Demonic voices

But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
– James 3:8

A priest healing a possessed woman. Woodcut by Pierre Boaistuau, published Paris: Gabriel Buon, 1598.

A priest healing a possessed woman. Woodcut by Pierre Boaistuau, published Paris: Gabriel Buon, 1598.

This work examines the restrictions placed upon women’s bodies and voices, particularly in public but extending to the private sphere and inner life; restrictions which have shaped not only women’s experience but that of men too. This is as true of our interactions with the spirit world as it is in the social and political worlds we also inhabit.

The figure(s) of the ecstatic, demoniac or witch is a continual source of fascination and inspiration for me. The ecstatic female mystic, often cloistered, sought communion with the divine; the witch was her infernal mirror, willing congress with the devil; between these two the demoniac stands ambiguously and precariously, the demonic incursion a sign of her bodily weakness and potential spiritual strength but until resolved or exorcised a constant moral and (meta)physical threat. I see her in the continuum of a distinctly female spiritual experience, an experience that is rooted in her sexuality and the conflict it stirs within her and within her milieu. Ecstatic spirituality, demonic possession and witchcraft are predicated on a direct, unmediated and embodied experience of the sacred; and the often dramatic manifestation or incursion of that unseen realm into the visible and the tangible.

The intersection and overlapping, in the early modern period, of ecclesiastical exorcism and the conjurations of magicians or sorcerers (many of whom were undoubtably renegade clergy) clearly fuelled the production and dissemination of magical texts. In the early modern period, ecclesiastical exorcists and magicians alike were concerned with accessing, binding and interrogating the denizens of the unseen, daemonic realm; and both used the same manuals of exorcism to accomplish their objectives, whether the demonstration of the power of the sacraments and the Church’s authority, or the discovery of hidden treasure, forbidden knowledge, procurement of women and success in gambling.

One point of correspondence is in the identities of the spirits they converse with, a subject that deserves more attention in light of the spirit catalogues of the grimoires. Initially, power over a spirit comes with the forced disclosure of its name, followed by its portrait or signature – a seal that can then be used to constrain, torture or command it. The manuals of exorcism and their bastard progeny, the grimoires, agree on this. Peculiar to the Church’s rite, however, is the striking corporeality and orality inherent in its focus on the demoniac’s body. Further, the woman’s body, which opened onto, manifested and voiced an otherwise invisible demonic host, was confronted by the corporeality of the Host, the body and flesh of Christ, the tangible sign of the power of an invisible God.

The case of Nicole Obry and the ‘miracle’ of Laon is notable for its very dramatic and public character: stage centre is a young woman who speaks for and as the demon. My interest was drawn precisely to this dramatic encounter; and the questions and ideas it raises regarding performance, agency, communication/communion with spiritual intelligences and the roles of women in magic. The dissociated or othered voice, and its material basis, the body, is the focus of the first part of this presentation; I will then consider the unique characteristics of the human voice – of speech, rather than text – as a vehicle of communication and communion with spiritual intelligences.

Othered voices

And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defilith the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell.
– James 3:6

On 3rd November 1565, while praying in a local church, Nicole Obry, only 16 years old and married three months previously to a local tailor, encountered a spirit. The spirit claimed to be her grandfather and, according to the (later) records, pursued and ‘entered into her’ as she left the church cemetery where he was buried. At his first appearance and in visions in the days following when Nicole had fallen gravely ill, he revealed that he was suffering in Purgatory, having died without confessing and leaving vows unfulfilled. The spirit requested that Masses be said for his soul and for Nicole’s family to undertake pilgrimages for the sake of easing his torments. All this was done, save for his final request, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela; and Nicole, who had followed the pilgrimages in faithful visions from her sickbed, was assailed by seizures and threatened that her grandfather’s spirit would make her mute, deaf and blind if his request was not observed. The severity of her condition and the violence of the threats must have caused her parents to doubt the identity of the ghost possessing their daughter, for they consulted two local clerics and, having no success in exorcising the spirit, the Dominican friar Pierre de la Motte was invited to investigate the case. He interrogated the spirit in Latin, and carried out those tests that determined whether a person was indeed possessed, concluding that it was the devil himself – the spirit of the demon rather than the spirit of the dead man – who had entered the body of Nicole Obry. La Motte, critically, compelled the demon to disclose its name: Beelzebub.

