Walking the Path of the Horse

by Galina Krasskova
excerpt from Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism

I consider myself extremely fortunate in how I came to first learn about and experience divine possession. My first experience with a God choosing to temporarily inhabit my skin occurred in the early nineties when I was still working with Fellowship of Isis. At the time, I was serving as psychopomp for someone’s initiation ritual. The woman in question was dedicating to the Kemetic Goddess Neith, and as I was guiding her through the various challenges and keeping her as grounded as possible considering the circumstances, I felt a quiet, reserved presence touching my consciousness. I had honored Anubis many times before, and I recognized the feel of that presence, so I didn’t panic. He slid gently into my consciousness, and I allowed Him to take over my mental and physical reins. The possession wasn’t very deep—a light shadowing, really—but it started me down the road of a horse, one who’s primary spiritual “job” is allowing the Gods to speak and act directly through the medium of one’s human flesh.

While possessory work is neither common nor encouraged in Fellowship of Isis, my priestess had some experience with the Afro-Caribbean religious traditions, enough to understand what was going on. She neither encouraged nor discouraged the practice. If it occurred, that was good and if it did not, that was good too. Thanks to her practicality in the matter, I was able to view possessory work as simply one more manifestation of my spiritual evolution. It had no particular weight attached for good or for ill. This has served me extremely well over the years. It allowed me to approach it as an act of service from the very beginning without becoming attached to either the practice or the outcome. I never sought out possession, but when it occurred, I was able to step back and allow the God or Goddess in question to come in without too much difficulty. Some people experience possession as violating in the extreme, but I was fortunate that for myself, this was never the case.

With one exception (which I shall discuss below), the first few years involved light shadowing. It wasn’t until I converted to Heathenry and got snapped up by Loki and Odin that things began to get really interesting. Even then, it wasn’t always complete possession. I learned very early on that there are numerous variations, shades and depth of penetration possible by the Gods.

Once I was taken in hand by Loki and Odin, possessory work became one of the training methods that They commonly used with me. In teaching me journey work, or certain aspects of magic, galdr, and seidhr, Loki would often ride me lightly, enough to overlay his consciousness with mine and to guide my hands in the techniques he was attempting to teach me. Eventually, Odin gave me a spirit song and over time, used this to pattern my head and mind to Him specifically. I didn’t realize precisely what He was doing at the time though, not until much later. Using the receptive state the song put me in, He would modify me slowly over a period of about a year until He could slip into me deeply and without difficulty. For that year of training, Odin became the only Deity other than Loki that I was allowed to horse, but eventually He permitted me to do so for other Gods and Goddesses.

There are certain Deities that are incompatible with me (I have been told flat out that certain Loa and Orisha will never be able to ride me, for instance) for reasons of my own emotional patterning and utter lack of compatibility, or because to horse certain Deities would inadvertently destroy too much of the patterning Odin put in place. Over the years it seems that more and more I horse primarily, if not only, the Northern pantheon. I am also not permitted to horse lesser spirits, but only certain Deities on what I like to call Odin’s “approved list”.

In retrospect, the manner in which Odin trained me as a horse leads me to conceive of the whole process as one of learning to welcome deeply internalized crisis. Essentially, possession is a crisis situation. One’s entire ego is put aside or pushed aside so Someone/Something else can enter and take control. That is a difficult thing for many people to deal with, and the reason that some horses find the whole process very violating. I do not find it so, but I suspect my erotic/romantic attachment to Odin as well as the very organic way in which I was first introduced to the whole thing has helped me immensely there. This is also the reason why I believe a certain degree of self-knowledge and psychological stability should be a prerequisite for a horse. Of course, sometimes the Gods just don’t give a damn and will utilize a person anyway, but in the ideal situation, a firm, solid sense of self is foundational toward ensuring the continued psychological health of the horse. Personally, I would not train someone as a horse unless it was patently clear from the get-go that the Gods were hellbent in using them in that capacity.

This is the reason that not only can not everyone do possessory work, but not every one should. It’s not just a matter of having the right brain chemistry/psychic patterning for it, though that is the most important thing, but the secondary crux of the issue is the ability to get beyond that initial trauma of having one’s consciousness moved aside. It’s apparent from all outward appearances of the horse that the beginning manifestations of possession reveal themselves to be a crisis situation, and this is perhaps the primary reason that horses need skilled, experienced and knowledgeable attendants to minimize difficulties. Possessory work can be grueling, not just mentally, emotionally and psychologically but physically as well. Good attendants make the process before, during and after go far more smoothly than it otherwise might and can contribute greatly toward the comfort and well being of the horse, especially in the exhausting aftermath.

