Modern heathen religious practice tends to be largely worldly, in that its practices are non-ecstatic, non-mysterious. Emphasis is placed upon the carrying out of certain rites (prayers, sacrifices, observances), and social gathering, and little if any heed is given to direct experience of the gods and spirits, known as ecstatic or mystery practices. And this is quite appropriate, for it is not only in keeping with the inclinations of most people (few desire or have the talent for such things), it also is largely in keeping with the way ancient heathens did things. But not entirely. Such religious practices as the Perchtenlauf, and such cults as the bersekers, as well as the existence of seidhworkers and thules, indicate that some amongst the ancient heathens were drawn towards mystery religion. And as some amongst the ancients were, some today are as well.
I am one such. I have always been drawn to mysticism, to the experience of religious awe, of the visionary experience of the gods. Of being able to, sometimes, hear their voices. Because of this, I have always incorporated such practices into my normal religious life.
An aside here is necessary before continuing. It should not be thought that there is anything of overweening ego or insanity in this practice. It should not be thought that those who worship this way are setting themselves up as authorities on what the gods really think. The ability to enter into altered states of consciousness wherein visions are had and the voices of the gods heard is simply a talent such as the ability to compose music, or write novels, or invent mechanical devices. Some have it, some do not (having, instead, other talents). It is primarily a private matter. We heathens do not believe the gods are omniscient. We do not believe that any man or woman is infallible. So we realize that anyone hearing a god speaking is hearing in actuality an echo of the god's voice, a distortion. The god's nature, meaning, and intent are filtered through the mind of the seer. The facet is what is seen, not the jewel entire. It should be remembered that the position of thule, a man who could hear the gods' speech and give their opinions on questions asked them, was the position of advisor only, not of leader. An individual revelation such as this is called, in modern heathenry, a UPG, or Unusual Personal Gnosis. It is taken as a sign of individual understanding, and others accept it or disregard it as they see fit.
Many people have the assumption that seeing visions and hearing voices are a sign of insanity. I suppose, because these things are like hallucinations. But dreams, too, are like hallucinations, and no one is thought insane because of those. While all three states (hallucinatory, dreaming, and visionary) are similar to each other, and even related, they are also distinct. Science is even coming to see this distinction, and to understand the nature of some of the biological and psychological bases for such experiences. (I would recommend the work of Drs. Newberg, Aquilas, et al on the unitary state of consciousness. An excellent summation of their work for the layman is available in their book Why God Won't Go Away.) The primary difference between the visionary and hallucinatory states lies in the fact that visionary states do not, in general, impair day-to-day functionality, and even provide direct benefits of one sort or another, and hallucinations are just the reverse of this. Such visionary practice, such seeking of direct contact with the divine is actually a religious tradition found all over the world. In Tibet, and Haiti, and India, native religions either incorporate or center upon these things. Christian and Jewish mystics have practiced their faiths for centuries this way. Many Buddhists perform similar practices as well.
Some years ago I started corresponding with a heathen named Cainn, from Australia, who was born in Austria. He told me that he was similarly drawn to such practices, and sought to fully integrate them into his religious life. He mentioned that some mystery practices such as the Perchtenlauf has survived, on the folk level, into the nineteenth century in Austria, and he had been fascinated by them as a child. We both were very interested in practicing these mystery rites, of having a religious life based on seeking direct contact with the gods. It seemed the best, most natural path to us. We believed that it is a path too often neglected in modern heathnery, and one that could be of great benefit to all heathens. After some conversation we decided to embark upon a project. We decided to create a new form of heathen religious practice, one entirely centered upon mystery rites. To draw solely upon traditional heathen practices in doing this, and to make each ritual appropriate to the holy day or circumstance it is meant for. We decided that these mystery rites should not be substitutes for the more traditional and mundane rites, but instead should supplement them.
