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That’s a Horse of a Different Color!

Sorry I have been away so long…things in my life have gotten a bit complicated with the upcoming surgery and all, so I haven’t had the spoons or the focus to do much writing. However, this post has been on my mind since late October; culminating in a dream last night that I was writing it, so I’m thinking it’s about time I sit down and bang it out.

I have done possessory work, both privately and publicly, for about ten years now. I can even say that I started before that, having done “drawing downs” for Wiccan covens as far back as 1996 or so. So let’s just take it as a given that I’ve done this sort of thing for a long time.

Not only that, but I am blessed to have many colleagues and friends that I can discuss possession with, including the authors of the book Drawing Down the Spirits, one of the only books I’m aware of dedicated to the subject of possession in Pagan religion. I’ve been on a few panels, and even a conference centered around possessory work.

Have I explained my bona fides to you enough, yet? 🙂

I found myself in an uncomfortable position in October. Without going into a lot of personal details, both mine and other people’s, the short description is that I found myself horsing a problematic spirit, one that I had voiced some concerns about with the leader of the ritual beforehand. And problematic spirits being what they are, it did some problematic things both to me, and to other people attending the ritual. This resulted in no small amount of dramatic aftermath, including one of the members of the group quitting and vowing never to return.

As I have said earlier, it is hardwired into my professional and personal ethics that I do not abdicate responsibility for something my body does, no matter who was in control at the time. It becomes a dangerous slippery slope that ends with people faking possessions in order to do and say things they don’t have the balls to do or say otherwise. Although I think it was pretty clear that the actions the spirit took were in no way things I would have chosen to do given my faculties, I did the best I could (which, admittedly, could have been better) to apologize to those who had been hurt or offended by what occurred; and made sure to make it abundantly clear that in no way was I excusing what happened under the guise of “well, wasn’t my fault”. If nothing else, it was my fault to make the initial decision to allow the spirit to take my body – although sometimes this can happen without any form of “allowance”, I admit that I did feel the beginnings of the possession and decided to allow it to continue. I also take responsibility that I had misgivings about inviting this particular spirit into our ritual space, and when it became clear that it was being invited, I should have or could have left the room and excused myself out of the area. It is difficult for me to “eject” a spirit once it takes hold of my body, but those present can attest that I did try to mitigate some of the damage by redirecting some of the harm it wanted to impart onto my girl, who considers doing such things a part of her own spiritual path.

But enough about this specific situation. I only share it with you because it made me do some deep soul searching about the nature of possession, the role of the horse in what happens during a possession, and the role of the other ritual participants who choose to attend rituals that include possession. Some of these conclusions are not the same ones that the group involved in the above incident agree with or support, but they are the ones that I came to on my own.

First and foremost: I feel that if someone has a desire to invite a spirit to physically appear at a ritual where others are present, it is their responsibility to know everything there is to know about said spirit. It might seem like a fun afternoon to invoke Loki into someone’s body in order to hear some dirty jokes and eat candy, but if Breaker of Worlds decides to show up instead of King of Fools, you better have a good idea what to do, what He will expect, and how to best protect the people at the ritual from being harmed. If you don’t know the culture from which the spirit emanates, something that looks like harm to a person might be a blessing from the spirit’s cultural expectations. You don’t want to offer the wrong drink, the wrong clothes, the wrong food, or say/do things that will insult or belittle the spirit. It’s not the ritual leader’s job, or the horse’s job, or the other ritual participant’s job – it’s yours. If you invite a spirit and things go sideways, you should be brave enough to stand forward and acknowledge that you were not fully prepared for what you asked for.

Now, this sort of thing happens more often than you’d expect. Even someone who has been working with Anpu for years may end up with a face of that Deity that they do not know or work with, and it might not occur to them that someone other than the face they know the best could show up. Another way I have seen this happen is when Neopagans call down spirits that emanate from the Hindu tradition in hopes of a possession; I’ve seen some that have worked out well, but since Hindus see possession as an evil, blasphemous thing, I’ve seen some that have done physical damage to the horse. Not what you were expecting when singing for the Monkey King, no? I bore witness to Hanuman trying to “heal” the horse He was using of the possession while the ritual participants did energy work to try to make it “stick” better. The horse ended up with wounds that required medical attention.

