Ceremony changes us. It strips us bare & challenges us to dig deeper. It encourages us to go beyond our little fears and look at the shadows beneath. Ceremony is a blessing for those of us who use it to understand who we truly are, what we value, and how we can bring more of that essence into our everyday lives.
As this time of the year marks the Autumn Equinox – a time of balance before descent to Winter – a small group of us on the Central Coast of NSW thought it appropriate to adapt part of the myth, The Descent of Inanna, into ritual. We saw this ceremony as a way of going deeper into our identity & strengths, and seeing what ultimately lies at the core of ourselves.
As the myth follows, Inanna journeys to the Underworld, and is confronted by seven successive gates along her journey. At each gate She must “give up” a part of Her identity. As Dan Sewell Ward explains:
1st gate crown — Her connection with heaven
2nd gate small lapis beads from Her ears — her sense of magic and ability to manifest
3rd gate double strand of beads about her neck — Her rapture of illumination
4th gate golden breastplate called “Come, man, come!” — Her emotional heart
5th gate ringed hip girdle — Her ego
6th gate lapis measuring rod and line — Her will
7th gate garment of ladyship (breechcloth) — Her sex role
At the end She enters the heart of the Underworld, stripped bare. In our ritual, we were looking to imitate this stripping away, to truly discover what hidden strengths lay within us – what are we truly when our identity witch, woman, friend, and other things are gone?
See a large spiral running widdershins on the beach, the groove dug deep in the sand and then inlaid with seaweed – gifts of blessing from the ocean tide. As you travel the path, seven pairs of fire staves are set alight. A glowing fire waits at the centre of the spiral, and cushions are arranged around it, ready for you when you finish your walk. You are given 7 different coloured wool threads before you begin & a small pouch to place them in.
Once we’re assembled at the start of the spiral, a large Circle is cast, the Elements asked to bear witness, and the Land & Ancestors welcomed. We then invite Inanna & Dammuzi – the Summerian gods who have travelled down to the Underworld – to guide us us during this ritual, blessing our ceremony & our individual journeys.
Then a priestess uses phrases translated from the actual Summerian myth to welcome us to the Ceremony: “From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below.” She goes on to weave the story of Inanna & her descent to the Underworld. After the magick of the Circle creation, this storytelling is hypnotic and powerful. As she finishes, a second priest steps forward with an oil blend made specifically for this ritual, and anoints each participant as they then enter the spiral, wool threads in hand, ready to confront the first gate.
As I begin to walk the spiral, the dark night sky above me & strong winds blowing around me, it becomes apparent that the re-telling of the myth has worked as a kind of trance. As I approach the first gate, the woolen threads wrapped around my fingers, I can feel my spirit allies – Bear & Stag – strong beside me. In the dark, I know not which thread I have pulled first, but I hold it up to the gate & consider – what part of me is most prominent?
Intellectually, I immediately consider my identity as priestess – as witch, druid & ritual facilitator. But the words that spill gently from my lips are about my uniqueness, my need to be different to others, to dress strangely & follow a spiritual path: my being alternative. Stunned, I now offer the thread to the gate and grieve the loss of such a thing in my life – I see me as normal, mundane even, following the crowd & performing expected roles in our society. The hollow that opens up inside me at such a loss is unexpected, and I see that this uniqueness I have cultivated for so long is a true thing. I take a deep breath, let it go as I tuck the wool into my pouch, and step through the gate.
As I continue on the spiral, I contemplate that first loss & how stripped bare I already feel. I consider – how much more will be left of me if I do this another six times?! Another deep breath to calm me, and I step toward forward, trusting in the process.
Second gate, and a second wool thread held up. My fierce intelligence is the next piece to go. I consider a life with no academic achievement, inquisitiveness, puzzles or deep reading. The hollow space within me deepens a little bit more as I tuck away that thread & move on. At the third gate it is my husband, and the emptiness of a life unshared with someone else who deeply understands me – the fun, joy, mutual respect & creativity. The fourth gate is my creativity, and my life becomes more bland and colourness without song, art, expression & inspiration.
By the fifth gate I am well into the process, and while there is no fear for what I am “giving up”, there is definitely an awareness of the effect. I feel like a shadow wandering in a desert – bleak and purposeless. At his fifth gate I let go of my family – our strong and stormy love, and the supportive home I grew up. I see the house empty of people and sold to another family, and I realise my life’s cornerstone – of growth, memory and initial identity – is gone.
I arrive at the sixth gate, and the words are pouring out of me – farewell my Goddess, my Elen. And I see all the times I haven’t listened or tried hard enough to connect with Her. I see a vast expanse of void around me without Her presence. I feel as though I am almost spaced-out with the loss – I am lost.
As I come to the final gate, I actually wonder what is left? I had (again intellectually) considered that I would be giving up my opportunity for a child – something I wish for fiercely. But as I walk (almost zombie-like) with that final thread clasped between my fingers, it is more than that. My Woman-ness is the final thing I offer up. It represents my love of being in tune with the Moon through my menstruation, my ability to hold life within my body, my identity as a witch in this life. And I see me as a shell of being, empty – no love, family, unique identity or ability to create life.
And as I stumble past that gate, in my mind I hear myself crying out to the world – WHAT IS LEFT?? And a soft voice answers me: hope. You awaken each day with a renewed spirit. You always look for alternatives, you always plan further ahead – you always hope that there is more to come. And as I gently lower myself to the sand in front of the fire, I hold onto that belief. I let that hope burn like a flame inside me & remind me that all the clichés – tomorrow is a new day, and, if you fall down, get up & try again – are actually true for me, and that hope is at the core of who I truly am.
We finish the ceremony by holding the pouch of threads – our identifying strengths – in our hands and energetically welcoming them back into our lives. We finish tired, but renewed and re-foundationed in our lives. As I return to my car, I know that the effects of this ritual will radiate through my experiences for the weeks to come, as the Wheel of the Year moves towards Samhain.
That is why I do ceremony – not so that I can add to my witchcraft resume – I do it because it changes me in ways I can’t replicate doing anything else. And I so want to keep growing in my life – for if I’m not growing, I’m stagnating & dying.