Perfunctory Tasks & Sacred Duties

To many Pagans, Samhain marks an important time of the year when one honors their ancestors and departed loved ones. It is said that during this time, the veil between the worlds is thin and spirits may pass between here and there: the realm of the dead and the world of the living.

Some, whether Pagan or Christian, even mark this time of the year by participating in rituals and Dumb Suppers which commence on the first of November for the Day of the Dead. As this time falls upon us, many members of the Sumerian tradition may join in the Halloween festivities, practice divination and scrying on Samhain, or even attend a Dumb Supper. Traditionally, this time of year known to the ancient Sumerians as Apin-du-a, was a period of relative rest as plowing season came to an end.

As a modern Sumerian, or Chaldean (your use of the title and term may vary), I find this time of year to be one of quiet contemplation and Halloween hijinks. I was never entirely close to my family and I only knew my grandparents as the oldest members of my family prior to their deaths. Of my distant ancestors, I know little, but I wish to know more. When I received my DNA results indicating my ancestry and places of origin, I had grand visions of my ancestors, who they were and what they did. I still think of that often, even if I don’t know who any of them were. I’d like to know them, even if only by name. As it is, I only know them as nameless and faceless, but still find it important to honor them.

Last month, on a rather unseasonably hot Sunday afternoon, several members of my local pagan community (including people I’ve never met before), gathered together to celebrate the Autumn Equinox in a ritual observance inspired by Duku, or the Festival of the Sacred Mound, the seventh month of the Nippur calendar, from which we derive a detailed account of festivals and holy days sacred to the Sumerian people. It was during Duku that Enlil’s forebears, Endukuga and Nindukuga, the lord and lady of the Sacred Mound, were honored. According to Mark Cohen’s book, The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East, “Duku, “the holy mound,” was a sacred locality. Originally and basically the term designated the plastered-over pile of harvested grain, but it was extended to underground storage generally. Enlil’s ancestors – powers for fertility in the earth – were located in Duku.” This would have been a somber time, in which one would hear ritual laments and wailing, which has been described by contemporary writers as terrifying to hear.

Our ritual began before sunset; a brief but informative introduction to the Sumerian people, the nature of the festival, and the concepts behind Sumerian mythology, religion, and spirituality was shared with those in attendance. I emphasized the meaning of the ritual and how important it is to honor and worship the gods and the Primordial Ancestors. I also shared the importance of honoring personal ancestors.

A large zisurrû, or circle of flour big enough for everyone to stand within, was made using wheat flour (since we were inviting gods into our presence). We took a few moments to center ourselves and prepare ourselves to enter into ritual with the proper mindset.

I led a brief proclamation of intent, asking for the gods to look favorably upon us as we honor them, the Primordial Ancestors, and our own forebears. I encouraged those present to repeat what was said. We then consecrated our space by speaking an incantation that was translated and shared with me by a friend who is also a Sumerian reconstructionist:

“May this place be as pure as the sky,
May this place be clean as the Earth,
May this place be radiant as the Heart of Heaven.”

Upon consecrating our space, we then proceeded to address all of the gods by way of a very broad invocation of sorts, inviting the gods of highest heaven, the sky, those upon and below the earth, and the gods of the deep:

“We call to this place of worship, the powers above:
Gods of the firmament of heaven and of the starry expanse!
Gods of cloud and life-giving rain; of rolling thunder and brilliant lightning!
We call to this place of worship, the powers of the earth and under the earth:
Gods of mountains and hills, pasture and fertile fields; of the order of civilization!
Gods of the world below; of the realm of the honored dead!
We call to this place of worship, the powers of the deep:
Gods of the primordial sea that encompasses the foundation of the earth!
Gods of rivers and streams; of placid lakes and sacred springs!
Holy powers of heaven, of the sky from horizon to horizon, of the foundation of the earth, and the primeval deep: we welcome you, we worship you, we honor you!”

