"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Sunday, May 31, 2020


Death rides the Camel of Initiation.

Aleister Crowley, 
Liber 333, "The Book of Lies"


THE BRAZILIAN STATE of Amazonas is one of the largest territories in any country in the world, close in size to the US state of Alaska or Australia's Queensland.  It is also mostly tropical jungle.  The combination of rainforest and immensity makes Amazonas fascinating in another way; it plays home to peoples relatively untouched by the modern world.

The Sateré-Mawé number roughly 13,000, and are one of the indigenous peoples native to the area.  They speak a form of Tupian, a language still found in scattered pockets around Brazil.  Given my daily coffee intake, I feel a certain sense of kinship with them; the Mawé were the first to cultivate guarana, a plant with caffeine concentrations more than double that of the coffee bean.  

I mention this plant not merely because of my caffeine addiction.  It has an interesting origin story. The Mawé will tell you that once upon a time, long, long ago, a beautiful child was born in a Mawé village.  The child was not just beautiful to look upon, but gifted with a sweetness and goodness to match.  Like so many peoples, however, the Mawé have their Tricksters.  This one led the beautiful child to its death.  The villagers could not be consoled.  Fortunately they also had some beneficent deities, and one of them, to comfort these grief-stricken people, plucked the eyes from the beautiful child's dead skull.  The left eye he planted in the wilderness, creating a wild species of guarana used by shamans and medicine people.  The right eye he planted in the village, to ease their suffering with cultivated guarana.

Even the gods understand there is no pain caffeine cannot cure.

Now, if you have any sort of fascination with mythology you are already way ahead of me, but let me underscore the universal message here anyway; loss and suffering--aka "sacrifice"--results in transformation and change.  The death of the beautiful child gave his people the magic of guarana.  Odin's crucifixion on Yggdrasil brought us the Runes.  Christ's crucifixion opened the way of redemption.  Without pain, there is no growth.

Which brings me to the ants.

Paraponera clavata, the "bullet ant," scores a perfect 4.0 on entomologist Justin Schmidt's pain index.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is the gold medal of insect stings.  People who have experienced clavata's loving ministrations have compared it to being shot.  Those who have been stung and shot in their lives say they would rather take a bullet again than the ant.  It is, simply, the most excruciating agony an insect can cause you.  Forget wasps.  Forget the honeybee. When the bullet ant stings you, you wish for death.

The perfect gift for your 13-year-old.

Slight detour.  Bear with me.  When I was a boy I was extraordinarily annoyed by a Jewish friend's bar mitzvah.  Not only did he get this fabulous party, at 13 years old he got to be a man.  I found this singularly annoying because I was taller than him and had, to borrow a Greg Staffordism, "come of hair" before him.  Yet his culture had this thing where at 13 he suddenly became recognized as an adult, while I had to wait five stupid years.  Worse, all he had to do was get up and read the Torah to his congregation.  It felt unfair to me that my culture didn't have a comparable adulthood rite.

I might have felt differently had I been Mawé.

When a Mawé boy turns 13, ladies and gentlemen, there is no Torah reading for him.  Instead, the Mawé collect those bullet ants and fill a pair of mittens with them.  They irritate the ants to make sure they are properly angry.  Then they make their 13-year-old boys wear these rage-ant laden mittens for ten minutes.  The boys are not to cry out.  They are experiencing pain that people have compared to being on the receiving end of gunfire, they are 13, and they are supposed to suffer in silence. Only thus do they make the transition from childhood into being recognized as adults.

And the Mawé, my friends, are getting off easy.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, among the Bukusu people of western Kenya, 14-year-old boys undergo the sikhebo.  Jangling chinyimba bells he goes from house to house, getting gifts--and insults--from friends and relations.  He is called a child, a "sissy," and told he is not ready to become a man.

That evening, while everyone gets drunk on busaa, a cow is slaughtered and the boy is smeared with the contents of its bowels.  Like the Mawé boy he is not to cry out of show fear. He will be forced to remain awake all night while alternately taunted and instructed in what it means to be a man.

Then, at dawn, without anesthetics, he will be circumcised with a knife.


Glorantha is not the "real world," but it is among those fantasy settings out there that hews closely to it, especially in terms of myth, ritual, and traditional cultures.  I suspect this has everything to do with who Greg Stafford, its primary creator, was.  Greg was not just a lifelong scholar of mythology, he was a self-described shaman.  He left us, and this world, in his sweat lodge.  So Greg knew a thing or two about how traditional societies work, and he knew a great deal about initiation.

We don't really do initiations any longer in the quote-unquote "civilized" world.  Our post-modernism safely assures us initiations are all mumbo jumbo, and we know so much better than that.  I expect that several readers out there would regard the practices discussed in the passage above as child abuse.  In writing Rites of Passage, the male adulthood initiation ritual for Heortling boys as practiced by the Haraborn, I had the boys seized in the dead of night and thrown roughly into pits.  I expect some in the Gloranthan community would call that child abuse as well.

But as long-term readers of this blog have already surmised, I know a thing or two about initiations myself.  For nearly twenty years I have been a member of the O.T.O., which describes itself as an initiatory organization, and though I have taken oaths not to speak of them, I have been through a number of initiations as a result.  They were all ordeals.  

That word has an interesting story.  We throw it around today to mean something difficult, but of course the original definition--going all the way bay to its Proto-Germanic roots--is a trial that divides.  The "deal" portion of the word is actually from the same root as "dual" or "duo."  So an ordeal is a ritual that divides you, it separates you.  From what?  On one hand it separates you from others; after the ordeal you don't belong to the same group you did before.  In case of manhood rites we are literally separating the men from the boys.  But I opened with a quote from Aleister Crowley for a reason; the point it is making is that every initiation is also a death.

In an esoteric sense, death is synonymous with "transformation."  When the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the caterpillar is "dead."  What the Bukusu or the Mawé are doing therefore is not some simple fraternity hazing, they are transforming the boys from one thing into something else.  While our post-modern initiations are essentially window-dressing (being handed a diploma at graduation, for example), traditional societies regard them very, very seriously.  Make no mistake, those boys are being killed.  The men who take their place are transformed.

There is a temptation--a very real one--to impose our modern sensibilities on the peoples of Glorantha.  The Heortlings could simply have a party for their boys to welcome them into manhood.  They could gloss over issues of gender and have everyone simply go through the same rituals together.  YGWV and there is no wrong approach, but I suppose what is at issue here is what Glorantha means to you; is it a fantasy world in the sense that you can use it to redress the disparities and inequalities you perceive in this world, or is it an attempt to recreate and engage with traditional worldviews?  Greg firmly saw it as the latter.  So do I.

Thus it was important for me for both Rites of Passage and The Riddle to be ordeals.  The boys tossed into the pits and the girls walking into the Riddle never come out again.  Instead, brand new men and women do.  Death and transformation have to be part of the formula.  These are births, and births are accompanied by difficulty and pain. In preparing both I paid a great deal of attention to what Greg had to say on the matter, as well as traditional initiations like those described above.  To remove the pain is to misunderstand what initiation is about.           

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