The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
General occult wisdom suggests that although spirits are incredibly powerful, they often must accomplish their work through people. People are the magical tools belonging to spirits. Ritual possession is a shamanic art where a person is temporarily possessed by a spirit. Spirits are described as “coming down” and entering or “mounting” the person. In Vodoun terminology, the lwa are described as riding the person, who is described as their “horse.”
This is a sophisticated, powerful technique that is usually incorporated into a system of spiritual devotion. It is not for the uninitiated or the inexperienced and is always performed under the supervision of a priestess, shaman or other spiritual leader. Ritual possession is common to shamanism around the world.
Why is this magical art practiced? Via ritual possession, spirits can perform healing and divination. It is also a sacred rite of communion with spirits. Spiritual rituals intended to induce ritual possession include dance, ecstatic music especially drumming, and masquerading.
The crucial difference between ritual possession and what is described as demonic possession is one of cooperation. Demonic possession is involuntary; ritual possession is welcomed and invited. Spirits are beckoned with their favorite foods and offerings and with music specifically believed to serve as an invitation.
Practitioners learn various shamanic techniques for temporarily accepting spirits into their bodies. Spirits do not as a rule possess those who are unprepared, however once in a while this is their way of signaling that they wish this person to become initiated into their tradition. Even in a case like this, however, possession will occur when an experienced person can observe, understand, interpret, and supervise. The spirit intends no harm and will depart.
The person who has been possessed is empowered and blessed by the spirit’s presence. (The person’s own nature is envisioned as being present but pushed down and temporarily suppressed, so that the spirit can ride them like a horse.) In shamanic trance, the person is the spirit. The spirit is present in their body. The person temporarily possesses the personal attributes of the spirit and can thus perform healing, divination, and magical feats. True possession is sometimes demonstrated by plunging one’s hand into a boiling cauldron or walking over glowing coals and displaying no pain or injury—impossible in a normal state.
Of course this vision of ritual possession depends upon whether one believes that temporary, voluntary, beneficial spiritual possession is possible. In traditional Christian belief, all spiritual possession is demonic possession. Voluntary ritual possession is, from this perspective, Satanism: one voluntarily becomes a tool of demons. And although someone from another spiritual perspective wouldn’t perceive these spirits as evil demons, fundamentalist Christians assuredly do.
Most traditional cultures do not perceive voluntary, trained, ritual possession as evil or malevolent but as a natural spiritual technique. According to Acts 16:16, a female slave in Philippi was subject to possession by a prophetic spirit. Her owners put her to work as a prophetess, pocketing the substantial income she earned. When St Paul exorcised her spirit, they sued him for loss of income.
The concept of ritual possession leads to interesting speculation when one considers Europe’s witch-craze and the sabbats witches were accused of attending. If people were indeed secretly worshipping a Pagan horned spirit, were shamans or priests ritually channeling him? Accounts of costumes, music, dance, intoxicating beverages, and food designed to attract the spirit might indicate that ritual possession did occur or was part of the rite.
See also DICTIONARY: Lwa, Vodou, Zar.