Ergi: The Way of the Third
excerpt from Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism
This particular chapter is going to cover what is probably the most controversial of issues in the entirety of northern-tradition shamanism. Many scholars, magicians, and spirit-workers have skirted the issue, or touched on it gingerly only to back off again. Discussing it angers both homophobic heterosexuals and assimilationist homosexuals, both modernized tribal peoples and researchers wary of projecting modern assumptions about sex and gender onto the ancients. However, like it or not, the constellation of power and taboo that the northern tradition calls ergi crops up again and again all over the world, including among fledgling modern spirit-workers.
I've chosen to use the much-debated word - ergi or argr - even though its meaning is unclear, and it may have had many meanings over the centuries as being Third became less and less acceptable. (Some of them have been conjectured as "morally useless", "perverse", "cowardly", "effeminate", "receiving of anal penetration", and, tellingly, "a sorcerer".) That's not to say that it was ever completely acceptable; even in tribal societies where it is not seen as a terrible or shameful thing - and for that matter, even in places where it is or was seen as a sacred thing - it was never exactly the sort of condition that any parent wanted for their child. Even "sacred" can mean "taboo", which can mean "kept a respectful and/or fearful distance from", a condition that any spirit-worker will recognize. What it doesn't mean, and never will mean, is "normal".
If you look at the research on shamanism worldwide - and especially that of the subarctic circumpolar shamanisms, from Siberia to the Inuit - you find, over and over, the disturbingly frequent presence of spirit-workers who transgressed gender roles and indulged in unusual sexual practices. In some cultures, just showing evidence of these behaviors was considered a sign that a child was bound to be a spirit-worker of some sort.
This was remarked on particularly in Siberian shamanism, specifically among the Chukchi, Koryak, and Kamchadal, and across the Bering Strait with the Inuit. While Siberia may seem to be a long way in the minds of many people, from Scandinavia or even Finland, there are many things that the circumpolar subarctic shamanic traditions have in common, much more so than shamanic traditions from further south. That includes northern Europe, especially during Neolithic times. (I could also discuss gender-transgressive shamans scattered throughout many other cultures around the world, but for the sake of brevity I'll stick to northern Eurasia; anyone who wants to find the other material can do so without trouble.)
Interviews with these "transformed shamans" report that the spirits informed the shamans in question that they were required to put on the clothing and take up the jobs of the opposite sex; in some cases, they lived their whole life in this way, including taking lovers appropriate to their role, and in some cases the male-to-female shamans would ritually mime childbirth. (Even here, however, the "special" role of these shamans as still not playing by the gender rules can be seen; a "shaman-wife" of this type did not have to observe the taboos of women, but could accompany their husband to battle, and rather than taking their husband's name, sometimes the husband took theirs instead.) Sometimes one also finds reports of male-to-female shamans who changed gender later in life, but remained husbands to their wives and fathers to their children, merely adopting female clothing and household jobs. Some merely donned women's clothing during ceremonies.
Some claimed that they picked up the traditional skills of their new role as quickly as they did due to the spirits helping them with it constantly. In some cases, the transformed shaman had a spirit-husband or spirit-wife who had transformed them to be the "right" gender for that marriage as far as the spirit-spouse was concerned. Researchers tell of the troubles of being married to such a one, as the spirit-spouse was considered the "real" head of household, and the shaman's spouse had to obey the commands of the shaman's spirit-husband or be fatally punished.
Interviews also repeatedly came across the fact that while these transformed shamans were not necessarily fully accepted or much liked by their tribesfolk, nobody gave them any trouble due to their perceived power. While tribesfolk differed on whether male or female shamans were stronger, they were united in believing that the transformed shamans - koekchuch, kavau, yirka-laul-vairgin - were the most powerful of all. In fact, the social respect allocated to them was used by researchers as an example of the power attributed to shamans in general; if an ordinary person of the tribe decided to change their gender, they might be shunned, but if a shaman did it, it was a sacred thing done by the spirits to give them extra power.
It's also often observed that when it comes to tribal sex-roles and the tasks and taboos differentiated between them, there are really three gender roles - men, women, and shamans. Regardless of the shaman's gender presentation, they are permitted to do what is not permitted, because their position sets them apart, and because doing so gives them power - not just in public opinion, but in the web of maegen and hamingja. Male shamans could be around women in childbirth without harm to themselves; women shamans could touch sacred objects usually restricted from female contact.
