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Exorcism is the practice of evicting demons or other evil spiritual entities which are supposed to have possessed (taken control of) a person or object. The practice, though ancient in roots, is still part of the belief system of many religions. The word "exorcism" means "I cause [someone] to swear," referring to the exorcist forcing the spirit to obey a higher power.

The person performing the exorcism, known as an exorcist, is often a priest, or an individual thought to be graced with special powers or skills. The exorcist may use a combination of magical and religious, such as prayers and set formulas, gestures, icons and amulets. The exorcist's goal is to force the evil spirit to vacate.

The influential horror movie The Exorcist (1973, re-released 2000) was inspired by an actual Catholic exorcism. After its release, the Catholic diocese of Chicago, Illinois was inundated with so many requests for exorcism that it had to add exorcists to its existing staff.



The concept of possession by evil spirits and the practice of exorcism are very ancient and widespread, and may originate in prehistoric Shamanistic beliefs.

The Christian New Testament includes exorcism among the miracles performed by Jesus. Because of this precedent, possession was part of the belief system of Christianity since its beginning, and exorcism is still a recognized practice of Catholicism and some Protestant sects.

In recent times, the practice of exorcism has diminished in its importance to most religious groups and its use has decreased. This is due mainly to a greater understanding of psychology and the functioning and structure of the human mind. Many of the cases that in the past might have been candidates for exorcism have been found to be the products of mental illness. Today, the exorcist will often consult with medical professionals prior to the performance of an exorcism. Another reason, often overlooked, in explaining the less frequent use of exorcism, is the changing worldview of those living in the Western world. The Enlightenment, with its focus on rationalism, placed a high value on materialism and naturalism. This has led to a decrease in the belief of the supernatural.

Exorcism in Roman Catholicism

The Catholic Church revised and renewed the Rite of Exorcism very recently in January 2000 under Pope John Paul II, who reinforced its necessity (and performed three himself during his pontificate). As a result, a number of dioceses have designated a priest as the Exorcist for the diocese. Gabriele Amorth is the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. Solemn Exorcisms, according to the canon law of the church, can only be exercised by an ordained priest (or higher prelate), and by them, only with the express permission of the local bishop. The act of exorcism is considered to be an incredibly dangerous spiritual task, proper only to vowed religious. The exorcist is specially vested with the duty of casting out the devil and demons from persons possessed, through prayers, blessings, and invocations with the use of the document Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications.

Though John Paul II encouraged further use of exorcism, it is ostensibly performed only after a careful mental and physical examination and investigation of relevant evidence that determines that the affected person is actually suffering from possession and not from some form of mental illness. It should be noted that the will of the one possessed remains, though the demon may retain dominant control over its subject. Signs of demonic possession may include: the ability to speak foreign languages of which the possessed has no prior knowledge (such as ancient languages); supernatural abilities and strength; secret knowledge of a person's life, especially regarding the exorcist, which the possessed has no way of knowing; blasphemous remarks; and great aversion to God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, and sacred objects.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, all ordinands were consecrated into minor orders, the third of which was that of exorcist. It is thought by some that ordination to the position of Acolyte in the modern practices also incorporates ordination to the minor orders which used to be below it, such as exorcist and porter, although this has not been officially defined. However, the granting of the minor order of exorcist is different from the practice of dioceses formally appointing a priest with the title of "Exorcist".

Of exorcism, the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) enjoined: "Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite."

A well-known formula for exorcism, originating from a 1415 manuscript found in the Abbey of Metten in Bavaria, says

Crux sancta sit mihi lux / Non draco sit mihi dux
Vade retro satana / Nunquam suade mihi vana
Sunt mala quae libas / Ipse venena bibas
"May the Holy Cross be my light / Let not the dragon lead me
Step back Satan / Never tempt me with vain things
What you offer me is evil / Drink the poison yourself."

The verse Vade retro satana was probably inspired on a phrase by Jesus to Peter in the Vulgate New Testament, Mark 8:33: vade retro me, satana ("Step back from me, Satan!"). In Catholicism, it is used to repel any possible evil thing or happening, as a "spoken amulet". The initials of this formula (VRSNSMV SMQLIVB or VRS:NSMV:SMQL:IVB) were usually engraved around crosses or Catholic religious medals featuring Saint Benedict, to whom the formula is traditionally ascribed.

