Open To The Divine: The Path of the Horse

excerpt from Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism

The night wind is cool on his face as he sits there, emptied of himself. Hours ago, he was bathed and purified, and runes were drawn on his flesh. Now he has sat and communed, opened up the back of his head as wide as possible for the Presence to enter. In a trance, he rises and dons the clothing that is only worn occasionally: the tunic of blue and grey with the Futhark-embroidered trim, the belt with the sword, the cloak of grey with ravens embroidered on the shoulders and wolves at the hem. The spear is there too, leaning up against the tree. When this is done for the whole community, he has people to attend him, to drum the God into him, and whisper their chants, to dress him so that his hands may hang limply until the God chooses to move them. Tonight, though, it will only be a short ride, because it is just a client who wishes to speak to her Patron.

The eyepatch slips on over his head, blotting out half his sight, and the connection is made. The Presence moves into him, fills him, pushes him gently out of the way. The hands that don the wide-brimmed hat and carefully adjust it to dip low over the eyepatch are his, but it is not he who moves them.

As if from far away, he sees her approach. She bears a cup in one hand and a bottle in the other, and he senses pleasure from the Being who has borrowed his flesh. The voice that speaks through his throat is not his; it's deeper and more mellifluous, and one hand beckons the woman closer. He can't make out what the voice is saying, but that's all right; it's not his business. He's only the vehicle. As unconsciousness closes over him, he relaxes into the hands of the Divine Will, and knows that his submission here brings the Gods closer to the human beings who reach their hands out to the Powers That Be.

First, let me disclaimer right off that the word "horse" is borrowed from the Afro-Caribbean religious traditions. In those religions (Voudoun, Santeria, Candomble, Umbanda, Palo Mayombe), the person whose body is borrowed by a God or a spirit is referred to as a "horse", and the act of being spirit-possessed is referred to as being "ridden". While we who do these things in a modern northern-tradition context do unashamedly borrow this term, it seems oddly appropriate in spite of its origins. One is reminded of the runes Ehwaz and Raido, the Horse and the Ride, which are also Movement and the Path.

In northern-tradition terms, the word which comes closest to this state is possibly wod, which is cognate to the god Woden. It suggests becoming one with the Divine Force, although wod is really less about giving one's body to be borrowed by that force, and more about partaking of its energy to whatever extent we incarnate humans can manage. We don't have a surviving word for horsing, or even any clear lore on the subject. It's likely that the Christian writers who took down notes about their defeated pagan brethren were not interested in discussing the enemy Gods coming down to Earth to be among their people.

But the main reason that we spirit-workers in the Northern Tradition are horsing deities has nothing at all to do with any lore-based justification. It is the simplest reason of all: The Gods are coming back, and They want to be able to use human bodies in order to get things done. According to Them, this is the way that it was once done, regardless of what was written down (or omitted) by the enemies of their faith. We're doing it because They want us to, and that's more than enough reason for us.

In the current climate of both the overarching Neo-Pagan demographic and the smaller subset of Asatru/Heathen folk, god-possession is looked upon with suspicion and disbelief. I remember being told flatly by one rather well-known Pagan author that our group shouldn't be doing it because it was self-indulgent and dangerous. (As if those of us who had been chosen to be horses could just stop! It seemed like the most self-indulgent and dangerous thing to do in those circumstances would be to tell the Gods to go hang, and then wait for the ass-kicking that would come afterwards.) Many Neo-Pagans don't actually believe in god-possession, or are willing to believe it of Afro-Caribbean people but not rational, modern Americans, which is a subtly racist attitude that no one has yet confronted, along with a bucketload of fear.

The main objection is that since one can't tell whether or not someone is actually horsing the deity, or just pretending to, someone manipulative could exploit the situation and take advantage of a gullible group of Pagans. My answer to this has always been that adequately trained people with the Sight can easily tell whether or not that's a God in that there body, and if there's a team of such people available to help with the horsing, not only it is a smoother experience for the horse, but any faking or delusional behavior is nipped in the bud. Ideally, there ought to be training in how to spot a real possession and a faked one, and what to do in both cases.

