Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/December 1892/Modern Instances of Demoniacal Possession


By Prof. E. P. EVANS.

PERHAPS few persons are fully aware of the official attitude of the Papal See toward beliefs which modern science has rejected as absurd, and toward institutions which the progress of civilization has abolished as injurious. In a recent review of Cesare Cantù's voluminous Universal History, the Jesuit Father Giuseppe Brunengo criticises this popular work from a Catholic point of view, and censures its deviations from the teachings of the Church.[1]

Cantù, now in the eighty-eighth year of his age, is himself a devout Catholic, and scrupulously abstained from reading any books condemned by the Congregation of the Index, however necessary they might be to his historical researches, until he had obtained permission from the Pope. He also submitted his History to the scrutiny of the aforesaid Congregation, and declared his willingness to expunge any passages that should not be regarded as strictly orthodox. Indeed, he performed this unpleasant and onerous task in 1867, and again in 1886, and won thereby the warm commendation of Leo XIII, formally expressed in an apostolical brief dated June 3, 1886. But the Holy Office, more papal than the Pope, was not satisfied with the expurgations that had been so gratifying to his Holiness.

In a series of articles first printed in the Civiltà Cattolica, and now republished in a separate volume, Brunengo re-examines Cantù's work, and, while praising in general the "Christian and catholic spirit" which pervades it, points out many statements and conclusions at variance with the doctrines of the Church. In the first place, he seems to think that no Catholic historian should record anything derogatory to the character of any pope; at least, he blames Cantù for not speaking well of Sergius III, John X, and John XI, notoriously licentious pontiffs of the tenth century, whose rule is known in ecclesiastical history as the pornocracy, and reproves him for not emphasizing the wickedness of Savonarola in opposing Alexander VI. On the other hand, no Catholic historian should praise a Protestant or a heretic; and in accordance with this principle Cantù is severely reprehended for admitting that Calvin was a man of pure morals and improved by his teaching and example the morals of the Swiss; that Scipio Ricci, Bishop of Pistoia, was "pious and learned"; that the Jansenists were not wholly devoid of good qualities; and that Döllinger was erudite and virtuous. Such concessions are marks of mental obtuseness or moral weakness, and ought never to be made.

Again, Cantù is censured for questioning the strictly historical character of hagiological narrations, and for assuming that many of the stories told of St. George, John of Neponuk, Hermenigilda, and other canonized persons, are mere legends; also for animadverting on some of the actions attributed to the saints as unworthy of holy men.

Cantù maintains that the Spanish, unlike the Roman Inquisition, was an institution not of the Church but of the state, and therefore feels himself more at liberty in describing and condemning its proceedings. Brunengo declares this view to be wholly untenable, and proves conclusively that the Inquisition in Spain was not a political but an ecclesiastical tribunal, created and conducted by the apostolical authority of the Pope in the interests of the Roman hierarchy.

Having settled this point, he asserts, in opposition to Cantù, that the Inquisition was an immense boon to Spain, and that whatever material loss may have been incurred by the expulsion of the Moors and other skillful and thrifty artisans was more than made good to the nation by the great treasure of religious unity which the Holy Office secured.

So, too, the right of the Pope to depose sovereigns and to absolve their subjects from allegiance rests upon the supreme and universal dominion conferred by Christ upon his vicar, and can not be changed by circumstances nor abrogated by human enactments. The same holds true of the temporal sovereignty of the Pope, which ungodly revolutions and sacrilegious usurpation may put temporarily in abeyance, but can never annul and permanently abolish.

Still more antagonistic to the enlightened spirit of the age is Brunengo's defense of the reality of witchcraft and diabolical possession as dogmas of the Catholic Church. He sharply rebukes Cantù for treating this belief as an "error," and adds: "There are one hundred and three papal bulls which served inquisitors as a rule of procedure in prosecutions for witchcraft, magic, and other sorceries. If the Popes, who published these edicts, had doubted even for a moment the truth and reality of the enormities ascribed to magic; if they had believed with Cantù or entertained the slightest suspicion that the belief in a direct intercourse of the devil with man is a mere fancy or illusion, they would have expressed themselves very differently in those bulls, and endeavored to explain to the faithful the vanity and inanity of all magic arts. But because they had no doubt of the reality of these things they used an entirely different language. Now, whom are we to believe—Cantù, who absolutely contests the actuality of witchcraft; or the popes, bishops, and synods that have unanimously, with the necessary limitations, established it as a Catholic doctrine?"

