Morpheus Ravenna recently wrote a post about the agency of deities and how (in her opinion) our believing that the Gods have agency ought to affect our rituals. While she made many points I wholeheartedly agree with, I disagree just as strongly in other areas.
Now, I make no secret of the fact that I’m a huge believer in the agency of spirits, and I’ve written on the subject before, so why would I take issue with an article that supports that very notion? Well, Ravenna’s post carries with it a number of assumptions about ritual and devotion, and while those assumptions may hold true for some people, they do not hold true for all people, or in all circumstances. Allow me to elaborate:
To begin with, Ravenna seems to treat all ritual as either private devotion or public group ritual. There is a middle ground there that is entirely overlooked. Some groups – traditional Wiccan covens, for example – have a set and established membership that works together regularly. Sometimes these groups have open rituals, to which guests may be present, but often their rituals are closed, so that only established members of the group may attend. This allows for a type of ritual that is neither public nor solitary.
Ravenna argues against calling unfamiliar Gods, or Gods with which members have not already established a rapport, to group rituals, saying that devotional work ought to be done first, and in private. In closed group rituals, however, that devotional work is often precisely the point. There are many different reasons why a group may decide to do this in concert rather than alone. One or more members may be struggling to connect with the deity in question, and the group may be trying to help them develop a relationship. The group might want to develop a more social dynamic with that deity, where the point is not how the deity interacts with individuals, but how the deity interacts with the group as a whole. Group devotional work can be not only helpful, but is, at times, necessary in and of itself.
While I generally agree with what Ravenna wrote about hospitality – that the Gods should be made welcome before They are asked to assist with work – she again carries in her writing an assumption (and it is one that we sensitive folk all too often forget we have). She assumes that everyone at every ritual can sense when the Gods have arrived. This is not always the case. Some people cannot sense, and it’s both impractical and counterproductive to stall the ritual until everyone catches up. That would put way too much pressure on people who can’t sense to just fake it so everyone else doesn’t have to wait around for them. This is especially true in public ritual, but also, albeit to a lesser extent, in private group ritual. The officiators have a responsibility to assess when the presences requested are attending, and proceed appropriately. As wonderful as it would be for everyone to be equally aware of it all the time, that’s simply not always going to happen.
Ravenna also argued that all invited deities must be given an opportunity to communicate with the ritual participants, and, generally speaking, I agree. It would seem, however, that I have a broader definition of ‘communicate’. Possession and divination are not the only ways to communicate or commune with a deity. Sometimes the work being done is its own form of communion. For example, Artemis is most certainly invited to the Catalean Arkteia, in which participants embrace their inner child by playing childhood games and engaging in children’s activities. While She would certainly be welcome to show up in a horse if She chose to do so, it’s not written into the ritual, nor is any sort of divination through which we speak to Her. Rather, the act of embracing the wild energy of youth is its own method of communing and communicating with Her. There is a sort of experiential knowledge conveyed there that is beyond articulation.
My point is that while we absolutely should give the deities we invite to ritual a chance to communicate with us, we ought not limit the ways in which that communication can occur.
Ravenna also wrote about reciprocity, and, once again, I both agree and disagree. Yes, if our intent is to develop a long term relationship with a deity, we ought to honor them more often than just when we want something. That said, sometimes people have to work with deities with Whom they are not going to pursue long term relationships. The is especially true for spirit workers and teachers. I may have a student with a deity I barely know, or I may need to help a client with a deity that I have no connection with, and will not continue to work with once the job is done. In such cases, it is actually better not to go beyond the simple exchange. There is not nearly enough time, nor do I have enough energy, to maintain a full and deep relationship with every single deity I’ve crossed paths with. Yes, it would be wonderful if I had the time to develop such a relationship with every deity I meet, but that’s simply not practical.
Finally, I must address what Ravenna wrote about possession. Once again, there is a big assumption here, and it colors everything she wrote. Intentionally or not (I have no idea), Ravenna wrote as if possession is a purely binary state: a person is possessed or not. She allows for no levels of possession, no passenger seat versus trunk (calling to mind the often-used car analogy), just complete annexation of the body by the deity.
I understand that this issue is hotly debated. There are people who believe that possession is all or nothing every time. I am not one of those people. I’m just going to get that out there right now. If you believe that absolutely every time the horse is either completely possessed or not possessed at all, then let’s just leave things here and agree to disagree.
