Ecstasy and Transgression
in the Faery Tradition
By Cholla and Gabriel
C: It is often said that Feri is an ecstatic tradition, as opposed to a ceremonial tradition of magic or paganism. But do we ever really consider what that means, and if this statement is actually true in our practice of Feri? This article is the first in a series exploring ecstasy as a spiritual path of the Feri Witch, and will explore many of the different paths of ecstasy that we may have come to overlook as modern witches.
What is ecstasy?
C: The American Heritage Dictionary defines ecstasy as: "A state of overwhelming delight, rapture; an extreme or intense state of any emotion." Ecstasy derives from the Greek "existanai" which means "to displace, or drive out of one's senses." That is the key to ecstasy, that it drives one out of a sense of ego or thought-centered experience, into a place where one can enter the mystery directly. The experience of ecstasy allows us to make a distinction between the essential self as opposed to the conceptual self, a self that is socially constructed. It is by displacing the conceptual self that we enter into union with our gods and our universe, without trying to figure them out intellectually. We are able to attain a sense of moving beyond ourselves and into the experience of all. This is not the easiest thing to do, especially in an individualistic culture where we value the separate person and preserve the ego at all costs. To intentionally drive oneself beyond your senses means violating some major cultural norms and mores. Yet, the drive of the human spirit calls out for knowledge of the essential self and unity with the divine.
G: Ecstasy is the result of the transpersonal, the divine, temporarily (or permanently) infusing the personal. Ecstasy is surrender. The Talking Self gives up control, structure, expectations, and its network of preference and aversion. We have in that moment our own experience stripped of analysis and fear, suffused with the power of the divine, the radiance and awareness of Ether as pure consciousness. In those moments we experience the world as it really is, not as we think it is, or think it ought to be.
Another way of explaining Ecstasy is in terms of brain waves; our normal mindset is reflected in what are normally called beta waves. An elevated mindset, marked by deep relaxation and internal quiet, such as we often reach on ritual, meditation, sex, or listening to music, is called alpha state, and is marked by a measurable shift in brain wave frequencies. In many cultures alpha state is the normal one, and beta stage is triggered only by the fight or flight response. Beta state is something that comes up in a crisis, when it is useful. In our culture beta stage is the straightjacket that keeps us plodding on like so many worker ants while we ravage both our beautiful planet and our own lives, dreams and possibilities, selling ourselves into bondage in the belly of the beast.
Faery as An Ecstatic Tradition
C: Every religious tradition has a mystical subculture that rejects dogma and embraces the ecstasy. These are usually treated as mystery traditions, as they involve secret knowledge that can only be derived by experience. This is true of witchcraft as well. In Islam, it is Sufi, the way of the heart. In Judaism, it is the path of the Kabbalah. Even in Christianity, there is a long tradition of mysticism, embodied by the idea of Gnosis, a state of ecstasy. Again, Gnostic Christians, like Sufis and Kabbalistic Jews, were seen as heretical.
In many circles of pagans and witches, a Feri witch worth their salt would also be considered heretical. Feri witches are not bound by the Wiccan Rede, and this seems ultimately irresponsible to those who are. Feri witches commune with their gods, not as archetypes, but as living beings. This is commonly done in ecstasy or possession, practices eschewed by other traditions. We are human, and in bringing the gods through in possession we commonly create our gods in our own image. But for those who are willing to do something dangerous and worthwhile, there is always the possibility of dancing with the divine, to see the gods on their own terms instead of filtered through our own psychological processes. Indeed, it is required to become a Feri witch. Ecstasy does not need to stop at initiation. Ecstasy is always available to us. It is our birthright as beings of spirit, and part of the practices of a living witch.
Feri training commonly revolves around doing visualization and guided meditation. This is a good way to get a person to develop experience in other levels of consciousness. Through encounters with the mystery under these conditions, the witch learns to alter consciousness at will. These are first hand contacts with the forces of the gods and the directions.
G: Properly speaking, they are preparations for the ecstatic experience, intended to ready one to walk into the "room" of the divine power, not an end in themselves. And yet too often, sadly, that is what they become. Really, they are training wheels on the bicycle of consciousness, and need to be left behind when it is time to ride free.
