Andrea De Antoni explores experiences of spirit possession and healing through exorcism, by focusing on situated affects and interactions.
Most readers might consider spirit possession and exorcism as something from the past, something that has been surpassed by modern medicine. Yet I have been investigating experiences of religious and spiritual healing since 2015. As an anthropologist, I focus on people who, failing to obtain remedy from biomedicine, find relief through religious healing, specifically through exorcisms. My research, taking a comparative approach, relies on ethnographic data gathered through fieldwork in Italy and Japan. Despite their differences, what contemporary Italy and Japan share is that they are two societies in which the modern biomedical system has been institutionalised – that is to say, most people seek medical attention before turning to religious practices.
In this article, I wish to propose a new way to approach experiences of spiritual healing. That is, an embodied perspective, grounded in situated feelings. In fact, over the years, anthropologists who have been investigating (ritual) healing processes, such as Csordas (1994a; 1994b), Good (1994) and Kapferer (2004), have begun showing a strong interest in the role of lived experience and of embodiment as the “existential ground of culture and self” (Csordas 1994b). They have therefore paid more attention to the role of sensations, for “healing often involves making a sensation invoke a script that increases a sense of efficacy and promotes positive engagement in life process, in a process that might be called ‘scripting’ or ‘rescripting’ a sensation” (Hinton, Howes, and Kirmayer 2008, 153).
Thus, anthropology has clarified that healing is a process grounded in experienced sensations – or, as I prefer, affects and feelings (see De Antoni 2019). According to these approaches, sensations become the ground of a profound and gradual transformation of the self as a bodily being (Csordas 1994a). They are intersubjectively entangled with an explanatory “cultural model” through interactions with the healer, thus shaping the supplicant’s suffering experiences, or “idioms of distress” (Nichter 2010), into maladies and remedies. Possession is one example, but the same reasoning also applies to modern biomedicine or psychotherapy.
This analytical model is generally accepted in anthropology and intercultural psychiatry, yet it relies on typically modern, “Western” conceptualizations, such as notions of enclosed selves and bodies that feel and make sense of sensations. Indeed, the experiences of my interlocutors in Japan suggest that there might be different interpretations. I suggest that a focus on “affects” or “feelings,” emerging through practice and experienced prior to the their separation into “sensations” and “emotions,” can be a good starting point to understand their experiences (see De Antoni 2019).
Strange Pressures and Yawns
In 2016, I started my fieldwork at Kenmi shrine (jinja), Japan. This Shinto shrine,1 in the middle of the mountains, in Tokushima Prefecture, can only be reached by car or on foot. Due to its remoteness, it is not a touristic place. Most people visit it to undergo its unique exorcism (oharai or gokitō), for they see it as a potential last resort to find some relief from their issues, which typically involve a health condition. A great number of visitors claim that they experience some improvements (in health) following the ritual. Many of them (64% of the 126 people I have interviewed) have been visiting Kenmi shrine periodically, for many years, out of gratitude for its healing effect.
Yamashita san (pseudonymised), a man in his late thirties, has been visiting Kenmi shrine, roughly once a year, for the past ten years. He visited for the first time because of a “serious illness” that he did not specify, although he told me that he was in very bad condition, both physically and mentally. He had been hospitalised several times, but he could see no improvement. The first time he underwent the exorcism at the shrine, he experienced “a strange pressure.” After the exorcism, the disease was healed and he has had no relapses. Since then, he has regularly visited the shrine and he undergoes the ritual whenever there is something wrong in his life, or simply out of gratitude towards the gods. His experiences during the ritual vary every time: sometimes he feels warm, sometimes he does not feel anything.
Miyoshi san (pseudonymised), a woman in her late forties, has been going to Kenmi shrine for forty years, since she was at elementary school. She visits the shrine whenever she feels that there is “something wrong.” She explained that “I am the only one who understands” that “Ah! Maybe I have a guest” or “Maybe I am possessed (tsuiteiru).” She senses that “somebody unwanted (iyana hito) comes” because “when [the spirits] come, I could eat continuously (. . .). This and (. . .) also my shoulders feel heavy, (. . .) or I get headaches.” On other occasions, she would experience hindrances on her way to the shrine, such as “some unexpected commitment that pops up.” She explained that this is because the spirits “do not let me come here.” During the exorcism, she experiences repeated, uncontrollable, loud yawning and lacrimation. She claimed that her symptoms disappear once she goes back home, after the exorcism: “It is (. . .) as if it was cloudy inside my body. But then I come here and (. . .) it feels sunny.”
