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

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Some thoughts on ordeal work (and its place in the Northern tradition): Part One

By Mordant Carnival

Editor's Note: The following account is a beautiful telling of two ordeals from the perspective of the ordealee rather than the ordeal master. They are at times graphic and if this is something that you might find unduly upsetting, please pass on this post.

Ordeal work, particularly physical ordeal work, is one of the most contentious issues in modern spirituality. Regrettably much of the discussion around this important and sacred group of practices is founded on mistaken ideas and tinged with panic and fear. This post aims to dispel the anxiety somewhat by clearing up some of the confusion and misapprehension.

Firstly, what is ordeal? Ordeal can be many things. Work involving pain or other physical stressors is not necessarily ordeal, and ordeal work does not necessarily involve physical stressors. My personal working definition would look something like this:

"an intense transformative experience involving heavy stressors, physical, emotional, or psychological, such as to take the subject out of their normal consciousness for the purposes of spiritual or personal development."

Another important—nay vital—component of ordeal proper would be the possibility of failure: the chance that one might not be able to complete the working as planned, or might suffer some form of lasting harm in attempting to complete it.

Physical ordeal rituals are NOT an integral part of heathen worship. This should be made very clear. Although ordeal work as a valid part of Northern tradition practice can be supported from lore, it is a fringe activity and not a part of mainstream heathen practice.

Some misconceptions

The first misconception I'd like to address is the idea that all ordeal workers ever do is undergo ordeal, or that this is the most important part of their religious lives. They don't, and it isn't. The most important parts of devotional work, in my opinion, are the quiet parts—the daily prayer on rising, the moments of reflection, the practice of looking for the Gods and wights in all things around you as you go about your day. They are the small sacrifices of time and attention; the larger sacrifices of making good choices about your life even when they are hard choices too. That is devotion. It is not flashy, it is not what is considered notable, and it is terribly, terribly precious. Without a solid devotional practice underpinning it, an ordeal working would be meaningless; think of a deadbeat parent disappearing for years on end then turning up with an X-box and expecting to make everything okay again. In a given year I might undertake serious physical ordeal maybe twice, three times. It would be a very thin practice that only involved devotion a couple of times a year!

The second misconception is that ordeal work is being recommended for everyone. I do not believe that ordeal work is necessary, or even appropriate, for everybody—maybe not even for the majority of people. My understanding is that you have to be wired just right for it all to work properly. Certainly if a person had any appreciable health problems going on I would recommend some other form of work.

The third misconception is that all ordeal work is centered about physical pain or suffering. It is not. A common charge laid against ordeal workers is that they are prioritizing the body, the flesh, over mind and spirit. This is not the case. Ordeals can be wholly emotional in nature. Sensory deprivation, fasting, isolation, being forced to endure verbal insults—these and many other things can represent an ordeal. Where physical stressors are involved they are a means to an end, not an end in itself: they are the scaffolding on which the working is constructed.

Two examples from my own practice

1: a devotional ordeal

In 2007 I underwent what was for me a very extreme ordeal as an offering to my God. To an outside observer it might not have looked so very severe, but it was so wrenchingly hard that I am still dealing with the fallout to this day. It involved a physical-pain component, but it's not that which stays with me.

After turning my back on Loki for a decade, I felt a powerful need to offer up some kind of expiation for that. It was very, very important to me to express my sincere regret over rejecting His call when I was younger, and to affirm my commitment and devotion. I believed and still believed that this was also something that my Friend wanted from me. Of course mortal assertions on the part of the Gods should always be taken with a very hefty quantity of salt—especially when they come from someone with my metric shed-load of emotional and psychiatric problems. I am not quite in my right mind, and sometimes I have believed things about myself that were not true. Fortunately I had connections with a group of spirit-workers and ordeal workers who were prepared to help me arrange a suitable ritual.

The physical pain component consisted of a long and decidedly not-fun flogging—but there was also a psychological component. The pain worked to put me into a particular mental and emotional state; but at the heart of the ritual was the psychological ordeal. The working involved a group of volunteers from the spirit-worker gathering I was attending at the time. (Understand that I met these folk in person for the first time only a couple of days before, though we had talked over email and on the phone, that I held the group in high regard, and was heavily invested in making a good impression.) Those who had agreed to be present were instructed to mock, jeer and sing while the beating was going on.

And. It. Sucked. It sucked it sucked it sucked it sucked.

I really cannot convey to you in words the epic, weapons-grade, end-of-level degree of misery. I have a long history of serious emotional abuse, bullying and harassment, and being subjected to that kind of treatment is well outside my hard limits. It kicks me directly back to the experience of being victimized.

The plan was that when I felt that I'd taken enough, I was to call a halt. For most people this would be a perfectly reasonable set-up, but the nature of my psychological damage is such that there never is "enough" when it comes to suffering. No matter how bad things get I always feel like I deserve more, should be able to take more. And under those conditions that deep, dark hole rapidly broke open inside of me; it seemed to inhale all the suffering like smoke or mist. Every time I felt like I needed to stop what was happening, like I just couldn't take any more, that sucking pit of worthlessness and insufficiency would breathe Not enough. Never enough. I was lost, incapable even of reflecting on the negative effect the whole scene might be having on the participants, or the possible consequences of too severe a beating. All I knew was that I was exactly where I belonged: cold and hurting and despicable, while real people gathered in the firelight and laughed, and my God turned His back on me. I don't know how long it went on. People have estimated from two to four hours.

