The Gods & Ego States — How Comparable are They?

I’m struck by how many Pagans I know who are good at going into Aspect (divine possession) during rituals also have a traumatic childhood background.  Trauma in childhood is linked with all sorts of trauma disorders and dissociative experiences including PTSD and leading up to Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder).

Now I’m not saying that all instances of divine possession in Pagan rituals are not real.   That they are only an artifact of trauma.  Several times lately I’ve heard the idea batted about that children who have experienced trauma are more open to otherworldly communication & more psychic.  Of course I’ll never be able to prove this through any scientific or professional means as a psychotherapist.  Still — as a Pagan and a psychotherapist I’d really like my religious and professional worldviews to mesh and complement each other.

For more information on this idea, see all of the articles from the Spring 2007 edition of the Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies – especially the one entitled “The influence of childhood dissociative states from sexual abuse on the adult woman’s spiritual development“.

Another interesting article touching on dissociative states and otherworldly communication and creativity leading towards health can be found at a recent “Searching for Imbas” blog posting. 

I’m mulling over an idea right now that I hope proves true — because it would make my world alot easier.  I’m hoping that a parrallelism exists the paradigms of divine possession and psychological dissociative states.  In divine possession, there are “rules” — the gods are supposed to behave certain helpful ways at certain times.  They are of course unperdictable and Themselves, but the farther their behavior strays into what is considered inappropriate or destructive, the more this is discouraged and a means sought to end it.  The more its questioned if it’s really a god or something else. 

In a somewhat similar fashion, psychology usually seeks to integrate the different ego states — the different alters — of a person suffering trauma.  They are all thought to be a part of the same whole person.  They all have strengths as well as weaknesses.  Generally speaking, even the scary ones hold energy and abilities that the whole healthy person needs.  Only occasionally when an alter is too dangerous or the person is not ready does psychology seek to keep that alter — that ego state — walled off and seperate and forgotten.

So, as I work with clients who seem to fit both paradigms simultaneously, what I’m hoping to find is the following:

  • That divine possession states that seem scary actually need to be embraced and worked with, just as scary alters need to be integrated into the whole person
  • That divine possession states that must be discouraged corrispond with ego states or alters that should not be integrated and should be weakened

 I’m indulging in some hopeful thinking here because it will be difficult when I find situations where Pagan religion calls for rejecting at the same time that psychology calls for integrating (or vice versa).

 Whatever the level of divine or otherworldly communication actually present in Paganism, I do tend to think of modern Paganism, and ancient shamanic and magick systems as definitely servicing a mental health purpose as well.  So I’m hopeful the systems will mesh.


  1. Erynn said,

    January 11, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

    Thanks for the link to my posting. I’m wanting to write considerably more about the whole geilt thing, whether in my filidecht book or in articles. Isaac Bonewits asked me last year if I was going to write a book on Pagans and PTSD, but I’m just not qualified to write that kind of a book except as a “survivor success story” thing. I’d need a co-writer because I’m not a professional, I’m just someone with a lot of experience living with it and working with it within my own spiritual tradition and with helping others through the experiences themselves by just being there and listening.

    Your blog here seems pretty interesting. I’ll poke around a bit more and see what kinds of things you have to say. Thank you again!

  2. Nell said,

    January 22, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

    Thank you for sharing this very gentle and interesting speculation on the relationship between possession, trauma and dissociative disorders. I’ve had limited experiences with possessed people without trauma, possessed people with trauma, and traumatized people with dissociative disorders. I think it’s a valuable connection to explore. But I will say that, in my (again, limited) experience, the possession and/or dissociation of traumatized people was directly tied to a deepset need for love, attention and affection. Channelling the divine can fill those needs temporarily, and in the longer term, can help heal. I’ve also seen people who, in my judgement, were exaggerating or just faking an altered state, either because they otherwise lacked the ability to express something (usually negative), or because they craved the attention. I find a marked difference between interacting with someone who’s channelling or dissociating because they need it, and someone who is channelling in a priest(ess)ly capacity, toward a less personal end. Basically, I think the individual filters the transmission, and if there is a deep need or longing (or in other cases, ego), it is a different kind of experience with a different kind of meaning, and outcome.

  3. Angela said,

    January 26, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

    well I’m surprised that your surprised….I mean think about it, one part of being possessed or channeling is the stepping aside of our own personality/soul/spirit withen our physical bodies or the stepping out of our physical bodies….those traumatized learn to willingly do this on thier own as protection. Therefore they’ve already learned how to let go and move aside…already learned how to open the door as it were. What exactly do you consider as a negative possission? A true possession by deity shouldn’t be a “negative” experience, and granted there are other things not so nice that can possess but then I’m not sure I’d want to intergrate that experience or state, though I would see it as a learning tool about controlling one’s own being, controlling one’s own energy etc…

  4. Nell said,

    January 31, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

    Hi Angela, are responding to me or to Michael’s initial post? I am not surprised by the potential link, and I agree that trauma – due to war or illness or abuse or some other extraordinary trial – can “open doors” and facilitate altered states, including divine possession. Trauma can also set people apart from general society, which I think is another facilitating factor in achieving altered states.

    As to the character of that altered state… I think that’s some of the confusion that the original post was trying to sort through. Personally, I don’t believe in an absolute truth regarding possession, divine or otherwise. Altered states have a variety of causes, and can have a range of effects individually and socially. People in altered states, which they or others interpret as possession, sometimes express themselves in ways that I would define as “negative.” I’m not in a position to determine what’s divine, what’s not, what’s external, and what’s internal.

    It seems to me that therapeutically the focus should be on what is useful for the individual in the healing process, and altered states can be useful – or not – in many ways. Religiously, ideally, I think the experience of an altered state or possession should be positive (or healing), but broader (or deeper) than the individual. For those who have suffered trauma, it may be that the experience of possession, and the individual/social outcome of the experience, is heavily influenced by where the person is in his/her healing process. That’s the question here that interests me.

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