The exorcisms on Nicole began, first in the church at Vervins, where a scaffold was constructed so that onlookers could witness the events. From November 1565 to January the following year, exorcisms took place nearly every day. The battle for Nicole’s body became more intense, and Beelzebub summoned a corps of 29 demons to his bolster his position. Despite Nicole repeatedly receiving holy communion, the most powerful sacrament of the Church, there was only partial success. Beelzebub, having taken refuge in her leg, declared he would only leave her if compelled by the bishop in the cathedral of Laon.

Here the spectacle reached a climax, recorded by Jean Boulaese in Le Thresor et entière histoire de la triomphante victoire de corps de Dieu sur l’esprit malin Beelzebub, obtenuë à Laon l’an mil cinq cens soixante six (Paris: Nicolas Chesneau, 1578). The events immediately preceeding the Miracle of Laon, as it would be called, commenced on 24th January 1566 with Obry’s arrival in the city, ‘in triumphal style,’ accompanied by ‘an entourage of priests and family.’ (Ferber 2004:30) A scaffold had been erected in the nave of the cathedral, as at the church in Vervins, enabling the exorcism of Beelzebub and his two remaining cohorts – Astaroth the pig and Cerberus the dog – to be seen by thousands. One could argue that the artifice of the Church surpassed the artifices of the Devil, indeed critics at the time berated it as ‘just an engineered play.’ (‘C’était qu’un jeu industrieux.’ Weigert 2015:189)

The ritual, or performance, was preserved in a remarkable, and widely circulated, engraving by Thomas Belot, which records the sequence of events, rich with detail recorded as its inscription asserted au vif (from life/lifelike), and is accompanied by the key to the events and a text containing sections of dialogue between the bishop and Beelzebub speaking through Nicole. The conclusive victory over the demon, when he fled her body after she received the Host on 8th February 1566, was commemorated as the Miracle of Laon, a feast observed every year until the French Revolution.

La Carte et Image représentant au vif la triomphante victoire du précieux corps de Dieu sur l’esprit maling Beelzebub, par grand miracle obtenue à Laon mil cinq cens soixante-six. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

La Carte et Image représentant au vif la triomphante victoire du précieux corps de Dieu sur l’esprit maling Beelzebub, par grand miracle obtenue à Laon mil cinq cens soixante-six. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The symptoms of ecstatic mysticism overlap with the signs that discerned demonic possession. Women, particularly young women, are by far the dominant sex in this regard; such that the boys and men who presented in this way were gendered female. Those signs included susceptibity to trance states and to acting as spiritual intermediaries – speaking for or from the disincarnate. What Luce Irigaray claims of the divine discourse of medieval mysticism – ‘this is the only place in the history of the West in which woman speaks and acts so publicly’ (Irigaray 1985:191) – holds equally true of the early modern demoniac. Moshe Sluhovsky, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, observes, ‘these women expand the narrow space they have in traditional societies to speak out on religious matters and to participate in their society’s theological dialogue and spiritual quest.’ And he continues, ‘by disclaiming a voice, they gain a hearing. […] The encounters with spirits allowed them to verbalise their messages. The definition of these encounters as demonic possessions enabled them to disclaim authorial responsibility for the content of their spoken words.’ (Sluhovsky 1996:1050).

