The 1973 film, THE EXORCIST, now released on video, brought home to many people the terrifying spectacle of demon possession and the struggle to rid the victim of the invading entity.  The film  was somewhat sensationalised in comparison with the reality of the original case – which was  itself sufficiently frightening and  mysterious.  Nevertheless, the film served to illustrate vividly  the reality of the exorcism rite: a ceremony resorted to when forcible possession of a person is indicated and when the demonic spirit, it is believed, needs to be ORDERED out by threats and in the name of God or Jesus.  In distinction, “deliverance” (the term more usually encountered nowadays) has a milder, more modern, if wider, connotation. It is a case of possession that requires exorcism contrasting with a case of obsession that needs  deliverance. (I speak from the viewpoint of an ex RC cleric.)

Succinctly, as Eugene Maurey put it, “Possession occurs when a disembodied spirit takes control of the mind and body of a living person”.  (EXORCISM, p. 15). It is important however to view exorcism as it would have been understood in early Palestine, say the first century AD.  Twelftree’s definition seems to be apt: “Exorcism was a form of healing used when demons or evil spirits were thought to have entered a person and to be responsible for sickness and was the attempt to control and cast out or expel evil spiritual beings or demons from people.” (JESUS THE EXORCIST, p 19)



Exorcism grew out of the New Testament accounts. As Jesus said in Luke 16;16, “In my name shall they cast out devils”. In the first centuries AD, “signs” were promulgated of evil possessing entities as guides to the tyro exorcist, among which were the actual appearance of the victim, his behaviour, his abhorrence of anything Christian – there were many more.  Possession was believed to be either by the devil or by the agency of a witch (bewitchment).  In the latter case the “indications” were myriad.  Following on from these beliefs, the rite of exorcism was soon regularised whereby certain rules and procedures had to be followed.  Guidelines were also laid down for the exorcist himself to ensure he was of the right calibre.  Numerous books on exorcism appeared, “with the permission of Superiors” as the dedications had it.  A highly formalised ritual was insisted upon by these “Superiors” which although it has changed somewhat as it evolved down the centuries, (and to an extent is capable of individual interpretation) basically remains the same today. Its essence is contained in the RITUALE ROMANUM first disseminated in the early 17th century – about which we shall say more in a later chapter.  (The ritual as it appeared in the RITUAL ROMANUM of 1620 appears as Appendix 1.)

Exorcism in the New Testament era shows the following characteristics: there was the belief that the exorcist and the demons must confront each other; that the exorcist needed to address the demon or demons; that the personal qualities of the exorcist calling on some outside, higher force, should bring success without recourse to outward show or ceremony; that demon and exorcist would engage in conversation; that the victim or sufferer would eventually be “saved”. (See Twelftree, his chapter 2 in JESUS THE EXORCIST.)  It may be claimed that the Roman Catholic Church is the main repository of  demon possession traditions though this is not to say that other creeds, Christian and non-Christian, do not have exorcism practices also. The present study however  is of the “Christian” devil (and his demons) from a western perspective, mainly British, and deriving from Judeo-Christian traditions. Before we go any further it must be clarified that although there was diffentation by Jesus (as we point out) between “mere” physical sickness and spiritual/emotional disturbance in the New Testament  most people of the time believed that illness (such as epilepsy as we would now call it)  was occasioned by the Devil, whose power was manifest in the body, not the spirit of the victim.


By exorcism, according to this tradition, is meant the acting by a Christian minister (usually) through the power of God, in order to combat evil forces present in a person or place; its purpose is to restore normality, to bring about a desirable change. The crucial point in this, is the perception that someone or something is “genuinely” possessed, that is to say, directed by a force normally alien to the subject. What denotes the spurious from the genuine is often subjective, based upon the celebrant’s mental (and emotional) summing-up of the situation before him. There are “signs” of possession to guide the potential exorcist which are very helpful; but more about these later.

Twelftree succinctly points out that an exorcism is (or was) thought to be successful because of three factors inherent in the practice: a) the exorcist b) the source of power and authority 3) the form of application of that authority (against the offending spirit). To take the first:(a), the figure was charismatic and so by his personality alone the demon was banished; (b) involved the working of a “miracle” (an exorcism) through heavenly power, (c) a simple form of words (to expel evil) was more spectacular and awe-inspiring than elaborate ceremony or preparation.  This is not to say that sometimes elaboration was not used – the speaking of descriptions, histories, display of arcane knowledge, the employment of types of activity – but all tending to show a true knowledge of the nature of the confronting demon.  In the activities of Jesus in this sphere as seen in the New Testament it was rather his personal force than any elaboration or form that impressed.

There can be little doubt that the traditions surrounding Jesus, in an age of accredited miraculous powers, were “of a different order” as Twelftree puts it (p 137) from other ancient miracle traditions; they had “too many unusual features”, such as raising from the dead, curing paralysis.

In Jesus’ exorcisms it is pre-eminently clear that he eschewed any form of elaboration, formulae or the use of devices. Although he made it clear that the power (to exorcise) came from a higher authority he never appeared to call actively on this source to enable him to carry through his cleansing.


