Spirited Things: The Work of "Possession" in Afro-Atlantic Religions


The word “possession” is anything but transparent, especially as it developed in the context of the African Americas. There it referred variously to spirits, material goods, and people. It served as a watershed term marking both transactions in which people were made into things—via slavery—and ritual events by which the thingification of people was revised. In Spirited Things, Paul Christopher Johnson gathers together essays by leading anthropologists in the Americas that reopen the concept of possession on ...

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The word “possession” is anything but transparent, especially as it developed in the context of the African Americas. There it referred variously to spirits, material goods, and people. It served as a watershed term marking both transactions in which people were made into things—via slavery—and ritual events by which the thingification of people was revised. In Spirited Things, Paul Christopher Johnson gathers together essays by leading anthropologists in the Americas that reopen the concept of possession on these two fronts in order to examine the relationship between African religions in the Atlantic and the economies that have historically shaped—and continue to shape—the cultures that practice them. Exploring the way spirit possessions were framed both by material things—including plantations, the Catholic church, the sea, and the phonograph—as well as by the legacy of slavery, they offer a powerful new way of understanding the Atlantic world. 

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Editorial Reviews

Stefania Capone
Spirited Things is an ambitious and provocative work that casts a brilliant light over one of the more complex and critical issues in anthropology. It brings spirit possession into the heart of anthropological theory, revealing its central place in the ‘genealogy of modernity.’”
Sally M. Promey
“A model study, provocative and compelling, a constellation of essays with both gravity and energy, Spirited Things rearranges spirit possession’s theoretical and contextual furnishings with striking consequences. Parsing the subject in relation to current scholarly frontiers where matter is reacquainted with spirit and things aspire to agency, Johnson’s volume invites an expansive audience of readers interested in materiality, religion, sensation, transatlantic slavery, and Afro-Atlantic modernities.”
Richard Price
“Trading geographical sweep for ethnographic and theoretical depth, this volume engages the relationship between spirit possession and materiality, helping to locate the place of possession in the genealogy of modernity—an innovative, stimulating take on Black Atlantic religions.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226122762
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/9/2014
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 8.80 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Christopher Johnson is professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies and director of the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is the author of Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé  and Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa.

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Spirited Things

The Work of "Possession" in Afro-Atlantic Religions



Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-12262-5


Toward an Atlantic Genealogy of "Spirit Possession"


Discourses and legal actions naming and constraining "spirit possession" over the past four centuries were a lever creating the dual notions of the rational individual agent—one who possesses, rather than being possessed—and the civil subject of an emergent modern state. The silhouette of the propertied citizen and free individual took form between, on one hand, the specter of the automaton or zombie, a machine-body without will and, on the other hand, the threat of the primitive or animal, being ruled by passions (or the two merged, as in Descartes's "nature's automata," animals as machines [2003: 24, 29, 66]).

The balance between the lack of will and its unchecked excess, especially in relation to governance, has been perceived through the prism of the dangers of spirits in relation to persons and objects at least from the mid-seventeenth century to the present. Often it has been thought of in relation to African religions, where the prospect of turning bodies into machines, as slaves, and Europeans' dread of unrestrained religious frenzy, often named as "possession," were conjoined, with the latter justifying the former.

This is not to suggest that the term "possession" first or solely emerged out of colonial processes. Possession is a very old Latin term derived from the roots of potus, to be able, and sedere, to sit. Though it has long been applied to the image of spirits' occupations of bodies, what is important for my purposes is simply the observation that notions of property preceded and guided notions of spirits' capacity to "sit" in flesh. I would like to consider how the terms of property, the place one can sit, were transferred to ideas about the human body, its ownership, and its volition.

"Religion" was part and parcel of this project. As a freshly minted universal feature of the newborn universal man around the mid-seventeenth century, it emerged as a generic human class of thought and action through a process of purification, the exorcism of spirits to leave a properly buffered, impenetrable, self-possessed being (De Certeau 1975; Taylor 2007), one who could then freely believe in God, or at least in God's natural laws. This purification harnessed the new anthropology of the savage to descriptions of classical antiquity—often, present West Africa to ancient Egypt—conjuring the category of "religion" from the comparison of present enactments with those of earlier stages and places. This was a story of progress rather than of declension as the savage had usually been narrated in the wake of the Columbian encounter. Thus by the time of Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie, to consider just one site of the making of a generic class, "religion," we find a squawking menagerie of all the savage things religion had allegedly superseded—"superstition," "magic," "fanaticism," "idolatry," "fetishism," and many others from before and abroad. By the time we arrive at "religion," there's little point in reading further; we know it will consist of the duly cleansed remainder. The new universal man was construed as a bearer of a new generic content, Religion, and this new being at once marked and helped create the conditions for concluding a century and a half of wars following the Reformation. But those conditions only came into being through the "whithering" of ecstasy (Heidegger 1962: 416), pushing it overseas to places that were chronotopes of the spatially distanced past of humankind. Possession by spirits was circumscribed by a broad range of descriptors of boiling religious excess—passions, frenzy, enthusiasm and, sociologically, the "horde," or "la foule" (Le Bon 1894, 1895). Kant, to take one prominent example, derided practices of seeking direct divine inspiration with Martin Luther's dismissive word Schwärmerei (Hollywood 2011). Nested within a cluster of such terms, "possession" was rendered a stable concept in parallel with "religion." The mid-seventeenth-century category of religion, a properly civil religion of Jean Bodin, Hobbes, or Locke, was purified in dialogue with a protoanthropological notion of spirit possession as civil danger. "Bit by bit concepts are purified: a small part remains, while the rest is thrown away as rubbish" (Kant [1766] 2002: 45).

Via the labor of the negative, "spirit possession" defined the rational, autonomous, self-possessed individual imagined as the foundation of the modern state, in canonical texts from Hobbes, Locke, Charles de Brosses, Hume, Kant, and many others, as those texts constructed the free individual and citizen against a backdrop of emerging colonial horizons. It would be too simple to reduce the matter to "outing" the old gang by recounting Hobbes's stakes in the Virginia Company from 1622 to 1624 or Locke's role in the writing of the constitution of the Carolinas, where absolute power over slaves was enshrined, and his stake in the Royal Africa Company or Kant's part in analytically defining rigid categories of "race," though all that is surely important. Rather, my program is to try to recover themes that are so obvious as to be usually overlooked, to read "along the grain" (Stoler 2008) to trace some of the themes, encounters, places, and times out of which "spirit possession" was forged, then detached and universalized, and then widely reapplied in histories, ethnographies, and eventually even the practice of Afro-Atlantic religions.

The outcome I envision is not that "spirit possession" will be retired to the land of broken terms, as occurred with the totem. To the contrary: by showing how the category first emerged from overlapping domains of religion, expanding colonial economies, emerging ideas of national polity, and the making of the individual citizen, I hope to refit the old saw with new and sharper teeth.


Spirit possession as a conceptual apparatus of the West emerged out of the nomenclature of Christian demonology, beginning with the New Testament and peaking from the fifteenth to the first half of the seventeenth century (Caciola 2003; Sluhovsky 2007), with the famous mass possessions at Lourdes (1634), Louviers (1647), and elsewhere marking in one sense the apex and in another the exhaustion of the demonic paradigm's legitimacy. The Catholic Church itself began to carefully discipline and police invocations of demons and their exorcism with the official Roman Rite of 1614 (Sluhovsky 2007: 63). The Anglican Church officially dismissed possession altogether in 1604 (Anglican Canon, article 72), taking the position that the biblical age of miracles was past (K. Thomas 1971: 485). As it began to be rationalized and policed in the West, possession by spirits broke free from a religiously specific application beginning around the mid-seventeenth century and was extended to perceived similar phenomena from far-reaching parts of the world as colonial reports filtered back to European metropoles. At around the same time as André Thevet was aggressively dispossessing the Tupi on the coast of Brazil, Leo Africanus's Description of Africa (1550, English translation 1600), described the women of Fez "possessing" themselves with a variety of white, red, and black devils; they "faine the divell to speake within them" (2: 458). Jean Barbot described African dancing as less like "dance" and more like persons possessed in his travels in 1679 (1732: 338). John Olgiby's English translation of Dapper (1670) presented Africa as "possess'd by five sorts of Religions" (33), of blacks "possesst with this mischievous humour" that causes them to disappear to the woods, and of a conjuror that "hath such strange fancies and behaviour, as if possess'd" (478). In other words, possession was quickly "found," but it was also seen in association with by-now familiar cues of Europe's demonic-possession script. To wit, Pieter de Marees's 1602 description of West Africa vividly narrated dancing, drumming, and other possession-like "antics" during which a black dog appeared (66), recapitulating a standard cue of the demonic mis-en-scene.