Eventually somebody else clocked that I had gone too far out to come back by myself, and intervened. I am terribly grateful to this person. Left to myself I couldn't have called a halt if my life had depended on it. I would have stood there all night, under the lash. I would have stood there forever. I was later told by the ordeal master that this intervention was a vital part of the ordeal, exactly what needed to happen, though I had not known it at the time. She was preparing to end the flogging when the audience member stepped forward. That someone else had the courage to step in and speak for me, and acknowledge to everyone else there that I had taken enough, was a big part of the healing process.

The next day, on rising, I discovered that I was in absolutely no physical pain. I'd expected to wake stiff and sore; so did my ordeal master, who brought round a tube of arnica cream and was flabbergasted when told that I didn't need it. The lack of physical pain, though, made the emotional fall-out so much worse. Others told me it was a sign from my God that my sacrifice had been accepted and my debt was paid; but I kept asking myself, again and again, was it enough? Was it sufficient?

Gods, it nearly broke me. Nearly?—No, it did break me. I was destroyed. For months after the event I prayed to die. It took me the best part of half a year to put myself together and get up from what had happened. I was in constant contact, at first every day and then later weekly with my ordeal master and other spiritworkers, who were providing continued care and counseling for me. In a sense, I never really have and probably never will: the joy and reconciliation at the end of the ritual can be drawn to mind only with an effort, whereas the misery and shame have stuck with me, as well as that terrible sense of insufficiency. It's not the physical pain that I recall. It's the emotional element that comes back to haunt me in the small hours of the night; it's the shame that rises up to throw its shadow over every accomplishment I've made since then. The humiliation, the despair, those things linger long after temporary physical pain has faded from memory.

Note that none of the above should be taken to indicate that the working was anything other than necessary or successful. It enabled me to start putting my bad choices behind me, and taught me a great deal about myself. Others who were present learned from it too. And that black hole in my heart—it could have cracked open at any time. Better to have this happen in a relatively sheltered space full of allies. Most significantly from my perspective, the relationship between myself and my fulltrui* was put on a much-improved footing. I had paid my shild,** and thereafter things moved forward in a more positive direction. Whether you parse that as Loki being pleased with the offering or as me resolving some emotional issue on a purely internal level, the net result was a success.

* a Norse word for heart-friend, used primarily with a God or Goddess to whom one is especially close.

** Debt

2: an ordeal for personal development

The following year I underwent different kind of ordeal with the support of another group: my somafera initiation. Somafera is a modern neologism used to refer to a loose group of practices involving the induction of temporary and/or permanent changes in one's body-mind, to enhance its functioning in various different ways. These altered states are often induced through ecstatic dance, meditation, prayer, or the application of physical stressors—pain, exhaustion, heat, cold, the adoption of stress positions, etc. Increases in strength, speed, concentration, and endurance are common, as are heightened senses. The work frequently has a spiritual component, although this is not the case for everybody. For me, it is an act of spiritual devotion during which I grow closer to the gods and spirits.

Most of us who practice under the umbrella of somafera feel that this is an expression of some innate nature—that we were "born this way." However, gaining conscious control over how or when we will enter the elevated state is important. For this reason, initiatory rituals have been devised. A very intense degree of elevation is induced in the practitioner, perhaps for the first time, with the intent of making the state both more accessible thereafter and easier to control. The somafera group I'm involved with utilizes initiation involving two main forms of ordeal: ordeal by combat (where you go out into an open space and two other fighters set upon you, attacking so as to avoid injury whilst promoting an elevated state) and ordeal by fire, where the initiate must place their hand in a living fire until elevation occurs. I have no fighting skills so I elected to take this second form of initiation.

I prepared ritually with chanting, pacing, the application of painful stimuli such as biting the lips and tongue, and above all with prayer. When I felt that I was ready, I began to recite a verse utilized to great effect by other initiates—an old charm from Russia once thought to transform the speaker into an "oberot," a were-wolf. When this ritual preparation was finished, I knelt by the fire and put in my hand. At first I just felt pain—I had to dip my hand in the flame repeatedly. I believed I was failing my initiation. The last thing I remember is a terrible sense of frustration and self-hate because I could not force myself through the pain barrier.

I do not recall much of what followed. According to witnesses, a sufficient degree of elevation was reached that I was able to place my hand in the fire for upwards of eight seconds, and later to reach in and take up a burning stick from the heart of the bonfire. Apparently I exhibited greater-than-usual strength and aggressiveness, as well as other personality changes and altered abilities. When I came to myself afterwards I had no memory of the fire resistance, and was utterly convinced that I had failed. I was inconsolable and had to be physically restrained from returning to the fire-pit and making another attempt—which, since I was now "down" from the elevated state, could have resulted in serious injury. It took four strong men to remove me from the danger zone without harming me, which says something about the power of somafera.

Again, I faced a period of recovery. The initial few days after the rite were the worst. Elevation and gangr are usually things of joy for me, but in the days to follow the experience was less like the glorious, natural ecstasis I'd previously enjoyed, and more like something from a tacky horror film. Elevation would overtake me spontaneously, in response to pretty much any kind of stimulus (hunger, satiation of hunger, the temperature drop at dawn), and in my state of sleep debt and spent energy it was just horrible. Instead of experiencing a spell of being faster, stronger, and more vital than usual, I would find myself doubled over and shaking as my strained muscles spasmed and cramped. During this time I was provided with a lot of care—fed, watched over, comforted when the pain came. Without the support and compassion I received from my somafera group and later from others, I don't know how I would have made it. Learning that my siblings in the practice were there for me even when I felt both weakest and most monstrous was an incredibly healing experience. The worst passed, and by the time I got home some days later I was able to go back to work and carry on more or less as normal. Although I struggled with integrating the new abilities for some time, I continued to receive support via email and telephone and the net result was overwhelmingly positive and empowering. I was reborn that night. I was made into a new thing.

