The Ordeal-Givers of the Nine Worlds
excerpt from Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism
Each world has People who embody the Powers of Death, and thus are the Ordeal-Givers for that world. Some spirit-workers have been called to do nine ordeals, working their way up or down the Tree and learning the wisdom therein. Generally, if they work for one of the Aesir or Vanir, they start at the bottom and work their way up (Helheim, Niflheim, Svartalfheim, Muspellheim, Midgard, Jotunheim, Vanaheim, Ljossalfheim, Asgard), while if they serve Rokkr gods they do it in the other direction, working downwards from the top.
Starting at the bottom, the Ordeal-Giver for Helheim is, of course, Hela. Her ordeals are almost always not only physically painful, but involve a good deal of fear as well. Terror is one way for her to get people opened up (Odin is not averse to using that trip either, on his end), especially if it is a sheer fear of Death. The hallmark of Hela's ordeals is the moment of "Oh, no, I'm going to be killed now," or "I can't take any more of this or I'll die." This can be achieved in any number of ways without actually seriously endangering the bodily life of the ordeal-dancer, but that moment must still be felt sincerely. If she does not choose to use Fear, another of her methods is Humiliation, which is more often used on those with too much pride or arrogance. In the face of Death, pride and arrogance have no place, and she is good at driving this point home. Generally, a Helheim ordeal will push you past your limits and bring to face to face with some aspect of your physical mortality, whatever that might be for you. Hela has no one technique that is specific to her; she is a Mistress of all of them.
For Niflheim, the Ordeal-Giver is usually Nidhogg the great dragon, but it can also be one of the frost-thurses who live in that icy, misty world. For the latter, you must have a good relationship with the frost-thurses; most people who end up with a Niflheim ordeal face the Dragon in one way or another. (For the record, while Niflheim is technically the prison of Fenrir, he does not perform ordeals there. He does not do anything there except be imprisoned; a small part of him can move between the worlds and work with people there, but there is nowhere in the Nine Worlds that he can freely go.) Niflheim ordeals are often about cold, perhaps cold water - one is reminded of the legendary Siberian shaman trick of punching six holes in the ice, jumping into the first one, coming up out of the second one, and weaving in this way down the line. While most modern shamans would not be up to such a feat, a cold ordeal can be a good test of the spirit-worker's ability to warm themselves. It might be standing naked in the snow for a time, or walking briefly into icy water. As with all such things, a balance must be struck between coddling one's self to the point of the ritual failing to be an ordeal, and lacking the common sense to avoid lethality.
Niflheim is also associated with rot, as is Nidhogg who is the Eater of Corpses. Rot can be an ordeal, if for example the individual is made to lie next to an unattractive rotting animal corpse and meditate on it, while enduring the smell. While this may seem like a useless exercise in suffering, those who are death-phobic can sometimes benefit from this reminder that all parts of the cycle are sacred, including that little-loved part. They can also get over their phobias about ugliness and decomposition in this way.
For Svartalfheim, the Ordeal-Givers are not any of the Duergar - they are actually the creative force for that world. Instead, that lies in the hands of the Dark Alfar, and one must present one's self to one of their Queens. Svartalfheim ordeals often seem to involve broken glass of some sort, perhaps shards of broken mirrors. The Dark Alfar love to break beautiful objects, and they are equally fond of small sharp knives. One can usually guarantee that this world's ordeal is going to involve some kind of cutting, perhaps with broken glass, or if that is too dangerous, razors or scalpels. Blood should be wiped on the bark of trees, and singing out the pain is an important skill to know, as they are all about song-magic.
In Muspellheim, the Ordeal-Giver is Surt, the lord of the fire-etins and the oldest being in the Nine Worlds. Muspellheim ordeals, of course, involve heat. The classic one might be a brand, although long saunas, firewalking, or other heat rituals have been done as well. Another Muspellheim ordeal might be endurance-dancing, ideally around a fire, as fire-etins do a lot of sacred dance. (See the Path of Rhythm chapter for more information on that.)
In Jotunheim, there are several Jotunfolk whose specialty is pain, but the most respected is probably Angrboda, the Hag of the Iron Wood. She specializes in the "hunting for power" type of ordeals, where the receiver pits themselves against suffering in order to gauge their own strength and see what they can survive. Angrboda is the trainer of young warriors, especially those with animal sides or anger management issues; one of her favorite sorts of trials are "hazing"-style self-control rites which triggers rage in someone in a situation where rage will only cause them more pain, and only by mastering themselves can they win. Other sorts of Jotunheim ordeals might involve being hunted through the woods as prey, or anything involving serious mountain-climbing.
In Vanaheim, it varies depending on whether the focus is earth or sea - and all rites in Vanaheim will have one of those two focuses. Most Vanaheim rites are done with the element of Earth, and the Ordeal-Giver is Nerthus the Earth Mother of the Vanir, whose face is always veiled because to see it would be death. In ancient times, the statue of Nerthus was taken out and bathed every year, and this necessitated the deaths of several slaves who got to see her close up. Nerthus is the embodiment of the devouring Earth, and her ordeals can include being buried in the ground, or placed into a hole to keep vigil. There is also the full-on John Barleycorn-type ordeal, done in honor of Frey, where the individual is treated as the grain is - scythed down with a cutting, bound like a sheaf, beaten in a way that mimics threshing and milling, placed in a circle of fire to mimic baking, and then reburied in the earth to represent the seed that is planted anew. (The full text of an example of such a rite can be found in Dark Moon Rising: Pagan BDSM And The Ordeal Path by Asphodel Press.)
