Slipping Into The Otherworld

celtic spirituality shamanism story

I’ve been indulging in a rare pleasure recently – watching something that lasts more than 15 minutes (my current self-designated guilty Papa-pleasure allotment.) Stranger Things on Netflix has scratched a lot of itches, many of them nostalgic for a simpler, if more Stephen King-ish time.

One of its most striking themes is that of a parallel, twisted world (“the Upside-Down”) you might be dragged into when biking home alone on a summers night after a marathon session of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) with your pack of close childhood friends. The theme of Otherworldly abduction and accidental wanderings has been a part of many peoples for millennia. Spiritual technicians of various type (often called shamans in our culture) have spent lifetimes negotiating their peoples relationships with those worlds.

There are worlds between worlds.

Modern people who train in some form of shamanic journeying likely have experience working in those spaces – sometimes discovering they are filled with light and love (typically found in the upper-and lower worlds), other times that they are filled with great suffering and danger. Perhaps the best comparison to the Upside-Down from Stranger Things is an “interworld”, a term coined by the FSS. Not specifically a dimension unto itself so much as a place between dimensions, a threshold that can be blow open, giving birth to twisted worlds. These places sometimes are born of human suffering, trauma, violence of all sorts. They can be manipulated and further distorted by the living. Its easy to get lost there, your spirit actually changed by the space itself. The Upside-Down fits this well, having been created by horrific, immoral experimentation on children, leading to one very powerful psychic scream that tore a place that was betwixt and between wide open.

Its clear after reading just a bit about the  Sidhe in folklore and ancient myth, that the Celts in general, and the Irish in particular, were perpetually in danger of falling into the Otherworld. There is something unique to their zeitgeist that opened them to the Otherworld in profound ways. I think the awareness of another peoples living in that parallel dimension who were powerful enough they could easily navigate the many realities must have made the boundaries between worlds untrustworthy. The story of the Tuatha De Danann, the settling of the land lies at the heart of the islands mythos.  Having that kind of inter-dimensional neighbor would naturally bring a strong focus to ones attention, making the Otherworld a haunting presence that infuses everything with both danger and wonder.

Celtic folklore has many stories that resonate with Stranger Things: catching glimpses into the world of the Sidhe, being abducted into the world of the Sidhe, stumbling into a soccer match or funeral, being asked to play music at an event – failure to comply could cost you your life or even eternal soul. The doors to the Otherworld surely opened up every night in places just around the corner from where you lived. Every moment was alive with over-lapping worlds trespassing upon each other. Traveling home alone at night was never risk-free, it was courting the Upside-Down.

If you accept that our world and the world of the Sidhe co-exist in some way then its natural to understand that throughout human history, for a variety of reasons, the boundaries between the worlds were crossed. As Michael Harner shared in a realization central to his work: “… there’s a whole other reality, and that there are different entrances into it.” (Harner web article) There are many entrances to Non-oridnary Reality (NOR), and it is obvious those entrances can take the shape of hapless souls being swept up by trans-dimensional beings. Late at night, a bicycle can become a key to a lock you didn’t even know existed.

I’ve been reading about those who call the Otherworld their home as seen by a variety of cultures; the Huldunfolk from Iceland, the Deetkatoo from Native North Americans, Menehune of the Hawaiian Islands, and the Koro-pok-guru of Japan. Some of the creatures to be found there easily rival the monster from Stranger Things. The most exciting cross cultural thread is the sense of that “slip” – the moment when the person discovers that they are now in a reality where other beings, often with magical powers, are in charge. One wrong turn and you’re just gone.

How did that happen? Did our wayward hero unintentionally alter their own consciousness? Did the spirits themselves (frequently malevolent in this lore) awaken something in our hero to bring them into the doorway of a world always there? In modern stories there is often a sense of people having wandered into a place of power, someplace important to spirits with the ability not only to impinge upon us with their will, but to bring us fully into their reality. They have violated a taboo – perhaps consciously but more often through the carelessness that is a part of just being human. The slip is built into us, part of the tragedy of being human.

Communities with well traveled elders seem to fear the Otherworld less – though a healthy respect is there. Our culture has exchanged that wisdom first for religion, then science. When we are there, consciously, well protected with allies and experience, we are acutely aware of the power and guidance of our own souls. Our souls in fact are given an opportunity to spread their wings and learn how to fly.

