Skin Spirits and Sacred Remains on Samhain

I haven’t celebrated the cross-quarters (Samhain, Beltane, etc.) in years, and I generally don’t do purely celebratory ritual unless I’m invited to it (such as Pagan Pride Day rites and so forth). Additionally, I’m two days out from vending at OryCon this weekend, and since I spent a large portion of October too sick to work (thank you, food poisoning), I’m working hard to create enough new things to make my booth a place of all sorts of furry and feathered and beaded creations to take home. That means today was predominantly a “hide in the art studio and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist” day.

Except I can’t forget the rest of the world exists. My apartment is festooned with bits and pieces of wood, stone, and other organic findings from hikes and explorations, reminders of where I’ve been and where I’ll visit again. I almost always have documentaries about nature, human history, modern technological advancements, and the like going on while I work. Even when I’m holed up in my apartment for days, I never forget that there’s so much more outside those walls.

Gray wolf mask by Lupa, 2012

And then there are the dead critters. One of the perks of my art is that I get to work with the remains of animals from all around the world. So I have these constant reminders of the diverse ecosystems that have developed over thousands of years. I’ll probably never get to pet a spotted hyena or a Geoffrey’s cat in the flesh, but I can at least touch and examine bits of their fur as I stitch them.

I am also constantly reminded that these were once living beings who met their deaths largely at human hands, one way or another. These deaths often are terrifying, even when they’re relatively quick. Yes, death is a constant threat in the wild, and many of the wild animals whose remains I work with might otherwise have had a much worse death than a quick bullet–starvation, disease, infected injuries, or death in the jaws of a predator. But that does not remove our responsibility to make the deaths we cause be as humane as possible.

No animal enjoys dying, and this reality must be remembered. Even the gentlest death is still a living being suddenly being permanently deprived of its ability to interact with this world. The afterlife is not a fact, only a speculation, and it is small comfort to say “perhaps its spirit still roams”, when the only life we know for sure exists has come to a close. Even as I work with the skin spirits in my art and practice, I know that there’s a good chance that these, and all other spirits, are simply emanations of the human imagination, and that this life is all we get. Even if there is an afterlife of some sort, the fact remains that a living being has lost its vehicle for interacting with this wild, amazing world we live in. This is a loss of which we can be absolutely sure, and it is no small thing.

This–this is the foundation of my work with animal parts. My work with the spirits for the past fifteen years, developed through trial and error and experience, self- and spirit-taught–this is the heart of my artwork. The aesthetics and the flow are important, and yes, the ability to pay my bills is convenient. But from the time I picked up my first fox faces and deerskin scraps so many years ago, the spirits I discovered in them, and the stories of their lives and their deaths, have been the reason I do this work.

Fox tooth necklace, Lupa 2012

Every piece of art I make with fur and bone, leather and feather, is a piece of funerary art. Even the simplest claw necklace or tail is a testament to the animals who once wore the remains, every bit as much as an elaborate bone ritual knife or whole-hide totem dance costume. I think sometimes I take for granted that people realize that. And yet it’s more often that people recognize it in the bigger, more obviously “sacred” ritual tools, and I have to remind them that every little bit, even the snippets and scraps I use as pillow stuffing, is just as sacred and special.

Skin spirits and sacred remains: the crafted archetypal memory, and the physical memorial. These are inextricably tangled together in my work and my practice. Hence the prayers and rituals that go along with the stitching and the painting. For me, it would be unthinkable to treat these remains as mere “materials” to be used. These beings once lived, and those lives deserve to be honored and celebrated through my art and ritual.

Working almost every day with the sacred remains, from initial preparation to the process of art creation and into the purification ritual, I appreciate not only the lives that these animals had, but also the preciousness of my own life. As I grow older I become more acutely aware of my own mortality, and how fortunate I am to have made it–today being my birthday–to thirty-four years of age. The skin spirits sit with me as I work on their remains, and they whisper in my ear: “Remember, thou art mortal!”

As I sit here on the cusp of Samhain Day*, once I finish my break and return to my work, I will continue with the ongoing, daily rites and practices that honor these beloved dead. And these rituals aren’t just to honor the dead, but to remind me to protect the living. My partner tells me his favorite part of my work is the alchemy of taking the remains of the dead and turning them into money I can give to protect the living and their habitats. It is not only my own mortality I have to remember, but that of every other living being sharing this planet with me.

Mastodont skeleton at Oregon Zoo; photo by Lupa, 2012

Therefore, please do not mistake the work with skin spirits and sacred remains as one focused merely on death. Death is only the most obvious element of this work. Through my art and spiritual practice I have gained a greater appreciation of the long parade of beings that have come and gone on this blue-green planet, and for the urgent need we have to preserve the balance that our species has endangered so greatly.

The spirits remind me of my mortality, but they also remind me I am still very much alive. Perhaps the greatest honor I can do these beloved dead is to make the most of this life, not just as an isolated individual, but as a part of the great, tangled, interconnected web of life, death, and rebirth that we all have had our time in.

*A lot of people celebrate Samhain on Oct. 31 because of Halloween. However, Oct. 31 is Samhain eve, and November 1 is Samhain day. Yes, that makes me a Samhain baby. Also, I know some folks celebrate it the full moon before/right after Nov. 1 to be *really* authentic about it; I’m going with the more popular May 1 Beltane/Nov. 1 Samhain configuration :)
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