"Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." - Rumi

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Serving Odin - the Second Ordeal: Niflheim

By G. Krasskova

One of the things that became powerfully clear to me throughout my ordeal cycle was that I have been immensely blessed by a handful of very dear, very close friends. It’s not that I neglected my friendships before this, but having everything in your life, especially in your interior life stripped away to the bare essentials really does tend to realign one’s priorities and bring a certain perspective and clarity. Certain truths are brought home when a friend is willing to walk into hell with you and, moreover, to care for you during and after such a trek. Niflheim, above all other worlds, taught me gratitude.

Looking back on my first ordeal, I’m amazed at how terrified I was at the time, at how overwhelmingly difficult it was. I realize now, that each of these ordeals were pushing me, challenging me, training me, and preparing me for the next one. That wasn’t their only purpose, but it was something that occurred consistently throughout the cycle. I could not have begun with the third or fourth ordeal. This was a gradual building process and Hela laid the foundation stones. All the ordeals hold places of remarkably stark clarity in my memory and it seems that there was a huge leap in physical difficulty from Helheim to Niflheim. I suppose when dealing with this particular world and the lessons it brings, that is only to be expected.

Niflheim is the Norse world of ice and cold. It is a world of stasis and contraction, of inertia and rot. In the beginning, before time was, before even the Gods were, there was Niflheim (and its sister world Muspelheim, the world of fire). They spun in opposition to each other, and in balance. Gradually they began to draw closer to each other and one day collided in a great, primordial conflict, a big bang, if you will. From this collision of diametrically opposed dimensions, all life burst into being. Niflheim is the home of the dragon Nidhogg, who gnaws the rot from the roots of Yggdrasil. It was this being I had been ordered to meet.

The following is transcribed from my journal account, written two weeks after my February 2007 journey into the world of ice. Odin is pushing me to post these much faster, much closer together than I otherwise would. Any reference to my mother is to my adopted mother, not my bio-mom.

It’s been two weeks since my Niflheim ordeal and I’ve only now been able to gather myself enough to write about it. I know that it’s important for me to keep clear accounts for myself, but this particular ordeal pushed me to the limits of my physical endurance and ripped me open emotionally in ways I never, ever expected. I’ve had such an aversion to the whole experience that I even left all my camping gear with W. and F. after the journey was done. I just didn’t want to look at it for awhile.

The shape and structure of this ordeal was determined at the tail end of my Helheim ordeal in November: I was to seek the dragon Nidhogg in the wilderness over a period of three or four days. It was very important for me to experience Niflheim not by spirit journey but in the actual flesh, so that I would truly understand what that realm was all about and, I now suspect, so that the sheer physical discomfort would further contribute to the process of ripping me open. W. and F. volunteered to take me up into the woods in Lincoln, NH for four days of winter camping. Eventually, we scheduled this to take place the first weekend of February and I set about purchasing my gear. I had never camped before and I have a severe back and neck injury so there was a strong element of potential danger in this ordeal. I’d never gone camping before, or hiking, or really done anything out of doors. I’m coming to realize that my childhood and early adulthood were very sheltered things!

I traveled up to their home as planned on February 1st. It’s odd how many important situations and ordeals in my spiritual life seem to take place around Imbolc. Before going, in honor of that, I performed a brief Imbolc ritual and made a necklace as a gift to Brigid, since it is Her holiday. For all that I am Heathen, She does seem to crop up again and again in my life, though I have no particular call by or to Her. Still, it never hurts to be respectful. I made sure to pack my prayer beads too and a journal, as well as scalpels and bandages in case the latter were required as part of the actual ordeal. After arriving at W. and F.’s, I spent a night at their apartment and we set off in the morning.

