“Drinking the water, I thought how earth and sky are generous with their gifts and how good it is to receive them. Most of us are taught, somehow, about giving and accepting human gifts, but not about opening ourselves and our bodies to welcome the sun, the land, the visions of sky and dreaming, not about standing in the rain ecstatic with what is offered.”
–Linda Hogan in Sisters of the Earth
The women have gathered in a large open living room, under high ceilings and banisters draped with goddess tapestries, their faces are turned towards me, waiting expectantly. We are here for our first overnight Red Tent Retreat, our women’s circle’s second only overnight ceremony in ten years. We are preparing to go on a pilgrimage. I tell them a synopsis version of Inanna’s descent into the underworld, her passage through seven gates and the requirement that at each gate she lie down something of herself, to give up or sacrifice something she holds dear, until she arrives naked and shaking in the depths of the underworld, with nothing left to offer, but her life.
In our own lives, I explain, we face Innana’s descents of our own. They may be as difficult as the death of an adult child, the loss of a baby, the diagnosis of significant illness, or a destroyed relationship. They may be as beautiful and yet soul-wrenchingly difficult as journeying through childbirth and walking through the underworld of postpartum with our newborns. They may be as seemingly every day as returning to school after a long absence. There is value in seeing our lives through this mythopoetic lens. When we story our realities, we find a connection to the experiences and courage of others, we find a pattern of our own lives, and we find a strength of purpose to go on.
My parents have a lodge close to a river. On the property, there are two springs, one smaller and easily accessible, the other issuing forth three million gallons of water a day, but farther away, along a narrow trail through the woods and along the river bank. Today, we will pilgrimage to the second spring to collect some sacred water for our ritual. I invite the gathered women to join me on this pilgrimage, explaining that in some way, they will pass through gates of their lives as they walk, that they will likely have to lay down something, and that, I promise, they will learn something about themselves. While there is power in guided meditations and visualizations that take you to sacred springs, I say, there is nothing like actually doing it. Rather than imagine we are walking through the green woods, along the river bank, listening to bird song, and the sound of flowing water, we will actually be doing those things, together.
Seven women accept my invitation and we set off together, picking our way first through rocks and then through muddy puddles and slippery grasses. I am a little nervous as we proceed. What if I have promised a magical story, a lesson, an adventure that cannot actually be delivered. As we walk the increasingly narrow trail, bordered by rock on one side and the river on the other, we do indeed pass through several gates, one created by a fallen tree trunk bridging across the trail, another created by a very small spring that emerges from a small cave and flows across mossy rocks to join the creek created by the large spring. The rocks are slippery and navigation is difficult, most of us emerge from this “gate” with wet feet and shoes.
We reach the large spring at last, muddy feet, wet shoes, sweaty faces, bug bitten thighs. I climb down the steep hillside to where I can reach the water, filling the two jars I have brought with me for this purpose. Before we do so, we sing in gratitude for that which we are receiving. I hold the jars aloft and say, we return, bearing this sacred water for our people! A few feet away, one of my friends, a comfortably large woman with a goddess of Willendorf style build, asks if I mind if she takes a dip. She slips out of her caftan and stands for a moment on the rock, unapologetically naked under the blue sky. She slips easily beneath the water, fully immersed, and then emerges, icy water rippling down her full form. I love that one of us has in fact, become fully naked and unadorned in the “underworld” of our journey together.
On our return path, the larger group moves quickly ahead. I am carrying both jars of water and walk slowly with the two friends who have given up their shoes on our descent and who have to walk carefully across the uneven ground. We reach a bend in the creek and a point in the trail at which we must boost ourselves up by an exposed root. My shoeless friend reaches her hand to the root and as she does so a fallen log dislodges and rolls down the hillside at her, bringing a startlingly loud shower of dirt and small rocks with it. A friend further ahead on the trail turns back, reaching her hand down for our water jugs, so that I can reach my hand down to our other friend. She tucks the jars of water into her shoulder bag and then leans back over towards us to help. Suddenly, there is a thud, a rolling sound, and a splash. One jar of sacred water has rolled from her bag, down the bank and landed with a splash in the creek, where it is immediately whisked away by the current. Our sacred water! I cry. Oh, Inanna…calls one friend, with a small smile and a wry shake of her head. The woman who dropped it immediately sets off along the trail, running along the narrow path, the bobbing jar still in her sights as it navigates the curves of water.
The rest of us continue to walk. We lose sight of our friend. We reach the point of the creek in which we think she would have gone through the woods to try to retrieve the water and she isn’t there. We call her name and she doesn’t answer. We feel a small edge of concern. Where did she go? I find myself musing about what lesson can be found in pilgrimaging to acquire something and then losing it and returning empty-handing. There is a mythopoetic understanding to be found within that as well, I’m certain, though less exciting than returning with the gift we have promised to share with our people!
Then, ahead of us on the trail, after the cliffside, and where the path opens back up into grassy bottomland again, we finally see our friend. She is immersed to her waist in the icy water and in her hands, held to the sky, she holds our jar of sacred water.
We are full of excitement as we return, chattering about the rescue of the water, her daring plunge into the current to retrieve it, and the physical reality of our own shero’s journey of descent and return. I’m totally writing about this! I say, do I have your permission? She laughs and says, I love how this story has become about me rescuing the water instead losing it in the first place!
We return to the rest of our friends at the lodge, where they have been dyeing prayer flags with indigo. Before we go in, my barefoot friend touches my arm and asks to take a selfie with me. My hand goes to my sweaty, disheveled hair, I know my face is red from heat. I want it just like this, she says, to remember this wildness.
Inside, we share our sacred water with the others. We dip it into small spray bottles which also contain small gemstones and essential oils with names like Serenity and Balance. This water ends up traveling to Germany with one friend, who uses it to center herself while traveling. It blesses a mother and new baby at a baby blessing ceremony. I use it as a sacred space spray to clear my workspace before settling down at my computer. It is used in the footbath for a maiden at her first moon ritual.
This water is imbued with our collective magic, the reminder that what is lost, can be found again, plucked from the current and into the story of our lives.
This post originally appeared at Feminism and Religion.
If you’d like to explore more of the messy, beautiful real-life work of practical priestessing with me, I invite you to join me in our upcoming in-depth Practical Priestessing course or in our ongoing Red Tent Initiation self-study.