Many of the Siberian tribes had third gender shamans, to the dismay and bewilderment of the "civilized" scholars who wrote about them with words like "perversion" and "sexually inverted". Chukchi shamans spoke about the terrible transformation of a man into a "soft man", which all shamans dreaded to be told to do by the spirits. Still, some received the command anyway, and had to go along with it or be killed. (To this day this is the difficult choice of some people with gender dysphoria, and when they are also spirit-workers, refusal can also eventually be fatal.) Some men apparently preferred death to going through this transformation, and received it, although not all who began it went all the way through to the end. It started with a change of hairstyle to that of the opposite sex, and then progressed to a change of clothing. The final phase had them changing their job roles in the tribe, taking on the tasks of their new gender, and marrying partners appropriate to their new role. They would in turn acquire special spirits appropriate to that role, sometimes "spirit-spouses". There were also female-to-male equivalents of the "soft men", and scholars were further horrified by tales of how they used artificial phalli for sex with their female partners.
Among the Saami, who in many places lived intertwined with the descendants of the Indo-European invaders and the invaded aboriginals, two of their many deities stand out. One is Juoksahkka, the "bow-woman", who unlike her two very feminine (and more popular) sisters and her mother, is a woman warrior-figure who carries the bow generally reserved for men. (The bow-woman figure is oddly echoed in other parts of the world, such as the Hopi woman-warrior kachina god Pohaha who carries both the male bow and the female rattle, and is the counterpart of a cross-dressing male-to-female kachina figure named He'e; and the Egyptian archer goddess Neith, whose rites supposedly made use of women wearing artificial phalli.) The other is Leabolmmai, the "alder-man" who brought game to hunters. The first element in his name, liejp, refers to both the red sap of the alder tree (a sacred substance that was used to paint symbols on shaman drums and protect people from danger from ritual objects) and to menstrual blood. The power of the menstrual-blood man takes on more significance when we remember that the alder, which made the best charcoal, was the tree of Loki the ergi shapeshifter among the Norse. Juoksahkka and Leabolmmai were said to be bitter enemies, as it was their job to choose the sex of the unborn child, and they often disagreed over what that ought to be.
When it came to smaller wights, there were again cross-gender beings in the middle. The vuojnodime or "invisible ones" came in three categories: male (bassevarealmma), female (bassevareniejda), and double-sexed (gadniha). Similarly, the three sacred animals - reindeer, bird and fish - were seen as masculine, feminine, and third-gendered respectively, any male or female members of those species notwithstanding. The assumption of "fish" as third gendered echoes the Norse hermaphroditic serpent Jormundgand, and the line in the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem about the Big Snake's rune Ior - "Serpent is a fish, although it feeds on land."
Other parts of ancient Eurasia had traditions of third-gender spirit-people. Herodotus and Hippocrates both discuss the "enarees", or male-to-female transsexual shamans among the ancient Scythians, who "mutilated" their genitalia and took on female roles. They were said to be the most powerful shamans of their people. Ovid actually claimed that some Scythian priestesses knew how to extract "female poison" distilled from the urine of a mare in heat, with which to dose men in order to feminize them. The average person might throw this off as silliness, if they didn't know that pregnant mare's urine is the main source of Premarin, the most widely used estrogen drug today. They also ate a lot of licorice root - so popular among them that the Greeks to whom they exported it referred to it as "the Scythian root" - which is also an anti-androgen.
There has been a good deal of research done on the Norse seidhworker as ergi, as sexually and/or gender-deviant, most notably by Brit Solli, Ing-Marie Back Danielson, Jenny Jochens, and Neil Price. Referring to someone by one of the many colorful insults that indicated a less-than-completely-manly nature was grounds for death in medieval Scandinavian society, and this discomfort rubbed off onto the reputation of sorcerers and seidhworkers. According to the Gods and wights that I work with, it wasn't always this way; in the centuries and millennia before the medieval era, such folk had a social situation more similar to that of many other circumpolar tribes. While it wasn't exactly what a parent would necessarily choose for their child (given all possible choices), and while it did set them apart from the people (although that was the way of things for a spirit-worker anyhow), it was not a shameful offense. Instead, it connoted greater shamanic power. One wonders if an echo of that "too-powerful" nature was part of what fueled the fear and hatred of the average Viking, causing them to react in a manner so extreme that accusations of ergi were legally akin to attempted murder. One might also wonder if it continues to fuel it today.
For all that medieval Norse/Germanic society seemed to have been extremely sexist - at least by the Christian era when most of the lore was written - archaeologists keep turning up pre-medieval graves with cross-gender clothing and artifacts. Seven male skeletons with female clothing and jewelry have turned up in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon burials in England, another in Holland, and more in Scandinavia. Similarly, female skeletons have turned up buried with weapons. One cremated couple were buried in connecting graves; the female skeleton had woodworking tools and the male one had female jewelry. Probably the most interesting cross-gender burial is that of what seems to be the grave of a gender-crossing Saami noaide in an area where Norse and Saami people lived intermixed together. The Saami skeleton is biologically male, but is dressed in Norse female clothing and jewelry and is buried with a woman's needle case.
