Portable Skin Spirits

I’ve been really busy in my studio making my hide and bone art, and it’s given me some time to reflect on where my various pieces have ended up. Over the years I’ve really enjoyed getting to see the extent to which people have incorporated these creations into their spiritual practices—and their everyday lives. It really has ranged from those who only bring them out during certain rituals, to those who carry them throughout their day. Of course, some of that depends on what they have. A small pouch or a piece of jewelry incorporating a bit of hide or bone from one’s totem is a lot easier to carry around than a full hide headdress.

chokerFor myself, I live a very active lifestyle, and so I tend to prefer to be very streamlined about my personal talismans—if it won’t fit in my pockets or closely around my neck or wrists, I leave it at home. And I live in a place where it rains a fair bit, especially in the winter, so I don’t wear fur where it can easily get wet, which can damage it. I also don’t feel the need to “advertise” my spirituality to the masses that I did when I was a shiny-eyed newbie; I don’t need to carry a miniature ritual kit with me everywhere, and I don’t need to wear a wolf hide to the grocery store. (Yes, I used to do the former, along with wearing the neoshamanic equivalent of the dinner plate pentacle. I was never quite so brash as to wear a wolf into the store—my headdresses have always been strictly for sacred rites, not showing off.) Still, I sometimes keep a few small things about my person as needed; the rest have their honored places at home.

But each person’s preferences vary. You may be happy wearing a fox tail everywhere you go, or your tail may never leave your ritual space. Either one is okay. If you do wish to have some small reminder of your totem with you when you’re out and about, here are a few suggestions:

–Pocket talismans: This can be as simple as a single tooth, claw, or bit of hide. You can tuck them into your wallet or purse, or in the little side pocket in a pair of jeans. These are wonderfully simple and often the most inexpensive option. The downside is that if you aren’t wearing something with pockets and don’t carry a purse, you may have to figure out some other option. Additionally, the smaller something is the easier it is to lose, and so you’ll need to take care when taking something else out of the same pocket the talisman is riding in.

–Bracelets, necklaces, and other jewelry: Wearables have a great advantage in that you can put them on pretty well whenever you like. Additionally, unlike pocket talismans, you can have direct physical contact, which some people find comforting. There are those for whom putting the jewelry on every day is a small ritual of reconnection. Obviously this won’t work for everyone. I find my skin gets irritated if I wear fur for too long, and I’m rather hard on jewelry which means that smaller bones used as beads will occasionally break, so I usually keep my critter bits for special occasions. Also, if you have an occupation or hobby that requires a lot of movement or use of your hands, you may find the jewelry getting in the way. And depending on your job and location, you may not be able to wear animal parts at work due to sanitation issues, customer sensitivities, dress code, etc.

il_570xN.352925005_fx4c–Tails and other “minor” costumery: These are generally accessories that are a tad bit more noticeable and unusual than jewelry, but aren’t complete outfits. If you’ve ever been to any sort of convention that caters to a geeky crowd, you’ll likely see at least one or two people wearing real fox or coyote tails. Some people feel comfortable wearing these in everyday life, even with the risks—I’ve had to repair more than one tail that was broken when a teenager wore theirs to school and someone thought it would be funny to yank on their tail. Others save these more overt creations for sacred and safe spaces where people are more likely to recognize personal boundaries. If you decide to wear such a thing out and about in the world, prepare for the occasional curious question, as well as chuckleheads saying stupidly insulting things now and then (and occasionally forgetting civil boundaries by invading your personal space). However, having that ready connection to your totem, and being able to experience it in a variety of setting with assorted levels of distraction can be a valuable practice.

