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The forgotten maps of story and ritual
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I'm reading
The forgotten maps of story and ritual
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The forgotten maps of story and ritual
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Articles
18 August 2020

The forgotten maps of story and ritual

It’s not so long ago that we would sit by the fire to tell tales of transformation. 

Written by Cherise Lily Nana

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Discussed in this Story

One day, not so long ago, a crofter in the highlands of Scotland was tilling the land, preparing the soil for a kitchen garden. Little did he know, the turning of the earth was disturbing a faerie broch, an ancient dwelling for the Silent Moving Folk. Soon afterwards, a plague swept through the village and the livestock became ill, so it was decided that the people of Dunbeath would spark a teine-éiginn, a “needfire”. This was a ritual fire lit to ward off disease and rekindle a sacred flame in the hearths of all the households during difficult times.

This practice was commonplace in Scotland up until the late 1800s and illustrates the age-old relationships between humans and earth spirits, fire and transformation, and the cycles of death and rebirth. The needfire ritual was eventually snuffed out by the church for its pagan roots, and by privatised systems of modern agriculture. What happens when we live in a culture that no longer acknowledges an earth-based, cyclical wisdom? What unfolds when we find ourselves in a myth that instead privileges linearity, ploughing endless rows of productivity?

We idolise youth and hide away our elders, no longer valuing the intangible gifts of the latter. We avoid the fallow seasons of our inner life in pursuit of an ever-greater yield. We dismiss ancestor reverence, an ancient practice that various cultures have maintained to care for the unseen communities, to which we are tethered many generations behind and ahead. In an attempt to outrun our nature and the aspects of life that we cannot control, we no longer hold ourselves accountable to the greater systems that sustain us.

As a result, we have buried our relationship with the wild stewards of soul and mystery; and we have forgotten how to tend to the fires of story and ritual that provide illumination in dark times.

But it’s not so long ago that we would sit by the fire to tell tales of transformation. The mythologist, Martin Shaw, describes stories as “an echo location both back through time and into the kind of future we would actually want to create.” They serve as a lantern in the fog, the transitional zone between where we once were and where we’re heading. And whilst the map is not the territory, the metaphors in the old stories still go some way to prepare our psyches for the initiatory trials we currently find ourselves in.

One such tale is the story of Persephone. Persephone is the queen of the dead in Greek myth, presiding over ancestral realms, but she wasn’t always so. She was once a maiden frolicking in the fields until one day, after picking a narcissus flower, she was abducted by Hades, the lord of the underworld. During her absence, her mother, Demeter – who is the goddess of the harvest – became distraught with grief. So much so, she abandoned her duties and death crept over all the fertile lands… the world experienced its first Winter. Meanwhile, Persephone had become cosy with Hades, and as she had eaten the fruits of the underworld and therefore sealed her fate, it was decided that she would cycle through half the year in the underworld and the other half above ground. When she was returned to Demeter, her mother’s joy caused all living flora to spring into life once more.

Persephone’s plight is a rite of passage from one stage of life to another, and whilst it focuses on the trials of adolescence, it also paints a map for humanity’s collective maturation. In order to grow, Persephone must let go of a familiar – but outdated – identity in order to make space for a more evolved version of herself that is in service to something greater. To do so, she will need to contend with the conflict between old and new, and traverse the threshold that lies in between.

As the trappings of modernity appear to be decaying beyond our control, so too do we find ourselves in these liminal lands. Here, the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. The animals speak in riddles and rhizomes grow down through our hair. This stage of a rite of passage will require us to adjust our eyes to the dark; to grieve our losses, attune our senses, and begin to learn the languages that tomorrow beckons. We may feel disoriented now but as Henry David Thoreau counsels, “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realise where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

Our time in the underworld teaches us that it is only through holding the paradoxes of life – birth and death, spirit and matter, the midsummer sun and the balsamic moon – that a third way emerges… a future that we couldn’t possibly have imagined, because we’re standing at the crossroads with an incomplete map that obscures the living highways of divergent tree roots below. If only we remembered how to meaningfully navigate through the transformative terrain of the dark forest, one day we might just step into a thriving landscape that is as kaleidoscopic as the eruption of blooms in Spring.

As with any initiation, what we need now is the courage to look directly into the heart of the flame. For this, we can learn from a Yoruba folktale from West Africa.

One sweaty afternoon, all of the immortals, known as the Orishas, gathered in the heavens. They had found themselves embroiled in an earthly battle with the Village of the Women. Instructed by their chief, Oba Orun, the Orishas decided to unite their gifts: the spirit of lightning (Shango), iron (Ogun), infectious disease (Omolu), and the spirit of all the warrior ancestors (the Ibora Egun). But no sooner had they set foot in the Village of the Women, they were defeated and wearily travelled back home. Disheartened but not without hope, Oba Orun sent down his next team to challenge the formidable humans: Yemoja (the mother of fish), Oya (spirit of the winds), and Iyami (the spirit mother of all the ancestors). Alas, they too were no match for the fiery Village of the Women.

Oshun, the spirit of the river and the one remaining Orisha, had witnessed the war and decided to try a different approach. She gathered a calabash full of sweet water, balanced it on her head as the mortals do, and danced her way down into the Village of the Women, singing and drumming her gourd and inviting the humans to join her. And it is said that the women followed Oshun to her shrine in the centre of the village, and can be heard singing and dancing with her to this day.

We have clearly left the familiar grounds of our own villages. We may not yet know where we’re going, but perhaps Oshun’s harmonies provide a waymark. What gold can be found in turning towards this moment in time, rather than fighting against our own nature, and remembering the mythic stories within the embers of fires that once held vigil through the long night?

Cherise Lily Nana

Cherise Lily Nana is a mythopoetic writer, facilitator and rites of passage guide.

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