It was/is traditional to address the gods of the city during Duku and to carry their idols through the city in ritual procession. Millennia ago, it would have been the chief gods of Nippur. I don’t reside in Nippur, but why should that stop me or anyone who wishes to honor the gods? I chose to honor those gods that are dear to me – the gods of my city in the American Midwest: the Seven Who Decree Fate.

A hymn that I had written and agonized over and rewritten several times again was sung. It sounded so different coming from the mouths of others – as though singing it alone in my devotional ritual time wasn’t enough:

“Mighty ones, we call to you.
Seven who decree the fates:
All creation looks to you,
All creation sings your praise.
Hearken to your supplicants,
And come dwell within our midst.
May we ever sing your praise,
May your names be on our lips.”

After singing the hymn, a formal address to the gods by name was recited by all in attendance:

“O great An, enthroned above;
O Enlil and Enki; lords of sky and sea;
Ninhursag, Nanna-Sin, Utu, Inanna:
You are highest among the host of heaven, of earth, and the deep.
You ordain destiny, you decree fate.
You bear the lives of all mankind in your hands.
Your word is life, your proclamation is well-being.
You descend to the depths below to judge the dead
You ascend to the heights above to judge the living.
You oppose evil; chaos flees before you.
You are benevolent; in your right hand is justice, in your left is mercy.
You are radiant; your light pervades all darkness.
You are magnificent; all creation rejoices in your glory.”

With a somber sense of duty, we then welcomed the Primordial Ancestors by way of chant, stamping our feet occasionally:

“Ancestors! O Ancestors!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!
Hear us, O Endukuga!
Hear us, O Nindukuga!
Dwelling ‘neath the Sacred Mound!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!
We remember you by name!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!
You are welcome in our midst!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!
Sacrifices that we bring!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!
You are honored with these gifts!
Hear us, Great Ones, Ancestors!”

Once the chant was finished, a traditional offering of milk was dedicated to the Primordial Ancestors and poured out upon the top of the mound on which we stood – the highest hill in the city.

We then took a moment to regroup before finally honoring our own ancestors, also by way of chant:

“Ancestors! O Ancestors!
Hear us, noble ancestors!
You, who passed beyond the veil!
You, who dwell beneath the earth!
You, who watch us from afar!
Hear us, noble ancestors!
We remember you by name!
Hear us, noble ancestors!
You are welcome in our midst!
Hear us, noble ancestors!
Sacrifices that we bring!
Hear us, noble ancestors!
You are honored with these gifts!
Hear us, noble Ancestors!”

Each person then poured out their own milk offering, dedicating it to an ancestor, a close family member, or even a family friend who passed on. Once the offerings were poured, we then took turns and shared what made that person so special to us. The space on the hill seemed to be much more crowded as though by mere mention of names and shared remembrances, the departed made their presence known in small ways. Some said that it seemed as though they could feel someone touching them, while others shed silent tears.

After the ritual had ended and we all went our separate ways after dinner, I returned home but had the very distinct sense that I was not alone. I felt as though I was in the company of a large crowd and had that sense of urgency that one feels when one is entertaining guests. The feeling lasted for several hours and I didn’t go to bed until almost midnight, silently acknowledging the sense that I wasn’t entirely alone.

It was and remains to be moments like that which I want to capture and relive, not because I want the rush that comes with having participated in a meaningful ritual, but because I want the impact of the ritual to last. I want to feel that connection that binds me to my neighbor; that binds me to my ancestors and to the gods.

Perhaps that is why these rituals have meaning. Perhaps that is why honoring our ancestors, visiting their graves when possible, leaving them a place at the table, speaking their names aloud is not merely a perfunctory task, but a sacred duty.

-Sam Jackson
October 30, 2017

Modern Devotion

Christians have often been said to practice a religion that is largely antiquated and has no relevancy in our post-modern world.

