Spirit possession: everyone’s doing it

Connor Wood


I haven’t written a post here for more than a week. This is because I have been spending all my free time, and much of my non-free time, furiously writing two articles for an encyclopedia on spirit possession. Yes – you heard that right. Possession. By spirits. The two articles (which were technically due back on, um, January 1st) are about the zar possession cult in northeast Africa and shamanism in Korea, respectively. I wrote my master’s thesis on Korean shamanism, and have had an academic and personal interest in such things ever since. But where does something as wild and spooky as spirit possession fit into religion?

First, let’s be clear about what we mean when we say “spirit possession.” In the zar cults of northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, many people (nearly always women) take part in ecstatic, music-intensive ceremonies that last all night and give a number of spirits, or djinn, the chance to intentionally take possession of their very bodies. It works like this: the women go into a trance while dancing to the clamorous drums, and while they’re checked out, the spirits check in. The spirits cause the women’s bodies to move and talk in strange, foreign ways, dance in wild rhythms, and express sadnesses and pains or cravings. At the end of the night, an animal is usually sacrificed, and the next day everyone goes back to their regular lives – no longer possessed.

Similar sights can be seen all over the world. The Brazilian religion Candomblé, Haitian Vodou, and Siberian Tungus shamanism – from where we get the English word “shaman” – all feature expert practitioners intentionally opening up their bodies to inhabitation by non-human spirits. So does Korean shamanism, which is also female-dominated. Meanwhile, the historical Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist literatures are rife with accounts of demons, spirits, and djinns taking hold of people’s bodies or minds and controlling or influencing them. This is clearly a major feature of world cultures, regardless of how bizarre or crazy we Western observers might think it is.

Because spirit possession turns up so regularly in human societies across the globe, I think we have a responsibility to take it seriously and study it. Why on earth would something like this happen so frequently? What is it about human cognitive or physiological architecture that allows us, even encourages us, to feel as though we’re being taken hold of by outside forces that are different from us, that are somehow completely alien – yet capable of inhabiting us so intimately? This is a very, very interesting question.

You wouldn’t necessarily get this impression reading through the literature in religious studies or the scientific study of religion, though. As far as many scholars of religion are concerned, spirit possession and ecstatic spiritual practices like the zar cult are peripheral sideshows to the real main course of formal religious practice and sacred texts. For the most part, the only folks who really take spirit possession seriously are  anthropologists – because, having actually spent large chunks of their lives hanging out with people who are not middle-class Westerners, they understand that possession and related phenomena are basic features of human existence.

The scientific study of religion also neglects spirit possession. Today, the scientific study of religion is dominated by a few basic research strands. The first of these strands, and the largest, uses the tools of social science – such as surveys, demographic analysis, and so forth – to study things like waxing and waning of American congregations or the health effects of being a faithful churchgoer. Another strand is the study of how religions grew and evolved in human history, and what roles they play in human groups. This is the line of research I spend the most time on, and the one I think has the best connection with evolutionary literature. A third strand, smaller but more focused than the others, is the cognitive science of religion, which asks how human brains give rise to abstract concepts like “gods” or “heaven.”

The astounding prevalence of spirit possession cults around the world, however, makes me think that this is not necessarily the most important question we could be asking. Cognitive scientists of religion want to know how it is that human brains give rise to the sorts of processing errors that make us believe there are such things as invisible gods or incorporeal spirits. Their approach is highly focused on information and cognition and abstract concepts.

For example, one of the most well-accepted theories in the cognitive science of religion is one I’ve written about here recently: namely, the suggestion that religion arises from the overuse of anthropomorphic cognitive programs. Our brains are hardwired to be good at dealing with other humans; a couple hundred millennia of evolution has soldered those connections deeply into our neural circuitry. A lot of evidence suggests that, because our minds are so shaped by our hyper-social evolutionary history, we’re primed to see human-like agency and intentionality in all sorts of supposedly random natural phenomena, like faces in the clouds or the shapes of leaves in the wind. Our minds, then, are preprogrammed to intuit invisible human-like agents everywhere, and to believe in gods.

