Recently, while at a gathering of a coven that I’d been invited to I was approached by several people with many questions about Asatru and heathenry in general. This isn’t uncommon, as there are few that are engaged in the practice, and many people are curious about it, given its somewhat separatists and unbenownst to me, mysterious nature.
Most of the questions were pretty standard “What are the differences, what about the threefold law, etc.” However one question came up that I found intriguing, and felt it was worth writing about. The question that was raised was whether Norse Practitioners believe in spirit-posession, drawing down, or invocation of deity similar to what we see in other pagan traditions. She pointed out that some traditions believe in it, and practice it. Other traditions don’t believe in it. And there are yet others who believe in it, but believe it is an inappropriate practice to be engaged in.
I had my immediate answer, based upon my personal experience and background which was “yes, but its a bit different than other traditions think on it. However, as with all things within the Northern European traditions, I felt the need to go back and examine it further.
The Literature and History
Its always best to start with the literature and history and see what it tells us. By looking at the past, we not only can do our best to maintain historical accuracy (something we strive for) but we can also learn lessons from those that have engaged in the practice in the past.
The obvious example of spirit posession comes from the tradition of berserkir. Literallly translating as “bear shirt” the idea was that a warrior pre battle would engage in a rituaistic practice that would give the warrior bear like rage and strength. Its possible that the bezerker in this case believed he was posessed by the spirit of the bear.
While this isn’t an example of deity posession, it does point to the belief of posession in general.
The next example we point to is somewhat less clear, and little is known historically about it, and that is the practice of Seidhr (Seidr). This practice commonly is referred to as “Northern European Shamanism.” We see reference to it in Yngling’s saga. It’s closely associated with the goddess Freyja. Seidhr, in addition to being closely associated with the concept of posession also is tied closely to the concept of travelling “Between the nine worlds.” Whether these two practices are directly related is unclear.
So historically we can come to the conclusion that there is some basis for believing in deity posession, or “drawing down.” Now we have to ask ourselves two questions:
1. What is the process?
2. What form does it take?
Interestingly the two examples above point to a common theme. Both of them involve achieving a trance like state (and Diana Paxson’s book Trance-Portation also points this direction) that allows us to “draw down” deity. Paxson’s book largely deals with world travel, but it seems that the process of travelling between the worlds and invoking the deity are the same, even if the results can be extremely different.
How this trance like state is achieved can take several forms. Drumming is a common practice, as is the art of chanting the runes, called Galdr (Galdr had other purposes as well). What does seem to be clear is that there must be some activity that creates a “conscious altering” set of circumstances.
What form does posession take?
There doesn’t seem to be a common theme that I’ve been able to find, other than that what commonly occurs is almost describe as “joint tenancy” in the consciousness. You typically don’t have circumstances where the person engaged in the practice is not aware of their surroundings. They tend to be cognizant of the circumstances. I tell people to think of it as “manifesting an archetype.” This doesn’t mean its any less “valid” than what other traditions believe in, rather the form we see it in is different.
My personal experiences
I have been told several times that I have the “tendency” to manifest deity in certain sets of circumstances. In particular the two most common points where this occurs is during runic divination, and also when I am teaching about a pagan related topic. I was surprised by this because the activities described don’t typically fit what my personal experiences have been.
Then I considered it further. When I do runic divinations I typically do so at festivals, and I do “marathon” readings where I’m doing readings for several hours. Part of this process is becoming ungrounded, and developing spiritual contact with deity. It’s also repetitive in nature, much like chanting. So perhaps what I am doing is in fact of the same mind altering quality that we see clasically desrbied.
When I teach, I go through a very similar “ungrounding” process. The purpose behind this ungrounding is somewhat the same. As I teach, I’ve been placed in a position where my students are trusting me to impart knowledge to them that is an accurate and true (to the best of my ability) set of circumstances regarding the gods. By ungrounding and connecting with them, I have found my answers are better and more complete.
Which leads me to the conclusion is that when we consider the concept of deity possession in the northern european context its not so much about “altering the conscious” as its opening a channel between the individual and deity, and making it an open pathway, both directions. Whether this be done through the classic channels (such as drumming or chanting) or through some other activity that has a similar effect is irrelevant. The key is to open up that line of communication. By doing it, we allow the deity, if they so choose, to “take a seat” inside our consciousness.
External and Internal experience
One of the unusual things about deity possession in a Northern European context is that it can sometimes be very difficult to recognize. I believe this largely to be because the Northern European deities are considered ancesteral, and effectively “human like.” They have very human like qualities and when one “manifests” them the person comes off as “very human” when “looking from the outside.” Often times they will appear “larger as life” and in some respects, one can see sterotypical behavior of the deity in the person being possessed. My personal experience has been that when I do manifest, I draw large crowds around me as I engage what those around me commonly refer to as “holding forth.”
From “the inside” (being the one possessed) everyone’s experience varies. From my own personal experience I am not always cognizant of the drawing down. I tend to find that my mannerisms and behavior change, often times to an extent that they wouldn’t be what I would typically do. Its certainly not an uncomforable experience, nor a displacing one, it just changes “our behavior.” Sometimes it can be extremely difficult to be aware of these changes.
The dangers of manifestation
There are some pagan traditions that believe that engaging in this practice of manifestation is inherently dangerous. As I look at the Northern European traditions, I can’t disagree with this statement. However, just because something is dangerous doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be engaged in. As one friend said, there is a price for everything, and manifestation is no different.
What makes manifestation somewhat dangerous within the Northern European context is that the manifestations are so “human like” that the mannerisms that we take on by manifesting may in fact, become “part of ourselves.” Whether this is good or bad is a matter of context, clearly there may be some “aspects of deity” we’re comfortable with. Others, well, may be inappropriate for modern society.
This ongoing potential for adoption of aspect of deity beyond the drawing down poses an interesting “problem” in us becoming increasingly intinguishable on an ongoing basis from the aspects of the deity we are manifesting. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether that is “good” or “bad.”
The final problem with manifestation of this type is post manifestation grounding. Norse Deities typically aren’t nearly as lingering as we find in other traditions (you don’t have to bargain to get them to leave, simply being cognizant enough to say “I don’t think I need this anymore” is good enough. However it can leave one with a mysterious sense of ungrounding. Its important that the person manifesting have some approach to bringing themselves “back into reality”, and not just let themselves “hang.”
Thrugh a combination of both research, and also personal experience I’ve concluded that deity posession is certainly consistent with the Northern European traditions, and in some respects, the approach to “achieving it” is common with other traditions. However, due to the familial nature of the relationship between man and deity that exists within the Northern European traditions, the process in which in manifests is not always typical of what you’d see within other pagan traditions. Its a process that can be enlightening, but also deserves a certain level of “respect.”