An exorcism is a religious or spiritual act of casting out a spirit either from a possessed person or a place. While several rites of exorcism exist within various cultures and religions, I will specifically go into Abrahamic forms of demons, possession and exorcism.
This post will have two bigger sections, one being the section “Abrahamic Demons, Possession and Exorcism in Antiquity”, the other being “Possession and Exorcism in the Roman Catholic Church” solely focusing on demonic possession and the rite of exorcism within the context of the Roman Catholic Church – including a small interview of an actual ordained bishop and exorcist at the end. The first section is important in order to understand where the concept of evil in Abrahamic religion comes from and how it influenced the study of demons, as well as the theology and philosophy thereof.
I also want thank Agostino Taumaturgo for kindly provding me some answers in regards to exorcism – the full “interview” can be found in the second section!
S E C T I O N I – Abrahamic Demons, Possession and Exorcism in Antiquity
I. Chaos and Evil in the Old Testament
The Old Testament or Tanakh features a plethora of pagan gods, of which not all are to be classified as demons or evil spirits from an academic point of view – even though they definetly had been categorized as fallen angels by Christian churches over the course of history.
One of the first events in the Bible, which classifies evil to a degree, is the Fall of Mankind in the Book of Genesis (Heb. Bereshit). Within the biblical narrative of Genesis 2, Adam and Eve had been made stewarts of God’s creation and only had to obey one prohibition – to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Then in chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis, this is where the first supposed personification of Satan comes in – the snake or serpent tempting Eve by saying the following:
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:5, RSV.
It is important to note that the serpent here is still classified as one of God’s creations:
“Now the serpent was shrewder than any of the wild animals that the Lord God had made.” Genesis 3:1, NET.
So here we have the theme of a force, created by God, acting as something that tempts you to do wrong. This falls in line with how Satan is viewed within Christian theology overall, as an adversary who tempts people to follow their own will, passions and their own ego instead of the will of God. This passage also gives footing to modern interpretation of Satan, which view this entity as a liberator; however within a Christian context God is the only good, thus Satan being the one who keeps mankind away from God and therefor Satan being the evil one – especially because the sin of eating from the tree was the reason why mankind was expelled from paradise and therefor eternal life.
Now, it does sound a bit paradox that God indirectly created evil by creating the serpent or Satan, but it is what a lot of Christians today will subscribe to and view other demons or evil spirits that appear in the Old Testament as interchangeable with Satan.
However, from an academic point of view there is another type of evil, or I should better say “chaos”, making an appearance in the Old Testament. This type of chaos within the context of its time was seen to be in eternal conflict with the God of creation. This is also called the “Chaoskampf”. We can see traces of this theology in Genesis 1, when the text mentions the darkness, abyss or void, as well as other brief passages in the Hebrew text.
We see actual names of these creatures or gods of chaos pop up in several passages. Isaiah 51:9 specifically names “Rahav” and “Tannin”:
“Did you not smash the Proud One[rahav]? Did you not wound the sea monster[tannin]?” Isaiah 51:9, NET.
The footnote of the NET Bible says the following on the word “rahav”:
“It is used here of a symbolic sea monster, known elsewhere in the Bible and in Ugaritic myth as Leviathan. This sea creature symbolizes the forces of chaos that seek to destroy the created order.” NET Bible on Rahav in Isaiah 51:9.
The “tanninim” also appear in Gen 1:21 as sea monsters created by God. This however doesn’t mean that “God created chaos”, since the passage in Genesis uses the word specfically for sea creatures, not in context of chaos. Other creatures that are possibly representative of chaos appear in the Book of Job, namely Leviathan and Behemoth (Job 40-41).
Now, all of these had later been classified as demons or fallen angels within Christian theology and demonology.
Other types of evil or harmful spirits also appear and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the “Chaoskampf”. One of the most prominent figures would be Lilith, who appears in Isaiah 34:14. The passage however is more obscure than one might assume:
“Yes, nocturnal animals[lilith] will rest there and make for themselves a nest.” Isaiah 34:14, NET.
What exactly this word “lilith” is supposed to mean in this context isn’t really known, nor do scholars agree on how to translate it. It had been translated as “night hag” (Revised Standard Version), “night creature” (Orthodox Jewish Bible), “screech owl” (King James Version and Jewish Publication Society Bible), “night bird” (English Standard Version) and even as “kobold” (Luther 1545). So while the meaning of what this “lilith” actually is supposed to be is very obscure, the demoness Lilith made her way into Jewish lore nontheless.
The NET Bible lists the following footnote on the word “lilith”:
“The precise meaning of lilit is unclear, though in this context the word certainly refers to some type of wild animal or bird. The word appears to be related to laylah, “night”. Some interpret it as the name of a female night demon, on the basis of an apparent Akkadian cognate used as the name of a demon. Later Jewish legends also identified Lilith as a demon.” NET Bible on the Lilith in Isaiah 34:14.
Other instances of possibly evil or harmful spirits in the Old Testament are found in the 1st Book of Samuel, where Saul is plagued by an evil spirit of God – again, very paradox to some people. Here, we also see a version of banishment and exorcism via David playing the harp. :
“So whenever the spirit from God would come upon Saul, David would take his lyre and play it. This would bring relief to Saul and make him feel better. Then the evil spirit would leave him alone.” 1 Sam 16:23, NET.
