On Cultural Appropriation

I’m surprised with myself. This blog is about six weeks old (though it sometimes feels longer) and I’ve yet to do a post on cultural appropriation. Allow me to remedy this.

Cultural appropriation is a topic which is woefully neglected in neopaganism, and neoshamanism in particular. People ignore it, pretend it isn’t an issue, and it becomes the elephant in the room (hence the title of the cultural appropriation and neopaganism anthology I’m compiling, Talking About the Elephant). Part of the reason is because nobody likes to be told, “You’re doing it wrong!” There’s a strong sentiment throughout the neopagan community that if the spirit moves you, then it must be right–even if it involves taking bits and parts of different traditions and cultures and slapping them together.

Now, it should be pretty obvious from the influences on therioshamanism that I’m not one to throw stones at drawing from multiple wells. However, I exercise honesty in doing so. I make it exceptionally clear that, despite the common association in the U.S. of shamanism with Native Americans, I am a European-mutt-American neopagan with no connection to any indigenous cultures. Additionally, I have a disclaimer for my artwork, which, due to some of its components, is sometimes mistaken for Native American art. (Not that I find the comparison insulting; however, I don’t want to misrepresent my work as something it isn’t.)

Why the caution? Because I believe that there is entirely too much misrepresentation of what “shamanism” is or may be in modern neopaganism. It seems as though anything with beads and rattles, animals and drums, or anything that puts anyone in an altered state of consciousness, is called “shamanic” (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea). I’ve been called a shaman solely for the fact that I work with animal totems and animal parts. While these are components of therioshamanism, they don’t alone make me a shaman. There’s a lot more to it than that.

The other reason is, again, because even in neopaganism, shamanism is very often equated with “Native American”. Yet the bulk of what I find in books on “Native American spirituality/shamanism” isn’t genuine, being mixed with New Age and other non-Native concepts. Meanwhile, numerous unsuspecting readers run around saying that they practice the real deal–the book says so! And so they continue to have an inaccurate perception of what Native American cultures consist of, and the actual Native people end up grossly misrepresented. Often they’re victims of the Noble Savage stereotype, which portrays them all as idealized, amazingly spiritual people who live in perfect harmony with the natural world, exactly as it was done hundreds of years ago (even living in tipis!). The less glamorous aspects of the reality–alcoholism and poverty, among others–as well as the fact that many Natives are quite happily Christian, are glossed over. While it’s not all gloom and doom in reality, there are serious social issues that these books, seminars and people completely turn a blind eye to–probably because they aren’t conducive to “spiritual living”.

Finally, there’s the fact that some (not all) mainstream American neopagans who appropriate from other cultures are doing so out of escapism. All they see in their own culture is the strip malls and consumerism, and none of the potential (or the need) for spirituality in this context. I’ve heard people complaining about the flakiness and shallowness of the neopagan community, taking the worst of the bad scholarship and witch wars, and completely ignoring the creativity and growth. Nothing is flawless; nothing is totally horrible, either. I choose to accentuate the constructive and look askance at the silliness. Perhaps not everything neopagans have come up with is historically accurate or will pass the rigid judgements of mainstream society. And yes, there are some pagans who get squicked by the existence of those of us who are openly queer and genderqueer, who identify as Otherkin, who are openly kinky and combine it with magical and/or spiritual practices,or who otherwise might horrify the status quo. But, to me, this eclectic mix of backgrounds and beliefs just makes it all the better.

So I’m perfectly happy working from a neopagan perspective, while keeping a careful eye on some of the negative tendencies *some* neopagans have demonstrated over the years, particularly poor scholarship–and rampant cultural appropriation. Neopaganism doesn’t automatically include these. In fact, I prefer to be a part of both neopaganism, and mainstream American culture to an extent, because both of these environments could benefit from what I’m doing (or so I like to think). I try to raise awareness of cultural appropriation in articles like this one, and I also support the formation of neopagan-specific practices, such as neopagan totemism. As far as mainstream American society goes, while environmental awareness, including issues involving animals, is growing overall, it could still use some help. There are no shamanic figures in mainstream America; we have psychologists and doctors and priests, but shamans and neoshamans are shunted to the fringes as far as most Americans are concerned.

