Possession Amnesia: Patterns of Experience, Evidence for Spirits

Possession Amnesia: Patterns of Experience, Evidence for Spirits

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Are spirits real? If so, then how do we know? But a more fundamental question
persists: What is a spirit? Typically, we think of a spirit in terms of “a ghost,” that
is, a disembodied human spirit that retains the shape of the physical body and
its sensory functions. This description for “a spirit” is derived from both ancient
sources (Luke 24:37, 2Cor 5:3) and modern reports known as “near-death experiences.”
Etymologically, the English word “spirit” originates in the Latin spiritus,
which means “air,” “wind,” or “breath” (as do its equivalents in Hebrew, ruach,

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and Greek, pneuma). The Hebrew term included the meaning for “a spirit” as a
force that, like the wind, is invisible yet perceptible by its effects on or through
human beings. This force was no impersonal windy thing, but rather displayed
sentient agency and ability for producing cognitive speech. The meaning for
“a spirit” passed over into Greek pneuma via the lxx, the Greek translation of
the Hebrew Scriptures, whenever pneuma rendered ruach in such passages as
1Sam 18:19, 19:9, and 1Kings 22:21, 22. From etymology, semantic range, and con-
text, we can judge that a spirit, at least in the primordial tradition of the Bible,1
was an invisible, extraterrestrial (that is, “from God”), willful agent that affected,
materially, the physical world in ways perceptible to human beings. This line of
thinking contributes to a very difficult question posed to the ancient sources:
How was a spirit known?
Despite the ineffability of “spirit” in many religions, anthropologists who
study indigenous cultures experience spirits as “down-to-earth” sentient agents
who may, at times, manifest intelligible speech through a human being.2 A
jungle of terms exists for this phenomenon, including possession, possession
trance, spirit possession, enthusiasm, ecstatic possession, channeling, spirit-
mediumship, displacement, intermediation, indwelling, infused, inspirited, in-
spired, and incorporation. If we take these terms to mean that a spirit enters
into and temporarily resides in a person while his or her own spirit is jetti-
soned from the body—in an out-of-body state—then this is by far “the most
pervasive model of possession in the ethnographic record.”3 This phenomenon
manifests psychological and neurobiological symptoms that are fraught with
their own difficult clinical terminology; a negotiation across such otherwise
disparate worldviews as science and religion may also account for part of the
difficulty in examining and coming to terms with spirit possession.
Spirit possession is sometimes said to cause “dissociation,” a term that cov-
ers a range of mental states in clinical psychiatry from normal to pathological,
whereby there appears to be a discontinuity of personal identity, accompa-
nied by alterations in self-appearance and behavior.4 The “displacement” of
human agency—mind, soul, spirit—by another agent causes a change in iden-
tity, which is a form of dissociation that describes the effects of spirit possession

1 See Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition (San Francisco: HarperCollins,
1977), and Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), 25–38.
2 See Pieter F. Craffert, “What Does It Mean to Be Possessed by a Spirit or a Demon? Some
Phenomenological Insights from Neuro-Anthropological Research,” hts 71 (2015): 1–9, at 3.
3 Craffert, “What Does It Mean?”
4 Craffert, “What Does It Mean?”

or spirit incorporation.5 One peculiar effect of such dissociation documented
in ancient and modern sources is that of memory loss. In a study on the psy-
chology of early Christian prophecy, Alan Humm found that in many indige-
nous cultures, the “displacement” of human agency created a neurobiological
effect that impacted memory: “the possessed does not remember the experi-
ence, and has to be told what happened during her absence.”6 Cultural anthro-
pologists have discovered this phenomenon among those who practice spirit
mediumship, an episode that I call “possession amnesia,” in which the medium
is unconscious during the possession episode. Clinical amnesias are routinely
diagnosed as psychoses, and the dsm discusses possession and trance in terms
of “disorders.”7
Many cultures, however, give validity to possession trance as positive and
beneficent communication with a divine spirit realm. In indigenous cultures,
the amnesia that may follow is interpreted to mean that human conscious-
ness had been “absent” during the possession-trance episode (and not clinically
“deranged”), which explains the medium’s lack of recall for what the spirit said.
Normative possession trance challenges psychiatry’s definition of possession
as a dissociative disorder.8 Instead, human beings have a capacity for dissocia-
tion that may occur in either normal individuals or pathological cases.9 Thus,
dissociative experiences, although relatable to clinical psychiatry, need not be
pathological.10 Possession amnesia then may be typical in cases of dissociation
that occur in a normative function of spirit possession.
In this article, I will show that possession amnesia is a cross-cultural, tran-
shistorical phenomenon observed by anthropologists in modern indigenous
cultures and is present in ancient literature, particularly as a phenomenon
accompanying both prophetic activity and demonic possession in Akkadian,
Greek, early Jewish, and Christian literature. Ben Witherington has argued that
a cross-cultural study of biblical prophecy should go no further than the tem-
poral and geographical boundaries of the biblical world—comparing across
the ancient Near East, Greek, Greco-Roman, early Jewish, and early Christian
cultures—in order to avoid comparisons with modern indigenous cultures that

5 Craffert, “What Does It Mean?”
6 Alan Humm, Psychology of Prophecy in Early Christianity: Prophetism and Religious Altered
States of Consciousness (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009), 37.
7 See Vishal Bhavsar et al., “Dissociative Trance and Spirit Possession: Challenges for Cul-
tures in Transition,” Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 70, no. 12 (2016): 551–559.
8 Bhavsar et al., “Dissociative Trance,” 553.
9 So Craffert, “What Does it Mean?,” 3.
10 See Antoine Vergote, “Visions et Apparitions, Approche Psychologique,”Revue Théologíque
de Louvain 22 (1991): 202–225.

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are too dissimilar, such as Melanesian cargo cults and North American Indian
tribes.11 Evidence for possession amnesia, however, knows no temporal or geo-
graphical boundaries; it stretches cross-culturally and temporally over a period
of some three thousand years, from ancient to modern cultures, in contexts of
prophecy and demonism. For the purpose of this article, anthropological mate-
rial serves as a basis from which to form an opinion about possession amnesia
as it appears in ancient literature; insofar as it is related to the presence of spir-
its, such data may also serve as an argument as to whether possession amnesia
is evidence for the existence of spirits as sentient, personal beings.