Many Christians maintain that their religious expression and the text from which they derive their spiritual practice is as relevant today (despite changing attitudes with regards to individual human rights, cultural shifts, moral relativism), as it was centuries ago after Christ’s burial, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven. Some assure us, by quoting scripture, that while customs, mores, cultures, and ideas may change, that the word of God stands forever.

A friend of mine who is also a polytheist and is devoted to the Greek gods and Titans (but does not consider himself a Hellenist), maintains that relevancy is important. He doesn’t have access to all the things that were once used in a ritual or devotional context. Sacrificing a black dog to Hecate now could land someone in jail. Centuries ago, it wasn’t something that her worshipers would have given a second thought to. If Hecate’s epiphany manifested in the form of a woman who interacted with humanity today, much like the gods in Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods”, what would she want? It’s an exercise in imagination but with a sense of true devotion, one could find substitutes worthy of a god.

Perhaps she likes coffee, served black with no sugar.

Perhaps after a long business trip, one would purchase high-quality coffee and prepare it in a dutiful manner.

Perhaps when the coffee had finished brewing, one would pour her libation and honor her with words of devotion and gratitude for bringing them home safely.

Some have argued that the Wheel of the Year has no relevancy anymore – especially since, and depending upon your location in the world today, the seasons do not correspond to the festivals. Imbolc may have been the beginning of spring to the pre-Christian Europeans, but here in the American Midwest, the stirrings of spring aren’t something one feels in February. The ground is still frozen and attempting to till the soil is an exercise in patience and fortitude.

An ancient calendar based on lunar phases and the seasons may no longer be relevant to many of us, but there are still things from the ancient world that remain with us today. Some of which may often be taken for granted. To the ancient Sumerians, civilization was believed to be the greatest gift of the gods. It was the gods who bestowed us with the tools we needed to divert chaos and bring order to the world around us. That is an enduring gift, and is still relevant to us today. To enjoy the gifts of the gods in the form construction, cities, canals, sidewalks, and tended gardens is something many of us can take for granted. But it doesn’t have to be so. 

During my camping excursion, during a deluge that muddied the paths throughout the campsite, I found myself musing aloud: “I am reminded why the Sumerians held civilization in high esteem. I’ve already had enough of this mud”.

Aside from being appreciative of civilization, how do we, as members of a religious and spiritual tradition that is alive due largely to reconstruction (and a little personal gnosis), maintain relevancy?

What can we do, “in the spirit of the thing”, that would honor the gods?

For some of us, it may consist of setting aside a portion of our meal. For others, it may be an elaborate devotional ritual involving things they have made or a song they have written. For others, it may be tilling soil and planting foliage in their garden with a sense of devotion. As an artist, I paint and sculpt items for my shrine and altar spaces.

I for one, am a firm believer that even if culture changes, if customs change, there are ways of keeping the spirit of those customs and religious expressions alive.

How do you, dear reader, keep these customs and religious expressions alive?

-Sam Jackson
July 12, 2017

Speaking the Names of the Gods Aloud: The Conquering Sun

I am thankful to be a part of a rather closely-knit pagan community in the town where I live. For years, this was not always the case and I found myself feeling somewhat adrift. It’s been nearly three years now since the group was formed, or perhaps the better term would be founded.

In the beginning, the group was rather small and quite informal. We met in the homes of various members of the group and engaged in lively conversations about a variety of topics. As time progressed and members of the group felt more comfortable with each other and confident in sharing our various insights and experiences in regards to our spirituality, we became more practice-oriented. It was not uncommon for one member or another to bring a chant, hymn, or even a complete ritual to the group to recite or sing or participate in. This has not only helped us understand each other more, but also informed members within the group of the various “branches” of the Pagan tree. We have since gained momentum over these few years and are slowly gaining a more prominent presence within the community.

Last month, we planned and facilitated our first public ritual dedicated to the Summer Solstice – a rather large undertaking for everyone as we’d never worked with the public. Each member of the group contributed something to supplement the ritual as a whole, whether it was cleansing the ritual space and each participant, preparing offerings for the spirits of the land, or printing materials to provide to the public.

Our extended pagan community is very diverse and is comprised of Wiccans, Heathens, eclectic neo-pagan witches, practitioners of European shamanism, hoodoo, and various other forms of alternative spiritual and religious paths. In order to not only appeal to them, but also ensure that each member of our own core group was represented by elements of their own practice, our ritual took on a rather eclectic model. The space was smudged by one member; the spirits of the land upon which we stood were addressed and honored by others; still others called the quarters. Once these had taken place, the invocation to the Sun began – but not just the Sun itself, the gods of the Sun. The Titan, Helios; the god, Ra of the Two Horizons; the god, Utu, who is also Shamash; the goddess, Sol, who is also Sunna. These names were included in a lengthy address that everyone, regardless of religious or spiritual affiliation spoke with great aplomb. To hear the names of the gods on the lips of everyone present was an amazing experience. Even those passing by us in the park stopped. Some no doubt, were perplexed at what was happening. Why were so many people gathered in one great amorphous circle?

Immediately after the names of the gods of the Sun were spoken, I stepped forward and lit a fire inside of a brass bowl that was contained within a stone fountain in the middle of our circle. I lit the candle I bore and using the flame from that candle, I lit the candle to the person on my left and to my right, Each person in turn passed the flame on to their neighbor to the left or the right.

As the fire within our circle burned, the flames each of us held began to grow higher and brighter as the candle wax melted. We addressed the Sun as the dispenser of justice and the merciful judge. We addressed the Sun as a potent, life-giving force. We addressed the Sun as one who would carry our messages to the underworld. Each person present spoke the name of a departed loved one and when the last name was spoken, as if the manifested presence of the Sun acknowledged us, the flame immediately went out. 

The individual flames of each candle continued to burn brightly. Through the trees we could see that the Sun had already begun to set as the sky turned from blue to pink to orange to red.

I’d like to think that each god we addressed, each god we acknowledged, was present.

I’d like to think that Utu, who is Shamash, was pleased to hear his name spoken aloud. I’d like to think that he was pleased to receive his offerings. I’d like to think that maybe, hopefully, he was moved to bestow his blessings.

Sam Jackson
July 07, 2017

O, Be Some Other Name!

I recently spent four days in the rain and sun at PSG, or Pagan Spirit Gathering, one of America’s oldest and largest Nature Spirituality festivals. This was my second year in attendance having attended it in 2016.

Last year, as a PSG “virgin”, I was overwhelmed with all of the experiences that were to be had by one who had never, in all their years of identifying as a pagan, attended a pagan festival. I was ecstatic and at times, unsettled, by all that I encountered. I met people from all paths, both traditional and eclectic, and from all walks of life. Sharing the same space with people like Selena Fox, who I idolized when I was younger, was amazing. I’d recommend such an experience to anyone who has never attended a festival.

I danced, I chanted, I sang, I held space for others.

I felt transformed during and after an intense men’s ritual in which all present called upon our own gods to bear witness. We entered as ordinary men, but left as heroes and warriors, each of us taking a name that was inspired by that moment, inspired by our gods, inspired by our treasured myths and legends. As the ritual leader went around the circle of what could have been one hundred men or more (I could be mistaken), each of us said our secret names aloud. When I was younger, and read one of a dozen books on the craft and Wicca, I was informed that having a secret name was vital in the course of one’s magic(k)al life. I would be one of many who chose a name for themselves, a name that was distinct. The name I chose sounded exotic, to me anyway, but it never fit me. It was like wearing a poorly fitting Halloween costume. Saying it aloud even felt silly. Referring to myself by that name? Even sillier. I wasn’t Symwyse Bryarwood.

The ritual leader moved clockwise around the inside of the circle, and as he did, those in attendance shouted their names for all to hear. I stood, panicked. My heart raced. What would I call myself in this circle of men? I could hear waves in my ears as my blood seemed to roar, my heart beating faster.

Years ago, when I was challenged by a close friend to delve deeper into my own spiritual path, I pondered the idea of having a patron god. Others seemed to share a special affinity for one or another, why shouldn’t I? Oh, but who would I choose? Who would choose me? I thought of the gods I knew, I counted their names, I spoke them in my heart. I spoke their names aloud, sometimes in ritual. Inanna Who Is Ishtar, Enki Who Is Ea, Hekate Enodia, Ra of the Two Horizons. It was Marduk whose name seemed to stay in my mind, whose name I found myself saying more times than I could count. In hindsight, I find this to be an interesting experience. I am not a warrior; a soldier for my country. I am not a peacekeeper; a member of law enforcement. I am not what one could consider a martial individual. But Marduk is more than a god of war. He is the Babylonian king of the gods, and presides over justice, mercy, and magic. He is the healer and savior of his people, and is the subject of numerous prayers, hymns, and philosophical works. Perhaps my insatiable need to fill the Christian superstructure I left behind was found in him. I’ll never fully know.

A name occurred to me, briefly, as I heard those to my right continue to shout their names. Ben Mordechai. I laughed to myself. Son (of the) Servant of Marduk. It seemed to be the perfect fit, the blending of Judeo-Christian sentiment with paganism. In swift succession, I found that the time had come for me to say my name aloud: my hero name, my warrior name. I shouted the name: BEN MARDUK! as loud as I could muster. My head was swimming, my heart was racing, and I was elated. It is this same sensation that I felt years ago when I was baptized in the Holy Spirit. I mulled the name over and over, familiarizing myself with how it felt in my mouth. How it felt to speak it aloud or whisper it to myself.

I never used the name outside of that ritual, that transformative experience. The thought occurred to me once to use it as a pseudonym in my writing. But in the end, I wouldn’t. I associate that name with that event, I carry that name with me, I think of it often, but I am still Sam. Not Ben. Not Symwyse.

Originally written June 28, 2017 by Sam Jackson

Eternal Return: Bulls on Parade

The concept of eternal return was quite unorthodox for someone who grew up believing Christian doctrine (“it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment”, the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews). The mere thought of it was enough to either instill the idea that I was sinning against God for even entertaining the notion, or lead to sleepless nights due to my overactive imagination. Having once watched an episode of Highway to Heaven, I asked my Sunday school teacher if we go to choose what we came back as – that is, if we wanted to come at all. He didn’t seem enthused and my peers laughed – especially when I said I wanted to come back as a horse.

As we all soon discover, premises and challenged beliefs are de rigueur during one’s formative years. From Jung’s theories regarding the collective unconsciousness to universal consciousness to the holographic soul, it seemed there was an abundance of ideas that could pose to be a challenge to my own beliefs. The concept of one life, one death, and one judgment could be subject to change like my clothes, hairstyle, or college major. When I eventually “left the fold” of Christianity, I found myself leaping from one religious or spiritual tradition to the next. Eventually, I found a spiritual home in the reconstruction movements dedicated to the religion and spiritual practices of the Ancient Near East, namely Sumer and Babylon. To some, I merely exchanged one angry sky-god for several angry sky-gods; to me it spoke to that child within who was always curious to know more about the oppressors of the Israelites.

I wouldn’t find that rudiments of the belief in reincarnation were as commonplace among the early Mesopotamian people as many would believe them be – a concept that many within neopagan circles would find challenging. Humans are generally believed, upon death, to descend to the Underworld, or Irkalla, where they would remain subjects of Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Dead.

Life in the Underworld was similar to the world of the living, with some exceptions. Your place in the afterlife mirrored that of your place when alive. If you were of higher social status, were afforded proper burial, and offered the appropriate offerings by your surviving family and future descendents, you could live a relatively comfortable life. Those with few surviving family members did not fare so well. It should not surprise anyone that to the higher classes, funerary rites and customs were vital. Without the regular offerings from their surviving family members and descendants, the spirits of the dead were subject to harsh conditions. Poverty in the afterlife was as real as poverty in this life. An impoverished spirit could easily grow restless and become malevolent.

