Into the underworld

I haven’t posted in a while. There’s been a range of factors behind this, some technological or geographical but also psychospiritual.

When I started planning this trip I envisioned a kind of Hero’s Journey structure to frame it. Separation in the first six months, an underworld journey in the second and the last third, Return, although a return of what or whom I didn’t put much thought into. To support this, I’d crammed most of the intensives and workshops into the middle third of the trip (South and Central America) in addition to a few other intensive and immersve experiences. A tarot reading before we left also seemed to indicate that this period would be one of crisis and transformation.

It’s a case of be careful what you wish for.

In Japan my computer stopped charging properly but the pace of travelling was so frenetic that there was little space to take heed of it. By the time we arrived in the US my laptop had died completely and would not charge at all. Simultaneously, my phone had also started playing up and so I decided to do a factory reset on it. Something went wrong when backing up my data, which I didn’t realise at the time. When I did the restore I had lost much of my information including access to chat apps, my sources of connection with people back home. Apple were useless in assisting me fix my computer. There was an issue with the logic board, which meant sending it off to the factory. As I was travelling around they couldn’t pinpoint a location to send it to and so for six weeks I carried an oversized paperweight in my pack.

Adding to this was a slow withdrawal from my old life in Australia. Back home I realised had a definite social identity. I knew who I was with some certainty as well as my place in a well-established community. I had passions, plans for the future, strong social networks and a sense of community. The further I travelled the more abstract all of this felt. I became acutely aware of how our identities, our egos, are socially constructed and the further I went the more I sensed the Self residing underneath (more on this to come). Social media, politics and current affairs seemed increasingly irrelevant to who and where I was in life. The message coming through grew louder: withdraw and sever the strings binding me to my old life. And so I did.

One cannot undertake the Hero’s Journey without honouring the stages and their import. How could I enter an underworld, even of my own making, if I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that which bound me to the old world? In the myth of Orpheus, Orpheus is instructed to walk through the underworld and not look back at Eurydice, who is following behind him. Orpheus cannot help himself and at one stage looks back to her. She is condemned forever to dwell in Hades. The message is clear: when you walk into the underworld you cannot look back. There is only forward.

The past couple of months have been one of disconnection and focusing on the road ahead. Interestingly however, my computer was repaired only once I accepted that severance was necessary and took steps to make it so. The underworld journey has begun. I am loath to post about it while I am still in its belly. My priority at the moment is finishing the next draft of my novel and documenting as much of this journey as I can in my journal with the aim of constructing a longer work. So while I will post here from time to time it will be of intermittent frequency.

Deeper into the underworld, I descend…

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Trance and possession in deep Kerala

We are up before 3am. The moon is only just past full and at this hour the jungle is quiet and deliciously cool. When we arrive thirty minutes later it seems like the entire village, from little children to the elderly, is in attendance.

The temple is situated in the centre of a raised concrete slab, called a kavu, in the middle of a field. Lit up with torches and coloured lights the kavu’s a bright island amongst the night’s black sea. The energy is palpable; the kavu’s edges are thronged with people, a large pile of embers smoulders before us and a troupe of drummers provide an energetic beat, accompanied by some kind of droning horn or trumpet. One ritual has ended and a Theyyam kneels before the temple doling out blessings to a queue of people while nearby a headless chicken bleeds from the stump of its neck.

For a moment I worry that we have already missed the spectacle, but soon a bunch of assistants wearing white lungis emerges. They remove the chicken and separate the embers into four separate stacks. The tempo of the drumming increases with their preparation. I can feel it building; I’m not sure what it is but the atmosphere carries charge. My skin prickles and my heart races.

I clamber on to a bench at the back of the crowd, now thronging with bodies, so that I can see. The assistants gather bundles of dried palm fronds and lay them on the embers. At the end of the long dry season the fronds are tinderbox dry and ignite in seconds. Flames roar into the night sky and even standing at the back of the crowd the heat is fierce on my skin. The surging fire carries the crowd with it as everyone cheers and hollers while the drummers are now going hell for leather. It’s show time.