2 The Spirit Idiom and Science

The spirit idiom—spirits are real, invisible, extraterrestrial, sentient agents
who manifest perceptibly in our world, in some cases producing audible speech
through a medium—is an extraordinary claim in the eyes of the hard sciences
because it is believed that there exists no testable, consistent evidence for spir-
its. The spirit idiom, however, boasts of empirical yet controversial evidence:
– Full-bodied spirit materializations that involve the appearance or creation
of matter from unknown sources; a full-bodied person forms gradually out
of the air and speaks with the spectators present.12
– Partial spirit materializations—those without a full visible body present—
that include an audible voice emanating from the air, “direct voice” (Num
7:89),13 or a visible hand present (Dan 5:5).
– Phenomena occurring through a medium, such as the ability to speak or
write in unknown languages,14 and instances in which the spirit provides—
either electronically or through a trance medium—verifiable street ad-
dresses, telephone numbers, social security numbers, names and locations
of surviving friends and personal experiences they shared, all of which are
completely unknown to the medium.15

11 See Ben Witherington, Jesus the Seer: The Progress of Prophecy (Peabody, MA: Hendrick-
son, 1999), 9.
12 See Gambier Bolton, Ghosts in Solid Form: An Experimental Investigation of Certain Little-
Known Phenomena (Materializations), 3rd ed. (London: William Rider & Son, 1919).
13 See David Fontana, Is There an Afterlife? A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence (Blue
Ridge Summit, PA: nbn Books, 2004), 99, 230–243.
14 See Ian Stevenson, Unlearned Languages: New Studies in Xenoglossy (Charlottesville, VA:
University of Virginia Press, 1984), and Webb Keane, “On Spirit Writing: Materialities of
Language and the Religious Work of Transduction,” jrai 19 (2013): 1–17.
15 See Fontana, Is There An Afterlife?, 352–381.

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Many paranormal experiences are often private, personal, and subjective
(near-death experiences, altered states of consciousness) and thus beyond
the purview of hard science. As Antti Revonsuo observed, “The first person’s
point of view is not accepted as a valid source of data in the physical sci-
ences, therefore it is possible to argue that subjective experiences are not a
part of the overall scientific data that need to be explained by the sciences.”16
The soft sciences’ inclusion of the subjective, cultural, social, political, ethi-
cal, philosophical, and religious provides a wider palette of facts than what
is found in the hard sciences’ impersonal data for heat, energy, mass, weight,
chemicals, matter, and force fields. Experiences with the spirit idiom, how-
ever, are not merely anecdotal but rather occur in both public (Acts 2:1–4,
9:7; 1 Cor 12 and 14) and private spaces (Acts 11:11; 2 Cor 12:1–4). The nature of
spirit possession then cannot be understood solely from anecdotal or personal
reports, but rather it is recommended that “researchers should be looking at
what goes on in the world of possession, both on the ground and in schol-
arly, academic and clinical discussions,” which demands a cross-disciplinary
Such a cross-disciplinary approach occurs in the fieldwork of cultural
anthropology in which the anthropologist makes objective observations of his
or her personal contact with the experiences of others. Fieldwork in indigenous
cultures has brought the anthropologist face-to-face with the spirit idiom in the
form of spirit possession, and yet this phenomenon continues to be ill-defined
and elusive.
One of the most significant pioneers in the study of spirit possession, the
Scottish anthropologist Ioan M. Lewis,18 a student of the renowned English
anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard, was unabashed about encounters with
spirits in fieldwork: “There must be few anthropologists who have not had
a brush with the supernatural in the course of their field work in the ‘high-
spirited,’ exotic communities which they customarily study.”19 He is not willing,

16 See Antti Revonsuo, Consciousness: The Science of Subjectivity (New York: Psychology Press,
2010), 20.
17 So Craffert, “What Does it Mean?,” 2. See James Chandler et al., eds., Questions of Evidence:
Proof, Practice, and Persuasion across the Disciplines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
18 See Ioan M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and
Shamanism (New York: Penguin, 1971; 3rd ed., New York: Routledge, 2003).
19 Ioan M. Lewis, “The Anthropologist’s Encounter with the Supernatural,” in Parapsychol-
ogy and Anthropology, ed. A. Angoff and D. Barth (New York: Parapsychology Foundation,
1973), 22–31, at 22.

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however, to entertain the notion that indigenous beliefs about spirits and the
spirit world provide any good evidence for their reality.20
Some anthropologists realized that the experiential nature of the presence
of spirits in indigenous cultures requires investigators to take greater stock of
the otherwise ambiguous terms “spirit” and “possession.” The eminent anthro-
pologist Morton Klass assessed the poverty of meaning and definition for spirits
and possession in cultural anthropology: “Do we have, even in anthropology,
a clear and undisputed definition of ‘possession’ or of ‘spirit’?”21 Reduction-
ist explanations were quite common among anthropologists of the past who
explained possession as a form of pathology (mental illness, hysteria, epilepsy,
neurosis, hallucination, subconscious desires, dissociative identity disorder) or
in terms of social conflict whereby spirits were a justification for overcom-
ing social oppression, especially among women (status seekers, actors, cargo
cults, economic hardships).22 Other anthropologists were not so reductionist,
bearing in mind that indigenous beliefs in spirits may reveal a reality that the
Western scientific community has overlooked, misunderstood, or ignored.23
This has been the attitude of a recent spate of cultural anthropology that looks
to field work alone as the interpretative guide for beliefs about spirits, their
activity, and their nature.24 Anthropologists are showing a greater sensitivity
to what the “reality of spirits” means in terms of the spirit idiom.25 Lewis’s cau-
tion against cultural belief in spirits as evidence for their reality still lingers and
requires an investigation as to what constitutes evidence.