For many of us, coming to possessory work in traditions that lack a cohesive framework for such things, having a skilled team of handlers is a luxury. I’ve only had the advantage of working with an experienced team once in all the years I’ve been doing this work, but that experience both before and after the possession itself was markedly easier than any other. I recovered faster and had fewer aftereffects. Furthermore, good handlers are calm during the onset of the possession and know what to do to help coax and entice the Deity in, which makes the whole process far more comfortable. Having knowledgeable people in attendance helps the horse relax which goes a long way to quickly facilitating the entire process.

I’ve been asked many times what might be the best way to prepare a horse for possession, and I honestly think it’s a very personal thing. Especially during the aftermath, when the Deity has gone, people may experience a plethora of reactions from tears to giggling laughter. Some people want to be left completely alone, whereas others may need human contact. It varies, as does what each horse will require in preparation, though the one common factor is that the experience tends to unlock emotional fetters to some degree. On a psychic level, some Deities will leave a person wide open, while Others may leave a certain muting in Their wake. I have a fairly strong gift of empathy, but after I horse Odin, that gift is blessedly muted in me for awhile. This was disturbing at first until I realized that He uses every part of my mental wiring when He’s in me, and the contrast when He’s gone makes the gift seem far more muted.

There are some commonsense preparations that one can take (and it goes without saying that these guidelines are only workable when you have been informed in advance that a Deity will be popping in, which for me until recently was rarely the case):

1) Get a good night’s sleep for at least a few days prior to the possession, especially the night immediately preceding the rite.

2) Eat lots of protein the night before—I find it helps minimize energy burn out and exhaustion after, but your mileage may vary.

3) Vitamins are a good thing. Having a Deity inhabit one’s flesh eats up energy reserves and can have a dramatic effect on one’s health. It plays havoc with the immune system, and there can be other temporary side effects as well, depending on the level of compatibility with the Deity in question, the length of the possession, the depth of the possession. I’ve had emotional issues come up, my back go into spasms, migraines, dizziness and involuntary tics. Good preventive care where one’s health is concerned is beneficial, not only here but in any type of spirit work.

4) Study qi gong, tai chi or a related martial art. It aids in learning to remain centered, regaining one’s center and most importantly in learning to maintain and balance one’s internal energies.

5) Be aware that there may be vestiges of both the Deity’s energy and occasionally personality traits, likes, dislikes and even emotions that linger in the horse for some time after the possession. Be sure to eat (preferably protein, something substantial, not junk food) afterwards and to do whatever is necessary to ground and bring yourself back to yourself and to mundane time/space. It’s also helpful to take cleansing baths beforehand, but most especially after. Being opened in the way that possession does can leave one in a fairly vulnerable emotional state for some time.

6) Develop a practice of daily grounding and centering. It’s boring but necessary.

7) As much as possible, take good care of yourself and your physical body and health. Horsing is grueling work in which your body and soul are used hard as a tool for the Gods. Therefore, it’s advisable to keep that tool in the best condition possible (which, given how spiritwork affects the physical body, can be hard; do your best within whatever limitations you have). There are also times where horsing can help one physically. I’ve had Deities (particular healing Goddesses) clear away energy blockages, heal pain, etc. as They left, leaving me in better condition than before the possession. It’s not all difficulties and stress.

The most important thing for any horse is to develop, nurture and maintain a strong relationship with a Goddess or God. I hate to use the dreaded word Patron but in this case, it does seem appropriate. Many horses are also god-slaves or otherwise god-owned, so a relationship of this sort goes with the territory. I imagine it would far more difficult for a horse who lacked such a relationship to counterbalance what some find to be invasive trauma. Spiritually and emotionally, even psychologically, it helps to deeply trust the Gods and to have a strong relationship with at least one. It can mitigate many of the difficulties. In fact, I believe serving the Gods is fundamental.

So, one might ask, what makes a person a good horse? The answer is fairly simple: you’re either wired that way or not. Being utilized as a horse is not a matter of being special. It’s a matter of being suited by chance and genetics and a plethora of other things far out of one’s own control for a job. There are other jobs just as important.

Some people have romantic notions about possessory work, or seek it out from a desire to increase their self importance. Some want to do it because they want to be the ones in this ostensibly exalted role, dispensing wise advice and performing miraculous healings, etc. This is absolutely the worst and most damaging attitude to have. Possessory work is an intensely sacred and an immensely humbling experience. To approach as anything other than service is to abuse both one’s spiritual community and one’s relationship with the Gods. Being suited to serve as a horse in and of itself is nothing special. It’s a matter of having the right brain chemistry/patterning for the job. It has nothing to do with personal worth. Nothing. Those of us who horse do this work do so because we have no choice. We do it because it is of value to the Gods and to the community. It is what the Gods have asked, and at times demanded, of us as part of our service. There are those who have never and will never horse who are doing work just as sacred and just as important. I never, ever allow myself to forget that for a moment.

