I journeyed to my sacred forests and cliffs for the weekend to celebrate a festival for Ariadne as Lady of the Labyrinth. Within and surrounding the festival, I also intended to experiment with some potential trance postures and dances whose depictions I’d been studying in the Minoan epiphany scenes. Here I must again credit Bruce Rimell, whose essay and collection of images turned me onto this idea. Unfortunately, I still haven’t been able to track down the article he references about the visionary potential of these particular postures, but I’m familiar with the concept within the work of Felicitas Goodman, a different anthropologist (although Goodman never experimented with Minoan postures that I know of). On the bright side, I didn’t have too many preconceived notions.
Although it wasn’t the first site I was shooting for, I ended up in the exact same place where my husband and I had privately exchanged vows nearly 3 years ago, and where last year in the worst throes of my grief I experienced one of the most profound omens of my life. The funny thing is that all three times I’ve gotten here it has been sort-of-by-accident, one way or another, which probably says something about the otherness of it. If this place was a target, I’ve had to shoot sideways to hit it! And I was grateful I did, especially by the end of this trip, when I could feel all my accumulated experiences there like so many personal ley-lines, creating a particular affinity with the place and spirits. It’s hard to put into words, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt a place-relationship so profoundly. Just thinking about it makes me want to get up and drive back and leave more offerings. When I was resting there it came to mind what I knew, had already known, but was interesting to think about while I was THERE — that if I have my way, this is where my ashes will end up when I die. It was a peaceful thought.
The first night I just focused on setting up camp (in the dark, as usual–the pictures were taken later in the trip) and making myself a rustic dinner on the campfire. Some food and wine offered up to the fire with thanks to the gods and spirits. Some past visitor had even hung prayer flags high above the fire pit.
The following morning had me feeling a little lonely, emotional and restless. I’ll elaborate briefly since it’s relevant for what occurred in the ritual later. I felt a temptation to distract myself with something innocuous, and underlying that, I sensed a bubbling up of something terrifying. I had to sit with it and journal to get to something even close to describing it… a fear of meaninglessness, and a subsequent despair. This fear is multifaceted–affecting the past and future (could all I’ve been through be for nothing? does what comes next in life matter?), and especially to the present, where I no longer have my soul-mate here to give me purpose and reality. That last bit might sound strange, but the loss of the comforting validation offered by such deep companionship sometimes makes me feel like I’m dissolving, or that my actions don’t echo, whether they are menial or ambitious. Fears are not logical. I didn’t sit with this for too long — I named the fear and then left it for later, because anything else at the moment would have turned into some serious wallowing.
I did some hiking, and found a ton of wild black raspberry bushes. They seem to adore fallen trees, sloped ground, and plenty of sun. Once, my husband and I had discovered some maybe a couple miles away from this spot, with the whimsical delight of explorers discovering something entirely novel and new, and we named them “rimberries” and made a pie out of them when we got home. Every other subsequent time we’d gone camping in the area we had been either too early or too late for them, so this was a neat find, even considering that over 80% of them were not ripe. So it was, with my husband and ancestors especially in mind, that I spent a good couple hours getting up close and personal with the very thorny, berry-laden whips. Luckily, I had gloves, though the thorns would still sometimes bite through the leather and constantly snagged my clothes. I’m nothing if not stubborn. (I did make a pie with these berries after going back home, and even made my first homemade pie crust to do them justice. I never considered that making something from scratch actually meant the scratches you get from wild-harvesting the ingredients! Hardest I’ve ever worked for a pie, ever.)
Along with the rimberry bushes, there were mullein plants everywhere, and even a sprig or two of blossoming yarrow poking out unobtrusively here and there. There were multiple varieties of pine, of course, and some oak as well. There was a small prickly weed with purple blossoms that caught my attention, maybe because it had a fuzzy bumblebee on it. I had no idea what it was, but felt compelled to take a picture to see if I could find out later.
I tried a couple of the postures during the day — the first one in the afternoon and second one at sunset. The first one, described as a “Tense Salute”, involved standing straight with the chest pushed out to create a forward arch to the back, the right hand in a fist or circle with the thumb/index finger side of the fist held up to the forehead, and right elbow pointed out to the right. The left arm is held down stiffly straight down with the hand next to the thigh, held so the palm curls upward as if holding a ball. The feet stand just a few inches apart, and the head is straight forward. (Usual method employed with trance postures — grounding and meditation, then invitation & offerings to the spirits, followed by the posture itself for 15 minutes while listening to a recording of drumming or rattling.) There were some vague impressions to this one, but all in all I feel like I’m missing some context for it, yet I feel pretty certain it’s not a divinatory posture. More experimentation needed. More strenuous than expected.
