I’ve had so much going on in my life over the past few weeks that I may end up doing a massive brain dump on you WordPressers just to get it all sorted out for myself.
I thought I was going to post the things I wrote about making incense with my students or the thing I wrote about homophily in Pagan study or the thing about avoiding defamation on the InterWebs or how proud I am to have three brand-spanking-new ordained priests in our tribe—three who put a full year of training and hands-on apprenticeship into their ordination rather than just writing a check and buying it.
But instead there’s this, a bit that came from my work on ministerial preparation and ritual structure. Maybe I’ll get to those other half-written posts in a day or so; but just now, I feel like I do when I have a massive research project going on and still have to function as a domestician, academic, witch, teacher, parent, woman, etc. You know, like everything in life relates to the subject at hand.
Here’s my life in a nutshell.
My eldest just got a TAship and a promotion in her research gig and a job and a dog and an apartment. She is a grown-ass woman and is doing her thing—and her thing is amazing. This is bittersweet.
My son has just completed back-to-back-to-back theatre productions; he’s been getting larger and larger rolls as his voice settles into a richly resonate baritone. He is a tremendously talented singer, dancer, musician and he has a large and wonderfully diverse (and absolutely loyal) friend-base. I love these kids. Some of them are seniors but most, like my boy, are juniors and have just one more year of high school remaining. A last year before they move on.
My baby has been volunteering at the hospital. Every Monday she spends her time in scrubs taking care of convalescing patients. And she’s hit that bumpy patch at fifteen that makes the entire world seem adversarial.
Aside from family things, I’ve had some animal things. Our little Lhasa Apso foundling is aging and that’s a thing in and of itself. Also, one of my leghorn chicks became overly attached to me, refused to keep her tiny butt in the brooder, and met the Catahoula and Springer Spaniel before I had a chance to teach them, “These are not mice. Do not bring them to me.” And I’ve had a favorite hen fall ill with what seems to be egg yolk peritonitis. She’s doing much better and is back out with her sisters today, and everything seems right as rain.
Speaking of rain.
The storms that pummeled the South this week left us unscathed—but only by the skins of our teeth. The spot where my daughter had intended to move was ripped to shreds, all the areas around everyone we care about were likewise clobbered. The important word is *around.* None of the clobberings hit home. How blessed are we?
And with all that, I’ve been thinking a lot about liminal spaces. Liminal in both a physical sense and a transcendental sense. The liminal spaces between childhood and adulthood, between high school and college, between adoration and animosity, between banal and magical, between beginning and being, between health and infirmity, and the ultimate limen between life and death.
It was mostly my little black Araucana hen that got me to thinking about limens.
More precisely, it was the threshold of the indoor chicken quarantine that started it all. She had been in isolation while ill and as she began to improve, I opened the door to her cage and invited her to walk around the house. The hen perched herself on the bar separating “inside” the coop from “outside” the coop and looked at the outside. Just looked. On her first few attempts to leave the coop, with great ceremony ,she opted to go backward and into the confines of the dog-crate-come-chicken-coop but eventually let me pick her up and settle her on the floor just an inch away from where she couldn’t bring herself to pass.
The Latin word, limen, literally means “a threshold.” Think of a doorway—a space that is neither “in” nor “out.” Those physical limens are commonplace enough—but what of metaphysical limens?
In our tradition, we have a unique ritual called “The Limen of Creation,” which, like the casting of a circle—or more so like the performance of the LBRP, draws upon the liminal recess between “ritual” space and “mundane” space. It’s not just a way of demarking the physical space of the enclosure of a ritual space, though. Liminality has a magical quality all its own.
Transformation happens in liminal spaces. Even mundane experiences like long, intimate conversations take on a trance-like quality where time can be “lost” and when the participants “emerge” at the end of an hours-long-conversation, as if from a trance. Liminality produces a condition which allows a space for magic in ritual. By its nature, there is a quality of obscurity, ambiguity, distortion, or disorientation that transpires during ritual; this is when participants are in transition—perhaps during an initiation or rite of passage, where they are becoming initiated but are not yet initiates. It is well recognized—even in mundane psychological theories—that, by its nature, processes of either integration or individuation take place within a liminal space.This is why so many of our magical traditions require that initiates cross a “threshold” and face a “challenge.”
Anyone who has seriously considered ritual structure realizes that there are two attributes to a proper rite—especially an initiation rite. Firstly, there has to be a structure to the ritual. Even if the rite is unscripted, it should still follow a meaningful sequence of events; and if more than initiator and initiate are involved, everyone involved should know what to do when and how—even if they don’t fully understand why just yet.
There should be no room for someone else coming in and seizing control of the rite. Seriously, I’ve seen this happen—someone decided to “lead” a rite but was so ineffectual in the construction of ritual that, on a number of occasions, more seasoned outsiders swooped in and took command of the ritual. Nature abhors a vacuum. If there is no center, the circle will shift until it finds one.
Related to that is the second attribute to a proper rite; they require one person to serve as a mediating agent to lead participants (especially an initiate) into, though, and safely out of the liminal space of ritual purpose or initiation. I’ll make a second post on this last part and the threat of mimetic leadership to a community in crisis. It’s too convoluted for one post.
Another element of liminality is “equivalence.” Because liminal moments intentionally interrupt —or even terminate —our typical sense of stability, liminal periods allow the possibility for (even long-standing) hierarchies to be reversed. This reminds me of all the research I did on Rabelais and the phenomenon of Carnivalesque order. During a transition—a liminal stage—customary differences (with the example of Carnival, think social class) collapse into equivalence. This is not necessarily a lack of structure—like the way the uninitiated imagine chaos—but the hyper-structure of fundamental human unity.
In liminal spaces one can see the fluidity and malleability of institutions that are generally perceived as fixed. That’s where the magic happens.
Imagine the changing of the guards or a formal changing of command. There is a (brief) moment where one commander is relieved, yet the “new” commander has not yet taken authority. In that brief moment, no one is in charge and everyone is suspended in equivalent unity.
Sounds great, right? However, it is for this reason that liminality can cause feelings of uncertainty, or even anxiety, based on the dissolution of order, and even intense anxiety. This is why such liminal periods are necessarily brief. Liminality is unsustainable and, by necessity, must resolve. Such states of intensity are too unstable to persist for very long periods. Well, mostly. Sometimes intensely unstable cultures designed around a state of liminality will be forced to develop their own internal structure to support the unstable exterior.
So, as a shorthand for the lesson I’m preparing for ordinates, here’s how liminality functions as part of an initiation.
First there is separation, followed by the liminal phase, and ending in reincorporation of the transformed individual.
Because initiation is about death and rebirth, the separation phase involves the images of actual death—usually a metaphor but sometimes only a metaphor or image of the threat of death. Think about Hyram Abiff in the masonic tradition. There might also be a traversing of the underworld—descent and re-emergence. Think about Innana and Dumuzi, even Orpheus and Eurydice (this last one also includes the common approbation about “not looking back”). This “death” allows for the elimination of assumptions and “old ways of thinking” or “being.”
This death is followed by a liminal phase. This phase is necessarily destructive—in that destruction is necessary for regeneration. That is why it is so important to have a leader that knows WTF is going on at all times. And not just in terms of knowing the “script” of the rite—but really understanding the ins-and-outs of the ritual structure so that if a step is missed, the leader can get folks back on track safely. Seriously, it could be detrimental to the psyche of those in transition—especially initiates—if, during this phase of considerable change, the reins were dropped and stability abandoned in favor of emotionality or sensory fulfillment. Don’t misunderstand—emotion and uninhibitedness are fantastic parts of ritual, just so long as someone is steering the energy rather than burning down the house. Consider that the liminal portion of the rite entails an actual traversing of a threshold. We do not want the blind leading the blind through this tenuous moment. We certainly don’t want a ritual principal who will lead us to the ends of the earth and then let us jump off a cliff (or worse, give us a shove).
Finally, there is the phase of ritual which reincorporates the participants (especially initiates) which now have a “post-magical-act” transformed way of thinking or being or even a new identity.
Because of the vulnerability of participants who have just undergone a period of intense sensitivity, liminal periods can permit the emergence of charismatic pretenders that assume leadership positions without the real know-how to safely traverse liminality. For this reason, such impostors tend to perpetuate liminality because they simply cannot find their way to the other side and yet do not want to relinquish control and allow a natural resolution of order.
As my exam—another liminal space where the semester is over, yet not over—is done and it’s time to go plan for tonight’s Walpurgisnacht–a terrifically liminal time–ritual, this is where I end for today and will pick up tomorrow, a discussion of mimetic leadership and the role of the trickster in periods of communal liminality.
Til then, waes hael and enjoy your Walpurgisnacht, Beltane, or Moifescht!
A roof in the Harz Mountains–Walpurgisnacht Blessings!
Liminal Landscapes: Travel, Experience and Spaces In-between. Ed: Andrews, Hazel and Les Roberts. Routledge, New York: 2012. Print.
Marc Labelle. Liminality and Emerging Adulthood. MA Thesis. University of Alberta, 2006. Web.
Thomassen, Bjørn. Anthropology, Multiple Modernities and the Axial Age Debate. Anthropological Theory 10.4 (2008): 321-342. Web.
Thomassen, Bjørn. “The Uses and Meanings of Liminality.” International Political Anthropology 2.1(2009): 5-27. Web.
 Until then, I highly recommend you have a looksee at this.
 Chicken diapers are hilarious.
 I don’t mean “read a book” or “looked Online” or “copied someone else’s.”
 Of course, otherworldly or “shamanic” initiations follow a different structure. I’m talking about humans initiating humans.
 Yes. I will footnote myself:
Farmer, Angela. “Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim and Aqua Teen Hungerforce as Rabelaisian Carnival.” Studies in American Humor 3.17 (2008): 49-68. Print.
(But also Web)
 But like I said, shamanic initiations are a whole ‘nother ball of wax.