by Anya Kless
There are many paths to the divine, many roads of divine service. I believe that each of us have been wired with certain gifts and talents, trained whether we knew it or not as we came into adulthood. I also believe that we have little say in choosing our gifts or our paths—only whether or not we choose to own the work that has been asked of us. In my case, this work involves sacred sex and sacred pain.
It is fair to say that these are two of the most reviled and misunderstood paths in contemporary spirit work, even within spiritual communities. And yet, I know to the core of my being that in each of these paths, I hold the power to transform and heal others and myself. This power to heal is what makes my work sacred.
There is no escaping the role of sex and pain in Odin’s own lore. He slept with a myriad of female figures in many worlds to gain knowledge, tools, and power. He hung on a tree for nine days to gain the runes, which, to say the least, was no picnic. In the “Havamal” of the Poetic Edda, initiation into the runes is written thus:
I know, that I hung
On the windy tree
All of the nights nine
Wounded by spear
And given to Odhinn;
Myself to myself,
On that tree,
Which no man knows,
From what roots it rises.
They dealt me no bread
Nor drinking horn,
I looked down,
I took up the runes
I took them screaming,
I fell back from there.
In The Runemaster’s Handbook, Edred Thorsson notes that Odin’s own sacred story is something that was traditionally emulated. Particularly, he notes how the initiate would “receive the entire body of rune wisdom etched into his being” (5). This is in fact the first ordeal I underwent—having Odin’s runes skillfully etched into my own skin. This was not a crude act of harming or the whims of a sadist or masochist. It was a sacred act of emulation, initiation, and devotion.
Does this mean that everyone called to the Norse gods should go through ordeals involving sex and/or pain? Of course not. Not everyone should be a diviner, an oracle, or an herbalist. If someone asked me to drum and dance for the gods, I’d fail miserably. Those aren’t my gifts, that isn’t my path. Sometimes we experience our gods through writing, through prayer, or through divination. All paths are equal, yet all paths also have their purpose.
We live in a culture that is crying out for rites of passage and initiation. As someone who teaches teenagers and young adults, I see this vacuum firsthand. It is this lack of guidance and of opportunities for profound meaning-making that causes self-destructive behavior, not ordeals themselves. What needs to be understood about ordeal and often cannot be seen from the outside is its ability to heal, to teach, and to make us grow.
There are some moments when healing requires us to walk into our own dark places. To love and serve our gods, we must face our own fears and failings honestly, the parts of ourselves we want to bury and hide. It is these places that are opened and released in sacred ordeal work. This is what makes those spirit workers called to do ordeal work invaluable. Their path is no better or more sacred than any other, but it is just as necessary.
Recognizing Odin as the God of Ordeal does not mean that I see Him as a vicious, demented sadist or a villain. Far from it. He pushes hard to make us our best possible selves, and this is not always pleasant or easy. But neither is love itself. True love challenges us and fashions us. I have seen Odin at His most gentle and generous in the midst of an ordeal. Odin is not all sunshine and puppies, but He is love before all else. Anyone who facilitates or has undergone an ordeal will tell you the same thing about their presiding deity—be it Odin, Loki, or even Hela, Lady of Death. They heal us because they love us. I love my husband with a strength that astonishes me, and I first felt the depth of that love in an ordeal.
This may not be your path, but it is mine and it is needed. One day I may be taking your hand and leading you into the darkness, to meet yourself.
Edred Thorsson, Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic.
The Poetic Edda, reproduced in Thorsson.