There is a telling paragraph in JESUS THE EXORCIST (p 173) where succinctly the status of Jesus as an exorcist is aptly summed up: “Thus what begins to mark out Jesus’ exorcistic ministry from the technique of his followers is that not only did he claim no outside aid for his success but also he seems to have consciously emphasised that his resources were none other than his own person”.  Jesus, as Twelftree so aptly remarks, gave his exorcisms a dimension of significance beyond the mere healing of individuals. “Jesus”, he says, “was the first one to link the relatively common phenomenon of exorcism with eschatology” –  [the doctrine of the final issue of things].  Jesus stands out as “one who not only relied on his own resources for success in exorcism but at the same time claimed that in them God himself was in action and that that action was the coming of God’s kingdom”. (p 173 )

The imperative principle in the eyes of the exorcist and his bishop is the discernment that the victim is being constantly tormented and IS  (not maybe) in a life-threatening situation. The evil entity must be forced to reveal his  name (though I personally did not always insist on this), to say why he (mostly) entered, and then to enter on a type of battle of wills  that the exorcist must be confident of ultimately winning, during   which the minister repeatedly threatens, issues  orders to leave, and attacks the evil spirit by prayer in the name of God or Christ.


The present ritual, form of words, sequence of actions, is of comparatively recent origin, dating for all intents and purposes from the issue of the RITUALE ROMANUM (fundamentally revised in 1952, but basically enshrining the orginal principles) of the early seventeenth century (about which we shall say more in a later chapter). Officially, the Catholic church first ordained priests to exorcise demons in 341 AD at the Council of Antioch. The actual roots of the act of dispelling evil spirits go back millenia, well before the Christian era, and are to be discovered in the ancient civilisations of Sumer, Assyria, Persia, Babylonia.  Belief in demons (if not the devil) is very ancient as is their power to enter into, and thereby radically alter, some unfortunate people.  As Jesus later, the ancient exorcist did not claim to dismiss the demons himself but called upon the gods, Ea and Marduk, who in reality drove away the evil. The present practice of trying to ascertain the names of the invading demons derives from this early practice as does the sprinkling of water resorted to by the Babylonian exorcist.  Some of these rites are engraved on tablets dating back some three thousand years. The belief in evil spirits as the bringers of all sickness, physical as well as spiritual, was then endemic. Thus the ancient Egyptians and Persians believed, and they had various rituals for exorcism.  Zoroaster living in the sixth century BC, was not only a Persian religious leader of great repute but an exorcist of significance.


Generally however, we tend to get our notions of evil possession from the numerous biblical accounts of Jesus – and his disciples – expelling demons from afflicted men and women. These occur in the New Testament,  principally in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, written, as far as we can ascertain, roughly some fifty to a hundred years after Christ’s death.  These accounts are dramatic and compelling, sometimes in their brevity and sometimes in their detail (as in the story of the Gadarene swine, Mark, 5; 1-13,  where Jesus expelled a number of demons by simply telling the unclean spirits to come out of the possessed man). They then entered a herd of swine who rushed over a hill, into a river and drowned.

As Olga Hoyt points out in her book, EXORCISM, early Christians were eager to perform exorcisms so that resultant successes would bring converts to the new religion. “Through the centuries the belief in possession and cure continued and with the growth of Christianity the word of the skill and power of the churchmen-exorcists spread across Europe” (Hoyt, p 19)


The New Testament indicates that the power of exorcism was given general credence by the people of the time; that it was equally believed that many disorders (not by any means all) were the result of evil possession and that only special individuals could confront these cases – and win!  Much moment is given to this aspect of Jesus’ ministry in the Scripture as evidence of superior, God-given power.  Jesus himself made it clear that the power did not come from him, but through him, from God.  The aspect of a personal origin for evil, as Crehan points out  in his chapter “Exorcism in the New Testament” (the Exeter  Report)  lies behind the teaching of the Scriptures. It was with this background, as Crehan says (p 12) that the gospel narratives of Christ’s particular exorcisms were composed. The absence of ceremony is noteworthy in the cases adduced: generally it is by a word, as the Testament states, that Jesus exorcises.  In Capernaum a possessed man confronted Jesus who recognised that it was the possessing entity speaking; he commanded the demon to speak no further and to leave the man.  (Gospel according to Mark, 1).  Reading this Gospel, it is clear that  Jesus diffentiated between the bodily sick and those whose afflictions were occasioned by possession.

Later we read of the cure of the deaf and dumb boy whose possessing entity was commanded to come out and enter no more (Mark, 9). There are references also in Matthew (12; 27,28) to the casting out of devils by “the Spirit of God” and in Mark, (9; 38,39) where significantly, Jesus speaks of doing “a miracle in my name” – bestowing the ability on his disciples to exorcise but only in his name.


This belief in expelling spirits from unfortunates in no way diminished throughout the following centuries as can be seen from the writings of such eminent early Christian “Fathers” of the Church (by then Roman Catholic) as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian who flourished about the end of the second century AD to the early third.  In subsequent centuries, namely up to the first half of the fifth, the later canonised Chrysostom, Jerome and Augustine write of exorcism as a common practice of the Church. Often referred to as “doctors” of the early Church they gained the appellation from their dedication to the “doctoring” of souls.

