Note: I had been working on this for some time as a means to
help people educate themselves on spirit possession and as a call to look
forward to what the future of “Western magic” is. Sunday night the need for
education on this topic became more obviously pressing about the time I was
writing the final two paragraphs. This article is not written as a response or
swipe but simply to further education. I hope it does that and I hope it helps
bring people to greater magical work.
Spirit Possession in the Modern Western Tradition
Before we even get to the topic, it makes sense to address
the idea of Western Tradition and concepts of magic…briefly. In stating this
I’m not attempting to be political but rather to suggest better terminology so
that we can reach further. When we say Western Tradition we’re generally
speaking from a position of Anglophone bias, or at least a position of
Eurocentricism. There are many
traditions in the West which are not part of what we generally conceive of as
the Western Tradition. These however can be important for comparison and
exploration, and their place within the array of Western spiritual traditions
can help elucidate their place in relation to our experience. The words Western
Tradition also often refers to a limited view of Europe’s spiritual heritage.
We look at a late period of alchemy and the masonic renditions of esoteric
philosophy and practice rather than the full scope and the many iterations
thereof. Most typically we look at it filtered through a late 19th
century British lens called the Golden Dawn.
I, and many other magicians, have found it useful to limit
the use of the term “ceremonial magic” to this post Golden Dawn style of magic,
or the slightly broader late Rosicrucian systems of the magical revival. There
is significant difference between these approaches and earlier European
approaches. Even during the time of the magical revival we can see variant
streams arising each with their own unique elements and character despite the
prominence of the one generally described as Ceremonial Magic.
The various modes of magic operating in Europe: witchcraft,
cunning folk work, learned magic and the manifold other approaches which often
blended and influenced each other; I have begun referring to collectively as
European Traditional Magic. It’s a general term which still clarifies working
or discussing practices along a particular historical axis without narrowing to
a single movement. Within that we can break down many things. It gives us an
umbrella comparable to the sweeping ideas of African Diaspora Religions and
African Traditional Religions.
When we begin to address things this way we can begin to step
outside the bounds of ceremonial magic and look at a more detailed view of the
vast and diverse overlapping forms that create the stream of practices and
ideas that are European Traditional Magic. We can begin to see deeper more
complete explanations of practices throughout our magical heritage. We can
begin to find points of comparison with other living traditions and they can
shed light on further reasons why and ways in which to do the things we’re
doing. We can begin to elucidate our practices and our understanding in ways
which allow us to take them further through deeper exploration of the thing
itself as well as comparison and sharing with other approaches.
When we begin to do this we by necessity move away from the
sterility and isolation which sometimes characterizes modern occult practice.
In its efforts to be a science ceremonial magic often abandons the visceral,
the bodily, the spiritual reality of things. It often clings to formalized
educational structures and treats them as the meat of ritual and in doing so
strips actuality from things in favor of understanding all as symbol. It keeps
things clean and formal where sometimes they should be a little messy and free.
This isn’t always the case, and it definitely comes down to
people’s individual preferences and modes of action. But an honest review of
the norm will reveal that often this is the nature of things. We keep at arms
length a lot of things which would be the core of spiritual and magical
practice in living traditions around the world. We’re often magicians in lab
coats instead of shirtless in overalls sweating in the sun.
We can talk about a lot of material elements of magic and how
magic through European history and in living traditions around the world
engages the powers of materials, but that, while exemplary of the difference
between ceremonial magic and other systems, is really a separate topic than what
In a recent discussion a close friend and I were talking
about the space opening up for people engaging in European Traditional Magic to
begin to build living sorcerous traditions which provide models for engaging in
European magical traditions with the same kinds of context, support and
features we see in the living traditions of Central and South America. There
are methods there for developing and cultivating spirit engagement, clarifying
information received from the spirit world, and utilizing that information to
effectively work magic for real and potent change both personally and in our
communities. Looking more deeply at the history of European magic we see hints,
pieces, and clues towards European magical culture that once provided similar
modes for building effective magicians.
