29 June 2009

Link: On Shaman Sickness

Moonvoice has written an amazing piece on Shaman Sickness titled Shamanic Pathways 07 - A wounded shaman(ist)?.

I have some of my own thoughts to add to this, but I haven't been able to get the essay written, so I'll just provide the link that inspired such for now and write more on it later.

28 June 2009

Prayer Beads, Week 8: Sif, Heimdall, Tyr

In the name of Sif, Lady Gold-Tressed, may I take pride in my own skill.
In the name of Heimdall, Guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, may I be able
to defend my own boundaries.
In the name of Tyr, Lord of Swords, may I walk with true honor in the world.


In the name of Sif, Lady Gold-Tressed, may I take pride in my own skill.

Sif is best known for the story of how she got her hair. In the story of Skáldskaparmál, Loki cut it off, then made nice by going on a quest to get the dwarves to make her new hair of gold and many of the treasures of the gods in the process.

One wonders how Loki got into a position to steal her hair in the first place, and there is a significant implication that she has taken at least one lover outside of Thor (in both Hárbarðsljóð and in Lokasenna). This, however, is a discussion for another time.

Almost nothing is known of her personally in existent lore, though a few people have taken stabs at it (some of it based on UPG, for example, there is a theory that Thor guards the perimeter and Sif makes the center clear and sacred). It may also be that she had an association to marriage: Her name is a cognate of the Old English word sib, which means affinity, connection, by marriage. The compound word byggja sifjar means to marry.

Pride is a much maligned feeling in modern society. The phrase pride cometh before the fall is almost totally ingrained in our society, and many if not most children have received--from some authority figure in their life--lectures about this villain called pride. Greek legends about the dangers of hubris are frequently required reading in school, and it is considered the root sin of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins.

Yet as the character of Mark Twain indicates in Disney's American Adventure in Epcot: Pride is a national passion and even those who overcome it are proud of their humility.

Yet pride doesn't necessarily have to be excessive, nor does it have to be combined with conceit, nor does it mean that your pride needs to be unjustified. To quote the usage notes from the New Oxford American Dictionary:

If you take pride in yourself or your accomplishments, it means that you believe in your own worth, merit, or superiority—whether or not that belief is justified (: she took pride in her accomplishments).


While no one wants to be accused of arrogance or egotism, there's a lot to be said for self-esteem, which may suggest undue pride but is more often used to describe a healthy belief in oneself and respect for one's worth as a person (: she suffered from low self-esteem).

So while excessive pride may be a problem, some pride in your accomplishments is a necessary component of self-esteem.


In the name of Heimdall, Guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, may I be able
to defend my own boundaries.

The guardian of the Bifrost Bridge which forms the link between Asgard and Midgard. He is known by many names, and is noted as the father of mankind (in a somewhat literal sense) according to some of the myths. He is a watcher and a guardian, and it is his job to sound the horn when Ragnarok comes.

Defending your boundaries in today's society means more than just keeping an eye on the door or installing an alarm system. It means being proactive with watching your own emotional boundaries and sense of self. It means not having boundaries that are blurred with those around you, and enforcing those boundaries within yourself and too others before it becomes a problem.

The danger here is of keeping too close an eye on one's boundaries. On keeping out even those things that are good, or seeing the world in black-and-white terms. Defense takes on this meaning as well, since it does you no good to keep things out if you starve while on the inside. Thus we can say that defending your boundaries means letting in what you need to be in and keeping out what you need to be out, whatever forms these things may take.


In the name of Tyr, Lord of Swords, may I walk with true honor in the world.

Týr is a lord of justice and a very old god of war. His name derives from the Proto-Germanic *Tiwaz, and is also the name of the rune ᛏ.

Týr er einhendr áss
ok ulfs leifar
ok hofa hilmir.
Mars tiggi.
Tyr is a one-handed god,
and leavings of the wolf
and prince of temples

It is Týr who offered his hand in payment for binding the Wolf Fenris with the cord Gleipnir (open one).

Honor is an interesting concept among Heathens. We don't really have a Code of Honor such as bushido (武士道), but it is clear that there was a sense of honor nonetheless. This shows up, for example, when Egil says to his band that they should go back and acquit themselves as true warriors that is based off of a code of honor.

This code appears to be centered, not on a sense of self, but on how one would be perceived by society. Swain Wodening wrote that:

Honor or ár therefore is as much about how one behaves as it is about how one is perceived. There are many ancient Germanic figures that achieve fame through victories in battle. The hero Starkaðr, while very well known, and spoken of in the ancient literature, did not know honor in his life. Indeed, he was often subject to shame. He definitely was well known, and had success in battle, but as he was often the antithesis of Germanic ideals on what a hero should be, he did not know honor. Starkaðr lacked certain qualities that the ancient Germanic Heathens deemed needed to fulfill the Germanic heroic ideal. In essence, he did not do the good deeds needed to win public approval, and did do deeds that won him the scorn of many. It is safe to say therefore, that ár cannot be simply translated as fame or renown. Starkaðr, after all was very well known, but not necessarily liked. A better translation would be “well known for a good name.” This concept is seen repeatedly in maxims in Béowulf and the Hávamál. One's good name was thought to be everything to the ancient Germanic Heathen.

