Modern Possession

…surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. … It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.” ~ C. S. Lewis

Like witches, we do not believe in possession today, nor in the sorts of spirits and powers that could possess someone. Like witches, possession is an excuse for jokes and cheap scares.

The sort of spirit that is typically visualized as not possessing people is a misty thing, drifting around night-darkened graveyards and lurking in shadows, fearful of the light of day. Consider the pests and vermin of Ghostbusters: vaguely humanoid and anthropomorphized, obsessive beings or ghosts of the unhappy dead.

The spirits the ancients feared – angels and demons and aspects, were somewhat different. Shades of this older conception remain in odd corners, like the living architectures that were Philip Pullman’s angels. The Christian tradition he was toying with does consider angels to be timeless, eternal things, and traditionally ranks angels by such titles as Thrones, Powers, and Dominions. Those are surprisingly static, impersonal titles for creatures with such a dynamic effect on Biblical stories.

Consider what it means to say a spirit is a Power – like we might say electricity is a kind of power. Imagine a creature that does not HAVE motivation so much as it IS motivation; a body of motive instead of embodying a motive.

Though not a fan myself, I gather that most horror films eventually describe an intelligent (or at least intelligible) motive and origin of the haunting spirit(s) – but what if there were no explanation? The haunter might never have ‘intended’ to terrify the protagonists, and merely be bad for people in the same way an over-charged electric fence is bad for people, like a house-fire is bad for people – like a basement full of Radon is bad for people. For such Powers, the presence or absence of traits such as intelligence or sentience is irrelevant, a distraction to what they do, and what they do is what they are.

Obviously, this kind of Power is far older than Christianity’s angels. If to err is human, the Greek and Roman gods were very, very human, but even they had some remarkably strong Natures. Aphrodite could not cease to be beautiful or enamored of shallow beauty lest she cease to be the goddess of beauty. Dionysus, the god of wine, could hardly be expected to stop drinking. Consider also Kronos, the ancient titan of time, whose entropic hunger so dominated that he consumed even his own children.

The wider Greek pantheon included more obviously abstract entities, like the Fates – the trinity of past, present, and future. They are inscrutable, metaphorical, and never given stories or personality the way Zeus’ tribe was. Less opaque but equally abstract were the Furies – revenge given monstrous form. The Greeks were particularly enamored of self-fulfilling prophecies, and I think it’s entirely overlooked that they also considered self-fulfilling concepts. What else are the Furies, if not bloody revenge given the form and powers to fulfill itself? The idea of revenge was made flesh to wreak revenge.

Ideas! If they are not spirits, they certainly are immaterial. In spite of this minor handicap, they certainly have P\power and purpose, conclusions and actions they demand of humanity – Justice, Liberty, Communism, these are ideas people die for. Wealth today is numbers on the papers and computers of strangers – but people will die for those numbers. How many countries are merely lines on a map? Yet people die for those lines.

Often we say that one is possessed of an idea, but in our modern dismissal of bed-sheet ghosts and red-horned devils, have we forgotten that someone can be possessed BY an idea?

An idea may slip into an undefended mind, and soon the possessed is willing to die – to kill – according to the implacable force and inhuman Nature of the idea. Even if the Furies can not be made flesh to haunt the wicked, perhaps they can take flesh to achieve the same self-fulfillment.

And so I maintain that possession still happens, though the enlightened world laughs at the idea. Terrifying, alien, tempting Powers exist, and often seek (and acquire) total control of mens’ goals, thoughts, words, and actions.

Most frightening of all, ideas are not always wrong.

“Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas. … Practical men, unaccustomed to causes, are always inclined to think that if a thing is proved to be an ideal it is proved to be the ideal.” ~ G. K. Chesterton

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