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Revolutionary Spirits and Occult Strategies of Resistance

By Brian Johnson

The sit-in. The march. The occupation of public space. The power of many forms of protest lies not in the immediate effects of its tactics; the purpose of the act is not the disruption of business or traffic at a particular facility or city street – these are merely means to an end. The purpose to which these material disruptions are performed is rather to effect a disruption of social discourse, and in so doing make an agenda impossible to ignore. Grievances and their redress, oppression and redemption, the nature of the status quo and the possibility that it might be otherwise – all of these are made salient in the consciousness of protesters, agents of the institutions they address, and the entire psycho-social context in which they act. A détournement, a discontinuity in the dominant narrative, in the hegemonic discourse, is physically forced into being, and in that newly opened space, alternative story-lines can begin to be written.

I wish to examine here the class of phenomena broadly defined as ‘possession’ – the manifestation of the activity of a god, spirit, ancestor, or other non-human force in the body of a human person – in terms of its power to rhetorically disrupt dominant narratives. Possession, and the interventions into social life of occult entities and forces more generally, bear an inherent anti-hegemonic potential. In both form and content, they demand that the cycles of quotidian life be brought to a halt. Indeed it is rare that their manifestation does not portend a reordering, a rectification – if not a revolution – in human relations. I do not mean to suggest that the appearance of possession or sorcerous phenomena necessarily correlate with conditions of marginalization or oppression. That is demonstrably false; they do not express any one paradigm of power relations in every instance[i]. However, it seems apparent that when the powers of the invisible world are appropriated by the disenfranchised, the exploitative powers of the visible world should take heed.

Suspicion of possession as a weapon of the oppressed has a long and geographically broad history in the consciousness of repressive regimes. Judicial authorities and slaveholders in nineteenth-century Brazil feared both Candomblé devotion and sorcery more as loci of subversive organization than as spiritual threats[ii].Lesley A. Sharp observes that “Europeans had long recognized possession activities in Madagascar as politically-charged and thus potentially revolutionary events…”, ultimately outlawing their practice following a failed insurrection in 1947[iii]. Agents of the white administration of then-Rhodesia attempted, with little success, to counter the revolutionary influence of mhondoro spirit-mediums, going so far as to make recordings of co-opted mediums, allegedly in trance-states, repudiating rebel guerrillas, and broadcast them from airplanes[iv].

Yvonne Maggie describes how a belief system incorporating spiritualism and efficacious witchcraft “…was shared by the police, magistrates and lawyers, and those they accused or defended” in early twentieth-century Brazil[v]. Antagonistic actors who share a cultural context – even if they are otherwise asymmetric in power and status – can come to share certain assumptions about the means of engagement. Ultimately these mutual assumptions maintain the status quo by channeling aggression in ways that never challenge the premises of the social structure itself. Hence, an oppressor’s hegemony may be facilitated through sharing with the subaltern a set of cosmological beliefs and their ritual-forensic implications[vi]. Conversely, however, a shared frame of reference makes the dominant party susceptible to the subordinate’s strategies for negotiating agency. As I.M. Lewis suggests of the gods invoked by cults of the marginalized, “…it is obviously essential that both superior and subordinate should share a common faith in the existence and efficacy of these mutinous powers…. since otherwise clearly the voice of protest loses its authority.”[vii]

Spirit-possession, as an idiom of occult forces, is not only a medium for discourse about social relations; rather, it comprises the content of a discourse with real social implications. As Maggie suggests, Afro-Brazilian Candomblé “…does not engender resistance. It is in its very existence the antithesis to the rational bureaucratic order that the Brazilian state outwardly proclaims.”[viii] Scholars have long theorized spirit-possession in just such terms as a means of resistance to culturally-entrenched power disparities, or the deprivations, oppressions, and dislocations of modernity[ix]. Maya Deren points to the Petro loa cult as a driving force and organizing principle behind the Haitian revolution[x].Indeed, the Petro seem to express fundamentally anti-social values consistent with the exigencies of systemic discontinuity, rupture, and escape imposed by the condition of slavery. While this explanatory frame may rationalize the place of occult beliefs and practices within a context of political action, precisely what those beliefs and practices accomplish in that domain remains to be fully understood. Likewise, as Frederick M. Smith notes, the psychologizing turn of modern scholarship has tended to understand possession as a culturally-mediated, unconscious reaction to social and political oppression[xi]. Yet this point of view overlooks the possibility of its intentional appropriation as a means of indirect action.

