"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.


  1. All of this was beautiful and powerful: the accounts of your ordeals, your reflections on the necessity of day-to-day devotion, and the reminder that we serve the gods in a multitude of ways, according to our limitations as well as our gifts. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for writing this Mordant. It is incredibly moving and spot on with your comments about devotion.

  3. Very well said, Mordant. You make strong points here. - Arinbjorn Skallagrimir