My beloved dead

I kicked off this year with a journey to the underworld to truly confront my ancestors and ancestry for the first time ever. It took me longer than it probably should have to connect that with a Mercury-ruled 4th House profection year. And that’s what this year is about for me—finally diving into working with my beloved dead.

It’s not so much family history. That’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time. For me, the dead and ancestor worship have always been topics that have made me uncomfortable. I’m not sure why, other than it’s likely some misunderstood holdover from childhood Christian teachings. Christianity sure has more than its fair share of venerated dead, so I clearly missed something in those early teachings. Or perhaps I just got the overly sanitised version. I mean, just look at all the bits of dead saints that are around the place.

Which is another interesting side effect of ancestral work for me. For the first time ever, I actually ‘get’ saints. Before this year I had absolutely no connection to saints whatsoever, despite a full on Catholic upbringing. It wasn’t until I saw them framed as venerated dead, as ancestors, that they clicked for me.

Turns out that the saint our family has looked to the most in the past is Saint Christopher. I inherited two small medallions of Saint Christopher a million years ago and both of them surfaced again this year after being lost in the bottom of drawers and boxes.

Saint Christopher, patron saint of travellers, is sometimes depicted with the head of a dog. This connects him to Hermanubis and, all of a sudden, here we are back with Mercury. Hermes Chthonios is leading me back to my ancestors. (Incidentally, Saint Christopher’s feast day is 25 July.)

So after years of basically ignoring my ancestors, I created a dedicated altar for them. And, after years of feeling weird about putting up photos and making offerings of food, I finally gave that a go too. My goodness, were they just waiting for that. The immediacy and intimacy of connecting with your ancestors is something I did not expect. It’s beautiful.

Not everything is sunshine and roses, though. As a white person with mostly English ancestry, there’s a lot of terrible stuff that needs to be acknowledged and accepted. Working with my ancestors has brought that into sharper focus for me. I am much more aware than ever of my privilege.

On a spiritual level, there is a lot of trauma associated with the absence of ancestor veneration in my family. I’ve been working pretty consistently with my family lines for a few months now but there is still a sense of more people waiting desperately just outside the candlelight for the help of the living. But the dead, my dead anyway, are patient and they’re overjoyed to have finally gotten someone to the point where I am now.

And then on a personal level, there is my ancestor who, in life, was not a nice person at all. So far I’m leaving him well off to the side. I hope eventually there may be healing, because if he had not done the terrible things he did to those closest to him, I would not be here and nor would my family be as prosperous as it is now. But that’s a lot to try and reconcile. So, for now, I’m growing and regrowing my relationships with others of my family and they are some of the most beautiful and loving souls I have ever encountered.

For additional praxis, because I really want to go deep with this death-work, I strung a custom set of prayer beads to use to pray for my ancestors and the dead more generally.

The beads are obsidian and turquoise, with 99 in the main loop and 21 in each of the 7 tassel strings. Nine, seven and three are significant numbers for me. Each tassel string ends with a different charm that represents an energy or concept:

  • a feather for peace
  • a rose quartz heart for love
  • a piece of turquoise for healing
  • a cross for faith
  • an owl for wisdom
  • a labyrinth for the way (in the sense of the opposite of being lost)
  • and a tree of life for family.

I use these as focuses for prayer, either sending them to my ancestors or the dead who may need one or more, or to request my ancestors share them with me and my living family. I discovered that they can also have a divinatory use. Depending on who I’m praying for, one of the charms may activate or jump out to show the specific area of need.

After I first made the prayer beads, I took them to the local cemetery and spent an hour or so just praying for all the dead who were there. I found the experience to be incredibly calming. I had an unexpected and overwhelming feeling of rightness and almost a sense of coming home.

And then, just as I finished, an angel appeared.

I tripped and fell out of linear time

I recently had an experience where I stood outside the solar system, looking down on it and rolling and unrolling time as I moved through space and swung my arms. But even that is too linear a description for the experience. I could see and feel that everything was cyclical—endless iterations of the same moments, small or short ones nested in larger, longer ones, spherical layers of varying thickness that could be moved around, along and through or turned and twisted and realigned like a quantum puzzle box. But always the same moments/entities from the longest to the shortest, from the micro to beyond the macro.

