Demonology,Gods, and Magic



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Demonology,Gods, and Magic

References to abnormal behavior in early writings show that the Chinese, Egyptians, Hebrews, and Greeks often attributed such behavior to a demon or god who had taken possession of a person. Whether the “possession” was assumed to involve good spirits or evil spirits usually depended on the affected individual’s symptoms. If a person’s speech or behavior appeared to have a religious or mystical significance, it was usually thought that he or she was possessed by a good spirit or god. Such people were often treated with considerable awe and respect, for people believed they had supernatural powers.


Most possessions, however, were considered to be the work of an angry god or an evil spirit, particularly when a person became excited or overactive and engaged in behavior contrary to religious teachings. Among the ancient Hebrews, for example, such possessions were thought to represent the wrath and punishment of God. Moses is quoted in the Bible as saying, “The Lord shall smite thee with madness.” Apparently this punishment was thought to involve the withdrawal of God’s protection and the abandonment of the person to the forces of evil. In such cases, every effort was made to rid the person of the evil spirit. The primary type of treatment for demonic possession was exorcism, which included various techniques for casting an evil spirit out of an afflicted person. These techniques varied but typically included magic, prayer, incantation, noisemaking, and the use of horrible- tasting concoctions made from sheep’s dung and wine.

Views of Abnormality During the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages (about A.D.500 to A.D. 1500), the more scientific aspects of Greek medicine survived in the Islamic countries of the Middle East. The first mental hospital was established in Baghdad in A.D. 792; it was soon followed by others in Damascus and Aleppo(Polvan, 1969). In these hospitals, mentally disturbed individuals received humane treatment. The outstanding figure in Islamic medicine was Avicenna from Arabia (c. 980–1037), called the “prince of physicians” (Campbell, 1926) and the author of The Canon of Medicine, perhaps the most widely studied medical work ever written. In his writings, Avicenna frequently referred to hysteria,

epilepsy, manic reactions, and melancholia. During the Middle Ages in Europe, scientific inquiry into abnormal behavior was limited, and the treatment of psychologically disturbed individuals was characterized more often by ritual or superstition than by attempts

to understand an individual’s condition. In contrast to Avicenna’s era in the Islamic countries of the Middle East or to the period of enlightenment during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Middle Ages in Europe were largely devoid of scientific thinking and humane treatment for the mentally disturbed.


Isolated rural areas were also afflicted with outbreaksof lycanthropy—a condition in which people believed themselves to be possessed by wolves and imitated their behavior. In the Middle Ages in Europe, management of the mentally disturbed was left largely to the clergy. Monasteries served as refuges and places of confinement. During the early part of the medieval period, the mentally disturbed were, for the most part, treated with considerable kindness. “Treatment” consisted of prayer, holy water, sanctified ointments, the breath or spittle of the priests, the touching of relics, visits to holy places, and mild forms of exorcism. In some monasteries and shrines, exorcisms were performed by the gentle “laying on of hands.” Such methods were often joined with vaguely understood medical treatments derived mainly from Galen, which gave rise to prescriptions such as the following: “For a fiend-sick man: When a devil possesses a man, or controls him from within with disease, a drink of lupin, bishopswort, henbane, garlic. Pound these together, add ale and holy water” (Kayne, 1864–1866). It had long been thought that during the Middle Ages, many mentally

disturbed people were accused of being witches and thus were punished and often killed (e.g., Zilboorg & Henry, 1941). But several more recent interpretations have questioned the extent to which this was so (Maher & Maher, 1985; Phillips, 2002; Schoeneman,1984). For example, in a review of the literature, Schoeneman notes that “the typical accused witch was not a mentally ill person but an impoverished woman with a sharp tongue and a badtemper” (p. 301).He goes on to say that witchcraft was, in fact, never considered a variety of possession either by witch hunters, the general populace, or modern historians” (p. 306). To say “never” may be overstating the case; clearly, some mentally ill people were punished as witches.


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