Wide as the Night Sky: Mediumship and Collective Identity. Also, Odin.

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.

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  1. Just wanted to say that I love the way you describe the mechanics of possession, it is much like my own experience and not something I’ve seen talked about elsewhere – especially the perspective of *you* being held within the *god* rather than vice versa. I wrote briefly about this here if you’re interested: http://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/possession/

    • Thanks for sharing your post! It’s always interesting to me to hear how other folks wrap up mediumship. It does sound like we do this somewhat similarly.

      Honestly, I haven’t seen a whole lot in general that reflect my experiences with mediumship.

  2. Really excellent and important points throughout, and very beautifully stated…

    This is what is missing from my Ekklesía Antínoou experience recently, and which I tried (rather feebly) to address on Monday. I’m having trouble truthfully speaking as a “we” for this tradition because there aren’t enough other “I”s in it that are really participating fully. Antinous is a deity who, almost by definition, needs to be with others and part of others and connected with others…he’s about the worst-suited deity ever for monism or monotheism, or for private solitary cultus. And, that’s not co-dependence, it’s communality, which is a very good thing, and something he loves.

    Thank you for explaining how this works in relation to your own practices. I value your skills in these areas greatly, though not as much as I value your personhood and your friendship. 🙂

    • Thanks for responding, love! I agree that this is not “co-dependence”. Many gods seem to hear and respond best when more than one voice is lifted to them :).

      I value your personhood and friendship as well <3.

  3. That was an interesting post indeed! When it comes to Óðinn, two things come to my mind: I)Even without considering Snorri, the Elder Edda contains most of Óðinn’s name and they indeed are quite a lot. Overall, the elder Edda is probably more truthful (if more gnostic) to the Old Religion than Snorri. II) In the academic circles, we tend to describe Óðinn as “The vacuum-cleaner” because he basically stole or took over lots of the other gods’ realms and roles, hence his vastness.

    Otherwise, I can’t say anything regarding the possession part of the article except that it’s very well written. I have never experienced anything like that, or anything supernatural for that matter so I don’t really know what to think about it all, but it’s at least cool to hear something from a person that has your kind of experience.

    • “In the academic circles, we tend to describe Óðinn as “The vacuum-cleaner” because he basically stole or took over lots of the other gods’ realms and roles, hence his vastness.”

      This makes me laugh. Thank you for sharing an academic perspective on this! And in my entirely personal and subjective experience of Odin, his overwhelming hunger (for wisdom, knowledge, experience, etc.) does make him feel to me sometimes like a “vacuum cleaner”.

      • I’m happy to hear that you an identify with this. It’s rather funny how, over time, stuff that was attributed to other gods end up belonging to Óðinn. It’s quite clear if you compare things like Early Iron Age pictures or Runestones to the later, especially Prose sources…It seems like Óðinn started out pretty late in the Norse god game but ended up completely taking over. The word “hunger” works very well in this context I think.

  4. Thank you River for this article. I learned a lot about the possession experience from it.
    I have a side question for you – physically, what does your religious/devotional practice look like? I am being drawn in a similar direction where multiple trads/pantheons/Deities are drawing me to build a relationship with them. Of course, I will learn as I begin *doing* this work, but I thought it would be helpful to hear how someone else has gone about it.
    Thank you and Blessings.

    • Thanks for commenting! This is… a very complicated question to answer, though I entirely understand why you would ask!

      For one thing, I generally try to keep my practices somewhat distinct. So, for example, I would not use a heathen style ritual to honor my Oricha. I have tried to deepen into specific practices and pantheons in distinct and separable ways. When I initiated into Santeria, I did so through a traditional House with a Padrino who is very old-fashioned in how he does things. When I am at a Santeria event, I do things as a Santera. Likewise, when I got involved in Heathenry, I joined a kindred in my area and learned things their way, becoming a Seidhkona under their tutelage. When I am leading or participating in group events, I generally keep things culturally specific most of the time (unless the event itself is specifically interfaith/multi-trad in approach).

      But as for my own personal practice, my private practice is my own, and I have only my own Powers to please. I have daily devotional practices – every day at barest minimum I greet each of my sworn Powers, my primary pantheons, my Oricha, my ancestors, and my land. And, depending on the Power in question, there are different protocols for that greeting. With my Oricha, I have specific ways of honoring and working with them based on divinations done when I received them (this is generally how it works, each person gets their own set of rules to some degree). There are holidays and sacred days I celebrate throughout the year, including a handful of Jewish holidays, some seasonal sacred days (solstices, equinoxes, Yule, Mother’s Night, and a few others), my Santo birthday, etc.. I am a professional healer, spirit worker and clergy person, so often my practices blend into my professional work. I have personal spiritual maintenance practices I do daily as well, but these are more about keeping myself spiritually cleansed and balanced so that I can best do my work.

      I would say, the most important thing to be careful of is remembering that deities are part of pantheons, and pantheons are or were at some point embedded in human cultural groups. There are ways that Odin simply doesn’t make sense (and isn’t safe to work with) without the balance of Frigga, Freyja and Loki, for example. And I don’t know what I would have done without Gunnlodh when I first started working with Odin – she is a giant who I did quite a bit of meditation with when trying to figure out how to settle with Odin’s energy. Gods are part of pantheons, and often it is the other gods within that pantheon that help provide balance and depth to any other god.

      But pantheons are also embedded in human cultures. Sometimes what that might mean is that the old traditional ways of doing things (if any still exist) may be powerful because that culture already did the work to create and establish (and troubleshoot) ways of meaningfully and safely interacting with their own Powers. And the gods recognize these traditions as their own. Some gods really do hear us best when we approach them as groups of people rather than as individuals, and working with a group can be very powerful and effective on many levels. But it’s also important to be respectful of the human side of that equation as well – some pantheons (like the Hindu pantheon, for example) have unbroken traditions and still-living folks who are still working with them. It may be very important to tread carefully so as to not fall into cultural appropriation. And sometimes that means no, we don’t work with that pantheon. Or we only work with them in a traditional way, by becoming part of that tradition (if the tradition will have us!).

      So that… is a whole lot of rambly snippets of information, and I’m not sure if any of that is even remotely helpful :). If you are wanting more individual guidance or support, I’d be happy to talk to you privately. I’m also happy to answer more specific questions if you have them.

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