If a spirit has more than one “face”, different mythologies that present the same spirit in different fashions, it can be the difference between a successful possession and a terrible catastrophe if you can only state aloud, both to the people present as well as the spirits, your intent for asking a spirit to physically present. After years of being a horse for the darker face of Hades – the kidnapper and raper of Persephone – when the person who wished to invoke Him made it clear she was interested in the lover and partner of Persephone, who had accepted Her fate with aplomb, it culminated in the exact experience the person desired.

In that vein, my second point is that if you are calling a spirit that is unfamiliar to others present at the ritual, it is best practice to take a moment and explain who the spirit is, what your intent is for asking for that spirit’s presence, and inform people what they can do to assist in creating the right atmosphere for the spirit once it arrives. Few people, especially Pagans from traditions where possession isn’t a frequent element, know enough about every culture and background for spirits, and might do something with benevolent intent, only to screw up the entire ritual by offending the spirit. Offering alcohol to Obatala, for instance; if you’ve attended a Voudun fete, you might notice that when a spirit arrives, it is almost always offered rum or some other form of alcohol. So it would seem to follow that when Obatala is sung for, you might want to be prepared and pour a shot of rum. However, Obatala is very opposed to drinking, and would be angry if you shoved a drink towards Obatala’s horse. A little detail, a small devotional act, gone sideways because no one took a moment to explain the spirit’s idiosyncracies to you.

Thirdly, I believe spirits have agency, and this should always be taken into consideration when a spirit is invited into a ritual. I have seen people try to script a ritual that includes a possession, as though when Aphrodite shows up She’ll be happy to recite Her lines from the paper She finds in Her hand. This never works. In fact, I’ve seen attempts at drawing down fail because the priestess had specific expectations as to what a deity would do once it arrived, that it would somehow fit the structure of the rest of the ritual, and that said deity would depart right on time so the ritual ends at 11 o’clock as promised. When I say that spirits have agency, what I mean is that they can (and do) make their own decisions, have their own wants/needs/desires, and once they’re at your little party they will likely not take your rules or format into consideration. After all, they’re just a bit bigger than us meatsacks, and even if we shake our fingers at the sky and say “You can only come if you don’t harm anyone”, doesn’t make it so. There are techniques to trying to limit the possession to what the invoker intends, but most of that involves deep communication with said spirit weeks, months, or even years before the ritual itself.

For example, I was asked to provide my body for Cernnunos for an ordeal ritual last May. I don’t know Him very well, but I had some idea as to what He would want out of a body, and what He wanted to do. I spent two months researching Him and His lore, spent weeks clarifying with the client what her expectations were, and then two weeks doing devotional work in hopes of setting boundaries and understandings about what He could and could not do with my body while He had it. And even then, He did and said things that although didn’t break the letter of our agreement, came pretty close to breaking the spirit of it. But that’s because He’s much bigger and stronger than little ol’ Del-the-shaman, and once you surrender your body to a spirit, you have to lay your trust in that spirit to at least take your boundaries into consideration.

And that’s my fourth point. Lending your open head (ability to be possessed) to a ritual is a huge trust. Especially if you’re holding regular rituals and expect the person to provide this service on a regular basis. When I agree to be a potential horse for a ritual, I am not only trusting in the Spirits to make sure I don’t wake up in jail covered in petrol and feeling slightly singed, but I am trusting the group’s leader (if applicable) and the other attendees to watch out for my body’s wellbeing. Although there is a spectrum of potential possessory experiences, from hearing faint suggestions as to what to do, all the way to having no control over your body and no memory of the experience at all – and frequently, us horses aren’t the ones who choose what level the possession will be at. As many times as I have been expected to allow a spirit to take me fully (to the extent where I have no control over my body and have no memory of the experience, which we call “locked in the trunk” in the trade) and I have had to use a code phrase for “Sorry, guys, I tried for an hour but the spirit isn’t coming!”; I have had experiences where there was no expectation for a possession at all, but putting on a piece of jewelry or clothing that is dedicated to the spirit forced me “into the trunk”. For all the times I expected a God to whisper answers to their dedicant’s questions in my ear, only to wake up two hours later stinking drunk in the middle of the woods with them, no memory of the last two hours; I have have times where the possession was expected to last over an hour, and the spirit ducked out the back door five minutes in.

