In today’s Pagan and shamanic community, we hear a lot about orientating ourselves within the otherworld through Three Worlds or Realms, the Underworld, Middle world and Upper world. Each having a district feel, function and spirits who dwell there. Psychologically this is a useful metaphor and spirituality allows us to categorise our expected experiences within these realms.
However my experience of the Otherworld is very different, and indeed in some ways I am not sure that it’s the same as these three realms, as it often is portrayed to be. I do not speak here with authority or academic qualification, although I have researched this a little, this is through my direct experience of the Otherworld.
For me the Otherworld exists all around us, a parallel world to which our mortal eyes are blind. There are physical places, spaces and objects that allow us to cross into the Otherworld by passing through them or changing our consciousness to the consciousness of the Otherworld. These liminal places are gateways to the otherworld. My experience has showed that I can enter the Otherworld, through drumming, shamanic journeying or meditation, even physically entering into different places, crossing liminal boundaries such as bodies of wild water. These wild bodies of water and my physical and spiritual interaction with them lead me to explore the notion of entering the otherworld, and returning from it, through a physical interaction of that liminal space, in this case a mountain Tarn and other bodies of wild water!
There is not much or indeed little information on pre-Christian British water rituals. History or archaeology tell stories of bodies of water being gateways to the Otherworld, liminal space between the solidity of land and the water of lake, river or pool. There is plenty of evidence of the ritual use of water however, but little in the way of physically entering the water to enter the Otherworld, particularly alive! With vast ritual deposits of goods sent to the gods, the ancestors of the otherworld or simply the spirits of water and sacrificial deposits of humans, from bog bodies to bones. I have not found much information on the physical practice of entering bodies of water, to enter the otherworld, and return to this world – Alive!
In my previous blog post Wild Nature Water Rituals, I described how I was called to enter a stream naked and surrender to it. This led me to want to explore more bodies of water and see what affect, if any, that had on the experience. Was the experience the same or different with each different location? Having yet to acclimatise the wilds of northern England weather, I kept my exploration to the summer months.
My next foray in entering the liminal space of becks and mountain tarns was in a place known as The Hawks, a forestry plantation with an Iron Age Settlement and Beck – Apple Tree Worth – and a ruined farm and small copper ore mine. There is a presence about this place, it is still and sharp, the potential for it to be foreboding is there, yet it whispers a sweet lullaby that is magical. Stories of this isolated farm supporting just a handful of people, are palpable. The beck providing clear mountain water, until it turns red with the staining of copper ore, further downstream. Through fairy tale eyes, you could imagine a witch existing here, on the edge of society, proving the functions of the arte magical for locals, yet invoking a sense of fear in case they are ever to be on the wrong side of that witchy stare. As the beck meanders, some large boulders create some deep pools that you can stand in up to your waist. At this particular spot, you scrabble through bramble and bracken, over a metal latter stile, which gently rocks you over the barbwire, you feel like you are crossing over the hedge, just traversing the stile. Suddenly you are standing on soft grass, sheltered by larch trees and moss covered stones, the water babbling along its course, still and deep in the pool that beckons me in.
I removed my clothes and lit some incense that I left to smoulder on the big boulder that reached out into the water. I called to the spirits of place to accept my presence and exploration of the flowing waters, gingerly I stepped into the water and gradually waded deeper to the pool. As I immersed into the icy waters, my breath was taken from me. I visualised every sinew of my being relaxing into the flow, the cool waters and soon this subsided. I felt that ultimate connection that I have come to relish from being soul naked and true in natural water, in entering into the dreamy realm of the Other; a place beyond time but very present in that moment. The scent of burning herbs drifts across this water’s edge and I am reminded of the stories of this place, the power of this place, the protection it offers – I haven’t made enough of an offering, I suddenly get excruciatingly cold, the water, the Otherworld is wanting me to leave. I do so and sit on the bank, warmed by the summer sun. I apologise and make more offerings from my leather pouch of petals, berries, seed, bark and sheep’s wool. I dress and decide to walk a little further around this area, as I was also on the hunt for some wild valerian that I knew grew on the banks of the beck, a little further up-stream. As I clambered over the rocking, metal latter stile and walked further up-stream, my right arm became temporally paralysed! I did panic at first and rubbed it vigorously with my left hand, trying to allow the blood to flow, to warm my skin and return it to some use to at least to allow me to drive home. I had to continue walking; it was pointless heading back to the car, my arm was not recovering. I found the wild Valerian and the sweet scent was intoxicating! I closed my eyes, held in my half dead hand and brought it close to my nose and mouth. I was suddenly carried to another place, imagery and landscape was too nebulous to hold onto in my memory for recording on my return. What seemed like fleeting moments was forty minutes, blissed out in radiant sunshine and sweet Valerian induced vision – my right arm was fully back to this world and functioning, as one would expect an arm to function! This was a powerful experience and reminder, on my part, not to take these sojourns into the otherworld with little preparation, whether the temporary paralysis was caused by hypothermic shock or my rush to leave the water, leaving ‘a part’ of me in the otherworld. It was not until the wild Valerian brought be back to full wakeful consciousness, only to be returned to the mystic realm to recover that which I left behind, did my arm recover.
