Elemental Totem Ritual

One thing the Animal Father had recommended to me a couple of weeks back was to talk to the four directional totems (the totem animals that I call on in each quarter) and to ask them why they, specifically, were the totems who worked with me in that capacity. So since I am designating Full Moons (or close to them, anyway, depending on work schedule, how tired I am, etc.) to totem-specific rituals, I decided this would be a good opportunity.

So I went upstairs to the ritual area and got prepared. At first I had intended to just talk to Wolf, the totem of the North, and save the rest for later Full Moon rites, but as I progressed I got the distinct feeling that I should talk to all four, that Wolf wouldn’t be doing anything so intense that I had to focus only on him. So around the circle I went, talking to each totem in turn. For ritual structure, I dropped the “draw the pentacle in the air” portion of the evocation since it’s pretty much extraneous at this point, and rather than vocally/verbally calling on each totem, I drew on the internal energetic connection that I’ve formed with each of these totems over the years, doing the usual, brief energetic shape-shift as a way of calling on each one. It was quite effective, and in fact without the distraction of the pentacle and the words, was more intense. I still used my ritual knife to “pull” the elemental energy from the top of the ritual sphere to the bottom, creating a quarter sphere each time. So in the North I sat in a lush green forest, while in the East I soared through sunny, clear skies; the South was a dry, colorful desert, and West was a crashing waterfall. All of these are the usual settings for the quarters, the way I visualize each element, but they were much stronger this time. So I know I’m doing something right.

I asked each totem, “Why are you my totem of this direction?” Wolf’s reply was thus:

“Because I am the animal that represents Earth to you, and green growing things, and the grounded energy. More than any other element, you are attuned to this element, though you are attuned to the others as well. But this one strikes deeply. I am always in contact with the Earth, paw pads on cool dirt, claws digging in. I am keenly aware of the need for the Earth. Also, humanity has often treated me the same as the Earth, for good or for ill, often more than any other animal in places where I am found. and that is why I am your totem of the North.”

Then I evoked Hawk in the East; he said:

“Because I soar on the wind, and I am swift like thought. I am quick to strike, as you are intellectually, though you have learned to have more discretion since I first met you. And you love the light of the sun, the warm air, as do I. You seek to spread your mind’s wings and soar ever farther, and I am with you in that. And I am familiar to you, though my physical presence has diminished some due to where you now live. But I am still here, and I remain.”

Next I called to Fox in the South, and s/he replied:

I am magic, and I am sex. I am passion, and I am clever in my creativity. I am the Fire of Life, all the things that make Life worth Living. I am change, and magic is change, and I am passionate about that. I am the heat that crackles in your very cells, and I work with Hawk’s intellect. I ignite the fire of sex, and the intensity of my red coat is the Fire I bear. But beware the blackened paws, for fire can burn–but oh, is it worth it!”

Finally, I came around to the Bears in the West, and their answer was:

“We are of the emotions; we are here to keep your ego in check. We remind you that you are a powerful being, as are we, and that your emotions can both harm and heal. We teach you to know the difference. But we can also rage like whitewater; we are not always calm and placid. We will help you heal the body at a later point, but for now, heal yourself and those around you, and learn when harm may be necessary–but also the impact. The very water in your cells holds us. We fish in the water, but we do not live there, nor do you, just as you do not live in the air. We and Hawk balance each other out in this manner.”

Then I sat in the center, and this is what I learned from all of them at once:

“We are all of you, and we are here to surround you. We are your animals of the elements, though we are each so much more. We teach you the elements, and we want you to be aware of the elements as much as possible–the basic building blocks of life. Together, we form you, and we ask you to always call on us, not just for protection, but to remember us. The Animal Father has his own elemental totems, but we are yours. You need not dance us; simply call us at your rituals, and remember what we stand for to you. Remember us, whether you are in the wild or not. We are here.”

I felt the strength of them within and without. They welled up inside me, and I felt the immersion in the elements I feel when I am out in the middle of the wilderness. For a time, everything I sensed translated into elements–the air I breathed, the fire in my cells, the solid earth of my body, the water in my veins, as well as the things I saw around me. I was acutely aware of how they all fit together.

The totems told me not to banish them, but to go and spend the next month paying conscious attention to the elements in my life and how they are imminent. (Obviously not to the point of distraction.) So I left without banishing, and felt the totems both in the ritual area and in myself. I grounded by eating, but I still notice the elements in my everyday life. I know what they want; they want me to try to increase the awareness I get, like when I am out in the wilderness, only more frequently. It’s something I can do relatively easily; they just want me to make more of a habit of it. And it’s also not just the outer elements, but also the internal elements, both physical and nonphysical.