There are doubtless many sincere Catholics, like Cantù, who repudiate the belief in demoniacal possession, but Brunengo is unquestionably right in affirming that this view is opposed to the plain teaching and actual practice of the Church on this subject. Leo XIII is justly regarded as a man of more than ordinary intelligence, and more thoroughly imbued with the modern spirit than any of his predecessors, yet he composed and issued, November 19, 1890, a formula of Exorcismus in Satanam et Angelos Apostatas worthy of a place in any mediæval collection of conjurations. His Holiness never fails to repeat this exorcism in his daily prayers, and commends it to the bishops and other clergy as a potent means of warding off the attacks of Satan and of casting out devils. In 1849 the Bishop of Passau published a Manuale Benedictionum for the same purpose; and in 1851 there was printed at Munich, in Bavaria, a work entitled Rituale Ecclesiasticum ad usum clericorum ordinis S. Francisci, by Pater Franz Xaver Lohbauer, in which the theory of demoniacal possession is maintained, and the method to be pursued in such cases minutely prescribed—Modus jurandi afflictos a dæmone. The author of this ritual distinctly declares that nearly all so-called nervous diseases, hysteria, epilepsy, insanity, and milder forms of mental alienation, are either the direct result of diabolical agencies or attended and greatly aggravated by them. A sound mind in a sound body may make a man devil-proof, but Satan is quick to take advantage of the infirmities of men in order to get possession of their persons. The adversary is constantly lying in wait watching for and trying to produce physical derangements as breaches in the wall, through which he may rush in and capture the citadel of the soul. In all cases of this sort the priest is to be called in with the physician, and the medicines are to be blessed and sprinkled with holy water before being administered. Exorcisms and conjurations are not only to be spoken over the patient, but also to be written on slips of consecrated paper and applied, like a plaster, to the parts especially affected. The physician should keep himself supplied with these written exorcisms, to be used when it is impossible for a priest to be present. As with patent medicines, the public is warned against counterfeits, and no exorcism is genuine unless it is stamped with the seal of the bishop of the diocese. According to Father Lohbauer, the demon is the efficient cause of the malady, and there can be no cure until the evil one is cast out. This is the office of the priest; the physician then heals the physical disorder, repairing the damage done to the body, and, as it were, stopping the gaps with his drugs so as to prevent the demon from getting in again. Here we have an example of the reconciliation and harmonious co-operation of religion and science, which so many earnest thinkers of to-day are rather futilely striving after.

The latest expression of the views of the Catholic Church on demoniacal possession is contained in a pamphlet just printed at Munich, in which the casting out of a devil in Wernding is fully and officially reported by the exorcist himself, Father Aurelian, and the case "critically elucidated for the people" by Richard Treufels. (Die Teufelsaustreibung in Wernding. Nach dem Berichte des P. Aurelian für das Volk kritisch beleuchtet von Richard Treufels. München: Schuh & Cie., 1892. Pp. 14. Treufels is doubtless a pseudonym chosen by the author to indicate that his feet are planted on the rock of faith.)

The report itself is substantially as follows: On Shrove Tuesday, February 10, 1891, a boy, ten years of age, named Michael Zilk, the eldest son of a miller living near Wernding, in Bavaria, began to act in a very strange manner. He could not say his prayers nor hear another person pray without falling into fits of rage. The same effect was produced by the sight of a crucifix or of holy water, and by passing near a sacred shrine or a church. A physician was consulted, but without avail; equally ineffective were the benedictions pronounced by Parson Seitz, of Dürrwangen; finally, recourse was had to the capuchins of Wernding, where Father Aurelian took the case in hand, and, after a long process of spiritual or magical diagnosis, consisting in the utterance of various forms of benediction and incantation, declared that all the symptoms indicated demoniacal possession. This opinion was indorsed by the Right Reverend Bishop Pancratius, of Augsburg, who saw the boy May 12, 1891, and, "in the full consciousness of his episcopal power and dignity," called upon the unclean spirit to come out of him, but the obstinate imp refused to obey. At length, after special permission was obtained from Bishop Leopold, of Eichstadt, to whose diocese Wernding belongs, the ceremony of exorcism was solemnly performed.