But here’s the thing: the gods and spirits people encounter in spirit possession cults aren’t abstract or invisible. They take hold of people’s bodies and make them do incredible, fantastic, or dangerous things. They make themselves apparent and act in ways that are recognizable regardless of which individuals they take possession of. This, then, is not people erroneously seeing patterns in randomness, or squinting to see faces in the sky. This is flesh-and-blood people being confronted with living, alien others who intrude into humans’ bodies and bring with them spirit wisdom, difficulties, or healing.

I’m not arguing that you should believe in the objective reality of these spirits, although you certainly can if you want. What I am arguing is that these possession experiences are not easily explained by citing mere cognitive processes. The idea that religion arises from a cognitive error – our tendency to over-intuit agency in our environment – doesn’t do justice to the strangeness that is spiritual possession. And this strangeness is so ubiquitous across human cultures that, clearly, there’s something here to understand. The explanations for it are going to have to be more rigorous and multifaceted than most of the theories that currently dominate the scientific study of religion. And they’re going to have to rely on more than just cognitive misfirings.

It’s also important to realize that spirit possession isn’t even so alien in our own, Western world. The bedrock writings of Christianity, including the church fathers and the writings of the desert monks of the early centuries C.E., are chock-full of stories of spiritual possession. What we think of as the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, were originally demonsthat is, distinct, spiritual beings that intruded into meditating monks’ minds from the outside and tempted them. These demons were also known, interestingly, as logismoi, or “thoughts.” But what’s fascinating is that these “thoughts” were seen as coming from the outside – they were beings who could take over a person’s mind and body if that person wasn’t careful.

Today, spirit possession doesn’t have much cachet among the educated ranks of Western societies, or among, say, mainline Protestants. But the demons haven’t gone away. Demonic possession, especially of a low-grade, non-dramatic style, is a common trope among charismatic American Christians, who often describe sins and bad habits as the work of outside beings. Meanwhile, Pentecostals and Charismatics alike experience the Holy Spirit coming into their bodies from the outside. These are experienced,bodily realities – not abstract propositional ones.

Anti-religion writers and cognitive scientists of religion alike tend to consider religion as if it were mostly sets of abstract, linguistically representable propositions, like “God exists” or “Jesus saves” or “the Flying Spaghetti Monster is real.” But spirit possession shows us that propositions don’t even come close to covering all the territory of religion. People in zar cults or leaders of Korean shamanic rituals don’t believe in spirits. They experience and embody them. If we really want to tackle the question of what religion is and why we humans have it, we have to look squarely at practices that don’t fit into our own, Western cultural schemas – because they do fit into almost everyone else’s.


Note – I’ve edited this post to correct the spelling of the word “Vodou” to match preferred standards.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    the gods and spirits people encounter in spirit possession cults aren’t abstract or invisible. They take hold of people’s bodies and make them do incredible, fantastic, or dangerous things.

    Wow, huge jump here. People do incredible, fantastic, dangerous things, so you assume that the “spirits” they talk about must be real?

    not easily explained by citing mere cognitive processes

    Are we just suppose to take your word for that. “Mere” ? Really?

    No one claims religion arises SOLEY from “ our tendency to over-intuit agency in our environment” — you were wrong in your other post on that and you are wrong here. Yet you are trying to use that for support again. Argghhh.

    They make themselves apparent and act in ways that are recognizable regardless of which individuals they take possession of.

    Could you give objective studies for that? Heck, any study would do.

    People from completely different cultures, not trained (subconsciously) how a spirit should affect them, all act the same with that spirit possess them?

    Benny Hinn followers may all act the same, when slain in the spirit, but it ain’t no holy spirit. QiGong patients may move the same, but it ain’t the Qi.

    Schizophrenic can hear voices from outside themselves, and “ do incredible, fantastic, dangerous things” — do we need to reconsider that this is the spirit realm?