Another instance of a harmful spirit being sent by God is found in the 1st Book of Kings. Within the narrative of chapter 22, king Ahab had been a horrible king and unfaithful to the God of Israel. When the king of Juda, Jehoshaphat, agreed to join Ahab in battle, he wanted the prophecy of God in order to know if it would be favorable or not. Ahab brought him false prophets, who all told Jehoshaphat that they will be victorious. Jehoshaphat however insists on bringing in a real prophet, thus Ahab finally agrees and brings in Micaiah, a disciple of Elijah of Tishbe, who then tells Ahab the following:
“That being the case, listen to the Lord’s message. I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the heavenly assembly standing beside him on his right and on his left. The Lord said, ‘Who will deceive Ahab, so he will attack Ramoth Gilead and die there?’ One said this and another that. Then a spirit stepped forward and stood before the Lord. He said, ‘I will deceive him.’ The Lord asked him, ‘How?’ He replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets.’ The Lord said, ‘Deceive and overpower him. Go out and do as you have proposed.’ So now, look, the Lord has placed a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours, but the Lord has decreed disaster for you.” 1 Kings 22:19-22.
According to the narrative, Ahab didn’t take Micaiah’s advice and went to battle either way – finding his brutal death.
This overall shows a theology that God allows evil to happen, especially when people have been unwilling to take God’s word and advice. In the case of Ahab, he already avoided the words of the prophet Elijah of Tishbe before he met with Micaiah in 1 Kings 22.
God allowing evil to happen is also a theme in Books of Wisdom such as the Book of Job, the debate around the origin of evil and God’s role regarding the evil on earth itself has been prominent among theologians time and time again over the course of history. This specific theological topic is called Theodicy and still remains to be one of the most discussed theological issues.
II. Asmodeus and Raphael in the Apocrypha
Apocryphal texts of the Old Testament have mainly either been written in Greek or translated from Hebrew into Greek at an earlier time, but the Greek version being the only one that remained – thus eliminating them from the Masoretic text and canon.
Within those apocryphal texts there is specifically one text that is interesting in regards to the topic of demons and exorcism, that text is the Book of Tobit which is roughly dated to 2nd or 3rd century BCE. The story goes that an old, good and devout man named Tobit was suddenly blinded. After praying to God, he sends his son – also called Tobit – to another city in order to collect money from someone who was indebted to the old Tobit.
At the same time, a woman named Sarah prays to God because all of her husbands had died due to a demon named Asmodeus:
“Sarah, the daughter of Rag′uel, was reproached by her father’s maids, because she had been given to seven husbands, and the evil demon Asmode′us had slain each of them before he had been with her as his wife.” Tobit 3:7-8, RSV.
“Already seven husbands of mine are dead. Why should I live? But if it be not pleasing to thee to take my life, command that respect be shown to me and pity be taken upon me, and that I hear reproach no more.” Tobit 3:15, RSV.
After both the old Tobit and the young Sarah prayed unkowingly at the same, the Archangel Raphael – disguised as a human – appears and accompanies the younger Tobit on his quest to travel and collect the money for his father. On their way, Raphael saves Tobit from being eaten by a giant fish, which they then eat – although Raphael tells Tobit to keep certain parts for later. When Tobit asks as to why he should keep these parts, Raphael answers:
“As for the heart and the liver, if a demon or evil spirit gives trouble to any one, you make a smoke from these before the man or woman, and that person will never be troubled again. And as for the gall, anoint with it a man who has white films in his eyes, and he will be cured.” Tobit 6:7-8, RSV.
To no surprise, this information comes in handy later on in the story. When the young Tobit marries Sarah, he uses the heart and liver of the fish and lays them into burning incense, in order to create smoke and to ward off Asmodeus, who then gets bound by Raphael:
“As he went he remembered the words of Raphael, and he took the live ashes of incense and put the heart and liver of the fish upon them and made a smoke. And when the demon smelled the odor he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him.” Tobit 8:2-3, RSV.
At the end of the story, when the young Tobit returns to his father, Raphael instructs the young Tobit again to use the gall of the fish in order to restore his father’s eyesight. The young Tobit follows Raphael’s advice and the old Tobit finally sees his son again:
“But his son ran to him and took hold of his father, and he sprinkled the gall upon his father’s eyes, saying, “Be of good cheer, father.” And when his eyes began to smart he rubbed them, and the white films scaled off from the corners of his eyes. Then he saw his son and embraced him.” Tobit 11:10-14, RSV.
The binding of the demon Asmodeus specifically is an example of an angel’s – thus God’s – dominion over demons or evil spirits, a theme that will later on be prominent in several grimoires and the Rite of Exorcism of the Roman Catholic Church.
III. Jesus of Nazareth and his Exorcisms
The four canonical gospels – Mark, Matthew, Luke and John – offer several accounts of the supposed miracles perfomed by Jesus of Nazareth as well as his ministry and teachings. With Jesus, demonic possession becomes a theme in the Bible, as well as the role of illness and disease accuring in case of demonic possession.
According to passages in the New Testament, demonic possession is the cause of physical illness and disease:
“The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and disabilities: Mary (called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had gone out.” Luke 8:1-2, NET.
“Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the man who had been mute began to speak.” Luke 11:14, NET.
“People brought to him all who suffered with various illnesses and afflictions, those who had seizures, paralytics, and those possessed by demons, and he healed them.” Matthew 4:24, NET.
Furthermore, we see the theme of those unclean spirits or demons obeying Jesus of Nazareth, as they identified him as the Messiah and Son of God:
“And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” 12 But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.” Mark 3:11-12, NET.
“Demons also came out of many, crying out, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them, and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.” Luke 4:41, NET.