When Somali women give voice to the demands of their possessing sar spirits, they speak with an authority denied to them in everyday life[xii]. Speaking through the authority of supernatural agents can be an oblique strategy of negotiating autonomy by appropriating a privileged discursive space, outside of which one’s demands are literally unspeakable – a metanegotiation. Thus, as Mary E. Hancock argues, bhakti devotion and possession among Brahman women “…may be an agency for change in domestic life, whether the bhakta is perceived as succeeding or failing in her efforts.”[xiii] In this context, as with the other forms of embodied protest, it is not the direct result of one’s actions which effects change in one’s status or circumstances, but rather the implications of the means by which one has acted.

As Lewis observes, the powers involved in the shaman’s vocation “…are often, either directly or indirectly, both the cause of misfortune and the means of its cure.”[xiv] The possessing spirits of the materially dispossessed frequently assume qualities of the class by whom the possessed is victimized – women are possessed by masculine spirits, Nigerien Hauka cultists by gods who appear in a ludicrous parody of European colonials[xv]. The whips brandished by former slaves in the possession rites of the Somali numbi cult “…enable them to present themselves not as slaves, but as masters of slaves”[xvi]. “Possession… is a state of tension, of lived irony, in which dilemmas are resolved (for better or worse) because the volition of the dominant, socially hegemonic voice is reduced to the point of disappearance and another authority is expressed through the body”[xvii]. If mimesis is one means of comprehending the power of an Other[xviii], so much more so is a mimesis realized in the very agentive body of the subject. Indeed, the French commandant who most brutally suppressed the early Hauka movement was among the first colonial personae to manifest within the ranks of its pantheon[xix]. Satirical performance, properly understood, is a controlled environment in which group identity distinctions can be rehearsed on the subaltern’s own terms. In their warped dramatization of the European, Paul Stoller suggests that the dancers of the Hauka possession rite “…have resisted culturally the way of the European and have expressed metaphorically their preference for the traditions of their ancestors.”[xx] Originally arising in a context of anticolonial agitation in the early twentieth century[xxi], the cultural distancing effected by the Hauka remains relevant amidst the homogenizing pressures of the globally-connected post-colony[xxii].

Deren argues that psychosomatic illness is in early twentieth-century Haiti sometimes interpreted as the result of witchcraft or the intervention of loa. It serves as a form of psychological defense against hopeless circumstances, maintaining the status quo for better or worse. Nonetheless, she notes that, “…Voudoun is most often opposed and suppressed by the government as a threat to the status quo.”[xxiii] This is because the occult interpretation of misfortune is not simply a superstitious expression of acquiescence to impotence. Deren elaborates: “Instead of the hopeless finality of absolute, abstract despair, the man is immediately involved in the idea of promising action…. Thus psychosomatic projection serves not as an evasion but as a means of making the moral problem accessible on a level of real action”[xxiv]. As Catherine Bell explains, this kind of ‘misrecognition’, intrinsic to ritual practice, shifts the entire context of means, ends, and meanings to one defined by the ritual actor.[xxv] In other words, faced with a destructive system from which one cannot escape, the psychotherapeutically strategic response may be to constructively misrecognize the nature of the problem one is facing. Thus one’s options for effective retaliation are transposed into a space where one can take practical action. A new context is created, in which the constraints and rules of the oppressing system do not apply, and where once-unspeakable ideas of liberation may be spoken. Subjects demonstrate to themselves the vulnerability of the socially-inscribed hierarchy[xxvi], a demonstration which may be sufficient impetus for material change. Whether the sar of Somalia or the tarantism of southern Italy, the manifestation of invisible forces in the bodies of oppressed classes implicitly protests and draws public attention to their intolerable circumstances[xxvii].

