Hanging from the World Tree

I was fortunate to spend last weekend with the Wings of Desire crew from Oslo. Before going any further, let me caution you that if you read on you will see photos of someone suspended from hooks through their skin. These activities are undertaken under strict protocols by professionals licensed by Norwegian health authorities. Obviously nothing like this should be done without such health and safety arrangements.

With that warning made, I can safely provide a link to the Wings of Desire website! Let me start by saying that my commentary is that of a novice: this was my first time suspending. Besides my immediate attraction to it, which is beyond explaining,* I was also curious about its spiritual and mental-health dimensions. Hanging yourself from hooks without anesthetic can open up all sorts of embodied feelings. In fact Håvve has collaborated with a psychiatrist who treats self-harm. But it’s important to note that people suspend for all sorts of reasons, and it’s no more intrinsically therapeutic than automatically indicative of bad mental health!

This is why it’s important that Håvve, Alan, and their apprentice Dominik are such experienced and sensitive professionals. They know how to create an environment that embraces you, opens you up, and makes it safe to let yourself go. (I didn’t get to meet June, the third team member.)

Håvve hug
Hugs from Håvve

Håvve writes that “All of us who hang from hooks, whether we know each other personally or not, have a belonging in something which is ‘ours.'” It’s probably because my Norwegian is rudimentary, but to me his expression “å ikke møte smerte alene” is poetic and moving: we go to meet pain, voluntarily, in loving company.

Everyone in the suspension community knows that one of its inspirations is the O-kee-pa ritual once performed by the Mandan tribe in modern-day North Dakota. I’ve heard surprisingly few people connect it with Nordic paganism, starting with Odin hanging himself on the World Tree for nine days, pierced by a spear, “offered to Odin, myself to myself,” until he received the runes (Hávamál 139). Scholars connect this with depictions of men hanging in trees at Storra Hammars at Larbrö in Gotland (ca. 800 CE) and in one of the Oseberg tapestries (ca. 830 CE), as well as with Adam of Brennan’s description of hanging offerings around the temple at Uppsala (which he had never personally visited, ca. 1070 CE). Perhaps this is downplayed because white supremacists have tarnished “Odinism,” although Bifrost, the main Ásatrú organization in Norway, looks enlightened and inclusive. In any event, I decided to implant this story about Odin in my imagination. I also decided to think about initiation rituals for Artemis, in which young boys and girls “die” for the goddess — sometimes with a lot of pain and bleeding, as in the Spartan celebration of Artemis Orthia. It hardly needs to be pointed out that this ritual “death” is merely symbolic, and prepares the way for a “rebirth.”

Kurt smiling
Feeling Good!

In the days leading up to the event, I read texts and enacted rituals to fix these associations in my psyche.  But on the day itself, as Alan advised, I tried to take it as it came! The suspension went on from about noon till about seven. I suspended first, and my experience lasted about an hour. I enjoyed having the hooks put in, and was feeling exhilarated for a few minutes: “like a god.” This didn’t last.

Alan Dom shock
Not Feeling So Good!

Shortly after that I went into a bit of shock, and spent about 10 minutes leaning on Alan. After recovering I spent about 15 minutes pulling myself off the ground with a pulley, only to feel awful again and come back down. With a lot of loving care  and plenty of sugary drinks and cookies I got back up, and stayed there for about half an hour without further problems.

I wish I could say that I had ecstatic visions, but I have mild aphantasia, so my mind’s eye is pretty much blind. This is something psychotherapists and ritualists need to be more aware of: the so-called “power of images” varies from person to person. What I liked about suspension was the way it affected and continues to affect my body.

By coincidence, I had a student in my office today theorizing about how people’s bodies, unlike ideologies, are individual. No, I was thinking, that’s not quite right. Our loved ones live in our bodies, just as they do in our personality traits. Ever look in the mirror and see one of your parents in the lines of your face? Ever realize that one of your expressions, one of your hand gestures, or the way you tell a joke actually belongs to a friend or lover or mentor from your past? I’ve been thinking about that as I feel this soreness in my back. Who or what is with me in my body now?

IMG_3972 2
Dream Time

Part of the answer is obvious: the people who suspended with me and cared for me are connected to me through this lingering soreness, as they will remain with me in the pinprick scars. But partly it’s spiritual, because even if Odin and Artemis are just idealities sustained by traditions, those idealities have a kind of being. That being doesn’t depend on any beliefs you can articulate about them. In a similar way, the memories of the body can’t be fully captured in words. That’s why you can have a different kind of conversation with spirits through pain and gravity than through reading or speaking.

They say that most people who suspend once return again and again. I can see the temptation, so I’m glad I won’t have the opportunity very often.ropes It was a special day, and I look forward to dwelling on it for a few months.

I took the references to hanging in Nordic religion from Anders Andrén (2014), Tracing Old Norse Cosmology: The World Tree, Middle Earth, and the Sun in Archaeological Perspectives, Lund: Nordic Academic Press. In this article P. Bonnechere surveys and rejects arguments intended to show that the rites of Artemis Orthia originally involved human sacrifice.

I’m cognizant that all the people in my photographs are men. It’s worth noting that the suspension community isn’t macho or masculinist. My wife, a long-time suspender, has written about this same event here.  

*I say a person’s attraction to (or repulsion by) body suspension is “beneath explanation” only the sense that, whenever we try to decide how to make our lives worth living, there’s no point deliberating about some things: we are the people we have become. However there are all kinds of explanations for how we become those people, and when our patterns of thought and feeling become problems for us or other people, then of course we need to work on this — for instance, in therapy.

Guest Post Transpersonal Psychology

Charmaine Sonnex is a Lecturer in Experimental Psychology at Northampton University. Some of her previous research has involved pagan healing magic, so I thought it would be great if she could join us. She generously wrote up these thoughts after joining us for a shamanic activity.

“I was excited when Kurt offered me the opportunity to take part in the most recent Shamanic journeying workshop. My background is in Transpersonal psychology: a school of Psychology that explores the mystical/spiritual/religious aspects of human experience and altered states of consciousness, and the transformative potential of these experiences. There is an emphasis in Transpersonal psychology on phenomenology, it is accepted in Transpersonal psychology that in-depth understanding of such phenomena benefits from direct experience.  Academic research in Transpersonal psychology often occurs in combination with experiential elements. This means that I have previously had the opportunity to take part in Shamanic journeying in a similar part-scholarly, part-experiential environment, albeit only a couple of times.

Nick is a wonderful guide through this experience. He is clearly very practised and knowledgeable, and had a knack for making one feel at ease. He discussed with us the importance of journeying with an aim, that the most rewarding journeys are those done with a purpose.

Our first journey was 10 minutes long with the aim of either meeting an ally or exploring the other realm. This first journey for me was challenging. I encountered something that I found frightening, which resulted in me ending my journey early. During the plenary type session after the journey I asked Nick what we should do in such situations. He was very reassuring and suggested either removing ourselves from the journey or the area, (and in my case to find another portal) or to ask it to reveal its true form. He went on to explain that figures that present themselves in a frightening way are often something else in disguise. Although I was hesitant to journey again I felt reassured by what Nick had said and decided to try again and see what happened.

The second journey was a little longer, 15 minutes. The aim this time was either to journey for someone else, to try and find an answer to a question that they had (without knowing what that question was) or to journey for ourselves and to again either try to meet an ally or to find out “what do I need to know now?”.  The majority of attendees, myself included, didn’t really feel experienced enough to journey on someone else’s behalf although a couple of more adventurous people tried it.  This second journey was more successful, I tried a different entry point to the other realm and was able to journey down. I did encounter the same figure as before, however this time it presented itself to me in a different, more familiar form and I was able to understand and process the meaning behind the experience.

For the final part of the workshop Kurt gave a brief talk about Empedocles and the mystical/shamanic aspects of his teachings and the mythology around him. This was fascinating and complemented some of the things Nick had talked about earlier regarding core shamanism.

I would recommend these workshops to anyone interested in shamanic journeying, whether it is from an experiential or academic perspective. Such phenomena have an ineffable quality that means full understanding can only come from direct experience, these workshops provide a safe and welcoming environment for these experiences.”