Jesus himself having dominion over demons and unclean spirits becomes important in terms of using his name to cast them out, and when Jesus gave his disciples the authority to cast out demons:
“John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say anything bad about me. For whoever is not against us is for us.” Mark 9:38-40, NET.
“Jesus called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits so they could cast them out and heal every kind of disease and sickness.” Matthew 10:1, NET.
Furthermore, Jesus asserts the importance of faith in order cast out these unclean spirits or demons:
“Then a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son—he is my only child! A spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions and causes him to foam at the mouth. It hardly ever leaves him alone, torturing him severely. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” Jesus answered, “You unbelieving and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you and endure you? Bring your son here.” As the boy was approaching, the demon threw him to the ground and shook him with convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. Then they were all astonished at the mighty power of God.” Luke 9:38-43, NET.
The role of authority given to the twelve disciples and faith in regards to exorcism will later on play a significant role in the Rite of Exorcism of the Roman Catholic Church – which upholds the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, the idea that the lineage of their priesthood goes back to the twelve disciples and thus to Jesus of Nazareth himself, which is where the authority comes from.
IV. Early Christian Views on Demons in the New Testament
Besides the four canonical gospels – which mainly focus on the ministry of Jesus – the other texts in the New Testament aren’t silent on the topic of demons. The texts I am going to go over all date roughly into the 1st century CE to early 2nd century CE.
For instance, with Paul of Tarsus – who evangelized outside of Judaism to Gentile Greeks – pagan deites had been directly “demonized” in context of food offerings and worship:
“Am I saying that idols or food sacrificed to them amount to anything? No, I mean that what the pagans sacrifice is to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot take part in the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or are we trying to provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we really stronger than he is?” 1 Cor 10:19-22, NET.
It is important to note that within context, Paul uses the word “daimon” – i.e. “spirit – and doesn’t necessarily classify those “demons” as evil, but that offering to them was an act of idolatry – strictly forbidden under Mosaic Law. This view on so-called demons becomes clear when we read of elemental spirits in the Epistle to the Colossians (attributed to Paul), as well as Paul’s own words in the Epistle to the Galatians:
“So also we, when we were minors, were enslaved under the basic forces[elemental spirits] of the world.” Gal 4:3, NET.
“Be careful not to allow anyone to captivate you through an empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Col 2:8, NET.
Again, there is no mention of these being actual fallen angels and the main issue at hand was the worship of any being other than God. While these passages are more in context of monolatry (worship of one god), they had later been interpreted as meaning that pagan gods are fallen angels, i.e. demons.
However, other than pagan gods or elemental spirits, Satan plays a very significant role both in Paul’s authentic writings ( 1 Thess; Romans, 1 Cor; 2 Cor; Philemon; Philippians; Gal), as well as the epistles attributed to him and other texts in the New Testament outside of the four canonical gospels.
Paul for instance writes on the manifestation brought by Satan – however, tying it ultimately to God allowing it, the theology we already saw in the Old Testament:
“Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me—so that I would not become arrogant. I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me.” 2 Cor 12:7-9, NET.
Another overflowing theme throughout the New Testament is the idea of the faith in God – defined by Paul and James as bringing forth good deeds – and its protective effect against Satan and fallen angels; and the weakening or losing of said faith to cause deception by Satan and his fallen angels, which these texts identify as the main enemy:
“So submit to God. But resist the devil and he will flee from you.” James 4:7, NET.
“Be sober and alert. Your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, is on the prowl looking for someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8, NET.
“Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” Eph 6:11
Paul himselfs also asserts that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light:
“And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” 2 Cor 11:14, NET.
Overall, Satan and his fallen angels appear to have been seen as the main enemy of God, as well as the faithful. The conflation of pagan deities with fallen angels seemed to have happened due to later interpretations of Paul’s words regarding idolatry.
V. An Abrahamic Exorcism in the Greek Magical Papyri
The PGM – Greek Magical Papyri – are a collection of papyri dating to 100 BCE to 500 CE, the contents of which range from spells, rituals and different phylacteries and charms. What makes the PGM special is that it’s not solely exclusive to one religion – it is heavily syncretic of Egyptian, Greek and Abrahamic religion, mirroring the hellenized environment of its origins.
What the PGM features most predominantely are different types of phylacteries, which are to be worn as protection against daimons or during rites regarding certain Egyptian or Greek gods.
Interestingly enough, the PGM does also feature its own form of exorcism, which uses “IAO” – a hellenized version of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton; which is why I am bringing it up in this context. The exorcism in question is catalogued as PGM IV. 3007-86 and is titled “A tested charm of Pibechis for those possessed by daimons”.
The description of the rite begins with instructing the cooking and mixing of several herbs, while reciting an invocation which ends with “come out from N.N.”. Here, the PGM then instructs the reader to make a phylactery out of tin and to write a charm, which contains “IAO”, onto said phylactery, describing it as:
“It is terrifying to every daimon, a thing he fears.” The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. With Demotic Spells, edited by Hans Dieter Betz, p. 96.
The conjuration begins with a call to the God of “the Hebrew, Jesus”, reciting several names for the invocation, with Thoth making an appearance, as well as calling on an angel for assistance:
“I conjure you by the god of the Hebrews / Jesus IABA IAE ABRAOTH ALA THOTH ELE ELO AEO EOY IIIBAECH ABARMAS IABARAOU ABELBEL LONA ABRA MAROIA BRAKION, who appears in fire, who is in the midst of land, snow, and fog, TANNETIS; let your angel, the implacable, descend and let him assign the daimon flying around this form, which god formed in his holy paradise, because I pray to the holy god.” The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. With Demotic Spells, edited by Hans Dieter Betz, p. 96.
