Exorcism


Exorcism is (1) the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice; (2) the means employed for this purpose, especially the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demon, in the name of God, or any of the higher power in which he is subject. The word, which is not itself biblical, is derived from exorkizo, which is used in the Septuagint (Genesis 24:3 = cause to swear; III(I) Kings 22:16 = adjure), and in Matthew 26:63, by the high priest to Christ, "I adjure thee by the living God. . ." The non-intensive horkizo and the noun exorkistes (exorcist) occur in Acts 19:13, where the latter (in the plural) is applied to certain strolling Jews who professed to be able to cast out demons. Expulsion by adjuration is, therefore, the primary meaning of exorcism, and when, as in Christian usage, this adjuration is in the name of God or of Christ, exorcism is a strictly religious act or rite. But in ethnic religions, and even among the Jews from the time when there is evidence of its being vogue, exorcism as an act of religion is largely replaced by the use of mere magical and superstitious means, to which non-Catholic writers at the present day sometimes quite unfairly assimilate Christian exorcism. Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite.

In ethnic religions

The use of protective means against the real, or supposed, molestations of evil spirits naturally follows from the belief in their existence, and is, and has been always, a feature of ethnic religions, savage and civilized. In this connection only two of the religions of antiquity, the Egyptian and Babylonian, call for notice; but it is no easy task, even in the case of these two, to isolate what bears strictly on our subject, from the mass of mere magic in which it is embedded. The Egyptians ascribed certain diseases and various other evils to demons, and believed in the efficacy of magical charms and incantations for banishing or dispelling them. The dead more particularly needed to be well fortified with magic in order to be able to accomplish in safely their perilous journey to the underworld. But of exorcism, in the strict sense, there is hardly any trace in the Egyptian records.

In the famous case where a demon was expelled from the daughter of the Prince of Bekhten, human ministry was unavailing, and the god Khonsu himself had to be sent the whole way from Thebes for the purpose. The demon gracefully retired when confronted with the god, and was allowed by the latter to be treated at a grand banquet before departing "to his own place" Babylonian magic was largely bound up with medicine, certain diseases being attributed to some kind of demoniacal possession, and exorcism being considered easiest, if not the only, way of curing them. For this purpose certain formulæ of adjuration were employed, in which some god or goddess, or some group of deities, was invoked to conjure away the evil one and repair the mischief he had caused. The following example  may be quoted: "The (possessing) demon which seizes a man, the demon (ekimmu) which seizes a man; The (seizing) demon which works mischief, the evil demon, Conjure, O spirit of heaven; conjure, O spirit of earth." For further examples see King, Babylonian Magic and Sorcery (London, 1896).

Among the Jews

There is no instance in the Old Testament of demons being expelled by men. In Tobias 8:3, is the angel who "took the devil and bound him in the desert of upper Egypt"; and the instruction previously given to young Tobias, to roast the fish's heart in the bridal chamber, would seem to have been merely part of the angel's plan for concealing his own identity. But in extra-canonical Jewish literature there are incantations for exorcising demons, examples of which may be seen in Talmud. These were sometimes inscribed on the interior surface of earthen bowls, a collection of which (estimated to be from the seventh century A.D) is preserved in the Royal Museum in Berlin; and inscriptions from the collection have been published, translated by Wohlstein in the "Zeitschrift für Assyriologie" (December, 1893; April, 1894).

The chief characteristics 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); indeed reliance on mere names had long before become a superstition with the Jews, and it was considered most important that the appropriate names, which varied for different times and occasions, should be used. It was this superstitious belief, no doubt, that prompted the sons of Sceva, who had witnessed St. Paul's successful exorcisms in the name of Jesus, to try on their own account the formula, "I conjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth", with results disastrous to their credit. It was a popular Jewish belief, accepted even by a learned cosmopolitan like Josephus, that Solomon had received the power of expelling demons, and that he had composed and transmitted certain formulæ that were efficacious for that purpose. The Jewish historian records how a certain Eleazar, in the presence of the Emperor Vespasian and his officers, succeeded, by means of a magical ring applied to the nose of a possessed person, in drawing out the demon through the nostrils — the virtue of the ring being due to the fact that it enclosed a certain rare root indicated in the formulaæ of Solomon, and which it was exceedingly difficult to obtain .