Somafera is not for everyone, and initiation is not even for every somaferan. You don't have to take it; it's not an end-point on the path or a test that that everyone must go through to prove themselves. Clearly, the ritual itself is dangerous, carrying an obvious risk of disfigurement, amputation, even death. More, initiation is a death of the self, and you'd better hope your new self is ready to come online when you blow up the old one. Even if all goes well, the recovery and integration process presents a serious struggle; some people find the experience of such a deep gangr presents them with a side to themselves they simply can't handle. You do it only because you must, because it is necessary. In my case I had a pressing need to draw that side of my nature to the surface and engage with it. I'd suppressed it for a great many years and was very much impaired thereby. Also, somafera states offer a unique range of tools and skills for addressing various problems, such as managing and overcoming my psychiatric symptoms. Here was a valuable opportunity to become a more functional, more productive, more useful member of society. It was worth the risks a dozen times over.

I've had my somafera practice and this ritual work attacked repeatedly by various individuals since I undertook it. Generally this takes the form of editorializing the whole shebang as something on the lines of a adolescent hi-jinx—a macho stunt undertaken to have fun or show off. All I can say to these people is that my initiation was a matter of dire necessity for me, undertaken only after two years of devotion, meditation, planning and preparation. The group supporting me included trained, multi-skilled individuals who would have been distinctly unimpressed at being used as bit players in someone's ego-trip.

Diversity in devotion

Another major misconception is that ordeal workers look down on practices other than physical ordeal as somehow lesser, not as "hardcore" I really want to lay that one to rest, as it's not merely wrong-headed but actively toxic and dangerous.

It's hard to keep in mind, but negative comments about this kind of devotional work are often coming from a place of great pain in a person's heart. When you see an act of devotion being offered and it so happens that you cannot offer something similar, it hurts! It really does. It's like seeing someone make a generous gift to a lover, one which you can't afford—that sort of feeling. If you're a hard polytheist, then the Tivar and the vaettir really are like your friends and extended family; you receive these amazing blessings from Them, and it is very natural to want to respond with your own love-gifts. A temptation exists to editorialize on the other person's devotional practice, to run it down so the discomfort is eased.

I would like to lay this discomfort to rest and affirm that ordeal work is just one of a multitude of wonderful ways in which you can serve your Gods. People often say things like "I wish I could do so-and-so, but I can't because I have such-and-such a commitment," with the implication that they are falling short in some way. As a faith, we really need to get away from this. People need to be focusing on what they can do, rather than despair over what they can't. So you couldn't engage in military service as a spiritual discipline because of your health? Then look into other paths—scholarship for instance. So you couldn't learn Old Norse because you were working overtime to buy your kid new gear for school—don't you realize that this itself was an act of devotion? When you fulfill such commitments with your heart and mind open to the Gods and wights, you are performing a living prayer. When you have to miss a heathen gathering to take care of your sick child, you are giving care to the Gods who watch over family and hearth. When you go out of your way to help a friend, you are at the same time gifting those other Friends. When you work your backside off to put food on your family's table, you also feed that other Family.

So, you can't fast because you're diabetic or you can't get a tattoo because you are anemic, or you can't risk an act of fire resistance because you're the main provider in your family right now. So what? There are a thousand—a thousand, thousand—ways to offer up devotion. Paint a picture. Learn a poem. Teach a kid to read. Spring-clean your dwelling. Plant a garden. Go about your everyday life in mindfulness of the Gods, the ancestors and the land-wights, keeping Them in your heart and seeking Their mysteries in everything you do. This kind of devotion, it's not some shoddy booby-prize you've switched out for the real deal. It is the real deal! This is where it's at!

The image of the snooty ordeal worker sneering at everyone else, spitefully criticizing other forms of devotion whilst secretly getting a filthy kick out of their own doings might be comforting to some, but back here in reality all the ordeal workers I know take care to emphasize the validity of other forms of worship, and to encourage and support diversity. We are generally not the ones attacking other people's work.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Serving Odin – the Ninth and Final Ordeal: Asgard

G. Krasskova

(This ordeal took place October 2008).

Since my first exposure to them, I’ve always been deeply frightened by hook ordeals. There is something about the physical reality of a metal hook being inserted into the skin that I find deeply, viscerally terrifying. It speaks to a level of pain (real or imagined) that I had never, ever wanted to personally experience. I was hoping against hope as I began my ordeal cycle that I wouldn’t have to ever go up on hooks, but as I slowly worked my way through my nine world cycle, I knew, pretty much by the third ordeal, that this cycle would culminate with my hanging from hooks in imitatio of the Old Man at my Asgard ordeal. This scared the hell out of me. For most of my ordeal cycle, which took about two and a half years, I didn’t bother thinking about it. After all, I had enough on my plate just getting through whatever ordeal was right in front of me (not to mention integrating the lessons learned when each one was finished). Each ordeal prepared me for the next, but Asgard seemed so very far away. By Vanaheim though, I knew it was time to start scheduling things.