20 “The Anthropologist’s Encounter with the Supernatural,” 30.
21 Morton Klass, Mind over Mind: The Anthropology and Psychology of Spirit Possession (Lan-
ham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 4.
22 For these reductionist approaches and their status among current anthropologists see
Emma Cohen, The Mind Possessed: The Cognition of Spirit Possession in an Afro-Brazilian
Religious Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 79–97.
23 So Vincent Crapanzano, “Introduction,” in Case Studies in Spirit Possession, ed. Vincent
Crapanzano and Vivian Garrison (New York: Wiley, 1977), 1–40, at 13–14.
24 See Edith Turner, “The Reality of Spirits: A Tabooed or Permitted Field of Study?,” Anthro-
pology of Consciousness 3, no. 3 (1992): 9–12; David E. Young and Jean-Guy Goulet, eds.,
Being Changed: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience (Ontario: Broadview Press,
1994); Jean-Guy A. Goulet and Bruce Granville Miller, eds., Extraordinary Anthropology:
Transformations in the Field (Lincoln, nb: University of Nebraska Press, 2007); and Jack
Hunter and David Luke, eds., Talking with the Spirits: Ethnographies from between the
Worlds (Brisbane: Daily Grail, 2014).
25 For a sensitive approach to the spirit idiom in anthropological discourse, see Ruy Blanes
and Diana Espírito Santo, “Introduction: On the Agency of Intangibles,” in Blanes and
Espírito Santo, eds., The Social Life of Spirits (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014),

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3 A “Discipline-Specific” Definition of Evidence

In a book edited by Matthew Engelke, The Objects of Evidence, Engelke con-
tributes an article to the problems of evidence in anthropological research.26
In the physical sciences, evidence is impersonal and reactions to it are equally
so. But anthropology is different. Fieldwork experience is highly personal, and
the objects of fieldwork experience are themselves persons in various cul-
tures. Objective evidence—evidence not influenced by personal opinion—is
often a criterion for establishing certainty in our knowledge of the objects of
research. When the object of research includes cultures and the people who
create them, we are dealing with evidence that lacks pure objectivity. Of course,
we can say that, objectively speaking, many people in different cultures claim
to experience spirits and even behave in ways that show a spirit is present. But
can claims to personal experiences with spirits contribute in any way to evi-
dence for their existence? Engelke’s article addresses this problem: “How can
we turn fieldwork experience—a highly personal, temporally bound, and inter-
subjective method for collecting data—into objects of evidence?”27 Evidence
in anthropology necessarily includes a different definition from what we may
find of it in the hard sciences—that is, “impersonal”—for the very reason that
the “personal” and the anecdotal become a part of the evidence itself in anthro-
pological discourse. Evidence in the social sciences, then, must meet a different
standard from the impersonal objectivity of the hard sciences. Engelke remarks
that the definition for “legal evidence” in the Oxford English Dictionary incorpo-
rates a range of meaning that is suited to evidence-collecting in anthropology:
evidence is “information, whether in the form of personal testimony, the lan-
guage of documents, or the production of material objects, that is given in a
legal investigation to establish the fact or point in question.”28 Questions are the
stuff of evidence, and so evidence “has a disciplinary specificity,” in other words,
there is no absolute standard for all forms of evidence. For instance, evidence
for trained historians consists of events not accessible to our observation, a cri-
terion hardly fitting for standards of objectivity found in the hard sciences.29
Evidence contributes to any discipline’s “getting it right,” and different disci-
plines will require different definitions of evidence that are appropriate enough
to deal with the kinds of objects a discipline studies.

26 See Matthew Engelke, “The Objects of Evidence,” in The Objects of Evidence: Anthropo-
logical Approaches to the Production of Knowledge, ed. Matthew Engelke (West Sussex:
Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 1–20.
27 Engelke, “The Objects of Evidence,” 2.
28 Engelke, “The Objects of Evidence,” 5.
29 Engelke, “The Objects of Evidence,” 5.

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4 Evidence of Cultural Phenomena in Patterns of Experience

Engelke notes how anthropologists may assess evidence in their fieldwork:
“One way in which anthropologists become convinced of getting it right—
and perhaps the most powerful—is through the recognition of patterns in the
social life they observe.”30 Patterns observed in one culture may be found in
another culture, and so on, and this suggests that whatever it is that is “pat-
terned” cross-culturally provides evidential support for it. Though Engelke is
aware that many anthropologists would find it misguided or unjustifiable to
“make the leap from culturally specific patterns to cross-cultural or even uni-
versal” patterns, he nevertheless maintains that “at some level the pattern argu-
ment has to hold. We could never package and transport our intersubjective
experiences without it.”31
The study of paranormal phenomena reveals cross-cultural patterns of expe-
rience. Eric Carlton remarks to this effect:

From remotest times, various cultures had traditions concerning the para-
normal; stories of miraculous healings, telepathic communication, div-
ination and revelation, besides a fairly full quote of evil omens and dae-
monic possession. We are not, of course, able to test the reliability of these
traditions or always to make sense of exactly what took place, but in so
far as there is an enduring and consistent pattern of experience it deserves
some respect.32

One such pattern of paranormal experience is spirit possession. An account of
cross-cultural, transhistorical experience of spirit possession is captured when
we compare the comments of the first-century Jewish author Philo of Alexan-
dria with the observations of the twenty-first-century anthropologist Emma
C. Cohen.

Philo: “This is what regularly befalls the fellowship of the prophets. The
mind is evicted at the arrival of the divine spirit, but when that [spirit]
departs the mind returns to its tenancy.”33

30 Engelke, “The Objects of Evidence,” 9.
31 Engelke, “The Objects of Evidence.” Engelke refers the reader to the work of Michael Car-
rithers regarding the pattern argument with the concept of evidence in mind for the
anthropologist. See his references in “The Objects of Evidence,” 19.
32 Eric Carlton, The Paranormal: Research and the Quest for Meaning (Aldershot: Ashgate,
2000), 10.
33 Philo, Who Is the Heir of Divine Things 265, in Philo: Volume iv, trans. F.H. Colson and
G.H. Whitaker, lcl 261 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932), 419.

