Sleep Paralysis, Sitting Ghosts, and the Use of Words of Power to Undo Magickal Fetters
“That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmar’d.”–John Keats, “The Eve of St. Agnes” (1820)
I hadn’t experienced any night terrors in years. Between 12:30 and 4:30 CDT this morning, however, I experienced no less than a trio of related nightmares, all of which included a malevolent, shadowy being crushing my chest so that I was incapable of rising from my bed and helping whoever it was that needed help (my father in the first nightmare and Hela, my one-eyed kitten, in the third) and that horrible inability to scream when you really want to scream. I found myself incapable of articulating any semblance of words, not even “NO!” nor “Help!” nor my father’s nor my kitten’s names. My dreaming self/night-journeying, free-roaming soul/ka–whatever you want to call it–could neither move nor speak. It was truly as though an entity had placed fetters upon me, one of the most dire forms of binding magic that can be placed upon a person.
“You’ve been hag-ridden,” my fiancé Daniel nonchalantly explained after he came in the bedroom to comfort me upon hearing my inarticulate, terrified cries exactly at 12:30 this morning. (I decided to go to bed around 10:30 last night but he wanted to binge-watch episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix some more before joining me.) “It’s this neighborhood, love; we can’t be surprised by this. Not when we’re sleeping above 39,000 dead people. It’s happened to me too–remember Yule of 2013?”
I nodded my head, recalling his night terror at the time–especially how I’d been completely oblivious to his thrashing about in bed as he tried to fend off what he insists was a spectral attacker. I wasn’t aware of how he’d physically struggled, of his kicking and arm-flailing; his garbled cries went completely unheard by me for a long time, and that was what disturbed us the most back then–not that he had the encounter, but that I had been rendered incapable of acknowledging his distress. He said I looked so still I looked as though I were dead. We’d both come to the conclusion that I had had fetters placed upon me, keeping me locked in a non-sensate state.
That unpleasant memory coupled with the visceral sensations from the nightmare I’d just awakened from–the lingering sense of physical oppression on my chest, starting just below my sternum, was the worst sensation imaginable–made me literally sick with fear. I felt dizzy. Dan responded immediately: “Babe, are you okay? What can I get you–would you like a glass of water?”
“Yes, please. But also please get the bottle of Florida Water behind my brother’s picture on the ancestor altar,” I said.
As soon as Dan returned with the latter I began to pray and liberally douse the nape of my neck (the most spiritually vulnerable spot on a person according to the Kemetic teachings I’d received in person from Egyptologist and Pagan author/FOI luminary Rosemary Clark), the crown of my head, my temples, my forehead, my throat, my chest, the palms of my hands, and the soles of my feet.
“It was a horrible Sitting Ghost,” I explained. “Lithe in frame, but incredibly strong. Black as coal but I could make out the white and red edges of his eyes. He didn’t want me to get up and rescue my father, to even alert my father to his presence. I was in a bedroom that looked just like this one in a similar condo building. I was lying in bed and I “saw” the shadowy being enter through the living room window, like a thief. My dad was several rooms away in the kitchen, and this thing wanted to hurt my dad. I had to get out of bed and tell my father, but this thing intercepted me and slammed me back down on the mattress–first he pushed me with his hands but then he sat on me with all his might–“
–And here I thought of the 1780 Henry Fuseli painting of “The Nightmare” with the angry, chubby little Sitting Ghost atop the swooning female figure’s chest while the horrible horse, the literal embodiment of a night mare, luridly peeks through the curtains–
“–and I fought him with all my strength but he wouldn’t budge. I tried screaming first to alert my father but then in the hopes that someone would get the shadowy being off of me, but I couldn’t even yell the word ‘Help!'” I felt pitiful, ridiculous even.
“Like I said, you were hag-ridden,” Dan matter-of-factly said.
“What kinds of sounds did you hear?” I was curious.
