Possession is a mystery. It’s one of those aspects of Voodoo that strikes fear deep in the hearts of men, I think because at its core it’s about control. The whole process seems to scare people when it should inspire them. I’ve spoken a lot about what Voodoo sacred possession isn’t. It isn’t slapping a goddess in the face, it isn’t vomiting pea soup, it probably isn’t what you think it is. You can hear more of my thoughts on that here.
I don’t think I’ve gone a week in the past year without someone asking me about possession. Possession is not unique to Voodoo, Santeria or other Afro-Diasporan traditions. Trance and spirit possession can be found in many different cultures throughout the world. Margaret Mead was famous for her work Trance and Dance in Bali. The film shows the beauty and power of trance, along with it’s extreme components. She depicts the Kris dance, and speaks of supernatural struggle and ritual theatre. The struggle and the theatre seems to be present no matter where, or which religion we are focusing on.
Pioneering the field of cinema and trance, particularly in Africa, was ethnographer Jean Rouch. Les Maitres Fous is a masterpiece where we see possession that challenges the established colonial order and empowers people in a unique way. The same can be said of the possessions in Haiti and other occupied or colonial areas. The most famous Haitian Vodou Trance footage of all time can be found in Maya Deren’s Divine Horseman. The footage is problematic from an academic standpoint, as it was edited posthumously; however, it does offer some very intense images of the divine. Part of the beauty of Deren’s cinematography is that she was both a dancer and a priestess. She knew these spirits in a way that most do not, and it shows in the artistry and connectedness of the work.
Many people toy with notions of being possessed by love, possessed by life… obsessed with their oomphalos (navel), as my grandparents used to say. That’s not what I’m talking about, really. Possession takes many forms. True possession by the divine in a Voodoo or Santeria (Lucumi) ritual is a sacred and blessed event. Sometimes it manifests as a simple healing and after a ceremony someone will feel healed in their mind, body, and soul. I have been in a ritual where the God Ogun in his healing capacity manifested and healed someone’s chronic back pain. I have seen him in his capacity as warrior manifest with messages from soldier’s past. Sometimes possession manifests as a message from the divine, whispered or shouted for the right ears to hear. In many ways possession could be described as inspiration, and for that I am giving it 9/10th of the credit. It’s the wise invisible hand of the ancestors as you cook or create. It is the healing force that allows one to expand one’s consciousness. It is the breath in your body that fuels your blood and warms your bones.
There are many things you can do to increase your connection to the divine and these precious moments of inspiration. One simple way is through repetition and prayer. This is obvious. In Voodoo we very often use chants, or repetitive movements or drum rhythms to bring about trance. This allows us to unlock the mundane in our brain. It allows us to refocus on what it truly important. So try your hand at unlocking the limits of your mind and let me know what you discover there.