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Cohen: “In possession, however, the body and agency of the host are sep-
arated and a new agent animates the host’s body. The host loses his mind,
so to speak, and the spirit gains a body.”34

Whereas the term “possession” is typically used of these phenomena, “incorpo-
ration” may communicate more effectively what both Philo and Cohen
describe. As to methodology, biblical and classical scholars do not routinely
consider such phenomena from the standpoint of whether they serve as evi-
dence for the “reality” of spirits. The persistence of the spirit idiom cross-
culturally and transhistorically, however, lends itself to an analysis that seeks
to determine whether the spirit idiom is independent of mere cultural belief
and exists in its own right.
Several kinds of manifestations, often occurring together, identify genuine
spirit possession in many cultures across time:
– Change in voice of the possessed
– Change in behavior of the possessed
– The behavior may be either benevolent—such as praising God and exhort-
ing percipients to do the same, serene and calm demeanor, solemnity—or
malevolent, including shrieks, screams, vile language, and resistance to exor-
– Change in physical characteristics that include uncharacteristic color in hair
and skin tone and uncharacteristic bodily movement
– The possessed communicates knowledge beyond his or her level of compe-
tency or familiarity
– This knowledge may include technical details about a physics problem (if
the medium has no prior experience with physics) or an ability to speak or
write in a language unknown to the medium; this may even include the use
of sign language otherwise unknown to the medium.
These data or patterns of possessed behavior are found cross-culturally and
transhistorically.35 They are explainable from at least three perspectives: 1) the
spirit idiom; 2) clinical psychiatry, in which spirit possession is an archaism
that misconstrues abnormal psychological phenomena (psychoses, multiple
personality) as the work of external spirits; and 3) the possessed is simply “role-

34 Cohen, The Mind Possessed, 134.
35 See Traugott K. Oesterreich, Possession: Demoniacal and Other among Primitive Races, in
Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modern Times (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1966),
and Eric R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California, 1951),

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playing” as if possessed.36 These different “readings” of the same set of data
or patterns of possessed behavior show that it is not a matter of whether a
cultural belief in spirit possession provides evidence for the reality of spirits,
but rather what kind of reading one applies to the observable phenomena and
behaviors of the possessed. The difficulty in demonstrating the reality of spirit
possession to the modern West lies in the subjective nature of the experience; a
medium may be nothing more than a good actor, and so if spirits exist, then how
do we distinguish between the human being and the spirit?37 Communicat-
ing knowledge and performing abilities unknown to the possessed cannot be
adequately explained by either the pathological or the role-playing—actor—
To be clear, patterns consistent in cross-cultural and transhistorical experi-
ence provide evidence for claimed experiences, and not necessarily bona fide
proof that spirits actually exist. At best, we can say that such consistently pat-
terned experiences are the data that provide “working evidence” for the exis-
tence of spirits.

5 Possession Amnesia: A Cross-Cultural and Transhistorical
Phenomenon of Spirit Possession

Amnesia is one of several clinical disorders having to do with aberrations
of memory.38 In the clinical literature, it is related to “dissociative amnesia,”
“depersonalization,” and “possession trance.”39 In many indigenous cultures,
the awareness of the possessed can vary from unconsciousness to alertness.
Typically, only the former produces amnesia, as Daniel M. Wegner observes:
“[T]he frequent response of hosts after the spirit possession is over is to report
some degree of amnesia for events and for their thoughts and actions dur-

36 See Sarah Goldingay, “To Perform Possession and to Be Possessed in Performance,” in Spirit
Possession and Trance: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. Bettina M. Schmidt and Lucy
Huskinson (New York: Continuum, 2010), 205–222.
37 See Sarah Grey Thomason, “ ‘Entities’ in the Linguistic Minefield,” The Skeptical Inquirer 13,
no. 4 (1989): 391–396, who notes that “when channeled ‘entities’ speak in accents that are
not native to their channelers, the authenticity of the manifestations can be checked by
linguistic analysis. Analysis of the speech of several such entities shows that the accents
are fake,” 391. Of course, we may wonder whether it is the medium or the spirit who is
38 See Andrew C. Papanicolaou, The Amnesias: A Clinical Textbook of Memory Disorders
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
39 Papanicolaou, The Amnesias, 232.

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ing the experience. This reported lack of consciousness of the experience may
be complete or, as observed in the Shango religion of Trinidad, may suggest a
half-way state between full possession and normal behavior, [in which] a high
degree of consciousness is retained.”40
We find a similar range of cognitive states during trance in ancient literature.
In writing about early Christian prophecy, Jannes Reiling classified degrees of
inspired consciousness from passive to active: “1) Will and consciousness may
both be eliminated and the prophet becomes a passive instrument in the hands
of the inspiring deity. There is no recollection afterwards of what happened; 2)
the will may be eliminated; consciousness is not lost but behaves passively.
The prophet observes that the deity speaks through him and there is a clear
recollection afterwards; 3) both will and consciousness remain intact and the
prophet speaks what is revealed to him as a divine message.”41 Numbers 1 and
2 commonly occur in possession trance whereby the prophet (or demoniac)
incorporates a spirit—fully (1) or partially (2)—that speaks intelligibly (or not)
to an audience. Number 3 describes the psychology of vision trance whereby
the prophet achieves an altered state of consciousness that allows him or her
to see into the spirit world while either remaining consciously in the physi-
cal body or leaving the physical body (as a spirit) and then returning to it and
communicating what was seen and heard in heavenly (or hellish) regions from
memory (relatable to near-death experiences).
Possession amnesia can be cited in Akkadian, Greco-Roman, early Jewish,
early Christian, and anthropological sources in both modern Western and non-
Western cultures. This evidence clearly establishes cross-cultural and transhis-
torical patterns of claimed experience with possession amnesia. The following
is a brief review of that evidence.