Magicians looking to grab onto that meaningful deep
connection to human spiritual heritage often end up drawn to ADR and ATR
systems because those traditions for engaging and effectively working with the
spirit world are more or less intact there. They are evolved to work within the
context of human social needs and therefore answer things that people are
looking for on more than just a spiritual basis.
In looking at how a living tradition drawing on European
spirits and traditions would take shape three things that we obviously need to
look at are:
1. How do we pass power and pact, how do we create and
transfer the agreement with spirits to work with a line of magicians? How do we
pass charisma or spiritual power from one magician to the next?
2. How do we connect with and embody the powers of these spirits to work with them
as a community and as individuals; how do we engage them to speak with us, to
whisper to us as needed; how do we bring them into on going proximity with us?
3. How do we clarify their messages to us, how do we reduce the impact of our
biases and create consistent ways of receiving information for ourselves and
others with some confidence that it is a message from the spirit without the
overwhelming power of our own fantasies taking hold?
Even if we aren’t looking to build living traditions of European Traditional
Magic these questions are useful to ask. The Greek Magical Papyri answer, or
shape movement towards the direction of answers to these on some level.
European Witchcraft provides a lot of answers or help towards answers. The
grimoires give details of how these answers can be expressed and worked. For
our part though, today we’re going to talk about question two and some of the
broader context surrounding it.
When we look at how we embody spirits for our experience and
that of those around us one of the common modes throughout the world is through
spirit possession. When we consider a relationship in which a spirit sits with
us an speaks with us and influences us through our day to day lives, we are
again looking at a form of spirit possession, although one which is for the
most part foreign to European and American awareness.
As I write this I am rewatching, for the third time, Fox’s
adaptation of The Exorcist into a TV series. It’s a lot of fun, but actually
deals with some religious and theological ideas in interesting ways. It’s also
a horror TV show and so it depicts exorcism and possession and otherworldly
spirits in the most horrific ways. It’s not inventing these depictions, it’s
drawing on centuries of European and Anglophone apprehension of the idea of
demons and possession and the terror of involuntary spiritual contact. It’s a
good example of what people tend to assume when they think of possession.
Those assumptions don’t only exist in the minds of the
non-magical folks. Work with demons is something which is part of the
intellectual heritage of ceremonial magic. The actual manifestation of the idea
is often treated as a psychological exercise, or as something which people are
aware has been done but don’t necessarily do themselves. For more Neo-Pagan and
New Age magical traditions, despite the influence they take from ceremonial
magic, the possibility of work with demons is part of why they often look at
ceremonial magic as some dangerous and frightening system to warn new seekers
away from. There certainly isn’t the sense of fire is dangerous, but if we
understand and work with fire correctly it’s useful, when it comes to demons in
many modern magical contexts.
For many, not for everyone, the idea of working with an
actual demon, not a psychological construct, is an idea which is somewhat
confrontational. It forces questions about what they believe about spirits and
about magic. Or it forces us to enter into a space which may be uncomfortable,
or dangerous or frightening.
So when we enter into that space we do so with very specific
guidelines, calling on very specific spirits, in ways which keep them far from
us locked in place by curses and other spiritual powers. Personally, I’m not
one to argue against that approach. For a lot of things it’s a reasonable
approach. For many people it should probably be the approach. Historically its
not the only approach. Historically we also have many spirits to work with who
aren’t devils, and so more engaging approaches may be more reasonable for
working with them.
For people used to only addressing spirits in a very formal
and separate mode the idea of experiencing them in a context like possession is
perhaps beyond the pale.
While the most common view of possession the average person
in the first world has is one related to involuntary spiritual assault, it is
by far not the only or even most common experience of spirit possession.
When we look at traditions in Central and South America and
in the Caribbean positive voluntary spirit possession is a common religious and
magical practice. These traditions are the ones which have most readily made
their way into the awareness of people in the USA, and I would assume in
Britain and Europe. But they are not the only voluntary spirit possession
In 1994 Nicholas Spanos published “Multiple identity
enactments and multiple personality disorder: A sociocognitive perspective” in
_Psychological Bulletin. vol. 116. no. 1_. Spanos takes a meta-analysis
approach to explore multiplicity in an attempt to prove that rather than simply
a disease it is a social construct. I don’t believe that cases of possession
are simply a psycho-social experience but the article is interesting in
comparing it to other forms of multiplicity and exploring a cross cultural view
of possession and its role in societies in which it has a positive element.