Working within a cultural framework that I’m familiar with, IMO, is more effective for me as an individual than trying to adopt the cultural practices of someone else. It doesn’t make my culture better than someone else’s; I’m not superior to a reconstructionist, or someone raised in an indigenous society. But I see no need, at this point in my life, to try to alter my worldview that significantly when the cultural and subcultural influences can go both ways–I can help them, and they can help me.

And this is something I encourage people to consider. You’re not wrong or bad for wanting to draw from other cultures. To me, the only crime is in misrepresentation, and in taking things that aren’t supposed to be taken without permission. But be mindful of the impact that you may have in doing so. Do the people you’re taking from really want you taking? Are you admitting that you aren’t an uber-seekrit initiate of their mysteries when all you did was read a book? And how do you feel about your own culture? Have you considered the magic that may be growing within it, or hidden away, waiting for discovery–or even something that may be your own creation?

This is how I handle things. I am completely honest about my source material and where I’m coming from. I feel no need to misrepresent myself. I use the word “shaman”, but in a non-cultural-specific manner; I use it more in an anthropological sense than anything else. (Nobody outside of a few Siberian tribes historically used that term anyway.) I’m open about the fact that I’m self-trained (or, if you’ll allow me to explain, trained by a collaboration of myself and the spirits and other entities I work with). While I read books on both traditional and neo shamanism, I do so mainly to get an idea of practices I may not have considered before. When I have a situation that I want to approach as a shaman, I don’t think “Well, how would such and such culture’s shamans do it?”. Instead, I think “What would *I* do?”–and then proceed to do it.

I may not have a millenia-old system of training behind me; and for sure, I’m the sole adherent of my path. I don’t think old equals better; I think that finding the spirits, symbols and tools that make the magic and connections happen (and being honest about their origins) is what’s important. I choose to work with what I know best, within the culture I am immersed in and will probably remain a part of for the rest of this life. YMMV.

An Addendum to One of Yesterday’s Posts

I do have another post planned for today, but wanted to pop this up here while I was thinking about it:

When I talk about looking at the Otherkin concept from a metaphorical perspective, this is not to the exclusion of other angles, such as reincarnation. As I mentioned in my essay, I see the metaphorical angle as well as psychological and spiritual angles. While for me, personally, reincarnation isn’t a part of the spiritual aspects, it is for plenty of other people.

What I want to make clear is that multiple theories of explanation are not necessarily opposed to each other. It is quite possible to look at a situation from more than one perspective and have more than one explanation for what happened. For example, in regards to my therianthropy, from a purely psychological level it’s a product of early imprinting and conditioning, as well as ego-identification with Canis lupus. However, that doesn’t negate the spiritual/totemic aspects, or the mythological/metaphorical aspects. It’s not a situation of either/or. It’s one of both/and.

I think that one of the shortcomings of the Otherkin community is that as a group we’ve* too often bought into the rational OR metaphorical argument. Since what we believe about ourselves is often challenged anyway, we scramble for the most “solid” explanation we can come up with, which is usually reincarnation; those who don’t have past life memories often beat their heads against brick walls for years because they feel that’s what they *must* exhibit in order to be “legitimate”. And because we live in a society that demands as much literal proof as possible, and since reincarnation is the closest we have (since people with past lives almost always see them as literal, linear events that actually happened in this reality), people sometimes fear “diluting” what literal proof they do have.

However, that’s buying right into the overly literal/rational perspective that dominates modern post-industrial thought. Sometimes we want so badly to be accepted that we’re willing to play by the mainstream’s rules, even if it cuts us off from other possibilities.