The medieval Norse accusation-insult that a man "acted like a woman every ninth night" shows its magical roots by the sacred number nine. It may be that "shapeshifting" into a woman's form every ninth night was a way of gaining magical power, as a sort of temporary ergi. For those who feel called to ergi but are not ready to leap in all the way, this might be a way to start slowly, doing it in a magical context. Every ninth day and night, try to live as fully as you can in another sex, including shapeshifting your hame in that way. Dedicate that time to devotional, ritual, or magical work, and see what happens. Changing sex, especially temporarily, can be a powerful kind of altered state all its own, with an intense shift in perspective.
Then we have the infamous claim in lore that some priests of Frey behaved like women and wore "the tinkle of unmanly bells" on their skirts. (The wearing of bells is something that many feminine-male ergi spirit-workers in this tradition have found themselves compelled to do, even if they have never actually heard of this claim.) There are also picture-stones in Gotland that show figures wearing the trailing skirts of women, and prominent beards as well; whether these are cross-dressing men or women with false beards is unknown, but either way we are looking at gender-crossing behavior that deviates from the conventions of depicting ordinary men and women. Some scholars have pointed out that you can't have set examples of "normal" gender activity unless you have examples of what isn't "normal", and that making that latter the province only of holy or supernaturally-ridden people with a mandate from the Powers to defy those laws is a way of keeping "normalcy" in place, without entirely banning the "wrong example" entirely.
Another interesting example is the line in Hyndlujod, where Hyndla comments on the ancestry of the volvas, the vitkis, and the "seidberendr" folk. The second half of this third term - berendr - is tantalizingly unclear; technically it means "carrier", but in practice it seemed to be an obscenity used to refer to female animals, and then to female genitalia themselves (as in the modern term pussy for vulva). In modern Icelandic, a related obscenity is berandi, meaning ass or buttocks. That would mean that this word could be considered to connote "seid-carrier cunt" or "seid-carrier ass", and while we may recoil at this term, one should remember that what seems rude in one culture is ordinary dinner-conversation in another. Certainly it makes sense if this third category refers to third-gendered spirit-workers, being as the first two refer to female and male ones respectively.
The ancestor of the seidberendr, Svarthofdi - Blackhead - reminds us of the fact that there seem to be more cross-gender entities among the "dark" gods, including Loki, his child Jormundgand, and possibly his extremely assertive warrior-wife Angrboda. (His daughter Hela, while she is all female, is conversely half-alive and half-dead.) As one would expect, there are greater percentages of ergi spirit-workers among those chosen by those dark Gods, especially Hela who seems (anecdotally, in this modern era) to be very fond of human servants who are between male and female. It fits well with the tradition to have a spiritual ancestor who was associated with darkness and the Underworld.
This also coincides with the research of the Russian scholar Troshchanski on Siberian shamans, who found that the "black" shamans (not evil per se, just those who worked with underworld rather than upperworld spirits) had significantly more gender-crossing behavior. Among the Yakut (who at the time of his interviewing had more "black" shamans than white ones, and assured him that they were just as useful, if more fearsome), most male "black" shamans wore women's clothes as daily dress, dressed their hair in female hairstyles, and had two iron circles sewn on the chest of his ceremonial apron, symbolizing breasts. As someone who would, if these categories were applied to my tradition, be a "black" shaman, and having seen the high concentration of transsexuality, intersexuality, and other gender-crossing drives among Rokkr spirit-workers, this all falls into place rather ominously. It's not just a "back then" thing. It's a "happening now" thing.
Some people reading this will make an immediate negative connection between "dark" underworld deities and their "perverted" human servants, and find it creepily appropriate in another, less positive way. To this I can only speak from my own personal conviction, which has in turn been strongly affected by the priorities of my patron deities. I can only say that from the point of view of a northern-tradition ergi underworld shaman, change is a Good Thing. Rigidity of viewpoint needs to be shaken up, lest it become a false prison. Unquestioned anything is bad, and questioning in a spirit of openness can be a holy act. When we call Loki Breaker-Of-Worlds, we mean it as a compliment. Sometimes worlds grow old and stale and need to be broken open, and that includes people's internal worlds. Sometimes defenses grow so rigid that they inhibit all but the most squeezed and crippled growth, and they need to be torn down. Sometimes what was a survival necessity in past times becomes a social liability, and needs to go. If that weren't what the Gods wanted of us, at least periodically, then They wouldn't have made us this way. To be argr is to be a catalyst. To be an argr spirit-worker is to be a catalyst with all the power of the Gods and wights behind you.
