Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Feigning Demonic Possession For Profit

In Canon 60 of the Penthekte Synod in Constantinople which was held in 692, we read the following:
Since the Apostle exclaims that he who cleaves to the Lord is one spirit with Him, it is clear that he who is intimate with His enemy becomes one by his affinity with him. Therefore, those who pretend they are possessed by a devil and by their depravity of manners feign to manifest their form and appearance; it seems good by all means that they should be punished and that they should be subjected to afflictions and hardships of the same kind as those to which they who are truly demonically possessed are justly subjected with the intent of delivering them from the energies of the devil.
The canon lawyer Theodore Balsamon, writing in the later part of the 12th century, interprets this canon as applying to those who “simulate demonic frenzy for gain”, that is, certain men and women would pretend to be possessed, like an oracle or soothsayer or diviner, much like what took place at Delphi, and would deceive by making it appear they were telling people things that could only be told by someone with spiritual insight, and as proof of their possession they would act in a manner to imitate those truly possessed. In return for this service, they received some sort of gain or profit. Because these pagan deities were regarded as demons by Christians, it was advised by this canon to treat them as one who was indeed possessed by demons and discipline them this way. Balsamon says that even in his day, many could be seen in the cities who acted either possessed by demons or even by saints. He also says that there were holy bishops who, in following this canon, would restrain such pretenders in churches by binding them with chains, as was similarly done with demoniacs until they were healed, and this could be seen in the Church of Saint Niketas.

We also have a story from the Life of Saint Lazarus of Mount Gelasion from the 10th century, where we are told how such a pretender came to Saint Lazarus and tried to deceive him. There we read:
Once, a man who had the appearance of a demoniac went up to Lazarus. Supposedly being aroused by the demon, he said, “I won’t go down from the mountain until you’ve driven me out of  this creature of God!” and he also spoke much other nonsense. 
After he stopped yapping and came to himself, the father told the brothers to give him a gift and dismiss him. But the man asked to see the father alone and, when he met with him, said, “If you listen to me and if you want, I can make you famous and make your monastery rich.” 
When the father said, “How?” he replied, “I’m not possessed by a demon, but I pretend to have this problem. If I find someone established in a church somewhere (whether he’s a monk or a layman) who’s compliant with my scheme, I get him to ask around and find out who has a nice ornament or some other such object. After he’s found this out and told me the names of these people, I take a cross and go off to some place where it’s damp; I then dig a hole and hide it there. After several days I make myself appear to be aroused by the demon. I first go into the church and get everyone there to follow me, as though they’re under orders from the saint; then I go out with them to the place where I hid the cross by burying it. I dig with my own hands or with a spade, pull out the cross, pick it up, and go back to the church. I then begin to call the people by name and say, ‘Oh, so-and-so, the saint commands you to bring this particular object of yours here so that your whole household may not be tormented by demons.’ I do this every day and then, when I’ve gone through them all, I make myself appear to have been cured. Afterwards we split everything that’s been brought, I and the person in charge of the church, and so I go off again somewhere else.” 
When the father heard all this, he was amazed at the great variety of skills the demons have for doing evil, and at God’s forbearance. In reply to the man, he said, “Brother, not only am I myself not going to be misled by you, but I also advise you to stop such wicked behavior; if you can’t work, at least support yourself by begging, but just give up this satanic practice!” 
So Lazarus sent him away, and was not misled into listening to him, or rather to the one who had cunningly contrived by means of that man to involve him in the twin evils of vainglory and avarice, and so to thrust him utterly into the abyss of destruction.
Even in colonial America, during the Salem Witch Trials, a number of young girls feigned to suffer possession by witchcraft, whereby they accused dozens in Salem and the surrounding area of being witches and consorting with the devil, which eventually resulted in 19 executions of those who were falsely accused. It seems that as the influence of ancient paganism waned from society, the act of outright pretending to be possessed for deceptive purposes also took on a different form.