There is a lot humans can do to try to create the kind of experience they envision, but in the end, the spirits are going to choose what happens, and there isn’t a lot you can do to stop that from happening, short of not inviting that spirit back.

Point number five: I believe choosing the horse for a possessory ritual, if you are given that luxury, can be one of the most important choices you make. It has been my experience and the experience of those I have discussed it with, that most of the time a God will favor a horse that already knows how to do the things it needs the body for, rather than the person who resembles the God the way the dedicant envisions them. To go back to the Cernunnos example, one of the reasons He chose me for this particular ordeal was because it was to have a lot of heavy sadomasochistic elements, and I have a strong background in doing heavy play safely. On the other hand, if what He wanted was to knit a sweater, He’d be better off choosing a different horse. It is true that spirits can make a horse’s body do something the horse does not know how to do: I learned how to dance the banda after being possessed by Maman Brigitte several times and having Her do it with my body.

However, it is easier on both the spirit and the horse if the horse knows how to perform whatever the spirit needs the body for. So I strongly suggest that if you want a Deity to perform a certain task while they are embodied, to choose a horse who has some background in that activity. It also means that the horse can make sure, either beforehand/while inside/both, that the spirit is doing the activity safely. I have seen some cuttings and brandings go horribly awry because the Goddess was called down into a horse that had seen many cuttings and brandings, but didn’t have the training themselves. The Goddess knew what She was doing, but was having a difficult time getting the horse’s body to have the nuance and control that someone who had practice doing such things would come with automatically. Do you get my drift?

Along with this, I think it can go the other way, too. I believe that the choice of horse can color your experience with a spirit. It’s hard to put into words what happens inside of my head during a possession, but I do know that sometimes I get impulses to do something vague, and find my body starting to move towards doing *something* in that direction, but I’m left scrambling on the inside trying to figure out what the spirit wants my body to do. Obviously, this will then go through the filter of my own experience and intuition – for example, since I practice BDSM, if I get an impulse that a Goddess wants to hit someone, I may try to temper that impulse to focus on finding the right person, and doing my best to get the spirit to ask for consent; whereas someone who is fresh out of the Marines might just haul off and punch someone in the face as though they were an enemy. Same impulse, two vastly different outcomes.

It was said to me that there is a line, here; I don’t know if I agree with their opinion, but I offer it in case it is useful to others. It can be said that if every spirit a horse carries comes across as being angry, or grieving, or horny, or loving, regardless of the actual known nature and disposition of that spirit, it may be that the horse’s own issues are getting in the way of a real possession. I can sort of see that; going into the necessary trance states in order to achieve possession lowers one’s defenses to the world, and if you have a well of emotion hiding behind those defenses, you may take the opportunity of a dissociative state to express them. However, I think it can go both ways at the same time – someone may have a hardwired propensity to horse angrier spirits, so it makes them a good choice if you want to invite a spirit whose mythology describes them as being volatile and hostile, and it may be something to run an internal check on if you’re horsing a variety of spirits and they’re all coming across with the same baggage.

So where does that all leave us? Here is my summary list of things to consider when working with rituals focused around possession:

  • Whomever is inviting the spirit to be embodied needs to fully understand both the spirit’s lore, as well as the culture they come from, and communicate that to all of the ritual participants so as to better prepare everyone for what to expect and how to act. They are also the ones who should take responsibility if the possession goes in an unpredictable path, and make reparations as necessary.
  • No matter how much planning you do, how much negotiations you engage in, what kind of wards or rules or guidelines or boundaries you give the spirits before inviting them into your space, they have agency, and will make their own decisions based on their personal agendas and what They feel needs to happen in the moment. There are things you can do to try to mitigate this, but in the end, They are bigger than us.
  • If you ask someone to carry a God for your ritual, understand that they are putting a great deal of trust in you, and the leader of the ritual. The horse cannot always predict or control what a spirit will do with their body, and may not be able to figure out what the spirit is doing with their body until it’s too late. Cultivate a culture around taking care of those who provide this service; it is taxing, grueling, and terrifying work, and it is frequently done for no other recompense than the experience of doing it.
  • Choose your intended horse carefully; if you want Odin to come down and sing songs for you, choose a horse with a good voice. If you know beforehand what a spirit needs the body for, try to find someone who has that sort of task in their muscle memory already.