We need not here enter into a detailed description of the hocus-pocus, which began on the morning of July 13th, and ended with the expulsion of the demon or demons (for there seem to have been ten of them) on the evening of the next day. So great was the strength imparted to the boy by the indwelling devils that half a dozen men could hardly carry him into the presbytery of the cloister church, where the conjuration was to be performed in the presence of the parents and a few friars and devout laymen. The results, however, were wholly unsatisfactory, and in the afternoon the scene of the ceremony was transferred to the choir of the church; but even then no response was elicited, until Father Aurelian threatened to bring in the monstrance and compel the demon to worship it. This was more than the devil could stand, and he cried out in a terrible rage, "The boy is possessed!" The good monk lays peculiar stress upon this incident, as furnishing conclusive proof of the real presence of Christ in the holy sacrament. Further interrogatories brought out the fact already mentioned, that the demons were ten in number, although the answers were always given in the first person singular and in the Bavarian dialect. Thus, when conjured to go out of the boy, the demon replied, "I mog net" (Ich mag nicht; I don't want to).

Father Aurelian, having now got the devil so far under control as to make him speak, felt sure of a brilliant success, and on the morning of July 14th threw the church open to the public. Wernding, it must be remembered, has not only a sulphur-bath for the periodical purging of the profane, but also a wonder-working shrine, to which thousands of pious pilgrims resort in order to be purified from sin. On this occasion the persons who filled the church were chiefly penitents of the latter class, and constituted a fit audience of eager and credulous witnesses fully in sympathy with Father Aurelian and the marvelous work he had undertaken to perform, howling, moaning, and praying, and wringing their hands as the priest went on with his exorcisms.

The following is the substance of the dialogue between the capuchin and the devil:

C. You must depart from the child; there is no help for you.
D. I can't.
C. Why can't you?
D. Because she is always banning.
C. Who is banning? Some woman?
D. Yes.
C. What is her name?
D. Herz.

On hearing this, the parents lifted up their arms and exclaimed, "She is our neighbor!"

C. Why did she send you into the child?
D. Because she was angry.
C. Had the child done her any harm?
D. No.
C. How long have you possessed the child?
D. Six months.
C. When are you going to get out?
D. I don't know.
C. Why don't you know?
D. Because this woman Herz keeps on banning, and so long as she does this I can't go.

This conversation, repeated again and again with slight variations, occupied the whole forenoon.

When the exorcism was resumed at one o'clock in the afternoon, the devil was evidently considerably dispirited; occasionally he roused himself and "tore" the boy, but less violently than before, and no longer showed his spite by spitting at the priest. After having gone through with the usual forms of conjuration with the cross, and having brought the magic power of the Host to bear upon the stubborn imp, the capuchin called upon him in the name of God, and the mother of God, and the holy archangel Michael, to say whether he would now depart, and received the answer uttered in a humble tone, "Yes." This question was repeated three times, with the same result. "The first time," says Father Aurelian, "that the devil expressed his willingness to go out of the boy, I conjured him not to enter into any of the persons present nor into any living creature, not even into the woman Herz, who had banned him into the boy, but to depart to the place which God had assigned him. After a short pause I put the question, 'Have you departed from the boy?' and received the answer, 'Yes.' 'And also your companions?' 'Yes.' 'For the third time I conjure you to tell the whole truth: have you and your companions departed from the boy?' 'Yes.' 'Where are you now?' 'In hell.' 'And your companions, too?' 'Yes.' 'In the name of the most holy Trinity, and this sign of the cross, I conjure you to confess whether you and your companions are really in hell!' 'Yes, we are in hell!' was the horrifying reply. And it really seemed as though the voice came from hell. In his former answers the demon had spoken in a sharp and insolent tone, but this last response was utterly subdued and extremely mournful."

Michael Zilk, thus freed from the unclean spirit, quietly kneeled before the altar, kissed the crucifix, partook of the holy sacrament, and devoutly repeated the Pater noster and Ave Maria. A Te Deum was sung at the high altar, and on the following morning a special service of thanksgiving, consisting of high mass with rosary, was held in recognition of the "mighty work" that had been so successfully accomplished.

To Father Aurelian's mind, such as it is, the cause of the demoniacal possession is perfectly clear, and he states his views without reserve. The father of the boy, he says, was a Catholic, and the mother a Protestant; they were married by a Protestant clergyman, and the children were educated in the Protestant faith. The father afterward repented of his grievous fault, and endeavored to repair it by sending his three children to a Catholic school. This step excited the anger of his Protestant neighbors, one of whom, a woman named Herz, took to cursing and banning, and sent the devil into the eldest child by giving him on Shrove Tuesday a quantity of dried pears (Hutzeln) to eat, over which, the witch had doubtless muttered wicked spells. Fifty dried pears—and this is the number the boy is said to have eaten—one would think, might suffice to play the devil with his stomach, without supernatural aid or intervention. It is the old story: If the child suffers from a surfeit of sweetmeats, it is not the goodies, but the goody, who is at the bottom of it, and who must have sprinkled her gift with devil's powder in saccharine disguise, or manufactured the sugar-plums at midnight out of witches' butter.