The main theme of the conjuration however is listing the deeds of the God of Israel, as well as calling on His assistance via the hellenized version of the name “Zebaoth” (Engl. Hosts), which usually appears with the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew texts and is translated as “Lord of Hosts”:
“I conjure you by the great god SABAOTH, through whom the Jordan River drew back and the Red Sea, / which Israel crossed, became impaccable, because I conjure you by the one who introduced the one hundred forty languages and distributed them by his own command. I conjure you by the one who burned up the stubborn giants with lightning, whom the heaven of heavens praises, whom the wings of the cherubim praise.” The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. With Demotic Spells, edited by Hans Dieter Betz, p. 97.
After conjuring the daimon/spirit, which possesses the person in question, the rite ends with an instruction for purity – specifically referencing the Jewish dietary law of pork and stating that this charm is “Hebraic”:
“And I adjure you, the one who receives this conjuration, not to eat pork, and every spirit and daimon, whatever sort it may be, will be subject to you. And while conjuring, blow once, blowing air from the tips of thc feet up to the face, and it will be assigned. Keep yourself pure, for this charm is Hebraic and is preserved among pure men.” The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. With Demotic Spells, edited by Hans Dieter Betz, p. 97.
While this rite of the PGM is by no means “completely Abrahamic” nor accepted by churches, it shows the belief of the power of those holy names, as well as the power of the God of Israel over supposed forces that can possess peopl and how non-Jews or non-Christians used this knowledge and methods to their advantage against the possessions by so-called daimons.
S E C T I ON II – Possession and Exorcism in the Roman Catholic Church
I. The Authority of the Church
“When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1673.
This is how the Roman Catholic Church defines exorcism. It is important to note that this passage asserts the importance of the authority of the Church in order to conduct an exorcism, this authority usually falls into the hands of either a priest or a bishop (who is also a priest, just with more authority within the Church) since the Roman Catholic Church upholds the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, which this particular paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear with the following:
“The solemn exorcism, called “a major exorcism,” can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1673.
Thus, before diving into the topic deeper I need to clarify that the Catholic Rite of Exorcism according to the Roman Catholic Church is actually a closed practice reserved for its priesthood. Please don’t attempt the Catholic Rite of Exorcism if you have not been ordained withtin the Roman Catholic Church itself or a denomination within Catholic Tradition.
The Rite of Exorcism of the Catholic Church is written down in the Rituale Romanum (Engl. Roman Ritual) and probably is one of the most infamous rites of exorcism in the west, as it inspired many movies and even TV series – thus one could say that the Catholic exorcism is the one which is most heavily ingrained in our culture and society.
The traditional Rite of Exorcism was written as early as 1614 by Pope Paul V, which has since then been revised in 1999, with the new Rite of Exorcism being called De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam (Engl. Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications). The revised version added sections on mental illness and changed some language describing Satan, thus changing the theology of Satan and demons to a degree. This revision had been met with criticism by people like Fr. Amorth, which Agostino Taumaturgo summarizes in the answers he kindly provided in the interview for this post:
“The people who put together the rite (i.e. “Coetus 23”) were not themselves exorcists, did not consult with practicing exorcists, and were motivated more by theory than by empirical results (Amorth and Van Slyke both discuss this in detail), along with an ideology that exorcism is pneumatological rather than christological (seemingly influenced by Triacca’s ideas on the subject).” Agostino Taumaturgo 2021.
This post will go into the traditional Rite of Exorcism by Pope Paul V from 1614 which had been in use until the 2nd Vatican Coucnil in the 1960s.
Before going into the Rite of Exorcism itself, the Rituale Romanum gives the reader a description of the qualifications a potential exorcist must possess:
“A priest–one who is expressly and particularly authorized by the Ordinary–when he intends to perform an exorcism over persons tormented by the devil, must be properly distinguished for his piety, prudence, and integrity of life. He should fulfill this devout undertaking in all constancy and humility, being utterly immune to any striving for human aggrandizement, and relying, not on his own, but on the divine power. Moreover, he ought to be of mature years, and revered not alone for his office but for his moral qualities.” Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller, p. 169.
Again, this asserts the importance of ordination by the Church, and characterizes the qualities the exorcist must possess – mostly being devout and leading a morally good life.
Then the work goes on to describe that the priest in question needs to study the topic of demonic possession and exorcism accordingly in order to carry out the Ministry of Exorcism effectively – i.e. he should study the nature of demons (Demonology), he should observe exorcisms and learn from other exorcists.
Those sentiments specifically are reflected in the foudning of the International Association of Exorcists in 1990 by six priests – including Fr. Gabriele Amorth, who was one of the most prominent voices on the importance of exorcism and the traditional Rite of Exorcism.
II. Mental Illness
Of importance is that both the Rituale Romanum and the Cathechism of the Catholic Church put weight on the possibility of mental illness before conducting the Rite of Exorcism:
“Especially, he should not believe too readily that a person is possessed by an evil spirit; but he ought toascertain the signs by which a person possessed can be distinguished from one who is suffering from someillness, especially one of a psychological nature.” Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller, p. 169.
“Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1673.
Ergo, the exorcist must make sure that the cause of the person’s suffering is actually demonic possession, any sort of medical explanation has to be ruled out beforehand.
