When you ask people what the scariest movie of all time is, a common answer is The Exorcist. Whether it’s because of the inherent horror of demonic possession or the special effects that still terrify audiences almost 50 years later, The Exorcist has a hold on our collective psyche.
Of course, exorcism doesn’t just exist in the fictional world, it’s a real practice that has been around for centuries. If you’ve ever been curious about the history of exorcisms, Exorcism Through the Ages may be the book for you.
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Exorcism Through the Ages is a collection of essays by renowned scholars of the occult that take on every aspect of the history of exorcism. Records of the practice go as far back as the Bible and Ancient Rome, but every culture approaches exorcism differently. The accounts of exorcism don’t stop at the ancient world, though. The book also addresses other famous cases like the possession of Elizabeth Knapp in Puritan Massachusetts and the 17th-century Devils of Loudon.
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What makes Exorcism Through the Ages so fascinating is that it leaves the reader with a full understanding of demonic possession and exorcism. The essays don’t just address the practice, they also examine how demonic possession—and our fear of it—came to be. Examples include an examination of the Dybbuk, a restless spirit from Jewish folklore, and an entire history of the devil. The book truly is a masterclass in occult history.
In the excerpt below, scholar Wade Baskin recounts the Ancient Roman legend of Erichtho, a witch who came from the land of Thessaly. In the Greek and Roman world, witches were known to have the power to control the forces of evil. If you want to learn more about other demonic forces from history, you should pick up your own copy of Exorcism Through the Ages to continue your education.
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Read an excerpt from Exorcism Through the Ages and then purchase the book!
by Wade Baskin
An artist who lived during the Old Stone Age made a likeness of the Horned God on the wall of a dark cave in southern France. The earliest known god represented every unknown force in the universe. Some of these forces were good, some evil. The paleolithic god represented both good and evil, the curse of sickness and the blessing of health, scarcity and abundance, birth and death. Thousands of years later, myths began to make a twofold division of the forces in the universe, separating the good ones from the evil ones. Ancient mythologies linked good phenomena to one god, evil phenomena to another god. After dualism entered mythology, the Horned God was isolated and made to represent the forces of evil. He became the embodiment of every evil phenomenon in the universe. The prehistoric horn and tail of the god whose likeness appears on the wall of the cave in southern France still survive in the Christian Devil.
Other cultures have dealt with the myth of evil in other ways. The ancient Babylonians made Tiamat the symbol of darkness and chaos. She appears in the form of chaotic waters, an angry serpent, or a horned fowl with sharp claws. The Egyptians made Set the god of darkness and the enemy of the gods of light. He represents drought and storm, the enemies of those who plant and harvest crops.
More ancient than the Greek Typhon, he is linked with the supreme god of the Hyksos. The Hindus made Kali their Devil. She appears with a necklace of human heads dangling at her belt and a bloody sword in one of her many hands. The Devil of the Old Testament is remembered chiefly as the tempter of Job. The New Testament pictures Satan as the tempter of Christ and the embodiment of evil.
Through him evil spirits seize the bodies or souls of innocent victims and turn them away from God. Diabolical possession continues until these evil spirits are driven out. In this sense Christ was the first of a long line of exorcists that are a part of Christian culture.
The Greeks assigned to Typhon, the most terrible of the Titans, the role of Satan. A powerful symbol of evil, he uses his forces to combat Zeus, the supreme god of the Greeks. Though imprisoned beneath a mountain, he continues to try to overturn the cosmos and destroy his enemy. Like Satan, he is linked with the serpent. He chose as his bride a halfwoman, half-serpent, and he fathered many monsters.
The Greek and Roman worlds were filled with witches who commanded the forces of evil. In what today is the northwestern part of Greece lived Erichtho, one of the most famous crones of all time. Witches from the land of Thessaly were known throughout the ancient world, from Rome and Athens to Memphis and Babylon. The soil of Thessaly produced plants which helped witches to control the forces of evil. The famous crone of Thessaly is known to us today through the writings of Lucan.
The Latin poet Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus) was born in 39 A.D. After he failed in his attempt to overthrow Nero, Lucan had to kill himself. Before his death in 65 A.D., he had written an epic poem on the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Pharsalia. Ten books of Pharsalia survive. In one part of Book VI, Lucan tells how Pompey’s son Sextus tried to learn what was going to happen to the Romans. Sextus believed that the famous old Thessalian crone known as Erichtho could reveal the future to him.
Erichtho had no home. She lived in deserted tombs and in graves from which she had driven the ghosts of the dead. Sextus knew that she was on good terms with the powers of evil. He was not disappointed by her performance. She succeeded in making a ghost enter the body of a corpse and answer his questions. This example of exorcism in reverse is part of the most detailed account ever written concerning witchcraft in ancient times. What follows is drawn from Lucan’s poem.
Sextus could have learned about the future by consulting the Delphic Oracle or the Oracle of Dodona, by killing an animal and examining its entrails, or by talking with someone skilled in the Babylonian arts of reading the stars or throwing a handful of dirt on the ground and observing the results. Instead, he chose to turn to witchcraft. He knew that certain Thessalian witches were near his camp and that they could perform seemingly impossible feats.
Thessaly has many poisonous plants and magical stones. Witches use these plants and stones to make the gods serve them. Their voices reach the most distant places and force the gods to neglect other affairs and pay attention to their requests. They mix strong drinks that can melt the hardest hearts and fill old men with passion. They use words to destroy men’s minds. By moving the threads on a magical wheel, they can inspire passion between two people who have never before felt the slightest physical attraction for each other. They can cause night to fall before the day has ended, raise storms, stop a waterfall, a stream, or the flooding of the Nile.