Kaldera puts forth that there is another form of honor that is not dependent on the views of others called (in Old English) mægen, which literally translates to Strength. He defines it as follows:

While showing oneself to be a keeper of one's word is good for building public trust, the concept of maegen stresses that this is a power to be built even in isolation, and that it is not dependent on the opinions of others. The idea is that every time you give your word and keep it, you build up a fund of power behind your word that gives it more cosmic impact. In this way, the maegen supports the vili. One's maegen can often be sensed by others, and those with strong maegen will be instinctively trusted more by those who sense it. It's more than just reputation, it's an actual force attached to the soul that can be felt and used.

We see here something that is worth cultivating, both for oneself and for others and for which Týr, a god of justice, is ideally suited.

26 June 2009


Coming in a little late to this, but a lot of people who I follow have posted something for International Pagan Values Blogging Month, so I figured that I would add my contribution.

Part of the problem with talking about values is that it can quickly get overly specific. One virtue frequently depends on another, and to quote Michael Murphy (as quoted by Walsh in The World of Shamanism), Every virtue requires other virtues to complete it. While we all agree in living ethically we don't all agree what those ethics entail.

Recently in a job interview I was asked what core values I clung to: what values that were deeply personal to me. What were, in essence, my core values by which I lived my life. It is one of the more unusual questions I've been asked, and my answer really ahd more to do with meta-values. Values from which everything else is subordinate to. The three I gave were:

  • All Knowledge is Worth Having

  • Self-Honesty

  • Kaizen

All Knowledge is Worth Having

This is the famous quote of Anafiel Delaunay in Jacqueline Carey's excellent Kushiel's Legacy series. Basically it comes down to this: There is no piece of knowledge that is so obscure and so arcane that it is not worth knowing. This isn't to say that there aren't opportunity costs involved, but what turns out to be of interest and of use later on is never clear when the knowledge becomes available.

This goes beyond the base memorization of facts. Facts are but one form of knowledge: there is also knowledge of the self and knowledge of skills. As the character of Russell learns in the movie Up: The wilderness, no matter how much you think you know about it, can be rather wild and will exceed your expectations. Yet this counts as knowledge as well.

It is also true that the important thing is knowing how to think, how to analyze, and how--ultimately--to learn. This is also part of knowledge and part of the process of acquiring it.

Every few months I see comments about how some group of engineering students (frequently Software Engineering) take "too much math" in school, when in truth those math classes are some of the most valuable they will ever take. They say that they will never use those classes in the real world and--in a very narrow view--they are right. The trick is that--as the saying goes--I advise my students to listen carefully when they take their last mathematics class, they may be able to hear the sound of closing doors. Not because knowing how to take a line integral in a complex plane comes up so frequently in my day-to-day job, but because the thought process and skill set that were acquired by taking such classes goes well beyond the base subject matter that was covered.

The same is true of Philosophy and is found in many other fields of study: the thought process and skills you gain while learning is more important than the material you cover.

This isn't to say that the material can't also be important: my first professional job out of college involved some of those areas of knowledge that people said I would never have a use for.

So we can say with some certainty that knowledge is a lifelong process and not a set of concise products that can be memorized and regurgitated. It doesn't come down to the classes you take, or the field you are in, or a table of numbers (though all of these can be useful and help you on the way), but in how you seek and gather and what you learn while on the path.

It is important to seek, it is important to learn, and it is important not to dismiss some tidbit of information or some skill just because you cannot presently see the use for it.


Loki is one of many teachers that tell us that if there is one person in all of the Nine Worlds that you cannot afford to lie to, it is yourself.

Honesty is a funny concept. On the one hand, when you lie to others, the question is why do you feel that it is necessary to lie to them? This is part of what Ayn Rand was saying when she commented that:

People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked... The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on... There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all.

The so-called white lie is told to keep the peace but serves instead to distort reality, because reality is not palatable a false, illusory reality is set up instead. In telling this white lie you are saying that peace of mind is more important than what has actually true.

Besides, it is a pain to keep it all straight.

On the other hand, it is easy to pretend to being honest while in truth infringing on the boundaries of others. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying that one is just being honest when in truth it is simply a mechanism for making the other person uncomfortable (e.g., by sharing too much information), or talking instead of listening.

It can also, when poorly phrased or when not combined with mindfulness, be used as an inadvertent (or worse, deliberate) weapon in the worst possible ways. It can lead to what are called you statements instead of I statements, said in the name of being honest.

There is also power in deliberately lying. A lie--told mindfully--can be used to illustrate the truth or protect oneself from harm. A lie by omission (especially of the form of simply stopping short or not bringing something up) can be used to give yourself time to work things out within yourself before telling the truth, to play nice in a social setting for the benefit of a third party, or temporarily avoid hitting people's triggers. Lying can be used as a tool by spies in order to gain information which is vital to saving lives, and denial and deception techniques have a long history in warfare.

The sagas are similarly filled with examples of people or gods being dishonest or--at a minimum--deflecting the truth slightly for a greater gain. These range from Odin lying about his identity when traveling to Egil pretending to be more drunk than he was, presumably in part to flush out an enemy. We also see in history everything from women lying about their sex in order to serve on the battlefield, or lying about their marital status to help avoid being raped, to being used to protect innocent lives in the Underground Railroad.

The difference here is in what the lie is used for, and whether it is told mindfully. While having a greater end is frequently important, we don't want to get in to a question of ends justifying means and what really matters here is whether the lie is mindfully said, or whether it is said unconsciously. Whether it is said because I am denying reality, or while fully cognizant of the actuality of the situation.