***

We are in the deep north of Kerala, ‘God’s own country’. It’s an apt description. We’ve travelled to beautiful stretches of beaches, along lazy backwaters riddled with canals and rustic villages; we’ve ascended mountains with sweeping views and visited picturesque tea plantations and relaxed cities (by Indian standards) all within the space of three weeks. The Malayalam people are gentle, relaxed and welcoming; their cuisine is redolent with fresh coconut, cardamom and chilli while the juices are fresh and the yoghurt lassies sweet. There is a 90% literacy rate here, the highest in India, and an unabashed pride in Keralan arts and culture: Kathakali, Kalariapayattu and Theyyam, rituals drenched in in meaning and mysticism. Kathakali is famous the world over for the subtleties and constraints of its movements and Kalariapayattu is one of the foundation stones of Eastern martial arts. For me, however, it was Theyyam, mysterious and less well known, that’s captured my curiosity.

***

From behind a bamboo partition the Theyyam emerges into the crowd covered in intricately styled red makeup and wearing an elaborate costume. Twin painted cobras adorn his chest, interweaving in helix pattern. The drummers and the trumpeter swarm around the Theyyam, as the assistants help affix his oversized headdress. Then the crowd parts and the musicians step back leaving the Theyyam standing alone before the fire. In the fiery light he appears demonic, spectral.

With two assistants holding each hand to support him, the Theyyam sprints forward and leaps through across the bonfire, through the flames to the other side. The villagers go berserk, screaming and yelling, urging the Theyyam on. With barely a moments rest the Theyyam spins around (or is spun around by the assistants) and leaps back through the flames. And then again! Again and again, the Theyyam runs and jumps through the fire, turns around and jumps through again. Between jumps more palm fronds are laid on to the fire, stoking it higher, flames licking the night sky above the temple’s roof. With every pass across the fire the drumming gets louder and wilder and the droning horn a hypnotic dervish. The crowd, myself included, are peaking in a state of rapture. There is some divine possession going on here and it’s not just the Theyyam who is feeling it. We are borne into a collective trance by the music, by the intensity of the flames and the manic intensity of the Theyyam leaping through the fire before us.

***

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In age, Theyyam predates Hinduism although the latter has assimilated it. The word itself derives from ‘Deivam’, the Sanskrit word for god. Theyyam performers become possessed by the deities whose legends they re-enact (generally avatars of Vishnu, Shiva, Durga and the like) in order to bless the village and its inhabitants before the coming monsoons. They are held in family kavus in rural villages and are massive deals for the local communities. The success of the rains and the villages’ fortunes depend on the successful completion of these rituals. People return home specifically to watch and participate in the Theyyams. We met villagers now living in Bangalore, Mysore and further afield who had come back to their ancestral homes just for these Theyyams and do so every year. The rituals are accompanied by music, feasting and communal celebration. There’s a party atmosphere, a strong sense of community and tradition and a definite quality of aliveness to Theyyam. There’s an energy and realness that’s absent in the dead-handed rituals of Christianity and other Western ritual traditions. I have blogged before about participation mystique and the Theyyams are participation mystique of the highest order: a collective trance in which one individual is possessed by an avatar for the ongoing wellbeing of the community.

Although these are private rituals everyone is welcome, even us Western interlopers. Still, these are not rites for touristic consumption and at some Theyyams we are the only Westerners in attendance. Yet we are never given anything less than a warm welcome even if in some instances we watch from outside the temple grounds because of custom. Generally though, our presence is met at first with bemusement, followed by curiosity and then heartbreakingly beautiful levels of hospitality. “When you are our guests we treat you like family,” we are repeatedly told. We are proffered with copious amounts of chai, fed, led into family compounds and treated as if hospitality was a sacred, devotional act. It feels as if we have been admitted to a beautiful, intimate theatre.

***

After more than a dozen leaps back and forth across the fire the assistants suddenly block the avatars passage to prevent him making another jump. The Theyyam yells and tries to push through them, raises his staff in anger and beats his chest. It’s pure theatre but all part of the ritual. Who are these mere mortals to try and interfere with a god’s will? The assistants relent and open the passage to the bonfire, where the Theyyam makes another series of jumps, still helped along by his two minders. After one pass, the Theyyam runs up to the bonfire and tips it up with his staff. He bends on one knee and salutes the stars above as fiery embers rain down upon the ecstatic crowd.

