James D. McNeely, M.D.
Clinical Director
Norton Psychiatric Clinic

Assistant Professor of Psychiatric

University of Louisville
School of Medicine
Louisville, Kentucky


            For two reasons I have considerable anxiety as I stand before our society this evening.  First, as a neophyte historian I hope to make a good impression.  Secondly, I find myself in the unenviable position of being the second psychiatrist in as many months to address the society.  Doctor Miller’s very stimulating presentation on the historical formation of the O.S.S. is a tough act to follow.  I assure you, however, that our presentations are not in series, and that there is not a connection between his Japanese foxes and my witches and demons.

            Within recent years there seems to have been a tremendous increase of interest in the occult i.e.: witchcraft, demonology, Satanism, astrology, parapsychological phenomena in general.  As John C. Hagee points out in his book, Invasion of Demons

            “Until five years ago the only contact with the occult that most Americans had was with Chinese fortune cookies and penny weighing machines.  Suddenly, there was a national explosion of the supernatural… every major field of human endeavor became obsessed with a raging appetite for the supernatural.  Gurus were going to college campuses all over America.  Bishop James A. Pike began to write a series of articles on how he was communicating with the other side to his deceased son… Anton LeVey has introduced into America a demonic religion… called the Church of Satan (1)


            Hagee goes on to point out how this movement has permeated every phase of our society (2) and has become big business.  The movie, Rosemary’s Baby, was a huge success.  William Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist, (3) was on the New York Times Best Seller List for fifty-five weeks and is still a best seller.  Not to mention the popularity of the movie.  Over the last two years we have had a small but noticeable increase in patients who have felt they were demon possessed.  Of course, this is nothing new as the mentally ill in their delusional systems have felt for centuries that they have been possessed of supernatural powers.

            As Fox points out, “What is defined as illness differs from culture to culture.  Behavior labeled as “sickness” in one culture may count as religious ecstasy in another.  The sociocultural system of which the individual is a member provides the stresses that cause the illness; the medium of expression of the illness; a theory of disease (spirit possession, soul loss, witchcraft, or attack of gods, ghosts, or germs); the basis for mobilization of help for the patient; a cure; and, in varying degrees, insurance that the cure will be permanent… (4)

            Levy-Bruhl in his classic book, Primitive Mentality, (5) explores in depth the various beliefs and practices of many contemporary “primitive” societies.  Perhaps this “primitive mentality” rests within all of us awaiting the opportunity of expression just like the infectious diseases are waiting to plague us as in times past when our scientific-rational world-view breaks down.  Oates reminds us that “the two interpretations of emotional disturbance exist (6) side by side both in the New Testament world and today’s world.  In fact, one can readily note the presence of a resurgent demonology within organized and “disorganized” religion on the current scene particularly within the more fundamental, charismatic sects.  (I had in fact hoped that Doctor Oates could have been with us tonight as one of my guests, but previous commitments precluded his being here.)

            The historical focus of my presentation this evening is eventually to be the bizarre events of the 15th century.  However, to set the stage I would like to make a few comments about the Judeo-Christian heritage of western man and the beginnings of scientific medicine.

            The Bible (7) both in its New and Old Testament supports a demoniacal world view regardless of the modern theologian’s attempt to “demythologize it.”  It is clearly stated in the Mosaic Law, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (8)  Also, “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.” (9)  King Saul’s consultation with the Witch of Endor is well documented in the book of Samuel (10) and referred to by Major in his book, Faiths That Healed, (11) in his historical review of the interaction of physician and priest in the healing of the sick.  The role of Jesus as exorcist of demons is known to all Christendom while the Jewish scribes in his day described his power to the fact that he was possessed by the prince of demons, Beelzebub (devil, Satan). (12)  An excellent review of the subject of exorcism in Jesus’ ministry is found in McCasland’s, By the Finger of God, (13) while Barclay’s, The Gospel of Mark, (14) has an interesting interpretative account of His most famous exorcism that of the Gerasene demoniac. (15)

            Hippocrates, who died in the early years of the fourth century B.C. (377), is considered the first layman to become a physician and is thus the Father of Greek Medicine. (16)  He wrote primarily from the standpoint of his own clinical observations and preferred naturalistic explanations for mental illness and epilepsy rather than possession by the gods.  Tempkin in his extensive review of epilepsy entitled The Falling Sickness states that Hippocrate’s famous book, On the Sacred Disease, was a “book written by a physician, but it is addressed to an audience of laymen.  It is an attack against popular superstition and magicians, wizards, and charlatans who termed the disease ‘sacred’.” (17)  Ackerknecht cites this particular passage, “The position regarding the so-called sacred disease is as follows: It seems to me to be no more divine and no more sacred than other diseases, but, like other affections, it springs from natural causes…” (18)  Charlton cites another particularly poignant passage from the Father of Medicine:

            “Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter, and jests, as well as our sorrows, pain, grief, and tears: that through it we think, hear, see, and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant…  It is the brain which makes us mad or delirious; inspires us with dread and fear, whether by night or day; brings sleeplessness, mistakes anxieties, absentmindedness, acts that are contrary to our normal habits.  These things that we suffer all come from the brain, including madness.” (19)


            The 15th century was not unlike the Middle Ages in general in that life was short, infant mortality high, plagues and epidemics decimated population, chronic illnesses were accepted as normal, therapeutic medicine was ineffective. (20)  As Hemphill states:

“Christians were terrified of being condemned after death to torture and the fire of hell for eternity, from which only the church could ensure salvation.