When I espouse a metaphorical perspective on Otherkin, I am not saying that you have to give up whatever other views you have in order to embrace it. Rather, I encourage people to look at themselves on multiple levels–in fact, reincarnation can easily be seen as a part of one’s personal mythology, specifically the mythology we tell about ourselves. “Mythology” has unfortunately been given the connotation of “not true”, because it may not be literally “true”–but IMO, that doesn’t make that a correct assessment. Metaphor is true–it’s simply true on a different level of reality. Therefore, while reincarnation (as an example) can be literally true in that one believes that somewhere in linear time one was incarnated in another life, it can also be metaphorically true as a part of one’s personal mythology that helps one to understand the macrocosm in relation to the microcosm.

* Should also add that when I say “we” I mean the community in general, with the understanding that individuals’ mileages may vary.

A Mythological Perspective on Therianthropy

I originally posted this to my personal blog, but I thought I’d crosspost it here as well since it does deal with spiritual beliefs. I’ve met several people who believe that therianthropy (and Otherkin in general) are just those who have an odd interpretation of animistic/shamanic concepts; while I don’t think that explains everyone who identifies as Otherkin/etc., I do think it’s an angle I want to explore more for my *personal* purposes.

*************

This is quite possibly one of the most difficult parts of my personal cosmology for people who aren’t Otherkin to grasp. On the surface, it seems entirely delusional and escapist–”You believe you’re a wolf? Have you looked in the mirror lately? Maybe we should get you to a psychiatrist…” And believe me, plenty of us have gone through the belief-doubt-belief cycle.

As I’ve gotten older, though, and this odd bit of my psyche hasn’t gone away (no matter how I’ve tried ignoring and even repressing it), I’ve started looking at it from different angles. The concept of therianthropy, the idea that a person is, on a certain psychological, spiritual, or other nonphysical level, a nonhuman animal, is the concept that best explains what’s going on in a *functional* manner. Telling me I’m crazy doesn’t make me more functional. I’m already quite functional; therianthropy doesn’t hinder my ability to live a perfectly normal life, with a husband, a job, and a decent social life. However, part of that functionality comes from being able to accept myself as I am and integrating everything about myself into my life, rather than trying to play the Pigeonhole Game.

Many therians see therianthropy as a psychological/neurobiological thing. Many Otherkin in general are enamored of the idea of reincarnation, that who and what we were in previous (or alternate, depending on your view of linear space/time) lives affects who and what we are now. For myself, though, I’m gravitating more and more towards a metaphorical perspective (in addition to psychological and spiritual layers).

I like Joseph Campbell’s work, warts and all. I’m particularly fond of the concept that people need mythology in order to have a complete worldview, that mythology answers a need we have on a very deep level. IMO, rationality appeals to the left brain, while mythology appeals to the right hemisphere (and keep in mind this is very generalized). Now, granted, I can’t speak for everyone. But for myself, spirituality, and by extension, mythology, are part of my psyche’s complete breakfast. Rationality answers my need for a physical, down-to-earth, left-brain explanation of things. However, if anything, I’m canted more towards the right brain (I’m even left handed, and I’m one of those damned artsy types ;). Therefore, in order to be happy, I need the mythological/metaphorical end of things as well. (I’d make an awful rational atheist/materialist.)

Mythology occurs on two levels, IMO/IME. It occurs on a collective/community level, where a group consensus of belief is arrived at. This is where the more outward trappings of religion and spirituality come into play, as well as the cultural mythology shared by an entire group, tribe or nation of people. It’s more commonly recognized in modern American society, though in a fragmented manner. We do not, as a nation, have a cohesive cultural mythology that permeates the fabric of our society in the same way that mythology shaped, say, the ancient Greek or Norse cultures. (And even then, the collective mythology could vary according to individual culture-within-a-culture, by region, etc.) However, we do not have a national mythology (or a national religion). We are a patchwork quilt made of a number of different cultures that arrived here over several centuries, and who are still arriving. Additionally, America as a whole is incredibly materialistic and possessed of a short attention span. The closest we have to heroes and other mythological entities are the denizens of pop culture, who (with rare exception) last a few weeks, months, or years, and then drop out of existence. We worship what we see on the T.V., though it’s not conventional worship and we don’t always realize what we’re doing. Additionally, we have a rather destructive relationship with that form of mythology–we create heroes, and then take malicious joy out of knocking them down. The evening news and “reality” T.V. are testaments to our cultural fetish for watching the mighty tumble back down to our level; rather than aspiring to become better people through their examples, we revel in dragging them down to our level, made rabid by our insecurity and fear of success.