“It was pretty freaky. I heard this sing-song wailing, which started out pretty low at first but then worked its way up to some kind of scream-shout of what sounded like ‘BLARGHMOOOOOOOORRRRUNNNNNN!'” Dan informed me.
“It placed fetters on me,” I sighed. “So now, with Odin’s help, I’ve got to un-fetter myself.” And I traced the Ansuz rune before me with my right index and middle fingers conjoined as my default “wand” as I took in a deep breath from my diaphragm and loudly exclaimed: “AHHHHHHNNNNNSSSSOOOOOOOZZZZ!”
“Oh, I could feel that, baby!” Dan giddily said. “That’s what I was thinking would have to happen. And if you didn’t do it, I would have done it.”
I continued with the runargaldr and continued to trace Ansuz, Algiz, and Thurisaz in the six directions for unbinding and magical protection. “Be gone, be gone, BE GONE ALL WOEFUL WIGHTS! You are NOT welcome here!” I shouted for emphasis.
Dan grabbed his phurpa and felt that the shadowy being had entered through the glass patio doors off the balcony in the east, so that is where he went to perform the LBRP. Upon his return to the bedroom to check on me, I confidently told him that I expected to rest easy from here on out, and that when he came to bed, he’d undoubtedly find me softly snoring away contentedly.
But that didn’t happen, of course. When Dan did finally come to bed, it was 4:30 a.m., and I was wide awake with the lights on, too terrified to attempt to go back to sleep as I’d just “awakened” from my third nightmare/episode of sleep paralysis in four hours, the one in which the shadowy male being wanted to harm my kitten, Hela, by throwing her into a wood-burning stove that had a fire going. And when I tried to stop him, he did the same thing: flung me to my bed, pressed against my sternum/sat on me so I couldn’t rise, and definitely prevented me from screaming “Hela!” which I desperately tried to do. Daniel admitted that he fell asleep while watching TV in the living room, and that the second and third nightmares I experienced in the wee hours were totally lost on him; he didn’t hear a sound coming from the bedroom with the open door at all. He’d marched in at 4:30 to come to bed to see that I was sitting up with the lights on, once again spooked out of my wits.
I was flabbergasted; I’d never had such a thing happen to me. Three times in a row? And why did the phenomenon repeat itself after I’d done what I thought was an effective magical banishing? Why didn’t my runargaldr work?
“Do you remember what may have influenced your thinking immediately prior to your going to bed last night?” Darlene, my therapist, asked me in this morning’s session. (For the record, I don’t mind admitting that I’ve been in therapy for a year now, since an episode of protracted-depression-induced-self-mutilation last March.) “Did you and Daniel enact some sort of ritual together beforehand–in other words, were spirits already on your mind as you were getting ready for bed? Or did you two have some sort of discussion that could have prompted this dream imagery? And I have experienced these night terrors too, just so you know, and they’re horrible–that feeling of being incapacitated is absolutely horrible,” she added.
“Well,” I replied, “in Serbian folklore, this is a special kind of spirit: a Sitting Ghost. It’s not a discarnate human being; it’s an entirely different class of spirit,” I went on, not caring that I was unquestionably rubbing her atheist sensibilities the wrong way with my ritually rich, decidedly devotional, spirit-laden and wondrously Wyrd weltanschaaung. What she must think of me! “It reminds me,” I continued, “of the types of beings described in ancient Egyptian writings that serve as Guardians of Thresholds: the demons said to guard the gates of the higher levels in the Duat, or Underworld, that the souls of the pharaohs were equipped with spells to gain mastery over so that they could enter the higher realms accordingly. They had to know those demons’ names and the right Words of Power in order to subdue the demons–have them step aside, whatever–and gain entry.”
Darlene scribbled furious notes. I cleared my throat.
