The Spirits Heralded a Death in My Family

I am reeling in shock, having received word that my beloved first cousin Milica, whose 52nd birthday was yesterday, died last night of an apparent aneurysm in her stomach’s blood vessels, just hours after my mother and I spoke to her at length on the phone. (She did complain of feeling slightly feverish, but dismissed it as symptoms of menopause, whose onset she had only just recently begun to experience.) A native of Belgrade, Serbia, she leaves behind her husband Dragan and my 22-year-old nephew, Alex. Here she is last August when she and Alex had a grand holiday in Istanbul, vibrant and healthy and always in love with life, fully engaged in each moment.

milica

The spirits I serve in my shamanic practice announced her death during a ceremony I held for them yesterday, although I didn’t recognize that phenomenon for what it was during the time that I experienced it.

The weather here in Chicago was marked by record-breaking cold temperatures yesterday. Not including the wind chill, daytime temps plummeted to -21° Fahrenheit. I actually love the incursion of Arctic jet streams into Chicago, believe it or not, because in my shamanic practice, many of the spirits that I have long-standing relationships with hail from Inuit culture; specifically, many of them flank the dread “Sea Woman” and Inuit Goddess of the Underworld (Adlivun), known most commonly as Sedna among the Inuit of Canada but also called by a variety of other names, such as Nerrivik, Nuliajuk, or Arnakäpsha-luk among the First Nations peoples living in Greenland.

I first began to experience Sedna’s “reemergence,” if you will, albeit impersonally, in the world of the living back in 2004, shortly after the discovery of the asteroid that now bears Her name. I was living on the Hawaiian island of Oahu at the time and I “knew” that the horrifying December 26 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the deadliest tsunami in recorded history, were Her doing.

However, it wasn’t until December 2012, three months after my legal Ordination as a Priestess within the Fellowship of Isis, that Sedna began to drastically manifest in my life, demanding ceremonial recognition of  the interrelated issues of Her own tragic story and unimaginable woundedness, the plight of the oceans, and the threats posed to all life by climate change wrought from global warming, a phenomenon which the Inuit peoples of the Arctic have been bearing the brunt of for decades. It was at that time that my fellow clergy members of the Chicago chapter of the Fellowship of Isis (FOI) and I were coping with the dying process of our ArchPriestess and spiritual mother, the Rt. Rev. Deena Butta. After Thanksgiving of 2012, Deena had shockingly been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), a rare but totally fatal brain disorder (the human equivalent of “Mad Cow’s Disease”). She began to lose her sensory faculties, one by one, in the month of December (the last time I was able to converse with her was on December 9, the day AFTER Sedna made a  frightfully surprising appearance to me in the rear-view mirror of my car while I was driving in a terrible storm!). In the wee hours of the morning of January 27, 2013, after my fellow FOI clergy members and I prayed over her home hospice bed at an all-night full moon ritual vigil, she died, her body completely shut down by CJD.

I have written extensively about my relationship with the Inuit Sedna, about my shamanic journeys to Her dreadful Arctic Underworld realm and about the Helping Spirits I’ve acquired that make these horrific encounters tolerable. The common denominator in all of my encounters with these spiritual Arctic Beings is the influx of Arctic weather conditions into Chicago, such as the Polar Vortex jet streams that have been crippling the city and suburbs since Tuesday night. It’s simply impossible to call upon Sedna or my Arctic Helping Spirits in warmer weather or during the seasons of spring and summer. Even the Inuit themselves don’t ritually goad their shamans into making the descent into Sedna’s Underworld until the fall and winter months, when the tupilait (spirits of the dead) are thought to attack the living (animals as well as people) and bring sickness, bad weather for hunting, and death (Laugrand 91-93).

I’ve been holed up indoors at home during this spate of Arctic chill all week, of course, and while I’ve mainly been preparing for the upcoming Imbolc festival both for my private group’s ritual as well as a larger, public gathering for Chicago’s Pagan community under the auspices of the FOI, something told me yesterday afternoon to stop with my Imbolc planning and immediately get to work in preparing to ritually call upon the Arctic Spirits and Sedna and descend into Adlivun, Their Underworld, post haste. I reverentially began to assemble my cultic objects related to this shamanic work, praying prayers of welcome and carefully smudging each object with wild bear root (Ligusticum porteri, also called osha root). I felt an oppressive sense of dread when I held up Sedna’s hand-carved/Inuit-carved quartz and soapstone statues and placed them onto the floor in the North. Additionally, I laid my pieces of seal bone, caribou bone, feathers from Arctic cliff-dwelling fulmar birds, and an assortment of sea shells and coral.

 

 

The last piece to be added was the Sedna ceremonial mask I made out of papier-mâché and hand-painted about five years ago.

sednamask

I don it only in order to invite Her to possess me, an activity She greatly enjoys and which I can tell is taking place because I either actually vomit on the floor or come very close to vomiting in response to Sedna’s act of shoving a piece of whale blubber in my mouth, Her “payment” to me in exchange for allowing Her to fully experience corporeality. She misses experiencing human hands, since, according to the Inuit myth, Her father deliberately mutilated Her by chopping Her fingers off with a hunting knife.

I did rounds of purification of my person—by bear root smoke, by blessed water—before taking up my spirit stick and shaking it to ring its bells, summoning my helping spirits from the six cardinal directions (the four points of the compass plus Above and Below). There is a special rowan wood-carved miniature flute that was given to be by a Finnish witch; I also use it to call upon spirit helpers from lands far away.

The sun was shining strongly in the West, making its arc into the formative stages of sunset as I began to strike my frame drum after making each declaration:

Sedna, I honor You

I welcome You

I give You thanks

And then I launched into the following:

 

HYMN FOR SUMMONING ARNAKÄPSHA-LUK UP FROM THE DEEP

Song by the Umingmaktormiut [Greenland; recorded by Rasmussen (1932)]

[sung in a monotonous, slow solemn melody]

Great woman down there

Will she, I wonder, feel a desire to move?

Great woman down there

Will she, I wonder, feel a desire to move?

Will she, I wonder, feel a desire to move?

Come out, you, down there,

Come out, you, down there!

Those who live above you, it is said,

Call you

To see you, savage and snappish,

Come out, you, down there

And then I steadily sunk beneath the floor boards in my home temple space and I plunged into the Arctic Ocean, sinking like a stone into the whalebone House of Sedna. She was retreating from me and then I found Her, sullen in demeanor, sitting like a child in the immense darkness of the Arctic Ocean floor, hugging Her knees and rocking back and forth. Her wild black hair streamed about, horribly matted. Her husband, a fearsome, giant sea-scorpion named Kanajuk, initially tried to bar my entry, but my Helping Spirits coaxed Him into stepping aside so I could enter.

Now the rest of this is going to be very hard to put into a “logical” narrative order, let alone articulate. After all, we’re dealing with non-ordinary consciousness here.

The overwhelming Presences surrounding me were those of my Helping Spirits—mainly Animal Helpers like Polar Bear, Harbor Seal, and Caribou—and I was shocked to discover that They had an instant change of heart, a total 180° “about face,” regarding my entry into Sedna’s House. They immediately regretted letting me enter, and so each of Them in Their turn desperately tried to repeatedly pull me out of the Underworld/ocean floor by Their teeth (both Those in the ocean with me and Those Who stood above water, peering into the Lands Below through a hole in the ice). Their behavior bewildered me as I had never experienced objections from any of Them on entering Adlivun before. Frustrated and annoyed because I wanted to welcome Sedna into my body, and because I saw many spirits of the human dead swiftly gathering around me, I tried “swatting” away my own Helping Spirits. This confused Kanajuk greatly, and He swiftly responded by going on the attack, trying to sting my Helping Spirits.

The commotion adversely impacted my visibility, swirling up as it did all kinds of sandy debris from the ocean floor, but Sedna took advantage of it, lunging at me and viciously (so the emotional energy felt to me) thrusting a piece of whale blubber into my mouth. She entered me but She brought a whole train of the human dead along with Her. Sitting and drumming cross-legged on the floor in “ordinary reality,” I violently gagged for what seemed like two minutes before completely vomiting up the simple lunch I’d had four hours prior of lentil soup and a cherry tomato salad. My shirt and my temple floor rug reeked of my chocolate-colored vomit. I wiped my chin briefly but kept on with the shamanic journey, beating my frame drum to a frenzied pace.

I gave voice to Sedna and the spirits of the human dead for what amounted into 45 minutes of time in ordinary reality. (In hindsight, I wonder what my condo neighbors, all of whom were home during this extreme cold, must have thought of the unearthly shrieks and cries coming from my temple room! Thank goodness none of them came knocking on my door, asking me if I was alright.) The energies of all these Beings plunged the temperature in my room, even though I had set the thermostat to 75° Fahrenheit to warm my home. My fingers, grasping my drum beater, felt ice-cold. So many spirits of the dead wailed through me, but the worst were the dead children, the spirits of dead Inuit babies. Their ghosts—even the ghosts of fetuses that died as miscarriages—are greatly feared in Inuit culture, not the least of which is because their energy pollutes Sedna’s body (Laugrand 71-73). What I can say for certain is that the wailing babies had me physically crying, uncontrollably, during and after the shamanic journey.

Caribou and Harbor Seal had had enough, and They dislodged, via a series of head butts to my person(!), each of the human dead from within me as well as Sedna Herself. The latter, with a flash of Her tail, darted back into the darkness of Her whalebone House. At this point, I shot up out of Adlivun and soared through the frozen skies; my Spirit Helpers saw to it that I returned to Chicago, to my home temple space, and that I safely re-entered my own body. I looked out my West-facing window and saw that the orange orb of the sun had considerably sunk into the horizon. It was almost nightfall. At this point, I removed my vomit-stained shirt and I sat back down, cross-legged, hugging my knees and sobbing for I don’t know how many minutes. The sense of sadness puzzled me and it was so physically oppressive to my chest. I couldn’t explain it but I knew it must have some tremendous importance. Little did I know at the time that it was because of my cousin Milica’s death.

I sang my song of thanks to all of the Beings I had encountered. I gave fresh water to Sedna and the physical manifestations of my Animal Helpers on the floor before me—the bones and feathers, etc.—and then immediately began to purify myself again with smoke from the wild bear root that had been steadily burning all this time. I splashed my face with blessed water and then drank a couple of gulps of it, trying to remove the stinging sensation of vomit in the back of my throat. As I stood up, I was wildly dizzy, and I knew that my first order of business was to eat some food rich in protein to help ground myself. I dug out some Greek yogurt from the fridge and I looked at the kitchen clock: 4:53 p.m. I would continue to feel profoundly “out of sorts” for the rest of the evening, and I was convinced that spirits from far away physically entered my home temple space as a result of my shamanic journey to Adlivun. I couldn’t shake the sadness, the visceral experience of the dead children crying so mournfully through my body.

But now I see it fully for what it was: these spirits were heralding the death of my cousin, which had been occurring at the exact same time in Serbia that I was holding my shamanic ceremony in Chicago. 

My beloved cousin Milica, I am so horrified to have learned of your sudden death. And we just spoke with you—Mama and I just spoke with you. You were loving life to the fullest, enjoying your birthday. The lesson is learned: tomorrow is promised to none of us, oh my sweet cousin. May you journey in bliss into the arms of your father/my uncle Milan. May Perpetual Light enfold you. May your husband, Dragan, and your son, my nephew Alex, have the strength to go on without you.

Večnaja Pamjat—Memory Eternal, cousin Milica Tanasković.

 

 

Works Cited

Laugrand, Frederic and Jarich Oosten. The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press, 2008.

Rasmussen, Knud. Eskimo Folk-Tales. Trans. W. Worster. London, 1921. Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/inu/eft/eft01.htm. Accessed February 24, 2013.

 

 

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