1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Possession (psychology)

POSSESSION, the term given to the supposed control of a human body and mind by an alien spirit, human or non-human; or the occupation by an alien spirit of some portion of a human body, causing sickness, pain, &c. The term obsession (Lat. for siege) is sometimes used as equivalent to possession; sometimes it denotes spirit control exercised from without, or it may mean no more than a maniacal monoideism. From an anthropological point of view possession may be conveniently classed as (a) inspirational, (b) demoniacal, (c) pathological, according to the view taken of the reason for or effect of the spiritual invasion of the possessed person.

a. In inspirational possession the oracle spirit is held to have entered the person in order to foretell the future or to proclaim the will of a god; the god himself may be regarded as speaking through the mouth of his devotee; among peoples in the lower stages of culture possession by spirits of the dead is inspirational, especially where there is any kind of ancestor worship in vogue. This kind of possession, so far as is known, does not appear among some of the lowest peoples, e.g. the Australians; but it is common in Africa, Polynesia and Asia, where European influence has not led to its decay. Many of the classical oracles were regarded as due to divine inspiration. The manifestations are often voluntarily induced and are provoked in many different ways; in classical times the eating of laurel leaves, the inhaling of fumes which ascended from a cleft in the rocks of Delphi, the drinking of intoxicating liquors, or of a more widely found means of inducing the phenomena—blood—were all in use. In the Malay Peninsula the medicine man inhales incense which rises in clouds from a censer and hangs like a mist round his head; similar hypnotic effects are produced in Egypt in the case of divining boys by means of drugs. In Fiji the priest sat before a dish of scented oil and anointed himself with it, till in a few minutes he began to tremble and was finally strongly convulsed. In parts of India, draughts of blood from the neck of the newly decapitated victim were the means of rousing the priest to frenzy; while in Siberia, America and many parts of Africa drumming, contortions and orgiastic dancing are more commonly found. According to another account, the Fijian priest provoked the onset of the trance by a method in use in ordinary hypnotic practice; he sat amid dead silence before a whale's tooth, at which he gazed steadfastly.

The symptoms of supposed possession by a god differ as widely as do those of the hypnotic trance. In Hawaii the god Oro gave his oracles by inspiring the priest, who ceased to speak or act as a voluntary agent, his frenzied utterances being interpreted by the attendant priests. In the Malay Peninsula the pawang, after censing himself, lies down on his back, with his head shrouded, and awaits the moment of inspiration. The tiger spirit which is the familiar of all Malay pawangs manifests its presence by a low lifelike growl and the pawang scratches at the mat, gives a series of catlike leaps and licks up from the floor the handfuls of rice scattered there. But his state seems to be far removed from the ecstasy of the Hawaiian priest, though it must be remembered that no test of bona tides is possible in either case. We meet with another stage in Tahiti in the lofty declamation of the possessed priests, who thus afford a parallel to the utterances of many modern mediums. Finally in Africa, where the frenzied form of possession is also common, we find at Sofala the manifestations of possession were confined to the simple dramatic imitation of the voice of the dead king, whose soul was believed to give counsel in this manner to his successor.

b. Demoniacal possession is a widely spread explanation of such psychopathological conditions as epilepsy, somnambulism, hysteria, &c.; especially in the East Indian field lycanthropy (q.v.) and magical power (for evil) are commonly attributed to possession. Much of the evidence is that of native witnesses, and where European observers have succeeded in examining a case for themselves they have generally been guiltless of all knowledge of psychopathology and of the possibilities of suggestion; their statements are therefore to be accepted only with reserve. Demoniacal possession is familiar to us from the New Testament narratives; there seems to be no reason to suppose that the cases there recorded were due to anything but disease; but the view is still occasionally maintained by Christian apologists that real demon possession existed in Judaea. Demoniacs in the New Testament are stated to live among the tombs, to be deaf and dumb, or blind, to be possessed by a multitude of evil spirits or to suffer from high fever as a result of possession; the demons are said to pass into the bodies of animals or to reside in waterless places. No facts are recorded which are not explicable either as the ordinary symptoms of mental disease or as the result of suggestion (q.v.).

c. In the lower stages of culture all diseases are explained as due to the invasion of the body by disease spirits (see Animism), but the effects are supposed to be physiological, not psychical as in demoniacal possession. The infringement of a totemic tabu, the wrath of an ancestor or other dead person or the malice of a disease spirit, such as the Malay hantus, or of any non-human spirit, may set up pathological conditions, according to animistic philosophy. Such cases, as well as those of demoniacal possession, which may be distinguished from the inspirational form by their invariably involuntary character, are dealt with by a variety of means such as spells, purification, sacrifices to the possessing spirit, or coercion of various sorts (see Exorcism).