According to Fr. Vince Lampert, exorcist of the archdiocese of Indianapolis, the actual occurence of demonic possession is very rare. According to Agostino Taumaturgo – whose interview can be read below – agreed with that notion when asked and later on clarified that demonic infestation and obssession has to happen before an entity could even possess the victim:
“Yes, I agree with that notion insofar as full-on possession is concerned — most of the damage an entity would want to do can be accomplished in the obsession and oppression stages — and once wrote that a person has a better chance of winning a 6/49 lottery (1 in about 14 million) than of being possessed. It’s much more common for people to think why’re subject to demonic activity, when the actual problem could be an undiagnosed illness, living close to power lines, radon gas in the home, or the effect of certain kinds of mold accumulating in the home (black mold can cause hallucinations in large quantities, for example). Part of an exorcist’s job is to check for these kinds of things as per rubric #3 in the Ritual. […] Full-on possession is the endpoint of a multi-stage process (temptation, obsession, oppression, possession), and the usual methods to intiate that process involve manipulation, playing on psychological damage from past trauma or abuse, manipulating an individual’s ego, offering “help” in the way of knowledge or powers if the individual is okay with such a thing, co-operating with or outright co-opting someone else’s magical attack, and such like, but in all cases it has to overcome resistance before being able to take hold of a victim.” Agostino Taumaturgo 2021.
III. Signs of Possession
The Rituale Romanum lists several specific signs of demonic possession:
“Signs of possession may be the following: ability to speak with some facility in a strange tongue or to understand it when spoken by another; the faculty of divulging future and hidden events; display of powers which are beyond the subject’s age and natural condition; and various other indications which, when taken together as a whole, build up the evidence.” Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller, p. 169.
This description reminds of several scenes from hollywood movies and how they depict exorcisms. Oddly enough, according to both the Rituale Romanum and some outspoken exorcists like Fr. Vince Lampert or Fr. Gary Thomas those things are very much real – although the Rituale Romanum and the Church classifies these things as illusions in order to distract the exorcist during the rite. Agostino Taumaturgo – again, in the context of the interview – says of the signs of possession the following:
“As to the reality, there are three classical signs for diagnosing possession/obsession: unusual strength, speaking languages unknown to the host, and knowledge of things the host would have no way of knowing. Now I’ve seen the obsessed display knowledge of events they would have no way of knowing, and I’ve seen differences in physicality but nothing that would qualify as super-strength, but have never seen levitation, spinning heads, or been spoken to in ancient Mandarin during any case I’ve ever worked on.” Agostino Taumaturgo 2021.
Illusion or not, signs like these had been recorded and classified as demonic possession – at least according to few outspoken exorcists like Fr. Lampert. Some of the most famous cases, where signs like the afflicted person knowing of certain things they had no way of knowing, or aversion to holy things, had been Anna Ecklund, as well as Anneliese Michel, whose case remains to be one of the most controversial since she passed away after several sessions of exorcisms, seemingly as a consequence of the exorcism itself as well as alleged epilepsy, the official cause of death being malnutrition and dehydration. The case of Anneliese Michel made it to the court because of the involvement of exorcisms and the priests who conducted the exorcism were sentenced to six months in jail (later suspended) and three years of probation.
IV. Rite of Exorcism
The Rituale Romanum lists not one, but two types of exorcism against evil spirits and fallen angels – one being listed specifically against demonic possession of a person, the other against fallen angels in places.
The rite specifically against demonic possession is titled “Ritus Exorcizandi Obsessos a Daemonio”, which is usually simply translated as “Rite of Exorcism”, but literally means “Rite of Exorcism against the Obssession of a Demon”. In general, the qualifications listed above apply, as well as the presence of a crucifix and possible relics of Saints, i. e. holy objects. It is also advised to conduct the exorcism in a holy place, like a church.
The rites themselves are anything but simple. The instruction for the exorcism against demonic possession begins as follows:
“The priest delegated by the Ordinary to perform this office should first go to confession or at least elicit an act of contrition, and, if convenient, offer the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and implore God’s help in other fervent prayers. He vests in surplice and purple stole. Having before him the person possessed (who shouldbe bound if there is any danger), he traces the sign of the cross over him, over himself, and the bystanders, and then sprinkles all of them with holy water. After this he kneels and says the Litany of the Saints, exclusive of the prayers which follow it. All present are to make the responses.” Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller, p. 175.
So here we see a very formal setting – almost like the exorcist is about to perform mass. Then the priest is instructed to pray the Our Father, then to recite Psalm 53 and a certain prayer before giving command to the spirit:
“I command you, unclean spirit, whoever you are, along with all your minions now attacking this servant of God, by the mysteries of the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the descent of the Holy Spirit, by the coming of our Lord for judgment, that you tell me by some sign your name, and the day and hour of your departure. I command you, moveover, to obey me to the letter, I who am a minister of God despite my unworthiness; nor shall you be emboldened to harm in any way this creature of God, or the bystanders, or any of their possessions.” Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller, p. 179.
After this passages of the canonical gospels are to be recited, specifically John 1:1-14; Mark 16:15-18; Luke 10:17-20 and Luke 11:14-22. And again, several prayers follow before the second exorcism:
“I cast you out, unclean spirit, along with every satanic power of the enemy, every spectre from hell, and all your fell companions; in the name of our Lord Jesus ✠ Christ Begone and stay far from this creature of God. ✠ or it is He who commands you, He who flung you headlong from the heights of heaven into the depths of hell. It is He who commands you, He who once stilled the sea and the wind and the storm. Hearken, therefore, and tremble in fear, Satan, you enemy of the faith, you foe of the human race, you begetter of death, you robber of life, you corrupter of justice, you root of all evil and vice, seducer of men, betrayer of the nations, instigator of envy, font of avarice, fomentor of discord, author of pain and sorrow. Why, then, do you stand and resist, knowing as you must that Christ the Lord brings your plans to nothing? Fear Him, who in Isaac was offered in sacrifice, in Joseph sold into bondage, slain as the paschal lamb, crucified as man, yet triumphed over the powers of hell. (The three signs of the cross which follow are traced on the brow of the possessed person). Begone, then, in the name of the Father ✠ the Son, ✠ and of the Holy ✠ Spirit. Give place to the Holy Spirit by this sign of the holy ✠ cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. R. Amen.” Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller, p. 185.
