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Exorcisms date to earliest times. The belief in demons and demonic influence is documented in many pagan cultures, beliefs and practices.
However, not all demonic possessions were attributed to evil spirits. For example, in classical Greek, daimonan merely means to be mad or insane.
The treatment for that kind of demonic problem is less than — and very different from — the rituals used to drive out malicious entities or spirits.
As I explained in Possessed? Need help?, the vast majority of so-called demonic possessions have nothing to do with demons… or even ghosts.
Before deciding that you’re dealing with demons, calmly evaluate the situation.
What you’ve seen on TV is often created to make the show more sensational and increase ratings. That’s entertainment, not reality.
Modern and historic exorcisms range from simple to complex, but they generally have one element in common.
Pagan and earth-based rituals often involved salt and/or water, or herbs, or some blessed object, plus a casting-out ritual invoking the name and assistance of Deity.
Modern-day rituals also use holy objects plus the name or names of Deity to empower the rite.
In other words, most traditions recognized that spiritual assistance is necessary to cast out — or reject the influence of — an entity with evil intentions.
Development of exorcisms
Over many centuries as religions emerged, very precise and effective exorcism rituals were developed. In the Jewish faith, exorcisms were fine-tuned and included specific names, varying with the situation.
From the 1913 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia:
“The chief characteristic of these Jewish exorcisms is their naming of names believed to be efficacious, i. e. names of good angels, which are used either alone or in combination with El (= God) … it was considered most important that the appropriate names, which varied for different times and occasions, should be used.
“…It was a popular Jewish belief… that Solomon had received the power of expelling demons, and that he had composed and transmitted certain formulae that were efficacious for that purpose.” (emphasis added)
In other words, there are specific rituals that work. Others can do more harm than good. That’s important to keep in mind.
Today, many exorcists rely on the rituals documented in church history. Whether they believe in Jesus Christ or not, many exorcists note that the use of Jesus’ name seems to be among the most effective for banishing a demonic presence.
However, inexperienced ghost hunters and paranormal researchers usually don’t know the difference between a demonic possession and the far more dangerous devil (or Devil) possession.
They are two different issues, and must be treated differently.
Types of Christian exorcisms
Christian exorcisms trace their roots to the ministry of Jesus.
There are three kinds of exorcisms in the historic church:
- Baptismal exorcism, performed when someone is accepted (baptized) into membership in the church.
- Simple exorcism, including the blessing of a house.
- The Rite of Exorcism, used to cast out demons or the Devil from a human.
A traditional baptismal exorcism includes phrasing that is the basis for many other kinds of exorcisms.
The following text is from the 1894 book, The Glories of the Catholic Church – The Catholic Christian Instructed in Defence of His Faith.
Then the priest proceeds to the solemn prayers and exorcisms, used of old by the Catholic Church in the administration of baptism, to cast out the devil from the soul, under whose power we are born by original sin. ” I exorcise thee,” says he, ” O unclean spirit, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, that thou mayest go out, and depart from this servant of God, (name of the afflicted) ; for He commands thee, O thou cursed and condemned wretch, who with His feet walked upon the sea, and stretched forth His right hand to Peter that was sinking. Therefore, O accursed devil, remember thy sentence, and give honor to the living and true God. Give honor to Jesus Christ His Son, and to the Holy Ghost, and depart from this servant of God.”
Those kinds of prayers and rituals were developed over many centuries, and refined to work as quickly and effectively as possible.
Other religions and spiritual traditions may use different approaches.
However, most demonologists explain that exorcisms rarely work on the first try. The person may seem to be free of the demons, but relapse later. It’s not unusual to require ten or more rituals of exorcism, and each one of them can be excruciating and exhausting for everyone involved.
In addition, treating a non-demonic situation as if demons are involved can be dangerous. It can trigger mental, emotional, physical and spiritual issues that weren’t a problem before the attempted exorcism.
For this reason, physical and mental illnesses must be ruled out before an exorcism begins. No one, including the afflicted person, should have to go through an exorcism if other treatment — medical or pastoral — is more appropriate.
Even it appears that a demonic entity is the cause of the problem, the solution isn’t always simple.
In the hands of someone inexperienced, exorcisms can go horribly wrong. The methods and rituals that can drive away malicious spirits that were once human, and cause lesser demons to cower, can make things worse if a more powerful presence is involved.
Currently, the biggest liability is the example set by TV show and movies.
Even when they’re presented as “reality” shows — a loophole that allows networks to pay far less than an actor would earn in a regular TV show — what you’re seeing may not be reality… or anything even vaguely like it.
Waving a cross and walking briskly through a “possessed” house is not a Rite of Exorcism.
In addition, deciding that something is definitely demonic after just one visit… that’s not what really goes on in this field, either.
One of our biggest concerns is the number of people who see something on TV and think that’s what real paranormal researchers do.
They either emulate what they’ve seen acted-out on TV, or — if they’re clients — they expect the team (or expert) to do what was shown on TV.
Both are unhealthy approaches, and they can even be dangerous.
For that reason, we recommend contacting an experienced demonologist if someone is dealing with a potentially dangerous possession.
Remember that a demonologist is someone with expertise in the field of demons. A demonologist may also be an exorcist, but many demonologists work with exorcists and do not initiate the rituals themselves.
Exorcists must know how to identify an actual possession — since most cases appear to only mimic possession — and which rituals and practices to use at each level of actual possession.
Illustration modified from a photo by Ricardo Ortiz