Cainn had learned of traditions associated with the practice of some of these rites in Austria, from old men who had practiced them in childhood, or who had heard of them from others who had. Specifically, he had had details of the Perchtenlauf, of Hedge Sitting, and of Mound Sitting. Now it is highly debatable how many of these details might have been from ancient heathen times. But even if they are purely elements from folk tradition, at least it was a folk tradition that sprang from the ancient heathen ones. For other rituals we used ancient descriptions to provide what detail we could. And wherever we lacked necessary details, we created them from knowledge gleaned from our own practices in mysticism, and the practices of others.
We decided to organize the rites in two ways. One was to assign each rite to a particular holy day or circumstance, so that those experienced with such things can practice heathenry as a mystery religion. Because heathenry is a reconstructionist religion, both Cainn and I felt that it would be inappropriate to use these rites as substitutes for the traditional holy day observances. Instead, the practicing mystic should combine the two. I have always felt it best to perform the traditional rites first, as this helps put the mind into a state receptive for the upcoming spiritual state.
Most Kindreds will be composed almost entirely out of secular practitioners. For this reason most Kindreds generally bar any sort of ecstatic, mystic practices from their rites. This can leave the seidhmen and women, and other such, feeling something is greatly lacking or incomplete in their religious lives, and can lead to their eventually leaving the Kindred. This is why many such mystics practice solo, or in small groups of other mystics.
I don't think this fragmentation of religious practice and understanding serve the general heathen community at all well. I wonder why most seem to think it necessary. There are insufficient records of ancient practice to know where they stood on the matter. But many other pagan religions, and near-pagan religions, the world over do not make such a heavy distinction. In certain rites in the Fiji islands the ecstatic practitioners begin the general ritual with such things, and the secular practitioners either watch this as inspirational or entertaining or, if that doesn't do anything for them, stand aside and converse amongst themselves. Then, when the ecstatic practices are done, the rest make a procession to the shrine and perform more mundane ritual. In certain Carribean religions, such as Voudoun, ecstatic religious practices are performed by some, while secular practitioners stand aside and watch, or do something else. This provides them the opportunity to take something from, or even take part in, the ecstatic practices if the spirit suddenly moves them, or religious revelation strikes, as it sometimes does. In any event, more secular practitioners can benefit almost as much from inclusion of ecstatic practices as ecstatic practitioners can. It provides a sense of imminence of the holy, and can tend to bring a greater spark to the feeling of the mundane ritual.
The other way we had was to order them from the easiest to the most difficult. This, we felt, would allow naturally talented but inexperienced mystics a method of learning how to perform the more difficult, complicated practices, by presenting them as the culmination of a process of mastering smaller challenges of increasing difficulty. Cainn said that he had learned there were three degrees to ecstatic states. The first, and easiest (because it involved the least loss of self and the most distant of contacts) was that of mediumship, wherein the practitioner was in some sort of contact with a spirit separate from him or her. Communication with the spirit was like hearing another person speaking. The second level was that of channeling, where the practitioner allows the spirit to speak through him or her. To borrow his or her voice, as it were. The two are in general still separate, though each will affect the other. There is a merging of the two into one to some extent or other. (And so it should always be remembered that the predispositions of the practitioner will color the message in some way.) The third and final phase, the culmination of the ecstatic state, is that of possession, where the spirit takes complete (or near complete) control of the practitioner, as in the berserkergang or Perchtenlauf (like in being ridden by the lwa in Voudoun). This classification seemed to match most precisely with my own experience. It also mirrors a description in Nordic Religions In the Viking Age, by Thomas DuBois, of ecstatic religious experiences being of three degrees: fascination, awe, and surrender. Mr. DuBois' description was of general religious experience of a god, Cainn's teacher's description was more specifically of invoked deity. So we ordered the rites into fascination/mediumship, awe/channeling, and surrender/possession.
I am a berserk. Cainn had practiced the Perchtenlauf, and was a berserk himself, though he had no formal way to practice it, as the state generally came and went on its own. He asked me for assistance in developing a ritual to bring these berserk states under his control. He used the ritual provided herein, which is the one that I used. While he got no result from it at first, about a month after, while he was dancing in a religious ritual, he underwent a powerful, yet controlled gangr. He attributed it to a delayed result of the initiation. He told me it had been a powerful but dark and frightening experience. He spoke later of having difficulties adjusting mentally, spiritually, and emotionally after the initiation. He then told me he was heading into the Outback to get his head back on straight. (He knew some Bushmen out there, and hoped to get assistance from some of them.) He said he'd write when he got back. That was almost two years ago now. I tried writing him, but found his account had been cancelled. I do hope he is alright, but I figure that whatever the reason for his absence, I should consider it to be indefinitely extended. So I have undertaken to finish the work we had started together as best I could.
