How Can We Explain Possession?


Possession was the act of the Devil or one of his demons inhabiting and controlling the actions and thoughts of a human. People who were possessed showed symptoms such as aggressive convulsions and fits, rigid limbs, inhuman strength, previously unattained ability to speak in old languages such as Latin, distain towards religious or holy symbols, blasphemy and certain people would foretell the future. In the case of Sarah Bower (1693), the possessed 14-year-old suffered symptoms such as ‘strange and unaccountable fits’(3), making a ‘most hedious noise’(6) and the ability to have ‘great force and violence, that scarce six men could hold her in’(6), among other symptoms.

Looking back on this phenomenon with a modern viewpoint the concept of possession is an unlikely. One might immediately conclude that the majority of these cases were the result of mental or medical illnesses that contemporary people were unaware of. Others might argue that a number of occurrences  would have been the due to fraudulence. The possessed, unlike witches, often received sympathy, as it was commonly believed that getting possessed was not a choice. As an outcome of this sympathy, people would often receive alms of money, food and other forms of charity. Furthermore, they would be given a voice in the community, as although possession was fairly common at the time, it was still a curiosity that the majority of people were interested in.

Despite the fact that these are both plausible explanations, and undoubtedly both are true, are they the only two explanations for possession in early-modern Europe? Sure, we can attribute the physical symptoms, such as the fits, to illness, but if we take note of people experiencing mental illness today it is not common behaviour to be averted towards religious symbols or unholily blaspheming. So what then, must be the cause of these symptoms?

It is argued by Brian Levak in his book, The Devil Within, that the symptoms could be a result of an unconscious script that was ingrained in the minds of religious people as they would have been exposed to possession through their community or communities near them, pamphlets and sermons. An example of something similar to this that we can understand today would be pseudocyesis, also known as false pregnancy, in which a woman would believe herself to be pregnant so firmly that she might experience all the symptoms of pregnancy without actually being pregnant.

Levak discusses a selection of examples of possessions in a podcast about his book that could support this claim, including ‘epidemic’ (7:25)  like scenarios where whole towns, convents or orphanages would become possessed. Further more he points out that the symptoms of possession vary depending on which form of Christianity the possessed follows (8:30 – 12:30). For example, a catholic would react very strongly towards things that symbolised the body of Christ, however, a protestant would react strongly towards the Bible, the most significant thing in the Protestantism. Secondly, Catholics were more likely to have symptoms that were of a sexual nature due to the fact that sexual sin was considered a major sin in Catholicism. Protestants however, did not distinguish between major and minor sins and so the possessed would commit sins such as dancing or playing cards, and this would be considered equally as unholy. Thirdly, due to the nature of Protestantism, Protestant exorcisms would rely on praying to god to cure the inflicted person. Catholic exorcisms however, were considerably more dramatic, and so they tended to be more successful, as the possessed person would believe the demon to be cast out given the dramatic display. He also suggests the rise in possessions during this time was due to the upheaval in the church, and the common belief that the apocalypse was coming, resulting in higher awareness of the devil (15:50).

Wellcome Images – Scene of a Catholic possession

Going back to the case of Sarah Bower, the symptoms started after she was struck on the back and taken for dead. However, the only symptom she displayed for several months were fits. The source explains how several doctors came to examine the girl (3), and no one could figure out what ailed her. This could explain how the issue developed into what was believed to be a possession. After months of occasional fits and no seemingly obvious explanation as to why these fits were occurring, the girl could have come to some subconscious conclusion that she was possessed. Perhaps it was discussed around her as a possible cause of the fits, and thus she could have been subconsciously fulfilling these expectations, however that is speculation, as the source does not mention any such conversations, but it is not hard to imagine this scenario. If this was the case, then the other symptoms that followed the fits were a result of the girl believing she was possessed, rather than possession itself or the original illness that caused the fits. There are other symptoms in the source that are still a mystery, such as ‘the spirit [throwing] her from one end of the bed to the other’ (6), however, it is probable that some signs recorded are a consequence of exaggeration of the person recording the details.

In conclusion, non-fraudulent cases of possession can not be rationally explained by just illness alone, as many of the symptoms are too specific to religion and contemporary life, and have nothing related to how we understand mental and physical illness today. However, the concept that several symptoms of possession were due to a belief in possession could plausibly explain the symptoms that we do not understand. The example of Sarah Bower’s case shows clear delay in the initial onset of symptoms and the sudden change to symptoms of possession, making it very possible that this was a result of desperately trying to understand and explain the fits Bower was suffering from.