One of the things that struck me when I was reading about seidhr - and especially on the issue of seidhr as being historically considered to be "evil magic" because it could be used to alter men's minds and thoughts - was the term "turn the world upside down". This might be a reference to an earthquake (which would be pretty serious magic) or to changing someone's perceptions so drastically via this mind-altering magic that their world might as well be turned upside down. The phrase struck me so strongly because that's exactly what third gender people do. By our very nature, we turn the world upside down. We are living, walking catalysts, and this is the first mystery of our existence. We turn everything that people think they know about gender - that supposedly safe ground beneath their feet - upside down. We change worlds.
Of course, it's not just Rokkr gods who are picking up ergi people. Frey and Freya have always attracted effeminate gay men and some transgendered people, especially those that are involved with explorations of sacred sexuality and sex work, and there seems to have been a spate of argr servants of Odin being chosen recently. Many of these are along the female-to-male spectrum, although a few are going in the other direction. They range from women warriors who are fairly "masculine" in their aggression and lack of "frithfulness" (recalling his servants the bloodthirsty Valkyries), to female-to-male transsexuals who have become fully male except for "natural" factory-equipped genitals, echoing the Old Man's most argr heiti, Jalkr (Gelding or Eunuch).
Of all the "bright" and "upper-worldly" Aesir gods, Odin is paradoxically the "darkest", as any survey of the rest of his heiti will show. He is a god of the Dead in his own right as leader of the Einherjar, a god of war and frenzied berserker states, a god of sorcery who cohabits with ravens and wolves, a dead man hanged on the Tree. He is also just as ergi in his own way as his blood-brother Loki, if less obvious about it. He has also managed to overshadow the ergi archetype with the King archetype in most people's eyes, and so avoid being outcast, and thus he is a God of both those in power and those cast out at the fringes, the ruling class and the homeless wanderer. He is a deity of extreme opposites, and so it is not unusual that he takes both uber-manly warriors and argr spirit-workers.
So what does this have to do with modern shamanism in the northern tradition? Long ago, after years of living with my intersex condition, when I was first ordered to change my gender by the Goddess who owns me body and soul, I didn't connect it to the phenomenon of shamanism. That was largely because I was ignorant of the entire thing, and wasn't connecting much of anything. When I began to read up on shamanism, the transgender issue hit me like a shock wave. These things weren't separate, they were part and parcel of the same system. Still, I thought, it could just be me. I could be an anomaly.
Then I met, for the first time, another spirit-worker who was also owned by Hela, and had gone through a death-and rebirth process....and had an intersex condition, and considered herself to be a third-gender being. Then I met a third one of Hela's bootscrapes, who was dealing with transgender issues. On top of that, I made the acquaintance of two spirit-workers dedicated to Odin, of which one was a female-to-male transsexual and one was a very gender-transgressive woman. (And yes, there have been more since; we keep cropping up.) It was when we began to exchange knowledge that it all came together: the taboo that we, needing a word to describe it, call ergi. Yes, there are a lot of different possible connotations for that term, some of them extremely unflattering (which we believe came from a later and much more homophobic and sexually conservative era), but the word still rings through us. This taboo needs a name, and this is as good as any.
These words - ergi (n), argr (adj) - are Old Norse terms that we are using to refer to a specific constellation of shamanic-power behaviors, which include the following:
1) Gender-transgressing behavior, from partial cross-dressing to full social gender change;
2) Gender-transgressing sexual activities - for example, men receiving penetration, or women giving penetration or having nonpenetrative sex;
3) Being public about these activities and accepting the social taboos (including being outcast or marginalized) that come with them. One can see this reflected in the shaman's position as not having to accept the taboos of either men or women in their culture, but having an entirely different set all to themselves.
These three things seem to reoccur together in tribal cultures around the world, creating an international sprinkling of third-gender spirit-workers. It seems to be a taboo, or set of taboos that go together, and bring great power at the cost of being even further set apart from other people. (For more information on spirit-work taboos, see Wyrdwalkers: Techniques of Northern-Tradition Shamanism.)
You'll notice that I'm not using the words "gay" or "lesbian" or "homosexual" or even "sexual preference". That's because the phenomenon of ergi is not centered around those things, although most people confuse them terribly. An individual can be argr and be interested in all sorts of people sexually - male, female, in between, all of the above. Being argr is not about who you want to be sexual with. It's about who and what you are when you're with them, and what you're doing with them, and if it turns social gender and sexual taboos on their heads.
