A few weeks ago, we covered demon possession, but from the Christian world view. This time around, we want to look at demon possession from an ancestral and native land world view.
Scholars, Pan-Africanists, and traditional worshippers agree that the Black religious perspective has been influenced by colonialism and White supremacy. When Africans were kidnapped and enslaved in the West, their world view, spiritual traditions, and unique way of connecting with the Creator were stripped, altered, and demonized.
However, many Black people continue to practice those ways that may have been forgotten by some and others have grown to fear.
Possession, from an African perspective has an extremely different meaning when it comes to connecting with the unseen world.
The “New Dictionary of the History of Ideas” reads: “Spirit possession is an important aspect of (African Diaspora religion). In possession, a spirit takes control of a devotee, provides direction, and imparts knowledge. When possessed, ‘the individual’s executive faculties are temporarily placed in abeyance as the deity takes over … habitual functions. When the possession is ended the devotee is again himself with ordinarily no recollection of what has happened.’ The spirit would also possess devotees who surrender their lives to a deity or spirit. Thus, possession is a moment for submission to the suggestions of the spirit.”
Across Africa and the African Diaspora, those who continue to practice and/or acknowledge traditional practices embrace possession as if strengthening the connection between humans and the Creator.
To become possessed by a spirit, whether of a former living individual or a deity, is an honor in many native traditions.
As in the Black church and in many African traditions, music is used to usher in the spirit of God or the invited spirit of the hour. With songs, heavy beats, and high energy, the spirit begins to take form and find vessels to enter. Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama write in the “Encyclopedia of African Religion” that music is often the conduit of spirit possession.
“In West Africa, drumming facilitates ceremonies during which participants are possessed by the gods. In Akan society, a bell attached to a sacred blackened stool is used to call the spirit of the ancestors. Similarly, for the Shona performers in Zimbabwe, music is a process or power that promotes spirit possession and healing. Throughout Madagascar, music is used to inform ancestral spirits that they are needed, and it then facilitates tromba spirit possession, where the body is essentially a vessel for the spirit…”
Often the possessed are used to deliver messages from the other side, or present warnings to a community of gatherers.
In the classic form of Vodou [often called Voodoo in the West], to be enchanted by a spiritual being is normal practice.
Kofi Agorsah, author of “Religion, Ritual and African Tradition: African Foundations,” writes that it’s through possession that the community receives revelations.
“Donald Constantino, a foremost authority on Vodoun [the French spelling] studies, explains that, ‘Vodoun affirms its spiritual powers by a continuing access to divine inspiration,’” Agorsah writes. “Spirit possession provides the main ingredient of Vodoun religion–the ability to communicate with the ancestral spirits.”
Like many other African spiritual practices, communing with the dead and with God is a normal and inseparable aspect of life. In fact, life is seen as an everlasting circle from one realm to the next. So possession is simply a means of communication.
In the West African Yoruba practice, spirit possession occurs from an early age and is typically embraced as a deity descending on the community of worshippers.
“The Orisha (deities) manifest in the real world by taking over or possessing the ‘heads’ of their devotees during ceremonies…,” writes Stephen D. Glazier, author of “The Encyclopedia of African and African American Religions.” “This phenomenon of spirit possession is one of the strongest characteristics of the religion. During possession, devotees dance, act out stories, give counsel and advice to their followers, and dispense medicines.”
Being controlled by another spirit, although demonized and repudiated in Western religious practices, is more or less a positive communion with God and the ancestors in the African world view. While demon possession is “cured” in mainstream Western traditions, demons in the African sense are more or less nonexistent. Typically, “evil” spirits are capable of both good and bad. Through possession, all spirits, passed ancestors and the Creator himself, have a purpose when they come into the presence of humans through possession.