Western discourse about spirit possession emerged from a long history of Christian demonology. After the Enlightenment it came to be regarded as ‘one of the key markers of the primitive stage in the evolution of human civilization’, and, thanks to E.B.Tylor’s late nineteenth century theory of animism, became ‘a founding term in the discipline of anthropology’. Tylor’s observation that “to the minds of the lower races it seems that nature is possessed, pervaded, crowded, with spiritual beings” expresses the sense that, for animists the spirit world was (and still is) inhabited by all manner of other-than-human beings.(1)
A recent review of spirit possession encompasses both ‘the belief that spirits can involuntarily occupy the body of an individual, causing illness’, and ‘the voluntary incorporation of spirits, ancestors, and deities, for social and ritual reasons’. Although traditions vary considerably, the use of altered states to communicate with a spirit world and the divine is still recognised as a global phenomenon.(2) For present purposes, I want to set aside questions about the dualistic origin of the terminology of ‘spirits’ and ‘deities’ in order to ponder lived experience.
The recent proliferation of neo-Shamanic practices has encouraged many Westerners to become the kind of animists Tylor denounced as primitive. Re-reading some passages from Michael Harner’s influential book The Way of the Shaman I was struck by some implausible statements. For instance: “the guardian animal spirit resident in the mind-body of a person wants to have the enjoyment of once again existing in material form. It is a trade off, for the person gets the power of the whole genus or species of animals represented by that guardian spirit“.(my italics).(3) That kind of claim makes me wonder about the appeal of core shamanism, about how it perceives illness and disability, and about its therapeutic approach.
Critics have argued that, unlike most traditional shamans, Harner emphasises the controllability of shamanic experience, and that this plays on Western stereotypes that devalue practices such as trance and spirit possession that involve a temporary suspension of control and rationality. Against this, however, Harner has been concerned for the safety of vulnerable workshop attendees.(4) He also believes that we can have ‘power animals’ without being aware of their presence, or knowing when they go AWOL. In that sense, shamanic consciousness could be seen as restoring a degree of much needed agency.
In The Way of the Shaman Harner writes that a patient’s power animal is hardly ever an insect. Whilst we might agree that swarming insects are best left alone, whether materially embodied or in spirit form, others have pointed out that insects such as spiders, butterflies, or bees, may have considerable cultural or personal significance. Experience suggests that, like birds and mammals, insects are occasionally willing to help humans by appearing, in the flesh, at times of need, or as divinatory messengers. I’ve personally seen, read, or been reliably told about, instances involving butterflies, moths, ants, and wasps.
In his 1967 poem Gnat Psalm, Ted Hughes, an early advocate of neo-Shamanism, gleefully describes dancing gnats in angelic and cosmic terms, and declares God to be ‘an Almighty Gnat’. This, of course, graphically highlights the anthropocentric nature of most deities venerated by humans. It also invites us to wonder why other-than-human beings have so often been demonised, or portrayed as machines. Since much of the work of traditional shamans entails inter-species mediation in situations where predation or control of other animals by humans becomes unavoidable, we should not be surprised that many writers on spirit possession discuss the potential dangerousness of some spirit beings.(5)
Where Harner has been criticised for sanitising shamanism, American neo-Pagans Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera, who describe their own experiences of possession vividly, have been taken to task for popularising a dangerously intense form of practice. Kaldera, who has always seen auras, tells us that from the age of sixteen “my vision would blur, I would feel as though I was falling, and then I would hear through a fog a distant voice speaking to the friend next to me. It was my voice, but it didn’t sound like me”. On one occasion he was surprised to be told that he had addressed her using a secret name know only to herself. “Another presence had moved into my body and shoved me aside. I could only flounder as it used me and moved on”.
At the age of seventeen he left home and found acceptance at a Voudou Umband House where he was shown ‘the practicalities of god possession’. Watching participants possessed by deities he saw their auras shrink away to almost nothing before “Something Else blossomed in their place -something with an aura that reached out across the room, bright and powerful like nothing I’d seen in a body before”. He then realised that he too had a ‘gift/curse’ that could not be unchosen. His own experiences of trance possession also begin with a sense of ‘receding’ from one’s own body and senses, followed by the arrival of the Spirit ‘in a rush of colour, image, and pure feeling, much larger than oneself’.(6) Once again this does seems to be about power of some kind coming through.
I recognise enough of the elements here to trust this account of the phenomenology of the further reaches of spirit possession. My younger self would certainly have benefited from some first hand practical information. Given that I also had visionary experiences at a time of existential crisis, and given the long history of medicalising both madness and spirit possession, however, I hope the authors of this book -who are clearly well intentioned and informed about other political sensibilities- will reconsider their uncritical use of biomedical psychiatric labels (‘mental illness’, ‘florid schizophrenia’, ‘psychosis’ etc). Sadly they’re not alone among neo-Pagan authors in appearing not to have noticed many decades of struggle and writing by the psychiatric survivor and critical mental health movements (e.g. around hearing voices). Stanislav and Christina Grof’s notion of ‘spiritual emergency’ also offers an alternative to psychiatric diagnosis in such situations and has received favourable attention within psychiatry.(7)
Filan and Kaldera do point out that in traditional societies people often fear and resist the call to shamanism, and emphasise the need to avoid romanticising the gift/curse of spirit-work, especially where it involves full blown possession rather than mediumship (a.k.a. channelling, or co-consciousness). Personally I’ve not been convinced of the advantage of spirit possession as distinct from these latter, less intrusive, less dramatic, more dialogical forms of contact, as a means of providing help, healing, guidance, or divinatory knowledge -which, hopefully, is what all of this is about. That said though, there’s clearly a need to discuss a phenomenon that some people evidently have no option but to engage with, and for the kinds of peer support amongst spirit-workers that these authors call for.
B.T. 2/3/15 (re-edited 3/3/15).
(1) Paul Christopher Johnson, Whence Spirit Possession?, in Graham Harvey ed. The Handbook of Contemporary Animism’, quoting from E.B.Tylor’s Primitive Culture. Johnson discusses spirit posession as a response to slavery and colonialism.
(2) Jack Hunter, Folk Models of Mind and Matter, in Jack Hunter and David Luke, Talking with the Spirits, Ethnographies from Between the Worlds, Daily Grail, 2014.
(3) Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman, Harper and Row, 1980/1990, p68.
(4) Robert Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans; Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Paganisms, Routledge, 2003, p54.
(5) Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, 2003, or Wodwo, 1967, Faber and Faber.
(6) Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera, Drawing Down the Spirits; the Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Posession, Destiny Books, 2009.
(7) Nicki Crowley, Psychosis or Spiritual Emergence? -Consideration of the Transpersonal Perspective within Psychiatry 2006.
Rufus May and Elanor Longdon Hearing Voices and Self Help.
U.K. Spiritual Crisis Network.
Mad in America website.