5.1 Akkadian Texts
In the corpus of Mari Akkadian texts designated arm x (Archives Royales de
Mari) we find two texts that describe possession by the god Annunītum:

In the temple of Annunītum on the third day Šēbelum went into a trance
and thus (spoke) Annunītum.
arm x 7.5–7, no. 1

40 Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge, MA: mit Press, 2002),
41 Jannes Reiling, Hermas and Christian Prophecy: A Study of the Eleventh Mandate, Sup-
pNT 37 (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 19 (italics mine).


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In the temple of Annunītum in the city, Ahātum, the servant of Dagan-
malik, went into a trance and spoke as follows, thus.
arm x 8.5–8, no. 2

The verb translated as “to go into a trance” is Akkadian mahȗ. A noun form
of this verb occurs in Akkadian literature, namely mahhȗ, “one who goes into
a trance” (whose Sumerian lexical equivalent is lú-an-dib-ba-ra, “one who has
been seized by a god”). Alfred Haldar cites a votary’s prayer to the god Nabu
that gives evidence for the mahhȗ’s amnesia: “I am struck down like a mahhȗ,
I bring forth what I do not know.”42 The first part of this text recalls the Sume-
rian lexical equivalent, “seized by a god.” The second part of the text mentions
the effects of this seizure. The verb ūbal, “I bring forth,” can have the idiomatic
sense of “speak forth.” Thus, the sense of the text, “I speak forth what I do not
know,” points to an unconscious state in which the mahhȗ “speaks forth” a mes-
sage, which is highly suggestive of possession amnesia.43

5.2 The Classical Period
Plato provides two examples of possession amnesia for the classical period.

For these men also in an inspired state say many true things, and yet they
know nothing of what they are saying.
Meno 99B–C

the poets … did not compose by wisdom, but by … enthusiasm, just like
the diviners and the givers of oracles; For these also say many fine things,
but they know nothing of what they are talking about.
Apology 22B–C

5.3 The Greco-Roman Era
The Greco-Roman era provides many examples of possession amnesia in
Greek, Jewish, and Christian sources. So pervasive was this phenomenon that
John R. Levison wrote that “the work of the spirit in prophetic inspiration …
produces … loss of consciousness … and the inability to recollect the prophetic

42 Alfred Haldar, Associations of Cult Prophets among the Ancient Semites (Uppsala: Almqvist
& Wiksell, 1945), 25.
43 So, ibid.
44 John R. Levison, The Spirit in First Century Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 223.

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Philo, On Special Laws 4.49: “For no pronouncement of a prophet is ever his
own; he is an interpreter prompted by Another [spirit] in all his utterances,
when knowing not what he does he is filled with inspiration, as the reason with-
draws and surrenders the citadel of the soul to a new visitor and tenant, the divine
spirit who plays upon the vocal organism and dictates words which clearly
express its prophetic message.”
Philo, Life of Moses 1.274, describes Balaam’s inspired state as brought on by
an angel who says to him, “I shall guide the rein of speech, and though you are
unconscious of it, employ your tongue for each prophetic utterance.”
Ps.-Philo, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum 28.6, 10a, “And when they had sat
down, a holy spirit came upon Kenaz and dwelled in him and put him in ecstasy,
and he began to prophesy, saying … When Kenaz had spoken these words, he
was awakened, and his senses came back to him. But he did not know what he
had said.”
Ps.-Philo, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum 62.2: “And a spirit abided in Saul,
and he prophesied saying, ‘…’ And Saul went away and did not know what he
had prophesied.”
Aelius Aristides, In Defense of Oratory, 43, where priestesses of Zeus have
no knowledge of his oracles prior to inspiration, “nor afterwards do they know
anything which they have said, but all inquirers understand it better than they.”
Iamblichus, On the Mysteries, 3.11, “the god … uses the prophet as an instru-
ment while he [the prophet] is neither himself nor has any consciousness of
what he says or where on the earth he is, so that even after prophesying, he
sometimes scarcely gets control of himself.”

5.4 Jewish and Early Christian Sources
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 4.6.5 §119, “When we are possessed by the spirit of
God, that spirit gives utterance to such language and words as it will, whereof
we are all unconscious.”
Ps.-Justinus, Hortatory to the Greeks, 37.2,3, “She was filled indeed with
prophecy at the time of the inspiration, but as soon as the inspiration ceased,
there ceased also the remembrance of all she had said … the prophetess hav-
ing no remembrance of what she had said, after the possession and inspiration
Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4.22.5, defends the Christian Montanist form of
unconscious prophecy: “And therefore, because it was ‘in the spirit’ that he had
now spoken, and not in his natural senses, he could not know what he had said.”
Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.5.8, condemns the Christian Montanist form of
unconscious prophecy: “He does not know what he is saying and doing, for he
has fallen into the ecstasy of folly.”

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Pneuma 44 (2022) 20–40

Jerome, Prologue to Commentary on Isaiah 3–4, “Contrary to what Montanus
and his insane women dream up, the prophets did not speak in ecstasy without
knowing what they were saying, instructing others while being ignorant them-
selves of what they were saying.”
John Cassian, Conferences, 7.12.1, describes two types of trance among demo-
niacs on the basis of the possessed’s ability to recall the possession experience:
those who “are affected by them [demons] in such a way as to have not the
slightest conception of what they do and say, while others know and afterwards
recollect it.” These two types of trance reflect Reiling’s two types of cognitive
states during possession trance.
Amnesia is symptomatic of both divine and demonic possession, as the
above primary sources have shown, and so cannot be regarded merely as a sign
of abnormal psychology produced by demons and evil spirits as some Christian
authors argued in the past.45

6 Possession Amnesia in the Anthropological Record

Anthropologists have observed possession amnesia in their fieldwork. I will
simply note a few observations.
Esther Pressel wrote that Umbandists make use of amnesia as veridical evi-
dential support for genuine spirit possession whenever they “recognize uncon-
scious, semiconscious, and conscious mediums. Consciousness in this instance
refers to the ability to later remember events that occurred during the asc (=
altered state of consciousness). Most Umbandists say that they prefer to be
unconscious since it enables them to be certain that it is a spirit that is really
speaking, and not they themselves.”46
Michael Lambeck records his observations of possession amnesia in late
twentieth-century Mayotte culture (Comoros islands) and explains that amne-
sia reveals that the human host is not present during the possession event and
thus will have no recollection of it: “The spirit speaks and acts while the host
is ‘absent’ during trance … Hosts by and large do not remember what occurred
while they were in trance (since they were not present, how could they?), but
they are often told by others what happened. (They are given, not descriptions
of themselves in trance, but the gist of what was transacted with the spirit).”47