Sluhovsky also draws attention to the sexual character of the language and behaviour of demoniacs; describing how the devil called Nicole ‘whore’ and ‘prostitute.’ Witnesses (or better, spectators) to the exorcisms attested that her mannerisms resembled those of ‘une plaisamment affectée et rusée poutain’ (a pleasantly affected and cunning whore). Such an overtly sexual characterisation belied a deep-seated misogyny and anxiety about women’s sexuality and bodies. Yet, it also suggests that the conduct of the demoniac herself – in this theatre of unseemly behaviour under the scrutiny of an aroused public – was given license to breach the conventions of femininity. The exorcism gives her a stage, albeit one with a strictly defined mise en scène and script, to act and speak in an unfeminine way, in ways otherwise censored by society. It was a brief respite from the strictures on speech and comportment; although conversely, it also reaffirmed the criteria of ‘proper femininity’ by acting out improper female roles or archetypes – epitomised by the whore – and aligning them with the bestial and demonic. The demoniac is engaged in a self-accusation, a bodily confession, through which she must be absolved and brought back into the fold. Still, the danger of contagion, of incitement and outbreak, was ever present; hence, public exorcisms were viewed with unease by members of the clergy and laity alike.

Notably, the menarche (the first occurrence of menstruation), marriage and pregnancy are factors present in many cases of possession. Indeed, Nicole Obry’s mother testified that her daughter became possessed a month after her first menstruation; and later records indicate that Nicole became pregnant during or shortly after her possession. (Sluhovsky 1996:1052). Inevitably, physiological or life changes precipitate emotional and psychological shifts that may bring about a state of crisis in a person.

In an atmosphere of religious schism and heightened social tension, the demoniac vocalised and ‘expressed somatically’ the anxieties and disturbances in the community around her, with her own sexual awakening/crisis at the crux of this breach. She is especially sensitive to and has the ability to amplify, or make painfully apparent, the political, religious and social crises in which she finds herself. The demoniac is simultaneously an instrument of the Church and of the Devil; it is an ambivalent position.

Along with the corporeal signs that discerned possession – which included unnatural strength, convulsions, contortions, revulsion at sacred objects, clairvoyance, and entering trance states – the demon perverted speech, blaspheming, cursing, uttering obscenities, or betrayed himself with the ability to speak in tongues and to converse in unknown languages. However, the demoniac’s voice also underwent distinct changes, becoming hoarser, deeper, more masculine. In some instances, it was as if the voice emanated from another part of the body, such as the belly, or without the lips moving; at other times, the voice did not sound human but resembled animal sounds: hissing, barking, growling and grunting. Such characteristics are congruent with the way demons themselves were thought to sound: uncouth, disorderly and raucous.

But the women who gave voice to demons were doing no more than what the human voice is naturally capable of; there is nothing explicitly demonic in their vocal contortions. This interests me much more than questions of whether or not the possessions were authentic demonic manifestations, or whether they were symptoms of psychological disturbances, or how such distinctions can or should be drawn. The bodies of demoniacs were a contested ground, manifesting fault lines or schisms in the body politic, and manifesting a state of crisis in the women concerned. The crisis state is a volatile, liminal state and always potentiates radical change, a going beyond.

The carnal voice

I began exploring my voice as a natural progression of my dance and movement work. Vocalisation exercises have been a continuous undercurrent throughout my butō training. Both movement and voice fall and rise on the breath; the two are intimately bound with the promiscuous air that enfolds and penetrates the body.

Vocalising during movement helps to bring the breath into affective alignment with the moving body, and establishes a rhythmic awareness of energy pulsing through space. It is especially useful in butō, where the focus on the inner dimensions of the dance can obscure the need to communicate. Indeed, vocalisation can be understood as gesture, as Paul Moses (a pioneering laryngologist in the 50s) noted. The dynamics of the physical body mirror vocal dynamics mirror psychodynamics.

For behind the voice, there is a physical body; there is the voluptuous density of flesh, unyielding bone, the tremor of taut skin, and the throb of blood. The voice is a bodily phenomenon, and what the voice reveals – what we hear and feel – is the carnality of the body and its language. The voice is resonant with the surface terrain of the body, its arches, curves and hollows; and with its inner landscape: the channels, caverns, and folds of the occulted body. In his seminal essay ‘The Grain of the Voice,’ Roland Barthes conveys the visceral physicality of the voice, as the singer’s body ‘brought to your ears in one and the same movement from deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages…’ (Barthes, 1977:181) Barthes’ concept of ‘grain’ is not merely the timbre of the voice. It is, as he puts it, ‘the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue…’ (Barthes 1977:182) and emphatically, ‘the body in the voice as it sings’ (Barthes 1977:188).

