Possession Amnesia: Mysteries in Prophetic Phenomena?


By Clint Tibbs, Ph.D.

A trance channel is a medium whose body has been taken over by a spirit that communicates with an audience. To all outward appearances the channel is speaking; his or her mouth is moving and the body is performing, but the voice is a little different. The channel’s spirit does not speak; another spirit makes use of the channel’s vocal organs to communicate with a congregation. When the spirit departs the channel’s body, the channel “wakes up” from the trance state and, depending on how deep the trance, the channel has limited to no recollection of what the spirit did or said while possessed by it.

To some, this sounds unique to the modern period, especially the 19th and 20th centuries and the 1980’s channeling fad. But, in fact, such phenomena have been recorded among Greeks, Jews, and Christians living from the time of Plato up through the early Christian era. Consider the description of a medium by the first-century CE Hellenistic Jewish author Philo of Alexandria: “For indeed the prophet, even when he seems to be speaking, really holds his peace, and his organs of speech, mouth and tongue, are wholly in the employ of Another, to show forth what He wills. Unseen by us that Other beats on the chords with the skill of a master hand and makes them instruments of sweet music, laden with every harmony” (Who is the Heir of Divine Things? 266). The spirit speaking through the prophet is called by Philo “Another” and “that Other.”

Notice how Philo uses a music-instrument simile to describe a medium in relation to the spirit operating through the prophet. The prophet is the instrument and the spirit is the performer who makes the prophet speak. Notice, too, that Philo describes channeling phenomena from a third person point of view when he says, “the prophet, even when he seems to be speaking, really holds his peace,” or “is silent.” An audience sees the prophet speaking, but it is not the prophet’s spirit activating his vocal organs; rather it is another spirit that has entered him and is speaking. Hence, the prophet(’s spirit) is silent.

There is a little-discussed phenomenon that usually accompanies trance addresses. Once the medium has come out of trance and the spirit has departed the body, the medium experiences amnesia for the time the spirit was present. The Christian Swiss medium, Beatrice Brunner (1910-1983), experienced amnesia of this kind. Johannes Greber, author of the historic work, Communication with the Spirit World of God: Its Laws and Purpose, recorded his first-hand accounts of mediums experiencing amnesia. In a psychiatric study on trance channeling, Dureen Hughes observed amnesia among trance channels. Descriptions of this phenomenon are not unique to the 20th century. Mediums function no differently now than they did thousands of years ago. The descriptions of possession amnesia in first-, second-, and third-century texts attest to this fact in spades.

John Cassian, a Christian ascetic monk who lived ca. 360-435, records in his Collationes 12 or “Institutes” for monastic orders two types of spirit possession by contrasting those who “are affected by them [demons] in such a way as to have not the slightest conception of what they do and say, while others know and afterwards recollect.” Cassian records what some today call part-trance (or partial possession), whereby the possessed person is aware of the spirit acting through him or her, and full-trance (or full possession) whereby the possessed person has no recollection of what the spirit did or said. Many priests who practice the Catholic Rite of exorcism have experienced this phenomenon as well: once the possessed person “comes to” they have no recollection of having been possessed by a spirit.

Early Jewish and Christian texts report an amnesiac effect that Cassian records, but, unlike Cassian, the reports are of prophets possessed voluntarily by a holy spirit and not possessed involuntarily by a demon. For this reason, biblical scholars have observed that a holy spirit is, apart from moral qualities, the same sort of agency as a demon. Both demons and holy spirits can communicate through a medium and leave the medium amnesiac for the event. In the New Testament, both demons and holy spirits are called by the same Greek word, pneuma, “a spirit.” We will look at seven examples of possession amnesia beginning with Plato. Of these seven, three are Greek, one is Roman, one is Jewish, and two are Christian.

In Plato’s Apology 22c we read: “They [the poets] were inspired, like the prophets and givers of oracles; for these also say many fine things, but know none of the things they say;” and in Plato’s Meno 99c we read: “for these people [soothsayers and diviners] utter many a true thing when inspired, but have no knowledge of anything they say.” Plato says that inspiration is accompanied by a condition whereby the inspired person does not know what is being said. Some scholars interpret Plato here to mean that the inspired person does not understand the content of the spirit’s message. But this interpretation does not tell us when the inspired person does not understand the content, during the possession or after the possession has ceased. Plato himself is unclear as to when.

Other examples of possession amnesia are much clearer as to when the amnesia is experienced. The first-century Jewish author known as Pseudo-Philo (named after Philo of Alexandria) reports in his Liber antiquitatum biblicarum (Book of Biblical Antiquities), a Latin text originally composed in Hebrew, the following episode in Chapter 28, lines 6 and 10: “And when they had sat down, a holy spirit came down upon Kenaz and dwelled in him and put him in ecstasy, and he began to prophesy, saying . . . . And when Kenaz had spoken these words, he was awakened, and his senses came back to him. But he did not know what he had said or what he had seen.” Notice that once Kenaz is “awakened,” or comes out of his trance state, a state denoted in the phrase “put him in ecstasy,” he has no knowledge of what the spirit said through him. Amnesia occurs after the possession has ceased. Ecstasy comes from a Greek term ekstasis which means “to stand outside of oneself.” In prophecy, a prophet goes into ecstasy or “stands outside of himself” to make way for another spirit. Ecstasy then suggests that there is a physical body and a spirit body involved: the spirit departs from the physical body temporarily while another spirit enters into it and operates the vocal organs. Prophets did this voluntarily unlike the demonically possessed who were involuntarily invaded by a malevolent spirit.

