The Beginning: The Story of Shrine of Skaði

Temple Keeper - May 2014[Ed. note, Jan. 2017: This site is no longer being maintained. I’ve left it online for archival purposes. My current online devotional page for Skaði is here, and the page for my Shrine of Skaði dance project is here. My updated dark ambient playlist for Her is here.]

This website is a devotional offering to the Jötunn, frost giantess, and dark goddess Skaði of Northern mythology, to Whom I am devoted…and this is the story of how I started my dance project in honour of Her.

In late 2006, shortly after I discovered and fell madly, hopelessly in love with the dance style that was then called “gothic bellydance” – now also called dark fusion dance – I had a vision.  Skaði came to me, and I was shown vivid imagery of my future self choreographing and performing ritual dance pieces as a soloist for Her (and Others I would be meeting with when the time was right.)  I was given the name Shrine of Skaði for this endeavour.

I was instructed to hold fast to this vision and persevere in the face of all coming hardships, even if it seemed hopeless or completely unreachable.

She also made it clear that I had years of work, study, and preparation ahead of me before I would be strong enough – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – to dance for Her.  I knew I had a long way to go.  I was a late bloomer: I knew nothing about Paganism until I was in my mid-twenties, and nothing about Heathenism and Norse mythology until I was in my mid-thirties.  I grew up in a New Age family and had a strong interest in spiritual life, but it was not until middle age that I was able to connect with Skaði specifically.  Looking back, I think the fact that I was raised in Hawai’i is at least partly responsible for this.  The tropical climate and south Pacific seas are anathema for She of the cold, mountainous Northern lands.  After I moved to Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest), spiritual doors started opening for me that I hadn’t even known were there.

As a middle-aged ex-smoker with asthma, allergies, bad knees, and a life-long addiction to sweets that had taken its toll on my health, I knew I would never have the endurance or physical capacity of a healthy 25-year-old.  And although I had about a year of formal dance training in my youth (jazz, modern, hula, and ballet), I hadn’t performed in more than twenty years, and had no belly dance experience at all.  To top it all off, I am an introvert who instinctively avoids the spotlight.  While I’ve always loved to dance, I’ve never aspired to be a performer.

Nonetheless, She would accept no excuse.  My path had been shown to me.  In order to follow it, I would need to get myself in much better shape, starting with my diet.

For more than ten years I had been trying – and failing miserably – to give up refined sugar.  Even after Skaði instructed me to get going in the right direction, the tenacity of my old habits kept me stuck, and it took me until 2010 to actually give it up…but I did eventually succeed, and these days my diet is much improved.  I’ll readily acknowledge that I still have a long way to go in this area.  Nonetheless, anyone who knew me when I was younger knows what a triumph it is that I gave up sugar.  It was my drug of choice, and I have the dental work to prove it.

That, however, was only a start.

There would be a series of dance pieces to choreograph, and special themed track lists to compile that would require many months of research and tracking down of obscure music.  I would be focusing on very slow, earthy, deliberate movements to dark ambient music – a melancholic, introspective, and ritualistic dance style, which was not at all the sort of thing I associated with belly dance in general.

Furthermore, I would not only need to learn how to belly dance, but I’d need to figure out how to put together a costume, makeup, and jewelry collection that complemented the ritual choreography I would be doing, and worked well with the dark music.  As a life-long introvert, loner, and bookish nerd, I had never been particularly interested in jewelry or makeup, and I knew very little about fashion, so I had a lot to learn (and still do, for that matter.)

But those things, too, were only a start.  Of course I would need to develop all of the physical and artistic skills necessary, but equally important would be the development of a deepened reservoir of courage and inner strength.

Skaði clearly knew what She was doing when She instructed me to hold fast to the vision I’d been shown in the face of challenges, because unbeknownst to me at the time the vision took hold, my world was about to be shattered.  I had lost my beloved father to heart failure about 15 years earlier, but even the lessons I learned through that loss hadn’t prepared me for losing my marriage and, right along with it, my entire social circle, my health insurance, my dream house, and all my savings.

Just a few months after the vision, my dearly beloved of 14 years had an affair and left me for someone else, then deliberately deceived me and absconded with my share of the money from the sale of our house.

