Column: The Experience of Possession

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[Today we welcome guest writer Lilith Dorsey M.A. Dorsey hails from many magickal traditions, including Celtic, Afro-Caribbean, and Native American spirituality. Her traditional education focused on Plant Science, Anthropology, and Film at the University of R.I, New York University and the University of London, and her magickal training includes numerous initiations in Santeria, also known as Lucumi, Haitian Vodoun, and New Orleans Voodoo. Lilith Dorsey is a Voodoo Priestess and is the editor/publisher of Oshun-African Magickal Quarterly, filmmaker of the experimental documentary Bodies of Water:Voodoo Identity and Tranceformation, author of Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism, 55 Ways to Connect to Goddess, and The African-American Ritual Cookbook, and choreographer for jazz legend Dr. John’s “Night Tripper” Voodoo Show. You can find on her blog Voodoo Universe.]

Possession seems to be all the rage lately, well maybe it always was. People are in awe of the power to connect with the divine. As a Voodoo/Vodou practitioner and priestess for over two decades I have seen many possessions both real and exaggerated. I have seen possession as a way to connect, to heal, to receive blessed messages from the divine, and unfortunately I have also seen people feign trance in an effort for attention.

One particularly powerful ritual I attended many years ago was for Ogou, the Vodou Lwa of Iron and the white hot forge. Ogou is a warrior, and I knew the night was going to be an interesting one. I stepped on a carpet tack fairly early in the evening, and the blood coming from my foot was a “red flag”  for me.

[Photo Credit: Sam Mugraby, CC  via Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Sam Mugraby, CC via Wikimedia]

There were several possessions that night. The first, I remember, was from a friend to whom I had passed the ritual machete. He later recalled that he was instantly transported to the trenches of World War I with his life on the line, like he was living out an old film. He felt a great insight into himself and into the past after that moment.

Another incident that I recall from that night was even more powerful. I probably wouldn’t even be speaking of it had it not occurred so many years ago and with such healing results. The next person to wield the machete had been experiencing some powerful transformations the week before. Unknown to most of us, he had tried to take his own life with a blade only days before. As he held the ritual iron, he later said, that he felt not the damage the weapon could do, but only the good. This force had changed for him in that single moment to one of protection and healing. I am happy to say he is still with us today.

I have also been party to many ridiculous possessions. At one Lucumi (more commonly referred to as Santeria) ceremony in Harlem, a few of the women in attendance grabbed their breasts, shouted unintelligibly, and demanded everyone’s complete attention. Attending Santeros and Santeras called these “possessions” visitations by Santa Borraccha  or Saint drunk woman.

Unfortunately, these type possessions are not limited to the Afro-Caribbean pantheon. One fond memory comes from a Pagan event where a friend and I listened to someone perform a session of amateur mediumship and, then, answer questions from the crowd. My friend fell asleep., Then, woke up several minutes later and said out loud, “This is crap.” That was one of the best moments ever – hands down.

These are humorous moments; however, they bring up real questions about spiritual possession. Who are we connecting with? Why? And, how are the safest ways to get there in a genuine and respectful way? Entire books can and have been written on this subject.

In anthropology the phenomenon of possession has been studied almost from its very beginnings. It is an elusive topic however, and how people create magick and meaning from it is always changing as well. Some like to academically classify it by its function, comparing it to a form of group therapy where public witnessing can perform a public good. There is an argument there, but for those who have actually been party to it, it is so much more than that.

Avant-Garde filmmaker, anthropologist and Vodou Priestess Maya Deren called possession the “white darkness,” and positioned it as the ultimate goal of practitioners. It is truly both a fusion and a blessing with and from the divine. For her it is about sacred thresholds and entrances.

As someone who has experienced it first hand, possession is a reciprocal, mutual, and inter-dependent abiding. A genuine blessing for those to watch and experience. Many of my colleagues feel the same, and I am fortunate enough to be able to share their experiences and thoughts about possession, proof, and prophecy with you here.

Lou Florez

Lou Florez [Courtesy Photo]

Lou Florez (Awo Ifadunsin), an internationally known speaker and lecturer of folk magic traditions of the South,  is a deeply rooted spirit worker, priest, medium, and witch. He has studied with indigenous elders and medicine holders from across the globe. Florez shared:

I view the practice less as “possession” and more as form of spiritual incorporation. Meaning that the experience isn’t about the violation of my inner sense of sovereignty, or dispossession, but rather that Spirit and I become incorporated into each other. For a brief moment there is a permeability and a dissolution of the boundaries that signify my individuated sense of self and that space allows for the reunion to occur.

Author Diana L. Paxson, an elder of the Covenant of the Goddess,The Troth and the American Magic Umbanda House, pioneered the recovery of “high-seat” seidh, the oracular tradition of ancient Scandinavia. Paxson has written works on various aspects of Pagan spirituality, including Trance-Portation and The Way of the Oracle and Possession, Depossession and Divine Relationships. Paxson said:

Diana Paxson

Diana Paxson

The fact that possessory experiences are found in every culture suggests that the capacity to experience such states is wired into our brains. What distinguishes possession as an ecstatic religious experience from possession as a personality disorder is the community context. For it to be productive, however, both the medium and the supporting team need training. With practice, it can be a valuable addition to the ways in which we connect with our gods.

Gavin Bone and Janet Farrar, Pagan legends and authors of the upcoming Lifting the Veil: A Witches’ Guide to Trance-Prophesy, Drawing Down the Moon, and Ecstatic Ritual, said:

One of the things that has surprised us most since we went down the path of exploring Trance-Possession is the level of fear that surrounds it; and this is not just coming from people who are new to the pagan path. Often suggestions that what we are teaching is ‘dangerous’ in some way has some from experienced leaders and teachers in the community.

Janet Farrar & Gavin Bone

Janet Farrar & Gavin Bone

We believe that much of this fear stems from the christian culture which many of us have grown up in. As hard as many try, it still bubbles up from our own shadows on occasion when that emotive word ‘possession’ is used. We believe the lack of experience and knowledge gained from exploring this area derives from the Judeo-Christian influenced western occult tradition which has labeled it as ‘left hand path’; as something evil and to be avoided.

To compound this misunderstanding further, film and television has regularly portrayed possession as process of violation where a spirit attempts to ‘own’ us body and soul. The reality is of course very different as anyone who has experienced it knows. It is in fact a deeply spiritual act where the spirit does not so much ‘possess’ the body but briefly makes use of it with the permission of the individual. In over 20 years of teaching Trance-Possession both privately and publicly, we have yet to see any form of genuine possession which resembles anything like the imagery described by the church or the media. But what we have seen is disturbed individuals in a psychological fugue state, which is very different to a genuine case of ecstatic communion with the divine – true possession.


Tehron Gillis [Courtesy Photo]

Tehron Gillis, a poet and New Orleans Voodoo devotee, added:

The term is misleading. Ownership, to who does a body or its actions belong to are irrelevant. Possession is not a physical state of being but a settlement between the self within and the self without on a common goal that neither can accomplish without the grace of the other. The cup is without purpose without water, the water is without form without the cup. Only when they are in service wholly to each other can they accomplish something greater.

Who knows where possession will take us next? At best it is a transformative ride for both the horse and rider, or human and Gods respectively. May your rides be smooth, informed, and lead you just where you need to go.