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Many stories, both ancient and modern, concern "possession": a supernatural entity of some sort takes over a human or animal body and controls it.

Is there a Classical Latin word for this phenomenon? Or, failing that, an Ecclesiastical one?

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    You might look into the Vulgate versions of the story of the Gadarene swine (or commentaries on that).
    – TKR
    Sep 30 '18 at 18:49
  • As TKR suggested, I looked into the Vulgate Mark 5. There is no term for possession, formulations like "homo in spiritu immundo" are used instead. The term "possession" is apparently derived from Latin, but it seems it started to be used later, probably in the Middle Ages. Interesting question, anyway.
    – Pavel V.
    Oct 2 '18 at 13:21
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A quick look at NVG Mt gave alternatives centered in the person being possessed:

  • Being possessed > daemonium habere,
  • possessed person > daemonium habens (also qui habet daemonia in the other Gospels),
  • someone is possessed > daemonium habet/a daemonio vexatur

I found no word for possession proper. This is consistent in the other three Gospels, with slight word variations, but always talking about a person having a demon.

Updated:

I guess if Classical Latin or Greek had had a term for such a thing, it is not too far-fetched to expect it to show up in the Vulgate. So my opinion is there is no better term in the Classical period.


As for ecclesiastical Latin: (Updated 2020).

The old Roman Ritual has an entry (i.e. a rite) titled De Exorcizandis Obsessis a Daemonio. Note that it includes the command for the evil spirit to exit the body of the subject (exi!). The current ritual, though it seems to avoid referring directly to possession or the possessed, uses three times the word obsessio and six obsessus/-a/-um (either as a participle or an adjective). Meanwhile, there is no single instance of possideo, possessio or other derivatives. For what it's worth, the ritual distinguishes between obsessio and vexatio, but seemingly not between possession and obsession.

FWIW everyone in the internet seems to translate the title's obsessis as possessed. Expelling demons was part of Christ's ministry (cf. Mt 7.22, 8.16) and is part of Catholic liturgy to this day. This suggests obsessus, -a, -um as valid Latin for possessed.

Now Catholic theology (thanks brianpck) says there are distinctions between types of demonic influence in people. Possession and (demonic) obsession are different phenomena, however (as far as I can see), when there is no need for such distinction, both terms seem interchangeable. See, for example, this article by the Congregation for Divine Worship: (Italian, Spanish), and this Catholic Encyclopedia article that seems to mix both, even while explaining the difference:

He may attack man's body from without (obsession), or assume control of it from within (possession). As we gather from the Fathers and the theologians, the soul itself can never be "possessed" nor deprived of liberty, though its ordinary control over the members of the body may be hindered by the obsessing spirit. [emphasis mine]

To round things up, both versions of the ritual considered, use the following:

  • Possessed > obsessus, -a, -um,
  • to possess > obsido (lit. besiege),
  • possession > obsessio (lit. besieging, blockade). I think this is closer to what you are looking for than the Gospel's human-centered terminology.
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    I'm pretty certain the latter part is incorrect: Catholic theology draws a pretty sharp distinction between demonic possession and obsession, the latter being extrinsic.
    – brianpck
    Oct 2 '18 at 14:17
  • See, for my original comment, the first paragraph of this article. It's possible the distinction wasn't made in Latin, but I tend to think that there was at least some way of preserving the distinction.
    – brianpck
    Oct 3 '18 at 12:55
  • @brianpck Thanks. I suspect there could be an ambiguity in obsessio as both genus and species, just as with English possession. Actually the wording of the article in the Cath. En. is consistent with this: the title is "possession" then it talks about p. and o., then it calls the subject demon the "obsessing spirit".
    – Rafael
    Oct 3 '18 at 14:09
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    @brianpck, I've found two pieces of evidence that make me feel confident about obsessio: 1) The presentation of the rite of exorcism from 1999 uses both words as synonyms both in Italian and Spanish and 2) The current rite [continues]
    – Rafael
    Nov 9 '20 at 18:02
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    [continued]... uses obsessio three times, clearly referring to possession, while using no word starting with posses-. The rite does distinguish between possession and vexation (vexatio), but, surprisingly it does not distinguish conscious obsession and unconscious possession. For what it's worth, I consider this enough evidence for the use of obsessio as a valid (even preferred) word in eccl. Latin for possession.
    – Rafael
    Nov 9 '20 at 18:04
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Along with the terms mentioned by Rafael, there is another word: arreptitius. It wasn't used in Classical Latin and in modern Ecclesiastical Latin it seems not to be used either, but in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas it's quite frequent; in questions concerning actions of demons, I found uniquely this term for the possessed. From the context (like I-II, q. 80, a. 3, in the middle of "I answer that") it's clear that the demonic possession is the primary meaning, but some ambiguity (it can mean "natural" madness as well) seems to be wanted here. No verb for possession is mentioned there, even though the process of how a demon can control material things or men is discussed in detail. The only verb which seems to denote possession is "impugno" (to assail), but it is used as a synonym of temptation, the goal is a sin, not a possession.

I didn't read in detail Aquinas' biblical commentaries, but there is at least one use of the verb "to possess". Commentary on the Gospel of John 1811 (John 13, near the end of the fourth reading) corroborates Charlie's answer: the verb used is "possideo". In the biblical commentaries, other words for a possessed person (mostly "demoniacus") are used; Thomas clearly bases the vocabulary on the text of the Vulgate.

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  • So a possessed person is arreptitius, -a, -um; does Aquinas use any other associated forms, like a verb "to possess" or a noun "possession", or just arreptitius esse etc? (Good answer btw!)
    – Draconis
    Nov 6 '19 at 17:23
  • @Draconis: I didn't find any. Thomas describes the process of angelic or demonic control over bodies and men, but possession is mentioned just a limit caseof what is possible, no verb is used for it. There is also a false friend, demonic "assault" (impugnatio), which is a synonym of temptation; its goal is a sin, not possession.
    – Pavel V.
    Nov 8 '19 at 8:57
  • @Draconis: original version of my answer was based only on Aquinas' metaphysical works. In his biblical commentaries, I found the verb "possideo". Answer editted.
    – Pavel V.
    Nov 8 '19 at 9:27
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Just a wild guess given my scarce knowledge of Latin. In Spanish we use the word poseso for that purpose. It is defined in a dictionary from 1780 as "he who has the evil spirits within his body", and gives a Latin translation as possessus, the past participe of possidere:

possideo, possidere, possedi, possessus

  • inherit
  • possess, take/hold possession of, occupy
  • seize, hold, be master of

Nonetheless, the act of possession ("the existence of evil spirits within the human body") is translated to Latin in the same dictionary as Possessio hominis ab spiritibus malignis. The fact that a whole Latin sentence was needed to translate a single word may be a sign that no single Latin word existed for this concept.

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    The Latin sentence translates literally to "possession of a human by evil spirits", which would imply that possessio on its own could mean "possession".
    – Draconis
    Oct 1 '18 at 16:04
  • @Draconis it could be so, but I have been searching for occurrences of the word in classic Latin texts with no results found that might imply such "possession".
    – Charlie
    Oct 1 '18 at 16:07

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