The Ordeal Path: Introduction to Neo-Pagan BDSM

In the last ten years or so, people in the BDSM community have begun to realize that dramatic, intense, and even dangerous sexual practices can be used as spiritual tools for a variety of purposes. Sometimes this realization comes about by looking into the SM-like practices of older cultures, which mostly have to do with their religious beliefs. Sometimes it comes about more radically and personally, in the middle of a scene that was just supposed to be kinky sex, but suddenly became something much deeper and older and more connected to the Divine. Sometimes, after one clears one’s head and comes down from the experience, one starts to say things like, “That was closer to God/the gods than I’ve ever been before. How do I get there again?”

Primitive cultures have used physical and emotional and sexual ordeals in order to achieve altered states a lot more often than we modern westerners would like to admit. We can utilize some of their techniques, but their contexts are often opaque to us, as we weren’t raised in their tribal culture. We need to create our own set of ordeal rituals that resound with our experiences and yet do not partake of the negative materialism in our society. Indeed, they should ideally be an antidote to it.

We can see a beginning of this yearning for physical ordeal rituals in the wave of modern primitivism sweeping the country, with its attendant practices of piercing, tattooing, and other temporary and permanent body modification. The fact that teens flock to it in droves speaks not only of the enduring problem of peer pressure, but of the driving need for rites of passage that feel real, that feel as if one has actually survived something worth doing. Those who go on past the point of belly button rings and Mickey Mouse tattoos may find themselves hanging from hooks on a suspension rack, seeking – and possibly finding – oneness with the Divine Force through their own flesh and brain chemicals. They may not realize that this is what they are unconsciously seeking until it comes and gets them, however, and this is why the folks who oversee such things should be well versed in ritual and magic as well as simply where to stick hooks and needles.

BDSM & Neo-Paganism

The neo-pagan community has, in general, been more than a bit suspicious of the BDSM and body modification phenomenon that is slowly gaining momentum across its demographic. Their objections are many. Radical pagan feminists may still be wrapped up in the political concept that all painful sex or sexual power dynamics are, or will inevitably become, abusive. People who just don’t like pain may see its deliberate infliction as abusive, and the desire for that infliction as sick and codependent. The black-leather-and-studs urban aesthetic that soaks so much of BDSM may seem to clash dissonantly with the bucolic fantasy aesthetic of neo-pagans, whose priest/esses all too often dress like Galadriel or an escapee form the 1960s hippie movement. Its other aesthetic, that of its primitive tribal roots, may discomfort idealistic pagans who would prefer to ignore the darker or more painful aspects of the “natural” primitivism that they idealize. Straight pagans may see BDSM as something that queers in leather bars do, and queer pagans may see it as an infection from 1950’s marital power dynamics. No one seems to want it anywhere that children might see it, and perhaps be swayed from a fruit-and-flowers ideal of “normal” happy sex. And, finally, most don’t see how it could possibly be sacred.

All acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals, says the old maxim from “Aradia”, and it has been taken as gospel by most pagans. However, people tend to be extremely subjective about what looks like an act of love or pleasure to them, and they tend to judge it on their own desire for that act, not whether someone else might find it just the ticket for a hot Saturday night. All too often, if it isn’t something they want to do, then it must be bad. One can almost sense that desperation covering up for a sense of guilt…..if that sort of thing is acceptable, someone might ask me to do it, and I’d have to say no, and I’d feel guilty. So it’s easier for me if it’s simply unacceptable and no one would ever dream of asking it, or if they did, I could act horrified or superior instead of risking rejection. Maybe that’s not most people’s reasons for acting like that, but sometimes I wonder.

All Acts of Love and Pleasure

Let’s make this personal instead of theoretical. I was asked by a fellow author, busily writing a book on pagan sexual practices, to talk about how sacred sexuality worked in my life. I put the request on my desktop, thinking that this would be the easiest thing in the world – after all, I believe that sex is sacred, right? I do ritual sex on a regular basis. This questionnaire ought to be a piece of cake.

Except that it wasn’t. It sat there for weeks, and every once in a while I’d pick it up and look at it, and put it down again. Finally I got angry with my Self, and demanded to know what the problem was. Thus cornered, Self admitted that there was indeed a problem, and it was one of Self-censorship. I’d been assuming that I ought to write something sweet and New Age about sexuality being sacred, and the body being sacred, and we should all just find new ways to love each other, and all that.

Screw that. That’s not what my sex life is about. I decided to be honest instead.

I’m a pervert. I’m a sick fuck. By that I mean that I am incapable of getting it up for anything vanilla. In order to be sexually satisfied, I have to have some sort of real violence or pain or domination going on – if only in fantasy. My sexual fantasies are all incredibly violent and grotesque, and so is my porn collection. I am a serious fucking sexual sadist, and I’ve got a decent masochistic streak in there as well. For Hel’s sake, I own a slave. And I do mean *own*, we’re not playing about it. I like blood and knives and vicious beatings and scaring the shit out of someone. No human being is ever more attractive to me than when they are so frightened and turned on that they don’t know whether to shit themselves in terror or come really, really hard. Even among BDSM aficionados, I’m one of the edge-players, the folks who the “ordinary” leather folk look at funny and talk about behind one’s back. This is the way I’ve always been. I can’t change that. I’m wired this way.

And how can that possibly be sacred?

I’ll tell you how. Because I am also a shaman, I have died and come back (literally, had a near-death experience, a series of divine visitations, and a sex change, and that’s about as severe as a shamanic rebirth gets in our modern culture) and everything I do must be channeled towards the sacred. I am as much as slave as my boy is, and my Mistress, my dominatrix, She Who Owns My Ass, is Hel, the goddess of Death. And she is one mean fucking top. If I don’t do what she wants, she will kick my ass from here to Niflheim. And she makes sure that I stay ethical, and in spiritual service to my people and my tribe.

(Who are my tribe? They are many and scattered. They are my family and my religious group. They are my transgendered brothers and sisters. They are my queer and perverted brothers and sisters. They are whatever pagans come to me and need my help. I am one of the few shamans who serves these groups with a whole heart.)

Pain, Catharsis, & Power

I’ll try to break it down…I’m writing a book on this, called “Dark Moon Rising: Pagan BDSM”. I’ve found that spiritual BDSM can be broken down into three major areas. I work with all three. They are:

1) Using carefully applied pain in a specific ritual context in order to bring the bottom into an altered state by using their own endorphins, and thus bring them closer to Spirit. Human beings have been doing this for eons. Traditional examples of this are the Lakota Sun Dance, the Hindu Kavandi ceremony and ball dances, the Catholic flagellatory orders, and so on. It’s the Ordeal Path, one of the Eightfold Path of altered states, and it’s easier than doing drugs. To give someone this experience, the top has to be skilled, knowledgeable, respectful, and compassionate, and really love making someone hurt real bad. It’s the Initiator path. I know it well, and I do it for people – sometimes as a service, sometimes (with my own lovers) because I choose to take them down that road for their good and mine. As a sexual sadist, I crave hurting people. To do this work makes it not only ethical (through consent) but sacred, and gives them a gift of an intense ordeal that they will not forget, and that will help them work with their own limits around pain and fear and endurance.

2) Using intense psychological theater in a ritual context to create a personally-tailored emotional ordeal for the bottom, whereby they travel to the dark places in themselves and come out safely, and having learned useful things in the process. This is the archetypal Journey To The Underworld, and the top has to be both the psychopomp who gets them in and out, and the stand- in for the implacable Death Gods who inhabit that dark place. To do this job, the top has to be perceptive, good at reading people, dramatic, good at creating intensely moving ritual structure, and utterly ruthless. We have to channel the Underworld forces through ourselves, and we cannot chicken out or we cheat the seeker. Whether it’s the rape or molestation victim who needs to reenact her issue to get a better handle on it, or the phobic person who needs to face a fear head- on, or the grieving one who needs to be forced to cry….it is our sacred task as priest/esses of the Underworld to take them all the way in, and get them back out alive and better than they were. As a psychic vampire, I crave fear and pain and anger and sex. This is the way I’ve found to get it that is not only merely ethical – which is a zero-sum game – but is sacred as well, doing far more good than harm.

3) Using full-time serious D/s as a spiritual path. This is rare even among perverts. My boy and I practice an extremely serious level of dominance-submission work (i don’t call it play, because there is nothing playful about the way we do it) which means, in essence, that he has sworn his life to serve me. To him, it is a path of sacred service that is very much like being a monk or nun; he’s referred to being owned as “the monasticism of BDSM”. Neo-paganism rejects monasticism and spiritual discipline, which I think is a big mistake. On my part, I have always had a strong psychological need to own someone completely, and he has always had a similar need to be completely owned. This has gotten us both in trouble with unsuitable partners, before we could quite figure out what it was that we needed.

At any rate, for me this amazing gift of his service is a test that will last the rest of my life, a lesson in using power ethically and wisely. I have great power over another human being, of the sort that most people are convinced will inevitably result in corruption and abuse….and yet I don’t have the option of being less than rigidly ethical about it. I can’t abuse him, or Hel will come down with her spiked boots and kick my ass. Using power wisely is a lesson that is to be driven home to me in this lifetime, and I can neither screw up nor refuse the gift. So we have a very elaborate contract as to what I may and may not do to him, and what he is required to do for me, and I have a lot less power than most “fantasy” tops, by my own choice. He is the king’s servant, the priest’s monk, the master’s padawan. I must respect and aid his spiritual path of service, which means I have to get it right.

I would say that the theme of the point where my sexuality and my spirituality cross is one of redemption. The monster in my psychic basement is awesome. Turning his every tainted desire and drive and need into something useful, something that serves others, something that serves the Spirit, and yet gets that monster’s needs met adequately, that’s the challenge that drives and structures my entire life, not just my sex life. I live by spiritual discipline, because it’s the only safe choice – for myself and for others. Somehow, Hel needs a sick fuck vampire sadist to get this job done. She finds me useful as I am. I’m not arguing with her.

And it Harm None…

The main ethical rede of the neo-pagan community is “An it harm none, do as thou wilt.” How, people ask, can it be anything but harm when someone stumbles out of a scene with bruises and welts? When their blood runs in trails down their body? When they weep and scream and are trodden under someone’s heavy boot? When they sign their life over to someone else that they will call Sir or Ma’am for however long their agreement lasts? Or, alternately, when they put themselves in a place where they could become a tyrant, a monster, a serial killer? Where one slip could start them down the slippery slope that ends with bodies being buried in the back yard?

Look into our eyes. By our desires ye shall know us. We who are changelings of the Dark Moon, whose wiring is built for this sort of thing, we are not happy with the fruit-and-flowers sex of the upper world and its sunny gods. We are like Inanna, who walked willingly into the realm of Death, who was stripped of her name and her power, who was hung on a hook over the throne of the Queen of Death, who had to be ransomed back by those who turn gender on its head and who are willing to weep. She did it because there was no other way to touch the deep wisdom that she sought, no way but to stumble along dark paths to the katabasis point, and trust in all the wisdom of the Underworld that you may one day emerge triumphant.

Look into our eyes. When we return with those bruises, do we walk taller and stronger? When we touch our cuts, are we more serene? When we give up our power, do we grow more sure of ourselves? When we accept power over another, do we learn more compassion? Do we return from the Underworld better for the journey? That’s how you know, those of you who are worried, whether we’re doing it right.

Look into our eyes. If you see darkness reflected there, is it the darkness of roots, of ocean depths, of the night sky and the sickle moon, of the graves of the Ancestors? Is it sacred darkness? Does it smell of Herne’s thick woods, of Kali’s cremation ground, of the hem of the robe of the Crone? Is it the burning ground of resurrection and rebirth? Does it frighten you? It doesn’t frighten us. We’ve been there. Its ashes are smeared on our foreheads. Come follow us down, even a little way.

They say that once people had walked into the cave of the Eleusinian Mysteries, had seen the sacred rites of which nothing true can be spoken, that they no longer feared Death. We are struggling to recreate our own versions of those mysteries, and the one thing we know better than all others is that they cannot be easy. There is nothing easy about the Ordeal Path, but then again, nothing worthwhile ever turned out to be easy anyway.

Take the roses into your hands, and squeeze the thorns until your hands bleed, even as you smell the scent of Aphrodite. When you can understand why there is no contradiction there, the first step of the path will be open to you.