It is 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside my downtown Chicago office as I type these words. Like other sensible Chicagoans, for my morning commute today, I bundled up for the kind of bitter cold and biting winds that usually arrive in mid-winter, not pre-Thanksgiving. I was spiritually as well as physically ready for it, however, and I greeted the cold with glee this morning. You see, as soon as last week’s weather forecasts warned that the Midwest (and the Great Plains and Rockies) would be engulfed in “relentless November Arctic cold,” to borrow the words of one headline, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that Sedna, the great Inuit Goddess of the Sea and the Dead–sometimes just referred to as “the Sea Woman” by the Inuit for fear of invoking Her–was stirring and wanting to make Her presence known.
And She’s angry. More than that, actually–enraged is more like it. And Her rage is of such a raw, elemental fury, that I cannot compare it to the energies of any other Deity I serve or pray to; I’ve never experienced anything like it. Sure, the ancient Egyptian Goddess Sekhmet was ready to instantly obliterate human beings on Ra’s command and She was feared for Her bloodlust, but human beings interpreted Her holy rage in the myth of the Near Destruction of Humanity as the upholding of ma’at, divine order. Besides, She was admired for being a Healer as much as She was feared for Her destruction. And it’s not as if an inherent hatred of human beings is a part of Her character.
Sedna does appear to have at least an inherent loathing–if not outright hatred–of human beings. It’s understandable, given Her tenuous relationship with Inuit First Nations people. According to scholars Frederic Laugrand and Jarich Oosten in their excellent survey of Inuit shamanism titled The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2008), the Inuit, not unlike other tightly knit indigenous tribal societies, formerly had their lives greatly governed by taboos. All aspects of life, but especially the hazardous endeavors of hunting and childbirth, fell under the rubric of communal upholding of scores of taboos to ensure harmonious relationships with the legions of ambivalent (at best), nonhuman spiritual beings that populated the Arctic landscape.
Sedna was and is the chief of these beings, and the fates of entire coastal communities depended upon successful hunts of the sea mammals born from Sedna’s mutilated hands: whether or not Sedna would give permission for those walruses, seals, penguins, etc. to be hunted depended greatly upon communal observances of the taboos that kept the natural world in balance. Solitary transgressions impacted the entire community, for the buildup of each breach of a taboo, person by person, added up to spiritual pollution–what the ancient Greeks would have recognized as mīasma–for Sedna. According to the lore preserved by each Inuit village’s angakkuq or shaman, accumulated breaches of taboos would translate into literal physical filth that clogged Sedna’s eyes and ear canals. Her hair was also said to be matted by the physical manifestations of these violations of taboos (Laugrand and Oosten, pp. 71-72). As Sedna’s fingers had been chopped off by her father, Anguta, She is not able to comb out Her own hair–one of Her favorite activities prior to this egregious act of mutilation and matricide on his part. Unable to withstand the physical pain to Her eyes and ears nor the discomfort of Her hair matted with pollution, Sedna becomes enraged. Her first, most devastating, chief form of punishment to the Inuit is to withhold game animals so the Inuit cannot hunt. She also sends violent storms at sea and inland, which also has the effect of insuring that the Inuit cannot hunt, even if there is game to be found. Either way, Sedna’s vindictiveness equals starvation for human beings.
The Inuit know that the first thing that needs to happen when game goes scarce is that all people in their community need to hold a special ceremony, the climax of which is to send the angakkuq into Adlivun, the oceanic Underworld where Sedna is said to dwell and where the souls of the Inuit (as well as Arctic animals) go in-between incarnations, to try and pacify Sedna and negotiate the release of Her sea mammals for hunting (Laugrand and Oosten, 63). But in order for him to make that dreadful spirit journey, the people of the village need to first communally confess whatever breaches of taboos they have privately made without telling anyone. It is a very public airing of dirty laundry as well as offenses that are very culturally specific, such as stealing meat, or a menstruating woman coming into contact with a hunting party, or a woman having a miscarriage and not telling anyone about it. (The spirits of living animals were said to be horrified by people who made contact with menstrual blood, fetal tissue/afterbirth, or with human corpses; they would refuse to give themselves up as food in any case [Laugrand and Oosten, 71]). Only once those confessions have been given–can you say group therapy?–would the angakkuq be properly prepared to make his perilous descent into Sedna’s realm and hope to have a favorable audience with Her. As part of the negotiation process for the release of the game animals, he would soothe a distressed Sedna by combing out Her matted hair and removing the physical filth (dirt and caribou hair) clogging Her eyes and ears (Laugrand and Oosten, 71).