Certainly a spirit-worker who isn't a horse can be invaluable in this way. I am reminded of the story of an anthropology student in Taiwan who reported about a local woman who began to act erratically and claim that the spirits were bothering her. As this was often the beginning sign of oncoming shaman sickness, a group of shamans came in from various places to meet and take a look at her. After an examination, they reported that there were no actual spirits in evidence as far as they could tell, and told the woman that she needed help. The anthropology student (who obviously didn't believe in the actual existence of spirits) was confused about why they wouldn't accept her as "obviously" following the cultural pattern of someone who would later become a shaman, but to me it was a good example of experienced spirit-workers banding together to discern what was real and what was someone's bad brain soup.

After a time, skilled spirit-workers (or even skilled psychics or witches) learn what to look for in a possession. In many indigenous shamanic practices, the beginning shamanic practitioner who claims to be able to carry spirits is tested by their peers who watch the possession and decide if it's real. This sort of peer-testing is invaluable, in my estimation, although it will only really be useful when we as spirit-workers band together and form peer-support organizations of our own.

In the meantime, we can learn the hallmarks of real possession, rather than fakery or self-delusion. They are generally agreed to be:

1) The deity does not advocate for the horse. God X doesn't start telling the folks listening how great Joe (whose body they are borrowing) is, or why they should listen to Joe. The deity usually treats the body as if it is their own, and doesn't refer to the horse much at all. They may have an inner dialogue going with the horse, but that's between them, and onlookers never see or hear it. In general, an over-emphasis on issues pertinent to the horse, vendettas, etc. is a huge warning sign. If the "deity" starts lashing out over an issue personal to the horse, it’s worth taking a second look.

2) If the deity does refer to the horse, they will very rarely refer to them by name; more likely they'll say "this one" or something like that. This is because being called by name can actually shake many horses out of the possession and call them back to themselves (a useful trick for helping someone ground afterwards if they’re having difficulties coming all the way back). In some Afro-Caribbean religions, the Orisha or Lwa may not recognize themselves as being in a horse though we’ve never had this happen with Northern-Tradition Deities.

3) Beware overstressing of the archetype of the deity: most possessions are unique. If it’s nothing but a carbon copy of lore or what you’d read in a book but never gets “high”, never gets personal or beyond the assumed archetype, it’s worth questioning. In most possessions, the deity gets personal. It goes beyond and doesn’t feel distant. They are right there with you.

4) Don't be bothered by a lack of supernatural manifestations; that doesn't mean that it's not a true possession. Not all possessions are going to involve healing or divination. Some of the most powerful do not. The Gods, after all are not there to do parlor tricks.

5) The support staff will get better understanding with repeated possessions. If the same God or Goddess goes into the same person on more than one occasion, it becomes easier to see the pattern. Sometimes, a deity will refer to something they’ve said in a previous possession, even if that possession occurred in another horse.

Galina Krasskova writes: "A Lukumi friend of mine offered this advice: Take the first possession at face value…there’s just not empirical evidence beyond that. Note, however, that in subsequent ones, the crisis situation of possession (by the same Deity) tends to produce the same symptoms in the horse. This is a tell. The way that the individual horse reacts to that specific crisis, that particular Deity will be through certain signals, movements and gestures, which indicate that the horse is about to be possessed. The horse him or herself may not be aware of this. When I was possessed by a goddess at a public gathering recently, one of my handlers, also a horse, noted that as She was settling Herself in me, She kept making a specific hand gesture –I’ve no idea what it was—and he noted it’s exactly the same gesture that his patron Goddess and God will make when one of Them is trying to ride him and he’s resisting...But most importantly, as a person witnessing, trust what it is you see and feel more than anything else. How do you feel about what it is you’re witnessing? It should have emotional impact; you should feel something."

