Tales from Bones of the Ancestors

My artwork on a flag for the main ritual pavilion

I have been gone for weeks and yet it feels like almost no time has passed. That is the way of things. Beauty and joy are gone to quickly whereas the daily grind sometimes seems endless. How to describe a whole week of sacredness in one post? I do not know if I have the words to turn my swirling memories of the Shamanic Conference into tales, but I will try my best. The site of the conference itself outside of Squamish, British Columbia is pure beauty – a mix of wild forests and open fields. It is by a fast-moving river with tall snow-capped mountains completely encircling it.

Mountains and river

Wreaths of leaf and flower

I went early carpooling with a group of women for the two pre-conference days and was so glad I did. Last year I did not attend the pre-conference days and now I know what I missed – these extra days are when the Wolven Path Tradition, who host the conference, perform their more personal rituals of initiations and a fire ceremony. This year I attended the elder ordination ceremony where initiates of the Wolven Path Tradition who’d put in years of hard work, training, and effort were accepted as elders into the tradition and the community.

We all sat waiting in the ritual pavilion with its huge banners in the four directions of the tradition’s totemic beasts painted as skulls for the four directions and a large stone fire pit in the centre. The main altar in the pavilion was massive and gorgeous – full of skulls, bones, antlers, hides, ritual costumes, offerings, and flowers. The procession of shamans entered bedecked in their regalia of blue and black robes, animal masks, and tall staffs covered in bells, feathers, and shells – they were an impressive sight. After everyone was blessed with smudge and holy water, the directions and spirits were called and the ceremony began.

We weren’t allowed to look at the elders-to-be when they came in and each one had to tell us a grand tale of their journey to this point. Some were serious and some were bawdy and loud, drawing out much laughter. As the audience, our duty was to drum and cheer at the parts that impressed us. The core elders of the tradition’s duty was to not be impressed at all. This went on until the elders accepted each candidate as one of their own, finally looking upon them and bestowing them with their new badges of office. There was great cheering and then the new elders joined the rest in their own private ceremony, which mostly seemed to involve getting the new ones fairly tipsy on mead.

The main altar

Close-up of the ancestral and totemic main altar

The next pre-conference day started quietly with workshops. It was mainly the day of the initiation ceremony where those who had trained in the Wolven Path for years were initiated as shamans into the community. They had to fast for the day and the rest of us tried not to rub in how delicious the meals were. The initiation ceremony was very long and serious, but beautiful and mysterious to witness. The audience’s job was to act as witnesses as in the shamanic community one isn’t named a shaman unless the community witnesses it, accepts it, and names them so (or so I am told).  The initiates were blinded and bound. They were put through trials. They were trapped in darkness under stones. They were made to smoke and drink and eat things that would test anyone’s will. They made oaths before their elders and community. Lastly, after all the trials, they were named shamans and given their blue robes, white scarves, and staffs and each of us witnesses had to touch them and welcome them to complete the rite.

Chairs awaiting the new initiates

The fire decorated for the initiation ceremony

After the celebration feast for the initiates (who were finally allowed to eat), we all gathered in the marquee once more for a ceremony hosted by Christiana Harle, a Tuvan shamaness from Finland.  It was her first time at the conference and I’m pretty sure all of us attending instantly fell in love with her, her magic, her bawdy bluntness, and her deep sacredness. She told us stories of Northern shamans and bear creation myths.  Bowls of vodka and mead were passed around and around and she taught us how to accept and pass the bowl with our left hand, to take a sip and pass it on or to dip in our right ring finger and flick it to the floor before drinking as an offering to the spirits and a prayer that they don’t let us get too drunk no matter how much we drink.

After being plied with alcohol she taught us a singing game the Tuvan shamans play to healthily compete with each other. First we all practiced in groups, but failed miserably and hilariously as Canadians are far too polite and modest to hurl insults at each other and say our ancestors are better than one another’s. After our failed attempt, Christiana got the new initiates to play the game against each other two at a time in front of us all and they were all brilliant – some rhymed perfectly to each other about how much greater their powers were than the other person’s, some sang or rapped about how their animal familiars were more powerful or would eat the other’s, and others brought down the house in laughter. It was unrehearsed, but I swear imbas was flowing directly through all their veins that night. I wish someone had recorded it, it was such perfection, but I will always have my memory of it.

