Review: The Penguin Book of Exorcisms edited by Joseph P. Laycock

Joseph P. Laycock (ed.) The Penguin Book of Exorcisms (London: Penguin, 2020), 313pp.

The Penguin Book of Exorcisms is the latest addition to a series of readers published in the Penguin Classics series which collate sources relating to a particular theme – in this case 37 accounts of exorcisms divided into seven chronologically and culturally themed sections: the ancient Near East, the Graeco-Roman world, Jewish traditions of exorcism, the Islamic tradition, exorcisms from South and East Asia, and modern exorcisms. The editor’s focus is a broad one, attempting to take in the entire global scope of exorcism across all cultures – which raises questions about exactly what an exorcism is, and what counts as one. Joseph P. Laycock deals with this issue by defining exorcism as ‘banishing unwanted spirits from people, places or things’, although he also suggests that exorcism will be used to treat a problem ‘attributed to spirits’.

As readers of my books A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity and A History of Anglican Exorcism will be aware, I have reservations about approaches to the history of exorcism that treat all cases of ‘exorcism’ across all cultures as essentially similar – or, at the very least, treat exorcism as an analogous practice across different cultures and religions. Such approaches can lead to a functionalist approach to exorcism, where exorcism is seen as any practice that serves the purpose of banishing spirits – but this seems a rather unsatisfactory approach when it is inappropriate for the historian to reach any conclusion about the reality or otherwise of the spirits supposed to exist by demonologists and exorcists; it also raises the question of what a ‘spirit’ is (and whether, for example, ending an experience of ‘divine possession’ would count as an exorcism). Furthermore, the approach of seeing exorcism as an essentially unified phenomenon can lead historians of religion to overlook the significant differences between techniques and rituals of exorcism, focusing instead on the aim of the exorcism (namely, the deliverance of a demoniac, place, or thing); this has the result that possession, as experienced by the alleged demoniac and others, tends to become the major focus of ‘historians of exorcism’ (who become in reality historians of possession). The act or process of exorcism itself is approached primarily as an event that reveals the features of the possession phenomenon – and little attention is given to exorcism as a ritual act set within a specific ritual, religious or magical tradition.

The appeal of a collection surveying the phenomenon of exorcism across world cultures is nevertheless clear, and Laycock’s collection makes accessible some scarce accounts of possession and exorcism from an impressive array of sources. A collection like this also permits the editor to exercise a light interpretative touch, with the editor’s particular interpretation of the phenomenon of exorcism largely implicit in the selection of sources rather than in any extensive analytical commentary. This collection is undoubtedly an excellent starting point for anyone interested generally in the phenomena of possession and exorcism, and I am certainly in agreement with Laycock’s view that exorcism is intimately linked to politics and the level of upheaval within a society. However, I remain sceptical of any approach to exorcism that approaches the phenomenon in general terms rather than through a particular tradition of exorcistic practice – probably because I see the history of exorcism as part of the history of magic and the history of liturgy rather than viewing it in anthropological terms. This is not to say that anthropological studies of exorcism are any worse than historical ones, but I continue to maintain that detailed understanding of exorcism is only obtainable through paying close attention to the particular theological, liturgical and legal tradition within which a practice of exorcism has developed.

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