He opens his discussion of possession by saying:
“Multiple self enactments occur in most but not all cultures
(Bourguinon, 1976). In many traditional societies and in some subcultural
contexts in North American society, multiple self enactments take the form of
spirit possession. In these cases, it is believed that the human occupant of
the body is temporarily displaced by another self or selves that are defined as
spirits who temporarily take over control of the body.”
Spanos then goes on to reference several studies which
provide information on the frequency of possession in various cultures and
regions. Sri Lanka, South India, Malagasy, the Sudan, North America, the and
the Songhay people are all cited as providing examples. Examples in Europe, and
England get brought up. Spiritualist movement rituals and European witchcraft
are referenced as connecting to examples of possession.
Possession exists throughout the world in various spiritual
traditions and it manifests in various modes.
Again, within European traditions we see voluntary possession
in traditions of witchcraft, we likely see it in sybilline and oracular
traditions of antiquity. We see it in the Dionysian cultus, and we see it
echoed in central elements of Christianity that continued those mysteries. We
see it in Spiritualism, and Spiritism and in the New World Traditions that
adopted the work of Kardec to blend with memories of African and Native
traditions. Go back into antiquity we see it hinted at in cave paintings we
associate with Shamanism, and we see it in the survivals of the steppe
traditions of Eurasia.
It’s not a foreign or an unusual thing. It’s a missing piece
of our puzzle. Full stop.
But maybe it’s not part of OUR magic? Maybe it’s not part of
the heritage of ceremonial magic? Is “our magic” confined simply
to ceremonial magic though? Is there a reason we can’t absorb the full breadth
of our spiritual heritage?
Whatever the answer is, the idea that spirit possession is
not part of the heritage of ceremonial magic is simply false. The easiest
example is the Sacred Magic of Abramelin and the relationship with the Holy
Guardian Angel. While the book does not market itself as “Hey get possessed by
an angel!” that is essentially what’s happening. To understand this though we
need to recognize that possession is not always full possession.
In Catholicism and also in other magical and religious
traditions of voluntary possession, possession occurs with differing stages.
Essentially we can understand it as first being an intimate connection between
the possessed and the spirit. The spirit is within the sphere of the possessed
and they interact very closely, sharing a deep and connected awareness of each
other. The next phase is one in which the space between them blurs, the spirit
and the person share the same space and awareness and actions may be a
combination of the will and influence of each. The primary awareness/control
may shift back and forth between the person and the spirit. The final phase is
a more complete experience of possession, the spirit takes hold and is in the
driver’s seat, the person may or may not be aware or may or may not remember
When a magician completes the Abramelin retreat they enter
into a relationship with the angel which can be understood in the context of
that first phase of possession. Much of the work done with The Sacred Magic is
based on the magician operating in this state. The magician and the Angel work
together, the Angel sits with the magician and communicates directly with him.
The Angel clarifies and aids in communication with other spirits and speaks to
the magician to guide his magical work. Much of the relationship here is
similar to the partial possession relationships we see with priests, magicians,
and elders in other traditions than incorporate some sort of seating of a
spirit as part of the process of attaining such a status. This does not make
the spirits or the process involved the same as what is involved when working
with the Holy Guardian Angel, but it does provide a point of contact in which
comparison can help deepen our understanding of what the relationship can be.
NeoPagan witchcraft comes primarily out of the Gerald
Gardner’s Wica, and he built his system largely from his awareness of Thelema.
Forms which descend from Gardner adopt a significant amount of their methods
from Golden Dawn inspired writers like Regardie and Dion Fortune. So practices
there still tell us something about how people engage the methods associated
with ceremonial magic.