I arranged with R. to hold my ordeal during the last Keepers Crossing. This was a yearly retreat for shamans and spiritworkers that ran for about four years. There were always classes and workshops and it was a time to network and reap the benefits of our respective, combined skills. I also arranged, after some difficulty, to have H. come out from Belgium to serve as technician and ordeal master. W. agreed to horse Odin and on the day of the ordeal itself, I had another blessing: M. was pushed to horse Loki for me. Thank the Gods too, because had They not been there in the flesh, I don’t think I could have gotten through the ordeal itself.

The day dawned grey and cold. I slept late and missed the first class, which I’d wanted to attend. I decided, however, that it was more important for me to be rested for what was to come. I brought H. her gift: a gorgeous Paul Chen spear head and she was surprised…she asked me if she’d mentioned she needed one for a Working. She hadn’t, but as I told her, Odin had dictated what I was to bring her. Midway through the day, R. got to work some of the acupressure that Mengloth is teaching him on me…I’d volunteered to be the stunt dummy. That was interesting and very helpful to me physically. Then it was just a matter of getting into ordeal headspace.

The night before, W. had informed me that Odin wanted to do things to me during the ordeal and that caused me to have a complete breakdown in the car. It was just about all I could do to show up. I didn’t realize how tightly wired, how frightened I was of this particular ordeal until that moment. Several people had asked to attend but at the last minute, before we went to get started, Odin made them leave. Only Odin’s and Loki’s folk could be there, save for H. who belongs to Hela. It seems all things eventually flow through Her hands and as I was to die, it was right and proper that She be present. Surprisingly, despite years of working together, even R. was not permitted to be present. It was a Wodinic mystery. My adopted mother couldn’t stand to watch…her ordeal was knowing that I was going through mine. She stayed up at the house with B. (At the last minute, B. had asked if she could be present but I told her that I needed her to watch out for my adopted mom, that she was the only one I would trust with that and she took to the task with gallantry). I was left with H. who was serving as technician, W. who was horsing Odin, M. who was horsing Loki, and E., who was there to witness. Odin had wanted a Loki’s person to witness and E. had volunteered. (S. was also there as ground crew – to take care of the Horses after their respective possessions). H. laid out the tools, W. and M. opened to the Gods and the process began.

The pain of the hooks going into my back was like nothing I have ever experienced. It was agonizing. There were six hooks to go into my back but I soon lost count. (Two more hooks went into my breasts...those didn’t hurt much, and Odin put two needles in each arm, in a gebo formation for a total of 24 holes). Odin and Loki held onto me while H., half horsing Hela worked. I was given a gift: Hela asked Odin if He wanted this to hurt more or less and He left it up to Loki, who told her to make it as easy as possible. I am so grateful to Them all for being present.

Parts of it seemed like a dream. There were times throughout the process where I could hardly believe that I was actually there, undergoing this final ordeal. There was something surreal about the whole thing and with my consciousness eventually flickering in and out of this world, I lost all track of time and place and space.

I have to say that as badly as the hooks hurt, being roped up wasn’t bad at all. There are two ways to be suspended: slowly or all at once. Needless to say, I went up all at once. It was strange, sickening being dangled by my flesh several feet off the ground, but not exactly painful (though not pleasant either). Odin stayed with me, told me of His sacrifice on the tree, reminded me that at the end, my hooks would come out whereas part of Him was ALWAYS on the Tree suffering. Very gently but firmly, He told me that when He hung, He screamed, cried, passed out….that there was no shame in any of it, to just let myself have the experience. I did pass out apparently for a long time (20 mins? A half hour? ). I was told later that while I was out, Odin kept his hand on me even as I swung…W. said later that He was told that Odin kept His hand on me because He didn’t want me to come back to Midgard consciousness and think that He’d left. While I was out, I was at the Tree, on the Tree, staring into Ginungagap. I died. And Odin in that place that is no place and everyplace, sang me back to life. (I was told later by witnesses that the Horse did not sing so all of this took place not in Midgard on R.’s land, but Away. I was with Odin at the place and point of His greatest sacrifice).

It’s odd but even writing about this now, months after the ordeal, makes me nauseous. The first time, quite recently, that I walked back on R.’s land, back to the tree upon which I’d hung, I was taken right back to those moments, to the hooks going into my flesh, to my dying on the Tree. I’m told this is not at all uncommon after such ordeals. Sometimes there is an element of mild PTSD attached. I know of one ordeal master and shaman who had to go up on hooks for His final death ordeal. As he hung, a special song was sung by another shaman. Now, he told me recently, when he hears that song, he has two choices: he can sing along or he can start screaming. Such is the way it sometimes goes. We’re never allowed to forget where we’ve been and what we’ve gone through. We’re never allowed to forget the price we’ve paid for our skills. We’re never allowed to separate ourselves from the process and the moment lest we forget the humility, surrender, and trust involved.

All went as Odin planned. For those who might be appalled reading this, I want to state clearly: I knew what I was getting into. Throughout it all, Odin gave me the choice and I chose to undergo this knowing full well where it might lead. I trusted Odin that He in His caring and love would bring me to where I needed to go. Furthermore, I had one of the finest teams available. All were highly skilled, trained not only in the physical techniques of ordeal work, but also in first aid, cpr, and preventing the spread of blood born pathogens. H. also has advanced EMT training and is a certified medical qi-gung practitioner. I was in perfectly competent hands.