Of course, what relief She might gain from the encounter would be temporary. Human beings have a way of being repeat offenders to Deities, and it would only be a matter of time before Sedna would have Her eyes and ears clogged up and Her hair ensnarled with filth once again. The Inuit really are a nuisance for Her, at best. She would prefer them dead. So in a spirit of vindictiveness, She hides Her animals in Her whalebone-framed house at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, the navel of Adlivun. And then come Her unforgiving storms, “the furious winter’s rages,” to borrow Shakespeare’s lovely phrase from Cymbeline.
So, given the surprising introduction to freezing weather so early in the season here in Chicago, and because the Inuit in the southern Baffin area of Greenland, according to anthropologist Franz Boas, would hold an annual feast to placate Sedna and the wandering, restless tupilait (the spirits of the dead), in late October or early November, She has been very much on my mind.
Hence I decided last night to make a shamanic journey to Adlivun and make contact with Sedna. My prickling skin informed me beforehand that She was very angry. About what? Why the Polar Vortex so soon? I wanted to find out. I first began working with Sedna in December of 2012, as savvy regular readers of this blog already know, when my Priestess-Hierophant in the Fellowship of Isis, dear friend, and esteemed spiritual mentor Deena Butta was diagnosed with Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, an insidious and aggressive neurological disease that results in a painful death following complete sensory shutdown. Eight weeks after receiving Her diagnosis, Deena was dead. As she lay dying in her home, several friends and fellow members of Chicago’s FOI Lyceum of Alexandria did a series of shamanic workings in the hopes of ameliorating Deena’s pain and finding out what the spiritual cause of her disease was.
Although I had always had a deep and abiding affection for many First Nations cultures since childhood, especially the Inuit (I was often told as a little girl bundled up in Chicago’s brutal winters that I looked like “an Eskimo”; furthermore, my first pet was a beloved Samoyed dog that my father devised a sled and harness for so he could pull me about in the snow!), I certainly never expected to ever have any Deities of any First Nations peoples become a part of my Pagan devotional practices. And yet, on December 8, 2012, having just been informed of Deena’s diagnosis, as I drove crying on the westbound Kennedy Expressway (I-90 for you out-of-towners) en route to a friend’s art gallery, I “saw” Sedna when I glanced in the rearview mirror of my car–She sat in my back seat! Her skin was blue-black, Her stupendous black hair cascaded everywhere. Her flippers were rolled into fists, which were tightly clenched, and She grit Her teeth, growling and wailing. When She looked up to meet my gaze, Her eyes spoke volumes of grief and disgust. Tears streaked across Her face, which was either scratched or showed tribal scars/tattoos. I was so shocked, so bewildered, that I nearly got into an accident.
Once at the art gallery, I started telling the director and several friends of mine that I felt strongly compelled to work with Sedna and learn how Her grief and rage were somehow tied to Deena’s imminent death as well as our own woundedness as women in a flagrantly misogynistic culture. Sedna’s myth does read like the worst of all narratives of victimization, betrayal, and cruelty. It is a condensation of the narrative written by patriarchy for all women. However, in the darkness and solitude of the deep, transformation occurs. Strength gets reclaimed. But what about healing?
I wrote this poem immediately upon concluding my first shamanic journey to Sedna and her Arctic Underworld. It was an intense experience. I found Her to be willing to engage immediately. No aspect of our interaction, though, was even remotely pleasant, which brings me back to that undercurrent of loathing human beings I mentioned earlier.
Frankly, She’s the first Deity I’ve ever encountered who doesn’t care if I live or die. I don’t have a “relationship” with Her like I do other Deities, Powers that appreciate this concept called symbiosis. You show me unwavering devotion, I bless you with wisdom and spiritual growth and material blessings. That kind of arrangement doesn’t seem possible with Sedna.