When I began devoting more time and attention to my voice last year, beyond dance training, it was this physicality, above all, that struck me. The shift – or expansion – of my body work to voice was precipated by an extended period of mental and physical stress. To lift myself from this nadir I had to address every aspect of my being, to reconstitute myself. It is an ongoing process, part of which involved recapitulating traumatic memories from my early childhood. At a young age I consciously shut down my voice. To keep silence was to guard the integrity of self that was threatened by church and school, by the expectations of adults. But my voice was also shut down: by my father whose volatile moods broke on me physically and fearfully; and by the Victorian atmosphere of the household we lived in where children should be seen and not heard. The constriction of my voice has been with me all my life, bringing with it a chain of ‘I cannots’ (I cannot sing, I cannot speak out, I cannot speak with) that severed or constricted my connection with the world, and with that inhibition a chilling of creative expression. It is a constriction of space, as much as of voice. It is – most directly – a constriction of power. Dancing was, and is, a retrieval of my body from brute silence, from the drab din of conformity. But without a voice my body did not flower; the voice is the carnal flower of the body.

I embarked upon a series of workings based on Liber 49, the Book of Babalon received by Jack Parsons. Anágnōsis – reciting the text aloud – is to (re)create it, to bring it forth anew, to recognise or know again what has been written; voicing words animates them, gives them bodies that caste shadows and spells. I was listening for the body in the text, finding the gesture and voice simultaneously. I did not try to disappear or efface myself, as I have previously done entering trance states; to do so would have been to sever myself from my source of power, to turn away from the mirror I now needed to confront. No, I plunged into the text, became drunk with language, singing her delight and her rage and her immanence: we whispered, growled, laughed, purred, prophesied, commanded, cursed… the voices came forth.

Recitation of Liber 49 requires sustained energy over a multiplicity of shifts, often sudden, of voice and emotional tone. Opening with her powerful self declaration, ‘Yea, it is I, Babalon’ permits no gradual progression to this electrifying presence, it must be discovered with that first utterance. To give voice to her vivid, dynamic and capricious nature is both physically and mentally demanding. She takes flesh, she gives voice. The recitations were repeated, again, and again, for months. Each time I discovered more, in myself and in the words. We opened my caged voice and let it run, let it bleed through her words. And in this commingling of text and voice, the body was revealed. This was the epiphany. As if these sounds hurled against the confining walls echoed back, capturing her presence, her gestures cracking like thunder. Once incited, the oracular voice is afire. Following these workings, feverish speech flickered on my lips, across sheets of paper, poetry uttered and bodied with that uncanny depth and pointedness of the mantic voice. With the voice and its body, the space came to presence dynamically, inscribed by her ritual gestures.

There is one simple rule to remember with voice, it is this: to surrender to pleasure. The voice is all volupté. It follows the unreason of desire – of your desire. Like scent, pheromones or perfume, the voice touches invisibly, yet touches with a sensuality that is felt intimately – nakedly – on the skin and within. It floods the space and the reserve between individual bodies. The voice emanates at the threshold between interior and exterior, the hidden and the exposed, the material and the ineffable. Between the private and the public.

Throat, tongue, glottis, nose, lips: the flesh that gives voice is erotically charged. And the discovery of one’s voice is akin to the instinctive discovery of sexuality through masturbation, learning how to bring pleasure to yourself. And through receiving and giving pleasure with the mouth (kissing, cunnilingus, sucking cock) the orality of the sacrament is consummated in communion with another.

The sounds of sexual arousal are progressively more nasal due to the swelling of the tissues of the vocal folds. Sexual excitement produces tense, bird-like cries, moaning and groans of pleasure. Both male and female voices are affected by arousal, and both respond to subtle modulations of the voice in desired others. The voices of men and women alike are affected by hormones; but the larynx and the vocal folds of women, beginning with the menarche, undergo continuous cyclical changes. Thus, the menstrual and lunar tides influence a woman’s voice as well as her body. Indeed, there is an affinity between the concealed female sex and the organ of her voice. The tissues of cervix and of the larynx/vocal fold are extremely responsive to thyroid and sex hormones: estrogen, progesterone, androgen and testosterone. The cervix and the vocal folds have been shown to respond in the same way on the same days to the sex hormones produced during the different phases of the menstrual cycle.

