It’s the last night of Heartland, and the gods are dancing around the fire. Drums pound out a rhythm for their revel. Masks hide their eyes in wells of shadow as they ambulate, a counter-widdershins curve of bodies spinning, twirling, cycling in and out from the red glow of the flame and the blue dark of the field. Some of their bodies I recognize: friends caught up in the trance. They have answered the high priest’s challenge, donned masks inscribed with sigils that contain the breath of gods, and surrendered themselves to the whims of the powers beyond.The word “ecstasy” has lost so much of its potency; when it is used, if it is used, it serves only as a shorthand for the glorious frustration of an orgasm, itself a much bereft state of being. Our secular society takes the idea of ecstasy arising from an encounter with the world beyond as something risible, fit only for the lowest of the Low Protestants, the snake-handlers and strychnine-drinkers we wrote off decades ago. My world, godless and liberal, accepts only stillness as acceptable spiritual practice: peaceful meditation, quiet communion. Respectable, controlled, safe. It has no room for religion that sometimes eschews safety and comfort, that might involve the voluntary surrender of one’s body and soul to the frenzy of the divine. To be ecstatic is to be, its Greek roots tell us, “ἔκστασις,” “out of place;” and we are terrified of anything being out of its place. So we laugh at the possibility in order to preclude it. We reduce ecstasy to a chemical reaction. We give its name to a ravers’ drug.
Yet here ecstasy is, its name burned into these masks, its power washing through the dancers, each caught up in the euphoria of a power beyond themselves.
I am not wearing a mask. Instead I am standing beyond the edge of the roped-off circle with an orange glow stick hanging from my neck, serving the same role as a lifeguard during open swim. I’m here to rescue anyone I see drowning. Although the priests said the masks required sobriety, anybody could have come over from the Tuatha Dea concert with half a bottle of mead in their blood and taken up one of the mantles – and anyway, even among this crowd, ecstasy comes so rarely that the divine psyche can lose control of the human frame. I watch the dancers, looking for any untoward staggers in their steps or unwise movements toward the bonfire. So far all has been well, except for the man wearing the mask of Hermes, who has sometimes been so overcome with his god’s youthful vigor that he has forgotten the old and very human knees being asked to run at Mercury’s pace.
A woman with raven-black hair takes Hermes’s hand and twirls under him, then breaks away to spin against the rest of the crowd. She wears a billowing turquoise gown; her mask shines as though it were made of gold. She sallies from person to person, alternately flirting, hectoring, spurning. Soon she catches my eye. The goddess translates herself to my post and reaches out to play with the glow stick on my chest.
“Come and play,” she says, her voice purring as I have never heard it before.
“I’d love to,” I reply, “but I have my duties.”
“‘Duties?’ Duties are meant to be abandoned.”
I look at her golden mask, her smile beneath it. I have known the woman wearing this mask for years. She and her husband run a jewelry shop over in the Heartland merchant’s circle; they make baubles in the shape of steampunk gears, Thor’s hammers, Celtic knots. I bought a set of earrings from her earlier that day for my wife, who has been on a research trip to Kazakhstan for the past nine months, who will be home in three days.
The goddess tilts her head knowingly. “Well?”
But I shake my head. “I made a promise.”
“You’re no fun at all,” she says, then spins away. I watch her encounter other gods, and other people not wearing masks. I can’t hear what she says to them, but she moves with a caprice as natural as a coyote stripping meat from a deer.
Soon the priest calls the circle to order and tells the congregation that the formal time for the rite has ended. The masks have been programmed, he says, to ‘switch off’ once they are removed; the gods will depart when the humans wear their own faces again. He speaks the language of technology to describe his magick: all magick is language, and all language is metaphor. But what a strange metaphor it seems to me, to make a machine of these painted masks and bonfires and cool midnight trees. If you’re having any trouble coming down, he says, we have water and cookies over by the merchant’s circle.
It takes my friend awhile to remove her mask. For a time following the ritual, she revels in the possession of her deity — Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos, beloved of Discordians — and shoots bolts of chaos, like arrows, off into the night. (“Be careful,” she says. “You never know what will happen because of that little jolt.”) But after a time, my friend’s eyes begin to look out from the holes in the mask, and she says she’s ready to come back to earth. She takes a deep breath and I help her take the mask off. She lets out the air, exhaling the divine. Then for a moment she takes no breath at all. I take her by the shoulder and squeeze.
“You all right?”
She starts to breathe again. “That was intense,” she says, and starts laughing nervously. She had touched the world beyond. Not everyone comes back from there.
I sit with her at the water station for an hour or so, helping her ease back into the world. The Heartland Sacred Experience Committee, which I belong to, has set out cushions in the grass, far from the manic energy of the bonfire. We look up at the stars, thinking about the constellations and the stories they hold: the lore of an older age, the storybook of myth.
Our conversation meanders, as all things do while traveling through the dark. Every now and then, a meteor flashes across the sky, and we gasp together at the sight. We spend every moment of our lives surrounded by outrageous visions: we carry panes of glass in our pockets that can, at our whim, show us the Andromeda galaxy, or the face of an elementary school crush, or a battle between an imaginary Johnny Depp and an equally false kraken. We drive to work through causeways of image, vibrant entreaties of capital urging us to leave the highway and buy their flesh-tone and pastel dreams. The shooting star, by contrast, is almost nothing, a pinprick drawing itself across the night, and yet the meteor retains its wonder, for unlike our electronic world, it remains guileless and wild.
Afterwards, while talking about my friend’s difficulty coming down from the possession of the mask, the ritual’s high priest held mixture of concern and scientific questioning. The masks had been enchanted to deactivate upon removal, a sharp and seamless conclusion to the ritual, but Eris had still been laughing in my friend’s ears at the time she went to bed. The kill-switch had gone awry somehow; something must have been wrong with their masks.
I don’t contract his theory, but his approach to these things is much mechanistic than mine, I think. Where he makes metaphors of machines, I prefer to think of magick as something more primal. Think of the weather, the first and most important relationship between man and god, and how, after so many millennia of human progress, we still so often find ourselves caught off-guard by the rain. Magick is like that. We know that it usually snows in January — at least it does here, in the Midwest — but even with Doppler alert radar systems and 24-hour online coverage, we still can’t say for sure which day the flakes will start to fall. Or think of the meteor showers: we can know a certain night is primed for them, but can never know which moment will contain that minute flair of light streaking across the dark. Nor, indeed, can we control that gasp of wonder when we are blessed with seeing such a light. Our reaction to the marvel comes before our consciousness of it.
I’m not surprised that divine possession is hard to control: like wildfire or an affair, the beginning of ecstasy is much easier to predict than its ending. Like the falling star, it is a thing beyond us, free, wild.
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