Necromancy and the Queens of Death

Red Death is for the living. Green Death is for the already gone. White Death is for us all.

Death is a heady subject among pagans. It’s large. It’s divisive. It’s inevitable.
As a necromancer, how do I approach death, my own mortality and that of my loved ones?

This is my framework for conceptualizing death.These aren’t gods or regents but anthropomorphic personifications of natural phenomena. A symbolic representation, but powerful forces nonetheless. 

RWS_Tarot_13_Death

Death as depicted in the Rider-Waite tarot.

The Three Monarchs of Death:

The Red Queen of Death is for the living.
She’s sexy, provocative, reckless and impatient. She tastes like the blood in your mouth from a kick in the teeth.
If you get too close to her she’ll burn your fingertips. The wounds will either cauterize and make you numb, or hurt worse than anything you’ve ever felt. They always scar, but sometimes the scars fade with time-time you have because you’re still alive. She’s a gushing, ragged wound; roses and rotting meat. You can hear her laughing when a speeding car misses you by an inch. She claws into your chest and squeezes your heart when you watch a loved one slip away in their sleep. She’s pain and violence, fear and finality.

The Red Queen is always with me. Sometimes she steps behind me and out of my field of immediate focus, but she is always there-trauma, mental illness and chronic ill health see to that.
My relationship with her is intimate and deeply personal; my perpetual dance partner in a tango.

The Green Queen of Death is for the already dead.
She’s motherly, patient and persistent. She tastes like forest mushrooms. She’s the roots of a tree cracking open a skull with slow but inexorable force. She’s a bountiful feast for smaller animals, insects and organisms. She’s silence carrying an ellipses into a promise…of something more. She’s the softness of rotting wood and the hardness of fossilized bone. She’s the serene marble statue of a saint in the vaulted halls of the church of nature.
The Green Death is where I do most of my necromancy work.

I love all of my specimens. However, I knew none of the numerous preserved animals in my collection before they died.
To love them as they were once alive would be to grieve for them in passing. Sadness is too sticky; I can’t flush it out effectively and it lingers. I’ve opted out of preserving anything I’ve had the misfortune of needing to help ease from this world. If I knew them in life, I couldn’t sever their connection to the Red Queen. If possible, I bury them, so they may rest and heal.

It is better for me to love my specimens as I first met them; already dead, belonging to the Queen of the Green Death. In my necromancy practices, I do my best to serve their modest demands. They require a pauper’s supper.
The Red Queen on the other hand, is ravenous for blood. Like fire, she’ll consume everything you let her.

“…Man’s heart is a ditch full of blood. The loved ones who have died throw themselves down on the bank of this ditch to drink the blood and so come to life again; the dearer they are to you, the more of your blood they drink.”

―Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis

What to do then, when a beloved, close family member dies? In most instances in my life, it has not been my decision to make.
When it is, due to their connection with the Red Death, my regular preservation techniques would be too personally traumatizing.

Skulls are spiritually weighty objects which require no context. The spirits which inhabit dead remains have also been irrevocably transformed from their living selves.
Cremains themselves are only as meaningful as that which is ascribed to them by the living; given to a stranger, ashes may as well be a box of dirt.
For this reason, I had my cat-grandmother and cat-son cremated. This process creates a symbolic abstraction of their whole physical bodies without the removal of soft tissue usually associated with preservation.
This way I can continue to carry them with me in my life and in my heart-at least until my own death-as I remember them, as they were. The two boxes of ashes sit upon the mantel at the heart of our home. Their spirits are part of the household itself; friendly shadows slinking around corners just out of sight.

 

simba

It was much harder to take selfies 15 years ago

 

There is also a third monarch, The White Death, the Grim Reaper. This psychopomp has a single appointment to keep with every living thing and serves as a reminder not to take it all too seriously; because it’ll all be over soon enough.

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Kuda Lumping; intense trance, dance, ritual and spirit possession

This is a review/chronicle of my experiences at Kuda Lumping at Supersense Festival, feat. Padepokan Gunung Ukir.

Note on the date:

This post relates to something that happened last year, but due to a catastrophic tech failure I lost all the accompanying photos; it’s been kicking around in my drafts ever since.

