The expulsion of evil spirits by commanding
them to depart. The expulsion is often done in the name
of a deity, saints, angels or other intercessory figures.
Exorcism comes from the Greek horkos, meaning
“oath,” and translates as adjuro, or adjure, in Latin and
English. To “exorcize,” then, does not really mean to cast
out so much as it means “putting the Devil on oath,” or
invoking a higher authority to compel the Devil to act in
a way contrary to its wishes. Such compulsion also implies
binding. The Anglican pamphlet Exorcism (1972)
states, “Christian exorcism is the binding of evil powers
by the triumph of Christ Jesus, through the application
of the power demonstrated by that triumph, in and
by his Church.” Exorcism rituals often begin with the
Latin words, “Adjure te, spiritus nequissime, per Deum
omnipotentem,” which translates as “I adjure thee, most
evil spirit, by almighty God.” Jesus, who cast out devils,
did not exorcise, because he did not need to call on any
higher authority than Himself.
Violence both physical and spiritual often dominates
an exorcism. Furniture bangs and breaks, waves of heat
Priest exorcising demon from possessed woman
and cold pour over the room, horrible cries emanate from
the victim and often the victim suffers real physical pain
and distress. The Devil seems to revel in spitting, vomiting
(see allotriophagy) and other, more disgusting
bodily functions as well. Spiritually, the Devil and the exorcist
battle for the soul of the victim, and while the Devil
hurls invectives, the exorcist counters with the strongest
demands for the demon’s departure, vowing pain and
penalty if it does not comply.
Exorcisms may also include the physical beating of a
sufferer to force the demon to depart, or throwing stones
at the possessed person. In extreme cases, such as that
of Urbain Grandier in Loudun, the possessed person is
killed and burned, or even burned alive, to remove all
traces of the Devil’s evil. Such punishments imply that
the exorcist does not believe the victim suffered innocently
at the hands of the Devil, but rather that in some
say he or she invited trouble. As late as 1966, members of
a fanatic cult in Zurich, Switzerland, ritually beat a young
girl to death for being “the Devil’s bride.”
Priests and ministers perform most exorcisms, but
clairvoyants and spiritualists also expel evil spirits. The
ritual is not nearly as important as the exorcist himself
(or herself); such talent is a gift that should be developed.
The exorcist must be convinced of the victim’s possession
and have faith in the power of the Lord to work through
In his book Hostage to the Devil (1976), former Jesuit
professor Malachi Martin describes the typical exorcist:
Usually he is engaged in the active ministry of parishes.
Rarely is he a scholarly type engaged in teaching or
research. Rarely is he a recently ordained priest. If there
is any median age for exorcists, it is probably between
the ages of fifty and sixty-five. Sound and robust physical
health is not a characteristic of exorcists, nor is
proven intellectual brilliance, postgraduate degrees,
even in psychology or philosophy, or a very sophisticated
personal culture. . . . Though, of course, there are
many exceptions, the usual reasons for a priest’s being
chosen are his qualities of moral judgment, personal
behavior, and religious beliefs—qualities that are not
sophisticated or laboriously acquired, but that somehow
seem always to have been an easy and natural part of
such a man.
The exorcist as victim. Although most accounts of exorcism
concentrate on the sufferings of the victim and the machinations
of the Devil, little has been said about the effect
on the exorcist. Yet an exorcist assumes a heavy risk when
fighting evil. Not only can the ordeal go on for weeks, maybe
months, but the exorcist must be prepared to have his
entire life bared by the paranormal knowledge of the Devil.
Secret sins are blurted out and ridiculed, and the demons
may even mimic the voices of long-lost loved ones.
Becoming possessed himself ranks as the greatest
danger to the exorcist, especially if he suffers from guilt
and secretly feels the need to be punished.
Father Jean-Joseph Surin, Jesuit exorcist to the nuns at
Loudun, became possessed while ministering to Jeanne
des Anges after the death of Grandier. Reared in a cloister,
Surin practiced self-denial during his early years as
a priest, denying himself food, sleep and social contact.
By the time he went to Loudun, Surin suffered from poor
health, severe headaches, muscle pain, melancholy and
attacks of depression and confusion. Unlike many of his
fellow Jesuits, Surin firmly believed that Sister Jeanne and
the others were truly possessed.
On January 19, 1635, Surin experienced his first possession,
and by January 7 of the next year, the demon Isacaaron—devil
of lust and debauchery—had left Sister Jeanne
and entered Father Surin. Leviathan and other demons also
tortured the priest. In May 1635 Father Surin wrote of his
torments to his friend Father Datichi, a Jesuit in Rome:
Things have gone so far that God has permitted, for
my sins, I think, something never seen, perhaps, in the
Church: that during the exercise of my ministry, the
Devil passes from the body of the possessed person, and
coming into mine, assaults me and overturns me, shakes
me, and visibly travels through me, possessing me for
several hours like an energumen. . . . Some say that it is
a chastisement from God upon me, as punishment for
some illusion; others say something quite different; as
for me, I hold fast where I am, and would not exchange
my fate for anyone’s, being firmly convinced that there is
nothing better than to be reduced to great extremities.
