Highway to Hel
Following the Dead: Road Trip, Part 2
I stayed so long with them, in fact, that I ended up running back to the Inn. I had booked a registered battlefield guide (who turned out to be excellent) for myself and my friends and did not wish to be late in meeting him. By 9:00 am, we were on our way to the place where the battle had actually started, and over the next four hours we made our way to several key places, as our guide brought the story of the battle of Gettysburg alive. He seemed not only very knowledgeable but also very invested in his work. I found out later, when we visited the cemetery there, that he was descended from Union soldiers who fought at Gettysburg with an Ohio regiment. He even had their regimental symbol —a crescent moon - -tattooed on his arm in honor of them.
As we went from place to place, I played what I've tongue-in-cheek referred to as "ninja shaman," leaving massive and major offerings all over the place without ever being seen. Only once was I so incredibly moved that I had to fumble with offerings out in the open, and that was at a monument to peace graced with an eternal flame. There I openly laid tobacco and poured out alcohol, simply telling the guide that "I had to do a thing and that it was the way we honored the dead in my family." This was more or less true, if one counts one's ancestors as current family, which I do.
By the end of the tour, I was exhausted. I felt as though I had been physically beaten, because in a way I had. I learned then what ancestor workers the world over have long known: sometimes dealing with the dead (and also powerful spirits of the land like battlefields) in this way involves experiencing their body memories too, including memories of battle: physically, as well as the noise and stench and heat. All of this had poured over me, and nearly laid me out on the ground.
I have a very stoic demeanor and a very high tolerance to pain, so I was able to conceal what was happening to me from the others. They only noticed that more and more I trailed far behind the guide. The spirit of tobacco, which I honored by keeping lit most of the time I was walking the field of battle, consecrates and protects, but not from those experiences. I didn't quite comprehend what was happening to me, and by the time we left Gettysburg, I was aching, sore, and very confused. It took a call later that night to a more experienced ancestor worker to clear things up. If I ever had any illusions about honoring the dead being something that one could relegate safely to the realm of rigid intellect and calm, measured action, my visit to Gettysburg rid me of them. Honoring the dead is sometimes about stepping into their experience, pouring out offerings and, in whatever way one is able, witnessing the defining aspects of their lives and deaths.
One very good thing I discovered was that at Gettysburg the dead were very well tended. The Union cemetery there was spotless, the stories of the battle and those who fought in it are memorialized throughout the town, and all in all they are very well remembered. There was no aching loss, or hunger, or pain at having been forgotten, or dismissed, or otherwise treated with disrespect. Here the dead were part and parcel of the lives of everyone living in that town. It was the first time I had visited a place where there were so many dead present, who were so well and consistently honored.
Late in the afternoon, we departed for Fredericksburg, where our ancestor work would continue.
The author of several books on the Northern Tradition, Galina Krasskova is a Heathen priest, shaman, and devotee of Odin. She blogs at Gangleri's Grove.