We have few data as to the distribution of the phenomena here classified. Cases of inspirational or demoniacal possession were known in classical times; but the demon of Socrates must rather be classed as a case of sensory automatism. In our own day they are reported from the greater part of Asia, Africa and Polynesia, and they seem to occur in America, though our information is scanty. On the other hand in New Guinea and Australia they are practically unknown, though automatisms are put down to the agency of the dead.

From the psychological point of view the classification is again threefold: (a) as noted above, the majority of cases of so-called possession are simply psychopathological; (b) another class, the existence of which has only been recognized within recent times are the cases of secondary or multiple personality; the apparent independence and occasional conflict of primary and secondary selves has been explained by the theory of possession; but it has been possible in one of the most severe cases on record to unify the two personalities and memories after what the patient described as a struggle between them for supremacy, which would inevitably have suggested possession as the explanation, had not the issue of the case been the amalgamation of the two streams of consciousness. (c) The problem of the third class of cases, which may be termed mediumistic, is still unsolved. The medium (q.v.) or sensitive appears to have at command in the trance state a store of memories connected with the lives of deceased friends of a sitter (i.e. a person present at the séance), such memories being dealt with from the standpoint of the deceased person (who is termed the communicator); sometimes the memories are connected with the friends of a person not actually present or with articles placed in the hands of the medium, the owners being absent or dead. Mediumistic cases have undergone elaborate investigation at the hands of the Society for Psychical Research, and no serious attempt has been made to invalidate the facts set forward by the investigators; but so far no satisfactory explanation has been suggested. On the one hand thought transference or telepathy (q.v.) appears to be insufficient, unless we assume that the powers of a medium far transcend anything demonstrable in ordinary telepathic experiments; for the facts stated by or through the medium about the communicator seem in many cases to be known in their entirety to no single living person. If thought transference is the explanation, we must admit that the medium can (1) ransack all living brains for facts, (2) select those which are pertinent (i.e. known to the communicator) and (3) combine them in such a way as to suggest that the source of the information is the dead person. On the other hand, although, as we have seen, the communications show knowledge homologous to that of the deceased, they demonstrably do not include the whole of his knowledge; more than one attempt has been made to obtain from communicators the contents of sealed letters written during their lifetime and kept from the knowledge of all other human beings till the seal was broken; but such attempts have so far failed, and the failure seems to form conclusive evidence both against possession and against other explanations based on the supposition that the dead are communicating.

Bibliography.—For anthropological data see Bastian, Der Mensch; Contemporary Review, xxvii. 369; Ellis, Tshi-speaking Peoples; Naevius, Demon Possession; Radloff, Das Schamanentum; Skeat, Malay Magic; Stoll, Suggestion und Hypnotismus; Tylor, Primitive Culture; Verdun, Le Diable dans les missions; Maury, La Magic, p. 258 seq.; Chamberlain, Things Japanese, s.v. “Fox.” For discussion of New Testament facts see W. M. Alexander, Demoniacal Possession in the New Testament; Conybeare, in Jewish Quarterly Review, viii. 576, ix. 59, 444, 581; Herzog's Realencyclopädie, s.v. “Dämonische.” For patristic literature see Bingham, Antiquities, iii. For mediumistic possession see Myers, Human Personality; and the same author on “Pseudopossession” in Proc. S.P.R. xv. 384; Proc. S.P.R. vi. 436-450, viii. 1-167, xiii. 284-582, xvi. 1-536, xvii. 61-244, &c. For medical and psychological observations see Griesinger, Mental Pathology; James, Principles of Psychology; Janet, Névroses et idées fixes; Kraft-Ebbing, Psychiatrie; Sidis and S. P. Goodhart, Multiple Personality. (N. W. T.)