But what happened last night in my temple room seemed like less of a shamanic journey and more like my extending an invitation to Sedna for Her to take complete control of my body and faculties. Get possessed, in other words. Because that’s exactly what happened to me within literally two minutes of drumming my welcome to the spirits. And it happened despite all the precautions I took.
Before entering my temple space, I went to the bathroom–not to void my bladder or bowels, but to poke my index finger of my dominant hand in my vagina, thereby dousing it with menstrual blood. I raised my bloody finger to my face and smeared menstrual blood into the designs of a bind-rune on my forehead, a sigil meant to ward my person. I smeared the excess blood on the nape of my neck and my cheeks. Knowing that the Inuit believe that animal spirits find a woman’s menstrual blood abhorrent, I wondered what the outcome would be. W.W.S.D.: What Would Sedna Do?
I then washed my hands and entered my temple room. Per my usual custom prior to beginning any shamanic working, I warded the perimeters of my temple room with a mixture of bear root, cedar, sage, and sweetgrass. I knelt down on the floor, where my cult objects for Sedna lie, including my two Inuit soapstone-carved statues of Her, and offered them fresh water (a valuable gift, since these are spirits of the sea) by using sprigs of basil (a revered apotropaic herb in Serbian culture) as an aspergillum. I lit Her blue candles and a mini charcoal briquette (the kind for burning granules of incense with, not having a barbecue), upon which I began to burn a proprietary “Vision Incense” blend. I began my method for grounding and centering myself. Then, on a whim, I decided to move to the far western corner of the temple room and light a candle before my Egyptian-made stone statue of the god Anubis: I prayed for Him to ward me and to ensure my safe return. Back before Sedna’s cult objects, I made sure to anoint myself with Fiery Wall of Protection oil, a staple of hoodoo and one of my favorites. I took several deep breaths, in through my nose to a count of of 6, holding the breath to a count of 4, and exhaling to a count of 8. My state of consciousness was already starting to slip out of the “ordinary.” Sedna’s objects were humming; She was ready and waiting for me.
I grabbed my Remo Buffalo Head frame drum and beater and announced, as at the outset of my poem to Her:
Sedna, I honor you (strike drum)
I welcome you (strike drum)
I give you thanks (strike drum three times)
And from that moment on, while still standing, I began to drum fervently, the same beat pattern I use to accompany my spirit’s journeys into the Underworld, Middle World, or Upper World. (Honestly, 99% of the shamanic workings I do have me exclusively operating within Underworld country.) I began to sway, rock a bit side to side on my feet. That’s one of the most immediate cues that tell me my brain waves’ patterns are altering and I’m descending from an alpha, to a beta, and then to a theta brain wave state–the one most engaged in an altered state of consciousness like shamanic trance work.
The other, more disturbing, cue is when the vocalizations come.
Because the sounds emanating from my vocal cords and mouth aren’t coming from me.
Sedna’s arrival in my flesh is always preceded by violent gagging. I don’t know if it’s a holdover from our first encounter, when, as I stood in Her whalebone house of the dead on the Arctic Ocean floor, she unexpectedly shoved a huge chunk of whale blubber into my mouth and I gagged then. (As a vegetarian of 23 years, I not surprisingly wound up vomiting “in the real world” immediately afterwards.) But I also think the gagging is somehow symptomatic of the power struggle that ensues between Her and me; an indication that Someone Else is now occupying my driver’s seat.
I was conscious of standing and swaying on my feet for perhaps less than 2 minutes of ordinary time passing away before I “saw” Sedna in two forms: one as the Storm Queen, waving a whalebone like a magical scepter, causing typhoons and Arctic gales to blow. Her hair was as white as the storm clouds spiraling above her; naturally She stood in the eye of the storm. The second form was Her as a human-headed Seal Woman perched on a desolate rock outcropping over very dark waters. Her hair was black in that form, but in both instances Her eyes were the trademark crazed red-and-yellow expanses of desolation I first saw in December of 2012 in my car’s rearview mirror. Also, Her skin was bluish-black. Worn. Eternal. Fathomless.