    I am an atheist who feels that religion is far, far more that truth propositions by believers. I argue with fellow atheists all the time on this and am accused of being an accomodationalist. I even think religion can and does do much good. But your arguments here certainly brings me not one step closer to thinking about spirits that come to us from outside our minds and even possess some.

    But to confuse matters: here is my personal story of being possessed by a Japanese spirit.

  • connorwood

    > Could you give objective studies for that? Heck, any study would do.

    Yes, read Janice Boddy’s “Wombs and Alien Spirits” and Laurel Kendall’s “Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits.” Each of these ethnographies details regular appearances of spirits who act in predictable ways within their cultures. If you’re possessed by Spirit X in zar, you’ll act the way other people do when they’re possessed by Spirit X.

    This does NOT hold cross-culturally. So a naturalistic explanation for these things is pretty easy to find: people learn performances and then reenact them.

    >I’m not arguing that you should believe in the objective reality of these spirits, although you certainly can if you want. What I am arguing is that these possession experiences are not easily explained by citing mere cognitive processes.

    In this piece, I’m not arguing for the reality of the spirits. What I’m arguing for is the need for people who study religion to take phenomena like spirit possession more seriously and actually study it.

  • amanimal

    Thanks Connor, you’re right – it has never occurred to me that such an interesting and widespread aspect of religious belief/behavior was being overlooked or neglected. The only prominent work I found was a paper by Emma Cohen, Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford, from 2008, 2 papers she coauthored with Justin Barrett(also 2008), and her book, ‘The mind possessed: The cognition of spirit possession in an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition’, Cohen 2007.


    “What is it about human cognitive or physiological architecture that allows us, even encourages us, to feel as though we’re being taken hold of by outside forces that are different from us, that are somehow completely alien – yet capable of inhabiting us so intimately?” – C Wood

    “The unconscious cognitive model at the top of the hierarchy is significantly independent from consciousness and guides consciousness in many ways, in particularly toward feeling its highest purposiveness. This model therefore has the property of an *agent*, independent from one‘s consciousness, but in control of it. In traditional societies as well as among religious peoples everywhere this is called God.” (page 12)

    ‘Scientific Understanding of Emotions of the Religiously Sublime’, Perlovsky 2012 (preprint)http://www.leonid-perlovsky.com/new-materials/5,%20Sublime%20Emotions,%20preprint.pdf

    (published as ‘The Cognitive Function of Emotions of Spiritually Sublime’, Frontiers in Psychological and Behavioral Science, Vol. 1 Iss. 1 2012)

    I’d propose that one way to initiate the possession experience is to alter/diminish conscious faculities so that unconscious behavioral impulses come to the fore. Behavior is then seen as initiated by God, gods, spirits, djinn, etc.

    … and a clarification if I may:

    “Anti-religion writers and cognitive scientists of religion alike …” – C Wood

    *Unlike* the anti-religion writers, cognitive scientists of religion seek to understand why and how people come to hold such beliefs and how they are perpetuated rather than determine the proposition’s truth value. Conversely, anti-religion writers are often only concerned with whether or not the proposition can be proven to be true.

  • http://saracamis.blogspot.com/ Sara Amis

    It’s not just non-Western cultures, or even non-Christian religions. “Speaking in tongues” and prophesying in a Pentecostal church is recognizably a form of spirit possession…though the “spirit” in question is the “Holy Spirit.”

    Spirit possession is also practiced in a number of (neo) Pagan religions, including my own.

  • Y. A. Warren

    In much of the reading I’ve done, it seems that those who are expected to be possessed by spirits often use psychoactive drugs to induce their trances. Is this reality?

    Also, we do have many people who are simply suggestible and able to give themselves over to hypnosis, both self-hyspnosis and hypnosis by others. This would seem to play into those who are able to experience unseen spirits and those who are not. Thirdly, there are many forms of what we call “mental instability” or “insanity” that manifest in ways very similar to what others describe as being “taken over by spirits.”

    It seems that the problems in spirits is in controlling how they lead people. There is an adage in psychology that there is no good or bad behavior; there is simply behavior that works and behavior that doesn’t work. Each society sets up boundaries for what they define as “behavior that works” and behavior that doesn’t work.”