In the earliest days of the still embryonic Christian Church, before the official institution of an order of exorcists derived from the ranks of ordained clerics, exorcism was practised by individuals (not by any means always charismatic)  whose ability denoted the superiority of the Deity over the diabolic.  All these people, including the venerable scholars mentioned above, believed implicitly in the existence of demons and their ability to invade the person.  Of course the received wisdom, derived from the Scriptures, was that demons (and the Devil) owed their origin to their having fallen from grace at the time of their “rebellion’ against the Godhead.  These evil spirits were responsible for leading mankind into sin so that the path to heaven was exceedingly perilous. The demons were especially dangerous when they saw fit to enter into people, the better to destroy them, particularly spiritually; to demoralise onlookers and to show their contempt for God.  Therefore exorcism was felt to be very necessary.


The terrifying figure of Satan loomed large in the beliefs of churchmen and laity alike ever since the  writers of the New Testament  had referred to him, and in fact he had, if anything, grown in stature as  time went by.  He was identified as God’s arch enemy, the instigator of every evil and misfortune that befell Man.  His underlings, the demons, did his bidding.  Fortified by, and confirmed in, their fundamental beliefs in the existence of Satan and his minions, by the Gospels and in the writings of Paul, the early churchmen (and their followers) saw that an an incontrovertible dichtomy existed in a world created by God: the existence of good – and evil; of good angels and evil spirits.  For these clerics of the first centuries AD, it was essential that demons (or devils, with a small d) should be cast out, as in biblical times, because these devils were “the continuing sign of Satan’s misappropriated  lordship over mankind” as Perry puts in his book, DELIVERANCE (p. 146).

Two factors above all were impressed on the early exorcists: first, (as we have said), not all cases of very unusual or violent behaviour were to be ascribed to demonic possession; and all exorcist practices had to be done in Jesus’ name, who himself derived his powers from God.  It was therefore, not surprising that one of the most important of the Church’s missions was the eradication of evil invading entities, considering that Jesus himself, as has  often been said, was the most effective exorcist of all time.


Following the lead therefore given by Christ, it is to be expected that the Christian Church continued the practice of exorcism, but its form differed at different times depending on the received religious (or dogmatic) wisdom of the age, the perceived virulence of infestation at the time  and/or papal ex-cathedra pronouncements thought necessary. For example we have mentioned earlier the official institution of the order of exorcist at the Antioch Council mid fourth century, but before this in about the mid third century in the papacy of Cornelius an exorcist role for the clergy was attested.  What we would now call “minor” exorcism was within the capacity of the ordained cleric; a much later development stipulated the need for a bishop’s approval before a “major” exorcism could be performed (more on this aspect in a later chapter).

The Roman Catholic Church has for centuries laid down procedures for the ritual. Other Christian Churches have felt the need to hold commissions or conferences to clarify the basic issues involved in the rite, such as at the Methodist Conference of 1976, at the  General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1976 also, the inter-denominational Commission convened by the Bishop of Exeter, 1971.  All the Christian Churches hold “training” conferences  from time to time on the subject of exorcism/deliverance for clergy and interested laity alike.  Such, it is felt, is the continuing importance of the subject. The casting out of devils, a major exorcism, was only to be undertaken under the direction of the diocesan Bishop – a directive forcibly promulgated in the RITUAL ROMANUM of about 1620, but the principle was first enshrined in the Canons of the Catholic Church of some fifteen years earlier.  It ought to be emphasised at this juncture that although agreeing on many points on  the issue of exorcism, the Catholic Church and the Church of England do differ in their general attitudes.   Belief in the Devil as a credible entity is clear in the Catholic RITUALE as it speaks of demonic activity which has to be combatted.  The view of the Church of England is not as clear cut: the belief in demons is much restricted and is to be clearly seen in the booklet already mentioned, the “Findings of a Commission” convened by the Bishop of Exeter (1972). Indeed, demons or the Devil are never mentioned in the foreword by the Bishop, whose principal tenet is that exorcism is not “purely [a] negative action of expelling an evil force” but is “an extension of the frontiers of Christ’s kingdom and a demonstration of the power of the Resurrection to overcome evil and replace it with good…”  (p 9; EXORCISM edited by Robert Petitpierre: the findings of the Commission).


After several attempts at exorcism had “gone wrong” in the middle 1970s, it was appreciated that medical/psychiatric aid was necessary and the Christian Churches laid down that professional medical help was necessary (in diagnosis). Also thought to be a step forward was the acceptance of a person of requisite background as being specially qualified in the deliverance field – note the change of emphasis: the word exorcism was now replaced by “deliverance” – at least in the Study Group of the Church of England.  This person has to have the support of a type  of “back-up” team whose membership can vary but should consist of more than one clergyman (or woman), a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, one or two devout Christian laity, and a member (or members) of the female gender.  Training in cognate matters for the “team” is ongoing.


The fact that exorcism/deliverance still has such importance in the eyes of the Christian Churches it must be emphasised, is derived from the New Testament clear assumption that non-human powers of evil exist and that Jesus triumphed over them, without ever trying to dominate human wills in contrast to demonic forces who do so try. The New Testament reveals that evil is manifest where there is some lack of faith (in God), brought about by the machinations of Satan. The authority of our Lord (as we may on occasion refer to him) needed to be evidenced above everything else in the Testament, so that release from the bonds of Satan instanced supremely in the act of exorcism was the apotheosis of true divinity.

