Originally published in Peacock Goat Review Vol. 1 No. 4
This is likely going to be the hardest article I’ll ever write. I chose the topic at the beginning of the month. Neptune began its transit into Sextile Natal Uranus in my chart and I suddenly found myself profoundly interested in unordinary states of consciousness. This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself looking into this topic but this time it took a turn I wasn’t expecting. For a good week or so I listened to nothing but Terence McKenna lectures. There are two which really stood out to me; one where he talked about sharing DMT with shamans and their reaction to it and the beings which Terrence named the machine elves, and also one concerning the topic of insanity. These two lectures became the catalyst for the line of thinking that ultimately ballooned out into this article. I realized that his description of the DMT experience has some interesting parallels with Gilgamesh’s descent into the netherworld from Mesopotamian mythology and I decided I was going to make this the topic of my article. However, I had no idea just how personal this topic was about to become.
The title of this article comes from a song by the band Ghost entitled Pro Memoria. In many ways, death has become a near constant companion in my life over the past 3 years and in a lot of ways my magical path has been created and shaped by it. April 1st, 2015; that date will forever be stained with the emotional scars it left on my life. That was the day my mother died and my world was changed forever. My mother and I never had an ideal relationship. She was a Christian fundamentalist and I was born a rebel. We were both equally stubborn and single-minded and this meant we often argued. It isn’t incorrect to say that a large portion of my childhood was shaped primarily by this adversarial relationship. I saw myself as being a catalyst for everything she was against. In some ways that proved more true that either of us could know. Still; despite all this she was also my anchor. When I needed advice, she was there. When I needed help, she was there. When I just needed a shoulder to cry on; she was there…until she wasn’t. It was a long, slow path down that road.
She had been battling cancer for something around seven years before she finally met the hooded skeleton in the road and that time was like a slow rollercoaster ride into hell. Every time it seemed like she was almost cured and the cancer stopped showing up on screenings; it would come back and shatter our hopes and dreams again. It was like it was taking some kind of sick pleasure in messing with our expectations. Then one day I visited my mother in the hospital. I generally tried to avoid going to the hospital; seeing my mother all hooked up to machines and such was something I had a hard time handling. Partially because I’ve always been incredibly squeamish, and partially because I wasn’t ready to face the cold reality of my mother’s mortality. For whatever reason I made a point of going and I’m glad I did because the conversation we had is something that I will forever hold in my heart and all the sour and bitter notes it carries with it.
That day my mother had had another surgery. She’d had many by this point and every time they told us it was life or death but every time she had pulled through so it had become rather routine. I came into the hospital room and found my childhood friend there visiting with her too. We talked a bit and caught up some and after awhile she went home and it was just my mother and I in that room. I still remember all the details like it was yesterday. The horrible beeping of the heart monitor. The wind on the huge glass windows at the side of the room. The cars that passed on the street below as you looked out it, the disquieting dull panic from the hallway outside as nurses rushed from one patient to the next.
I still remember the voice of the nurse that brought my mom her last real meal. I didn’t see her face as I was busy staring out the window. I don’t like looking into people’s faces under good circumstances but she was also there to tend to the equipment that was hooked to the machine. She had a cheerful attitude and tried to mask her emotions but something in the waver in her voice told me what I and I think my mother already knew; the surgery had failed and this was it, cancer had won.
We didn’t know right away and in that time while my mom was eating that crummy hospital food that would ultimately be the last thing she ever tasted (Why do they make hospital food so horrible? Shouldn’t people’s last meals be something pleasant?) we had a conversation that would serve as a kind of bookend to this chapter of my life. She told me she wasn’t afraid to die but that she didn’t want to leave my sister and I behind. It was a hard conversation to have and I wanted to ask so much more; I wanted to know so much more but it broke me and I left somewhat prematurely soon after.
While this wasn’t the last time I spoke with her, it was the last time I really felt like she was my mother. After that, she was there but fading and it was like she wasn’t the same person anymore; like her soul was slowly leaking out of her body until there was nothing left and she lost consciousness. Then like the slow changeover of fall into winter which only becomes obvious at the first snowfall I didn’t have a mother anymore.
Since then I’ve lost both of my maternal grandparents, I’ve lost my great uncle who in many ways was like a third grandfather to me, another uncle and I’ve lost both of my paternal grandparents. My grandfather’s funeral was six days ago as of the writing of this article.
I took up the mantle of writing about death and like clockwork death raised her ugly hand and took another one. At my grandfather’s funeral my uncle-in-law told me something that’s echoed in my mind ever since he told me.
“He chose this, in a way.”
In ways I can’t even begin to describe coherently this one seemingly simple statement has turned into both the biggest weight on my recovery from this grief and also the catalyst for everything I’ve slowly come to realize over these past two weeks:
I’m slowly becoming a faceless ghost in reverse; and it’s making me wise.
In the Sumerian religion, one way someone becomes a faceless ghost is for them to be buried improperly and their living relatives forget them. Sumer was a society that placed a great deal of importance on ancestor worship. Giving food and drink offerings to your dead ancestors was seen as a way to honor them and give them a more pleasant time in the netherworld. The city of the dead was a rather unpleasant place where they are given “clay for food and dust for drink”, a description given often in myths concerning the land of the dead. In the Sumerian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s constant companion, enters the underworld on his behalf in order to retrieve something that was lost. When he returns Gilgamesh asks him about the fates of the various people who live there.
“Did you see him who had seven sons?”
“I saw him.”
“How does he fare?”
“As a companion of the gods, he sits on a throne and listens to judgements.”
“Did you see the spirit of him who has no funerary offerings?”
“I saw him.”
“How does he fare?”
“He eats the scraps and the crumbs…tossed out in the street.”
By this account my grandfather is like him who had seven sons and he is likely sitting on a throne right now listening to judgements as a companion of the gods.
In any case, I find myself slowly becoming like him who has no funerary offerings; one by one I’m finding myself all alone in this world. I’m becoming faceless. I am becoming no face. I am slowly becoming like a forgotten ancestor in reverse; not as one of the dead but as one of the living. In many ways this has been the realization of my greatest fear, but it has given me the gift of perspective. If there’s one solace in becoming death’s friend, it is that you stop fearing her. I know now that when she arrives to cart me off into the land of the dead I can go with her gladly.
Still beyond that, it has given me the gift of being able to stare at her face as my own. Early in my magical path I had an experience. I gazed into a darkened bathroom mirror and like a scrying surface it showed me what was hidden only instead of seeing a spirit or some hidden phantom I saw myself as a corpse; as the undead visage of death herself. It is an image forever burned into my memory like some kind of intellectual retinal scarring. It is something I’ve had to integrate into myself in order to move passed. I have become like death. I have destroyed worlds and shattered dreams.
This perspective has emboldened me to probe the depths of the underworld as one who calls it my home and as such I have dug up some very interesting parallels not just between the image of the underworld in the mesopotamian sources and the DMT experience, but also in the image within so many paths throughout the world.
When a person dies, the sumerian sources say that their soul is split into three pieces; the breath of life, the water of life, and the gidim. The breath of life returns to the sky under the domain of the god Enlil and the goddess Ninlil as one of the Lil; wind spirits which are often depicted as birds and can be thought of as sylphs; the spirits of the air.
The water of life…we don’t really know. Unfortunately this part of the text has been lost. Presumably it returns the the Abzu, the underground freshwater spring which also serves as the well of souls. This is my best guess based on the available information.
The gidim is the egoic part of the personality. It could be called the shadow or the shade. It is carried off into the netherworld by the galla demons. Their name literally means “seizer” and they are described as having claws that one can’t easily escape from. For whatever reason I’ve pictured them as looking like the Hopkinsville Goblins though they function not unlike dwarves; the spirits of the deep earth. This is the part of the soul where your consciousness resides and this is the one the Sumerians concerned themselves with when it came to their ideas of the afterlife. They drag your gidim into the underworld through the passage of a giant tunnel which runs so deep you can’t see a light at its end until you are most of the way through it. Gilgamesh only makes it through by passing without stopping so he knows he’s still going the right direction. Once they enter the underworld they must cross a river called the Hubur by catching the ferry which is manned by Si-lu-igi. In the Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, he is called Urshanabi and he spends his free time collecting an as-of-yet untranslated type of snakes in the forest. This has an interesting parallel within Greek mythology in the river Styx and Kharon, its ferryman. Once across, one enters a kind of waiting area before the gates of the city of the dead. It is here that Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, the hero of the Babylonian flood myth, who tells him he can’t go any further as one of the living and tells him his story as a sort of consolation prize to bring back to the world of the living.
This is where Gilgamesh’s descent ends however other mesopotamian myths take this concept further. In the story of Inanna’s descent this is precisely where it picks up. At the gates of the city she meets Neti, the gatekeeper, who she beseeches to allow her entry. He warns her that this is a path from which she cannot return. He is instructed by Ereshkigal, the queen of the underworld, to let her through but to deal with her according to the ancient decree and so he does. At each gate he strips her of one item of clothing and lets her pass. She goes through seven gates and is then presented before Ereshkigal completely naked and she is judged.
This has some very important symbolism with direct parallels in both the DMT experience, in various magical traditions and in occult initiation.
Firstly, Taoism too teaches that at death the 3 parts of the soul separate and go their separate ways. In Taoism it is the Hun “cloud soul”, the Po “white soul” (the ghost) and the yang energy. The Yang energy disperses into the world around. The Hun returns to the heavens. The Po must descend into the underworld and release all of the yin energy it has penned up before it can ascend again and the cycle of life renew.
Beyond that, in Tibetan buddhism, it is taught that at death the soul must face a series of lights and depending on their karma will either be allowed to pass into Buddahood or be reincarnated into one of the six realms or “bardos”. Each stage represents a layer of stripping away of one’s egoic personality.
In the DMT experience as described by Terence McKenna, the experiencer first must breach the threshold of DMT needed to obtain a state called “breakthrough”. Once achieved, they find themselves traveling as if sucked violently through a long tunnel dumping them into a room full of bouncing spirits which has been nicknamed the “waiting room” who are excited to see them and happy to interact and show of neat tricks which Terrence called “machine elves”. For those who’ve followed up to this point you should already start to see strikingly similar geography to Gilgamesh’s descent though in a slightly different order; traveling across a threshold, passing through a tunnel and arriving in a waiting area. Where things get really interesting is when you consider what the shamen told Terence McKenna what they thought the spirits where; ancestors. Where Gilgamesh met Utnapishtim, the ancestor of his people, they met spirits they identified as their ancestors.
So now onto the occult significance. Firstly, Gilgamesh must first descend into the underworld by way of the tunnel. It takes him twelve leagues of walking before he reaches the other side. By the time this version of the story was written, the twelve signs of the zodiac had been settled upon by the Babylonian astrologers. Twelve was a sacred number in Mesopotamian culture at the time. They used a base 60 number system and 12 is one fifth of sixty which was a convenient fraction which is actually the reason our clocks have 12 hours but 60 seconds and 60 minutes. In any case, if we think of this in occult terms then we can think of it as the first astrological year of our initiation. In my case it represented slowly going through a dark night of the soul which only seemed to get darker and more despairing the further I went until I was back in the same sign I started in; Cancer, the most horribly named of the signs, where I met a girl I fell in love with.
Next, when Gilgamesh crossed the Hubur, he had smashed Utnapishtim’s typical mode of transportation so he made Gilgamesh create twelve poles to use to push him across. and think of using the twelve signs of the zodiac to push us along in our journey this starts to make a certain level of symbolic sense. Double this by the idea that we must face the twelve again then this sees a kind of secondary significance as the second year of initiation. We make tools, we use those tools to help us cross to the other side, but ultimately we must leave those tools behind. In my case, it wasn’t a tool I left behind but a person; It meant breaking up with that girl I had fallen in love with because I came to realize the relationship was destroying both of us.
Then we reach the shore and we are met with our ancestors. For me this came in the form of understanding my past and how all these various pieces came together to make me who I am. The circumstances of my birth, my parentage, my family, my heritage, my culture, my upbringing, my natural ideas about the world, my experiences, who I fell in love with, what I was interested in; all of everything that makes up the parts of my identity.
But facing it isn’t enough; we have to let it die. We have to let our ego die in order to pass. You can’t enter the land of the dead as one of the living. For me, it meant giving up everything I had built up around me defining who I was. I had to question everything and everyone I held dear. This ultimately meant leaving that relationship behind. One by one, gate by gate, sphere of initiation after sphere of initiation, I left the pieces of my ego behind me. It’s at these gates, at these spheres, that most people mistakenly think their initiation began, but the process started way before you perform your first ritual. The ritual comes more as an inevitable conclusion of where you’ve been than an actual conscious decision, though you might convince yourself otherwise. At the bottom of this cycle, I found myself naked, without form, faceless, before the incarnation of both death and birth herself, as a formless consciousness at the bottom of a vast abyss.
But death isn’t the end of the book, it’s only the end of the chapter. The next part of the descent of Inanna is that the spirits came, sent by Enki, the goat, lord of the waters of life, (which is also a Sumerian euphamism for semen) and revived her. She was given the tablet of the knowledge of the land of the dead. She understood death, she understood the spirit world. Then she ascended once more and was given her items of clothing back one by one until she emerges fully clothed but with a newfound wisdom gained by her experiences. In the same way, we must reconstruct our egoic consciousness one piece at a time from the inside-out in order to rebuild ourselves into the fully actualized spiritual being we are meant to become.
But like everything that still isn’t the end. Inanna’s story is part of what’s called in mythology a “cycle”. It was represented ritualistically in mesopotamia as a part of the rites for the coming of the seasons. It was repeated in public performances every year as the seasons changed. In the same way too, our cycle continues. One initiation isn’t the end, it’s only the first step on to the next, over and over, climbing the ladder of initiation, of epiphany, of seeing further and further into the heavens, seeing out into eternity. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, but you have to keep walking to go on and when you get to the end, you come back home and start preparations for your next. Stagnation is a fate worse than death. Change is the lingua franca of life itself; perpetual dance.
I’ll end this the same way it began; with the lyrics of a song.
And just consider what we do everyday. Dances. The human dance. The flower dance. The bee dance. The giraffe dance. Do something rhythmic. Dance, sing, play games. There’s a sudden wonderful rhythm. Some people like to knit. Others just like to breathe! Now you see, our very existence is a rhythm. Waking, sleeping, eating, and moving. And that’s all we’re doing! And just consider what we do everyday. What’s it all about? Does it really mean anything, Does it go anywhere? Dances.
~from “Do Something Rhythmic”by Pogo
Black, Jeremy, et al. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford University Press, 2008.