The Path of the Horse is the rarest of the Paths, because it isn't one that you can just set out to master via willpower. It is entirely dependent on the Gods and wights, and if They don't want to go along with the idea of you using this path, then it simply won't happen. That's another reason for the greater community to dislike it; it is (like becoming a shaman) rather an elitist situation. The Gods and wights decide who gets to do it, and we have no say over that. We can't even really understand their choices and reasoning; being nabbed as a horse doesn't seem to be contingent on any standard of intelligence, sanity, morals, or even devoutness. In the egalitarian views of the modern alternative spirituality movement(s), any spiritual experience ought to be available to anyone who works hard enough at it, and the unfairness of being chosen (or not) as the Gods' own limo driver can rankle terribly.

In ancient times, this was less of a problem because people didn't expect spiritual things to be egalitarian. They also didn't expect them to be kind, or loving, or in the immediate best interests of the humans whom they might grab. In fact, the average person in a traditional tribal society today will generally avoid "spirit-ridden" sacred places as taboo; they don't want to be noticed by the spirits. They know what happens to the people who get noticed, and they'd prefer to keep living their lives with a full set of choices. This contrasts wildly to modern Pagans who desperately want to "bring more magic into their lives", without knowing what that meant to our ancestors. The Gods and wights, however, still work along the paths noted by those ancestors. They are untouched by, and immune to, our exhortations that spiritual attention be distributed fairly, by our own standards, and they will continue to work in ways that bewilder and confuse us, and are mysterious to our limited understandings.

That said, one person who is grabbed as a horse may be offered a different deal from someone else. Some spirit-workers are required to horse when the Gods tell them, and their only bargaining point may be time and place. Others have greater leeway and can refuse, although if they refuse too often the gift may be withdrawn entirely. Some offer and are accepted; some offer and are refused; some refuse and are taken anyway. Some may only horse their patron deity; others might be "lent out" by their patron to horse other Gods (we call this being a rent-a-horse), and yet others may have no patron and no restrictions except for which Gods are willing to show up and use them. (This is a dangerous situation, because it's really useful to have a patron deity who will protect you, keep you from being damaged, and screen out harmful spirits. Without that, a very Open horse-type may end up becoming the equivalent of a gang-bang whore for any spirits who come along.

There are generally five main reasons why a spirit-worker would channel a wight of whatever size and intensity. There might also be a couple of smaller reasons, but these are the main ones:

1. Training purposes. Sometimes there are skills that can't be taught to you through words, but require a wight to enter your body at least partially and "motor you through" the skill. (For example, Loki taught me pathwalking in this way.) This could also include being horsed in order to train someone else, when the wight in question needs a willing body to be their sparring partner, or to show them how a type of energy is moved, or a type of magic done.

2. Information purposes. If a client comes to you with a question and one of the Gods wants to answer that question themself, you could just take verbal dictation and relate the words, but it's useful to be able to temporarily horse them if need be. That way they can speak to the client face to face, as it were, and you're less likely to muck things up with an unclear signal.

3. Public devotional purposes. For some people, a spirit-worker horsing a deity at a public ceremony is the only chance that they'll have to see and speak with a divine force. This is very important, both to the Gods and to the worshipers. This was driven home to me after a Lammas gathering where I horsed Frey, and another spirit-worker horsed his wife Gerda. Both of us remembered little about what happened during the horsing, but afterwards people were coming up to us and thanking us for allowing them to speak to the Gods directly for the first time. The number of people who were genuinely moved made it clear to both of us that this was not just done because our Gods had demanded it of us. It was a real public service, and a valuable one.

4. Errands for the deity. Sometimes a God or wight will want to do something in our world that requires a cooperative human body. Most often it seems to be a one-on-one meeting with one of their dedicants. This could be just an important conversation, or something as formal and intense as a wedding with a mortal god-spouse. Occasionally it will involve an interaction with another deity which needs to happen in mortal form for some reason (usually unknown to us, as They don't necessarily give us the whole story), or even no one else at all (such as the time that a wight wanted to use me to taste meat, or gather seawater).

5. Doing work on someone that requires you as a channel. This is rather more of the "classic" shamanic work where the shaman asks his spirit-helpers to come through him and aid an individual who needs help. Most often this is simply the energy of the spirit in question coming through, which is beginning to be commonly referred to as "aspecting" (see below), but on occasion it requires full-on spirit-possession.