And I say it was a recent experience because measured on a calendar it’s just a few months. Experientially, it is a lifetime ago.

This disruption of my once-strong sense of linear time has continued and may be getting stronger.

I mentioned in my post about my visit to Marcus’ pā site the strange feeling of entering cyclical time. So much of that experience brought the past and the future together and tangled them in the present. We did an intention exercise for the future of the site but what was confusing for me was that I kept getting a strong feeling of ancestors. I took me a long time to realise that these were future ancestors—ancestors that hadn’t even been born yet. But still ancestors: the dead who have passed on and now look back to help the living.

I’ve been doing a lot of ancestral healing work, using Daniel Foor’s methods (highly recommended). But that started well before my visit to the pā site, which had a massive ancestral healing focus for me. So if I hadn’t done the healing work before going, would it still have had that focus? Would I have had the opportunity to go if I hadn’t done the prior healing work? Or was it because I was going to go that I started the healing work months before?

I’m wondering after my experience with the pā site’s future ancestors if, once you’ve got your past ancestors healed, you can then call on your future ancestors—descendancestors, if you like—and bring back even greater healing and magic from them because the healing you did in the past has strengthened them even further. If time is cyclical, that means there must be a point where your ancestors and descendants converge at the opposite point in the cycle, the other side of the circle to you.

But that point is probably also you, making the cycle more like an infinity loop. Which means that your ancestors and descendants only belong to either the past or the future depending on which way you are facing.

Pulling things back from this trippy abyss (and before I break out the Burger Rings) one of the immediate, linear-time effects of this visit to cyclical time at the pā site was my outrageous ‘luck’ in catching connecting flights home. I was delayed over and over again, well past my scheduled layover times but I always somehow managed to make the connections. I’ve travelled internationally enough to know that this sort of thing does not normally happen. And I wasn’t the only one who experienced it.

Since then, it’s not that I know things before they happen, but I’ve found myself doing or saying things that end up being extremely advantageous for me when later events happen. In other cases, the things I did or said are literally just ahead of actual events. I randomly decided to trial working from home a few days before everyone was forced to. Again and again I’ve found myself spending time on tangential matters at work only to find out that they’re suddenly incredibly necessary and urgent. And here I am, already prepared.

The smack-upside-the-head example of this for me was the lunation rite I started in February that ended with me getting a temporary promotion right when hundreds of thousands of other people started losing their jobs.

This shift outside of linear time may be something that boosts the effectiveness of magic.

For the first time in my life I am actually starting to feel ritual. I’ve never been able to connect with ritual before now. It always felt artificial and constrictive. But now I can feel my daily recitation of the Orphic Hymns stepping me outside of linear time and connecting with all of the Monday’s that have ever been. I’ve been doing it daily for almost a year now, so maybe I’ve just reached that tipping point where daily practice becomes a ritual. But this has coincided exactly with the massive disruption to linear time perception that quarantine creates. At the same time as my ability to access space has been reduced, my ability to connect to cyclical time has increased.

Would I have been in this position if I hadn’t had those experiences in January? Or did I/my ancestors/my descendants/whoever arrange those experiences so that I could reach this point at this time in this place?

To bring things back around to the beginning again, my break with linear time in January was only a few days off the Saturn/Pluto conjunction in Capricorn—the planet of time meeting the planet of death. And the current escalation coincides with Saturn’s shift to Aquarius—the air sign beyond the boundaries of the norm.

So, how much of this is in my mind and how much is not? If we’re moving into the Jupiter/Saturn air triplicity this year, is there any difference anymore?

Why did my experience of cyclical time begin with a vision of the solar system? Maybe it is a gift from the stars themselves—the campfires of our ancestors.

Dreams of the future

In my dream I turned off the main road onto the narrow footpath that leads to my street. The end of my street is walled off from the road by a line of fig trees. Their grey-skinned boles are massive—much bigger than I remember. Thick aerial roots brace wide-flung branches, curtaining off the rushing traffic with living wood.

My street was not there.

