Together we have gathered for a ritual; we begin the trance journey. We climb down the roots of the world tree. Down, deeper down, we journey into the shadow, the deep within. Together we sing, we feel the hum of divine connection in the center of our chests, we connect to that deep well of wisdom and inspiration cradled in the deep earth.
Recently, I facilitated the main ritual at Paganicon, a Pagan conference in the Twin Cities celebrating its fifth year. I never know how rituals like this are going to go until they happen. As a ritualist and event planner, I’m always prepared for ritual facilitation disasters because anything could go wrong during a public ritual.
When planning a ritual, I’m often unsure what the space looks like, how big the room is, what kind of acoustics I’m working with. I don’t know how many attendees will show up or how willing they’ll be to chant and dance and sing. I’m often working with volunteer ritualists who take supporting roles as well, and many times, these aren’t folks I’ve had the chance to work with before. When I step in to lead a public ritual, I have to be prepared for any number of things.
Planning a big ritual can be a lot of stress, and I occasionally wonder why I put myself through it. I ask myself, what good is ritual? Why is religion important at all?
Sometimes, though, the ritual just flows and re-inspires me for the work I do.
Sometimes a ritual goes well in ways I couldn’t even anticipate. The rituals that I host tend to not be primarily celebratory; they tend to be deep, intensive, and introspective. In this case, the Paganicon ritual was themed after the journey into the Underworld and the return. My hope, with these rituals, is to make space for catharsis. For connection. For divine communion. For self reflection.
I often say, I’m not there to tell people what to believe in, theologically; I’m just there to help get them to the “doorway,” as it were, to that something larger, that something deeper.
After this ritual and throughout the entire weekend, I was honored to hear from a number of people who had intense, transformative experiences. It’s when I hear from these folks that I’m re-inspired not only for the work that I do as a ritualist and teacher, but also for religion and spirituality in general.
When I see some of the conflicts that come up within Pagan groups, or in the broader world around us because of religion, I sometimes have to wonder if religion causes more harm than good. But, when a ritual participant comes up to me and tells me that they felt the divine, that they connected to their ancestors, that they were able to work through something that had been causing them pain, I see the good work that ritual and religion can do.
Ecstatic Ritual and Mysteries
The rituals I facilitate are ecstatic, participatory, cathartic. There is singing and moving and dancing and drumming, there is trancework and hands-on experiential work. There’s a phrase, “It’s a mystery,” that is often used within Pagan groups. Sometimes it’s unfortunately used as a way to dodge a question or look more educated/illuminated/special. But often it just means, “This is something I can explain to you, but the words won’t do it justice, you’re just going to have to experience it for yourselves.”
That being said, sometimes the right words at the right time can give us a glimpse into a particular mystery. While I can’t replicate the sound of the ritual, the experience of walking through it, I can tell you a story. The story of when we journeyed together down the roots of the World Tree, down to the Underworld, down to the sacred well beneath the world.
Will you join me?
The Ritual: Return to the Root
Almost two hundred of us gather together and sing. We fill the room as we chant, we connect, we move. We share breath and pulse, we share space. We move to the heartbeat of the drum in our bones. We ground into the space, into our bodies, and we connect together as a community, a tribe, even if just for this night’s work. We sing and speak and move together to invite the elements, and to invite the archetypes of the Gatekeeper, the Water Bearer, and to evoke the spirit of the Seeker within us all.
And then we stand before the World Tree. The Gatekeeper. The portal opens and we begin to journey down. Deeper. Down and further down….
Down the roots of the tree, down into the depths, down toward the land of shadows, of ancestors. Down and deeper, how do you journey? What do you see here? What do you feel in your body, what do you hear or smell?
Before you can go further, there stands a challenger before you.
Someone or something that halts your path. Who is it? What is it? Do they ask you a question? Do they remind you of a time past? And how do you move through this challenge?
Down, deeper down, you begin to feel the wildness. The primal nature of the mysteries of the down below and the deep within. Deeper you travel, step after step until you face another challenger. Does this one have a name, or a face, or is it simply a sound, a metaphor? How do you move past it?