Grandfather Fire with his many offerings

Fire offerings of nuts, cocoa and seeds

The next day, after breakfast, was the fire ceremony.  Everyone in attendance wore red and orange. The huge stone hearth was decorated with patterns created with paprika, turmeric, and a white spice with squares and triangles and flourishes with white flowers everywhere. The ledge around the fire was covered in bowls full of offerings – spices, nuts, butter, resins, flower petals, tobacco, herbs, and more. A circle of water was poured encircling the fireplace to symbolize the masculine being held within the feminine. Grandfather Fire was called down as lightning and the main fireplace was lit with a roar and the crackle of sparks. Wine was poured over the great stones encircling him to symbolize blood. Sacred woods were fed to him in offering and everyone took turns spraying rum from their mouths into the fire causing the flames to leap high. The drums sounded and dancing began, wild and sensual around the fire. More rum was passed and cigars were lit, the elders blowing tobacco smoke upon our heads to bless us. The cigars were rolled along the women’s bared thighs in offering to the masculine spirit of the fire.  It was wild and wonderful, one of my favourite ceremonies of the conference.

No, you can't have it, it's mine!

Afterward we split off to go to the various workshops all happening at the same time. I went to one where we carved faces of nature spirits into large, thick pieces of black cottonwood bark. I’d never worked with it before and was surprised how easy it was, the bark almost as easy to shape as butter compared to the hard seasoned woods I am used to. I carved a green man into mine. That afternoon was the official opening ceremony which was mostly announcements and explanations for those who had just arrived.

The real meat of the day was the evening ceremony hosted by Xhosa Sangoma John Lockley, a traditional African shaman from a lineage of singers, dreamers, and seers. Dressed all in white with a white headdress, white face paint, beads across his chest and shell rattles on his ankles, he taught us about the Xhosa and their traditions. He taught us their songs honouring and blessing the ancestors. It was an evening of call and response singing in the Xhosa tongue. He got us to all uncross our legs and arms, sit up straight, and open our hearts. He got us to sing a few times as tests until we all were able to sing from our hearts and made him smile with warmth. He spoke of dreams from the spirits and ancestors, he spoke of his training. But it was the singing to the ancestors that truly touched us all. It was simply beautiful – all those voices woven in harmony along to his drumming. We swayed together and danced and raised energy that was pure love. We all went to bed late at night after the ceremony smiling from our hearts.

The Bone Mother's Cairn with antlers and offerings

The Thursday of the conference was when the real work and intent of the “Bones of the Ancestors” theme started.  Over the next three days each morning was full of three rigorous ceremonies all in a row starting with John-Luke leading us all singing to the bones. We were each given a bundle of bones to carry with us for the rest of the conference. It had to come everywhere with us – even to the bathrooms and to meals. It represented our dead that we carry with us when we grieve, that we don’t let go of. Each morning John-Luke led us singing to the bones – some of us sang, some hummed, some wailed. It was very haunting and chilling to listen to. We sang original songs to the ancestors along to Jeff Stockton’s beautiful harp compositions. The music from the large harp filled the pavilion. There’s no comparison to live music.

After the singing, each morning Tom Cowan would step up and tell us stories of the Bone Mother in the Celtic tradition. He had us each bring a rock and create a cairn before the main altar to the Bone Mother over a large cow leg bone. We covered the stone cairn with offerings of dead leaves, ground cedar, and fresh water and it was surrounded with deer antlers. When Tom Cowan would sing to invoke her, geese would call. In Scotland it is said the cackle of geese means the Gyre Carline is near. I took it as a sign that the Old Woman was pleased with this work. Each day Tom would get us to speak to her and to sing and dance for her.  He has the most beautiful grandfatherly energy, the sweetest singing voice, and the heart of a storyteller and bard.

