River Devora is a multi-trad spirit worker, healer, Gydhja, Seidhkona and Santera. She has been an active member of the Bay Area pagan and polytheist communities since the early 1990s, and has led classes, rituals, workshops and other programs locally and nationally. In 2013, she founded South Bay Heathen Shenanigans, a ritual and learning group for folks interested in the spirituality, magic and folkways of pre-Christian Northern Europe. She initiated as a community priestess with Waxing Muse Coven in 1996, initiated as a priest of Ochun in 2011, and has oaths of dedication sworn to Odin, Freyr, Loki, Juksakka, and the Morrigan. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her extended human, animal and spirit family.
Wide as the Night Sky: Mediumship and Collective Identity. Also, Odin.
I was going to write an article about an individual versus collective sense of self, about the importance of becoming proficient at shifting one’s understanding of self/identity from one of a singular identity to one of a collective identity as a tool to help deepen into connection with the Gods and Powers. I got at least 4 wobbly paragraphs into it, struggling to try and figure out what exactly I was trying to say. But then Anomalous Thracian wrote this, and basically said much of what I was shaping up to say, more gracefully and in more depth. And then every time I sat down at the computer in an attempt to write my article anyway, there was Odin staring back at me from the screen. So I am going to stop trying to write something analytical and reasoned and persuasive, and instead I am going to write about why being able to hold both an individual and a collective sense of self helps me do more effective work for and with my beloved Powers. And I’m going to talk about Odin, and I’m going to get a little personal. But to talk about Odin, there are things I need to talk about first.
I am a medium, among other things. I’ve been a medium since I was 18, when I started struggling with involuntary possession by random beings. Some were benign and helpful, and I would hear afterwards that my hands were used to perform healings, my mouth to shape prophesy and to give blessings. Some were awful, would harm me, slamming my body around and screaming in tongues. My mediumship rather abruptly came online when I started attending eclectic Wiccan-style rituals in the California Bay Area (this was what I had the most ready access to in the early 90s), and would either get possessed during these rituals or would find myself possessed afterwards as random spirits followed me home (consider this a very strongly implied plug about the importance of personal and group spiritual hygiene – more on that in a future article). It was an absolutely terrifying and confusing time in my life, made worse by my inability to find mentors or teachers.
Odin was the first god who ever possessed me. I was participating in a rather earnest Dianic-style full moon ritual with my coven. And all of a sudden, I went blind in one eye. A mocking laugh came pouring out of my mouth, and I blacked out. When I came back to consciousness, my coven sister was crying and I still couldn’t see out of my eye. Confused and frightened, I asked her what happened. She said Odin, the Norse god of battle madness, poetry and wisdom had possessed me and talked to her. She had unsettled business with him, and he used me to tell her things that were true and important, but that she did not want to hear. He wasn’t very nice about it. Not being familiar with Norse mythology, I had never even heard his name prior to that evening. I decided at that point, given how things had transpired, that I wanted nothing to do with him. And after that and several other experiences, I found myself in the odd position of believing in all the gods and wanting nothing to do with any of them. They all seemed to be very large and political and complicated, and I figured I would much rather hide in the woods with my plants, rocks, animals, streams and dead people.
Thirteen years later, after a bunch of fighting with and running away (and a handful of other Powers coaxing me back out of the woods and getting me healed and trained and, well, housebroken), I found myself oath sworn to Odin. He brought me to all my other primary oathed Powers, and lovingly bullied me into making Ocha. All the blessings in my life have come, directly or indirectly, through his hands.
In the context of trance possession, every Power comes down in a different way for me. Loki sneaks in behind my eyes. Ochun lands on me like a large bird, flapping and dancing her way inside. Freyr sits in my lap as though I were a throne. And every one of these is ecstatic. Odin… Odin blows me to pieces, expanding my felt sense of self outward in a rush of stars and wind and darkness until I am as broad as the midnight sky, breathless and unfathomably large. Coming back from being possessed by Odin is awkward, as I need to re-figure out how to be bound by a small human frame. How can one fit the entire night sky back into a body? You can’t. The disconcerting confusion of the shape shift helps me to remember myself enough to come back.
For me, trance possession, when I invite or consent to it, is about joining my individual sense of self to a larger consciousness. I become a single cell in the vast body of a god. I expand my sense of self outward to a larger, networked sense of self that is named Odin (or Loki, or Freyr, etc.). And then I am not separate from him. I am a small part of him, and he can speak with my mouth because my mouth is one of his mouths. The key here is submission – consenting to a sublimation of my own small and individual identity into a larger identity. I can do this because I love him, because I trust him to return me to myself when he is done (and we have carefully negotiated our terms, and I have reason to trust that he will keep his end of our bargain).
And I can do this because I am not afraid of feeling and experiencing myself as part of a larger collective identity. I can do this because I have a strong individual sense of self – I know myself, I like myself, and I am comfortable taking responsibility for my own choices and actions. But I also believe that there is strength and blessing in connection, and I trust my Powers. I feel humbled and honored to get to participate, to be part of larger systems – systems that embody gods, systems that embody human communities, my neighborhood, my family, the land on which I live.
Part of how I wrap up my own polytheism is in the context of relationships, of participating in complex systems. And this participation is more than just a whimsical philosophical exercise; it deeply informs how I live my life and perform religious duties and activities. My Powers exist in pantheons – each pantheon is whole and complete, each Power complementing the other Powers in that larger system. My religion includes having access to a whole bunch of Specialists I can approach for blessings and help. And each one works as a necessary and important part of a larger whole that is their pantheon, so if one Power is not the correct one for me to approach, I can be (and have been) directed to others who are better suited to my needs or concerns. And when one pantheon is not the correct system for me to access for whatever reason, I may be directed to another pantheon all together. In return, I offer my devotions as an individual and as part of devotional community, and serve the gods and my communities as clergy, medium and healer.