–Headdresses, clothing, and other “major” costumery”: This can be anything from a full hide headdress to elaborate clothing and costume pieces. Generally speaking, these are reserved for formal ritual events, partly because they tend to carry a lot of power, and also because they can be fairly pricey and the general public doesn’t always respect that. I don’t recommend these as everyday fashion pieces for those reasons; rather I suggest keeping them for special occasions and settings. If you should decide that you absolutely have to wear that boar’s head mask on the bus, be aware of how much space you take up, watch out for the aforementioned chuckleheads with poor boundaries, and decide whether you feel this diminishes the ritual efficacy of the piece.

And, as always, know your legalities before you buy or scavenge!

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 :)

Quick Side Note: Giveaway of my book “Skin Spirits”

For those of you on Tumblr, my book Skin Spirits caused some debate and discussion, some of it heated, over there.

So in an attempt to try to salvage something good out of all of this, I’m giving away a free copy of the book–just reblog this post linked here on Tumblr!

(Wasn’t I just talking about not being able to please everyone regarding the cultural appropriation thing? At least I can hopefully make someone happier with a free book.)

Care and Feeding of Your Totem Animal Dance Tail

A while back I posted The Care and Feeding of Your Totem Animal Dance Costume. It’s a handout that I include with every full hide headdress and totem dance costume I make, to give provide physical and spiritual care instructions. I recently wrote one up to send out with tails, too, and thought I’d share it with my readers! (If you want to see the tails in question, check out the Tails, Ears and Horns section of my Etsy shop.)

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

Thank you for your tail purchase! Please read through this care sheet for information on how to care for your tail physically and spiritually.

The Anatomy of a Tail

Even in life, many mammal tails are often fragile things—thin skin wrapped around a bit of muscle and connective tissues on a scaffolding made of the thinnest, smallest vertebrae in the body. Tails are meant to be flexible; they may be used in visual communication with other animals, as well as fly swatters and other pest removal. However, yanking on a mammal’s tail is never a good idea.

In the same way, you don’t want to yank on your tail. While the tail may look thick and full, much of that is hair or fur. The skin itself is actually a very thin strip of a very thin hide. If you look at the back of the tail, you’ll see a bare patch. Using your finger, you can trace it further down the tail’s length, and notice how it gets thinner the further down you go. Additionally, if the tan is older, such as on a vintage tail, the end may dry out a bit, making the tail more fragile. But with sensible care, your tail can last for many years!

Physical Tail Care

Keep your tail clean, cool, and dry. Repeatedly exposing your tail to moisture, such as rain, will cause the hide to deteriorate, as will too much heat. If your tail gets a bit dirty, just on the surface of the fur, wipe it off with a damp cloth; Pledge Wipes are very good at cleaning fur, especially old stains or dust and grime. If it gets really filthy and if the tail is not vintage, you can carefully hand-wash it in warm water and a gentle soap, and hang it out to dry immediately (do NOT apply heat). Make this your last resort, however.

The very worst thing you can do to your tail is pull on it. Touching, petting, and other gentle handling is fine, as is everyday wear and display—it won’t fall apart if you don’t treat it like glass. Just be careful to not sit on the tail or accidentally rest weight on it while getting up. Don’t let people yank on it—children may be especially enthusiastic about treating tails like toys, or their classmates may playfully tug on the tails if they wear them to school.

Sometimes accidents like the above happen, and that thin little strip of hide that Mother Nature made will break. This is hardly the end of your tail! I offer free repairs on everything I make, including tails, no matter the reason. If your tail breaks, don’t feel bad! Just send it back, and I’ll stitch it back together for you.

Spiritual Tail Care

While I’ve discussed this in more depth in this article here, here are some ways that, if you’re so inclined, you can connect with the spirit of the tail itself.

–When you first get the tail, spend some time sitting with it, smoothing or fluffing the fur as needed, and getting to know the physical attributes—color, etc.–that make your tail unique. As you’re doing so, see if you get any impressions of the personality of the tail. You may be used to speaking with spirits; if you haven’t, see what thoughts, emotions, or images cross your mind as you handle the tail. If you feel like you should keep it in a particular place, let that be the tail’s “home”.