Aelius Aristides (117-181) was a Roman orator by profession who wrote of the inspiration of the priestesses of Zeus in his In Defense of Oratory 42-43, “What will you say of the priestesses in Dodona, who know as much as the god approves, and for as long as he approves? Yet neither had they any such knowledge until they entered into communion with the god, nor afterwards do they know anything which they have said, but all inquirers understand it better than they. So those who were ignorant and made inquiry have learned from them, but those who told what must be done do not even know the very fact that they have spoken at all. Therefore you would not be wrong in assuming this evidence to be from Zeus.” Once again, we see that inspired persons lack any recall of what a spirit says, in this case Zeus, during the inspiration event. Amnesia occurs after the possession has ceased.

Iamblichus (ca. 240-325), a Neo-Platonist, wrote in his On the Mysteries, 3.4.11, “but it [the god] is immediately present, and uses the prophet as an instrument while he is neither himself nor has any consciousness of what he says or where on the earth he is, so that even after prophesying, he sometimes scarcely gets control of himself.” Iamblichus’s description of the prophet as “scarcely gets control of himself” suggests the condition of his mental faculties after prophesying.

Pseudo Justinus, a Christian author who lived during the second century, wrote in his Hortatory to the Greeks, 37.2,3, “She (the Sibyl) was filled indeed with prophecy at the time of inspiration, but as soon as the inspiration ceased, there ceased also the remembrance of all she had said . . . . the prophetess having no remembrance of what she had said, after the possession and inspiration ceased.” The Sibyl was a prophetic figure known to ancient Greek thought. Sibyl became a name for certain prophetesses, and many Sibyls flourished. Notice how clearly amnesia is described as an effect that occurs after possession has ceased, exactly as we see today in modern reports on trance channeling.

Tertullian (ca. 160-225) was an eminent Latin church father who wrote in his Against Marcion 4.22.5, “When someone is in the state of being ‘in the Spirit’ especially when beholding the glory of God or when God speaks through that person, the person concerned has, of necessity, to be deprived of the human faculty of perceiving because that person is manifestly overshadowed by the power of God. And therefore, because it was ‘in the Spirit’ that he had now spoken, and not in his natural senses, he could not know what he had said.” The “in-the-Spirit” state is cryptic. But in Tertullian’s context of prophecy here, the phrase means “with a spirit” (“with” refers to agency, “by means of a spirit”) whereby someone is controlled by a spirit to speak, much in the same way that demoniacs are described as being “with a spirit” in Mark 1:23 and 5:2 and prophets in 1 Corinthians 12:3. Tertullian records that while speaking “in the Spirit” the person is not fully conscious, “not in his natural senses,” and in this state is unaware of what is being said. This suggests that upon coming out of the trance the inspired person has no recall of the event. Notice that Tertullian is a Christian example for the amnesiac effect of a holy spirit who speaks through a prophet. This effect is identical to what Cassian records of demonic possession and what Pseudo-Philo records of possession by a holy spirit.

Why does amnesia occur in the first place after possession has ceased? A few studies of EEG measurements have been made of those possessed by spirits or who are in a trance. These measurements have yet to provide sufficient data to help explain what is taking place on a neurological level during possession trance. The ancient reports of possession by spirits say that “the mind” wanders beyond the body while another spirit enters into the body. When the spirit leaves, “the mind” returns to the body. Philo of Alexandria writes: “This is what regularly befalls the fellowship of the prophets: For the mind that is in us is evicted at the arrival of the divine spirit, but when that [spirit] departs, the mind, once again, returns to its tenancy” (Who is the Heir of Divine Things, 265). This might explain why amnesia occurs: the mental faculties for memory have been suppressed or are absent. Of course, Philo does not say to where the mind goes once it is evicted.

Dureen Hughes’ research on trance channeling offers us a clearer view of what Philo is describing. She remarks that some channels are completely unconscious while in trance whereas other channels are semiconscious while channeling and are able to remember a part of their experience. Her interest focused on the conscious state of the channel while channeling: “What does the ‘I’ experience and perceive (and where does it go) when the body- ‘Me’ is being inhabited by some Other?” Hughes’ research subjects often referred to the semiconscious state as if they were “on the side” while channeling. Hughes reports a description of such a state: “One channel has stated that she has some awareness, ‘like hearing voices in the next room.’ She sees pictures, feels her lips moving, and hears a little voice. She feels that her own consciousness is ‘dormant,’ ‘on the side,’ but really has no control and cannot intrude on what the entity is saying.” Sometimes, Hughes received her data of the conscious state of the channel directly from the spirit itself who was communicating through the trance channel: “One entity has stated that ‘the channel floats in a pool of passive awareness, by agreement staying within the pool.’” Other times, the spirit addressed Hughes that the channel is alternatively within and outside the body, and may perceive the spirit communicating.