The next experience I would like to share was in the fells, near my home. On a previous exploration of these low land fells, I had spied a tarn in the reachable distance, intriguing me to return. On my return, it was completely dried up, hard, baked earth, leaving but a scarring memory of a tarn full of water. However, this showed a small stone causeway only about two or three meters out into the centre of the Tarn, with cairn like terminus. I walked carefully, like walking a tightrope, along this mini causeway to the terminus and crouched down. This felt significant; something similar I had witness before, a platform carrying you out into an expanse of sacred water where offerings, curses or bones of the dead were placed. I offered my prayers and offerings to parched earth before me. My next return visit was unintentional and not till early autumn started to creep into the leaves of the trees in the valley below.
This visit was on one of those early autumn days, where the mornings eases into the usual routine, the temperature warms, it was almost as warm as one of the past summer days. I climbed the fell, on hunt of a particular juniper tree I had met on a previous visit; the day was still and as it was mid-week, completely free of human visitors. As I summited the fell I saw the tarn in the distance, it was now full of water from previous rainfall. I felt compelled to visit once again. The path to the tarn from the summit carries you along a meandering pathway that dips down into a natural bowl created by the surrounding peaks. On reaching the banks, a larger boulder sits at its western end to which the meandering path leads you too. This provided a wonderful place to sit, meditate and contemplate this secluded, exposed to the vast sky, tarn. I lit some incense and drummed for a little, shifting my consciousness to commune with the spirits of this place, this tarn. Its waters, while not deep, where peaty black. In the bright light of day, the water’s surface was like an inky black mirror capturing the cloud formations above, the reflections were hypnotic and it was not long before I was being called to enter the waters. Despite the seclusion, it felt exposed so I thought a paddle would suffice. Taking of my trousers, socks and shoes, I paddled into the waters with my boxer shorts and t-shirt on. The waters were not as cold as I had expected, within moments, my guide appeared to me and beckoned me to lose my clothes completely for this it to be an initiation! An initiation into what? Am I ready? In addition, what if I say no! I headed back to the bank. Trying hard not to allow my rational mind kick in, I did some more drumming, burnt some more incense. This time the inspiration of Awen flowed through me, I saw a complete ritual of water bathing. So I complied, I removed my boxer shorts and t-shirts and entered the waters once again as nature intended. This time I went further in, following the ritual (the ritual in its entirety can be found on my website), as best as I had been shown. I sat down into the water that came up as far as my chest. I made offerings of petals, leaves and herbs to the waters, and I knew I had entered this liminal space, this ink black peaty water was a gateway to the otherworld! As I looked across the bank to a rocky outcrop opposite, there my guide stood and just below him closer to the water was, Bone-Mountain Mother. She was an old woman, whose long white hair, showed the eons of seasons that had waxed and waned upon her soul. Her skin hanged tightly onto ancient bones marked by the tattoos of her craft. She had just a leather apron covering her modesty, her breast hung down her chest that framed an amulet that denoted her power, wisdom and authority in this place. She asked that I get to know her, for her realm is in the mountains of this otherworld, only descending the valleys from the onset of winter. She is the old wisdom, the slow heartbeat of the mountains; she gathers all those who are lost here, either to life or their place on this land. Recognising me as a Bone Singer, she therefore offered to teach me some of this otherworldly wisdom, if would create a shrine to her and journey to her during her season and visit these waters to enter into her realm, this was the challenged set. I then poured the waters over my head three times and chanted Born of Water as I did so, the sound of the chant echoed around the tarn. I looked up to the rocky outcrop she had gone! Suddenly the temperate changed and I knew it was time to leave, as I walked out of the waters the boulder still held its heat and I laid here for a few minutes bring myself back to full consciousness. I ended with an offering of thanks and more drumming, and dressed. I was then compelled to walk the entire circumference of the tarn bare footed, stopping at the rocky outcrop to make further offerings. I returned to the boulder where I started, gathering up my things and started my journey back to the summit. On the journey back, there were small-scattered bones of lost sheep everywhere! I gathered a few knowing these will form the shrine I had been asked to create. I gathered some dried mountain lichen and reindeer moss; I found a stone similar in shape to the amulet of the Bone-Mountain Mother. On reaching