Thrice Burned: Inflammatory Initiations and Long-COVID Survival
She remembered great battle, the first in the world
She remembered great battle, the first in the world
That Gullveig spears pierced
And in the High One’s hall he burned her
Thrice burned, Thrice born
Often, repeatedly, still she lives.
Hei∂ they call her, wheresoever to houses she came
Wise Woman Witch crafting prophecy, with knowledge her magic staff
She made enchantment wheresoever she knew, working a spell she entranced
Always beloved, she was a sweet fragrance to ill women.
— From the Völuspá, translation is mine
In April of 2020 I had been well for a year and seven months. It was a miracle. After a decade of progressive health issues which cost me a career, education, housing and most of my belongings, professional dreams, financial stability and devastated my interpersonal relationships, in 2018 I nearly died from a combination of misdiagnosis and lack of care. Then, with treatment, I healed. I have written about my various diagnoses and this myth cycle of illness in other places so won’t retell that story here. This is a story of how health is hope, and illness is a rite of passage — one, in the ongoing simultaneous aftermath of a global pandemic, many of us share.
In April of 2020 after a year and seven months of perfect health I became sick with COVID-19, entering once again the underworld of physical initiation, a transformative process that in current culture is often disregarded or dismissed, but in my ancestral lineages (and many others) may have been regarded as a spiritual calling, or indication of deeper purpose.
Listen — if you have lost, been cut or claimed, decimated or disdained in this process of illness and grief that is COVID — you are not alone. There are millions of us, survivors, shaking in a narrative of ignorance and overwhelm not our own, in a culture that denies death at all costs and prefers a story where we are silent and invisible. But when we claim a story that becomes power, when we claim our bodies as seats for a deep and ancient wisdom and trust in the gifts of these transformations, we find a way to survive the unimaginable and continual pain of these losses. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in years of illness it is this: you may lose everything, but if you can find your story, you might keep some hope.
2020 — First, Gullveig
A light rain fell on bluebells and hazel leaves as I submitted my 2020 application to return and complete my PhD in Philosophy and Religion. In 2019 I decided that completing that degree was part of my return to health, my brain had healed enough to withstand the rigors of graduate coursework. It had been four years since I left school, for three of those years I was mostly homebound and bedridden, in contact with no one. I was relieved to learn my professors remembered me, and I was able to secure letters of recommendation. Before I left I had been a straight A student, so that was in my favor, and I reapplied using an essay I wrote for my Goddesses of Prehistory class titled Thrice Burned. It explored a segment of the Eddic poem Völuspá where the Goddess Gullveig is burned three times. In it I recognized an ancient pattern of initiatory journey, for after being burned and “studded with spears” Gullveig survives, is transformed into Hei∂, keeper of a potent, feminine magic.
I’d been interested in rites of passage for years, completing my Celebrancy certification in 2014, focusing on non-traditional ritual structures. Rites of passage are significant life transitions, those with a definitive before and after. Puberty is an oft named example, but there are many others unrecognized and uncelebrated in modern American culture. They tend to follow a three part structure, like a story: Separation from the Known (beginning), Transition/Initiation (middle), Return (end). Despite their apparent categorizations, these phases are not linear, may occur simultaneously, and we are sometimes in multiple rites of passage at the same time. With no elders to guide our processes, and little context for understanding these momentous transitions, we are often left adrift, bereft, and so our transformation — the true function of any rite of passage initiation — can take much longer than we might hope. If, that is, we survive.
We are most familiar — unconsciously — with this model through myths and fairy tales, maybe through the work of Joseph Campbell, Maureen Murdock or Carl Jung. Many ancient stories — Demeter and Kore, Vasalisa the Beautiful, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty — as well as modern ones — Star Wars, almost any Marvel movie — reflect this similar impetus for change. Initiation is transformation and transformation is the essence of any good story. But when we look deeper, we might find in myth not just tools but actual models for what rites of passage can be, and how we might learn to endure and be empowered in the process of our passages.
When made conscious and recognized, rites of passage confer a new status and new name on the initiate. This is evident in many puberty rites, but we can see this in the one rite of passage that usually is ceremonialized in our culture: marriage. After the marriage ceremony, you are never unmarried, your status has changed. And although patrilineal naming traditions might transform only one of the married couple, name change is a centerpiece of our marriage rituals.
However, when rites of passage are uncelebrated or unacknowledged, Ronald Grimes, author of Deeply Into the Bone, states that they leave holes in us. Something is missing. This is where ceremony comes in. For a rite of passage to be deeply acknowledged it requires the psychological and social components of a ceremony. The initiate must return to their community, for only then can their new status and name be conferred.
In 2019 I traveled to California multiple times, and to New York City for the first time in many years. I attended concerts, went to movies and visited family. I went to art museums and swam at the gym daily. I taught multiple classes for my online school and wrote a book. I stayed up late and rose early. My brain healed enough that I could write and listen to music simultaneously, have the television on and hold a conversation. I hadn’t been able to do any of these things without dire consequences — days or weeks in pain and in bed — for years. My relationships deepened, as I was able to give extra time and focus to my husband, children, and the few friends that had not abandoned me when I became sick. I was, in the words of my old writing mentor, an after, and everybody loves an after.
For the first time in many years I was envisioning what I wanted my life to be, and it felt open and full of possibility. I could teach, write, travel, return to school and still manage my personal responsibilities. I started volunteering at the local hospital, dreamed of helping others with chronic illnesses, and of returning to work as a university professor.
COVID-19 was first detected in my current city in February of 2020. My husband worked in a medical facility and we immediately took extra precautions — masking, washing everything. Even though I had been mostly well (with the exception of a cold and the flu, where my immune system worked normally) for a year and a half, we did not want to find out what my body would do with a novel virus. My initial conditions were caused, in part, by viruses and inflammation.
Our risk felt minimal, in spite of my husband’s job. Our children were isolating, I worked from home, we ordered Instacart and stopped going into public spaces.
My first COVID symptom in April 2020 was extreme fatigue. I had been working in the garden, shoveling yards of topsoil. My daughter and I drove to the hospital to meet my husband for a lunchtime hike. I could not keep up with them, felt dizzy and so depleted. I fell asleep on return home and woke up with a low grade fever. Testing was scarce. I was tested on day two of symptoms with a throat swab that came back negative. But I was acutely ill for two weeks, and had symptoms that lasted for nine months after. Most of these were new — heart palpitations, shortness of breath — but some — deep fatigue, low grade fevers, post-exertional malaise — were terrifyingly old.
Gullveig’s story is often related to the burning of witches, but I have never read it so. She becomes magic as a result of her burning, but is not burned because of her magic. Although her story was recorded well into the Christian era, there is no evidence in her tale to indicate she was seen as malevolent.
The archetypal witch is symbolic of the outcast, which folks with chronic illness quickly become — if you know, you know. We remind folks of death, the fragility of the body, the unpleasantness of disease, and the potential for contagion. Not only this, but in a self-help consumer society, chronic illness is often marked as personal failure.
While there is lots of argument about how many people were killed in the witch hunts, it is indisputable that many died and an entire culture of healing folk wisdom was decimated in the wake of accusations, torture and murders. It is no accident that witches are often equated with healers and healing. In the book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, Emma Wilby wades through volumes of witch trial transcripts and finds that efforts to neatly dualize the accused into “good”(cunning folk) and “bad”(witches) is impossible. There is the potential for all to do good, to help, and all to harm.
One of the words in the Völuspá that is most indicative of the patriarchal overtones evident in translation is the Old Norse word illrar in the final line. Illrar is often translated as “evil,” so “evil” women learn Gullveig/Hei∂’s hard won initiatory magic.
But the word illrar may also be translated with the secret of its root, as ill, as sick.
Gullveig/Hei∂’s teachings — her initiation and potentially healing feminine magic — would be welcome, a “sweet fragrance” to ill women.
In March of 2021 I had recovered from most of my long-COVID symptoms, the exception being a pesky tightness in my chest and arrhythmia. I had attempted to return to school as planned in the fall of 2020 but had to leave when the hazardous wildfire smoke that choked my city for weeks triggered more heart and lung symptoms. That was a devastating blow, invoking what the journal of social work calls “infinite loss,” a phenomenon in chronic illness where we cannot properly grieve our losses because they are ongoing, continuous, seemingly without end.
By March though I was feeling hopeful. The vaccines were available, and my husband (who as an essential healthcare employee was vaccinated in January) had few side effects. My parents and grandparents had all been vaccinated, as had my cousin — who has similar health issues to me — all with no problems.
My book was due to come out in May of 2021, so I thought by being vaccinated in March I would have plenty of time to get my first and second shot, then recover. At this time — remember? — vaccines seemed like the great hope, the thing that would give us back our lives. After my first, I felt fine initially but became very inflamed, including in my hands. Every joint in both of my hands was bright red. I could not type, I could not draw. I had persistent inflammatory headaches, and the pain was unresponsive to ibuprofen. It lasted for weeks.
I asked my doctor if I should have the second shot while I was still inflamed. I asked my specialist if I should have the second shot. They both said, unequivocally, yes. This, I would learn, was a grave mistake.
In April of 2021 I had my second shot. And it was incredible! I felt better than I had since my first COVID infection — for nine whole days I enjoyed energy, vitality and health. Then, I woke on the tenth day with a low grade fever, a headache, my joints through my body incredibly sore, and could hardly stay awake due to bone-numbing fatigue.
This, it turns out, was a rare Type III hypersensitivity reaction, an allergic reaction to the vaccine. I was sick — again — for months.
Sei∂r is a type of oracular magic present in the pre-Christian Norse myths and sagas. It appears to be primarily — though not exclusively — practiced by women and involves calling the spirits using special songs — vardlokkur — and making prophecy.
Spiritual initiation through chronic illness or physical disability is recorded the world over. It is sometimes called “spirit sickness,” and is often seen as an indication of spiritual calling. This is not an exclusively pagan phenomenon; the lives of the Saints are rife with sickness and disability as spiritual guides and gifts.
The physical body is the site of many rites of passage initiations. My female body cycles through many in my lifetime: menarche, menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause all are dramatic examples of physical passage. The historic record contains many references to these phases in a woman’s life as times of power. In later patristic cultures they often became taboo, but there is an attitude of deep reverence for embodied initiations found in ancient art.
Illness and disability might not always be the precursor for spiritual power, but the story of Gullveig illustrates how embodied initiation may be central to both teaching and healing. There is something potent in the experience of what I call death transitions, those initiations that take us so fiercely out of our known lives that we become — for a time at least — entirely other.
How can we make visible those changes in this present culture?
How can we honor our embodied, initiatory rites?
How can we discover the soul story of our illnesses?
How can we too claim our new status and name?
It took another nine months to recover from the vaccine reaction. The inflammation would abate, only to return. My work, ability to teach, write, promote my book, all became as irregular and unpredictable as my body.
Of course, there is no recourse for those of us who were harmed by COVID or the vaccine. The processes for SSDI and the Countermeasures program are disgustingly convoluted, traumatic for those of us who have difficulty even accessing medical care (let alone having doctors willing to help us “prove” our disability). I’d been down that road before. In 2018 I applied for SSDI when I was so ill I could not complete the application without help, with doctors and psychologists writing about the necessity of SSDI, as I could not work. I received a letter riddled with errors telling me I could return to work full time as an assistant professor of English. My claim had been denied.
In 2020 and 2021 I struggled to receive medical care. My doctors were overwhelmed and their answers to my questions about long-COVID and vaccine reactions were dismissive at best. At worst, their advice was dangerously uninformed.
So I worked whenever I felt well, pushed too hard and usually made myself ill again in a fairly predictable cycle. But by January of 2022 I was feeling a bit better, the inflammation had abated, and though my one in-person medical visit for two years did show some irregularities (scarring on my lungs, a bit of funk in my EKG) mostly it seemed I was on the mend.
And then, in January of 2022 I caught COVID. Again.
It is now May, a full two years of illness related to this pandemic and its attendants. In my last COVID infection everything returned, the fevers, the joint pain, the fatigue. And lasted. I have not felt good for more than a few days since then, and I have some new — worrying — symptoms: chest pain, gallbladder attacks, weakness.
I’m currently waiting on tests which are pushed out for months — one, two, three. My doctor says there are reasons for my symptoms. We just don’t know what they are…
What can I say, except, somehow, I have survived. Again.
This could all be enough to throw me into despair, a story of trial by fire, a story of infinite loss.
But I don’t choose that story.
Once upon a time there was a woman with an ear for the wind, who wove wyrd — the fabric of the universe — with her words and wounds, her myth and tales. Like the keepers of the old stories, she is descended from survivors — and you, yes, you, you are descended from survivors too.
So what will we leave as our legacy, kindred?
What will we hold as our teaching?
Maybe only this — that a time on this sacred earth might be hardship and trial, but with it there may be witness and growth. That we may emerge if not physically stronger than more awake, more enchanted, and more aware of this sacred task.
Which is to tell our stories along the winding path.
Which is to invite each other in, as wayward travelers, home.
To witness these transformations as reason.
To revere these transformations as hope.
Tell me, where do you burn?
Tell me, where do you live?
Tell me, what can you now know that you did not before?
Tell me. What can you give?
By this and every effort may the balance be regained.
I found this short article to be really helpful:
For more information on rites of passage:
To connect with others on the path of initiation: