Dragon Rouge - a journey through the labyrinth
The blue flint is lying cracked open, its cleft heart glimmering in the late afternoon sunshine as thunder clouds gather. Crystalline tears caught for eternity. My left hand is clutching three giant raven feathers, a shimmer of female pheasant wing and a ball of soft, fresh wool shed by the mothers' of the lambs leaping and bleating in this lush green field in the heart of the Hampshire South Downs. I have purple rhododendrons sprouting behind my ear, just where the old man who appeared from behind the giant red wood tree the day before told me I'd find them.
I didn't think I'd receive so many gifts, I wasn’t expecting any. Surely I can fit this stone in the palm of my other hand. It is coming home. It feels like a stone amongst giants. I have become Alice Through The Looking Glass, stepping through the mirror into a world of rune magic.
Shapeshifting, I had entered the labyrinth, drank from the heart of its well before my ascent, as the raven sang to the drum and our runic chant, with the breath of Odin on the back of my neck, transcendent.
Another turn in the wheel.
I dreamed this blue full flower moon before it began. I woke up in Southsea on the last dark moon, on the eve of a house whispering (to clear the hungry ghosts I sensed had lingered too long) and wrote the following notes in my half sleep:
"The North keeps calling,
for I am part Norse.
This water of life
that courses through
my fountain heart
from its mountain ranges,
and its fjords.
Oslo is in my breath,
My mother often there,
in the background;
when we sailed
a thousand islands
in the green dawn."
I am shown:
to work with stones
and I realise
I already know
how the stones speak....
I am shown:
catch and release
Two weeks later I find myself sitting in a pool of my own tears that sprang forth from that fountain heart whilst an accomplished storyteller and rune magician spins the old tale of the Water of Life. I've forgotten most of the story, since my own well rose up at the point the Old King banishes his youngest son over a misunderstanding and a web of lies spun by his older siblings.
I'm caught by the power of myth that takes the listener deep into their own well of memory. I'm that youngest son, only now the youngest daughter, being banished by my father at sweet sixteen, cast out from his kingdom with nothing but the clothes on my back and some school books. Banished into the big wide world for four years, cut off because I'd transgressed his dictat; banished because I was his shadow, I was his mirror. Banished because I was too sensitive yet dared to fight back, to fight his fire with my own. The last time I saw him alive, he banished me again; five years after we'd reconciled, his last words to me "we are too (two) alike" were ringing in my ears. I was twenty five. Then he was gone. Taken by the giants of the Southern Ocean, where the wind reaches 60+ knots and the sea is a wall 40 feet high. How he was driven to battle those giants. An experienced sailor who could still navigate by the stars and a sextant. Three attempts racing around the world alone. Countless solo voyages across the Atlantic. In the end they were simply too great for one man in a small boat. He was not coming home to his kingdom. I knew that before he set sail on that last voyage. I sensed so did he.
I am my father's daughter.
The tears aren't stopping and I don't have a handkerchief. The sleeve of my red dress will have to make do. The tears are still not stopping. There is a happy ending. I think. The youngest son passes all the tests and finds his beautiful wisdom bride. He returns with her to wear the crown, I think. It's all a blur. I'll have to listen again another time. I'm too busy releasing the old tears of my own banishment, my own rite of passage gone wrong. Or maybe, through that very act of banishment, it had gone right in the way that it had meant to. Written into that contract my soul had signed the day it was born. Then promptly forgotten until now, sitting here, in front of strangers, big fat tears burning my cheeks.
The story ends.
FUCK. I can breathe. I haven't spontaneously cried like that in response to a live performance since the great horns of Tyr blasted through my body. That was at the opening of a concert through the runic cycle performed by Norwegian band Wardruna late last year. That too was Otherworldly, and touched something deep inside me in the way this story had. A stone broken open. I know the language of stones. Three recent deaths in as many months, three soul journeys to help cross over, and now the dying days of my Uncle, my father's youngest brother, the youngest son, upon us. The old kingdom is crumbling. The grief keeps on coming. The Water of Life in my fountain heart keeps pouring forth.
We haven't even had lunch or gone through our seven souls. I'm back in the barn. Biscuits and a kitchen towel are warmly thrust in my hand. I carry on.
In the afternoon, we enter the field in few yards down the lane. We start laying out a runic labyrinth to travel through the rune cycle using the magical Uthark system. We're heading into Petra, the central well of Urd in the roots of world tree Yggdrasil, deep within the womb of Hel in the Underworld, before ascending up to completion with Fehu, the last rune in the row. Our tree rooting us for this journey is a mighty, ancient oak, in a field of mighty dancing trees. They will be our witnesses; they will hold our space as we descend. We place our runes in the map of the labyrinth marked out below the tree. Most of the group are carving their runes for the first time. I place the set I made last year for a recharge. What quest are we seeking as we enter?
Then the drum starts to beat. Our rune magician leads us into the labyrinth with Ur, the beginning. I'm riding my eight legged horse drum Paskadi. We begin to chant the runes. I notice how gusts of wind start to blow our paper markers out of place and make the trees dance some more. I can feel Odin's breath surrounding us. I notice how the dog runs across the labyrinth upsetting carefully placed runes, the trickster Loki. I notice how the beat of the drum shifts with each step on the descent, until it reaches a crescendo as we cross the mighty flowing river of blood and enter the great gates of Hel. I keep focused along the silver path as we walk past the sea of the dead, our ancestors, here in Niflheim.
Not everyone reaches this point. And that's OK. You have to be ready to enter Hel. I've been here many times. I know this place. I am not afraid. Again I meet Nidhogg, the dragon of Niflheim guarding the entrance to the well of Urd. Three months earlier I birthed my own dragon self; since then the dragons have come thick and fast. Dragon power. It is strong. An ancient mother power. Dragon teaches me many lessons. I have danced with Chinese dragons in the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, with a dry Mongolian wind burning the back of my throat. Now I am sat with the dragon of the North. Dragons still live here in the Downs, if you know where to look.
We stand at the well in the centre of the labyrinth. A very old woman with her hood shading her face steps forth and takes my arm. Leaning in she says: "This is your contract, keep doing the work. Your knowledge is growing so play your drum, keep chanting the runes. Now drink from my well."
We each take a sip from the chalice, a great horn filled with water. We have journeyed a long way. We are glad to rest a moment. Two more of the group are sat by the oak. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my back. We can see the raven watching us from the great pine tree. He begins to sing. When we start our ascent he sings even more in reply to our rune chants and the drum beat. Never have I heard a raven sing so loudly and for so long. The gods of Asgard are pleased to be remembered. Odin, the all-father is giving his blessing. Keep doing the work. We start drumming again. The magician disappears. I know I must keep the beat. The oldest Norn was right, keep instinctively doing the work. Time wobbles. He reappears. As we stretch up into Algiz, the sun's warmth floods through the branches of the tree; every time I open my eyes the trees are dancing even more. I am tripping off runes in this field. The magic is palpable. Finally we reach Fehu, and we've each understood what gift we have been given in the labyrinth.
I emerge taller, stronger, grateful and in awe. Here are primal forces older than the earth itself. My horse has carried me through. I am blinking in the afternoon light. Something feels different. Something has shifted. We do a small ceremony of gratitude and drink again from the horn. Odin is so present. I haven't felt him this strongly since I was deep in the heart of Kingley Vale holding my own 'Memorial to the Wounded Warrior' amongst 2000 year old yew trees from dusk until midnight last Samhain. There the trees told us to keep feeding them. Here I am again, feeding the trees, this time with my drum, rather than my rattle.
Now we do a rune reading for a group member. Here under the oak. It is a powerful release. The fountain of the Water of Life flows again. The runes are such great keys to access the part of ourselves that requires attention.
The day is done. We pack up. Most people drift off. The rune magician disappears. Time has stretched in the way it always does when working with the runes. I'm glad to linger and chat with the event organiser and another of the group who is sharing a drop of cherry wine. Just the three of us. It helps me to re-enter this world, enough at least to drive back to Portsmouth. I stop on the way by the field where I think the Celtic temple to Epona, the horse goddess is. I sense I've got the right field, but will have to return to be certain. There in the flowing River Meon I throw my offerings to the water of life, to Epona, and to Freyja since they had been lying at her feet all day. The strawberries, the apple, the flowers. I remember it is a blue flower moon. Somehow I make it home and get ready for a birthday party. I still feel very Otherworldly. It feels strange. I’m not quite ready to re-enter Midgard.
I spend the next morning in a daze, I’m drained, I’m between worlds. I focus on legal paperwork. It is tedious. I decide to draw more runes and cards to complete the reading I’d started before the workshop to ask what it would bring. The full reading makes total sense - it sums up the journey, the labyrinth, the light and the dark side of the runes, the shadow world, the upper and lower worlds; the knowledge and an initiation. This indeed felt like another initiation, to a new level of rune work. That's what I like about the runes. They are such simple symbols, yet so deep and rich, forever giving more information. I drew the full moon card - I always get that on a full moon - this pattern is emerging. Some of these cards have come up before - others are new. I like the way they combine with the runes to give the images added depth.
I need to get back to that field for completion. Something there is still calling. I need to find Epona too. I’m meant to be doing a poetry reading that evening in a pub, yet I’m still not ready to be with people. It's a short drive from Southsea to Meonstoke, and I visit the village where I would regularly go for a pub lunch with my mum and grandparents. This is the landscape where I learned to ride as a child. A beautiful part of the Downs. Also the last part of England to be Christianised by the pro-pope St Wilfrid who travelled down from Lindisfarne (100 years before the Vikings came) to turn the Anglo Saxon pagans of the Meon Valley towards a Christian god. They were resistant, but famine and hunger makes ready converts. The Romans and Celts (the Atrebates tribe with connections to Gaul) before them had worshipped here too. The remains of the only known temple to Epona in the UK is in the corner of a farmers field just off the A32 close to the river. A horse and her foal were buried head-to-toe in the heart of a rare hexagonal structure. The wall of the larger temple building is now on display in the British Museum, but the evidence about Epona has only recently emerged. Nearby was a bathhouse, with the enchanting painted fragment of a wall mural showing a woman’s breast. Archeologists from the University of Winchester dig suggest this was a local water deity, the goddess Meanna, from whom the River Meon gets its name.
I find the field, but can’t get too close as its private farming land. I see another large raven fly down so I follow him. He lets me take a photo, I catch him in flight heading right for the temple. I see a swan on the river, looking towards Old Winchester Hill, the Iron Age Hill fort with its bronze age barrows where I lost one of my rattles at New Year. I can understand why this site was chosen for ritual and ceremony for the horse goddess. The White Horse spreads right across the South Downs - I pass five pubs dedicated to her on the drive back to Sussex.
I have one last stop to make. I find the blue flint and the feathers before the thunder claps and the heavens open. I make it back in time to enter a different mythos with my story about Talos, inspired by the Cretan Topolia gorge and its mountains. The pub poets bring me back finally into Midgard.
Yet, something is still spinning and fizzing. The next day I start bleeding. I haven’t bled for over six months. I thought I was done with this. This is bright, thick, primal blood. Gushing. This is dragon's blood. Le Dragon Rouge. I know just what to do with it.
That evening I dance the dream, I dance the field, I dance the labyrinth, I dance the runes, I dance the dragon. I am dragon. As I dance, the sun casts two runes on the wall, Ur and Is. There flies a raven angel, its ragged feathers elongating as the golden light slides down the wall. Then it has flown. I am complete and back at the beginning. Kingdoms may come and go, but I am sovereign in this magic land.
With many thanks to Andreas Kornevall for taking us on this journey; to Kezia Hoffman for hosting the workshop and storytelling events in the wonderful Granary Arts Centre; to Caroline Carey for her Middle Earth Medicine movement classes; to Leo Sedgley and his band of Guerilla Poets, and to the fellow dancers, seekers and wordsmiths flowing down river. Contact details and links here.