As we find with all religions, there is always room for the skeptic. If the gods could challenge the natural order of things and descend into the Underworld, only to ascend again (as in the case of Ishtar), why couldn’t humans? What prevented the valiant soul of a man or woman or child from rising up out of the Underworld and beginning life anew in another form?

If I had a past life of my own, who would I have been? What was my name?  Where did I live? When was I born? Why did I return? How did I die?

I wouldn’t buy into the hype that I was some reincarnated historical figure, mystical shaman, or tribal chieftain. That seems to appeal to some, but I know I would have to be content knowing that my past-life may have been rather mundane. Perhaps I was a simple fisherman, or maybe a scribe (I do like to write after all). Perhaps I was even a gong farmer, as crappy as that may be. A self-professed medium once informed me without any prompting from myself that she could determine where my soul originated. She raised her hands to sides of my face. After a brief moment of silence, she announced with great aplomb that I was a member of an indigenous tribe in Canada before it was colonized by Europeans. I pressed her for more information but she wouldn’t elaborate further and my questions went unanswered.

Over a year ago, I participated in a past-life regression meditation. Participants were encouraged to envision themselves walking down a corridor until we reached a door that we felt comfortable opening and walking through.

In my own meditative journey, I found myself running down a long, seemingly endless corridor. As I ran, I find that the walls are suddenly gone and I am running on what seems to be a bridge made of silver suspended in space. I am surrounded by swirling galaxies and nebulae.

At the end of this bridge is something that I perceive to be a point of light, possibly even a star. I redouble my efforts and continue running towards it until I realize it is a large silver door.

I instinctively reach for where I believe the handle to be and suddenly find myself in a crowd.

Those around me are cheering, singing, and laughing; a procession could be seen ahead of us. Flower petals showered down upon us and there were garlands underfoot. It is at this point that I realize I am a small boy, standing next to his father. This man is tall and has a head of dark curly hair and an oiled beard. He wore a brilliant blue garment or robe, sandals, and a red cap of some sort. I wore something similar – something suited for a child, except my robe was light blue. He looked down at me and laughed as he picked me up and placed me upon his shoulders. It is from this vantage point that I can see nearly everything around us.

There were dancers twirling and jumping, soldiers marching, animals of all kinds led by stern handlers. Large buildings flank us on all sides of the procession route. The sky above us was blue and the air was dry. The crowd began cheering uproariously as white bulls, flanked by men with shaved heads, were paraded before the crowd. The bulls were festooned with ornate garlands and walked with a steady, lumbering gait. They seemed unaffected by the roar of the crowd as they continued on their way.

In the distance I noticed spearheads and heard shouting as people began running in all directions. We were jostled from all sides, my father and I. Women and children screamed and suddenly I found myself separated from my father. I cried out for him and kept crying as he called my name. It is at this moment that I was immediately jarred out of the meditative state. I felt as though I could vomit and I shuddered. There was a profound sense of despair as though I truly was separated from home, life, and family.

In hindsight, I am inclined to believe that the events I witnessed were perhaps conjured up from what I already knew; images embedded within my subconscious mind from the material I read and studied. As emotionally upsetting as it was, I don’t think I was the son of some wealthy Babylonian nobleman, but it’s nice to entertain the notion. It’s nice to think that I have some place in ancient history. Perhaps this spoke to my desire to have a more meaningful religious and spiritual practice. Or, perhaps I was witnessing something that did happen, but to someone else. Perhaps I experienced this moment in time through their own senses.

Last year, at Halloween (or Samhain), I participated in an elaborate ritual journey that was organized and facilitated by a group of friends. During this journey, those participating were to descend into the Underworld as Ishtar had done to meet Ereshkigal. We were then to return having gained perspective of our mortality.

