What Is Exorcism?

Most organized religions have some version of exorcism

Exorcist with burning bible
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The English word exorcism comes from the Greek exorkosis, which means "out-oath." An exorcism is an attempt to evict demons or spirits from the body of a (normally living) human being.

Many organized religions include some aspect of exorcism or demon removal or expulsion. In ancient cultures, a belief in the existence of demons allowed a way to understand evil in the world or provided an explanation for the behavior of people who were actually mentally ill. 

So long as there is a belief that a demon can possess a person, there will be the belief that some people have power over those demons, forcing them to cease their possession. Usually, the responsibility of exorcism falls to a religious leader such as a priest or minister. 

Within most modern-day religious orders, exorcisms are rarely talked about and are not generally acknowledged by central religious leadership (such as the Vatican). The process of exorcism is not typically pleasant for the "host." 

Exorcism and Christianity

While Christianity is not the only religion that teaches a belief in the dual entities representing good (God)/ Jesus) and evil (the devil, Satan), the exorcism of evil spirits is commonly associated with the ministry of Jesus.

Demons and evil spirits appear somewhat frequently in the New Testament of the Bible. This is curious since the mention of any similar creatures is absent in the Hebrew scriptures from the same time period. It appears that belief in demons and exorcism only became really popular in 1st century Judaism, with the Pharisees actively engaged in identifying and evicting demons from people.

Exorcism and Popular Culture

Widely considered one of the scariest movies of all time, William Friedkin's 1973 film "The Exorcist," is based on William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel of the same name. It tells the story of an innocent child possessed by a demon and the priest who works to dispel the demon, leading to his own demise. It was the first horror film to win an Academy Award, which went to Blatty for the adaptation of his screenplay

Whatever your thoughts about the religious implications of demons (or whether they exist at all), "The Exorcist" was, at the time of its release, one of the highest-grossing movies in American cinema, and spawned several sequels and lesser imitations. In many instances (although not all) the victim of possession is a woman, sometimes a pregnant woman (think "Rosemary's Baby"). 

Exorcism and Mental Illness

Many stories from the ancient history of exorcisms appear to involve people who suffer from mental illnesses. This makes sense since the medical community's understanding of mental illness is a relatively recent development. Less sophisticated societies felt a need to explain some of the more unusual behaviors exhibited by those suffering from mental illnesses, and demonic possession offered an answer.

Unfortunately, if a mentally ill person exhibits the traditional symptoms of demonic possession, attempts to perform an exorcism may tend to feed their behaviors and keep them from getting real help with a medical professional.

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Cline, Austin. "What Is Exorcism?" Learn Religions, Sep. 21, 2021, learnreligions.com/what-is-exorcism-248648. Cline, Austin. (2021, September 21). What Is Exorcism? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-exorcism-248648 Cline, Austin. "What Is Exorcism?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-exorcism-248648 (accessed June 10, 2023).