Go to Hel, Part 2: “Please, Don’t Squeeze the Shaman”: Journeying Deep into Helheim

It all began in August of 2013, when I moved into my first-ever purchased home: a cozy condo in Chicago’s far northwest corner—a neighborhood, unbeknownst to me at the time, notoriously known for its ghastly history and stupendously huge mass paupers’ graves lurking beneath my very subdivision and a large swath of the surrounding area!

Ladies and gentlemen, this is none other than Chicago’s Dunning neighborhood, made infamous for having housed the notorious bastion of social injustice known as the Read-Dunning Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The former grounds of it now house, in the modest cemetery a short walk away from my condo building, the John Doe corpses of 117 Union soldiers from the Civil War, John and Jane Doe victims of the 1871 Chicago Fire, and countless dead from an adjacent debtor’s prison and orphanage. They all literally lie under my feet. The total is 39,000 dead people, and when my condo building’s foundation was being laid in 1989, human femur bones were excavated. Bones also were unearthed when Wright College was being built in 1991. I knew nothing of this sad, disconcerting bit of city history until two weeks after I moved in. But as many of my friends and acquaintances in Chicago’s rather tightly knit Pagan community have been quick to point out, given my chthonically oriented spiritual practices, I was likely led to buy this condo because of the city of the dead below and around me. There is no doubt in my mind that a very bony finger, belonging to the Norse Goddess of Death and the Underworld that also bears Her name—Hel—had pointed the way to me all along.

The Yule Blót my boyfriend and I held last December prominently featured Hel. The statue of the goddess was made by Jeff Cullen. Check out his incredible custom-ordered Pagan statuary from www.vodoustore.com!

The Yule Blót my bodacious boyfriend and I held last December prominently featured Hel. The statue of the goddess on my shrine was made by Chicago Pagan sculptor and Witch, Jeff Cullen. Check out his incredible custom-ordered Pagan statuary from http://www.vodoustore.com!

I moved in on August 3, 2013, but it wasn’t until August 30 that something Hella fierce (yes, I’m punny sometimes) forced me to see the experience for what it was: a full-blown shamanic initiation/crossing beyond a Guardian of the Threshold ordeal in order to get me to the place of spiritual readiness I needed to be to consciously work with Hel.

My evening bus commute home from work on the night of August 30 was truly tempestuous, the stormiest summer night in my living memory. Shortly after 6 p.m., moments after disembarking from my bus but not moving far due to the 50-60 mph gale force winds and vicious sheets of horizontal rain that pushed against me (I’m a petite gal after all), I narrowly avoided being struck by lightning and/or electrocuted when I helplessly stood in inches of standing water within 10 feet of a telephone pole that WAS struck by lightning.

I saw, with indescribable, mounting horror, the telephone pole’s transponder explode in blue and white flames when the lightning bolt struck it. That sight, and the accompanying thunderclap, made me scream in unbridled terror. Like a spooked cat, I leapt in the air as an instinctive response, and landed back in the section of flooded alleyway wherein I stood upon leaving the bus. As its telephone wires snapped, the pole toppled to my right, dragging the adjacent pole down with it—this all took place in a matter of seconds. Now the live wires, tips of blue furiously sparking in the flooded alleyway, writhed just a few feet away from me. And I still stood in several inches of water. I screamed again, convinced that I was imminently going to die from electrocution.

The street was packed with cars that were also incapable of moving anywhere—the stoplights at the intersection of Irving Park Road and Narragansett Avenue immediately stopped functioning as the entire vicinity lost power in the aftermath of that lightning strike. I honestly wondered which motorist was going to be the first to discover my electrocuted body sizzling in the alleyway just a few feet north of the intersection.

I let out a third primal scream and leapt forward, discovering that, far from being dead, I was capable of movement. In a profound state of shock, I waded out of the alleyway and across Irving Park Road. The gleaming beacon of a Baskin Robbins ice cream shop in the Dunning Square strip mall across from me shone to me like an angel’s inviting embrace.

