What does it mean to be possessed by a spirit or demon? Some phenomenological insights from neuro-anthropological research
The visible growth in possession and exorcism in Southern Africa can, amongst others, be attributed to the general impression in Christianity that, since Jesus was a successful exorcist, his followers should follow his example. Historical Jesus research generally endorses a view of Jesus as exorcist, which probably also contributes to this idea, yet there is no or very little reflection about either exorcism or possession as cultural practices. This article offers a critical reflection on possession based on insights from cross-cultural and neuro-scientific research. The first insight is that possession is not a single thing, but a collective term for what is a wide range of phenomena. At least two distinct meanings are identified: possession as a label for illness or misfortune, and possession as an indication of forms of human dissociative phenomena. In the latter instance, an impression of possession as a mode of being a Self, together with insights about the inherent potential for dissociative phenomena, provides the background to the view of possession as a cultural technique with a variety of functions. A second insight is that the term possession refers to complex neuro-cultural processes that can be described by means of both cultural and neurological mechanisms. A third insight is that in most ethnographic examples possession is the response or solution to other underlying problems. Against this background the role of exorcism should be reconsidered as clear-cut and worthy of emulation.