But superstition and magic apart, it is implied in Christ's answers to the Pharisees, who accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, that some Jews in His time successfully exorcised demons in God's name: "and if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out?" (Matthew 12:27). It does not seem reasonable to understand this reply as mere irony, or as a mere argumentum ad hominem implying no admission of the fact; all the more so, as elsewhere (Mark 9:37-38) we have an account of a person who was not a disciple casting out demons in Christ's name, and whose action Christ refused to reprehend or forbid.

Exorcism in the New Testament

Assuming the reality of demoniac possession, for which the authority of Christ is pledged, it is to be observed that Jesus appealed to His power over demons as one of the recognised signs of Messiahship (Matthew 12:23, 28; Luke 11:20). He cast out demons, He declared, by the finger or spirit of God, not, as His adversaries alleged, by collusion with the prince of demons (Matthew 12:24, 27; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15, 19); and that He exercised no mere delegated power, but a personal authority that was properly His own, is clear from the direct and imperative way in which He commands the demon to depart (Mark 9:24; cf. 1:25 etc.): "He cast out the spirits with his word, and he healed all that were sick" (Matthew 8:16). Sometimes, as with the daughter of the Canaanean woman, the exorcism took place from a distance (Matthew 15:22 sqq.; Mark 7:25). Sometimes again the spirits expelled were allowed to express their recognition of Jesus as "the Holy One of God" (Mark 1:24) and to complain that He had come to torment them "before the time", i.e the time of their punishment (Matthew 8:29 sqq; Luke 8:28 sqq.). If demoniac possession was generally accompanied by some disease, yet the two were not confounded by Christ, or the Evangelists. In Luke 13:32, for example, the Master Himself expressly distinguishes between the expulsion of evil spirits and the curing of disease.

Christ also empowered the Apostles and Disciples to cast out demons in His name while He Himself was still on earth (Matthew 10:1 and 8; Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1; 10:17), and to believers generally He promised the same power (Mark 16:17). But the efficacy of this delegated power was conditional, as we see from the fact that the Apostles themselves were not always successful in their exorcisms: certain kinds of spirits, as Christ explained, could only be cast out by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:15, 20; Mark 9:27-28; Luke 9:40). In other words the success of exorcism by Christians, in Christ's name, is subject to the same general conditions on which both the efficacy of prayer and the use of charismatic power depend. Yet conspicuous success was promised (Mark 16:17). St. Paul, and, no doubt, the other Apostles and Disciples, made use of regularly, as occasion arose, of their exorcising power, and the Church has continued to do so uninterruptedly to the present day.

Ecclesiastical exorcisms

Besides exorcism in the strictest sense — i.e. for driving out demons from the possessed — Catholic ritual, following early traditions, has retained various other exorcisms, and these also call for notice here.

Exorcism of the possessed

In the first centuries not only the clergy, but lay Christians also were able by the power of Christ to deliver demoniacs or energumens, and their success was appealed to by the early Apologists as a strong argument for the Divinity of the Christian religion. As is clear from testimonies referred to, no magical or superstitious means were employed, but in those early centuries, as in later times, a simple and authoritative adjuration addressed to the demon in the name of God, and more especially in the name of Christ crucified, was the usual form of exorcism, but sometimes in addition to words some symbolic action was employed, such as breathing (insufflatio), or laying of hands on the subject, or making the sign of cross. St. Justin speaks of demons flying from "the touch and breathing of Christians" as from a flame that burns them, adds St. Cyril of Jerusalem Origen mentions the laying of hands, and St. Ambrose, St. Ephraem and others used this ceremony in exorcising. The sign of the cross, that briefest and simplest way of expressing one's faith in the Crucified and invoking His Divine power, is extolled by many Fathers for its efficacy against all kinds of demoniac molestation The Fathers further recommend that the adjuration and accompanying prayers should be couched in the words of Holy Writ. The present rite of exorcism as given in the Roman Ritual fully agrees with patristic teaching and is a proof of the continuity of Catholic tradition in this matter.