    Okay, maybe now I can sleep without dreaming of writing this post. Or am I still doing that?

About Del

A shaman who writes about spiritual things, but not in that namby-pamby "everything is light and fluffy" sort of way.

29 responses to “That’s a Horse of a Different Color!

  1. All of the million breadcrumbs!
    This should be required reading. Thank you Del.

  2. Kate ⋅

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts! I firmly believe that providing context (such as the Hades/Persephone situation) helps people– both the horse, and other folks present– focus their energies passively or actively, to come closer to “getting what they’re looking for” in terms of what aspect of Who Shows Up.

  3. Elizabeth ⋅

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

  4. Elizabeth ⋅

    Reblogged this on Twilight and Fire and commented:
    Del, once again, writes a sensible and useful post about having spirit-possession in ritual. This should be required reading for anybody who deals closely with deities, whether you’re a “horse” or not.

  5. Alexis Solvey Viorsdottir ⋅

    Reblogged this on Alexis Solveys Alltagsblog und kommentierte:
    ein guter Beitrag zum Thema rituelle Besessenheit innerhalb eines Rituales, bei Invokationen usw.
    Ist allerdings auf Englisch.

  6. Eric S ⋅

    Well, you spoke to me about parts of this before. Obviously, I cannot speak to spirit possession or even spirits. However, I strongly agree with you that when calling a spirit/concept/whatever you really need to understand things in detail AND make sure to educate those around you for a number of reasons.

    Good post too. 😉

  7. bearfairie ⋅

    I love reading what you have to say about possessory work in general, because you speak sense and truth as I understand such things. Yes to all of these points. As a fellow long-time medium who carries a variety of Powers, yes. It is my job as a medium to take responsibility for my end of things, and yes there are things that happen that I can’t predict, even with excellent prep work and planning, because ultimately I am not the Power. Just because someone wants deity X to show up doesn’t necessarily guarantee it’s gonna happen… unless deity X has decided to show up. And even then, why are They coming? These are not benign giant invisible sock puppets that are happy to jump when we demand Their warm fuzzies and gentle blessings, these are Powers. They’re called “Power” for a reason. It’s tricky business all around, and not something to invite or engage with lightly.

    For me, the work is *always* co-creative, but the way that I carry Powers is nearly always that the Power Themself approaches me and let me know They have work for me to do that involves mediumship. While human folk may request my services as a medium, I will only say yes if the Power tells me it’s what They want me to do, and I ask the Power first before agreeing to mediumship always. And I have said no to folks on this if either the Power Themself didn’t want to come through me, or if one of my sworn Powers has told me They wouldn’t allow the work.

    Awesome post. Thanks for posting this!

  8. Tricia ⋅

    “I have seen people try to script a ritual that includes a possession, as though when Aphrodite shows up She’ll be happy to recite Her lines from the paper She finds in Her hand. This never works. ”
    This made me laugh. At GOG, we do low-level channeling of the Gods for our invocations. We do not have written invocations while some Groves have liturgists who write the whole ritual and then have people try out for parts. Every time I hear about those Groves, I think of something along the lines of what you wrote. It just wouldn’t work, IMO.

  9. Renee ⋅

    Very well said!

  10. Joh ⋅

    This is probably a naive question – I’ve never been a part of a group that practiced horsing – but what would be the point of inviting a deity (like Hanuman) who comes from a tradition where ritual possession is taboo, or of inviting the presence of a deity who would cause nonconsensual physical harm to the attendees? Why are these rituals done?
    I understand that sometimes deities show up without being invited, but I’m talking about instances where they were specifically asked to be present.

    • Del


      I swear, this is the comment that won’t end, because I’ve tried to write it several times and I’ve always had a computer glitch of some sort. I promise I haven’t been ignoring you.

      For a while, I practiced with a Pagan group who styled their rituals after African Diaspora traditions. They used the same ritual technology – singing a Priye to set and ward the space, and then using drumming, chanting, singing, and ecstatic dance to have members enter into trance states that made them more susceptible to being possessed by the Spirits and Gods they sang for. I wasn’t entirely sure I approved of this practice, for some of the reasons you’ve stated above, but I liked the people and did have some significant experiences with them. I am not sure, after what happened in October, if I will be returning.

