Possession Amnesia: Patterns of Experience, Evidence for Spirits



The occurrence of possession amnesia—memory loss subsequent to the cessation of possession by a spirit—is chronicled in Akkadian, Greek, early Jewish and Christian literature.  Anthropologists have collected data that exhibit the same phenomenon occurring in indigenous cultures.  Anthropologists have argued that patterns of experience with certain inexplicable phenomena e.g., with spirits, may provide clues for evidence of their existence.  This article discusses patterns of possession amnesia that occur cross-culturally and trans-historically as possible evidential support for the existence of spirits.

Keywords: cross-cultural experience, patterns of experience, evidence for spirits, possession amnesia, trans-historical documentary


Are spirits real?  If so, then how do we know?  But a more fundamental question persists: What is a spirit?  Typically, we think of a spirit in terms of “a ghost,” i.e., a disembodied human spirit that retains the shape of the physical body and its sensory functions.  This description for “a spirit” is derived from both ancient sources (Luke 24:37, 2 Cor 5:3) and modern reports known as “near-death experiences.”

Etymologically, the English word “spirit” originates in the Latin spiritus which means “air,” “wind,” or “breath” (as do its equivalents in Hebrew, ruach, and Greek, pneuma).  The Hebrew term included the meaning for “a spirit” as a force that, like the wind, is invisible yet perceptible by its effects on or through human beings.  This force was no impersonal windy thing, but rather displayed sentient agency and ability for producing cognitive speech.  The meaning for “a spirit” passed over into Greek pneuma via the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, whenever pneuma rendered ruach in such passages as 1 Sam 18:19, 19:9, and 1 Kings 22:21,22.  From etymology, semantic range, and context, we can judge that a spirit, at least in the primordial tradition of the bible,[1] was an invisible, extra-terrestrial (i.e., “from God”), willful agent that affected, materially, the physical world in ways perceptible to human beings.  This line of thinking contributes to a very difficult question posed to the ancient sources: How was a spirit known?

Despite the ineffableness of “spirit” in many religions, anthropologists who study indigenous cultures experience spirits as “down-to-earth” sentient agents who may, at times, manifest intelligible speech through a human being.[2]  A jungle of terms exists for this phenomenon, e.g., possession, possession trance, spirit possession, enthusiasm, ecstatic possession, channeling, spirit-mediumship, displacement, intermediation, indwelling, infused, inspirited, inspired, and incorporation.  If we take these terms to mean that a spirit enters into and temporarily resides in a person while his or her own spirit is jettisoned from the body—in an out-of-body state—then this is by far “the most pervasive model of possession in the ethnographic record.”[3]  This phenomenon manifests psychological and neurobiological symptoms that are fraught with their own difficult clinical terminology; a negotiation across such otherwise disparate worldviews as science and religion may also account for part of the difficulty in examining and coming to terms with spirit possession.

Spirit possession is sometimes said to cause “dissociation,” a term that covers a range of mental states in clinical psychiatry, from normal to pathological, whereby there appears to be a discontinuity of personal identity, accompanied by alterations in self appearance and behavior.[4]  The “displacement” of human agency—mind, soul, spirit—by another agent causes a change in identity, which is a form of dissociation that describes the effects of spirit possession or spirit incorporation.[5]  One peculiar effect of such dissociation documented in ancient and modern sources is that of memory loss.  In a study on the psychology of early Christian prophecy, Alan Humm found that in many indigenous cultures, the “displacement” of human agency created a neurobiological effect that impacted memory: “the possessed does not remember the experience, and has to be told what happened during her absence.”[6]  Cultural anthropologists have discovered this phenomenon among those who practice spirit mediumship, an episode that I call “possession amnesia” whereby the medium is unconscious during the possession episode.  Clinical amnesias are routinely diagnosed as psychoses, and the DSM discusses possession and trance in terms of “disorders.”[7]  Many cultures, however, give validity to possession trance as positive and beneficent communication with a divine spirit realm.  In indigenous cultures, the amnesia that may follow is interpreted to mean that human consciousness had been “absent” during the possession-trance episode (and not clinically “deranged”) which explains the medium’s lack of recall for what the spirit said.  Normative possession trance challenges psychiatry’s definition of possession as a dissociative disorder.[8]  Instead, human beings have a capacity for dissociation that may occur in either normal individuals or pathological cases.[9]  Thus, dissociative experiences, although relatable to clinical psychiatry, need not be pathological.[10]  Possession amnesia then may be typical in cases of dissociation that occur in a normative function of spirit possession.

In this article, I will show that possession amnesia is a cross-cultural, trans-historical phenomenon observed by anthropologists in modern indigenous cultures and is present in ancient literature, particularly as a phenomenon accompanying both prophetic activity and demonic possession in Akkadian, Greek, early Jewish and Christian literature.  Ben Witherington has argued that a cross-cultural study of biblical prophecy should go no further than the temporal and geographical boundaries of the biblical world—comparing across the ancient near east, Greek, Greco-Roman, early Jewish, and early Christian cultures—in order to avoid comparisons with modern indigenous cultures that are too dissimilar, e.g., Melanesian cargo cults and North American Indian tribes.[11]  I tend to agree with this approach insofar as the types of epistemologies that anthropologists use to know spirits in their fieldwork are much more scientific than how ancients came to know a spirit.[12]  Evidence for possession amnesia, however, knows no temporal or geographical boundaries; it stretches cross-culturally and temporally over a period of some 3,000 years, from ancient to modern cultures, in contexts of prophecy and demonism.  For the purpose of this article, anthropological material serves as a basis from which to form an opinion about possession amnesia as it appears in ancient literature; insofar as it is related to the presence of spirits, such data may also serve an argument as to whether possession amnesia is evidence for the existence of spirits as sentient, personal beings.