In my experience, nothing at all is ever that clear and simple, and certainly not possession. Sure, there are instances in which a person is clearly possessed, or clearly not possessed, but there are also times at which a person is obviously infused with deity, but still partly in control of their body. Sometimes people are out of control but still present, and as such can have some affect on what the deity does in their body. On one occasion I was quite present while being ‘possessed’, but I was forcibly prohibited from speaking or alerting anyone else to my level of presence, specifically because the deity riding me wanted to teach me a lesson (which turned out to be something along the lines of “shut the hell up, Thista”).
Years ago I used to argue that possession was much more black and white than I now see it. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to watch and participate in many more possession rituals, and I’ve been possessed many more times myself. I’ve come to appreciate the Wiccan term “drawing down”, as it allows for a much larger spectrum than “possession”. A drawing down can be anything from inspired poetry writing to full possession.
Even possession itself, however, is a bit of a spectrum, in my opinion. The car analogy is now used so prevalently that I typically don’t even need to explain it. That in and of itself says a lot about what people are actually experiencing. Where exactly is that moment when the deity or spirit takes over, and the person’s volition is gone? Even if you can pinpoint such a moment, does it always happen with every possession? And always in the same way? There certainly is a set of physiological cues which usually alert me to an impending possession, but they don’t always happen, and sometimes they happen but I still don’t get possessed. I have yet to meet a horse who does not experience at least some amount of variation.
The point here is that, aside from limits previously negotiated with the deity in question, we need not to assume how a possession will happen, nor have expectations of what the deity will or will not do. While it is always wonderful to give Them a chance to speak should They choose to use it, that doesn’t mean that giving Them something to say is always a bad thing. In fact, I know of one occasion in which a Goddess tasked her devotee with composing a piece of poetry specifically so that She could recite it during a possession ritual. Sometimes reciting familiar verse, or even acting the part of the deity, can be a method by which the horse achieves the trance state or connection necessary for possession. This need not be confused with the possession itself. In fact, I wholeheartedly support using the liturgical method as much as possible, and not just because it is often effective.
In a Pagan community where possession is practiced more and more frequently, and more and more often becomes the focal point of ritual, pressure to perform is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. If we set this expectation that every ritual will include a possession in which the deity walks around and talks to people, think about how the horse will feel if a deity doesn’t show up. Of course we want to create an environment in which people can be open and honest about what is or isn’t happening, but sometimes that’s just not enough. All too often the horse really wants that possession to be real, sometimes enough to believe it’s real even when it’s not. I see that sort of unintentional self delusion happening more often than I would like, and it concerns me. We must find ways to relieve performance pressure.
Memorized liturgy is one way to ease that tension. If the intended purpose of a ritual is to recite something as if the person were the deity – in effect creating a sort of mini sacred drama – then when the deity actually shows up and starts chatting off-script, that becomes a lovely bonus. The ritual is no longer a matter of whether the horse achieved or failed the desired possession, but is instead a shared experience that may or may not be punctuated with possession.
Treating possession as an all-or-nothing dichotomy is another way people create excessive performance pressure. I have heard people claim to have been “completely gone” during a possession, even when their own mannerisms were still clearly evident (never mind the story their energy told). I don’t believe these people are always intentionally lying. I think sometimes people want to be “completely gone” so badly that they convince themselves they are, because this is treated as the measure of a possession’s quality.
We desperately need to move away from assessing the quality of a possession by how deep it is.
A better measure would be how well the possession helped ritual participants develop their relationship with that deity, or how generally helpful that experience was for both the deity and the other ritual participants.
Yes, faked possessions happen, and sometimes people use “I was possessed” as a way to escape responsibility for things they did. Del already wrote a fantastic article about possession and accountability, and I added my two cents as well. Those points still hold true even if you consider possession as occurring on a drawing down spectrum, and containing a spectrum in and of itself. We can support the validity of various points on the spectrum, while still assessing for authenticity and reinforcing personal responsibility. Much more could be said on this and related subjects, but I don’t want to stray too far from the original topic.
I suppose the bottom line here is that we must not look at deity presence in ritual as strictly dichotomous. There are many different ways in which the Gods can interact with us, and, accordingly, many different ways in which we can commune and communicate with Them. Our expectations of what They should do are just as limiting as our expectations of what They should not do, and neither help us develop healthy or robust relationships with Them.
Approach the Gods with genuine reverence and respect. Honor Them as is appropriate given the circumstances. Interact with Them as beings of agency, and be open to a wide spectrum of experience.
The most profound revelations I’ve had about the Gods were all utterly unexpected. Allow Them the opportunity to surprise you.