With the liminal time of Hallowe'en almost upon us, a time when the veil between the realms of the living and the ancestral dead is at its thinnest, I've been pondering the ways between the worlds. Since early childhood I've been fascinated by shifts in consciousness, including that surreal space between waking and sleeping that psychologists call the hypnogogic state. In this state strange things can happen. You may find yourself able to see through closed eyelids and note that the world you are seeing is not quite the one you see when you open your eyes. You may hear voices or see people or other animals that seem fleetingly very real even though the still waking part of your mind knows that they are not there at all. Or are they?
This childhood fascination was an important factor in guiding me towards the visionary form of Druidry that has been my path for the last forty years. One of the primary attributes of this style of Druidry is the ability to shift between worlds or states of awareness. One of the primary ways of doing this is through music, often that of the drum, though it may be argued that the bardic harp is the more traditional native instrument to initiate shifts in consciousness, while I've found that an acoustic guitar works just as well.
The other night I was very tired, but had said I would drum in the roundhouse with my friend, Elaine, and I like to be true to my word if at all possible. So, wellies on, we plodded through the mud 'neath the full moon's light. It had been weeks since anyone restocked the wood supply in the roundhouse with other than a few bits of kindling, so the fire we lit was very smoky. We threw both doors open wide to the night and smoke rolled out in great clouds. It took about half an hour to encourage the fire to produce more flame than smoke, by which time I was even more tired. As a gentle opener then, I played my flute. When we finally brought out our drums, I began with the gentle heartbeat I usually start with these days, but it quickly morphed into a much stronger, much faster beat that was needed to try and wake myself up. It kind of worked, but was hardly cooking.
I tried initiating another rhythm, one that might encourage me to sing with the drum. The idea is that you listen to the overtones the drum produces, find words or sounds within them and then try to reproduce them or harmonise with them with your voice. I tried but it wasn't really working. I was almost ready to give up, only I had promised to send healing vibes across the ocean to friends in the Pacific Northwest, so I felt I had to make one last effort.
There's something about being pushed to one's limit that aids the process of transition. Sweat lodges work on this principle. Pushing through tiredness can sometimes have the same result. About a minute into that last drum session, I felt something give, almost as though a door opened in my head through which I began to see another world beyond the physical. I recognised when it happened because I began to smile broadly. I sang into the drum, the taut skin bouncing the sound back to me, resonating with the overtones produced by the beater. Now I could send out those good vibes across the great Atlantic, my lightness of being lending them wings.
I began to howl, weaving the rise and fall of my howling with the voice of the drum. It was working and it was beautiful. The contrast with the earlier listless efforts was amazing. Finally, the howls died away, replaced by wind sounds that I blew across the surface of the drum as the beats on it grew softer and softer, fading into silence.
As drum and voice fell silent, sounds from the night outside came through the open doors to fill the silence. They sounded remarkably like the last few moments of singing and drumming.
I looked towards the doors. The roundhouse on either side of them was illuminated by the fire and candles. I looked with other eyes and it seemed to exist in another realm. Part of me knew the physical reality of dirt under my fingernails, the cuts and bruises from having built this structure of timber, mud and straw. Now, however, this place I had designed and knew so well seemed no more real than a dream, and less real than many of those. I sat back in my mind and saw my surroundings as though watching a film or looking at a painting. It was not a solid world any more but an imaginary one, a realm of insubstantial ghosts and shadows.
Suddenly the fire collapsed and sparky pieces of glowing red wood spilled beyond its circle of enclosing stones to roll across the earthen floor. Reality was trying to reassert itself and snap me back. It didn't work. I just smiled all the more at the trick it was trying to play on me. A spirit walked in through the doors. I checked that our protection was still in place. It was. Nothing to worry about.
Realising there was no more we could do and no more to be done, we packed away our drums, bedded down the fire, extinguished the candles, closed the doors and made our way back through the woods, the full moon illuminating our path. It was beautiful.
Thinking about it back at the house, I realised the importance of that signifier that let me know I had reached the crossing point: smiling. There was a genuine and spontaneous joy at having reached that point, at being once again reminded that the concrete jungles we have built for ourselves, even the roundhouses we have built, are not the only reality we inhabit. There are potentially endless Otherworlds beyond, worlds of magic and wonder where we may converse with other animals, with tree people, the ancestral dead, the Faery Folk, the old gods of our lands, or mythical creatures such as dragons and unicorns. On entering these worlds, we find that they have a reality that goes far beyond that of what we think of as solid matter. Of course, matter is nowhere near solid, the spaces between atoms being vastly bigger than the atoms themselves, comparable to the distances between planets or galaxies. No wonder Eastern religions refer to the material world as Maya, 'Illusion.' It may indeed be more permeable than dreams.
The world of matter is a world full of worries, concerns, fears, while accessing Otherworlds releases a spontaneous burst of joy. Entering them, we are freed from the weight of the material world, while in them we may soar on eagle wings or lope through forests on padded paws, seeing through other eyes. They are our true home.
Some may see these words as further evidence that we modern Pagans are engaged in mere escapism resulting from our unwillingness or inability to engage with the 'real' world. I would argue that, far from escaping reality, we are actually learning to access realities that are deeper, broader, more filled with possibility and more 'real' than the familiar, made in China, plastic, CGI world of car adverts, media overload, political posturing and quantitative easing. Give me the Faery Realms any day.
Blessings of Summer's end,
The one at the top is a mixed media piece I made about 40 years ago, the photos of me blowing the fire and drumming in the roundhouse are by Elaine Gregory and the wolf image is one I found online.