Transforming Possession: Josephine and the Work of Culture



Abstract This article presents the case of a Sri Lankan woman who tells of an early life fraught with suffering and problematic dissociation. After a 30-year career as a priestess during which she became renowned for deep possession trances, firewalking, and blood sacrifices, she no longer participates in these activities. The analysis of this case argues that problematic dissociation outside a ritual context can be used in and transformed by involvement in culturally available possession rituals to promote healing. This counters Melford Spiro and others who have viewed possession experiences as necessarily abnormal, psychotic, and symptomatic of mental disorder. It supports Gananath Obeyesekere's assertion that engagement with these symbolic systems can lead to “progressive transformations.” Parallels between this priestess' lifestory and Western psychotherapy extend Obeyesekere's conception of “the work of culture” beyond the domain of meaning and symbol to include roles for embodied practice and interpersonal relationships. [spirit possession, Sri Lanka, dissociation, healing, mental health]