Incubation: The Black Tent Temple Project

The Black Tent Temple Project - Endarkened Meditative Spaces

What is a Black Tent Temple?

A Black Tent Temple is, first and foremost, an incubation chamber. Incubation, from a Pagan perspective, is a ritual practice of lying down within the deep Earth, and either sleeping or entering a state described as “neither sleep nor waking,” in order to receive healing dreams and visions through forces inaccessible through waking awareness. It’s among the oldest of ritual practices, and the Hermitage seeks to revive it and adapt it for monastic use.

The Black Tent Temple is also a small, cozy, enclosed room – often a tent-like or cave-like space – that is designed to be used as a place to retreat for extended uninterrupted periods of incubation, meditation, and contemplation. For optimal effect it should be set up in a space that is well aligned with the subsurface energies of the Earth, which can be done through the methods of the European Tradition (as described by the authors of Earth Alchemy: Aligning Your Home with Nature’s Energies.) Subterranean spaces such as basements are ideal. But it can be built in many different places and with many different methods. (Here is one example with some interesting ideas, such as putting adhesive foam guide markers on the floors to help folks find their way to the restrooms in the dark by using their feet.)

Free of all talk of “love and light” and New Age transcendence, the Black Tent Temple is an invitation to contemplate the receptive power of Holy Darkness. If you instinctively gravitate toward enclosed, intimate spaces over expansive, sweeping vistas, the Black Tent Temple may have gifts to offer you. Too much light can be blinding, after all. In an overworked and overstimulated culture, we have precious few places for the kind of deep self-care and healing that can be found through extended time spent in solitude and darkness.

This incubation revival project is inspired by the Red Tent Temple movement, by Peter Kingsley’s remarkable book In the Dark Places of Wisdom, and by the darkroom retreat movement, especially Andrew Durham’s DIY plans for designing and building darkroom retreats. I have also taken inspiration from the dark retreats of the Bön and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and the Greek abaton and Temple of Asclepius.

According to Max Dashu’s book Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100, in Norse literature there is a wisdom-seeking practice called “going under the cloak.” She quotes the 12th century Islendingabok: “And when the people came to the booths, then Thorgeirr lay down, and spread his cloak over him, and he lay all day, and the night after, saying no word. And the next morning he sat up and called people to the law-rock.” […] Dashu then cites H.R. Ellis-Davidson and adds: “But the sagas also refer to women using magical cloaks or sealskins, which they may have drawn over themselves in an act of going-within.” I view this as an incubation practice, and my own version involves going under a black veil.

I maintain a Black Tent Temple at the Hermitage as an incubation space. At present, this space must be kept within the confines of my 550-sq.ft. studio live/work space, without interfering with the flow of daily life. To accomplish this, I installed two sets of black curtains to introduce a sense of separation between the temple space and the spaces I use for sleeping, grooming, etc. When I do incubation work, I draw the curtains closed to mark the boundaries of the space. For everyday activities, I simply leave the curtains open.

One of the beauties of the Black Tent Temple concept is that it’s a portable incubation space. With appropriate supplies, it can be pulled together in any suitable space. A basement, a garage, a tent at a festival, or whatever suits your needs. There’s no need to wait until a permanent temple with an incubation space is built.

Black Tent Temple Project: Designing and decorating endarkened meditative and incubation spaces

I design and decorate Black Tent Temple spaces in Portland, OR for incubation rituals, workshops, meditation spots, shrine rooms, grief circles, writer residencies, or whatever you can dream up. I call these Black Tents (with a nod to the Red Tent Temple movement), because my intent is to make these spaces tent-like, whether or not I build them inside a real tent. They can be used for many purposes.

Would you like…

  • A subterranean-themed space to honor a chthonic deity or land spirit?
  • A private space to take your grief, far from the madding crowd?
  • An intimate home-based performance space for dancers?
  • A gothic-themed divination and scrying table for readers to meet with querents?
  • An enclosed cozy comforting spot in the basement where overstimulated people can retreat for solitude and quiet?
  • A leisurely reading nook with a darker feel?
  • How about an adult blanket-and-pillow fort?

I have built all of these and more. See my Pinterest board for photos that provide an idea of the kind of atmospheres I aim for with this work of sacred endarkening.

Supplies I keep stashed at the Hermitage that I may be able to use for your project include:

  • shrine supplies
  • scarves
  • altar cloths
  • sheer curtains and valances
  • small black rugs
  • thick textured velvet fabrics and curtains to soften the acoustics
  • drapery tiebacks
  • overstuffed pillows
  • subdued red or blue LED lighting
  • posters and framed art
  • a teardrop beanbag chair in purple velvet that serves as a meditation seat for those who can’t or don’t want to sit in lotus position

All the textiles are black and purple in color, with a smattering of rich jewel tones such as blood red, magenta, rust, and silver.

I am a non-driver who must haul all supplies in wheeled suitcases on public transit, so it may work best to use a combination of my own supplies plus on-site supplies that you provide. If you are willing to haul me and my supplies to and from the site where the Black Tent will be built, we’ll have more options. (Pillows and curtain rods are bulky, and difficult to haul on public transit!)

To inquire about my availability for your Black Tent Temple project, e-mail me:

shrine.of.skadi AT gmail dot com

I also encourage anyone and everyone who likes the idea to run with it, and build Black Tent Temples of their own! (And if you do, I’d love to see photos!)

So beautiful…you have a gift. You design the most beautiful spaces.
~ Celestine Nox

How did this idea get started?

“What would it be like,” I often wondered to myself when I first felt the stirrings that later became the Black Tent Temple Project, “if there were such a thing as a feminist harem? Or nunnery? With an incubation space?”

Well, all right, not a harem…but some kind of beautiful place with veiled women, gender-non-conforming, and other marginalized folks lounging in comfortable garments, dancing and creating art, working on their own terms, meditating, praying, helping to care for one another, and reclining in leisure – instead of, say, spending the bulk of their time in stressful 9-to-5 wage labor jobs and handling a grossly disproportionate share of unpaid caring labor, as so many of us do right now?

This portrayal of a harem is largely utopian Orientalist fantasy with an imaginative feminist overlay, of course. Nonetheless, I felt there was a seed within it that could be worth exploring from a decolonizing perspective. What could a polytheist abbey be like if it weren’t operating under the yoke of patriarchy – i.e., if it were designed and maintained by women, queers, and gender-non-conforming folks for other women, queers, and gender-non-conforming folks? Could buildings used for religious purposes – an abbey, say – be adapted to serve their needs, instead of the purposes of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?

Soon after that fantasy seized me, I came across the Red Tent Temple movement. In it, I saw a glimpse of what I wanted: a safe (and artistically lush!) space for women to just be people – to be who they are – instead of being conscripted into the service of patriarchal, heterosexist roles and endless unpaid, unreciprocated emotional labor. Still, there was something about the Red Tents that didn’t suit me; much as I liked the decor, I knew I’d never feel 100% at home in that space. The atmosphere wasn’t dark enough for my tastes, and as a non-parent with no particular interest in women’s blood mysteries, I needed something different.

I was raised in a New Age family and had to endure a lot of New Age gaslighting, so as an adult I became instantly suspicious of anything that smacked of false or shallow “positivity” and spiritual bypassing. Much as I respect what the Red Tent Temples are doing for some women, I knew they weren’t for me.

Around that same time, I discovered the concept of incubation through Peter Kingsley’s book In The Dark Places of Wisdom. “We already have everything we need to know, in the darkness inside ourselves,” Kingsley writes in this extraordinary book. He describes ancient practices of quiet, motionless lying down in caves or other enclosed spaces for long periods of time, until entering a state described as “neither sleep nor waking” and being given a mystical vision, perhaps an encounter with a goddess or god. Kingsley emphasized that what is important for this incubation is to

“…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…sometimes for days at a time. And you’d wait for the healing to come from somewhere else, from another level of awareness and another level of being.”

I knew there was wisdom here that I needed – wisdom I wish I’d had in the aftermath of the loss of my marriage, when I was overwhelmed with grief and had nowhere to turn. I wanted to help create endarkened spaces where the receptive wisdom of mystical and dream incubation might become available to others.

That’s how I realized that it was an incubation space that ‘wanted’ me to design it, and thus the first Black Tent Temple was born at the Hermitage. I first wrote about it in 2012. Gerrie Ordaz consulted with me and built a Black Tent Temple at the Oasis event by Earth Traditions in 2015 and 2016 which was very well received; Lo of rotwork also seized upon the idea; and I have received many other similar comments since. I encourage others to take the idea and run with it!

Medical research begins at last to reveal what indigenous peoples have always known: imagination is medicine. A major therapeutic vehicle in the ancient world was the healing dream.
– Kimberley Patton, “Ancient Asklepieia: Institutional Incubation and the Hope of Healing,” 2009