diana paxson

Interview With Author Diana Paxson

December, 2008

Although best-known for her fantasy work such as the Westria series, Diana Paxson recently came out with a book on shamanic journeying and trancework called Trance-Portation which came into my hands recently and quite swept me away. A frequent reader on the topic on altered states of consciousness and both traditional and neoshamanism, I found her take on the subject fascinatingly fresh and exiting, and couldn’t wait to ask her some more questions.

PaganPages: Firstly, could you tell us more about yourself?

Diana Paxson: I grew up in southern California, but have lived in Berkeley since graduating from Mills College. I also did an M.A. in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. My first magical experience was a ceremonial lodge run by Marion Zimmer Bradley and based on the work of Dion Fortune. Marion and I founded Darkmoon Circle, a women’s coven, together in 1978. It is still going strong. I have been a consecrated priestess since 1982. I began working with shamanic practices in the 80’s, and with Germanic paganism in the 90’s. I have written two books on that tradition, *Taking Up the Runes*, and *Essential Asatru*. However I am probably better known to most of the pagan community as the author of novels with pagan themes, including the Chronicles of Westria and the Avalon series, which I took over from Marion Zimmer Bradley. I am still very active in pagan activities in the San Francisco area, with Hrafnar Garth and the Fellowship of the Spiral Path.

PP: There are a number of people, even practiced pagans that do not have a clear understanding of what shamanistic journeying is. Tell us more about what shamanistic journeying is – is it, for example, like astral projection?  What’s the difference?

Diana: In astral projection, the etheric body actually leaves the corporeal flesh and moves around, usually in the physical world. In trance journeys, consciousness is altered, and awareness moves through inner worlds much as one does in a dream, except that one has control over where one goes and what one does, and can remember what happened.

PP: How ‘real’ is shamanic journeying? Could it, for example, be considered an out-of-body experience?

Diana: One journeys through a symbolic reality which is “real” in the sense that it can represent and affect physical reality, but it is not that reality. OOBEs on the other hand, project the energy body into the physical world (see answer to #2).

PP: What is the relevance of shamanic journeying to the modern pagan or witch, and what are its particular benefits compared to other spiritual and magical practices?

Diana: Spirit journeys are an excellent way to get the conscious and unconscious mind to talk to each other. Most people use them to get information, such as advice on healing, or to contact spirits or deities for guidance. Within the context of a journey one can also address problems through visualization, and work on healing.

PP: What especially attracts you in the shamanic trance, as opposed to ritual magic or meditation, for example?

Diana: In my experience they are mutually useful. The techniques addressed in the book can help one to focus and alter consciousness in preparation for ritual magic or deep meditation. I often include a trance journey as part of a larger ritual.

PP: You write that in the beginning you had difficulty learning the techniques of trance, which is why Trance-Portation was written specifically as the ‘foolproof’ – methodical, inclusive and gradual – method of developing the ability for shamanic journeying. As a product of years of training and teaching, tell us the most common pitfalls the would-be traveler falls in. Have you had worse-case scenarios, and how did you overcome them?

Diana: In my experience, there is no “fool-proof” method for anything, but the exercises I’ve worked out seem to work for a lot of people, especially if they are willing to adapt them to their own needs. Chapter 13 of the book addresses some of the problems that can occur. When you set out to deliberately stir up the contents of your unconscious, sometimes you wake dragons. Some people find that they need to take things more slowly, go back to basics, or not do this kind of work at all.

PP: You were a prolific fantasy author before writing at least three books on spirituality and magick. How does your shamanic experience and/or allies affect your writing – both in fiction and non-fiction? Do you have any ‘rituals’ for when you write?

Diana: My experience as a priestess in various pagan traditions has enabled me to write about the practical aspects of spiritual experience. I have had many of the experiences I describe, though I have to confess that my magic does not always work in such a spectacular or dependable way (in fiction, the candles always stay lit and no one ever forgets the cauldron). I do use trance techniques to get my unconscious working on plot problems, and invoke whatever deities are most prominent in the book.

PP: In the section about finding a spirit ally or power animal, you mention that Michael Harner, the core shamanism trainer, counsels against using insects as allies – could elaborate on this belief, and add your own thoughts to it?

Diana: Not really. I don’t have any insect allies myself, but I know some people who have worked with butterflies and bees without any difficulties.