I. The Spirit Idiom and Science

The spirit idiom—spirits are real, invisible, extra-terrestrial, sentient agencies who manifest perceptibly in our world, in some cases producing audible speech through a medium—is an extraordinary claim in the eyes of the hard sciences because it is believed that there exists no testable, consistent evidence for spirits.  The spirit idiom, however, boasts of empirical yet controversial evidence:  

  • Full-bodied spirit materializations that involve the appearance or creation of matter from unknown sources; a full-bodied person forms gradually out of the air and speaks with the spectators present.[13]
  • Partial spirit materializations—those without a full visible body present—that include an audible voice emanating from the air, “direct voice” (Num 7:89),[14] or a visible hand present (Dan 5:5).
  • Phenomena occurring through a medium, e.g., the ability to speak or write in unknown languages,[15] and instances in which the spirit provides—either electronically or through a trance medium—verifiable street addresses, telephone numbers, social security numbers, names and locations of surviving friends and personal experiences they shared, all of which are completely unknown to the medium.[16]

Many paranormal experiences are often private, personal, and subjective (near-death experiences, altered states of consciousness) and thus beyond the purview of hard science as Antti Revonsuo observed, “The first person’s point of view is not accepted as a valid source of data in the physical sciences, therefore it is possible to argue that subjective experiences are not a part of the overall scientific data that need to be explained by the sciences.”[17]  The soft-sciences’ inclusion of the subjective, cultural, social, political, ethical, philosophical, and religious provides a wider palette of facts than what is found in the hard sciences’ impersonal data for heat, energy, mass, weight, chemicals, matter, and force fields.  Experiences with the spirit idiom, however, are not merely anecdotal but rather occur in both public (Acts 2:1-4, 9:7; 1 Cor 12 and 14) and private spaces (Acts 11:11; 2 Cor 12:1-4).  The nature of spirit possession then cannot be understood solely from anecdotal or personal reports, but rather it is recommended that “researchers should be looking at what goes on in the world of possession, both on the ground and in scholarly, academic and clinical discussions,” which demands a cross-disciplines approach.[18]  

II. The Anthropologist and the Paranormal: Bridging Primordial Spirit with Science

Such a cross-disciplines approach occurs in the fieldwork of cultural anthropology in which the anthropologist makes objective observations of his or her personal contact with the experiences of others.  Fieldwork in indigenous cultures has brought the anthropologist face-to-face with the spirit idiom in the form of spirit possession, and yet this phenomenon continues to be ill-defined and elusive.

One of the most significant pioneers in the study of spirit possession, the Scottish anthropologist Ioan M. Lewis,[19] a student of the renowned English anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard, was unabashed about encounters with spirits in fieldwork: “There must be few anthropologists who have not had a brush with the supernatural in the course of their field work in the ‘high-spirited,’ exotic communities which they customarily study.”[20]  He is not willing, however, to entertain that indigenous beliefs about spirits and the spirit world provide any good evidence for their reality.[21] 

Some anthropologists realized that the experiential nature of the presence of spirits in indigenous cultures requires investigators to take greater stock of the otherwise ambiguous terms “spirit” and “possession.”  The eminent anthropologist Morton Klass assessed the poverty of meaning and definition for spirits and possession in cultural anthropology: “Do we have, even in anthropology, a clear and undisputed definition of ‘possession’ or of ‘spirit’?”[22]  Reductionist explanations were quite common among anthropologists of the past who explained possession as a form of pathology (mental illness, hysteria, epilepsy, neurosis, hallucination, subconscious desires, dissociative identity disorder) or in terms of social conflict whereby spirits were a justification for overcoming social oppression, especially among women (status seekers, actors, cargo cults, economic hardships).[23]  Other anthropologists, however, were not so reductionist, bearing in mind that indigenous beliefs in spirits may reveal a reality that the western scientific community has overlooked, misunderstood, or ignored.[24]  This has been the attitude of a recent spate of cultural anthropology that looks to field work alone as the interpretative guide for beliefs about spirits, their activity, and their nature.[25]  Anthropologists are showing a greater sensitivity to what the “reality of spirits” means in terms of the spirit idiom.[26]  Lewis’s caution against cultural belief in spirits as evidence for their reality still lingers and requires an investigation as to what constitutes evidence.   

III. A “Discipline-Specific” Definition of Evidence

In a book edited by Matthew Engelke, The Objects of Evidence, Engelke contributes an article to the problems of evidence in anthropological research.[27]  In the physical sciences, evidence is impersonal and reactions to it are equally so.  But anthropology is different.  Fieldwork experience is highly personal, and the objects of fieldwork experience are themselves persons in various cultures.  Objective evidence—evidence not influenced by personal opinion—is often a criterion for establishing certainty in our knowledge of the objects of research.  When the object of research includes cultures and the people who create them, we are dealing with evidence that lacks pure objectivity.  Of course, we can say that, objectively speaking, many people in different cultures claim to experience spirits and even behave in ways that show a spirit is present.  But can claims to personal experiences with spirits contribute in any way to evidence for their existence?  Engelke’s article addresses this problem, “How can we turn fieldwork experience—a highly personal, temporally bound, and intersubjective method for collecting data—into objects of evidence?”[28]  Evidence in anthropology necessarily includes a different definition than what we may find of it in the hard sciences—i.e., “impersonal”—for the very reason that the “personal” and the anecdotal become a part of the evidence itself in anthropological discourse.  Evidence in the social sciences then must meet a different standard than the impersonal objectivity of the hard sciences.  Engelke remarks that the definition for “legal evidence” in the Oxford English Dictionary incorporates a range of meaning that is suited to evidence-collecting in anthropology: evidence is “information, whether in the form of personal testimony, the language of documents, or the production of material objects, that is given in a legal investigation to establish the fact or point in question.”[29]  Questions are the stuff of evidence, and so evidence “has a disciplinary specificity,” i.e., there is no absolute standard for all forms of evidence.  For instance, evidence for trained historians consists of events not accessible to our observation, a criterion hardly fitting for standards of objectivity found in the hard sciences.[30]  Evidence contributes to any discipline’s “getting it right,” and different disciplines will require different definitions of evidence that are appropriate enough to deal with the kinds of objects a discipline studies.

