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April 15, 2024

The Aser Stories 03a: Descent to the Underworld

By Sand Pilarski

The tree from which I cut my staff in our youth is still strong and green, flourishing in fact, so I know that the source of my weakness is not the tree whose wood I share. My body still serves well, and I can walk all day with a full pack and not falter, so I know that illness is not the reason. Nevertheless, my power wanes, and I sit looking at the dirt when I should be listening to what the birds are saying, and I stand quiet when I should be shouting warning and outrage to the village and passers-by.

I am a shaman, called by the Life to speak, to heal, to bridge. If I am silent and my hands are idle, and I find fear binding my limbs, I will soon lose the call in the echoes of this noisy world, my staff will dry and crack, and I will be just another old woman begging for food in the marketplace, unable to help anyone.

I must, as does every shaman, sooner or later, make the journey to the place farthest away from daily existence: the underworld. Only there does the shaman find the understanding of weakness, of wrongdoing, of fear. Only in the underworld will the shaman see the face of the Enemy, and so learn to recognize and defeat it in the walking world.

The time has come again for me to walk that dark path, to put my heart and sanity in the hands of the Life, and to open my eyes to what I will be shown. Some think that they can do this by plunging themselves into needless danger, but all that teaches them, should they survive, is that they are immune to death, which is stupid. Some leap out of their bodies into the realm of Spirit, forgetting that it is through their bodies that they are permitted to perceive the universe, visible and invisible, and so they cannot truly interpret what they see. My clan has preserved the old way, the path into the mix where spirit, will, and flesh mingle and meet: the Country of Dreams.

In preparation, I sit in the forest and listen to the wind in the trees, silent in self. Today I will eat no bread, drink no beer. I scrape a clear spot in the bracken so that no dry leaf or twig will distract me. I commend myself to the Life, to accept what will be.

What I see in my dreams will have a message for me. The message will be from my secret self, the self that hides from the light of day for fear that it will be known. The self that masks itself with bravery, altruism, tolerance. In the hidden Hell of bare spirit, I will see the source of my weakness. I will see myself. I will listen to the dream I have, whatever it may tell me.

I walk for an hour or so, about the villages, and then return to the bare earth that I scraped, and place my mat on it. I lie down with my arms outstretched to each side, and shut my eyes, to wait for dreams.

Around midnight, I awaken to feel the mat being slowly pulled from beneath my legs. The hair on my neck prickles and crawls and I bring a hand up to make a holy sign in front of my forehead. Then the blanket begins to slide across my legs from the other side of my body, and I begin to hear the knell of the approaching evil, a soundless tolling in my head. I commend my soul to the spirits of good who wait for an invitation to help, and open my eyes. Will I see a dark form hunched at my feet, ready to drag me to the Realm of Loss?

Trees are still and dark against the starred sky. Faint lights glow in the tall eucalyptus tree at the edge of the clearing, one near the top, one closer to the ground, and then one in the lemon tree beside where I lie. The time has come. I will see what must be shown. I close my eyes, ears straining for a coyote's song, or a rustle of wind. Silence, and the world holds its breath as I descend.

Carvings of totems

As I descended the stairs of my mother's dwelling, she pulled carvings of totems from the shelves that line the wall by the steps, and handed them to me. Do you want these? They were your father's. Yes, mother. She chattered on, I've looked at them enough. Now it's your turn. Though in her youth she had been a great shaman, she was emaciated and insane, a creature of bone and rattling voice, a cariacature of a human being and I was afraid of her illness.

She wore an ugly yellow robe. The common room walls were patched in spots, dirty and unpainted, like walls in an abandoned shack. How can she live like this?

In her kitchen, piles of refuse lay in the corners and in a drift beside the filthy kitchen table. I grabbed a stray basket and began stuffing the trash into it, encountering old mildewed cloths that reeked of urine, cores and peels of fruit, bits of paper. The walls were stained by the trash. I threw the basket outside the door. When I returned, my mother, that once powerful shaman, was standing with her face in the corner in back of the table where I'd cleaned out the worst of the mess. She began to sob, and turned to me and said helplessly, "I smell animal pee. I can't get anything clean any more."

I moved toward her and held out my arms. "I know, the mess was pretty bad. Mama, come here and let me hold you. Come on, just let me hold you." At last she came to me, tiny and shriveled, and I put my arms around her gently and just held her, loving her, grieving for her.

The sound of voices led me into the other room, where I found a family of people, young and old, all bearing a stamp of feature that proclaimed them the same clan. I remember you, I said to a tall woman with a bandage on her face. You're of the Ur- Hannen. That's right, she said, I haven't seen you in many years.

I began to tell them how much my mother needed and would need their help.