Can you feel the essence of the depths calling you deeper, calling you forth? Is it a sound or a song or a scent? Is it a resonance in the center of your chest?
What draws you deeper still, deeper into the wildness, deeper into the below? You face one last gate, one last challenge, before entering the depths of the Underworld. What faces you here? And how do you move through?And can you feel that wildness rising up within you, the howls and cries of ecstasis?
What is it to be fully in your body, to feel, and to remember? What are the sounds of grief, of joy, of anguish, of lust, of love, what are the sounds that rise forth? What are the primal mysteries coiling within that demand release? What would it be like to express that sound, to be heard and to be joined, to howl or laugh or weep?
The land of the Underworld is the land of ancestors, the land of shadows. It is the land of memories, of fears, of our past, of the emotions we bury deep down. It’s the shushed whispers of “keep quiet” or “don’t embarrass yourself” or “pull yourself together.”
Together we howl. We weep. We laugh.
And from that place of wildness, we venture further into the Underworld to do the work that calls to our spirit. What inner work has called you to the land of shadow, the land of ancestors?
Perhaps we are there to speak to an ancestor, to one of the beloved dead. Or to listen to the wisdom an ancestor has for us. Perhaps we are there to cut away something that no longer serves, to let that energy fall to the ground as compost. Perhaps we are there to speak a secret. In the dark cave beneath the earth, is there something you can tell no living person, but the burden is too heavy? What would you speak here to release it?
Perhaps we are there to look into the mirror of our deepest selves. What are we afraid people will see when they look at us? What are the shadows that haunt us? If we can name them, if we can connect to them, can we move past their hold on us? Perhaps we are there to acknowledge a sacrifice, to let something go or to name what it is we are willing to give something up for. What are our life’s dreams? What do we give of ourselves to make those happen?
Together we sing, the sound holds us and cradles us like the rocking of the waves. And slowly we return to the center, to the community. There are guides there with bowls of what looks like red clay or blood.
“What do you initiate into?” they ask us. “What mysteries have called to you, what did you come here to seek? Will you be marked as an initiate?” And if we choose, we are marked wherever on our bodies is right for us. We are marked for having made this journey.
The mysteries cannot be unseen.
As we gather together with red marking our foreheads, our hands, our chests, the sound begins to shift.
We have gathered around the sacred well, the deepest well at the center of the world. This is the well where the rainwaters fall, and it is the well that feeds the taproots of all the trees of all the worlds. This well reflects the burning stars in the nighttime sky above. This is the well carved from centuries of water flowing through rock. It is the well of unbound life force.
It is the well carved into our hearts every time we make this sacred journey, every time we heal an old wound, ever time we connect to the divine. Every time we crack open our hearts and make room, we carve the well deeper still.
If you were to drink of this well, this grail, this sacred life force, what would you use this power for? This energy? What sacred work calls to you? Building community, working for justice, creating art, healing old wounds and renewing our spirit?
If you had all of the world’s deep life force held cupped in your hands, if you could claim this magic for your own, what would you do with it?
What power and magic would you claim? And will you drink those sacred waters? What would change in your life if you did?
Together we sing this magic, we become the singing bowl, the sacred well, the fire that heats the waters and we rise back up the tree to return to ourselves.
Together we have brought the magic. We fought our way down the roots of the tree, we faced the shadows that hold us back, and we brought that cupfull of water back with us into our lives.
Why Does It Matter?
Why ritual matters, why religion matters, is that sound of two hundred people singing a chant together in harmony. That feeling of hundreds of feet pounding the ground, people moving and dancing and singing to bring up that life force. Why it matters is people looking across the circle at one another as they sing, meeting eyes, seeing the divine in one another.
Why it matters is in the moments during and after ritual when people stay close to that center, holding one another, weeping or laughing, connecting. Why it matters is in the hours and days after the ritual when people tell me that the ritual shifted something within them, that they felt the fingertips of the divine and it made their lives better.
How can you bring the magic? What would you do with the energy of those waters of the sacred well?
Images courtesy of the author.