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SPIRIT POSSESSIONS : The difference between true and untrue :Reflections on trance and possession while researching Vudu ceremonies in the Dominican Republic) by Giovanni Savino

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This is the question that will follow most of us from our infancy till the very day of our death.
And what is the answer?

What makes us make up our minds about a person’s words or actions, about a particular event, about a mystery and its possible explanation or acceptance?

1) Our lifelong, ever-changing, accumulated personal experience
2) Our cultural / academic baggage
3) The influence of the people surrounding us
4) The influence and strength of the very person(s) trying to convince us that what they say or do is true
5) Our willingness (or lack of) to believe that what we experience is true (faith).
6) The final result, or rather the personal conclusions we draw once all is said and done, when the play is over and we can observe, from a distance, the plausibility of the facts and re-assess what actually happened.

I sat down to write these reflections after several years of study and field research in the mystic and mysterious world of spiritual possessions, healings, offerings and petitions, at the core of the religious and magic manifestations of the vudu ceremony in the Dominican Republic.
During a vudu ceremony one or more persons are possessed by one (or several) Lwa, a supernatural entity, a spiritual being, a Saint. The possessed, the Medium (”Caballo “or “Servidor de Misterio”), incarnating the spirit, temporarily acquires specific powers in order to heal, counsel, resolve, heart, financial and even law matters the petitioners submit to them.
The “Theatrical performance” involved in a spiritual trance is an extremely subtle and controversial phenomenon to ascertain. As each Lwa possessing a human being has his/her own subjective qualities, speaking in a specific way (e.g. San Santiago speaks militarily, Santa Marta la Dominadora speaks a mixture of Spanish and Creole, Papa Legba speaks rudely and often swears etc.), walking in a specific way, asking for specific drinks or foods, the skeptical observer could be inclined to think that, contrary to the popular belief (when a person “comes back” from being possessed does not recall anything that happened), the Medium does not completely loses touch with his/her earthy self but rather adapts it to the calling of a specific Lwa based on an embedded knowledge, through oral tradition, of the peculiarities of the spirit supposedly manifesting through his/her body.
So, is the possessed Medium embodying the spirit based on a cultural/ traditional interpretation rather than a genuine psychophysical incarnation?
This is hard to say. How genuine a possession looks can also be a matter of the right choreography and congregational concentration. At times, I have witnessed very unconvincing possessions, especially when the social stage was unfocused and “secularly” distracted with cell phones ringing, loud background music or overwhelming traffic noise.
Other times, when the possession happened in a strongly connected environment of spiritual unity, that seemed to reinforce tenfold the veridicality of the medium embodying the Lwa.
I am inclined to think that the most rational explanation goes back to the very core of religion.
Believing is a choice.
A choice motivated by multiple social and cultural factors but mainly by our inner predisposition.
The existence of the soul has not been proved, yet, in medical terms.
Nevertheless many believe that any bodily affliction is dependent on a pre-existing affliction of the soul and that healing the body results more difficult, if not impossible, without first healing the soul.
Moreover, if the existence of the soul is not certain and if, let’s say you are extremely skeptical about it, would you be carelessly willing to sign a legal document, selling your soul to anyone?
I wouldn’t.
We are walking a very thin line here between reality, dream and (borrowing from Alejandro Jodorowsky) “Psycho-magical” activities.
Of course most metaphysical performances can be- if that is our intention- deconstructed and reduced to mere theatrical acts. The reasons that prevent us to do so could be our social/religious respectfulness, our fear of the unknown, a “last resort” kind of need to believe (for example after trying all known medical healing procedures to no avail), or, simply, an unequivocal belief in the “Misterio”. The full acceptance of a spiritual possession as a genuine manifestation basically means acknowledging our metaphysical ignorance and accepting some kind of deliverance from the unknown without the need for further explanation.Are miracles real? There is indeed an enormous “archive” of miracles that supposedly have happened and that have been “proven” as genuine, over the centuries all over the world and in every religion.
The Catholic Church is constantly investigating, assessing “miraculous happenings” around the world and then decide to give them or not the official seal of veridicality.We must also note here that the role the Lwa (possessing Spirit) plays in Dominican society is multifaceted. The Lwa is the doctor, the magician, the ancestor, the psychologist, the matrimonial counselor and much more, in a society that is still vastly underdeveloped.
Everybody looks for answers to their daily problems, pains and doubts.
They all look for answers, but not necessarily explanations.
A “miraculous” healing or solutions to one’s problems is usually good enough, even if it cannot be rationally explained.
The answers you receive from the Lwa are strictly dependent on your faith and belief that they will work for you. They are axioms of trust and fulfill a need for deliverance.
The empowerment is given to you with two conditions: to believe and to follow the Lwa’s instructions to the letter.
Sometimes I wondered if the Lwa’s solution, even with its lack of logical explanations, ends up being a more direct and focused type of empowerment than just being given a prescription drug in a clinic and sent home. After all the “cure” is prescribed in a trance and might work only if, before all things, you believe it will work and you exactly execute what the Lwa prescribes.
Modern psychiatry is starting to evaluate and even use similar paradigms, where the relationship between doctor and patient, between the cure and the healing process is based on the willingness and acceptance of the sick person to “do the work” for him/her self, alongside their doctor, in order to heal.
So, I am often tempted to say that, after all, it is fairly irrelevant to ascertain the veridicality of a possession. It would be perhaps like demanding to investigate the habits, the social life, and the most intimate beliefs of your allopathic doctor before you trust him to write you a prescription. Once you decide (or feel) that you believe, then, you let the Lwa (or your family doctor) work for you and let him teach you how to help yourself.
Finally, there are good and bad people in all walks of life.
The same applies to “brujos” and the to world of supernatural.
Some people ask me:” how come that it if a person is a medium, embodying a supernatural force through possession, that he or she does not /cannot use such powers to better their own social position/health/finances?” Based on my decade of research in these matters, he best answer that I can give to what sounds a petty and materialistic (albeit very common) question, is that the possessed Medium is just a different kind of “curandero”, someone with healing powers, but only while possessed, and these powers cannot and shouldn’t be used but in a generous, noble way, to give, to help fellows human beings.