Possession and Ethics

Previously I discused my experience of the spectrum of possession trance in detail.

The phenomenon we call Possession Trance exists all over the world in a variety of forms and cultural contexts. It just happens that modern Western secular society isn’t generally one of them.

There are folks who believe that “possession” is the wrong word for anything short of full amnesiac trance where the God or Spirit takes over your body in such a way that eating broken glass and other dramatic proofs are fair actions. There are reasons that’s a valuable approach, not the least of which is that it prevents people who are not qualified to serve others in the capacity of a medium from biting off more than they can chew, and prevents (or at least raises the cost of committing) fraud.

Awareness of language is a powerful tool for personal and political change, but policing language also has a chilling effect on those who are struggling to describe deeply personal experiences. Debating too deeply what to call the various degrees of experience along the Possession Trance spectrum tends to discourage people from pursuing direct experience with the gods, and often implies that the spectrum of experience between entirely yourself and entirely not yourself is somehow nonexistent, which is demonstrably untrue. So I prefer to call the whole spectrum “Possession Trance”, and allow for labels within the spectrum to be more specific without saying that, say, Shadowing or Aspecting are “not really possession”.

I believe that everyone has a right to pursue direct spiritual experiences. I believe that the person in the best position to evaluate spiritual experiences is the one having that experience. I believe that it’s not my place to tell someone their experience wasn’t real, wasn’t valid, wasn’t enough to matter.

That emphatically does NOT mean that everyone is equally capable of all forms of trance, or that everyone is able to be a medium. In my outline of the spectrum, I noted that 0% possessed, i.e. entirely self-possessed, is a stable state for me. That’s significant. If for some reason being entirely self-possessed is NOT a stable state, that’s a problem, and skilled help should be sought. If the reason it’s not a stable state is that one or more powers keeps jumping on their head, they need training urgently, and I hope for their sake they have access to one or another tradition through which to gain the control they need.

I don’t envy the “soft heads”! Possession may seem glamorous from the outside in, but the most common reason for uncontrolled dissociation – the mechanism of the human psyche which allows possession to happen – is psychological trauma caused by severe physical harm, intense body dysphoria, or ongoing abuse, especially at a formative stage. I have met at most two or three truly natural mediums in the sense of people who didn’t get to that state by having the shit kicked out of them by their personal lives. Everyone else either has had trauma-related dissociation, intensive training, or both. Many cultures specifically USE deliberately cultivated trauma as part of the training. (See also Ordeal Work. Alas, this is not my area of practical expertise.)

Just as not everyone is equally suited to be a medium, not every medium is suitable to channel on behalf of other people. Even the wisest, most powerful entities are influenced by the medium They are channeled through, if only in Their choice of language. The beliefs, ethics, and suppressed desires of the medium also have a significant effect on how a spirit will manifest when carried by them, as do the ritual structure and mode of invocation/invitation.

If a medium does not have a strong sense of self, a strong will, strong ethics, and a very strong awareness of their own desires, fears, and biases, even partial possession can act like a very addicting drug stripping the medium of inhibitions and judgement, giving them a temporary freedom to act – the degree of possession and by whom only serves to determine whether the one acting out is the medium’s subconscious, or an outside spirit.

It can be very empowering, and certain kinds of possession are very prominent in oppressive cultures for this reason, giving opportunities for the most marginalized members of a hierarchical culture to be heard. But it’s also wide open to abuse of both the medium, and whoever the medium interacts with. Training for the medium may not be enough to account for all of these dangers, especially if that training fails to address ethics. Treating spiritual trance work of any kind as an addicting drug is not healthy because addiction itself is not healthy.

Appropriate contextualization also matters – people need to know what they’re dealing with when they’re asking someone to be a medium for them, and communities need to understand both that the medium is taking risks on their behalf, and that the medium is a limited and fallible human being regardless of who they succeed in channeling or carrying. Polytheists need to remember that even the gods are limited and fallible, and that not all possessing entities are guaranteed to be gods, nor are they guaranteed to be honest with the medium or the querant about who they are.

Who the community allows to experience the gods directly is one question, but who the community allows to bring that experience to others is quite another. We have to be able to say “This person is not allowed to practice in a manner that has influence on others” even if we’re not going to say “These people are not possessed enough, those people are.” That answer can’t just be based on who makes the community feel good or uncomfortable. Querants have a responsibility to be honest with themselves as well, neither seeking out only mediums and diviners who will tell them what they want to hear, nor punishing those who give them real messages they don’t like. There IS a difference between challenging and abusive.

There are two major methods I have seen for managing these challenges. One is to control very  tightly who can profess to mediumship. It’s helpful to have someone with spirit sight who can confirm the presence of a deity, but that role is itself subject to corruption. To counter that need, there are, as I mentioned at the beginning, traditions that employ harsh proofs to prevent fraud. It’s rather hard to fake the presence of a divine entity who announces Their arrival by rubbing chile peppers in Their eyes, for example.

Such traditions generally treat any resulting messages as infallible – or at least definitely from the identified source, and thus as infallible as the source is understood to be. They are also often traditions that expect strict obedience when divination or consultation with a medium results in some kind of instructions, and expect that the Powers may deliver dramatic punishments to those who disobey. It is my observation that older traditions and traditions from harsher contexts are more likely to have this style of framework, which makes a fair amount of sense. It requires firm commitment, community support, and leaves little room for doubt or alternate interpretation.

The more modern traditions I was trained through are both gentler, and expect more autonomy from the individual practitioners. Instead of requiring harsh proofs of the mediums, who may still be learning the skills of their calling, they encourage the querants to seek independent confirmation before regarding any drastic messages as divine instructions. This takes pressure off the medium to perform, and avoids giving too much power to any one medium’s words, which helps reduce both the motivation for fraud, and the pressure to perform on demand.

This method works well without requiring everyone to belong to a single, tightly-structured tradition. It is a method that is very accommodating of Western skepticism, diversity, and individualism. I find that it accommodates interfaith needs more effectively, and allows for safer layers of exploration for people who were not raised in a culture that gives them context for possession and divination experiences. But it does have fuzzier boundaries and thus requires that each individual take responsibility for their part, which not everyone is prepared or motivated to do.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, as you can see. Obviously I find the latter approach works better for the settings I work in, but there are problems with it that do worry me which seem to be grounded in the lack of clear authority and precedent for any one to call a medium on their errors. Obviously this is less of an issue within established groups where there is an individual who has that authority, but even in those settings, social pressure and wider-community seniority can complicate things.

Given a choice, I would like to find a middle road between these two methods which uses the strengths of committed community methods while still creating the room for personal experience and interpretation that is the strength of the individualistic method. I’m not sure if that’s a realistic option in Pagan communities today, but I do feel that if it is, Heathenry is one of the most likely places we’ll build it.


About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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3 Responses to Possession and Ethics

  1. Pingback: What’s it like being a Medium? | Visits From The Dead

  2. Lon Sarver says:

    Reputation is one way to mark who’s an appropriate medium for consultation and who’s not. As people have good or bad experiences, good or bad results from receiving and acting on a medium’s advice, that medium’s reputation for reliability will benefit or suffer, if people talk about it.

    Which requires that the community be willing to share their stories, and willing to critique the work of their mediums. Transparency is a good thing.


    • EmberVoices says:

      It also requires that people be willing and permitted to critique those stories, though, and that’s a whole other pile of problems.

      Reputation is a very useful and necessary tool, but it’s not by any stretch enough. :/


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