Monday, January 7, 2008

Practical incubation ritual

Inspired by one of my Hellenic Pagan spirit-worker friends, I'm starting a project to do experimentation with incubatory vision work. She's got a room in her house that she uses for her adyton or temple and that room has a closet that she's fitted out for incubation and oracular work.

Like most folks, I don't have room enough in my apartment for a whole temple room. I have a roommate living in my library, and the library takes up a lot of space all by itself -- there are books in every room of my house. But I do have a walk-in closet in my bedroom. So, soon I'll be working on rearranging my storage so that I can empty out that closet and create my own incubation chamber for work on some of the rituals from the Gaelic tradition that require darkness and isolation or intensive internalization. These rituals include the stone on the belly poetic incubation described by Martin Martin from the Isle of Skye in the late 17th century, the ritual of tarbhfeis (tarv-faysh or bull-feast), and the lengthy imbas forosnai (im-bus for-oss-nuh) ritual that could take as long as three or nine days.

My most intensive ritual experiences so far have been backpacking trips out to the coast in Washington and California. In both cases, I spent three nights camping and doing ritual during most of that time, even when "ritual" consisted of beachwalking while meditating and watching for potential information regarding my process. This will take my work in a different direction, but one that's necessary as a part of the practice of filidecht. Part of the work involves sensory deprivation of a sort -- isolation and darkness are definite steps in that direction. Entheogens may also have been a part of the practice of filidecht at some point in the past. The visionary experiences described certainly often read like entheogenic experiences.

If I want to be able to add fasting to the ritual preparation, I'm also going to have to look at the idea of giving up tea for a while, as caffeine withdrawal can cause bad headaches or even migraines, and going into a fast for spiritual purposes while dealing with migraines from withdrawal is just not a good way to get your visions on. Talking to a doc would probably be a good idea as well, due to my health constraints. I have fibromyalgia, migraines, PTSD and a variety of other issues including clinical depression that require a certain amount of monitoring, so hardcore fasting is something that I would absolutely have to work up to carefully rather than just jumping in and not eating for a couple of days.

In doing this kind of practical work, there will always be considerations of time, isolation, preparation, space, and ritual creation. We have rough accounts of these rituals, but the formats and ritual words are not preserved. In some cases we're told that four druids accompany the one seeking a vision, chanting "truth spells" the entire time the seeker is in trance. Human assistance may not always be available, so allowances have to be made for the "sound track" of the ritual. Precautions need to be taken in the case of both fasting and entheogen use as a solitary worker. Distractions have to somehow be kept to a minimum.

Later this week I should be posting some photos of the closet before and after clearing it out. After that, as I work on creating sacred space within it, there will probably be a few pictures of how the chamber develops. Not having a dedicated temple room may mean that I'll need to divide the closet into two "rooms" with a curtain so that there is a preparatory and post-incubation space as well as the space for the actual incubation itself. An altar, a comfortable cushion to lie on, warm blankies and other considerations need to be looked at. 

As a practical thing, I also have to accept that there will be some failures and false starts on this. In the hope of encouraging and informing others, I'll be recording the flops as well as the successes. I hope that my work will inspire others to do some research and experimentation with Gaelic incubatory ritual work. The more of us who are working on it, the more likely we'll be to develop successful technologies for it within the CR community. In my opinion, more successful ritual forms equals a more diverse and stronger community. 

Just as Celtic cultures have never been monolithic, I think that CR should be diverse in its practices so long as it stays true to the Celtic cultures that inspire it, even if there is syncretism and adaptation of technologies from outside the cultures. Nothing in this world has developed in utter isolation, and if one of CR's questions is "what would Celtic polytheism look like if Christianity hadn't come along", then one of those answers is very likely to be "very diverse."


  1. I have a practical concern. Going to the bathroom.

    Is this issue "eliminated" by the fasting? Would you need to leave the incubation chamber to go to the bathroom?

  2. Yeah, that's one of the practical concerns I would wonder about for any ritual as long as three days. What about taking a piss? Even if you're fasting from food, you still need water!

    I'd not be doing anything that intensive, and if/when I do go into a multi-day ritual, it will be set up so that such things are built into it.

  3. Diverse, indeed. And the demands of modern culture will not always be readily met by sticking to our modern interpretations of older material that was written in an imprecise fashion by people with agendas other than "make sure people will be able to repeat the behaviors in a few centuries." This requires innovation from a base of respect and careful thought, not hidebound worrying about this, that or the other bit of nonsense.

    And safety so matters in this. I worry about the track I'm seeing amongst some CR spirit workers where they insist it has to hurt the body to do it right. I've spoken with some highly trained spirit workers in other traditions, including Norse, and to a one, they decried that notion as fraudulent. And my sources have training in shamanic/spirit work traditions that have a reasonably consistent chain of practice over centuries if not milennia. If we're to gain wider respect amongst the other pagan traditions, we'd best be careful what we claim is proper conduct. It's far too easy to wind up a laughingstock if we get too wrapped up in being special snowflakes. So your desire to be safe and easier on your body is one to be lauded and encouraged.

  4. I absolutely disagree with the sentiment that spirit-work should hurt the practitioner. It's a very narrow and self-destructive viewpoint, IMO, and I don't see a reason that we should be self-destructive in either our spiritual lives or our daily lives. The fact that spirit work sometimes can hurt you doesn't mean it's required and I think that should be obvious.

    Innovation is always going to have to be part of a living tradition. If things aren't adapted to modern needs, they die. Hinduism is one of the oldest living traditions on the planet, yet it shifts and changes with the times. I'm quite certain that the first Hindus didn't make plastic deity statues or electric lights for their shrines. There's a lot of evidence that suggests that modern monistic Hinduism where everything is an emanation of avatar of one central deity is a medieval innovation rather than having existed from the beginning. The position of Goddesses in the tradition has shifted over time and the nature of the deities has also changed and shifted, being added to or taken from as the culture changed and shifted.

    Of course, not everything has to change, but sometimes things just do. I'm not about to go around practicing divination by reading the death-throes and entrails of war prisoners, thanks.

    It can be very hard to be an innovator in a reconstructionist tradition sometimes, as I know you're aware. I can understand the urge to do things as they "were always done", but when and where is that exact "always"? It sounds more like Eliade's in illo tempore than any reality.

  5. The "as it once was" camp reminds me far too often of the man my husband told me about who said with no sense of irony, "If the King James Version of the Bible was good enough for Paul, it's good enough for me." Goes to show that people are people, no matter how enlightened they think they are.

  6. *laughter and much merriment*

    Yeah, cuz of course Jesus spoke English, don'tcha know.

  7. I am completely fascinated by your process, and your intention to explore a workable incubation ritual. I can't wait to hear how things go. I'm so glad I was forwarded to your web site; I would say that until the past weeks, I didn't have the language to express that my lifelong "grail quest" has largely been about my quest to find imbas, find that elusive divine bolt of inspiration, and find a process by which I can seek it with some reliability.

    I've done dream incubation rituals, and used some of my knowledge of the Celtic bardic and druidic incubations within that dreamwork, but I just didn't make the inspiration/imbas connection until now. Fascinated, and looking forward to reading more.

  8. Thanks Shauna, I'll be looking forward to your thoughts and comments as the process continues. I still have another coat of stain to go before I can actually begin setting the room up for my work, but I expected that. Can't leave the house open to air things out in the middle of winter, so it's taking more time than I'd like.

    If you have any questions, please feel free to ask here on this blog or over on my LJ.