I’ve been reading Shamanism: A Reader, the academic anthology that Graham Harvey put together a couple of years back. It’s been an interesting read thus far, and while some of the heavier reading has been a bit tough to slog through, it’s been worth it. One of the themes that has cropped up a couple of times in this and other works on shamanism has been the role of hunting in a lot of the cultures that feature shamanism of one sort or another. Granted, the specific roles and rituals vary per culture, and even from time period to time period (there’s a fascinating bit of writing in the anthology about how one particular African tribe’s use of ecstatic trance has changed in just a couple of centuries). Still, among the wide array of spirits that may need to be placated, cajoled and/or befriended are the spirits of animals that have been killed for food and other resources.
Now, I’ve never been hunting in my life. I fished a lot as a kid (though I always caught itty-bitty sunfish way too small to eat) and I tried chasing rabbits, though I never caught one. But I’ve never done the whole get up early in the morning, take a rifle or bow out into the woods, and shoot a deer routine that so many people still go through on a yearly basis. Hell, I never even went *camping* until I was in my early twenties. My girl scout troop mostly did “girly” things like make woven potholders–the closest we got to camping was a night of sleeping bags in an old bakery where the only wildlife was a collection of roaches big enough to carry a few of the scouts off into the night.
My understanding of hunting rituals is entirely academic. However, I remain undaunted. Therioshamanism is a (neo)shamanic path for the version of reality I subscribe to. So while learning to hunt and being able to kill my own meat to be an honest omnivore is on my list of things to learn before I die, I’m not going to put spirituality on hold.
Rather, I noticed a correlation between the apparent role of hunting rituals–or rather, placatory rituals for the spirits of hunted animals–and my work with skin spirits and food totems. While I don’t acquire my own meat prior to the “buy at the market/grocery store” stage of things, and I have never hunted an animal for meat and/or pelt/etc., I still work with the spirits of the (deceased) animals that come into my life in various ways. After all, in pretty much all cases, unless there’s some sort of religious activity going on that I don’t know about, the people who did take these animals’ lives weren’t particularly mindful or respectful of the act of doing so.
So the role I see for myself is one that attempts to take up the slack, to try to right some of the wrongs done. Modern Americans may not have as tight a set of taboos as, say, traditional Inuit cultural practices, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no possibility that angry spirits could be causing problems. In fact, if my experiences have any weight, the “food” totems, such as Crab, Chicken and Pig are plenty angry for what’s been done to their physical children. How much influence they’ve had on modern Americans is another story altogether, and I’m still making progress just on getting them to be willing to work with me.
I don’t feel that the only reason I should be working with these spirits is to try to avoid further retribution, whatever that may be. Instead, I do it because I see the damage that’s been done, how upset the balance really is between humanity and other animals, and part of my goal is to do what I can to right that balance in the manner that best fits my personal reality (rather than trying to shove a square peg into a round hole).
This, to me, is *my* version of hunting rituals. I may not hunt the animals myself, but I still deal with their spirits to try to placate them and show them that *somebody* cares enough, at least, to give them notice. I don’t think I can say in good conscience that they should go back to their kin and tell them how well they were treated in death, but I hope I can at least demonstrate that they aren’t being completely ignored. And I hope, as I try to make better connections to the food totems in particular, as well as improve my relationship with the skin spirits, that I can determine what (if anything) they’ve done to voice their displeasure. After all, many (though not all) shamanic cultures considered that bad happenings might very well be caused by broken taboos or angry spirits, and the shaman’s role was to help restore that balance. (The anthology I mentioned earlier actually had a really good discussion on the “confessional” atmosphere of shamanic rituals to that effect in traditional Inuit society.)
I’m not about to go work in a slaughterhouse or a fur farm; however, I can be even more mindful of the relationships I do have with the spirits at hand, and work to achieve a greater understanding. The dynamic that I work in parallels that of shamans and hunting rituals, though these necessarily differ thanks to the particular environment and culture that I’m in. And if I can get some suggestions as to what people in this culture can do to treat these spirits better, to make them less angry, then I’ve accomplished part of what I’ve set out to do.