The supernatural tradition in psychopathology

The supernatural tradition in psychopathology

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There was a time when mental illness was explained as something disconnected from human nature, as a fact supernatural. There have been different conceptions of psychopathology from early times to the Middle Ages.

Occasionally, it was associated with factors such as demonic possession, or to an imbalance of fluids and inner forces. Only the most recent times, it was established that it should be caused by alterations in the nervous system or by altered "mental" processes.

The supernatural tradition in psychopathology

The first and oldest forms of explanation of the abnormal behavior were those that attributed its origin to magical and supernatural causes. Those societies tried to understand and explain the behavior from their beliefs and from scientific ignorance.

Mental illness it was about practices like the following:

  • Enclosures
  • Punishments
  • Exorcisms

Although these methods, certainly primitive, are now discredited, they gave rise to first therapeutic approaches, So to speak.

It was clear that something should be done to cure the most indicative symptoms of spiritual and / or demonic possession.

Although there is not much evidence on how prehistoric civilizations considered abnormal behaviors, there are some archaeological remains showing particular forms of cranial bone perforation. A practice known as clambering.

Human skull that has had a trepanation

The purpose of the trepanation within the supernatural tradition was to make holes in the skull so that the evil spirits could escape for them. In fields around the world there is evidence of these ancestral practices, so it seems that it was widespread.

The idea of ​​possession

We can say that the supernatural tradition was strongly based on the idea of ​​possession on the part of bad spirits, which, managed the minds of people, resulting in an alteration in behavior, judgment and other physical symptoms.

This doctrine is known as demonology, and it is the theory that explains the amount of trepanned skulls found in different areas of Peru and the rest of the world.

This hypothesis is not the only explanation, since there are other theses where the perforations could be the product of practices for the release of intracranial pressure or simply traumas of some kind of confrontation between groups.

The history of exorcism and its relation to mental health

Medieval representation of a demon

The history of exorcism is very old and date back several thousand years before Christ. There is evidence of documents from preclassical societies such as Hebrews, Chinese and Egyptians.

The exorcism was a religious ritual for which it was to obtain the favor of benign deities in order to expel the evil from the body of the infested and consecrate their spirit to good.

Virtually all important cultures have had their own exorcism rituals. Within the tradition supernatural In psychopathology, perhaps exorcism is the most controversial and interesting for researchers. In fact, much is now known about the power of suggestion, and its influence on the continuing health-illness.

The possessed patient

Depending on the symptoms developed by the patient, the priests associated him with some particular type of demon. For example, it was not the same to do evil as to speak in an unknown language. Demonology was, and still is, a very wide and varied discipline, subject to many interpretations and full of symbology.

In the early years of Greco-Roman societies, demonology was still present in the explanation and treatment of mental disorders, although little by little this conception would be abandoned.

Even in the Middle Ages, the idea of ​​diabolical possession was still very present. In addition, the idea of ​​possession by ghostly entities such as incubus and the succubi. Likewise, there was a rebirth of beliefs in mythological and supernatural beings.

Progressively this idea faded away with the emergence of theories about the physical and biological causes of madness, as well as with the rise of research and science.

However, today, and despite the explanation of phenomena such as hysteria and psychosis, many people continue to believe that devilish and ghostly possessions exist. Maybe that explains the success of films like El Exorcista and others similar. Something deep within us wants to believe and at the same time not believe in the supernatural.


Peña-Herrera, B. (2018) General Psychopathology. Samborondón: Espiritu Santo University - Ecuador.