Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
by Sadie Damascus
It was going to be my sixth year at Burning Man. I wanted a mountain from which to prophesy.
Don Jon DeCles, priest of Apollo, briefed me, and I did a ton of reading on the Sibyls and prophecies and tripods and peplodes (the dress the Statue of Liberty is wearing) and the possible toxic/magic effects of burning (or eating, smoking, inhaling) bay leaves, which are sacred to Apollo (I will never get that smell out of my nose; the smell to me of the Man burning on Saturday night was just like tons more burning bay leaves.) I downloaded Greek art and read plays, and considered iambic hexameter.
My husband built me a wheeled platform, to be powered by walking, with 1×4 mountain bones, about ten feet high; and I stretched canvas and painted snow-peaked mountains, and made a low, curtained door and cut several small cloth-covered windows. I made about four big plastic-covered art collages, sandwich-cardboards, with a little history and commentary on the Delphic and Cumaean traditions of prophecy, in text and pictures (including several good representations of the God), with quotes from Aristophanes and Yeats and Virgil and several of the Sibyls, everything picked to be meaningful to dehydrated, multiply-chemically-enhanced strangers in a blinding dust storm. These boards of course all blew away the first time I took the mountain out onto the playa and gave it to the wind.
The concept was: a slowly moving mountain (propelled by walking, or pulled by ropes), an Oracle inside (with a Toys-R-Us voice-changer), a few simple signs explaining the procedure; they drop something, anything into the Offerings basket, ask any question, and they get, for peanuts, cheap personalized miracles. I was prepped either for ego surrender, to duck low and let the God answer, or, possibly, to fake it, answering people’s questions feverishly, using great books, my wit, and delaying tactics having to do with pointless ritual utterances. I was to have had extensive lights, EL wire and flashers and such, or torch fire, or something, for the nights…..but that was not to be. I was also to have been easily located right near the beachfront, on Infant, near the Temple of Ishtar, and an easy distance from the open playa, so I could walk the mountain daily from my camp out to the playing field…..ha ha, ho ho, the playa laughs.
We rented a 24′ Budget truck, loaded everything we own, and barrels of water, and bikes for everyone we know, and then laid the mountain sideways and slid it up in there. Long cramped trip, eight hours, finally made it.
Once we were over the initial shock at reaching BM, we unloaded the mountain so we could get to our bed, and by Wednesday I had sanctified the space within the mountain, and fitted it out with vines and flowers, a basket for offerings (we took anything, though we mostly got condoms and candy and little toys and p*t) located under a window whose dark cloth was unattached at the bottom, so they could drop things in (but they mostly tried to look at me through it), a roof of cloth (oh yes, whew), some inspiring words and pictures, a canteen of consecrated water from our spring, and a bottle of ordinary drinking water, both clearly marked (but from the same spring.)
I also had several “crib” books, chosen out of a vast selection, of inspiring verse, great quotations, Greek drama, and random stuff, Leary and Crowley, all very light, thin books (in case I failed to receive signals from the sacred radio station). I never needed any of them, but others might have (after a few days, I retired from (quit) the soothsayer business, leaving instructions on the mountain to permit most anyone to use it as a do-it-yourself “Sibylatarium”).
The mountain also contained: the plain white shift (not linen, but classically simple) that I ended up wearing, when on duty, instead of the Greek fashions I had studied and drawn and practiced and fully intended to wear (duh), hung from a hook with a knotted girdle, and a flowered wreath for the sibyl’s head; a huge pile of our tree’s bay leaves, heavily tied to the struts in great aromatic bunches; a candle, a lighter, rope and duct tape, writing materials, a flashlight, another hook for my pack and my clothes and such, and the voice changer. And a stepladder to support the literature boards, until they blew away, and I have no idea what happened to it, either….I set my display up near the Mountain, then I got in and brainlessly sailed away, looking for customers, and I never found any of it again.
Grover had created for the Oracle a tripod seat (traditional, to balance over the crack in the sacred mountain from which the prophetic inspiration came), but I found it unsettling to sit on, and more dangerous (when I was speeding around on the playa, the wind at my back) than sitting with my feet on the ground, a human brake, especially while trying to squint and peer out, while dropping and losing things feverishly out of the holes in the floor, every time I moved; I lost my best purple canteen that way, and a lot, I mean a lot, of bay leaves, . Every bay leaf they found on the playa was probably mine, and some even bore revealed Cumaean messages that occurred to me when nobody was asking much of anything…
So. We had discovered on arrival that, surprise, Liars Camp, which I thought reserved to us, had actually been reserved and was already inhabited by a techno-maddened crowd of noisy strangers, who had had the same idea as ours, and had claimed Liars Camp, our theme from last year also, apparently innocently, but before us. Mediation was attempted, in the blinding sleepless cranky sun, but eventually we slowed and stopped our unpacking and then started throwing everything back in the truck (except for the Mountain, which we left at 8:15 Infant overnight), and took off in a huff, moving to Enlightenment and 7:00, hear Hushville, where they knew how to treat people.
But it meant that nobody seeking us, such as my three grown kids, could have found us at our pre-announced address, and it caused problems, not least of which was how to get the mountain from our new distant location to the playa and back again (I am lazy and half-blind and fairly accident-prone, with chronic knee and foot pain, and I’m a nervous, unlicensed driver of cars; I usually crash my bike into people and things a lot at BM, and that’s when I can see where I’m going). So I made arrangements to park the mountain near the Blue woman, at 7:30 on the Esplanade, where the Opera Diaspora crowd kept an eye on it, and I dragged it out to the playa with a friend, using a consecrated purple rope from Sebastopol.
This year, as it happened, was a wonderful feel-good year at BM for me, though my husband stayed mildly cranky; the music seemed so much better than usual, with traveling bands and jazz and taiko drums and guitars, and much less piped and pounding beat, so I hardly needed my ear plugs. The attendees’ average age seemed so much older this year, I felt myself for once among my peers. Also, I had a good new Costco bike, though I got the honorable blisters from riding too much on those washboard roads. Ow. So I only took the Oracle on the road three times during the week, and made one person assume the mantle, late one night; then it was just a painted mountain waiting to burn.
So, it was Wednesday, two days after I arrived, and surely time. I fasted. I prayed. I removed everything, jewelry and ego and socks…..I assumed the garment, the wreath; I made offerings, water on the ground and bay leaves burning; a dance of preparing to be (ridden?) (borrowed?) (given a lifeline?). I walked, making the mountain glide; inside the mountain, I tranced myself trolling, repeating in booming electronic anonymity (robot setting), “The…Oracle…will…answer…your…questions!” ….and they ignored me in droves.
Any safe place for an unlighted semiblind rolling mountain in a dusty wind at night is off the path beaten by people who know what their questions are. I finally had to dismount, fake a brake, step into the windy dark, squint and holler for custom….and I found some. I would boom my message (I can still hear it; it scared me, and still does) until someone headed toward me, when i would quickly duck down and crawl back in, stand up and turn, and resume anonymity and dignity so as to keep the (wormhole?) open.
Some people were puzzled despite everything. And they fucked with me. I was asked dumb questions (Should i go to 9:00 and Child? What’s up? What’s your name?) and it was a lot like when Homer Simpson travels to Tibet with his neighbor Apu, to consult the wisest man in the world. They are permitted only three questions, and Homer wastes them (“Are you really the president of Quick-ee-mart? Really? Honest?”); it was like that. I didn’t get the respect that a couple of dozen undraped accolytes deployed ahead with bullhorns, torches, bows and bulging quivers could have gained me; I probably didn’t get the respect that Lucy got in her moveable “Psychiatric help five cents” booth, on the playa a few years ago.
But who understands the will of the gods? Poetry did erupt from my lips once or twice, and an awesomely unrepeatable comic tirade of rhythmic scolding, when some clumsy oaf ripped my window out, trying to pillage the offerings or grope the oracle. Answers came easily; drumming up business was hard. I often played two people, the ponderous ancient Sibyl and a more streetwise priestess who ran interference and explained the procedure. It was always necessary to be ready to defend myself; curious people kept sticking their hands in wherever they could, or trying to get me out; running lights (or an alligator) would have lent me identity, status and protection. Next time?
The one last longest night, before i gave up prophecy for the duration, came on a windy, warm, sugar-cube-soaked night of purity and danger, a combination I love. I was able to sit inside the mountain and just lift my feet and be blown around freely, and at times i lay communing with Whomever while traveling, and I never hit a thing. At one time, a jolly willing woman heard my litany and begged to try the Oracle’s mantle herself, so I told her this story so far, repeated to her all Don Jon’s words of guidance, showed her around, the cave, made her undress and then put on the white robe and wear the wreath, passed the consecration over to her easily, mouth to mouth, and then I lit out to roll in playa dust and smoke and babble. She spoke once with the Voice, drew someone instantly to her from the horizon, whispered the answer to his question, and then called me in to take back the role again! She was finished with it after two and a half minutes.
I continued to have adventures and oraculate for several hours, stoned as a monkey, driving blind and upside-down, but protected as though held in someone’s large hands, while my possessions and several bodily fluids fell through the holes and were lost at light speed. I was powerfully filled with huge and God-pleasing music for seven or eight ages, until I found myself suddenly back where I had begun, about to run over my bike, with it’s headlight left on, back at the opera camp, and I knew i was through. I could barely make it home, what with one thing and another.
The next day (Friday? the day of the Black Madonna parade, in which I drummed and sang and throat-sang with a dedicated group of people and puppets) I wrote a list of procedures, which I taped inside the Mountain, with a large clear sign stuck outside, that directed hopeful Pythons to fast hard for three minutes, change the arrow on the “THE SIBYL IS IN/OUT’ sign, and then strip, enter the mountain, and follow further directions.
I assured them that they could make no mistake, that the water and bay leaves and other prep were both subjective and idiotproof (similar to taking a trip guide and prerecorded musical accompaniment on a journey of the soul), but I urged them to be ready, to take Immortal Possession very seriously. I left all the sacred gear inside, and only saw the Mountain once again, when we collected it on Sunday and hauled it to the nearest burn platform to burn it. There were more offerings in the basket, and empty water bottles and butts were neatly stashed, and a package of jellybeans had been tucked inside the horn of the voice changer.
It all burned beautifully.