Every deadly creature fears the Thessalian witches and serves them. Tigers and lions tamely lick their hands. Serpents uncoil for them on the cold ground. They can kill poisonous snakes by breathing on them. They can drag the stars from the sky, make the moon grow dim, and restrain the tide. Yet Erichtho was even more wicked than the other witches of Thessaly. She refused to live in a decent house. She preferred to drive ghosts from their tombs and to live where they had lived. There she could talk with the dead and learn the secrets of Pluto, their god.
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Why do the gods obey the wishes of witches? Have they signed a pact with them? Are they afraid the witches will punish them? Or do they work through the creator of all the gods? Lucan raises questions but provides no answers. Matted hair covered Erichtho’s lean and ugly face. She left the tombs only on wet or cloudy nights, poisoning the air and killing the plants along her pathway. She could imprison men in a tomb, depriving them of a normal life. She stole pieces of flesh and bone from the burned bodies of children. She used her fingers to remove the eyeballs of the unburied dead, and she would even snatch pieces of flesh from the jaws of wild beasts. If she needed warm blood for her spells, she would not hesitate to slit a throat. She performed Caesarian operations in order to have babies for her altar. She would tear the beard from the face of a dying youth or tear a lock from his hair.
Sextus set out at midnight in search of the old crone. He passed through deserted fields and visited one tomb after another. Finally he found her sitting on a steep cliff, making new plans for gaining control of important ghosts. He was the first to speak: “I have come here to get information about the battle that is about to begin. You are famous in Thessaly. Everyone knows that you can reveal the future and change the course of events. I am not unknown. I am the son of Pompey and will inherit either sovereignty of the world or total misfortune. I am nervous because of the uncertainty of the future. If I knew the future, I could face any danger. You can save me from the fear of a sudden misfortune.”
He told her that she could decide how to find out the truth but that he would like for her to call up the Queen of Death in person and force her to name the ones to die in battle the next day. Flattered by his remarks, Erichtho told him that in many instances she did have the power to change the decrees of fate, but that she was powerless to act when events had been predetermined since the beginning of time. In such cases, saving or killing one person would confuse the destinies of all mankind.
Erichtho told Sextus that there were many simple means of discovering the truth but that the easiest course would be for her to find the corpse of a soldier who had recently died on a battlefield. She used her supernatural powers to make the night darker, wrapped a black cloud around her head, and started to walk among the unburied bodies of the soldiers that had died that day. She drove away the wolves and hungry birds that feed on the dead, examining each corpse in her search for the right one. She wanted to find a corpse whose lungs were sound enough for her purposes. The lungs had to be strong enough to allow the corpse to speak clearly.
Finally she found the right corpse. She put a noose around its neck and dragged it over rocks and stones until she came to the place she had selected in advance. There, in a deep ravine at the foot of a steep incline almost as far down as Pluto’s kingdom, she began to try to bring the corpse to life. Instead of ribbons, she used snakes to keep her hair in place. Her appearance frightened Sextus. She tried to comfort him: “Don’t be alarmed by what you see. I am simply going to revive a corpse so that he can speak intelligibly like a normal man. It is not you but the dead who should fear me!”
She cut the corpse’s chest in several places, washed the blood out of his veins, and poured into this blood other warm blood mixed with every kind of unnatural poison. Then she began to utter strange, inhuman sounds: the bark of a dog, the howl of a wolf, the hoot of an owl, the roar of a wild beast, the hiss of a serpent, the voice of thunder escaping from a cloud. Then she pronounced the words of a Thessalian spell that traveled straight down to the underworld. She named all of the underworld deities, asking them to listen to her voice. She told them that she wanted one of Pompey’s dead soldiers to tell Sextus how the civil war would end.
She had foam on her lips when she raised her eyes and looked at the ghost beside her. But the ghost held back. It did not wish to re-enter the body of the corpse and become a prisoner. Erichtho became furious. She beat the rigid corpse with live serpents, magically opened a passageway to the underworld, and spoke to the infernal powers in no uncertain terms: “Didn’t you hear me? Before I called you Kindly Ones…. Watch out now, you bitches, or I will hound you from tomb to tomb, in broad daylight!” To Pluto she shouted: “If you don’t obey me, I intend to break the roof of your fortress and let the sunlight blind you!” Then she threatened to call upon the mightiest of the gods, the one who lives beneath Pluto’s underworld. The blood of the corpse became warm and began to move through each artery. It reached the fingers and toes. New life spread through the corpse as both lungs began to function. Suddenly the corpse sprang up and stood erect,\ but he remained pale and silent. He could provide information only when questions were put to him. Erichtho told him that if he answered her questions truthfully, no witch would ever disturb him again. She also told him that the Fates would use his voice to communicate whatever information they might wish Sextus to hear.
Speaking through the revived corpse, the Fates tried to console Sextus by telling him that a safe place had been reserved for Pompey and his family in the brighter part of the underworld, and that, thanks to death, the rivals in the civil war would all be made equal.
After he stopped speaking, the soldier waited sadly. Erichtho gathered some logs and put them in a pile. The soldier climbed to the top of the pile of the logs and lay down. Erichtho set fire to the logs, allowing the soldier to die at last. Then she took Sextus back to his camp, using her magical power to hold back the dawn until they had passed by the guards.
—Wade Baskin, Doctor of Education, formerly with Southeastern State College.
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