The cultivation of the oracular voice is bound to the same inciting forces that influence and transform the sexual organs and the erotic voice: the endocrine system, and particularly the hypothalamic-pituitary axis. The entry on the larynx as a hormonal target in Diagnosis and Treatment of Voice Disorders reads, ‘The voice is at the crux of the psyche and the hormonal world’ (John S. Rubin, Robert T. Sataloff, Gwen S. Korovin (Eds.) 2014:432), which underscores again the corporeality of the voice and its intertwining with the occulted body, its subtle anatomy and the emotions. In magical practice, I observe the menstrual and lunar tides, which rule the nature, focus and timing of work.

Voices within the voice

Isn’t the entire space of the voice an infinite one?
– Barthes 77:184

All my work is based on the body, and I see a continuity through the body from the earliest actions, rituals and performances to contemporary expressions. I am particularly interested in avant-garde theatre and performance, with its palintropic return to the beginnings of human culture, its engagement with the occult and exploration of archaic forms and othered voices.

At the end of the nineteenth century two men were born (curiously, in the same year and same month) whose lives and works would dramatically transfigure the theory and practice of performance, and voice, in the twentieth century. The first born, Antonin Artaud (4th September 1896 – 4th March 1948), will perhaps be familiar to many of you. His radical revisioning of the theatre proposed untethering the body and voice from the literary text, shattering the divide between actor and spectator, art and life. His radiophonic works, the most known of which is Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu (To have done with the judgment of God), exhibit his extreme vocal technique and incantatory style. Here I cannot do justice to Artaud’s prodigious, magic-riven oeuvre, as I wish to look at the work and legacy of the second, and lesser known, figure: Alfred Wolfsohn.

Roy Hart and Alfred Wolfsohn, Singing Lesson. Courtesy of RHT Photographic Archives.

Roy Hart and Alfred Wolfsohn, Singing Lesson. Courtesy of RHT Photographic Archives.

Wolfsohn (23rd September 1896 – 5th February 1962) was a pioneer of the voice in extremis: the voice unleashed from convention, and engaging the full potential of its natural birthright: cries, screams, throat singing, harmonics, and so on. His method was birthed from the trauma and guilt he experienced and the suffering he witnessed during the First World War, when he served as a medic in the front line trenches. After the war he was diagnosed with ‘shell-shock’ or ‘war neurosis,’ what would now be recognised as post traumatic stress disorder. Plagued by nightmares and horrific aural hallucinations of the cries of wounded and dying soldiers, his health deteriorated despite the psychiatric treatment he received. He sought and opened a path to healing, prompted initially by his discovery of Freud’s work and particularly his notion of abreaction, a form of catharsis brought about by the patient reliving the traumatic experience to purge it of excessive, unbalanced emotion. Whilst Freud believed that words could stand for actions, thus the telling is a re-experiencing of an event, the cure lay in the act or process of speaking, which tied the experience to its emotional or affective dimension. Wolfsohn returned to the singing he had enjoyed before the outbreak of war, but used his voice to go further into the territory of his nightmares; to confront the voices that haunted him by mirroring them in his own voice. He explained his method as catharsis and exorcism combined. This intentional driving of the voice to its shadows opened to the modern world a realm that had been catastrophically sealed with, for example the legislation against women’s lamentation and ecstatic rites by Solon in 6th century BCE Athens; and the suppression by the Church Fathers of the oracular voice, embodied in the Pythia of Delphi and the Sybil of Cumae.