Thus while honesty may be a virtue, it isn't an absolute one and is one that must be balanced with other virtues when dealing with others. But self-honesty, being mindful of yourself and refusing to tell even the slightest lie to yourself to make yourself feel better, is another matter entirely. This is one area that I believe we cannot afford to skimp in, and one area whether the word radical is not merely warranted, but something to encourage.

There are reasons that might justify lying to others, but lies to yourself will always come back to haunt you in the end.


Kaizen (改善, literally "improvement") is something I have talked about before. It means continuous improvement in all areas of your life. In Walsh's The World of Shamanism he comments that in Western Philosophy we frequently make the mistake of believing that attention cannot be continuously sustained and he points out how in contemplative disciplines attention must be sustained.

Even if we cannot achieve the ultimate goal of perfectly sustained concentration, we can work toward it. We can build skills and slowly improve ourselves, so that even if we don't--or even can't--get there, we can improve ourselves and our abilities dramatically while working toward that as a goal.

This is part of the point of kaizen: It isn't in being something great, it is in the process of continually improving ourselves in small ways. So I can't be the person I want to be tomorrow, but can I be a better person tomorrow than I am today? That is, in the end, what matters and--after thousands of days--maybe I will become that person, or the person I wanted to be turns out not to be that great after all, but regardless of what happened to my goal, I will be a much better person for the journey.

21 June 2009

Prayer Beads, Week 7: Odin, Frigg, Thor

In the name of Odin, the All-Father, One-Eyed Master of the Runes, may I be opened to ecstasy and inspiration.
In the name of Frigga, Mistress of Fensalir, spinner of clouds, may my home be a frithstead where all are welcome.
In the name of Thor, Lord of Thunder, Master of the Winds of the Western World, may my strength never fail me.


In the name of Odin, the All-Father, One-Eyed Master of the Runes, may I be opened to ecstasy and inspiration.

Óðinn is an extremely multifaceted deity. He, along with his brothers Ve and Vili, created the earth from the body of the giant Ymir. He is the Allfather (Alföðr) and leader of the Æsir, he is the terrible one (Yggr), the Raven God (Hrafnaguð), and the Grey Bearded (Hárbarðr) wanderer, he is Beloved (Uðr) and the Hanged One (Hangi), and many many other things besides.

As such an eclectic god, there are numerous perceptions of him and--more than virtually any other deity--two people who follow the same god can come away with dramatically different impressions of him and relationships with him. As with any god, some may follow one aspect and others may follow another, but even then Odin has a stunning array of aspects.

I follow Óðinn in his trickster, magician, and wanderer aspects. Mine is the Óðinn who hanged for nine days and nine nights in a quest for knowledge, mine is the Óðinn who wandered the world in search of knowledge, who spent time in a skirt with Freyja to learn seiðr, and mine is the Óðinn who stood across from Thor (Þōrr) on the opposite riverbank and refused to ferry him across. I do not interface with him as a death god or a god of war, I don't talk to him as a Shaman-King or as the Allfather, and only rarely as a god of victory. I never see him in Asgard (Ásgarðr), and will generally either meet him while out and about or go to him at the Chair/High Seat (Hliðskjálf/Hlidskjalf) which exists outside of Asgard and overlooks the Nine Worlds.

One thing that is widely recognized is that he is a god of ecstasy. Not in the modern sense of feeling "overwhelming happiness," but in terms of "involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence." It comes from the Greek ekstasis, meaning "trance, distraction" which comes from existanai, meaning to "displace" or "drive out of one's mind" (as in existanai phrenon).

Ecstasy has long been recognized as a potent force for Shamans. William Fairchild, in his work on Shamanism in Japan says of ecstasy that:

Ecstasy is absolutely necessary for shamanism. It is a special kind of ecstasy-a transformation into another personality. By ecstasy the shaman contacts transcendental beings. This ecstasy may be migratory-contact outside of the body. or possessive-transcendental beings enter the body.

Inspiration, on the other hand, is a fundamental force behind human achievement. It is what comes in a flash of insight, allowing us to connect the dots in intuitive ways. One of the meanings of the word is "the drawing of breath." As we say in Hapkido: If you aren't breathing, you are dead. Breath also has a long history in Northern religious thought.


In the name of Frigga, Mistress of Fensalir, spinner of clouds, may my home be a frithstead where all are welcome.

Frigg is the wife of Odin and described by Snorri as the "foremost among the goddesses." She is said to have a remarkable gift of insight, but while she may teach the technique of it does not share what she sees.

Her hall in Asgard, Fensalir, stands for Marsh Halls and she is known for the goddess of hearth and home. I have now heard from several sources (including someone who was tapped by Frigg) that the people who are hers first feel like they need to clean house. Not just pick up, but a good deep, thorough cleaning.

The book Zen and the Art of Housekeeping talks about something called CHAOS: Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome. This is something that I struggle with daily. By having a clean place, we can be more comfortable with ourselves in entertaining guests, in having people over, and in performing those activities that encourage Frith within our group.

