The real history of exorcisms that you don’t see in movies

Exorcisms are a frequent fascination for the film industry, and it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. But the idea of purging evil—whatever its form—has roots that straddle the line between A.D. and B.C.

National Geographic – 18 April – MELISSA SARTORE

For most people, the word “exorcism” probably conjures up images of Catholic priests—compelled by the power of Christ, wind from an unknown source blowing, candles flickering all around them—casting out demonic creatures and wicked spirits from a person or, in some cases, a place. Movies like 1973’s The Exorcist highlight the use of holy water, prayer, and even reason to drive out a nefarious force, all as the epic battle between good and evil plays out in front of viewers’ eyes. But … is that accurate?

Exorcisms really happen—and what’s at stake during one may not be too far off from what pop culture would have us believe. The 2023 movie The Pope’s Exorcist, based on the memoirs of the real Catholic priest and exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, for example, offers a highly fictionalized version of a real insider’s perspective into exorcism. In its focus on the horror aspects of contemporary exorcism, what pop culture like The Pope’s Exorcist doesn’t provide, is a clear understanding of how exorcism as a practice actually came to be. 

Photo of priest with crucifix behind him
The real Father Gabriele Amorth sits in front of a crucifix in Rome.PHOTOGRAPH BY TANIA, CONTRASTO/REDUX

Exorcisms are real—so what were the early ones like?

Exorcisms performed by the Catholic Church are likely the best-known exorcisms, but at the heart of any exorcism is the enduring battle against evil. The definition of evil is malleable, however, and depends on belief system, practice, and context. As a result, evil can take the form of a demon, a spiritual impurity, or a simple temptation. Exorcism, as the weapon to combat evil, expels, cleanses, or protects from whatever nefarious force is at play.  

In Mesopotamia during the 1st millennium B.C., purveyors of magic called ašipu staved off and expelled demons that brought illness and chaos. As spiritual healers, ašipu were esteemed protectors who used amulets, performed elaborate rituals and, when needed, engaged helper demon figures in their efforts. The ancient Greek word daimon—from which the modern “demon” derives—referred to god-like spirits and supernatural forces. While a daimon could be good or evil, the latter was a malevolent force that needed to be cast out or exorcized. The 1st century A.D. historian Josephus recounted the story of Eleazar, a man who freed others from a demon by drawing it out of his nostrils and repeatedly invoking King Solomon’s name, attesting to a form of exorcism in Jewish tradition as well.

Photo of black tablet with gargoyle-like head at top and panels across telling story
This bronze Mesopotamian booklet presents an ancient exorcism and is housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris.PHOTOGRAPH BY PHOTO JOSSE, BRIDGEMAN IMAGE

With the growth of Christianity during the first three centuries A.D., the established themes of exorcism found even stronger footing. Exorcisms became a means to unite the Christian faithful and vindicate their beliefs in the wake of religious persecution. The spread of Christianity meant paganism took on an evil connotation, transforming non-Christian beliefs into something that needed to be exorcized. 

As a result, renouncing paganism as an evil became a requirement for baptism into the Christian faith. Falling back under the influence of a pagan belief was, therefore, akin to possession. Exorcism in this context was a voluntary mechanism used to strengthen both the Christian faith and the Christian community. 

Exorcism served to legitimize Christianity and, by the 4th century A.D., found extensive use in pre-baptismal contexts. Converts and aspiring Christians underwent daily morning exorcism in the lead up to baptism. On the day of baptism, a bishop literally blew evil influences off of them through a process called exsufflation. In the moments before being baptized, the individual was anointed with oil that had itself been exorcized.   

Outside of baptism, churchmen carried out exorcism by laying hands on the possessed while commanding evil spirits to leave their bodies. Christians in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages could exorcize themselves, so to speak, by calling on a saint as an intercessor, going to a shrine, and appealing for aid from a sacred entity to get closer to God and further away from evil.

Illustration of religious figures praying over vessel with water
This 13th-century art from Italy’s Bari Cathedral illustrates an exorcism. ILLUSTRATION VIA DEA, A. DAGLI ORTI/CONTRIBUTOR VIA GETTY IMAGES

Then came the Middle Ages

It wasn’t until roughly the 12th century that exorcism underwent a significant transition. This was brought on by the rise of heretical sects of Christianity. Groups like the Cathars espoused the dualistic contest between good and evil, an affront to Roman Catholic doctrine and hierarchy alike. To the orthodox Catholic faithful—and, more importantly, to Catholic leadership—this heresy presented a newfound benefit of exorcism: as an essential mechanism by which Christians could be freed from the sinful heretical beliefs to which the era was giving rise. 

Proving one’s dedication to Christianity found formalization through exorcism, with personal prayers taking on the form of “self-exorcism.” Additionally, theologians the likes of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) took on topics like demonology and helped define and clarify the purpose of exorcism in the process.

The publication of the first exorcism book around 1400 A.D. was followed by what would be decades, if not centuries, of crisis for the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation split Christianity and meant the demonized other was perhaps more present than it had ever been from the perspective of the Vatican. As a result, persecutions like the Inquisition took on an exorcism-like feel. In this context, the first official rite of exorcism was sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

In 1614, Rituale Romanum was instituted and remained largely unchanged through the first half of the 20th century. It included De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam, or Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplicationsand, after reforms undertaken by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), was the last part of the Rituale Romanum to be revised. The updated version was published in 1999. 

The structure and formulas of the 1614 and 1999 versions of De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam are very similar, although the latter reinforces the connection between baptism and exorcism. As a result, contemporary exorcisms not only continue to mirror their ancient predecessors, but have, in many ways, come full circle.”

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