Worldwalker: The Introduction to Pathwalker's Guide
excerpt from The Pathwalker's Guide
"I enter the labyrinth in broad daylight and walk it to the center. Around me is the physical world that I know, so well, my familiar back field. The labyrinth was laid in the ground by many loving hands; I remember the two weekends that we all worked on putting it in, stone by stone. The grass is growing long between the rows of small rocks, but I can still follow it. I know that the center of this labyrinth is keyed to the Underworld, the Land of the Dead, but that's not my goal. I will be coming out in Midgard, the world that is sister to my own.
I come into the center, make three circles around the Maypole that still stands there, left over from this year's Beltane ritual, and start the way out again. I have my drum in one hand, jangling with bells, clattering with dried bones and hooves, decorated with symbols of the Nine Worlds. Over my shoulder, my bag is a heavy weight with all my sacred items. My magic traveling cloak hangs from my shoulders; with my free hand I find the place on its heavily embroidered map-surface that is Midgard. I can't see it, but I remember what it looks like - fields and streams, plowed land, the surrounding ocean with the Great Serpent encircling it. "Midgard," I say. "Take me there." Then I start walking purposefully out of the labyrinth, beating the matching encircling snake-symbol on my drum. One beat for every step.
As I walk, the landscape around me slowly changes; something new becomes superimposed on it. I can still see my back field, the plastic tables and chairs left over from the last gathering, the familiar oak and birch and maple trees, the stone altar. That's still there, if I focus in on it.....but I can also choose to focus on the other landscape that is quietly growing stronger - rock formations, mountains rising up above the trees, grass, the wide, wide dirt road that I am coming onto. I leave the labyrinth and join the road; I am not the only traveler on it. Transparent figures creak their carts ahead and behind; at the moment there are no people with horses or oxen. I choose to keep to myself and not interact with them for the moment.
I'm in Midgard, or at least my hame is, my astral body. For the moment, the two worlds are perfectly lined up. There will be imperfections soon, but I know how to handle them. I'm off to work; Midgard is only the entranceway to other worlds that I will need to get into. Most people's jobs are only done in one world, but then, I'm not most people."
When I was four years old, a tall woman came to me in my dreams and told me that I belonged to her. She was dressed like the faery queen in one of my books - long black hair, gown like starry midnight, delicate veils - but even then, I was aware that this was just a mask that She had donned in order to make me feel better. I would not see Her real face for many years. She took me by the hand and brought me places, places that I didn't understand, and showed me off to others that I couldn't recognize. Years later, I would return to some of those places, and be stunned by where I had traveled as a child.
Without her holding my hand, I couldn't leave my body. I got older, learned about astral projection, and tried it - only to be slammed back in as if a giant hand had shoved me. It was made clear to me that She did not approve, that She had other plans for me and that I was not to go wandering around without my flesh. I became a neo-pagan at fourteen, introduced into a Gardnerian coven by dating the high priestess's eldest kid. I studied gods and goddesses and mythology; I knew from the clues that She left me that She was a Death goddess, a Lady of Darkness, but She would not tell me her name. I tried calling her Kali, or Hekate, but it wasn't quite right. I learned then that it is not exactly true that all Goddesses are one Goddess, or even all Death goddesses.
There was a sense of waiting, all those years; I married, had a child, divorced, took lovers, learned how to do magic in many different pagan groups. Somewhere along the line, I would get proddings - learn this, study that. Learn as many different forms of divination as you can, and get good at them. Learn how to move energy. Learn how to control your astral body. Learn about herbs, the magical as well as the medicinal ones. Learn myths and stories. Learn to drum. Learn to sing. Still, I could say that this was the sort of thing that any budding witch ought to know. Nothing all that special, not yet.
I also came to terms with my medical condition. I am an intersexual, raised female, and I was dissatisfied with being female for personal and medical reasons. My abnormal endocrine system made me more and more chronically ill as I got older, and my seizure condition got worse as well. The divine proddings became divine orders; She who claimed that She owned me came to me more and more, telling me what to do. One thing that I had to do was to accept my status as a third-sex, third-gender person, and to modify my body in ways that reflected that. In other words, I was ordered to get a sex change. "Why?" I screamed. I'm sending you where you're needed most, was all She would say. When She came to me, I often smelled rot, which I figured was some weird psychological twist on my part.