Kuda-Lumping

Photograph by Tim Mummery

On the 7th August 2015 I attended the Arts Centre’s Supersense, which promised to be a ‘festival of the ecstatic’. Being a creature of liminal spaces, this tagline instantly caught my attention; I was not disappointed.
Upon arrival, the audience were ushered into the Arts Centre through mysteriously lit service corridors; pathways were created by a bath of coloured light; violet, teal and ochre-leading to the different colour-coded performance areas. Just by entering the building via these ordinarily off-limits routes, the audience was already traversing a boundary away from mundane reality.

Taking the teal path, I wandered onto the main stage of the State Theatre; a rare treat to look out over the theatre’s seating from the perspective of the stage itself, and a metaphor for Kuda Lumping’s difference from the usual Western notion of a strict audience/performer divide.
Situated at one side of the stage, across from a rope circle loosely partitioning the audience from the performers, was a stage platform covered in various musical instruments and offerings, including many bananas and coconuts. When I entered, a number of musicians were seated there, performing traditional Javanese music, surrounded by the intricate and lavish wooden platform which included a scaffold decorated in gold dragons holding up huge hide drums.
After a time, the man who appeared to be the master of the ceremony, who I assumed was the Dukan, the mystic Pak Ki Iswand, came forward to the centre of the circle to light incense and invoke the spirits. Unfortunately English is my sole language, and I’m unfamiliar with Javanese culture, so my interpretation of what was happening before me is heavily influenced by my own experiences with ecstatic ritual.
With a fantastic sense of showmanship, he began reciting prayers, negotiating with the spirit world and inviting magic into the space.

Large white stage curtains lit with the festival’s s signature creative use of coloured lighting descended downwards to just above head height, creating a border around us, and with them I could feel the energy in the space being raised-I’m normally not very energy sensitive, but this was hard to ignore. The magical ceremonies I’ve participated in generally don’t invite spectators, nor allow people to come and go freely; here however, people were casually milling about, coming and going already.

It was at this point I regretfully had to leave to go see Tao Dance Theater’s ‘5’, since several of the performances during the evening overlapped. The dancers had gracefully slid their bodies across one another to a contemporary ambient soundscape, appearing as one fluid, ever-shifting organism reminiscent to my mind of a sea anemone.

When I returned, the Kuda Lumping ceremony had increased dramatically in intensity. I found a comfortable spot on the floor near the edge of the rope circle and settled in to watch the rest. The musicians had increased the tempo, and the performance area was alive with a substantial number of people; both performers and those tasked with seeing to their welfare. Dancers were riding colourfully decorated woven bamboo horses with spectacular choreography, swirling around, seeming to reenact an important battle.

As the energy was raised by the music, dance and supervision from Pak Ki Iswand, the performers became more receptive to trance states. Once the ceremony had reached a fever pitch, it became easy to spot when and which of the performers had become possessed. The ritual lost it’s repetitive, twirling, rhythmic choreography as more and more succumbed.

When a spirit entered an individual (they appeared to my mind to be ancestral beings) the change was palpable. A fit young man, possessed by a child-like spirit fussed and demanded comfort, a demure young woman was possessed by a forceful warrior, her dancing movements whip-sharp and graceful. Another playfully offered to share bananas with audience members sitting by the rope border, insistent that they at least have a taste, using gesture to cross the language barrier. Another relished in impressing by chewing up and walking over an assortment of glass, seemingly immune to damage and fear.
Possessed individuals wandered about performing great feats of gymnastic athleticism, ate whole raw chilies, swallowed razor blades, chewed up glass fluorescent tube lights and ripped apart coconuts with their bare hands. All with an awe-inspiring ferocity and intensity, overseen by the mystic and his helpers, periodically cracking whips.

The performers were dressed in colourful traditional clothing, and sometimes large masks; the colour and motion and scent of incense alongside the music and skin-tingling energy created a powerful environment for all the senses.

When a spirit departed from it’s host, their body collapsed in exhaustion and they were quickly picked up and carried away out of sight, presumably to receive aftercare; they seemed to have been full black-out possessions and I doubt they remembered what had occurred.

Some of the musicians, who had been playing up to that moment, went limp with a loud crash and almost fell off the stage as spirits unexpectedly took hold of them; needing a moment to adjust to piloting their host bodies, stumbling an awkward for a short period.
At one point an audience member, an elderly Indonesian man suddenly joined the ceremony as a spirit leapt into him too.

It was spectacular, awe-inspiring and made me extraordinarily happy to see this ecstatic cultural tradition so very alive, contemporary and relevant.

The ceremony charged on in full force until there were few performers or helpers left, at which point it wound down fairly rapidly.

After it had closed, we were invited to stay and share a meal; my favourite method of grounding. An impressive, generous spread of traditional satays, curries, roasted chicken pieces, rice, salad and quite a few things I didn’t recognize were laid out on a mat of the woven horses on the floor.

I grabbed a plate of food and settled down out of the way on a lounge in the lobby, where I chatted briefly with an Indonesian woman about the experience. She asked if I found what I had seen confronting; I relayed that I simply felt extremely privileged to have seen what I did; not mentioning that as a pagan of many years the concept of possession was not especially shocking to me.

She related to me how this was the first time she had ever seen the ceremony performed from start to finish; back home she had watched it many times, but people usually wandered back and forth as the ritual is very long; taking place in a village setting amid people going about their daily business.

This made me feel better about having missed an hour or so to go see various other performances taking place simultaneously, as this was surely a once in a lifetime opportunity I’m not likely to have again.

I’m mildly allergic to ginger and I’m reasonably certain the food I ate was full of it. That evening and the following day I felt none of the usual adverse effects; if these powerful Indonesian spirits can shield their charges from harm when eating glass, I’m sure they can and did protect me from getting stomach cramps by sharing a meal with them.

On trusting yourself-featuring Fox and Coyote

I’m very prone to self-doubt; a self doubt beyond a healthy skepticism and desire to keep ego in check, at that.

To me, Fox is illusive, the secret keeper, the shadow trickster, hunter and prey. I have never once gotten a clear, good look at a living wild fox.

As a teen living on the Mornington Peninsula, a gang of them would slink across our front lawn, activating the motion-sensor porch light. My mother often saw them, but no matter how fast I rushed to the window, I never did.

I’ve skinned and tanned foxes killed by hunters, and seen unfortunate souls crumpled up on roadsides aplenty. Sometimes I’ve witnessed a blurry, fleeting glimpse of one out of the corner of my eye, so swift that I began to doubt it was real immediately after.

Early in my practice, I worked with Fox energy extensively. I found a very old antique fox tail, inhabited by a lively skin-spirit that loved to dance. I’d wear it on my belt for special occasions and public rituals.

A few years later a companion of mine gifted me with the face skin of a coyote. It was badly crumpled up and it’s skin-spirit grumpy (years later, reshaping it improved his disposition significantly). Knowing Coyote’s reputation I was somewhat aghast. I wasn’t ready for that kind of responsibility. I packed it away and largely forgot about it-it wasn’t the right time.

I went on a hiatus from spirit-work.

Later on, I acquired three much more personable Coyote skin-spirits. A skull, who sits on my altar, a tail, and another face skin. I have no doubt they chose me.

I began to wear at least one of my two tails as part of my regular attire. For a short time I wore both-on opposite sides of my body-as Fox and Coyote have an antagonistic relationship, with Coyote nipping at Fox’s heels.

The fox skin-spirit expressed a desire to retire from being worn; I’d had it for over a decade, and it must be older than that by several more. This was the moment that Fox energy slipped off the main stage of my life.

Enter, in force, the coyotes.

They have much to teach me, and I appreciate the company as they trot along by my side. Coyotes are generally warm, playful and chatty. A different kind of trickster; the bold, brash type that will encourage you to build a tower, only to push you off it so you learn humility.

Now, thinking about the past, that ever-present sense of doubt began to creep in.

I began to wonder if the connection I had with Fox was genuine. Did I simply want to work with foxes because I thought they were glamorous, alluring? Did I never see one because I had chosen them, and not the other way around? In my practice, cooperation is vital-the strongest bonds are the ones we don’t choose/initiate.

In a dream, ever the realm of mysteries, a handsome red fox appeared, very deliberately letting me get a good look at it before disappearing back into the scrub, going about its fox business. A sign that our connection was real, that I shouldn’t doubt it’s validity.

Fox taught me to keep chasing the intangible, to trust my intuition. To keep reaching for that goal, the one it’s too dark to see and just out of reach, but to keep stretching until I can brush it with my fingertips.

I best not forget it.