Flames soar deliriously high into the night sky and the pile of fronds is running low. The assistants form another blockade in front of the Theyyam. Enraged, the Theyyam pushes and breaks their ranks with his godly might. The noise from both instrument and human is crazy. The drumming is the tempo of your average psytrance track. Accompanied on each side he makes one last dash through the flames. He raises his staff to the sky and utters a demonic roar. The god is in the house.

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***

Despite their wild design Theyyams possess a very formal structure. Make up and costuming can take hours to prepare. The performer’s face is painted with a variety of natural pigments such as coconut oil and turmeric. The designs vary but always include elaborate and detailed filigrees, each with their own mythological import. Likewise, the costumes are elaborate, made from natural materials and suffused with mythological meaning. The whole act of preparing the Theyyam for the performance is an integral part of the ritual, allowing him to settle towards the receptive trance state required to become an avatar of the god.

***

After the avatar appears, the Theyyam circles the temple and bestows his blessings upon it and its priests, as well as the sacred objects within the temple’s nave, the idol and the yoni and lingam. Then the villagers line up, proffering rupees at the Theyyam to receive their own blessings or admonishments. It’s somewhat anticlimactic after the intense spectacle we’ve just witnessed, but a critical part of the ritual. There’s an important social function to this, an inversion of the usual caste hierarchy, as the Theyyam performers hail from the Shudras, the lowest caste. These are hereditary positions, handed down from father to son, and have been so for hundreds of years. The Theyyams are universally men; our guide through the proceedings, Nayalam, informs us that there is only one Theyyam that involves women performers.

As the Theyyam disburses his blessings I watch as the temple priests decapitate another chicken with a machete to appease the angry god. The machete is blunt and it takes several hacks to cleave the neck. Real ritual is hard and bloody work but it cannot omit sacrifice.

***

In two days we attended seven Theyyam performances. Not all of them were as dramatic as Kandanar Kelan, but there were commonalities in each, including the types of trance entrainment technologies at play. These included:

  • fire and flame
  • polyrhythmic drumming
  • physical discomfort (through distension of the arms and legs, wearing heavy and cumbersome costumes or headdresses and weights)
  • sleep deprivation
  • spinning, stamping and shaking
  • mantra and repetition
  • blood sacrifice

Most of these are designed to help the performer reach the necessary trance state to transform into an avatar. They remove the egoic personality of the performer and allow the trance to deepen or the god to enter (depending on your belief system). More than a few are also aimed at the crowd. Within the drumming I observed that there is always one drummer who is maintaining the steady rhythm of a heartbeat. This entrains the body to the rhythm and tempo of the music and from here it’s very easy to manipulate the crowd into a trance state.

The next morning after the fire Theyyam I had that washed out feeling that comes from a massive ritual, party or acid trip. The previous night’s events seemed like a surreal dream. I’d come down.

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***

Kandanar Kelan was a mythical warrior god. Wandering through the forest he got trapped in a forest fire and climbed a tree to escape. There were two snakes in the tree. The fire consumed the tree, Kelan and the two snakes. Soon after another wandering warrior god came across the burnt body of Kelan and resurrected him.

The Theyyam ritual shows Kandanar Kelan’s anger towards the fire that burned him and the two snakes.

***

Two things struck me with the Theyyams: the universality of different trance tools in ritual acts and the importance of ritual as an expression of community cohesion.

There are tried and true techniques that we can use to construct ritual and magick. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel; such tools have been used by humanity for thousands of years to attain altered states and make contact with different entities and modes or states of being. To the trained eye the devices used in the Theyyam rituals are precisely designed to alter the ordinary waking state of consciousness in performers and witnesses alike. Without this there can be no acceptance of the Theyyam as an avatar. To witness the Theyyam is not to watch some performer fall into a trance but to literally feel a god, or an aspect of a god, in my vicinity. And by feel I mean as deeply embodied as you can get. This feeling is necessary for the ritual’s success as a critical aspect of any magical act is the total conviction that the magical act is real. I can mentally deconstruct this as much as I like after the fact, but in the moment I must feel it totally and without hesitation in my heart, guts and everywhere else in between. The mind and inner critic must disappear at this juncture. If I had questioned any of the villagers as to whether they believed that a god was in their vicinity I doubt that anyone would have said no.