If the focus is the ocean, then the Ordeal-Givers are Ran and her nine daughters. (Aegir prefers to let his bloodthirsty wife do these things for him, and Njord is a life-bearer.) Their ordeals may vary depending on which undine-goddess shows up, but generally must take place in the ocean. All blood shed into the ocean's waves by one of us goes to them as an offering. One such ordeal had the individual in question tied onto a safety rope line which was held by people on the shore, and he went out and battled the undertow as long as he could, "dancing with the Sisters" as he put it.
In Ljossalfheim, the Ordeal-Givers are specific Alf-lords, but they do not advertise their nature. If you want to make an appointment with them, the person to approach is Gerda, Frey's giantess wife; if she could be said to have friends among the Alfar, it would be them, and they trust her to screen out the unworthy. One of their favorite ordeals is imprisoning someone in total isolation for a time, perhaps in the woods or field; they strongly value mental and emotional connections, so taking someone away from that is serious for them. This might start out similarly to the quiet contemplation of the Ascetic Path, but what makes it an ordeal is that it goes beyond the person's ability to handle it well, and takes them through stages of difficult emotion caused by long-term isolation. Part of this type of rite might be taking away their name, or their identity, and then giving it back when the ordeal is over. If a mark is placed on them as part of the ordeal, be sure that it will be aesthetically beautiful, or at least constructed skillfully for a particular aesthetic effect, as will the setting of the ordeal itself.
The most serious ordeal that the Alfar (or any fey-type race) might inflict on someone is to curse them with madness for a time, and see how they handle it. This might seem like setting someone up to fail - taking away their reason and expecting them to somehow come through - but madness can strip away much of a person's identity and show them parts of themselves that have been repressed. This, obviously is not an ordeal that can be inflicted for a few hours by a human agent, unless they use the Sacred Plants, and that is a very dangerous road. Instead, this kind of ordeal will likely be between the Alfar and the human in question themselves, and may or may not be announced as a specific ordeal - that may be something that the human has to figure out for themselves, which is not so easy during a bout of madness.
In Asgard, the Ordeal-Giver is, of course, Odin. Like Hela, he might select any sort of ordeals to inflict on the individual, although he is fond of suspensions and indeed anything involving hanging, and people getting runes carved or tattooed on them, and anything that honors the various parts of his nine-year ordeal. (The Rite of Odin follows in this chapter.) Asgard ordeals are often rites for warriors; their focus varies depending on whether they are the start or the finish of a series of ordeals, or a single one on their own. Starting in Asgard is generally an ordeal of courage, whereas finishing there is often an ordeal of honor, as it is assumed that after eight other ordeals, courage has already been adequately built up.
The one ordeal that catches most people up is Midgard. There is no one patron for the Midgard ordeal except the spirit-worker themselves, and any local spirits of earth and animal and plant who offer to aid them. The ordeal must be entirely self-designed, and usually not physical - Midgard rites deal with the demons of daily life that plague us, and that hold us back from our other work, and they are best approached with a more psychological sort of suffering. The Gods watch these ordeals as closely as they watch other ones, but they do not interfere. The test is to create a ritual for yourself that honestly triggers your deepest issues and doesn't spare you at all, nor engage in any denial. I've seen many elaborate and painful rites created by people doing this sort of thing which look terribly self-sacrificing on the surface, but don't actually touch the person's deeper problems.
To start planning for a Midgard rite, I've found that it's best to have friends who know you well tell you about what they see of your issues. As they tell you these things, watch for a particular feeling. It's a flicker of panic, an "Oh, no, not that!" after which you immediately find your attention being forcibly shoved away from it. Don't let that happen. Jump on it and look at it. If it makes you feel even more panicked - and the panic voice can disguise itself, by saying "Oh, no, I don't think that I need to do that" - that's good. It shouldn't be something that you can get comfortable with before you start the rite. You should be feeling some shadow of that "Oh, Gods, no, not this" all the way up to the starting line. That's how you know that you've gotten it right. It may actually seem silly and unglamourous, and that's good. Midgard is unglamourous. That's part of its nature. Often, it's not something that one clearly fears so much as something that one dislikes intensely, for reasons mysterious to one's self. Often that dislike, when fully unearthed, leads back to a fear.
One of the themes that I've seen in Midgard ordeals is bringing people back to an appreciation of their humanity. Working with spirits, and doing heavy magic, can change people. It can set them apart from other people, and isolate them. As discussed elsewhere in this series, sometimes this alienation is part of the package, part of the power. However, when the spirit-worker gets set too far apart, they lose touch with the very people that they are supposed to be serving. There's also that spirit-workers are not immune to loneliness, bitterness, and anger and the unfairness of their situation, and this can lead to contempt for the folk that they are bound to serve. It can also lead to contempt for the parts of them that are flawed and human just like Everybody Else. It's never possible to adequately serve people for whom you have contempt, especially when there are spiritual questions involved. Midgard ordeals often bring people face to face with those parts of them that they still share with Joe Blow sitting in front of his television set watching sitcoms, and teach them tolerance for those parts, and by extension tolerance for their Tribe, even if that Tribe is anyone who might show up at the door.
My advice for the spirit-worker who is attempting to plan a Midgard ordeal and having trouble with it is to find someone who is basically a decent human being, but embodies everything that you associate with the short-sightedness, mundanity, and general ordinariness that you believe that your job or viewpoint has placed you above. Go to them and offer to help them with something, and in the process spend enough time with them to find something that you have in common, especially if it's something unflattering. Make that the starting-place for planning your ordeal.