What Is Demonic Possession? Signs & Its Mythology in Cultures

Updated June 11, 2021
Priest with crucifix

Demonic possession is also known as spirit possession. What some people first learned about demonic possession came from the movie The Exorcist. However, reports of demonic possession can be found throughout history, starting as early as the ancient Sumerian culture. In many religions, demons are evil spirits.

Possession by Dybbuk in Judaism

Jewish folklore describes demons and other evil spirits. In Judaism, demons are called Dybbuks (or Dibbuk). A Dybbuk is an evil spirit that enters a person, controlling their personality and speech.

While folklore suggests Dybbuks possess people, one of the most interesting documented cases of a Dybbuk involves the possession of an object. The Dybbuk Box is a famous object that is believed to be possessed by a Dybbuk. In fact, it is the real life object that inspired the movie The Possession.

The Dybbuk Box, which is an antique wine cabinet, has gone through multiple owners, and each has described odd circumstances when they are in possession of the wine cabinet such as burning red eyes, insect infestations, and terrible luck.

Dybbuk box in acacia wood ark

Possession by Demons in Christianity

In Christianity the belief is that these evil spirits are fallen angels that work among Satan's legions. Like Satan, demons are opposed to God's principles and work to pull humanity away from God in Satan's name. Therefore, in demonic possession, these evil spirits attack humans by overtaking one's consciousness, controlling body and soul.

The Vatican released updated guidelines with regard to possession in 1999. These guidelines include signs indicating an exorcism might be needed and provide common symptoms of possession. According to the guidelines, the church must first rule out mental, psychological, or physical illness. After ruling out illness and non-spiritual causes, signs and symptoms may include:

  • Physical changes in posture and strength of the victim.
  • Personality changes in the victim, such as flying into unprovoked rages, speaking in tongues, or attacking others.
  • Extreme distaste of things associated with religion such as intolerance of any religious artifacts or symbols, or antipathy towards the mention of God, Jesus, or any scripture.
  • Atmospheric changes in the vicinity of the victim such as an unexplainable chill.

Demonic Possession by Asuras, Vetalas, and Pishachas in Hinduism

In the Hindu religion, there are several classifications of demons and evil spirits, including Asuras, Vetalas, and Pishachas. Additionally, people with bad karma in one lifetime may be relegated to roaming as evil spirits in punishment for such karma.

Vetalas are evil spirits that inhabit corpses but not the living. Pishachas are flesh-eating demons. Exorcisms may be performed to remove these evil spirits, using sacred water, burning incense, and similar ceremonial rituals.

Stone asuras on a Cambodian bridge

Jinn Evil Spirit Possession in Islam

In Islam, evil spirits called Jinn (also known as Djinn or Genies) may possess humans, controlling their actions and behaviors.

Humans can also be damaged by witchcraft or black magic. To help repair possession and damage, a ruqyah is performed. Ruqyah is essentially an Islamic form of exorcism.

old Koran

Shamanism and Demonic Possession

In shamanic cultures, possession by evil spirits may occur. These spirits use the host body, which can weaken the host and make him physically, emotionally, or mentally ill.

These illnesses may include addictions to drugs and alcohol, as well as behavioral changes. Shamans may perform rituals such as soul retrieval and spirit extraction to help people who have been possessed.

Agitated man on blue background

Similar Signs Across Cultures

While the idea of demonic possession is extremely frightening, the average person has little to fear. True cases of demonic possession are believed to be quite rare, and there is no proof it is a real phenomenon. Instead, possession is a belief associated with many religions, and in general, the signs of possession are similar regardless of religion or belief.

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What Is Demonic Possession? Signs & Its Mythology in Cultures