Wolfsbane, rosewater, Florida water, rum, and holy water

After his rite, Christina Pratt performed her ancestralisation ceremonies.  Beautiful shrines to the elements had been set up in the woods around the conference site. Each day the shamans journeyed for each other, first to find female ancestors from the mother’s line who needed healing and to finish their journey to the underworld, then to find male ancestors from the father’s line who needed the same. Each person was sent to a different elemental shrine to help heal these dead trapped in the middle world. The belief behind this practice being that the dead trapped here are no wiser than the day they died and still hold on to the petty concerns and worries of their lives and that they need to pass through the underworld and complete the journey of the dead in order to join the revered ancestors whose collected body of wisdom and knowledge truly aids us living.

Fetiches

On the day of the third ceremony the dead were released, passing through Grandfather Fire into the underworld to complete their journey and to become ancestralized. My friend the Shaman, dressed in bear hides with his face painted blue, invoked the four elements and directions with a bird’s wing, a bowl of fire, a bowl of water, and a bowl of earth. He and Christina poured out spirits in a circle around the great stone hearth and lit it aflame with steel and flint causing a blue circle of fire to spring up around the massive roaring flames in the hearth. It was a sight to see. In between the circle of blue flame and Grandfather Fire were tokens for the ancestors brought by each person from beautiful cloth bundles to simple objects. Once our dead had completed their journey, those spirits who wished were invited to attach themselves to the tokens turning them into ancestral fetiches the people could take home with them and continue to work with their ancestors. That last night a vigil was held for the journey of the dead and in the morning their success was celebrated and they were welcomed as beloved and mighty dead.

Sunset over the river

My ocean fetiche and the salmon skeleton

Some of my favourite memories of the conference are of spending time with my friends and with new friends. I remember walking to the river with Nikiah one evening at sunset and we climbed the rocks along the bank like mountain goats and then sat and perched close, our heads together whispering of magic and women’s mysteries. That day I had created a sea fetiche in a workshop which I painted with a salmon skeleton, and lo and behold, when we climbed the rocks to go back to our lodge, I found a complete salmon skeleton an eagle had dropped there in the fall when the salmon return from the sea to the river to spawn. The things that happen when two bone collectors are paired… I gathered up the vertebrae, ribs, some dried scales and fins, and the sharp-toothed jaws and took them back with me. The jaws look like flesh turning into leaves or seaweed – pure magic.

I remember curling up on a couch by a fire in the lodge with my friend and local Pagan elder Fritz, each of us telling stories of dream walking, prophetic dreams, spirits, rituals, spells, weather magic, and old gods. I remember sharing my mead from a great horn by Grandfather Fire and then walking in the deep dark of night under the stars by the river with Nikiah, the Shaman, and Richard speaking of magic and the darker lessons of the soul and the spirits. The black waters carried away our voices and thoughts and we walked back to the fire to the last notes of the live music and left offerings at the Bone Mother’s cairn of stone and antler and to Grandfather Fire. I crushed lavender, fennel seed, and tobacco in my hand, inhaled deeply and blew it into the flames.

Flowers, antlers, and sage at the altar

On the last day of the conference I slipped out from the vendors’ marketplace where I was selling my incense to attend the Blessings of Mathair Tei, the Bone Mother site. The Shamanic Society had been given permission to build a permanent shrine on the site under a great Mother Cedar tree and built a cement platform over a pit in the earth with a stone to cover it, a large wooden bench under the tree for people to enjoy it, and a newly planted Dogwood tree to bless it. At each corner of the shrine was piece of brass engraved with the word peace in English, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, French, and Gaelic. A main plaque dedicated the shrine to the memory of our ancestors and to peace for future generations inviting those who came to the shrine to leave a stone upon it. Nikiah had brought beeswax candles crafted from the wax of her own beehives and placed them at the four corners. The trees above had been dressed with colourful ribbons and rags. The men removed the stone from the hole in the earth and beautiful red silks were placed over it. Stakes were driven into the earth and libations of red wine, milk, water, and ale were poured over them. I beat my bear drum and two men played flutes. It was a beautiful ceremony.

Blessing of the Bone Mother Shrine

Later, everyone gathered around the site and women gathered up the bundles of bones we had each carried for the whole of the conference handing them to the men in blue and black robes to gently and reverently place in the red silks over the hole in the earth. On top of the bone bundles were placed offerings of cookies, fruits, flowers, honeycomb, water, and mead. Lastly I came forward with a the mummified body of  a bird, found dead at the shrine, which I’d been asked to prepare and placed it in the earth with the bones as both offering and to act as psychopomp carrying our dead safely to the underworld.

