Demonic Possession and the Demon
A discussion on Demonic Possession in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.
Demonic possession in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries was something that, like witchcraft, became enormously popular and widespread especially amongst adolescent teenagers. There is no doubt that there were fraudulent possessions where people used the ‘celebrity’ status that they could gain for money or attention. Likewise, there were undoubtedly cases of repressed teenage pleasure in which an adolescent might cry out for attention as “people lie readily about their most intimate beliefs. How much more must they have lied in an atmosphere of unembarrassed repression?”1 However, this essay looks to debate whether all cases of possession were either fraudulent or a result of repressed teenagers or whether there were other reasons for possession ranging from ambition from the various sectors of religion to the realisation that actual demonic possession was a possibility. In defining the terms of the question, it will be argued that those who committed fraud were knowingly acting or pretending to be possessed to gain some kind of reward whereas those who might have had repressed teenage pleasures were not necessarily knowledgeable that their possession was false. It must also be examined whether cases in which adolescents might be accused, by present day historians, of having repressed teenage pleasures were in fact that or if there was some other possible explanation. In concluding, the essay will determine if the above statement can be considered correct or if there is evidence to suggest some other explanation. This may either be an explanation or diagnosis of possession by historians or it may imply that diagnosis is not necessarily the solution but rather that the acceptance of possession as being a reality should be considered.
In the sixteen hundreds, roughly forty percent of people were under the age of twenty-one and there was a significant focus on the behaviour of adolescents. It was felt that the adolescent period was a time in a person’s life when a battle for good or evil took place within them. Sin would be within them and if it prevailed it could “impede both their own spiritual development and the running of an orderly Christian Commonwealth.”2 Sharpe argues that the huge amount of adolescent possessions were probably unexplained illnesses that modern day psychologists and doctors could cure with medicines or therapy. However, such assumptions seem almost naïve as although physicians undoubtedly could not explain some things which could be explained today, there are other factors which go beyond mental disorder. There is no modern day explanation for an illiterate who suddenly can speak fluent Greek or Latin and furthermore diagnoses’ such as epilepsy are certainly incorrect as the symptoms are very different. That is not to say that epilepsy might not have been mistaken for possession but in the vast majority of cases recorded it seems highly unlikely. Another explanation Sharpe gives for possessions are that the victims had knowledge of possession and exorcisms, as most people did, and knew scripture from attending church amongst other things. He does not doubt that the victims might have actually thought that they were possessed but again this social conditioning does not even begin to explain the phenomenon which occurs in a possession. He argues that “the growing body of knowledge about possession and witchcraft” was a cause of how the possessed knew to have “extraordinary and supernatural strength, and supernatural knowledge.”3 However, there seems to be an obvious problem with this as just because a person knows about the symptoms of possession does not mean that they are suddenly capable of superhuman strength and knowledge. Thus, ultimately it can be argued that Sharpe fails to explain the causes behind possession because of his willingness to ignore certain facts.
Stuart Clark refers to the case of Marthe Brossier who had various exorcisms enacted upon her but with the use of normal water instead of holy water and fake wood pretending to be from the true cross. Words spoken were sometimes that of Virgil rather than the exorcism rite. This kind of test would surely seem to show whether or not demonic possession was a fraud. However, it could be argued that the Devil, in line with his deceptive ways, might want to spread doubt about his existence in the body of the possessed. To quote the recent film ‘The Rite’: “Does a thief turn on the lights when he's robbing your house? No. He prefers you to believe he is not there. Like the devil.”4 This shows how evidence of fraud through tests on the patient did not necessarily mean that the patient was not possessed but rather, could mean that the demon wanted to spread doubt into those performing the exorcism. Furthermore, “children were removed from their parents, whisked before bishops and subjected to considerable pressure to make them confess themselves fraudulent”5 if they were found to be possessed, suggesting that they were not always believed if symptoms of demonic intrusion were found but rather put to the test first.