I waddled in, thoroughly drenched to the bone, and whimpered to the young cashier, his mouth agape, to please give me shelter even though I had no intention of buying ice cream. He and two other employees immediately fetched me towels and a profusion of napkins. They said they saw the lightning strike the telephone pole in the alley across the street; they were stunned when I told them that that’s where I had been standing. For a half hour, I stood and shivered uncontrollably as I stared out the window; I’ve no doubt that I experienced a mild-to-moderate form of PTSD that night. The kind cashier asked me if I needed to use his office phone to call anyone, and did I need an ambulance? I stared at him blankly, mesmerized by a promotional poster behind him advertising a Spider Man® flavor of ice cream. Blue and red. The colors flooded my mind. That’s what made the biggest visual impression on me in the alley—the flames of the struck transponder and the electric blue sparks emanating from the writhing, downed telephone wires.

Eventually, the worst of the storm passed and I tiptoed my way across felled trees and other forms of debris—overturned garbage cans, lawn décor strewn in incongruous places—to get home. I found a lightning-struck piece of maple wood in the Dunning cemetery and immediately pocketed it, instinctually looking at it as an apotropaic talisman.

I remained considerably shaken up by the ordeal for hours, and I believed that the episode triggered spirit activity in my home that night. I was convinced that there was a negative entity or entities astir, and I felt such a paralyzing fear that I was unable (rather, unwilling) to get up and leave the well-lit safety of my living room to walk down the narrow and dark corridor that leads to both bedrooms. I could sense and almost see a shadowy Something in the hallway and possibly another Thing at the threshold leading to the master bedroom, and I didn’t dare stir.

I tried to do a Tarot reading about 2 hours after the near-miss lightning strike, after having spoken with my best friend on the phone in addition to a dear spiritual mentor who happens to be a very gifted shamanic practitioner. Both advised me to do some kind of divination to see what the message was from the strike/find out who’s trying to contact me. I reached for my Tarot of the Old Path deck (I swear I’m the only Pagan person I know who likes that deck!); my card reading was very disconcerting. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Significator card randomly selected (I did a Celtic Cross spread) was The Tower.

The Tower card from the Tarot of the Old Path

The Tower card from the Tarot of the Old Path

Swords and many reversed cards were present. All I could discern was that I was completely sober—I was tempted upon coming home to calm my nerves with port wine, but I didn’t—and profoundly weirded out. Prior to moving in, I had my condo blessed by a Serbian Orthodox priest as a favor to my parents, since the priest is a close friend of theirs (this was before I learned about the neighborhood’s grisly history), and then after moving in I’d had my Godfather (a very skilled Babalawo) in Ifá perform another house blessing (by that time, I knew the full details of the neighborhood’s history), and so I went to grab some ritual paraphernalia left over from both house blessings that were meant to ward my home. I felt a little better immediately afterwards, but found that sleep would become extremely elusive to me.

So I grabbed my laptop and posted about my ordeal on my Facebook page, and a dear friend in San Diego who saw my post that night cautioned me to go get immediate medical attention—I was more than likely mildly electrocuted. She also called me as I lay terrified in bed and asked me what my intuition felt was the reason for the near-miss incident, and who the message was from. I couldn’t answer her at the time, but I now firmly believe I was being spiritually tested for two very big public events that would showcase my skills as a Priestess: the September 4 women’s-only Dark Moon, Dark Goddess ritual I had been planning for a month and the September 8 Chicagoland Pagan Pride main ritual I had been preparing for since January; the latter was one I was going to co-lead with a different friend.

My shaman friend I’d spoken to earlier in the evening then called me back to report on a rune reading she had just completed for me. She suggested that I was being initiated into a greater level of awareness—one that was meant to aid me and advance my magico-religious workings on behalf of others. In hindsight, I fully believe that’s what this was all about.

