In April of this year, the Vatican held a week long conference to train priests in the rite of exorcism, claiming that there were half a million cases of demonic possession last year in Italy alone. The Catholic Church attributes the rise of demonic activity to people dabbling in the occult, particularly through the use of tarot cards and Ouija boards.
Exorcism and the Catholic Church seem inseparable thanks to films like The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, as well as the church’s own proclamations of exclusivity. But in reality, the earliest evidence of exorcism predates Christianity by hundreds of years. Exorcists have been a part of religious practices worldwide for ages, including among the witches and satanists that the Church blames for the current demon infestation.
Put simply, exorcism is the expulsion of an unwanted force or energy from a person, place, or thing that is afflicted by that energy. In the extreme, a person who is possessed by such a force lacks self-control as a result of that possession. An exorcist is a person who specializes in casting out these entities. So if you or a loved one isn’t a linguist and starts quoting dead languages, stinking of sulfur, and levitating an exorcist could be helpful—alongside a shrink.
Theistic Satanist Shea Bilé was 17 when he conducted his first exorcism, mostly out of necessity. “Growing up there were spirits that attacked me, but I didn’t have the tools to protect myself. I was the victim of these things. This exorcism was the first time I fought back,” the 32-year-old told VICE.
The exorcism occurred after Bilé encountered a dark force during an astral projection. “During the projection, I went to my grandmother’s and in the backyard I see this gigantic seven-to-eight-foot black shade of static, knife-like energy, and it started chasing me. I immediately just ran back into my body.”
Soon thereafter, Bilé moved into his grandmother’s home, and it wasn’t long before strange things started happening. Random illnesses beset his friends and family members, lights flickered on and off, and unexplained noises occured throughout the house. “I thought it had to do with the entity that I had encountered, and it felt like a generational entity, a generational curse.”
The entity was following him wherever he would go, and was even encountered by his boss, an evangelical Christian who Bilé describes as “magical in his own way.” “One day he came up to me and said ‘there is a demon in the production room,’” before describing the black shade Bilé knew all too well.
One night all of the lights in his grandmother’s house died, and after tripping the circuit breakers to no avail, Bilé had enough. In frustration he grabbed one of the lights and yelled, “In the name of Satan I command you to stop, in the name of Satan I command this stops immediately.” The lights flickered back on and a moth—moths can signify dark spirits of the occult—flew out of the light. “That was what I consider to be one of my first acts of exorcism,” said Bilé, looking back on the incident. Weeks later, Bilé and a friend would conduct a much larger, full-blown exorcism to challenge the spirit once and for all that would set him on a path where exorcisms would become a regular part of his practice.
“Certainly it seems ironic that I was a Satanist and I was fighting off an entity that many would call Satanic,” Bilé pointed out. This, however, only seems at odds because of our popular but limited understanding of the subject. We think Satan is on the side as the demons, and angels are on the side of the exorcist.
Demons, as they are popularly known, are really three things, according to Bilé. The first are entities that were once pagan deities that have literally been demonized by the Church. “For instance, the Sumerian goddess of love Inanna became Ishtar who became Astarte who was eventually turned into Astaroth, so that you have a fertility goddess who ends up becoming a male demon at the top of the hierarchy with Lucifer.”
The second type of demon is what Bilé refers to as a chaotic force. “There are absolutely horrifying, terrible violent forces in our universe, but I wouldn’t call them demons. They are more like natural forces—they don’t have a sense of good and evil as we understand it. They merely feed of off chaotic energy and fear. They do create circumstances that would be hard for us not to call evil from our perspective.” Bilé equates them to forces like entropy, disease, and natural disasters, which have been here long before the Church’s division of shirts and skins in the cosmic battle between good and evil.
The third type are Egregore, which is an occult concept of a thought form that humans bring into existence though their own energy and will.
Placing all of these disparate entities under one demonic umbrella limits an exorcist’s ability to properly engage these forces, according to both Bilé and exorcist and witch Lizzy Rose. “The Catholic Church has no idea what they are exorcising, just that it is dark and bad and not ideal to keep around,” said Rose. From her perspective, one shouldn’t approach an entity with any preconceived notions of what it is or isn’t, but learn about it on its own terms in order to understand it and exorcise it. Bilé agreed, claiming that, overall, “occultists are better equipped to deal with these forces” because they are not so quick to demonize (literally and figuratively) and often work with similar forces in their own magical pursuits. Bilé sees the average Catholic exorcist as a novice, but thinks they succeed because sometimes exorcism requires less effort than you think. “You merely need to point at something, acknowledge it, and command it. It just takes intention and power of assertion of your will. So even [by] not understanding what demons actually are, [exorcisms] are accidentally successful.”
Rose, whose patron goddess is Inanna, pointed out that negative energy can come in many different forms and entities that have no understanding of the Christian God. “Attempting to banish it with a Catholic Exorcism, is quite simply a waste of everyone’s time,” she told me, particularly if the person afflicted is not a Christian.