Over time, possession was sufficiently extended to generate a freestanding, objective morphological class for the purposes of advancing comparisons of rituals and beliefs across groups. The comparisons fueled anthropologies in which the nature of humanness first was a question of static kinds along an escalating chain of being laid out geographically and then a question of temporal order and progressive development. Spirit possession was one of the key markers of the primitive stage in the evolution of civilizations. By the nineteenth century, this process culminated in the category's reification as an utterly generic class of action, a founding term in the discipline of anthropology. E. B. Tylor's theory of animism was pivotal: "To the minds of the lower races it seems that all nature is possessed, pervaded, crowded, with spiritual beings" ([1871] 1958: 2:271), a maxim applying as much to "an English ploughman and a negro of Central Africa" (1:7).

Tracing this story, which has not been adequately told, is part of what this chapter seeks to accomplish. Yet I also want to muddle the story. Derrida coined the phrase "spectral duplicity" to ask of what, or whom, "spirit" is itself possessed (Derrida 1989: 6; Heidegger 1962: 74, 92, 132), but what of the corollary question, Of what is possession possessed? That is, if spirit possession is itself a feitiço, a made thing, it is also a congeries—even better, an entrepôt—where manifold ideas about personhood, will, action, things, and power were deposited in scattershot but nevertheless structured ways. What is needed is the excavation of the veins of those deposits, in part through a genealogy of ideas and in part through historical and ethnographic investigations of how those ideas interacted with practices on the ground. This chapter starts to exhume the exchanges between material things, ideas of the body as thing, or property, and spirit possession as they converged in relation to at least three issues: (1) the emergence of European philosophies and civil strategies of relating persons and property; (2) a colonial process based on enslavement and the questions of humanness and will that process evoked; and (3) the geographic encounter, in lands imagined especially (though of course not only) in relation to commercial gain, with religions that included being spoken through by unseen agents.

Another complication of the conventional argument is that it isn't sufficient to suggest that spirit possession merely derived from (mis)translations of what missionaries and traders encountered, for those agents also created or at least accelerated what they "found" (Mayes 1995: 5). Spirit possession gained force and frequency in the African Americas under and after the regimes of slavery, even compared with Africa itself (Mattos 1986: 127), so much so that African-born slaves in Brazil were surprised at the prominence and frequency of possession in creole practices they in other ways found similar to those of the homeland (Nina Rodrigues 1935: 101; Harding 2000: 155). To take a contemporary example, "possession" befalls Haitian migrants in the United States like children who would never be legitimate candidates for being possessed at home (K. Brown 1991: 253; Richman 2005). In this sense, Sartre's intervention in his preface to Fanon's Wretched of the Earth has it wrong: "In certain districts they make use of that last resort—possession by spirits. Formerly this was a religious experience in all its simplicity, a certain communion of the faithful with sacred things; now they make of it a weapon against humiliation and despair." (1963: 19). Sartre was wrong in the sense that it was not just the uses of it, but the very "it" that was made and remade as social and economic relations changed in time and place. Without going so far as to reduce spirit possession to a ritual response to conditions of suffering—though that argument has been powerfully made, especially to assess the overwhelming frequency of women as its enactors (e.g., Lewis 1971; Caciola 2003)—there seems to be something about "possession" as at once the filling of and the mediating and reinstituting of diasporic and other kinds of absence.