There's a lot of supposition and argument among intellectuals about the "true" meaning of ergi, but as usual none of them are actively researching it rather than vaguely theorizing. For many of us spirit-workers, it's not just a theory. We need a word for this thing that we are and do (for it's both something we are and something we do), and we see the echo of this same power/blessing/curse/wiring/energy/sacredness in those brief glimpses of the ones called ergi, and whether the researchers like it or not, that word is where our paths lead us.
First, gender-transgressing behavior. When this moves from shameful pastime to hobby to identity to spiritual path, it ceases to become a private thing. For the spirit-worker with the ergi taboo, it isn't enough to be third-gendered internally. You have to be visibly different in that way as well, whether it's only that your ceremonial costume has strong elements of clothing that is socially acceptable only for a sex different from the one that you most appear, or that you must act in a way that is deliberately gender-inappropriate. Your gender transgressing has to be evident to everyone who comes to see you in your professional capacity, and you may never deny it when asked.
For myself, when I lived as female I went through a phase of being very butch, especially when I stopped shaving off my chin hair and lived for a time as a bearded woman. Then when I started taking testosterone and shapeshifting my body, it quickly swung to the other side of the apparent-gender pendulum. I went from being a masculine-acting woman to being a somewhat effeminate man, without actually changing my behavior. (Funny about that). The wights for whom I work did not allow me to "complete" my gender change, insisting that my genitals stay a mixture of both. I am not allowed to be either wholly man nor wholly woman, but always somewhere in between. I also found that once I passed perfectly as male on the street, I was compelled to wear skirts (something I'd eschewed during my butch-female years) as part of my ceremonial costume, and sometimes my daily wear as well. It was as if I needed that reminder of femaleness to balance out my masculinity.
There is no one right way to do the first part of the ergi taboo, except that it must be visible and apparent, at least whenever you are doing anything to do with shamanic stuff. No one who knows that you are a spirit-worker should have any doubt that you are also third-gendered in some way. Whether that moves into physically changing your body or not is your own decision, and you will have to make that depending on your own bodily comfort. Further advice on this matter is contained in the "Letter to Transgendered Spirit-Workers".
Second, sex. Most of society today assumes that being transgendered is about sex, or sexual preference - that it's sort of "the far end of gay", as it were. Transgendered people, and especially transsexuals, will tell a different story; any given transperson may be attracted to men, women, and/or other transfolk, as I said above. Sex isn't part of gender identity, they will say, and I'll say it too, when I'm talking purely about transgender as a biological phenomenon. On the other hand, here I'm talking about the ergi taboo, which is a spiritual phenomenon, and as with all those sorts of thing it's never so simple and clear-cut. Sex is most certainly a part of this constellation of taboos, and it has to be sex that is gender-transgressive as well, whatever that means in the context of one's society and gender-role programming.
For anyone living as male in this culture, that usually does include being penetrated, if only astrally. In our culture as in Migration-era Scandinavia, there is still a cultural superiority around being penetrated; it's seen as female - and therefore automatically passive and definitely lesser, something that takes away from the "superior", active manhood. That lack of being willing to be penetrated physically easily runs over into unwillingness to be penetrated emotionally, mentally...and spiritually. This is a problem when it comes to spirit-work, even if you're not being used as a horse. The qualities of openness, receptivity, and submission are important ones to master if you're going to go down this path, and being sexually penetrated - by another person, by a sacred object, by a deity - is a fairly sure-fire way to get there.
We've also discovered that if you are wired for it - and if you are third-gender, it's highly likely that you are wired for it - anal penetration, done correctly and ritually, can be used as a sacred-sexuality tool for psychic Opening. This seems to work equally well regardless of what kind of body you have and what direction you're going in; as many female-to-male people have reported this as male-to female, perhaps because anal penetration is gender-nonspecific and could even be used as a way to stimulate litr and sexual energy for people who do not use their genitals due to dysphoria, or have had them entirely removed (as some ancient historic third-gender groups did), or had too much nerve damage due to surgery. (More information on this technique can be found in my book Dark Moon Rising, published through Asphodel Press.) I have no reason to doubt that our ancestors figured this out as well, and indeed all the historical fuss over anal penetration and its association with ergi and seidhr would seem to bear that out.
