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date: 28 January 2023

possession, religiousfree

possession, religiousfree

  • Corinne Ondine Pache


  • Christianity
  • Greek Myth and Religion
  • Roman Myth and Religion

Updated in this version

Text and bibliography expanded; "Primary Texts" section added.

That a human being might become possessed by a supernatural power was a fairly common ancient belief. The effect might be a sudden change in behavior, the altered state of consciousness associated with Dionysiac ritual, or a prophetic frenzy as in the case of a divinely inspired trance (see Delphic oracle). Plato (Phaedr. 244a ff., esp. 265a-c) distinguishes between prophetic (mantikê, inspired by Apollo), mystical (telestikê, inspired by Dionysus), poetic (inspired by the Muses), and erotic (inspired by Aphrodite and Eros) possession. Sources also differentiate between unprompted possession and possession sought through ritual, as in the case of the Pythia at Delphi who became ἔνθεος‎ (“inspired” or “filled with a god”) and whose body became a medium for the god’s voice.

Words such as θεόληπτος, θεοφόρητος‎, or κάτοχος‎ (expressing the notion “possessed by (a) god”), carried an ambivalent meaning. On the one hand, they referred to terrifying pathological experiences, such as epileptic strokes or various types of insanity. On the other hand, possession involved direct contact with a god and thus could effect a kind of sacralization. Socrates mentions the possibility of becoming “seized by the nymphs” (νυμφόληπτος‎) while conversing in a sanctuary dedicated to nymphs (Phaedr. 238d). While Socrates speaks metaphorically, inscriptions from around 400 bce (IG 12. 784, 785, 788) mention Archedemus from Thera, “the nympholept” (ὁ νυμφόληπτος‎), who withdrew to a cave to devote himself to a monk-like worship of the Nymphs. At Pharsalus, an hexametrical inscription from the 4th century bce describes how Pantalkes became the guardian of a cave after an encounter with the nymphs, in which the nymphs made him into their overseer (see caves, sacred). The religious phenomenon of nympholepsy is also reflected in myth, in the many poetic narratives of goddesses who fall in love with mortal men. Hesiod’s Theogony, for example, includes several nympholeptic encounters such as Aphrodite’s seizing of the mortal man Phaethon to make him into the keeper of her sanctuary (Hes. Theog. 22–34 and 987–991), while the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite details how the goddess seduces Anchises and gives birth to the hero Aeneas. Similarly the Theogony presents the meeting of the narrator with the Muses who transform him from shepherd into poet as a nympholeptic encounter. Divine possession, while typically temporary, is transformative for the men who experience it, whether the historical nympholepts who tended the sanctuary of the goddesses who had seized them or the literary figures of mortal men transformed into poets, priests, or consorts of goddesses and nymphs.

Closely related to ancient examples of divine possession are the various κάτοχοι‎ or κατεχόμενοι‎ (literally, “the ones who are held” or “possessed”) of later pagan and Christian religious systems, especially in Asia Minor and Egypt: people who retired from the world to become the possessions of their gods, whom they served in slavish submission. Belief in the pathological connotations of possession, especially possession by demons, grew stronger in the post-Classical period (cf., the many stories about demoniacs in the NT), and reports of magical cures and exorcisms, pagan and Christian, abound (see asceticism).


  • Connor, W. Robert. “Seized by the Nymphs: Nympholepsy and Symbolic Expression in Classical Greece.” Classical Antiquity 7, no. 2 (1988): 155–189.
  • Dodds, Eric R. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.
  • Graf, Fritz. “Apollo, Possession, and Prophecy.” In Apolline Politics and Poetics. Edited by Lucia Athanassaki and Richard P. Martin, 587–605. Athens: European Cultural Centre of Delphi, 2009.
  • Himmelmann-Wildschütz, Nikolaus. Theoleptos. Marburg, Germany: Archäologisches Seminar, 1957.
  • Larson, Jennifer. Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Pache, Corinne O. A Moment’s Ornament: The Poetics of Nympholepsy in Ancient Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Pfister, Friedrich. Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Vol. 4, 944–987. Stuttgart, Germany: Hiersemann, 1959.
  • Purvis, Andrea. Singular Dedications. Founders and Innovators of Private Cults in Classical Greece. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Schoerner, Günther, and Hans Rupprecht Goette. Die Pan-Grotte von Vari. Mainz am Rhein, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 2004.
  • Smith, Wesley D. “So-Called Possession in Pre-Christian Greece.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 96 (1965): 403–426.