IV. Evidence of cultural phenomena in patterns of experience

          Engelke notes how anthropologists may assess evidence in their fieldwork: “One way in which anthropologists become convinced of getting it right—and perhaps the most powerful—is through the recognition of patterns in the social life they observe.”[31]  Patterns observed in one culture may be found in another culture, and so on, and this suggests that whatever it is that is “patterned” cross-culturally provides evidential support for it.  Though Engelke is aware that many anthropologists would find it misguided or unjustifiable to “make the leap from culturally specific patterns to cross-cultural or even universal” patterns, he nevertheless maintains that “at some level the pattern argument has to hold.  We could never package and transport our intersubjective experiences without it.”[32]

          The study of paranormal phenomena reveals cross-cultural patterns of experience.  Eric Carlton remarks to this effect:

From remotest times, various cultures had traditions concerning the paranormal; stories of miraculous healings, telepathic communication, divination and revelation, besides a fairly full quote of evil omens and daemonic possession.  We are not, of course, able to test the reliability of these traditions or always to make sense of exactly what took place, but in so far as there is an enduring and consistent pattern of experience it deserves some respect.[33]

A. Spirit Possession: Cross-cultural and Trans-historical patterns                        

One such pattern of paranormal experience is spirit possession.  An account of cross-cultural, trans-historical experience of spirit possession is captured when we compare the comments of the first-century Jewish author Philo of Alexandria with the observations of the twenty-first century anthropologist Emma C. Cohen.

Philo: “This is what regularly befalls the fellowship of the prophets.  The mind is evicted at the arrival of the divine spirit, but when that [spirit] departs the mind returns to its tenancy.”[34]

Cohen: “In possession, however, the body and agency of the host are separated and a new agent animates the host’s body.  The host loses his mind, so to speak, and the spirit gains a body.”[35]

Whereas the term “possession” is typically used of these phenomena, “incorporation” may communicate more effectively what both Philo and Cohen describe.  As to methodology, biblical and classical scholars do not routinely consider such phenomena from the standpoint of whether they serve as evidence for the “reality” for spirits.  The persistence of the spirit idiom cross-culturally and trans-historically, however, lends itself to an analysis that seeks to determine whether the spirit idiom is independent of mere cultural belief and exists in its own right.     

Several kinds of manifestations, often occurring together, identify genuine spirit possession in many cultures across time:

  • Change in voice of the possessed
  • Change in behavior of the possessed
  • The behavior may be either benevolent, e.g., praising God and exhorting percipients to do the same, serene and calm demeanor, solemnity; or malevolent, e.g., shrieks, screams, vile language, and resistance to exorcism
  • Change in physical characteristics that include uncharacteristic color in hair and skin tone and uncharacteristic bodily movement
  • The possessed communicates knowledge beyond his or her level of competency or familiarity
  • This knowledge may include technical details about a physics problem (if the medium has no prior experience with physics) or an ability to speak or write in a language unknown to the medium; this may even include the use of sign language otherwise unknown to the medium.

These data or patterns of possessed behavior are found cross-culturally and trans-historically.[36]  They are explainable from at least three perspectives: 1) the spirit idiom; 2) clinical psychiatry in which spirit possession is an archaism that misconstrues abnormal psychological phenomena (psychoses, multiple personality) as the work of external spirits; and 3) the possessed is simply “role-playing” as if possessed.[37]  These different “readings” of the same set of data or patterns of possessed behavior show that it is not a matter of whether a cultural belief in spirit possession provides evidence for the reality of spirits, but rather what kind of reading one applies to the observable phenomena and behaviors of the possessed. The difficulty in demonstrating the reality of spirit possession to the modern west lies in the subjective nature of the experience; a medium may be nothing more than a good actor, and so if spirits exist, then how do we discriminate the human being and the spirit?[38] Communicating knowledge and performing abilities unknown to the possessed, however, cannot be adequately explained by either the pathological or the role-playing—actor—interpretation.

To be clear, patterns consistent in cross-cultural and trans-historical experience provide evidence for claimed experiences, and not necessarily bona fide proof that spirits actually exist.  At best, we can say that such consistently-patterned experiences are the data that provide “working evidence” for the existence of spirits. 

V. Possession Amnesia: A cross-cultural and trans-historical phenomenon of spirit possession

          Amnesia is one of several clinical disorders having to do with aberrations of memory.[39]  In the clinical literature, it is related to “dissociative amnesia,”  “depersonalization,” and “possession trance.”[40]  In many indigenous cultures, the awareness of the possessed can vary from unconsciousness to alertness.  Typically, only the former produces amnesia as Daniel M. Wegner observes: “[T]he frequent response of hosts after the spirit possession is over is to report some degree of amnesia for events and for their thoughts and actions during the experience.  This reported lack of consciousness of the experience may be complete or, as observed in the Shango religion of Trinidad, may suggest a half-way state between full possession and normal behavior, [in which] a high degree of consciousness is retained.”[41]

We find a similar range of cognitive states during trance in ancient literature.  In writing about early Christian prophecy, Jannes Reiling classified degrees of inspired consciousness from passive to active: “1) Will and consciousness may both be eliminated and the prophet becomes a passive instrument in the hands of the inspiring deity.  There is no recollection afterwards of what happened; 2) the will may be eliminated; consciousness is not lost but behaves passively.  The prophet observes that the deity speaks through him and there is a clear recollection afterwards; 3) both will and consciousness remain intact and the prophet speaks what is revealed to him as a divine message.”[42]  Numbers 1 and 2 commonly occur in possession trance whereby the prophet (or demoniac) incorporates a spirit—fully (1) or partially (2)—that speaks intelligibly (or not) to an audience.  Number 3 describes the psychology of vision trance whereby the prophet achieves an altered state of consciousness that allows him or her to see into the spirit world while either remaining consciously in the physical body or leaving the physical body (as a spirit) and then returning to it and communicating what was seen and heard in heavenly (or hellish) regions from memory (relatable to near-death experiences). 