“I wonder if the essays I read just prior to getting ready for bed last night brought that Guardian of the Threshold concept to mind,” I said, pacing my words slowly. “You see, I started Robin Artisson’s Letters from the Devil’s Forest last night–it’s about Traditional Witchcraft–and in a couple of his essays based on correspondence with his students, he argues that since sleep is ‘the little death,’ the experiences our free-roaming souls have and record for our waking consciousness to remember, or not, when we ‘wake up’ in the light of day are not unlike what our discarnate souls experience in the immediate post-death state. Going to bed each night trains us for what to expect when we die, in other words. Obviously, he makes a correlation between the playground of the subconscious and the terrain instantly recognizable as the Underworld of various spiritual traditions.”
I’m no stranger to the Underworld, and I often muse upon my own death as a meditational exercise (try it daily). At my annual Poe Party, I often identify with the not-sure-if-they’re-dead-or-alive-or-demonically-resurrected/reincarnated leading ladies of Poe’s fiction and poetry (e.g., Madeline Usher, the Lady Ligeia, Morella, etc.)
I mulled over what I’d just revealed to her, mentally detonating the implications like blasts of epiphanies.
“So was I shamanically journeying last night to the Underworld?” I asked, scanning for my inner truth to register or discard. But I came up empty as I had more questions, not answers. “But what did alerting my father–or my kitten, for that matter–have to do with any of it? Hela. Does the goddess Hela want something from me–something I’m not already doing for Her? And why was it the same recurring menace, sitting on me and preventing me from rising and making me unable to articulate what so badly needed to be said?”
Darlene shrugged, wide-eyed. “You would know the answers to those questions, Anna–not me. Though I will say that I’ve had bizarre dreams that I’ve completely awoken from–gotten out of bed, gone to the kitchen to get a snack and so forth– but upon going back into a state of REM sleep the dream picked up exactly where I’d left off, as though I were watching a movie and I hit the pause button,” she added. “Do you think that triple sleep paralysis episode was like that–the continuation of one bad nightmare?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “All I know is I need to ward myself before going to bed, evidently. And it was weird that this occurred while Dan wasn’t in bed with me; he was in the living room for most of the night. Did something perceive me as being less guarded somehow, because he wasn’t there? Was it some kind of test of my magical power–and did I fail?” I mused. “I need to ask Isis and Odin for help. They both have the ability to lift those who call upon Them for help to be released from fetters. They master Sacred Speech: They can bind but They can release by uttering the right Words of Power.”
Isis: Lady of Heka, Keeper of the Words of Power
Photo I took at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC of a Hellenized Isis, circa late 2nd century, CE
Upon awakening from the first nightmare, when Dan handed me the bottle of Florida Water, I’d said that I began praying–it was first to Isis (Aset) that I prayed. I prayed for Her to unfetter me with Her copper harpoon, to deliver me from whatever traps any foes of mine–spiritual or physical, invisible or visible–might try to set for me. “Loosened am I, loosened by Isis, Isis renders me True of Voice–“
She has these abilities, as anyone familiar with Egyptian mythology knows, from the immense magical powers She obtained when She tricked Ra into revealing His secret Name unto Her. Ra, who was said to be waxing in age and growing somewhat senile–the Sun losing its power at close of day–drooled onto the ground, and from that spittle Isis fashioned a scorpion that stung Ra. (No small magical feat in and of itself!) His pain was so great that He promised whatever Isis wanted in exchange for Her ability to provide Him relief. She assured Him She could cure Him, but only if He’d promise to reveal His secret Name to Her. Ra relented, and from that moment on, the Mighty Aset had, in E.A. Wallis Budge’s retelling of the myth, acquired “words of magical power, and her mouth was full of the breath of life; for her talismans vanquish the pains of sickness, and her words make to live again the throats of those who are dead” (Egyptian Magic, p. 139).
The deceased pharaohs underwent a special ceremony in the preparation of their bodies for entombment: the ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth, which would assure the deceased that he or she would be rendered, like Isis, “True of Voice” with the Words of Power so that they could speak the right sacred words with full magical might and main (heka) to gain entry to the Hall of Judgment before the throne of Ausar/Osiris and speak in their own defense/ recite the Negative Confession, and so forth.
