I was only a quarter of the way up the rock face when I stopped to take a rest.
Sitting, slightly out of breath, on a rounded shelf of sandstone, I could see my car down below, parked by the roadside. Surprised to find it cloaked in shadow, I glanced over my right shoulder to see the sun, dipping low over the Rockies.
What was I doing up here?
I’d been driving south out of Denver, and had wanted to stop and stretch my legs one last time before the long drive into New Mexico. The sun had been higher when I pulled over, and the air, still warm and fresh. I’d stood and stretched and looked across the road, where giant slabs of orange rock, pitched against each other like fallen dominoes, glowed against the deepening sky.
I had no particular purpose in mind, when I strolled across the road.
I should have known better. I have a compulsion that makes me want to climb, and on a good day, when I can feel the energy flowing through the stone beneath me, it’s as if I can stick to the rock.
Just ask anyone who’s ever gone hiking with me. They will tell you how, when you least expect it, I’ll vanish from the trail, only to appear moments later, somewhere high above, calling down with a sheepish grin on my face.
It’s an inconsiderate habit to have on the trail, I know, but when traveling alone, it can be deadly.
So there I was, at an altitude to which I am unaccustomed, breathing air turned suddenly sharp and cool, my car, a shape in the gloom below me, attempting a climb that would be dangerous enough in full daylight, and no living soul could have told you where to look for me.
Afraid now, I began to ease my way back down toward the road and safety. Dropping off the rock shelf, and onto a heap of boulders, I felt the need to steal one last, wistful glance back up the rock face which had drawn me so powerfully onward.
And there they were.
Three ravens, where none had been before.
One wheeling in the sky, high above.
A second I could see clinging to the branches of a dead tree, rising from a gap in the rocky crown that had been my distant objective.
The third was standing in the center of the rounded shelf, almost precisely where I had paused to take my rest and come to my senses.
The three formed a perfect line from my vantage point.
The nearest of the great black birds, the one who seemed to be staring at me so intently, suddenly opened its beak and cawed loudly.
“Not today,” I answered, and began to make my way back down, the way I had come.
And now all three began a mocking chorus that echoed from the rocks around me. The terrible sound followed me down the cliffside and across the road, only to be shut out finally when I slammed the car door behind me.
I drove south that night in shame. The sound of ravens laughing still ringing in my ears.
What is it that the gods want for us and what do they want for themselves?
Many of us seem to imagine that the gods are very much like ourselves, with similar wants and desires. I hear many of my fellow polytheists speak of the gods protecting and guiding them. The gods, they will tell you, may act as our muses, our teachers, our kinsmen and lovers. They may defend or scold or even punish when the need arises.
I deny none of these things.
I have had similar experiences of the divine, at one time or another.
The gods, some of them, may truly love us, I have no doubt.
And what is love? How complicated and dangerous an emotion is love among us simple mortals. It has become clear to me that love seldom means exactly the same thing to any two people. How much must it differ among the many gods?
The exact translation of her name is lost to time, but some take it to mean ‘The Phantom Queen’, while others see ‘The Queen of the Slain’. She is a goddess of chaos, bloodshed, magic, sex and prophesy. According to the ancient lore, she may change her shape at will, becoming either crow, wolf, heifer, biting eel, seductress or crone.
She is as likely to give you the inside information you need to win a battle as she is to predict your ultimate demise. Indeed some see her as a demoness, taking nourishment from among the newly dead, while others see her as a psychopomp, plucking the souls from the bodies of the fallen and conducting them on black wings, to the lands of the dead.
She is sometimes a single goddess, and sometimes three (or even five).
I have seen her compared to the Valkyries, to the Fates, the Norns and to the likes of Hecate and Kali, but I don’t believe any of those comparisons are more than skin deep.
She is the Morrígan, and rather than trying to squeeze her into some easy to categorize box, it would be best to deal with her on her own terms.
And what are her terms?
My reading of the mythology would suggest that, if she loves you, she wants to see you either triumph against overwhelming odds, or die in the attempt.
As I said, love is a complicated and sometimes dangerous business.
I was haunted for a while after that foolish sunset climb.
At random moments I would experience a nagging feeling of something left undone. Occasionally, when I closed my eyes during such moments I would see that great rock rising up out of the earth, and faintly, in the distance, I could hear the raucous sound of ravens laughing.
It wasn’t often, mind you. Sometimes months would go by, when suddenly the feeling would return.
A year passed, and another, and another…,
And finally I went back, with a purpose, and not alone.
My girlfriend Donna hiked with me all day, and even joined me in some light bouldering, but when I finally decided to face that dreaded rock again, she opted to stay behind and watch my progress from a nearby lookout.
I had made it as far as that still familiar resting spot when I noticed that the ravens had returned as well. All three of them were gathered, resting in the branches of that distant, and otherwise barren tree, which I had noticed on my first visit.
Time seemed to stretch out as I stood there watching them, watching me, and then, with a deep breath, I continued my ascent. Climbing, and sometimes leaping, from point to point, free soloing my way upward, I made my way finally to a narrow cleft between two great slabs of worn stone. This narrow crack provided an almost perfect set of handholds and steps, allowing me to rise quickly up and depositing me at a gap in the crown of rock, where a gnarled tree stood, leafless against the wind.
I stood there, gazing out at the horizon, winded from the climb and not a little surprised that I had finally made it. When I finally reached out and touched the tree, the sky exploded with the guttural cawing of ravens. Looking up, I could see all three of them, circling directly above me. Their cries felt different to me this time, uplifting, triumphant even.
When I stepped back down again, I turned to look at what lay in the opposite direction from that which I had come, before heading back down again. I expected to see nothing more than another cliff face descending away from me. Instead, I found myself looking at a deep valley of tall trees bordered on every side by towering walls of rock. And through the trees, at the other end of the valley, I noticed a woman, seated on a flat stone, her back against a tree, looking back at me.
At first I didn’t even notice that silence had fallen again. Glancing into the sky, there was no sign of the great black birds which had circled there only moments before.
Across the valley, unreachable yet so near, the raven haired woman made not the slightest sign to acknowledge my presence. Yet in that moment, I could feel an overwhelming attention (and exaltation, and fear – the two emotions may be more alike than most people realize).
Whatever else I felt, or heard, or thought in those moments…,
That belongs to me.
I’ve never seen her again, but the ravens still visit me sometimes. They warn, and they guide, and they scold me with their gurgling laughter. And somewhere ahead, perhaps just beyond the horizon, there is another challenge waiting, another great rock to climb.
And whether I reach the top, or crumble and fall, I know who is waiting for me there. I know who will guide me at last to the lands of the dead. And I can live with that.