A third complication from the conventional narrative is that spirit possession's arc was not merely descriptive or theoretical but entailed dramatic practical effects on the ways formerly secret religions became public (P. Johnson 2002). Its anthropological canonization was enormously influential on the study of Afro-Atlantic religions. The first ethnographic descriptions of Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban religions, by Raymundo Nina Rodrigues and Fernando Ortiz, respectively, were direct applications of Tylor's ideas. But these studies in turn also had far-reaching legal consequences. Spirit possession was a gatekeeping mechanism for constructing the good society and proper civil comportment, and its long-standing association with religions of African origin posed high legal, political, and social barriers to former slaves in the new republics of Brazil, Cuba, the United States, and elsewhere.

Finally, there is a fourth complication to the conventional narrative, and though I only have space to signal it here, the chapters that follow demonstrate it amply: as religious adepts themselves begin to adopt the moniker of "possession" as a first-order term in their own practices, this translated bodily phenomena previously described in manifold other ways into the terms of property and ownership, potus sedere. Learning to perform certain forms of ritual experience as "being possessed" transforms religious practice and experience itself.

Topography of the Possessed: From the Indian to the African

As spirit possession emerged as a generic comparative class in the seventeenth century, it served simultaneously as a medicalization of demonology and an engendering of a novel hermeneutics of the self. Determining who and what possesses who and what possesses a given body required an articulated system of interior life (Foucault (1962) 1999). But as that interior life was shaped in Europe, possession was increasingly "found" abroad, and the two processes were related. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the possessed were primarily "Indians." Recall the long trajectory of the Amerindians like the Brazilian Tupi in European thought—from Montaigne to Shakespeare to Rousseau. All these citations hinged at their outset on the rival descriptions by the French Franciscan royal cosmographer André Thevet ([1575] 1986) and the Huguenot Jean de Léry ([1578] 1990). Cannibalism was the spectacular center of both descriptions, but possession was a near second. Thevet reported that more than one hundred times he seized the bodies of possessed Indians and, reciting the Gospel of Saint John and other texts, conquered every demon—all in ten weeks. These repeated possession events provided at once an alleged domain of religious intersubjectivity that linked Frenchman to Tupi—since they used an overlapping repertory of ideas and acts to communicate a body occupied by spirits (de Léry, to wit, found in Indians' possessions a soapbox from which to fulminate against what he called the atheist dogs of Europe)—and a graphic demonstration of religious hierarchy, Christians on top. The transfer of "possession" to the Americas and then Africa entailed the mapping of Christian demonic imagery and nomenclature onto the figure of the savage.

A century after Jean de Léry's and André Thevet's reports, possession began to be viewed less as the problem of the savage and more and more as a dangerous propensity generic to all humanity. The spectacle of victory over the spirits would become less that of Christian over savage and increasingly one of the civil over the mob. Indigenous religions continued to play the foil, but the geography of the possessed Other gradually shifted from the Americas to Africa and the Caribbean. By the 1700s, the possessed place was Africa and the African Americas.


Excerpted from Spirited Things by PAUL CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION / Spirits and Things in the Making of the Afro-Atlantic World

ONE / Toward an Atlantic Genealogy of “Spirit Possession”

TWO / The Ejamba of North Fairmount Avenue, the Wizard of Menlo Park, and the Dialectics of Ensoniment: An Episode in the History of an Acoustic Mask

THREE / “Who’s Dat Knocking at the Door?” A Tragicomic Ethiopian Spirit Delineation in Three Parts

FOUR / Spiritual Agency, Materiality, and Knowledge in Cuba

FIVE / The Fetish and the Stone: A Moral Economy of Charlatans and Thieves

SIX / Demons and Money: Possessions in Brazilian Pentecostalism

SEVEN / Possessing the Land for Jesus

EIGHT / Possession and Attachment: Notes on Moral Ritual Communication among Haitian Descent Groups

NINE / Mimetic Corporeality, Discourse, and Indeterminacy in Spirit Possession

TEN / Afterword: Recognizing and Misrecognizing Spirit Possession


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