C: Students are trained and fostered in visualization and other techniques, but ecstasy is not fostered in the same way. Indeed, when students reach out for something that seems to be missing, they are commonly steered away from ecstatic states on the grounds that it is too dangerous or unnecessary. What could happen if you are driven out of your senses? Others could take advantage of you. You could get hurt. You could do something that would be embarrassing to you when you come back to your senses. And yet the Fey continue to reach out and seek the ecstatic and nothing can dissuade them. After all, Feri is an ecstatic tradition. It's going to attract those suited for such a path.
G: The truth is that too many people even in Faery are terrified of the ecstatic, and the struggle is to prevent that from dominating and coloring the tradition.
Perhaps the trick is never to come back to your senses, but to realize that the whole purpose of magic is to transcend the sensible and penetrate through the veil into the Otherworld, the world of the Other, to become the Other.
Faery, like the Left-Hand Tantra, is a tradition of transgression; Faery deliberately and consciously breaks rules as an act of self will and self realization. I refer the reader for example to the Tantric Feast of the Five Forbidden Things, in which all the rules of orthodox Hindu society are deliberately broken through acts like ritual sex, often with an Untouchable, the eating of meat and fish, etc. The goal in Left-Hand Tantra and Faery is the same: to free oneself and find your own divinity using your body and spirit, your sense, as your primary tool. The old Tantric adage goes, " We shall be made free by the same means by which we were enslaved." It is not for nothing that the Left-Hand Tantra is called the Hero's Path, as opposed to the path of the herd. It is often solitary, and always difficult, and dangerous.
The purpose of such rituals is to break out of a mold that has ceased to serve and instead become oppressive and confining, to achieve real personal freedom.
I would like to remind you of the Radical Therapy model that divides the person into the adult, child, nurturing parent...(much like the Faery 3 selves) and the pig parent. The Pig Parent is an internalization of external negativity and control, the voice that says you're not good enough, that when confronted with your true will and heart's desires says "that's wrong." It is in the nature of the Left Hand Path, the transgressive path, to confront and break those inner limits, those inner mechanisms of control. That is after all much of what the Iron Pentacle and the Black Heart of Innocence is about.
It may seem to begin as a sort of adolescent rebellion against authority, but where it leads when walked as a conscious path is to the breakdown of the internal structures that support external authoritarianism, and the claiming of one's true will, freedom and divinity.
To do that one must transcend the reactive mode so common among adolescents- "I'll do that because Mommy/daddy/teacher/the law says not to." Moving from that place you are still controlled by the authority you are rebelling against, acting in reaction to its pressure to conform. To be free you must enact that rebellion, and pass through it, so that you no longer feel the tug of social authority, external power, the pig parent, so that what you here is the voice of your true will and spirit.
Further, the ethics of Faery, if we are to speak of such a thing (I grow ever more reluctant to do so), are shifting and situational: quintessentially relativist. By that I mean that the ethical content, or appropriateness of every action, can only be measured by individual circumstances. What is right and proper between me and one person in one situation may in fact be entirely inappropriate in a slightly different situation with a different person. No absolute rule fits all situations. The only absolute is that there are no absolutes.
Ecstasy is Transgressive
C: Today, in this culture, being out of control is highly frowned upon. We are not supposed to be driven out of our senses. And indeed, when we are, it is considered a form of mental illness, if involuntary, and complete irresponsibility, if voluntary. And yet, throughout history, witches are envisioned as dancing wildly, part of the bacchanal, consorting with the devil, and all sorts of things that people in their right mind would never do.
G: As Timothy Leary wrote 33 years ago, "You lose your mind to use your head."
I guess it all depends on how you define your right mind, doesn't it? Where the Iron Pentacle and the Black Heart of Innocence takes us is our right mind and true nature, and that limitations and fears are artificially imposed from outside and need to be transcended as part of the Path. Actually, if you substitute say Crom or the Dia na glas for the Devil in the medieval and Basque sabbath description, it sounds like a wonderful ecstatic rite to me, and entirely appropriate. If anybody throws rituals like that please put me on the guest list.
There is abundant evidence for that sort of ritual orgy all through the British Isles, not associated with the witch trials. They most often occurred at Beltane or Summer Solstice, and the last such occurence documented was in the early 19th century in the Scottish village of Kerrimuir, and gave rise to the rollickingly obscene song "the Ball of Kerriemuir", one of whose more principal stanzas runs: "They were doin' it in the Kirkyard, they were doin' it on the stones, you couldnae hear the preacher for the wheezin' and the groans..".