We stopped at EMS to pick up some last minute supplies and food and arrived at the park rather later than we expected. We got geared up and headed off on a four mile hike to get to the actual woods. I knew I was in trouble the moment they put the pack on my back…it was much heavier than I thought it would be and I staggered under the weight. To get to the actual woods, we had that four mile hike ahead of us. The four miles were on a wooded trail, but one fairly well traveled by other hikers and skiers. W. and F. had selected a route for us to follow weeks in advance of the actual ordeal trip and the route selected was perfect. We entered the initial path by crossing a suspension bridge. The water was beautiful. It was the most vibrant shade of icy green that I have ever seen, in part because of the layers of ice that had formed beneath the surface of the water. Upon crossing that bridge, there was the palpable sense that we were crossing not into Niflheim but into an in-between place, a place of passage form one world to the next, neither our world, nor Niflheim. We weren’t just walking; we were path-walking, journeying between realms, between the nine mighty worlds.

It was cold, but not terribly so as we began. The first couple of miles of the hike weren’t bad. By the fourth mile, my left hip began to spasm badly. Since we started late, we were rapidly losing light and W. had gone on ahead of us to scout the campsite and start setting up the tents. F. stayed with me and encouraged me through the worst of the pain and really kept me going. Finally, we came to a second bridge and the end of the populated trail. On the other side of the bridge lay unbroken woods and she challenged me, letting me know that if I wanted to back out of this ordeal, this was the last opportunity to do so. I knew that I couldn’t though and so we crossed that second bridge walking and path walking and there was the palpable sense that by doing so, we were crossing into Niflheim.

A half mile later we were at the campsite. It had started to snow by that time (W. said the only thing worse would have been icy rain) and we hurried to set up the two tents. Since I’d never been camping before, W. and F. did almost all of the actual work setting up, teaching me as they went how to manage my gear. For the entire time we were there, we had a cold camp (no campfire) and after boiling a bit of water on a tiny portable stove, I ate a couple of bites of a dehydrated meal and went to bed.

Late that night is when the emotional weight of the ordeal began to hit me. I knew I was in Niflheim and as much as I may dislike Midgard and feel myself an alien there, it was rapidly brought home to me that it is my home. I am as much a part of the human world as I am any of the other worlds and it’s important to honor that. There are emotional ties that I have to people in Midgard that could never, ever have existed in any of the other worlds and we live, despite how badly we fuck it up, at a far higher level of comfort here than in any of the other worlds, especially Niflheim. Ties here are based on emotional connection and caring, not, as in Niflheim, on ruthless survival. This ordeal was also the first time I’d really courted my own mortality. It’s one thing to work out in a dojo with folks wielding edged weapons. That’s dangerous, but it’s a controlled danger. Here, there was no such control. We were completely at the mercy of the elements: ice, cold, and snow.

It wasn’t my mortality that I was confronted with though. Late that night, I was hit hard by the mortality of those I care about the most, especially my adopted mother. The reality of her impending death really hit me terribly hard (This part of the story is not mine to tell. Those who know her will understand why it hit me so hard. ). That knowledge was sudden agony. I do not know which frost etin came to drive the point home, but I felt the presence and I was rapidly reduced to sobbing. She nourishes me in ways I was never before able to express and the thought of her death struck home, a blow for Midgard, like nothing else. When she dies, it will leave my life as barren as Niflheim was that night I huddled in my tent.

I couldn’t stop crying and I was told that Midgard is the brightest of worlds. We live and love here with a uniqueness that I still don’t quite understand. I was told that this uniqueness is unknown elsewhere: Midgard is the meeting place of Gods. We carry that forth causing both confusion and brilliance in our lives. We carry those bits of Gods in our DNA. This is the place where creativity can flourish and the friendships and love bonds that we have are so precious and unique precisely because they would be impossible elsewhere.

That night, the temperature dropped ten degrees below zero, the coldest I’d ever endured. I started noticing things about the woods around me: trees have their own language and talk to each other if one listens carefully enough. It’s even possible to understand their speech a little bit. The cold has a different smell at night when it’s coldest and in the morning, when light warms some of the chill away. Ice can sing.