I awaken and the jeweled stars sigh relief to me. The clear, cold night air soothes like a drink of water to a parched throat.

My mother! my heart cries. But looking at the constant stars, I know that my mother was not there. The mother in the dream was me, Aser, weakened and distracted by things of the world. Myself, able to admit I cannot do all things, all alone. I will need someone to help me, I thought, and watched the stars. Night is not done; I shut my eyes again.

I was at a large and noisy celebration, and I could find no place to change my old, stained tunic. I stepped inside a closet, but when I pulled the tunic off, the door had become glass and people were looking at me as they milled around the tables with their drinks. I decided to go home, and a pestering flock of children followed me. Barefooted, the earth gave power to my feet, so I could outrun them, but they caught up quickly. My tunic had disappeared in the closet,, and my breasts were exposed. Some would have awakened in embarrassment, but I knew from past dreams that the nakedness would not matter. My disdain for pointless prudishness gave me a surge of power.

The front door of my house was ajar; had the wind blown it open, or had someone broken in? I entered warily, found nothing out of place, and went into the sleeping room to find another tunic. There stood a surprised young man with a complexion that looked diseased. I roared, and he ran out into the room with the children. I pursued him, calling my wolf familiars to get him. The beasts grabbed him snarling, and continued the attack as the intruder struggled to reach the door. He got away! I threw the door open and ran out into the night with the wolves to hunt him down.

The wolves found him again, and pulled him out from the shadows to where I could grasp him in my anger and throw him to the ground. My anger mounted to fury and I picked him up again and again, dashing him against the rocks of the village street over and over, and awakened myself with the grunts of my effort.

I am wet with sweat as I start awake, charged with anger. But all symbols in the dream are me; the intruder, the stupid invader, is Ase Ur-Jennan. In this dream I vent my anger at my own self, the weak and foolish self that makes me stumble and appear inadequate to my people. I look at the stars again, and long for a whisper of a breeze. All remains still, and I breathe deeply again, and close my eyes, wondering what else I must see.

The tall and handsome man with reddish hair and the face of an aristocrat was so charming to speak with, so well mannered, so educated! He was as ennervating as a green and gold sleepy summer morning, and we young women were all dreamily in love with him, glad to want nothing more to do than entertain him. We fed him our best recipes, and longed for his company when he was absent. His arms were strong and comforting, and no one in the ages of the world was ever any better to sit with and play cat's cradle in the shade.

Then I found the evidence of his many crimes, and knew that I was to be the next murder he committed. I ran from him, but he laughed hatefully and cruelly as he chased me, caught me, let me escape and chased me again. He fed on my terror as a leech feeds on blood.

I will not be defeated! I made a bow appear, and shot an arrow straight through his chest. He looked surprised at the red hole that had appeared there, and then laughed again with the sure knowledge he would kill me before he died. I shot him twice more, aiming for lungs and liver. And again, and again, and he still staggered toward me, piteously crying for me to stop, with a mocking light in his eyes, to trick me so that he might destroy me.

Aser with dream sword

I made a sword, and cut off his head, and stood there panting at the bloodless decapitation. Then the headless body rose and reeled, drawn toward me as nails are drawn to a magnet. The hands groped and flailed, seeking me. I ducked behind pillars, and crawled under a table. The monster fell down, and slithered past, feeling his way. He passed me by, then stopped, drawn towards me again. I skittered backward, away from him, in revulsion at his revealed evil and sin, yet wishing that somehow, there was some way to have had his crimes never to have happened, or this gruesome chase, to go back before knowledge to the love and summer afternoons.

With relief I open my eyes to the faint light of dawn's approach, and sit up, hugging my knees, breathing hard with the exertion of escape. The fearful victim and sword-wielding warrior am I. But also the attractive yet murderous monster. In that final battle, I try to overcome the murderous Me, and seem to succeed, but then, at the very end, I find myself in doubt: do I truly wish to defeat the horrible, powerful, deceitful Self I have encountered?

A disturbing night, as a descent into the Underworld will be.

The symbols of questions to be answered are found in the Country of Dreams, but the answers will only be found in waking time, when I will ask myself again and again, "Are you accepting help that you need from others, or are you pretending you can do all things on your own?"

"Can you accept yourself as being different from what you think you are, and let yourself live that way without trying to destroy yourself?"

"Do you realize that the evil which pursues you is the evil which abides in your own heart?"

Saying, "Yes, oh Yes!" is not enough. My days will be quiet for a while, while I listen to these questions again. My true answers will lie in my actions, in my renewed perceptions. Will I find them? Or will I need to venture again into the realm of the Underworld, where all dread realities are disguised in memories, unmasked only in pain?

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-05-06
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