On the other hand, if you're female-bodied and living in a female role, and penetration is what's for breakfast in your normal sex life, ordinary vaginal penetration is not going to do the trick when it comes to accessing the considerable power that is the ergi groove in the Universal web. This was brought home to me by a conversation with a woman who was working with argr energies as a method of mind-altering sex magic while still in a heterosexual relationship with her male partner. During these periods of ritual sex, she would refuse penetration, but would instead have him perform oral sex on her for long periods of time. For the two of them - and the culture in which they'd both been raised - one-way oral gratification was something women did to men, not vice versa; to switch roles in this way was to cast an aspersion on the man's manhood and to put the woman in the dominant (and therefore, according to the culture in which their libidos had been programmed, masculine) role. It was very clear to her that she'd hit that groove, because it worked, and it had that certain argr feeling.
Other female-bodied people I've spoken with have gone further and accessed that taboo by creating a strap-on phallus and charging it ritually. The trick here is to be able to insert and embody one's astral penis into the artificial one (this technique, too, is described in Dark Moon Rising), and use it for masturbation or the penetration of others. If done right, this is a straight shot through to the ergi power, and it's something that most female-bodied folk who are naturally argr will be able to figure out quickly on their own. Some combine this with anal penetration, if it's seen as a "male" thing to them.
I'll now take a quick tangent, because the reader has no doubt noticed that I'm doing a lot of mentioning of social sexual taboos from different cultures. We don't live in the same culture as any of our ancestors, nor are we raised with their taboos, or those of early tribal (or in most cases, modern tribal) societies. We were likely also raised in a variety of different cultures with regard to what we were taught was sexually acceptable/unacceptable and masculine/feminine. Why does this variable social programming count? All I can say to that is: Because it does. It doesn't matter what messages you internalized around these things, it only matters that you violate them, because that releases huge amounts of archetypal power.
In this way, the ergi taboo strongly echoes one of the pillars of Indian Tantra, where violating sexual taboos are encouraged as part of the power of sex magic. In early Tantra, vegetarian initiates were made to eat fish and meat as part of a "love-feast" before partaking of ritual sex; the breaking of the flesh-eating taboo not only symbolized the male and female energies, but also paved the way to breaking the sexual taboos (sex with someone not one's wife, not for procreation, and not in an "ordinary" position) that were to follow. Tantric yogis were not the only ones to realize that the breaking of sexual taboos created power, although they did not (as far as we know) go so far as to break sexual gender taboos, which is an even greater "offense" and thus a greater power source. That's the job of those of us who were born wired to do it.
Doing it publicly - which can simply mean being known to do such things and not denying it when forthrightly asked - is a greater "offense" still, and thus multiplies the power. Far from making one "passive", it requires a huge amount of courage and endurance. Today, in the country and society in which I live, the numbers of transgendered people who are being violently murdered in the streets is rising to a frightening rate. To defend ourselves not from insult, but from violence and death, we who walk the ergi line need to band together and be proud, and watch each others' backs. We should go down neither to the blows of others, nor the blows of socially-induced self-hatred. As one such spirit-worker said to me, "I realized that this is a perfectly reasonable way for a shaman to be, as we have been this way all over the world for many thousands of years."
That brings us to the third pillar of ergi - being the outsider, the outcast. The idea that social extremity brings shamanic power is well known in shamanic societies, and even non-shamanic societies. Part of what we do as spirit-workers is to see the larger picture, and where our tribe sits in that framework. In today's world, that means sorting through all the cultural pressures brought to bear on men, women, and those not wholly in either camp. You can't see that clearly unless you are outside of it, and stepping outside is not something done lightly...because you can't go back. You may see things that outrage you, or at least make you profoundly uncomfortable, and after that the shoes of "normal" will never fit again. It is a "higher" perspective - not in the sense of being more morally elevated, but in the sense of being someone perched in a high place, seeing farther, looking at the people walking down the narrow road and seeing only what is in front of them, and knowing what is coming before they do.
As discussed in the very beginning of this book, and the third book in this series, it is the shaman's Wyrd to be both the outsider - an important position - and the servants of those very people who may fear and keep their distance from them. The ergi taboo seems to reinforce the former side of that equation, and it will take a lot of work and creativity on the part of the spirit-worker not to give up on the second part - because that way lies disaster, just as surely as refusing the call. It is our Wyrd to live both as the outcast and the spiritual center simultaneously, and it is our orlog to figure out how to do that in a modern society that no longer remembers this, by triggering older memories of who we are, or creating new ones. It's a challenge that has already killed many of us. We must not dishonor their memories by giving up...and besides, the Gods believe that we can do it, and they wouldn't have chosen us, each one of us, if they believed otherwise. Their trust is our Road, and we have to walk it.