Eventually, I was allowed down. The moment my feet touched the ground, my lower back spasmed terribly and I screamed, going down to my knees. (I had known that with my back injuries, this was a strong possibility and indeed my back spasmed fully for three days. I did not mind the reminder of my ordeal. In some strange way, I rejoiced in it. Pain tells you that you’re alive, that you’ve survived, that you have overcome fear and a thousand other things. It shows you where you’ve been). Odin stayed with me until I could walk, and then walked with me: a blessing. The whole process of hanging for Him opened and cleaned me out. Afterwards, I was as clean and centered and wide open to HIM as I would ever be. As bloody, painful, and terrifying as this whole thing was, I would go up again (though from the chest, not the back) for Him in offering should I have the chance.

As night was falling (another blessing, I’d been allowed to have it done at twilight/dusk rather than in the cold of full darkness. The skin is much more sensitive to pain in the cold), we made our way back up to the house, where my mother, in tears and worried, hugged me and gifted me with an ansuz pendant. Then we went out to dinner. The next day I taught two classes at a local Pagan Pride event, limping proudly all the while! I must have made a sad and sorry, though joyful sight to all concerned. I had tasted ecstasy in the moments of my rebirth, in the aftermath of the ordeal itself. I had become wise in the ways of my own power. It showed, even sore and contrary as my body was on that Sunday. I could not help but glow with joy, relief, and pride.

I died on the Tree, I died as I hung on those hooks and so many things changed when I came back. As much as it hurt (and it did hurt terribly), I’d do it all again. It brought me closer to Odin than I ever thought possible. It cleansed me utterly and opened me to Him, His passion, His love, His caring, His will in ways I had never expected and at a far deeper level than I ever knew possible. It was the culmination of a cycle that had taken nearly three years and that had changed me in many unexpected ways. I was in no way the woman to faced Hela during that first ordeal. I had become more fully His. I had become more fully myself; and I would do it all again if He asked.

“Go ahead, light your candles and burn your incense and ring your bells and call out to God, but watch out, because God will come and He will put you on His anvil and fire up His forge and beat you and beat you until He turns brass into pure gold.”
----Sant Keshavadas.

Friday, May 15, 2009

What We Do Is Dangerous, In Case You Didn't Know

By Del Schlosser

Recently, a friend reached out to me; someone in the larger pagan community became aware of my friend's practices in the Path of Ordeal and was speaking out publicly against this sort of spirituality. As someone who has been active in both the BDSM and pagan communities for quite some time, it was something I didn't find very surprising. It's something that gets overlooked when we get wrapped up in the excitement of the mystery and edginess of it all; what we do is dangerous in so many ways.

Once a magician or spirit worker begins the journey of the Path of Ordeal, a lot becomes normalized in our lives that is still foreign to most mainstream pagans. Remember, the real popularity of what we now know as "paganism" is as much borne out of the Hippie movement of the 1960's as it is the underground occult communities of the 20s and 30s. Early writings that encourage modern Goddess worship make this abundantly clear, with concepts like the Wiccan Rede, ("Do what thou wilt, an it harm none"), which is mostly a bastardization of Aleister Crowley's "Do what thou wilt be the whole of the law." It was such a concern, that people would abuse the power of magic to cause harm to others, that later authors would add the phrase "...an it harm none."

I belong to a pan-pagan organization that once suffered a fairly large organizational schism over the sacredness of sexuality and BDSM. This separation happened before I became a member, but the wounds from the split are still prevalent in the local pagan community. Those of us who grew up in North America are stewed in Protestant ethic, even if our families didn't ascribe to that particular spirituality. This movement has worked diligently for centuries to remove sex, blood, pain, risk, and the concept of life and death from our sense of the spiritual. Those who were closest to God were ones who could overcome these base human desires, to focus that energy towards the spiritual through their unfulfilled desire.

Yes, even modern-day pagans who are still breaking out of that mindset, not all of them will reach a place in their own journey where they understand and accept that ritual bloodletting, flogging, hook suspension, or whatever your flavor of sensation ordeal might be, is the same or equal to transcendental meditation, Reiki attunements, and crystal magic. The idea of challenge in general is usually beyond the scope of most American's concept of spirituality. They may even accept ritual sexuality, as long as it reflects a loving, supportive, energetically-connected relationship between the partners involved.

In specific, most pagans are drawn to the religion because anyone can experience imminent divinity (supposedly), anyone can declare themselves a religious leader, thinker, theologian, and in general, you can self-define where you fit in the imaginary spiritual hierarchy that we still carry over from our experiences of organized religion. Therefore, if someone else defines within the same religious spectrum, and yet is not ready to accept the role of challenge in their own religious exploration, those who practice Ordeal Path spirituality will be the antithesis of what drew them to the faith to begin with. In Ordeal, not everyone succeeds. There are very dangerous skill sets that we have to master, in both the physical and energetic realms, in order to do this work. It's not something you can learn by reading a book, communing with your Gods, or even attending a festival or three. You can literally kill someone if you declare yourself an Ordeal Master without a sufficient amount of training.

Take a note from the book of Tricksters; bucking the prevalent paradigm may seem "cool" from the outside because it takes obvious courage and chutzpah to practice (at any volume) what their heart says to, regardless of what their surrounding community says. However, it's not all awesome punk rock rebellion and celebrations of bravery. Working against the grain means that you put yourself up for public scrutiny, because you're easy to find and watch. You stand out from all the other practitioners who have maintained the status quo in terms of practice.