the summit, a wild wind seem to raise from nowhere, a wind that has a name in this part of Cumbria – the Helm Wind. Its intensity, comes from nowhere on a calm day. It is said it is a wind that brings a message to all those who are willing to stop and listen, and wind that was venerated and feared by the Fishermen of nearby coastal villages of Kirby-in-Furness and Askam. So I stopped, I listened and I felt the first strings of autumn coming, the Bone-Mountain Mother was preparing for her decent. I felt a shift and change, something I needed to heed. I started my decent down to where my car was parked; the Helm Wind suddenly blew a gale, so I sheltered in a crevice in the rocky mountainside, I hunkered down and once again quickly drifted off. It was as if I had been absorbed by the mountain, I literally felt part of it. I felt the jagged rocky peaks, the heather, the gorse, the juniper, the rough grazed grass, and the waters of the tarn. I was accepted. A Buzzard flew overhead, calling to the wild land below. This gentle brought me back to wakeful consciousness. I felt totally alive and blessed by this mountain, the waters of the Bone-Mountain Mother, and continued my decent. At the base of the mountain there is a spring of icy mountain waters, I drank a little in ritual communion with the Bone-Mountain Mother and headed off home.
These two different experiences of bathing in waters, and indeed subsequent bathing, has lead me to believe that as a Pagan community, we can surely engage with them a lot more, than just mere thought of the waters having cleansing properties. They are indeed physical liminal spaces that with time, care and experience we can enter these sacred places to journey to the Otherworld, and importantly return – unless we are careless! I have discovered that each body of water does have its own spirit or quality of energy that affects the journey you have to the otherworld. Whether there is any historical or archaeological evidence for this, I am yet unaware. However, the experiential nature of my exploration has shown to me that once again, engaging with wild water, soul naked and true or Skyclad as it is often romantically called, deepens are connection to not only the Nature that we are living within but also the nature of our wild souls too.
It is clear that our Ancestors of this land found particular wild bodies of water sacred and important. In early pre-history, this may be because the nearby spring provided an unfailing source of fresh water, this gift of life venerated and over time personified as spirit or even deity. During the late Bronze Age and Iron Age, we find items of great value, crafted with beautiful craftsmanship, being broken and deposited in lakes, offering these gifts of value to the otherworld, the gods and ancestors of the land. Breaking them rendered them useless in this world, however with a tradition of renewal and rebirth, in the otherworld, the ancestors and gods were able to use these broken items as new. We also find human remains, deposited in bogs and some bones too, is this a way of sending people directly to the otherworld? Had their attention changed from the burial mounds and urns of ashes placed into the belly of the earth herself? To more watery places, there is evidence that the climate started to become wetter in Britain at this time, and there is a marked shift in focus to bodies of water. Is this the very fact that we have little evidence of ritual bathing in water, was it considered taboo? Alternatively, there is simply no record. However, the old adage here that ‘No evidence of practice is not evidence for no practice’ comes to mind, I think we simply do not know. Yet my experience tells me something different, one day it may be proven. This does not take away from the effect it has now, in this modern age upon my soul journey. In these modern times, we need all the physical experience we can get to reach a connection with nature that perhaps our ancestors naturally had. If it helps us find the sacred in in nature, then it is something worth pursuing. For that which we hold sacred, we are less likely to degrade, we are likely to proactively sustain and support its well-being.
In my last water-bathing article, I said:
I have always believed that if we hold nature as sacred or see sacredness inherent in nature, we are more than likely to protect that which we perceive as being scared to us. For me I find divinity in the natural temples and cathedrals of woodland, caves and roaring oceans. I also find the sacredness and divinity within the human body, the soul naked human form to which we come into this world. Therefore, to be soul naked and true within nature allows the most intimate, sensuous communion with that divinity, the olds gods and spirit of place, the genius loci. This has always been at the core of my teaching, research, academic study and work.
I can add to this now, for not only does it allow us to engage fully with nature and the spirits of place, it allows us to engage with that other place, the otherworld, the realm of the ancestors, the abode of the gods and the realm of fae, the sidhe itself. Just make sure you remember the way back again and enter with utter respect for yourself and the otherworld and its inhabitants.