Admittedly, this is a pretty basic thing; a lot of newbie pagans do elemental attunement rituals of this sort. However, it’s appropriate and timely, given my refocusing and construction of a path. The directional totems wanted me to be quite aware of their presence in my life, which has intensified quite a bit since I first started working with them over a decade ago. (They’re quite insistent that they stay in my life as well, which wasn’t really an issue anyway.) But I want to increase my awareness of their presence in my life as well as the presence of the elements they represent to me. Too often I think I’ve given lip service to the elements, and not really made them imminent in my life. However, if my path is to include greater awareness of the world around me and the interconnection among all things, it’s only common sense that this would start with a greater awareness of the basic elements that compose both the microcosm and the macrocosm.

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More About Animal Totems

Recently I’ve answered questions for a couple of folks online about how to find your totem. This is another one of those areas where I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I think/know/believe/insert other appropriate verb here.

From my experience, your best bet is always going to be to go directly to the source–the totem hirself. I know some people like decks of totem cards. The problem with these is that they severely limit your options, mostly to Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM). What if your totem is Wallaby? Or Yellowfin Tuna? Or Rhinoceros….Beetle? A couple of decks include a blank card or two, but that still heavily slants the deck in favor of the BINABM. And as for dreams and animal sightings? Sometimes a blue jay is just a blue jay. Dreams are usually symbolic in nature; rather than assuming that wolf you saw was your totem, ask yourself instead what wolves represent to you, and what that correlates to in your waking life (this may take a while, since dreams like to dredge up all sorts of fun stuff from the subconscious mind). And with regards to seeing physical animals in waking time, chances are that your territory happens to overlap with the animals’ territory (either that, or your neighbors are leaving food out for the cats again, and the possums are taking advantage of it).

I have a problem with people “reading” other peoples’ totems. Sure, it’s not impossible to be able to read others’ energy or “see” spirit guides of various sorts. However, these are filtered through the perspective of the beholder, which adds an additional layer of possible misidentification. For example, I had a friend in college who read “Horse” to me any time I saw her. However, when I asked her what her totem was, she said “Oh, my totem is Swan”.

So, IMO/IME the best way to determine what your totem(s) is/are is to go directly to the source. This also goes for when you want to find out what a particular totem you’re working with, or at least have been contacted by, wants to tell you. I commonly use the usual guided meditation to do so; it minimizes the possibility of outside interference, and it also allows me to get into contact with literally any totem, rather than whatever’s in the deck.

I created a particularly open-ended version of the meditation that I’ve used for a number of years, both for myself, and for use with totem workshops I’ve presented. It’s gotten a lot of good feedback and results, and I use it (slightly altered) routinely in communication with totems. I even customized it to contact the totems of the chakras a la the Personal Totem Pole.

This meditation was initially published in my book Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone. I excerpted it a while back for a friend who needed a meditation to give to people who were discussing the concept of animal totems. I decided to post the excerpt here, since it is an integral part of my practice and will continue to be as such. While I intend to work with deeper forms of trance, I like this for routine conversation.

Copyright Lupa, 2006. Please do not reproduce without my written permission; if you like what you see, please consider buying a copy of the book. Thanks, and enjoy!

Appendix A: Guided totem meditation

This meditation may be used to find primary or secondary totems. I have had better success using it for secondaries–if you are going to try to determine a primary with it, multiple performances should be done in order to account for any preconceived notions or unclear results. Keep in mind that you may not see any animal at first. If this occurs, give it a few weeks at least and then try again. Some folks aren’t ready to meet a particular totem; others may simply need to work with a different set of entities; still others simply don’t get much out of guided meditations and visualizations.

You may either record yourself reading this meditation aloud and play it back or have another person read it to you–preferably someone with a pleasant voice. Nothing ruins a good guided meditation like a deadpan monotone with a cold. As with any other meditation, make sure your setting is quiet and undisturbed and that you can get into a comfortable position that may be held for 15-30 minutes but won’t cause you to fall asleep in the meantime.

Make your body become completely still. Don’t move any part of your body. Concentrate on being entirely motionless. (Allow at least two minutes for this.)

Now breathe as deeply and slowly as you possibly can, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Create an even, steady flow of air. Feel the tension leave your body with each breath. (Minimum three minutes.)

Feel your body sink into the ground beneath you. If there is a manmade floor, feel yourself pass through it and into the cool Earth below. Feel your body become a part of that Earth, solid and unmovable. (One minute.)

Send the upper half of your body high into the sky. Feel the wind rush around you and the clouds brush against your skin. Feel yourself expand into that vast open space and become a part of the Sky. (One minute.)