We are further informed that the father, after frequent conferences with the capuchins, has made good his unfortunate marriage: the nuptial ceremony has been performed again according to the Catholic ritual, and the children have been rebaptized by a Catholic priest. The mother, too, has been persuaded to join the Catholic communion, or rather driven into the fold by the persecutions of a violently bigoted mother-in-law, who was evidently the real demon of the household.

A "mixed marriage," although recognized as legitimate by the law of the land, has never been regarded by the Church as just and valid, but is characterized in ecclesiastical legal terminology as matrimonium legitimum sed non ratum. It has been reserved, however, for Father Aurelian to discover that the offspring of such unions easily come under the influence of evil spirits, and are peculiarly liable to demoniacal possession.

As convincing proof of diabolic agency, the exorcist makes the following assertion: "When I sprinkled the possessed boy with holy water, he sprang toward me in rage; if I used ordinary water, he kept perfectly quiet. In like manner, when I uttered a prayer of the Church in Latin, he became furious; if I repeated a passage from a Latin classic, he remained perfectly calm." Be-sprinklings with the foul contents of an aspercorium might excite the wrath of even a gentler spirit than a goblin from Tartarus; and although it may be true, as a popular proverb asserts, that "the devil is an ass," he would also seem to be a good Latinist (a union of the twain is not so rare a phenomenon as the unlearned are apt to suppose), and a sensitive purist quick to detect and to resent any forms of expression less correct and elegant than strictly classical locutions. Unfortunately, however, for Father Aurelian's argument, another priest who examined the boy positively denies this statement, and declares that, when Michael Zilk was sprinkled with holy water secretly from behind, the indwelling devil gave no sign. In concluding his report, Father Aurelian uses the following strong language: "Whoever denies demoniacal possession in our days, confesses thereby that he has gone astray from the teaching of the Catholic Church; but he will believe in it when he himself is in the possession of the devil in hell. As for myself, I have the authority of two bishops."

It was formerly held by both Catholics and Protestants that unbaptized children were in the power of the devil, and the Catholic ritual still prescribes the following formula of exorcism, to be used before baptism: "I exorcise thee, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, that thou departest and goest forth from this servant of God; for he who walked on the sea, and extended his right hand to the sinking Peter, commands thee, O damned one! Therefore, accursed devil, know thy doom, and give honor to the living and true God, give honor to Jesus Christ and to the Holy Ghost, and go out of this servant of God, whom God and our Lord Jesus Christ have deigned to call by his grace and mercy to the fountain of baptism. [Here the priest makes the sign of the cross on the child's forehead with his thumb.] And this sign of the cross which we place on his forehead, thou accursed devil shalt never dare to violate."

It is stated on good authority that ninety-nine out of one hundred of the peasants in Wernding and the adjacent country believe in witchcraft, and are wont to attribute murrain and marasmus and all kinds of pestilence to this cause. To their minds epidemiology finds its simple and satisfactory solution in demonology. It is also an interesting fact illustrating the local persistence of superstition that the people of this region were notorious three centuries ago for the zeal and cruelty with which they persecuted and prosecuted witches. Thirty-five old crones were burned as witches in Nördlingen between 1590 and 1594, and equal ardor was shown in Neuburg and other towns on the Danube. One "witch," Maria Holl, was put to the torture fifty-six times without extorting a confession, and escaped further racking only through the intervention of Ulm, her native city. Had the woman Herz lived in those times she would have been unquestionably the food of fagots. She has the reputation of being an estimable person, and her husband has brought a suit for slander before the court at Anspach.

The author of the pamphlet in which Father Aurelian's report is embodied does not maintain that Michael Zilk was actually possessed; on the contrary, he is inclined to think that Father Aurelian may have been deceived. What he strenuously insists upon, however, is the reality of demoniacal possession, which, he affirms, can not be questioned by any Catholic or Protestant or Jew who believes in the truth of his Holy Scriptures. "It is an incontestable fact, confirmed by the traditions of all nations of ancient and modern times, by the unequivocal testimony of the Old and New Testaments, and by the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church." The criterion, quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus, he thinks, applies here with peculiar force and fitness, for there is no philosophical or theological tenet resting upon a broader basis of universal consent. Christ, he says, gave his disciples power and authority over all devils to cast them out, and this same power is conferred upon every priest by his consecration, although he is never to exercise it without the permission of the bishop.

