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: