A Guide to Thinking about Spirit Possession

Jonathan Morgan

ApsarasBus stations in downtown Accra, Ghana, are almost always packed with people.  A two-hour wait is pretty common, and on Fridays the crowd triples in size – and so does the wait.  The only thing that makes this bearable is the good company in line and the constant stream of snack and drink hawkers passing by.  “Yes, I will have another fried plantain!”  I knew all this, but nevertheless found myself waiting for a bus late on a Friday afternoon back in 2004.  By 8 p.m. the orderly line disintegrated whenever the bus pulled in – people climbed through windows and smashed through the front door. Because of the chaos, I missed the last bus.

And as I stood there contemplating how many plantain snacks would make the 7-mile walk home bearable, a car pulled up and one of the guys I met in line asked if I wanted a ride home.  (Minor miracles – aka the kindness of strangers – are one of the best parts of traveling.)  As we pulled out into traffic I commented on how many people were out in the streets.  Both the driver and my new friend nodded in consent and nonchalantly said “Yeah, of course, all the spirits come out on Fridays.”

I spent the rest of the ride trying to figure this out.  It wasn’t just a slang term for people who don’t come out a lot – that suggestion made them laugh.  They weren’t sure where the spirits came from. And it didn’t really seem to matter.  After I ran out of questions, they started telling me about other times they ran into spirits.  Some were mundane and some were utterly bizarre.  I’m not saying I think spirits were the cause of all the traffic, but by the end on the ride, I wasn’t so sure.  Also, it was the best traffic jam I’ve ever sat in.

It’s tempting to write these things off as misguided, quaint beliefs:  “If only they had modern science, then they’d know.” But that would completely miss what’s going on and would lead to a pretty awkward car ride.  So here’s a guide to thinking about spirit possession in the world beyond Western, educated circles:

1. Be curious, not condescending.

That’s it.  It’s a very simple guide.

Last week the religion scholar Connor Wood wrote an essay about his research on the zar possession cult in northeast Africa.  In this cult, possession happens in the midst of ecstatic dance ceremonies.  There are other great examples throughout his work of the important role spirit possession plays in most of the world’s religious communities.  But the crazy part isn’t the spirit possession; it’s how often religious studies scholars ignore this phenomenon.  How are we (I’m speaking here as a scholar of religion) not curious about such a prevalent and important part of what we profess to study?

I think we ignore it, in part, from the implicit, and probably true, belief that anyone who takes spirit possession seriously risks not being taken seriously as a scholar.  In the academy, talking about spirits is taboo.  The judgment is out before the inquiry even begins.

I’m not saying that a serious inquiry is going to “find” spirits that will come into your lab, sign consent forms, and take the Mini-Mental Status Exam.  I’m saying that if you take people seriously at their word, then perhaps you’ll see something you didn’t see before.  Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: mass faintings.

In last weekend’s New York Times Julia Wallace describes what’s going on.  From the surface it might seem like people are simply reacted to being overworked:

Cambodia has experienced a slew of mass faintings among garment workers: One after the other, hundreds of women have fallen to the floor of their factories in a dizzy spell called duol sonlap in the Khmer language.”

But, as far as the local culture is concerned, these garment workers aren’t fainting from exhaustion, though they’re likely overworked. They’re fainting from being possessed by neak ta spirits (a local spirit, strongly associated with the countryside and local landmarks).

Remember: be curious, not condescending.

Wallace does a great job describing the economic and social conditions in Cambodian factories.  Needless to say, they aren’t great.  She also does a great job describing the spirit possessions. In my favorite example, a spirit who had possessed a worker demanded respect, an altar, and a roasted pig to be shared with the workers.  The factory manager knelt down before the woman possessed by the spirit and then provided the things it asked for.

Massive strikes in Cambodia have been largely ineffective at raising the minimum wage.  In Sept. 2010, after 200,000 workers went on strike, the minimum wage stayed at $61 a month.  But in 2011 instances of spirit possession began showing up more and more often.  And people started listening – both the factory managers and the public.  In February 2014 the minimum wage is set to rise to $100 a month.

This isn’t to argue that spirit possession is the only driver of social reform in Cambodia.  Nor is it to say that such techniques would work in other instances.  And as long as I’m making disclaimers, I’m also not arguing neak ta spirits are real.  But in Cambodia, these possessions have had a very real social impact.

If you’re condescending, you might say that they’re faking it – these are clever ways for the factory workers to achieve their demands.  But that seems a little cynical and misses the fact that none of the workers or managers or public give any indication of deception.  Factory managers wouldn’t bow before a worker if they didn’t think it was serious.  They’re all taking this very seriously.

And if we can also take it seriously, then the mystery of what’s going on deepens.  The first step should be to consider how truly different worldviews can be.  And within these unique worldviews there are ideas that may be incredibly effective at giving voice to the oppressed or mobilizing concern.  If you live within that worldview, then these ideas may be more than just ideas – they may become something that can possess you and give you power.  If you think this sounds crazy, then just bear in mind that placebos are quite effective in the west.  Aren’t they just ideas?

How is a placebo effect different from spirit possession?

My point is that if you write spirit possession off as crazy, you stop the inquiry before it even begins.  By doing so, you lose the chance to begin exploring how our ideas and beliefs take on a reality of their own, capable of shaping our lives and experiences.  By dismissing spirits, you miss out on learning about not only the spiritual realm, but that realm’s most important occupants – your fellow human beings.

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