PP: Chock-full of practices and exercises, from sensing energy and communion with trees to mapping out the shamanic world you travel – your book includes so much! Including a section on re-living past lives in the shamanic state. I imagine this could have come handy researching your historical fantasy novels?

Diana: I have used reincarnation as an element in the Avalon books, but have actually never set a novel in a period in which I believe I have had a past life. On the other hand, I suspect that at times I draw on the collective unconscious to access certain historical periods.

PP: You also explain the use of cultural symbols as a sort mental doorway into the spiritual realm of that culture and what the symbol represents. How much does this depend on one’s understanding of the symbol and/or of the culture it comes from?

Diana: The more you can learn about a culture, the more accurate your interpretations of the symbols and beings you encounter will be. Context can matter a great deal.

PP: I was expecting and quite looking forward to a section devoted to the common shamanic technique of soul retrieval, but you have decided to pass over it as a technique too advanced for this book. Was that a difficult decision, and what brought it about?

Diana: Sandra Ingerman not only invented that technique, she covers it extremely well in her book, so there was no need for me to do it again, especially since *Trance-Portation* is already pretty long.  I do think that before doing trance therapy with others, one should develop trance disciplines via the exercises in my book or other training.

PP: However, your book devotes a lot of detail into a practice called Oracular Seidh or the Core Oracular Method. This is something extremely interesting that you have pioneered in reviving – please tell us more about that, and what led you to it.

Diana: Seidh is a magical tradition from the Viking Age, which includes an oracular practice. I may have been the first to reconstruct the practice as a way to serve the pagan community today. Oracle work is another advanced technique which requires the skills covered in Trance-Portation. I am planning another book that will build on this one and cover the techniques I and my group have been using for almost twenty years.

PP: What are the differences between the oracular seidh practice and practices in voudou and south-east Asian practices that seem similar?

Diana: An oracle answers questions, drawing the information from the Otherworld, the spirits, or sometimes from gods. In Voudou ceremonies, mediums are possessed by gods, who may sometimes answer questions. Sometimes a god may speak through a seer in seidh, but answers given by gods convey their own opinions, whereas a purely oracular answer may be more balanced. Deity Possession is another topic that demands a book of its own.

PP: Whereas other shamanic books are more dedicated to finding power animals and allies as well as soul retrieval, you have devoted a large portion of this book to seeking and communing with the gods. With a lot of modern paganism is in part an effort to rediscover and reaffirm the old gods, this is a very powerful way of connecting with one’s faith. You mention a very “interesting” first meeting with the Nordic god Odin. What kind of surprises have these first meetings had, and what have they revealed about the character of the gods?

Diana: The main surprise was that this was the beginning of a relationship that has remained as vivid and important in my life as any human connection.
Such a relationship can deeply enrich one’s life.

PP: The possibility of discovering the spiritual realms and meeting deities – how much is this dependent on prior research, and how much can it be research in itself? How could one go about with little to no information?

Diana: Research is a good place to begin. It will “prime the pump” and make it easier to contact a deity, it will help you to interpret what you learn, and it can act as a corrective to wishful thinking. On the other hand, you can benefit from what heathens call “UPG” (Unsupported Personal Gnosis), so long as you don’t insist that your insight is the only truth. If a lot of other people have the same UPG, you can begin to treat it as true, at least for our time.

PP: This is a question of particular import for people whose ancestral beliefs and deities are all but forgotten. As someone with Finnish ancestry looking to get back to his roots, it is extremely difficult to learn much more than the names of the major deities of my ancestors. Could shamanic journeying be the new way for pagan reconstructionism?

Diana: First, steep yourself in whatever information is available about the culture. Then do your journeying. To some extent this is what the Saami have had to do in order to reconstruct traditions interrupted and suppressed by the missionaries. You may not get “the” truth, but you will probably find “a” truth that will be useful.

PP: Thank you again, Diana! Finally, is there perhaps another book in the works?

Diana: Thank you for asking! <g> In fact, *Trance-Portation* is intended to be the foundation of a trilogy, of which the other two books will deal with Oracle Work and Deity Possession.  I will also continue to write novels. The book on which I am currently hard at work, *Sword of Avalon*, is set around 1200 B.C.E., covers the forging of Excalibur, and features guest appearances by several goddesses and gods.

To learn more about the westria series, be sure to visit, www.westria.org; the home of the Avalon series is at www.avalonbooks.net; and more about Diana Paxson’s pagan work, visit http://www.hrafnar.org/.