As it so happened, from April of 2013 to April of 2014, I was working with a dear friend and fellow Priestess in the Fellowship of Isis to co-facilitate women’s-only monthly ritual gatherings on the night of Dark Moon. And each gathering would have a focus on a different “Dark” Goddess. We had planned a 13-moon series we marketed as “Dark Moon, Dark Goddess: A Ritual Series for Women.” As the Norns would have it, when we laid out our monthly plans at the beginning of 2013, we assigned the September Dark Moon gathering to learning about and working with the Norse Goddess/Giantess, Hel. I had agreed to lead the women on a group shamanic journey to Helheim, Hel’s realm, and then lead everyone in a sumbl, a Heathen ritual comprised of toasting a deity, one’s ancestors, or one’s own accomplishments (or any combination thereof) via three rounds of mead-fueled praise. The fact that the lightning strike occurred on the eve of the anniversary of my brother’s death, the most sorrowful occasion for my family, was also not lost upon me.

Was I being marked to receive the outpouring of might and main from Loki’s daughter, the Lady of Helheim whose fearsome, vast hall—located under one of the roots of Yggdrasíll, the World Tree—welcomes all those who die of sickness or old age? It sure as Hel felt like it!

In the days between the near-miss lightning strike and night of the September 4 Dark Moon, Dark Goddess ritual, I found myself irresistibly drawn to my local sad cemetery with its mass paupers’ graves. One of the striking visual features of the cemetery, aside from the rings of stones that pay honor to the different demographics of the nameless dead buried there (the Civil War veterans, the legions of widows and orphans and hapless immigrants processed in the Read-Dunning Hospital for the Criminally Insane), is a giant Tree that I immediately recognized as an Axis Mundi, a stand-in for the World Tree Itself, long before I’d ever come to learn of the neighborhood’s unsavory history.

 

Curious concrete rings pockmarked with stones explaining Dunning's 39,000 paupers' graves greet you open entering Read-Dunning Memorial Park

Curious concrete rings pockmarked with stones explaining Dunning’s 39,000 paupers’ graves greet you open entering Read-Dunning Memorial Park

 

The Hel-Tree as seen in the cemetery from the south.

The Hel-Tree as seen in the cemetery from the south.

Not surprisingly, once I did learn the history, I dubbed the Tree the “Hel-Tree.” It is cleaved in two in body to showcase its take on the Ida and Pingala energy currents—the Life current and the Death current. The twin trunks, one pale and blasted by disease, the other robust and hale, illustrate this:

Like the Goddess, the Hel-Tree is cleaved to show Life and Death.

Like the Goddess, the Hel-Tree is cleaved to show Life and Death.

Furthermore, there are many spirit faces in the Tree; here is one example I call the “Goat God”!

The "goat god" is one of many spirit faces I see in the Hel-Tree.

“Baaaaaaa!” 

As with the Tree, so with the Goddess: According to the “Gylfaginning” section in the Prose Edda, a compilation of Norse Pagan beliefs written in the 13th century by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturlson, the Goddess Hel, daughter of the lively Loki and his Giant/Etin/Jötun/Rokknar mistress, the fearsome Angrboda, is said to be divided down the middle, one half of her body alive and the other half dead:

“Hel he [Odin] cast into Niflheim, and gave to her power over nine worlds, to apportion all abodes among those that were sent to her: that is, men dead of sickness or of old age. She has great possessions there; her walls are exceeding high and her gates great. Her hall is called Sleet-Cold; her dish, Hunger; Famine is her knife; Idler, her thrall; Sloven, her maidservant; Pit of Stumbling, her threshold, by which one enters; Disease, her bed; Gleaming Bale, her bed-hangings. She is half blue-black and half flesh-color (by which she is easily recognized), and very lowering and fierce.” (“Gylfaginning,” chapter 34)


 

Instead of commuting by bus to work the morning of September 4, I drove to my Loop-based office and my happy hatchback of a car (a red Toyota Yaris that I’ve named Fafnir!) was packed to the roof with all manner of ritual paraphernalia, right down to my Hel-ish ritual clothes of a motley-colored red, white, and black dress (Her colors).

 

I like to dress Hel-ishly when going to the Bristol Renaissance Faire.

I like to dress Hel-ishly when going to the Bristol Renaissance Faire.

