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Saint Francis exorcised demons in Arezzo, fresco of Giotto

Exorcism (from Late Latin exorcismus, from Greek exorkizein - to adjure) 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 is quite ancient and still part of the belief system of many religions.

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 religious material, such as prayers and set formulas, gestures, symbols, icons, amulets, etc.. The exorcist often invokes some benign supernatural power to actually perform the task.

In general, possessed persons are not regarded as evil in themselves, nor wholly responsible for their actions. Therefore, exorcism is generally thought more as a cure than as a punishment.


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, demonic possession was part of the belief system of Christianity since its beginning, and exorcism is still a recognized practice of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox 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. Generally, it is currently found mainly in Eastern Europe and Africa, with some cases gaining media coverage; Anneliese Michel is perhaps the most recent of these. 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 which were candidates for exorcism have been found to be the products of mental illness, and are handled as such. More generally, the change in worldview since the Age of Enlightenment, which put increased value on rationalism, materialism, and naturalism, has led to a decrease in the belief of the supernatural.

Exorcism in Christianity


According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Exorcism: "Assuming the reality of demonic possession, for which the authority of Christ is pledged, it is to be observed that Jesus appealed to His power over demons as one of the recognised signs of Messiahship (Matthew 12:23, 28; Luke 11:20). He cast out demons, He declared, by the finger or spirit of God, not, as His adversaries alleged, by collusion with the prince of demons (Matthew 12:24, 27; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15, 19); and that He exercised no mere delegated power, but a personal authority that was properly His own, is clear from the direct and imperative way in which He commands the demon to depart (Mark 9:24; cf. Mark 1:25 NIV etc.): "He cast out the spirits with his word, and he healed all that were sick" (Matthew 8:16). Sometimes, as with the daughter of the Canaanean woman, the exorcism took place from a distance (Matthew 15:22 sqq.; Mark 7:25). Sometimes again the spirits expelled were allowed to express their recognition of Jesus as "the Holy One of God" (Mark 1:24) and to complain that He had come to torment them "before the time", i.e the Last Judgement, the time of their punishment (Matthew 8:29 sqq; Luke 8:28 sqq.). If demoniac possession was generally accompanied by some disease, yet the two were not confounded by Christ, or the Evangelists. In Luke 13:32, for example, the Master Himself expressly distinguishes between the expulsion of evil spirits and the curing of disease. Christ also empowered the Apostles and Disciples to cast out demons in His name while He Himself was still on earth (Matthew 10:1, 8; Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1; 10:17), and to believers generally He promised the same power (Mark 16:17). But the efficacy of this delegated power was conditional, as we see from the fact that the Apostles themselves were not always successful in their exorcisms: certain kinds of spirits, as Christ explained, could only be cast out by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:15, 20; Mark 9:27-28; Luke 9:40). In other words the success of exorcism by Christians, in Christ's name, is subject to the same general conditions on which both the efficacy of prayer and the use of charismatic power depend. Yet conspicuous success was promised (Mark 16:17). St. Paul (Acts 16:18, 19:12), and, no doubt, the other Apostles and Disciples, made use of regularly, as occasion arose, of their exorcising power, and the Church has continued to do so uninterruptedly to the present day. "

