(Update: The psychomanteum has been retired and is no longer in service, but I’m leaving this page online for archival purposes.)
The Black Tent Temple is a small, enclosed, privately owned spiritual incubation space I designed at the Hermitage. It features a psychomanteum – also known as a mirror gazing room, portal, spirit room, oracle of the dead, or incubation chamber. This space was completed in November 2013. It is tended by the resident hermit and temple keeper (that’s me) and made available for the use of guests by appointment. I started booking exploratory sessions for the community in early 2014.
The purpose of the psychomanteum at the Hermitage is to facilitate the processes of inner focus, emotional alchemy, acceptance, and surrender that allow deep embodied guidance, gnosis, healing, and visions to arise.
The work I do in support of this sacred space is inspired, in part, by the Red Tent Temple movement, by James Bennett’s essay “The Earth’s Dark Underbelly,” and by Peter Kingsley’s lucid writings on spiritual incubation – most especially his book In The Dark Places Of Wisdom (see quotes below.) Thanks also to the dark ambient band Psychomanteum, whose excellent album Onieronaut originally inspired me to look up the word “psychomanteum” and find out what it meant!
Rebecca Merz, a transpersonal psychologist, describes the psychomanteum as “a mirror-gazing technique that was developed in ancient Greek times, used for divination of souls. Basically…an oracle of the dead. People would go there…as a pilgrimage to find out information from the deceased. Raymond Moody studied this, and brought it into contemporary times as a way to try to contact deceased loved ones to help with grief.”
In a fascinating video interview with Dr. Merz, the psychomanteum process is described as “a service offered to grieving individuals who are open to exploring a possible connection with a loved one who has died. The experience may assist in addressing feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, or other emotions in response to the death of a family member, child, friend, pet, or other relationship.”
The context of the work to be done through the psychomanteum at the Hermitage will be different, since I am a temple keeper, and not a psychologist or counselor. The process can be useful for people from all walks of life, whether or not they are grieving. But the video above provides excellent basic information about the psychomanteum process. I also recommend Jamie Butler’s video from Beyond Intuition, which shows Jamie inside the psychomanteum, followed by a discussion of her experience there.
There is also a Facebook page with helpful links, including an interview with Raymond Moody.
Beauty, wisdom, and solace can be found in dark emotional and spiritual places, but it takes courage, awareness, and skill to consciously face and explore those realms instead of seeking numbness, distraction, or escape. It helps to have access to a consciously designed physical environment where this kind of experience is appropriate – where it’s possible not just to dip your toes into the void, but to experience deeply embodied emotional states in a relatively safe context, and go all the way through the darkness of the unknown to what lies at the other end. As temple keeper, it is my hope that the Black Tent Temple and psychomanteum will provide a suitable environment for this kind of work to take place, including (but not limited to) grief work and mourning, since Pagans have few places to go for these purposes.
Aesthetically, the psychomanteum is an enclosed space with a cave-like feel. Floor-to-ceiling black velvet drapes keep out all light and distraction, while softening the acoustics. Immediately outside the psychomanteum, there are shrines where offerings can be made to the gods, spirits, ancestors and beloved dead. Black ritual robes and veils or head coverings are worn by the temple keeper, and can be made available for guests’ use as well. Natural incenses and essential oils help create a subtle deep woods aroma of cedarwood, spruce, and fir.
To preserve the mysticism and integrity of the space, and the deep meditative context that supports the incubation process, no phones, food, or drink are allowed in the psychomanteum. It is a place of sacred solitude and enclosure. Silence can be observed, or the process can be accompanied by selected music that facilitates inner journeys. Special themed dark ambient music playlists may be requested for this purpose.
“Underground structures have an important role to play in initiatory rites and meditation. Cut off from the sights and sounds of the world…the initiate or practitioner can explore the inner realms. In many ways, underground structures are ideal for these practices. They are places where initiations and rituals requiring long and unbroken periods of concentration can be conducted unseen by the prying eyes of the uninitiated.”
~ Nigel Pennick, Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition, p. 95
“To incubate is just to lie down in a place. But the word had a very particular meaning. Before the beginnings of what’s known as ‘rational’ medicine in the West, healing always had to do with the divine…it was normal to go to the shrines of gods…[a]nd they’d lie down.
“They would lie down in an enclosed space. Often it was a cave. And either they’d fall asleep and have a dream, or they’d enter a state described as neither sleep nor waking – and eventually they’d have a vision. Sometimes the vision or the dream would bring them face to face with the god or the goddess…and that was how the healing came about…
“What’s important is that you would do absolutely nothing. The point came when you wouldn’t struggle or make an effort. You’d just have to surrender to your condition. You would lie down as if you were dead…And you’d wait for the healing to come from somewhere else, from another level of awareness and another level of being.
“But that’s not to say you were left alone. There would be people in charge of the place – priests who understood how the process worked and how to supervise it, who knew how to help you understand what you needed to know without interfering with the process itself.”
~ Peter Kingsley, In The Dark Places of Wisdom, p. 80
“For most of us, healing is what makes us comfortable and eases the pain. It’s what softens, protects us. And yet what we want to be healed of is often what will heal us if we can stand the discomfort and the pain…We’re afraid of loss, and yet it’s through what we lose that we find what nothing can take away from us. We run from sadness and depression. But if we really face our sadness we find it speaks with the voice of our deepest longing; and if we face it a little longer we find that it teaches us the way to attain what we long for.”
~ Peter Kingsley, In The Dark Places Of Wisdom, p. 4
“Surrendering to grief, fear, or despair may sound ill-advised at first. You may ask, “If I surrender, won’t I become overwhelmed and dysfunctional?” Actually, the opposite is true. Surrender is a form of deep acceptance. It’s saying yes to emotions we’d prefer to say no to. Paradoxically, it’s saying yes that allows the emotional energy to flow and helps you to let go of it.”
~ Miriam Greenspan, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, p. 78
“In traditions that predate the arrival of Christianity, this…realm was known as the Underworld, abode of the ancestors and the spirits of the dead. […] Robert Ryan convincingly argues for the existence of initiatory rituals of descent involving early peoples’ caves…Ryan suggests that the caves were in essence the first temples, which were simultaneously incubation chambers, places where initiates could experience visions in trance and undergo initiatory death and rebirth in the sacred body of the earth goddess.”
Danica Swanson is a freelance writer, dark ambient music nerd, dark fusion dancer, and amateur polytheist nun. She is CEO (Creative Endarkenment Overseer) of The Black Stone Hermitage and co-founder of the Polytheist Monasticism discussion forum. Her first forays into paganism began in 1995; she has been a devotee of Skaði and other Holy Powers of Yggdrasil since 2004. Her life of contemplative solitude is made possible only by a web of thriving community relationships, human and non-human. She lives by the hands of the deities and spirits in all of her endeavors.