Frith, meaning "peace; freedom from molestation, protection; safety, security" is a very important concept to the Northern Tradition religions. Svartesol points out that the word has somewhat subtle connotations and is often confused with a similar term, but it basically comes down to the peaceful bonds you build within a group. She says of it that:

[I]n a frithstead you can have a violent disagreement with someone and still know at the end you will not have a knife in your back, whether literally or figuratively. Frith does not mean everyone agrees on every issue and completely loses their individuality to be absorbed by the greater whole. But it does mean working together for the greater good, and keeping good will within the process, including not betraying or otherwise deliberately harming someone within the innangeard.


In the name of Thor, Lord of Thunder, Master of the Winds of the Western World, may my strength never fail me.

Thor, a red-headed god, is widely known as a friend of mankind. He is the one who protects Asgard and Midgard from the Jotuns--the forces of the wilds, of nature, and of chaos.

He was an extremely popular deity historically, though in modern times Odin frequently gets more attention among many heathen groups. Part of this may be ahistorical, but it may also be that Odin's domains--ciphers, knowledge, and problem solving--have more relevance for many of us in the modern world. Still, Thor plays an important part in protecting a space and--along with his wife Sif--helping make a place sacred.

Protecting others requires that our strengths--no matter what those may be--be there when we need them. My strengths that I use to defend others do not come down to brawn, but are bound up in my mind, my observational skills, and things along those lines. While it would be bad if my physical strength were to fail me, most of the time physical strength is the least important thing and vastly overrated.

One of the most frequent comments I make to lower belts in Hapkido is "you are using too much force."

Yet in all of these things--whether the strength is physical or mental, whether it is from bashing things with a hammer, building fortifications, getting others out of danger, or volunteering at a safe house--Thor's presence is still there.

18 June 2009

Boundaries, Part III: Speaking for the Gods

In my first essay on Boundaries I talked about the emotional boundaries between people. My second essay on Boundaries talked about how to react when someone comes up to you claiming to have a message from a deity, or even your personal deity.

I had intended, in the third essay, to talk about the boundaries between you and the gods, as touched on by Piper in her essay on Service, but realized that first I needed to write about the boundary between you and another individual when delivering a message.

It has happened to numerous people I know on several occasions: they will be journeying, or talking to a god or spirit of some form about a (potentially unrelated) topic, and a message will come up intended for a particular individual (or group of individuals) who weren't originally the topic of discussion.

These messages may range from benign to severe in their implications, and there may be a variety of reasons a third party may be chosen to deliver the message. Sometimes, that third party may not even be aware that they delivered a message or what its contents were. The reasons and forces involved may not always be clear, but there are always reasons for it.

On the other hand, it is very easy when doing this to allow one's own perceptions to interfere, to cast individual desires inadvertently as messages from the gods, or to otherwise allow the filter of your mind to interfere with your own signal on this matter. No matter how certain one is, there is always a chance--no matter how small--that they are wrong.

There are also problems in interpretation. Several people I work with have received messages either directly or through an intermediary where the giving of the message was more important than that they follow the message's contents. Further, the message may take a meaning to the listener that the speaker is not aware of.

It is also very easy to take a message to the effect of "If you feel that X should do Y, why don't you tell them that yourself?" and translate it to "Odin said to tell you that you should do Y."

Knowing exactly what is going on with such a message is nontrivial even if you are 100% certain of it's origins and content. Let alone if you can't be.

Telling the difference between a message from the gods and your own subconscious is nontrivial, and while mindfulness is tremendously helpful in this discernment, it is not completely perfect. Even if the gods are completely objective entities, their representation within my own mind will never be. This means that while I may transmit a message believing it is from the gods, it cannot be my responsibility to ensure that the contents of the message are followed.

These are healthy boundaries. After having delivered the message, they get to check on it. Their conversation with the deities may go any one of a number of directions that you are not privy to and not responsible for. If they choose not to check or not to follow the advice, or choose not to tell you what they discovered, it is not your responsibility to make sure that they do or to remind them in any way.

Besides, if the deity in question really wants the message delivered, most are capable of delivering through some other channel if confirmation is needed.

I will talk more about this topic when I discuss boundaries between Spirit Workers and gods.

Further Reading

16 June 2009

Book Review: Journeying, Where Shamanism and Psychology Meet

Journeying : Where Shamanism and Psychology Meet by Jeannette M. Gagan (✭✭✭✬✩, 3.5/5, 13 June 2009)

One of the key areas of interest to a lot of spirit workers, myself included, is the link between shamanism and psychology. The role of a shaman, be it core or traditional, is service to the surrounding community, frequently in the capacity of a healer. Raven Kaldera states that, since putting out his shingle as a "Shaman," "health" has become the #1 issue that people ask about (as opposed to love or work, the other two frequent topics for readers). Harner states that the purpose of Shamanism is healing.

Given this association, it is natural that psychotherapists are starting to take an interest in Shamanism, and specifically in journeying, as a mechanism to encourage healing in their clients. Outside of some of the resources provided by the Institute of Shamanic Studies, there simply aren't all that many good, published resources on the relationship between Shamanism and Psychology. Especially not from the psychotherapist side.

Journeying: Where Shamanism and Psychology Meet is an initial attempt to bridge this gap. After reading the effusive praise of the book Amazon, most of it from the point of view of a psychotherapist approaching shamanic practice, that I was eager to read it from the perspective of a spirit worker.

This book is not--and does not claim to be--an introduction to how to incorporate journeying in a psychotherapeutic context, nor is it in any way a "how to." Really, there are many books out there on that already, and so this book is attempting to enter a much-needed void: discussion of the actual link between them, and discussion of how one can facilitate and help the other.