This story should serve as a reminder to the reader that just because instruction is provided for several types of practice is no reason any individual practitioner should try all of them. Not everyone is suited to every type. While Cainn's absense may very well have a mundane explanation, it would not be surprising either if it were a result of his initiation. Initiation was rough on me too, the hardest thing I have ever gone through. It has been the same for others who have experienced it. Ancient sources say that occasionally people died during the Perchtenlauf. Many seidh workers have had experiences that were terrifying and maddening. There is good reason to think that the berserkergang and seidh can be practiced only by people with the right genes and/or calling. This because berserks, as a rule, will go into berserk states from a young age without deliberate intent, and because berserks tend to share certain physical characteristics. It is also because in virtually every culture in the world that practices a form of shamanism, not everyone can be a shaman. No one can choose to be. The shaman is inevitably chosen by the spirits, not the other way around. While seidh is not, strictly speaking, shamanism, it is closely related, and so it is entirely reasonable to think that it had such a restriction too. This is backed up by historical records where, when people need a seidh rite they send for a seidhworker, at some expense. No one in the village just up and performs the ritual. It is best, IMO, to find whatever practices one is best suited for and stick to them.
There are three basic elements to any ecstatic ritual, any attempt to induce visions. Virtually all rituals have them, though other details might vary. These are:
1) A physical component, some particular action, usually (and best) repetitive.
2) An intellectual component, or ORF. (Object of Ritual Focus.) A specific image, word, prayer, mantra, and so forth, something symbolic in some way of the spirit(s) and/or forces the ritual is to contact.
3) A strong emotional valence. This must be some emotion that has the potential to be powerful enough to lift the practitioner up out of him or herself. Rage is what does it for the berserkergang. Stillness and calm in the case of outsitting. Vibrant life in the case of hedge sitting. Et cetera. It is virtually a necessity to have the emotion tied in some way to the ORF. I.e., it must be an emotion brought out by the ORF, or readily suggested by it. It should also be consistent with the physical activity. If the emotion is strong, vibrant, violent, then the physical action should be energetic, and involve motions of large muscle groups, such as leaping and dancing. If the emotion is still and calm, then the physical activity should be kept minimal, no more than a gesture of the hand or the mouthing of words, perhaps.
Any ritual, no matter how simple, that contains these three elements has the potential to work in inducing specific mystic states. The rituals should be analyzed, and these elements discerned within them. As the practitioner grows more experienced much of the detail of these rituals can be done away with, so long as that basic core of physical/intellectual/emotion is kept.
Before any of these rituals can be performed with anything better than a random chance of success, the practitioner must have a decent basic skill with meditation. None of the later skills can be successfully performed without it. It takes, if you have no prior experience with it, quite some practice to get the hang of it, but perseverence will pay off.
First it is necessary to define what meditation is. Commonly it is held to be a form of mental relaxation that brings about a physical and emotional relaxation. But this understanding misses the point. While it is true that mental relaxation is involved, and that it does sometimes bring about emotional and physical relaxation, these are nothing more than details and side effects. The purpose of meditation is to clear the mind, to still the chatter that is omnipresent in most people's brains, even when they are thinking about nothing in particular. When the chatter is stilled, and the mind is silent, the aforementioned relaxation does occur. But this is just setting the stage for what is to follow: a greater focusing of the mind that occurs because the mind is clear.
When there is nothing to distract the attention, the minute signals that comprise the subconscious mind can be heard with greater clarity. There are a variety of reasons for desiring this. It can bring greater awareness of one's surroundings, bringing small details to the attention of the conscious mind. It can be useful in retrieval of old memories. It can be useful in introspection and self-analysis. It is critical in the art and science of attaining visions. But whatever goal is sought, the thing meditation does is to bring what is hidden within to light. This has unpleasant elements as well as pleasant ones. Meditation is actually supposed to make things bad, in order that you might learn and grow. Meditation is a tool, not a goal.