Ordeal Path is specifically about challenge, in which failure is an option. Maybe you can't take the pain , maybe you will die. We play with edges that most people are terrified of. What excites people drawn to this path is that they can overcome obstacles that most people never try. We fly, we survive incredible sensations, we take on purposeful injury and wear the scars like merit badges. Within a faith that focuses a lot of energy on healing, immortality, and right-living, we are constant reminders that as of now pain, suffering, and death are still part of the human experience.

This rubs a lot of pagans the very wrong way. By interacting with those who walk the path of Ordeal, they see ultimate failure. People don't want to face failure, especially in their lives of faith, where they're supposed to be able to escape the mundane experience and reach for the liminality of blessings. They work within a paradigm where the realm of Gods is benevolent, loving, warm, and safe. By doing this work, and sometimes by working with the Deities that accept this sort of work, we are painting a very different picture of what the realm of Gods might be. There are Gods that enjoy human suffering, feed on pain, and yet are not automatically malevolent to the human race.

When people who see themselves as religious leaders are challenged in their own faith, their positions of leadership can also be brought into scrutiny. We expect most of our ministers, reverends, and priests to be rock-solid in what they believe. They must serve as touchstones of the seeker's path, buoys in the storm of those who don't know what they believe. Even outside of paganism, in any religion when there are leaders who believe in opposition to another leader, there will always be conflict. It's in the leader's perceived best interest to speak out against false prophets, in order to maintain their steady connection to their own faith. In paths that do not accept challenge as a part of spiritual experience, their leaders absolutely must be stalwart in what they believe; otherwise, maybe they aren't the leaders they claim to be.

One of the reasons you don't find many Ordealists who create this sort of opposition is because we accept the condition of challenge as a part of our spiritual expression. We enjoy when someone disagrees with us, or points out a weakness in our belief. Since pushing boundaries, testing faith, and playing with new and different concepts are foundations in how we practice, we are only enthused when someone agrees to enter into considered debate with the validity of ordeal.

However, in order to be heard, people who disagree tend to turn up the volume. People rarely feel ambivalent about the role of BDSM in paganism; they're usually adamantly for or vehemently against it. So unlike disagreements over which pantheon could beat up which other pantheon in a dark alley, or whether water elementals really reside in the West regardless of where you live, sex and pain in modern spirituality is always loud.

A typical tactic of those who disagree with an entire movement, is to single out an individual and speak out against that particular person's practice, rather than addressing the movement as a whole. They choose their target mostly at random, unless the target is trying to work with the same demographic as the opposition (then the choice is easier). They phrase their arguments so as to make it about the person and their own ethics, rather than the entire movement. It makes it more difficult to debate concepts when the discussion is dissected down to the individual. I can't speak for every Ordeal Master in the Universe, even for all of the ones that I've personally worked with. But I'll sure as heck defend the validity of my chosen spirituality, if we're willing to talk about it in the larger strokes.

So in some ways, being publicly recognized as an Ordeal Master sets yourself up to be separated from the flock by those who don't understand or agree with What It Is That We Do. It's a danger we accept as part of the challenge of our path. It wouldn't be the Ordeal path if we ourselves weren't challenged in a variety of ways. We can lose face, lose followers, lose trust, lose our families and stability if we're not careful. In some states, we could face imprisonment. It's dangerous out there for people like us.

As much as being the local pagan in the leather jacket, oozing sex and mystery as part of your persona, might seem attractive and hip, it is almost never easy. Think long and hard about this before deciding how "out" you want to be.

Now, on the other side of the coin, there are benefits to announcing to the worlds of humans and Gods that you have decided to pursue the Ordeal Path. But that's an entry for another day.

Serving Odin – The Eighth Ordeal: Alfheim

By G. Krasskova

I’m not sure what I’m permitted to say in retrospect about this ordeal. Much of what I learned I am tabooed, by specific Deities, from committing to print. I expect this will be a very brief and skeletal account. Still, I shall try my best to convey what I experienced. Like Midgard, this was not a physically painful ordeal at all, though it was grueling in its own way. It seems that for me, the alfar light and dark, preferred psychological ordeal to physical suffering. I suppose physical suffering seemed too … lacking in subtlety for their tastes in this case. Also, one of their oft-used techniques is glamour and psychological mesmerism. It makes sense that their ordeals would incorporate not physical pain, but a stretching and widening of my psychological and mental boundaries. All in all, they were very gentle and fairly hands off with me…as these things go.

This ordeal took place in June, in the middle of my six week sojourn in Germany. I went to Belgium for the weekend, to visit a local ordeal master there H. She and I had previously arranged for her to facilitate this ordeal for me at that time. I had been told beforehand that this ordeal might involve taking legal, psychoactive substances that would drive me temporarily mad. My greatest fear is losing control and going crazy. I needed to learn that I could lose control and come back from that place. As it was, it turned out to be quite a different ordeal than I had expected, as much of that particular lesson had already been learned somewhere between Jotunheim and Vanaheim. Instead, I was pulled into their world, the outer lands of Alfheim, by means that I found terrifying.

The day after I arrived, H. and I rose early to prepare for the ordeal. We set up a lavoo tent in her backyard. We got a fire going inside the tent and she went to prepare the herbal preparation I would have to take. I felt the Alfar come, honor guard for the Goddess I was to meet. They ringed the space as we transitioned between worlds, watching over all that occurred. H. came back with a bottle of tincture and a pipe. We were going to use salvia divinorum to enter fully into their world. This herb is completely legal and yet it has the ability to take a person into the salvia world, or in this case, into the alfar realms. The spirit of salvia is a … handmaiden of the Green Goddess. (I don’t know Her by any other name. She is one of the primary Alfar Deities, Queen of the Green Fire). Sometimes Salvia will allow herself to be used as a vessel by this Goddess.

