which the victim shows all required characteristics to confirm the status of possessed. The film, from 1973, was later satirised in 1990 by "Repossessed[?]". "End of Days[?]", from 1999, shows another form of demonic possession, that one suggested by Hilarius.

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