There were several participants and the entire ritual journey seemed to last for several hours. A dark forest in a campground served as the Underworld and along the predetermined route, and spaced far apart, battery-operated candles were hung from branches. Navigating through the wood in the dark is not an easy feat, even with dim, flickering lights to mark the path.

I may have been with a large group, but I was still alone, those who went before and those who went after were far from me. Each of us navigated the dark silently, paying close attention to where our feet landed on the forest floor. The path often doubled back upon itself as though we were in a wooded labyrinth. The silence of the forest was punctuated by the sound of leaves and fallen branches being crushed underfoot. I encountered the first gate and its gatekeeper, and at each subsequent gate, I was stripped of what I carried with me or what I wore.

Like Ishtar, there was no entering the Underworld without customarily leaving something behind.

I finally entered through the last stretch of my journey. Past the final gate, Ereshkigal, as portrayed by one of the ritual facilitators, stood before me in a black robe and a mask.

Despite having been a flesh and blood human woman that hours ago I was laughing with, in this moment, I was terrified. I was asked challenging questions: what do you have left to give? what do you have holding you back? I could offer no poignant responses, save for exasperated sighs and nervous laughter. I was not prepared for this part of my journey.

Finally, after giving answers that made little sense at all, I left out a long, howling scream. I bellowed and roared and then stopped.

It was cathartic. My eyes had welled with tears.

It was what I needed to leave at Ereshkigal’s feet: she told me so.

I was taken from Ereshkigal’s darkened throne room by another initiator who guided me to a secluded area, far removed from the main trail. It was here that I was to wait and contemplate my death.

There’s something very visceral about being alone in the woods at night: it can be terrifying, but also liberating. From where I stood in the dark, I could see the distant lights of the camp where we were staying. The dim, flickering lights that marked the winding path through the Underworld twinkled like a trail of constellations. I saw them and thought: this is what it is like to be dead. I was alone with my thoughts; I could see all around me. If I chose to, I could interact with my environment. Or, I could leave the place I was in and return to the land of the living – I could leave this spot where I seemed to be firmly rooted and run through the underbrush back to our campsite. In that moment however, I did not want to, I began to feel quite comfortable in the dark and by now had wrapped my arms around a nearby tree. I may have fallen asleep, I’m not certain.

It was another facilitator that approached me in the dark and indicated that I was to return to the land of the living. I didn’t move at first, I didn’t want to. I felt sluggish and weary, but found my footing anyway and slowly followed behind them. I trudged through the brush and the fallen leaves towards the light of a campfire which marked the end of the journey. Those who had gone before sat near the fire: some lost in thought, others talking quietly.

The journey was quite sobering.

For anyone familiar with Christian ritual, it felt as though I had been baptized: I had symbolically descended, died, and returned. Upon my return, I felt different and I don’t know how else to describe it; it disappoints me that I lack the words to explain the feeling that came over me. Maybe those things are not meant to be verbalized and spoken aloud. Maybe they, like all mysteries, need to be kept hidden and guarded jealously.

To some, the notion of reincarnation or eternal return seems to offer the promise of setting wrongs to right from a past life; others see it as the soul’s natural progress from lower life form to spiritually enlightened being. Who knows what truly happens when we die? Perhaps we do, whether willingly or not, get caught up in some cosmic wheel of cyclical return. Perhaps we descend to the Underworld and eventually fade into non-existence. Perhaps there is nothing and only the gods are eternal. Perhaps that eternal spark and divine breath that we carry within us returns to them when we exhale for the final time and the light in our eyes fades.

I would wager that it’s more important to set wrongs right in this life; to strive for enlightenment in this life; to make something of this life.

We may die, but we remain alive in the hearts and minds of those who remember us; we remain alive when they speak our names.

Originally written March 20, 2017 by Sam Jackson