There’s also the mythology inherent in religion to consider. The most common religion in America is Christianity, but the values of that religion are largely based in ancient Hebrew society, and in some ways don’t mesh particularly well with modern American culture. Not that it can’t be done, but many of the original values of Christianity and its predecessor, Judaism, have been dropped by liberal Jews and by Christians in general–how many Christians routinely slaughter cattle as per Leviticus, or throw stones at adulterers? My point, though, is not judging whether any particular religion is right or wrong–that’s up to the individual to decide. Rather, I want to make it clear that this is in no way a Christian nation, and although the motifs of Christian myth* do permeate society to an extent, it’s not the same as Native American or other indigenous cultures, or the pre-Christian cultures of Europe–or even primarily Christian societies prior to the past two centuries or so.

Still neither pop culture nor religions make for a cohesive *cultural* mythology in America. Additionally, more than any known society before us, modern America is incredibly individual-based. This has only really cropped up in the past several decades, and while it has had some definite benefits (such as encouraging people to challenge stereotypes, prejudices, and other negative elements traditionally accepted by the status quo), it has contributed to the lower possibility of cultural mythology.

However, the rise of the individual increases the exposure of *personal* mythology, something which has always existed but has been largely downplayed in more group-oriented societies. Personal mythology is understanding reality from the microcosmic view, determining one’s own perspective, and telling the story of what the world is from a single viewpoint. It often meshes with a cultural mythology (in some cases, more than one), though it may have completely unique elements as well (as in Unverified Personal Gnosis).

And this is where my therianthropy ties in to all that stuff above this point–it is a part of my personal mythology. Part of the story I tell about myself is that, inside me, there is a part of me that is a wolf–in that respect, I am a wolf. This is something that I’ve recognized in myself for most of my life, and have found different ways to explain it. When I was a child, I called Wolf my “favorite animal” because that’s what I was told it was. When I first learned about totems, I thought perhaps Wolf was my totem (and I was right). However, therianthropy fit my experiences even more, particularly the identification WITH Wolf.

There are no cultural motifs in modern America for explaining this feeling beyond classic lycanthropy (fiction) and clinical lycanthropy (insanity). We don’t have a system of animal totemism, nor is there widespread functional belief in animal spirit guides; our totems and spirits are relegated to children’s cartoons and sports mascots. Additionally, we are detached from the concept that we, humans, are animals–some people get incredibly offended by the assertion that we share the majority of our genetic material with all other mammals (and all vertebrates, for that matter). “But we’re special! We can reason! We’re (insert deity’s name here)’s chosen beings!” That may be, but other animals are pretty special, too–could you survive in the woods if you were thrown out there naked with no supplies? Can you smell a deer a quarter mile away? Our big brains, evolutionarily speaking, are our species’ adaptation, just as more olfactory glands are the adaptation of scent-based predators such as wolves. We have gained reason, but we have lost a healthy grasp of instinct.

I acknowledge I am an animal, a mammal, a primate. Because the basic human social structure, more pronounced in hunter-gatherer societies, resembles that of wolves, and because American culture often equates the Wild (instinct, wilderness, base emotions) with wolves (werewolves being the most common shapeshifter in American culture, and in many of the cultures that shaped modern America), it’s no surprise, then, that when the instinctual part of myself, the archetype of the Wild (Wo)Man, raises its shaggy, sharp-fanged muzzle, it manifests as a wolf.

