EXORCISM (Gr. ἐξορκίζειν, to conjure out), the expulsion of evil spirits from persons or places by incantations, magical rites or other means. As a corollary of the animistic theory of diseases and of belief in Possession (q.v.), we find widely spread customs whose object is to get rid of the evil influences. These customs may take the form of a general expulsion of evils, either once a year or at irregular intervals; the evils, which are often regarded as spirits, sometimes as the souls of the dead, may be expelled, according to primitive philosophy, either immediately by spells, purifications or some form of coercion; or they may be put on the back of a scapegoat or other material vehicle. Among the means of compelling the evil spirits are assaults with warlike weapons or sticks, the noise of musical instruments or of the human voice, the use of masks, the invocation of more powerful good spirits, &c.; both fire and water are used to drive them out, and the use of iron is a common means of holding them at bay.
The term exorcism is applied more especially to the freeing of an individual from a possessing or disease-causing spirit; the means adopted are frequently the same as those mentioned above; in the East Indies the sufferer sometimes dances round a small ship, into which the spirit passes and is then set adrift. The patient may be beaten or means may be employed whose efficiency depends largely on their suggestive nature. Among the Dakota Indians the medicine-man chants hi-le-li-lah! at the bed of the sick man and accompanies his chant with the rattle; he then sucks at the affected part till the possessing spirit is supposed to come out and take its flight, when men fire guns at it from the door of the tent. The Zulus believe that they can get rid of the souls of the dead, which cause diseases, by sacrifices of cattle, or by expostulating with the spirits; so too the shaman or magician in other parts of the world offers the possessing spirit objects or animals.
The professional exorcist was known among the Jews; in Greece the art was practised by women, and it is recorded that the mothers of Epicurus and Aeschines belonged to this class; both were bitterly reproached, the one by the Stoics, the other by Demosthenes, with having taken part in the practices in question. The prominence of exorcism in the early ages of the Christian church appears from its frequent mention in the writings of the fathers, and by the 3rd century there was an order of exorcists (see Exorcist). The ancient rite of exorcism in connexion with baptism is still retained in the Roman ritual, as is also a form of service for the exorcising of possessed persons. The exorcist signs the possessed person with the figure of the cross, desires him to kneel, and sprinkles him with holy water; after which the exorcist asks the devil his name, and abjures him by the holy mysteries of the Christian religion not to afflict the person possessed any more. Then, laying his right hand on the demoniac’s head, he repeats the form of exorcism as follows: “I exorcise thee, unclean spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ; tremble, O Satan, thou enemy of the faith, thou foe of mankind, who hast brought death into the world, who hast deprived men of life, and hast rebelled against justice, thou seducer of mankind, thou root of evil, thou source of avarice, discord and envy.” Houses and other places supposed to be haunted by unclean spirits are likewise to be exorcised with similar rites, and in general exorcism has a place in all the ceremonies for consecrating and blessing persons or things (see Benediction).
See Tylor, Primitive Culture; Skeat, Malay Magic, p. 427 seq.; Frazer, Golden Bough, vol. iii. 189; Krafft, Ausführliche Historie von Exorcismus; Koldeweg, Der Exorcismus im Herzogthum Braunschweig; Brecher, Das Transcendentale, Magie, etc. im Talmud, pp. 195-203: Zeitschr. für Assyriologie (Dec. 1893, April 1894); Herzog, Realencykl., s.v. “Exorcismus”; Waldmeier, Autobiography, p. 64; L. W. King, Babylonian Magic; Maury, La Magie; R. C. Thompson, Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia.