This is Part I in a four-part series on shaman sickness and initiation.
Part II can be found here.
I opened my inbox a few weeks ago to find an invitation to a ritual from friends to celebrate the Apotheosis of Ariadne – the transformation of the mythical Greek princess into a deity, as per the stories told about her.
As I perused the invitation and the suggested guidelines for those who might wish to celebrate at home on their own time, my heart jumped into my throat upon reading the second of the three stages that mapped the goddess’s journey from the Mistress of the Labyrinth to her discovery and awakening by the god Dionysos.
Around midnight, in the darkest hour, “The theme is Ariadne abandoned on Naxos.”
It was just over a year ago that a Skype session with a friend jumpstarted my shaman sickness with her in California and me in my hostel in Athens, Greece. “Have you been out to the islands yet?” she asked. “I feel like there’s something you’re supposed to be doing there. Something about a goddess and a temple and after you get there, everything will be different for you. Everything will change.”
Fast-forward one week. Fast-forward to the all-too-haunted island of Amorgos and my being unsure if the unrelenting queasiness and unease I was feeling was due to the unresolved massacre I intuited (and found confirmed) or fears about life, love, and the future in general. At night I dreamt of walking up to immense, roughly hewn marble structures cloaked in darkness while waves crashed against the shore around me. I awoke to find all confidence and fearlessness expelled from me like a deflated balloon – quite the opposite of the previous tone of my trip.
My traveling companion was growing concerned, seeing my sanity veer from its course seemingly without reason, but one morning, as we arrived at a little cafe for breakfast, a little girl’s fondness for the eatery’s resident kittens made me pause before ascending the stairs. “Ariadne!” her father called to her. Fading sanity or not, I knew I was hot on the trail of my friend’s prophecy.
I’ve seen it three times now – in my own life, the life of a friend, and in a reading I gave a woman while on her lunchbreak in Manhattan.
Humans falling into a deity’s mythline.
Sometimes it’s a whole life that smells far too much like something you’ve read or heard before and all of a sudden the man on the other side of the screen who you’ve booked a reading with is naming the name of the legendary individual whose story has more than inspired you – it’s the reason for all of the tattoos on your body. You just never made the connection that you, in some way, are literally her.
And sometimes it’s like a web that ensnares you – the first of many doors you will walk through on your journey, ignoring the prickliness of the spider’s arm that’s been beckoning you because, frankly, you’re blind and wandering aimlessly, hoping for something to catch you and give meaning to the moment.
And like any web worth its stickiness, it does.
In short, within 48 hours, I was abandoned on the island of Naxos. Sure, I’m the one who followed the signs and omens and, sure, I’m the one who decided to go on my own. But all of the feelings of joy, sovereignty, and connection I had felt throughout the previous weeks had certainly abandoned me. I was alone for the first time on my journey and left my room only to search for cheap food. I was heartbroken over a boy and, for the first time, felt that I stood out like a sore thumb under the glare of Greek natives.
I have a reputation for committing radical acts of whimsy and going to fairly extreme lengths on an intuitive hunch, so the fact that I’d come to Naxos just to get to the ruins of the temple of Dionysos on a time crunch wasn’t what was out of the norm for me.
The issue was that I could hardly move and madness had, by now, fully set in. I had barely enough energy to search the island for a way to the temple site, let alone endure the psycho-spiritual-emotional trauma that had set in, leaving me physically convulsing on my bed for hours on end.
Then there were the voices, visions, and hallucinations, all intermingled with my unresolved insecurities.
“Meditate on the sorrowful mysteries of Ariadne. Open yourself up to fear and pain. Contemplate your failures and insecurities, all the times you’ve suffered defeat or betrayal, had the rug pulled out from under you. Accept the inevitability of your death.”
I felt like I was dying.