I should like to refer everyone even to so staid a document as the Charge of the Goddess: (quoted loosely "you shall be naked in your rites in token of your freedom, and you shall dance, make music and love, all in My Name..."
That's the path I signed up for all those years ago. It is the heart of our power; it is the Black Heart of Innocence itself. All the rest is commentary.
Ecstasy Holds the Energy
C: The use of ecstatic states is not much a part of community Faery practice these days, although some may employ ecstasy in private.
Typically, group of witches will raise energy or a cone of power, then drop it into the ground or discharge it in some other way. This may work for spells, but not really for celebratory or exploratory rituals. There are other uses for power besides spellwork.
If one makes a place for ecstasy in the ritual, there is a reason to raise power without a goal or spell. It is to achieve ecstasy, contact with the divine. But this can only happen if the power is held, and not dropped or discharged. At that point, where the power seems so big it's going to blow you apart, instead of discharging, surrender to it. Let it keep going, and take you with it. Ecstasy is a journey, not a working. You are building a wave for you to ride into another place, and that requires us to hold the energy and keep surrendering when we feel like it is too much. That shaking is our resistance, our tenacious hold on the conceptual self and the false security of control.
We cannot take our social restraint with us into the other realms. Surrender is necessary in an ecstatic experience, as is maintaining a genuine and open sense of presence with what is happening. You are required to show up, pay attention, and let go of the outcome. That is a big job for people in this culture, even if they are witches.
Ecstasy is Work
C: Ecstasy is a lot of work. It requires physical and psychological effort to overcome the powerful cultural bonds that restrict the witch. One of the problems is that you need a lot of time, and you have to be willing to dedicate that time and openness to what can happen. Chanting a line or two for a few minutes is not going to cut it. It takes persistence to keep chanting the same lines over and over. You have to slip into that place where words have no meaning, and it takes awhile for that to happen.
Even though ecstatic experiences require a lot of work, sometimes they come on us unexpectedly and are not so dramatic. These can sometimes be the hardest ecstasies of all to tap into. It requires being ready to be suddenly displaced from normal consciousness and to become part of the environmental presence. The work in this case is psychological, being willing to surrender to the ecstasy that is around you at that moment.
Some believe that witches do not need to engage in such ecstatic states. They can get to the same place by meditation. But meditation and visualization are not the same as achieving an ecstasy. I use the word achieve, because that is exactly what an ecstasy is, an achievement. It requires a lot more work than meditating and it results in a very different state. So if you think you can meditate your way to where you would get on peyote, you have another thing coming. Ecstasy requires a commitment and level of surrender that meditation does not. But with the greater expense, comes a greater pay off. You may be able to get back to a place you have discovered in ecstasy through other means, but it is guaranteed you won't get there in the first place without the risk.
Ecstasy is Dangerous
G: Ecstasy is power. I have taken many paths to the ecstatic, among them sex, music, writing, chanting, dancing. The state that each of these processes enables me to reach is different; the ecstatic is never static. Is it dangerous? Yes. Of course. So what? As Victor says, everything that is worthwhile is dangerous. I have always stressed that Faery is a difficult and dangerous path, not for the weak, squeamish, or fainthearted. Faery does not compromise. There can be no compromise, no retreat, no surrender except to ecstasy, on this path. The Black Heart is the Heart of the Trickster, and HeShe is remorseless. The Trickster is not interested in rules, except to break them. The Trickster is not interested in rigid ideational structures except to mock them, not interested in judgments except to defy them. Consider the meaning of the closing words of the Faery circle casting: "By Which Eye" accompanied by a fierce stab with the Athame, as if putting out the eye which sees what it should not. Faery is the Trickster's path; to be Faery is to live on the razors edge, to be more than a little mad, to be extreme when needed, to blend ruthlessness and compassion into a fierce whole, to embrace values which are Other. Faery is not called the Otherworld for nothing; Faery is the path of the Other. I am the Other, and it is for that I have been feared by some and loved by others all through my life.