I also packed a cooler with a dark ale, 2 bottles of Danish-brewed Vikingsblod mead (my favorite!), and many a carved wooden apotropaic bind-rune featuring Algiz for protection, Eihwaz as a representation of the Axis Mundi needed to traverse the Nine Worlds, and Hel’s own rune of Hagalaz, “Hail,” in my Priestess’ bag of tricks. I had plenty of time while stuck in traffic that morning to ruminate on a very strange (or not so strange, given what I’d been experiencing) dream I’d had four hours earlier of seeing my own face in a mirror, one half of it rotten like a corpse’s, the rancid flesh literally falling off my skull in chunks. Even more incredibly, I was not distressed in the least upon seeing myself exude such a pronounced state of decay. I beheld the process of half-rot in a state akin to Zen or Stoic tranquility.

The shamanic journey and the entire ritual that night turned out to be very, very powerful. Again, as the Norns would have it, 13 women attended—9 had pre-registered via my Facebook event and 4 were complete strangers who heard of it by word of mouth—and I found that to be fitting and auspicious. And wild, too. By the night’s end, the women in the gallery space in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood that I rented for the occasion swore that I somehow bi-located during the apex of my frenzied drumming!

Upon greeting the women and locking the gallery’s entrance, I had my “housekeeping” talk with the women to go over my outline of what we’d be doing, and to request that they not only shut off their cell phones, but that they under no circumstances interrupt me in any way once I’d achieved a state of deep trance—even if I appeared to be emotionally distressed. After warding the space with a Hammer Rite, I instructed the women to lie or sit as made them comfortable (I had yoga mats and meditation cushions to spare, plus there were chairs too). I explained that we would descend to Helheim as I began drumming on my frame drum, and that I was offering myself as a vessel for Hel or any of the helpful dead who wished to communicate to speak through me and be welcome in the room with us. My personhood was well warded and the runargaldr, the intoning of the three runes we were using (Hagalaz for Hel herself, Eihwaz as the Axis Mundi, and Algiz for protection), would serve to keep a steady shield around us all. We would climb down the World Tree’s/Yggdrasíll’s roots together and the experience would last as long as it needed to, and when it was time to make our way back to the Middle World (Midgard) of “consensus reality,” I would issue a signal of four loud dream beats, followed by the rapid pace to accompany the scurrying back up and into our bodies. I would also closely monitor everyone to ensure that they’ve fully returned, and would be ready to assist with grounding or the processing of overwhelming emotions/sensations if need be. A lot of women who were enduring the deaths of loved ones—blood relatives who had passed in the first half of 2013—were nervous about reawakening their grief, but I gave them permission to express whatever needed to be expressed because I/we had the resources to handle whatever might surface. Hel, as I would come to experience Her, is all about unmasking; self-deception is not possible in Her presence.

I took my stance and began drumming on my frame drum; I did the runargaldr. The beat intensified rather quickly and my vocalizations changed; I found myself almost instantly in what Diana L. Paxson and other Heathen authors call the “tourist’s corner” of Helheim—immediately outside the Gate of Hel’s Great Hall. Not unlike the Norse God Hermod, who went on a descent to Helheim to petition the release of his slain brother, the God Baldr, from outside Hel’s massive feasting hall—and one of the most awesome (heavy metal) ballads ever sung in English is, without a doubt, Amon Amarth’s take on this incredible episode from the Poetic Edda— I would be able to pose questions to Hel and the legions of the dead on behalf of the group there from that liminal threshold space, but I couldn’t be allowed past the Great Gates themselves, as I lacked the necessary qualification of being dead.

I saw Hel. She had a dull silver aura about Her. She was definitely skeletal but oddly beautiful too with flowing blonde tresses. She wore a silver/black robe. Her demeanor was welcoming; I also sensed She was amused by what we were doing.

And then it happened: my perception totally fused with Hers. I saw myself in the gallery space, standing and swaying and drumming—albeit like something of a camera angle perspective from a few feet behind. I then became completely skeletal, totally devoid of flesh. An animated skeleton, pulsating with the life force, but a being doomed to die nonetheless.

