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Jottings: Possession

Some further musings on “possession” – nothing really thought through here – just some noodling around with ideas which I may come back to later.

Whilst I was writing my previous post it struck me that the term “possession” (in the sense of “spirit possession”) is a rather strange word to designate this kind of experience – which runs counter to the modern notion of the bounded individual. Possession usually being associated with control, ownership, dominion. I started to think of possession in terms of an exchange – but in terms of a legal (or economic) exchange, which is implied by the Latin possessio. I mentioned this to Christina Oakley Harrington in passing, and she pointed me in the direction of the Christian notion of “selling your soul to the devil” – and by extension, the notion of Pact-making. The most well-known example of this is of course, Dr. Faustus, although earlier versions of the theme can be found, such as the 14th century work Mary of Nijmeghan in which a female protagonist sells her soul to the devil in return for knowledge of the “liberal sciences” (rhetoric and mathematics, for example) and the 12th century Monoddiae by Guibert of Nogent, which includes a tale in which a renegade monk acquires mastery of the black arts by selling his soul to the devil with the aid of a Jew. This notion of “selling the soul” as an economic transaction probably reflects anxieties relating to changes in medieval economies and the growth of mercantile power – I’m thinking here of the early medieval horror of usury, and the related “heresy” of Simony – and the debates over whether Christ owned a purse – and if he did, how much money did he have?

I ran this past Prudence Jones recently, and she very kindly pointed me me towards an alternative etymology of “possession” as being derived from seige warfare and relating to “obsession” – an action of “besieging” (Lat. obsessionem) which later came to signify the action of an “evil spirit” from outside – then acquired the sense of “that which engrosses the mind” in the 17th century and its modern psychological sense in the early 20th century. Possession, on the other hand, implies control from within – to take and hold something as property – or to “conquer” something and take it as one’s own. The siege warfare angle, if I remember Prudence’s explanation was that of getting inside the walls of a city and being “seated” therein. Here, possession derives from possidere, from potis – having the power + sedere to sit.

Obviously, the use of “possession” in relation to selfhood implies that one “possesses” a self in the first place – as well as a framework which allows for both “bodied” spirits and “unbodied” spirits – and the possibility of exchange between. One line of enquiry I did think about was to look at the historical development of the concept of the “individual” as it developed. I’m not going to go in that direction, other than to note in passing the influence of Stoic notions of self-possession as a form of self-responsibility, which had an influence on Roman and early Christian conceptions of identity. Again, thinking through the relationship between individual and possession (in the sense of ownership) highlight for me that modern notions of individuality are very much related to the capacity to own; to have a proprietal relationship to ones’ self as a bodily property. Exchange – as an analytic category has been highly influential in theorising practices, such as the exchange of commodities (Marx) or the exchange of gifts (Mauss) or capital (Bourdieu). What I’m suggesting here is that viewing possession as a form of exchange might allow rethinking possession in terms of the relationships and transactions that allow that particular exchange to occurr – and how power and value are distributed and understood within that exchange.

In some occult presentations of possession, a general pattern is that of two entirely distinct and seperate subjects – the individual human and the individual entity – meet temporarily within the (human) body. The entity (for example a deity) is often assumed to be “more powerful” yet at the same time the possession is enacted within a human-controlled space – the ritual event which is under the magician’s direction. Although there are accounts where the human element is said to be subject to the whim or desire of the deity with which a relationship has been entered into; these are rarer in “western” magic, probably, I think due the legacy of antipathy towards spiritualism which appears in European magic from the mid-19th century and the general horror of subservience to another being’s “will” perhaps in the same way that “traditional” forms of authority are often disparaged. After the event has taken place, there is an assumption that the incoming entity departs and the human participant “returns to normal” – i.e. that both elements return to their former state. I know I’m generalising hugely here (again, I’m just toying around with a line of thought) but I think this rather bare “model” opens up some lines of enquiry.

Firstly, there’s the question of agency. Do entities ever refuse to participate in possession, for example? I’ve participated in quite a few possession events where there is a fairly strict demarcation between “officiants” – the person or persons who (it is expected) will become possessed and “celebrants” (people who participate, but don’t usually become possessed). Occasionally, there seem to have been instances when the person who acting as the “horse” doesn’t become possessed strongly, but someone else in the “audience” does – although given that most of those present are focusing their attention on the “horse”, this isn’t usually noticed. The whole question of the agency that is granted to “entities” in general is a tricky question. I once asked a magician who had spoken at length about the “partnership” he had entered into with various spirits if they ever refused to cooperate with him, to which he had replied that, no, that never happened. It seems to me that there’s often an tacit assumption that entities want to cooperate with the magician and that if the rite “fails” in these terms, it is more often than not put down to a lack of individual skill or competancy, rather than the entity not “being in the mood”.

I’ve already highlighted the issue of power, but a few more thoughts are in order. Entities such as gods, goddesses, etc; are usually held to be sources of power, yet at the same time, it is the human participants who set the parameters of the rite and decide “”when to banish” as it were. Power flows from the entity to the magician, but not, seemingly, the other way round. There is also, I suspect, a power relationship in who gets to be possessed in the first place. From my Wiccan experience, the norm was that power was distributed from the High Priestess, so it was usually the High Priestess who was the focus for possession-events, rather than being evenly distributed throughout the coven. There is an obvious problem when individuals who are granted social authority get to speak “as gods” as this can (and in my experience sometimes does) get used for reinforcing authority-statements, so that it’s not merely High Priestess Mandy who’s telling you to stop doing something, it’s “the goddess” telling you.

The question of value is also problematic, because for me it begs the question of why one participates in such events in the first place. Value is slanted towards the human element – “what will I get out of this”. I’ve never actually heard anyone wondering what “value” the event has for the entity who is the focus of the event.

Finally (for now) there’s the issue of transformation. How much of an expectation do participants have that they will be significantly “changed” by the possession event? That the “self” that returns following the possession has changed? And does the “entity” change as a result of the possession? Are possessions transactional exchanges?