Encyclopedia of Medical Anthropology

2004 Edition
| Editors: Carol R. Ember, Melvin Ember

Possession and Trance

  • Erika Bourguignon
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-29905-X_15


The English term “possession” includes both the concept of ownership and of control and domination. Belief in possession by spirits, that is, the possibility that an individuals actions and behavior may be controlled by spirits or demons, is attested in English usage from the 16th century. These beliefs have left their traces in everyday language. Belief in spirit possession is both ancient and very widespread as seen in the historical and ethnographic record. One of the remarkable features of this system of beliefs and associated ritual practices is its very great flexibility and innovative potential. This is demonstrated by its expansion and diffusion, where decline and indeed disappearance might have been expected. In a large-scale, cross-cultural study, some form of such beliefs was found to be present in 77% of 488 sample societies (Bourguignon, 1973). Given the terminological confusion at the time of this research and a great deal of ad hoc generalization in the...


Altered State Behavioral Manifestation Sample Society Spirit Possession Ethnographic Record 
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© Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Erika Bourguignon

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