Becoming a traveler there…

Tending to the Otherworld is not something we do in this culture because… we can’t exist beyond the skulls of human beings. Perhaps this is why the Otherworld appears as frightful to us (as in Stranger Things), a place that can only hold horror: we seem to think if a person is going to spend any time there they’ve got to be one of two things: crazy or doomed. Actually you can be both, but thats no fun.

I’ve been traveling there, along with others, intentionally, for decades. I have spent hours at a time exploring the Otherworld, venturing deep into terrain we really have no references for in our culture. Experience is unfortunately a dividing line in this area, for many its hard to believe anything exists beyond imagination, for the initiated its where we find ourselves.

D & D is a great expression of our repressed need to quest in the Otherworld. The young heroes of Stranger Things understand implicitly the need to quest, as we quickly learn by the hours they spend rolling dice, developing characters, unwinding the mystery of their journey. Its how they discover what they’re made of, how they forge their community, how their spirits grow. For the character “11”, questing is how she discovers her true powers, and perhaps how she gains more power. Questing in the Otherworld is one great way to get to know ones own soul, perhaps even to grow it.

Questing (journey) sessions lasting all day are for practitioners without kids and a family to support.  Still, every morning after chores I unfold my circle, put on a drumming playlist and begin to stretch. After a time my breath finds it rythme, I put on a blindfold. Dancing and moving I enter the Otherworld and begin my days exploration. There are teachers I return to, wisdom to explore, challenges to rise to.

My soul feels like its being reborn when I do this work – sounds farfetched I know. Like a flower that opens and envelopes itself, only to bloom again, I’m constantly being remade. You might think such a process would leave me feeling ungrounded, diffuse, but really I’ve become more grounded because of it. I have to come back to the tangibility of my soul, what it wants to manifest, the journey it is on now.

The world is full of people who’s spirits have been pulled into the Otherworld, whether they know it or not. It could be their own spirits need to quest, to be known, to grow or it could be something more nefarious – like the original trauma that opened the space between worlds for 11, a spiritual violence can put out ripples that torture some, setting their lives in a downward spiral.

Maybe thats how some of us get dragged into the Otherworld – our souls are aching to go there, to heal, be remade. They know we would never voluntarily journey there, so they throw us there, out of desperation. We become dismembered as some deeper brightness of us quests there – for what we often don’t know. The quest is on however, its time to draw on all the powers we know if the body is to survive and we are to stay sane.

Holding a dying Crow…

Tadg and I saw a Crow collide with a car a few weeks back. I pulled over and got it off the road. It must have lived about 20 minutes before finally dying. It reminds me that our way of life, industrial, fast, often calloused, creates wounds in the worlds every day. When an animal or any of us die through violent collision with our technology it always feels like some rupture has happened, something tears in spirit. In the case of our friend the crow it was likely small, but still, its there if you reach out with your feelings to touch it.TadgCrow - 1

It was a very busy road, I had to run to avoid being hit. As soon as I reached the crow and gently picked it up one of its friends called out. I hoped they knew I was there to care for their fellow traveler. I like to think it was making a call that carried across the worlds. If 11 were real I’m sure she heard it.

I’m sure many of us walk through places every day where the spaces between the worlds are tattered, wounded. Our spirits have become used to the discord, accepting it and moving on. If we make the bold move to quest in the Otherworld we become more aware of the damage, sometimes even we have an opportunity to heal the wound.

By the time we buried the Crow, (a sky burial in a tree), Tadg had become quite attached to it. He had already managed to take its presence, including the impact it experienced, into his heart. I think that kind of deep feeling takes us a long way towards healing the discord we create in this world. The more I do this work the more I think the world is a place of vast feeling, and we have callously bolted our society onto it.

Samhain is fast approaching, the time of year when the Celts believed the inhabitants of other realities found it easiest to cross over into our world and wreak havoc. Its a good time to start figuring out if your feet really are in this reality, and make a choice to stay here as the new year approaches. Its also a good time for those of us who would quest in the Otherworld to gather our power, tune in to our souls journey, reach out to our fellow questers and get ready for a powerful ride!

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