In September 2005 Pope Benedict XVI disclosed that Italian exorcists were currently holding their national convention, an event at which he gave a speech. The Pope publicly stated that he encouraged them to "carry on their important work in the service of the Church." [1] [2] Before this revelation, it was not widely known that exorcist conventions were held.

Exorcism in other Christian Denominations

Although there are Christian denominations other than Roman Catholicism that recognize possession, case studies are much more limited and the few cases that gain media attention are those which are more probable instances of abuse by the exorcist and/or others than actual possession.

Nonetheless, many Christians accept these exorcisms as having really happened. Most local denominations have an Exorcist 'specialist' at hand. Exorcisms are usually only done after eliminating psychological and natural causes of the behavior attributed to demonic possession.

In cases of doubt, one guide which is often used to determine whether a mental disturbance is psychological or spiritual in nature is to pray over the person for the healing of their affliction. If the person reacts violently or uncharacteristically in response to prayer in the name of Jesus, it is often taken as a good indication that the affliction is demonic in nature. Psychological afflictions, though on occasion healed by prayer, do not usually produce obviously linked violent reactions to the activity of prayer.

It is worth noting that the psychologist M. Scott Peck, in researching exorcisms (initially in an effort to disprove demonic possession) and conducting two himself, concluded that the Christian concept of possession was a genuine phenomenon but was utterly distinct from individuals who were evil in and of themselves. Interestingly, the diagnostic criteria he derived differed substantially from the Roman Catholic requirements, as did the method of exorcism and the stages of progression during exorcism, raising the question of whether the phenomena are related.

In comparision to Roman Catholics, protestant exorcism is a lot less formal. Most protestants (those who believe in exorcism) believe that all Christians have the authority to perform exorcism. Therefore all laypeople can participate and it is not limited to the clergy.

Exorcism in Islam

Exorcism is said to have been a part of Islam since its beginning, and there are verses in the Qur'an that speak of possession by evil beings. There are also Sunnah (traditional statements not part of the Qur'an) that the Prophet Muhammad and his followers expelled evil beings from the bodies of believers using verses from the Qur'an, supplications to Allah, and holy Zamzam water.

Those who devour usury will not stand (on the Day of Judgment) except as stands one whom the Evil one by his touch hath driven to madness. (Qur'an (Yusufali tr.), al-Baqara, 275)

In this verse, God compares the state of sinners on the Day of Judgment to the state of those made insane by the Devil, or Shaitan. Scholars point to this verse as evidence that the Devil and his servants are able to affect human beings. Al-Qurtabi writes in his tafsir of this verse:

This verse contains proof against those who deny the possession by way of Jinn, claiming that it is a result of natural causes, as well as those who claim that Shaitan does not enter humans nor does he touch them.

Evidence is found also in the Sunnah, such as this one related by Ya'la ibn Murah:

I saw Allah's Messenger (sallallahu alaihe wa-sallam) do three things which no one before or after me saw. I went with him on a trip. On the way, we passed by a woman sitting at the roadside with a young boy. She called out, 'O Messenger of Allah, this boy is afflicted with a trial, and from him we have also been afflicted with a trial. I don't know how many times per day he is seized by fits.' He (sallallahu alaihe wa-sallam) said: 'Give him to me.' So she lifted him up to the Prophet.

He (sallallahu alaihe wa-sallam) then placed the boy between himself and the middle of the saddle, opened the boy's mouth and blew in it three times, saying, 'In the name of Allah, I am the slave of Allah, get out, enemy of Allah!' Then he gave the boy back to her and said: 'Meet us on our return at this same place and inform us how he has fared.' We then went. On our return, we found her in the same place with three sheep. When he said to her, 'How has your son fared?' She replied: 'By the One who sent you with the truth, we have not detected anything (unusual) in his behavior up to this time... (Musnad Ahmad (vol: 4, p. 170), and al-Haakim, who declared it Saheeh)

A note regarding the Jinn and possession

In Islamic belief, not only are devils able to possess human beings, but also the Jinn, intelligent creatures made from fire. Islam teaches that the Jinn are much like human beings in that they have free will to choose between good and evil. Obviously, a Jinn who chooses to possess a human is acting in an evil manner, and would be treated during an exorcism the same as a devil would be.