45 See Origen, On First Principles, 3.3.4–5 and Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.5.8.
46 Esther Pressel, “Umbanda Trance and Possession in São Paulo, Brazil,” in Pressel et al.,
eds., Trance, Healing, and Hallucination: Three Field Studies in Religious Experience (Hunt-
ington, NY: Krieger, 1982), 113–225, at 196.
47 Michael Lambeck, “From Disease to Discourse: Remarks on the Conceptualization of

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Emily Pierini observes that amnesia is an expectation among those who
believe that a spirit, by entering into the medium, suspends the medium’s iden-
tity in a trance state—a state of unconsciousness—and reveals itself as an
external spirit from the spirit world: “Unconscious possession is related to the
perception of authenticity of the deity’s manifestation in the medium’s body,
and it is expected to be accompanied by the medium’s amnesia, that is, retain-
ing no memory of what happened during the deity’s manifestation.”48
Dureen J. Hughes, in her article on trance channeling in the United States,
discusses anthropologists and clinicians who have observed both varieties of
possession trance, one in which there is amnesia and one in which there is
recall, much like we see in John Cassian. She notes:

Amnesia is often associated with possession trance states … and has
even been used as a prime identifying characteristic of possession trance
states … by Winkelman in his theoretical model … As Peters and Price-
Williams have discussed …, this amnesia has been related to the disso-
ciative aspects of possession trance … and has been commonly used to
make the distinction between possession trance and visionary states or
“soul flight.” … However, Peters and Price-Williams have shown that there
is memory of trance in cultures where spirit possession is reported and
that, according to Hilgard’s neodissociation theory (1977:18), “spirit pos-
session need not be amnesiac” (Peters and Price-Williams 1980:403).49

7 Possession Amnesia in Early and Modern Christian Prayer

Walter Hinz, a German scholar of Persian and Elamite (University of Göttin-
gen, 1941 [with interruptions due to World War ii]–1975) became associated
with a group of Christians in Zürich, Switzerland, during the 1970s whose
weekly prayer meetings were guided by a spirit-medium, Beatrice Brunner,

Trance and Spirit Possession,” in Altered States of Consciousness and Mental Health: A
Cross-Cultural Perspective, ed. Colleen A. Ward (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989), 36–61, at
48 Emily Pierini, “Fieldwork and Embodied Knowledge: Researching the Experiences of
Spirit Mediums in the Brazilian Vale do Amanhecer,” in The Study of Religious Experience:
Approaches and Methodologies, ed. Bettina E. Schmidt (Sheffield: Equinox, 2016), 55–70,
at 59.
49 Dureen J. Hughes, “Blending with an Other: An Analysis of Trance Channeling in the
United States,” Ethos 19, no. 2 (1991): 161–184, at 171–172.

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Pneuma 44 (2022) 20–40

through whom heavenly spirits allegedly spoke to the gathered congregation.
Upon awakening from the trance, Brunner had no recall of the event. Hinz

My own experience relates especially to the trance medium Beatrice
Brunner, who from 1948 onwards has been active within the framework
of the Spiritual Lodge in Zurich. On Saturdays at 8 p.m. (except for holi-
day times) she walks on to the platform in the Concert Hall of the Zurich
Academy of Music, quietly sits down and offers a silent prayer. As soon
as the introductory music ends she slips imperceptibly into trance, with
no apparent help from the audience. The trance state can be recognized
only by her sudden deep inhalation through closed lips, and by the stiffen-
ing of her upper body. Immediately afterwards, a discarnate entity begins
his address with the words “God bless you!” For the benefit of his human
audience, this spirit calls himself Joseph. Since 1948, Joseph—as a spirit
teacher—has delivered about fifteen hundred lectures lasting an hour,
and these lectures are recorded on tape and regularly published.
At the end of his address, Joseph again blesses his audience and
departs; then, with a sigh, Beatrice wakes up. Her hands, which had been
raised in a dramatic gesture, are now folded on her lap. She looks at
her wrist watch; the audience notices her surprise that so much time
has passed. Beatrice knows nothing at all of the words Joseph has spoken
through her, in a clear, well-modulated voice, to the audience in the great
Concert Hall … If she wishes to know what has been spoken through her
mouth, Beatrice must listen to the tape recording.50

Hinz further remarked that “the things that happen today during services of
the Spiritual Lodge of Zurich used to happen in precisely the same way in early
Christian communities.”51 Let’s explore this comment.
In early Christian culture, the character of a spirit—good or bad—did not
determine whether a spirit becomes incorporated. Prophets and demoniacs
exhibited antithetical moralities, but they nevertheless were passive agents
through whom spirits communicate. Early Christian prophets and demoni-
acs lalōn en pneumati, “speak by means of a spirit” (Mark 1:23, 5:2, 1 Cor 12:3,
14:2, 15, 16, Didache 11:7,8,9,12). The function of the prepositional phrase en
pneumati, “with a spirit,” in Mark 1:23 and 5:2 is analogous to its function in

50 Walter Hinz, The Corner Stone (Great Waldingfield, Suffolk, UK: Neville Spearman, 1977),
51 Hinz, The Corner Stone, 30.

