Interview with Danica Swanson, resident hermit and CEO (Creative Endarkenment Overseer)
Recently I was interviewed by Sarah Sadie, a former Madison, WI Poet Laureate and a student of Cherry Hill Seminary, for a class on Pagan leadership. With her permission, I am publishing the full-length interview here.
Q: Coming across your work and the ideas you present online has helped move me further down my own path in the past few months. There are many points of intersection between us: polytheism (northern flavored), feminism, endarkenment, dance and music, writing, and the push-pull of needing to find streams of income while resisting the predominant job culture we are immersed in.
As a fellow traveler, I’m curious what your life path has been that has brought you to this point? Who were the people who inspired you along the way and helped you find your path?
A: The turning point for my path into Northern-centered polytheism, in particular, came when I discovered Heathenry in 2004. I had identified as a Pagan for about ten years at that point, and had been doing a lot of reading and learning about radical-left and anti-capitalist politics, queer feminism, deep ecology, permaculture, and indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and decolonizing movements. As part of that autodidactic process of re-evaluation, I started asking questions about my own ancestral spiritual heritage. My ancestry is half Swedish and half German. I thought: “Although I was born and raised in the USA, my ancestors must have once been indigenous somewhere, and there must have been some kind of land-based spiritual practice that arose from those places…”
Through that process of inquiry, I began reading Norse mythology, started researching my ancestry, started learning about the runes, and found myself embracing a devotional relationship with Skaði, the Jötunn and huntress of the Northern lands, Whom I have served faithfully for over ten years now.
I am especially grateful to Andréa Nebel of Hagalaz’ Runedance (also known as Nebelhexë) for her album Volven. The album – which is clearly a devotional work, and which I also found in 2004 – was the first I found that catalyzed a genuine connection to the Northern deities for me. Her song “Wake Skadi,” in particular, inspired me to take up devotional dance from the first listen. I had found a lot of what I’ll call a “macho Viking” vibe in Heathenry, and I found Andréa’s work to be quite a refreshing contrast.
The other two albums that helped shape my early forays into Heathenry were also from German musicians: Nordland by Apoptose (a.k.a. Rüdiger), and Eliwagar by Skadi (a.k.a. Alexander Leßwing). The latter is my favorite dark ambient album of all time, and still sounds fresh to me ten years after its release. (Ed. note: A redux version can now be heard in full on Bandcamp!)
I bought a copy of the original 2000 release of Nordland on CD, and found myself completely entranced by the sublime, mystical music and the album art featuring megaliths and a focus on the spiritual ways of the Northern lands.
To this day, both CDs are prominently displayed in my Hermitage, and richly appreciated.
I must also mention the industrial, gothic, and dark ambient music subcultures, in which I’ve been happily ensconced since the early 1990s. Though the main draw for me was always the music, goth-industrial culture was where I found social acceptance as a reclusive, bookish, artistic, pensive, feminist, spiritually inclined nerd. And when I found gothic bellydance (now called dark fusion dance) in 2006, I became completely obsessed!
I could go on and on with this list, but I’ll stop there in the interest of space.
Q: I’m interested (since this interview is for a class in leadership, after all) in your thoughts around community and leadership. Does the pagan community (as if that is a singular entity!) need leaders? What does leadership look like? Do you consider yourself a leader? How do you define community for yourself, how do you find it, and where do you find leaders?
A: To my mind, leadership in Paganism is most fundamentally about influence and reach, so leaders can be found in many unexpected places. One certainly needn’t be a High Priestess, Archdruid, published author, workshop instructor, or elder to exercise influence. Having a sizable blog audience or social media following is one form of leadership, for example, and this is true whether or not it involves any formal organizational responsibilities, and whether or not such influence is actively desired, sought out, and/or cultivated.
