Possession is a phenomenon that fascinates people. Maybe because it represents a loss of control, or maybe because it represents a connection with something better, but people’s interest in the topic is only gaining strength. Rebecca Seligman’s book Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves is just one of many books on possession published recently.
Seligman’s book focuses on her experiences and research within the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomble. As Seligman is a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, hers is a social science approach to the sacred phenomenon. She begins by tackling some of the important, yet difficult to understand, aspects of the Candomble religion. Seligman starts by getting a head reading, or a reading for her ruling Orixas. This is a logical first step in any Afro-Diasporan tradition. She then goes on to do an in depth analysis of all the components that come together to form a possession experience. Interviewing several mediums, Seligman describes “ the dominant theme of their stories was not one of suffering or conflict; it was one of healing and transformation. “
Much of this book centers on the body as focus for transformation. This is a fascinating topic for me as an anthropologist, choreographer, and priestess. It is also a topic that people don’t address very often. Seligman delves into this from a psycho-social perspective. Explaining that many factors go into the process of initiation, several involving the whole community to make the ceremonies happen. The experience of embodiment and body memory are also explored. Intertwining with the divine and thereby gaining new physical knowledge is something that she witness here, but many of us have experienced in other African-based traditions. In many ways it is not only transformation, but rebirth.
It makes sense that Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves has a focus on this bodily experience. Seligman’s own biography describes her as:
“ a medical and psychological anthropologist who focuses on transcultural psychiatry, or the study of mental health in cross-cultural perspective. Her research interests involve critical examination of the social and political-economic forces that affect the experience and distribution of mental and physical illness, with an emphasis on understanding the mechanisms through which social experiences become embodied. “
Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves is a valuable work for any serious student of possession. It’s an academic text, so be prepared. Rebecca Seligman lays out both her personal experience, and her professional acumen.
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