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Jesus: he was "devoted especially to "casting out demons," i.e., according to the folkmedicine of the time, healing nervous and mental diseases. It would appear that Jesus shared in the current belief of the Jews in the noumenal existence of demons or evil spirits; and most of his miraculous cures consisted in casting them out, which he did with "the finger of God" (Luke 11:20), or with "the Spirit of God" (Matt 12:28). It would seem also that he regarded diseases like fever to be due to the existence of demons (Luke 4:39). One of the chief functions transmitted to his disciples was the "power over unclean spirits, to cast them out" (Matt 10:1), and his superiority to his followers was shown by his casting out demons which they had failed to expel (Mark 9:14-29) ... he drove out the unclean spirits, "rebuking" them (Matt 17:18; Luke 4:35, 39, 41, 9:42; compare ga'ar in Zech 3:2; Isa 1:2; Ps 68:30) with some magic "word" (Matt 8:8, 16; comp. "milla," Shab. 81b; Eccl. R. i. 8), even as he "rebuked" the wind and told the sea to stand still (Mark 4:39 and parallels). At times he cured the sufferers by the mere touch of his hand (Mark 1:25; Matt 8:8, 9:18-25), or by powers emanating from him through the Tzitzit (fringes of his garment) (Matt 9:20, 14:36), or by the use of spittle put upon the affected organ, accompanying the operation with a whisper (Mark 7:33, 8:23; John 9:1-11; comp. Sanh. 101a; Yer. Shab. xiv. 14d: Loḥesh and Roḳ). By the same exorcismal power he drove a whole legion of evil spirits, 2,000 in number, out of a maniac living in a cemetery and made them enter a herd of swine to be drowned in the adjacent lake (Luke 8:26-39 and parallels; comp. Ta'an. 21b; Ḳid. 49b; B. Ḳ. vii. 7)."

In the time of Jesus, non-New Testament Jewish sources report of exorcisms done by administering drugs with poisonous root extracts or other by making sacrifices. (Josephus, "B. J." vii. 6, § 3; Sanh. 65b). They do not report of Jesus being an exorcist, but do mention that exorcisms were done by the Essene branch of Judaism at Qumran.

Roman Catholicism

An ancient ritual method, known from the African Rite, was called exsufflation 'blowing out (the spirit from the possessed)'.

Solemn exorcisms, according to the Canon law of the church, can only be exercised by an ordained priest (or higher prelate), with the express permission of the local bishop, and only after a careful medical examination to exclude the possibility of mental illness. 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". Things listed in the Roman Ritual as being indicators of possible demonic possession include: speaking foreign or ancient languages of which the possessed has no prior knowledge; supernatural abilities and strength; and knowledge of hidden or remote things which the possessed has no way of knowing.

The Catholic Church revised and renewed the Rite of Exorcism in January 2000. The act of exorcism is considered to be an incredibly dangerous spiritual task; the ritual assumes that possessed persons retain their free will, though the demon may hold control over their body, and involves prayers, blessings, and invocations with the use of the document Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications. Other formulas may have been used in the past, such as the Order of Saint Benedict's Vade retro satana.

Popular interest in exorcism boomed after release of the horror movie The Exorcist in 1973 and The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005. The Catholic diocese of Chicago was inundated with so many requests for exorcism that it had to add exorcists to its existing staff. The importance of the rite was reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II (who is reputed to have performed three exorcisms himself during his pontificate). As a result, a number of dioceses have officially designated an Exorcist priest. In September 2005, Pope Benedict XVI spoke at the convention of Italian exorcists and encouraged them to "carry on their important work." [1] [2]


In the Church of England, every diocese has an official exorcist, who will usually be an elderly priest and from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the church. Diocesan exorcists usually continue in their role when they have retired from all other church duties. Anglican exorcisms usually take the form of a mass for the dead.

Protestant denominations

Some Protestant denominations also recognize possession and exorcism, although the practice is generally less formalized than it is in the Catholic Church. While some denominations perform exorcism very sparingly and cautiously, some may perform it almost routinely, as part of regular religious services (especially Pentecostal denominations). Some denominations hold that all Christians have the authority to perform exorcism, not just the clergy.

A test 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 and throw holy water on them. 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.

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, a strong Christian believer, researched exorcisms (initially in an effort to disprove demonic possession), and conducted two himself. He concluded that the Christian concept of possession was a genuine phenomenon. He derived diagnostic criteria substantially different from those used by the Roman Catholic Church. He also claimed to see differences in exorcism procedures and progression, and conjectured whether Protestant and Catholic exorcisms may be distinct phenomena.

