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Spirit Possession and the Goddess Ishtar in Ancient Mesopotamia

By Johanna Stuckey

Probably the ancient world’s most famous example of possession by spirits occurred almost daily over a period of about 2,000 years. At the great ancient Greek sanctuary of Delphi, the god Apollo gave oracles or predictions to those who consulted him, and he spoke through a priestess, the Pythia (Goodrich 1989: 194-254). Scholars have argued interminably about how the Pythia received the god’s message: by eating a psychedelic substance, breathing volcanic fumes from a cleft in the rock, and so on. However, to my mind it is much more likely that she was a medium who, through either talent or training, went into trance when the god possessed her.

Spirit possession is a well-known phenomenon occurring cross-culturally in most areas of the world. It is very likely that most people have seen a possession “in their immediate community” or in their own experience, although to many of us in the West this seems “exotic or anachronistic” (Keller 2002: 3). Those who regularly become possessed are termed mediums, and globally more of them are women than men (Paper 1997: 106). Possession has been defined as total, though temporary, domination of a human’s body and consciousness by a known or unknown alien being; after the event, the person possessed usually has no memory of what happened (After Ann Gold, quoted in Keller 2002: 3). Through availing itself of the person’s body, a spirit, ancestor, or deity can be present in and for the community (Paper 1997: 203).

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