Odin is a vast deity. Scholars have counted over 200 recorded names for him in the surviving Icelandic and Scandinavian literature. Each name speaks to a specific and different aspect of him: Alfodr (All-Father), Hveðrungr (Weather-Shaper), Valdr galga (Ruler of the Gallows), Uðr (Lover), Vegtam (Wanderer), Saðr (Truth-Teller), Ygg (Terrible One), Bolverk (Evil-Worker), Kjalarr (He who Provides Nourishment) and Goðjaðarr (God of Protection). In the Gylfaginning, the following explanation is given for why he has so many names:
Then said Gangleri: “Exceeding many names have ye given him; and, by my faith, it must indeed be a goodly wit that knows all the lore and the examples of what chances have brought about each of these names.” Then Hárr made answer: “It is truly a vast sum of knowledge to gather together and set forth fittingly. But it is briefest to tell thee that most of his names have been given him by reason of this chance: there being so many branches of tongues in the world, all peoples believed that it was needful for them to turn his name into their own tongue, by which they might the better invoke him and entreat him on their own behalf. But some occasions for these names arose in his wanderings; and that matter is recorded in tales. Nor canst thou ever be called a wise man if thou shalt not be able to tell of those great events.”
(Gylfaginning, XX, Brodeur’s translation.)
While Snorri Sturluson’s writings contain any number of challenges from a theological and mythological perspective, he does record the general thinking of Icelanders about two hundred years after the conversion of Iceland, thus recording some of the surviving beliefs native to that region. While I don’t believe that Odin is found in every pantheon around the world under different names, I do think he is vast enough to be able to make use of 200 names or more.
When dealing with a god of this size, the idea that he can cram himself down into a single human for the purpose of mediumship is absurd. He will never fit inside me. But I can fit inside of him, handing myself over for him to speak through me. And by doing so, I can manifest more of him and in a deeper and richer way. He is not inside of me; I am networked into him. And I maintain an aspect of this understanding of my relationship to him whether I am engaging in trance possession, performing runic divination, acting in a clergy role for my heathen community, or engaging in personal devotional work with him.
And truthfully, all gods are vast in comparison to humans. Expanding our sense of identity outward to join with our gods at the identity level allows us to connect deeper and more ecstatically. When we loosen our tight grip on our own individual identity, even if only for a moment, we open ourselves to the possibility of ecstatic divine connection. And when we come back to a singular, individual sense of self, we may find ourselves expanded, wiser, deeper for the experience.
Relationships are complicated things. To do relationship well, we have to be our own unique selves, fully and unflinchingly, to the best of our ability. We have to be soft and flexible enough to be moved by another, while strong enough to hold our center, keep from being bowled over and lost in another. And we have to be willing to share parts of ourselves, and humbly and graciously receive parts of others.
In relationship, the relationship is greater than the sum of its parts. A relationship takes on its own kind of sentience, where each person in the relationship (whether it is a relationship of two or a relationship of many) functions as a cell or an organ in the larger body of the relationship. So how do we engage in these relationships? Do we fight for control of the center? Do we allow ourselves to be dragged along by the momentum of the larger body? Do we step up and actively participate, sharing in the responsibility of maintaining that larger body?
As my darling Anomalous Thracian says, “Nothing exists independent of anything else, not because of some philosophical monistic sense of collective one-ness, but specifically because of the diverse many-ness of all… intersecting and networking through complex systems of relation.” The key here is networking – we impact and are impacted by the larger systems in which we are networked. Sometimes those larger systems include gods, and it is on us to actively participate in devotional practices, in working harmoniously, possibly in participating in religious structures in partnership with our beloved gods. But sometimes the specific larger system in question IS a god. And for me, this is where my mediumship lands.
When I am participating in relationship with my gods, it is important that I bring as much of my unique individual embodied self to the table as I can. I want to be my all, I want to give my all, and therefore I want to have access to my full self so that I can best participate in the relationship. But I don’t stand alone from my gods. As a medium and priest, sometimes I function in part as one of the faces of my gods. But the only way I can cleanly and appropriately do this is by sometimes letting go of my singular sense of self – I do not talk for the gods but sometimes the gods talk through me. If I insert myself into the conversation, allowing my individuated sense of self, my personal opinions and beliefs to bleed over into the dialogue, I am behaving unethically. There is a subtle but crucial nuance here. So in order to cleanly perform in my duties as a medium, I need to be able to expand outward, allowing my individual identity to be subsumed by the larger identity, and feel myself connected in a cellular way to my gods.
Relationships are personal, intimate. While reason and intellect may play a role in how we choose to engage, participation is what shapes relationships. You don’t need to be clergy, or a scholar, or a medium, or an oracle, or any other kind of spiritual or religious specialist to show up and participate in relationship with the gods, with other polytheists, with our ancestors or with the land. And to me, this is the true heart of the kind of polytheism in which I engage – interconnected, complex and intimate.
Odin was my first breath, and owns my last. He is the wild wind, the insatiable hunger for wisdom and experience. He is beserker rage, instigation and poetry. He is inspiration and strategy, treachery and seduction, generosity and victory. He gathers the glorious dead into armies to fight back the powers of entropy and chaos. He is my love and my darkness, and I am one of his many hands in this world. All hail Odin, who rides the night sky shrieking.