In the first millenia of the Christian era, (roughly), exorcism was regarded as one way of freeing persons from the domination of Satan, but there were others, equally efficacious, such as the administration of the sacraments. Some of these sacraments were/are themselves forms of exorcism: baptism, extreme unction, penance as part of confession.  As we shall see, blessings of various materials, such as holy water, and of places involve exorcistic rituals.

Generally, however, especially in modern eyes, exorcism connotes demon possession; it is basically the act of making the devil entity answerable to a higher authority. Fundamentally the belief is that demons and the Devil fear this higher authority (God or Jesus Christ) and can be commanded in his name.  Briefly, in the ritual itself, salt to represent purity, is blessed and wine, similarly, to represent the blood of Christ; the victim should hold a crucifix; the exorcist recites parts of the Scriptures, says prayers, admonishes the demon.  The character of the officiant is of paramount concern; so to a lesser extent is that of the team of assistants, and  the appropriateness of the situation – more on this aspect later.   The overiding aim is to heal and in so doing to banish the evil spirit to the Christian hell (where it truly belongs).


Malachi Martin, a former Jesuit professor, describes in his 1976 book, HOSTAGE TO THE DEVIL, some stages in the ritual.

First, he says, is the sense on the part of the exorcist of an alien presence; the second  stage is what he calls the “breakpoint” when the devil’s pretence collapses and a brief period of chaos ensues; the third is when the voice of the possessing entity becomes disruptive  to the proper continuance of the ceremony; the fourth stage is seen in the zenith of the battle for control – between the exorcist and the demon – what Martin calls “the clash”; finally the entity is expelled, and God’s will has triumphed.  The demon’s struggle for an existence out of hell, in the body of a human, is what he is fighting for – and which he has now lost.

The particular individual chosen for attack is something of a mystery but it may have to do with the spirit’s spotting a point of entry, a weakness or character defect in the victim, that makes him or her a suitable “home”; perhaps it is none of these things but a random choice (about which I have serious doubts) in order to bring about the effects mentioned earlier.   Whatever the reason, all takes place with an omnipotent God’s permission – to test our mettle.  Real value (by testing) needs to be placed on the efforts of those who deserve everlasting life.  This is the abiding Christian belief.  There is a revealing passage in the Bible (2 Cor. 4;4) which seems to epitomise the conflict inherent in the exorcism rite:   “The God of this world [the Devil]   has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of  the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the likeness of God” – once he has blinded them, as Trevor Dearing points out, he can then enter their hearts to use them to frustrate God’s purposes without their knowing it…

SUPERNATURAL SUPERPOWERS by Trevor Dearing leaves no doubt that Dearing, an experienced Anglical churchman and exorcist, believes implicitly in the control exercised over people by demonic forces.  In his long career, he sees no reason to doubt their existence. The spiritual bondage in which a victim is held is an ultimate spiritual condition: possession. Although spirits can cause symptoms of physical sickness and produce seemingly psychotic elements in behaviour, demon possession is “a spiritual sickness…requiring a spiritual remedy” (Dearing: p. 46).

I make no apologies for reiterating that Jesus sometimes saw infirmities as caused by demon possession and sometimes as natural infirmities e.g. those innate, as is clear from the New Testament context. This aspect is of paramount significance, more so today than ever for the exorcist when he attempts to “diagnose” a situation.  An error here and the consequences could be disastrous for all concerned.  Misdiagnosis does nothing for faith and trust. It may well be that it is healing that is required rather than exorcism.  This is where medical records and background, as well as psychiatric advice, is invaluable in, for example, confirming mental illness. With Dearing, I would emphasise  that it is a serious mistake to assume, make assumptions about, all cases of psychosis or neurosis, as demon possession.  “Where angels fear to tread…” I do need to finish the quote!  In his concluding chapter entitled, “The Little Devils”, Dearing includes a telling sentence: “I had a clear picture of both the extent and the limits of the powers of evil spirits – a knowledge which is absolutely essential in a ministry of exorcism”.  (p 51)


Where possession is thought to be a certainty (as far as it is humanly possible to tell) then exorcism is necessary.  Christians would regard this as axiomatic.  Possession against the will that is.  But it is not the only scenario!  As  William Sargant says in THE MIND POSSESSED,  possession has  often deliberately been induced “to give a human being the most direct and immediate possible experience of a deity, by becoming its living vessel and to enable him to act as a channel of communication between gods…and their worshippers…” (p 44) This may be done by suggestion and/or hypnosis.  Certainly it was frequently done in the past by sensation seeking individuals, posing as victims aided and abetted by clergy, it must be admitted, who aspired to a spurious fame by successfully “treating” the sufferers, often members of their own parish.  Attempts to differentiate between differing “states” and that which is genuine and that which is false have been the subject of thorough and scholarly study, none more so than that by T.K. Oesterreich who published his ground-breaking work, POSSESSION in 1921.  For him, “the most important thing is to see that we are dealing with a state in which the subject possesses a single personality and a defined character, even if this is not the orginal one.  The subject considers himself as a new person, the ‘demon’ and envisages his former being as quite strange, as if it were another’s…simply. it is the first personality which has been replaced by a second”. (p 39 of the Kegan Paul edition. 1930)