The idea both appealed to me and terrified me, and I ran. She followed. I became sicker and sicker, I began to bleed uncontrollably, and my shifting hormones started to make me unbalanced. I took refuge in a little cabin in the wilderness, alone except for my little daughter, and every weekend after my ex picked her up for visitation, I would run through the woods screaming. I fled from the spirits who pursued me at every turn, but I couldn't get away. I rolled in the snow, I dived into icy water, I cut myself. I lay on the earth and dead people spoke to me through its thin crust. I ate dried leaves and raw meat. I kept seeing a Great Tree that turned and rotated as I watched; worlds lay in its branches like ripe fruit. (I figured that it was symbolic.)
Finally, after some months, my hormones temporarily equalized and I moved back to the city and met the woman who would later become my wife. Over the next year, the illness and hemorrhaging worsened until one night when I very nearly bled to death. I remember laying there and feeling my life eke its way out of me, and I was completely calm. I remember knowing that I was going to pass out, and there was a good chance I wouldn't wake up again. I remember not caring all that much.
I did pass out, and I hallucinated that I was pulled apart in pieces and rebuilt. It was gruesome and gory, more like a slasher flick than some pretty guided meditation. I remember the skeletal hand that tore out my heart, and then put it carefully back in after they were done with me. (I figured that it was a skeletal hand because I'd seen too much gory art.) "They" were the hands that took me apart and put me back together differently. I say that knowing that it will make you, the reader, shake your head, but it was how I experienced things. Chunks of me were ripped out and thrown away, and never returned. A great hole was made in the back of my skull; I could see stars out through it, like a great swirling well you could fall in if you got too close. Something that I can only describe as "glittery" or "sparkly" sloshed around inside me, staining me all over, filling up my bloodstream.
I woke up grateful to be alive. When I made it to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, I saw with shock that my eyes had changed color. They had always been bluish-grey; now they had turned green, and they are green to this day. I'd always been madly attracted to men with green eyes; I could feel the message like a sign blinking behind me in the mirror. You are a walking dead man, She said to me, and you will walk as long as you do what I ask of you.
Parts of my personality were lost forever, never to return. I can barely remember what it was like to feel those things, desire those things, value those things. The hole in my skull yielded, and deities entered me, used my body, and left. The first god-possession took me entirely off guard, and I went to a few local Pagan priestesses for help. They had no idea what to do, and frankly the whole thing frightened them. In desperation, I went to an Umbanda house, and they trained me in how to handle the phenomenon - how to say yes to it, how to say no, how to keep it from frying your brain. Still, the Goddess I called Mama prodded me to leave as soon as I had that knowledge. This is not your path, she said, and I thanked them and left. I still talk to the orishas, and I still keep altars to them in gratitude, but they are not my focus.
I began to read history and anthropology out of sheer self-defense, trying desperately to find out what was happening to me. I ran across Mircea Eliade's book Shamanism, and suddenly things began to click. I know that many people have complained about his scholarship, but for me, at this time, the book was a life-saver. I discovered that people all over the world had been experiencing the same thing that had happened to me - the long illness, the death and rebirth, the psychotic episode - which, true to form, never returned - the bothersome spirits, and the dismemberment hallucination. There was even repeated mention of the Great Tree, in many cultures. Suddenly, I wasn't crazy; I had a name for all this, and for myself. I was to be a shaman.
One might think that I would settle down and accept my fate, but I'm a stubborn sort, and my daughter was at a period of her life when she needed a great deal of care from me. My ex was moving to California, and there would be no more shared parenting. I got down on my knees and prayed to the Mother Goddess for a reprieve, figuring she would understand. Just let me get her solidly and healthily to adulthood, I said, and then I will do whatever is asked of me, without hesitation. Just grant me this one thing, for her sake.
Amazingly, it was granted. My health got better, the bleeding lessened, and the spirits backed off. Over the next seven years, I got the sex change that had been demanded, and began to live life socially as a man. The male hormones cleared up three-quarters of my hormone troubles, raised my immune system, banished my depression, and stopped the hemorrhaging permanently. My body shapeshifted physically with a speed that awed me, and astonished the other female-to-male transsexuals in my support group. While they were still counting their first few chest hairs, I was growing a full beard and passing as male, even with large breasts. The secret was simple; I'd discovered that shapeshifting my astral body to male speeded up the effects of the testosterone. (That, and some divine aid, I suppose.) It was an object lesson: when I was fleeing my path, things would go appallingly bad for me. When I was following it, things would get dramatically better.