Incidents like that which took place at Wernding have been of comparatively frequent occurrence even in recent times. In cloistral and episcopal archives there are many records of this sort that have never excited public sensation because they were not reported by the press. In 1842 a devil named Ro-ro-ro-ro took possession of "a maiden of angelic beauty" in Luxemburg, and was cast out by Bishop Laurentius. This demon claimed to be one of the archangels expelled from heaven, and appears to have rivaled Parson Stöcker in antisemitic animosity. When the name of Jesus was mentioned, he cried out derisively: "O that Jew! Didn't he have to drink gall?" When commanded to depart, he begged that he might go into some Jew. The bishop, however, refused to give him leave and bade him "go to hell," which he forthwith did, "moaning as he went, in melancholy tones, that seemed to issue from the bowels of the earth, 'Burning, burning, everlastingly burning in hell!' The voice was so sad," adds the bishop, "that we should all have wept for sheer compassion, had we not known that it was the devil."

A more recent case in point is that of a lay brother connected with an educational institute in Rome, who on January 3, 1887, became diabolically possessed, and was exorcised by Father Jordan. In this instance the leading spirit was Lucifer himself, attended by a host of satellites, of whom Lignifex, Latibor, Monitor, Sefilie, Shulium, Ritu, Haijunikel, Exaltor, and Reromfex were the most important. It took about an hour and a half to cast out these demons the first time, but they renewed their assaults on February 10th, 11th, and 17th, and were not completely discomfited and driven back into the infernal regions until February 23d, and then only by using the water of Lourdes, which, as Father Jordan states, acted upon them like poison, causing them to writhe to and fro. Lucifer was especially rude and saucy in his remarks. Thus, for example, when Father Jordan said, "Every knee in heaven and on the earth and under the earth shall bow to the name of Jesus," the fallen "Son of the Morning" retorted, "Not Luci, not Luci—never!"

It would be easy to multiply authentic and official reports of things of this sort that have happened within the memory of the present generation; but they all offer in the main the same features, being characterized by grossness and grotesqueness, with singular poverty of imagination, and would be rather monotonous and unedifying reading.

The principal signs of demoniacal possession, as given in ecclesiastical and most fully in monastic rituals, are the ability to speak or to understand foreign tongues unknown to the possessed, to tell where objects are hidden (like a mind-reader), the exhibition of supernatural bodily strength, intense aversion to holy places and to consecrated objects and persons, and the power of moving through space in defiance of the laws of gravitation.

A boy, who showed all these symptoms, was brought to Parson Kneipp, a Catholic priest, who has a much-frequented hydropathic establishment in Bavaria. Two priests had already declared the boy to be possessed, and had tried to exorcise him, but without effect. Parson Kneipp, who had learned to look upon phenomena with medical rather than with theological eyes, took a rational view of the case, and by a sytematic water-cure treatment healed the patient in six weeks.

It is true that the devil has been eliminated from the passion play at Oberammergau, in which he once took a prominent part, and amused the public by his clownish tricks. This change has been cited in proof of the progress of enlightenment among the peasants of the Bavarian highlands. No inference could be more incorrect. The devil disappeared from the stage, much against the will of the Oberammergauers, in 1810, by command of the Bavarian Government, which refused to permit a further representation of the play except on this condition. The text was then thoroughly revised and the performance remodeled by Dr. Ottmar Weiss, and Satan utterly banished from the scenes. The mass of the peasantry, nevertheless, believe in the devil and the reality of diabolic interference in human affairs as firmly as ever.

Modern science is doubtless doing a great work in diminishing the realm of superstition; but there are vast low-lying plains of humanity that have not yet felt its beneficent influence. "The schoolmaster is abroad"; but where he wears the cassock or the cowl, or is placed under strict clerical supervision, as the recent Prussian Education Bill proposed to do, the progress of intelligence in the direction indicated will be exceeding slow.

Mr. C. W. Kempton remarks, in Science, that on a study of Schiaparelli's chart of Mars the systems of "canals" resolve themselves, in many cases, into groups of six, making hexagons, and giving the idea that the planet may be solidified into a mass, with tendency to hexagonal crystallization—the canals, for instance, being fissures on the lines of the angles of crystallization. This would account for many of the peculiarities of their appearance, while in no way opposing the present existence of atmosphere, water, snow, ice, and vegetation on the planet.
  1. Osservazioni sopra la storia universale di Cesare Cantù del P. Giuseppe Brunengo, D. C. D. G. Rome, 1891, pp. 150.