The Primitive Mind and Modern Man

Trance and Possession States

Author(s): John Alan Cohan

Pp: 133-149 (17)

DOI: 10.2174/978160805087111001010133

* (Excluding Mailing and Handling)


Trance and possession states are a worldwide phenomena, usually voluntarily induced. Practically everyone has at one time or another fallen into a trance or possession state, either spontaneously or induced by drugs or by circumstances such as extreme stress, physical exertion or deprivation. In the West, trance and possession phenomena are for the most part associated with bad things-demonic possession, madness, insanity. But in many cultures trance and possession states are customary in religious ceremonies, rites to cure illness, rituals to attain communion with ancestral spirits, totemic guardians, and a means of practicing mediumship and prophesy-and are even regarded as a social responsibility. For instance, after a successful pig hunt, hunters in Papua New Guinea will seek to enter a trance to fulfill a social responsibility of giving what the spirits ask as a reward for providing a successful hunt. In many cultures, mediums and other channelers are thought to have a heightened perception of spiritual truths. There is a continuum of sorts, a trance being a slight alteration of consciousness, whereas possession is a “deep trance” in which the individual seems to be somewhat taken over by a supernatural agency. Some possession states are hysterical in nature in that the individual might lose control over equilibrium, and may tend to strike out threateningly towards others, engage in self-inflicted violence, or become blind, deaf, and entirely unresponsive during the episode. In many cultures trance and possession states are normal and empowering features of everyday human life, while psychiatrists in the West often regard such states, for the most part, as a mental disorder. In any event, all cultures regard an involuntary, uninvited trance or possession state to be undesirable and dysfunctional. Trance dances are known in many cultures and function to release emotional tension, to escape everyday worries, to provide a catharsis for primal instincts and patterns, or to provide a profound religious and spiritual experience. In many parts of the world it is normative for women to occasionally fall into a trance or possession state as a kind of protest or a way of seeking redress for their feelings of powerlessness and low status. Trance and possession states are quite common and widespread in charismatic Christian healing services. Extreme involuntary possession-demonic possession-is indicated by violent, aggressive behavior, a distinct experience of being controlled by an alien force, a change of voice, convulsions, intermittent states of unconsciousness, superhuman strength, and obscene behavior. Its emergence is usually gradually, and many believe is prompted by either witchcraft or by the victim’s conscious or unconscious inviting of evil spirits. In chronic cases rituals in the form of exorcism will be performed by a priest, shaman, or medicineman.

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