In both Yamashita san and Miyoshi san’s cases, uncontrolled sensations were central in their suffering (food cravings, headaches, etc.) and, most importantly, in their experiences during the exorcism (pressure, uncontrolled yawning). Changes in feelings and perceived improvements in wellbeing become the basis of the experienced reality of a possessing entity. In other words, at Kenmi shrine, meaning making and belief emerge as a consequence of experience and of the efficacy of the ritual.
An embodied perspective on spiritual healing
In my research, I have advocated for an emergent and practice-based approach to ritual healing. For instance, my analysis of experiences during the exorcism at Kenmi shrine shows that, although individual experiences differ, the array of feelings emerging during the ritual is relatively limited (De Antoni 2023).
Nonetheless, the exorcism at Kenmi shrine is generally perceived as unique. This is because of its prayers, the way in which they are chanted, and because a special tool (kinpei) is used. This tool is very similar to the ones usually employed in Shinto shrines for purification rituals; however, it is made of gold, instead of paper, and has small bells attached to each end. The officiant repeatedly touches the supplicant’s head and shoulders with the kinpei, thus making the bells ring with the rhythm of the movement (see
During the first part of the ritual, the supplicant is left sitting in front of the altar while the priest prays. This allows a shift of the supplicant’s attention to the perceptions of their position and movement (the so-called “proprioception”). When the priest starts touching the supplicant’s head and shoulders, the bells of the kinpei produce a loud sound. After a few seconds, the chains linking the bells to the staff begin undulating back and forth. The sound becomes quieter and, to me, the movement of the round bells touching the back of my head and neck felt like a massage.
The movement of the tool allows a shift in attention towards the shoulders and the head, thus contributing to changes in perceived sensations (e.g., changes in pressure or temperature, yawning and lacrimation). These sensations not only become the “existential ground” (Csordas 1994b) for the signifying process that indicates that something is “going out,” they actually contribute to bodily relaxation. Furthermore, the shift from the proprioceptive dimension to the haptic and sonic dimensions, enabled by the contact with the bells, seems to eventually contribute to a “resetting” of how sufferers perceive their own bodies. Such changes in perception underpin the supplicants’ improvement in health, for the simple reason that they start feeling better.
Thus, the ritual and its form can be understood as a type of “affective technology” (De Antoni 2023) that enables the emergence of certain feelings. Yet the aforementioned cultural explanatory model for those feelings is not particularly relevant because most people – like Yamashita san and Miyoshi san – are not interested in what sort of spirit possessed them, nor in finding meaningful explanations for their experiences in terms of spirit possession. Their reasoning does not go much further than “I reacted during and feel better after an exorcism, therefore perhaps I was possessed.”
The repetition of the ritual implies the repetition of the emergence of certain uncontrolled feelings. This evokes the periodical “resetting” of the perception of one’s body and, overall, the periodical repetition of a pleasant experience, of a healing practice that works. For some people, such experiences also become the evidence of the existence of (evil) spirits. Indeed, many of the “repeaters” claimed that they visit “to be protected by the gods.” Yet how such experiences modify their everyday lives and “beliefs” is another story.
As brief as the analysis that I have provided here is, I hope to have conveyed my suggestion that understanding religious and spiritual healing in terms of gradual processes, based on situated feelings emerging in and because of specific interactions, can shed a different light on the concepts of healing and wellbeing. My wish is to start a dialogue about (spiritual) illness and healing with scholars from different disciplines. Similar to people who found themselves confronted with the reality of spirits through their feelings and experiences at Kenmi shrine, I am open to any criticism or suggestions that might help expand our general understanding of healing.
1 Contemporary, institutionalised Shinto is a highly ritualised form of polytheism, with strong animistic features. Japanese religiosity is generally characterised by a stronger focus on practising than on believing. Thus, Japanese people may take part in ritualised practice for institutionalised occasions or events (New Year, local festivals) more because it is perceived as a tradition, rather than because they “believe” in the gods (see Reader and Tanabe Jr. 1998).
About the author
Andrea De Antoni is associate professor of socio-cultural anthropology at Kyoto University. He specialised in the anthropology of Japan and more recently has carried out ethnographic research in Italy. He has published extensively in English and Japanese on topics related to the anthropology of space and place, death, experiences with spirits, hauntings, spirit possession and religious healing, with a focus on perception and affect.
About the editors
This piece was commissioned by Nicole Chen, with editorial contributions from Jordan McCullough.
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