Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

( See also DEMONOLOGY, DEMONIACS, EXORCIST, POSSESSION.)

Exorcism is (1) the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice ; (2) the means employed for this purpose, especially the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demon, in the name of God, or any of the higher power in which he is subject.

The word, which is not itself biblical, is derived from exorkizo , which is used in the Septuagint (Genesis 24:3 = cause to swear; III(I) Kings 22:16 = adjure), and in Matthew 26:63, by the high priest to Christ, "I adjure thee by the living God. . ." The non-intensive horkizo and the noun exorkistes ( exorcist ) occur in Acts 19:13, where the latter (in the plural) is applied to certain strolling Jews who professed to be able to cast out demons. Expulsion by adjuration is, therefore, the primary meaning of exorcism, and when, as in Christian usage, this adjuration is in the name of God or of Christ, exorcism is a strictly religious act or rite. But in ethnic religions, and even among the Jews from the time when there is evidence of its being vogue, exorcism as an act of religion is largely replaced by the use of mere magical and superstitious means, to which non-Catholic writers at the present day sometimes quite unfairly assimilate Christian exorcism. Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite.

IN ETHNIC RELIGIONS

The use of protective means against the real, or supposed, molestations of evil spirits naturally follows from the belief in their existence, and is, and has been always, a feature of ethnic religions, savage and civilized. In this connection only two of the religions of antiquity, the Egyptian and Babylonian, call for notice; but it is no easy task, even in the case of these two, to isolate what bears strictly on our subject, from the mass of mere magic in which it is embedded. The Egyptians ascribed certain diseases and various other evils to demons, and believed in the efficacy of magical charms and incantations for banishing or dispelling them. The dead more particularly needed to be well fortified with magic in order to be able to accomplish in safely their perilous journey to the underworld ( see Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1899). But of exorcism, in the strict sense, there is hardly any trace in the Egyptian records.

In the famous case where a demon was expelled from the daughter of the Prince of Bekhten, human ministry was unavailing, and the god Khonsu himself had to be sent the whole way from Thebes for the purpose. The demon gracefully retired when confronted with the god, and was allowed by the latter to be treated at a grand banquet before departing "to his own place" (op. cit. p. 206 sq.).

Babylonian magic was largely bound up with medicine, certain diseases being attributed to some kind of demoniacal possession, and exorcism being considered easiest, if not the only, way of curing them (Sayce, Hibbert Lect. 1887, 310). For this purpose certain formulæ of adjuration were employed, in which some god or goddess, or some group of deities, was invoked to conjure away the evil one and repair the mischief he had caused. The following example (from Sayce, op. cit., 441 seq.) may be quoted: "The (possessing) demon which seizes a man, the demon (ekimmu) which seizes a man; The (seizing) demon which works mischief, the evil demon, Conjure, O spirit of heaven ; conjure, O spirit of earth." For further examples see King, Babylonian Magic and Sorcery (London, 1896).

AMONG THE JEWS

There is no instance in the Old Testament of demons being expelled by men. In Tobias 8:3, is the angel who "took the devil and bound him in the desert of upper Egypt "; and the instruction previously given to young Tobias (6:18-19), to roast the fish's heart in the bridal chamber, would seem to have been merely part of the angel's plan for concealing his own identity. But in extra-canonical Jewish literature there are incantations for exorcising demons, examples of which may be seen in Talmud (Schabbath, xiv, 3; Aboda Zara, xii, 2; Sanhedrin, x, 1). These were sometimes inscribed on the interior surface of earthen bowls, a collection of which (estimated to be from the seventh century A.D) is preserved in the Royal Museum in Berlin ; and inscriptions from the collection have been published, translated by Wohlstein in the "Zeitschrift für Assyriologie" (December, 1893; April, 1894).

The chief characteristics of these Jewish exorcisms is their naming of names believed to be efficacious, i.e., names of good angels, which are used either alone or in combination with El (= God ); indeed reliance on mere names had long before become a superstition with the Jews, and it was considered most important that the appropriate names, which varied for different times and occasions, should be used. It was this superstitious belief, no doubt, that prompted the sons of Sceva, who had witnessed St. Paul's successful exorcisms in the name of Jesus, to try on their own account the formula, "I conjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth", with results disastrous to their credit ( Acts 19:13 ). It was a popular Jewish belief, accepted even by a learned cosmopolitan like Josephus, that Solomon had received the power of expelling demons, and that he had composed and transmitted certain formulæ that were efficacious for that purpose. The Jewish historian records how a certain Eleazar, in the presence of the Emperor Vespasian and his officers, succeeded, by means of a magical ring applied to the nose of a possessed person, in drawing out the demon through the nostrils -- the virtue of the ring being due to the fact that it enclosed a certain rare root indicated in the formulaæ of Solomon, and which it was exceedingly difficult to obtain (Ant. Jud, VIII, ii, 5; cf. Bell. Jud. VII, vi, 3).

