Column: How We Understand Trauma

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Pagan Perspectives

Today’s column is a guest submission by Tahni Nikitins, a long-time Pagan and writer in multiple genres. Tahni’s work has appeared at Gods & Radicals, Eternal Haunted Summer, and Nomad.

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Author’s note: Spiritual and magical practices should not be used as a substitute for seeking professional mental health support, but rather should be used as a supplement to professional support to create holistic psychological and spiritual healing process.

Perspectives on Trauma, part one: How We Understand Trauma

Of late I have noticed many practitioners of various Pagan paths note that many people come to Paganism with a history of trauma and injury and a long road of healing before them. I can personally attest to having come to Paganism with low-grade trauma and self-hate ingrained in me by the Baptist Church I was a part of as a child, and by associated Christian organizations. This, however, is minor: I personally know people who came to their Pagan paths out of a context of extreme familial neglect, abuse, and backgrounds that can only be described as battlefields.

I wrote recently about trauma through a specifically Heathen lens, but all Pagan paths offer something special and worthwhile to survivors. I am not qualified to talk in specificity about individual paths outside of those which fall under the umbrella of Norse Paganism, but I will say that each path brings its own offerings to survivors. Each set of mythologies, gods, spirits, and archetypes have their own unique outlooks on and methods for healing. Further, no two sets of trauma look the same; no two individuals’ paths toward healing will be identical. Though studies show certain patterns in trauma responses, especially with regards to trauma endured as a child or youth, each person’s experiences, their responses, coping mechanisms, and healing are theirs alone. There is no one-size-fits-all healing option.

One thing Paganism offers to survivors is a way to understand how trauma affects them on a spiritual level. There are many secular resources which describe the physical and psychological (in the sense of mental and emotional) repercussions of trauma, but, understandably, these sources don’t touch much on spiritual repercussions. In dominant religious discourse, primarily defined by Christianity in most parts of the United States and Europe, there is a strong focus on putting the act of healing in God’s hands, with little emphasis on reflection or understanding the way trauma affects the individual. Often the implication is that the individual plays little to no role in their own healing. This is quite contrary to many Pagan approaches.


Generally speaking there are a few ways Paganism views the spiritual effects of trauma. Most commonly, people speak of the shamanic practice of “soul retrieval.” The idea behind this is that pieces of the soul must be retrieved to facilitate healing by making the soul whole once more. How the soul became un-whole in the first place is another topic of discussion, but the implication is that the soul became fractured and pieces have broken away and become lost.

This is something which resonates with many Pagan practitioners, as the metaphor of the fracturing soul offers accessible and visceral language to describe the sensation of surviving a traumatic experience. In the wake of a traumatic experience, many people may feel “broken” or “damaged.” The idea of a fractured soul with missing pieces not only taps into this feeling, but it also offers the hope of being able to restore the soul to a state of wholeness through the practice of soul retrieval.

Others might describe a feeling of having been violated or dirtied by a traumatic experience, especially as related to any form of abuse. Some Pagans describe the spiritual counterpart to this feeling as perceiving energetic “dark spots.” Depending on the individual’s practice and set of beliefs, these may be described as showing up on one’s aura, or perhaps one’s mental image of oneself in a meditative space, etc. Again, this language offers an effective way to describe one’s experience of the aftereffects of trauma, but the implications are hopeful: black spots, after all, can be cleaned away.

Whether these spiritual effects are to be understood literally or metaphorically is up to the individual practitioner, but for many these effects are quite real and the language of Paganism provides a way to express, name, and confront those effects. The old stories often show a motif of needing to name another person or thing in order to gain power over it — whether that’s the protagonist discovering the name of the giant building their churches in order to avoid paying the giant, or discovering the name of the fey creature helping the heroine out of a bind so she doesn’t need to sacrifice her first born to him.

Anne Anderson, “Rumplestiltskin” [public domain].

This is something that a regular therapy practice can help immensely with, whether that’s through getting a diagnosis or identifying triggers. I’ve found that power of being able to name a thing is quite a real, and many others have reported the same—once named, that thing may be somewhat robbed of its power. Once a thing is identified, it is easier to learn how to deal with it.

Perhaps what is most alluring about Paganism is that it offers such variety in the way of healing practices. As I already mentioned, every path has its own unique offerings, and each individual within that path is afforded the ability to forge their own practices within those paths. That’s the really wonderful thing about a revival of Pagan traditions and their being treated as living, breathing, and evolving traditions rather than something set in lifeless stone. Though we can use the works of those who came before as a maps and signposts for how to conduct our own practices, if something doesn’t sit right with an individual or simply doesn’t work for an individual, adjustments can be made. There are no rules stymieing growth and evolution.

What are some of the specific healing practices that paganism can offer to survivors? This is what I will explore in part two, but I will say that these practices can range from relatively simplistic and small practices to larger, more dramatic rituals. Remember, each individual Pagan path offers healing practices unique to that path, and regardless of the path an individual may be treading they have the power within themselves to create their own rites and rituals tailored to their particular needs.

Editor’s note: As Tahni mentioned in the author’s note, spiritual practice can provide great tools for healing from trauma, but it’s important, especially in urgent situations, to make use of other practices as well. There are many hotlines and services set up to help survivors of trauma, and we encourage any reader dealing with these issues to make use of those resources. In an emergency situation, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 1-800-273-8255 (US-English)/1-888-628-9454 (US-Spanish); 1-833-456-4566 (Canada); +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90 (UK).

The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.