Rituals of possession

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Title

Ritual Matters: Dynamic Dimensions in Practice


For people from Europe or North America, spirit possession represents an alien and ‘exotic’ practice. But in the context of the world’s cultures it is one of the most common techniques of ritual healing, and is moreover of great interest for scientific disciplines both within and without the field of ritual studies. As Janice Boddy (1994) points out, possession is a broad term that addresses issues of spirit and matter, power and corporeal reality, and the boundaries between individual and environment. It has been considered from various theoretical angles in several disciplines including religious studies, cultural anthropology, psychiatry and psychology. Questions of belief and behaviour, personhood and agency, gender, pathology, therapy and religion are all relevant to the study of possession (see also Klass 2003, Lewis 1989, Lynn and Rhue 1994). Likewise, the different approaches to and theories of dissociation are as wide-ranging as the phenomenon itself, and require interdisciplinary inquiry. Hence, one aim of this essay is to re-associate the ‘dissociation’ between anthropology and psychology, and to take a few steps towards bridging the gap between the two disciplines in research concerning the phenomena referred to by the term ‘spirit possession’ and ‘dissociation’. A further aim is to address the role of spirit possession in relation to the notion of agency, and to raise the question of the efficacy of healing rituals. In the first part of the essay we set the theoretical frame by taking possession/dissociation out of the realm of (psycho)-pathology. Instead, we locate it in the framework of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), seeing it not as pathological but rather as an essential part of many healing rituals. Nonpathological models of dissociation from anthropological and psychological writings are introduced to chart the territory in an interdisciplinary manner. To support our theoretical claims, we will introduce ethnographic material in the second part of the essay, based on field-research conducted by us in 2006 in the North Indian healing and pilgrimage site Balaji (Mehndipur) in Rajasthan. In the third part, we challenge the (still common) assumption that spirit possession is to be understood primarily as a cognitive phenomenon, and focus instead on embodiment.



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