People might say that spirit possession does not exist in
such systems, but a performative possession is a central act in Wicca, both
eclectic and traditional. Whether actual partial possession occurs or not is up
to those who engage in these practices, but the idea of Drawing Down the Moon
is one which is based on the concept of possession. The priestess invokes, or
has invoked into her, the Goddess so that she can embody that presence and
speak and act as the Goddess for her community of witches. The idea here is no
different than possession in other more traditional religious and magical
This practice stems from the magic of Thelema and the Golden
In the Golden Dawn the Assumption of Godforms is an important
technique for embodying and applying spiritual powers. The process however
isn’t typically the same as spirit possession. Some approaches treat these
divine forms as formulas or static functions rather than as actual beings. In
instances where it is treated as a more holistic connection with a spiritual
being it can be much more dynamic. Crowley’s approach to this kind of spiritual
interaction opens the door for a more mystical experience. In Crowley’s Liber
Astarte the magician engages in a series of practices and utilizes a stirring
invocation to call upon a divine power to reside in him and join him through
his acts of devotion. Liber Astarte is less performative, it’s less about creating
an experience of that divine power for those around the magician.
In Thelemic practices we do see a more community version of
this in the Gnostic Mass. Again not precisely calling on a spirit to possess
you. Through adornments, ritual actions, and prayers the priest and priestess
embody certain spiritual forces, which some view as actual divinities and some
don’t. Many in those roles do experience a state akin to multiplicity or a
certain dissociation or adjustment in their awareness. So there is, at the
least, an overlap.
The Mass influences Gardner’s Wica specifically. The process
of a priest and priestess working to aid in invoking the respective divine
influences shows up in the rituals of Wica. This is what leads to Drawing Down
the Moon. Drawing Down the Moon, and the forms of invocation that it developed
from, lead to the common practices of invoking and embodying gods in various
forms of NeoPaganism.
So Abramelin is a fairly clear example of a form of spirit
possession as an important developmental form of magic in European Traditional
Magic systems. We can see examples of spirit possession in historical forms of
witchcraft in Europe. We see examples in various forms of magic in antiquity.
Their legacy in modern magic gave rise to Assuming Godforms, Liber Astarte, the
Mass, Drawing Down the Moon, and NeoPagan invocations. They’re not precisely
the same, but they show an echo of the concept and a space in which it could
fit…if we felt the need to fit it in rather than address it in its own space.
In short, spirit possession is a part of the heritage of
ceremonial magic. Even if it weren’t it would still be part of our magical
heritage. With that being so, why would we need to fit that piece back into the
puzzle, how do we do it, and how does it look when we do it?
In Spanos’s article he says:
“In many societies, spirit possession occurs as part of
helping rituals. The medium becomes possessed by a spirit or by successive
spirits, and it is the spirits who diagnose the client, prescribe treatments,
or offer advice for problems in living.”
When we look at the idea of a magician as someone people go
to for their problems, for serious life issues, for help, we imagine a
consultant. We imagine someone who reads the cards, throws the bones, or casts
a chart and measures out problems and solutions and then executes magical
In most societies the central element of this work is a
relationship with spirits. Divination is the reception of knowledge from divine
or otherworldly sources. It isn’t an empty review of some cards, it’s
communication through a tool with an unseen power so that the tool allows that
power to speak to us more clearly.
Partial possession assists in this mode of spirit work in a
few ways. The magician who has a possessing spirit knows the voice, the tone,
the tenor of that spirit. He can recognize and understand it more readily and
more clearly. While the tool may speak for another spirit his possessing spirit
can help guide him in interpreting it, and in receiving more of the
If the spirit from whom the magician is receiving information
is the possessing spirit then the work with the tool will be a work familiar to
both the magician and the spirit and will draw them into a closer state of
communication. The tool will help guide and further clarify the communication
but the spirit will already have a direct line to communicating with the
magician. The spirit may even communicate with the client directly through the
Depending upon the tool used the possessing spirit may help
guide the magician’s actions in using the tool, bringing about a clearer more
directed outcome or ensuring the tool is used in a manner which will provide
the answer which is needed.