I won’t repeat the tale of grieving that loss here (you can read it elsewhere), except to say that it was far and away the most painful experience of my life, surpassing even the experience of losing my father.  To this day I can’t really explain why it was so horrific, except to say that there was something existential in this grief process that tore jagged rips into the fabric of my being.  I had to grieve the loss of not only a relationship I had cherished, but also an entire circle of friends, the person I once thought I’d be, the person I once believed my ex was, the money we’d worked together to save, and a way of life – modest, but comfortable – that I appreciated, since it allowed me to spend more time on my writing.  Five years of excruciatingly painful emotional excavation work followed, and the resulting financial hardship dragged on and on, compounded by the recession.  I ended up suicidally depressed, unemployed despite years of job-hunting, and living on food stamps and family gifts.  My ex refused to speak to me, and I tried everything in my power to get help from lawyers, community mediators, etc…but in the end he got away with it.  I was left with no recourse and no justice.

When I was younger, my worst fear was that when I reached middle age, I would be abandoned by my beloved, forced into a position where I had little or no time to do the kind of writing work I loved, and left to fend for myself in a country with a poor social safety net.  That is, in fact, exactly what came to pass.  I am fortunate in that my fall was somewhat softened by my immediate family, so I never had to deal with homelessness.  Nonetheless, the grief and the ongoing struggles became my burden to bear.

(For what it’s worth, now that I’ve survived that, my worst fear these days is that I, or a loved one, will one day be faced with a terminal illness and have to suffer needlessly because of laws against assisted suicide.  I am grateful that I live in a state where doctor-assisted suicide is legal, as I completely support it.)

This grief, and its aftermath, turned out to be an essential part of what Catherine MacCoun (author of On Becoming an Alchemist, one of my favourite books) calls the process of calcination – of alchemically preparing me to take up the work I would do for Skaði one day.  Of course, that doesn’t make the loss any easier to bear…and I must add that it is only with the benefit of six years of hindsight and hard work that I came to see how the process of grieving that loss shaped me into the person I would need to be to embody the vision She gave me.  Nonetheless, I did eventually come to realise that when I was with my ex, I had been clinging tenaciously to something that didn’t serve me, and more importantly, didn’t serve Her plans (nor any of the Others’) for me.  So my previous life was burned to the ground, metaphorically and alchemically speaking, to open the way for me to proceed in the direction that was truly mine: my true Will, in the deepest sense.

A few years after this loss, I began a long-distance relationship with a musician from Germany who named his musical project after Skadi.  Though he and I ultimately made a joint decision to break off the romance and continue to live in our respective different places – just as Skaði and Njörðr did in the myths –  each of us always respected the solitary nature and the creative pursuits of the other.  The connection inspired me to write and dance, and him to make more music.  We are still friends to this day, and I still dance to his music.

Prayer To SkadiThese days I am living a very simple, solitary, contemplative life, and I have come to embrace it in its fullness.  Solitude nourishes me and feeds my soul; I’m a Pagan monastic.  I am not at all family-oriented in the parenting sense: I’ve never wanted to be a parent, I’m not good with children, and I am very happy without them.

Although I remain open to long-term love and companionship – a Pagan monastic needn’t necessarily be celibate, after all – I have no plans to actively seek it out.  While I can’t predict the future, I’ve made peace with the fact that I may never marry again.  I’m done with casual dating, and uninterested in polyamory; I’ve been down those roads before, and I’d rather just stay single.  If the gods and spirits bring a compatible and happily monogamous partner into my life, I will embrace it; if They do not, I will embrace that as well, as I am already doing.  Either way, I know I am fortunate to be able to live the kind of life I do, especially as a single woman.  I know from experience how quickly life can change.  I’m glad I am able to enjoy what I have while I have it.

I am also very fortunate to have loving friends and family.  I am self-employed in a city I love (Portland, OR) doing paid work as a house keeper and home organiser, and I spend the rest of my time working on the creative projects that feed my soul and honour Those I serve.  And because of Obamacare and the fact that I live in the state of Oregon, once again I have health insurance, and something I have wished for all my life – access to health care that does not depend on me being married or employed in a full-time job I don’t care about.