The instructions go on with certain prayers, then again an exorcism – instructing the priest where exactly to touch and do the Sign of the Cross on the possessed person. This systematic formula of prayers, then exorcism goes on for several pages until the readings of several Psalms, namely Ps 90; Ps 67; Ps 69; Ps 117; Ps 34; Ps 30; Ps 21; Ps 3; Ps 10 and Ps 12, until the final prayer following deliverance:
“We beseech thee, O almighty God, that the spirit of iniquity may no longer have any power over thy servant, N. (thy handmaid N.), but rather that he may depart afar and nevermore return. At thy command, O Lord, let there enter into this man (woman) a disposition of goodness and the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom we have been redeemed, and let us fear no evil, because the Lord is with us. Who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for endless ages. R. Amen.” Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller, p. 223.
This goes for the exorcism against demonic possession respectively. The afflicted person would usually undergo multiple sessions, which span over a longer period of time until they are completely liberated of any demonic presence. For instance Anneliese Michel underwent 67 exorcisms over the course of a year.
V. Exorcism Against Satan and Fallen Angels
The rite specifcally targeted to exorcize evil spirits out of places is titled “Exorcismus in Satanam et Angelos Apostaticos”, which is translated as “Exorcism Against Satan and Fallen Angels”.
Similar to rite against demonic possession, only a priest or bishop ordained by the Roman Catholic Church is allowed to conduct this rite:
“The following exorcism can be used by bishops, as well as by priests who have this authorization from their Ordinary.” Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller, p. 223.
This following prayer to Archangel Michael was composed by Pope Leo XIII. in 1890 and the full version of it was included in the Rituale Romanum in 1898. A new edition of the Rituale Romanum opens up this rite with a considerably shortened version:
“St. Michael the Archangel, illustrious leader of the heavenly army, defend us in the battle against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of darkness and the spirit of wickedness in high places. Come to the rescue of mankind, whom God has made in His own image and likeness, and purchased from Satan’s tyranny at so great a price. Holy Church venerates you as her patron and guardian. The Lord has entrusted to you the task of leading the souls of the redeemed to heavenly blessedness. Entreat the Lord of peace to cast Satan down under our feet, so as to keep him from further holding man captive and doing harm to the Church. Carry our prayers up to God’s throne, that the mercy of the Lord may quickly come and lay hold of the beast, the serpent of old, Satan and his demons, casting him in chains into the abyss, so that he can no longer seduce the nations.” Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller, p. 225.
The recital of Psalm 67 follows as well as the exorcism, which has become famous due to the TV series “Supernatural” using the original Latin text and popularizing it:
“Exorcizámus te, omnis immúnde spíritus, omni satánica potéstas,omnis incúrsio infernális adversárii, omnis légio, omnis congregátio et secta diabólica, in nómini et virtúte Dómini nostri Jesu ✠ Christi, eradicáre et effugáre a Dei Ecclésia, ab animábus ad imáginem Dei cónditis ac pretióso divíni Agni sánguini redémptis […].” Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller, p. 226.
Note that this is not the full text due to its length. This passage in particular translates to:
“We cast you out, every unclean spirit, every satanic power, every onslaught of the infernal adversary, every legion, every diabolical group and sect, in the name and by the power of our Lord Jesus ✠ Christ. We command you, begone and fly far from the Church of God, from the souls made by God in His image and redeemed by the precious blood of the divine Lamb.” Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller, p. 227.
After the full text of the exorcism, which I didn’t show here, is recited, the next step lists a prayer after which all surroundings are to be sprinkled with holy water.
VI. Prayer to St. Michael by Pope Leo XIII.
Archangel Michael plays a significant role in regards to the spiritual warfare the Roman Catholic Church believes in. He is seen as the leading warrior against Satan as well as the defender of the Church and its people.
This belief and association is mainly rooted in Michael’s role as God’s voice against Satan mentioned in the Epistle of Jude and then his role during the war in heaven mentioned in the Book of Revelation:
“But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him, but said, The Lord rebuke you.” Jude 1:9, RSV.
“Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” Revelation 12:7-9, RSV.
This type of theology became the core of one of the most famous prayers to Archangel Michael written by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 – who wrote this prayer after a terrifying vision he had of demonic infiltration into the Roman Catholic Church and the city of Rome.
He specifically instructed this prayer to be prayed at the end of Low Mass. This prayer became known as one of the exorcisms a layperson is allowed to recite in order to counter demonic attacks and to petition Michael in regards to sprititual warfare:
“Sancte Michael Archangele,
defende nos in proelio;
contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium.
Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur:
tuque, Princeps militiae caelestis,
Satanam aliosque spiritus malignos,
qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo,
divina virtute, in infernum detrude.
Amen.” St. Michael Prayer of Pope Leo XIII (Latin).
“Blessed Michael, archangel,
defend us in the hour of conflict.
Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil
(may God restrain him, we humbly pray):
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God thrust Satan down to hell
and with him those other wicked spirits
who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.