But superstition and magic apart, it is implied in Christ's answers to the Pharisees, who accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, that some Jews in His time successfully exorcised demons in God's name: "and if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out?" ( Matthew 12:27 ). It does not seem reasonable to understand this reply as mere irony, or as a mere argumentum ad hominem implying no admission of the fact; all the more so, as elsewhere ( Mark 9:37-38 ) we have an account of a person who was not a disciple casting out demons in Christ's name, and whose action Christ refused to reprehend or forbid.

EXORCISM IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

Assuming the reality of demoniac possession , for which the authority of Christ is pledged, it is to be observed that Jesus appealed to His power over demons as one of the recognised signs of Messiahship ( Matthew 12:23, 28 ; Luke 11:20 ). He cast out demons, He declared, by the finger or spirit of God, not, as His adversaries alleged, by collusion with the prince of demons ( Matthew 12:24, 27 ; Mark 3:22 ; Luke 11:15, 19 ); and that He exercised no mere delegated power, but a personal authority that was properly His own, is clear from the direct and imperative way in which He commands the demon to depart ( Mark 9:24 ; cf. 1:25 etc.): "He cast out the spirits with his word, and he healed all that were sick" ( Matthew 8:16 ). Sometimes, as with the daughter of the Canaanean woman, the exorcism took place from a distance ( Matthew 15:22 sqq. ; Mark 7:25 ). Sometimes again the spirits expelled were allowed to express their recognition of Jesus as "the Holy One of God " ( Mark 1:24 ) and to complain that He had come to torment them "before the time", i.e the time of their punishment ( Matthew 8:29 sqq ; Luke 8:28 sqq. ). If demoniac possession was generally accompanied by some disease, yet the two were not confounded by Christ, or the Evangelists. In Luke 13:32, for example, the Master Himself expressly distinguishes between the expulsion of evil spirits and the curing of disease.

Christ also empowered the Apostles and Disciples to cast out demons in His name while He Himself was still on earth ( Matthew 10:1 and 8 ; Mark 6:7 ; Luke 9:1 ; 10:17 ), and to believers generally He promised the same power ( Mark 16:17 ). But the efficacy of this delegated power was conditional, as we see from the fact that the Apostles themselves were not always successful in their exorcisms: certain kinds of spirits, as Christ explained, could only be cast out by prayer and fasting ( Matthew 17:15, 20 ; Mark 9:27-28 ; Luke 9:40 ). In other words the success of exorcism by Christians, in Christ's name, is subject to the same general conditions on which both the efficacy of prayer and the use of charismatic power depend. Yet conspicuous success was promised ( Mark 16:17 ). St. Paul ( Acts 16:18 ; 19:12 ), and, no doubt, the other Apostles and Disciples, made use of regularly, as occasion arose, of their exorcising power, and the Church has continued to do so uninterruptedly to the present day.

ECCLESIASTICAL EXORCISMS

Besides exorcism in the strictest sense -- i.e. for driving out demons from the possessed -- Catholic ritual, following early traditions, has retained various other exorcisms, and these also call for notice here.

(1) Exorcism of the possessed

We have it on the authority of all early writers who refer to the subject at all that in the first centuries not only the clergy, but lay Christians also were able by the power of Christ to deliver demoniacs or energumens, and their success was appealed to by the early Apologists as a strong argument for the Divinity of the Christian religion ( Justin Martyr, Apol., 6; P.G., VI, 453; Dial., 30, 85; ibid., 537, 676 sq; Minutius Felix, Octav., 27, P.L., III; Origen, Contra Celsum., I, 25; VII, 4, 67; P.G., XI, 705, 1425, 1516; Tertullian, Apol., 22, 23; P.L., I, 404 sq; etc). As is clear from testimonies referred to, no magical or superstitious means were employed, but in those early centuries, as in later times, a simple and authoritative adjuration addressed to the demon in the name of God, and more especially in the name of Christ crucified, was the usual form of exorcism.