C: One does not drop into ecstatic states on public transit for a reason. It is very important to take precautions to be in a supportive and relatively safe environment when embarking on this path. Make sure that you will have everything your body needs during this time away from your senses. It is important to have access to a bathroom or place to relieve yourself, and access to potable water. You may want to have an attendant, who will be watching out for you, or be in a group with others who are in a similar state. This seems to me the entire reason for having a coven. Why do you need "perfect love and perfect trust" if you are celebrating the moon cycle? You need a coven if you are going to put your butt on the line. If you do not have a coven, it is a good idea to be with other people you trust, or at least a group of people who are supporting your attempts at achieving an ecstatic experience. Perhaps it is the looseness of our community or lack of trust that keeps us from using this valuable tool that reveals the heart and power of the Feri witch.
Ecstasy Keeps Us Impeccable
C: Impeccability is an aspect of Faery that is not discussed much. It implies a sense of essence and ethic that is dedicated to remaining true. Most of us have no idea who we are, no experience of our soul. We are so bound by our limited view of options that most of us have no idea of our heart's desire. Spells are easy, it's defining the terms of the spell that is difficult. Ecstasy returns us to the true soul, so that we can know our own desire and our own ethic. Ecstasy is the path that keeps us impeccable. It keeps us willing to do and be something that our right minds would be embarrassed to do and be. It keeps us in touch with the black heart of innocence, the lascivious heart of the child/animal. Without it, we are just a bunch of actors chanting and running around in circles. It is that fierce flame inside that makes a Feri witch. It is that fierce flame that is so easily engulfed and consumed by the dominant culture, where it is seen as dangerous and rejected. It is through ecstasy that we reclaim it, and find pride in a self-defacing society. It is through ecstasy that we become the values embodied in the iron pentacle, and embrace them in a space that is free of the pressures of social expectation.
What is most important for achieving ecstasy is perfect love and perfect trust for self. Ok, so none of us have that. But you have to at least be willing to try. Most people who will not step onto this path are mainly afraid of humiliation. You must be willing to trust the black heart of innocence within you. Although I hear people citing fear of others as the reason for not pursuing ecstasy, we are much more afraid of our own potential for destruction and harm than anything else. As long as we are afraid of it, we cannot claim the power of our rights as Feri witches. We were the ones who refused to fear the outer darkness, to forge from it our power. Ecstasy is a path by which this can be claimed, and by which people can come to know and trust who they are. In that place outside the rules of society we come to know our own essence, the core of the witch, that is why we aspire to impeccability in the first place. To be true only to the black heart, we must first know it.
Many of those drawn to an ecstatic path do so as a way to understand their place in the world. Feri witchcraft tends to attract those who have felt a certain degree of "otherness" in their lives overall. As one achieves ecstasy, we come to learn compassion for ourselves, understanding that our paths may be as priests and priestesses, tricksters, seers-- roles that our society seldom makes room for. Compassion for self is necessary to develop impeccability. Ecstasy can be seen as entering a state of profound compassion, of being able to see ourselves as we truly are rather than measuring us against others or societal standards. We may believe in our daily lives that what we long for is acceptance. But for many Feri witches, what they discover is that they long for something very different. Ecstasy is a way to know the heart's desire without having to sort it out from what everyone else desires for you.
The Paths of Ecstasy- Music and Dance
C: The use of dance and music to achieve ecstatic states is long established in cultures across the world. In the dance, the rhythm becomes the heartbeat of a larger creature, our breath its collective breathing, the movement the waves and cycles of a universal pattern. It speaks to a part of us that is very old and very strong, a memory from the innermost parts of the brain. Music inspires the black heart to remember itself, and calls to us to go to the dance, to return to the bacchanal and reunite with the gods in a state of innocence and grace. It is the call to jump on the broomstick and ride.
G: This was a new experience to me; dancing has been something I was self conscious about and did not enjoy most of my life, ruined for me by horrible ballroom dance classes when I was 11,12, and 13. It is rather painful for me to look back on this piece now, knowing that I am sufficiently crippled as to make the sort of dancing I described and did in this piece very likely impossible for me ever to repeat. Dance has never really loomed large in my experience of Faery, probably because of my problems with it as well as Victor's disabilities. But I have discovered now the power of the throbbing drumbeat that takes body and soul together, becomes your heartbeat, and hurls you out of your body to hang suspended between the worlds.