The asphalt of the dead end had been dug up. A mass of plants and trees grew in a riotous, scrappy, untended mess. I could see the remains of the sidewalks, though they were black instead of pale concrete. I made for the nearest one, picking my way through the jungle of weeds.

The bushes parted and a woman emerged from the tangle. Her black face, haloed by silver and black curls, wrinkled further in a smile. She was wearing a blue dress and sat in a copper, throne-like chair. The chair stepped delicately forward on its four articulated legs. Wide metal wings unfolded from its tall back, feather-like plates spreading and rotating to catch the sunlight. I realised the regal-looking woman could not walk.

She gestured to the pile of vegetables in her lap. “Just grabbing a few things for dinner,” she said.

She was entirely unsurprised to see me. “Can you grab a few of those mangoes?” she asked. “They’ll be good for dessert.”

I looked around. A young tree dangled yellow and orange fruit below thick dark leaves. The scene clicked into place.

This was a garden.

The whole end of the street had been turned into a communal food forest. Herbs and root vegetables hugged the ground under berry bushes. Vines climbed fruit trees. It wasn’t a mess. It was a perfectly ordered natural system.

I picked the mangoes and followed the woman to the black sidewalk. A few chickens strutted calmly out of her way. Bees buzzed, the scent of sun-warmed herbs wafted about me.

As the woman’s walking chair clicked down the path, dozens of shiny beetles flitted up out of the way, filling the air with sparkles.

“They’re our cleaning drones,” she said, noticing my gaze. “The kiddies make them in school and program them to keep the solar panels and water pipes clean. They have competitions over who can build the most efficient or prettiest ones.”

She watched them for a moment. “The little one with the moustache is my favourite.”

I looked closer at the bright blue one she indicated, hovering in the air. Sure enough, it appeared to have a huge bristly moustache, presumably as part of its cleaning function. It made me smile.

The balconies of the houses and apartments lining the street-garden overflowed with more plants and flowers. There were even more varied types, chosen for beauty and reasons other than food. Myriad pipes crisscrossed any available wall space, hugging corners and feeding into larger ones that disappeared underground. It took me a moment to realise that they were collecting every spare drop of water that fell on the buildings. Tall, graceful spiral and whorl structures lined all the roof peaks, rotating in the afternoon breeze.

The buildings were familiar but so different.

My current balcony garden, featuring rosemary, lavender, mint, aloe vera, potatoes, carrots and corn.

We reached the cross-street at the bottom of the slope. A bank had been built across the width of the street, holding back the water of a wide green pond. Big geese clustered on the edge. Beyond it, shaded by trees, a group of nine or ten people were sitting silently on the ground in a circle, as if in meditation.

A bunch of shrieking kids ran up, chasing the buzzing cleaning beetles with small nets, followed by an over-excited terrier.

“Hi Gramma!” screamed a couple of the kids, waving at the woman.

She waved back. “I just saw Mister Whiskers up near the sweet potatoes, if you’re looking for him,” she called back. “How about you all head up there so you don’t disturb the Intenders.”

The kids took off back the way we’d come.

The cross-street had been narrowed considerably to make room for more plantings on the extra-wide footpaths. The clearway was probably only wide enough for one car and was paved with yet more solar panels. Narrow driveways, lined with flowers, led into the old two- and three-story apartment blocks. Only a couple of garages held electric cars. The rest had been converted into various workshops—potteries, smithies, machine shops, CAD printeries. A wide variety of people, young and old, were at work.

The woman turned up the narrow path of an old brick building that overlooked the communal garden. I almost didn’t recognise that it was my building. She wasn’t a new neighbour, was she? Her solar wings tucked in neatly down the back of her chair as she passed under the interlacing branches of a wattle tree and a macadamia tree. A cat lounging on the low garden wall got a brief pat.

I spotted a possum nest in the branches of the wattle tree. Native beehives hung high up the wall of the apartment building. Thick golden spiderwebs, shining in the sun, stretched above our heads along the path.

Everywhere was a feeling of clean, joyful, peaceful life. It was beautiful. Tension I didn’t even know I carried unwound in my heart and belly.

