One of the things that drew me to the story of Myrddin Emrys as told in The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart was, well, the crystal cave. I had this thing for caves as long as I could remember. Could not explain why, I just did. At least some of the appeal of Fraggle Rock to me, as a kid, was that the Fraggles all lived in a cave together. I liked to “play cave” when I was a kid and make caves out of boxes, blankets, etc. I liked hanging out in hollowed-out tree caves and under fallen trees that made a sort of cave space. I never understood why calling someone a “caveman” was an insult.
When I was a teenager, the labyrinth-in-the-cave dreams started. And dreams about a black labyrinth.
I’ve been working primarily with the Vanir since 2004, and began to work more intensively with the Serpent tribe of Vanaheim (the tribes of Vanaheim, fyi, are corroborated gnosis) in 2012. I initially didn’t want to deal with the Serpents, as I found them creepy; I am now affiliated with them, and indeed I could not see myself as anything else. I have always been a Serpent, even when I didn’t want to be… and I am still becoming one. It’s still a process. It’s a process not unlike a labyrinth itself. And indeed, deep within the caves of the Serpents of Vanaheim, there is a ritual space – a labyrinth flanked by standing stones, where deep magic is worked, seething into the earth.
When people talk about pagan paths, they tend to talk about things like Left Hand Path or Right Hand Path, or the path of ascent or the path of descent. Yin or yang. Light or dark. Chaos or lawful. Traditional or eclectic.
The Serpent path is not that neat and binary. Instead of a straight line from point A to point B, it is a circle with a lot of twists and turns in it. You walk until you reach the center. But the destination is not the point, the journey is. The central destination is important – it is from the center of things where we gain perspective, as opposed to power-over or power-under… a sense of interconnectedness in the worlds, and being able to see things unfold around you, and envelop you, and go with that flow. But the journey to getting there is just as important, and it’s one you take mindfully, if you’re walking a labyrinth correctly. You pay attention to where you’re going, and the pattern of your movement. There is a clear path to where you’re going, but it’s not a straight line to get there, you take your time, and you take your time mindfully. And then once you’re there, you take that same route to go back out. And a labyrinth is there to be used, over and over again. You’ll return. You’ll take that journey again and again. As many times as you need to.
The labyrinth is like a combination serpent coil and ouroboros. The serpent is coiled, and gnaws its tail. A snake will shed its skin over and over again, just like a Serpent will revisit the labyrinth over and over again, both literally and in the metaphorical sense of their lives and the pattern thereof. We shed our skin. We walk the labyrinth. Just when we think we’re done with something, there is a deeper level of that thing, or another connected thing to take care of – another circle originating from the one we just walked.
I’ve had people say to me, when I’ve talked about how traumatic experiences from long ago still continue to affect me, “why can’t you just get over it?” And I’ve beaten myself up about it. I beat myself up about it until I began to walk the Serpent path and began to understand that healing is not a linear journey from point A to point B. It is a circle, a maze, a labyrinth. You journey in to that hurting place, and back out to shed your skin… and then back in again.
The scars are always with us, like a labyrinth in a cave long after the people who built it have died. If you are lucky, you find a new way of seeing those scars and shed more and more of the pain… but it is part of what made you who you are. There is no escaping that. I have tried, all my life, to run from my past, to run and hide. I cannot outrun my past. There is always another layer, another level, of how I’ve been affected, how I’ve been scarred, from things. I shed some skin, energetically speaking, but there is always more.
And yet, in the center of that labyrinth, I can see the patterns and know this is not all there is, and there is more than just these hurts. No, I can’t just get over it, any more than I can just will the scars on my body to go away, or will myself to stop breathing. But I keep shedding another layer of power and influence from the past, and I feel cleaner every time. From the center of the labyrinth I see the world unfold around me, and my own world, my own wyrd, and I try to understand, even when I am making sense of the senseless. I will always carry hurts, there is no “just getting over it”, but there’s more than just this, around me and within me, also.
Really, the labyrinth metaphor can be applied to so much of my life, not just with the trauma and the healing process. It can be applied to my spiritual development. It can be applied to my identity.
Every time that I’ve done ritual in the Otherworld, in the Serpent caves, in the labyrinth where the “heart of the earth” beats, and I’ve push energy into it with the workings we do… things change. They change subtly, slowly… Another skin is shed, another cycle ends and another cycle begins, another pattern begins to take shape, connections made, a journey around them. The transformation starts internally, and radiates outwards, like coming from the inside of a cave out into the world… and then back again. Forces push and pull. We walk the labyrinth, we touch the center, we are transformed by our journey, and then we transform.
If we whittle each of the Vanic tribes down to a basic function, the Serpents usually get classed as “healers”. This is not false. This is not completely true, either. Healing is but a part of what we do, and a lot of what we do looks like healing – the work with polarities, two Serpents working together for balance… and then the labyrinth rites, where we work wyrd like a maze, helping to get people where they need to go in journey as well as destination. Keeping and guarding the mysteries, underground, and working them in our labyrinths and stone circles.
And it’s not easy. This is the road less travelled, because who wants to walk in circles all the time. And it’s less satisfying to many to just see subtle changes, little things that make a lot of big things when stacked up, but still are subtle in the doing, in the working and sometimes feel like trying to take apart a cave a stalactite at a time.
More than that, I get to face my fear. Fear of being trapped. Fear of being bitten. The metaphorical process of walking the black labyrinth, that mindfulness thing makes you think a lot, and get to the center of your own deep, dark nature, what makes you tick, and the sort of things you’d rather keep hidden underground. This is not a path for everyone. This is not a path I recommend for most people, walking that labyrinth again and again in the darkness of the cave, down towards the healing.
But it is what I do. It is what I am. There is a beauty in this process. Snakes are beautiful, if you get past your fear and you get a really good look at them; they even move beautifully, gracefully, with the fluidity of water or a dancing flame. Labyrinths are a beautiful adornment on the ground, and also beautiful in the experience of walking, and the energy radiating from one. There is beauty in the symmetry of walking inside and then out again, in the symmetry of its form and function.
I am proud to be Serpent and proud to take this path less-travelled. For all that I sometimes feel like I am gnawing my own tail and walking in circles, I try to do so with beauty and grace, surrendering to the flow, to the center, to the journey within and back out again.