As a High Priestess of Eclectic Witchcraft and a professional exorcist for 26 years, Rose has performed nearly 8,000 exorcisms all over the world. She believes that what is missing most from the Catholic rite is attention to the actual individual who is possessed. “Priests never consider what nationality the subject is, their age, sex, or sexuality, their personal history, upbringing, or past, and current religious or spiritual beliefs and practices.” As a result, “There is nothing personal or liberating about a Catholic exorcism rite,” according to Rose.
Rather than following the one size fits all approach of the Roman Catholic Rite of Exorcism, which is a uniform litany with step-by-step instructions, Rose takes care to thoroughly examine each case individually. First, she does a careful assessment of both the possessed and the possessor. She determines whether or not there is an actual possession by making sure that each person has undergone a mental and physical examination in order to “exclude all non-supernatural symptoms and behavior.” If, indeed, it is a case of possession, the first thing she does is assess the afflicted’s “level of understanding and acceptance or encouragement of the alleged possession. How and why they came to be in this state is very important in my professional opinion,” said Rose. She will look to see whether or not there is a mental illness at play, for instance, or whether the person has suffered from abuse or self-destructive behavior like drug or alcohol addiction. Rose noted that each of these situations can generate the type of negative energy an entity can feed on, in addition to the non-supernatural symptoms and manifestations that one suffers from such afflictions.
Rose then assesses the possessor itself. “Negative energy has many forms. Everything comes back to energy, to the source, so an entity can appear as a beetle, or a wolf, a djinn, a vampire, or simply just a strange shape or half-animal, half-human. It can also look like electricity, like lightning or a mist or heavy fog.” No matter how the energy appears, she noted that it will appear in a way the possessed can understand it. So “an atheist is unlikely to be possessed by the Christian devil,” but “an African is more likely to be possessed by a loa if they believe in Vodou.” Rose doesn’t necessarily believe these energies are necessarily the devil or loa, but that they present themselves as such to be understood and affect the possessed.
After this assessment, she writes each ritual solely for the person who is afflicted, taking into account their personal, religious, ethnic, and social background, how they came to be possessed, and the nature of the entity. Most importantly the rite has to be meaningful for both the exorcist and the individual being exorcised.
Bilé’s approach is similar. His goal is ultimately to empower the person he is assisting and lead them to a place of healing for the themselves through the ritual. He does this by involving the individual in as much of the ritual as possible. “They proclaim what they are going through, name it, and bring it into tangibility. They make a proclamation of power and then there will be a fight with this force. This isn’t a passive, ‘I’m your savior’—ultimately you have to be your own savior in this situation. At the end there is healing and empowerment, resulting in peace for the person, and all this takes place in a magical circle in a ritualistic fashion.”
For Bilé, it doesn’t matter if these are external or internal forces at play. Either way, the ritual offers a narrative and space for the person to focus on what is oppressing them, purge it, and create a positive intention for the self going forward.
It doesn’t take much to imagine how Catholic Church feels about “alternative” exorcists. Father Michael Maginot, who performed the well-documented exorcism of Latoya Ammons and her family which was the basis for the recent film Demon House, told me that occultists like Rose and Bilé can become “perfectly possessed.” This means they are so heavily into the occult that they don’t know they themselves are being possessed. “You think you are dealing with spirits that are good, but you are actually under demonic control.”
Father Maginot believes that people who willingly work with forces outside of Christianity will pay a heavy price. “We are seeing an increase in demonic possession because people are dabbling in the occult and involving more people in it,” said Maginot. “They want put a positive spin on it, like they say that they are white witches and deal in white magick—but there is no such thing. They are dealing with demons. Angels don’t get involved in things like this.”
When asked why practitioners like Rose and Bilé don’t manifest outward signs of possession, Maginot replied that “they aren’t being attacked because they are in league with these demons.”
Bilé laughed at this notion: “If anything, the fact that we can interact with these forces without coming to harm shows we have our shit together.” Rose found Maginot’s words insulting and pointed to the number of cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests as indicative of more “diabolism” in their faith than in hers. She also felt that such claims are evidence of fear mongering from a church that is losing members to an increasingly secular world. “The Church is attempting yet again to scare people into staying timid and fearful of the wrath of god,” said Rose. And fear, she noted, just feeds the demons.
“They call this entity a demon and say it’s part of this crazy host of demons that are created by Satan and they’re from Hell, and there are a thousand of them all over the place. That empowers the thing you are supposed to fight even more,” said Bilé, “Not only are you giving a name to it, but you are giving all the power of the host to it. You just beefed up the very thing you are trying to fight.” To this point, Maginot admitted that if an exorcism is unsuccessful, that the demon may return with seven more demons in tow, as expressed in Matthew 12:45 and Luke 11:26 of the New Testament—which is entirely unsurprising to Bilé, given the Church’s approach to exorcism.
In the end, Rose and Bilé want to see people take charge of their own power, and exorcism may be one part of that process. As Rose told me, “If people become empowered and connected to their own spirit and see themselves as a temple of wonderful enlightenment, they don’t need a church.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.