Clark lists several ways in which possession could be explained. He talks about neuro and psycho-psychological trances, hysteria caused through stress to people under ‘intra-psychic’ tension and then social circumstances. However, he states that it is important to look at possession through the eyes of anthropology. Using this basis “it should also be noted that these less attractive symptoms appear regardless of gender, age or social status, as do the more pleasurable ones, placing question marks against the idea of possession as adolescent rebellion”6 as if an adolescent is suffering symptoms which are the same as an older person it might, therefore, not necessarily show signs of psychiatric childhood repression. It may, however, show that the victim is familiar with the symptoms of demonic possession and, therefore, knows the criteria on what to act out. Although repressed teenage pleasures and fraud could fit into the above explanations as well as other possible scientific or social explanations, there are cases where it is almost impossible to see it as a hoax or child acting. For example, a teenager who suffers contortions and blasphemes and hates everything religious could possibly be considered a fraud or suffering from some ineptitude of the mind. A teenager who on top of those things starts to cough up pins or nails and has super-human strength, could still, in theory be psychologically sick and have swallowed them earlier. If speaking in tongues, languages that the person does not know, on top of this, occurs then it is still scientifically possible, although unlikely, that everything can be explained without accepting demonic possession. However, if on top of all of these things, the teenager or adult is able to know the unknowable; that is to say he can know something that is scientifically impossible for him to know, then surely demonic possession must no longer be considered fraud or a sign of repressed teenage pleasure or any other known scientific explanation. Rather, the possibility that the possessed is in fact possessed must be seriously considered.
“The fact that successful exorcism necessarily demonstrated the bona fides of the exorcist or, more pertinently, his church, while at the same time appearing to be exactly analogous to the magical conjuration of spirits”7 might suggest that it was in the church’s every advantage to conduct as many exorcisms as possible and convince as many people as possible that they were possessed. This fraud not only gained them power and money but also proved the existence of witches, who undoubtedly, would often be responsible for demonic possession in a person. However, the various claims of fraud and desire, on the part of the churches, to create advantage for themselves through financial gain and positions of power do not necessarily mean that the patient was not possessed because “it is not even clear why the presence of propaganda or polemic should somehow have vitiated the genuineness of the behaviour, since it was intrinsic to the very notions of possession and exorcism that a contest for power should take place.”8 Thus, should the devil exist and his possession be real, then he would want corruption to spread, especially through the church, in order to inflict the maximum damage.
Walter Stephens argues that demonic possession was often a result of puritan men who were struggling with their faith. Rather than admit to themselves and others that they had lost faith, they created a devil within themselves so that they could act out against religion without directly taking the blame for it themselves. Likewise, he suggests that possible homoerotic or family issues might bring a person into this sense of denial where he would create a demon rather than deal with his issues first hand. He gives an example of a Bohemian priest whom the devil inflicts whenever he should be doing something religious. He states that the man’s mother is never mentioned in the account whereas the father is often mentioned. The priest acts most outrageously towards the Virgin Mary possibly suggesting that his own lack of a mother figure has created anger that he channels through a ‘demon’.
The example of John Darrel who supposedly exorcised William Somers in 1599 shows how fraud and exorcism could be entangled. Darrel is eventually found guilty of committing fraud with Somers who, it was stated, was not possessed at all. It is likely that this kind of fraud was prominent, especially during this period, as it would be possible to become famous and make a lot of wealth by being a successful, known exorcist. This was, therefore, extremely attractive to those who were willing to commit fraud and had the means to do so. Similarly, Sharpe describes the case of Agnes Brigges and Rachel Pinder who admitted to fraud and had wrongfully accused a woman of witchcraft. The interesting thing about this case is the apparent way in which they acted possessed. They had the regular fits, “the devil speaking through them in a strange voice, their vomiting of foreign bodies,”9 all things which are associated with possessions, and yet they admitted to being a fraud. This certainly does raise questions as to whether the numerous other possessions, recorded in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, which had similar symptoms might also have been fraud.
