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date: 15 January 2021

possession, religiousfree

  • H. S. Versnel

That a human being might become possessed by a supernatural power was a fairly common ancient belief. The effect might be a prophetic frenzy as in the case of the trance (see delphic oracle). Plato (Phaedr. 244aff., esp. 265) further distinguishes between telestic (inspired by Dionysus), poetic (inspired by the Muses), and erotic (inspired by Aphrodite and Eros) possession. Words expressing the notion ‘possessed by (a) god’, such as θεόληπτος‎‎ or θεοφόρητος‎‎, carried an ambivalent meaning. On the one hand they referred to terrifying pathological experiences, as for instance epileptic strokes or various types of insanity. On the other, possession involved direct contact with a god and thus could effect a kind of sacralization. Around 400 bce inscriptions (IG 12. 784, 785, 788) mention Archedemus from Thera, ὁ νυμφόληπτος‎‎ (‘seized by the nymphs’), who withdrew to a cave to devote himself to a monk-like worship of the Nymphs; see caves, sacred. Closely related are the various κάτοχοι‎‎ or κατεχόμενοι‎‎ of later pagan and Christian creeds, especially in Asia Minor and Egypt: people who retired from the world to become the possession 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.


  • E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), 64–101.
  • Fr. Pfister, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum 4 (1959), 944–87.
  • N. Himmelmann-Wildschütz, Theoleptos (1957).
  • W. D. Smith, Transactions of the American Philological Association 96 (1965), 403–426.
  • W. R. Connor, Classical Antiquity 1988, 155–89.
  • A. Purvis, Singular Dedications. Founders and Innovators of Private Cults in Classical Greece (2003), 33–63.