    I’m fairly convinced that crowds become somewhat possessed by spirits that may not be experienced by one, but take over when many of these spirits are combined. This seems to be why crowds typically turn to ritual to bond them. They have to quiet their consciousness in order to be taken over.

  • connorwood

    You’ll see that I mention Pentecostals at the end of the piece – 2nd paragraph from the end.

  • Ian

    Great article. Might I point out that the proper spelling for Voodoo (in reference to Haitian religion) is actually Vodou? The term Voodoo contains a lot of misrepresentation/misconceptions and is actually not an accepted form of spelling/pronunciation by practitioners or scholar-practitioners of this tradition.

  • Amba

    I completely agree, but instead of arguing that you can believe if you want, or not – I think the only way to actually academically study any practice generally marginalized by Western academics is to engage with it on its own terms, or else it stands as an exotic, cultural, religious ‘outlier’ that can never compete with our own dominant signature body of knowledge derived from science. Our view of the human may not be ‘correct’ at all, given we all have experiences which break the limits of self (or go against the notion of private bounded bodies), and occasionally we have knowledge of situations or persons (especially intuitions regarding injuries to loved ones, or deaths) which occur despite a lack of proximity.

    Belief counts when proposing to ‘take seriously’ the practices of other peoples, because you have to get outside your own ontology. And I agree, cognitive science explanations are laughable, and incredibly Christianised (!) as is plenty of scientific belief – I think we will go to just about any length to deny that there is anything agential in the ‘spaces between us’, a hangover from our Manichean demon days:-) We expend such a lot of energy ‘proving’ there is nothing there, that death is medical, final, nothing spooky there, that the privacy of our brain-minds inside our heads is fixed, final, agreed upon, and that the body is a machine, separate from nature and other animals, with whom we’d like not to be associated so we can keep treating them with careless disregard. Look anywhere in the world in any culture, including the ‘west’, and you will find mediums, diviners, medical intuitives, people who ‘know’ about plant medicines, people who can work with the energies of the body and the world around them, people who have dreams that come to pass, people who know who it is when the phone rings, and mothers who know when their kid has fallen off a swing at the park. Its possible that everywhere humans are the same, and we are thinking the human wrong.

  • Nemo

    Within psychology, the Dissociative Identity Disorder (basically, having multiple personalities) is not a thing confirmed to exist despite the fact that the concept is more well known to society at large than classical conditioning. Why? Symptoms of DID can be induced in people who do not have it by a skilled psychologist who wants to find it. This sort of phenomenon is also often the case with repressed memories. Repressed memories do not work the way Hollywood thinks they do; with a repressed memory, you will retain a synopsis of what happened, you just won’t vividly remember it. Many a UFO encounter story can often be shown to be heavily distorted; oftentimes, the UFO “researchers” will be able to convince someone that their personal experience was something that it wasn’t.
    What does this have to do with possession, then? Simple. It shows that you can’t always rely on personal testimony. People convince themselves after the fact of things which did not happen. Crowd psychology, especially when the crowd is trying to have an experience, can have the same effect.

  • connorwood

    Nemo, I doubt that many anthropologists who actually study spirit possession religions would agree with your analysis. You’re using research on psychological manipulation to explain spirit possession away, which I don’t think is very helpful. The more interesting thing to do is to accept that some of the same sorts of psychological and crowd-psychological effects that you bring up are probably happening, but then to examine how these effects play out, in which social contexts, under what conditions, and according to which cultural models. Why do certain people become possessed but not others? Why are some spirits interpreted as good and helpful and others aren’t? How has spirit possession played into the history of religion and culture? This line of inquiry might actually tell us something useful about us as human beings, about religion, and about our spiritual instincts, rather than merely skimming over it with an explanatory nod.

  • connorwood

    Noted, Ian. Thanks.

  • lilithdorsey

    I am curious what you think about the disproportionate number of women that undergo the phenomenon of trance, particularly in regards to your work with Korean Shamanism. I am interested both as an anthropologist and priestess, focusing on New Orleans Voodoo and Haitian Vodou, that also feature this predilection.