Amen.” St. Michael Prayer of Pope Leo XIII (English).
A significantly longer version of the prayer, which then became known as a prayer of exorcism in the Exorcismus in Satanam et Angelos Apostaticos discussed above, was approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1890.
An excerpt of the longer version which had been used in the Rituale Romanum in 1898 – before it was shortened:
“Prínceps gloriosíssime cœléstis milítiæ, sancte Michaël Archángele, defénde nos in proélio et colluctatióne, quae nobis est advérsus príncipes et postestátes, advérsus mundi rectóres tenebrárum hárum, contra spirituália nequítiæ, in cœléstibus. Veni in auxílium hóminum: quos Deus creávit inexterminábiles, et ad imáginem similitúdinis suæ fecit, et a tyránnide diáboli emit prétio magno. Præliáre hodie cum beatórum Angelórum exércitu proélia Dómini, sicut pugnásti ólim contra ducem supérbiæ lucíferum, et ángelos eius apostáticos: et non valuérunt, neque locus invéntus est eórum ámplius in coélo. Sed proiéctus est draco ille magnus, sérpens antíquus, qui vocatur diábolus et sátanas, qui sedúcit univérsum orbem; et proiectus est in terram, et ángeli eius cum illo missi sunt. En antiquus inimícus et homicída veheménter eréctus est. Transfigurátus in ángelum lucis, cum tota malignórum spirítuum catérva late circuit et invádit terram, ut in ea déleat nómen Dei et Christi eius, animásque ad ætérna glóriæ corónam destinátas furétur, máctet ac pérdat in sempitérnum intéritum.” Exorcismus in Satanam et Angelos Apostaticos, Ad Sanctum Michaelem Archangel precatio.
This translates to:
“O glorious Archangel St. Michael, Prince of the heavenly host, defend us in battle, and in the struggle which is ours against the principalities and Powers, against the rulers of this world of darkness, against spirits of evil in high places. Come to the aid of men, whom God created immortal, made in his own image and likeness, and redeemed at a great price from the tyranny of the devil. Fight this day the battle of the Lord, together with the holy angels, as already thou hast fought the leader of the proud angels, Lucifer, and his apostate host, who were powerless to resist thee, nor was there a place for them any longer in Heaven. But that cruel, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil or Satan, who seduces the whole world, was cast into the abyss with all his angels. Behold, this primeval enemy and slayer of man has taken courage, Transformed into an angel of light, he wanders about with all the multitude of wicked spirits, invading the earth in order to blot out the name of God and of his Christ, to seize upon, slay and cast into eternal perdition souls destined for the crown of eternal glory.” English Translation of the Exorcism Prayer by Pope Leo XIII. of 1890.
Please note that I am not listing the full version of the prayer due to its length, links to both the Latin and English versions will be listed under the sources.
VII. Ministry of Deliverance
Among laypeople the Ministry of Deliverance has become increasingly popular. This type of ministry focuses on praying directly for those suffering from demonic oppression. This however does not equal the “major exorcism” of the Roman Catholic Church, as the Rite of Exorcism still has to be perfomed by an ordained priest.
The Ministry of Deliverance however offers laypeople the possibility of offering help to those who suffer under demonic attacks. In case of demonic possession, those laypeople can be present and pray for the afflicted person while the priest conducts the exorcism.
VIII. The Reality of Exorcism (Interview w/Agostino Taumaturgo)
For this section, I have had the chance to ask Agostino Taumaturgo a few questions about his view on exorcism, as well as his own experiences. Agostino Taumaturgo himself is an ordained priest and consecrated bishop. Since then, he left the Traditional movement and now writes on Catholic Occultism via his self-published books, as well as on his own blog THAVMA.
1. Did you ever record specific major/publicly known demons such as Leviathan, Lilith or goetic demons during an exorcism conducted against demonic possession?
“I have not, for pastoral and possible legal reasons. An exorcism is to be treated with confidentiality as to the identity of the patient, personal details, and so on, and a recording always risks falling into the wrong hands. There are also potential legal ramifications if such a thing were to happen, i.e. a civil suit for damage to reputation and so forth; ergo no recording = no lawsuit.”
2. How real are depictions of people levitating, the super human strength or other “exorcism movie tropes”?
“I had the experience of consulting for an exorcism movie once (“Blackwater Valley Exorcism,” 2006), and had an opportunity to dicuss some of those tropes. Basically the director told me “the audience wants to see pea soup and spinning heads,” and when I asked why the victim couldn’t be a male, the executive producer told me “audiences find female victims more sympathetic.”
As to the reality, there are three classical signs for diagnosing possession/obsession: unusual strength, speaking languages unknown to the host, and knowledge of things the host would have no way of knowing. Now I’ve seen the obsessed display knowledge of events they would have no way of knowing, and I’ve seen differences in physicality but nothing that would qualify as super-strength, but have never seen levitation, spinning heads, or been spoken to in ancient Mandarin during any case I’ve ever worked on. (Michael Cuneo’s descriptions of cases he witnessed in his “American Exorcism” are closer to that truth than the sensational descriptions of even most exorcists hyping up their own work.)”
3. The common belief that is going around right now is that actual possession is very rare. Would you agree with that notion?
“Yes, I agree with that notion insofar as full-on possession is concerned — most of the damage an entity would want to do can be accomplished in the obsession and oppression stages — and once wrote that a person has a better chance of winning a 6/49 lottery (1 in about 14 million) than of being possessed. It’s much more common for people to think why’re subject to demonic activity, when the actual problem could be an undiagnosed illness, living close to power lines, radon gas in the home, or the effect of certain kinds of mold accumulating in the home (black mold can cause hallucinations in large quantities, for example). Part of an exorcist’s job is to check for these kinds of things as per rubric #3 in the Ritual.”
