The History of Exorcisms

Exorcisms have occurred all throughout history. They have been recorded as far back as Biblical times. There are a few instances of curing demoniacs in the Old Testament, one example is whenever an evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take a harp and play it with his hand. Saul would then be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him.

In the New Testament, there are several records in the Four Gospels that tell about Jesus Christ expelling demons using a simple command. This can all be found in Mark 1:23–26; 9:14–29; Luke 11:14–26. The apostles of Christ later continued the practice with the power and in the name of Jesus which is stated in Matthew 10:1; Acts 19:11–16.

But the practice of exorcism is not limited to those of the Christian belief. Virtually every religion and cultural tradition all over the world has taken part in the idea of spirit possession and the need of some form of exorcism. The custom dates back thousands of years. Even earlier than those recorded in the Holy Bible.

Exorcism during Ancient Mesopotamia Times

In ancient Mesopotamia times, (which was around 5,000-3,500 B.C.), it was believed that all forms of sickness came from powerful spirits that entered a person’s body and attacked them. There are Assyrian tablets which reference the use of incantations and prayer to the gods, as well as direct challenges to demons, which were believed to cause every sort of disease, both physical and psychological. Ancient Babylonian priests were known to perform rituals by destroying a wax or clay image of a demon.

Exorcism Present in Other Ancient Religious Sources

In the Hindu religion, the ancient texts known as the Vedas, which were written around 1,000 B.C., refer to evil beings that conflict the work of Hindu gods and harm the living.

There are also accounts from ancient Persia, which date back to around 600 B.C. It provides evidence of exorcism using prayer, ritual, and holy water by the religious leader, Zoroaster, who was the first magician, and the person who founded the religion, Zoroastrianism.

Islamic Exorcisms

In Islam, exorcism is known as ruqya, it is used to repair the damage that was caused by sihr or black magic. Exorcisms today are part of a wider body of contemporary Islamic alternative medicine, called al-Tibb al-Nabawi, or Medicine of the Prophet.

Islamic exorcisms consist of the treated person lying down, while a sheikh places a hand on a patient’s head while reciting verses from the Quran, but this is not mandatory. The drinking or sprinkling of holy water (water from the Zamzam Well) may also take place along with applying of clean non-alcohol-based perfumes, called as ittar.

Specific verses from the Quran are recited, which glorify God (e.g. The Throne Verse (Arabic: آية الكرسي Ayatul Kursi)), and invoke God’s help. In some cases, the adhan (call for daily prayers) is also read, as this has the effect of repelling non-angelic unseen beings or the jinn.

The Islamic prophet Muhammad taught his followers to read the last three suras from the Quran, Surat al-Ikhlas (The Fidelity), Surat al-Falaq (The Dawn) and Surat an-Nas (Mankind).

Exorcisms in Judaism

In Judaism, Josephus reports exorcisms performed by administering poisonous root extracts and others by making sacrifices.

In more recent times, Rabbi Yehuda Fetaya authored the book Minchat Yahuda, which deals extensively with exorcism, his experience with possessed people, and other subjects of Jewish thought. The book is written in Hebrew and was translated into English.

Rabbi Gershon Winkler of New Mexico explains that the procedure for a Jewish exorcism is intended not only to drive away the possessing force, but to help both the possessor and the possessed in an act of healing. The Jewish exorcism ritual is performed by a rabbi who has mastered practical Kabbalah. Also present is a minyan (a group of ten adult males), who gather in a circle around the possessed person. The group recites Psalm 91 three times, and then the rabbi blows a shofar (a ram’s horn).

The shofar is blown in a certain way, with various notes and tones, in effect to “shatter the body” so that the possessing force will be shaken loose. After it has been shaken loose, the rabbi begins to communicate with it and ask it questions such as why it is possessing the body of the possessed. The minyan may pray for it and perform a ceremony for it in order to enable it to feel safe, and so that it can leave the person’s body.


Exorcisms During the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, which were between 500-1,500 A.D., we saw a comeback of ancient superstitions and demonology as well as mental illness, which was all viewed as a result of evil possession. The treatment for the mentally ill during this time was barbaric to say the least. They were often left to the clergy who exorcised patients by using various techniques which caused physical pain, such as scourging.

The Skeptics Have Always Had Their Say in Demonic Possession.

Over the centuries, the rites of exorcism have included the use of prayer, commands, fumigations, holy water, hellebore, rue, salt and roses. And the practice has endured its fair share of skepticism.

There are many scientists who believe that demonic possession is just some form of mental illness such as hysteria, mania, psychosis, Tourette’s syndrome, schizophrenia, or a personality disorder. The skeptics claim that they illusion that exorcisms actually work on people experiencing these symptoms is simply due to the power of suggestion and nothing more. The placebo effect has also been mention which has been used to explain phenomena such as faith healing.