Contemporary exorcist Richard Rossi filmed exorcisms with multiple cameras for documentation. Rossi's footage and clinical approach is considered by many the best extant evidence of exorcism in recent years. The footage has been used in university courses on animism and paranormal studies, and has been used on national television programs and purchased by National Geographic. (Some of the footage appears in the award-winning documentary "Quest for Truth" (1992). Rossi has also trained teams of exorcists.

Exorcism in Judaism

In kabbalah and European Jewish folklore (which does not believed in possession by demons), possession takes on a different (and often much more positive) context. A person may be possessed by a spirit called a dybbuk — which is believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. According to those beliefs, on rare occasions a soul which has not been able to fulfill its function in its lifetime is given another opportunity to do so in the form of a dybbuk. The soul then seeks out and "attaches" itself to a living person who is going through things or in a similar "life position" to what the soul was in during its lifetime.

It is believed there are good dybbuks and bad, with a good dybbuk's "attachment" performing more the role of a "spiritual guide" there to help the person through their current trials and tribulations that the soul was attracted to. These "good" possessions are usually referred to as a 'sod ha'ibbur.

In the case of a negative dybbuk, the spirit is not there to help as much as cause the same mistakes and chaos that it originally experienced during its own lifetime.

In the case of exorcism, there are generally two types - though both take on a much less negative confrontational manner than in the Christian context.

Briefly, the first involves a non-invasive approach (which generally is applied to the non-negative type of attachment but can be used in both) and involves treating the person and attached entity as a whole. Helping "him" to identify his goal or path in life (his true identity and purpose) and guiding them along it. In the case of a positive attachment, the spirit will leave when the "path" or purpose is significantly engrained and pursued. In the case of a negative, the pursuant of the "path" keeps it in check and eventually causes it to loose its connection (sometimes referred to as the "void" in the host) thereby forcing it to move on.

The second approach is a little more confrontational, but still far less that those commonly seen in Christian rites. It involves 10 people (including the rabbi) who surround the posessed individual. Each person (including the rabbi leading the ritual) represents the 10 kabbalistic sephirot. The rabbi that leads the ceremony also requires a shofar, which is interestingly used in a manner similar to the bell in buddhist and other east asian meditative practices. The group repeatedly recites Psalm 91 and then the rabbi proceeds to blow the shofar in a specific pattern. This "shocks" both the possessed and the possesser, causing a loosening between the two enabling the addressing of each individually. The rabbi then enters in to dialogue with the spirit to find its purpose, and the group proceeds to heal it through dialogue and prayer meant to have it feel its accompllished its goal. This is also done for the possessed. As Rabbi Gershon Winkler puts it: "We don't drive anything out of anybody. What we want to do is to heal the soul that's possessing and heal the person. It's all about healing -- we do the ceremony on behalf of both people."

Exorcism in Islam

Possession by evil spirits (Jinn) or the Devil (Shaitan) and exorcism is said to have been a part of Islam since its beginning.

It is believed that the Jinn can gain control only over those who do not hold true to God. According to Islamic scholars, "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." (ibn Taymiyyah, Majmoo al-Fatawa.)

Islamic clergy 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.

Islamic authorities also deny the possibility of possession by souls of deceased persons, and warn that evil spirits may make this claim in order to encourage sinful behavior among the living.