Now, of course, much credence is put in states of hysteria as cases which would in the past have been diagnosed as possession, and there may be much truth in this.  Oesterreich points out in his book that the only difference between hysteria and possession is purely “psychic”.  In states of possession the sufferer genuinely believes he is possessed from the outside. In modern civilised cultures most individuals know “that  hysteria is an illness of the nervous system, so they tend to blame themselves for the symptoms which they would previously have taken to be caused by some higher power outside”.  (p 56, THE MIND POSSESSED)


It is important at this juncture to understand the fundamental theory behind the rite of exorcism: the sufferer, the human being, is not the one being commanded by the officiant; exorcism cannot be directed AT  a human being.  Only non-human minds or spirits can be exorcised, as Robert Petitpierre points out in EXORCISING DEVILS.  (The same Petitpierre as the editor of the “Exeter Report”) There is no need, he says, to command in a loud voice: most cases –  I stress the word “most” –  need only the minor form of exorcism, when dealing with an “influence” as distinct from a “control”. (Ideas on page 34 of EXORCISING DEVILS)  “Fundamentally,” writes Petitpierre, Christian exorcism is no more and no less than a miracle performed by Jesus to clean up the ‘mess’ in the world around us.” I concur with this verdict as far as it goes.

One of the reasons for the modern growth in the belief in exorcism for healing purposes when ALL ELSE has failed, is that people perceive, or subconsciously perceive, that indeed there is a void in the psyche now that used to be filled by religious belief, trust in God, accepted norms, call them what you will.  There is a constant flow, not by any means a torrent, of people wishing to have recourse to the rite of exorcism because they BELIEVE in their hearts that good and evil are powers that war, struggle for domination,  often over a person, more often these days over places. Somewhat ironically, exorcism (or deliverance) is held in as high regard now, probably more so, than in past centuries when bodily sickness was scarcely able to be distinguished from spiritual ill. It is precisely because we are (within limits of course!) able to discount most bodily pathologies, that what we perceive we are left with may be some form of invasion.  In such cases it might well be the “major” form of exorcism that is needed.  In the majority of cases, I freely admit, it is the “minor” exorcismic ritual that is efficacious.  It is the puzzling five per cent of cases that give us pause.


When speaking of effectiveness, two elements have to be considered.  They are: some attempts at exorcism are felt not to have succeeded; and closely related to this is the (fairly frequent) need to repeat the ritual.  Why is this so it may be asked? A variety of answers can be considered. One is that the exorcist may not be the proper person for the task; or that the victim him/herself is reluctant to be “cured”; the surroundings may not be conducive to the conduct of the ceremony; the team or one or some of them may be inadequate to the formidable task in some way; the possessing entity is particularly tenacious and is not (at first) fazed by the priestly commands and/or is not willing to give up his home lightly or does not want to seem to be letting down his master Satan (if the possessor is a demon). Occasionally I had the feeling that an exorcism was a success, but later (the time lapse might be days or months) it came to my notice that indeed the malaise had returned to the person – perhaps never had been properly banished in the first place.  With places it could be even harder to tell.  It is easy to get a feeling of euphoria over an exorcism thought at the time to be well done. Sometimes this euphoria was misplaced as it later transpired that a place was still afflicted, still “haunted” by a ghost or ghosts – for want of a better word.  I think it is the sense of relief that the struggle is over which can be misleading; a premature feeling that the battle has been won.  I have learnt that nothing is that “easy”. That places are possessed (or haunted) is a perception that is more in the eye of the beholder -and may be a purely subjective thing. On the other hand it may not!  So also is viewed the “cure”.  By contrast, possession as believed to be seen in a person is, or usually is, more immediate, more dramatic and often more disturbing.  I almost used the word frightening, but this emotion must never show in an exorcist.

Necessity for the ritual therefore arises from public demand but the Christian Church clergy, especially the Roman Catholic, regard exorcisms as, in Petitpierre’s words, “an act of faith in the life, victory and power of Christ …an assertion of faith”. (p. 49) Naturally, it is the designated major exorcism that most redounds to the glory of God and his triumph over evil through the minister, when used in thoroughly investigated cases where diabolic infestation is suspected.  The minor, less so, regarded as appropriate in cases where the intention is more to rehabilitate a sick mind on the presumption that the trouble is more psychological than demon inspired. Often it is the minor exorcism that is called for in the deliverance of places – but more on exorcisms of people and of places in the next chapter.


Throughout the Christian era, exorcism has been largely concerned with individuals (even with animals at one stage! – pre renaissance mainly;  while that of places occupied a secondary tier of importance, although there were always some incidents.  Exorcism itself gained  in stature (and frequency) in the three centuries, roughly 1400 to 1700 AD, when the witchcraft mania was at its height.  Witches were believed to be possessed so as such, were, or I should say would have been, suitable subjects for the rite, if they had not been even more suitable subjects for torture and death. The view of the age towards heresy and sorcery also greatly added to the primacy of exorcistic ritual visited on the lucky ones, that is to say, those few who escaped death for some reason.  Pari passu with this demented killing went papal or diocesan proclamation about the necessity to hunt down all those, principally “witches”, who exhibited signs of possession, and were therefore in grievous need of the benefits of exorcism.  Unfortunately, especially for the accused, saving their souls  seemed less in evidence than destroying their bodies and confiscating their property.