      One of the things I struggled with is their public rituals. Although they would give them a theme, like “Spirits of the Dance”, anyone could ask for any spirit to be sung for/invoked, as long as someone present was willing to sing a song, lead a chant, or do something else to invoke them. And there were no checks and balances – you could put any spirit on the list, and no one would ask if it fit the theme, or would tell you that it might be inappropriate.

      Because these public rituals were held at Pagan events only once a year (as in, if you went to that event, but did not practice with the group regularly, you only got to experience these rituals once a year), many people came and put Gods and spirits on the list not because they fit the theme, or because it was appropriate, but because it was an unique opportunity to interact with a Deity they’ve been worshipping, or working with, or in some other way really liked. I used to jokingly call it “Dial A God”. For instance, no matter what that year’s theme is, there is someone who comes to the ritual held at a Pagan event I attend annually, who always puts Coyote on the list. I haven’t studied Native American tradition much at all, so I can’t say that possession is an accepted or understood practice by its spirits. But without fail, Coyote is on the list, and no one asks this person, “How does Coyote fit with the theme?” or maybe way more importantly, “Have you asked Coyote if He enjoys coming to these rituals?”

      One year at the same event, I was helping with the ritual (before I started practicing with them more regularly and attending their private rituals) and Hekate was on the list. Now, keep in mind that the ritual is full of drumming, dancing, singing, and drinking alcohol. After all, the word in Vodou for ritual is “fete”, which is french for “party”, and that’s the atmosphere of these rituals. She arrived, looked at myself and another death worker, and said, “This is not appropriate.” and quickly left.

      I guess I started going to their private rituals in order to better understand their practice. I didn’t feel right judging them by attending only one ritual a year, and only a public one. And at both the public and private rituals, I’ve seen some amazing, heart touching experiences happen between the spirits and the people. But I’ve also seen a lot of stuff go wrong – people faking possessions, allowing the suggestibility and reduced inhibitions to act out in unacceptable ways and later trying to blame spirits for their actions, spirits other than the invited showing up and reeking havoc, etc.

      I haven’t decided if I am leaving the group for good. Right now, I’m taking a break from the drama of the specific situation that happened in October, and trying to figure out if I really agree with their practices or not. It isn’t helping that the group finds it mostly antithetical to discuss the theology behind what they do, or to engage in discussion about how the group works, and most dishearteningly, no one really is willing to say “The group works under the belief that X is true.” They want to keep things open so people of varying philosophy/theology can all come together to experience their rituals, but I am finding that hard to work with. I can’t see doing monthly rituals with the same group of folks without really understanding the uncurrents of belief that make their rituals work. And the fact that they try to do things by consensus, without really understanding what the consensus model is really about (like a lot of Pagan groups, they just want everyone to agree on things, and instead of actually talking and educating each other on why a thing is true or not true, they just make their statements of belief so vague and bland as to not offend or outcast anyone).

      Hope that begins to explain what you were wondering about.

      • Joh ⋅

        Thank you so much, Del, for this detailed and thoughtful response. Yes, this is very helpful, and gives me a lot more context for the situation.
        While I can see inherent dangers in this group’s ritual practices, I can also understand why it was done. As modern polytheists we struggle every day with rebuilding new traditions from the bare ruins of the old. Without much to work from, there will by necessity be a certain amount of risk and experimentation involved. Many mistakes are made, but much is learned, as well.
        The important part, it seems, is learning from the experience. It seems like community leaders and spirit workers like yourself are making the best of it.

  11. Pingback: All The Pretty Horses | Gods and Mirrors

  12. Joh ⋅

    It is interesting that you mentioned Coyote. My background is native. My parents worked for IHS and I grew up on a reservation. At almost any large pagan gathering I’ve attended, there is someone who invokes or claims to be a devotee of Coyote, like there is a single friendly, benevolent canine-Trickster worshipped in all American Indian cultures. Among the nations, thousands of different deities, spirits, and powers that are called “Coyote” – and they are all different. In the religious tradition of the tribe that I am affiliated with, the entity known as Coyote is deeply hostile to humanity. Calling on Him in ritual would be considered both dangerous and a grave insult to that Spirit.