In Skirnirsmal, there is mention of an ergi-rune, which either causes one to become ergi, or validates the existing condition. Fairly sure that this was a bind rune of some sort, I went off to find out which runes were bound up in it, using my method of asking each of the rune spirits in turn, and drawing from my bag the right ones. I was amazed at how quickly they came forth and went together...but then again, I'm fairly argr myself, so I suppose it was to be expected - like coming to like. It is a bind-rune of Inguz, Mannaz, Nauthiz, and Ior, looking rather like an Inguz boundaried between two vertical lines, with another vertical line in the center.
First, you draw a Mannaz - these things have a proper order, you know - which is the handfasted man and woman, the male/female pair that build all society, and the symbol for society itself. Then you draw the Inguz in over that, symbolizing sacrifice - the castration both physical (Ing-men were castrated before being killed, giving their fertility to the Gods) and social (becoming alien, different, never quite the same. Then two Nauthizes are drawn in, facing in different directions. The are the commitment, the wall that is put up, the fact that once ergi, you can never go back to being blindly, blissfully normal. Yes, they also acknowledge the hostility that you will get from your community, as you go about messing up their careful, safe, false categories. Finally, the Ior is drawn in the middle - the symbol of the Snake who has been our patron in many cultures - one thinks of Tiresias, Athena, Ariadne and Dionysos, Shiva, and of course the fluidly-gendered Jormundgand - and the rune of all liminal states. It is fitting that it is in the middle, and that it is drawn last, as we accept who and what we are, and what that all entails for our work and our existence.
Can I cast it on other people? You bet I can. What will it do? Well, if there is anything in their brain-wiring that might be termed hidden gender issues, they'll come out in all their flaming glory and torment the person until they do something about it. Maybe someone close to them will come out with it, forcing them to deal with it there. If there isn't anything like that in their lives, the rune will look for some other comfortable social assumption they've based their mental existence on, and tear it down. It's a dangerous rune. It changes people...just like we do.
I should now stop and disclaimer that not all spirit-workers are argr, nor do they need to be. We all have our sets of taboos with which we gain power. This is simply one set that has attracted a lot of attention through the ages, and that is particularly socially difficult. However, it does predispose someone to be better than usual at certain sorts of spirit-work skills. In a very real sense, spirit-work is the only job for which being somewhere between male and female is actually an advantage. That's why there are so many of us doing it.
There is a strong link between shapeshifting and ergi, and with good reason. Being born with hardwired neurological gender dysphoria has a dramatic effect on the astral body. Most primary transsexuals, when asked, will admit to having intense experiences of "phantom limb syndrome" from childhood, only for them it was a matter of having phantom genitalia that were not the ones that they were born with. This dissonance caused them a great deal of psychic pain, usually leading to a significant amount of dissociation from the body.
When used to refer to a severed limb, the phenomenon of phantom limb syndrome is fairly well explained by science - the brain doesn't know that the limb isn't there any more, and the parts of the brain that would be receiving sensation from there are still giving off signals. On an astral level, it's been explained by energy-workers as the fact that the physical limb may be gone, but the astral one is still there. Some people with phantom limb syndrome have been able to continue the phenomenon indefinitely (instead of having it fade out over time) by moving their astral limb on a regular basis, so that the brain doesn't decide that the limb has finally withered or become paralyzed. It's a good example of a phenomenon that exists at the crossroads of the physical and the astral. Similarly, someone afflicted with gender dysphoria is both born with a brain that expects to be attached to a body of a different sex, and continually gives out distress signals about the situation...and an astral form that differs jarringly from the physical body that it is attached to.
To grow up with such dissonance leads, as pointed out earlier, to mental dissociation from the physical body. Unlike dissociation due to abuse or trauma, in the case of gender dysphoria the individual is actually coping, on an energy level, with a serious difference between lich and hame, something which (especially as a child) they may have no idea how to articulate, much less work with. But when such an individual begins to experiment with separating their hame from their lich and moving it about, they'll discover that they are better at it than someone who has gone their entire life with seamless coordination between the two. "Which fish discuss water?" goes the Zen proverb, and the answer is: "The drowning ones." If the only way that you can survive mentally is to become more aware and more identified with (even if only on an unconscious level) your astral body than your physical one, that's a powerful training ground for being aware of what most people ignore.
In a very real sense, many shamanistic techniques are about using a state of mind which would be dangerous and damaging when induced unwillingly and unexpectedly into the inexperienced, and learning to control them and induce them carefully as tools, thus not suffering the ill effects. In this way, the mental and astral dissociation of the gender dysphoric becomes a useful tool for journeying, pathwalking, preparing to receive spirits, and of course shapeshifting.