Now feel yourself being a part of both the Earth and the Sky, solid and vast, and know that as long as the Earth is beneath you and the Sky above you, no harm may come to you on your journey. (One minute.)

Visualize a natural hole–it may be a burrow in the ground, an open knot in a tree, a space amid branches that leads to the sky above, a hole in the ice over Arctic seas. It may be as large as a stone arch or as small as a single cell. See it before you, and enter into it. (One-two minutes.)

Find yourself led down into a long, dark tunnel. You may be running, floating, flying, swimming or crawling through it. (One minute should suffice.)

At the end of the tunnel is another opening. As you pass through this opening, enter into a natural place in which you are very comfortable. It may be a large field, a forest, a snowy plain, a body of water, or the broad sky. Explore this place. Note what the natural flora is, what season and time of day it is and how you move through it. (One-two minutes.)

As you wander this place, you see an animal approaching swiftly. Note what sort of animal it is, how it approaches you, whether it seems to be pleased that you are there or acting aggressively. Pay attention to any specific characteristics such a color, size and sex, and whether it is accompanied by others. Note also if it shifts forms, even into another species entirely. (Two minutes.)

Converse with the animal. Ask it why it is there. If it has acted aggressively, make sure you inquire as to the reason. Find out what the animal has to teach you. Ask how you may strengthen the bond with it. (At least three minutes, preferably five to seven or more if desired.)

It is now time to return to the waking world. Thank the animal for its time and teachings, and promise that you will continue the conversation at a later time. If you wish, gift the animal with a food it likes or other boon. Then turn and go back to the tunnel and return back to the upper world. (At least three minutes.)

As you come back out of the tunnel, start to become aware of your body again. Begin to move slowly, starting with your fingers and toes, then working up your limbs, then your torso and finally your neck and head. Save opening your eyes for last. Don’t rush it; give yourself plenty of time to come back to physical reality. (Allow as much time as necessary for this; you don’t want to get the mental version of the bends by shocking your system with a quick wake-up.)

Once you’ve recovered, write or sketch what you saw in as much detail as possible while it’s still fresh in your mind. Don’t worry if it isn’t high-quality art or prose; what matters is that it reminds you as vividly as possible of your experience whenever you reflect upon it.

*I must give Peter J. Carroll a big thank-you for Liber MMM, which helped to hone my inhibitory meditation skills and enhanced this particular meditation quite a bit. I also have to thank numerous totemic authors, meditation guides and other folks that I’ve been able to trade ideas and experiences with for inspirations and idea that went into the creation of this meditation.

So, About Them Thar Totems…

Wheee, another “Add a New Category” post!

Actually, this is one of my favorite aspects of my spirituality. I suppose it should be no surprise to me that I ended up gravitating towards totemism and animal magic pretty much from the beginning of my pagan/etc. path. I’ve always loved animals, ever since I was shoulder-high to a German shepherd dog. Though I’m not sure the adoration was always mutual–one of my earliest memories was of catching roly-polies and playing with them (and when you’re a toddler you don’t always understand the meaning of “gentle”). In fact, that early predatory instinct kept on as I grew up, and one of my favorite past times was catching (and releasing after a few days of observation) box turtles and garter snakes. I also read voraciously (as I still do today, as evidenced by yesterday’s post) and checked out every book I could from the local library.

My first book on totems, like so many people, was Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak (I was elated when I finally got it signed by him this past February, after dragging the thing around with me for a decade through half a dozen moves and a flood). While I didn’t follow it religiously, it was formative to my early practice.

I already knew what my primary totem was. When I was about two or three (or so I recall), I had an experience where Wolf “met” me and made hir presence in my life known. After that point, everything was about wolves–wolf this, wolf that, I want to be a wolf (this was before I discovered therianthropy, by the way). I think I must have done at least one book report apiece on Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild every year from first through about sixth grade. The teacher just sort of shrugged and let it go. While totemism didn’t explain everything about the presence of lupine influence in my life (particularly internally) it did make a lot of sense once I had a better idea of what Wolf actually was.

There have been other, secondary totems that have come into my life to help balance out some of Wolf’s not-so-great aspects. Horse took over for most of my junior high and high school years, helping me cope with the harsh reality of being incredibly unpopular; she helped to take the edge off of Wolf’s hyper-sensitivity to aggression-submission displays. Cat came in at one point to teach me to be more graceful and in touch with beauty, and Fox has helped me to be more focused on magic. And I have called on other, tertiary, totems for help with specific problems–Badger, for example, has helped me land the past couple of jobs I’ve had, though I’ve also asked Beaver and Otter for help there.

