1 minute read


AfricaReligion And Possession

Spirit possession is a complex spiritual engagement that goes beyond psychological release for marginalized women and occurs in indigenous religions as well as in Islam and Christianity. Yoruba divinities such as Shango, Yemoja, Osun, and Obatala often possess people. In possession, a spirit takes control of an individual for a period of time. Such possession can be sudden and may be induced through music, drumming, or medicines. The possessed individual speaks for the spirit. Illness may indicate the presence of a spirit. Regardless of the duration, possession signifies a bond with the spirit; the possessed are called brides. Such bonds make possession an ecstatic and enjoyable experience. Despite the fact that possession is often described as a marriage between the spirit and the possessed individual, possession remains a symbolic act because there is no physical or genital activity involved, although the sense of pleasure or suffering is real. Possession can also be a violent event, especially possession by the god Shango, who is said to mount a person as a horse. Possession ends when the spirit departs, but the phenomenon of possession remains a constant feature of the spiritual life of the individual. Early literature on the Zar possession cult suggested that Somali women turned to spirit possession to address marginality. Janice Boddy has argued that possession involves several aspects of the human experience. Edwin Ardener argued that Bakweri female cults expressed positive female values. And Michael Lambek has argued that possession should also be seen as a system of meaning that operates within a given culture.

Possession is important because the spirit that controls the devotee communicates messages to the community through that individual. Possession can also be part of what Jean Buxton described as a call to the healing profession and "a diagnostic technique" (p. 297). The possession experience can be a critical moment in creating self-understanding and personhood. It offers opportunities to resolve contradictions within the self and may be an incentive for people to pay attention to public morality. Spirit possession may also reflect disapproval and discontent with certain political agendas, or express a nationalist ideology—an activity noted in the Zimbabwean revolutionary struggle against the white minority rule of Ian Smith. Belief in spirit possession has not disappeared in the wake of Christian and Muslim attacks on it.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusReligion - Africa - Myth And Cosmology, Gods And Spirits, Religion And Possession, Religious Authorities, Worship Spaces