Possession, Christianization, and Saints’ Shrines in Antiquity

David Frankfurter
David Frankfurter

With its clear-glass, brightly-lit, whitewashed interior, Harvard Divinity School’s Andover Chapel reflects all the values of elite Protestant culture in New England history: quiet prayer, thoughtful sermons, an approach to God through the heart rather than the senses, and a minimum of iconic reminders that the space is Christian. And it was here, in April 2007, that this author beheld the Vodun spirits Damballa and Ogun arrive through several experienced mediums. The ceremony had not really been intended to call down the spirits, only to praise them in a kind of broad sampling of Haitian Vodun songs. But the altar was full of their treats, the room was full, the drummers were good, the singing was loud, and the mediums were expert. So the spirits arrived: various Danbalas slithering across the floor and a very martial Ogun huffing and puffing around the altar to get his rum. And they were greeted, with awed interest by the Harvard students, familiarity by the Haitians, and annoyed tolerance by one Adventist woman.

Now, Andover Chapel is a relatively neutral place for Loas to show up: neither intrinsically inviting nor forbidding. But what if it were a space for demonstrating the power of Christ against such spirits? Would they then show up, or stay away? How would possession take place in that context? What spirits would appear under those circumstances, and how would they define themselves?

Holy spaces often serve as theatres of contestation between new religious ideologies and traditional religious formulations. In this case, the chapel provided simply a backdrop (and even at that, hardly legitimacy) for the Vodun Loa. But in other, more historically fraught or culturally transitional situations, much can ride on the manifestations of spirits and their self-definition at shrines. Thus, in its most general scope, this paper asks how cultures that acknowledge ancestral spirits (like loa) as part of cultural experience and memory have negotiated the rise of Christianity. Have these spirits simply been demonized and expelled? Or have they assumed different functions and personalities, like the Vodun Loas? What might exorcism mean in cultures that live in perpetual relationship with spirits? Finally, what role does “place” have in the forms of possession? The primary focus of this paper is “demonic” possession in the development of Christian local religion, but the perennial appearance of possession phenomena in the history of religions recommends just such broader questions about the relationship of Christianization to indigenous spiritual beliefs.

The historical and regional focus of this paper is the late antique Mediterranean world and the encounter of Christian and native spirits in those lands. And in this context, we must first tackle the category Daemon as an ancient evaluation of spirits. How diverse would a field of local spirits have been covered over in the application of this category?

In its most familiar literary usage in Roman and late Roman Christian texts Daemon denoted those obnoxious, disruptive spirits, often linked to heathen cult and to the army of Satan, who provided such perfect literary foils to Jesus and apostles. It was a category constructed and wielded to dramatize the triumphant, even apocalyptic heroism of Christian holy men. But even as Greek and Roman writers applied it to virtually any supernatural being beneath the theoi, Daemon was a strikingly impoverished term for representing ancient supernatural experience — the “lived religion” of the ancient Mediterranean world, in which local forms of great gods spoke as oracles, seers transmitted the words of spirits, and local cultures lived in familiarity with a great range of ancestral and landscape spirits, both named and categorized. To comprehend this great range of supernatural beings we need an approach that does not depend on static, theologically-loaded terms like “demon” or “angel” (or “Holy Spirit”) as descriptive, second-order categories. We need to seek instead more neutral, dynamic, and flexible categories that can “preserve the sense of indeterminacy [that] people represented for their communities in negotiating spirits and possession.” What we need in addition are sources that themselves reflect this “sense of indeterminacy” around possessing spirits as people regarded them. And these are the texts this article will tackle: texts mostly from the transitional epoch of the fourth- and fifth-centuries c.e., the period of Christianity’s official ascendance, that promote Christian supernatural hegemony, but in which “demons” serve not as forces of havoc or evil but as oracles and healing spirits.

It is the thesis of this article that such potent yet ambiguous spirits, which were enacted through possession, reflected not a peripheral curiosity of late antiquity but rather a central feature of the Christianization of local cultures. Christianization itself involved the reorganization of traditional and institutional pantheons to bring Christianity into local relevance, as a source of authority, morality, power, and myth. This reorganization of pantheons was connected to the establishment of various religious centers, those new shrines of a nascent Christian landscape, for it was these sites that came to serve as theaters for the manifestation of spirits, indeed for the shaping of spirits in relationship to the Christian pantheon and to the predilections, beliefs, and needs of particular audiences. Finally, I will argue, this performative shaping of spirits’ characters through possession points to popular agency in the process of appropriating Christianity, not simply scriptural or doctrinal models.

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