    That was an excellent example of a discussion that needs to happen. What is the nature of “Coyote”?
    Who are we calling on and for what purpose?
    And does He even want to be here? That kind of thing.

  13. Beth

    Reblogged this on Wytch of the North and commented:
    The original post by Del; must reading if you have any interest in deity possession at all. A few of the points covered here explain why I have only one person I will allow to horse Odin for me, and why I don’t do any public horsing myself.

  14. Isis ⋅

    Our terminology is not the same, but you expressed exactly my thoughts on Deity possession. I hope you don’t mind if I pass this on to my students? I think your post might get a few to begin to understand. 🙂

    • Del

      I find it heartening that this is not the first request I’ve had to use this as educational material for students. That is a big part of why I write these things, both to explore situations I find myself dealing with, but to share my experiences and insight based on said with those who might want or need it. Yes, of course you may use this (and anyone else reading this as well) as long as attribution is given and a link to the blog is included.

  15. What seems to be missing are clear boundaries – what is expected and what is not expected. Not all Gods and others get along. Mercury and Apollo are not to be invited to the same ritual. (Mercury stole Apollo’s cows.) I believe that folks who do these rituals need to have standards and clear concepts. Ritual is not a one-size fits all. In short, the word “No” needs to be used.

    Even my home, I have to separate various Gods into different altars.

    I got possessed by Hekate at a Seidr, which was an unnerving experience to me, since I do not ‘horse’ nor call Gods. Don’t think I’ve got the particular wiring. However, the Seidrworker knew Hekate was coming, and prepared for Her. When she saw me in my full Roman array complete with covered head, she knew that I was to be Hekate. Fortunately for me, I was able to get the appropriate help for my experience.

    I have to laugh at Coyote. When I would ask people who their Animal Allies were, Coyote would be one of the more popular ones. As for me, it’s Manatee, slow moving and friendly. A large, grey wrinkly sea mammal.

  16. Pingback: All this talk of Horses… | In Search of Eccentricity

  17. Darkamber

    Reblogged this on Fire and Ink and commented:
    A very good post on “horsing” or: deity possession.

  18. Pingback: Reblog: That’s a horse of a different colour | Fire and Ink

  19. Leikin

    Reblogged this on The Ravens Breath and commented:
    This is to Possesory work what Beth’s “So you wanna be a godspouse? (some plain talk)” is to Godspousery. MUST READ!

  20. Leikin

    Brilliant! Reblogged

  21. Pingback: Shades of Gray | Gods and Mirrors

  22. mgg ⋅

    “I’ve seen some that have worked out well, but since Hindus see possession as an evil, blasphemous thing, I’ve seen some that have done physical damage to the horse.”
    This is an excellent essay overall, but I found this one line curious. “Hindiusm” is a complicated thing, more a collection of traditions (like Neo-Paganism) than one singular faith. Within the Hindu umbrella there are quite a number of traditions that use spirit possesion to varying degrees and wouldn’t see the practice as “evil.”
    Off the top of my head, one example can be found in Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kali by Sarah Caldwell — but there are lots of other examples from all over India.
    Otherwise I love what you’ve put into this piece and I’ll be passing it on to my students.

    • Del

      So this is something that I’ve been discussing with practicing Hindus, because originally the idea was in a book I read. I know anecdotal evidence isn’t to swear by, but every one I talked to agreed that possession, as it is practiced by NeoPagans (again, a wide demographic* with various differences) would be considered a bad thing at the least, except in very specific circumstances.

      *originally I typed “emographic”, which may actually be more appropriate.

      • maggie ⋅

        It’s a bit like asking a Wiccan to explain something about Neo-Paganism — it’ll be very true for the Wiccan, but maybe not so much for the Asatru or the Druids (or even some other Wiccans). Likewise, you ask someone who focuses on Ganesh vs someone who works with Krshna vs a Devi devotee vs a Kali follower and you’ll get many different answers. Likewise geography matters — so you’ll get different answers from a Kali devotee in West Bengal vs one in Kerala (where possesion worship is absolutely practiced). There’s just no good way to say “all Hindus believe X” — same as with Pagans.

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