Going back to my night terror episodes this morning, or single episode divided into three parts, the worst feeling besides the oppression on my chest was being unable to articulate my screams and cries for help, let alone my father’s and kitten’s names when they needed my help. I would have benefitted from Isis’ ability to render Her devotees True of Voice, to have made “to live again the throats of those who are dead,” to borrow Budge’s phrase quoted above. Did the Egyptians have an understanding of the throat chakra as understood in Hindu mysticism? It’s a good question.
All-Father Odin, Maker and Releaser of Fetters with Rune-Might
Photo of a Viking-era runestone depicting Odin astride Sleipnir at the “Vikings” exhibit currently running at The Field Museum in Chicago
Far away in Northern Europe, the god Odin demonstrates the equivalent of Isis’ mastery of Sacred Speech with His ability to create fetters for His foes and release petitioners of His from fetters–all through the magical use of the runes. As with Egyptian Words of Power, it’s not just knowing the right characters or combinations of characters, but the right way to say them that’s important, and that’s where runargaldr comes into play. As the “Sayings of the High One” (or, the Hávàmal) from the 13th century CE Poetic Edda ask us about the runes:
Do you know how to carve, do you know how to interpret,
do you know how to stain, do you know how to test out,
do you know how to ask, do you know how to sacrifice,
do you know how to dispatch, do you know how to slaughter? (Verse 144, Larrington trans.)
And almost immediately, Odin boasts that His mastery of the runes enables Him to use just the right one to place fetters on His foes:
I know a third one which is very useful to me,
which fetters my enemy;
the edges of my foes I can blunt,
neither weapon nor club will bite for them. (Hávàmal, verse 148)
And in the very next stanza, Odin reveals how He uses a separate rune for unbinding:
I know a fourth one if men put
chains upon my limbs;
I can chant so that I can walk away,
fetters spring from my feet,
and bonds from my hands. (verse 149)
I used the rune Ansuz, the fourth rune in the Elder Futhark, as my main ward after the first episode of night terror/visitation from the Sitting Ghost because it’s cognate with the Old Norse word for “mouth” and “god,” asa. It is Odin’s calling card, as it were, as He is the Bringer of Sacred Speech since He bequeathed humanity with the runes after sacrificing Himself on the World Tree (Hávàmal stanza 138). Focusing on Odin’s rune-might through that rune would serve as the means to unfetter myself from whatever harm was intended by the Sitting Ghost, I thought. I enforced its might and main with Algiz, the rune for protection (it looks like the peace symbol upside-down minus the circle), and Thurisaz, the “thorn” rune of magical defense and offense (which falls under the provenance of the god Thor).
But why didn’t those runic remedies work after the first nightmare? Why did I experience the other two? I could be wrong, but I do feel that I was/am still being spiritually tested, either my level of readiness against magical attack or some kind of initiatory experience. Needless to say, I’ve taken the lesson to heart and plan on doubly equipping myself with prayerful petitions to Isis and Odin in separate rituals before going to sleep tonight. I’ll also ward my person and the bed itself. Years ago, when I lived in Hawaii and suffered from a spate of nightmares, my therapist at the time suggested I take the leaves of the sacred ti plant and wedge them between my mattresses. I did and it worked that very night I followed her suggestion–I slept soundly and peacefully. And whether it was through the power of suggestion or the inherent spiritual properties of the most apotropaic plant in Hawaiian lore, I didn’t care. As my late Gardernian Wiccan High Priestess, Donna Cole Schultz, used to say, “Does the magic work? Look at the results. That’s what you’re getting. If you don’t like the results, you either didn’t do it right the first time or you need to invest in an upgrade.”
And on that note, I’ve got a bind rune I’d like to insert under my pillow, so I better get to crafting it.
Nighty-Night–don’t let the Sitting Ghosts fright!
Budge, E.A. Wallis. Egyptian Magic. (1899) New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1991.
The Poetic Edda. Trans. Carolyne Larrington. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.