Spirit-possession, and the popular hermeneutics of the phenomenon, can assert indigenous historical power against histories of colonial power, critically responding to the concerted dislocation of indigenous identity through colonial desecration and depopulation of territory[xxviii]. The expressive modalities of spirits during possession rituals can recapitulate history by embodying historical identities, categories, or peoples. Thus, participants claim for themselves a sense of historical agency which the dominant culture may deny that they possess., It also provides them with a medium through which to experience that history[xxix].

This intervention into consensual space of a discourse utterly orthogonal to hegemonic norms is characteristic of possession as the ingress of the otherworldly. Smith observes that possession is effectively “…a structure of resistance, a rift in the psychological, social, and political fabric of society.”[xxx] His argument, however, that its counter-hegemonic potential is constrained by its very embodiment and segregation from consensual consciousness and communication[xxxi], must be contrasted with Stoller’s framing of the Hauka movement/ritual-complex as a ‘comedy of paradox’[xxxii], a form of social protest whose message can only be conveyed inexplicitly because there is no extant social space in which its complaint can be communicated in its own terms. Likewise, the ritual prohibitions of the mhondoro spirit-mediums of revolutionary Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) acted to clearly segregate “…the world of the ancestors… and the world of industrial production and exchange…” in which their followers were being exploited[xxxiii].

The position of invisible powers in relation to processes of claiming agency is not always a positive one. If, as Basile Ndjio observes, the popular discourse on occult forces which arises in response to inexplicable social disruption is frequently one of enslavement to those forces[xxxiv], perhaps this represents an inversion of the empowering self-alienation of spirit-possession. The invisible here becomes object of, rather than medium for, retaliatory action. Indeed, it is precisely the restoration of communal self-determination for which the Cameroonian anti-witchcraft gru ordeal is conducted[xxxv].

Whether occult practices are employed toward defusing the tension of systemic contradictions or exacerbating them to a crisis point may depend upon the foreseeable prospects of remaining within the system itself. Often, the sheer spatial extent and ideological monopoly of oppressing institutions are such that extricating oneself from their grasp is simply untenable. Hence, one may practice insubordination, “…but usually not to the point where it is desired to immediately rupture the relationship concerned or to subvert it completely”[xxxvi]. When female Malay factory workers are attacked on the shop floor by spirits of violation and pollution, a protest against the capitalist alienation of human beings is made manifest, albeit tacitly[xxxvii]. Until one is prepared to openly repudiate the structural bases of one’s mistreatment, and denounce the agents of that structure, the person who “…exerts pressure on his superior without radically questioning his superiority”[xxxviii] is certainly safer; the rebellion, such as it is, is allowed to continue. But this kind of complicity, subversive as it may be, can only accomplish so much. Frantz Fanon insists upon a ‘radical overthrow’ of the colonial system[xxxix], and possession, with its embodiment of an implicit political agenda, realizes that coup as a fait accompli, if a highly circumscribed one. As João José Reis describes the situation in nineteenth-century Brazil, “[u]nder paternalist cultural and ideological pressure, slaves often worked hard to create bonds of affection with masters through witchcraft or other means… but having failed this… they struggled to untie their lives from those of their masters…”[xl].

“The colonial world is a compartmentalized world”[xli], Fanon says. Not a truly hegemonic one, then, in the strictly Gramscian sense, it remains unreconciled, the colonized living in a different epistemic world from the colonizer. As David M. Gordon points out, “…not all agents of the invisible world are compatible.”[xlii] The break effected in decolonization is with a structure that was always still ‘other’. As Lewis suggests, the acute pressures which may prompt a shamanic response at the communal level “…may result from external encapsulating forces when a whole society is marginal or marginalized, and becomes itself peripheral in relation to a wider, over-arching political system.”[xliii] The Zimbabwean liberation war saw the spirits of ancestral rulers, speaking through their mediums, authorize armed resistance to the colonial regime[xliv]. The space for negotiating autonomy is a breach forced inside the discursive field of the colonial ‘other’, inside the capitalist world-system. That breach is made using the language of the colonized, whether that be the words of gods and spirits, or the rhetoric of arms and insurgency. If spirit-possession is one source of authoritative voice with which to negotiate discursive space for autonomy, so too is violence the counterpart act which unmistakably voices the same provisional demand.