I rarely work with plant spirits and never with psychoactive substances. I find this particular path to be utterly terrifying. It is deadly dangerous, more so than any ordeal practice I have ever engaged in. I have immense respect for those shamans and spirit-workers who use psychoactive substances as a primary part of their work. I never want to join their ranks! Certainly part of why I was required to do this lay in the path of Odin that I walk. He is, in part, a plant shaman and healer. It followed that I too must experience a tiny bit of what that is like, even if only in the briefest, most controlled microcosm, to truly understand (in whatever capacity my human brain allows) the greater macrocosm of His experiences there.

Over the course of the next few hours, I took several preparations of salvia both via smoke and via tincture. The Midgard world dissolved around me and I heard the voice of the fire. All the fires. I became part of that pushing, inexorable, primal rhythm. Beyond that, I cannot speak. These are the things I have promised never to put into print. I met the Alfar Goddess. I experienced the state in which the Alfar exist. I came to understand much of their culture: why it is the way it is, why certain protocols exist, what it means to be almost fully of the green fire. I established a tie to that world and apparently conducted myself with appropriate decorum. This was an important part of all my ordeals: Odin was sending me to the various worlds for me to make myself known, and establish contacts and links. To do that, I had to understand and accept the specific protocols of each place.

One aftereffect of this ordeal was that it opened me much more fully to plant spirits. It’s also made me much more cognizant of the living fire that flows through every single thing: human, mineral, plant, animal. It’s changed my way and understanding of being in the world. I also gained much more respect for the Alfar in general. I wish that I could write more about my experiences during this ordeal. It felt very much like a transition point. This was it, this was the last stop on the journey before meeting my Lord in Asgard.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Serving Odin - the Seventh Ordeal: Vanaheim

By G. Krasskova

I do not belong to the Vanir. I am owned instead by Odin as anyone who has read my work can easily ascertain. I also have a strong affinity for Loki. With the exception of Gerda, I had not until recently had much interaction with any of the Vanir or Those other Deities commonly associated with Them. It was, however at Odin’s behest that I first sought out Vanaheim, as part of my series of nine ritual ordeals. Each ordeal has given me access to one of the Nine Worlds and each has been governed by one of the Deities who rule in that particular world. With each ordeal, I gain knowledge, skill and make necessary sacrifices of the self. Many of the ordeals have been wrenching. Nearly all have been physically painful in some way. Sandwiched as it was between my Jotunheim ordeal (which had proved emotionally quite devastating) and Alfheim (which, being a completely unknown quantity filled me with trepidation in the days preceding it), I had not expected Vanaheim to prove much of a challenge. It seemed pretty clear cut to me: land, dirt, cycles of land, more dirt, etc. In retrospect, my hubris amazes even me.

Of course, like many Heathens, I honored the Vanir when the occasion arose as Gods of fertility, abundance, wealth, and bounty of land and sea but beyond that I gave Them little thought. I, warrior trained, warrior called, valkyrie of the grimmest of Gods had little love or respect for the secrets and mysteries these bright Gods hold. Even within my ancestral venerations, I often disparaged ancestors who were farmers, preferring instead to honor those who had served in the military, who did not make their living from the land. Furthermore as a city dweller (a very happy city dweller) I’d had little interaction with the rhythms and cycles of the natural world for all that I might have had abstract understanding of them. Much of this was to change with this particular ordeal.

The first part of my Vanaheim ordeal occurred late in May. A friend, colleague, shaman, and farmer agreed to facilitate for me. Nerthus was to hold the secrets for me in this particular ordeal. She was the Goddess I had to face and by whom I was to be humbled. I have heard many people describe Nerthus as a comforting, loving, gentle Mother Goddess. Mother Goddess She may indeed be but She is also terrifying, harsh, implacable and fierce. This is the Goddess referenced in Tacitus who commonly received human sacrifice as Her due after all.

She commanded that I be buried alive. She is about life yes, but also death and the cycles in between that connect the two. She is about the wisdom of the earth, the vicious clarity of the land that devours and from that ruthless devouring spews forth new life. A trench was dug and covered with thick netting (thankfully I was not required to actually lay covered completely with dirt. I am a kinesthetic learner and needed some minor mobility to best process the lessons that were to be forthcoming). Naked, with only prayer beads, a journal and water to sustain me, I was committed to the pit. It was agreed upon that once every four hours someone would come to check on me, bringing me water and a minimal amount of food (organic greens, grain, nuts) but otherwise I was permitted no human contact during this time. I was to stay until Nerthus gave me permission to depart.

Isolation is a powerful tool particularly when it is filled with the presence of a Goddess so terrifying that ancient acolytes were not permitted to gaze even upon Her unveiled images. She showed me directly the cycle of life-into-death-into-life contained in the land itself. I saw insects and spiders creeping about the leaves and dirt that filled the trench with me, creeping between roots of bushes and trees. I saw that dirt itself was not some inactive substance devoid of life but that it was the raw substance from which life is born, a living, shifting, very active biosphere. I later learned that there are more living organisms in a handful of dirt than there are human beings on the planet and so much life and death going on there that it’s not surprising Nerthus is Herself terrifying.

For six hours She kept me in the pit. Her lessons weren’t only about the sacredness of dirt but also of the primal bond that one has with one’s mother (even if not one’s biological mother…in my case, She honored the woman who has served as my adopted mother, bringing home just how sacred and important that bond was on a wyrd level). She forced me to examine my own misogyny and distaste for the typical cultural markers of “womanhood.”

