Frog in your throat?

Terry Eagleton

  • The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West by Brian Levack
    Yale, 346 pp, £25.00, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 11472 0

Early modern Europe was awash with cases of demonic possession. Thousands of men, women and children conversed in languages of which they had no knowledge, tore at their own flesh and uttered blasphemies and profanities. They vomited vast quantities of nails, pins, blood, feathers, stones, coins, coal, dung, meat, cloth and hair, and grunted and barked like animals. Some of them writhed in convulsions, floated above the ground or demonstrated preternatural physical strength. Their eyes bulged, their limbs stiffened, their faces became grossly distorted and their throats and stomachs grew monstrously swollen. A number of them lapsed into trances, foresaw the future or disclosed secrets it was hard to see how they could have possessed.

In the late 17th century, a Franciscan friar pulled a large toad out of the mouth of a female demoniac, while the head of a young Scotsman pivoted front to back, a rather less impressive circuit than that of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. One woman vomited a live eel, followed by 24 pounds of various substances twice a day for two weeks. (With admirable judiciousness, Brian Levack, the author of The Devil Within, warns that ‘the veracity of such reports can be questioned on a number of grounds.’) Some young women’s limbs grew so stiff that the efforts of several muscular men proved insufficient to bend them, while others could arch their backs like gymnasts, occasionally licking the floor as they did so. Some men and women levitated (Catholics proved more proficient at the practice than Protestants); others threw the process into reverse, gaining so much weight that they were impossible to budge.

A late 17th-century German demoniac is reputed to have coughed up four hundred chamberpots’ worth of blood. Some of the possessed were said to have abstained from food and drink for months or even years. Others jabbered away in Latin, Greek or Hebrew, while an illiterate Italian woman quoted verses from the Aeneid in the original. Since demons were thought to be fallen angels, they manifested the high intelligence with which God had endowed all angelic spirits, and had, presumably, a sound grounding in the classics. In Catholic countries, those in the grip of Satan spat on crucifixes, trampled on the communion host, railed at priests and insulted the Virgin Mary. As in The Omen, they reacted to sacred objects with terror and revulsion. Possessed nuns made lewd sexual gestures, pulling up their skirts and engaging in behaviour that according to one commentator ‘would have astonished the inmates of the lowest brothel in the country’. Rather less lasciviously, the bewitched young women of 17th-century Salem made foolish speeches, crept under chairs and crawled into holes.

It was believed that the human body was porous, and that the evil spirits who gained access to it roamed around its inner cavities at will, indiscriminately attacking organs. The highest number of demons ever to invade a human body was said to be 12,652, all of whom assumed simultaneous occupancy of a 16-year-old German girl in 1584. More frequently, the Devil took up residence himself rather than delegating tenancy to his subordinates. He could do this, however, only with the permission of God, which raised the theologically embarrassing question of why the Almighty should allow the tongues of innocent young women to swell until they hung down to the tip of their chins.

When multiple demons were exorcised, demoniacs sometimes invented names for them in response to the exorcist’s questioning. A group of 16th-century English demoniacs named their diabolical tenants Pippin, Maho, Philpot, Modu and Soforce, which might pass at a stretch for a firm of solicitors. Many cases of possession were blatantly fraudulent. People pretended to be at the mercy of Satan to attract attention, violate social or moral norms with impunity, receive alms from sympathetic neighbours or (since it was believed that witches could command demonic possession) incriminate an enemy. Fraud, however, cannot account for all the cases. Until the late 19th century, epilepsy, hysteria and melancholy (or clinical depression) were also considered primary causes. In fact, hysteria was already being touted as an explanation for being in thrall to Beelzebub as early as the 17th century. Our ancestors were by no means as gullible as we sometimes imagine: there were many devout Christians who were sceptical of the whole phenomenon. Thomas Hobbes was one of several who saw it as a metaphor for mental illness. Spinoza seems to have believed the same. From the early years of the Renaissance, plenty of physicians claimed that demonic possession had natural causes. So did some of their ancient Greek and Hellenic predecessors. Belief in the power of evil spirits to infest the human body was never an article of faith for Catholics, and no one was prosecuted for heresy for denying it. There were those who believed that all illness, physical or mental, was the work of the Devil, a conviction that may have been shared by Jesus. It is notable that he never once urges the sick to reconcile themselves to their infirmities. On the contrary, he seems to regard their illness as the fruit of evil, and his healing them as part of his mission against the powers of darkness.

