7. The Experience of Seeing: Spirit Possession as Performance

Religion and Sight - Louise Child

Bettina E. Schmidt [+-]
University of Wales Trinity St David
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Bettina E. Schmidt, DPhil (habil.), PhD, MA in cultural anthropology (Marburg University, Germany), professor in study of religions at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and the director of the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre which located in Lampeter, UK. Previously she worked at Marburg University, Oxford University and Bangor University. She was also visiting professor at the City University of New York and visiting scholar at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo. Elected President of the British Association for the Study of Religions. She has published extensively on Caribbean and Latin American religions, identity, cultural theories and migration. Her academic interests include anthropology of religion, diaspora identity, religious experience, urban studies, medical anthropology and gender issues. Her main fieldworks were conducted in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, New York City, and, more recently, in São Paulo, Brazil, about spirit possession and trance. She is the author of Spirit and Trance in Brazil: An Anthropology of Religious Experiences (2016, Bloomsbury), Caribbean Diaspora in the USA: Diversity of Caribbean Religions in New York City (2008, Ashgate), Einführung in die Religionsethnologie (2008, Reimer Verlag Berlin), and co-editor of Spirit Possession and Trance: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives (2010, Continuum), and of Handbook of Contemporary Brazilian Religions (2016, Brill).


Everyone who has ever attended a possession ritual in Brazil will agree that it is a breath-taking performance with colourful costumes, ecstatic dance movements and music that entices one to join. These rituals are, of course, more than highly aesthetic performances. They are efficacious: for the community, the medium and the possessing agent. For the observing researcher the aesthetic side, however, is easier to engage with as it allows the academic outsider to express admiration for a spectacle without being part of it. People experiencing spirit possession often have problems explaining to an outside researcher the internal processes. The study of spirit possession has therefore often focused on a functionalist explanation of the experience with little engagement with the perspective of people living it. A performative approach that highlights what we can see as well as hear, smell, taste and touch, is seen by many as a way to avoid the reductionist view as it allows for the inclusion of the researcher’s emotion. There is, however, also the danger that it can lead to a nostalgic projection, even an Orientalist attitude. This chapter is based on research about spirit possession and trance carried out in Afro-Brazilian religious communities in São Paulo. It focuses on the body of the mediums, the twisting, itching, erratic movements but also on the researcher’s perception of how the body of the mediums seem to change during the rituals. The sensory experience of the researcher, who attended these ceremonies, is therefore at the centre. After presenting first-hand impressions of various rituals, the chapter discusses how the sight of an outsider can be used as a methodological bridge to overcome the boundary between scholars explaining experiences and people living them.

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Schmidt, Bettina. 7. The Experience of Seeing: Spirit Possession as Performance. Religion and Sight. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. Jul 2020. ISBN 9781781797495. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=35752. Date accessed: 17 Nov 2019 doi: 10.1558/equinox.35752. Jul 2020

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