While meditation takes time and effort to learn, it is pretty easy to describe how to go about it. First of all, make sure you will be undistrubed for the period of meditation. Make sure you are sitting comfortably. Lighting incense will likely be of help, as lighting candles might be. The important thing is to set a mood of calmness, stillness, relaxation. Once everything seems right, close your eyes. Let your thoughts slow down and stop. Become an empty vessel. At first thoughts will continually arise, and will prove to be quite distracting. Do not allow them distract you. Do not focus on them. Do not follow the thoughts. By the same token, do not fight them, do not struggle against them, for this is simply generating more thoughts. Allow them to rise, and allow them to pass away, and do not interact with them. In time, the thoughts will become fewer. Also distracting are sensory impressions, such as the myriad itches that inevitably spring up whenevr you try to meditate. As difficult as it seems, they must be dealt with in the same way as the distracting thoughts.
The first stage that is reached with meditation is an empty mind. After this, with continued practice and development, is becoming unattached to the ego, the self. This sounds similar to the empty mind, but there is a subtle yet important difference. With the empty mind, there are no thoughts. With an unattached ego, there aren't even the basic causes of, or desires for thoughts. This is a much purer state of mind than simple emptiness. It will therefore be not only of benefit in the above mentioned endeavors, but it carries other benefits as well.
The order of the rites, from easiest to most difficult is:
Sumbel, Hedge Sitting, Scrying, Outsitting, Mound Sitting, Seidh Trance, Trollaukin/Perchtenlauf/Berserkergang
Sumbel may not be thought, by everyone, to be an ecstatic or mystic practice. And indeed, it does not have to be. But to ancient heathens the social bond was very important, and one of the chief ways of reinforcing it was through the use of alcohol, the "social drug". H. R. Ellis Davidson, the noted scholar of Germanic folklore and history, stated that
"The drinking of wine, ale, or mead was of ceremonial importance at all feasts, and it seems to have been this which 'hallowed' the hall when men met for sacrifice."
Its wide use in religious ritual indicates its status as the entheogen (holy mind-altering drug) of the ancient heathens. This is a good indication that they were therefore well aware of a certain kind of social effect of the drug: a tendency for an unusual closeness to develop amongst members of the group, for normal social inhibitions to be discarded, for walls to be lowered. For the group of individuals to become one, a single whole thing. This does not happen at every drunk. It takes circumstances being just right to get this effect. But the fact that alcohol was used so extensively in formalized religious practice is an indication that this effect was likely meant to be triggered. Everyone joining in toasts to the gods together will tend to encourage this particular effect of alcohol's, and it will not only bond the group together, it will bring a sense of nearness to the gods (sometimes) as well. (This is why even a solitary mystic can get benefit from holding sumbel.)
There is a scientific reason why this is so. Events that happen close enough together in time will become confused by the mind, and will tend to be seen as one thing. This is a direct consequence of the finite speed at which the mind processes data. Alcohol inhibits the functioning of the forebrain, which is the rational, thinking part of the mind. This will tend to reinforce the confusion. This depression of forebrain activity is one of the requirements for entering the unitary state (the term neuroscientists who study mystics and meditators have developed to describe the ecstatic or mystic experience). The softening of the sense of the self, and the blurring of its boundaries, is an indication that the posterior superior parietal lobe is being shut off, one of the other main requirements for entering the unitary state. Toasting will focus the attention upon the gods (and one's fellows). The often repetitive nature of toasting will serve to reinforce the hold these concepts (the gods and one's fellows) have on the mind. And as the rational part of the mind, and the sense of self, are entirely shut off, these concepts, which are effectively an ORF, will spread throughout the whole mind, unifying it. The whole mind will be filled with attention to the gods, and a sense of their nearness develops. The whole mind will be filled with a sense of the practitioner and his or her fellows as one, a sensation directly resulting from suggestion from the repeated unified hailing of the group, everyone's voices speaking as one. Sumbel has the three basic elements of ritual: physical, in the drinking and hailing; mental, in the concept of the gods and the unity of the group; emotional, in the feeling of joy and unity, alcohol inspired.