I started making all manner of noises that surely would have curdled the blood of any bystanders (ask my boyfriend, Dan, for what he heard coming out of my temple room the last time I did a journey to Sedna, February of this year). Roaring, bellowing, shrieking, keening, howling, and indescribable guttural utterances. Also a bit of throat singing, where multiple vocal cords were activated to produce different pitches simultaneously, making me sound like a one-woman chorus.
But it wasn’t just Sedna that entered me and spoke through me. A variety of animal spirits and nonhuman entities in Sedna’s Adlivun came too. I was host to leopard seal, caribou, a white wolf, polar bear, and the screeching fulmar bird that many versions of Sedna’s myth state was her husband. But it was as if Sedna became jealous every time another spirit got access to me and spoke through me, because She would come rushing back, and I would violently gag again. Sedna became enraged when her father, the treacherous Anguta, entered the room. His eyes were pleading for forgiveness. He crept steadily towards Her, demanding acknowledgement and acceptance. Sedna would have none of it; She struck out at him and began roaring dreadfully, and at that point I wondered if my nosy Greek neighbors in the condo building would be pounding on my front door, demanding to know what I was doing (after all, it was after 9 p.m. and this was a weeknight) and for the noises to stop.
I was aware the entire time of a series of whistling sounds directly in front of me. I realized that my very frame drum’s skin was issuing it, and then my drum told me its name. This is a huge boon and blessing. Now I can summon its own spirit in a special way, independent of playing it.
I also became aware of Anubis’ promise to be watchful, as barking sounds reverberated throughout my temple room. I sensed He was wanting to intervene when Sedna became too ornery for me. Lastly, in the room also stood the spirit of my dearly missed friend and priestess mentor, Deena Butta. She was just off my left shoulder. Deena had a fondness for Native American cultures and she incorporated tobacco offerings to local land spirits whenever we did Fellowship of Isis rituals outdoors, including her charming, well-landscaped backyard in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. Deena’s presence was solid, unwavering. She was bathed in indigo hue, which I took to mean that she walked with the energies of my Patroness, the Goddess Nebet-Het.
Sedna and the various spirits wound up having use of my body for what amounted to 90 minutes of ordinary consciousness time, though, of course, like all my time spent in an Underworld journey, it seemed to go on for much longer. As suddenly as Sedna came, She departed with a powerful thrust of Her seal-like tail, propelling Herself away into an inky Otherwhere. The other spirits followed suit; the last to leave was another sea fowl like the fulmar bird, but more of a tern, I thought.
As my brain wave patterns ascended from theta to beta to alpha once again, I became immediately aware of how much my throat hurt and how physically drained I was. I knew it was an imperative for me to get water and then to immediately go to sleep, as the spirits imparted (not Sedna Herself) that more interaction would take place in my “dreams.”
But before anything else, I did my ceremony of thanks to Sedna and the various spirits. Fresh water and sweetgrass were offered to them all. I then relit the sage and cleansed myself with it. Next I approached Anubis at His shrine and thanked Him for warding me before I blew out His candle. Then I extinguished Sedna’s candles, rang my Tibetan ceremonial bell to flush out any lingering spirits, wished the Powers permanently housed in the temple a good night, and trudged my solitary way to the kitchen.
I slept deeply and knew I had intercourse of sorts with nature spirits while I slept, but I’ve been having difficulty with dream recall all day. I knew I was on a tundra, though. But I was very excited to have stepped outside this morning and ingested that bitterly cold Arctic air as I made my way to work. I sense it is a purifying force, that air. Perhaps Sedna would agree–perhaps it is exactly what is needed for people to be purged of their mīasma, their spiritual sickness that spreads and congeals.
My prayer to all the Gods I serve is to be made a more pure vessel of Their energies so that I can do the work They have in mind for me in the world with a clear mind, a willing and joyous heart, and capable hands. I do believe that Sedna’s lesson for me and for us all is to think about how the actions of one impact many. In the case of Inuit taboos and their violation, the effects of one person’s transgression are adverse for the collective. But just think if we were to truly understand this principle and incorporate it in our lives to create ripple effects of positive change, spreading from self to other to ecosystem to Deity.
Perhaps then, Sedna will not find the need to express Herself in rage. The Gods evolve, just as we do. How can we rewrite Sedna’s story, and in so doing, frame a new narrative for ourselves as a human family?
Words to ponder in the frozen darkness.