by Wintersong Tashlin
Several years ago I underwent a transformative shamanic dying period in my life. Many classical shamans experience a singular death event or crisis that marks their spiritual change into "walking dead men." One of my mentors for instance bled out in a hospital and had his heart stop. He was never fully alive again, and if you are gifted with a good sense for energy and you are around him, it is possible to see the magical bonds the gods placed to hold his spirit to his body. This isn't how things worked for me.
In some ways the journey started out as many shamans' do, with my health situation in a steadily worsening state. I suffer from a chronic pain disorder related to an old injury. I was already a spirit worker and a magician, but this journey began when my Lady informed me that I would become Her shaman. Having known several classical shamans at this point I was far from pleased, and I will freely admit that I fought with Her for over a year before inevitably acquiescing to Her demands.
For me the spiritual dying process would be a slow one, taking close to two years, and marked at four intervals by transformative ordeal rituals. Each ordeal was tied to a particular element, and was designed to further the transformation. I will not go into any great detail here about the time between these rituals, but let me say that it was a difficult one for me emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
Over the course of the next several weeks I will post four essays, one for each of my four shamanic ordeals. I will be sharing descriptions of each ordeal, followed by an explanation of the permanent modifications to my body I received to mark that ordeal. Each modification has been done in a different art form, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the broad field of body modification, I will give some detail as to the how and why of the particular art used for each design.
This week we start at the beginning, with the ordeal of fire.
Fire Ordeal: Branding
The first, and in some ways most complex ordeal ritual I did was oriented around the element of Fire. In mid February I went to Cauldron Farm, which is in Massachusetts, and built a fire in the fire pit using only my flint and steel. The ritual was to run from sunset to sunrise and I had to be alone for that entire time, which in itself was an ordeal. As my health had steadily worsened I had become progressively more dependent on other people, and the ideal of being alone was, itself, terrifying. In addition to maintaining the fire I had built, I knew that at some point in the evening I would need to travel across the field to where a Northern Tradition stang had been erected and make a blood offering to the Norse lady of death, Hela. I had been instructed that this would need to happen sans clothing, a challenge in thirty degree weather with seven inches of snow on the ground.
Once I had built up the fire so as to ensure that it would still be going strong upon my return, I set off for the stang. I will not go into any great detail as to what happened there, but let me say that a measure of my life energy was taken forever. Weakened, by the magic and by standing in the snow naked for over ten minutes, I struggled back to the fire, pierced by the agony in my frozen feet. Once I nearly sat down to catch my breath, and today I know that had I sat down naked in the snow I might never have stood up again and no one would have come down looking for me until dawn at the soonest, still hours away.
The Body Modification:
The modification to mark this ordeal was an electrocautery brand performed by a Penelope, a piercer and body mod artist in the Northampton MA area. For me the brand was not about having skin burned away, which in fairness is what a brand is, rather it was about taking the fire into my flesh. There is an expression that says you can't play with fire without getting burned. During my ordeal, fire had warmed me when I was chilled and had been a beacon that guided me back to the world of life. Part of the point of the brand was to make an offering of myself to the element of fire in thanks.
It wasn't very hard to decide on a symbol for the brand. In many ways the fire ordeal marked the beginning of the end of who I was. Becoming a shaman in this sense of the word is a process that changes your life and your identity forever, assuming you survive. That is a pretty big assumption really. My mentors and my gods had made sure that I was well aware that this process could kill you or drive you crazy. Just as they had made sure I knew I didn't have any say in it. There was the chance in each of the four ordeals that I might die. To mark the beginning of this destructive process, having the rune Cweorth, the ruin of the funeral pyre, burned on into my leg made perfect sense.
Even though I had the brand done in a crowded studio, I still felt it was important to keep to the requirement of doing this ordeal by myself. As such I went to have the brand done on my own. You can imagine this was a bit of a risk; Penelope's studio is quite a long drive from where I was living at the time. When I found that my left leg was able to depress the clutch pedal in my car with little difficulty I was quite relieved. By the next day however, I had almost completely lost the use of my leg, and would not regain mobility for another five days.
It has been several years now since that night by the fire and Penelope's brand has gotten more difficult to see. The strength I gained during that ritual and the fire I took into me carried me through what followed.