I had chest surgery - a bilateral mastectomy - when my daughter was thirteen. I'd never had any anesthetic before, or any painkillers stronger than an aspirin, and I was utterly unprepared for waking up with over a hundred stitches, eighteen pounds of flesh removed, and finding that my body refused to respond to narcotics. Codeine, Percoset, Demerol...I only got a little groggy, and the pain didn't change. For the next four days, I Sun Danced in a hotel room, drumming, breathing, sometimes crying, sometimes riding the pain like the Gods rode me. When it had subsided enough that I could finally rest, I had learned how to use a new tool; the Ordeal Path was now also familiar to me.
I should now apologize about my use of the term Sun Dance, the Lakota ordeal where one is suspended from hooks in one's chest until a trance ensues. The truth is that it wasn't a Sun Dance per se; none of my shamanic techniques are Native American. When I figured out that I was to be a shaman, I started to look into Native American spirituality, but I was sternly shooed away from it....not by the Native Americans, but by the Goddess who owned me. This is not your path, She said, bewildering me. Having been raised in America, I naturally associated shamanism with the Indians, even though Eliade's work made it clear that it was a global phenomenon. "Where are the books about my path?" I asked, and She was silent...and then She revealed herself to me. Half beautiful woman, half rotting corpse. White-skinned fair maiden who smelled of rot. Old woman with long greying hair with dead souls draped about her. I learned my lesson: one death goddess is not the same as another. She was not just any goddess. I checked my mythology, and found Her name: Hel. My Germanic bloodline had come for me. I was profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that one might be stuck with one's ancestors' gods, but I could not deny Her of the single skeletal hand....and the spinning world-tree, Yggdrasil, around which spiral the Nine Worlds.
When my daughter was a month away from her seventeenth birthday, the spirits came for me again and reminded me of my promise. It was a moment of truth, and I accepted my fate. This would be my job for the rest of my second life. (By this time, of course, I had been assigned a tribe of people who needed my aid. A classic shaman will always have a tribe to serve, although I would end up serving people who came from all sorts of places and asked for my help.) I pleaded that I needed aid in this endeavor, and the Gods sent me a second lover, one who was ready and willing to be a shaman's assistant.
I won't go into too much detail about the rigors of my training period, except to say that I got thoroughly enmeshed in Norse cosmology, but I still sometimes strayed outside of it. I checked out the Heathen community, and found that very few knew what to make of my experience. "There is no lore-based evidence that Norse religion was shamanic," I was told. Maybe there isn't....but I am owned thoroughly, body and soul, by a Norse goddess who wants me to be a shaman in a northern European-to-Eurasian-centered context....and I can't say no to her. "There are no shamans in our religion," I was told.
The fact that I dealt with the Death Goddess of the pantheon didn't make things any better; many Heathens had a long-standing suspicion of Hel and her family, including her father Loki who would turn out to be one of my most skilled spirit-teachers. I also discovered that many Heathens were separatists, in the sense that they did not work with gods outside the Norse pantheon, and didn't consider anyone who did so to be a heathen. However, Hel seemed quite willing to send over certain non-Norse gods to teach me specific lessons, and if ecumenicalism is good enough for my divine patron, it's good enough for me.
I made contact with several seidhr-workers, and found that we had many experiences and practices that were startlingly similar, and just as many that were entirely different. It was close, but not close enough for me to take on the label of seidhmadhr, especially since some folk in the heathen community felt that seidhr referred only to their particular kind of oracular seidhr, which I didn't do. I didn't want to get involved with labeling wars, so I gave up any claim to "seidhr" just as I'd given up claim to "heathen", and decided that I was just going to refer to myself as a northern-tradition pagan shaman and leave it at that.
I returned to the neo-Pagan community with a shrug, figuring that even if they couldn't help me, they would at least accept me. I looked for people who worked with Norse gods and spirits, and found the mainly-Norse practitioners divided into two vague groups, which could be roughly termed Norse Wiccan and Norse Pagan. The Norse Wiccans used a basic Wiccan framework and simply inserted Norse deities into it, usually Frey and Freya. While this tradition is no worse than any others - and certainly it has been observed that super-traditional mystery-religion Wiccan practice has a strong relationship to Vanatru, or Frey-and-Freya worship - it wasn't the right thing for me. Norse Pagans, on the other hand, were a varied group. Many seemed to be identical to Heathens except for a few specific differences: A) They preferred the Pagan community to the Heathen one for social or political reasons. B) Although their central cosmology was Norse, they worked with gods and cosmologies outside of that structure as well, and didn't want to have to apologize for that practice. C) They tended to fall onto the UPG side of the lore-vs.-UPG argument.