Baptismal exorcism

At an early age the practice was introduced into the Church of exorcising catechumens as a preparation for the Sacrament of Baptism. This did not imply that they were considered to be obsessed, like demoniacs, but merely that they were, in consequence of original sin (and of personal sins in case of adults), subject more or less to the power of the devil, whose "works" or "pomps" they were called upon to renounce, and from whose dominion the grace of baptism was about to deliver them.

Exorcism in this connection is a symbolical anticipation of one of the chief effects of the sacrament of regeneration; and since it was used in the case of children who had no personal sins, St. Augustine could appeal to it against the Pelagians as implying clearly the doctrine of original sin. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Procatechesis 14) gives a detailed description of baptismal exorcism, from which it appears that anointing with exorcised oil formed a part of this exorcism in the East. The only early Western witness which treats unction as part of the baptismal exorcism is that of the Arabic Canons of Hippolytus. The Exsufflatio, or out-breathing of the demon by the candidate, which was sometimes part of the ceremony, symbolized the renunciation of his works and pomps, while the Insufflatio, or in-breathing of the Holy Ghost, by ministers and assistants, symbolised the infusion of sanctifying grace by the sacrament. Most of these ancient ceremonies have been retained by the Church to this day in her rite for solemn baptism.

Other exorcisms

According to Catholic belief demons or fallen angels retain their natural power, as intelligent beings, of acting on the material universe, and using material objects and directing material forces for their own wicked ends; and this power, which is in itself limited, and is subject, of course, to the control of Divine providence, is believed to have been allowed a wider scope for its activity in the consequence of the sin of mankind. Hence places and things as well as persons are naturally liable to diabolical infestation, within limits permitted by God, and exorcism in regard to them is nothing more that a prayer to God, in the name of His Church, to restrain this diabolical power supernaturally, and a profession of faith in His willingness to do so on behalf of His servants on earth.


The main things formally exorcised in blessing are water, salt, oil, and these in turn are used in personal exorcisms, and in blessing or consecrating places (churches) and objects (altars, sacred vessels, etc) connected with public worship, or intended for private devotion. Holy water, the sacramental with which the ordinary faithful are most familiar, is a mixture of exorcised water and exorcised salt; and in the prayer of blessing, God is besought to endow these material elements with a supernatural power of protecting those who use them with faith against all the attacks of the devil. This kind of indirect exorcism by means of exorcised objects is an extension of the original idea; but it introduces no new principle, and it has been used in the Church from the earliest ages. 

Exorcism in Hinduism

In Hindu tradition, beliefs and practices pertaining to the practice of exorcism are prominently connected with the ancient Dravidians in the south. Of the four Vedas (holy books of the Hindus), the Atharva Veda is said to contain the secrets related to magic and medicine. Many of the spells described in this book are for casting out demons and evil spirits. These beliefs are particularly strong and practiced in West Bengal, Orissa and southern states like Kerala. The basic means of exorcism are mantra and yajna used in both Vedic and Tantric traditions. Vaishnava traditions also employ a recitation of names of Narasimha and reading scriptures (notably Bhagavata Purana) aloud. The main Vedic resource on ghost- and death-related information is Garuda Purana.

Exorcism in Buddhism

The arrival of Buddhism absorbed and reinforced shamanism. Buddhism teaches the need to attain moral perfection through a series of reincarnations in order for a person to experience nirvana—absolute peace and absolute nothingness. Buddhism is strongly shamanistic in its popular versions. Shamans are especially active in Tibetan Buddhism. A large number of Buddhist exorcists work in Japan. A Buddhist exorcism is performed by a temple's chief priest and his assistant, reading an appropriate sutra (the scriptures of Buddhism) and burning a special incense. The priest also carries a shakujo—a wooden staff with metal rings threaded onto it, creating an unearthly sound to scare evil spirits away. In some Buddhist traditions, spirits are driven out of a person's body by causing physical discomfort such as fasting, bathing in extremely cold water, or slapping the skin of the possessed person.