A. Patterns of experience: cross-cultural and trans-historical patterns of possession amnesia

          Possession amnesia can be cited in Akkadian, Greco-Roman, early Jewish, early Christian, and anthropological sources in both modern western and non-western cultures.  This evidence clearly establishes cross-cultural and trans-historical patterns of claimed experience with possession amnesia.  The following is a brief review of that evidence.

In the corpus of Mari Akkadian texts designated ARM X (Archives Royales de Mari) we find two texts that describe possession by the god Annunītum:

In the temple of Annunītum on the third day Šēbelum went into a trance and thus (spoke) Annunītum (ARM X 7.5-7, no. 1).

In the temple of Annunītum in the city, Ahātum, the servant of Dagan-malik, went into a trance and spoke as follows, thus (ARM X 8.5-8, no. 2).

The verb translated as “to go into a trance” is Akkadian mahȗ.  A noun form of this verb occurs in Akkadian literature, namely mahhȗ, “one who goes into a trance” (whose Sumerian lexical equivalent is lú-an-dib-ba-ra, “one who has been seized by a god”).  Alfred Haldar cites a votary’s prayer to the god Nabu that gives evidence for the mahhȗ’s amnesia: “I am struck down like a mahhȗ, I bring forth what I do not know.”[43]  The first part of this text recalls the Sumerian lexical equivalent, “seized by a god.”  The second part of the text mentions the effects of this seizure.  The verb ūbal, “I bring forth,” can have the idiomatic sense of “speak forth.”  Thus, the sense of the text, “I speak forth what I do not know,” points to an unconscious state in which the mahhȗ “speaks forth” a message, which is highly suggestive of possession amnesia.[44]

          Plato provides two examples of possession amnesia for the classical period.

Meno 99B-C, “For these men also in an inspired state say many true things, and yet they know nothing of what they are saying.”

Apology 22B-C, “the poets . . . did not compose by wisdom, but by . . . enthusiasm, just like the diviners and the givers of oracles; For these also say many fine things, but they know nothing of what they are talking about.”

          The Greco-Roman era provides many examples of possession amnesia in Greek, Jewish, and Christian sources.  So pervasive was this phenomenon that John R. Levison wrote that “the work of the spirit in prophetic inspiration . . . produces . . . loss of consciousness . . . and the inability to recollect the prophetic experience.”[45]

          Philo, On Special Laws 4.49: “For no pronouncement of a prophet is ever his own; he is an interpreter prompted by Another [spirit] in all his utterances, when knowing not what he does he is filled with inspiration, as the reason withdraws and surrenders the citadel of the soul to a new visitor and tenant, the divine spirit who plays upon the vocal organism and dictates words which clearly express its prophetic message.”

          Philo, Life of Moses 1.274, describes Balaam’s inspired state as brought on by an angel who says to him, “I shall guide the rein of speech, and though you are unconscious of it, employ your tongue for each prophetic utterance.”

           Ps.-Philo, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum  28.6, 10a, “And when they had sat down, a holy spirit came upon Kenaz and dwelled in him and put him in ecstasy, and he began to prophesy, saying . . . When Kenaz had spoken these words, he was awakened, and his senses came back to him.  But he did not know what he had said.”

          Ps.-Philo, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum 62.2: “And a spirit abided in Saul, and he prophesied saying, ‘. . . .’ And Saul went away and did not know what he had prophesied.”

          Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 4.6.5 §119, “When we are possessed by the spirit of God, that spirit gives utterance to such language and words as it will, whereof we are all unconscious.”

           Aelius Aristides, In Defense of Oratory, 43 where priestesses of Zeus have no knowledge of his oracles prior to inspiration, “nor afterwards do they know anything which they have said, but all inquirers understand it better than they.”

          Iamblichus, On the Mysteries, 3.11, “the god . . . uses the prophet as an instrument while he [the prophet] is neither himself nor has any consciousness of what he says or where on the earth he is, so that even after prophesying, he sometimes scarcely gets control of himself.”

          Ps.-Justinus, Hortatory to the Greeks, 37.2,3, “She was filled indeed with prophecy at the time of the inspiration, but as soon as the inspiration ceased, there ceased also the remembrance of all she had said . . . the prophetess having no remembrance of what she had said, after the possession and inspiration ceased.”

          Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4.22.5, defends the Christian Montanist form of unconscious prophecy: “And therefore, because it was ‘in the spirit’ that he had now spoken, and not in his natural senses, he could not know what he had said.”

          Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.5.8, condemns the Christian Montanist form of unconscious prophecy: “He does not know what he is saying and doing, for he has fallen into the ecstasy of folly.”

          Jerome, Prologue to Commentary on Isaiah 3—4, “Contrary to what Montanus and his insane women dream up, the prophets did not speak in ecstasy without knowing what they were saying, instructing others while being ignorant themselves of what they were saying.”

            John Cassian, Conferences, 7.12.1, describes two types of trance among demoniacs on the basis of the possessed’s ability to recall the possession experience: those who “are affected by them [demons] in such a way as to have not the slightest conception of what they do and say, while others know and afterwards recollect it.”  These two types of trance reflect Reiling’s two types of cognitive states during possession trance.

Amnesia is symptomatic of both divine and demonic possession, as these primary sources have shown, and so cannot be regarded merely as a sign of abnormal psychology produced by demons and evil spirits as some Christian authors argued in the past.[46]

          Anthropologists have observed possession amnesia in their fieldwork.  I will simply note a few observations.

Esther Pressel wrote that Umbandists make use of amnesia as veridical evidential support for genuine spirit possession whenever they “recognize unconscious, semiconscious, and conscious mediums.  Consciousness in this instance refers to the ability to later remember events that occurred during the ASC (= altered state of consciousness).  Most Umbandists say that they prefer to be unconscious since it enables them to be certain that it is a spirit that is really speaking, and not they themselves.”[47]

Michael Lambeck records his observations of possession amnesia in late twentieth-century Mayotte culture (Comoros islands) and explains that amnesia reveals that the human host is not present during the possession event and thus will have no recollection of it: “The spirit speaks and acts while the host is ‘absent’ during trance . . . Hosts by and large do not remember what occurred while they were in trance (since they were not present, how could they?), but they are often told by others what happened.  (They are given, not descriptions of themselves in trance, but the gist of what was transacted with the spirit).”[48]

Emily Pierini observes that amnesia is an expectation among those who believe that a spirit, by entering into the medium, suspends the medium’s identity in a trance state—a state of unconsciousness—and reveals itself as an external spirit from the spirit world: “Unconscious possession is related to the perception of authenticity of the deity’s manifestation in the medium’s body, and it is expected to be accompanied by the medium’s amnesia, that is, retaining no memory of what happened during the deity’s manifestation.”[49]

Dureen J. Hughes, in her article on trance channeling in the United States discusses anthropologists and clinicians who have observed both varieties of possession trance, one in which there is amnesia and one in which there is recall, much like we see in John Cassian.  She notes:

Amnesia is often associated with possession trance states (Prince 1968:121; Locke and Kelly 1985:42; Bourguignon 1965:56; Winkelman 1986:193) and has even been used as a prime identifying characteristic of possession trance states (those found in the “Mediumistic Tradition”) by Winkelman in his theoretical model (1986:191). As Peters and Price-Williams have discussed (1983:23- 25), this amnesia has been related to the dissociative aspects of possession trance (see also Yap 1960) and has been commonly used to make the distinction between possession trance and visionary states or “soul flight” (see also Eliade 1964). However, Peters and Price-Williams have shown that there is memory of trance in cultures where spirit possession is reported and that, Hilgard's neodissociation theory (1977:18), “spirit possession not be amnesiac” (Peters and Price-Williams 1980:403).[50]

Walter Hinz, a German scholar of Persian and Elamite (University of Göttingen, 1941 [with interruptions due to World War 2]-1975) became associated with a group of Christians in Zürich, Switzerland, during the 1970s whose weekly prayer meetings were guided by a spirit-medium, Beatrice Brunner, through whom heavenly spirits allegedly spoke to the gathered congregation.  Upon awakening from the trance, Brunner had no recall of the event.  Hinz writes:

My own experience relates especially to the trance medium Beatrice Brunner, who from 1948 onwards has been active within the framework of the Spiritual Lodge in Zurich.  On Saturdays at 8 p.m. (except for holiday times) she walks on to the platform in the Concert Hall of the Zurich Academy of Music, quietly sits down and offers a silent prayer.  As soon as the introductory music ends she slips imperceptibly into trance, with no apparent help from the audience.  The trance state can be recognized only by her sudden deep inhalation through closed lips, and by the stiffening of her upper body.  Immediately afterwards, a disincarnate entity begins his address with the words ‘God bless you!’  For the benefit of his human audience, this spirit calls himself Joseph.  Since 1948, Joseph—as a spirit teacher—has delivered about fifteen hundred lectures lasting an hour, and these lectures are recorded on tape and regularly published.

At the end of his address, Joseph again blesses his audience and departs; then, with a sigh, Beatrice wakes up.  Her hands, which had been raised in a dramatic gesture, are now folded on her lap.  She looks at her wrist watch; the audience notices her surprise that so much time has passed.  Beatrice knows nothing at all of the words Joseph has spoken through her, in a clear, well-modulated voice, to the audience in the great Concert Hall.  . . . If she wishes to know what has been spoken through her mouth, Beatrice must listen to the tape recording.[51]

Hinz further remarked that “the things that happen today during services of the Spiritual Lodge of Zurich used to happen in precisely the same way in early Christian communities.”[52]  Let’s explore this comment.

In early Christian culture, the character of a spirit—good or bad—did not determine whether a spirit becomes incorporated.  Prophets and demoniacs exhibited antithetical moralities, but they nevertheless were passive agents through whom spirits communicate.  Early Christian prophets and demoniacs lalōn en pneumati, “speak by means of a spirit” (Mark 1:23, 5:2, 1 Cor 12:3, 14:2,15,16, Didache 11:7,8,9,12).  The function of the prepositional phrase en pneumati, “with a spirit,” in Mark 1:23 and 5:2 is analogous to its function in 1 Cor 12:3, 14:2,15,16, and Didache 11:7,8,9,12.  Thus, “we have to distinguish between a demoniac and a medium.  In the first case the possessed is an involuntary victim, in the second case the medium voluntarily allows another party to take over his vocal organs.”[53]  Cyril C. Richardson observed this usage of en pneumati in Didache 11 by reading lalounta en pneumati to mean “literally ‘speaking in a spirit,’ i.e., speaking while possessed by a divine or demonic spirit.”[54]  The co-existence of divine and demonic possession in early Christian culture accounted for the problem of deceptive spirits masquerading as holy ones through prophets.[55]  “The charge that false prophets were mediums through which evil spirits spoke accounted for the fact that both true and false prophets claimed inspiration for their utterances.”[56]