As Homi K. Bhabha argues in his foreword to The Wretched of the Earth, “Fanonian violence… is part of a struggle for psycho-affective survival and a search for human agency in the midst of the agony of oppression”[xlv]. Possession and violence each effect the search for agency; they are processes of creating space for its eventual realization. Smith has argued that South-Asian forms of possession often correspond to a somaticization of intense emotional and psychological states[xlvi]. These grahas, ‘graspers’, lay hold of persons who indulge in the very transgressive behaviors they themselves incite[xlvii]. Perhaps sometimes, in seeking out a space to negotiate self-determination, the oppressed in fact become possessed by the visceral experience, as much as the ideological imperative, of violence.

His undisputed insights notwithstanding, Fanon betrays a myopic psychologism in asserting that things like myth, possession, and supernatural beliefs only distract from the reality of colonial conflict[xlviii]. He fails to recognize that such concepts can operate in support of, and parallel to, “…the practical tasks the people are asked to undertake in the liberation struggle”. David Lan, for instance, relates how many veterans of the Zimbabwean liberation war “…tell similar stories of how long-dead members of their families had assisted them and led them to sources of food or other supplies”, as well as furnishing practical advice[xlix]. Nor did their adherence to ritual proscriptions imposed by cooperative spirit-mediums preclude their participation “…in the programme of peasant mobilisation or of political education that their political party put into action”[l], revolutionary methods of which Fanon explicitly approved. Indeed, the mediums of royal ancestor-spirits helped to legitimize and socially assimilate the guerrillas and their revolutionary agenda in the eyes of the rural populations among whom they operated, in part through the guerrillas’ participation in local ritual cycles[li]. The ancestors’ uncontested, atemporal legitimacy, grounded in their provision of the land’s fertility and cutting across communal divisions by means of ascribed genealogies, provided a common point of reference for revolutionary consciousness[lii].

Why should gods, spirits, or ancestors be approached, adapted, and recognized as authoritative, legitimate arbiters of the very this-worldly political maneuvers among husbands and wives, laborers and managers, the colonized and the colonialist? Why should they particularly care? Perhaps because, as Lewis observes, “…the moral code over which these spirits so resolutely stand guard concerns the relations between man and man.”[liii] Thus they respond, obliquely or aggressively, to disparities and abuses in human society, to “…changes which are felt to impose limitations on traditional freedoms and rights, or to benefit one social group or category (e.g. men) at the expense of another (e.g. women)”[liv]. Whether held to be motivated by personalized moral concern or impelled by abstract nature, these entities will come to intervene in matters of what can be called social justice.

Brian JohnsonAn archaeologist by profession, Brian Johnson also pursues his interests in the cultural construction and practical mechanics of human interaction with the supernatural through independent scholarship. With the cultural-relativist lessons of his anthropological background always in mind, his practice is self-consciously omnivorous and syncretic.


Bell, C. 2009 (1992). Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford University Press.

Bhabha, H.K. 2004. Foreword: Framing Fanon. In Philcox, R. (trans), Fanon, F., The Wretched of the Earth. Grove. pp. vii-xli.

Colleyn, J.-P. 1999. Horse, Hunter & Messenger. In Behrend, H. and Luid, U. (eds), Spirit Possession, Modernity and Power in Africa. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 68-78.

Deren, M. 2004 (1953). Divine Horsemen. Documentext.

Fanon, F. 2004 (1961). Philcox, R. (trans), The Wretched of the Earth. Grove.

Gordon, D.M. 2012. Invisible Agents. Ohio University Press.

