Exorcism is the practice of evicting or destroying demons or other evil spiritual entities which are supposed to have "possessed" (taken control of) a person or a building. The concept is very ancient and is 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 who is thought to have special powers or skills. The exorcist may use a combination of magical and religious methods, such as prayers and set formulas, gestures, icons and amulets. Usually the exorcist's goal is to force the evil spirit to leave, or to invoke some benign supernatural power that will perform the task.
The influential horror movie The Exorcist (1973, re-released 2000) was inspired in the Catholic exorcism ritual and folklore. After its release, the Catholic diocese of Chicago was inundated with so many requests for exorcism that it had to add exorcists to its existing staff.
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The concept of "possession" by "evil spirits" and the practice of exorcism are very ancient and widespread, and may originate in prehistoric Shamanistic beliefs.
The Christian New Testament includes exorcism among the miracles performed by Jesus. Because of that precedent, possession was part of the belief system of Christianism since the beginning, and exorcism is still part of the ritual of Catholicism and some Protestant sects.
In recent times, Exorcism has diminished in importance and use. This is due mainly to a greater understanding of psychology and the functioning and structure of the human mind. Many of the cases that in the past might have been candidates for exorcism have been found to be the products of mental illness. These cases are treated through medical means instead of exorcism, although some religious persons believe that certain psychological disorders are actually spiritual problems – generally the more severe types such as Dissociative Identity Disorder and Schizophrenia.
Exorcism in Roman Catholicism
In the former ministry of the Roman Catholic Church, the third of the minor orders was that of exorcist. In some dioceses, priests have been given the title of "Exorcist" for their diocese. The exorcist is invested with the authority of casting out devils from persons possessed, through use of the document Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications. This power, however, according to the present law of the church, may be only exercised by priests, and by them only with the express permission of the local bishop; and this permission is rarely given. However, Pope John Paul II encouraged the use of exorcism (and performed three himself during his papal reign); as a result a number of dioceses have designated a priest as the Exorcist for the diocese. Gabriele Amorth is the chief exorcist of the Roman Catholic Church. Only a priest or a higher prelate may perform the Rite of Exorcism.
Of exorcism, 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."
- Crux sancta sit mihi lux / Non draco sit mihi dux
- Vade retro satana / Nunquam suade mihi vana
- Sunt mala quae libas / Ipse venena bibas
- "May the Holy Cross be my light / Let not the dragon lead me
- Step back Satan / Never tempt me with vain things
- What you offer me is evil / Drink the poison yourself."
The verse Vade retro satana was probably inspired on a phrase by Jesus to Peter in the Vulgate New Testament, Mark 8:33: vade retro me, satana ("Step back from me, Satan!"). In Catholicism, it is used to repel any possible evil thing or happening, as a "spoken amulet". The initials of this formula (VRSNSMV SMQLIVB or VRS:NSMV:SMQL:IVB) were usually engraved around crosses or Catholic religious medals featuring Saint Benedict, to whom the formula is traditionally ascribed.
See list of exorcists.
Exorcism in Islam
Exorcism is said to have been a part of Islam since its beginning, and there are verses in the Qur'an that speak of possession by evil beings. There are also Sunnah (traditional statements not part of the Qur'an) that the Prophet Muhammad and his followers expelled evil beings from the bodies of believers using verses from the Qur'an, supplications to Allah, and holy Zamzam water.
Those who devour usury will not stand (on the Day of Judgment) except as stands one whom the Evil one by his touch hath driven to madness. (Qur'an (Yusufali tr.), al-Baqara, 275)
In this verse, God compares the state of sinners on the Day of Judgment to the state of those made insane by the Devil, or Shaitan. Scholars point to this verse as evidence that the Devil and his servants are able to affect human beings. Al-Qurtabi writes in his tafsir of this verse:
This verse contains proof against those who deny the possession by way of Jinn, claiming that it is a result of natural causes, as well as those who claim that Shaitan does not enter humans nor does he touch them.