The chapters of the book are as follows:

  • Chapter 1: The Apple and the Orange
  • Chapter 2: Shared Slices
  • Chapter 3: How the Cradle is Rocked
  • Chapter 4: Little Red Riding Hood Meets the Wolf
  • Chapter 5: The Alchemical Connection
  • Chapter 6: The Meeting Place

The sequence starts by showing some of the history of Shamanism and Psychotherapy, and then slowly working their way together over the following chapters. The final chapter, The Meeting Place, attempts to draw a synthesis between the two.


From the standpoint of introducing people with a psychotherapeutic background to journeying, this book is reasonably good. It attempts to present the argument that there is a missing core of a "Soul" from Psychology, and establishes through some discussion what role this concept of a "Soul" has had in the history of Psychology and Psychotherapy. It describes Psychology as a navel orange, with no clear center and with a vestigial second "fruit" inside--representing the role of the soul--and a variety of clearly delineating slices representing different schools of thoughts.

Shamanism, on the other hand, is compared to an Apple--with a central set of core techniques, concepts, and practices. Very different on the one hand, and the author is attempting to establish that they are basically both forms of fruit.

To do this, it launches into a discussion of third and fourth force psychology, transpersonal psychology, and covers the history of psychological thought including some notes for Aristotle, Freud, Descartes. She goes on to discuss Jung's Collective Unconscious, the role of visualization in both physical and mental health, and how Altered States of Conscious (ASCs) can be used as part of the healing process.

While generally interesting, during this discussion the author's inherent biases come out. I expected a Core-Shamanist Perspective with an emphasis on psychological healing via journeying (as the title suggests, and as opposed to other things that Shamanism can and has been used for over the years), what I didn't expect would be that the author would be unable to separate her own cultural biases, which appear to be based on her Christian background. These show up in several places throughout the book, but nowhere more clearly than when she discusses maladaptive ASCs, where she states that:

The emergence of unconscious conflicts may also be acted out in insidious rituals of possession, witchcraft, or other power-laden altered state ordeals; in life, as in fairy tales, such activities hint at evildoings and can elicit a sense of foreboding.

While it is easy enough to filter out the author's own biases in these situations, it makes me want to say "Really? You could shift your mind far enough to accept journeying, even as practiced by tribal shamans, did you really have to throw out other things practiced by traditional shamans in the process?"

How Journeying Can Heal

Later chapters the author starts to talk about the origin of psychological distress and how journeying can help. This, which to me should represent the core of the book, instead ends up as the weakest part. The author spends an inordinate amount of time talking about childhood sources for these problems, which I feel is less important for the purposes of journeying and shamanic healing than that the problems exist.

My own bias in these things is that I tend to be relatively pragmatic: understanding the source of the problems can help tremendously in finding a cure, but the source of such problems can be (and is already represented as) numerous other books, and the solution frequently works independent of the precise source. We don't really need a discussion of all of the various ways that these problems can and do form in childhood, we need a discussion of how journeying and shamanism tie into the therapy of the conditions regardless of their source.

Here, I feel it would have been better if it had taken Emotional Alchemy's approach and acknowledged the source, but then moved on to how journeying has been used to treat it, or a Shamanic view on the treatment of the problem.

To this end, I really wish the author had included more case studies and talking about specific circumstances where journeying has helped someone, rather than front-loading with the potential origin of psychological conditions, and then a couple of illustrative case studies on the topic.


The final chapters present a synthesis between shamanism and psychology and represents the strongest--and most useful--part of the book. Here we see the author talk about how journeying helps clients, how it offers a contained, safe, and non-judgmental space in which to work. Here we see the benefit of how journeying helps keeps the transference from happening on to the therapist, and situations for which the author says journeying is counter-indicated. This is all excellent stuff, and forms the start of where I want to see research in this field start to lead.


The unfortunate problem with this book for spirit workers and psychotherapists is that most of us are not in the target audience. For psychotherapists who are already using journeying, this book won't give them anything new to work with. For those who are skeptical of journeying, the book doesn't really give anything that might sway them or convince them otherwise even if they have a relatively open mind to the process. For the spirit worker, it might be an interesting read, but there isn't much here that we don't already know and use.

This leads me to think that there are two groups who would benefit the most from this book:

  1. Psychotherapists and Psychologists who are curious about journeying and its application for healing, along with some context on it.
  2. People who have a "TV Shamanism" view of what a Shaman is, and could use a little context.

For people in these situations, I can see how it would be a really useful book, and I will keep it on my shelf to loan out for just these purposes. Otherwise it is an interesting read, but I really wish the author had taken it just that one extra step farther and removed some of the less-useful bits about how childhood and other circumstances contribute to our current psychological state.

Further Reading

14 June 2009

Prayer Beads, Week 6: Norns, Æsir/Aesir

This week we again encounter the three primary Norns who weave the fates of men:

By the name of Urd, I seek the spinning thread of my true path.
By the name of Verdandi, I weave my life with the threads of those I love.
By the name of Skuld, I make peace with the blade of my final Wyrd.

After this we will be getting into the Æsir/Aesir. The Æsir are the most widely followed deities in the Northern Pantheon today. Like most beings in the Northern Tradition, they are highly varied and all of them fill multiple roles. Odin is a god of magic, journeying, knowledge, power, war, victory, terror, wisdom, and sacrifice: to name a few.

