Spirit Possession

I have to admit that the definition I first wrote down describing illness was not the same as when I finished doing the categorization activity. I found myself judging the various states of being on more conditions than the ones I had previously listed. I shaped my definition as I came to realize my personal beliefs. I ended up defining illness as ‘a state of being unwell or sick, either physically or psychologically or a combination of both, that arises due to environmental factors, as infection from bacteria, the presence of a virus or a disease.’ I still can see the fault in it because it contains culture specific terms but at the same time, I believe they can only be defined culturally. These terms or just the distinction between the two might not even exist in the languages of some people and therefore absent in their realities as well. I believe that all of our experiences are so deeply intertwined that you cannot pinpoint the source of these terms. Everything around us works together to shape our grasp on reality. American society, our foundation in science, the tendency to visit doctors on a regular basis, the media, all contribute to how we view illness and deal with it.

I had trouble with ‘spirit possession’ because I have no personal experience with it. I have experienced the flu, heard about cancer from friends, and seen people with old age but I have only read once or twice about spirit possession and it still lies so far away from my sphere of reality that I cannot come to define it at all. Shyness, on the other hand, was an easy one. I believe that it is purely a personality trait in American culture. It is a way someone behaves and communicates and it is not a bad thing nor should it necessarily be cured unless the individual feels the need to break out of their “shell”. Anxiety fell in the middle of the distinction for me. On the one end, it can be a temporary emotion, such as when an individual is nervous for a test or job interview. If it is something that starts to interfere with daily life and happens frequently and without obvious reason, then I think it begins to become a mental illness. This is when an individual in our own culture would think about seeing a psychiatrist in hopes of sorting out and dealing with his/her stresses.

5 thoughts on “Spirit Possession

  1. Spirit possession is not something that everyone believes in at all, let alone believes that it is an actual illness. Spiritual people tend to believe in spirit possession as an ailment, and different religions deal with it differently. In Chuuk of the Federated States of Micronesia, Christianity is prominent. In Chuuk, they consult different people to heal the inflicted. The most common way of dealing with a spirit possession is to have a Catholic priest treat the afflicted person, though protestant faith healers and local healers are also sometimes consulted in the treating of someone suffering from spirit possession. The people of Chuuk realize that there is also a psychological aspect to spirit possession and attribute it to stress felt by the inflicted, usually due to some sort of strife in the family.

    Then there are religions that do not see spirit possession as an illness, but as a way to get better answers from the spirit world. In Hinduism, priests and priestesses use themselves as mediums for deities. This spirit possession is used to get answers better than just “yes” or “no”. It is also used to find out what sorts of spirits are afflicting someone else and how to get rid of them or how to get them to be benevolent.


  2. I had the same problem with spirit possession, but decided to choose anxiety as my hard classify disorder. Spirit possession is tricky because it does not only include possible medical problems, but is almost entirely based on magic. This makes it hard to classify as a disease, but since there are possible medical issues with it, you cannot completely rule out that it is a disease. According to Buddhism, spirit possession is mostly felt by children. It usually takes the form of an animal, like a cow, lion, fox, monkey, or horse. In some cases this possession can be seen as detrimental, but some say that this phenomenon highly beneficial. In the ways of Haitian voodoo, it is said to have a spiritual experience is to be possessed by “the Iwa.” When the Iwa possesses the person, that spirit is free to use that person’s body. It is believed that some spirits may hold prophesies that pertain to the possessed person. In the Islamic faith, possession is said to only occur from demons, and that sinners are much more likely to become possessed that a devoted believer. Within Christianity it is believed that fallen angels, or demons, are able to possess a person with out his or her knowledge. They believe many spirits inhabit the world, but only the demons are capable of such ways of forced possession.

  3. I also find spirit possession to be one of the more difficult conditions to define as either illness or not. I think this is because spirit possession is not something that we hear about very much in our culture. I found an article that talk about spirit from a class I took on religion and culture. Janice Boddy’s article “Spirits and Selves in Northern Sudan: The Cultural Therapeutics of Possession and Trance” talks about the Hofriyati women of North Sudan who have very few rights and their self-worth is tied to their fertility. Women in this culture are seen as susceptible to spirit possession due to their moral frailty (10). Possession begins by the woman falling sick. Possession is seen as a life-long illness and is only hoped to be controlled through a curing ceremony. In this ceremony the woman falls into a trance. “When the spirit that plagues her is summoned, the patient ideally enters trance; now identified, the intruder manifests itself through her body and makes known its demands, in return for which it should agree to restore, and refrain from further jeopardizing, her well-being” (11). From the point of view of the Hofriyati, spirit possession is an illness but Boddy also looks at it in another light, as a temporary reprieve for social injustice. Because of these women’s lack of rights, these bouts of possession can be seen as a sort of rebellion against the restrictions of being female. The spirits that possess them have distinct personalities and are of different genders and nationalities. While under the influence of these spirits women act in ways that are outside of their cultural norms and can make demands that they would not be able to in their normal lives.

    • Forgot the citation…sorry!

      Spirits and Selves in Northern Sudan: The Cultural Therapeutics of Possession and Trance Janice Boddy American Ethnologist , Vol. 15, No. 1, Medical Anthropology (Feb., 1988), pp. 4-27

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