  • Marian

    Good luck in your investigation into this whole area. It is needed.

  • connorwood

    Hi Lilithdorsey, the gender dynamics of spirit possession are really fascinating, and have been the subject of a lot of really interesting scholarly analysis. I’d recommend reading two books especially:

    Ecstatic Religion, by IM Lewis
    Wombs and Alien Spirits, by Janice Boddy

    In Ecstatic Religion, Lewis argues that “peripheral” possession cults are often led by women, while “central” cults are usually led by men. Peripheral cults are those that run counter to a dominant culture – which is the case in Korean and North Africa – and are usually looked down on by official cultural or religious authorities. By contrast, in a culture like the Siberian Tungus people, spirit possession is usually experienced by men, who become shamans (this is the culture we get the word “shaman” from). Among the Tungus, shamanism IS the dominant religious culture.

    Lewis argues that women in strict, hierarchical cultures use spirit possession as a way of gaining social power or leverage in situations where otherwise they have no leverage. Tungus culture is relatively egalitarian and not very rigid, and so there’s no need for such peripheral, counter-hegemonic cults.

    Janice Boddy contests Lewis’ thesis, and claims that Zar practitioners in North and East Africa are not actually “rebelling” against the status quo or trying to express political frustrations. Instead, women are experimenting with identities in a culture that doesn’t allow them many choices. (Personally, I’m not sure that Boddy’s claim actually contradicts Lewis’s. But in academia you have to kill those who came before in order to gain your space at the table.)

    Finally, I’d also suggest looking into the work of Erika Bourguignon. She’s the one who really demonstrated demographically that women tend to be the subjects of spirit possession in large, hierarchical, urban, and agriculture-based cultures, while men tend to be the possessed in smaller-scale, hunter-gatherer, and more egalitarian societies. Good luck and happy reading!

  • connorwood

    P.S. For Korean Shamanism, check out Laurel Kendall’s “Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman” and Chongho Kim’s “Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox.” These two scholars offer quite different views (okay, they hate each other), but they’re both really insightful and give powerful analyses of shamanism in Korea – which is VERY centrally focused on gender and power.

  • connorwood

    > it seems that those who are expected to be possessed by spirits often use psychoactive drugs to induce their trances.

    In some cultures, but not in Korean Shamanism or African/Arabic Zar. More commonly around the world, possession is facilitated by music and drumming.

    > there are many forms of what we call “mental instability” or “insanity” that manifest in ways very similar to what others describe as being “taken over by spirits.”

    Yes. Read Evagrius, the early Christian desert monk, for a fascinating example of this.

  • lilithdorsey

    I have read these as well :) I guess I was looking for your personal opinion.

  • lilithdorsey

    I’ve read the Lewis and the Bourguignon as part of my graduate work at NYU on possession. I am excited to check out Boddy’s work however, as this has been my experience with women and possession both in my scholarly research and as an initiate of Vodou, Santeria/Lucumi, and New Orleans Voodoo.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Wow, Conner! Now that summary was excellent and revealing about the workings of spirit possession in a very telling way. Superb summary and informative. It has a very different feel from your post, for me. I don’t hear the other stuff here.

    For example, here you mention “mere” sociological/psychological workings without alluding to more and deriding these authors for their explanation models.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I have a deep distrust of ritual because I’m never sure what spirits will be let in to myself or others.

  • connorwood

    Sounds like you might like my academic writings more than my blog posts, Sabio. Maybe one of these days I’ll do a more academic-style post here; generally, though, I’m writing for the public in an informal style at Patheos, and probably not getting into the scholarly ins and outs the way you seem to crave. One wears different ties to different dinners.