Saturday it was very, very cold throughout the day and we mostly huddled in our respective tents and sleeping bags. I was allowed very little contact with W. and F., though they kept an eye on me to make sure I was alive. I spent a little time with them that morning, telling them what had hit me so hard about my mother, about Midgard, etc. Then I went back to my tent to write a bit in my journal and to write a letter to my mother. We were originally going to pack up and move to a different site and then come out of the woods two days later by a different route but the brutal severity of the weather changed our plans. Since I’d found a place where I could go to call the dragon later that day, and for safety reasons, we decided to stay at our original campsite and depart the following day, provided I did all I needed to do with Nidhogg. Around dusk, I prayed my prayer beads and went to the clearing selected to call Her.

I have to admit, huddling in a freezing tent (which at night iced over inside), colder than I’d ever been, completely cut off from anything Midgard, being slowly opened emotionally and ripped raw (I am a very private, reserved person who would generally prefer to eat glass than talk about her feelings), I wondered what on earth I was doing there. For the first time, I really regretted being a spirit-worker, having sought out Mimir and having asked for more skill. I regretted everything and wanted nothing more than to live a quiet monastic life without any magic or shamanic crap. I knew this was impossible but still, for the first time regret hit me so very hard. I even felt immensely resentful of Odin and wondered if there was any point to what I was doing at all. The whole experience was like some sort of vicious experiment in sensory deprivation and I still feel rather traumatized by it…far more than I expected I would, though I knew these ordeals would rip me open and change me. I found myself missing my connections to Midgard, especially those people closest to me, longing to hear their voices, especially longing to speak to my mother. At one point I had to fight down the panic that I would not get back to civilization again and she. wouldn’t be there, would already be dead. I found myself praying to the Gods to get me through this. Magic, shamanism, the rest of it held at that point utterly no allure for me. I just wanted to love the Gods with the humility my mother has in her devotions. I found myself questioning whether being a spirit worker (as though I had a choice) was really the way I am meant to serve. I have never before felt cut off from everything that I am, and everything and everyone that I care about. I’ve always considered myself a solitary person but my mother (she is my adopted mother) had pointed out that she felt that was only because I’d never had a choice in the matter. Now I began to realize she was right: I need the people in my life. I need the contact, both to give and to receive. Despite the way that Midgard has harmed me, and the pain it continually evokes, I saw that through those I care about, I have a place there. Maybe the beauty of Midgard lies in the fact that love and friendship can overcome that terrible hurt that it can so easily and readily cause.

I was so damned cold on Saturday that I found myself actually thanking the Gods that we were leaving Sunday. I don’t think I could have taken one more day in that place. Even now, it makes me sick to my stomach to think about those three days. Anyway, Saturday at dusk, I prayed my prayer beads (though I felt like doing anything BUT praying to Gods that had brought me to that desolate place) and headed out to the clearing I’d selected to seek the dragon. W. and F. stayed in their tent while I went out. First, I laid a large pouch of cardamom tea (a favorite of mine) loose in an organic linen bag by a log. This was an offering to the frost etins for granting us safe passage (more or less) in and out of their territory. Then I spoke aloud, explaining why I was there and I began to sing to the dragon. I had been told at the end of my Helheim ordeal that I would have to sing to the dragon. I tried over and over to prepare a song in advance but nothing would come. I managed part of a chant to the dragon of rot but ultimately I was moved simply to galdr and I sang the rune nauthiz for quite awhile. I’m not sure how long it was until this massively long blue dragon appeared. She (although S/He told me S/He could appear as either gender or none depending on Her wishes) took the remains of the poison from me, not in blood, as I’d expected, but in tears.

Hela had infected me with a poison during my Helheim ordeal, a poison designed to bring up my contempt and all the rotted parts of my spirit and psyche so that it could be extracted by the dragon. Nidhogg did extract it, but through my tears. As I galdred, W. and F. told me later that they could hear a second voice counter-pointing and answering my own. When I went back to my tent, I stopped by theirs to ask W. if there was anything more to be done (I was very glad not just to have two friends there who were experienced campers, but to have one who was also a shaman to double check things). He said I looked like a weight had been lifted, that I looked completely different from before meeting with the dragon.

