Unlike demonic possession where the person is thought to be taken over by the Devil or his demons for harm, spirit possession is a voluntary, culturally sanctioned displacement of the personality. The spirits, be they deities, angels, demons, advanced entities, or the dead, are invited to enter a human person to educate, communicate with the living or just because they do not realize they are dead and need help in passing to their next realm.
In modern Christianity spirit possession is mainly practiced by the Pentecostal and Assemblies of God Protestant denominations along with other charismatic groups. They connect their practices to the happenings on the First Day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2:4, when what appeared to be flames or tongues of fire settled on the heads of each of the apostles and “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
Even though it seemed remarkable the apostles spoke in different languages, what appeared equally remarkable “was that the apostles’ listeners recognized their own languages and realized the apostles should not have been able to speak them. Whatever the apostles said was heard in each ones native language.” This phenomena of speaking or writing in a foreign language is known as glossolalia.
The apostles were said to be possessed by the Holy Spirit and these denominations claim the practice still exists among members of their congregations. The people frequently speak in strange tongues or languages and enter a trance state. They believe the Holy Spirit speaks directly to them during these times.
Other Christians also believe in the Holy Spirit and pray to it for guidance and help, but until recently many did not think they ever became possessed by it. However, in the 1960s and 1970s a charismatic renewal began. Persons of other Christian denominations other than the Pentecostals began to express a more personal union with God through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Talking in tongues was considered a sign that the religious experience had occurred. Other signs or gifts of the Holy Spirit were receiving of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning spirits and interpreting tongues. Pope Paul VI blessed the movement in 1973, and celebrated a charismatic mass in 1975. However, one psychical researcher, James H. Hyslop, thought the charismatic movement bordered on the occult.
Spirit possession is not restricted to Christians but has been and is practiced by many groups and cultures throughout the world. The Greek civilization had their oracles that prophesied future events.
The ancient Druids believed in spirit possession, especially of the Mother Goddess. The ceremony was held annually and was similar to the “Drawing Down the Moon” ritual as described below. Marion Zimmer Bradley describes the Druid ritual in her novel “The Forest House.”
Shamanism also employs spirit possession when securing cures from illnesses and driving evil spirits out of persons. The shaman enters a trance before becoming possessed by the spirit.
The concept of spirit possession by various deities plays a major role in religious worship in the Caribbean, the Middle East, India, and Africa. In the Caribbean and especially Africa a variety of Vodoun (also Voodoo) religions are found. This possession is often sought after, and is considered to be received by only a worthy person. The possession usually occurs during religious ceremonies and only lasts during the event. Becoming possessed is known as “mounting the horse.” The horse is the person or victim who “manifests” the spirit, and the spirit is the one who “rides” him or her.
Often the victims enter a trance and dance and do things which they would be unable to do in their conscious state of awareness. Many elderly and physically disabled persons have displayed this unique ability or behavior. Similar possessions occur in Santeria and Macumba.
In Neo-paganism there are two rituals which involve spirit possession. They are the “Drawing Down the Moon” which is the invoking of the Goddess (moon) into the high priestress, and is more prevalently celebrated; and the “Drawing the Sun” which invokes God (sun) into the high priest. According to the beliefs in Neo-pagan witchcraft, during the ritual of “Drawing Down the Moon” the priest invokes the Goddess or Triple Goddess, symbolized by the phases of the moon, into the priestess. Others believed the priestess invokes the Goddess into herself. The ritual usually occurs within what is known as the magic circle. Depending on the priestess’ attitude she often experiences the spirit possession of the Goddess, during which time many believe the Goddess speaks and works blessings through the priestess. The priestess’ elated feeling can linger for days afterwards. There can be a similar experience for the priest who has been possessed by the God.
Similarly in Spiritualism some mediums while in trances claim spirits speak through them. In Spiritualist churches trance, spirit-possessed medium frequently deliver sermons as well as messages from the dead meant for the congregation.
Channeling, a New Age term for a type of spirit possession, also involves the invoking of higher developed entities to speak to human audiences.
Mediums involved in Spiritualism and channeling do not fear the spirits which possess them at times. They believe such possession is temporary. If the spirit linger too long its exorcism takes the form of a stern conversation in which it is told to depart.