  • connorwood

    Ah! Well, my personal opinion is that Lewis was onto something, but not to everything. Clearly, women become possessed in Korea because the Confucian Korean system is very, very hard on women and also very, very rigid. My master’s thesis was actually an ethological analysis of the Korean shamanic spirit sickness, 신병 (sinbyeong), in light of physiological social defeat responses. Social defeat responses (including disrupted circadian rhythms, compromised immunofunction, and even abnormal stimulation of the dopaminergic mesolimbic pathways that are associated with psychosis) are intensified in both animals and humans under circumstances of entrapment, in which the subject has no opportunity to escape or alter its subordinate status in a locked-down dominance hierarchy. This situation describes being a poor woman in Confucian Korea pretty nicely: you literally have almost no options for expressing agency, since your role expectations are almost completely dictated by Confucian norms under which you are always subordinate to a man (husband, older brother, or father). This structure has weakened a lot over the last decades, especially in Seoul and other big cities, but Western-style individualism hasn’t done a good job of replacing the Confucian hierarchy with something satisfying, because expectations of a stable Confucian system are still deeply embedded in the culture. So it’s a liberalizing world with deeply conservative social expectations that are no longer fulfilled, and nobody knows what to do. Sinbyeong, then, is in part (but only in part) a culturally mediated expression of physiological social defeat, and shamanism is thriving in the new liberal Korean society for many of the same reasons it persisted in the past: it provides options for agency in a social milieu where many people, especially powerless people and especially women, don’t otherwise get to have much agency.

    One of the reasons I think women become the targets of spirit possession in rigid, large-scale, hierarchical cultures is because possession is such a somatic, embodied phenomenon, and in such cultures affairs of the body often become consigned to women while abstract or de-corporealized affairs are awarded to men. Men therefore often try to suppress shamanic possession not only because it’s theologically incorrect (as in Confucian, Buddhist, and Christian Korea and Muslim Africa), but also because it’s inherently low-status inasmuch as it’s somatic rather than reflective. Women are forced to corporately symbolize the irrational and the uncontrollable in many rigid, hierarchical cultures, and possession is both of these things.

    I have a question for you: I was discussing with an anthropologist friend from Tulane today the fact that possession cults all have ways of telling “fakes” from truly possessed priestesses/subjects. I’ve seen this myself; I went to a Voudu fête once where one woman clearly faked being possessed by Damballah. It was cringe-inducing to experience, a massive social misstep. But I don’t know how I knew that she was faking it. Everyone there could sort of sense that she wasn’t legit, but darn if I could tell you how. Any ideas?

  • connorwood

    That’s why you have to have spiritual leaders who DO know which spirits will be let in. Over time, you become expert in knowing how to perform rituals in the right way and not in the wrong way. But you have to learn it from experts! And of course you have to be able to trust the experts – not always an easy task.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I learned the hard way to trust nobody who attempts to “relax” my control over my frontal lobe function.

    I had a friend who was a professional public relations person for a large, prestigious teaching medical center. He said that the worst part of his job was that the better he was at presenting his clients, the worse they got, because they began to believe the press that he wrote about them.

    This, by and large, in my experience, is how it is with those that people begin to follow. they begin to believe they are kings, prophets, priests, or gods.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    It is both your tone, the perspective and lack of jabs at other unnamed groups that differ. A lot differs. Part of you comes out here between the lines which I think I keep trying to bring up.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    And “not always an easy task” for good reasons. Because trust religious professionals have let to sexual and psychological abuse in many religions.

  • connorwood

    Power definitely corrupts. It’s one of the great tragedies of being human. On the other hand, not everyone who has power gets corrupted. A mother has power over her infant, but in most cases she uses that power for the infant’s benefit. In the instances when she DOESN’T, it can create deep, lasting traumatic wounds. But that some people bear these wounds isn’t reason enough for most people to write off all mothers.

    When it comes to relaxing executive functions, you might be interested in the work of William McClenon, who theorizes that the evolutionary origins of religion lie in our ability to manipulate one another’s physiological functioning through techniques like hypnosis and trance for medical purposes. The placebo effect is very real, no matter whether we know how it functions yet. People who are more susceptible to hypnosis and similar techniques are also more susceptible to placebo benefits – clearly not always a bad thing. So there’s probably a long evolutionary history of ADAPTIVE surrendering of executive function to spiritual/medical healers.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    I strongly agree with you, Connor, that the social explanation can be a huge part of an accurate analysis is spirit possession — especially ritualize, repeatable practices of such. But as my story showed, possession happens to where almost no social element plays a crucial role but instead, a purely psychological.