By this definition, I’d say I serve as a leader – “serve as” being the operative phrase there. I describe myself as resident hermit and CEO – Creative Endarkenment Overseer – of The Black Stone Hermitage, which is a leadership and service role, though a rather unexpected, unsung, and tongue-in-cheek one. Others have described me as a kind of Pagan anchoress. It’s not a role that puts me in the spotlight, which suits me just fine, as I’m a cave-dweller at heart who savors the silence and the shadows. I’m deeply introverted, yet I feel a strong – even irresistible – call to a monastic path of service. I host visitors regularly at my Hermitage, which is one way of honoring my calling to contemplative life and spiritual reclusion while serving the gods and my community. I do venture out once in awhile to serve, though. I built a shrine room for Skaði and held space for others to honor Her at the first Many Gods West conference in 2015.
It’s not through Paganism that I’m best known for my influence, however, but through the work I’ve done as founder of Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery (CLAWS) and original designer of the website at whywork.org. I founded CLAWS in 1998, and over the years I’ve received many appreciative letters about that project and its successor, Rethinking the Job Culture, which I founded in 2010.
I appreciate, respect, and crave good leadership and explicit structure in Paganism – especially after having experienced the limitations of radically inclusive groups that operate by what feminist Jo Freeman rightly calls “the tyranny of structurelessness.” Freeman argues convincingly that there is no such thing as a truly structureless group, and that even groups that disavow explicit structures nonetheless structure themselves, albeit informally and covertly.
I’d rather have structures clearly spelled out, for a whole host of reasons – one of which is to give recognition for excellence where it’s been earned, especially with respect to uncompensated emotional labor. Good leaders aren’t flawless, of course, but they do vast amounts of work – usually unpaid – and catch most of the grief and criticism, too, sometimes just by happenstance of being the most visible or well-known voice of their traditions. And most leaders take on countless behind-the-scenes tasks such as cleaning up after the big event is over, attending sensitively and diplomatically to the needs of people under stress, or keeping track of all the details necessary to organize meetups, to take just a few examples. As a feminist, I would like to see those people – and those forms of emotional labor – honored and appreciated, appropriately and visibly!
I think Paganism – and our culture in general – stands to benefit from feminist efforts to raise awareness about the value of emotional labor. One of the reasons I’ve appreciated the hermit life is that I’ve experienced it as a way of reducing the burden of uncompensated, unreciprocated emotional labor – disproportionately borne by women – in our culture. The Black Stone Hermitage is a vessel I use to help me extend this benefit to others, by providing a space that is consciously designed to dial down this burden.
At the Hermitage, I’ve got built-in limits to growth, not only because of the size of the physical space I occupy or my desire for solitude, but also stemming from the nature of the work I do. I almost always work with one person at a time, which permits me to keep my focus person-centered and contemplative. Should the deities I serve make it known that it would best serve Them, it’s possible that the Hermitage will eventually be shaped into more of a collective effort, which might then call for greater structure and additional leadership roles. But as far as I can tell, the responsibility for shaping the future of the Hermitage is, and will remain, mine and mine alone.
Nonetheless, the life I live would be untenable without extensive community support. I find that the heart of community is in relationship – and it is relationship that sustains me, in all kinds of ways. As I have often said, my haven of sacred solitude is made possible only by a web of thriving community relationships: family, friends, readers, visitors, Patreon supporters, deities, spirits, farmers who feed me, and so on.
Q: Going on my gut, I was interested in endarkenment before I knew there was such a word. How did you discover this concept and what does it mean to you? I have seen some very unflattering definitions which equate endarkenment with religious fundamentalism—this seems fear-based and misguided to me. What is your take, and do you feel you have to win converts to the idea, or help steer the conversation?
A: Sacred endarkenment, to me, is a concept and a way of being that provides a necessary counterbalance to our culture’s over-emphasis on enlightenment, transcendence, “rising above,” and so on. I’ve often been reminded daily in my practice that the gods and spirits dwell in the soil, mosses, and rot beneath our feet just as much as they dwell in the clouds and stars above us, and we forget this to our peril. Despite popular belief, darkness doesn’t necessarily mean evil or negativity – in fact, dark places can be sources of great richness, alchemy, and incubation. I now describe the Hermitage as “a contemplative polytheist sanctuary creating atmospheres of sacred endarkenment” in honor of this truth.
I first encountered the term endarkenment in an essay by Michael Ventura, and although he used it in an unflattering way, I latched on to the word itself – I loved it immediately, and felt a strong instinctive urge to claim it as a source of empowerment and wisdom. I was raised in a New Age family, and had experienced first-hand the failures of empathy and errors in perception that could result from a heavy emphasis on “positive thinking” and other forms of saccharine sweetness in spiritual work. In a way, you could say my New Age upbringing primed me for a darker, more chthonic path. Dogma can be just as oppressive when it’s presented as “love and light” as it can be when it shows up in less culturally sanctioned ways.
As a culture, most of us have learned to hold ourselves at a certain distance from what we call the “negative” – pain, struggle, suffering, conflict, grief, mourning, despair, anger, and rage, for starters. Yet there is bittersweet medicine to be found in the “negative” when it is courageously faced and honestly addressed, especially when witnessed by one’s community. This is the medicine of sacred endarkenment, and the skills needed to find and integrate whatever must be faced, accepted, and released are a form of emotional labor.
Later on, I discovered several feminist writings on endarkenment by Gloria Orenstein (Reweaving the World), Molly Remer (Endarkenment), Camille Maurine (Meditation Secrets for Women), and Lauren Raine (Endarkenment: The Dark Goddess in Art and Myth), all of which helped me claim and affirm my own path.
Alchemically speaking, there’s no doubt in my mind that the gate that revealed the path of sacred endarkenment to me was opened through my experience with grief. In 2007, my marriage ended in an excruciatingly painful way. I lost not only a 14-year relationship I cherished and relied upon, but my home, my health insurance, my savings, and an entire circle of friends. The grief process that followed this uprooting just wrecked me. It was like nothing else I’d ever experienced, or even imagined I could feel, and the worst part was that, due to my circumstances at the time, I was forced to wade through it largely alone. For the better part of a year, a “good” day was one in which I could get through an entire hour without thinking about suicide. And for several years after that, I felt like a mere shadow of my real self, as I painstakingly rebuilt my life, bit by bit, from the ground up. Catherine MacCoun, in her book On Becoming An Alchemist: A Guide For the Modern Magician, describes this as calcination (“the substance is burned until nothing remains but ashes”), and it happens at the initiative of the spirit.
Throughout that grief process, what I needed most deeply, but never found, was a safe place to take my grief – a place where it could be ritually received, accepted, and witnessed on its own terms.
We have so few places in our culture where it is acceptable to grieve this way. This is especially true if we’re not grieving a death, but something like a divorce, or something more ongoing and intermittent such as Earth grief. There is enormous need for grief ritual lurking under the surface of our daily lives, and sadly, this need usually goes unmet. When people do not have space to grieve, it is not only they who suffer, but their communities.
One of the reasons I started the Black Stone Hermitage was to provide this kind of space for others who are grieving, in the hopes that they might somehow be spared the worst of what I went through. I wanted to provide a place of respite – a leisurely place, where visitors aren’t expected to be “on,” paste on a happy face in the name of “staying positive,” or otherwise hold it together.
Paths of sacred endarkenment teach us that genuine positivity emerges as a felt bodily experience, and that the way for this experience opens through allowing grief and other “negative” emotions the opportunity to move through the body unimpeded. This movement can happen through yoga, dance, or shedding tears, among many other ways. Our bodies register and remember pain and grief we’ve experienced, and if we give them the chance and trust our embodied wisdom, we can process and release this pain and grief, and thus move toward deeper integration of our losses.
I create atmospheres of sacred endarkenment and write about the concept not to win converts, but because it moves me, and because this is one of the most effective ways for me to be of service. I’m confident that others who are drawn to darker paths will discern the truth and appropriateness of the concept for themselves. Far from religious fundamentalism, my role is not to convince anyone, but to walk my creative path of service with discernment and integrity. In order to do that – in order to fully embody the role of Creative Endarkenment Overseer, with which I have been entrusted – I am asked to relinquish control of the process, and trust the gods and spirits to guide me. Camille Maurine and Lauren Roche have written that:
“Creating is not about control, but about sensing what wants to happen and participating with that movement…Your creativity is a flow that cannot be forced – but it can be tended. When you are in the creative streaming of your own life, you sense that “yes, this feels right,” even or especially when it is challenging.”
(Meditation Secrets For Women, p. 254)
Tending to that creative flow is one of the best ways for me to connect with the divine and receive guidance along my path.
That said, I am happy whenever my work reaches people who find value in it, and I would certainly like to see more respect given to those on darker paths. I hope that the work I do, however small-scale it may be, will make a contribution to that effort.
Q: If I understand rightly, you named your home the Hermitage, and within that space you have both a Temple and a Psychomanteum. The idea of making space, and making place, appeals to me. One form of leadership is holding space, after all. Is there a difference between those two ideas for you, space versus place? What do these different spaces or places that you have created mean to you, and what are your hopes for them for the larger community?
A: Yes, my 550-square-foot live/work studio serves double duty as both my personal living space and the space for the Black Stone Hermitage. I mentioned above that I am sometimes called a Pagan anchoress, since the spiritual service work I do – creating atmospheres of sacred endarkenment – is so deeply driven by the space in which I conduct this work. Places come to hold emotional and spiritual resonance through visual, auditory, spatial, architectural, and olfactory cues. At the Hermitage, I combine these elements creatively to create atmospheres that alter awareness in ways that facilitate incubation, meditation, leisure, devotional dance, grief processes, inner silence, and other needs that too often go unfulfilled in a culture that is obsessed with productivity, control, and achievement. Without regular opportunities to slow down and spend time in spaces of silence, reflection, and meditation, it’s hard to maintain a deep contemplative and devotional practice.
Inside the small place I call the Hermitage, I maintain an even smaller space that I’ve named the Black Tent Temple. Of necessity this is a very tiny and confined space, but it serves its purposes quite well. Contained within the boundaries of this space – which are marked with sheer black curtains that I draw shut whenever the space is occupied – is a psychomanteum. A psychomanteum is a darkened, enclosed chamber, with a chair and a mirror placed opposite the chair, that is designed to facilitate contact with spiritual forces. It is inspired by the work of Raymond Moody, and it’s sometimes called a portal, lair, spirit room, spiritual incubation chamber, or oracle of the dead.
There has been quite a bit of interest from the larger community in the Black Tent Temple as a concept that can be adapted to work in many different places. The first Black Tent Temple I know about, outside my Hermitage, was built with my awareness and blessing by Priestess Gerrie Ordaz at a Pagan event in August 2015. I encouraged her to take the idea and run with it. Several others have contacted me or commented on my blog posts to express their enthusiasm as well. As I mentioned earlier, women have so few spaces in our culture to find sacred endarkenment and relief from the demand for unreciprocated, unpaid, unappreciated emotional labor, so I’m unsurprised that most of the interest I’ve seen so far has been from women. I do take pains to make it clear, however, that the Black Tent Temple welcomes people of all gender identities, and from anywhere on the gender continuum.
I’d love to have a place for the Hermitage that provides a subterranean place to build the Black Tent Temple (as that was my original vision), and offers a way to maintain a clearer separation between my living areas and the spaces I make available for the use of visitors. But for now, all of the spaces must coexist and overlap. When I originally received this vision in 2011, and asked for guidance on how to implement it from Those I serve, the reply I received went something like this:
“Build it right here, and start right now. To the best of your ability, embrace the limitations of this space, and design the Hermitage where you already live. Document the process, too – write about it, and get those writings out there however you can. Don’t wait for the ideal subterranean location; just do the work you’ve been assigned. Trust that when the time is right, a more appropriate place will be found for you to do this work.”
So that’s exactly what I did.
Q: The arts are clearly very important to your life and to your work, particularly music and dance. Can you talk a little bit about what role(s) music and dance play for you both in your spiritual practice and more broadly?
A: I mentioned above the broad influence of gothic/industrial culture on my life. Dark ambient music, in particular, is central to my life and work, as anyone who knows me will tell you. I’ve been a die-hard fan of the genre (which is a subgenre of industrial) since the early 1990s. I write about dark ambient regularly through recommendations I make on social media and my Bandcamp profile, on Pinterest, and through articlesI’vecontributed for music zines. I also have a book manuscript in the works, for which I am interviewing musicians, label owners, and longtime fans. Dark ambient music – which has been called “music you can’t dance to,” which I find quite amusing – inspires my dance projects, facilitates my meditations, accompanies my rituals and offerings to the gods and spirits, and deepens my creative flow as a writer. As you might imagine, my specialty is using dark ambient music to create spaces of sacred endarkenment. In recent years I’ve developed a music consultancy project called Chthonic Cathedral, through which I offer my services to ritual planners, meditation groups, yoga teachers, and others to provide customized playlists of dark ambient music to suit their needs.
I also find inspiration in musician Pauline Oliveros’ concept of “deep listening.” To me, deep listening means learning how to hear not just with the ears, but with the whole body, and in connection with the deities, spirits, and the ground of one’s being. For me, dark ambient music both facilitates and richly rewards this deep listening.
I’ve been a dancer since my adolescent years. Dance – and especially dark fusion dance, which Tina Frühauf has described as “decolonizing bellydance” – is a form of prayer and service for me, and an embodied way of knowing. Currently I have two ongoing dance projects: Shrine of Skaði, which is focused on devotional and ritual dances inspired by the Jötunn who is closest to my heart, and Drinking the Tears of the Earth, which is focused on lamentation dances – performed to dark ambient music, of course – as embodied expressions of Earth grief.
Shrine of Skaði is only active in the darkening days of fall and winter, when the tides of energy lend themselves best to shadow work and themes of descent. Drinking the Tears of the Earth is a year-round project.
Q: Reading your blog, and the comments of others who have interacted with you, I’m struck by the seamlessness of your life and spirituality. You really live your faith. It seems that you thoughtfully curate your own life in order to serve both the gods and the community of people around you. Can you talk a little bit about how you go about this, and what appeals to you about such a dedicated life? Who are your models?
A: Originally I had interpreted my vision of the Hermitage as a kind of nunnery, albeit one that didn’t resemble any monastic order I’d ever heard about. I’ve learned a lot from Pagans and Heathens who write online about monastic life. I knew I wanted to find a sustainable way to live that deeply integrated my daily activities (including dance and dark ambient music) and my contemplative polytheism, but the only examples of this sort of integration I had found were in monastic communities run by Christians and Buddhists.
Yet I also knew, right from the outset, that an approach to religion based in sacred endarkenment would be a fundamentally different kind of venture from any monastic path I had encountered. I sometimes describe myself as “a contemplative polytheist anti-capitalist queer feminist witch on a path of monastic service.” When people think of what kind of work a monk or nun might do at a monastery, though, they don’t typically imagine anti-capitalism, feminism, witchcraft, or anything associated with the dark. Yet these are inseparable for me. So where did that leave me and my callings, I wondered?
And although Paganism doesn’t have any kind of organized contemplative monastic tradition yet, it’s a fast-growing religious movement, and I believe that one day we will. There are a handful of folks doing what they can to create the infrastructure to support such a tradition – in the US, the Maetreum of Cybele in New York and the First Kingdom Church of Asphodel in Massachusetts come to mind, and I recently met the founder of the Nigheanan Brighde, an order of Brighidine flametenders in Washington – but we still have a long way to go.
I started The Black Stone Hermitage after searching and failing to find anyone else who was doing anything similar. At the moment there aren’t many polytheist contemplatives out there at all, let alone ones who center their practice on paths of sacred endarkenment or use dark ambient music as a facilitator. Yet I was meditating, dancing, and doing yoga and ritual almost exclusively to dark ambient music, and consistently finding that this music served purposes far deeper than entertainment: it facilitated mind-altering inner journeys to realms I could not reach through any other method I’d tried, and helped me connect with deities and spirits more reliably than I’d previously thought possible.
I’m convinced that dark ambient music has a lot of untapped potential to serve spiritual purposes. I’ve also seen quite a bit of evidence that it has a crossover appeal that I haven’t seen with industrial music in general. I think this is particularly true for people who are into meditation, yoga, and various other contemplative pursuits, whether or not they describe themselves as Pagan. But most of those folks don’t even know the dark ambient genre exists, so I hope the work I do at the Hermitage will help make them more aware of it. Judging by the reactions I’ve seen in response to this music during rituals and yoga classes, I think it’s accurate to consider this a form of service to the gods and the human community alike!