With the help of my family and the gods and spirits – especially Skaði, Whose guidance steered me through my mid-life dark night of the soul – I made a new circle of friends, started a housekeeping business, and built a new life out of the ashes of my old one.  It took many years and there were lots of false starts, but I muddled through, bolstered by the strength of the vision She had given me just before my old life burned to the ground.

Skaði, a goddess of shadow Who knows the terrain of grief and broken-heartedness intimately, taught me how to find the courage to go on, even in the wake of suicidal depression, social anxiety, rejection, betrayal, and grief.  She accepted my bitter, white-hot rage and my intense desire for vengeance upon my duplicitous, cheating ex; She, after all, is the One who placed a venomous snake over Loki in the myths, so She knows this emotional terrain well.  She guided me as I waded through the bleakness in the wake of profound loss.  Skaði taught me a lot about how – and when – to let go, and She showed me that if I could learn to embrace the darkness of my grief and pain deeply, I could tap into wellsprings of strength and flows of creativity I didn’t even know I had, and even find precious gifts in the midst of the wreckage.

Skaði showed me that one of my callings in life would be to serve as a companion for others in times of endarkenment – in other words, to use my art (and all of my Work, for that matter) to promote respect for the sacredness and wisdom to be found in darkness, both literal and figurative. Our culture doesn’t really “get” darkness as something that can be empowering – we tend to associate it with evil, so we sweep it under the rug or look the other way, rather than listen mindfully and embrace what it has to teach us.

When I’m asked why my my dance project is focused on ritual dance to dark ambient music in particular – after all, dark ambient is generally not made with dance in mind – I explain that one of the reasons is to use movement to bear witness to our collective grief over the state of the Earth.  We carry so much of this primal grief in our bodies, much of it completely unconscious, and there are few outlets for it in our culture.  There is bone-deep sadness lurking beneath our collective façade, speaking its pain through the voice of the land, but it is all too rare that we acknowledge it, and rarer still that we face it head-on.  We live in a toxic consumer culture that is destroying our natural habitat, and the Earth is crying.  As Charles Eisenstein puts it:

Ours is a planet in pain. If you need me to convince you of that, if you are unaware of the destruction of forests, oceans, wetlands, cultures, soil, health, beauty, dignity, and spirit that underlies the System we live in, then I have nothing to say to you. I only am speaking to you if you do believe that there is something deeply wrong with the way we are living on this planet.

This primal grief that lives in our bones and flesh is something other than what we would call clinical depression, although depression can be one expression of it, or can co-exist alongside it.  While we can and do feel this Earth sadness on an individual level in our bodies, the ultimate source is not locatable within individuals, so if my own experience is any indication, it is futile to try to “cure” it with psychiatric medication or talk therapies.

Nonetheless, there is a kind of poetic beauty wrapped within the folds of this grief. It’s a harsh and cold beauty, much like that of Skaði.  There are sharp edges that can cut and leave scars, yet there are also profound gifts to be found in it for those who have the courage to face the darker side of their life experience all the way to the end, without turning away.  We, as a society and culture, cannot find and integrate these gifts if we pretend we are not feeling grief and despair, or if we numb our emotions with addictions.  We have to learn to let our eyes adjust to the darkness, and then see what we notice as we allow it to simply be what it is.

Ritual dance movement to mournful dark ambient music is one of the ways I try to give expression to this deep despair and Earth grief, as well as the beauty that can be found in the midst of it.

It is work that is motivated not only by my abundant love for Skaði, but by my immense respect for nature and the dark places of the Earth.  Like Skaði, I love the profound stillness and cold that cloaks the land in winter.  I am inspired by Her devotion to the mountainous lands She adores, and Her determination to seek justice and be true to Her own wild nature.  Even if that must come at the cost of Her marriage, it will never come at the cost of Her self-respect.

When I dance for Her through the darkness, movement becomes my alchemical tool.  I use ritual dance movement to channel the wisdom of the spirits and the ancestors, and to dance the tears of the Earth.  I feel my dearly departed father’s eyes watching over me from the skies, like the star-eyes of Þjazi, Skaði’s own father.

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