In the past few decades, demoniacs have been thought to have been afflicted by bipolar disorder, catatonic schizophrenia, epilepsy, palsy, Tourette’s syndrome, ergot poisoning, anorexia, multiple personality disorder and a range of other illnesses. Levack remains unconvinced by these speculations. This is partly because none of these conditions seems able to account for all the standard symptoms of demonic possession. Epileptics do not normally vomit toads, and those seized by melancholy do not usually babble in foreign tongues. But Levack is also unpersuaded because he suspects psychiatric diagnoses are unhistorical. In his view, falling prey to the lures of the Devil is always culturally specific. One cannot, he claims, use contemporary psychological models to explain the mentality of people who lived several centuries ago. This is surely implausible. Psychological ailments, like physical ones, display a degree of continuity across the ages. Sadism, anxiety and paranoia assume different forms at different times, but there are enough family resemblances to allow us to speak of roughly the same psychological condition. All illnesses, Levack writes, ‘are socially constructed, and can be understood only if they are studied in the cultural context in which they took place’. Yet cancer is not a social construct in the sense that melancholy is, and a German physician could treat an arthritic Peruvian peasant without knowing much about his or her cultural context. In capitulating to a fashionable culturalism, Levack is unclear about what part if any he considers mental illness to play in demoniac behaviour. On the one hand, he is deeply suspicious of universalist claims, regards the modern definition of hysteria as far too protean to be useful, and dismisses too briskly the notion of mass hysteria, which would seem a reasonable explanation for the various epidemics of diabolical invasion which erupt from time to time. On the other hand, he concedes that psychological disturbance may account for some aspects of the business in hand. His book thus combines a scepticism of medical explanations with the concession that hysteria and demonic possession may be closely related.

Even so, Levack’s attention to cultural difference yields some fascinating insights. He points out that those enslaved by devils in the New Testament display only some of the symptoms of their early modern successors. They do not hallucinate, speak in foreign tongues or indulge in lewd behaviour. Catholics besieged by wicked spirits tended to behave differently from Protestants. For Protestantism, a less materialist creed, the Devil posed more of a spiritual than a physical threat. Catholics in Satan’s grip revealed a horror of relics and crucifixes, whereas Protestants were repelled by the brandishing of bibles. Collective possession was mainly a Catholic phenomenon, Catholicism being a less individualist affair than Protestantism. The sexual aspect of possession – writhing and moaning while being penetrated – was far more pronounced among Catholics than Protestants. Catholics were also more likely to spew up foreign objects. Jewish demoniacs in early modern Europe tended to be taken over not by devils but by the disembodied spirits of their ancestors. What kind of force you were assailed by depended largely on your belief system, rather as Muslims who have near death experiences are unlikely to see a tall, bearded figure drifting towards them in a radiant white gown. Calvinists were almost impervious to demonic penetration: a paltry 11 cases were recorded in early modern Scotland, and only 25 in English Puritan or Dissenting circles. If, as Levack believes, the Salem witches were not a case of demonic possession, since neither they nor any observer made such a claim, we are left with only seven demoniacs in late 17th-century New England.

In Levack’s opinion, demoniacs have to be understood as acting out a script encoded in their religious cultures, in a theatrical performance which involved themselves, the exorcist and the community as audience. Though the performance was predetermined, the occasional ad lib was permissible. People mugged up on their roles by reading accounts of other possessions, so the growth of printing played a vital role in the whole business. Drama coaches were often involved in cases of counterfeit possession. Exorcisms might be performed on platforms before audiences numbering several thousand. They were propaganda exercises, intended to spread the faith by demonstrating the power of the Catholic Church. (Protestantism, a less theatrical creed, rejected such rites as superstitious.) Exorcists followed their own prescribed roles, enhancing the performance of the possessed by implanting suggestions in them and thus adding lines to their scripts. In doing so, the exorcism typically aggravated the symptoms it was meant to relieve, in what might be seen as a kind of spiritual homeopathy. Only by bringing the affliction to a point of crisis, beating the hapless victim about the head or spitting in his face, treading on a woman’s breasts or setting a foot on her throat, could an exorcist expel the occupying forces. They might emerge from the demoniac’s body in the form of frogs or hedgehogs, sometimes making their escape through the ‘Devil’s portgate’ or female genitals. St Martin of Tours once exorcised a man by thrusting his arm down his throat and forcing the demon to exit through his anus. Catholic exorcisms were a matter of supply and demand: their effectiveness increased their popularity, which helps explain why there were so many cases of Catholic possession. The cure, in short, helped to propagate the illness. There were a number of travelling exorcists who charged a fee for their services, as there are travelling spiritualists today.

