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If Thomson-Glover had been possessed by demons, he would have been expected to be writhing on the floor, swearing obscenely, and speaking in a strange voice. He would not have been meticulously drilling holes in walls to spy on children as they showered. The account above given by Einhard, an intellectual working in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century, is far more typical of what we would expect of a possessed individual.
Court Spring Coral JUNGLE Court Spring GE1L GE1L Possession generally involves bizarre physical contortions and changed voices, as described by Einhard. The possessed might harm themselves or others, utter blasphemies and speak or act in licentious, flagrantly sexual ways. They show disgust or terror at the presence of holy or sacred objects. They often reveal hidden knowledge (gnosis), speak languages they do not know and might have wounds such as scratches and bite-marks that appear without visible cause.
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The idea of people possessed by evil spirits against their will is at least as old as the Babylonian and ancient Assyrian cultures. Often there is thought to be a special way a person has become possessed. It might be the result of a curse cast on them by a sorcerer, or some unfortunate mishap such as stepping over a dead body. Or the demons can have been invited, in a Satanic ritual. More often, at least in recent Christian tradition, there is no initiating moment that can be identified – they just find their way in, like disease.
Spring Court Court Coral GE1L JUNGLE GE1L Spring Indeed, the earliest accounts of possession by evil spirits are often just descriptions of illness that people assumed to be caused by spirits because they knew of no other cause. We shall not deal here with these accounts that use demons as scapegoats for regular types of illness. Instead, we shall focus on some of the well-documented instances of possession of the type that Einhard describes.
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In many societies, shamanic ritual and religious ecstasy play an important part in spiritual life. Shamans are individuals with a special role in a community. Considered emissaries or messengers between the human and spirit realms, they can travel or provide a conduit between the two by going into a trance or state of ecstasy, a type of altered consciousness. The physical signs associated with shamanistic ecstasy are remarkably similar to those of demonic possession. It appears that there is a state that some people can enter, often at will, in which they might ‘speak in tongues’ (called glossolalia), move energetically, contort their bodies and enter a different state of consciousness.
These rituals differ from the type of possession we shall be concerned with in that the spirits have been invited to enter the host and will be dismissed at the end of the ritual. The human host remains in overall control and makes use of the spirits. The same is true of mediums who claim to contact or channel the spirits of the dead. On the contrary, in cases of possession the spirit usually comes uninvited and refuses to leave. Forcing an uninvited spirit to vacate a possessed person is extremely difficult.
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