On Inspiration and Spirit Possession

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It arrived without warning — a pressure, a dense shadow seeping into my head and my chest. Inspiration, thick and relentless. I tugged at the thread glimmering in the darkness, unraveled the spool. Words came, strand by strand.  I could think of nothing else, only the prose-poem woven in the darkness. I repeated the words over and over, committing them to memory.

There is a time for everything, and this time was for a particular spirit. It took a long time for me to realize that episodes like this were moments of spirit possession. When it happens, it consumes me entirely, won’t release me until it’s done, although few would ever know from the outside. I can walk, talk, smile, brush my hair. The only outward sign is that I become quiet, distant, distracted. Because I am burning within. My husband knows it as my writing trance — I usually end up writing at these times; it’s how I process the information I receive. It becomes poetry, stories, and sometimes something like prophecies and commandments. Sometimes the residual fog will last for days: initially, a brief, intense but painless pressure headache, and then an extended phase of interiority and difficulty engaging with others. It’s a time of recovery, of emerging into the light after a journey in the penumbra.

Embracing Emptiness

The franklin Thorkell took the wise-woman by the hand, and led her to the seat prepared for her. He requested her to cast her eyes over his herd, his household, and his homestead. She remained silent altogether… She begged them to bring to her those women who were acquainted with the lore needed for the exercise of the enchantments, and which is known by the name of Weird-songs… The women formed a ring round about, and Thorbjorg ascended the scaffold and the seat prepared for her enchantments. Then sang Gudrid the weird-song in so beautiful and excellent a manner, that to no one there did it seem that he had ever before heard the song in voice so beautiful as now. The spae-queen thanked her for the song.

The Saga of Erik the Red, Ch. 4

In the text above, we catch a glimpse of the prophetic process of the volva, the seeress and witch of the Norse. Throughout the chapter, the volva does very little to bring on the Sight; she’s often silent — observing the farm, domestic animals, and people; attending to the wyrd-song; perceiving the guidance of the spirits. Only after all this absorption of stimuli does she speak, and the author of the saga notes that “what she said proved true.” Spirit possession is a receptive act. Skill in spirit possession requires the ability to become silent within, to become empty in order to be spirit-filled.

There’s a passage from the Tao Te Ching that comes to mind: “Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends” (11). Emptiness is useful — while objects receive their identity by their attributes or shapes, they receive their value from the spaces in between. It also states:

The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our
employment of it we must be on our guard against all fulness [sic]. How
deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the Honoured Ancestor of
all things!

We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of
things; we should attemper our brightness, and bring ourselves into
agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Tao
is, as if it would ever so continue! (4)

While not the purpose of the chapter, it makes an excellent guide for gaining wisdom and power through spirit possession: blunting the sharp points of our daily preoccupations, tempering the brightness of our personalities and identities, becoming internally faceless, nameless, a void. This stillness allows us to feel the trembling threads all around because we perceive just how entirely we are a part of the tapestry of the universe, how fragile and misleading is our separateness, and this can only be done by forgetting ourselves and our concerns. Paradoxically, it’s how we can receive the wisdom from the spirits — ancestors, land wights, deities, personal spirits, you name it — that can help us remedy (or at least anticipate) our struggles and those of our families, friends, and communities.

Spontaneity and Control in Spirit Possession

I’ve learned how to call out to them, open myself up intentionally when desired, but just as frequently, they take me unbidden. I can try to push them out, but it’s a useless battle. It’s better to be consumed, take in what I’m given, and then figure out what to do with it when it’s over. I always write it down in my spiritual journal for reflection, but beyond that varies depending on the experience and the message.

‘Many spirits,’ said she, ‘have been present under its charm, and were pleased to listen to the song, who before would turn away from us, and grant us no such homage. And now are many things clear to me which before were hidden both from me and others.’… Afterwards the men went to the wise-woman, and each enquired after what he was most curious to know. She was also liberal of her replies…

Saga of Erik the Red, Ch. 4

The trance state is implicit in the passage. While here it is triggered by song (in other cultures, also by dance, drumming, or another performative art), spirit possession (and trance in general) is a practice marked by attentive silence. The activity of trance induction is both an offering to the spirits and a vehicle for driving out the noisy, conscious aspect of the mind. Like a spoon, it carves out a space for emptiness.

Returning

When the fog clears, I feel lighter, clearer. I can engage with the living around me. I have energy and focus again. Sometimes, in recollection, I’m a little disturbed by the episodes — how they engross me, how I feel disconnected and ambient, how absolute the experience seems and yet contrasts with what I know to be reason. Still, the words I’m given resonate — they are beautiful, true. And so I trust the process, even when the intensity seems unreal in retrospect, even when I doubt myself or this strange, porous power.

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