I went back to my tent and slept as best I could. Kari sent His son Frost to watch over me, a gift I appreciate immensely. That night, the temperature dropped to 23 below zero. We had all planned to get up and get an early start Sunday and every time I woke up during the night of terrible cold, I’d check my watch and think, “only X more hours until we can leave.” A little after 8am W. called up to see if I was ok and after I yelled back that I was, I heard him say to F.: “Thank god, I don’t have to run to the ranger station. She’s still alive.” It drove home the fact that had I not managed my sleeping bag rightly the night before, the temperatures were so brutal that I could in fact have died. We were camping not too far from where a lost hiker had been found dead two weeks earlier. (When another ordeal master, L, very experienced in hiking and winter camping as well as mountaineering, saw the pants and boots I’d been wearing, she said I was damned lucky not to have gotten frost bite or hypothermia).

We packed up and were moving out by 9:30am. It was still terribly cold and windy. I naturally feel grateful that I have all my toes. I’d had to sleep with my boots inside a stuff sack inside my sleeping bag to melt the ice on them and they got very cold again very quickly, painfully so. Once we were on the trail back, it wasn’t so bad, but while we were packing up, it was awful. It took us several hours to wind our way back to the ranger station. We first crossed the suspension bridge out of Niflheim and into the in-between place that we had to travel to get back to Midgard. I was so relived and seeing the first human being on the trail as we walked and pathwalked back was both a relief and an odd joy. It seemed to take forever going back, but as amusing as it may sound, the thought of a heated bathroom, clean underwear, and getting the god-damned pack off my back kept me going.

Eventually, we made it to the initial bridge and crossed back into Midgard. Those passages over the two bridges were physically palpable things and I have never been so glad to return to the human world in my life. I went home with W. and F., bathed (we all oh so seriously needed a bath), changed into blessedly clean clothes and then we all went out for dinner. I realized that, with the exception of a few bites of food, I’d essentially just fasted the entire time I was out there, which L. said later made it much harder on me physically. I just had no desire to eat when I was there. I was also somewhat dehydrated. I brought a bit of water back from Niflheim to add to my altar but that was all and it was days before I could touch it after I returned. I was originally scheduled to return to NYC on Tuesday, but I had such a craving to be in my own space, to return to my own home, to call my adopted mom, make sure she was ok (and alive), and to just be back to what was familiar to me, that I went home Monday instead.

My next ordeal is the first weekend of March: Svartalfheim. Nidhogg told me I had to offer blood to the Svartalfar and there was a tiny bit of Hela’s poison left in me that only they could remove. I also found I brought the cold back inside of me…I’m still not warm. I also discovered something that Hela did to me during Her ordeal: She tied me into my root. I can’t dissociate from pain anymore. I used to be very good at doing so and could handle intense amounts of pain. Not anymore. Things that wouldn’t even have registered on my radar before are now extremely painful. My massage therapist here in NY said that now I actually HAVE a relationship with pain…which kind of hit home. But it’s really made ordeal work a whole different experience of unpleasantness. I’m still recovering from this particular epiphany. It means that I must learn to share space with pain instead of just shoving it away (and not just physical pain). I have a sickening feeling that I will be unshielded, unwarded, and completely open most especially emotionally throughout the duration of the ordeal cycle.


  1. I'm so glad you're sharing an account of your ordeal cycle. Although a lot of it is harrowing to read, it drives home the fact that the suffering you endured was not an end in itself, but a means to an end, which was worth the pain.

    Still, I'm glad I'm not an ordeal worker ;)

  2. Odin is kind of making me...and I've known He was going to do so for awhile now. *sigh*.

    and thank you, thank you for 'getting it,' my friend.