The extended vocal technique that Wolfsohn developed was carried forwards, and onto the stage, by his pupil the actor Roy Hart (30th October 1926 – 18th May 1975). Engaged in intense explorations of vocal psychodynamics, the work of his company consistently inhabited sacred, if not outright magical ground. Underlying their work are certain axioms: that men and women have the ability to extend their voices to a 5-octave range; and that the voices of man and woman alike contain the voices of the anima or animus, thus there is not a specifically male or female voice but voices inhibited and conditioned by the expectations and pressures of the cultural or social group. The exploration of these voices produced a theatre that occupied a space between healing, performance and sorcery.

Our vocal capacity developed with language and culture during our early hominid ancestry. Living as migratory hunter-gatherer-gardeners, our ancestors’ survival depended on their enhanced mimetic facility, physical and vocal, which was intrinsic to hunting prey, evading predators, play and story-telling. These corporeal skills, would later be cultivated in the theatre, in the ancient mime and dance, in acrobatics, martial arts, and in song. I was drawn to butō in part because it provoked a kind of ancestral or atavistic memory in me, and awoke a desire to rediscover the body’s ‘archaic heritage’ in movement and gesture. The potential within the voice is part of this heritage, which I am beginning to explore. The experiments undertaken in avant-garde performance arts have relevance to the sacred, occult and magic spheres that those who pursued them repeatedly invoked. These experiments are grounded, and manifest, in a physical practice and discipline – in a bodily reality, that is all too often elided by modern practitioners of magic. I see implications for our notions of ‘tradition’ and authenticity within the Western magical tradition in light of the developments of physical and vocal techne within avant-garde performance. As a woman, as one whose arts and traditions have been suppressed, distorted, or manipulated for its own ends by androcentric or patriarchal expressions of power, I embrace the primacy of body and voice – liberated from text and from social constrictions – in the innovations in performance in the last century. From the converging of the performance space with the space of ritual, of the public and private, of the incarnate with the disincarnate in the direct, unmediated experience of the sacred, the sorcery of the body will be rediscovered. If butō is a grammar of animism, the voice in extremis is its songs.

Voice is legion. Protean, like the devil, the human voice has an extraordinary mimetic capacity to transform, to be many voices and to voice many beings. Such fluidity is dangerous: it gifts power, it fascinates, it can lie, and it can expose a truth more profound than words convey.

Selected bibliography

Barthes, Roland (1977). The Grain of the Voice. Image, Music, Text, trans, and ed. Stephen Heath. London, 179–89.
Braggins, Sheila (2012). The Mystery behind the Voice: A Biography of Alfred Wolfsohn. Matador, Leicestershire.
Caciola, Nancy (2003). Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press.
Dimech, Alkistis (2016). Dynamics of the Occulted Body. Presentation given at the Psychoanalysis, Art and the Occult conference in London.
Ferber, Sarah (2004). Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France. Routedge.
LeCron Foster, Mary (1992). Body Process in the Evolution of Language. Giving the Body its Due. Edited by Maxine Sheets-Johnstone. Suny Press.
Irigaray, Luce (1974). Speculum of the Other Woman. (Eng. trans. 1985 by Gillian C. Gill). Cornell University Press.
Newham, Paul (1993). The Psychology of Voice and the Founding of the Roy Hart Theatre. New Theatre Quarterly, 9, pp 59-65
——— (1998). Therapeutic Voicework: Principles and Practice for the Use of Singing as a Therapy. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.
Pikes, Noah (2004 revised edition; first published 1999). Dark Voices: the Genesis of Roy Hart Theatre. Spring Journal Books, New Orleans.
Rubin, John S., Robert T. Sataloff, Gwen S. Korovin (Eds.) (2014). Diagnosis and Treatment of Voice Disorders. Plural Publishing.
Sluhovsky, M. (1996). A Divine Apparition or Demonic Possession? Female Agency and Church Authority in Demonic Possession in Sixteenth-Century France. The Sixteenth Century Journal, 27 (4), 1039-1055.
——— (2002). The Devil in the Convent. American Historical Review 107, 5 (Dec. 2002): 1378-1411.
Michael Szekely (2006). Gesture, Pulsion, Grain: Barthes’s Musical Semiology. Contemporary Aesthetics, 4
Weigert, Laura (2015). French Visual Culture and the Making of Medieval Theater. Cambridge University Press.

Alkistis Dimech