Initiation Into Womanhood

Blending many cultures in a gift of love

One of the articles in Gender (IC#16)
Originally published in Spring 1987 on page 55
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Rochelle Wallace tells the story of an actual rite of passage that she and others of the Women’s Group of the Svaha Lodge created for a 17-year-old friend. The Svaha Lodge is an eclectic, non-structured spiritual community that explores ways to empower the individual for the benefit of the planet. She and other group members are specifically interested in bringing ritual and ceremony to women outside the Svaha Lodge. She may be reached at 818 25th St., Anacortes, WA 98221. (206) 293-6141.

AT THE CROSSROADS, ten women of the Svaha Lodge gather under a starry sky. We stand in ceremonial dress, each uniquely adorned in symbols of our personal journey on the spiral dance of life. We have prepared ourselves for this female rite of passage, and we wait, alert and expectant. The signal will come from Judy, whose 17-year-old Scandinavian exchange student, Mette, has asked us for an initiation, a rite of passage, into womanhood.

Ceremonies are not new to us: we’ve incorporated ritual into our women’s group to celebrate collective and personal transitions and transformations. But this one is special: I can see it in my sisters’ faces. This is a rite of passage not only for our collective daughter, but for ourselves and, in some unexplainable way, for the women of the world. It is the initiation we yearn for in a time that is past: it is the healing for the deep, collective wound that cries for balm.

I think about that other way of experiencing time, the way that is not linear but circular. What we do tonight can release us from our angst of the past by moving the unconscious in ways we will never know. But we do know that ceremony heals and empowers us, and we are ready now.

Some of us nervously giggle in anticipation: can you believe we’re doing this? Yes, I can believe it, we nod to each other, knowing how crazy this would appear to some, yet knowing in our hearts how fundamentally sane it is. The drumming starts softly, ta-DA, ta-DA, a muffled heartbeat of the universe, and we begin a chant that one of us has written for this rite:

We bring our daughter
We bring our daughter
Our woman way
Our woman way

Slowly, we begin walking down the rural road toward Judy’s home, imagining the drumming and chanting subtly slipping into Mette’s unconscious before she is alerted to our presence. Soon we are at the door; Judy, as Mette’s symbolic mother, and Judith and Linda, her handmaidens for the evening, enter. Chanting, they move toward her room. She is sitting on her bed, and her blue eyes are wide; she has known only that the ceremony would take place within these last two days. Her eyes tell the three women that she wonders, now, what she has gotten herself into. But this is no wallflower, this young woman from a far-off place. Judy asks, "Mette, are you ready to embrace your womanhood?" Mette answers, "Yes."

The ceremonial blanket is wrapped around her shoulders, red diamonds on grey wool representing the red of menses, the red of the Mother’s blood, the red of passion. Linda and Judith lead her from the room; they will be by her side throughout the evening, as helpers, as sisters, as midwives. The four join us at the door, still chanting, and we begin the gentle uphill climb. I recall the Native American tradition of praying as if life depended on it ("Because it does," one Huichol shaman told me), of praying in the name of the wider community. Here is our daughter, and we know the weight of what we do. Dear Mette, we do this for you, for ourselves, for the world, I think as I chant. We do this sacred act that you, that we, that all people may live.

We climb into the van, a snug circle with Mette in the middle, and chant our way down the road about a mile to the Lodge. Leaving the outer world behind, we take off our shoes and enter this special, sacred place that has held us and nurtured us so gently over the last few years. Tonight, the room is filled with the scent of our earth’s sacred herbs, of burning sage and cedar. Votives offer their warm glow to the rough wood walls, and branches of cherry blossoms form a lacy canopy of promise in the entrance. As we move into our customary circle, we breathe in the beauty of the room and of each other, and smile.