Hancock, M. 1995. Dilemmas of Domesticity. In Courtright, P. and Harlan, L. (eds) From the Margins of Hindu Marriage. Oxford University Press. pp. 60-91.

Lan, D. 1985. Guns and Rain. University of California Press.

Lewis, H.S. 2005. The Globalization of Spirit Possession. In Al-Haj, M. et al. (eds) Social Critique and Commitment. University Press of America. pp. 169-191.

Lewis, I.M. 2003 (1971). Ecstatic Religion. Routledge.

Maggie, Y. 2011. The Logic of Sorcery and Democracy in Contemporary Brazil. In Parés, L.N. and Sansi, R. (eds), Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. University of Chicago Press. pp. 145-163.

Makris, G.P. 1996. Slavery, Possession and History: The Construction of the Self Among Slave Descendants in the Sudan. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 66: 159-182.

Ndjio, B. 2011. Naming the Evil: Democracy and Sorcery in Contemporary Cameroon and South Africa. In Parés, L.N. and Sansi, R. (eds), Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. University of Chicago Press. pp. 165-186.

Ong, A. 1987. Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline. S.U.N.Y. Press.

Reis, J.J. 2011. Candomble and Slave Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Bahia. In Parés, L.N. and Sansi, R. (eds), Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. University of Chicago Press. pp. 55-74.

Sharp, L.A. 1999. The Power of Possession in Northwest Madagascar. In Behrend, H. and Luid, U. (eds), Spirit Possession, Modernity and Power in Africa. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 3-19.

Smith, F.M. 2006. The Self Possessed. Columbia University Press.

Stoller, P. 1995. Embodying Colonial Memories. Routledge.


[i]               Sharp 1999: 5-6; Colleyn 1999: 73
[ii]              Reis 2011: 60, 68
[iii]             Sharp 1999: 8
[iv]             Lan 1985: 7
[v]              Maggie 2011: 149-50
[vi]             Reis 2011: 57-8
[vii]            Lewis 2003: 101
[viii]           Maggie 2011: 147
[ix]             Lewis 2005: 186-7
[x]              Deren 2004: 62
[xi]             Smith 2006: 46
[xii]            Lewis 2003: 67
[xiii]           Hancock 1995: 63
[xiv]           Lewis 2003: 62
[xv]            Lewis 2003: 78; Stoller 2002
[xvi]           Lewis 2003: 92
[xvii]          Smith 2006: 587
[xviii]         Stoller 1995: 37-40
[xix]           Stoller 2002: 266
[xx]            Stoller 2002: 259
[xxi]           Stoller 1995: 117-8
[xxii]          Stoller 2002: 272
[xxiii]         Deren 2004: 170
[xxiv]          Deren 2004: 17
[xxv]           Bell 2009: 82 ff.
[xxvi]          Smith 2006: 71-2
[xxvii]         Lewis 2003: 83
[xxviii]        Sharp 1999: 7-8
[xxix]          Makris 1996: 170-1
[xxx]           Smith 2006: 58
[xxxi]          Smith 2006: 59
[xxxii]         Stoller 2002: 260
[xxxiii]        Lan 1985: 143
[xxxiv]        Ndjio 2011: 172
[xxxv]         Ndjio 2011: 173
[xxxvi]        Lewis 2003: 108
[xxxvii]       Ong 1987: 207 ff.
[xxxviii]      Lewis 2003: 28
[xxxix]        Fanon 2004: 22
[xl]             Reis 2011: 71
[xli]            Fanon 2004: 3
[xlii]           Gordon 2012: 1
[xliii]          Lewis 2003: 182
[xliv]          Lan 1985: 145-
[xlv]           Bhabha 2004: xxxvi
[xlvi]          Smith 2006: 506-7
[xlvii]         Smith 2006: 512 ff.
[xlviii]        Fanon 2004: 19
[xlix]          Lan 1985: xv
[l]               Lan 1985: xvii
[li]              Lan 1985: 113-5
[lii]             Lan 1985: 218-9
[liii]            Lewis 2003: 146
[liv]            Lewis 2003: 157

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