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Casting Out Devils



Rob Hardy


Devils really exist, and they really can possess people; that is, these are truths if you believe the stories in the Bible to be true. Jesus himself cast out devils from people, and he empowered his disciples to do the same, so the case is closed, it would seem. But even believers have been trying to work this out, I think because possession and exorcism insist that there is an acute impingement of the supernatural physically acting within our world. Exorcisms against possessions are far from over, but they had their heyday in 16th and 17th-century Europe, the main subject of The Devil Within: Possession & Exorcism in the Christian West (Yale University Press) by Brian P. Levack, a professor who has written before about witch hunting. The strange and entertaining stories here illustrate Levack's main thesis, that the peculiar behavior of possessed people is not necessarily because they are mentally or physically ill, nor because they are faking (two non-supernatural explanations favored these days, and even examined by some during the centuries under consideration). Levack posits that those possessed by demons may have been simply acting out roles that they learned from others, performing in a religious drama for which there was an audience handy. 




The performances, if that is what they were, must have been enjoyed by societies that had a high interest in sensation and a high tolerance for disgusting acts as long as they were for religious ends. One young woman's tongue swelled out of her mouth and she vomited two hundred pins. Another vomited long nails, brass needles, and lumps of hair and meat. A girl in Louvain vomited dung, coal, and stones, and another in one year vomited enough blood to fill four hundred chamber pots. Vomiting toads or frogs was common. A boy claimed to be possessed in 1620, and showed that his urine was blue as evidence of the fact, but he was caught mixing ink into it and was exposed as a fake. It is a little more fun to hear about nuns who were possessed and thereby engaged in a variety of sexual practices. Another nun merely hoisted a heavy marble vase with just two little fingers. One of the Goodwin children in seventeenth-century Boston turned her head all the way around (a la Linda Blair). Some levitated, while others got too heavy for anyone to lift. One of the lessons in this book is that demoniacal possession and exorcisms for them have not vanished as the centuries rolled by (far from it), but it is difficult to believe that current exorcists could be extirpating such fantastic symptoms. 




The symptoms were products of their times and culture, Levack shows. There was fraud, to be sure, and although retrospective diagnosing is guesswork, plenty of the "demoniacs" (which seems to be the preferred term for those possessed) might have been suffering from Tourette's, or epilepsy, or simple hysteria. "A more comprehensive understanding," Levack writes, "can be gained by viewing demoniacs as well as all those who participated in the effort to cure them as performers in religious dramas. Whether unconsciously or not, they were playing roles and following scripts that were encoded in their respective religious cultures." This is especially, though not exclusively, true of Catholic exorcisms. Not only could the demoniac and the exorcist follow a choice of scripts from the many manuals printed at the time (that the printing press increased liability for possession is a theme here), but they had audiences, sometimes numbering in the thousands, and they sometimes performed on purpose-built stages. The exorcists had the right costumes, and they carried the right props, like a consecrated host or a container of holy water.  




Protestants, for whom possession and exorcism were less emphasized, had less florid shows. While the Catholics could "prove" their ability to cast out demons, and thus verify the righteousness of their particular sect, Protestants claimed that Catholic exorcisms were superstition and didn't work anyway. Protestants did not, for instance, hold crucifixes or the Eucharistic host against the body of the demoniac; Protestant exorcists and demoniacs alike held these to be mere magical material objects. The Word of God, however, was sacred. This did not mean that Bibles were used physically as charms by Protestants to remove the demon (although this did happen), but meant that the demons would act with "a hideous noise" or "dismal agonies" when someone read from the book. While the exorcist in a Catholic ceremony might actively expel demons, Protestants tended to stress the far less dramatic prayer and fasting. Protestant demoniacs also seldom had sexuality as a main aspect of their complaints, but Catholics often did; Levack says this is because Catholics were intensely interested in sexual misbehavior, but for Protestants, it was just another sin. Protestant demoniacs tended to make statements about their personal sin and guilt when they were possessed, and if the demon happened to be speaking in a second voice, the Protestants never fretted whether these confessions were due to the demon or to the demoniac. Devils inhabiting Catholics often talked about sinfulness in the devil's voice. 




A tiny part of Levack's book emphasizes an unusual theatrical and societal presentation of demoniacs. There is a belief of possession by the souls of the dead within Hasidism, and this is the sort of possession that group has to deal with. Infestation by dead people has been rejected from the start by Christian theologians, so that does not happen to their community. Not only do the case histories here show that demoniacs and exorcists were playing roles assigned to them by their religious peers, but it is curious that there should have been fashions for, say, vomiting pins and needles. It is as if once someone demonstrated this symptom, then the symptom was reported and other people started showing it, too. It is easier to believe that potential demoniacs were keeping abreast of the latest fad to manifest possession than that the demons themselves were hearing about the latest craze and imitating it upon their victims. Similarly, it seems peculiar that Protestant demons and Catholic demons would have so well known how to inflict their troubles but were careful to follow the roles their particular community assigned to them. There is some better explanation of this than a supernatural one. 




An interesting aspect of possessions that might explain why there has been an increase in them (yes, an increase) in the past couple of decades is that now, just as centuries ago, they are considered to be signs of the Last Days, when the Devil is supposed to have unprecedented power. In the period covered in Levack's entertaining and thought-provoking work, the battle between the exorcist and the Devil was a re-enactment (theater, again) of "the conflict that had taken place in biblical times and would be rehearsed once again at Armageddon." More exorcists are now being trained by the Catholic Church, while charismatic protestant churches are performing more "deliverance ministries," which seem to be exorcisms in all but name, the name being avoided because of a connection to Catholicism. That we aren't going to have an end to exorcism anytime soon is one of the lessons of this book (and another is that we aren't going to have End Times nearly as soon as those predicting them say they are coming). Perhaps, though, in the current times, we can expect that such symptoms and ceremonies be seriously documented by some attendant's videocam. It couldn't hurt the cause of the exorcists, if such documentation proved genuine (let's ask James Randi to officiate), especially if we got to see someone vomiting hundreds of pins.



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