A Pagan View on Exorcism

This weekend, a group of American Catholic leaders are meeting in Baltimore to discuss how “to prepare more priests and bishops to respond to the demand” for more exorcisms. The article in the New York Times makes it clear that the Catholic church is responding to a demand from the laity, and that they carefully screen people to separate those needing psychological care from those who are truly possessed. I have many issues with the theology and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m inclined to take them at their word here.
Jason Pitzl-Waters at The Wild Hunt has this piece on the conference and what it means for Pagans. He expresses some concern that an increase in talk about Satan may lead to yet more confusion of Paganism with Satanism and trouble for all of us. That’s not an unreasonable concern.
What I find most interesting are the comments from Pagans, many of whom take a very skeptical, materialist view of the matter. It seems odd that people who regularly call to the Spirits of the Elements and Directions, who pour offerings to Nature Spirits, who worship every god and goddess known to humanity suddenly turn into Humanists when the subject of Christian entities is brought up.
I understand much of what has been called “demon possession” is mental illness and should be treated as such. Yet there are cases in many cultures and traditions that are better explained by malevolent entities than by mental illness. There are instances where exorcisms do work (and plenty where they don’t, but that doesn’t mean they’re all bogus).
If there are spirits in the world (nature spirits, spirits of the dead, gods and demigods), it is naïve to assume they are all advanced beings who wish us well. Some humans are pretty nasty people – if their spirits hang around our world, it’s reasonable to assume that at least some of them would enjoy harassing the living. The tales of our ancestors speak of gods and goddesses who harm humans (the Greek Furies come to mind). And what of the thought-forms we create (intentionally or not) when we are angry, jealous, or spiteful?
I have not experienced possession first-hand, either as a victim or as an exorcist. But I have done house cleansings, for myself and for others. In one there was a dark energy (I won’t call it an entity, but it might have been) so strong even I could locate it. Another felt “dirty,” as though the residue of stress and arguments had built up over the years and needed to be cleaned out. The cleansings all helped – the atmosphere of the houses became brighter, cheerier, and less fearful.
I once discussed exorcisms with a minister in the Church of Religious Science. She had done a few exorcisms, which she described as intensive versions of the “prayer treatments” practiced in Religious Science. But the one she talked about most was the exorcism she couldn’t do. A young woman who was a recent immigrant from Mexico came to see her about a spirit that was troubling her. A Catholic priest had tried and failed to get rid of the spirit. The Religious Science minister couldn’t either. But she put the woman in touch with a traditional healer in Los Angeles (the minister called the healer a brujah – I don’t know if that’s a correct use of the term or not) who successfully performed the exorcism.
When I told this story to a friend who had just completed a degree in anthropology, she said “the trick was to find a shaman from the right tribe.” It makes sense that different cultures would respond to different exorcism techniques, but I didn’t think to ask whether it mattered to the malevolent spirit or to the victim. Or to both.
I think we are wise to be skeptical when someone claims “the devil made me do it.” Mental illness is far too common in our world, and we need to be quick to recognize it and treat it with appropriate therapies and when absolutely necessary, with medication. But there are times when a person or a place is suffering from what is best understood as malevolent entities and energies. I wish the Catholics good luck in helping their tribe deal with this problem. We Pagans need to be ready to help our tribes as well.
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  • John wrote:
    "What I find most interesting are the comments from Pagans, many of whom take a very skeptical, materialist view of the matter."


    The idea that the Roman Catholic Church is thinking about doing more exorcisms should be troubling to anyone who is concerned about the well-being of others.

    We should keep in mind the 1973 death of exorcism victim Anneliese Michel, a 23-year-old who had her first psychiatric episode at the age of 16. She apparently suffered from depression, epileptic seizures, and various hallucinations. Her zealous Catholic family believed she was possessed by Satan and recruited two priests who performed the exorcism ritual 67 times on the mentally ill woman.

    The parents of a 13-month-old infant claimed that they were trying to drive the demons out of their daughter, but law enforcement officers say the bottom line is that the couple bludgeoned the little girl to death with a hammer and other objects and bit her more than 20 times.

    A recent case in Romania, where a nun named Irina Maricica Cornici is to have her body exhumed for forensic tests. The general Prosecutors office ruled that the 23 year old nun who had been secretly tied up, and chained to a cross for several days without food or water during the ritual, was killed unlawfully. A monk and 4 nuns have been charged with her murder, and in a bid to prove he is innocent, the monk has asked the brother of the nun to come forward as he asked for the exorcism, to cure her mental illness, which is believed to be schizophrenia.

    This isn't an instance of Pagans turning excessively skeptical and materialistic.

    It's simply a matter of risk vs. benefits.

    The odds are very unlikely that a person will be hurt in a worship setting calling the Spirits of the Elements and Directions.

    Similarly, a pagan cleansing ritual in one's home is a low-risk procedure.

    However, we have too many deaths associated with exorcisms and many would feel that it's right to be skeptical here. The risks of injury and/or are simply not worth the unproven benefits of the exorcism procedure.

    It's pretty easy to find evidence of exorcism leading to death (I found the examples listed above with a few minutes of Googling).

    Given this very real risk of death and uncertain benefits of exorcism, pagans and others who care about the well-being of others have good reason to be concerned.

  • Steve, your concerns are valid. Safety is an even greater concern when it comes to Evangelical exorcisms, which I didn't mention but Jason touched on briefly in his Wild Hunt piece. They tend to have far less training than the Catholics (in theology, psychology, and pastoral care, not just in exorcism), and from what I've read and seen they're actively seeking to perform exorcisms, not doing them for people who come to them as a last resort.

    But the risks you describe are the risks of doing exorcisms poorly. Zeal is no substitute for training, practice, and a cool head. Those qualities are essential even – especially – when dealing with things that defy logic.

    More on this in a future blog post…