These sorts of benefits can be achieved through various forms
of direct spirit work as part of divination. The closer the relationship with
the spirit the clearer the communication will be, the more easily the magician
will receive the communication and the more readily the spirit will desire to
be of assistance. So while we might not
look at this and say “Yeah, people doing this kind of work, particularly for
others should have a possessing spirit” it should be fairly clear that a
relationship with and engagement of a spirit in this work at least borders on
January 28th 2018 The Independent published an
article by Julia Buckley which was primarily an excerpt from her book on her efforts
to find relief from Chronic Pain. She had traveled around to a bunch of gurus
and healers and hadn’t really gotten anywhere. While she went into her attempt
to receive help from a Haitian Voodoo priest expecting it to be psychological
she ended up experiencing much more. Her description of the event, which she
recognizes as unreliable and which has strong hints of the racism she denies at
the beginning, clearly conveys that she experienced something real and much
more than she expected. Not only did she experience more relief than she had
elsewhere but she was moved to continue honoring, in her own way, the spirits
who had helped her.
The experience was one of being healed by a spirit possessing
the man in front of her. She recognized the priest as possessed, she recognized
feeling a presence in the room. She recognized the behaviors and natures of the
spirits involved. She understood that when she spoke with the man after he had
finished the procedure she was speaking with the spirit possessing him. Earlier
in the article she noted miraculous instances of healing he had done but also
noted that he did not want to take credit or be viewed as a healer. To me this
seems to indicate an understanding that he is a medium through which the spirit
What’s significant here is that the spirit was able to engage
the situation directly in ways that spiritual people weren’t as able to.
Paracelsus wrote about the invisible causes of disease, and of man’s
predicaments. He explained that there are spiritual factors which impact our
state of harmony, which disrupt it, and create problems we experience and how
realigning those can improve us. He carries this forward to interacting with
certain spiritual beings to create that harmony.
This concept is the basic concept of hermetic medicine. The
components of a person, the elements, the planetary rays which build up the
nature of who we are, when in balance they create health, they create a
positive flow of influences which allow good things in our lives. When they are
out of balance they distort us and our experience of and interaction with the
world. This is the idea behind humorism, behind astrological diagnosis and
treatment, behind most traditional forms of western occult medicine.
Over time we have of coursed learned about other invisible
causes. Bacteria, viruses, anxiety, stress, genetic factors, things which we
have learned to make visible but which once seemed like inexplicable and
unpredictable magical factors. That does not take away the reality of Paracelsus’s
invisible causes, or of ancient beliefs in afflicting spirits, it simply adds
to that reality.
Paracelsus’s work describing invisible causes explains them
as existing in a Gabalistic (Kabbalistic) or Olympian hypostasis, or a level of
creation existing in a spiritual or ideal state. That hypostasis reflects the
existence and nature of a more pure and divine hypostasis above it, moving
backwards to the original discursive moments of creation. Likewise moving
forward towards nature there exist more and more material hypostases,
eventually resulting in the macrolevel of our perceptions.
With that in mind those physical invisible causes which we
have discovered through science are perhaps hypostatic echoes of some other
spiritual state of disquiet. Thus that which seems immovable by the means
available to us becomes moveable when the spiritual state is rectified. In the
case of Julia Buckley she achieved relief when the Baron reached in and removed
the afflicting spiritual attachment in her arm. The spirit was able to perceive
some unknown affliction which had attached itself to her, and operating on the
same hypostatic level thereof was able to reach in and remove it. But it still
situated itself upon her in such a fashion as to move the more physical levels
of her experience to develop the physical components of her affliction. She
likely needed more physical follow up to keep the pain from returning.
This story illustrates the role of the possessing spirit in
diagnosing and treating the problems an individual presents. In many cases the
spirit could be worked with through conjuration or other means to perceive and
address the cause. Working with the spirit through a medium allows for the
spirit to also communicate something about the nature of the cause and what
further steps should be taken to help correct the problems involved, whether
those steps are ritual or spiritual steps or corresponding mundane work. In my
experience it will often be both. If we simply conjure a spirit and ask it to heal
someone that debrief, or consult element is less easily tenable, though not
fully untenable. It will likely still involve some mediumistic work though.
Communication in general is a big component of this mode of
We’ve talked about how it can help with consultation and
diagnosis, with treatment and with the application of magical solutions in
client driven or community scenarios. But as magicians often we have a
curiosity regarding the unseen world.