Exorcism in Judaism

David plays his harp for King Saul, causing the "evil spirit from the Lord" to leave him. Exorcism in the Old Testament is rare. However, a famous instance of its practice is the story of David's acting as King Saul's harper when Saul was beset by an "evil spirit form the Lord." According to 1 Samuel 16:23 "Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him." In the apocryphal Book of Tobit, the beautiful young woman Sarah is plagued by a demon who has killed all seven or her husbands on her wedding night. She is liberated from this curse after the hero of the story, Tobias, is instructed by the angel Raphael to drive away the demon when he attacks on his wedding night by burning a fish's liver and heart. Raphael follows the demon to Upper Egypt and binds him there.

Around the first century C.E., Jewish sources report of exorcisms done by administering drugs with poisonous root extracts or by making sacrifices. Exorcisms were reportedly done by the Essene branch of Judaism. Jesus of Nazareth was a powerful Jewish healer and exorcist, and was apparently not alone in this profession, as evil spirits were believed to be the source of much illness.

In kabbalah and European Jewish folklore, possession takes on a different (and often much more positive) context. A person may be possessed by a spirit called a dybbuk—which is believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person—returned from Gehenna (a Hebrew term for the in-between world or purgatory that all spirits go to before entering heaven. According to these beliefs, on rare occasions a soul which has not been able to fulfill its function in its lifetime is given another opportunity to do so in the form of a dybbuk. The soul then seeks out and "attaches" itself to a living person who is going through things or in a similar "life position" to what the soul was in during its lifetime.

It is believed there are good dybbuks and bad, with a good dybbuk's "attachment" performing more the role of a "spiritual guide" there to help the person through their current trials and tribulations. In the case of a negative dybbuk, the spirit is not there to help as much as cause the same mistakes and chaos that it originally experienced during its own lifetime.

Exorcism involves 10 people (including the rabbi) who surround the possessed individual. The rabbi that leads the ceremony also requires a shofar (a ram's horn trumpet). The group repeatedly recites Psalm 91 and then the rabbi proceeds to blow the shofar in a specific pattern. This "shocks" both the possessed and the possesser, causing a loosening between the two enabling the addressing of each individually. The rabbi then enters in to dialog with the spirit to find its purpose, and the group proceeds to heal it through dialog and prayer meant to have it feel it has accomplished its goal. This is also done for a person who is possessed.

Exorcism in Christianity

Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament as the premier exorcist of his time. As much as one-quarter of Jesus' many reported healings were exorcisms. At times, Jesus cured the sufferers by the mere touch of his hand (Mark 1:25), or by the use of spittle put upon the affected organ, accompanying the operation with a whisper, Mark 8:23. He even drove a whole legion of evil spirits, 2,000 in number, out of a maniac living in a cemetery and made them enter a herd of swine to be drowned in the adjacent lake (Luke 8:26-39). Mary Magdalene was famous for being exorcised of seven demons, although it is not clear that Jesus was the exorcist in this case.

The ability to cast out evil spirits was also a sign of true discipleship among the apostles. Thus, exorcism became an important part of the tradition of the early Christian church, and many exorcisms are reported in early Christian literature.

Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism

Solemn exorcisms, according to Catholic Church law, can only be exorcised by an ordained priest (or a higher prelate), with the express permission of the local bishop, and only after a careful medical examination to exclude the possibility of mental illness. Symptoms listed in the Roman Ritual as being indicators of possible demonic possession include: speaking foreign or ancient languages of which the possessed has no prior knowledge, supernatural abilities and strength, knowledge of hidden or remote things which the possessed has no way of knowing, an aversion to anything holy, profuse blasphemy, or sacrilege.

The Catholic Church revised the Rite of Exorcism in January 1999, although the traditional rite is allowed as an option. The act of exorcism is considered to be a dangerous spiritual task. The ritual involves prayers, blessings, and invocations often with the use of the document Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications.