The second one was the baetyl posture. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if this one could be considered a trance posture, because there is some movement implied and the inclusion of the stone makes it quite unlike any others I have seen. But what made me try it anyway was the similarities across different epiphany images. One leg is slightly forward from the other, the person is always kneeling with one elbow or forearm anchored to the top of the stone, and usually the toes are down on the ground while the heels are pointed up. Most images show the the person turned to something behind them with the other arm not grounded on the baetyl held out in a “beholding” or beckoning manner, with the palm flat and the forearm at a 45 degree angle (a significant angle in trance postures, for some reason.) There was also an image with the person still facing and holding onto the baetyl with both hands, which is where the implied movement comes in. Presumably one begins with both arms on the baetyl and the head bowed towards it, then moving to look behind and stretching out one arm. That’s how I tried it.
I moved back and forth a couple times, switching sides as well. There were less visuals than sensation (but then again I’m not particularly visual), and I will say that I think the first position of bowing at the baetyl should be the bulk of the posture until one feels moved to stretch behind. I’ll say that this one was pretty compelling, but I’m not going to go too much into it now, because I want to experiment further. I should add that I blessed the baetyl stone first, with water and floral water, which only seemed right. Obviously these stones had a religious significance we can only guess at and can’t completely duplicate (especially by picking a stone at random.) But from what I’ve read and experienced with ecstatic postures, they are like keys or bridges to the spirit world, whether that key is inherent in the body-position itself or the tapping into the cumulative experience of the ancestors who might have used them. So while the full context of the postures and their significance to the ancient cultures who used them may not be recoverable, there’s still plenty of wisdom to be gained from them.
* * *
As the stars began to come out, I began an ecstatic ritual for Ariadne.
I changed into a skirt, anointed myself with a perfume I only use for Dionysian rituals… I had drawn a 7-circuit labyrinth on a flat stone to use as an altar. I burned honey-rose kyphi… I called upon Ariadne and Dionysos… Used my rattle and my bull horn… poured out the mead and offered up honey.
The starry crown was directly overhead. It was my anchor.
I might have wished for a whole crowd of worshippers with me, with some to play music for the dance. But at least this lone worshipper had headphones.
I don’t ever want to forget that feeling as I began to dance on the edge of the world, bare-breasted under the stars, with the endless sky all around me. I raised my arms to mimic the Minoan dances, arms staggered up with palms out, as if I was mediating the heavens and earth. What is stationary and puzzling in art translated itself into movement with surprising effortlessness. And in that moment, the questions which plagued me before, the questions of meaninglessness, were not provided any grand answers — instead, the questions were simply dissolved.
I thought, “Absurdity is just truth looking for context.”
The wind and the bats flew around me. The darker the earth got the brighter the sky became, so the pine trees turned into negative space, while the whole sky exploded into a glittering kaleidoscope.
More mead. More dance. Where swinging my head around meant turning the stars on their axis. Where I somehow never tripped in spite of the darkness, in spite of the rocks and uneven ground. (“The gods will always catch me, the gods are greater than gravity.”) I remember screaming once, a strangled sound I doubt I’ve ever made before. Then howling.
Things get a bit fuzzy. I barely remember tree-pulling, that was fun. I broke from the dance a couple times then returned to it. I started a fire to have a feast. At some point I laid down on the ground so I could better see the milky way and stars in their entirety. Occasionally I came back to the altar and traced the labyrinth with my finger. I honestly don’t even remember deciding to go to bed whenever I finally did.
I do remember that the challenge I put at the beginning was one I felt I was supposed to share, as I experienced it:
Go forth, find and fix your gaze upon the Corona Borealis in the summer sky. Think on what it means that Dionysos placed it there for Ariadne. Not as a story, but as truth. And then, speak aloud these words into the starry heavens: “I am going to die.”
And then dance…
P.S. Remember that mysterious little thorny plant I mentioned? It was a bull-thistle. With a bee.