The silks were allowed to drop into the earth and the men placed the heavy stone over the hole. Each of us had taken back a stone from the Bone Mother’s cairn at the main altar and now placed it on top of the shrine rebuilding the cairn anew. Lastly the great clay bowl we’d used to bless ourselves to enter the main ritual area all week was broken on top of the cairn and its pieces added to the stones. The face of a female elder with long white hair shone with glee at such an ancient Celtic practice being performed today – the shattering of a precious object in offering like the Gundestrup cauldron. We all walked away from the shrine in a procession, not looking back at our dead. It was finished and time for us all to say our farewells and go back to the mundane world.

Shannon Falls

The rainbow in the falls at sunset

Attending the conference and being surrounded all day every day for a week by the love and acceptance of over a hundred other magical practitioners helped me to finally and wholly accept my seer’s abilities. The lesson I took with me overall was surrender, to let go and simply be as I am and will be, and to let others simply be as they are. It sounds simple, but it took me years to understand it and to truly feel it in my heart and now to live it. I left with a feeling of joy and a good friend drove me home taking me to places along the sea to sky highway I’d never stopped to see and enjoy before though I had taken that road more times than I can count. We went to Shannon Falls at sunset and saw a perfect rainbow in the waterfall. We stopped at a lookout and watched the sun set, shining across the sea inlet, and disappear behind the mountains. We drove on and I saw two huge ravens by the road on the edge of the sea and then two deer walking into the trees and felt blessed.

Sunset over the sea and mountains

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For more on the BC Shamanic Conference here are my tales from last year’s conference: 2nd BC Shamanic Conference & Gathering

For those interested in the Wolven Path Tradition, this year I created a website, logo, artwork, and a blog for them. You can find the new site here to learn more about them and get in touch: wolvenpathtradition.com

For those interested in joining the SCGM Shamanic Society and attending their events, such as this conference and smaller rituals throughout the year, their website can be found here: circleofgreatmystery.com. There is also a sister conference happening this September in the UK: www.shamanicconference.co.uk

The presenters and ritualists from this year you may want to learn more about:

Comments

9 Responses to “Tales from Bones of the Ancestors”

  1. Cin says:

    Beautiful. Perhaps some day I’ll make the journey back for this. Thanks for sharing. <3

  2. Lance Foster says:

    In this time of despair and confusion, it makes me feel good that you and these other folks are doing this, remaking, refinding those connections to Ancestors and Land. What a beautiful place, and what good steps you are taking. I look forward to how this develops, and how the Land responds :-)

  3. Thank you very much for sharing. Inherently inspiring.

  4. Sionnach says:

    Simply reading this was magical. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences at the conference. I’m hoping to be so fortunate as to be able to attend next year and “Return to the Forest.”

  5. greycatsidhe says:

    This retreat sounds fantastic and inspirational! The photos you shared are lovely and I thank you for them. The rite where you all wore oranges and yellows piqued my interest as I requested that the flamekeeping group in ADF do the same during the Wellspring festival this weekend.

  6. Sarah,
    All i can say is WOW !! Reading your words in description of the conference was like being there.I smiled all through the article, I feel blessed by your sharing this & I thank you !

    Selwynn WhiteThorne

  7. Wow! I want to find my way there within the next few years! What a powerful set of experiences you had!

  8. The scenery is so beautiful and lush, you can almost feel the magic within the places you photographed. Your descriptions were elegant and eloquent and I can almost imagine being there.

  9. ishsunblazer says:

    Sarah, in a relatively short space, you skillfully manage to convey the beauty and spirituality of the setting, the camaraderie, the revelry, the rituals, and the magic of this profound “happening” at the Shamanic Conference. Thank you for taking the time again to weave your magic through words. Perhaps what impressed me most was how the experience impacted you. “The lesson I took with me overall was surrender, to let go and simply be as I am and will be, and to let others simply be as they are.” The words may be simple but speak volumes.

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