Q: Maybe because of or emerging out of this seamless meeting of faith and life, you are well-known for encouraging resistance to and questioning of job culture and the idea of “earning a living.” Money is a topic that divides the pagan community. Some people see money as the root of evil (almost literally in some cases) and others see money as another form of energy to be worked with. I’d like to hear more about where your ideas are at this point around this topic, and what your experience has been.
A: For me, money is primarily a means to an end. It is certainly capable of serving sacred purposes, but the usurious money system we have now, based in interest-bearing debt, makes that extremely difficult for most of us. For the vast majority of people, the money system we have creates an experience of scarcity, and requires wage labor for subsistence.
As Charles Eisenstein writes:
“Why do we want to create more jobs? It is so people have money to live. For that purpose, they might as well dig holes in the ground and fill them up again, as Keynes famously quipped…Wouldn’t it be better to pay people to do nothing at all, and free up their creative energy to meet the urgent needs of the world?”
(Sacred Economics, pp. 273-274)
Indeed! And as a quote of mine (prominently featured on my Patreon page) reads:
“I am a conscientious objector to enforced wage labor. I firmly believe that requiring people to ‘earn a living’ through wage labor is a violation of the spirit and a form of structural violence, no matter how widely condoned and culturally sanctioned it may be.”
I am fortunate to have already acquired most of the skills and supplies I need to bring my full vision of the Hermitage to fruition. What I don’t have, but need most, is extended time away from the need to do wage labor for subsistence. In a culture that requires every able-bodied adult to “earn a living” (I always put that phrase in quotes to emphasize its absurdity), very few of us ever find enough freedom from wage labor to make a full-time monastic or artistic life possible. Over the long term, I hope to decolonize my time and provide for my needs without wage labor as much as possible, and to help make this possible for others as well. One question I use to guide this process is taken from the writings of Ethan Miller: How can we progressively create the conditions in which we no longer need jobs for subsistence?
Right now, as I write this, I earn my living as a house cleaner. I’ve started a Patreon page to support my Rethinking the Job Culture project, and have been encouraged by visitors to start one for The Black Stone Hermitage also. I am working on it! It takes time to build a support base through Patreon, however, so for the time being, my creative and service work remains relegated to the margins of my life.
For now, I am in search of a day job that will permit me more free time and energy to write and carry out my service work. It has always saddened me that the vast majority of artists, and others called to lives of community service, have few other options but to seek wage labor for subsistence. I can’t help but think about all the art, music, dance, and spiritual service we are collectively missing out on. This is one of the reasons I’ve been a staunch supporter of a Universal Basic Income for 20 years. It’s exciting to see UBI gaining ground these days – it can’t possibly come soon enough for me!
I also have plans in the works to make a series of photos and videos featuring the work I do at the Hermitage, centered on the theme of sacred endarkenment, in order to reach folks who can’t visit in person.
For the longer term, I am seeking a more appropriate space for the Hermitage, so that I can expand my service offerings in ways that honor my deeper callings. When I say “deeper callings,” I mean it literally, as well as figuratively! Currently, since the Hermitage “lives” in a studio unit on the seventh floor of a building, I am unable to take advantage of the unique acoustic and geomantic properties of subterranean structures to facilitate my work. The Hermitage has been arranged as evocatively as possible within the constraints of my situation, but if I am to embrace the deepest of these callings to service, I will need to find a subterranean space – probably a basement – for the Hermitage.
Other “stretch goals” for the future of the Hermitage include working with my official tea consultant David Galli, in consultation with a guided meditation specialist, to improve the tea meditation offerings…and if I am really fortunate, to one day build a full shrine room or sanctuary garden for Skaði, featuring a statue of Her. (I’ve been so inspired by the statuary and cave shrines at The Grotto!)
And finally, thank you for the thought-provoking, inspiring questions! Best wishes with your own work.
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.