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1Cor 12:3, 14:2, 15, 16, and Didache 11:7, 8, 9, 12. Thus, “we have to distinguish
between a demoniac and a medium. In the first case the possessed is an invol-
untary victim, in the second case the medium voluntarily allows another party
to take over his vocal organs.”52 Cyril C. Richardson observed this usage of
en pneumati in Didache 11 by reading lalounta en pneumati to mean “literally
‘speaking in a spirit,’ i.e., speaking while possessed by a divine or demonic
spirit.”53 The coexistence of divine and demonic possession in early Christian
culture accounted for the problem of deceptive spirits masquerading as holy
ones through prophets.54 The headwaters of ambiguous spirit identity then
originated in the belief that good and evil spirits may speak familiarly about
Jesus and the Gospel through a prophet (2Cor 11:4). This was the actual setting
of early Christian prophecy.55 “The charge that false prophets were mediums
through which evil spirits spoke accounted for the fact that both true and false
prophets claimed inspiration for their utterances.”56
Evidence for possession amnesia in early Christian prophecy is found in
second-century Christian authors who made use of a musical-instrument
trope—employed for pagan enthusiasm57—to describe biblical and Christian
prophets.58 The trope expresses unconscious prophecy by comparing a prophet

52 Willem Berends, “The Biblical Criteria for Demon-Possession,” wtj 37 (1975): 342–365, at
53 Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (New York: Collier Books, 1970), 176 n. 64.
54 See the Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11.3, “[B]ut he [the false prophet] also speaks some
true words, for the Devil fills him with his spirit”; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6.8,
“Scripture says that ‘the devil is transformed into an angel of light.’ When about to do what?
Plainly, when about to prophesy”; Stromata 1.17, “But among the lies, the false prophets also
told some true things”; Clement of Alexandria, Homilies 17.14, “It is possible that he be an
evil demon or a deceptive spirit pretending in his speeches to be what he is not”; Tertul-
lian, Apology 47, “[T]he spirits of error … by them, certain fables have been introduced,
that, by their resemblance to the truth might impair its credibility”; Cyprian, Treatise 6.7,
“[T]hese spirits … are always mixing up falsehood with truth.”
55 See Reiling, Hermas and Christian Prophecy: “Here we are face to face with the deepest
problem of prophecy in the Christian church. Even the test by the demonstration of Spirit
and power is inadequate, since it fails to reveal the true nature and origin of the spirit that
is at work,” (72) and “[T]he divine Spirit and the earthly spirit cannot be distinguished by
the form of their speaking … in so far as both use understandable … speech” (120).
56 So David E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 229.
57 See Plutarch, Obsolescence of Oracles, 414E, 418D, 431B, 436F, 437D, and Philostratus, Imag-
ines, 1.7.20.
58 See Ps.-Justin, Hortatory to the Greeks 8; Athenagoras, A Plea for Christians 7, 9; Clement
of Alexandria, The Instructor, 2.4, and Exhortation to the Greeks, 1; Hippolytus, Treatise on
Christ and Antichrist 2; Theophilus of Antioch, Autolycus, 2.9, and Odes of Solomon 6.1–2.

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Pneuma 44 (2022) 20–40

to a musical instrument (lyre or flute) that is played by a musician with a plec-
trum or the mouth in analogy to a spirit speaking through a passive human
agent. The use of the musical-instrument trope is highly suggestive for amne-
sia as a neurobiological symptom of true prophecy in early Christian culture.59
By the time Montanism was pervasive in Asia (western Asia Minor),
around the late second century, an explicit awareness of unconscious prophecy
emerges. Members of the early Catholic Church were taken aback by Mon-
tanus’s unconscious prophesying—his “speaking in ecstasy”—so much so that
they argued that such activity was never practiced as true prophecy in the early
church.60 Montanus’s ecstasy produced an “involuntary psychosis” (akousion
manian).61 Reflecting on Montanism, the fourth-century heresiologist Epipha-
nius of Salamis distinguished between a biblical, cognitive ecstasy and a non-
biblical, amnesia-producing, unconscious ecstasy: “The prophets fell into
ecstasies, but not into ecstasies of [the] reasoning faculties” (gegonasi de en
ekstasei hoi prophētai, ouk en ekstasei logismōn).62 The former describes a vision
ecstasy experienced by ot prophets and nt figures such as Peter and Paul
(Acts 10:10, 11:5, 22:17) whose minds and memories remained intact during
what Epiphanius calls the visionary ekstasis di’ hyperbolēn thaumatos, “ecstasy
through extreme amazement.”63 This was the proper ecstasy for all true
prophets because the ecstasy did not suspend the mind of the prophet. The
latter describes an unconscious ecstasy experienced by Montanist prophets
whose mental faculties were jettisoned in what Epiphanius calls an ekstasis
phrenōn, “ecstasy of mind,” and an ekstasis logismōn, “ecstasy of the reason-
ing faculties.”64 Epiphanius makes clear that Montanus experienced posses-
sion amnesia; whenever the spirit spoke through him, “he did not know what
he was saying” (agnoei gar ha phthengetai), that is, he was unaware of what
the spirit was saying through him.65 For Epiphanius, God does not communi-

59 See William Tabbernee, Fake Prophecy and Polluted Sacraments: Ecclesiastical and Impe-
rial Reactions to Montanism (Leiden: Brill, 2007): “The early church had been quite used
to hearing prophets speak ecstatically ‘in the Spirit.’ Passivity on the part of a prophet
resulting in oracular utterance was not unusual,” 93.
60 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., 5.18.2. For Montanism in Eusebius, see Eusebius: The Ecclesiastical
History, trans. Kirsopp Lake, 2 vols., lcl (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926),
61 Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., 5.17.2.
62 Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.7.3. On Montanism in Epiphanius, see The Panarion of Epipha-
nius of Salamis: Books ii and iii; De Fide, trans. Frank Williams (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 6–21.
63 Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.4.6,7.
64 Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.4.6.
65 Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.5.8.