I also think it’s interesting to see how magical ritual is employed as a way of developing and maintaining community. Our Western communities are atomised and I think it’s no accident that there is a correlation with that atomisation and the anaemia of our social and cultural rituals. There are few, if not any, rituals in the West that engage us in trance and altered states of consciousness to create community.

I am reminded here of the sense of group resonance and cohesion that follows a gnostic mass or after several days of hard partying at a festival. If you accept the prevailing views of brain entrainment (check out Psychedelic Information Theory for a good overview of this) then groups engaged in common tasks tend to harmonise in their brain wave patterns. We all know those times when we’re in a group and it seems to function seamlessly and wordlessly. This is group resonance at work. It makes sense then that powerful ritual will act as group brain entrainment devices. Our communities require powerful trance-based rituals in order to come together and harmonise.

I should be clear that I’m not trying to romance the native here or suggest that we steal Theyyams from Keralan culture. I have no doubt that Keralan communities are plagued with the kind of social issues that plague all communities. They’re also stricken with the kind of poverty we in the West barely touch in our entire lives. What I am suggesting, however, is that we in the West need rituals that allow us to achieve mutually altered states of being, that show us the depth and reveal to us the full spectrum of conscious. Such rituals bind us together, creating a kind community Mystery School that helps build magic and social cohesion through participation in the sacred. We are a deeply disembodied culture and we need rituals that bring us back to ourselves that open us to feeling and being and which we can share in with others. Such rituals of course won’t remedy all social ills but they are an important step in uniting us through a shared experience that is outside the mundane. Given the universality of trance tools it’s not to great a leap to suggest that we employ some for our own purposes.

Imagine: instead of Great Uncle Kevin ruining every Christmas with his crass racism and drunken lechery, we could use him as a medium to bring our ancestors into the community for a visit. And instead of the usual inane banter across the neighbour’s fence or at the school gate, what if there was some consciously dedicated time to engage in some ritualised glossolalia and see what trance state we can attain and what it might reveal? Divination, group enchantment, the summoning of folk spirits… the ways are practically limitless.

There are Western analogies for these kinds of rituals. Bush doofs and festival culture comes immediately to mind, but the rituals I’m talking about don’t necessarily have to involve drugs or the messiness that bush doofs and festivals entail. Anything that invokes an altered state of conscious in participants is useful and, as I’ve noted above, there are many tools to achieve this that can be universally applied. Our Western world needs magic but we don’t need to search in other cultures to find it. Magic is as intrinsic to us as our humanity if we just open ourselves to the possibility.

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Travelling

Atu: The Magus

Lunar Intention: Union

Location: 15.6631° N, 73.7419° E (Mandrem Beach, Goa, India)

On the road again. The travelling life is a familiar and comfortable one, a flow state that I easily slip into. There’s a certain awareness and disposition that comes with this state: an embodied sense that surfaces at the start of any new journey.

Although I’ve always lived in Melbourne, and a ten-kilometre circle in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs at that, frequent travel has been a recurring theme in my adult life. I have travelled to lose myself, find myself and re-invent myself; I have travelled for love, marriage and to escape unhappy relationships; I have travelled for birthdays and I have travelled for deaths; I have travelled for family, with family and to symbolically let go of a dead family member; I have travelled on a whim and because I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my life. I have consistently travelled to avoid my adult responsibilities in life but I have also travelled to leverage growth and change, because of spiritual inspiration or just because I thought it would make a good story later. Relevant to this blog, I have travelled to re-enchant my life whenever it feels bogged down in orthodoxy, monotony and order. Travel for me is the best counter spell to the curse of Greyface.

As a means of re-enchantment, travelling drops me into a state of deep experiencing that is marked from the numbed trance of my domestic life. The greatest tool of re-enchantment is being able to adopt the role of flâneur and cultivating the state of meditative contemplation that comes with a flâneur’s lifestyle.