–Before you put the tail on to wear it, ask the spirit of the tail for permission. If the tail seems to say “no”, then put it back in its place for a few days, and try again. Or ask why it doesn’t want to come out just yet. If you can wear the tail, thank the spirit; some people may also wish to create small rituals for putting on and/or removing the tail each time.

–Some people prefer to just wear tails as accessories. If you wish to have a deeper spiritual connection, spend time sitting with the tail as well as wearing it each week, or even every day if you wish, to get to know it better. You may also wish to research the animal it came from-where that species lives, what it does and eats, what its relationship to humans it, etc. In this way you can have a better idea of whose tail you’re wearing.

–You might even try dancing with the spirit of the tail, or otherwise actively interacting with it when you wear the tail itself. Try going to a park and pretending to be that animal species. Or if you’re ritually-minded, call the tail’s spirit to join you in a celebratory dance!

Cultural Appropriation 101 for Dead Critter Artists

In recent years, wearable art with animal parts has become downright trendy, particularly, though not exclusively, among twenty-something hipsters and their “ironic” ilk. Feathered earrings are all the rage, fox tails are on everyone’s purse and belt loop, and “hipster headdresses” are showing up everywhere from college campuses to Coachella.

Unfortunately, some artists are participating in an older, undesirable tradition: cultural appropriation. For decades, particularly since “going Native” became cool with the hippies in the 1960s, non-Native people have been grabbing bits and parts of various Native American cultures—or at least what they think “playing Indian” is supposed to be like. And there are those who deliberately misrepresent themselves as Native artists or purveyors of Native art, when they’re in actuality not associated with any tribe, and may even be reselling dreamcatchers and other things made in China.

So why is this a problem? Read on:

–What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the borrowing/theft of elements of one culture from another. More specifically, the culture doing the appropriating is generally more powerful than the one being borrowed from, and often there is a history of oppression and even genocide. Appropriators generally don’t think about the effects the appropriation could have because it’s part of their privilege to not have to think about things like that.

Anyone have a source for this? I got it from Native Appropriations, who were also looking for the source. Artist! We want to credit you!

Most commonly with regards to dead critter art, appropriators are cashing in on “Native American mystique”, either accidentally or intentionally misusing elements or perceived elements of Native American cultures in their art. This is not just a case of mistaken identity, as in happening to use animal parts in your work and having someone else accidentally assume it’s Native, but rather things like people “dressing up like Indians”, or mass-produced dreamcatcher car air fresheners. Hipster headdresses are an especially bad trend; these are quasi-Plains-tribe feathered headdresses, like old Indian “warbonnets” from 20th century Westerns, worn by (almost always white) hipsters for “irony”.

–Why does it matter?

There are a few reasons:

First, racial stereotyping. There are still entirely too many people who think that Indians are just imaginary beings that exist in some romanticized past, or are all horse-riding savages out on the plains, or are all unemployed alcoholics, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Artistic appropriators usually draw on the “noble savage” stereotype, where Native Americans are hyper-idealized as nature-loving, broken-English-speaking shaman-elders dispensing medicine to wide-eyed whites. That, or they draw on the “all natives wear feathers and buckskin” stereotype, drawing together some Hollywoodized smattering of supposed Plains Indian traits into a cultural trainwreck.

Second, buying “native-inspired artwork” does nothing to help actual Native people. This includes artists who may have some Native blood in their background, but have absolutely no contact with any indigenous cultures. News flash: being 1/16 Cherokee does not predispose you to being able to work with dead animals in your art, nor does it make you an expert on your distant family’s culture if you’ve had no contact with your tribe. While certainly not all Native people live on reservations and not all are impoverished or struggling with addiction, the truth is that many reservations are among the poorest places in the United States and this all too often gets ignored and even encouraged by non-natives. The money that goes to non-Native artists posing as “Native” could be going to actual Native artists, either on or off the reservations.

