I’ve just found a remarkable paper with several cases of epilepsy that were interpreted as voodoo possession. They were all people with roots in Haiti, where voodoo is the predominant religion, and where spirit possession is considered a common spiritual event.
For thousands of years epilepsy has been explained as spirit possession in religions around the world. Epilepsy is also known to trigger intense religious or spiritual experiences in some people but the majority of cases are from the West and so have a distinctly Christian theme.
This 36-year-old woman had several years of recurrent complex partial seizures that manifested as a strong sense of fear and epigastric coldness, followed by loss of awareness, utterances of nonsensical phrases, and complex motor automatisms. The local mambo attributed the events to her being taken by ‚ÄúMelle Charlotte,‚Äù a french loa [spirit], with the nonsensical speech being interpreted as a foreign language.
It is said that during the possession by this spirit, a person will speak perfect French or other languages, even though in life, the person has no knowledge of that language. She continued to have seizures despite the mambo‚Äôs attempts to conjure the spirit. He explained his failure to the fact that Melle Charlotte is a very particular loa who makes only sporadic appearances. She was not treated with AEDs [anti-epileptic drugs] until she left Haiti at the age of 34.
An EEG revealed a right anterior temporal focus, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed right hippocampal atrophy. Seizures improved with carbamazepine (CBZ), although compliance with medication was a problem, largely because of family interference.
The cases are interesting as they highlight how easily the ‘possession’ theory fits with the unpredictable course of epilepsy and its effects when it seems to briefly ‘take over’ the body and mind of the affected person.
It raises the question of how much observations of epilepsy, a condition that affects approximately 1% of the population, have contributed to the idea of possession throughout the world.