There is the ancient Germanic rhyme, "Call me Varg, and I'll be Arg," - call me a wolf, and I will be argr. As this rhyme suggests, being able to change species is closely akin to being able to change gender, to the point where if you do one, it's assumed that you can do the other. Changing your astral gender is an excellent intermediate step to changing your astral species - if you've got the kind of brain that can do it without a huge shock to your self-image. Ideally, the ergi shaman should be able to function while astrally male, female, or somewhere in between, regardless of where their physical form is at any given time.
There's also that an actual physical sex-change is a form of shapeshifting - in fact, it's probably closer than almost anyone in this culture ever comes to going through that process embodied. It's especially shamanistic in the sense that it is done with mind-altering substances (hormones - and anyone who claims that they aren't mind-altering hasn't ever lived through changing them from one type to the other from week to week), pain ordeals (surgeries), and involves the death of the old identity and the rebirth of a new one. For someone who isn't a spirit-worker, going through this process is the closest that most people will come to something paralleling a shamanic death-and-rebirth process. For argr spirit-workers who are called to this change - and not all will be - it will almost certainly be a very literal part of that process.
It's an act of magic to watch one's flesh shift from male to female or vice-versa. Spirit-workers who have taken this path have discovered, like I did, that astrally shapeshifting can speed the physical process along. Some claim that this shapeshifting, especially when it is fueled by the energy of gender-transgressive sex, can work small physical changes in that direction without the aid of hormones, by magically manipulating the body's own endocrinal substances. This would be a way of harnessing the Path of the Flesh for the purposes of shapeshifting, and it is a technique that needs more experimentation by willing volunteers.
There's also a death and rebirth aspect, whether we like it or not, in the fact that we change our identities. Even for those who don't change their physical bodies or the letter on their driver's license, there will be a transition of sorts - at least, if you're a spirit-worker, a transition will be enforced by the Gods - from being a publicly gender-normative person to being a publicly non-gender-normative person, in whatever way you are required by Them to manifest that. This will lose you a lot of actual or potential friends and allies. It may lose you your entire blood family. It may lose you partners, jobs, housing, automatic respect, and community status. Since we have no social position for spirit-workers, it can leave you more or less an outsider.
However, things are different now than they used to be in ancient times. First, there are exponentially more people around, period. Second, communication is such that we may connect with hundreds of people who live nowhere near us, unlike our ancestors who probably only met a few hundred people in their entire lives, if that. An argr member of a tribe might go their whole lives without meeting another such individual, or might at best only know one or two. If they lived in a large city, there might be half a dozen. Today, population and communication is such that I can personally connect with three or four hundred transgendered individuals, and see twenty of them regularly. (There is also the fact that the incidence of intersexuality and transgender is increasing with every generation, largely due to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment, but that's another book's subject.) There are enough of us that we are now a tribe unto ourselves, should we choose to be one. The day that we named ourselves a tribe was a turning point in the world's Wyrd, and it reverberated through the tapestry. Several of the Gods heard it, and became interested, and got involved. There is no turning back now. We claimed every person who lives in whatever way between male and female as members of our tribe, even if they have no idea about it, and so it is.
Like all tribes, we have honored ancestors. Most of us are sterile or do not bear children for other reasons, and many of us are cast out from our blood kin. Right now the murder rate of transgendered people is appallingly high, going from one to two a month just on this North American continent. It may also be rising, although some attribute the escalating rate to better reporting of deaths that are already occurring. Some members of the population want to wipe out our very existence, and they attempt it in the streets and in our homes with fatal beatings, shootings, and stabbings. There are also those ergi-folk who go mad from the strain of being constantly discriminated against, and take their own lives in the struggle. Some lived lives of secrecy, in and out of the military of centuries ago, with no one ever knowing that their bodies, under clothing and uniforms, were not what others expected. A few lived long and became elders, passing on their wisdom.
These are all the honored ancestors of our tribe, some fallen in battle and others living to the end of their days. Regardless of whether you have a connection to your blood ancestry, if you belong to our tribe, you can rightfully call upon them for aid, and they will answer, and claim you. However, there is a price. The Dead of our tribe are angry. They are tired of seeing their children fall young and alone in the streets, and they say that this must stop. If you call upon them, you join in the obligation to protect your tribe, by whatever means you have.
(For information on who the honored warrior-dead of our tribe might be, in order that you may call their names, I suggest checking the website at http://www.gender.org/remember/ and making a list. The holiday for the honored Dead of our tribe is November 20th.)