This belief in witchcraft which as we have said straddled at least three centuries was accompanied by a firm belief in demons and angels.  This is not to say such beliefs are moribund today – far from it. In some ways, though, the modern churches have questioned the relevance of these beings.  But the undoubted modern rise of Satanism and interest in the occult has brought the whole subject of demons and angels back into prominence. Demonology itself has a history almost as old as mankind itself.  For early, primitive man, life was a struggle with the elements over which he had no control.  Primitive man thought of the elements as controlled, or instigated, by elemental spirits, which could be sometimes benign, sometimes vindictive or destructive.  The idea grew of placating these spirits. Over time, the notion grew that some entities were good and that some could be harmful.  So began the dichotomy between demonic and angelic spirits. From this grew the notions of good and evil – and their personifications. Names were given. Associations were identified. Eventually a deity and a devil came to embody good and evil respectively. Names like God (eventually) or Jahveh and Satan or the Devil came to be used to epitomise the opposing forces. Religions evolved in order to explain (at first) these bewildering  notions of which  Judaism and Christianity are the forms which most concern us in this study. Judaic concepts of the Devil and his demons, themselves inherited from older before Christ civilisations and their religions, were themselves inherited by Christianity.


This faith held exorcism to be a healing process, freeing someone from the grip of demonic forces but also held  the view that exorcism seen to be credible was a powerful way of impressing waverers or creating entirely new adherents. In this way,also, other, non-Christian forms of worship were regarded as devilish in nature, beyond the pale of the true faith, Christianity. The concept of the Christian devil and his demons was born. Other religions and other cults were demonic.  The writings of the many “demonologists” of the time served only to harden this attitude, and attributed a spurious rationale to the study of the devil – someone who in depiction was always shown as of terrifying aspect, with a human or quasi human shape.  Roger Baker in his book, BINDING THE DEVIL, sums up the situation nicely:

“To the Christian, this devil and his demons are objects that must of course be repelled.  A great deal of energy was spent finding out means of expelling them from the human body …From its status as a part of initiation and baptism, exorcism rose to be a unique and essential ritual based on the practical example of Christ”. (p 34)

There is no denying that exorcism was a major feature of Christ’s ministry.  If we believe that Christ had powers that could be called divine, it  must be true that he realised demonic possession was not always the real cause of illness; on the other hand, it might equally be true that Christ-made-man and therefore a creature of his time, believed that demonic possession was the cause of serious aberration in behaviour. The first scenario is the “Accommodation” theory by which Christ made his actions accord with current beliefs. Whatever the interpretation of the seemingly miraculous exorcisms performed by Jesus Christ what is not credible (in my view) is to dismiss these incidents as metaphor. It is a typical, false, modern ploy to dismiss anything hard to understand as in some way metaphorical.


The Hebrews believed implicitly that evil spirits could and did influence mankind: it was an old belief, hundreds of years BC and was to a large extent derived from the ruling Persians and the years of the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Hebrew nation, as it is called – about 600 to 550 BC. Naturally, belief in possession led to belief in exorcism.

It must be realised that in Christ’s time, exorcism or a form of it was not unusual and that itinerant exorcists existed.  What on the surface marked out Christ as an exorcist was his extraordinary success  especially with “difficult” cases.  The Gadarene swine episode is a case in point which illustrates some of the distinctive features of Jesus’ exorcisms. Evil spirits seemed to recognise Christ as being in some way divine, the son of God. There is a simple command to leave the possessed person. The demon, or demons in this case, left and entered the herd of swine. The incident also illustrates a case of multiple possession, rare at that time.  From all accounts the man was cured instantly.

What is truly significant in this aspect of Christ’s ministry on earth is his ability to differentiate between psychic and bodily ills – afflictions due to natural or should we say physical disorder and those owing their origin to mental or emotional imbalance. Jesus was apparently able to discern. Perhaps he owed this ability to his own seeming belief in demons which if we are right does nothing for the “accommodation” theory adumbrated above.  It is very significant in any consideration of Jesus’ exorcistic powers that invading spirits always seemed to react with a degree of fear to his presence and challenge. Jesus always spoke directly to the demon whose voice and replies he knew would not be that of the possessed person.  He was confident that his word alone would be sufficient to cast out the evil spirit.  Christ’s cures were, as Baker states, “based on a tremendous change in attitude, rather than a simple recovery”. (p 53: BINDING THE DEVIL)

