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Spirit possession: Multidisciplinary Approaches to a Worldwide Phonomenon



Possession, a seemingly irrational phenomenon, has posed challenges to generations of scholars rooted in Western notions of body–soul dualism, self and personhood, and a whole set of presuppositions inherited from Christian models of possession that was “good” or “bad.” The authors of the essays in this book present a new and more promising approach. They conceive spirit possession as a form of communication, of expressivity, of culturally defined behavior that should be understood in the context of local, vernacular theories and empiric reflections.

With the aim of reformulating the comparative anthropology of spirit possession, the editors have opened corridors between previously separate areas of research. Together, anthropologists and historians working on several historical periods and in different European, African, South American, and Asian cultural areas attempt to redefine the very concept of possession, freeing it from the Western notion of the self and more clearly delineating it from related matters such as witchcraft, devotion, or mysticism. The book also provides an overview of new research directions, including novel methods of participant observation and approaches to spirit possession as indigenous historiography.


Foreword by Éva Pócs and András Zempléni
András Zempléni: Discerning Spirit Possessions: An Introduction

Part I. Current Constellations of Spirit Possession Concepts
Gilles Tarabout: Reflecting on the Vocabulary of “Possession” in a South Indian Context
Bettina E. Schmidt: “Incorporation Does Not Exist”: The Brazilian Rejection of the Term “Possession” and Why It Exists Nonetheless
Heike Behrend: “Figures of Return”: The Catholic Church, the Holy Spirit and Embandwa Spirit Possession in Western Uganda
Éva Pócs: Ideas about Spirit Possession and Anti-Devil Practices in the Religious Life of Some Eastern Hungarian Communities
Mary L. Keller: The Indigeneity of Spirit Possession: A Contribution to Comparative Theory

Part II. Transitions and Thresholds of Change in Possession Concepts and Practices
Thomas J. Csordas: Specter, Phantom, Demon
Pierre-Henri Castel: From Loudun to Dakar, and Back: Possession and Evil in Individualistic and Nonindividualistic Societies
Florence Chave-Mahir: Devil Possession in the Liturgy around the Tenth and Twelfth Centuries
Emanuela Timotin: East European Christian Prayers against Hailstorms, Aquatic Demons and Divine Powers in Canonical and Apocryphal Contexts
Janine Rivière: The Nightmare in Early Modern England

Part III. Interactive Transformations of Popular and Official Possession Idioms and Practices
Ida Fröhlich: Spirit (RWH) in the Dead Sea Scrolls
Nancy Caciola: Domesticating the Dead: Ghosts and Spirit Possession in Late Medieval Italy
Christine D. Worobec: Demonic Possession in Orthodox Imperial Russia: Official and Popular Religious Conceptions through the Prism of an 1839–1840 Case Study
Gábor Klaniczay: The Healing of the Possessed in Medieval Canonization Processes
Sarah Ferber: The Sabbat of the Soul
Dániel Bárth: Ideas of Possession in Eighteenth-Century Hungarian Clerical Thought

Part IV. Possession and Social Reality: Possession as Indigenous Historiography
Daniela Berti: Possession, Communication and Power in Himachal Pradesh (North India)
Michèle Fiéloux and Jacques Lombard: A Day-to-Day Family Chronicle with “Personages” in Madagascar
Janice Boddy: Anthropological Spirits and Colonial Consciousness in Arabic-Speaking Sudan
András Zempléni: From Illness to Trance: The Socialization of Spirit Possession in Senegal
Michael Lambek: On Spirit Possession and Some Parallels with Reincarnation

Name Index
Subject Index
Geographical Index

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  • Spirit possession: Multidisciplinary Approaches to a Worldwide Phonomenon
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