    The point is, like all phenomena, they can be complexly multi-faceted, eh — I am sure we agree there.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    I am not a scholar, nor versed in the literature, but have been around the block of odd experiences. And never hesitant to venture an opinion. :-) So here’s some:
    Some folks are naturals at generating songs, rap-music and such things. When a non-natural tries it, it is apparent. At a party I was invited to recently, parents all put up the children to perform music (we did not know it was going to happen). It was clear, though the kids were around the same ages, who were the naturals and those who weren’t as gifted/talented/natural yet.

    Likewise, I am often detected as an outside when in circles where common culture signal are important — right sort of conversations, correct head-nods and up-to-date on pop-culture and sports. I am quickly picked out as not-natural. A good mimic, a natural trancer and a self-deceptive person may be better at these skills.

    I did magic with my acupuncture needles at one time — but since my belief has faded, so did the magic.

    All those, I think, can be part of what must also be a multi-faceted cause for what you point out.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “So there’s probably a long evolutionary history of ADAPTIVE surrendering of executive function to spiritual/medical healers.” I believe that this is true, and probably appropriate before the advent of the scientific method of inquiry.

    As a cradle Roman Catholic, born in 1951, to parents who had also been cradle Catholics, I was brainwashed before birth by the very carefully crafted rituals of the religion of my parents. I was then educated and indoctrinated for twelve years by the Roman Catholic school system.

    The power proclaimed by the Roman Catholic Church to not only shun a person, but to send a person to eternal hell fire was so powerful to my parents that they spent their lives attempting to make their nine children perfect “even as your heavenly father is perfect.”

    The stories of the abuses of the children of this absolutely observant roman catholic couple are too many to enumerate here. suffice it to say that our parents continued to protect the church instead of standing up for their children. This is the power of ritual and religion. Both are evil because they disconnect the judgement centers of the brain.

  • lilithdorsey

    I just had this conversation about “fakes” with a Babalawo probably right as you were typing this. His advice was that personally if it sounds like a productive and sound suggestion, go with it, if it sounds wacky, maybe you need some meds. As for me I have very different answers depending on which hat I am wearing at the time. As an anthropologist and scholar I would say that veracity and efficacy depends on how many members of the community believe the messages that are coming through said possession. For example if everyone standing around is saying “look at that lunacy,” or my personal favorite ” she is possessed by the spirit of Santa Borracha,” that has just as much, if not more bearing on the situation than debating the genuine presence of spirit. On many levels for good or ill possession operates as a social mechanism, a conversation I touched on recently in my review/discussions with Peter Geschiere about his new book Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust and also in my blog post “Possession is 9/10th of Voodoo Law.” As for the gender issue in this context it can provide women, and other oftentimes marginalized voices in the community to survive and thrive in this context, if they have insight, charisma, talent and faith. Now as a Voodoo priestess, and initiate of Santeria/Lucumi, and Haitian Vodou, my answer under the influence of spirit possession or out is “Set them on fire, if they don’t burn spirit is present.” Now I don’t mean this in a cavalier way, but spirit possession in the Afro-Diasporan tradition is characterized by initiation, training, and rigorous supreme/extreme testing. I myself have danced on fire (if I can write that without losing street cred, I do have witnesses,) and seen others lift up people 300 lbs heavier than them, speak in tongues completely foreign to them, bark and howl like a dog, eat dirt, turn into a human bowling ball, the list goes on. There is way too much “fake” or what I like to refer to as attention seeking possession going on. This however, has always been the case. Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to answer my query in such eloquent detail, it has truly been a pleasure discussing this with you, and I hope we can continue to communicate in the future.

  • connorwood

    A pleasure indeed! Please come back around these parts often.