This ordeal was painful, exhausting, grueling and absolutely joyous. It gave me back a sense of confidence in my ability to move (something I’d lost when I retired from ballet years ago). It gave me back a rightful pride in the skills that I had worked hard to accomplish (not all pride is bad). It earned me a measure of ‘face’ and a right to seek out further training in fire magic from Surt, Lord of Muspelheim. It taught me then and there that Odin was paying a price in arranging these ordeals for His valkyrie. It gave me back a sense of freedom and joy, things that had long been difficult for me to find in Midgard – especially joy in the work. That was my biggest gift in this ordeal: I was given joy. This ordeal also restored me to my magic. In very concrete ways, as the saying goes: “I got my mojo back!” Of course, I had to burn for it.
Muspelheim is the Norse world of fire, one of the primal worlds from which all creation sprang. Fire then, is one of our eldest of ancestors and amongst the many lessons that working for/with Surt taught me, is that it deserves to be honored as such. More than life, all existence, creativity and driving momentum came from that cosmic clash, that big bang when Muspelheim and Niflheim collided. As Master of Muspelheim, the God Surt is one of, if not the eldest of beings in the Northern Tradition. He is bestower of fire (and our tradition is one in which mankind never had to steal fire). A few months before this ordeal, Odin had told me to go to Surt and learn the basics of fire magic. Surt had provided a human teacher and I had begun my apprenticeship. My actual Muspelheim ordeal was originally going to take place in May, before I left for six weeks of study in Germany. At the last minute, however, Surt decreed that it had to be in July, at the hottest part of the summer. He also gave very explicit instructions to my team of ordeal masters regarding my ordeal attire.
We decided to hold the ritual the Tuesday before Etinmoot 2007. W. and R. were to be my ordeal masters and I was told to give the entire day – at least—for the ordeal itself. I was told to hydrate myself and eat well the couple days preceding and to make sure to get a good night’s sleep, that this ordeal was going to be extraordinarily grueling on the body. I arrived at the farm fairly early and a little before noon headed down to the field and firepit. First, I was told to strip. I was allowed only to keep my shoes. This was important for me, a mini-ordeal in and of itself. I have a great deal of body-modesty. (It’s almost a running joke with my colleagues because it’s not something that we’re much allowed and in the course of the Work, it’s slowly been chipped away). In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I have more body modesty than any four or five other shamans or spiritworkers combined. It’s just the way I was raised, my own body issues, extreme shyness in certain areas, and an old fashioned sense of propriety. Surt was having none of it. There’s a reason for this: it gets in the way of the Work. Our bodies are our tools. They need to be cared for but not privileged excessively, especially in a way that interferes with what the Gods need to be done. If I need to strip for an ordeal that my Gods have requested, it shouldn’t be a problem. Here is an example of why this might be necessary: the first time I met R. he performed a blood-walking for me. This means, that he performed a rite that allowed him to read my ancestral threads. To do this, at the time, we drove to a cold lake in the middle of October (R., his attendant, me and a friend), R. stripped down and waded into the lake while I stood on the shore and the ritual commenced. Neither one of us thought anything of it. We were in the moment of the Work. It only occurred to us later how odd that might have looked to non shamans or spiritworkers. There can be no hesitation. When the Work demands it, modesty must go. That was a really hard lesson for me.
So once I’d stripped, the two ordeal masters smeared sun tan lotion on my back (necessary pain is one thing, stupidity another) and I was told to make a fire. The first thing one must learn for fire mastery (be it in magic or shamanism) is how to make a fire either with flint and steel, or with hand-bow. I had chosen the former. I set up the logs and quickly got a flame going. W., also a fire-master, looked at me and said “Good. That was faster than I expected. Now blow that out and do it again with more mindfulness.” I did so without argument. It took a bit of time to actually get the bonfire going, but I managed it and that fire was mine to tend and keep going throughout the ordeal. As Surt had requested, I sprinkled cedar, tobacco, and alder on the fire…this combination is blessed by fire. It raises a warrior’s energy, and fire energy. It is beloved of Surt. Then, the clothing that I was to wear during the ordeal was given to me: a crown with multiple rows of barbs running down its back, and what Surt called a ‘cloak of fire,” a neck piece with shoulder pads and then row after row of fire colored beads interspersed with barbs…the kind of barbs used in barbed wire. I was to dance until the fire burned down or Surt gave me leave to stop (I had to go through the three large piles of wood prepared in advance to keep the fire going). Every time I moved, the barbs swung and bit into my flesh.
I began to dance and my body was lacerated as each movement caused auto-flagellation. I swung and swayed and moved as fire bade me. I slipped into a deep trance very early on. Fire has its own rhythms, and like ice, its own voice, what W. once called “the most magical sound in the world.” Every so often, I’d feel gentle hands on me, pouring water over my back, forcing me to drink as W. or R. cared for me, making sure I didn’t dehydrate or burn. It was dizzying and I was too dazed to register most of it. I just kept moving. Within the first hour, the kinetic energy was so strong that it caused several strands of beads and barbs to shatter. By ¾ of the way through, all the strands had broken save for a few, which I held in my hands, whirling like a dervish as I began to flog myself. When those shattered, I was given belly dancing scarves with sharp edged coins on them, and an array of floggers. I continued the dance, alternating amongst these tools.
At one point, I was no longer by the firepit. I was in the hall of the Lord of Muspelheim, He watching with His court. I, a valkyrie of Odin danced and flagellated myself, performed before the Master of Fire. This added prestige to Surt, that Odin would send wife and valkyrie to perform the dance of fire and pain. He ordered me to use specific tools, and to whip myself more thoroughly. I was given no quarter.
Eventually, I was allowed to put the flogging instruments down and galdr the runes of fire. During the earlier part of the ordeal, Surt had showed me specific dance steps, saying “earth and fire are the weapons of war” and teaching me how to utilize this energy magically. It was difficult to ground by the end. My trance was deep; I’d journeyed to Muspelheim; I was physically exhausted. Close to seven hours from the time I lit the fire, I was permitted to stop. As the fire burned to embers, W. and my fire-teacher, who had arrived mid-way through my ordeal, held me down. R. took a cautery pen and branded Surt’s rune: cweorth, the rune of fire-mastery, the rune of the funeral pyre, the rune of creative destruction into my left thigh. Once the embers burned out, the ordeal was complete. I asked my fire-teacher to go up to let my mother know I was ok (I had massive cuts and bruises on my body and was bleeding and dirty so I wanted to get cleaned up before she saw me). W. and R. helped me carefully back up to the house where I was shepherded into the shower. They and J. scrubbed me down (I could barely stand on my own) and poured salt water over the brand and all the cuts. Then I was left alone to dress (once it was verified I wouldn’t pass out or fall over). Eventually, we went out for a nice dinner (though I looked like a battered wife sitting between R. and W!).
Despite how exhausting and painful this ordeal was, it was a truly ecstatic experience. I came out of it with so very many gifts, completely unexpected. Best of all, I had earned the right to work with fire. I had done something that I never thought I’d be able to do. I, who had long lamented that I had been forced to give up my dancing career, had been gifted anew with a type of dancing – fire dancing—as a magical and shaman’s tool. Surt, through the challenge and blessings of fire, had given me my body back. That would prove crucial for the next ordeal.