4. Since it has become a popular belief that major or publicly known demons, don’t possess people – and if it happens, it is only due to consensual channeling, I have to ask: How does one become possessed by a major demon?
“The procedure for a major demon isn’t much different from that for a minor demon, and Malachi Martin gives a good breakdown in his “Hostage to the Devil.” Though major (read: publicly-known) demons have so many willing supplicants these days I’d be surprised if they’re even interested in going out of their way to possess anyone. So there may be a question of incentive.
A quick answer isn’t the place for a full outline, though I would point out that if the demonolatry crowd puts up no resistance, then all instances would seem to them as “consensual channeling”.
Outside that context, full-on possession is the endpoint of a multi-stage process (temptation, obsession, oppression, possession), and the usual methods to intiate that process involve manipulation, playing on psychological damage from past trauma or abuse, manipulating an individual’s ego, offering “help” in the way of knowledge or powers if the individual is okay with such a thing, co-operating with or outright co-opting someone else’s magical attack, and such like, but in all cases it has to overcome resistance before being able to take hold of a victim. It’s not an immediate takeover and oftentimes doesn’t need to go further than the stage of obsession and/or oppression, and even then the actual takeover can only happen if the individual leaves open some psychological doorway (conscious or unconscious) in which the entity can enter. I’m pretty sure the victims encountered by Sebastien Michaelis, Robert McKenna, and the Earling 1928 case weren’t simply “consensual channeling”.”
5. Is it dangerous for a layperson without ordination to perform the exorcism of the Roman Ritual? If so, why?
“It is just as dangerous for a priest as it is for a layperson, perhaps even more dangerous for a priest because clergy seem to suffer perpetual egotism. It also doesn’t help that the “training” available for clergy is currently wrapped up in Pentecostal “deliverance” culture which itself is filled with misconceptions. I’ve written about this in some detail on my blog and in my “Handbook of Exorcism and Deliverance,” and the bottom line is that the sacramental character of Holy Orders does not make a cleric any less vulnerable to attack than a layperson.
On another note, there are far more potent (and dangerous) rituals out there than the Roman Ritual. There is an exorcism pronounced in the names of demons found in CLM 23325 which comes to mind, along with the version of the Vinculum Salomonis found in CLM 10085 (BSB is a treasure trove for these kinds of texts). The Roman Ritual is a small fish in a massive ocean, which became normative only because the other Manuals were forcibly suppressed in the 18th century.”
6. What is your opinion on the new Rite of Exorcism from 1999 compared to the traditional Rite of Exorcism?
“When I first encountered the new rite in 2005, it was so weaksauce that my knee-jerk reaction was “They actually expect this shit to work?” In the years since, I have found it can be useful in working low-level infestations, and the “invocative formulae” can be recommended to a patient for private usage since their entire substance is “Please God take this evil away” without ever provoking or even once addressing the entity directly.
The people who put together the rite (i.e. “Coetus 23”) were not themselves exorcists, did not consult with practicing exorcists, and were motivated more by theory than by empirical results (Amorth and Van Slyke both discuss this in detail), along with an ideology that exorcism is pneumatological rather than christological (seemingly influenced by Triacca’s ideas on the subject). But after spending the past year and half digging deeply into the Manual tradition, it’s become obvious to me that Coetus 23 also had some familiarity with that tradition and tried to bring parts of it back, although that seems limited to pericopes and psalm choices. In all, my preferred “go-to” rite is the Exorcismus in Satanam composed by Leo XIII, but in recent days Eynatten’s and Polidori’s works have been growing on me.”
Even though the philosophy of evil and the history thereof had been a hotly debated topic over the course of history, people both within and outside of Abrahamic faiths believed – and still believe to this day – that a person can be influenced by a malevolent entity and also become possessed by such an entity.
While charms, amulets and spells existed throughout history in order to keep these types of entities away, driving out these harmful entities once they gained possession over their victim has been, and still is seen as the final resort.
Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and Son of God within Christian faiths and the New Testament, as well as beings listed in the Old Testament, have shaped our understanding of evil entities and possession. Together with the Bible, the Rituale Romanum and its Rite of Exorcism remain to be few of the most influental texts on demonology, demonic activity, demonic possession and lastly the formula of exorcisms.
Sources for Further Reading
I. Exorcismus in Satanam et Angelos Apostaticos by Pope Leo XIII. Latin (free).
II. Roman Ritual II. Christian Burial, Exorcisms, Reserved Blessings, Etc., translated by Philip T. Weller (1950 edition). English Part I + Part II (1964 edition, free). Latin (free).
III. The Holy Bible, New English Translation (NET).
IV. The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version (RSV).
V. Hostage to the Devil by Malachi Martin.
VI. Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.)
VII. Greek and Hebrew Interlinear Bible here (free).
VIII. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Including the Demotic Spells edited by Hans Dieter Betz.
Prayer to St. Michael
Exorcism in the Catholic Church
International Association of Exorcists
Pope Leo XIII
Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplication (1999 Rite of Exorcism in use today)
A Day in the Life of a Modern American Exorcist (Fr. Vince Lampert)
Interview with an Exorcist (Fr. Vince Lampert) by Pints With Aquinas
Exorcism & The Power of God (lecture by Fr. Vince Lampert)
Father Gabriele Amorth: The Vatican’s Chief Exorcist by Biographics