The woman’s walking chair clanked up the stairs. Some kind of gyroscopic arrangement meant that she floated smoothly upwards while the copper limbs danced underneath. Cool ferns and delicate climbing vines draped the rails and landings.

The door to my apartment opened automatically as we approached and the woman went inside. I hurried after her, alarmed that she had access to my home. But the furniture inside was different. Same layout, but not mine. But some of my landscapes still hung on the walls.

The woman piled her vegetables into the kitchen sink and turned to me. I realised that I wasn’t carrying the mangoes anymore. They had vanished. My body was fading, too.

Below the corn I’m currently growing.

“Well, grandad, what can I do for you today?” she asked.

I stared at her, bewildered and frightened. Her bright green-brown eyes watched me.

My eyes.

I woke up.

Into the Underworld

Or

My recent visit to the Ngā Ariki Kaipūtahi pā site and Mangatū River with other Rune Soup premium members

Part 1 – The Gatekeepers

It feels significant that we started our experience in the Pacific Ocean. I only just realised that my hotel for the first couple of nights overlooked the mouth of the Waimata/Taruheru Rivers. Water is the theme of this experience, from source to river to ocean, blood and tears; Water is Life.

The stingrays at Dive Tatapouri have to be some of the most alien creatures I’ve ever encountered. Their shapes, appearance, movement, colour—everything about them is what the unthinking part of my mind considers ‘other’. They carry the endless inscrutable depth and expanse of the entire Pacific Ocean.

They also have names like “Tara”, “Pancake” and “Waffle”.

Interacting with them was like being accosted by curious, slippery and over-enthusiastic couch cushions. I was equal parts nervous, weirded out and enchanted. From their bizarrely adorable little smiley mouths to the instinctive and cultural feelings of avoidance their tail barbs engendered, they are fascinating, strange and beautiful creatures. Feeding them was like having a piece of fish vacuumed out of your fingers while the aforementioned couch cushion tried its best to climb your legs. That close to the surface, they make snuffly cow-like noises when they breathe. That was my biggest shock. How such a familiar, relatable sound could be made by these mysteriously majestic alien creatures. Needless to say, enchantment won out and I could have spent hours standing out in the water in those unflattering green waders until the stingrays got bored and left or pushed me over to try and find any food I was carrying.

Those stingrays were the gateway guardians to a watery underworld I wasn’t prepared for.

Part 2 – The Descent

Ironically accomplished by driving up into the hills—crammed comfortably in a car, enfolded in the scent of fresh herbs, with people I’d just met who turned out to be some of the most beautiful human beings ever. And that description applied to everyone on the retreat—amazingly beautiful human beings; so happy to have met them, so sad I had to leave.

I was not prepared for the singing requirement of the pōwhiri. Singing in front of anyone else is not something I do, let alone in a completely unfamiliar language. I have a just good enough sense of pitch to be able to hear how bad I actually am. But the earnest enthusiasm of our driver/choirmaster quickly had us all singing along, practicing—for which I was very grateful when we arrived.

The pōwhiri itself didn’t match anything that I expected from my pre-arrival preparatory google. Surprise. It was us moving here and there, with the formality of a chess game, in response to the movements of our hosts, accompanied by long speeches in the beautiful Maori language. I didn’t understand either movement or words at the time but I felt like I was a puzzle piece filling the correct shape and place and time. Hovering in the air throughout the entire site is a feeling of something deeper and older and yet-to-be, waiting to be filled in by physical objects.

After passing through the gates and challenges and greeting each other in language and song, we sat down at one of the biggest tables ever to eat. There we introduced ourselves by speaking our names and our ancestry, our blood, and the lands in which that blood now flowed. Now that we were in ceremony, even such a simple thing held meaning enough to catch heart and tears.

I was not at all prepared for such depth of feeling.

Part 3 – The Underworld

Marcus compared the path down to the pā site to entering the Underworld. The site sits on the slope of the hill below the marae and has its own spiritual energy that is utterly disconnected from modern Western concepts of linear time. That sense of underworld energy, of timelessness and of being within cyclical time permeated the entire weekend.

