Possession, Depossession, and Divine Relationships by Diana L. Paxson (Book Review)

Paxson PossessionDiana L. Paxson’s Possession, Depossession, and Divine Relationships is a practical and informational text on possessory work with spirits and gods. The first section of the book deals with preparation for deep spiritual and magical work of any kind: practices designed to stabilize and strengthen the self. Next, Paxson guides the reader through the process of contacting gods and spirits and developing a devotional relationship. The third section looks at possessory practices around the world (including among Pagans in the United States) for models of how groups successfully negotiate possession. The final section of the book outlines practices for preparing for possession, gaining skill as a medium, and building a group container in which possession can successfully and safely occur. The book is written from a hard polytheist perspective (treating the gods as separately existing beings with their own agency), but Paxson also discusses archetypal approaches to possession work and does not insist that practitioners hold any particular theology.

As I read the book, I found myself in turns feeling impressed and uncomfortable. Paxson’s extensive reading and personal experience of possession make her a convincing authority on the subject (which, having personally witnessed her in action as an oracle, I can confirm). I appreciated the historical and contemporary information she gives on possession practices, with particular attention to Spiritualism, Spiritism, and Afro-Caribbean traditions.

I was also intrigued by the detailed cross-cultural information on models of the multi-part soul. Paxson encourages the reader to approach the spiritual self as an entity of many parts, organically and complexly relating. She recommends bringing each part under the influence of protective forces as part of her regimen of spiritual strengthening, prior to seeking out divine relationships. The book as a whole demonstrates a breadth of knowledge of religion and spirituality that can make it easy to trust Paxson as an expert.

In some ways, however, the book’s very breadth makes me uneasy. It is of medium length—about 250 pages—and its goals are lofty: to help readers prepare for a dangerous and taxing spiritual practice; to educate them about possession globally; to guide them into healthy relationships with gods and spirits; and finally, to enable them to practice possession as safely as possible. Any of these topics could be a book in itself (and in some cases, there are such books already). The need to keep the book a manageable length lends itself to questionable generalizations, such as the statement that “Most religions hold that the purpose of our life is to become closer to God” (21), or the implication that Plato’s theory of forms and Jung’s theory of archetypes are functionally identical (40). A book that aims to be broad and encompassing inevitably lacks nuance, and as I read, I wondered what nuance was missing from Paxson’s presentation of the primary subject.

I only become more uneasy when I think of a solitary individual or an isolated group attempting to use this book to attempt possession work. The book’s first two sections are a compressed curriculum for a course of spiritual development work that takes most people years. Though the book gives no time frame for that work, the section’s relative brevity suggests that the work should take only a few months. This is simply not enough preparation for such a demanding spiritual activity.

Having had a small amount of training in possessory technique and having assisted in possessory rituals a number of times, I approach possession as exhilarating but dangerously unpredictable. If a group happens to include a talented but basically untrained medium, it would be easy to skate too quickly through the book’s opening sections to “get to the good part”—in which case the group could find themselves struggling with experiences that traumatized the medium, the other group members, or both.

On the other hand, groups that pick up this book because problematic possession has already happened will likely find its resources to be helpful, as it has concrete suggestions for how to set boundaries with spirits and gods. A group that has no “god-bothered” members (no members, in other words, who experience the gods whether they want to or not) will only get results from this book with dedicated effort, and probably only then if they use the resources it provides to seek in-person help and training.

I was most pleased with the guide to building divine relationships. Paxson provides a framework for approaching gods and spirits while clearly signaling that the work will evolve and expand as the relationship does. The text presents itself not as a definitive program of training, but rather as a guide to an experience that must be unique to the individuals involved.

The book’s final section, in which Paxson discusses how one might attempt possession work, is even more open-ended. Paxson shares some of her own journal entries, allowing the reader to appreciate that her development of skill as a medium took many years and required the support of many teachers, friends, and experienced groups of people. She demonstrates that the journey of a medium is completely individual and cannot be accomplished by working through a curriculum. Paxson also emphasizes that historically and in contemporary religions, possession work is done as a service to a community. For her, possession is not a solitary practice.

Paxson discusses some of the dangers of possession, such as damage to the medium’s mental, spiritual, and/or physical health, as well as the possibility of “horsetalk,” where a medium brings through a message that comes mostly from the medium herself, not from a god. Paxson appropriately encourages people who develop health problems or who are traumatized in the course of mediumship to stop (or at least set boundaries) until they are healed or strengthened. In response to the problem of “horsetalk,” she gives guidelines for those who receive the messages to validate them—by getting second or third opinions from other diviners, by looking at lore, and by testing them against one’s own sense of truth.

However, I found myself wishing she had dealt in more depth with the group-shattering dynamics that can result from attempts at possession. For example, unethical but charismatic leaders may feign possession in order to manipulate group members. Possessions may also be partial, leaving some members sure that the experience was genuine while others suspect “horsetalk.” Even when all members agree that a possession is genuine, success does not guarantee a pleasant experience. Unpredictable behavior on the part of the possessed (especially with an underprepared support team) can result in participants feeling violated or simply uncomfortable with the person who was being ridden. Paxson also does not substantially discuss the dangers of improperly warded ritual spaces or attempts to invoke deities with whom there is no strong pre-existing relationship. Groups that have not carefully prepared for possession work may find one of their members possessed by someone or something other than the Person they intended to call—who may delight in causing mischief.

Overall, Possession, Depossession, and Divine Relationships would make an excellent supporting text for an individual who is pursuing mediumship training with a teacher or group. The information is well-organized and Paxson’s approach is sensible and sane. Paxson also draws appropriately on the wisdom of other Pagan mediums through a series of interviews that she quotes throughout the text. I suspect the book would be very much of help to the “god-bothered” who wish to tone down or better control their contact with the divine. When I think of a reader or a small group using the book to pursue possession without a pressing need or experienced help, however, the best I can say is that it may be better than nothing. Such readers would be best served by reading everything in the book’s bibliography—and then, hopefully, seeking a teacher.

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