However, Norse Paganism is far behind Heathenism in finding its theology and practice. Most Norse Pagans take their written resources from both non-Nordic resources and from Heathen writings, and attempt to combine the two in a useful way. There are damn few books written specifically for a Norse Pagan audience....and this book, hopefully, will start to fill that gap.
How have I gotten my shamanic training? Mostly I've been spirit-taught. (I was fascinated to find out that the Buryat shamans have a special word for shamans who are spirit-taught rather than human-taught - bagshagui - and that this generally happens when a shamanic genetic line dies out and the spirits move over to another line to choose and bother someone.) Deities and spirits come to me, and "motor me through" doing things, and then I practice them. It's not a method that could ever be used by a human teacher. It's also completely unprovable, so if you think that this is all bunk and that I'm merely deluding myself, it's no skin off my nose; how can I expect you to believe what you've never seen? This book will be going under the assumption that those reading it will be suspending their disbelief at first, if not for its entirety.
Sometimes I'm instructed to do things, and I have no idea if any historical human being ever did them. Sometimes I find out about that later. One example is my drum. I was told to get one, even though "there is no evidence that Norse people used drums for religious ritual." Still, it was an order, and my wife bought me a gift of a simple Pakistani frame drum, because it was what we could afford. I was told to put jingles and metal bits and rattles all around the edge, which I did - tambourine jingles, bells, dried hooves for clackers, bits of bone. I was told to paint the top with the Tree and symbols for the worlds, which I did. I'd only ever seen Native American shaman drums, and they seemed so simple and streamlined; mine seemed cluttered by comparison, and who ever heard of a shaman's drum with all those jingles on it? Later, I discovered that the shaman drum of the Saami (Laplander) people, called a runebom, has jingles around it, and a map of the worlds painted on the skin. Some scholars do theorize that if there were shamanic elements in Norse religion, they may have learned it from the neighboring Saami, so it makes sense.
Of course, this led to an interesting situation at a local Pagan gathering. I pulled Yggdrasil, my drum, out of her case, and someone looked at her in horror. I was asked indignantly as to why I had ruined a Native American frame drum with jingles and bells. The next person in line corrected the first offended Pagan; it wasn't a Native American drum at all, but an Irish bodhran, which was equally offensive to put all those jingles on. I turned Yggdrasil over and showed them the Made In Pakistan sticker that was still on her, stymieing both their comments, but the incident stuck with me. I'm not the only American Pagan to whom the word "shaman" is synonymous with Native American culture. Few know anything about non-Indian forms of shamanism, or that they even exist. There's an assumption that white Europeans not only don't have any connection to shamanic tribal culture, they never did in all of history. Therefore, if one wants real shamanism, one has to turn to the indigenous peoples.
Then there's the problem of the backlash against such chasing after indigenous religion. I've called myself a shaman in public and been accused of stealing Native American spirituality before the words were quite out of my mouth. I've been accused of it for using a drum, working with spirit animals, having a (Saami) embroidered deer on my jacket, and wearing crow feathers in my hair. I've seen an open letter from a self-professed Native American activist who claimed that white people using the word "shaman" was stealing Indian religion....and was apparently clueless that the word itself comes from the Tungus tribe of Siberia, not any tribe on this continent. As you can imagine, I do a lot of explaining....and I duck a lot.
All this wandering around from community to community didn't affect my situation as the shaman of my tribe. Currently my tribe consists of three rings of people. First is my own Pagan kingdom, Asphodel. Second is the community of third gender people, my sister-brothers and brother-sisters. I have as strong a commitment to them as I do to the people with whom I worship. Third, and much more sporadic, is the people who wander onto my doorstep with their problems. I check to see if the "on duty" light goes on, and if it does, I let them in and try my best to help them. Regardless of whether I am accepted in a larger community, I am never short of work to do. Some of my work, as was mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, isn't in this world, exactly. Some of it straddles worlds, including this one; one of those tasks is my ongoing job to spread information here, in the world that we live in. This book is the fruit of that job.