As I performed the runargaldr, or frenzied ritual intonations, for Hagalaz, the rune which literally means “Hail” (as in the weather phenomenon) and is etymologically cognate with Hela, I sensed a tremendous influx of energy and felt Hel sweeping aside the nape of my neck, readying Herself to clear my medulla oblongata and take the driver’s seat of my consciousness and body. My galdr became punctuated with violent gagging for a few seconds—the gagging was an indication, as I’d announced to the women beforehand on what to expect, that I was on the verge of being ridden, as that is the phenomenon that accompanies my being ridden by spirits. A jolt went through my central nervous system, electrifying my nipples, fingers, and toes.

And then I saw them: swarms of skeletons coming into the room, flying in from all corners, dancing—even playing each other’s detachable femurs as musical instruments. Many flocked to me like children; some I did recognize as dead children. I pointed my spirit finger at as many as I could, asking them if they were the ones coming to my home at night, if they were tied to the ground of Chicago’s Dunning neighborhood. Smiles. Enticing and secretive glances.

The galdr started becoming guttural. And then full-on keening took place. Wailing, high-pitched and eerie, almost operatic—and soprano is definitely out of my normal vocal range. Later on, three women in the group reported crying uncontrollably as a result of feeling that shift in the galdr work. They said they felt very cleansed but were surprised at the onset of sobbing (these were women who had no deaths in their families in the months prior to the ritual if at all).

And that’s when I lost it: my fear of my own death. And that’s when I issued an affirmative YES to the question those skeletal swarming spirits were asking me, if I would be their Mother, their Shepherdess on this plane of existence, as Hel was in the Lands Below, and if I understood and accepted my lifelong service to these spirits and for serving as a bridge between the living and the dead. Yes, yes, I kept telling them. I know and understand and accept. And I do so freely and out of love with no fear. The Norns and Hel have untangled a prominent thread of my Wyrd for me to clearly see. I saw and understood everything.

All told, the journey lasted a half hour. When I summoned the women to return to their bodies so we could begin grounding ourselves, I was relieved to find that all were intact and well. Many immediately reached for their journals or the blank sets of runes I brought for them to create their own runic talismans. I turned on two of the room’s lights at a low setting, and then I stretched and reintegrated all parts of my body-mind in the wake of Hel’s departure. My throat understandably felt scratchy, but I was more than okay otherwise. In fact, I felt supremely charged up and it would take me hours to ground.

I deliberately avoided telling the women about the features of Hel’s landscape as described in old Norse lore like the Eddas, but three in the group of 13 reported remarkably similar descriptions of Hel’s trollmaiden, Mordgud, guarding the Great Bridge, and Garm, a Hound of Hel. Nearly all the women described having most or all of their flesh painlessly removed upon arriving on the outskirts of Hel’s hall. Many encountered beloved dead relatives and described their place of rest as a strange but lovely mirror-world of ours, complete with a shining sun in the sky and abundant apple orchards. All of these reports filled me with tremendous happiness.

And everyone heard more than one voice issuing from my throat, and found my drumming was the most peculiar they’ve ever heard. Two women were convinced I was dancing around the room, beating the drum right over their heads. I never moved from my initial spot at the southern edge of the circle, though, and they knew it.

So that, dear reader, is the record of an incredibly potent and effective shamanic journey I was honored to facilitate. It has helped me deepen my footsteps upon my Path, and my fervent wish is for every Pagan, Heathen, shaman, or spirit-worker to also have such unshakable clarity about her or his purpose and the wonderful work she or he is here to do in this Midgard with the gifts she or he has been given in this life. As my favorite Heathen/Asatru prayer, the Lay of Sigrdrifa, explains it:

Hail, Day!

Hail, Sons of Day!

Hail, Night and New Moon!

With kind eyes, look hither and grant us Victory while we live.

Hail, Gods!

Hail, Goddesses!

Hail, bountiful Earth!

Grace us both with the gift of speech

And healing hands

While we live.

That group shamanic journey to Helheim did serve as a powerful initiation experience, as did the near-miss lightning strike event that preceded it five nights prior. Both events served as powerful catalysts of my devotion to Loki’s Daughter, a devotion that continues with fervor to this day, as my concluding post in this series will explain.

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