It would however be a mistake to assume that exorcism was characteristic only of Christianity.  It is important in all religions.  That it is indeed a major feature of Christ’s ministry is largely due to the writers of the Synoptic Gospels (those of Matthew, Mark and Luke) emphasising the power of Jesus over Satan through his own power rather than actually calling on the name of God to help him. Exorcism is only needed because of possession; belief in one, necessitates belief in the other. If a person can be possessed  (which would account for many modern instances of supreme wickedness) then a deliverance from the evil domination is desirable.  One important caveat however must be entered: the possessed (or believed to be so) person must WANT to be freed from the dominance. The importance of this point – witnessed in New Testament episodes – is central.  Exorcism of a person can only succeed if the original personality however mute or disruptive it is made  by the invading entity, is fundamentally and SPIRITUALLY changed AGAINST HIS/HER WILL.  “In considering possession,” writes Sybil Leek, “we are faced with discovering what or who is in possession of a living body, using it as a home and trying to function through it…such demons are capable of entering and controlling both men and beasts and often seek embodiment – without which they are unable to fulfill their potential for evil.” (DRIVING OUT THE DEVIL, p 50)


There is no doubt that Christ believed implicitly in possessing demons’ vast potential for evil. The great importance he attached to granting the ability to exorcise to all who sincerely invoked his name testifies to this.  Likewise, the “modern” exorcist has to be licensed, as it were, by a higher authority (i.e. the diocesan Bishop). Sincerity then, as now, was all, otherwise the ritual would fail – then as now. It is a truism that Jesus himself grants the power behind his name. From the Catholic Church’s point of view I should like to quote an apposite summary of this present theme: “Jesus can give this authority [to exorcise] to anyone as he sees fit. However, in the normal course of affairs, it is the prudence of Jesus at this time, as expressed by the Church which he founded upon Peter that only those who are delegated by hierarchical authority are able to have this authority to cast out demons”. (Internet article, June, 1999, The Catholic Resource Network)


National newspapers round the world gave front page prominence in January, 1999 to the news that the Vatican had issued the first new exorcism ritual since 1620.  The promulgation recognised demonic possession (naturally) and the existence of demons and angels.  It acknowledged however that psychological disturbances could have been misinterpreted in the past as possession and stressed anew the need for medical advice. It also reaffirmed the laying-on of hands, certain blessings, and sprinkling with holy water.  The use of terms such as “Prince of Darkness” were discouraged and were to be replaced with such as “the cause of evil”. A CNN web site  posted on 26 January, 1999, reiterated the above but made it clear that belief in the devil was not optional for today’s Roman Catholics. Cardinal Estevez, a Vatican official, was quoted as saying that belief in Satan is a tenet of Catholic faith. The report affirmed some of the traditional “signs” of possession, such as “glossolalia” (speaking in unknown tongues), and great physical strength.  The web report stated the ritual was largely unchanged and then went on to give the main stages in the procedure (which can be compared to that seen in Appendix 1).  It stated: the actual first stage in the formula was the imploration, the listing of the evils of the devil, and the entreaty to God to free the possessed. The second stage: (more intense) is the commanding or ordering of the devil to leave the possessed. The third is even more imperative and uses the words, “I order you, Satan…” and denounces Satan as the “enemy of human salvation”, ending with the adjuration “Therefore, go back, Satan…”



It can be seen, therefore, that “traditional” and “modern” forms of the ritual do not differ a great deal.  Basically, one (that is to say, an exorcist, “accredited”, authorised by his bishop) must follow the stages laid down in the Roman Ritual, but there is room for individual interpretation (or divergence!) For instance, I tended to simplify the procedure, making it shorter in the process, though this was not an avowed intention I hasten to add. It was just that I believed the Devil (or demon) would respond as desired when God’s power was invoked; after all, the exorcisms of Christ himself were simple exhortations. I could never really believe in a lot of ceremony and verbiage (I don’t want this to sound flippant) for the heart of the matter was after all, a confrontation between Good and Evil, in which the exorcist was only the intermediary.  “Success” was not (is not) always clear cut.  Apparent restoration to normality, whatever this was in the particular case, was on occasion only temporary, as I was informed, both in the case of persons and places.  Sometimes the rite had to be repeated – why this was so, is hard to explain, but some explanations may be given.  On occasion the rite had to be repeated over several days – pessimism must never be one of the exorcist’s qualities. Sometimes, even years later, it came to my notice that disturbances at places had reoccurred. But were the reports themselves true?  The thought crossed my mind.  On the whole, provided exhaustive inquiries and probes have taken place beforehand and the advice of colleagues in other professions has been obtained, I can say that  I believed my deliverance ministry to have been overwhelmingly successful.  Notice I do use the word “deliverance” – advisedly, I would like to believe, not because I have less faith in the efficacy of exorcism – far from it- but rather that I recognise the tern “deliverance” as more appropriate, more comprehensive than “exorcism” which to many people has come to mean a mechanistic, rather sterile, form of contest between two wills. On the topic of deliverance, Richards (Secretary of the Bishop of Exeter’s Study group on Exorcism) writes that he does not see the service as driving away evil, whether concerned with a troubled person or a disturbed place. “I see it as the Church active in bringing into a distorted situation through its ministry the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the  Holy Spirit. It proclaims through word and action God’s rule and invites those [people]…to respond to the Living God”. (p 18, EXORCISM, DELIVERANCE AND HEALING)


