by Greg Stafford
All people in the Heortling society undergo a magical initiation into adulthood, which includes full participation in the world of the gods. Initiation is always gender-specific. Male initiation is entirely different and separate and is not addressed in this article. (See the previous Q&A for the male initiation). The Ernalda Initiation Rites are simultaneously an initiation into individual womanhood, society (family, clan, Heortlings) and the Ernalda religion. Previous to this rite the initiands are children, and thus restricted in many activities.
Each girl’s ceremony is conducted for her individually. Even if two girls qualify at the same time they undergo this separately.
The initiation is both a training session and a test. Previous to this she has had no real spiritual experience, being unable to use her immature spiritual organs. Her first menstruation abruptly opens her previously dormant spiritual senses and abilities. These need to be controlled for the safety of the individual herself, her society and the world at large. Training those powers starts when the rites release the girl into the Gods War, which she experiences in accelerated time. At the end she has tested her potential and knows where her strengths lie.
First menstruation (menarche) marks the awakening. The time of year is of no consequence, and the ceremony is always conducted as quickly as possible after the onset. When the women discover that a girl has bled then her community dons their sacred roles and visits the girl as her female ancestors and the sacred beings of her area. The women are unrecognizable to the girl. To her goddesses and ghosts and spirits appear.
The magical entities take the initiand away to a small square lodge that has appeared for this purpose. The lodge always lies between two types of ground, such as where a plowed field meets woods, or where a settlement meets the fields. A location where three types of used lands meet is even better, and sometimes it appears where four types of land meet. Importantly, it appears in a different place each time, depending entirely upon the whim of the ancestors.
Inside the lodge the girl is alone, naked and without anything but her body and her untried souls. She probably has heard of her five souls, but these had been hidden until her first blood flowed. It is a sign she now has power. Her initiation consists in large part of becoming aware of these new powers and learning their potential.
At first she will be afraid. The darkness and cold are strange, hostile and hurting. The entities of cold, darkness, fear, ignorance and so on appear and explain (or show) their positive and negative powers. She must make choices, perhaps agreements or promises, so she may, at that point, stop feeling cold and afraid. If she doesn’t settle with those beings then these entities (and their minions) dog her initiation trail, both impairing her progress and offering a chance to be understood. Somewhere along the way of her story she might acquire courage and intensity necessary to deal with fear, discomfort and her future death. Only after that can her deeper discovery begin.
After some time the girl thinks of her former life as a simple child who is cared for, protected and loved by her community. She remembers what it had been like to be among such a society, and the entities of her communities come forward to instruct her. She is touched by an awareness of her clan, her bloodline, her larger kinship groups, her relationship to the area, to a sacred group and so on. She finds herself in the Green Age. She is one of many beings in a blissful world. The little village of the Green Age is an idyllic existence without trouble. She may forget her name.
The girl knows many things already, but she does not know the meaning of these things. Throughout her journey spiritual beings appear to teach something specific about themselves to the girl. Since common everyday things have multiple possible meanings for their existence, different girls learn different deep meanings for the same thing. Hildarma may learn that baskets hold the entire world together, since the first one was made by Empress Earth upon the dawn of creation; but Jenarma learns how to make the three that are used to collect food, and Merta learns that baskets and blankets are the same thing.
Things happen to the tribe of women, and the girl moves into the palace of the Emperor. The Two Grandmothers take up separate residences. The cool shadows of the forest give way to the bright heat of the palace and the cold darkness, hidden deep away below in the basements of the world. Most girls go the palace.
To “Go to the Cellar” means to become a denizen of the Underworld. Conceivably one may be woken to its humanity, like the heroine Brachal, who established a method to worship underworld beings. But most initiands who go to the cellar simply die to the world, bereft of their whole self and sundered from the body that housed them. (The journey to Asrelia’s Cave is generally reserved for old women who can handle its jewels of power and majesty without losing themselves in them.)
A girl needs to wake all five of her souls. Until this is done she has a pervading sense of frustration, incompleteness or being suppressed by something. Those entities that hold powers of oppression come forward and explain their deeper meanings. Sometimes these entities quarrel with each other to prove that they are the real solution to the girl’s perceived problems, and the girl herself must intervene to settle it. But her experience in the palace continues her meetings with the spiritual powers and her self-discovery.
When the girl awakens her five soul-senses Ernalda comes forth and reveals how her power underlies the cosmos. The girl understands how her power affects the world and all of the feelings, thoughts and events that she has experienced. Ernalda says, at some point, “You are not a girl anymore.”
When a girl awakens all her souls she experiences an overwhelming power of strength and freedom. The powers that manifest those gifts come forward and explain their deeper meanings. The not-a-girl usually (though not always) departs from the palace and into the wild and dangerous Storm Age. She does just about anything she wants. She exerts her power by lending her support to the other gods and goddesses of her tribe as they shape the cosmos. She utilizes her new gifts to befriend and ennoble lovers, servants, protectors and champions. She decides what power to use and a messenger comes forward to take her to the event in the Gods War where she can exercise it. She accumulates experiences this way, and these generally result in her exposure to the same messengers and powers over and over again. In that manner the not-a-girl discovers who her guiding powers are.
At some point she questions the guiding powers, which give her instructions, pointers and hints for her future. They stand around her and chant to awaken those powers within her, so she is pregnant with them. She gives birth to her full self, and Ernalda comes forward and says, “You can be a woman now.”
These meetings with the guiding goddesses and spirits occur during the progress of the Gods War through the Storm Age. The can-be-woman experiences the consequences of her earlier choices, both good and bad, and witnesses how her earlier uninformed actions bring about the Great Darkness, when cold and fear once again rule everything.
The initiand now knows what it means for her to be a human being. She finds herself among the household of Ivarne during the Great Winter. Ivarne teaches the almost-woman how to use her powers for the good of all, and how to be a contributing member of the community that will provide comfort, safety and protection to the innocent children of their kin. Secrets are shared, so that no one believes she alone knows the secrets of things, whether it is baskets, plants, children, animals or men. The initiand see that where she is weak, others are strong.
The amount of learning is immense, and difficult to keep. The initiand becomes overwhelmed by her knowledge and experience and is unable to maintain it all in her consciousness. At some point during her experience as an Invarning the almost-woman succumbs to the Great Sleep. This passivity is essential to Ernalda and the secret of her power. When the almost-woman goes to sleep in the initiation rite she awakes in the world of her physical body. She cries out some secret words she as given by Ernalda. The women of her community, who have been outside the hut for the whole time, take the lodge apart (and burn it later) and listen to her relate her journey, offering advice and additional information. This lasts between one to five weeks. After that time the almost-woman is brought back to the clan amidst celebration and rejoicing.
Over the next two years the almost-woman does women’s (not children’s) work and participates in the regular worship rites of the clan. These ceremonies are very different than when she observed them as a child, and this time she will recognize the places and eras that she has actually experienced. She recognizes her own inner self in these ceremonies and reinforces her contact with the guardians. In this way she refines and concentrates her spiritual contact with a few among them. She starts figuring out which of the entities calls to her most deeply.
In addition to that spiritual development, she celebrates the gifts of her womanhood among her family and clan, entering into the pleasures of Ernalda, of courtship and matchmaking, nurturing her treasures and herds, preparing for marriage and the possibility of a new life in a new clan, and beginning her work as a co-creatrix of the cosmos.
After a time, between a year and three, the almost-woman achieves a balance of spirit and body, of the physical and not-physical. She eventually declares her intention to initiate to a deity and undergoes that, generally without any problem. As a part of those religious initiation rites the almost-woman re-enters her icy body slumbering in the Gods War and then she wakens from the Great Sleep. She completes the deity rites, is welcomed by her ancestors and Ivarne, and forever afterwards is a full woman.