Joseph Klaits, in writing about Salem, describes how village girls, through possession could access attention and act out fantasies that they otherwise would never have been able to get. He crucially suggests that when theses girls were possessed through the power of witches, they had the attention of the entire country, but as soon as they were not they went back to being village girls who were nobodies. Thus, whether it was purposeful or not, they could have been acting out their repressed teenage fantasies of being important and recognized and ultimately attention seeking. Likewise, Samuel Harsnett in discrediting John Darrell noticed that when large crowds appeared to watch the child, the priests or exorcists would instantly send him them into fits by reading the bible, almost as if it was a show for the public. Sharpe illustrates the story of Helen Fairfax in which the girl constantly sees images of young men, often very good looking and charming. She even sees a prince who promises to make her a Queen. Sharpe describes how the girl would have heard things in church both about Satan, who she also sees, and about God – an image she might create into a handsome prince. However, he does not draw a parallel to the potential sexual lust that the girl might have had. Repressed teenage pleasure, in this case, seems a fitting explanation for a puritan family in which the girl would not have been allowed to have any sexual relationships. It is possible, therefore, that Helen is voicing her sexual desires through visions of the Creator whom she depicts as sexually attractive men because “the most common observation is that possession provided a licence for bad behaviour, sometimes repressed desires, sometimes simply being naughty.”10
Rosen argues that it is not surprising that many children might have committed fraud to the extent that women might be accused of witchcraft and killed for it as a result because adults often used the supernatural for means of fraud as well. For example, by making up miracles to gain financial benefit. A specific example that Rosen gives is how many people gave money to gypsies so that they would gain the favour of the ‘Queen of the Fairies’. Similarly, “Puritans and Catholics accused each other of fraud, pretended illness and pretended cure”11 showing that the cases were not always thoroughly examined as to whether or not fraud was concerned but rather the relationship to sectors of religion could play a decisive role in deciding whether fraud existed. Freud, in referring to the possession of one man, suggests that demonic possession could be brought on by the loss of a loved one such as parents for children as “by opposing and yet complimenting divine authority the devil could express in fantasy the classically ambivalent feelings of love and loathing which Haizmann, common with all children, felt for the father he had lost.”12 This shows another possible solution for demonic possession in that trauma, in the early years of a person’s life, could seriously affect someone in later years. In an era where children were brought up much more strictly and where childish pleasures might regularly be repressed, possession could offer one of the only answers to trauma suffered by a child because it provided “an unconscious way of escaping pressures without challenge to an overwhelming authority, a way of forcing people to stop organizing one’s life and take notice.”13 They could release, and gain attention by doing so, hatred and other psychological effects that had been repressed from childhood. However, this would still not account for an example of possession such as “an illiterate woman in Saxony had been attacked by a devil and afterwards could speak in Greek and Latin about the forthcoming Schmalkaldic War.”14 Such examples must surely have a different explanation.
Arguably, the opinions of Sharpe, Clark and Stephens amongst others concerning the diagnosis for possession and the reasons behind it tend to leave out or rather mask one very important solution which is necessary, in my opinion, to be able to give a balanced diagnosis of the possessed. Whilst there is no doubt that many cases were fraud or psychological problems in adults and children alike, there is also a strong possibility that possession could in fact be that very thing: possession. Why should demonic possession in a person, however unrealistic it might seem, be discounted? In some cases, such as the John Darrel case with the seven children, there is so much evidence to suggest an out of worldly experience that to ignore it requires coming to the most insane of conclusions. Often the most difficult problems have the simplest solutions, so perhaps a devil inside of the possessed might also be the correct solution. When an event that has potential to create fame and money occurs, there will always be examples of fraud and of people exploiting it, but that should not mean that the event itself never occurred or never could occur. Indeed, out of all the scholarly opinion consulted above, only Webster seems to seriously suggest that perhaps demonic possession should not be overlooked but studied in greater detail as possibly being the truth behind some possessions. Furthermore, just because men like Darrel clearly had alternative aims, as did most Catholics, Protestants, non-Conformists and Puritans alike, does not mean that their work should be entirely discounted. A doctor can still cure the sick whilst being paid for his work, therefore, so can an exorcist further some personal aim whilst still ridding the possessed of a demon. It cannot, thus, be argued that ulterior motives in men like John Darrel are reason enough to discount a possessed person from actually being possessed.
