Tales from the Gathering: Passage Through the Underworld
After lunch on the Saturday of the Gathering Festival it was time for the main ritual which was hosted by an initiate of the Wolven Path Tradition – an oral tradition based in prehistoric European shamanism. This ancestral ceremony was performed at the Shamanic Conference and will be enacted thirteen times over the next year by the shamanic community. As the Gathering has always been largely a neoPagan festival, the witches, druids, and heathens were fascinated and for many it was their first time meeting a shaman and participating in a shamanic ritual steeped in animism. They were curious, coming early to the ritual site in the forest under tall Hemlocks and Douglas Firs to watch us set up pouring libations into the decorated bottles for the four beasts and the bowls of sage, earth, camphor, rosewater, bone dust, and bones. I sawed some wood to make stakes and the Shaman dug a deep hole in the centre of the ritual site with his shovel, hammered in the wood and iron stakes halfway and placed the libation bottles in the four directions.
After everything was in its place, he put on his regalia consisting of his blue robe and impossibly tall holly staff carved into a spear and adorned with feathers, runes, and hammered copper bells which jingled softly with his every movement. Everyone came together circling in the forest among the trees around the pit. The Shaman lit a fire in a great iron cauldron decorated with runes and animals made for him by our friend Jarnsmior and smudged us all with a great bird’s wing and bowl of burning sage. After, he proceeded to call the four beasts of his tradition: the Raven Bran in the North of the element of air and sky, the Stag Damh in the East of the element of fire and sun, the Sow Muc in the South of water and the ocean, and the great Bear Art in the West of the earth element who guards the way to the underworld. Air was invoked with a bird’s wing, fire with birch paper lit on fire in a small bowl, water with a bowl of water poured on the earth, and earth with a bowl of earth poured out. Simple and beautiful.
He welcomed the ancestors and explained the intent of the ritual was to release our hold on our dead loved ones that they might complete their journey to the underworld and come back to us wiser and stronger as ancestors rather than the dead lost and stuck in our middle realm. He sprinkled a circle of bone dust around the pit, stakes, libation bottles, and the people standing at the four quarters. He walked around the circle and anointed each person’s face with a smear of the powdery white dust. Those of us who had volunteered to help each took turns hammering in the wooden stake at our quarter, placing a rock crystal underneath each one to give an offering back to the earth for all we take from it. The Shaman poured out wine for blood in the North, our high priest and drummer from the other rituals poured out milk over the stake in the East, I poured out water on my stake in the South, and a lovely witch in red poured out a homebrewed ale over her stake in the West. In between each wooden stake was an iron one and volunteers were drawn from the crowd to hammer them in. Each was hammered in with surety and without missing a stroke.
Then the Shaman bound up a bundle of bones with cloth and twine and said it symbolized our dead. We passed it around the circle, each of us holding it with reverence and thinking upon those we had lost. At the same time he filled his great bull’s horn with mead and it too was passed around the circle. Each person toasted their dead – some spoke of specific loved ones who had passed recently or long ago who they had trouble letting go of, some their ancestors in general, and some honoured all those in their family line who had come before so they could live today. Some people shook, some people cried, and others smiled lost in happy memories of loved ones. With each toast everyone wassailed and the horn went round and round until we had all drank deeply and spoken of our dead.
The remaining mead was poured into the pit and the bone bundle placed gently in. Each person had been asked to bring a stone and, in a procession, we each came up to the pit and reverently placed stone upon stone building a cairn inside the earth over the bones to the beating of a drum. As we did so a large raven landed in the trees above us and croaked deeply three times, over and over. “In case you’re wondering, it’s a very good sign,” said the Shaman with a smile in his voice. In many traditions the raven is the psychopomp, the carrier of the souls of the dead to the underworld. More mead was poured on top and the Shaman covered the cairn with earth using his bare hands – restoring the pit to the untouched forest floor it had been. He then passed around a bowl filled with fresh water and rose water for us to clean the bone dust off our cheeks. After a blessing and farewell to the spirits, we were released from the underworld back to our middle realm.
Some wandered off to contemplate what had happened or to tend to their responsibilities, but others stayed behind and finished off the mead and smoked cigars around the fire in the huge cauldron as offerings to the spirits. I mixed ash from the burned sage in my hand with water to make a paste and anointed the foreheads of those that stayed. Some asked the shaman questions about the ritual, about the ancestors, and about the meanings of his robe and staff. I felt the hunger among everyone for more work with spirits, especially the ancestors, and I felt their hunger to touch upon the shamanic origins of witchcraft and modern paganism. I felt bridges between communities being built in that moment. It was a beautiful thing to see it all come together and everyone from so many varying traditions to understand the ritual’s intent and let it truly move them, participating fully. Friends came to me after and told me the ceremony helped them to let go of ghosts of loved ones and family they’d been holding onto for a long time. There was a sense of awe and wonder after among the attendees that moved the Shaman and I hope made him glad he came and volunteered to host the ritual for us. I will ever be grateful he gave into my pleading and flattery as events coordinator to share with us the beauty of his sacred path.
Photos © 2012 Cindy of Witchy Rambles