Evidence for possession amnesia in early Christian prophecy is found in second-century Christian authors who made use of a musical-instrument trope—employed for pagan enthusiasm[57]—to describe biblical and Christian prophets.[58]  The trope expresses unconscious prophecy by comparing a prophet to a musical instrument (lyre or flute) that is played by a musician with a plectrum or the mouth in analogy to a spirit speaking through a passive human agent.  The use of the musical-instrument trope is highly suggestive for amnesia as a neurobiological symptom of true prophecy in early Christian culture.[59]

By the time Montanism was pervasive in Asia (western Asia Minor), ca. late second century, an explicit awareness of unconscious prophecy emerges.  Members of the formative Catholic church were taken aback by Montanus’s unconscious prophesying—his “speaking in ecstasy”—so much so that they argued that such activity was never practiced as true prophecy in the early church.[60]  Montanus’s ecstasy produced an “involuntary psychosis” (akousion manian).[61]  Reflecting on Montanism, the fourth-century heresiologist Epiphanius of Salamis distinguished a biblical, cognitive ecstasy and a non-biblical, amnesia-producing, unconscious ecstasy, “The prophets fell into ecstasies, but not into ecstasies of [the] reasoning faculties” (gegonasi de en ekstasei hoi prophētai, ouk en ekstasei logismōn).[62]  The former describes a vision ecstasy experienced by OT prophets and NT figures such as Peter and Paul (Acts 10:10, 11:5, 22:17) whose minds and memories remained intact during what Epiphanius calls the visionary ekstasis di’ hyperbolēn thaumatos, “ecstasy through extreme amazement.”[63]  This was the proper ecstasy for all true prophets because the ecstasy did not suspend the mind of the prophet.  The latter describes an unconscious ecstasy experienced by Montanist prophets whose mental faculties were jettisoned in what Epiphanius calls an ekstasis phrenōn, “ecstasy of mind,” and an ekstasis logismōn, “ecstasy of the reasoning faculties.”[64]  Epiphanius makes clear that Montanus experienced possession amnesia; whenever the spirit spoke through him, “he did not know what he was saying” (agnoei gar ha phthengetai), i.e., he was unaware of what the spirit was saying through him.[65]  For Epiphanius, God does not communicate by removing the mind of a prophet—only evil spirits affect demoniacs in this way[66]—thus Montanus was no true prophet, for a true prophet does not speak under compulsion.[67]  In applying the musical-instrument trope to Montanus’s prophetic possession, Epiphanius denounced the trope as a non-biblical form of prophecy and argued that ekstasis logismōn was not the mind-set of a Christian prophet.[68]  Such a sentiment was an intriguing shift in the orthodoxy of unconscious prophecy, for two centuries earlier, Athenagoras, in his A Plea for Christians 9.1, illustrated true prophecy as an unconscious experience by means of a trope of a prophet as an instrument (hos ei kai aulētēs aulon empneusai) played by a divine spirit (theou pneumatos) while in an ecstasy of reason (ekstasin logismōn) without any repercussion from church leaders.[69]    

In the history of early Christian prophecy, possession amnesia played a pivotal role in the discernment of prophecy among members of the formative Catholic church.  By the end of the second century, assessments of Montanist prophecy ruled that speaking in ecstasy and possession amnesia were signs of false prophecy only, and opponents of Montanus charged him with demonic possession.  Taxonomy for ecstasy determined the ethics of prophecy. Vision ecstasy guaranteed God’s presence and unconscious ecstasy meant that God was absent (so Epiphanius).

Apart from anti-Montanist protests against speaking in ecstasy, discernment of spirits and prophecy did not include assessments of ecstasy but rather relied on a spirit’s utterance to determine its character (1 Cor 12:3, 14:16, 1 John 4:1-6, 1 Tim 4:1, 1 Pet 1:12, Didache 11, Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11).[70]  If divine and deceptive spirits communicated through an unconscious prophet in early Christian culture, and discernment of the spirit was priority (not ecstasy), then it is highly problematic that ekstasis logismōn was condemned in a Christian setting as a sign for false prophecy.  “Montanus was neither novel nor blasphemous when he claimed that the divine spoke through him” while in a passive, unconscious state of mind.[71]  The phenomenon of possession amnesia—which apparently was objectionable among those who were not used to it as a symptom of true prophecy[72]—contributed to dramatic developments in the formative Catholic church’s assessment of the nature of prophecy and its reaction to ecstatic prophecy and prophetic incorporation as heresy.

VI. Conclusion

The patterns of possession amnesia occur in literature spanning different cultures, different centuries, western and non-western, Christian and non-Christian.  What kind of evidence does this show?  Is possession amnesia a matter of role-playing, a staged exhibition learned by the actor who pretends amnesia to meet the percipient expectations for the evidence of genuine spirit possession?  If so, then there would have to be a cross-cultural and trans-historical conspiracy, which seems highly unlikely.  Is possession amnesia evidence for a psychosis, a symptom of abnormal psychology?  Amnesia is, indeed, a recognized clinical disorder, yet altered states of consciousness are often experienced by those who are mentally and physically fit.[73]  In many cultures, spirit-mediums train to dissociate in order to incorporate a spirit, and only healthy individuals are considered up to this task.

Is possession amnesia evidence for the spirit idiom?  Anthropologists who have gathered data on spirit possession (and who continue to do so to this day) routinely find that amnesia is often a symptom of it.  When a belief (in spirits and spirit possession) presents empirical data that is not bound by culture, time, or any particular religion but cuts across all three, and furthermore, data that can be repeated from both the past and the present, such a belief may no longer remain in the realm of the subjective or cultural but rather provides objective evidence that occurs throughout history in many different cultures who practice spirit mediumship and who experience spirit possession.  The fact that possession amnesia occurs in the context of spirit possession in so many different eras, ancient and modern, across a wide variety of cultures, western and non-western, Christian and non-Christian, suggests that possession amnesia may serve as one of many pieces of veridical and evidential support for the spirit idiom.