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Pneuma 44 (2022) 20–40

cate by removing the mind of a prophet—only evil spirits affect demoniacs in
this way66—thus Montanus was no true prophet, for a true prophet does not
speak under compulsion.67 In applying the musical-instrument trope to Mon-
tanus’s prophetic possession, Epiphanius denounced the trope as a nonbiblical
form of prophecy and argued that ekstasis logismōn was not the mindset of
a Christian prophet.68 Such a sentiment was an intriguing shift in the ortho-
doxy of unconscious prophecy, for two centuries earlier, Athenagoras, in his
A Plea for Christians 9.1, illustrated true prophecy as an unconscious experi-
ence by means of a trope of a prophet as an instrument (hos ei kai aulētēs
aulon empneusai) played by a divine spirit (theou pneumatos) while in an
ecstasy of reason (ekstasin logismōn) without any repercussion from church
In the history of early Christian prophecy, possession amnesia played a piv-
otal role in the discernment of prophecy among members of the early church.
By the end of the second century, assessments of Montanist prophecy ruled
that speaking in ecstasy and possession amnesia were signs of false prophecy
only, and opponents of Montanus charged him with demonic possession. Tax-
onomy for ecstasy determined the ethics of prophecy. Vision ecstasy guaran-
teed God’s presence, and unconscious ecstasy meant that God was absent (so
Apart from anti-Montanist protests against speaking in ecstasy, discernment
of spirits and prophecy did not include assessments of ecstasy but rather relied
on a spirit’s utterance to determine its character (1 Cor 12:3, 14:16, 1 John 4:1–
6, 1 Tim 4:1, 1Pet 1:12, Didache 11, Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11).70 If divine

66 So Origen, On First Principles, 3.3.4–5.
67 Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.4.1–6, 48.12.1,2.
68 Epiphanius, Panarion, 48.4.1–6.
69 Because “enthusiastic prophecy within the Church has not yet come under attack” (Alis-
tair Stewart-Sykes, “The Original Condemnation of Asian Montanism,” jeh 50 [1999]:
1–22, at 7). D. Jeffrey Bingham (“ ‘We have the Prophets’: Inspiration and the Prophets
in Athenagoras of Athens,” Zeitschrift für antikes Christentum [2016]: 211–242, at 233–
234) dubiously argues that Athenagoras’s choice of instrument, a pipe, showed that true
prophetic ekstasis logismōn included a conscious, active, “uplifted” mind, as opposed to
the lyre in Philo, Plutarch, and Epiphanius that depicted ekstasis logismōn as an uncon-
scious, passive mind. Tabbernee (Fake Prophecy, 94) sees mental passivity in all uses of the
trope, Christian, Jewish, or Greek.
70 See Stevan Davies, Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity (Dublin: Bardic Press,
2014), who observes, “There exist scholarly polemics against the ‘excesses of the Corin-
thian ecstatics’ based on 1Corinthians. But everything the Corinthian Christians do in the
spirit Paul does too. Paul is not opposed to ‘ecstatics’ per se; he is interested only in the
regulation of spirit-inspired behavior during community gatherings,” 82 n. 11. So, too, With-

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Pneuma 44 (2022) 20–40

and deceptive spirits communicated through an unconscious prophet in early
Christian culture, and discernment of the spirit was priority (not ecstasy), then
it is highly problematic that ekstasis logismōn was condemned in a Christian
setting as a sign for false prophecy. “Montanus was neither novel nor blasphe-
mous when he claimed that the divine spoke through him” while in a passive,
unconscious state of mind.71 The phenomenon of possession amnesia—which
apparently was objectionable among those who were not used to it as a symp-
tom of true prophecy72—contributed to dramatic developments in the devel-
oping Catholic Church’s assessment of the nature of prophecy and its reaction
to ecstatic prophecy and prophetic incorporation as heresy.

8 Conclusion

The patterns of possession amnesia occur in literature spanning different cul-
tures, different centuries, Western and non-Western, Christian and non-
Christian. What kind of evidence does this show? Is possession amnesia a
matter of role-playing, a staged exhibition learned by the actor who pretends
amnesia to meet the percipient expectations for the evidence of genuine spirit
possession? If so, then there would have to be a cross-cultural and transhistor-
ical conspiracy, which seems highly unlikely. Is possession amnesia evidence
for a psychosis, a symptom of abnormal psychology? Amnesia is, indeed, a
recognized clinical disorder, yet altered states of consciousness are often expe-
rienced by those who are mentally and physically fit.73 In many cultures, spirit-
mediums train to dissociate in order to incorporate a spirit, and only healthy
individuals are considered up to this task.
Is possession amnesia evidence for the spirit idiom? Anthropologists who
have gathered data on spirit possession (and who continue to do so to this day)
routinely find that amnesia is often a symptom of it. When a belief (in spir-
its and spirit possession) presents empirical data that is not bound by culture,
time, or any particular religion but cuts across all three, and furthermore, data
that can be repeated from both the past and the present, such a belief may

erington, Jesus the Seer: “[E]cstasy certainly cannot by itself help to distinguish true from
false prophecy,” 6.
71 So Tabbernee, Fake Prophecy, 93.
72 So Christine Trevett, Montanism: Gender, Authority and the New Prophecy (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1996), “Not all Patristic writers damned ecstasy, [so] quite
probably the ecstatic prophetic state was unfamiliar to those who wrote against [it],” 89.
73 See Charles T. Tart, ed., Altered States of Consciousness: A Book of Readings (New York: John
Wiley & Sons, 1969).

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Pneuma 44 (2022) 20–40

no longer remain in the realm of the subjective or cultural but rather provides
objective evidence that occurs throughout history in many different cultures
who practice spirit mediumship and who experience spirit possession. The fact
that possession amnesia occurs in the context of spirit possession in so many
different eras, ancient and modern, across a wide variety of cultures, Western
and non-Western, Christian and non-Christian, suggests that possession amne-
sia may serve as one of many pieces of veridical and evidential support for the
spirit idiom


  • Reply June 10, 2023


    More speculative, deceptive lies, tossing to and fro by every wind of doctrine

    • Reply June 10, 2023


      yes Philip Williams calvinism is speculative, deceptive lies, tossing to and fro

    • Reply June 10, 2023


      Duane L Burgess the way a Calvinist interprets the Bible.

    • Reply June 11, 2023


      Duane L Burgess Sir, charismatics need correction but reformed Calvinists too. You have to discern if something comes from God or not but according to the Spirit of God, not your own theology.

    • Reply June 11, 2023


      Troy Day just as pre trib rapture is speculative, deceptive lies tossing to and fro.

  • Reply June 10, 2023


    Do not be deceived by this false theology!

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