The horse aside, there are a few things for folks witnessing a possession to keep in mind. The most important thing to note are the wants, likes and dislikes of the Deity in question. This is especially important for those of us in traditions that lack a long-standing practice and structure for ritual possession. It’s best if handlers or attendants can record what a given Deity likes for the future. Most Deities like to have some sense of continuity and continuation. Write it down. You’ll get some leeway the first and second time a God or Goddess shows up, but by the fourth and fifth time, you may get a pissed-off Deity. I for one, would not want to be there when Odin shows up, asks for a drink and there’s no alcohol, for instance!

I think it’s also important to remember that there are reasons the Gods choose to do this. This was driven home to me very recently at one of my first public possessions. Those of us who are taken up as god-slaves or who are otherwise owned by their Gods sometimes forget that this is not the case for the average Joe. I’m certainly guilty of this myself. I recently had the opportunity to horse Gerda at a Lammas celebration while another individual horsed Frey. This was one of the few times where I was completely ‘in the trunk’, so to speak, but afterwards, people contacted me and shared how deeply that face-to-face interaction with a God and Goddess had impacted them. I got to see first hand how deeply moving for all concerned this contact was and it really struck me: for most people, this is the only time they will ever have face-to-face, in-the-flesh communication with their Gods. It’s the only time they experience a Deity in the here and now, shining and speaking and moving in bodies so very much like their own. It’s the only time that gap between Midgard and the worlds of the Gods is effectively (and safely) bridged for however short a time. That is why this is important. That is why it is so very sacred.

I also realized in retrospect how much the willing horse allows the Gods to experience life and flesh and each other in new ways as well. It’s not just a one-sided process. It opens doors between the worlds, windows for the Gods to work. It is such an incredibly humbling experience. Until that Lammas, I had never considered the impact horsing had on the human contingent. I did it because it was what the Gods asked of me and doing so pleased Them. But in the aftermath of horsing Gerda, I saw firsthand what it means to the community. It’s allowed me to find a measure of commitment and peace with the whole process that I never expected.

Reconstructionist religions—in my case Heathenry—don’t have a long-standing framework for possessions, and for those of us being called to do this work, this can be rather problematic. In fact, the hostility a horse may encounter in some communities can be more traumatic and difficult than the possessory experience itself! One of the immediate issues, of course, is that we have few if any references in lore to possessory work being part of elder heathen (pre-Christian) consciousness. Whether it was or wasn’t, however, the fact is that the Gods are doing it now and eventually, the community is going to have to come to terms with that.

Another problematic issue is that Heathenry in particular does not seem to readily have a ritual structure—or what I like to call a ‘cease and desist mechanism’—which might otherwise facilitate possession. The ritual structure overall would have to evolve, deepen and change, becoming far more fluid than it is now, and in a religion terrified of anything smacking of “neo-paganism,” this is an uphill battle. When most Heathens do rituals, they follow clear-cut guidelines and a script, and they like to stick to that. Of course, if and when a God arrives, for things to go well, there has to be a cease-and-desist, and a ritual staff that is flexible and experienced enough to take appropriate action, and model that action for the community. In other words, the ritual has to stop and change to accommodate and attend the arriving God or Goddess.

Heathenry hasn’t yet come to this point. As a religion, it’s still occasionally debating on whether or not one needs clergy! The average Heathen ritual worker (and the average Heathen in general) doesn’t want their religious experience to be expanded into unknown qualities or territory. Plus, there’s a certain ergi quality that smacks too much of submission for the typical Heathen with their swashbuckling, macho Viking psychology to accept. “Our Gods would never do that,” They say. Unfortunately for them, our Gods seem to have other ideas.

Some Heathen spirit workers who are already experiencing possession eventually seek out the Afro-Caribbean diaspora religions, such as Umbanda, Lucumi, Santeria and Voudoun to learn how to safely cope with this. While this is helpful, I personally balk at transplanting African-style rituals into a Northern-Tradition context and feel that our ritual consciousness should evolve organically to accommodate possession. Of course, in the midst of a hostile community, horses will fumble around in the dark seeking out whatever lifelines they can find so that they can better serve the Gods they love and respect.

It isn’t just the limitations of Heathen ritual consciousness that cause problems. Most Heathens that I myself have encountered in over ten years in the community have very set ideas of what the Gods are like. This is mostly drawn from the Eddas and surviving lore. The idea that the Gods might have Their differing moods or choose not to limit Themselves to the scribblings of a Christian poet and politician from 13th century Iceland seems to be a leap of faith few can manage in a religion desperate to keep its spirituality neatly and predictably contained. One can hardly blame them, though; it’s not as though divine possession is a common occurrence in the average Christian church, and the majority of Heathens are (I believe) converts from Protestant faiths. And then, of course, Gods aren’t safe. Nothing truly sacred or holy can ever be made completely safe. There’s always the chance They might be angry.