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Levack estimates that at least three-quarters of demoniacs in early modern Europe were female. There was a new emphasis on female piety, along with the cultivation of female sainthood; and the quest for moral perfection may have bred guilt and anxiety among women conscious of their spiritual shortcomings. Levack claims that a good many nuns in the period entertained sexual fantasies about their confessors, or actually had affairs with them. It was generally assumed that the Devil assaulted aspirants to sanctity more vehemently than he laid siege to the morally mediocre, so the line between sainthood and damnation was perilously thin. One might call it the Graham Greene syndrome. Satan was said to be most powerful in the monasteries, while many holy men and women fell into raptures and trances, had visions and hallucinations, fasted for long periods and demonstrated an ability to speak languages with which they had seemed unfamiliar.

That sinners are on terms with the saints is a venerable religious belief. The Devil himself, after all, was once an angel. You cannot be condemned to hell without understanding something of the divine love you are turning down. This is why William Golding’s Pincher Martin has its doomed protagonist snarl ‘I shit on your heaven!’ as the black lightning of divinity flickering around his locked, lobster-like claws seeks patiently to undo his self-defences. Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn, the damned hero of Doctor Faustus, chooses to study theology at university, determined to take the measure of the opposition. Like the saints, the wicked constitute a spiritual aristocracy, a privileged elite as au fait with metaphysical matters as the most selfless of martyrs, and thus for the likes of Greene and Mauriac incomparably superior to the moral middle classes. The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. His acolytes deal in good and evil, not suburban questions of right and wrong.

Demonic possessions seem to have peaked in the 17th century, but persisted throughout the Age of Reason. They were still widely believed to happen even in places where the Enlightenment had made considerable headway. There was another surge of diabolical incursions in the 1960s and 1970s, generated in part by The Exorcist. According to Levack, interest in the phenomenon has risen sharply in the last two decades, on the back of Pentecostalism. At one Pentecostal exorcism in Kansas City, a young man who was given to compulsive masturbation, self-sodomy, bestiality and unsuccessful attempts at self-fellatio agreed to renew his commitment to Jesus Christ. Levack does not explain how anyone unathletic enough to fail in self-fellatio could succeed at self-sodomy. In 1973, two German priests were tried for the murder of a young woman whom they had tried to exorcise 67 times. In 1999, a new exorcism ritual was published by the Catholic Church stressing the need for medical and pastoral care of the victim before the divine machinery was put into motion. Even so, there is evidence that few Catholic exorcists have been willing to refer demoniacs to psychiatrists. In 2004, a Roman university with close ties to the Vatican began offering priests a four-month course in exorcism, and Catholic dioceses throughout the world were required to appoint an official exorcist. In 2010, the Polish National Congress of Exorcists met in Warsaw, partly with a view to countering the Hollywood image of crucifix-wielding exorcists doing battle with a monstrously priapic Satan over the body of a young girl spouting obscenities and coloured vomit. But the modernisation of the possession industry seems to have some way to go: one of the Polish priests at the congress considered individuals to be possessed when they were unable to enter a church, felt faint or breathless when they managed to make it through the door, or threw themselves dramatically to the ground. The fact that there are many Catholics nowadays who feel unable to enter a church, or feel ill when they do so, seems to have escaped his attention. Most possessions in modern times, as in the early modern period, have taken place in Catholic communities. It is reckoned that about half a million people in Italy today see an exorcist annually, as others might visit their dentist or optician. It is not clear whether this preponderance of papists is explained by the spiritual superiority of Catholics to those of other faiths, thus presenting a greater prize for the Devil, or by their spiritual inferiority, which leaves them more open to assault.

Levack’s erudite, absorbing account could do with a touch more theology. He records the fact that the name Satan in Hebrew means ‘adversary’ or ‘accuser’, and that the Bible sometimes sees him as the instrument of an angry God. But the point bears some elaborating. Satan is the image of Yahweh as judge and patriarch – as an irascible prima donna of a God who needs to be kept sweet. Jesus, by contrast, is the image of God as lover, comrade and counsel for the defence. Given their chronic masochism, many people tend to prefer the former variety of deity to the latter. There is something profoundly gratifying about a big bastard of a God who will relieve you of your guilt with his punishment, and something unnerving about a God who forgives you from the outset because he, too, is flesh and blood. Demonic possession is an extreme manifestation of that guilt and anxiety, a point at which, as with the neurotic symptom, it is both expressed and disowned. If the guilt springs from your innards, it also flows from an alien force that has set up home there, so that the crime is not really your fault.

The idea of being appropriated by alien powers challenges the modern concept of individual autonomy. In its own way, it recognises that there is a level at which men and women do not belong to themselves. Our relation to ourselves is not like our relation to a piece of property. As the concept of the unconscious would suggest, there are destructive forces over which we have only precarious mastery, and which can assume a deadly momentum of their own. It is just that there are more productive ways of recognising that at a certain level we do not belong to ourselves than spewing up frogs.