Journeys to the otherworld are rare mythic events, out of time and place, or are they? Gilgamesh’s journey to the land of the dead or Jonah in the belly of the leviathan describe once in a lifetime experiences that change the hero’s life forever. But what happens when a person attempts such journeys as a regular spiritual practice? That is the goal of shamanic journeying, an art I have been attempting to learn for the past nine years.
Now, journeys that have that profound soul-shaking import do not happen all the time. Often the journeyer is simply learning new skills, such as how to navigate the otherworld, becoming familiar with power animals, or simply having an intensely powerful vison of the natural world. But those truely profound moments do occur, and not just once in a lifetime, but frequently. I think to be sucessful with shamanic journeying as a spiritual practice it helps to be open to having one’s viewpoint radically challenged every so often. Just when I think I have the otherworld mapped out and I believe I know what to expect, something happens that shows me what a novice I really am. My experience is that there is not a single initiatory experience but a constant re-initiation.
In many traditions there are multiple worlds that can be visited in a trance state. Core shamanism teaches us about three worlds. One is the middle world, or the world that we see daily. Viewed in the trance state one can see it in enhanced detail. New perspectives can also be gained by seeing this world while reduced to the size of a beetle or looking down while riding inside the body of a bird. In a sense, the journeyer can see this world as many worlds through these varied perspectives. The first world that a new journeyer may travel to is the lower world. A natural world found in the trance by traveling down a tunnel. This is where most people meet their power animals and begin to learn to move around in the geography of the otherworld. There is also an upper world. Getting there is often another initiation experience as the journeyer discovers that there is more than sky and clouds above. I had an odd experience because I had already been to the upperworld without realizing it. In some journeys I kept trying to fly up to the upper world without success, but once it was revealed to me I saw a landscape that I already knew from another journey — one where I had just suddenly found myself in a different landscape. My problem was learning how to get there.
This complex geography of upper, middle, and lower worlds is complicated even further as one learns that there are levels above the upper world and below the lower world. In one journey it was explained to me with a different metaphor: I found myself in what looked like the basement of a natural history museum. There were rows and rows of old fashioned oak specimen drawers stacked from floor to ceiling. As I opened one drawer and then another I saw living ecosystems with tiny birds and animals moving about in different landscapes. An eastern woodland in this drawer, a sandstone desert in this one, and an alpine meadow in another. Endless worlds upon worlds to explore.
The animals and people one meets in journey vary from person to person. Some people interact with power animals exclusively, and often these are wild animals from the landscape he or she is most familiar with. But creatures from other continents may show up for some people, and dragons or other fantastical creatures may appear as well. I have people as well as animals as companions in my journeys and once found myself in the midst of a gathering of clans with lots of people to interact with. Usually, though, there are only one or two people, who I think of as shamans, in any individual journey. Some of the shamans have the ability to turn into animals when they want to, while others I have only seen as people.
What happens when the mythic journey to the otherworld is something that one can do at will is the development of a rich living geography of the otherworld and an enriched perspective on this, the middle world. The otherworld is no longer a remote place of mythology, but a place that helps us to realize the mythos of this world where we are living now.
This post is in response to the Mythology Synchroblog 4 posted by mahud
other participants include:
Faith and the Hero’s Journey (Hawk’s Cry: The voice of a witch)
Journeying to Otherworlds: Access Denied (Between Old and New Moons)
Lions at the Door (Quaker Pagan Reflections)
More Than These Words (Aquila ka Hecate)
Journeying to Otherworlds (The Dance of the Elements)
Mythology Synchroblog 4: Children’s Story for Mabo (Pagan Dad)
Underground Ruminations (Gorgon Resurfaces)
Synchroblog: Journeys to the Otherworld (Bubo’s Blog)
Otherworlds Synchroblog: Olympus (Paleothea: the Ancient Goddess)
Symbolic Saiho-ji and Otherworld Journeying (Symbolic Meanings)
Becoming pagan in America - an otherworld journey (Executive Pagan)