This does NOT mean that therianthropy is ONLY “make-believe” for me, that it is only metaphorical–there are also psychological and spiritual levels to it as well. However, we live in a setting where “metaphor” is taken to mean “not real” because it doesn’t manifest literally on the physical/rational. Go beyond a certain level of abstractness, and people want to delineate between what is “real” and what is “imagination”. Yet in mythology–the study of myth–metaphorical is just as real as literal. It may be real in different ways–but it has a very real effect on people. Let me say that again: metaphor is real, because it has a very real, concrete effect on how people view the world around them and how they act on that world and its denizens. Whether it’s the ancient tribe that placates the spirits of the dead to keep them from harming the living, or the anti-abortion protester who believes wholeheartedly that God wants hir to protect unborn lives, or the person who believes s/he was an elf in a past life and that part of hirself still resonates with that, the mythology we believe in is very real for us–particularly on a personal level.

And this is part of why I identify as a therian–because it answers my need for mythology, and meshes with my personal mythology. It answers questions that the rational/literal reality denies even exist, and functionally, it helps me to feel I am a more complete person. My life is enriched by this belief. On a left-brain level, yes, it’s possible that I have a weird neurobiological quirk, or a strange bit of psychological imprinting/conditioning (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been called weird or strange ;) But on a right-brain level, this makes sense. And rather than trying to pick between the left/literal and right/metaphorical, I choose to embrace them both as possible explanations for myself–not just for therianthropy, but for everything that encompasses my life.

The left brain is the Earth–grounded, solid, physical; the right brain is the Sky–free of hindrances, open, with breezes that carry me ever higher. As long as I am between the Earth and the Sky, things can’t be all that bad.

* No, “myth” does not equal “fiction”. However, the current subjective treatment of myth, of declaring one myth to be more true than another, sometimes makes it difficult to speak of some religions in mythological terms for fear of offending adherents.

ETA: And an addendum to this post.

Hitting the Books

Thank the gods I’m a bibliophile.

I don’t want to try to create therioshamanism out of absolutely nothing. Believe me, I tried figuring out things entirely on my own without any help whatsoever when I was much younger. It resulted in things like “I feel energy–it must be….A PSYCHIC ATTACK!!!” and “I KNOW that if I just TRY hard enough, I’ll be able to turn into a wolf for real! Okay, I’m doing it! I think….okay, any time now….is this where I’m supposed to clear my mind of all impure thoughts….?”

I very quickly learned the value of Talking To Other People Who Have Been There. Not only did they have suggestions from their own experiences, but they often provide suggested reading material. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both of these. You can’t ask a book a question, but in-person conversations don’t come pre-edited by professionals. So over time I learned how to determine which people were most likely flakes, which ones were strange but had solid ideas, and which ones were pretty close to consensus on a number of pagan and magical topics. I also figured out how to determine what sorts of books each (very general) type of person either wrote and/or recommended. (I also learned that “flake” and “consensus” could be pretty damned subjective, with people in general as well as pagan/occult folk.)

I have been talking quite a bit to friends and acquaintances about what I’m doing, playing mental racquetball by bouncing ideas off their heads. (They’re good sports about it.) However, I’ve also been reading (or re-reading) every book in the house on shamanism and related topics as a way of refreshing my memory on specific details (my memory is spotty, thanks to long-term sleep deprivation, one reason why blogging has become my friend). And I’ve been buying books as I can afford them; my husband has been pretty good about keeping me from decimating our budget by curbing my attempts to significantly reduce my Amazon wish list (to which I’ve been adding anything that’s been suggested or otherwise looks worthwhile)–and believe me, this is a tough temptation to fight off when I live a ten minute bus drive from Powell’s City of Books!

Let it be said that I realize books aren’t a perfect resource. But then again, neither are people-in-person. In fact, there’s no such thing as a perfect resource, which is why a combined viewpoint is best, as far as I’m concerned. However, given that I have three hours of commuting a day, five days a week, for the foreseeable future (or until my two and a half year contract is up) I have plenty of reading time. And I’m incredibly independent, so self-teaching isn’t a problem (with, as I mentioned, talking shop with others as a balancing point).

It’s been an interesting experience, particularly when revisiting books I’ve read before. For example, I recently finished reading Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman for the fourth time, cover to cover, since I got it a decade or so ago. Needless to say, I’m not as thrilled about it as I used to be. It feels incredibly incomplete; there’s something important about cultural context when it comes to shamanism, and the problem is that Harner does a shoddy job of removing the culture-specific context from the techniques. Now, granted, having been a Chaos magician for a few years (and still being influenced by it to some extent) the idea of boiling magic down to its bare-bones components isn’t unusual. However, Peter J. Carroll did a much cleaner job of it.

One book that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and that will probably be a good guidebook for me is Piers Vitebsky’s The Shaman. It’s an anthropological look at shamanism in traditional societies worldwide. He does a good job of showing just how diverse the practices included under the umbrella of “shamanism” really are. For example, while he covers cultures that use soul-flight (such as the Siberian shamans), he also looks at the Sora of India, who utilize mediumship and channelling. Additionally, unlike Harner and other neoshamans, Vitebsky demonstrates how shamanism is for more than just healing, and how thoroughly enmeshed the shaman is in the community s/he lives in. While I don’t think I can become an uber-1337 shaman by reading this book a hundred times, it is *one* good model that I want to work with in creating my own (neo)shamanic system.

I have a number of other books, of course, on the reading pile. I want to re-read Hillary S. Webb’s Exploring Shamanism to see if I like it as much as I did last time; it’s neoshamanism, but the author is quite honest about that. I also recently got a copy of Graham Harvey’s Shamanism: A Reader, which I’m looking forward to digging into.

Not everything will be incorporated, of course. I recently gave a two-star review to The Celtic Shaman by John Matthews. And I’m not even going near people like Lynn Andrews or Brooke Medicine Eagle. I did get a copy of The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, mainly to say that I’ve read something of his cover to cover (I still don’t think I’ll be impressed, though, given all the evidence pointing toward don Juan Matus’ questionable existence).

I’m actually not looking for how-to books in specific. From what I’ve seen they tend to be primarily 101-level books that go over the same basic techniques. Rather, I’m interested in concepts. I have enough experience with magic in general (to include neoshamanic practice) that I can generally figure out how to do something even if it isn’t described in step-by-step detail. A good example of this is Eligio Stephen Gallegos’ The Personal Totem Pole. Gallegos is a psychotherapist who created a method of therapy involving meditating to find the totem animals of each of the seven chakras and having conversations with them to find out the roots of various issues. The book itself is actually a case study meant for other professionals to use, and doesn’t have any how-tos in it. However, reading through, it’s pretty easy to figure out what to do.

This doesn’t mean I don’t know everything. A recent experience with trance possession reminded me that there are certain techniques that, while I may know the general concept, require more than just flying by the seat of my pants. Which is where I start looking for more specific books–and start talking to people who have had this sort of experience. The sort of thing, though, that requires this kind of action is less likely to be found in how-to books, and more in discussions and studies. You can only go so deep with how-tos; when I write my own books, for example, I don’t give step-by-step instructions. Rather, I give the concepts, anecdotes that illustrate how I used them, and then some suggestions on how the reader might try incorporating the concepts into their own practices. And that’s what I’m basically after for myself.

(And yes, I am open to suggestions.)

Environmentalism

This isn’t really a religious thing per se, but it has had a profound effect on me and who I am overall. Ever since I was very young I’ve loved being out in the woods, exploring. I was the kid who brought home grasshoppers, box turtles and garter snakes, and who preferred muddy jeans to skirts. There’s always been something sacred about Nature to me, and it’s the place where I most easily connect to the Divine.

We have a tendency to protect that which we see as sacred. So it’s no surprise that being a pagan and being an environmentalist are closely intertwined for me. While the Divine is in all things, it manifests most strongly (for me) in Nature. That doesn’t mean that I can ignore problems plaguing humanity directly, but it does mean that I am hyperaware of the fragility of world ecosystems. If someone wanted to dump toxic waste in a churchyard, I’m sure plenty of folks would be pissed. (I know I would be—IMO, all religions are deserving of respect.)

And this is a definite strong thread running through therioshamanism. It isn’t just about running off into the otherworld with power animals; it’s also very much attached to the physical here and now. We need a place to come home to roost after soul-flight and journeying, and personally I like this particular henhouse. As a good friend of mine put it, what good is magic if you can’t bring Kether down to Malkuth?

Experimental Magic

I borrowed this term from my husband and fellow magician, Taylor. While it’s derived somewhat from chaos magic, experimental magic is focused particularly on taking magic in new directions and seeing how far it can be pushed and worked with. This has influenced me to be more adventurous in my path, and to allow myself to accept things that may be purely UPG, but which demonstrate a definite positive effect on me and the entities I work with. I do consider myself to be an experimental magician; while I don’t paradigm-hop as much as I used to, I do still like to explore new areas of familiar topics.

Chaos Magic

Chaos Magic

If you’re not sure of what Chaos magic is, chaosmatrix.org is a good place to start; spiralnature.com also has a nice selection of essays. Basically, no, chaos magic isn’t about being all evil and scary, or about Tiamat-worship, and it’s not the same as Discordianism. In this case, Chaos hails back to the original Greek definition of the term, the vast void that contains all potential for reality. Chaos magic is, in part, about tapping into this potential (though not necessarily in a literal manner). Check the links above for a more thorough overview.

This particular system gave me both good and bad influences. On the good side, it made my approach to magic a lot more flexible. I wouldn’t have done nearly as much experimentation with magic as I had without it, and I also probably would have a much more dogmatic approach than I do now. However, one of the negative effects is that for a while it shoved me almost purely into a psychological view of magic, in which deities and spirits were merely figments of my psyche. (Not that Chaos magic will do this to everyone, of course). I have since gotten over such a solipsistic viewpoint and am much happier for it.

Wicca and Neopaganism

Or, if you want to argue semantics, neo-Wicca. Wicca by way of Scott Cunningham, mostly. His Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner was another early book for me, and while I never really considered myself a (neo)Wiccan, the basic concept did affect my early ritual creations. To this day the broom and the athame (which I now just call a ritual knife) are integral parts of my ritual structure, and I still cast a circle, though I call on directional totems rather than watchtowers. And that’s really about the long and short of the influence Wicca has these days—a few ritual components.

Now, neopaganism in general is another story. I’ve been a neopagan for over a decade, and the eclectic combination of both old and new myths, rituals and other material has been a strong influence on the general “feel” of my path. Granted, I do take care as far as scholarship goes, and I’m not blind to the fact that we do have our fair share of nuts and flakes. However, I do sometimes think that “neopaganism” gets a bad rap, particularly by people who are doing their damnedest to try to prove their paganism is older, or more correct, or less flaky, or has fewer artificial additives and sweeteners, etc.

Personally, I like being a neopagan. I have no problem with it. I am under no delusion that what I’m doing here is some sort of paleolithic reconstruction–how much can you really rebuild out of a few cave paintings and artifacts and the mythological equivalent of a few burnt sticks? Additionally, since I’m not working within any culture except that which I live in now, I don’t have to worry about the constraints of any other culture or society.

I am, however, careful about what I apply to my path. I don’t accept just anything that sounds good. I realize that a good bit of what I’m working with here could be considered fluff by the uber-non-fluffies. Foo on that. I’m honest about my sources, and my personal spirituality and magical practice aren’t dependent on what someone says on teh intarwebz. I figure as long as I’m not running around saying “Hey, I’m a Neanderthal Pagan!” or some silly thing like that, then I can work quite safely within a neopagan (and neoshamanic) framework.

Neopagan Totemism and Animal Magic

This has been my primary focus in my path ever since I got started studying and practicing magic back in 1997. Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak was my first book on anything even remotely pagan, though I have over the years read most of the books on the topic. Again, my path has been largely based on UPG, though I do use certain techniques that are common among totemists and pagans in general, such as the guided totem journey.

While totemism is a significant part of my practice, I’ve been known to experiment quite a bit with animal magic in general. For example, my first book, Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone, featured chapters on such topics as creating new species on the astral plane for magical purposes, work with a physical familiar in the modern day and age, a controversial but well-balanced (or so I’ve been told) chapter on animal sacrifice, and a chapter on working with animal parts in magical practice. (I avoided the dreaded totem animal dictionary as well.)

The animal parts are a particularly important aspect to my practice. About as long as I’ve been pagan I’ve been creating artwork utilizing leather, fur, feathers, bones and other animal remains. In my animistic worldview, although the soul of the animal has fled, there is a spirit that stays in each remain, and it is that which I work with. Rather than leaving them to be made into coats and taxidermy mounts, I “rescue” them and make them into more honorable things—ritual tools, sacred jewelry, and magical artwork. I talk quite a bit with the “skin spirits” as I call them (even though they reside in all the parts of the animal) to find out what they want to be. I also say a prayer over each completed project, and perform a triparte purification ritual with an offering.

I’ve also been working with more diverse totems. To me, a totem (in a neopagan totem sense) is an archetypal being that represents all the qualities associated with a particular species, both the natural history and the human lore. I’ve been working, for instance, with “food totems”, the totems of species that humans usually think of as food and nothing more, such as Chicken, Pig and Crab. I do this not only for my own enlightenment, but to create a stronger relationship with these totems, and to learn what I can do to help both them and their physical children. I have written a couple of offsite articles about this if you’re interested.

My current writing project (or one of them, anyway) is a sequel to Fang and Fur, called DIY Totemism. I focus specifically on neopagan totemism, address some of the problems with the current state of totemism in the neopagan community *coughdictionariescough*and approach the topic from some original angles. While it won’t be the sum total of my totemic work in the development of therioshamanism, the fact that a lot of the research I’ve done for it (practically speaking—I won’t write about things I haven’t actually tested in my own ritual space) parallels my personal path development creates a mutual influence.

Neoshamanism

Neoshamanism is, quite literally, new shamanism. It is derived from indigenous shamanic traditions, with the understanding that the term shaman originated from Siberia and was initially used by anthropologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to denote any sort of a holy person, mystic or other sacred individual who used trances and rituals to serve the community. Neoshamanism isn’t based in any particular culture (other than, perhaps, modern American mainstream culture, or neopaganism), though some neoshamans, particularly plastic shamans, may do their utmost best to convince others that what they read in a book makes them an authentic Native American shaman. Core shamanism was created by Michael Harner, an anthropologist who studied both theory and practice with shamans in a number of indigenous cultures. He took the techniques he learned out of their cultural context and made them into a bare-bones magical system. Ironically enough, many people who learn core shamanism try to plug it back into traditional cultures and say that Harner’s works are traditional.

I am a neoshaman. I wasn’t trained by any particular indigenous culture (or by anyone else, for that matter), and the techniques I use are primarily derived from core shamanism and from UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis). Harner is an influence, among several other sources (a bibliography of written source material can be seen here). Additionally, totem-specific techniques, such as those in Ted Andrews’ works on totemism were an influence. However, the bulk of my practice is based on intuition and conversation with the spirits. Since I am not the 2,000 year old (wo)man, I can’t really say I’m anything but a neoshaman.