Blood And Fire: The Ordeal Path

excerpt from Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism

There are no bindings holding her up against the tree, because she is here of her own free will. She had asked to be bound, to hold her against her fear and keep her from bolting off into the woods, but the one to whom her mentor had handed her over had refused her even that. "You'll stand for it under your own power, or you shouldn't be taking this on," he said. So here she is, in the dark, standing under the trees on the land of some Rokkr shaman who scares her just to look at him, her arms wrapped around the rough bark and her forehead pressed into it. She feels the tree's energy thrumming beneath her. It is a comfort.

This is only the first of nine ordeals that He has said she must endure. He needs His warriors strong and knowledgeable about the dark places, and after all, He spent nine years seeking out the Ordeal Path, culminating in His time hanging on the Tree close to death. What's a little mortal pain, to Him? The Tree....she clings closer to the ash bark, wondering if He felt bark against His skin, when the time came.

But this is not that time. This is only the first one, the one to honor the ancestors in Hel's land, and it is Hel's shaman who initiates her, because besides Him, it is the Rokkr who understand this path the best. To learn it, she must go into their lands of darkness and learn their painful mysteries, and like Him, she will take that knowledge away and use it herself someday, perhaps on some young man ulfhednar-bound who will stand as she stands, hanging onto a tree - a Tree - for dear life, waiting for the pain.

The first touch comes, and it makes her flinch, but it is just a gloved hand between her naked shoulder blades. "Breathe," the voice behind her says. "Breathe in between every stroke, and out after each one. Breathe in the rune, let it come into your body, let leave what must leave." Then the hand is gone, and she is alone in the dark, and he begins to sing in a voice that rips through the air. It is a rune song. She flinches, even before the whip falls, from the pounding of his galdr. Then the first blow falls, and she knows Pain. Feoh, she whispers. The rune sings into her, on the song, on the pain, green and gold and abundant, beaten into her soul by way of her body. Not just a sigil, a divinatory symbol, but a who will ally with her now, because it has been blown through her skin and her shields.

Almost before she can remember to gulp breath again, the second line of the song comes and the second blow. Ur. It comes into her like a great grey bolt, out of her like a grunt. Then the next - Thorn - remember to breathe! and then Aesc, His rune. The blows come just fast enough for her to absorb the last one, sometimes too fast. Breathe. Breathe. Weep. Sob into the rough bark. The runes she knows slam into her, inexorably, and then comes the verse with the others, the new ones whom she has not met. Hel's aett, dark and forboding, but these too are Mysteries to be known to her. Then it is over, and her fingers slip from the trunk. Her throat is raw - had there been screaming? The man catches her with one hand, lowers her to the blanket laid next to the Tree.

But it is not over; she hears the sound of leather gloves being exchanged for latex ones, packages being opened, her back being swabbed with pungent alcohol. It renews the pain and she groans. Then his fingers finding a spot on her lower spine that has not been touched. "Breathe," he says, and she does, and a scalpel opens her skin. Next to her head is a pot of ashes, still warm from the burning; they are herbs gathered with prayer and intent, to take their essence into her body. Burnt to sterile ashes, they still have power humming about them, as if the burning merely made them more concentrated. Her blood flows, and a latex-gloved hand forces its way into her mouth, making her taste it. Then it dips into the pot and the ash is smeared into the wound, to heal later into a fine grey line, the first of nine bind runes cut into her. The first badge of her strength. Nine ordeals, nine worlds. When she reaches Asgard, the rune will bind the base of her skull, and He will be better able to enter her. She would give all the blood and pain in the world for that.

The Ordeal Path is probably the most frightening of all these Paths to the outsider looking in. It uses pain, fear, suffering, and discomfort for the purposes of achieving altered states, coming out of them, creating energy for magical work, cleansing, breaking down internal barriers, and offerings to the Spirits. From a distance, it looks horrifying, especially to people of our modern culture who see all pain as something uselessly awful to be avoided at all costs. People who inflict pain on themselves, or help someone else to create pain, are seen as sick and dangerous. But to our ancestors, it wasn't necessarily like that.

I remember being a child and seeing a film in my school about the history of Native American peoples, and it briefly mentioned the Lakota Sun Dance and included snapshots of a century-old illustration. It was dramatic and bloody, with braves hanging on hooks from the rafters of a tipi-like structure, their faces contorted with pain. I can still remember the squeals of disgust from the other kids around me. Not only could we not imagine something like that happening, we couldn't imagine anyone doing it and living. To us kids in that classroom, that kind of apparent damage might be fatal, and the idea of deliberate self-inflicted suffering was incomprehensible...yet many of those same children went to a church every Sunday where the main figure on the altar was a crucified, suffering man.