The singular form of the word Æsir is the word áss. It is believed to have the the proto-Germanic *ansuz, which implies a direct connection with the rune Ansuz (ᚨ). We normally think of this as being Odin's rune in connection with a Icelandic rune poem, but it could also be called the rune of the Æsir.

References to the Æsir are found throughout Anglo-Saxon as Os-, Scandinavian names as As-, and other germanic cultures as Ans-.

The Æsir are frequently viewed as gods of civilization and order, as opposed to the wild forces of nature that are the Jötnar. One theory on why we have seen a rise of Jötnar-worship in recent years is because we are needing the pendulum to swing the other direction, toward acknowledging and embracing the natural forces of our planet. This does not, however, reduce or diminish the value of the Æsir in our lives, particularly for those of us who live in the city

I am still debating the format for the next section of beads. I may do a god a week and go more in depth, or go more shallow and keep covering 3 at a time.

10 June 2009

Updates for this week

This week is going to be a slow week for essays, I am trying to get one or two out the door but have a lot of things on my plate. The new essays are another Boundaries essay and another book review, and possibly one other essay that's still brewing in the back of my head. More on these things later!

07 June 2009

Prayer Beads, Week 5: Svartalfheim, Niflheim, Helheim

The last three of the Nine Worlds, these are often represented as the "lower" of the Nine Worlds. Some workers, such as the Galdr practitioner Kaedrich Olsen, view these three as the "dark" or "negative" worlds.

I tend to think of them as realms like the others. They each have their own characteristics, but none of them are "evil."

I honor the shadowed world of Svartalfheim, for the dark elves gift of song and mystery, and the deep kingdom of Nidavellir, for the duergar's skill and craft.
I honor the misty world of Niflheim, and the frost-etins who teach tenacity and survival.
I honor the dark world of Helheim, and all the ancestors who gave me life, learning, and hope.


I honor the shadowed world of Svartalfheim, for the dark elves gift of song and mystery,

Kaldera makes a distinction between Svartálfaheimr--the land of the dark elves on the surface--and Niðavellir--the land of the dwarves. I'm going to keep that distinction here.

Svartálfaheimr is the land of the døkkálfar, or the "Dark Elves" (or Svartálfar, "black elves") as distinct from the Ljósálfar in Ljossalfheim. There is a lot of confusion on whether the Svartálfar are actually the same as the duergar, and they seem to be frequently confused in available sources. Kevin Crossley-Holland stated that "No valid distinction though can be drawn between the dwarfs and the dark elves; they appear to have been interchangeable."

If they were mixed up at some point it certainly wouldn't be the first set of races to get confused by later authors (Frigg and Freyja seem to get regularly confused even during period, and Jotuns later got conflated together with trolls).

There is one thing, however, that I consider noteworthy in etymology that may indicate a distinction. The duergar are renowned craftsman who one never gets the particular impression of being malicious (at least from what I've seen of them in the available sources). Meanwhile, the German word for "nightmare" is albtraum or, literally, elf dream. Nightmares were the domain of the døkkálfar, and they were also blamed for night hag syndrome.

Whatever the case may have been a thousand years ago, spirit workers today report very different things living in the forests of svartálfaheimr and in the tunnels of niðavellir. The døkkálfar are described as a group that split off after a great war with the ljósálfar. My own experience agrees with this. I have also, despite the general reputation, generally had a more positive reception among the døkkálfar than among the ljósálfar.

Appearance is less certain, with varying reports. The gylfaginning refers to them as "blacker than pitch," though the word svartr appears to refer to hair color rather than skin color. An african from Nigeria is referred to at one point as blámaðr--blue man--in reference to his dark skin.

They also exist in multiple other cultures, as one would expect for a fey race.

The døkkálfar in the nine worlds live mostly in a coniferous forest on the surface world. Their "domain" in my experience is a smaller portion of the forest itself and not every forested area, though they may be found there. Their language and their magic are frequently musical in nature and they delight in song and dance. They have a capacity for "malevolent illusion" which they turn on intruders and from what I could gather a substantial portion of their magic is on protecting an area and all within it, rather than on a specific individual or group of individuals (UPG 2008). They can also feed on the dreams and emotions in others.

Kaldera mentions a spider goddess, but my experience indicated they didn't follow one.

In my journeys, I probably spend more time in svartálfaheimr than anywhere else. My recent string of dreams that I've described as a "fey catalog" seem to have all taken place in various parts around there.

The second part, "song and mystery" is also important. Song is one of our key ways of connecting with the Divine. Vibrations created by music can help us entered altered states of conscious, from chanting to drumming to singing. The Taizé Community uses song as a mechanism to further the participants individual spirituality both individually and as a group. it brings to mind "breath," since it is with breath that we produce song.

Breath is extremely important in the Norse Tradition, from the concept of "Ond"--meaning breath, or soul--to YHVH Elohim. It is the root of spirituality and the root of psychology.

Mystery is similarly important. While today the word brings to mind spooky attics and errant adventures, the word derives from the word "mystic," which in turn derives from either mustēs (an initiated person) or muein (close the eyes or lips). Either way, we get the impression of things that are not spoken to just anyone, secrets of the universe and our place in it. Things that either were not or perhaps could not be shared.