It is well attested that medieval and later priests
understood that the modes of exorcism used by the Church could be minorly
adjusted to conjure a spirit. In fact the words exorcism and conjuration are
essentially of the same meaning. With this we also understand that priests came
to know that the demon once bound in an exorcism – whether an exorcism to save
a demoniac or a more ceremonial ritual to call upon a demon; could be
questioned and could reveal a great deal of information which the priest or magician
could not obtain otherwise. The Church even had rules against engaging the
demon in such interrogation and instructions for exorcism retain advice against
For magicians this is a big component of magic.
We know that many great luminaries of the European world were
also magicians and often the pursuit of magic was one through which they hoped
to gain knowledge and understanding beyond what science could otherwise afford
them. Theology was one of the highest intellectual pursuits and so the
spiritual worlds were clearly the source for knowledge beyond that of
philosophy and the lower disciplines found in the quadrivium and trivium.
For most of us working in an anglophone context, whether
working European Traditional Magic or ceremonial magic, working for clients and
the community is less the norm. We’re generally working for our own pursuits.
For many people they are working largely for a spiritual or mystical purpose.
So exploring spirits as a way to obtain information makes sense when it is
information about which we are curious. Many spirits listed in grimoires are
great for learning things and the constraints used are very much based on
keeping the spirit honest. Many magicians still look to the grimoires curious
about gaining new knowledge and power based on calling a spirit to provide it.
But how do they provide that knowledge or confer that power?
Working with scrying they may show you images or visual or
auditory bits that suggest things. But if the spirit is truly possessing a competent
medium the details of expression can be much more significant. The follow up
questions are easier to ask.
Instead of worrying about conjuring to visible appearance, or
scrying and banishing phantasms possession allows us to have a face to face with
the spirit in a human body. For some spirits this is a much more appropriate
method than constraining a manifestation. Regardless of the type of spirit it
is an interesting experience, to say the least, standing across from a
possessed person, asking them questions, recognizing the behaviors and words
that don’t fit the person in front of you and grasping the ways in which the
answers inform you of things beyond their knowledge. It is a particularly
satisfying mode of spirit interaction, and one which carries with it a very
powerful presence and provides an experience of significant impact.
To continue with addressing the last two questions I posed,
how does it look and how do we do it, I’m going to say a lot less than I have
otherwise on the topic. Most of what I’ve presented has been the argument that
factually speaking the Western Tradition is bigger than the terms imply, and
that even within the small scope we use them for this sort of work is
historically important. We’ve also looked at why this work is important both
for our systems and for other systems. These are things for which we can pull
lots of examples and speak a little less subjectively.
For what its like to work with this kind of possession in a
European context and how we should do it, I feel the answers are much more open
to discussion and experimentation. I’d like more to invite you to experiment
and explore and present than to try and tell you “this is it, do it like this
and it should seem like this.”
I think we have a lot less in terms of modern examples
working from a ceremonial or European approach and so there is room for you to
help build those examples.
I recently led a pretty amazing ritual William Blake Lodge utilizing methods for working with spirits from European Traditional Magic
sources in this kind of spirit possession celebration context. It was very
different. We worked with a demon, which made it more aggressive and
confrontational, but it was a demon who was a familiar spirit and so it worked.
People were impressed. We had impressive results. You can read about it on my
blog in parts One and Two of a post on the subject, which includes the ritual
we used. About a month later a witch who is a member of our Lodge also led a
ritual which involved spirit possession. Sadly I missed it due to other
obligations but I’ve heard amazing things about how the night went.
Fingers on the pulse of the magical community know that
rebuilding our magical heritage beyond the incomplete knowledge of the
Victorian era is essential, especially when we consider traditions and
organizations which want to stay relevant.
Sadly, possession can be a little scary, as we’ve noted. It
needs to be handled in responsible ways and ways which are informed by
significant magical knowledge from a cross-traditional perspective. Not
everyone is ready for that. But, we’re getting there. It’s a powerful and
useful tool, and one which is coming back into our purview.
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