Again, most of what I do is UPG-based, including the primary/secondary/tertiary denotations. Additionally, my observations have led me to come up with three basic theories as to what totems are:

–Archetypal beings that embody all the qualities of a particular species, to include natural history and human lore and myth, as well as the interaction with humans. This somewhat resembles Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Animal Master.

–Individual animal spirits which may or may not have been in physical bodies at some point.

–Psychological aspects of the self that embody different chunks of the psyche; just as entire pantheons can be a map of the psyche, so can a group of totems.

I see the validity of each of these, though I personally tend towards a combination of the first and third (as within, so without).

Now, please keep in mind–I am referring to *neopagan* totemism here. Traditional totemism, in the majority of extant cultures that still utilize the concept, see it as largely a group-based phenomenon. Totems are meant for clans, families, tribes. etc., and one of their main functions (generally speaking) is exogamy–determining who can marry whom with a minimal chance for incest (something that’s much more likely in smaller overall populations). In neopaganism, the tendency of some totemic systems to act as guides for morals, as well as the general symbolic quality and identification purposes got mixed in with the idea of an individual animal spirit guide (particularly as taken from certain Plains Native American tribes, often in a bastardized manner). Additionally, the power animal of shamanic traditions got mixed in there as well, along with the “travel down the tunnel” method of finding said animal. So what passes for totemism in neopaganism today is actually a hybridized creation.

Not that it isn’t effective, of course. We live in a much more individual-based society, and lack the community cohesion that other cultures have had. Therefore it’s not surprising that we have a much more self-centered conception of totemism. And, in my experience, the totems I work with don’t seem to mind the “unorthodox” manners in which I’ve worked our relationships into a modern, middle-class urban American neopagan lifestyle.

So how do I work with them? I include some that I’m actively working with in my prayers in the evening (and morning, if I’m awake enough to remember). I also routinely evoke (and sometimes invoke) them in magical rituals for specific purposes, and I always invite them (or whoever’s willing to show up at that time) into my ritual area for general protection and aid. Sometimes when I do skindancing (shapeshifting dance involving animal skins) I’ll invoke the corresponding totem as well as the spirit of the skin. And, as I mentioned earlier, I have totems who work with me for specific purposes; I don’t do formal rituals with Lynx, but she helps remind me to watch my words and try to remain civil, especially in the event of internet-based stupidity. And Wolf is a constant presence in my life; sometimes I’m not even sure where s/he really affects me, because s/he’s always been there.

I’ve also been reaching out to less common totems as of late. For example, I’ve been working with “food totems”, the totems of animals that are generally perceived as food in American culture–Chicken, Pig, Crab, etc. (You can see two articles I’ve written on my results so far, here and here.) I’ve also done some work with paleolithic and earlier extinct totems, including dinosaurs; later posts may include my notes from these meditations and experiences. And I’ve been working with the totems of endangered species to give an added magical boost to mundane efforts to preserve the last remaining physical members of their species (along with activism and minding my footprint, of course).

I do like the “fly through the tunnel” flavor of meditation/journeying to meet with totems outside of a ritual context, though I do it freestyle rather than with any sort of script. It’s an effective way to meet on neutral ground, so to speak (not that I worry I’ll get eaten by Bear for no good reason, Siberian dismemberment rituals notwithstanding). And I like the setting better, especially if my ritual room is the only other choice at the time–while it’s comfy and warm, blue carpet and light bulbs aren’t the same as grass and sunlight. If I can do my work outdoors, I do, and generally get the best results that way.

The totems have appreciated the increased attention as of late, though they’re patient with me, and there’s still a lot more for me to do. I’m trying to figure out ways to allow them into my daily life more often, other than observation, general presence during ritual work, and hikes in the woods. While I’m doing some exploring with different groups of totems right now, I want to start deepening my relationship with certain ones, as well as the skin spirits I dance with. Additionally, I want to step up my efforts as far as magic for endangered species’ totems go.

So I think a lot of my practice will focus on that. I’ve already got ideas for what I want to do for the equinoxes and solstices (including rethinking the way I do rituals). But I would also like to utilize the full and new moons as well–I’ve been needing regular involvement, and I need to figure out what the special occasions are. Actually, I already have had the new moon set aside for work with skin spirits, so perhaps the full moon will be time for totems. Last night was the peak of the full moon, but I consider the day before and after to also be valid. And, in this case, it’s less about lunar energy and more about reminding me of what I need to do.

I’ve been blessed by the totems’ patience in my life, and I’m glad they’ve stuck with me even when I’ve demonstrated the ability to be a supreme procrastinator and excuse-maker.

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.)

Why the Term “Shaman”?

Just a quick note for those who are getting this from places other than Livejournal–there is a syndicated feed through LJ if you’re on there, or, of course, the RSS feed buttons on this page. A special note to LJ folks–I can’t LJ-cut feed posts, so you’re just gonna have to deal with some looooong posts on your f-list.

Still filling in some of the background information as I go along. While this topic isn’t *quite* so controversial as yesterday’s discussion on the Animal Father, the word “shaman” is pretty loaded these days.

I’ll go ahead and say that yes, I realize that the word “shaman” is Siberian in origin, from the Tungus language to be specific (though the Wiki article, which seems to be reasonably researched, raises the possibility that the word is even older than that). However, it came into popular use via anthropologists who initially got it from Siberia, and who used it to refer to the people in various societies who all filled some (or all) of a number of particular roles in that society. (Hey, at least it’s pretty much replaced “witch doctor”–Oo ee, oo ah ah, ting tang, walla walla bing bang!)

These days there’s a lot of debate, particularly in the neopagan community (as well as indigenous cultures, particularly Native American tribes) as to what a shaman is. Semantics, of course, are a big part of this–some of the arguments made by Native Americans (who have varying opinions on the topic ranging from “It’s okay” to “this is cultural genocide) include the claim that a tribal “shaman” will never use that particular word to refer to hirself. However, semantics aside, there’s also the question of how legitimate shamanic practices outside of the context of their cultures of origin really are. Is Michael Harner’s core shamanism true shamanism? For that matter, is any form of neoshamanism really shamanism? Is it “okay” to call yourself a neoshaman as a qualifier?

In my opinion, this is something each person has to decide for hirself. I believe, for myself, that honesty is the best policy. There are parts of my research that speak to me spiritually, but have academic flaws (such as Joseph Campbell’s works). And I try to be open about what parts of my path are pure UPG. And I also try to make myself aware of the implications of the word and concept of “shaman”. But that still doesn’t answer the question…

Why the term shaman?

Because it fits?

The system that has appealed to me the most over the years has been shamanism. I’ll admit that many times I refused to use that word because of the connotations, particularly given my European mutt status. However, I’ve finally decided to just quit dancing around the issue, and this is the result.

In order to determine whether or not the term fit, I had to learn what shamanism really *is*. I’m still learning, of course. A decade and change isn’t enough time to learn everything one needs to know about spirituality, particularly since I’ve delved into several wells of inspiration and information. In recent years I’ve become more familiar with the differences between traditional shamanism and neoshamanism, and found that most of what I’ve been working with is the latter. However, while I consider myself to be a neoshaman, I also think it’s invaluable to learn about traditional shamanism as best as I can (which usually means falling back on anthropological texts, since I’m not just going to walk onto a reservation and yell “Well, here I am! Now come teach me!”).

This means that I’m essentially starting from scratch, though the *amount* of scratch I have available to me is greater than when I got started with paganism in general way back when. I already have some concepts that I know work into my personal microcosm and my understanding of the macrocosm. But I’m going through a complete restructuring, putting what I already have and what I’m learning as I go into a particular system.

What I have at this point is vastly incomplete. As I mentioned in the ever-important FAQ section, this is a work-in-progress. However, I don’t have a problem at this point with calling it therioshamanism. Just because I’m not what I’d call a shaman yet (though perhaps neoshaman in training is a better term?) doesn’t mean that I can’t work towards that concept, building a (neo)shamanic tradition for the cultural context I exist in. “Shaman” is something I *aspire* to. I want to have a handle to grasp, a concept to build around.

It’s also why I’ve already given a name to what I’m doing. It’s cliched, but names do have power. Giving something a name makes it more “real” to me, and it also gives me a concept to build around. For instance, when I write a book, I feel much more confident about the project once I’ve come up with at least a working title. In the same way, therioshamanism is (neo)shamanism under construction, hence one of the reasons for this blog.

Along with the name, I’m also exploring what tools, techniques and other focuses (foci?) I’d like to incorporate. This will no doubt change over time as I practice more and figure out what works for me *now*. Yes, I’ve been practicing for over a decade–but as I mentioned in this post, things that worked for me a few years ago aren’t as effective now. Therioshamanism marks a new stage of my life, a refining of what I’ve collected over the years. I intend (and am already experiencing) profound internal change, as well as increased awareness and involvement with the world around me–human community and otherwise. However, it’s also important, every now and then, to reevaluate what techniques work best for attaining the altered states of consciousness (and other important experiences) necessary for what needs to be done. This means that I have been spending more time looking at the trappings of what I’m working with, but not to the point of ignoring what the trappings are supposed to *accomplish*.

Some people scoff at those who are focused on the outer trappings and tools. For my own part, I learn best by starting at the outside and working in. The tools and toys are shiny new training wheels; or, rather, you could think of them as the pommel of a Western saddle–something for the newbie to hang onto while s/he learns to ride, and for the more experienced rider to grab in case of an emergency.

And since I’m starting from scratch, yes, I am playing with my toys again, the various ritual tools and accoutrement. It also means that I’m focusing on things like books. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on inside. It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, only it transcends physical limitations, and when a piece fits together on the outside, something snaps into place internally as well. I’m paying attention to both the microcosm and the macrocosm, even though the latter is much easier for other people to observe. Additionally, I am an animist. The tools themselves aren’t just dead objects; there are spirits in them that I work with. Much of what I incorporate into my practice involves working with the spirits in animal parts–fur, leather, bones, etc. So for me, they’re no more a crutch than any other spirits I work with. They just happen to inhabit physical forms.

(Plus, I fully admit, I *like* working with ritual tools. Magpie syndrome–“Oooooh! Shiny!”)

So don’t assume that just because somebody seems enamored of the external trappings, that they aren’t getting anything internal out of it. Kind of like training wheels, the person may be using them to keep from tipping over, but s/he’s also learning to keep hir balance. it takes people different amounts of time to get used to it. Eventually the training wheels come off–but then later we learn to drive, and that starts a whole new set of checks and balances…

Where does this leave me? In the midst of a lot of reading and meditation on where, exactly, I’m going with therioshamanism.
I do know that (neo)shaman is what best fits what I’m constructing, and so I use that term out of familiarity. And there is a purpose–it’s not just carte blanche, anything goes. But I need to figure out (since this is, after all, my personal path) what external trappings best create the conditions and experiences to work on different levels of reality and involvement with other forms of consciousness. So I try on different techniques on for size, including many that I’d never even considered (or heard of, in a few cases) before. Shamanism is a LOT of things, depending on the culture–the Sora in India, for example, do a lot of work with trance possession and mediumship, which is very different from the more common concept of soul-flight. I have to figure out what composes *my* shamanism before I can really do anything with it.

Who is the Animal Father?

You’ll see references to “the Animal Father” throughout this blog. This is my personal conception of deity that I work with in Therioshamanism right now. Allow me to explain.

I believe that the Divine is infinite, or about as close to infinite as it gets. As a pantheist, I believe that the Divine is within all things, and that all things (physical and otherwise) compose the Divine just as cells compose a body. I also believe, as a polytheist, that there are numerous individual deities from pantheons around the world, and that they are individual, independent beings that reflect qualities of the cultures they come from*. Finally, I am an animist, and I believe that everything has a spirit of sorts (including deities); that spirit (or soul, if you will) is the spark of the Divine manifest in each thing.

I don’t believe the Divine can be limited to one human perception of it. We “create” or “discover” (depending on how you view mythology) individual deities that represent a very small facet of the Divine. We gravitate towards deities that resonate with our values, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world. Likewise, deities may call to people they resonate with. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all religion–or a one-size-fits-all view of the Divine.

I also have no problem with UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis). While I think it needs to be treated with care and a lick of salt, I do not believe that the only people who can converse with the Divine and have Divine revelations are clergy. I am a pantheist–everything is Divine–and the Divine is imminent, which means we all can talk with “God/dess”. IMO, the idea that Divine revelations are rare and reserved only for the holiest people is something that has been used to control the masses for centuries–if you don’t let people think for themselves (even if it’s to decide they want to stay within the parameters of a given religion) they’re much more malleable. As with anything, I think it’s important to question our perceptions, but I apply that to anything, from religion to politics to love to determining whether we want to live in a certain place or not.

I do think that Unverified PERSONAL Gnosis is, well, *personal*. It’s not about huge proclamations for everyone in the world, or even everyone in your apartment building. It’s a personal message from the Divine, and it’s important to question what we think we’ve perceived to make sure there wasn’t an error in communication somewhere along the line. So therefore my personal mythology about the Animal Father is something I limit to my worldview alone.

I do still, of course, acknowledge the Divine overall, and it is my relationship to the Divine (basically, everything that is) that determines things such as ethics. All people decide what their personal ethics are–even if it is a *choice* to follow a particular set of rules laid out by someone else. I simply take more into account than what one particular sliver of the Divine says.

So, anyway, the Animal Father–who is he? Well, this particular cave painting has always struck a very deep chord with me. It’s been speculated, by Joseph Campbell and others, that this is a representation of a paleolithic deity, the Animal Master (to use one of Campbell’s terms). He is the keeper of the animals, the deity that paleolithic hunters and/or shamans appealed to in order to have a successful hunt. You can still see this concept in various indigenous religions; a well-known example is Sedna from Inuit mythology. The shaman must travel down to her home deep in the ocean and comb her hair to convince her to release the whales, seals and fish to live on. So the concept of a deity that watches over the wild creatures isn’t so far-off, and while there’s no proof that such a deity existed all the way back to Paleolithic times**, my experiences say otherwise. The deity I speak to, whether he actually is a remnant of an older time, or simply a new mask of God that has been given to me by the Divine using ancient imagery, speaks to me on a fundamental level. Alternately known by people as the Sorceror, the Antler Shaman, Animal Master, etc., the name he gave me to use is the Animal Father.

“So aren’t you just making up a deity?” Maybe I am, though I prefer to think, as I mentioned above, that the Divine has simply given me a particular mask to understand it through. People have been “making up” deities for millenia. Again, allow me to remind readers of the correlation between the personalities of deities, and the cultures they come from. You can learn a lot about a culture by observing its pantheon, as well as its religious precepts. Anyway, I believe that this is an aspect of the Divine I have been given, rather than creating it myself, a process that has hardly originated with me.

Beyond that yes, I’m aware of the pitfalls of creating own’s own religion primarily from scratch. Yes, I’m aware of the possibility of self-delusion. Yes, I do keep close tabs on myself. No, I don’t think that my religion has to apply to other people. It is, after all, *personal*. However, this is something I’ve been actively working with for over a decade. I may not be perfect, but I’m not just leaping into this, either. I’m basically organizing things I have discovered are true for me, and this is a recent revelation that works in nicely with the rest. I don’t think I’m the first person to go through this process, though many people do so via committees. I’m not a committee kind of person.

This is what works for me, and while it may be incomprehensible to a lot of people, it makes perfect sense in my mind. (Reading Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell may help you understand my mind a little more, by the way.)

So enough of that–back to the Animal Father himself; he is personified by that particular cave painting, though he is NOT the cave painting itself, any more than Jesus *is* the cross with a statue of a person on it. There’s a difference between deity, and representation of deity. My primary focus in my spiritual path is with animal totems; I’ll explain my conception of them in more detail in a later post, but the short version is that totems are archetypal beings that represent all the qualities of a particular species–both the natural history, and the human mythology and lore created around the animals. I work with other animal spirits as well, but that’s the main group. So it’s not surprising that I ended up with a(nother***) deity that has a strong influence over wildlife in general.

From talking with him, I’ve found that the four animals that compose his image are: red stag, dire wolf, cave bear and cave lion, all paleolithic animals contemporary to his original time period. I’ve assigned each one to a solstice or equinox for the purpose of celebrating the turning of the seasons. Stag is Autumn, Wolf is Winter, Bear is Spring and Lion is Summer.

Our relationship is to mutual benefit. He’ll teach me what he has to share about working with totems and other animal spirits, as well as spiritual/shamanic practices in conjunction with a closer relationship with the land, and I provide him a connection in this world. As the wild has slowly declined (particularly in France, his place of origin), so has his influence over the physical realm. While I don’t see myself as some great propher or guru of the Nature God, I’m not adverse to a relationship with a deity that includes practical ways of helping this world as well as other layers of reality (without having to go around and tell other people that their religious beliefs are wrong/evil/etc.).

So that’s a very basic rundown of what’s probably one of the more (relatively) far-fetched parts of my religion. When it comes to deities, most people are comfortable going with one crowd or another–safety in numbers and collective consensus. I don’t believe that my quest to seek my own version of “truth”, to include my personal view of the Divine, is any less valid. Unorthodox in several ways, to be sure, but in the end, the best determinant of whether something is true for a person or not is how well it meshes with a *healthy* perspective. This view of the Divine supports my assertion that Nature (along with everything else) is sacred, and that it’s important to be aware of the impact I have on other living beings, to include nonhuman animals. In fact, being pagan in general has taught me that everything *is* interconnected, and that there needs to be a balance between my own needs and the needs of others. It’s also demonstrated that the connections others have with me can be harmful or helpful, and that just because I’m connected to a person, it doesn’t mean that I can’t weaken a harmful connection to lessen the damage.

* To repeat an anonymous quote, “You know you have created God in your own image when your God hates the same people you do”.

** Recent speculation about Neanderthal burial sites, in which specific items such as flowers were buried with the dead, indicates a very possible belief in the afterlife even that early.

*** My matron Goddess for the past decade has been Artemis; however, she has temporarily lessened her influence to allow the Animal Father to come in and work with me more.

Ritual Restructuring

Today I did the first celebratory ritual I’ve done in years. Until recently, I’ve seen celebration as a casual thing. When I first got into neopaganism, I celebrated the eight Wiccan sabbats, but after a couple of years I started simply noting what was going on outside at that time of the year, wishing folks “Happy (insert holiday name here)”, and not much else.

Last spring, I read The Witches’ Sabbats by Mike Nichols, an excellent, concise text on the origins of these holidays. That got me wishing I had something to celebrate again, and that holidays were more special than simply wishing people the best. The desire to celebrate has been ruminating since then–not long after I read that book my contracted job ended unexpectedly thanks to forces beyond my control, a couple of months later we moved from Seattle to Portland, and I ended up with a new job that took twelve hours out of my day, five days a week. Things got pretty crazy for a while.

However, this autumn I’ve really been feeling Deer/Stag energy quite a bit. This is a high time for the deer family, as they’re in rut, and fighting and sex seem to be the key themes. Everything that deer in general have been doing over the past half a year or so has culminated in a few weeks of posturing, bashing antlers together, and getting it on. For me, this translates into preparing for the long, cold winter ahead, as well as fertility–but a longer-gestating fertility than the quicken-and-go fertility of spring. I have a few projects that I’d like to ideally come to fruition next summer or so, and so I wanted to put some energy towards that, as well as acknowledging the changes going on outdoors this time of year. (I did some hiking yesterday, though I’ll be playing catch-up with a post on that later this week.)

Now, my usual ritual structure has been pretty generically neopagan for most of my practice. It goes something like this:

Cast circle
Call quarters (directional totems, in my case)
Say stuff about the ritual
Do some magic
Make offerings, if appropriate
Tell everyone they’re welcome to stay or go, but I’m done (stick a fork in me)

I’ve been pretty much solitary, so this has worked just fine for me all by my lonesome. This also means that I can adapt the ritual format as needed at the last minute. However, the general structure above has been pretty standard for me.

Well, when I went to do my ritual today, I found that the structure just wasn’t quite meshing with what I’ve been working with lately. I felt like I was talking too much, doing too much extraneous “stuff” that really didn’t have any meaning for me any more, or that simply felt distracting. So, time for an overhaul.

I’m keeping most of the circle casting process. Yes, I do recognize all space as sacred. However, the casting allows me to formally evoke the directional totems and my various spiritual friends, family and guardians. It also helps me to get into the right headspace for ritual, completing the process started with the initial banishing-by-broom (yes, I do still like to purify the ritual area by sweeping it–more, these days, to help clear my mind than to clear any crud out). However, I’m going to stop doing a verbal “greeting”, and instead go directly to the internal connections I have with each directional totem. when I evoke them, there is a simultaneous internal/external reaction. Externally, the totem arrives from wherever it is totems go when they’re not hanging out in ritual circles (I could say the Lower World, but I don’t keep tabs on the totems. How do I know they aren’t just throwing huge parties behind my back without inviting me? *dejected sniffle*). Anyway, at the same time, there’s a corresponding part of myself for each of them that flares to life (or maybe just attention) when I sense that the totems are here. I actually go through a very brief energetic shape-shift as each totem arrives, temporarily taking the shape of the animal to greet the totem. I also draw the corresponding elemental energy of each totem’s direction into the ritual area.

These two occurrences–the arrival of the totem, and the bringing of the elemental energy, are the two most important parts of the circle casting for me. So I’m probably going to drop the speeches, as well as tracing the pentacle in the air, and stick to a more minimalist experience. I’ll probably say a silent invitation and greeting, but I’ve been calling on these totems long enough that I feel comfortable being a little less loud about things (though the process is still formal).

I’m also probably going to reduce my use of the long-speech-at-the-beginning-of-the-ritual format, at least for celebratory rituals. Again, I will probably make a silent prayer, but most likely just cut to the chase. For example, the crux of today’s ritual was dancing in my deerskin and headdress to bring forth the Deer/Autumnal energy and to celebrate both the positive and negative aspects of preparation, fertility, and uncertainty over the months to come.

I’ve been doing a more bare-bones approach with my magical rituals for a while, but the celebratory ones are something entirely different for me. It’s been a long time since I’ve done regular celebrations, and I’m not the same person I was back then. I’ve got a better idea of how my magical work may change, but restructuring celebratory rituals may take me longer to figure out. As usual, though, it’ll be a matter of trial and error, seeing what works and keeping it, and discarding the rest. Today’s ritual, while enjoyable for the celebration it brought, was also a valuable experiment, and showed me some areas that could use some updating.