This, functionally, is what mystery is about: touching that which is beyond us, that which we cannot put into words.


and the deep kingdom of Nidavellir, for the duergar's skill and craft

The "underworld" of Svartálfaheimr, it is mentioned in Völuspá:

Stóð fyr norðan,
á Niðavöllom
salr úr gulli
Sindra ættar
on the Niðavellir,
stands the dwelling place of Sindri's kin,
Covered with gold

Niðavellir is comprised of an intricate series of tunnels and is the home of the Duergar, who are sensitive to light.

The duergar themselves appear throughout the sagas and eddas. They had bush black beards and hair and it is noted in Alvíssmál that they have pale skin, presumably from being underground. They were renowned craftsmen, well known for their great works and they created the treasures of the æsir.

Among them is the duergar Andvari, who teaches the value of things. There is an excellent book out titled Root, Stone, and Bone which is about honoring Andvari and the vaettir of money.

There is a lot of power in so-called honest work: in putting your knowledge, skill, and craftsmanship into creation. This does not--as the stereotype might imply--need to be something physical. Software is crafted just as surely as ships are, novels and poems are crafted the same as hammers. There is power in putting your honest effort--even unskilled--into an act of creation, and there is more power in working to become skilled at it and honing your craft through effort.


I honor the misty world of Niflheim, and the frost-etins who teach tenacity and survival.

Niflheimr is the "land of mists." Nifl is a cognate of Nifol (dark) and nebel ("cloud" or "fog"). The name appears in only two places: Gylfaginning and Hrafnagaldr Óðins. The latter reference is extremely brief, just referring it to being in the north. The former, however, describes it as being one of the primordial worlds.

Niflheimr is home to the Hrímþursar (Frost Giants). Given their environment, it is fairly clear where "tenacity and survival" come from. An interesting coincidence is the names of the giants from the Book of Enoch are the Nephilim (נפלים).

Frequently we in the US tend to think of things in terms of "talent," and believe that this "talent" is something intrinsic to that individual. If you cannot draw, it is because you "aren't talented at drawing." If you aren't doing well, it is because you "aren't talented in academics." Meanwhile, if you succeed with a piano, you must be "talented" with it. Though a full discussion on this will have to wait for another time, I believe this concept is toxic to success. That it dismisses accomplishments and encourages people not to try if things are difficult. I believe what matters most--above and beyond any form of innate skill--is your tenacity. That you keep at it and not give up. As Kageyama says in Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go: Habit is a frightening thing.

In Hapkido we like to say that if you had to practice it a hundred times and someone else only had to practice it ten, what does it matter so long as you both got it by the end of the day? You might have to work more or less than someone else in one area, and they might have to work more or less than you in another, but you both are looking to get to the same location.


I honor the dark world of Helheim, and all the ancestors who gave me life, learning, and hope.

The land of the goddess Hel. Frequently referred to as Her Ladyship, she is the goddess of the death and the Lady of the Underworld. The word "Hel" derives from the word *khalija, meaning "one who covers up or hides something." Helheim is known as a fortress and is widely considered to be more secure than even Asgard.

Helheim is not a place of suffering, and most spirit workers who have been there describe it as peaceful. Snorri's description of it, where he declares it to be a place that "evil men go," was commented to be "chiefly his own work" by H. R. Ellis-Davidson. Instead it is the abode of the ancestors and the place most of us go to when we die. We close the journey through the nine worlds by honoring those that came before us.

The concepts of "life, learning, and hope" are three of the most important aspects that we ever deal with. My ancestors--physical, spiritual, and intellectual--have helped make me what I am today, and to paraphrase: if I see far, it is only because I stand on the shoulders of giants. Those giants are my ancestors, my friends, my coworkers, my spirit guides, my teachers, etc--the people who have taught me, and the ones who have taught them, going back to the wheel and the discovery of fire. Acknowledging this is not a weakness, but a strength.

02 June 2009

Suspending Disbelief

Back in High School we had an English teacher talk to us about the necessity of something called suspension of disbelief in fiction. He said that, in order to truly get in to a story, the reader had to be willing to turn off their disbelief about the events in the story, thus allowing for everything from lunar princesses to White Whales that hunt ships to dark dystopian futures and everything in between. Recently I have been pondering its relation--if any--to occultism in general and spirit work in specific.

What Does It Mean?

I didn't like the term in High School, and I argued against it, because we expect (and to a certain degree demand) that stories operate on their own internal consistency, based on their own internal logic. We don't uncritically suspend our disbelief when we find that the internal consistency of the world has been violated, and consistency editors are frequently needed for this reason. We may be able to ignore (or not, depending on its severity), but we don't merely suspend our disbelief and accept whatever it is without criticism.

So when an author can't figure out the mechanics of werecritters in her own world we take notice, and while we may still enjoy the books, we will still mark it when we see it.

Sometimes stories deliberately throw out internal consistency on any rational basis, but are still basically consistent to the (loose) laws of their own universe (e.g., the Discworld concept of a million to one odds being a sure thing).

I think I didn't really understand what suspending your disbelief entails, and I am not completely convinced my teacher did either. What I have now come to think suspending your disbelief actually means is being willing to accept the premises on which the story is based, rather than once you are involved in the story itself. Once you have accepted those premises and whatever form of internal logic the story uses, you can maintain your disbelief, simply using a somewhat altered way of looking at the universe.

Thus I can accept the reality of Carl Fredricksen being able to lift his house using balloons and not feel that it detracts from the story, and accept that there are dogs running around that can talk and fly planes, but still have to wonder about how old Muntz must have been and how he managed to live that long. The previous points were explained in the context of the show or part of the premise, the last was harder for me to swallow.

So I can suspend my disbelief for certain premises, including how they build the internal logic of their universe, but I still have certain standards and expectations for what they do with those premises and that internal logic. Recently I finished reading Santa Olivia. It uses a set of premises I normally wouldn't like books drawn from. It has genetically engineered lesbian werewolves (sort of), boxing, and the US has declared a large number of people living in Texas to not exist. Somewhat difficult premises to swallow, and I don't normally see authors handle these issues well when they declare them as premises, but Jacqueline Carey wove an utterly magnificent story from them.

In Occultism

In occultism we have a similar concept, found in Chaos Magic: Nothing is true, everything is permitted. I have commented before that I prefer All models are wrong, but some are useful: The relative truth of different approaches to occultism aren't all that important--they can serve different purposes and can be learned in the same way one learns martial arts. We must accept certain premises as true in order to use a given system, but the objective reality of that truth is rarely important so long as we get the results we are after.

I cannot question my skills, or the reality of the system I am using, if I expect it to work effectively. Thus it is useful for me to be able to believe--absolutely and completely--the reality of a system while I am working with it. When I talk to Coyote while Journeying, it is not useful for me to sit there and wonder if I am talking to an aspect of myself, a spirit that I am casting in the role of Coyote, or an actual entity that has existed for thousands of years called Coyote.

On the other hand, this can lead to a certain brand of arrogance, or to an insistence that we are right and others are wrong. To try and invalidate others experiences or UPG simply because they do not mesh with our own, even those that are diametrically opposed and incompatible with our own. It can lead to us taking offense because someone else's practice is radically different from ours, or even if they take away something different.

Different people have different approaches to this problem. Some people treat the gods as being psychological manifestations, aspects of their individual psyche. Others treat the gods as absolutely 100% real, and everyone else's gods are real too. Some say the gods are completely real, but our understanding of them is aspected, or that we summon into being different facets by using different names. There are almost as many approaches to the problem of the reality of magic and to the reality of spirits as there are occultists and spirit workers.

My approach is that I accept the premise: that this somehow works, and that by accepting certain premises and following certain techniques, I can bring about effects in both myself and the world around me. I believe, for all intents and purposes completely, in the existence of the deities I interact with, understanding that no matter how firm my UPG, it must still be filtered through the lens of my own perception.

This is part of why I say that while I believe--having had experiences that convinced me--in the reality of the gods and spirits I talk with, I am not ultimately too fussed about it or about whether others who approach the path do it in the same way I do. I have suspended my disbelief on the premises, and focus instead on where the individual occultist takes it. To quote Lupa in her article on Shamanism and Subjectivity:

Really, how can I prove any of them are wrong, that they haven’t had the very experiences they claim to have had? How can I necessarily say that my experiences with shamanism are more objectively valid when in the end I really don’t have more proof of being right than anyone else? Sure, there’s looking at the shamanisms of other cultures–but that’s other cultures. To an extent, cultural context is crucial. And if a large portion of shamanic practitioners in this culture are reporting a certain way of doing things, then I should not dismiss that simply because it doesn’t corroborate entirely with the ways other cultures have described their practices. There’s something going on there, and beyond a certain point I cannot judge the veracity of what’s happening.

Similarly, when talking with others, my first step is to suspend my disbelief surrounding the premises of their disbelief and talk instead about the effects and experiences. Some things I will look at more suspiciously than others because the premises seem so far out there to me, but really, I can't invalidate their experiences based on just this. Sometimes, even if it never was true in any objective sense in years past, to quote The Matrix, "The mind makes it real." To those individuals, it is sufficiently real that they can produce meaningful results from it, and that is what matters first and foremost. So what I must do is suspend my disbelief for their premises, and look instead at other markers to gauge the subjective reality of their experiences.

To do this, I want to validate that their practices are what they say they are, see the effects of those practices, the internal consistency of their beliefs, and see that their focus is on internal development and helping others rather than on external validation, attention seeking, escapism, or wish fulfillment. That their approach is zetetic to the degree that is possible and is rooted in a sense of humility.

That even when they have 40 years experience, they still recognize the need to continue to improve, to learn, and to grow. That they show maturity and consideration, and have done a lot of self-work to help them understanding themselves. As I like to quote Dion Fortune: Above the gates of the inner mysteries are written the words know thyself. First, foremost, and always.

These things matter more to me than any claims about their premises or supposed accomplishments. It matters more to me than what books they have written or how many followers they have. It matters more to me than the severity of their practice, or how tightly bound they seem to be to the gods.

I can suspend my disbelief for their premises for the purpose of understanding their worldview, but I still have certain expectations for where they take it from there. I can also be clear that I am not necessarily accepting their premises or practices into my own framework, along with the reasons why.

Lupa wrote a brilliant piece that is worth reading in its entirety, but says in part that:

I'm not accepting things without consideration, but I am going to say that beyond a certain point my authority to criticize only goes so far because of subjectivity and the inability to climb into someone else’s head. I think a better criterion would be Does it work? There’s also the argument over semantics and who’s a real shaman, but for the practices themselves, I’m going to be less liable to dismiss something because it involves things I personally disagree with.

Further Reading

Many of these are linked above, but to put them in one place: