Exorcism and Witchcraft Possessed by the devil

Witchcraft 1500 - 1600

A so-called bewitched person, who called upon evil and was said to be possessed by the devil, was in fact often mentally ill. Nevertheless, they were subjected to exorcism. Flagellum daemonum by Mengo, ‘the father of exorcism’, was seen as the standard work for recognising and helping bewitched people.

Cover of Mengo's book Cover of Mengo's book

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a distinction was made between those who were possessed and those who were bewitched. In both cases, the devil had nestled in their soul, but the bewitched had summoned evil themselves. Exorcisms, witch trials and executions were the remedies against the followers of evil of this kind.

But those who were believed to be in cahoots with Satan were in fact often mentally ill. This was concluded by researchers who read the remaining testimonies and reports on witch trials. It could also be linked to periods of food shortage: certain ergot fungi can cause forms of madness, which were seen as witchcraft. The so-called flying ointment contains elements that induce the feeling of being able to fly and can cause sexual debauchery. 

For a long time, Malleus Maleficarum, better known as the Witches Hammer, was the handbook for anyone who tracked down, tortured, prosecuted and executed witches..

Exorcists were more often found carrying the lesser known Flagellum daemonum, exorcismos terribiles, potentissimos, et efficaces (...). Written in 1587 by the Italian Franciscan, Hieronymo Mengo, often considered to be the father of exorcism. On the basis of seven exorcisms he explains how the possessed can be recognised, which souls are most susceptible to the devil and with which means and exorcist must go into battle.

Witch hunts are still around today, in sub-Saharan Africa and other places. Exorcists are also still active, although the Catholic Church keeps a watchful eye to see whether it genuinely concerns a so-called possessed individual or simply someone with a mental illness.