To sum up, the phenomenon of possession amnesia can be documented from as early as the first century CE to the present day. Advances in the behavioral sciences have allowed us to peer deeper into the channeling phenomenon and give us greater insight as to what is taking place. Reports by ancient authors reviewed above describe possession amnesia quite clearly. This suggests that, despite the obscurity of the phenomenon, it must have been frequently observed by those consulting a medium or participating during a prayer séance. The fact that both a Jewish and a Christian author describe possession amnesia due to the presence of a holy spirit should give Christians (and Jews) greater insight into what the earliest Christians were doing: they were communicating with the spirit world in ways described by Philo and others reviewed above. 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 might be read in the light of this phenomenon. Also, The Shepherd of Hermas: Mandate 11, a second-century Jewish-Christian document, records a Christian prayer séance wherein the sitters are admonished to discern the spirits that visit them and communicate through a medium. Possession amnesia is not recorded here, but the description of a medium in Mandate 11.9 suggests it: “When the man who has the divine spirit comes into an assembly of righteous men who have faith in a divine spirit, and intercession is made to God by the assembly of those men, then the agent, who is the prophetic spirit, which is assigned to the man, fills the man, and the man, being filled with the holy spirit, speaks to the multitude, just as the Lord wills.”

No longer can the Bible be used to prohibit communication with the spirit world, despite Leviticus 20:27 and Deuteronomy 18:10-12. These passages refer to consulting a certain spirit world; those spirits not originating with God. 1 John 4:1-6 makes abundantly clear that there are spirits from God and spirits not from God, and these spirits confess, i.e. they communicate. There is no blanket prohibition against consulting spirits in the Bible. After all, the Old Testament prophets were in daily contact with spirits via visions, dreams, and other media. And the New Testament is full of episodes about angels, spirit guides, trances, and speaking “by means of a spirit,” all originating with God. The earliest Christians were constantly admonished by their leaders to “test” or “discern” the spirits with whom they communicated (1 Cor 12:10; 1 Thess 5:19-20; 2 Thess 2:2; 1 Tim 4:1; 1 John 4:1-6). Why? Because early Christians believed evil spirits could mimic good spirits (2 Cor 11:14).


Clint Tibbs is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Delta State University in Cleveland, MS. He obtained his Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.



[1] Brunner’s trance lectures were recorded for posterity and may be viewed on the following website: www.probeatrice.ch.

[2] See Dureen J. Hughes, “Blending with an Other: An Analysis of Trance Channeling in the United States,” Ethos 19.2 (1991): 161-184. See also Norbert T. Melville and Dureen J. Hughes, “Changes in Brainwave Activity during Trance Channeling: A Pilot Study,” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 22.2 (1990): 175-189.

[3] An old German text makes this clear. See Heinrich Weinel, Die Wirkungen des Geistes und der Geister im nachapostolischen Zeitalter bis auf Irenäus (Freiburg, Leipzig, Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr Paul Siebeck, 1899): “The activities of the holy spirit and those of the demons are, however, phenomena which not only bear a general resemblance to each other, but one and the same phenomenon may be construed as the work of either a good or a bad spirit, according to the religious viewpoint of him who records it. What might be considered as the work of good or holy spirits by a Christian Gnostic, might appear to a Catholic as a hallucination produced by demons, and vice versa” (p. 64, trans. and emphasis mine). See also Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages (Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past; New York: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[4] So Tsutomu Oohashi, et al., “Electroencephalographic measurement of possession trance in the field,” Clinical Neurophysiology 113 (2002): 435-445, here 444. See much earlier Raymond Prince, “Can the EEG be used in the study of Possession States?” in idem, ed., Trance and Possession States (Montreal: R. M. Bucke Memorial Society, 1968), 121-137.

[5] Hughes, “Blending,” 173.

[6] Ibid., 172.

[7] Ibid., 173.

[8] For more descriptions of the conscious state of the channel while channeling, see ibid., 173-176. Anthropologists have also made similar studies that document the phenomenon of possession amnesia. See T. K. Oesterreich, Obsession and Possession by Spirits both Good and Evil (Chicago, IL: de Laurence, 1935); Luh Ketut Suryani and Gordon D. Jensen, Trance and Possession in Bali (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Emma Cohen, The Mind Possessed: The Cognition of Spirit Possession in an Afro-Brazilian Religious Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Lucy Huskinson, “Analytical Psychology and Spirit Possession: Towards a Non-Pathological Diagnosis of Spirit Possession,” in Bettina E. Schmidt and Lucy Huskinson, eds., Spirit Possession and Trance: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives (London: Continuum, 2010), 71-96.