I’ve been hesitant to write about my shaman sickness for a few reasons. The first is that I only began coming out of it a few months ago and recovery was nearly as arduous as the actual time of sickness was. The second is that accounts of shaman sickness, both anthropological and contemporary, sound like torture porn. Among contemporary Western shamans and spiritworkers, it is said that there’s the Death Road and the Madness Road, the former fraught with physical illness and debilitation and the latter with spirit-induced afflictions of the mind for as long a time as the spirit initiating you sees fit to have you endure it.
There are many reasons for why the sickness occurs, and has occurred since around the time the first shaman (or shaman-roled person) appeared among humans.
The first is that it is an initiation. The gates that lead to “growing up” and “upgrading” are immensely painful and death of the ego is necessary. In the West, we have this idea that enlightenment happens when we meditate so long that we simply start glowing and fly away. In the words of Cynthia Occe, “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” The ego death(s) that I would endure for the ensuing year would have me question everything about myself, including what it meant to be human, and force me to dismantle false narratives about myself that I’d been carrying for far too long. Things that should not happen to human bodies and human consciousness would happen to mine, sometimes in public, bringing to ruin my concepts of both. Gratefully, I had the accounts of other shamans who had been “seized, changed and set to a lifetime of work – irrevocably, without their consent and often against their will – by real, living, powerful entities with a unique perspective and agenda.”
Another reason is the vast re-wiring. The shaman (a very controversial word, but more on that in a later post) needs to be able to move serious amounts energy through their bodies. Within the devotional polytheist community, even folks who aren’t shamans remark on the period when they “had their head cracked open” – that is, when the spirits they work with further opened up their psychic senses to enable deeper communication with them, heighten their divinatory and mediumship abilities, or even cast them in the role of being a trance or possessory oracle for one or more deities in the fashion of Pythia in ancient Delphi. A certain level of purity might seek to be maintained following the painful ordeal as heightened sensitivity can indeed have its drawbacks. Many wear head coverings and engage in regular acts of cleansing and protection.
There are other reasons for the sickness – some of which I don’t fully know. I guess one is being tested. Shaman sickness really is every bit as harrowing as the indigenous folks and the contemporary Westerners who’ve survived it say that it is. Shaman sickness is not a rough day, week, month, or year. Shaman sickness is not a dark night of the soul. It’s a pretty specific long-term hellish experience, actually, and there’s a reason there’s a low survival rate. Indeed, there is no guarantee of making it through.
But I couldn’t have known I was beginning a nearly year-long classic shaman’s death as I stumbled the mile-long path from the bus to the ruins of Dionysos’ temple. Blurry hot haze enveloped my senses as I saw familiar friends along the way: Fennel. Catnip. A butterfly nearly leaping from the brush and dancing around me in a circle before returning to its duties. When I got there, I did my best to connect with the land, experiencing flashes of memory from times when it was an active space. I felt his direct presence less than I did the immensity of love that his devotees had for him. Perhaps these are closer to one and the same than I know.
Fast-forward one year. I eagerly RSVP to the gathering of shamans, spiritworkers, oracles, and conjurers (some of whom midwived me through my sickness) who’d be gathering for the feast of the woman whose ingenuity helped Theseus, her lover, slay her brother, the Minotaur, monster of the labyrinth. The woman whose name I followed to my death.
“What did she teach you?” my partner asks. I don’t know. So many questions are still unanswered.
And then, I admit that I learned, very painfully, that there are some things no amount of Calamus and Licorice Root can dominate and some webs / fates / wyrds that no amount of Uncrossing can unravel — and we would be wise to be grateful for that, lest we miss out on why we are here.
But it would not be Dionysos or Ariadne initiating me. My guess is that they were simply holding the door open (like me, the former loves theatrics). It would be a few more months before I’d meet her – a woman reeking of salt and molasses, reminding me of a childhood spent on the beaches of Queens, New York, on a journey I’d take far beneath the sea.
Khi Armand is an NYC-based psychic intuitive, shamanic healer, and folk magician. He is the proprietor of Conjure in the City and author of Deliverance! Hoodoo Spells of Uncrossing, Healing, & Protection.