One example of the contemporary Church's view on exorcism is that of Emmanuel Milingo (born June 13, 1930), who was consecrated by Pope Paul VI as the Archbishop of Lusaka, Zambia in 1969. Milingo's work as an exorcist began gradually after his priestly ordination, but only in 1973 four years after his consecration as archbishop did he become well-known, due to the instantaneous recovery of an apparently mentally ill woman over whom he had prayed. Eventually, his healing services were attended by large audiences. However, he was asked in 1983 to step down from his position for his performance of exorcisms and faith healing practices were unapproved by higher Church authorities.

In the Church of England, every diocese has an official exorcist, who will usually be an elderly priest and from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the church. In The Episcopal Church the Book of Occasional Services discusses provision for exorcism; but it does not indicate any specific rite, nor does it establish an office of "exorcist."

Diocesan exorcists usually continue in their role when they have retired from all other church duties. Anglican exorcisms sometimes take the form of a mass for the dead if it is suspected that the souls suffering in Purgatory are responsible for the disturbance. Like their Catholic counterparts, Anglican priests may not perform an exorcism without permission from the Diocesan (regional) bishop, and a medical evaluation is also involved.

Orthodox Church

In Orthodox tradition, exorcism is the rite of prayer which expels demons from a person or physical object. The most common use of exorcism in the Church is at the reception of a catechumen—a convert to the church—which is most often included at the beginning of the baptismal rite. An exorcism may also be performed if it is believed that a person is suffering from demonic influence. In this case, the prayer of interdiction of St. Basil the Great is read by a priest over the possessed person: O God of gods and Lord of lords... Grant that this my exorcism being performed in Your awesome name be terrible to the Master of evil and to all his minions who had fallen with him from the height of brightness. Drive him into banishment, commanding him to depart hence, so that no harm might be worked against Your sealed Image. And, as You have commanded, let those who are sealed receive the strength to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all power of the Enemy. For manifested, hymned, and glorified with fear, by everything that has breath is Your most holy Name: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and into ages of ages. Amen.

Protestant denominations

Some Protestant denominations also recognize possession and exorcism, although the practice is generally less formalized than it is in the Catholic Church. While some denominations perform exorcism very sparingly and cautiously, some may perform it almost routinely, as part of regular religious services (especially Pentecostal denominations). Some denominations hold that any Christian have the authority to perform exorcism, not just the clergy.


In some traditions, a test which is often used to determine whether a mental disturbance is psychological or spiritual in nature is to pray over the person for the healing of their affliction and throw holy water on them. If the person reacts violently or uncharacteristically in response to prayer in the name of Jesus, it is often taken as a good indication that the affliction is demonic in nature.

Exorcisms are common in some traditions in which faith healing is practiced. They sometimes involve dramatic phenomena such as the possessed person shouting, falling on the floor, or violently shaking before the spirit is supposedly driven out by the combined power of the exorcist and the Holy Spirit.

Exorcism in Islam

Possession by evil spirits (jinn) or the Devil (Shaitan) and exorcism of those who are wicked at heart is warned about in Islam. The jinn enters a person and may cause him to speak incomprehensible words, and gives him supernatural physical power.


The prophet Muhammad and his followers expelled evil beings from the bodies of believers by using verses from the Qur'an, supplications to Allah, and holy Zamzam water. For example: He then placed the boy between himself and the middle of the saddle, opened the boy's mouth and blew in it three times, saying, 'In the name of Allah, I am the slave of Allah, get out, enemy of Allah!' Then he gave the boy back to her... (Musnad Ahmad, and al-Haakim, who declared it Saheeh)

Many members of the Islamic clergy caution against the overuse of exorcism, citing that most cases are due to psychological and physical causes mistaken for possession. Real cases of possession are considered rare, and the faithful are warned to beware of exorcists who diagnosis possession too quickly, as they may merely be seeking profit. Islamic authorities also deny the possibility of possession by souls of deceased persons, and warn that evil spirits may make this claim in order to encourage sinful behavior among the living.

Faiths opposing exorcism

In Sikhism, exorcism is not permitted and is seen as a violation of the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Code of Conduct), since Sikhs do not believe in demons, ghosts, or the sort. If a Sikh person were to be found practicing exorcism, an ordained Ghiyanhi (priest) would have the
power to strip that individual of any ties to the Sikh faith. Jainism also does not believe in exorcism.

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