Third, continuing to pander to stereotypes does nothing to help these issues or the people affected by them. Playing dress-up Indian just sends the message that Native people are stereotypes, costumes, images, and otherwise not real people. Additionally, the confusion can draw attention away from actual Native artists who are trying to get their work out there and clarify what is and isn’t genuine tribal artwork. “Hey! We’re over here! Someone pay attention?” often gets drowned out by “NEW NAVAJO NATIONS SHIRT ON SALE 50% OFF AT URBAN OUTFITTERS!!!!!” If we’re going to have any hope of turning these harmful trends around, we need to be paying better attention than we have been.

Now, for some more specific points:

–Why is it bad to associate feathers and antlers and furs with Native American art? Don’t they use these things in their work, too?

Some of them do, some of them don’t. The sort of indigenous artwork you’ll find in Guatemala is very different from what you’ll see in South Dakota, which is all different from what you’d find in British Columbia, and then on into Alaska. And while many modern Native artists do incorporate these things in their work, not all stick to traditional art forms and patterns; there’s just as much innovation of new designs among Native artists as anyone else. So just as there’s no such thing as a monolithic “Native American culture” or “Native American spirituality”, so there isn’t one single style of “Native American art”.

And as a side note, if you think about it, “Native American” as a general title is a remnant of what’s happened to a diversity of cultures over the past five centuries. Most non-Natives wouldn’t take the time to identify someone as Cherokee, or Salish, or Diné. And so to those non-Native people, “Native American” is as specific as they feel they need to get, effectively erasing cultural diversity even further. “Native American” as a concept didn’t exist 521 years ago.

Anyway, back to art—yes, some indigenous artists use animal parts in their work, but some don’t. And of those that do, the exact materials they use, and how they incorporate them, varies not just from tribe to tribe, but from artist to artist. Some tribes use almost nothing in the way of animal parts in their work, or none at all; others’ art looks very different from the buckskin shirts and feathers found in some Plains tribe artisanry. For example, weaving plays a significant part in a number of tribes’ art and culture, from Guatemalan sheepherding cultures, to the Chilkat weaving of Northwestern tribes. Woodcarving is also important in the Northwest and elsewhere, and far north the Inuit are known for intricate carving of bone and ivory.

Also, assuming that ANY art with animal parts is Native or stealing from Natives is itself a form of stereotyping. This essay was prompted in part by a situation where a neopagan artist was using very personalized designs in her art with animal parts, designs that anyone even barely familiar with actual Native art would know weren’t indigenous. Someone called her out as an appropriator simply because she had a piece with an antler and some feathers. That critic was furthering stereotypes herself, by automatically equating dead animal parts with Native art, as if that’s all that indigenous people ever use. I think I’ve made the point that “Native American art” is much more than antlers and feathers, and to continue the idea that antlers and feathers is all it is is just more limiting and stereotypical.

–“So why can’t I have my hipster headdress? It’s just ‘Native American INSPIRED’”.

It’s also racist. I’ve been sorely tempted on more than one occasion to ask someone in a hipster headdress “So, do you wear blackface on Tuesdays?” Think about that for a moment. American culture (other than a few pockets of pure ignorance) has rejected the stereotyping of black people by blackface performers. We see what’s wrong with it, and so we don’t do it anymore.

But in the same way that blackface was a farcical, marginalizing stereotype of African Americans, so hipster headdresses and similar “Native-inspired” art can do the same to Indians, yet fewer people are speaking out about it. Really, how does wearing chicken feathers on your head and acrylic paint on your face honor people whose homes were forcibly taken from them, whose numbers were drastically reduced to just a fraction of what they were by deliberate mass murder, and who today still often suffer the consequences of physical and cultural genocide?

Keep it classy. Source: http://arcj.blogspot.com/2007/09/cowboys-and-indians.html with hat tip to Native Appropriations

Unfortunately, indigenous people are still all too often made invisible in civil rights efforts. So most people don’t see what the issue is with chicken feather headdresses and “Pocahotties” at cowboy-and-Indian-themed frat parties because they haven’t encountered any opposition to it. The current hipster headdress trend doesn’t help this invisibility one bit; it simply reinforces the idea that “playing Indian” is somehow okay. (By the by, this is a MUCH more detailed and eloquent explanation of what’s wrong with hipster headdresses.)

–But so and so is Native American and they said my artwork was cool!

Well, yes. Native Americans aren’t one big group in full agreement on everything. Some are going to think that there’s nothing wrong with the made in China dreamcatchers and may just think the hipsters in headdresses are silly, nothing more. Others are more pissed off about the effects they see these things having on their people and other tribes.

It’s because some of them are upset that I feel it’s worth paying attention to. If Person A isn’t upset about something but Person B is, it doesn’t mean that I should just assume Person B is full of shit because it suits my personal interests to do so, especially in a situation where there has been definite damage done to the ancestors and cultures of both Persons A and B by people not listening to them. And, on top of it, as a person who is NOT a part of an indigenous culture, I have even less authority to decide that that complaint is worthless. Finally, given the history of white people NOT listening to Natives’ complaints, to include today, do I really want to continue in that tradition of not-listening?

–So what can I do to help?

First and foremost: educate the fuck out of yourself. Check out the Native Appropriations blog at http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/ and read the archives, as well as checking out the blogroll. For a historical perspective, read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. If it seems like each chapter is just telling the same story over and over again but with different people in each, then that should tell you something about the consistency of how badly various tribes were treated. If you have a Netflix account, both Reel Injun and Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action are on instant queue. These are just a few tiny starting points, but even they can be good eye-openers.

Study up on actual Native artwork, too. Some art and history museums have collections (however ill-gotten) of artwork and artifacts of various tribes. Read up on various tribes’ artworks, both historical and contemporary. Head over to sites like http://www.nativeart.net/ and http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/native-american-art-entertainment. If you want to buy genuine Native American artwork, ask the artist about their tribal connections, and make sure you’re buying from the right people (powwows are a good starting place). Oh, and make yourself familiar with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

Second, take a good long look at your own artwork. Have you been trying to make Native-style artwork? Are you still developing your own style, and are there ways you can make it more your own rather than borrowing from others? I’ve been developing my own work for over a decade, and I still periodically look over what I’m doing to make sure that I’m not encroaching on someone’s traditional designs; it’s part of why I no longer use loomed and applique beadwork in my art, and why I no longer make dreamcatchers, as a couple of examples.

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2011.

Presentation is important, too. I have a big disclaimer on my artwork page on my website and in the main description of my Etsy store that specifically says I’m not Native and I’ve never claimed to be. I’m even wary of using certain key words in my Etsy listings; I’m okay with using the fairly generic “pagan” and “shaman” as they’re a part of my background as a neopagan since the 1990s. (However, I’m also aware of how neopagan culture has itself appropriated from indigenous cultures, as well as the troubled recent history of the word “shaman”.) I’m less okay with keywords like “medicine”, even though I know that people looking for generic little leather bags will use that term, which has been drawn further and further away from its origins much in the same way as “shaman” and “totem”. But I refuse to use “Native American” on my listings (with one exception) even though it would probably get me more hits from people who don’t know the difference between a Native American artist and someone who makes stuff out of deerskin.

Third: find your own balance. I’ve explained above how I have my boundaries currently set, and those may change over time. Even writing out this article has given me reason to test those boundaries and how I feel about them. You may not be as concerned as I am, and be okay with making dreamcatchers as a non-Native person, or not see an issue with using the term “Native-inspired”. Or, for that matter, you might be even stricter and see my calling myself a “shaman” or using the term “headdress” for the wearable animal hides I make as appropriative actions in and of themselves. I can’t decide for you where your boundaries are, though I will respect you more for at least giving them thought.

And that’s really where I want to leave this for now–something for people to chew on, and think about, and discuss further. Feel free to link to this, if you like; it’s a public post.

How Wolf Fed the Scavengers

Once, when this place was still new, a great famine struck the land. The sun broiled the earth, and the plants were so thirsty in the drought that they could barely keep their stems and trunks straight, never mind grow enough fruits and leaves for everyone to eat. The plant-eaters were always hungry and they grew thin, and the meat-eaters could barely find anything other than bones to gnaw on, their prey was so wasted away. All the animals grew desperate, and fell to fighting each other more than they ever had before.

So it was decided that the animals needed a king. This king would decide who got how much to eat. The plant eaters argued that because they were the closest to the plants, that they knew them better and should get to have control over who got what. The meat eaters opposed them, saying that as they were at the top of the food chain, they had a better view of the situation. Those who ate both plants and meat were split right down the middle, some siding with the plant eaters, and some with the meat eaters.

Bone stag wall hanging by Lupa, 2010

The arguing lasted for three days and three nights, until at the end Whitetail Deer was made the king. All the animals brought forth all the plants that were ready to eat. “Since I am king,” he said, “I will take the first portion since I need my wits about me to keep an eye on our food supply. Then the rest will be divided up among the plant eaters according to size. But the meat eaters may only eat those animals who die of starvation and disease; from now on, hunting will be banned.” This caused much dismay among the meat-eaters, but what could they do? He was their king, too, and he said these words while shaking his mighty antlers with their sharp points.

So the plant eaters were able to leave the meeting with as much food as they were able to get, and all the animals were to collect more plants as they were ready to harvest, even the smallest berry or seed. Each day the food would be brought to Deer’s home, where he would divide it up, and send the plant eaters home with food while the meat eaters only had a scant few bony carcasses to squabble over.

Then it was decided that the meat eaters were not even allowed to be at the food collection except to bring what they had gathered and pick at the bones of the starved, and the plant eaters began to venture out of Deer’s home only to bring the collected food in, protected by their king’s antlers. The only ones who stayed out were the dead, who were left on the edge of Deer’s home, and over time there were fewer and fewer carcasses left out each day.

Wolf totem headdress by Lupa, 2012

Soon the meat eaters began to hoard what food they could. The bigger ones, by bullying and stealing food from others, ended up with the most and stayed strongest, while the little scavengers grew more and more hungry over time. Only Timber Wolf did not participate in this; she only took enough to feed herself, her mate, and her pups, and often ate the least of all her family. She grew sadder as she saw how the animals fought each other over so little.

The little scavengers noticed that of all the big meat eaters, she was the only one to let them have their own food. So they sent Raven, who was the bravest of them, to go speak with Wolf and ask her for help, since she was a great hunter, swifter than all the other meat eaters, and perhaps she would know what to do. She was given the last of the scraps to take to Wolf as an offering.

Raven flew to Wolf’s home as quickly as her weakened wings would carry her. She landed at the front of Wolf’s den, and croaked to her, “Lady Wolf, great huntress, brave warrioress, I am here on behalf of all the little scavengers, those of us who are too small to hunt big game. We are hungry, and we are too weak to steal our food back from the other big meat-eaters. You have the greatest hunting skills, and you are powerful. Will you help us to get food so that we may not starve to death and all become food ourselves? Soon none of us will be left!”

Wolf, curled with her mate and pups in her den, heard Raven’s pleas, and it was enough for her. She was tired of seeing the little scavengers creeping around and crying. Her hackles raised, she stalked out of the den, and met Raven there.

“Yes, I will help you. Let us go to our king, and ask him why we are unable to hunt. Let us ask him why we are not allowed to be at the food collection any more, other than to bring what we spend our days collecting in the hopes that we will be given bones to gnaw. My young cry for food, and your young barely live. It is too much.”

So they shared the scraps so Raven could recoup her strength from her flight, and Wolf could be ready for the trip. Raven perched on Wolf’s back, and they went to Deer’s home. When they got there, all the plant-eaters were inside, and no one was guarding the door since all the meat eaters were so weak that no one thought they could get in.

But Wolf got in, and Raven with her, and before anyone could speak or stop them, Wolf strode straight to where Deer sat, one antler shed and lying on the ground, the other shaking on top of his head. He was surrounded by all manner of food. The stores were piled from the floor to the ceiling; there were enough plant eaters that had died that even the small amount the famine-stricken plants could produce was more than what they could all eat. She looked at Deer, and all the plant eaters around him, and noticed how fat all of them were. And she grew enraged.

“How dare you?” she cried. “How dare you leave us out here to starve? You threw out all of those who nibbled at the edges of your leavings, and you only gave us your dead. Now that so many of you have died and you have more than enough food for all who remain, you keep it locked away here! You are no fit king!” And with this she fell upon them all, with bared teeth and fiery eyes.

She slew a tenth of the rabbits, and a tenth of the wild sheep, and a tenth of the elk. She hunted and killed a tenth of all the plant eaters, and the smell of the blood brought all the meat eaters together to feed. Then Deer himself, huge and fat and no longer so fierce without his antlers, got up and ran away, and Wolf chased him, with the little scavengers in their wake.

She chased him through the forest, and she tore away his toe, and the weasels fed upon it. Then she chased him through the mountains, and in a clearing she tore away his tail, and all the ravens came to take a piece of it. Then she chased him through the desert, and she tore away his remaining antler, and all the mice came and chewed at it.

Detail from wolf totem headdress by Lupa, 2012

And finally they circled back around to the mountains, where Wolf chased Deer all the way to the top of the highest peak, and there she overtook him and slew him. And his coppery blood rushed down the mountain in all directions, and he had grown so big that there were great, gushing rivers of it. The blood flooded all the land, from the mountains to the desert to the forest, and such was its power that it brought an end to the famine, and the plants thrived again.

And when Wolf came down from the mountain she brought Deer with her. She fed her young and her mate and herself and she tore what was left of Deer to pieces and gave all the little scavengers enough to feed themselves and their families.

Then she addressed all the animals, “I have killed our king, which makes me queen. I have only one decree—that we all go back to the way things were before the famine so that plant-eaters eat only what plants they gather, and meat-eaters eat only what meat they hunt or find.” And so it was.

But all the little scavengers followed Wolf around from that day on, for whenever she made a kill, she remembered their plight and how their food had been stolen from them, and always left them something to eat. And for her part in bringing back balance, Raven and her children were allowed to eat with Wolf and her kin for the rest of time.

The Epic Saga of the Icelandic Pony Hide

So. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that working with dead critters is a HUGE part of my practice. (Look! Relevant archives!) However, the vast, vast majority of the animal parts in my home are destined to move on to other people, primarily as ritual tools and other sacred art. My own personal collection is really quite small; less than two dozen skulls of various species, a few hides, a couple of rawhide drums, and a bit of small miscellany. Over the years, I have primarily functioned as a guide to the skin spirits, helping them on to new homes, my own home a temporary shelter and place of healing. However, on rare occasion I come across a skin spirit who really, deeply resonates with me. This actually hasn’t happened in a while, but a few days ago I had one of those moments where the connection was so strong it nearly knocked me to my knees.

See, I was fortunate to acquire an Icelandic horse hide. It’s actually not that easy to find whole horse hides of any breed; tails are about the most common parts you’ll find. However, someone I know had one up for sale from their personal collection, and I had some extra cash set aside for purchasing dead things art supplies, so I took that opportunity. I had grand artistic plans for it, and was even drawing up patterns in my mind while waiting for the package to arrive. You know how these things go, right?

There was this big, long epic saga, appropriately enough, involved in getting the hide here. See, the package accidentally got sent to my old address–which happens from time to time. The tracking number showed it was “still in transit”, but due for delivery by the end of the day–and it was already 4pm. I called the post office, and since I had put in a forwarding address when I moved earlier in the year, if the package got returned by my old abode’s resident, it’d make it back to me.

I felt that was a BIG if, though. I mean, what IF they decided to keep it? Somehow, the idea of this particular package not making it to me was unconscionable. So I set off to go rescue the package myself, come hell or high water.

Thankfully, I had to go all of a block and a half.

Because that’s as far as I moved from my old place.

(Sadly, it still was one of my more difficult moves, logistically speaking, but that’s a story for another time.)

(Back to the pony saga.)

With a friendly note with my contact info in hand, I marched over to my old apartment and knocked on the door. Almost immediately I was greeted by a rather pleasant young man who informed me that there were actually two packages waiting for me (one of which did not have a horse hide, the other one which should have, but might not, thank you Schrodinger). He was relieved to not have to try and trace the proper home of the packages (I told you he was nice!) and I was relieved to have my packages! And so having left my contact information with him in case of future mis-deliveries, I headed home with my prize.

And of course, the first thing I did when I got home was to open the bigger box. Out of it I drew this magnificent, long-furred, heavy white hide, much larger than I expected–it seemed as though I was pulling impossible amounts of horsehide out of this box of holding! And I laid it out on the futon in my art area, and just sat, my mouth agape, amazed. It was as though the spirit of this horse had leaped out of the box, and now stood before me, over the remains of its–or, rather, his–skin. The spirit shook his mane as if to shake off the indignity of his uncomfortable trip here, and it seemed as though even the few wrinkles in the hide smoothed out and relaxed. Most spirits, even those of my personal retinue, take a little while to settle into their new surroundings. This horse, on the other hand, made himself right at home on the couch and declared he was staying.

Well, who was I to argue with that? Sure, I’d have to find some other way to make up the money I spent on him (subliminalmessagebuymyart/subliminalmessage); I very, very rarely spend large amounts of money on myself these days other than for necessities. But just as I know other pagan folk who have temporarily tightened their belts to be able to buy some artistic altar piece or ritual tool that a deity or spirit they worked with wanted, I knew that this was one of those occasions where spirit needed to win out over practicality. And since this wasn’t going to put me at risk of not being able to pay essential bills, and I have ways to make up the funds, and he’ll earn his keep through his help with shamanism, I happily acquiesced.

It doesn’t end there, of course. I had declared that day to be an artwork day, and since I am on a late-night schedule I found myself still awake at 2am. I was a little tired, but wanted to keep working, so I decided to lie down on the futon a bit to rest my eyes before continuing. Of course, this NEVER EVER works out that way, and I fell asleep. And yes, I did sleep on the horse hide, as he invited me to do so. As I found myself drifting into lucid dreams, the spirit took the opportunity to introduce himself more formally, and we spoke a bit about his place here.

He told me that he wants to be part of my shamanic work, that he wants to help carry me to where I journey, and that when I do drum journeys where I sit or lay down, he wants to be my support. He still hasn’t told me his name; I think he’s waiting for the right time. I have yet to introduce him to my primary journeying drum (who is also horse hide), to see what she thinks of all this, though he certainly seems confident. I get the feeling that he’s an old spirit, or at least a stronger connection to the totem of that breed of Horse than most. Such is often the way of things with the skin spirits who stay with me permanently (though also with many who end up going to others through my work). We’ve yet to work together, as I’m still adjusting to his energy and he to mine, but soon enough.

In doing more research, I read about how horse hides, especially white ones, are connected to a variety of shamanic and other spiritual traditions. It hadn’t been something really in the forefront of my mind, just one of those things noted while researching at some point in the past and stuck in the back recesses of my brain. Maybe that’s part of why we connected so strongly–partly due to that recognition, and also just to who he is as a spirit. Either way, he’s staying.

And here’s a picture of the hide itself, right where he decided to settle himself right down at home (click the picture for a larger view):