Fasting in the Northern Tradition

by Galina Krasskova
excerpt from Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism

stonesYears ago, when I was first easing into journey work, I was very drawn to the discipline of fasting. In fact, for a couple of years, fasting was one of the primary training practices that Odin (perhaps having realized my affinity for the practice) laid out for me. Part of this natural affinity may have stemmed from my earlier profession as a ballet dancer (a career I left when I was 22), where such discipline with food was essential. More likely, it was Odin's way of tempering me, and starting my feet down the road of the ordeal, something I only recently realized He began very early on in our relationship. It is my belief that because fasting opens a person up psychically, it enables the Gods to quicken the pace of Their teaching. It may have been for this reason alone that I was drawn (or pushed) toward it.

I seriously have a love/hate relationship with fasting. It is an incredibly useful technique. I've used it for cleansing both physically and spiritually, for shaking loose my hold on the physical body, as a form of extended utiseta, and for the sheer discipline alone. At the same time, emotionally, psychologically and of course physically, it can be grueling. In a culture of material abundance and spiritual dearth, food -- the most fundamental of nourishers -- carries an enormous amount of psychological and emotional weight. The extended absence of food has the ability to unleash an emotional torrent. The very process of being emptied brings with it an immense vulnerability. Emotional (and energy) wards, blocks and shields just crumble and the body's energy pathways are opened by virtue of the act of consciously stripping away. One's ability to physically defend oneself grows less and less the longer the body is denied physical nourishment. On every level, extended fasting is not only an exercise in spiritual discipline, but an exercise in utter and complete vulnerability as well. If one is doing an extended fast, after the fourth or fifth day all the senses become exquisitely heightened, particularly smell and touch. Something as simple as curling up in a blanket or pulling on a sweater becomes almost erotic. The constraints of Midgard slowly begin to lose their hold on the flesh and herein lies one of the dangers of this practice. The process of driving one's body to the breaking point can be remarkably addictive. It's important to remember that this is not the purpose of a fast. A very wise man recently told me that if you battle the flesh, sooner or later, the flesh will win. This is a painful truism that eventually is brought home to all of us warrior types, so I'll state it clearly: The purpose of fasting is not to break the body, but to break down the emotional and psychological fetters that we all too often place on ourselves.

Fasting is a process of opening on every level. It is to enter willingly into a state of utter vulnerability and to consciously commit to opening one's energy channels. Fasting is a particularly effective means of purification, as it works from the inside out. The major battle is with one's will and desires. It tempers the mind, because one must learn to ignore the mental harangue of the body for food. It tempers the body, because it provides a means of exploring hunger not only in the abstract but in an intensely physical, personal, minute way. It tempers the spirit because it causes opening of the energy channels and carries the fasting person into a state where one's internal energy is uniquely and exquisitely at the forefront of one's consciousness. It makes one intimately aware of the flow of one's energy and any existent blockages. It also highlights the myriad ways in which we utilize food over and above simple sustenance. And, sometimes, it can be a means whereby one's God demonstrates dominance, control and ownership.

Now, I suppose I should be clear about what I mean when I speak of fasting. The times that I have fasted in the past, it has been a complete fast: nothing but water or salt water has passed my lips for the duration of the fast. Not everyone should do that from the beginning. We each rely on food in different ways and in the beginning, fasting can be a very painful discipline. I always found it difficult to go out or interact with people (let alone work) during serious extended fasts. The entire process simply left me far too open and undefended. That's why I believe it is best to work up to long periods of fasting gradually. Initially, I began by fasting one day a month, a complete fast, allowing myself only water. Then I'd fast one day a week, then three consecutive days once a month and then finally I managed to do nine day fasts. It took me a good six months to work up to my first extended nine-day fast. I believe it's important to pace oneself and to accustom oneself and one's body to what is, after all, a very ascetic practice.

I found it very helpful to work up to the fast itself: three or four days prior to the fast, start limiting food intake. Cut down on sugars, processed foods and meat. Drink more water. Eat lightly: bread, soup, fruits, vegetables. Gradually decrease until the day you begin the total fast. Most importantly, when you break the fast, DO NOT break it by eating a full meal! (Trust me on this, you'll regret it). Rather, gradually work up to solid food again over a period of three or four days, starting with soup and bread. This way, the process of fasting is not a complete shock to the body's systems.

If one cannot fast completely due to medical reasons, modified fasting can also be beneficial. Restrict meals to one small meal a day. Cut out processed foods, sugars, meats—meat is particularly grounding, hence why it is often counter-inductive to the whole purpose of the fast. Or allow yourself milk during the fast. People with blood-sugar issues should consult their physicians before attempting a fast of any sort—or at least use common sense!

As spirit-workers, our bodies are our tools, the conduit through which we do the work that is required of us. It's important to keep one's tool in the best condition possible. We experience enough wear and tear in this line of work that if a bit of fasting can help rebalance and maintain one's energy channels, it is worth any temporary discomfort. As an aside, it certainly teaches one respect for food.

On a more personal note, I find it interesting now, that as Woden releases some of the hold he has on my sexuality (while not exactly demanding that I be celibate, He has demanded the choice of my lovers—which has amounted to celibacy for me), at the same time, He's beginning to demand greater physical discipline in other ways…ways that involve the self same tempering of the will. While I have not fasted in quite a while due to hypoglycemia, I suspect that it won't be too much longer before I'm required to do it again, even if only in modified form. In fact, He's already told me as much. It's something of a trade off: if I own my sexuality, He owns my will. And He seems to favor such physically trying disciplines; perhaps on the theory that if we can govern our desires, our hungers, the chaotic crying out of our undisciplined wills, we will prove to be better tools and open ourselves up to the acquisition of greater wisdom.

There aren't many references to fasting in the lore. Perhaps the only existent example is Odin's sacrifice on Yggdrasil, where He hung for nine nights and nine days in agony sans food or drink before seizing up the runes. But then Woden is all about testing one's strength, discipline, endurance, desires…on every level He is about sacrifice, ordeal and the challenge so perhaps it is not so strange that he would find a tool that so challenges body, mind and spirit to His liking.