The retreat itself was one big long ceremony that contained smaller ceremonies within it and smaller ceremonies within those as individuals or smaller groups performed their own rituals or actions of meaning. Time became largely meaningless (which I’m sure annoyed Gordon and the other organisers at times), but from where I walked, everything was perfectly arranged and landed in exactly the most impactful way.

I can’t go into everything that we did there. I don’t have the words to do it justice. And I’d probably misquote Gordon’s amazing talks enough to get a justifiably exasperated tweet. But I can tell you that we spent hours poring over what ended up being an absolutely stunning despacho, filled with many prayers and wishes and the greatest of all intentions—right relation.

We went on a short hikoi up the Mangatū River. I should have worn thongs because walking barefoot over those river rocks was incredibly painful. Learning that those beautiful braided river beds should have been deep flowing streams instead of choked with silt made me feel like I was sharing the pain of the river itself.

We visited an old pā site of Marcus’ family that had been flooded and silted up so often from the erosion caused by European farming practices that it had to be abandoned. In less than 30 years, the ground level had risen to the roof eaves of the old broken building. The first thing Marcus did on our arrival was thank us (many of us white people of European descent) for coming to that place—an action of such grace and regal dignity that my heart broke and I descended into a blubbering mess for the rest of that visit. While Marcus spoke of healing, joy and family there, I mourned quietly for what my ancestors had done. In the end we were all healed.

We did intentions and lunar mansion mantras for the flourishing of the pā site, for wealth and for the healing of people and the river.

We received the gift of the children of the Mangatū River—white quartz stones—and blessed them with many sacred waters so that we could seed that magic across the world.

I received a romi romi healing session from Ariana that dragged me down out of my head and poured me back into my body and the earth below my feet. It was an incredibly deep and confronting healing experience.

We sat on the grass under the wide night sky and discussed conspiracy theories, the construction of the moon and ancient stories of the stars.

We made music and sang and told scary stories around a sacred fire, tapping into an ancient space, time, place and practice that was also new and yet-to-be.

We conspired in the latest and darkest hours of the night to make the world a better place.

We slept in the painstakingly constructed traditional buildings of the pā site, in the uttermost peaceful, dream-filled depths of the Underworld.

By the end, walking barefoot and sitting in the dirt on the land was normal. Tears were normal. Conversations of magic and astrology and visions, spirits and dreams were normal. Feeling the hopeful and beautiful future shape of the world was normal.

This retreat was transformative for the soul.

Part 4 – The Return

Before I left home, knowing Marcus’ work with the rivers in New Zealand and at Standing Rock, I walked to the head of a tributary of my local river. I’d seen this tributary soggy but never flowing, because it’s a seasonal stream and I think a lot of the water flow happens in the earth. Also the surrounding suburbs channel a lot of the water runoff away to other places. I was allowed to select a stone to take with me as a gift to the Mangatū River, as long as I brought back the blessings of the waters I received over there.

I found a small piece of white quartz.

I gave this stone to Marcus and Ariana before I left.

When I returned home with the blessings of many waters, I found this:

The same place where I found the stone, which a week before had been dry and dusty, was now flowing with clear water. I’m not taking credit for the ridiculous amount of much-needed rain that the entire east coast of Australia received while I was away, but this is one of those ‘coincidences’ that let you know that magic is happening and that you’re in right relation with the land and more-than-land.

Another sign that I got (which is probably only going to make sense to those of us who heard Gordon’s talk at the retreat that mentioned bees) is when I returned to work and re-noticed the canvas I’d hung up behind my desk 6 months ago of photos I’d taken on holiday the year before:

Do bees work? I don’t anymore, although I still have a job.

I have a job that helps 5 million people … in an office that overlooks a river … that received the blessing of many waters … from a gift I gave to a man … who walked the rivers of an island … after starting to rebuild the pā site of his ancestors … who journeyed there an age ago … from across the Pacific Ocean.

#WaterIsLife

Disclaimer: I’m a white Australian with English, Irish and German ancestry. My knowledge of and contact with Maori history, culture and language is limited to non-existent. I’ve tried my best to be respectful and not screw anything up, and I’m documenting the experience from an outsider’s perspective in a way that should, I hope, convey my respect and wonder. Please let me know in the comments if I stuffed anything up.