Obsession and Possession of the Devil

 [This is taken from Augustine Calmet's Phantom World, originally published in 1850, revised and edited by D. J. McAdam.]

It is with reason that obsessions and possessions of the devil are placed in the rank of apparitions of the evil spirit among men. We call it obsession when the demon acts externally against the person whom he besets, and possession when he acts internally, agitates them, excites their ill humor, makes them utter blasphemy, speak tongues they have never learnt, discovers to them unknown secrets, and inspires them with the knowledge of the obscurest things in philosophy or theology. Saul was agitated and possessed by the evil spirit, who at intervals excited his melancholy humor, and awakened his animosity and jealousy against David, or who, on occasion of the natural movement or impulsion of these dark moods, seized him, agitated him, and disturbed from his usual tenor of mind. Those whom the Gospel speaks of as being possessed, and who cried aloud that Jesus was the Christ, and that he was come to torment them before the time, that he was the Son of God, are instances of possession. But the demon Asmodeus, who beset Sara, the daughter of Raguel, and who killed her first seven husbands; those spoken of in the Gospel, who were simply struck with maladies or incommodities which were thought to be incurable; those whom the Scripture sometimes calls lunatics, who foamed at the mouth, who were convulsed, who fled the presence of mankind, who were violent and dangerous, so that they were obliged to be chained to prevent them from striking and maltreating other people; these kinds of persons were simply beset, or obseded by the devil.

Opinions are much divided on the matter of obsessions and possessions of the devil. The hardened Jews, and the ancient enemies of the Christian religion, convinced by the evidence of the miracles which they saw worked by Jesus Christ, by his apostles, and by Christians, dared neither dispute their truth nor their reality; but they attributed them to magic, to the prince of the devils, or to the virtue of certain herbs, or of certain natural secrets.

St. Justin, Tertullian, Lactantius, St. Cyprian, Minutius, and the other fathers of the first ages of the church, speak of the power which the Christian exorcists exercised over the possessed, so confidently and so freely, that we can doubt neither the certainty nor the evidence of the thing. They call upon their adversaries to bear witness, and pique themselves on making the experiment in their presence, and of forcing to come out of the bodies of the possessed, to declare their names, and acknowledge that those they adore in the pagan temples are but devils.

Some opposed to the true miracles of the Savior those of their false gods, their magicians, and their heroes of paganism, such as those of Aesculapius, and the famous Apollonius of Tyana. The pretended freethinkers dispute them in our days upon philosophical principles; they attribute them to a diseased imagination, the prejudices of education, and hidden springs of the constitution; they reduce the expressions of Scripture to hyperbole; they maintain that Jesus Christ condescended to the understanding of the people, and their prepossessions or prejudices; that demons being purely spiritual substances could not by themselves act immediately upon bodies; and that it is not at all probable God should work miracles to allow of their doing so.

If we examine closely those who have passed for being possessed, we shall not perhaps find one amongst them, whose mind had not been deranged by some accident, or whose body was not attacked by some infirmity either known or hidden, which had caused some ferment in the blood or the brain, and which, joined to prejudice, or fear, had given rise to what was termed in their case obsession or possession.

The possession of King Saul is easily explained by supposing that he was naturally an atrabilarian, and that in his fits of melancholy he appeared mad, or furious; therefore they sought no other remedy for his illness than music, and the sound of instruments proper to enliven or calm him. Several of the obsessions and possessions noted in the New Testament were simple maladies, or fantastic fancies, which made it believed that such persons were possessed by the devil. The ignorance of the people maintained this prejudice, and their being totally unacquainted with physics and medicine served to strengthen such ideas.

In one it was a somber and melancholy temper, in another the blood was too fevered and heated; here the bowels were burnt up with heat, there a concentration of diseased humor, which suffocated the patient, as it happens with those subject to epilepsy and hypochondria, who fancy themselves gods, kings, cats, dogs, and oxen. There were others, who, disturbed at the remembrance of their crimes, fell into a kind of despair, and into fits of remorse, which irritated their mind and constitution, and made them believe that the devil pursued and beset them. Such, apparently, were those women who followed Jesus Christ, and who had been delivered by him from the unclean spirits that possessed them, and partly so Mary Magdalene, from whom he expelled seven devils. The Scripture often speaks of the spirit of impurity, of the spirit of falsehood, of the spirit of jealousy; it is not necessary to have recourse to a particular demon to excite these passions in us; St. James tells us that we are enough tempted by our own concupiscence, which leads us to evil, without seeking after external causes.

The Jews attributed the greater part of their maladies to the demon: they were persuaded that they were a punishment for some crime either known or unrevealed. Jesus Christ and his apostles wisely supposed these prejudices, without wishing to attack them openly and reform the old opinions of the Jews; they cured the diseases, and chased away the evil spirits who caused them, or who were said to cause them. The real and essential effect was the cure of the patient; no other thing was required to confirm the mission of Jesus Christ, his divinity, and the truth of the doctrine which he preached. Whether he expelled the demon, or not, is not essentially necessary to his first design; it is certain that he cured the patient either by expelling the devil, if it be true that this evil spirit caused the malady, or by replacing the inward springs and humors in their regular and natural state, which is always miraculous, and proves the Divinity of the Savior.

Although the Jews were sufficiently credulous concerning the operations of the evil spirit, they at the same time believed that in general the demons who tormented certain persons were nothing else than the souls of some wretches, who, fearing to repair to the place destined for them, took possession of the body of some mortal whom they tormented and endeavored to deprive of life.

Josephus the historian relates that Solomon composed some charms against maladies, and some formula of exorcism to expel evil spirits. He says, besides, that a Jew named Eleazar cured in  the presence of Vespasian some possessed persons by applying under their nose a ring, in which was enchased a root, pointed out by that prince. They pronounced the name of Solomon with a certain prayer, and an exorcism; directly, the person possessed fell on the ground, and the devil left him. The generality of common people among the Jews had not the least doubt that Beelzebub, prince of the devils, had the power to expel other demons, for they said that Jesus Christ only expelled them in the name of Beelzebub. We read in history that sometimes the pagans expelled demons; and the physicians boast of being able to cure some possessed persons, as they cure hypochondriacs, and imaginary disorders.

These are the most plausible things that are said against the reality of the possessions and obsessions of the devil.





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