C: Dance and music is used commonly in rituals, in Feri and other pagan traditions, but rarely employed to achieve ecstasy. Some witches may have more in common with ravers than other pagans. There are several ways in which we fail to use music and dance. Firstly, we seldom chant or sing or dance long enough to achieve an altered state of consciousness, to displace the self-conscious ego. We never get to a point where we no longer care what we look like to other people around us, letting ourselves go to be supported by the rhythms and powers we invoke. It is almost as if we aren't willing to put in that much work or patience, and definitely not surrender to meet our gods on another level. There are times when circles bring the dance right up to the edge of that cliff, and then drop it, as if what lay beyond that edge was somewhere they did not want to go. Using dance as a path to ecstasy requires a huge outlay of physical stamina, and a willingness to look silly. We would have to trust the black heart within us to let go and surrender to a force beyond what we can explain with the intellect. And yet, when we do, we experience ecstasy, in a place where we meet our gods without our social armor, pure and ready to experience the mystery.
Secondly, commonly in rituals, there is a set script at the outset, where the music or dance serves as support to some other function. Ecstasy cannot occur in a tight container. Unless room is made specifically for ecstasy to happen, it cannot. When some people do fall into an ecstatic dance in a ritual, it makes others nervous. This is very tragic, because a person in an ecstatic state is very vulnerable. If they become aware of this external censorship (be it conscious or unconscious) they can implode with shame at being out of control. Ecstasy needs an open container, a willingness to say, "I don't know what will happen here." People will commonly return to themselves with a profound sense of knowing, though rarely something they can put into words, and a more secure sense of who they really are.
The following are two stories about music and dance as a path to ecstasy. They are very different stories, and yet contain two strikingly similar incidents. What they have in common is a surrender to the rhythms and waves of music and movement, and the experience of the black heart.
G: I should like to quote Rumi: "Dancing is not just getting up painlessly, like a leaf blown on the wind; dancing is when you tear your heart out and rise out of your body to hang suspended between the worlds."
C: Dance is not always a predictable tool, and different rhythms speak to different parts of us. In the repetitive openness of a Sufi dance, there is ecstasy. It is no different than the dance of the people at the Crash Worship concert. Both are dance as a part of the divine, neither is better than the other. Yet immediately, we begin to think that one is more "spiritual" than the other. This is a social value judgment that has no place in ecstasy. In both cases, a person was being touched. In both cases, it was a healing and wonderful experience that brought us to a deeper knowledge of our nature. In both cases, these would have been frightening and ego-threatening acts if they had been in a normal state of consciousness. If the touch had been an essence-threatening act, the ecstatic person would have pushed the other away. The black heart suffers no compromise.
In ecstasy, perhaps the old adage is true: nothing ventured, nothing gained. And when what is to be gained is the integrity of the black heart, a state of grace and innocence from which power flows, it seems a witch might consider a venture. A life without risk is not the life of a Feri witch. We are not arguing for taking stupid chances, but living a life without ecstasy seems a foolish risk. To risk never meeting your divinity is perhaps more dangerous than we can ever imagine.
The Dances of Universal Peace
I stepped into a dome full of people I knew and loved. I had been at the gathering for two days, but painfully could not feel completely present. It was as if all my concerns about urban coolness were preventing me from really engaging with those around me. Although that is part of my usual experience, it was not what I wanted to feel in this place. Feeling that pain and confusion, I decided to go to the Zikr, a Sufi ceremony bridging silence and words with dance and chanting.
The point of these dances is to perform repetitive movements and chants to open the heart to the truth of what is, the all-creator. I danced and danced, and it was good to be in a group of these people who were my family. But then the person leading us proposed a new dance, the last one of the Zikr.
When I heard the melody, it was as if something caught me. I began to sing. We began to move to this rhythm that was powerful, and yet not forceful as something driving or fast. And as I danced, something began to happen. This dance continued for a very long time, and the melody evolved and became its own being. I felt like my chest was fighting to open up, to explode, and I continued to sing as tears streamed from my eyes. I looked up, above us, and saw another circle, whirling above us, full of golden lights. It dropped slowly from the top of the dome over the dancers, and we danced on as one circle. We sang with abandon, as loud or as beautifully as we had ever dreamed we could. We danced, connected, as we didn't believe we knew how. As we danced in the whirling lights, I felt a huge, overwhelming sense of love, of being precious. And perfect. And powerful. Part of the all-creator, holy and whole. I remembered who I was, and I fell into a loud and powerful sobbing. And still, I danced. Nobody tried to stop me from crying, and they did not abandon me in the circle.