Moreover, Nerthus challenged me to honor my body as I had never once honored it before. I spent years as a professional ballet dancer, a career in which neglect and harsh treatment of one’s body is de rigueur. For more than half my lifetime I had looked upon my body as ‘the enemy.’ Nerthus spoke about the importance of embodiment and drove home the point that we are not separate from our bodies, but that our bodies are an integral part of how we are meant to interact with not only each other but with the Gods Themselves. This is all the more important for shamans and spiritworkers: our bodies are one of the primary interfaces through which we communicate that which comes from the Gods. Our bodies are the primary tools with which we work, the means by which we function, acquire and disseminate knowledge. Our bodies are an immense gift.

After six hours I was allowed to leave the pit and forced to walk around and around a sacred labyrinth (the ordeal took place on land that has had a stone labyrinth for years) then it was back to the pit for another six hours. Eventually, I was allowed to emerge into the darkness (it was after midnight) and I made the journey, naked, barefoot, exhausted from the pit through the woods back to my friend’s house. She let me go with the understanding that I had gleaned about half of the lessons I was meant to. I knew, walking through the woods in the pitch black darkness that there would be at least one more part to my Vanaheim ordeal. I was being given leeway to process the lessons She had given me first.

The second part of my ordeal took place under the guidance of Frey. He spoke to my adopted mother, and outlined a three day ordeal, also to take place at my friend’s farm. This was designed, I believe, to break me of my arrogance and disregard of my farmer ancestors. During the first day of the ordeal, I was required to work the land. I stayed with a friend who is a farmer and during this day, I worked for several hours in his vegetable garden, working the soil by hand. My adopted mother and I were permitted to eat one handful of food for each hour worked. The food had to be comprised of grains, fruits, or vegetables only and had to be organic.

On the second day of the ordeal, both I and my adopted mother were required to completely fast, consuming only water. During that time, I worked several hours in my friend’s vegetable garden. On the third day, there were no words given. Instead, I walked down to the field, the same field in which I had been buried for Nerthus. In the North end of this field stands a carved God-pole dedicated to Frey. There I made offerings to this God and listened to His words and His admonition: Remember. Remember what you have learned. Remember.

Frey’s Lesson:

Day One

“Peace is a terrible thing. It demands as many sacrifices and as much discipline as war. I, Ingvi Freyr, know this, who will die in battle, who can fight as fiercely as the best warriors, yet chose to become a hostage in the name of peace and for the sake of peace. No coward I, no pacifist, but yet I am a Peace-Keeper.

That is what you must learn, my child. That to be a warrior you have to honor peace and peace-keepers with the same immediacy you feel toward war and warriors. You who know to give equal respect to Odin and Loki without falling into the trap of either/or should give equal respect to war and peace.

To be a farmer is like being a priest and as sacred: Farmers are the hallowers and priests of my blood. Every year, I submit to my throat being scythed, to my blood being spilled to hallow and fructify the earth so it may nourish the people. Farmers are the link between my blood and people being fed. Without the farmer, my blood is spilled for nothing, for working the soil is the only rite that will give power to my sacrifice.

This is what you must learn, my child: that to be a priest you have to honor the farmer as your equal. Honor your farmer ancestors. If you miss a part, you miss the whole. I am Ingvi Freyr, Peace-Keeper and Fighter, and Farmer. Come to me on the third day.

During the first day remember, a whole season will be contained in this one day, and in that time you are the link between My blood, the earth and the sustaining of your foster mother. In that time, she is your old mother, your pregnant wife, your small daughter—all that which you love and which depends upon your holy skill and strength at farming. If you fail, My blood is disregarded, desecrated by neglect. Earth lies fallow and your loved ones starve.”

Day Two

“Today contains all of the next season and it will be hard because warriors rode through your land. They needed food so they took all they could, all you had worked for. They rode through the grain; they took your goat and most of your hens. They filled a sack with the contents of your storeroom. You have nothing. That is what war does to peace. That is partly why I became hostage. So work the soil, on an empty stomach, to salvage what you may of My blood and your effort so that you may not starve tomorrow. Today you will not be able to feed either yourself or your foster mother whom you love. That is what war does to peace.” (It is important to note that this was not an accusation. It was said without judgment. It was merely a statement of fact).

Day Three

On the third day, no words were given. I was expected to open myself to Freyr directly and to receive His wisdom. One of the things that I learned, I who am so proud of my warrior’s calling, was that war and peace, warriors and farmers are intertwined. Yes, the farmer is at the mercy of the warrior but so too is the warrior at the mercy of the farmer. One must always eat after all. I was reminded of the Napoleonic Wars when French forces tried to take Russia and the Russian farmers starved the invading soldiers by burning their own fields as they retreated giving the invading army no sustenance. That is the power of the farmer.

I know that there is still the final third of my Vanaheim ordeal to go: I must work with Freya. I’m not sure what form this work will take, but it seems for me, Vanaheim has become the central spiritual axis around which all the other ordeals revolve. Perhaps this is because finding the holy in the process of living, in embodiment, in the faulty nature of my own humanity has been an incredibly difficult process for me, perhaps because my warrior’s arrogance is so great, perhaps because the places and ways in which I am broken and scarred require this often terrifying balm. I don’t know. I only know that the Vanir have been immensely kind to me even as they have challenged and at times goaded me into knowledge. And I am grateful.