In conclusion, therefore, there have been many answers put forward by varying people both in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and in modern times as to what causes the appearance of demonic possession and why, so often, it appeared in adolescents. There can be no doubt, illustrated by examples given above, that there were cases of fraud when it came to possession. It seems likely, that there were also cases of repressed teenage pleasures and not only pleasures but also childhood memories of lost loved ones or other traumatic events. Similarly, social conditioning might have played a large role in making people aware of the symptoms that occur when possessed by a demon and as a result let them act out what they knew in a possession that they had intentionally or unintentionally created. Another explanation given by Clark is that “the demand for exorcism became so great that the greed and quackery of some exorcists”15 took advantage of the situation to increase the power of their own denomination and finances. Such explanations, and many more of a similar type, have been offered and it is likely that there were instances of all of them, most especially of fraud because of the obvious financial gains that could be achieved. However, the one explanation that seems to be over looked and almost dismissed by the majority of historians is that in some, maybe very few, cases the victim was actually possessed by a demon and suffered actual inflictions by him. This, understandably, does not seem like an acceptable argument in a modern world where science attempts to explain everything and this essay by no means would suggest that actual possession should categorically be accepted as having happened. It does, however, conclude that it should at least be examined, and on the same level as fraud, repressed teenage pleasure or any other supposed explanation because it seems in some cases, for example where knowledge of the unknowable is gained, that it could be a reality which needs to be assessed seriously.
1 Walter Stephens, ‘Demon Lovers, Witchcraft, sex, and the crisis of belief’, (Chicago, 2002). P365
2 J.A. Sharpe, ‘Disruption in the well-ordered household: age, authority, and possessed young people,’ in Paul Griffiths, Adam Fox and Steve Hindle (eds), The Experience of Authority in Early Modern England (Houndmills, 1996) p188
3 J.A. Sharpe, ‘Disruption in the well-ordered household: age, authority, and possessed young people,’ in Paul Griffiths, Adam Fox and Steve Hindle (eds), The Experience of Authority in Early Modern England (Houndmills, 1996) p197
4 From the film “The Rite” – based on the ‘true’ story of Father Gary Thomas’ experiences with exorcism.
5 Barbara Rosen, ‘Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618’, (Massachusetts, 1991). P33
6 Tom Webster, ‘(Re)possession of dispossession: John Darrell and diabolical discourse,’ in John Newton and Jo Bath (eds), Witchcraft and the Act of 1604 (Leiden, 2008). P109
7 Stuart Clark, ‘Thinking with Demons, The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe’, (Oxford, 1997) p392
8 Stuart Clark, ‘Thinking with Demons, The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe’, (Oxford, 1997) p394
9 J. A. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England. (Pennsylvania, 1997). p193
10 Tom Webster, ‘(Re)possession of dispossession: John Darrell and diabolical discourse,’ in John Newton and Jo Bath (eds), Witchcraft and the Act of 1604 (Leiden, 2008). P108
11 Barbara Rosen, ‘Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618’, (Massachusetts, 1991). P33
12 Stuart Clark, ‘Thinking with Demons, The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe’, (Oxford, 1997). P391
13 Barbara Rosen, ‘Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618’, (Massachusetts, 1991). P46
14 Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe, Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250-1750’. (Oxford, 2010)
15 Stuart Clark, ‘Thinking with Demons, The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe’, (Oxford, 1997) p389
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