The existence of the Jinn is an established fact, according to the Book, the Sunnah and the agreement of the early scholars. Likewise, the penetration of a Jinni into a human body is also an established fact, according to the consensus of leading Sunni scholars. It is also a fact witnessed and experienced by anyone who reflects on it. The Jinni enters the one seized by fits and causes him to speak incomprehensible words, unknown to himself; if the one seized by fits is struck a blow sufficient to kill a camel, he does not feel it. (Shaikh al-Islam ibn Taymiyyah, Majmoo al-Fatawa)

Shaikh al-Islam ibn Taymiyyah also suggests that there are three reasons for possession by Jinn:

  • Jinn might possess a human being to experience the physical world for reasons such as desire or love. The Jinn might not actually have malicious intents at heart in this case, or be unaware of the harm it is causing.
  • Jinn might do it to exact revenge for a perceived slight. Jinn are said to be quick to anger, especially when they believe themselves to have been harmed on purpose (since Jinn are usually invisible to humans, a person can accidentally injure a Jinni not knowing that one is there).
  • Pure wickedness and a desire for malicious behavior on the part of the Jinn.

He further says that Jinn can easily gain control over those who are not mindful of their faith but that those who hold true to God should have no fear of being taken in possession.

A note regarding possession by spirits in Islam

A common misconception in Islam is the notion of spirit possession, in which the souls of the dead are claimed to be able to possess human beings. Islam teaches that this is a false belief, because the souls of those who have died are not permitted to return to the world of the living, and so cannot affect it. It is thought that Shaitan (the Devil) encourages this belief because it leads many otherwise-devout Muslims to perform rituals contrary to Islam, such as tomb offerings and the hanging of amulets to ward off evil spirits.

Possession in Islam is never by the souls of the dead, but it is not unknown for evil beings to claim to be such so as to encourage sinful behavior among the living.

The scholars caution against the overuse of exorcism, citing that most cases are due to psychological and physical causes mistaken for possession. Real cases of possession are very rare and the faithful are warned to watch out for exorcists who encourage a diagnosis of possession too quickly, as they may merely be seeking profit.

Exorcism in other religions

In Hinduism the possession of the body by spirits is often accorded a more holy status as it is believed that Goddess Kali or her various incarnates enter a body. People often worship them and also ask for their blessings. However if the spirit refuses to leave after sometime then a village exorcist is brought in to drive out the spirit. Often the priest resorts to beating the said person with neem leaves in an elaborate and dramatic "exorcism".

Exorcism-related deaths

Exorcism may cause death to the patient, even when performed by trained priests.

  • Anneliese Michel (September 21, 1952 - June 30, 1976) was a German college student who died during an exorcism. Her parents and the two Bavarian priests who carried out the exorcism were later convicted. This was the story that the movie Emily Rose Requiem is based on.
  • Kyung-A Ha was beaten to death in 1995 in San Francisco, California by members of the Jesus-Amen Ministries.
  • Kyung Jae Chung died in 1996 in Glendale, California from blunt-force trauma by her husband (a reverend) and members of the Glendale Korean Methodist Church.
  • In 1996, an Ontario woman was sentenced to two years in prison for killing her granddaughter in an apparent exorcism. "Ana Maria Canhoto, 43, pleaded guilty last June to manslaughter of Kira Canhoto, 2, who died of suffocation after being force-fed water 'to ward off evil spirits.'" Source: Vancouver Province 1/11/96
  • Charity Miranda, was suffocated with a plastic bag in 1998 in Sayville, New York by her mother and sister during a Cuban voodoo exorcism ritual.
  • Terrance Cottrell Jr, an eight-year-old autistic child, died of asphyxiation in 2003 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during an exorcism carried out by members of the Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith, in an attempt to expel the boy's demons. The coroner ruled that the boy died "due to external chest compression" as the part-time pastor lay on top of him. On July 10, 2004, the pastor was convicted of child abuse.
  • In June 2005, in Tanacu, Bacău County, Romania, Father Daniel Petru Corogeanu, a Romanian Orthodox priest who reportedly found his client of exorcism crucified to a wall in her convent room, crucifixion exorcised Maricica Irina Cornici, a 23-year-old nun because she was "possessed by the devil" and "had to be exorcised". The priest faced murder charges, and was unrepentant as he celebrated a funeral mass for his alleged victim. [3]

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