Gradhiva n°7


The spectacle of the possessed  

Spring 2008

Edited and presented by Erwan Dianteill and Bertrand Hell

Is a possessed person an actor or a madman? This is the alternative that Roger Bastide, Michel Leiris and Alfred Métraux attempted to go beyond, in their generation. In fact, these three anthropologists reject the psychiatric approach to possession, whereby the trance is viewed as a psychopathological state or an uncontrolled liberation of impulses; instead, they all concur to different degrees with the mimetic aspect of possession. By 1938, Leiris was anticipating developments concerning the ‘vestiaire de personnalités’ which led to the publication of La possession et ses aspects théâtraux chez les Éthiopiens de Gondar. Bastide for his part, argued for the true nature of possession – which can be authentic without being pathological– in his book Le Candomblé de Bahia. For him, mimetic action pointed to degeneracy rather than religious vitality. as for Métraux, who wrote a great book called Le Vaudou haïtien, in which he vacillates between an empathy that nourished his tendency to credit the reality of possession and an ironic Voltarian approach that considered it mere charlatanism.
This debate can be revived today in new terms, for two reasons at least; the first being of an epistemological nature, since the social sciences of today are no longer what they were in 1950; there is a lot more ethnographic data available today and theories have been revisited, and recently new trends have appeared and developed, especially with regard to cognitive and pragmatic approaches, to gender studies, and performance studies, as well as literary theory. The second reason is linked to transformations within the contemporary world, which the cults of spirit possession have not avoided. The tendency towards showmanship, the marketing of cultures, the acceleration and dissemination of electronic communication are processes that characterise modernity and which have had remarkable effects on endorcism rituals. Consequently, we proposed revisiting the anthropology of spirit possession in different places: Mayotte,  Brazil,  Morocco and Argentina. It will be seen that spirit possession in these places sometimes turns into a global spectacle.

Buy this issue online


Special issue: The spectacle of the possessed.  Possession, theatre and globalisation

  • Introduction, by Erwan Dianteill & Bertrand Hell 
  • Negotiating with the tromba spirits in Mayotte. Returning to possession as a ‘lived theatre’, by Bertrand Hell
  • Supermodern caboclo. Globalisation, possession and theatricals in a Umbanda temple in Fortalezza (Brazil), by Erwan Dianteill
  • An unnatural trance? Afro-Brazilian cults of possession in Buenos Aires, by Maïra Muchnik
  • The Festive Sacred and the Fetish of Trance. Performing the Sacred at the Essaouira Gnawa Festival of World Music, by Déborah Kapchan

Documents and materials

  • Roger Bastide replies to Michel Leiris (1958)


  • A failed ethnography. Brazillian modernism, the Department of Culture in São Paulo and the Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas, by Fernando Giobellina Brumana
  • The temples of Mother India, museums of the nation, by Mathieu Claveyrolas
  • Three futures, one destiny. Biography of a  kwakwaka’wakw headdress, by Marie Mauzé
  • Collecting as iconoclasm. The London Missionary Society in Polynesia, by Steven Hooper
  • Yves Laloy. A dialogue between primitivism and surrealism, by Suzanne Duco

Scientific column


  • 176 pages (20 x 27 cm)
  • 140 illustrations
  • ISBN : 978-2-915133-86-8
  • 18 €