Sumbel is presented first, as it is the easiest to get into. This is largely due to the assistance of alcohol. (Though it should be noted that for proper effect the administration of alcohol needs to be carefully done. Too drunk is useless. There must be a depression of the rational mind and the sense of self, but not blacking out, fatigue, and oblivion.) It is also because little is sought, just a vague unity with the group and a sense of nearness of the gods. These things are why virtually anyone can get achieve this ecstatic state, even those with no inclination or talent to mystic practices. This is all most groups require for an ecstatic component to their religious lives. Sumbel is appropriate for any and all holy days and other religious rituals.
Hedge sitting is the next easiest rite to learn. This is because it is very similar to sumbel, in that the result it seeks is a vague sense of presence or energy. It is fascination, though it can lead into awe. It is also the first practice underage practitioners should seek to learn, as they cannot legally consume alcohol. It is not so much more difficult than sumbel that an inexperienced practitioner could not learn.
Hedge sitting is a practice designed to give the practitioner an experience of the Ve, which Cainn said he was told meant a sense of the living spirit and energy of the land. (Ve means "sacred space".) This practice is a folk practice in Austria, and may or may not have been practice by ancient heathens. However, it has a definitely heathen feel and is descended from their traditions at least, and is of use in learning the more complex mystic rites.
The basic form of this rite is how Cainn learned it in Austria. But we added the fasting in order to accomplish two purposes. One was to provide a substitute for the alcohol of the sumbel. Fasting will, due to lack of energy, depress the functioning of the forebrain and soften the sense of self, like alcohol does. Thus it similarly provides a benefit for those trying to enter the unitary state. The other purpose we hoped to accomplish in adding the fasting was to introduce a sense of discipline and sacrifice, both of which would be required even more in later rites.
Beginning the rite with a statement declaring the practitioner's intent to, ritually speaking, die and be reborn provides a framework for the mental and emotional state for the whole day, and serves as a part of the effective ORF. This makes the mind much more open to new and transcendental experience than usual. The difficulty of the fast itself will require discipline to overcome, and this in turn will require the practitioner to keep his or her mind focused on the upcoming experience all day. This makes the unitary state much easier to achieve than usual, for the mind is already much filled with a single thought.
The symbolism associated with the trees is something Cainn learned in Austria. Little indication as to their antiquity exists.
By choosing a particular location for the rite the mind is at least subconsciously assigning to it some special value. Because the location is symbolic in some way of (a) particular spirit(s) of the land, the subconscious will naturally be more open and receptive to indications or suggestions to those particular influences. By uttering the prayers, the attention is focused upon various spirits of the land. This opens the practitioner to their spiritual influences. It keeps his or her mind upon symbols of the life of the land. Making the offerings of wine pleases the spirits, and makes them more willing to help. It makes the practitioner's subconscious more inclined to take the reality of the experience seriously, for something real has been given for it, and the subconscious has been largely conditioned to expect something for something.
The readings from the Eddas focus the mind still further upon the living nature of the land and of his or her connection to it. The first story will bring to mind the creation by nine elements, the powers underlying creation, and symbolically connect them to the Tree, and therefore also the tree sat under, by association. The second story will connect the creation story to men in particular, and therefore also to the initiate by association again. It will have the additional effect of merging the images of the tree and people (and therefore the self) as being the same.
Hedge sitting is most appropriate for Ostara, Walpurgis, Midsummer, and even Harvest Home.
Scrying seemed next easiest to learn. It is more difficult than previous rites because it requires that the practitioner's mind be still, open, receptive, and energetic enough to start having brief visions, which are dream-like images that have symbolic or direct meaning revealing subconscious impressions.