Evidence is found also in the Sunnah, such as this one related by Ya'la ibn Murah:
I saw Allah's Messenger (sallallahu alaihe 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 alaihe wa-sallam) said: 'Give him to me.' So she lifted him up to the Prophet.
He (sallallahu alaihe 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)
A note regarding the Jinn and possession
In Islamic belief, not only are devils able to possess human beings, but also the the Jinn, intelligent creatures made from fire. Islam teaches that the Jinn are much like human beings in that they have free will to choose between good and evil. Obviously, a Jinn who chooses to possess a human is acting in an evil manner, and would be treated by an exorcism as a devil would be.
The existence of the Jinn is an established fact, according to the Book, the Sunnah and the agreement of the early scholars. Likewise, the penetration of a Jinni into a human body is also an established fact, according to the consensus of leading Sunni scholars. It is also a fact witnessed and experienced by anyone who reflects on it. The Jinni 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. (Shaikh al-Islam ibn Taymiyyah, Majmoo al-Fatawa)
Shaikh al-Islam ibn Taymiyyah also suggests that there are three reasons for possession by Jinn:
- Jinn might possess a human being to experience the physical world such as because of desire or love. The Jinni might not actually have malicious intents at heart in this case, or be unaware of the harm it is causing.
- Jinn might do it to exact revenge for a perceived slight. Jinn are said to be quick to anger, especially when they believe themselves to have been harmed on purpose (since Jinn are usually invisible to humans, a person can accidentally injure a Jinni not knowing that one is there).
- Pure wickedness and a desire for malicious behavior on the part of the Jinni.
He further says that Jinn can easily gain control over those who are not mindful of their faith but that those who hold true to God should have no fear of being taken in possession.
A note regarding possession by spirits in Islam
A common misconception in Islam is the notion of spirit possession, in which the souls of the dead are claimed to be able to possess human beings. Islam teaches that this is a false belief, because the souls of those who have died are not permitted to return to the world of the living, and so cannot affect it. It is thought that Shaitan (the Devil) encourages this belief because it leads many otherwise-devout Muslims to perform rituals contrary to Islam, such as tomb offerings and the hanging of amulets to ward off evil spirits.
Possession in Islam is never by the souls of the dead, but it is not unknown for evil beings to claim to be such so as to encourage sinful behavior among the living.
The scholars 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 only be out for money.
Because of the popular image that exorcism is necessarily a violent process, the practice may end up bringing considerable physical harm or even death to the patient, even when performed by supposedly trained priests. In the past eight years, there have been at least five exorcism-related deaths in the United States:
- Kyung-A Ha was beaten to death in 1995 in San Francisco, California by members of the Jesus-Amen Ministries.
- Kyung Jae Chung died in 1996 in Glendale, California from blunt-force trauma by her husband (a reverend) and members of the Glendale Korean Methodist Church.
- A five-year-old girl in 1997 in the Bronx, New York, died after being administered ammonia, vinegar, and olive oil, and then gagged and bound with duct tape.
- Charity Miranda, was suffocated with a plastic bag in 1998 in Sayville, New York by her mother and sister during a Cuban voodoo exorcism ritual.
- Terrance Cottrell Jr, an eight-year-old autistic child, died of asphyxiation in 2003 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during an exorcism carried out by members of the Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith, in an attempt to expel the boy's demons. The coroner ruled that the boy died "due to external chest compression" as the part-time evangelical pastor lay on top of him. On July 10, 2004, the pastor was convicted of child abuse.
Although many scientists and some religious people are doubtful of the existence of demons and the possibility of demon possession, oppression, or harassment there is help available for people who believe they may be experiencing problems caused by demons. Many religions have official exorcisms and also deliverance ministries available.
- Spiritual warfare for a broader discussion of demonic activity and Christians.
- Demon (and daemon)
- Spiritual healing
- Yoruba mythology