Photographer: Eoghan Brennan
Our 21st century rational mind is ready to reject such notions as being superstitions, relics of the past: possessions are the reflection of severe mental conditions, paranoid delusions. At one end of the spectrum there is total belief, at the other utter disbelief. Maybe it is not such a simple case of either/or.
In my younger days I travelled extensively to Southeast Asia. Bali is well known for its trance possessions, trance dance and in general as a place where the existence of magic is never questioned by anyone. Note that people in Bali do not really distinguish between black or white magic, as those with magical power can, at a whim, do something evil.
The idea of avesha, possession, is a fundamental trope of Indic religions, says Professor Geoffrey Samuel of Cardiff University, Wales. So Tantric Buddhism and a host of other religions, originally from India, deal extensively with it, at a pragmatic level, with a number of well defined measures to counter possession by evil spirits.
So far I have mentioned Asian practices. But shamanic beliefs are not confined to Asia and the idea of spirit possession is also found in Africa and in the Americas. Think of Voodoo or Santeria, whose roots are in the Yoruban religion from Africa.
When I was in Bali in the early 1990s I met an extraordinary woman, Ibu Gedong Bagoes Oka, who used to run a Gandhian ashram in Candidasa, on the eastern coast of the island. She had been a university professor, educated in Dutch, which she spoke fluently, as well as English. The ashram was a special place for local villagers. She would take young people in , teach them and would work with them on a number of ecological projects. The ashram was also open to visitors who wanted to enjoy a full break in a peaceful environment. As a visitor you did not have to join the ritual practices of the ashram but you were invited to show respect and act according to a code of conduct - i.e. non-smoking, only vegetarian food, non violent behaviour etc. At the time I travelled with my son who was a young child . The ashram was a great place for him to stay, as there was a nursery school for local children. I'd often leave him there on his own, fully protected and well looked after and go off on excursions which for him were too difficult to negotiate.
Photographer: Martin Billings
Ibu always joined her guests for dinner and one evening the conversation inevitably turned onto the belief in magic. Ibu told us that magic was the curse of Balinese villages, where people would sometimes end up poisoning each other believing that someone had summoned evil spirits. Her mission at the ashram was to get the villagers to go beyond that, teaching them that the best protection against black magic is to believe it has no power to affect you. A compassionate attitude, the belief that as a human being you have free will is enough, she said, to counter those 'psychic attacks'. What if you are given a cursed object? Oh well, she said, refuse to believe it is cursed, it will have no effect. Or bless it and recycle it, if at all possible. It will never hurt anyone but the person it was intended for.
I guess Ibu touched upon the most important point. Dont hurt anyone in your thoughts and no one will really be able to affect you, 'magically'. It is the safest and simplest way to counter the curse of black magic. And even if you do not believe in black magic, it is a good rule to adopt in life, anyway.
(All photos modelled by Alex B.)