We may now consider the exorcism ritual from the perspective of modern day practitioners  which connotes a knowledge of, or shall we say, a comparison with, older practices.  (The Latin is no longer used of course as all is in a modern tongue; English in our case!  The sacrifice of the Mass is said in English, no longer Latin, as has been the practice for decades.)  Although exorcism of person and of places are related the ritual does differ somewhat.  (See Appendix 2) Some mention has already been made of the two versions of exorcism: major and minor.  The former I found to be comparatively rare, (needing episcopal permission in the first place) while the second did not – in instances where an invading, foreign entity was not thought to be  present.  Thorough (and accurate!) diagnosis of a “case” is the first requisite.  It is here that the often stated “gift” of discernment can be a great help; whether it truly exists in certain individuals I am not so sure; perhaps discernment is simply the state  one is left with after painstaking investigations and exhaustive inquiries have been made! I have to say at this juncture that the York Report and the Report of the Exeter Commission, both instituted by  the Church of England add invaluable comment on the whole subject of exorcism.  (As we have seen, the RC Church has added little to its rules and regulations since the first issue of the RITUALE ROMANUM.) The “Specific Rubrics” of the York Report I thought to be important enough for their inclusion as an appendix: they include such items as personal preparation, support, after care, etc., which can be compared with, for example, the rules laid down in the Roman Ritual.


These Reports allow a minister to “extemporise” somewhat which although not spelt out as such in the Catholic “manual” are not utterly forbidden (as I mentioned earlier).  As John Richards says in his invaluable book, EXORCISM, DELIVERANCE AND HEALING,  it is important to try always to bring out the “essence” of the service especially where an element of “interpretation” is used.

Michael Perry, in his book, DELIVERANCE, is largely concerned with the work of the The Christian Exorcism Study Group, and as he says, the book is written to guide [Anglican] Christian ministers in pastoral situations. But the contents are pertinent no matter what persuasion. His guidelines may be seen as a modern commentary on ancient rules. I indicate where I may differ, but this is slight and infrequent.

Listen to every case with the utmost attention; investigate thoroughly the person (or place) and family background; make careful notes; call in diocesan advisers and medical/psychiatric help where thought appropriate; never express surprise; aftercare is vital; training is necessary, for the exorcist and his team; prayer and the use of the sacraments is essential. The concept of demonic possession is played down in the Reports as is the employment of the crucifix, holy water and allied; beware of finding demons “because you are looking for them” (p. 8) – a wise precaution; beware of sexual temptation and/or blackmail – I concur; I shall have more to say on this subsequently. Exorcism should be short and sharp, Perry maintains, but this could by no means be said to be the tenor of the original Catholic treatise. In his section on possession (treated at some length in the next chapter), Perry mentions three characteristic signs of true possession, which we have mentioned earlier, but omits to mention a feature I always found puzzling in the extreme; namely the seeming ability  to read thoughts or to apprehend something in the background or character of the exorcist which no-one could know.  This was very disconcerting.  How could it be?

I agree with the statement made by Perry (p. 90) that it is probably easier to establish a particular place needs treatment because of the activity of evil spirits than it is to diagnose demonic possession in the case of a person. Guidelines for  the “treatment” both of people and places follow in the Report;  these are sound, but in the Catholic Church more emphasis would be placed on Satanic infestation, the use of the sacraments and prayer, the employment of “sacred” objects in attempts at exorcism, and on the unbroken line of authority deriving from the Catholic Church ministry. This is not to deny that the practice of exorcism has taken different forms down the centuries.  Indeed, this aspect may be described as the main tenor of our  present section.  For many centuries, the office of exorcist was one of the “minor” orders bestowed on the novice priest, thus indicating the routine importance attached to the ceremony in the first centuries of the Church. Maybe because of the rigidity of procedure laid down by the early Catholic Church, there is not such an emphasis on the need for courses (for teams), seminars and such, as in the Anglican Churches. Perhaps, though, this would be a step forward.


Baptism is in Catholic eyes itself a form of exorcism and so prayers form part of the ceremony for the exorcism of the person to be baptised; holy water and salt used in exorcism rituals are routinely themselves exorcised; places to be dedicated to holy purposes e.g. building sites for churches. These and the like, are regarded as lesser exorcism ceremonies, but as we have said, greater (or major) rites are necessary when deemed appropriate, the form laid down by the RITUALE ROMANUM must be observed, and the officiating  priest must be  explicitly authorized by his bishop.

The “form” or stages in the exorcism ritual are of intrinsic interest both for their revelations  regarding  doctrinal approaches down the years to exorcistic practice, and observed reaction to specific parts of the above on the part of the sufferer.  The full version is quite extensive, though shorter versions are appropriate on occasion; this is why they appear as an appendix.  It is hoped that the meaning, purpose and origin of the rite has been adequately discussed, and that some helpful comment on the success or efficacy of the ceremony has been made, though later relations of personal and past “cases” will put this aspect into perspective. Then it is up to the readers to make their own judgements. Exorcism of people and places form a major section in the next chapter; concepts of the Devil and demons are intrinsic to the study; possession vis a vis obsession – these subjects are entailed.  The genuine and the spurious: how to diffentiate – can one always be sure? A very puzzling (and comparatively recent) phenomenon is Multiple Personality Disorder, which must be addressed.  Above all, the SIGNIFICANCE of the “ceremony” to all involved: exorcist, victim, team are some of the most immediate.

© A.B. Finlay Ph.D