Exorcism in the Qur'an and Sunnah

There is no explicit statement in the Quran referring to possession by Jinn. The closest is the following verse of the Qur'an which compares the state of sinners on the Day of Judgment to the state of those made insane by the Devil:

Those who eat Ribâ (usury) will not stand (on the day of Resurrection) except like the standing of a person beaten by Shaitan (Satan) leading him to insanity. That is because they say: "Trading is only like Ribâ (usury)," whereas Allah has permitted trading and forbidden Riba (usury). So whosoever receives an admonition from his Lord and stops eating Ribâ (usury) shall not be punished for the past; his case is for Allah (to judge); but whoever returns [to Ribâ (usury)], such are the dwellers of the Fire-- they will abide therin. (Qur'an (Yusufali tr.), al-Baqara, 275)

Some cite this as proof against those who deny the possession by Jinn

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. This example is 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)

On the nature of the Jinn

In Islamic belief, the Jinn are intelligent creatures made from fire, much like human beings in that they have free will to choose between good and evil. While a Jinn may possess a human for pure wickedness, it may do it also for other reasons . Shaikh al-Islam ibn Taymiyyah suggests that the Jinn may do it in order to experience the physical world, for reasons of desire or love. In this case the Jinn might not actually have malicious intent, or may be unaware of the harm it is causing. A Jinn might also do it for revenge. 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 Jinn not knowing that one is there).

Anti-Exorcism Faiths

Most popularly, in Sikhism, exorcism is disallowed absolutely and is seen as a gross violation of the Sikh Rehat Maryada, or Code of Conduct. If a Sikh person was to be found practising exorcism, an ordained Ghiyanhi or priest has the power to strip that individual of any ties to the Sikh faith. This anti-exorcism stance separates Sikhism from what are viewed as the exorcism rituals of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Taoism and Shintoism.

Exorcism-related deaths

Exorcism may end up bringing considerable physical harm to the patient. This is particularly the case when it is performed by improperly trained people, given the common belief that exorcism is necessarily a violent process. Some of the most notorious cases are listed below.

  • In 1967 the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago reportedly documented a failed exorcism of a teenage girl named Sarah, who died. Specific information is vague and some consider the story an urban legend.
  • 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. Her story was turned into a movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
  • 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 Ontario, 1996, two-year-old Kira Canhoto was killed by her grandmother Ana Maria Canhoto, who force-fed water to the child in order to "ward off evil spirits". (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.
  • Korean woman Joanna Lee died in early December 2001, during a violent and prolonged exorcism performed in Auckland, New Zealand, by Korean church minister Luke Lee. Her decomposing body was prayed over for several days before authorities were notified. During his subsequent trial, Luke Lee claimed that Joanna Lee would rise from the dead in a few days. She did not. Lee was imprisoned but has appealed the conviction.
  • 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 2006, a Romanian nun Maricica Irina Cornici, 23 who showed signs of schizophrenia (heard voices of devil, telling her she was sinful) and was previously treated for it, was subject to exorcism allegedly conducted by a 29-year-old Daniel Petre Corogeanu - an Eastern Orthodox monk on the Holy Trinity convent in the nearby village of Tanacu. She was bound to a cross, gagged with a towel and left in a dark room without food or water for three days. [3] [4] The first version of circumstances was that she died of suffocation and dehydration during the exorcism, however a new autopsy carried out on the exhumed body showed, that she died in an adrenaline overdose mistakenly administered by a medic [5].

Exorcism in fiction

Exorcism has been a popular subject for fiction, especially of the horror variety:

  • The Exorcist (1971 novel by William Peter Blatty)
  • The Exorcist (1973, re-released 2000), and its sequels and prequels, were inspired by Catholic exorcism ritual and folklore.
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) was inspired by the Anneliese Michel case.
  • Constantine (2005) is a movie with Keanu Reeves, based on the DC/Vertigo comic book Hellblazer.
  • Requiem (2006) is another movie on Annelise's case.
  • An American Haunting (2006)

See also


  • Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil. ISBN 006065337X.
  • M. Scott Peck, Glimpses of the Devil : A Psychiatrist's Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption. ISBN 0743254678
  • Max Heindel, The Web of Destiny (Chapter I - Part III: "The Dweller on the Treshold"--Earth-Bound Spirits, Part IV: The "Sin Body"--Possession by Self-Made Deamons--Elementals, Part V: Obsession of Man and of Animals), ISBN 0-911274-17-0, www

External links