Surin continued to be ill and tormented throughout
1637 and 1638, and by 1639 he could no longer dress
himself, eat without difficulty, walk or read and write.
In 1645 Surin attempted suicide. He would have probably
died had not the kindly Father Bastide taken over as
head of the Jesuit College at Saintes, where Surin lived, in
1648. He brought Surin back to health step by step, giving
him the love and attention Surin had never experienced.
Eventually Father Surin was able to walk again, and to
read and write; he even attained enough inner strength to
preach and hear confession. He wrote of his experiences
at Loudun in his memoirs, Science Experimentale, and finally
died, peacefully, in 1665.
The setting of an exorcism. There is a special connection
between the spirit and its possessing location, most often
the victim’s bedroom or personal place. Anything hat can
be moved is taken out, such as rugs, lamps, dressers, curtains,
tables and trunks, to minimize flying objects. Only
a bed or couch remains, accompanied by a small side table
to hold a crucifix, candle, holy water and prayer book.
Doors and windows are closed but cannot be nailed shut
as air must be allowed to enter the room. Doorways must
be kept covered, even if the door is open, or else the evil
forces inside the room could affect the vicinity outside.
Modern exorcists also employ a small tape recorder to
validate the procedure. The priest-exorcist wears a white
surplice and a purple stole.
Exorcists usually are assisted by a junior priest chosen
by the diocese and in training to be an exorcist himself.
The assistant monitors the exorcist, trying to keep him
to the business at hand and not be misguided by the perversions
of the demons, and provides physical aid if necessary.
If the exorcist collapses or even dies during the
ritual, the assistant takes over.
Other assistants may include a medical doctor and
perhaps a family member. Each must be physically strong
and be relatively guiltless at the time of the exorcism, so
that the Devil cannot use their secret sins as a weapon
against the exorcism. According to Martin:
The exorcist must be as certain as possible beforehand
that his assistants will not be weakened or overcome by
obscene behavior or by language foul beyond their imagining;
they cannot blanch at blood, excrement, urine;
they must be able to take awful personal insults and be
prepared to have their darkest secrets screeched in public
in front of their companions.
Rites of exorcism. Rituals vary from a spiritual laying-on
of hands by a clairvoyant exorcist, taking the entity into
his or her own body and then expelling it, to the formal
procedure outlined in the Catholic Rituale Romanum.
Salt, which represents purity, and wine, which represents
the blood of Christ, figure prominently in exorcisms as
well as strong-smelling substances such as hellebore, attar
of roses and rue.
Members of many faiths—Hasidic Jews, Muslims, Hindus,
Protestant Christians and Pentacostal Christians—
practice exorcism, but only the Roman Catholic church
offers a formal ritual. In India, Hindu priests may blow
cow-dung smoke, burn pig excreta, pull their or the victim’s
hair, press rock salt between their fingers, use copper coins,
recite mantras or prayers, cut the victim’s hair and burn it
or place a blue band around the victim’s neck to exorcise the
demonic spirits. Trying another tack, the exorcist may offer
bribes of candy or other gifts if the spirit leaves the victim.
Early Puritans relied solely on prayer and fasting.
The official exorcism ritual outlined in the Rituale Romanum
dates back to 1614, with two small revisions made
in 1952. Cautioning priests to make sure a victim is truly
possessed before proceeding, the rite includes prayers
and passages from the Bible and calls upon the demons,
in powerful Latin, to depart in the name of Jesus Christ.
While no two exorcisms are exactly alike, they tend to
unfold in similar stages:
1. The Presence. The exorcist and his assistants become
aware of an alien feeling or entity.
2. Pretense. Attempts by the evil spirit to appear
and act as the victim, to be seen as one and the
same person. The exorcist’s first job is to break
this Pretense and find out who the demon really
is. Naming the demon is the most important first
3. Breakpoint. The moment where the demon’s Pretense
finally collapses. This may be a scene of
extreme panic and confusion, accompanied by
a crescendo of abuse, horrible sights, noises and
smells. The demon begins to speak of the possessed
victim in the third person instead of as itself.
4. The Voice. Also a sign of the Breakpoint, the Voice
is, in the words of Martin, “inordinately disturbing
and humanly distressing babel.” The demon’s
voices must be ilenced for the exorcism to proceed.
5. The Clash. As the Voice dies out, there is tremendous
pressure, both spiritual and physical. The
demon has collided with the “will of the Kingdom.”
The exorcist, locked in battle with the demon,
urges the entity to reveal more information about
itself as the exorcist’s holy will begins to dominate.
As mentioned above, there is a direct link between
the entity and place, as each spirit wants a place to
be. For such spirits, habitation of a living victim is
preferable to hell.
6. Expulsion. In a supreme triumph of God’s will, the
spirit leaves in the name of Jesus, and the victim is
reclaimed. All present feel the Presence dissipating,
sometimes with receding noises or voices. The victim
may remember the ordeal or may have no idea
what has happened.