Travelling re-enchants because it sharpens one’s psychic and somatic awareness. I am conscious of my being moving through new and unfamiliar environments; I carry an awareness of how my clothes hang on me, how new climates affect me and a material sense of the contents of my pockets and bags. I notice more the effects of food and my interactions with strangers. My sense of personal safety and responsibility is piqued; my curiosity about everything that goes on around me, insatiable. Travel tests my resilience and resourcefulness through a range of material and emotional discomforts. This method of re-enchanting allows me a greater sense of the limits of my personal boundaries, limits I am often not challenged to explore to any depth in the humdrum of life back home. Crucially, travel gets my creative juices flowing. The link between walking and creativity has been well documented and I find that the flâneur lifestyle agrees with this. I can happily walk for miles a day when travelling and my journal entries become essay length on all manner of topics.

Travel is my life for the next 18 months. I can barely comprehend this length of time and who I will be by the end. It has been 5 years in the making, as it took me some time before I could leave. I had to overcome a number of (material and psychological) financial obstacles, I ended one relationship and started a new one and I went on several shorter journeys in the intervening time. As the trip’s gestation period has been so long, the original motivation for this trip doesn’t exist anymore. When I first started planning this trip I wanted, in part, an avenue to avoid having to settle down but also a means to try and massively re-enchant my life through extended wandering. The nuclear option of re-enchantment through travel! Generally after a big trip I can maintain that heightened state of aliveness for anywhere up to 3 months. My hope was that by going nuclear I could make it more or less permanent or acquire the tools and resources to help me do so. The thing is my need to escape and re-enchant my life is not as strong now as it was 5 years ago. It has been an ongoing and well-integrated process for several years. Re-enchantment is not something I find somewhere else, but a continual conversation in the here and now. Furthermore, the travelling life is nice, but I’m at an age in my life where I coo over babies and daydream about what it would be like to own a house in the bush and know my grandchildren. I have transitioned to a more mature phase of life that doesn’t crave or revolve around constant escape and adventure.

So I am on the road again and in the curious position of having lost the original motivation to go on the road in the first place. I’m also well past the point where I have any interest in following well-worn tourist trails and tick-a-box travelling, if I ever really did (I wrote about this exact thing many years ago in my essay Khosanitis). I leave behind an amazing life in Melbourne and have little need for the nuclear option; the integration of my personal and magickal lives has taken many years but these days they are synonymous. Adding to all this is the deeply felt sense that when I return my life will be radically different. I will be living in the country, babies will be a thing and so will a new career that doesn’t involve a 9-5 grind. Effectively, this trip marks a distinct separation between two phases of my life. I think we all experience these moments. Most change occurs incrementally but sometimes events and circumstance dramatically pull down the curtains, leaving us in no doubt that one act has ended and another is about to begin. This is my current reality. I am enjoying something of an intermission between acts, but an intermission that’s still a feature of the whole play and one which will determine what happens in the next act. I feel that this intermission and the absence of a need to travel for any other reason than for itself gives me immense freedom to create something new and lasting from this journey.

I like this freedom. It’s not the freedom of running away to solve a problem or the freedom of desperately trying to re-enchant a life that has gone stale. Which is freedom ‘from’. Now I have freedom ‘to’: the freedom to be, to create and to dive as fucking deep as I can. Antero Alli says that to fly we need to have both feet on the ground. With my feet firmly planted I can obtain great heights but also greater depths. Apart from a vague arrow on a map, I have no real idea of where I’m going, but I do know that with every step the ground beneath my feet becomes illuminated. The world is a massive place but at least I can see where I stand.

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Ten points for an eight-pointed game

Atu: The Fool

Lunar Intention: Decompression

Location: 8.74° N, 76.72° E (Varkala, India)

  1. The fundamental rule is that there are no rules, rules serving to constrict the creative expansion and flow necessary for play. Everything else is a guide towards creative expression.
  2. To truly meet a place, feet must kiss soil as one would kiss a lover
  3. Not all those who wander are lost but it’s more fun if they are
  4. Experience always demands some form of opening in response
  5. Discomfort is a necessary comfort
  6. Propitiate the local gods and divine the spirit of a location
  7. Breath and skin are the only avenues home, but you won’t arrive unless you travel both at the same time
  8. Dream pieces can be brought back to create puzzles
  9. The sacred exists in everything but especially within the profane
  10. Interpret all phenomenon as if they were the manifestation of the divine (according to one’s own interpretation of it) into one’s life

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