[1] See Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition (San Francisco, CA: Hapercollins, 1977) and Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1991) 25-38.

[2] See Pieter F. Craffert, “What Does It Mean to Be Possessed by a Spirit or a Demon? Some Phenomenological Insights from Neuro-Anthropological Research” HTS 71 (2015) 1-9, at 3.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Alan Humm, Psychology of Prophecy in Early Christianity: Prophetism and religious altered states of consciousness (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009) 37.

[7] See Vishal Bhavsar, et al., “Dissociative Trance and Spirit Possession: Challenges for Cultures in Transition,” Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 70.12 (2016) 551-559.

[8] Ibid., 553.

[9] So Craffert, “What Does it Mean,” 3.

[10] See Antoine Vergote, “Visions et Apparitions, Approche Psychologique,” Revue Théologíque de Louvain 22 (1991) 202-225.

[11] See Ben Witherington, Jesus the Seer: The Progress of Prophecy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999) 9.

[12] On this see John H. Walton, Demons and Spirits in Biblical Theology: Reading the Biblical Text in Its Cultural and Literary Context (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019) 43-48.

[13] See Gambier Bolton, Ghosts in Solid Form: An Experimental Investigation of Certain Little-Known Phenomena (Materializations) (3rd ed.; London: William Rider & Son, 1919).

[14] See David Fontana, Is There An Afterlife? A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence (Blue Ridge Summit, PA: NBN Books, 2004) 99, 230-243.

[15] See Ian Stevenson, Unlearned Languages: New Studies in Xenoglossy (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1984) and Webb Keane, “On Spirit Writing: Materialities of Language and the Religious Work of Transduction,” JRAI 19 (2013) 1-17.

[16] See Fontana, Is There An Afterlife?, 352-381.

[17] See Antti Revonsua, Consciousness: The Science of Subjectivity (New York: Psychology Press, 2010) 20.

[18] So Craffert, “What Does it Mean,” 2.  See James Chandler, et al., eds., Questions of Evidence: Proof, Practice, and Persuasion across the Disciplines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

[19] See Ioan M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism (New York: Penguin, 1971; 3rd ed., New York: Routledge, 2003).

[20] Ioan M. Lewis, “The Anthropologist’s Encounter with the Supernatural” in Parapsychology and Anthropology (A. Angoff and D. Barth, eds.; New York: Parapsychology Foundation, 1973) 22-31, at 22.

[21] Ibid., 30.

[22] Morton Klass, Mind Over Mind: The Anthropology and Psychology of Spirit Possession (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003) 4.

[23] For these reductionist approaches and their status among current anthropologists see Emma Cohen, The Mind Possessed: The Cognition of Spirit Possession in an Afro-Brazilian Religious Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 79-97.

[24] So Vincent Crapanzano, “Introduction,” in., Case Studies in Spirit Possession (idem and Vivian Garrison, eds.; New York: Wiley, 1977) 1-40, at 13-14.

[25] See Edith Turner, “The Reality of Spirits: A Tabooed or Permitted Field of Study?” Anthropology of Consciousness 3.3 (1992) 9-12, David E. Young and Jean-Guy Goulet, eds., Being Changed: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience (Ontario: Broadview Press, 1994), Jean-Guy A. Goulet and Bruce Granville Miller, eds., Extraordinary Anthropology: Transformations in the Field (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), and Jack Hunter and David Luke, eds., Talking with the Spirits: Ethnographies from Between the Worlds (Brisbane: Daily Grail, 2014).

[26] For a sensitive approach to the spirit idiom in anthropological discourse, see Ruy Blanes and Diana Espírito Santo, “Introduction: On the Agency of Intangibles,” in The Social Life of Spirits (idem, eds.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) 1-32. 

[27] See Matthew Engelke, “The objects of evidence,” in The Objects of Evidence: Anthropological Approaches to the Production of Knowledge (idem, ed.; West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) 1-20.

[28] Ibid., 2.

[29] Ibid., 5. 

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 9.

[32] Ibid.  Engelke refers the reader to the work of Michael Carrithers regarding the pattern argument with the concept of evidence in mind for the anthropologist.  See his references, ibid., 19.

[33] Eric Carlton, The Paranormal: Research and the Quest for Meaning (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000) 10.

[34] Philo, Who is the Heir of Divine Things, 265.  F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, trans., Philo: Volume IV (LCL 261; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932) 419.

[35] Cohen, The Mind Possessed, 134.

[36] See Traugott K. Oesterreich, Possession: Demoniacal and Other among Primitive Races, in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modern Times (Ney Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1966), and Eric R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California, 1951) 283-311.

[37] See Sarah Goldingay, “To Perform Possession and to be Possessed in Performance,” in Spirit Possession and Trance: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Bettina M. Schmidt and Lucy Huskinson, eds.; New York: Continuum, 2010) 205-222. 

[38] See Sarah Grey Thomason, “‘Entities’ in the Linguistic Minefield,” The Skeptical Inquirer 13.4 (1989) 391-396, who notes that “when channeled ‘entities’ speak in accents that are not native to their channelers, the authenticity of the manifestations can be checked by linguistic analysis.  Analysis of the speech of several such entities shows that the accents are fake,” 391.  Of course we may wonder is the medium faking or the spirit faking?

[39] See Andrew C. Papanicolaou, The Amnesias: A Clinical Textbook of Memory Disorders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[40] Ibid., 232.

[41] Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002) 250.