The elaborate rules for selecting a time to perform forces the practitioner to make some effort for the experience, which increases its likliness by causing the mind to pay more attention to it, and to expect some reward for its effort. When the scrying bowl is used the mind will at least subconsciously remember the process of preparing it, and will recall the effort, and the memory of the smell of the herbs will trigger memory of other emotions the practitioner was feeling at the time of the preparation. (Smell is a powerful trigger of memory.) Those emotions should be of meditative calm and excitement, and these emotions will encourage the experience.
The practitioner's gaze into the bowl or at the solder is designed to allow random impressions to form, to cause optical illusions. Because the nature of the meanings of the impressions will be random, they will tend to reflect the nature of the subconscious mind. Because the illusions are optical, they will be paid more attention to by the mind, as everything visual receives so much attention from the brain. This will, in a mind calmed by meditation and receptive enough, while being energetic enough, cause these optical illusions to become actual solid-seeming (though fleeting) images that, since they arise out of nowhere mentally, and the attention is directed into the scrying bowl, the mind tends to interpret as having seen in the water or solder itself. This is very similar to how the mind can make pictures out of the static on a dead TV channel, only here the pictures have particular meaning. Scrying was traditional at Yule, and could of course be done during Winternights as well.
Outsitting was placed after scrying as it was essentially the same, though lacked the stimulus of the water or solder, requiring a little more from the practitioner. In this practice total (visual, and preferrably auditory also) sensory deprivation sets the attention usually directed towards those senses free to wander, which it does in a more or less random manner. If the state of the meditator is right, the impressions that arise can form reveletory visions.
The prayers focus the mind on the divine powers resposible for revelation and divination: Odin and Freya. Establishing contact with them first gives a base altered, mystical state that can then be further and more specifically altered to form visions or auditory impressions. The repeated alliteration of the prayers further serves to encourage the unitary state by providing additional connectivity between different parts of the mind, by drawing different parts of it together at the junction of the alliterative sound. Outsitting would be appropriate for both Winternights and Yule, as well as Midsummer (to try to see the alfar who walk the earth that day).
Mound sitting is more restricted and difficult than outsitting. It seeks very specific visions, of either the dead in general or of a particular person amongst them. As it seeks a vision of the dead (or at least to hear their voices) as well as to hear specific information (answers to questions), it requires the practitioner to be able to be in a relatively more involved unitary state than other types. The reason this additional restriction is desired, rather than avoided, is because it does represent an additional stricture upon the practitioner's mind. The dead have a long symbolic association with unearthly knowledge and revelation. Establishing contact with them, establishing a unitary state with such symbols, amounts to more firmly directing the mind towards a place where it can find what it seeks.
The calling to the dead focuses the mind in the desired direction. The writing in the dirt is an effort that improves that focus. Runes themselves are highly symbolic, and therefore aid in the experience. The word AKOZER is a galdric word which shines a light into the world of the dead, and compels travel to this world. Any practitioner familiar with the runes will benefit from the additional densely packed symbolism of the runes of this word.
The bloodletting, if the pain does not distract the attention of the practitioner (a matter of experience and discipline), will provide a powerful emotional boost, as pain and the sight of blood are both adrenaline triggers. This will greatly ease the process of getting into the unitary state. The stone on the chest inhibits breathing, which tends to weaken the forebrain, the benefits of which have been discussed in previous rites' descriptions. It also tends to bring the adrenaline up. It has further symbolic value as well. The greater levels of stress and adrenaline in this ritual directly reflect the increasing difficulty of these practices, the greater the energy they require.
Mound sitting is appropriate for Winternights and Yule.
The seidh trance is the most difficult sort of mystic practice in heathenry. (The berserkergang and perchtenlauf are specialized forms of seidh trance, IMO.) It cannot be practiced by everyone. It should by now be apparent to the practitioner the reasons and uses of the various elements of the seidh trance. It is appropriate for any holy day, but particularly for Walpurgis, Midsummer, Winternights, and Yule.
The trance of trollaukin/berserkergang/perchtenlauf is a particularly difficult sort of seidh. The perchtenlauf is appropriate for Winternights and Yule. Either sort is appropriate in a way for any holy day, as a means of gaining intense and powerful sorts of contacts with Odin and Perchta.