The Law of Possession: Ritual, Healing, and the Secular State

ISBN : 9780190275754

William S. Sax; Helene Basu
272 Pages
156 x 235 mm
Pub date
Jan 2016
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Rituals combining healing with spirit possession and court-like proceedings are found around the world and throughout history. A person suffers from an illness that cannot be cured, for example, and in order to be healed performs a ritual involving a prosecution and a defense, a judge and witnesses. Divine beings then speak through oracles, spirits possess the victim and are exorcized, and local gods intervene to provide healing and justice. Such practices seem to be the very antithesis of modernity, and many modern, secular states have systematically attempted to eliminate them. What is the relationship between healing, spirit possession, and the law, and why are they so often combined? Why are such rituals largely absent from modern societies, and what happens to them when the state attempts to expunge them from their health and justice systems, or even to criminalize them? Despite the prevalence of rituals involving some or all of these elements, this volume represents the first attempt to compare and analyze them systematically. The Law of Possession brings together historical and contemporary case studies from East Asia, South Asia, and Africa, and argues that despite consistent attempts by modern, secular states to discourage, eliminate, and criminalize them, these types of rituals persist and even thrive because they meet widespread human needs.


1. The Law of Possession: Ritual, Healing, and the Secular State, William S. Sax and Helene Basu

2. In the Courtroom of Jungle Saints: The Poor and Transcendental Justice, Helene Basu

3. Between Shrine and Courtroom: Legal Pluralism, Witchcraft, and Spirit Agency in South-Eastern Africa, Arne S. Steinforth

4. Delocalizing Illness: Healing and the State in Chinese Medicine, Dominic Steavu

5. Justice in Erwadi: A Case Study, Bhargavi Davar

6. Possession and the Anti-Superstition Law in Maharashtra: An Actors' Perspective on Modernization and Disenchantment, Johannes Quack

7. "If your brother wants to kill you, kill him first": Healing, Law, and Social Justice in an African Healer's Courtroom, Ferdinand Okwaro

8. The Darbar of Goludev: Possession, Petitions, and Modernity, Aditya Malik

9. Gods of Justice, William S. Sax


About the author: 

William S. Sax is Head of the Department of Ethnology at the South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg.; Helene Basu is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Muenster.

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