[42] Jannes Reiling, Hermas and Christian Prophecy: A Study of the Eleventh Mandate (SuppNT 37; Leiden: Brill, 1973) 19 (italics mine).

[43] Alfred Haldar, Associations of Cult Prophets among the Ancient Semites (Uppsala: Almqwist & Wiksells, 1945) 25.

[44] So ibid.

[45] John R. Levison, The Spirit in First Century Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 1997) 223.

[46] See Origen, On First Principles, 3.3.4-5 and Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.5.8.

[47] Esther Pressel, “Umbanda Trance and Possession in São Paulo, Brazil” in Trance, Healing, and Hallucination: Three Field Studies in Religious Experience (idem, et al., eds.; Huntington, NY: Krieger, 1982) 113-225, at 196.

[48] Michael Lambeck, “From Disease to Discourse: Remarks on the Conceptualization of Trance and Spirit Possession,” in Altered States of Consciousness and Mental Health: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (Colleen A. Ward, ed.; Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989) 36-61, at 40.

[49] Emily Pierini, “Fieldwork and Embodied Knowledge: Researching the Experiences of Spirit Mediums in the Brazilian Vale do Amanhecer,” in The Study of Religious Experience: Approaches and Methodologies (Bettina E. Schmidt, ed.; Sheffield: Equinox, 2016) 55-70, at 59.

[50] Dureen J. Hughes, “Blending with an other: An Analysis of Trance Channeling in the United States,” Ethos 19.2 (1991) 161-184, at 171-172.

[51] Walter Hinz, The Corner Stone (Suffolk: Neville Spearman, 1977) 28-29.

[52] Ibid., 30.

[53] Willem Berends, “The Biblical Criteria for Demon-Possession,” WTJ 37 (1975) 342-365, at 357.

[54] Cyril C. Richardson (Early Christian Fathers [New York: Collier Books, 1970]) 176 n. 64.        

[55] See the Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11.3, “[B]ut he [the false prophet] also speaks some true words, for the Devil fills him with his spirit;” Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6.8, “Scripture says that ‘the devil is transformed into an angel of light.’  When about to do what?  Plainly, when about to prophesy;”  idem, Stromata 1.17, “But among the lies, the false prophets also told some true things;” idem, Homilies 17.14, “It is possible that he be an evil demon or a deceptive spirit pretending in his speeches to be what he is not;” Tertullian, Apology 47, “[T]he spirits of error . . . by them, certain fables have been introduced, that, by their resemblance to the truth might impair its credibility;” Cyprian, Treatise 6.7, “[T]hese spirits . . . are always mixing up falsehood with truth.”

[56] So David E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983) 229.

[57] See Plutarch, Obsolescence of Oracles, 414E, 418D, 431B, 436F, 437D, and Philostratus, Imagines, 1.7.20.

[58] See Ps.-Justin, Hortatory to the Greeks 8, Athenagoras, A Plea for Christians 7, 9, Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 2.4, idem, Exhortation to the Greeks, 1, Hippolytus, Treatise on Christ and Antichrist 2, Theophilus of Antioch, Autolycus, 2.9, and Odes of Solomon 6.1-2.

[59] See William Tabbernee, Fake Prophecy and Polluted Sacraments: Ecclesiastical and Imperial Reactions to Montanism (Leiden: Brill, 2007), “The early church had been quite used to hearing prophets speak ecstatically ‘in the Spirit.’  Passivity on the part of a prophet resulting in oracular utterance was not unusual,” 93.

[60] Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., 5.18.2.  For Montanism in Eusebius, see Kirsopp Lake, Eusebius: The Ecclesiastical History (trans. idem; LCL; 2 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926) 1:471-499.

[61] Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., 5.17.2.

[62] Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.7.3.  On Montanism in Epiphanius, see Frank Williams, The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Books II and III; De Fide (trans. idem; Leiden: Brill, 2013) 6-21.

[63] Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.4.6,7.

[64] Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.4.6.

[65] Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.5.8.

[66] So Origen, On First Principles, 3.3.4-5.

[67] Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.4.1-6, 48.12.1,2.

[68] Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.4.1-6.

[69] Because “enthusiastic prophecy within the Church has not yet come under attack” (Alistair Stewart-Sykes, “The Original Condemnation of Asian Montanism,” JEH 50 [1999] 1-22, at 7).  D. Jeffrey Bingham (“‘We have the Prophets’: Inspiration and the Prophets in Athenagoras of Athens,” Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum [2016] 211-242, at 233-234) dubiously argues that Athenagoras’s choice of instrument, a pipe, showed that true prophetic ekstasis logismōn included a conscious, active, “uplifted” mind as opposed to the lyre in Philo, Plutarch, and Epiphanius that depicted ekstasis logismōn as an unconscious, passive mind.  Tabbernee (Fake Prophecy, 94) sees mental passivity in all uses of the trope, Christian, Jewish, or Greek.

[70] See Stevan Davies, Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity (Dublin: Bardic Press, 2014) who observes, “There exist scholarly polemics against the ‘excesses of the Corinthian ecstatics’ based on 1 Corinthians.  But everything the Corinthian Christians do in the spirit Paul does too.  Paul is not opposed to ‘ecstatics’ per se; he is interested only in the regulation of spirit-inspired behavior during community gatherings,” 82 n. 11.  So, too, Witherington, Jesus the Seer: “[E]cstasy certainly cannot by itself help to distinguish true from false prophecy” (p. 6).

[71] So Tabbernee, Fake Prophecy, 93.

[72] So Christine Trevett, Montanism: Gender, Authority and the New Prophecy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), “Not all Patristic writers damned ecstasy, [so] quite probably the ecstatic prophetic state was unfamiliar to those who wrote against [it],” 89.

[73] See Charles T. Tart, ed., Altered States of Consciousness: A Book of Readings (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1969).