Yet we have our own such icons in the northern tradition, the most obvious being Odin who traveled as a beggar on the roads, learned seidhr painfully in skirts, tore out one of his own eyes and threw it in Mimir's well, and ended up hanging in agony on the World Tree for nine days. There is also his counterpart and blood brother Loki, who is repeatedly imprisoned, tortured, starved, has his mouth sewn shut, and is raped by a stallion, just to name a few of his adventures. Fenris is chained and stabbed, and Tyr has his arm bitten off for the safety of his tribe. Frey walks willingly to the fields every year to be ritually sacrificed for the fertility of Vanaheim. Iduna is imprisoned, turned into a nut, and rescued by flight. Both Angrboda and Gullveig (who may or may not be Freya) are burned three times over. Baldur is pierced with mistletoe, Loki's son Vali is turned into a ravenous wolf who then kills his brother, and there are many more tales like these. The Northern myths are full of bloody sacrifice, whichever way one turns.

Of course, just because a deity goes through a sacred mythic ordeal, willing or unwilling, does not mean that everyone who works with that deity ought to do the same. This Path is not for everyone, or even for most people, and that's as it should be. On the other hand, if an ordeal is necessary, there is greater power in linking that ordeal ritual to the paths blazed by the bloody footprints of a God in pain, if only by doing it in their honor. Linking it in this way draws divine power into it, gives it greater depth, and can take you much further than going there alone. Being suspended on hooks from a living tree has its own power, as does being cut, bound, beaten, and buried in the Earth for a time, or being bound with chains while one wrestles with one's inner wrath. However, when those rites are done in the name of Odin, or Frey, or Fenris, with attention paid to details that bring the experience closer, the rite becomes transpersonal - done not just for one's self but for the Cosmos as well. If it is done publicly, the people who choose to witness are blessed with further understanding as well.

I should disclaimer right now that the sort of applied pain and discomfort that best serves the purposes of the Ordeal Path is not that which is most injurious. In fact, serious injuries tend to put one into shock, which is not an altered state that is easily usable for magical purposes. Instead, the best sort of pain for the job is that which gives the body just enough sensation to set off the right brain chemistry, sustained over a period of time, but not enough to do any permanent damage. For purposes of this chapter, "non-injurious pain" is defined as something that does not leave any damage that can't be easily healed up over a period of days without professional medical help. A cutting or branding may leave a scar, a flogging may leave bruises and welts, a tattoo is clearly a deliberate mark, but none of these will impair the person's daily functioning in any way, provided that the work is done skillfully on the right areas of the body.

For a concentrated look on the spirituality and techniques of the Ordeal Path that is more than this small chapter can cover, we encourage folks to get a copy of Dark Moon Rising: Pagan BDSM and the Ordeal Path from Asphodel Press. This is the first major text about how this path is done deliberately in a pagan-religious context, and while it is not northern-tradition per se, there are a lot of useful spiritual techniques and thought-provoking ideas from its various authors that are worth reading for anyone going into this kind of work. It also goes into much greater detail about how to create ordeal rites for people.

When it comes to actually learning how to do the physical techniques of this path - whipping, cutting, tattooing, branding, piercing, hook suspension, etc. - there is no way to learn this properly from books. Please, please find people who are skilled in these techniques and properly apprentice to them. It dishonors the techniques and those who passed them on to us to hack through them sloppily; they should be done carefully and with the proper training, and with attention to detail and to sterile procedure. The latter, too, is very important. Believe me when I say that if our ancestors had been able to procure rubbing alcohol, Technicare, and sterile packaged implements, they would have used them. Getting an infection from a poorly sanitized ordeal rite is a bad omen and does no honor to Those whom we serve. Remember that this is the Path that is second only to the Path of Sacred Plants when it comes to the ability to kill the body or put someone in the hospital, and move with respect.

It should go without saying that a spirit-worker should never do an ordeal for a client if they aren't skilled in the techniques that the client requests, even if it sounds like what is needed. If it's that important, find someone else who can do it and send the client over, or team up with the person who can do it. For example, I am not a tattoo artist, but I've run rituals for people who wanted sacred tattoos, with me directing what was happening and the actual work being done by a Pagan tattoo artist who had the equipment and the skill.

On the other hand, there are ordeals that can be done without learning physical-trauma skills. One example might be a fear/trust ordeal, where someone is blindfolded and led through a dangerous area by a guide, or just into parts unknown in order to do something unexpected. Another might be having other people embody and say aloud the things which you fear to hear, or which trigger you, in a space where you are honor-bound to stay and hear it and not lash out. Ordeals can also include simple endurance rather than pain - for example, climbing a mountain to do a rite, or standing vigil and praying for a long period of time, or trance dancing for hours. Many of techniques of the other Paths, if done well past the point of comfort, become part of the Ordeal Path as well.

The most important thing to remember with ordeal-work is that it is meant to take you beyond your ego, not simply fluff it up. While some ordeals can give you increased confidence in yourself and your power, if there wasn't a point somewhere in it that was completely humbling, you didn't do it right. Ideally, you should eventually get to the point where the part of you that is ego is irrelevant. That's one of the way that the Ordeal Path resembles the Ascetic Path (and indeed there are places where they combine). The Ascetic's Path works with small, gentle, inexorable steps, and its focus goes inward into stillness, while the Ordeal Path takes great painful ripping steps, and its focus goes outward into a scream...after which one passes out of one's collected muck and finds a place of stillness. In the end, the Wheel of these Eight Paths all lead to the central hub, that place that we may not be able to adequately describe in words, but we all know when we've been to it.