When the dance ended, I still was sobbing as hard as I could, crying like a child with complete abandon. My friend came and held me, not soothing or quieting me, but just wrapped his arms around me and smiled at me. I cried for so long. I didn't think about if I was taking too much of his time, or if I was making a spectacle of myself. I didn't want to go sit down or pull myself together. It was like a wave flowing through me, beyond me, the mourning of a spirit that woke up and realized its own divinity and wept for the time it was imprisoned in self-consciousness. And this man, who I see once a year, smiled on and held me. When the tears subsided, he kissed me and thanked me and called me beautiful. And I was. --Cholla
Let me tell you about seeing Crash Worship, my favorite live performance band. Their shows are always an incredible scene. The best recent one was a little all ages collective club in a former warehouse in Berkeley called Gilman Street after the street it's on. They enter in a procession to start the show, torches burning bright, fire being juggled above the crowds head, firecrackers banging, drums pounding, band and "helpers " half naked, painted red, some carrying masks, one immense bull head mask towering over everybody, other illegal fireworks whistling shrieking strobing smoking, crowd shrieking. Their music is heavily percussive, right now three drummers down from four, their rhythms are complex and syncopated, they swing, and everybody swings with them, speed building, dancing in a real frenzy of movement. While they played, once they were on stage, people went through the audience spraying us with water and a little with wine, slicking our bodies down. Sometimes they spray the crowd with animal blood.
Shirts disappeared, clothes got reduced to a minimum or vanished altogether, the room heated with the energy of people dancing, sweaty wet bodies rubbing against one another, strangers locked in a moving embrace that reached out and encompassed the whole crowd, slamming without violence, so that if someone started to fall half a dozen hands were there at once to catch them, at one point half the audience had ripped off all their clothes and collapsed into a big happy erotic pile in the middle of the floor crawling and rolling on each other...
They played for two and a half hours, and when they were done I was spent. Reading what I wrote seems flat; it totally fails to capture the effect of the show. The beat is not steady; like I said, it swings. The tempo varies from almost slow to absolute frenzy. In the space created by that sound, the drumbeat becomes all of our common heartbeat, all of us moving as one body, swaying and jerking with the insistent pounding rhythms faster and faster as they mount in speed and the heat of other slick with sweat. At one point a goateed man was straddling my right leg sliding along it in time with the drums. Another time someone grabbed me from behind and started massaging my shoulders.
Safety Tips for Using Music and Dance as an Ecstatic Path
1) Know your limitations and plan accordingly. You can achieve an ecstasy by lying down and rocking if you are not physically able to dance strenuously. Don't hurt your body.
2) Make sure you know the location of bathrooms, safe outside space, and drinking water to avoid dehydration and discomfort.
3) Attend to transportation ahead of time. Driving after a profound state of ecstasy is not recommended. Bring money for a taxi or arrange a ride beforehand.
4) If you are going into a public place afterward, take an attendant. Safeway can be a weird place when you are energetically open. The bus can be even weirder.
5) Make sure people know where you are.
6) Probably the most important issue has to do with setting. Make sure you are with other people who have similar goals for that period of time. You may be safe at a rave, concert like Crash Worship, or a contact improvisation workshop, but you probably do not want to fall into a profound trance state in a dance club or large concert (Jerry's dead and those days are over, I'm afraid). You may not want to enter an ecstatic state at many magical circles, either, unless that is the goal of those hosting the circle, or you have observed tolerance for ecstatic dance in this group previously. It isn't about being polite, or doing what other people want. It's about being safe. Criticism in an expanded state can bring about an emotional implosion, so make sure the environment is supportive.
7) Don't feel pressured to talk about your experience. Give yourself some time. It's very tempting to try to put it all into words, but that can force your interpretation of your experience into a box. Let the experience settle in awhile before trying to talk about it. Ecstasy is about just being with the mystery, not explaining it. --Cholla
©2000 Cholla and Gabriel