Yes, Gods can come angry. A Lukumi friend of mine once attended a ritual where the patron Spirit of the house showed up and angrily called for his machete, chastised a follower who had been disobeying certain spiritual taboos and behaving in general like an ass, and whipped him with said machete. My first experience with a totally amnesiac possession occurred with a very angry Goddess—in my case, the Morrigan. While it hasn’t happened often—in fact, only three times have I horsed a truly enraged Goddess—it can and does occur. (Usually, when I horse, the God or Goddess in question will dispense counsel, settle disputes, teach, simply give blessings, etc. ).

While experiences such as this can test the mettle of anyone involved, and while it’s very difficult not to become emotionally invested as no one wants to see the Gods they serve angry (or be the one who’s used to speak harsh words), it’s still important to maintain the thread of trust and respect. I have never once experienced or witnessed a position that did not have beneficial results, including the experience with the Morrigan. Even for those horses who experience possession as a violation, while they may not like the way it feels, seeing the impact it has on others makes it worthwhile and I think may help the horse find a measure of acceptance. As to why some people find it violating and others don’t, I don’t know. I suspect it has to do with personality quirks and where one falls on the dominance/submission spectrum within relationships.

In terms of etiquette for witnessing: do try not to interrupt a possession. It can cause damage to the horse to have the process broken off abruptly before the Deity is fully seated. This is another area where a competent team of trained handlers is incredibly helpful. It might also be useful to have a long discussion with your patron Goddess or God to negotiate what is and is not acceptable use of your body. This doesn’t of course, mean that the Gods will necessarily adhere to it, but it can help to have such a “contract” in place and if the God that owns the horse agrees, terms of the contract will generally be honored. This can be important, because unlike the Afro-Caribbean religions, where the Orisha and Loa have had structure and boundaries negotiated for generations, the Gods of the North don’t have a similar set of rules worked out with Their followers. For instance, in Afro-Caribbean religions the orisha will not have sex while in the horses’ bodies. This doesn’t necessarily hold true for the Northern Gods, who may wish to do just that. Gods may also imbibe substances that the horse is terribly allergic to, or large quantities of alcohol. It’s best to negotiate that They take the effects of such substances with them when They leave! This latter point is something that most Deities will comply with. The horse is, after all, providing a necessary service. I do not believe that the Gods willingly injure Their horses. Problems arise because the act of having the tiniest drop of divine consciousness contained in human flesh is incredibly stressful simply by its very nature.

Most Deities, when They come down, like to do work. If a horse is seemingly wandering around aimlessly for too long, handlers should be cautious. Some people have a hard time getting out of possession, not just getting into it. There are techniques to help bring a person back, and it’s best if the horse, early on in this work, can condition him- or herself to respond to specific stimuli. For me, calling my name, touching me while calling my name (just touching or eating won’t always do it because some Deities will put me extremely far under so They can eat and drink and touch while in my body), and removing ritual regalia often helps.

Once the Deity has departed, then it’s best to eat—and a good handler will make sure the horse eats at this point if necessary and ground. One horse recently told me that she smokes (something she’s only permitted to do on occasion) to ground herself and bring herself back to Midgard. Find out what works (unfortunately this is usually done via trial and error) and make preparations in advance. Conversely, if a horse prepares for a possession and the Deity is unable to seat Him or Herself, the only course of action is to admit this up-front. Never try to force a possession. There are a number of factors that can contribute to such difficulties and there’s no shame in not being able to horse at any given time. It happens. Besides, the Gods are not toys to shove around or programs to load. They'll do what they want, and change Their minds as They like.

Those present during the possession should not be frustrated by horses’ lack of ability for elaboration. After the Deity departs, many horses will have no memory of what happened, or at best only the vaguest of memories. Ask the average horse “What did Deity X mean when She said this?” and you’ll likely get the answer: “Beats the hell out of me, She said it, I didn’t!”

Sometimes those witnessing a possession may project certain feelings onto the horse after the possession is over. This is quite common, for it can be difficult to separate the physical person’s image from the Deity that temporarily inhabited it. The horse should be aware of this possibility and make sure to be up-front about it. Attachment, romantic feelings, etc. can all be evoked by the presence of a God or Goddess. It’s important to be aware of this fact because those feelings really have nothing to do with the horse him- or herself, and if someone expresses such feelings to the horse after a possession, the horse should be direct and point out that it’s likely transference. This is a time to set and maintain gentle but firm boundaries. I prefer not to interact with those present during a possession too much immediately after in order to counteract such perfectly natural effects.

Serving as a horse is an act of immense vulnerability and submission - you are giving over your flesh to a greater power to use as They will. It can be painful, terrifying, exhilarating, but always immensely fulfilling. It is a joy to be of use to one’s Gods and for those of us who find ourselves useful in this particular capacity, it provides a unique opportunity to serve both Gods and community in an amazingly intimate way.