Judy steps to the center to open the ceremony with a blessing, a statement of our sacred intent. Though we often interweave masculine and feminine, tonight she calls upon the female powers of the four directions, the sky, the earth, and the moon. She lights some sage inside a large seashell — or tries to — and we giggle as it goes out; lighting the sage, and keeping it lit, has become a standing joke: who’s got the magical touch this time? But finally it flames, then smolders as she blows out the flame. The smoke, the breath of the Great Spirit, the breath of life, rises as if it is indeed a spirit. Slowly, she walks around the circle with the shell of sage and a large feather, smudging each woman. Sage of the earth, bird of the air, embers of the fire, shell of the water: the elements join us. Some of us simply breathe the smoke: others gently fan it over our bodies in this ancient ritual of purification. We feel ourselves begin to move to a deeper level of reality. In this eclectic group of women, we mix traditions readily: Native American, Goddess, Christianity and more. By now, we are rarely surprised at how well they work together. But tonight’s rituals have been chosen with Mette in mind; some, we have created specifically for her; others have evolved as our experience has grown. We’ve done the intellectual work by preparing the evening in detail, always focusing on making it a positive but challenging experience for this young woman whom we’re beginning to know and love. But I wonder how she will receive these goings on; might we unintentionally offend her? Frighten her? Judy has prepared her as best she can by sharing some of the things we do, but now it’s time to let go, and simply do it with as great a love as we can find.

We sit on the floor and begin a series of culturally and religiously diverse chants and songs as we continue our deepening, accompanying ourselves with drums, rattles, bells and tambourines. We sing each chant for several minutes, aiming for that seven-minute length when the brain’s neo-cortex lets go and the primal connections begin. I become aware of voices deepening and gaining power as the ancient parts of ourselves begin to stir. Now the sound comes from the solar plexus, the belly, not the throat. We are singing with our souls; we are singing women of Mother Earth; we are singing women of power and strength.

Wise woman, woman wise
Embers burning in your eyes
Wise woman, woman wise
Embers burning in ancient eyes.

When the chanting subsides, Judy asks Mette the initiatory questions: "As a woman, what do you wish to receive from this world? As a woman, what will you contribute to it?" She has prepared an answer which she speaks from her heart, and it touches us deeply. We respond with "amen," "ho," "blessed be," "may it always be so." Linda asks Mette for her giveaway, and she teaches us a lullaby in Danish. Suddenly I am struck by the paradox: we are birthing this woman, birthing her from childhood into womanhood. And she has provided the birthing song.

I recall the beauty of a story Linda’s husband Rick told of their youngest son’s unexpectedly quick birth at home: he spoke of how three-year-old Cody was distraught at Linda’s cries of pain until Rick said, "Cody, there is no need to worry. Mama is singing Jesse into the world!" And Cody was satisfied and at peace. It was a birth our women’s group shared, for we followed the ambulance to the birthing center to greet minutes-old Jesse, and held Linda in our arms as the midwife tended to her.

I look around the circle at the faces of these dear women, recalling the countless births, deaths, and rebirths we’ve shared: the birth of children, the birth of our selves; the death of one of our sisters, the death of our selves; the rebirth of the Self. The distinction between literal and symbolic death and birth has blurred. Where, I wonder, is that clear delineation between literal and symbolic, of which I felt so certain not too many years ago? In this realm of a deeper reality, does it even exist? I am not so certain of anything now, except mystery, and grace, and the fact that we are indeed ceremonial beings, native beings, storied beings.

Linda’s voice brings me back to the ceremony. "We wish Mette to enter womanhood with dreams," she says. "What are our dreams for her?" She invites Mette into the center of the circle, as we make ourselves comfortable around her. Linda uses her gift of storytelling to guide us on a meditative journey; once at our inner destination, we let images rise from the unconscious to tell us of our dreams for Mette. When we finish, we do not speak, but chant quietly as Carol and Sue leave to prepare the sweatlodge.

We are women who dream
We are women who dare
We are women who act
We are women who care

Ten minutes later, we walk the winding path, partly lit with candles, down the hill through the firs, bare feet on the damp, cool earth. "Eyes on the bottoms of our feet! Eyes on the bottoms of our feet!" I recall hearing from that celebrated ritualist Elizabeth Cogburn. How my feet can see when I let them!

The blazing fire that heats the rocks crackles and dances. The candle-lit outbuilding is cold, and we shiver in the silence as we fold our clothes and wrap ourselves in towels. Mette’s handmaidens take her clothes and fold them gently, laying them in a basket with great care. They wrap the ceremonial blanket around her as if they were mothers tenderly swaddling their child. We begin to walk to the sweatlodge, with Mette nestled in the middle of the line. The grass is cold and wet; the fire illuminates the blankets covering the low dome of the sweatlodge. Struck by the variety of patterns on the blankets we’ve brought to help keep the heat in the lodge, I realize they are as diverse as we are: age, religion, past experiences, careers, family, beliefs — we are all so different. Yet like the blankets, we come together to create a holy place of meaning, of living, of weaving our lives together like some kind of patchwork tapestry that warms us all.

We gather in front of the east-facing entrance to the sweatlodge, where I explain the practical aspects of the sweatlodge as minimally as I can. Then I say, "Prepare yourselves to enter this most female of holy places: the womb of Mother Earth. Here, we invoke the spirits, and the spirits come. Here, we cleanse ourselves, we die and are reborn. Here, we pray, we sing, we stretch ourselves to endure the heat, dark and steam. Here, we offer our support and our dreams for Mette, and in doing so, we re-member, we re-vision our own entry into womanhood."

Sue steps forward to offer water to the four directions, the sky and the earth, pouring some upon the earth, asking that it purify us in this special sweat. She raises it to the new moon, the perfect symbol of new womanhood, in homage.

We enter the low door on our knees, moving counter-clockwise, the direction of the feminine in many cultures. The dim, earthy lodge is already hot from the pile of glowing rocks firetenders Carol and Sue have placed in the center hole, the navel of the Great Mother. Mette enters last, her handmaidens at each side. She sits by the door, the coolest place, though hot by any standard once the steam begins. Linda eases down the door canvas and blanket; suddenly all traces of reflected firelight are gone. The rocks no longer glow, and it is incredibly dark in this womb of our rebirth. We are about to take another step into the primal depths. Here, we return to our source, the Great Mother, Mother Earth.

I check with Mette, then everyone else, to see how they’re doing. Mette sounds good; I realize her experience with Scandinavian saunas has been helpful. Disembodied voices answer "okay," "fine," "good." There is a transitional silence, and I begin the sweat with a prayer: "Great Spirit, Mother Earth, Great Goddess, Mother/Father God, Eternal Mystery, Christ Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer: by all names, by all aspects, we call you, the One True Thing, to be with us here tonight. Oh, Great Spirit, hear our voices: we speak in earnest; we speak from our hearts. Behold us, your daughters. Behold Mette, your daughter for whom we pray and sing tonight. Bring us your female power! Help us to own it, to love it, to share it. Help us to be loving channels for your spirit. We ask this, oh Great Feminine Face of God, that we and all people may live."

Carol pours water across the rocks; it sizzles and hisses as an unseen cloud of steam rises and moves outward toward us, blasting us with a wall of heat. We begin easy, but even so the heat takes our breath; there are groans as we adjust to our amniotic fluid. I find my voice and begin the Sumash Indian chant which calls the spirits to the sweatlodge, feeling the sound vibrate through me and around me as the others join in. I signal the end of the eight rounds with my rattle and begin the Chant of the White Buffalo Woman, the female aspect of the Great Spirit in the Sioux tradition.

For me, these Native sounds resonate with meaning and images; for others, English Christian hymns, Black spirituals, Hindi or Buddhist chants, ’60s song refrains speak more meaningfully. After the opening chants, the women periodically offer songs from their own spiritual journeys. These are gifts, I think to myself, gifts to the Great Spirit in gratitude for blessings seen and unseen, known and unknown. These are gifts for Mette, too, given from our hearts and souls.

More water dances unseen on the rocks; as the heat grows, the sweat begins to pour off our bodies. We pass around water to drink, offering it with care and love to the woman next to us. Mette indicates that she’s okay; one of our sisters who has difficulty with heat scrunches down to the ground to breathe cooler air. Although we know we can leave at any time, we all intend to stay. A few of us have been in excruciatingly hot sweats, and we know that the visions often come after the point at which we think we can no longer bear the heat and steam. But the intention tonight is to challenge us gently.

"What are our dreams for Mette?" I ask as the water comes full circle. We begin to share, one by one, describing the images that came to us as we journeyed in the Svaha Lodge. The dreams are rich, beautiful, touching, and sometimes funny. These are woman images, thick with meaning for us. Some of us cry at their poignancy, for they come from our souls and they speak of what we want for ourselves as well.

We begin to chant: "We are the flow, we are the ebb; we are the weaver, we are the web." I cannot see my sisters’ faces, but their voices tell everything; I have never loved them more than now, though our love has been powerful, our bonding deep. Here we sit in this holy place, not even clothes to make us separate, marking our place on the spiral journey. Oh this sweet microcosm of our world! How deep and abiding is our weaving on this web of life.

We sing a favorite song, one which speaks of our hopes and dreams for ourselves, for Mette, and for each other:

By my life, be I spirit
By my heart, be I woman
By my eyes, be I open
By my hands, be I whole

By your life, be you spirit
By your heart, be you woman
By your eyes, be you open
By your hands, be you whole

By our lives, be we spirit
By our hearts, be we women
By our eyes, be we open
By our hands, be we whole

As more water hisses on the rocks, I open the sweat to spontaneous prayers. They come from around the circle; prayers coming from open womanhearts. "Mother/Father God, may this be so for Mette." "Wakantanka, may this be so for us." "Jesus, hear our prayers." The intimacy of shared dreams speaks in our prayers. "Heart’s desire, Thy will be done."

Somewhere in that inner place of knowing, we intuitively sense that Mette the child has moved into womanhood. Starting quietly, then building, we chant:

Strong woman, wise woman
Earth woman, sky woman

A final pouring of water on our sacred rocks, and we begin the last round of the sweat. "We welcome you to womanhood, Mette," I say, "now that you are a woman, you are our sister, and we offer you our stories." We begin to share our wisdom lesson of womanhood, and how we learned it. Wisdom from pain, wisdom from joy. "Wise woman, woman wise, embers burning in ancient eyes."

We sing Mette’s lullaby, now our lullaby, as we draw the birthing sweat to a close, and finish with a group prayer of gratitude. Each prayer is different, each prayer is offered simultaneously, prayers naming children, husbands, lovers, friends, regions, countries, as we ask for blessings of our Mother/Father God for our interconnected web of life. The counterpoint of female voices is itself a benediction of sacred sound.

"Sisters, we are being birthed into the world as new women," I say. "Let us leave the womb." We crawl out on our knees and try to stand on the wobbly legs of newborns. We reach for jugs of ice cold water to wash the sweat away. The icy water is a shock, like a first breath in a new world. I fall to the ground, arms outstretched, to embrace the belly of Mother Earth. Later, we stand around the fire that burns like the fire inside us now. Great Spirit, we give deep and enduring thanks.

When the time is right, we return to the outbuilding to dress; Judith and Linda offer Mette beautiful new silk undergarments, then wrap her again in the ceremonial blanket. We walk up the hill to Svaha Lodge, where we dress her in her ceremonial costume, a gift to her from the women. She is adorned with symbols of life, symbols of womanhood, jewelry of feathers, beads, shells. We laugh and sing and talk, filled with joy at her joy, her beauty, her big, wide open grin. Dee has brought food and drink; we begin singing and telling our stories.

We end the evening with a circle, arm in arm. I wonder how much time has passed; it feels like days, like years, like lifetimes, like minutes. We chant:

We are the old people
We are the new people
We are the same people
Deeper than before

The mysterious healing power of ceremony strikes me to the heart as tears flow down our faces: We have midwifed not only her, but ourselves and Everywoman.

Our daughter is a woman now, and our lives are different for it. Mette has gone through the rite of passage: the rite we never had, never held in our memory, and now do.