But sometimes in addition to words some symbolic action was employed, such as breathing ( insufflatio ), or laying of hands on the subject, or making the sign of cross. St. Justin speaks of demons flying from "the touch and breathing of Christians " (II Apol., 6) as from a flame that burns them, adds St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Cat., xx, 3, P.G., XXXIII, 1080). Origen mentions the laying of hands, and St. Ambrose (Paulinus, Vit. Ambr., n. 28, 43, P.L, XIV, 36, 42), St. Ephraem Syrus ( Greg. Nyss., De Vit. Ephr., P.G., XLVI, 848) and others used this ceremony in exorcising. The sign of the cross, that briefest and simplest way of expressing one's faith in the Crucified and invoking His Divine power, is extolled by many Fathers for its efficacy against all kinds of demoniac molestation (Lactantius, Inst., IV, 27, P.L., VI, 531 sq.; Athanasius, De Incarn. Verbi., n. 47, P.G., XXV, 180; Basil, In Isai., XI, 249, P.G., XXX, 557, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat., XIII, 3 col. 773; Gregory Nazianzen, Carm. Adv. iram, v, 415 sq.; P.G., XXXVII, 842). The Fathers further recommend that the adjuration and accompanying prayers should be couched in the words of Holy Writ (Cyril of Jerusalem, Procat., n. 9, Col. 350; Athanasius, Ad Marcell., n. 33, P.G., XXVII, 45). The present rite of exorcism as given in the Roman Ritual fully agrees with patristic teaching and is a proof of the continuity of Catholic tradition in this matter.

(2) Baptismal exorcism

At an early age the practice was introduced into the Church of exorcising catechumens as a preparation for the Sacrament of Baptism. This did not imply that they were considered to be obsessed, like demoniacs, but merely that they were, in consequence of original sin (and of personal sins in case of adults), subject more or less to the power of the devil, whose "works" or "pomps" they were called upon to renounce, and from whose dominion the grace of baptism was about to deliver them.

Exorcism in this connection is a symbolical anticipation of one of the chief effects of the sacrament of regeneration ; and since it was used in the case of children who had no personal sins, St. Augustine could appeal to it against the Pelagians as implying clearly the doctrine of original sin (Ep. cxciv, n. 46. P.L., XXXIII, 890; C. Jul. III, 8; P.L., XXXIV, 705, and elsewhere). St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Procat., 14, col. 355) gives a detailed description of baptismal exorcism, from which it appears that anointing with exorcised oil formed a part of this exorcism in the East. The only early Western witness which treats unction as part of the baptismal exorcism is that of the Arabic Canons of Hippolytus (n. 19, 29). The Exsufflatio , or out-breathing of the demon by the candidate, which was sometimes part of the ceremony, symbolized the renunciation of his works and pomps, while the Insufflatio , or in-breathing of the Holy Ghost, by ministers and assistants, symbolised the infusion of sanctifying grace by the sacrament. Most of these ancient ceremonies have been retained by the Church to this day in her rite for solemn baptism.

(3) Other Exorcisms

According to Catholic belief demons or fallen angels retain their natural power, as intelligent beings, of acting on the material universe, and using material objects and directing material forces for their own wicked ends; and this power, which is in itself limited, and is subject, of course, to the control of Divine providence , is believed to have been allowed a wider scope for its activity in the consequence of the sin of mankind. Hence places and things as well as persons are naturally liable to diabolical infestation, within limits permitted by God, and exorcism in regard to them is nothing more that a prayer to God, in the name of His Church, to restrain this diabolical power supernaturally, and a profession of faith in His willingness to do so on behalf of His servants on earth.

The chief things formally exorcised in blessing are water, salt, oil, and these in turn are used in personal exorcisms, and in blessing or consecrating places (e.g. churches) and objects (e.g. altars, sacred vessels, church bells ) connected with public worship, or intended for private devotion. Holy water, the sacramental with which the ordinary faithful are most familiar, is a mixture of exorcised water and exorcised salt ; and in the prayer of blessing, God is besought to endow these material elements with a supernatural power of protecting those who use them with faith against all the attacks of the devil. This kind of indirect exorcism by means of exorcised objects is an extension of the original idea ; but it introduces no new principle, and it has been used in the Church from the earliest ages. ( See also EXORCIST.)


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 2:12-22
12 do not forget, I say, that you were at that time ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14
9 His saving help is near for those who fear him, his ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 12:35-38
35 'See that you have your belts done up and your ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 21st, 2014 Image

St. Hilarion
October 21: Abbot and disciple of St. Anthony the Great, companion of St. ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter