Some Rambling on Totems

I’ve been chewing some more on my conception of totem animals within a neopagan context, specifically my personal neopagan context. (I’m not the only one; while I was still chewing, Paleo beat me to the punch on the topic with this great post. Zeitgeist!)

Unlike most people, I have worked with numerous totems over the years. Wolf’s just my primary; there are plenty of others, from Deer to Silver Dollar, who have graced my life for various amounts of time. Totemism has been central to my practice pretty much from the beginning. It’s a neopagan form of totemism, rather than anything traditional–I work with totems on an individual, rather than group-based, basis.

I don’t see the totems as individual spirits; Wolf is not just a random wolf spirit, nor is Wolf really Greymuzzle the Ancient Wolf Spirit Reincarnated Fifteen Times. I don’t see totems as a replacement for power animals, skin spirits, and other helper spirits. While I haven’t yet determined my power animal(s) (if, indeed, I have any) and I’ll be spending the six months between the Spring and Autumn equinoxes finding and working with spirit helpers of all sorts, I don’t confuse the power animals with the totems. Wolf the totem is a very different animal from a wolf spirit that becomes a power animal. Additionally, Bear the totem is a different being from the bear spirit that resides in my bear skin that I dance with (and which could potentially be a power animal at some point, if my understanding of power animals is correct).

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I perceive totems as archetypal beings that embody all of the qualities of a given species of animal–natural history, human lore, and the relationship between humans and that species. However, unlike a strict interpretation of archetypes, totems don’t solely exist in my head. They’re independent beings with their own existences. It is simply in their nature to be archetypal; they are embodiments of their species.

And they’re much “bigger” than individual spirits. I see totems as akin to deities; deities can also be archetypal in nature, but are not just constructs of our minds. Deities are to humans as totems are to nonhuman animals, very roughly speaking. So sometimes it boggles my mind that the totems rarely seem to mind when I contact them for various purposes, whether to ask for help with a particular situation, or to satiate my curiosity about them. I find them to be much more approachable than deities. How many people can just “walk up” to any member of a given pantheon of deities and start communicating? There seems to be a lot more protocol and pageantry associated with that particular endeavor. Totems, on the other hand, seem to not mind what I’m wearing, or how much formality I go into before talking to them. If anything, they seem to get impatient if they need to talk to me and I spend a lot of time setting the stage, as it were.

I wonder if this familiarity with them is really so unusual. Sometimes I feel like such a small being surrounded by great giants, and yet they seem to respect me just the same. And it’s been that way from the beginning; while they haven’t always been happy with me (especially when I screw something up, or neglect something I said I’d do), they nonetheless seem to appreciate my place in their lives as much as I appreciate their places in mine. I’ve even had them be downright overjoyed to see me and work with me, and not just because I’m paying attention to them.

I think the nature of our mutual relationship is part of why I’m so invested in them. As Paleo mentioned in her essay, linked above, if you work with totems long enough there’s a tendency to take the relationship deeper than the initial “Bear is the Healer, Wolf is the Teacher” dictionary and stereotype interaction. People who work with totems long term, and as a significant part of their paths, almost always become more aware of physical animals and their needs, whether domestic or wild. (This also goes for people who work with animal spirits and other animal entities.) For me, at least, it’s a way to help the totems that have helped me so much. The physical members of a species are the young of their totem; part of that totem’s existence is completely concerned with their safety and well-being in this world.

I’m currently working on DIY Totemism: Your Personal Guide to Animal Totems. One entire chapter is dedicated solely to offerings to the totems. This isn’t just things like leaving a bit of food in the woods (which I argue against for a number of reasons). How better to help a totem whose children are endangered than to take part in activism to help those animals? Or to work magic on behalf of the totem to help with something s/he’s concerned with? When we work with totems, we aren’t just working with abstract concepts; it’s too easy to anthropomorphize a totem to the point where we only see what benefits us directly–and what we can get out of the deal. Yet it’s a two-way street. What do we give back to the totems? What do they ask of us? Where do their physical counterparts figure in? For that matter, are we really listening to anything but our own wants and needs?

Left to my own devices, I doubt I would have seriously considered shamanism as a life-path. I was pretty content with what I had. However, one of the main reasons I’m developing therioshamanism is for the totems. They’ve done a lot for me over the years, and this is one way for me to give back to them. They asked it of me, as I’ve asked so much of them, and I decided to at least give it a try. If it works out, then great–this helps me to help them. If it doesn’t, then we figure something else out.

And I think that’s part of why I’ve worked with them for so long. I don’t just feel like they’re trying to get something out of me, or get me to worship them or follow their rules and taboos. They genuinely like me, and we’re involved in mutually beneficial and enjoyable relationships. I help them, not because I feel like I have to, but because I want to–and vice versa. I’ve been approached by a few deities over the years who wanted worship, attention, power, energy–and I turned them down because I simply wasn’t interested in that kind of relationship. I had gotten spoiled by the totems, who actually worked with me even before I met Artemis. (I don’t worry too much about getting harassed by rejected deities–some of the more protective totems in my life, Wolf in particular, have proven to me in the past that they’re not just going to stand aside and let bad things happen for no good reason.) Why would I want to be in a relationship where I felt like I was being essentially bullied, when I have numerous relationships with powerful beings who genuinely like me?

Has It Really Been Five Months?

Tonight I finally did my ritual to officially finish off my Water month and head into the final month of my six months. I know the full moon was a few nights ago; however, I caught yet another cold which developed into a sinus infection, and Bear told me to spend a few more days healing (she didn’t mind keeping me a bit longer). However, the transition has happened, and the last month has begun. Once again, as with my first month, I examine all four elements together, only with the experience of the previous months to use as well, and reflect on what I’ve learned so far. It’s definitely going to be a powerful experience.

The Animal Father called me into the ritual room and had me sit in the center where the four directions/etc. meet. Then he told me to start drumming. At first I got distracted by the drumbeat; I kept speeding up and slowing down, and I was a bit irritated with the tone because the drum head was just a little bit damp. But he reminded me to focus, and over time I felt myself at the center of all four of the directional totems–Wolf, Hawk, Fox and Bear. It was an incredibly powerful combination, the totems and the god, all there at once. And apparently, this is supposed to be my starting point for journeying in general! No wonder I’ll need practice.

The Animal Father had me recount, briefly, what I had learned from each of them. We distilled these into four basic values:

North – Wolf – Earth – Grounding
East – Hawk – Air – Communication
South – Fox – Fire – Love (Passion)
West – Bear – Water – Healing

These are very much shorthand for a lot of complex concept and multifaceted interpretations. It’s easier to say “Grounding” than “Finding the basis of what’s most important in your life; figure out where you stand and where you’re coming from; etc.” as well as extending concepts to other people, other beings, the world around me, and so forth. “Grounding” is therefore a convenient tag for something much bigger.

I felt very safe and very centered during this time; it was much stronger than the neopagan circle castings I gave up early on in my therioshamanic work. I had a very clear idea of my cosmology, and it imprinted itself more strongly on my brain. However, I’m still building up endurance in my rituals, so the Animal Father had me begin to drum down again, to say farewell to the totems and to get myself downstairs and fed. We’re going to work on lengthening my rituals over time, especially as I start doing more complex things, but for now I need to be focusing on consistency.

So I’ll be spending the time between now and the spring equinox not only preparing my everyday life for a schedule change to allow more time for shamanic work, but also reflecting on the cosmology I’ve helped to develop over the past five months. It still has a very neopagan feel to it, which is fine, because it’s built on the concepts that I’ve adhered to most strongly in the past twelve years. But we’re definitely taking it to a higher level here, as far as intensity of work goes. I’m excited, and nervous, but also confident in my ability to continue with this.

Here Comes the Left Brain Again!

I’m in the middle of reading The Secrets of Shamanism by Jose and Lena Stevens. I’m probably about 2/3 of the way through, and it’s turning out to be your usual neoshamanism flavored by core shamanism text o’ techniques. Doesn’t have much context, and throws in some decent psychological exercises in there for flavoring. Like so many authors, the Stevens insist that you don’t have to go through terrifying dismemberment and other ritual torture to be a shaman (however, to be fair, they also make it clear that reading this book won’t make you a shaman, either).

I also read some articles on Northern Tradition shamanism. This included a good comparison of “classic” (what I usually refer to as “traditional”) and core shamanisms. It’s not the first such comparison I’ve seen; I first read James Endredy’s comparisons of classic, core, and eco shamanisms in his text, Ecoshamanism.

It’s often assumed that anyone who isn’t trained in an indigenous cultural shamanism is a core shaman. While none of the sources I referenced above do this, I’ve run into the assumption more than once (online and elsewhere) that neoshaman = core shaman. True, Michael Harner has had a huge influence on modern (neo)shamanism, being the first person to really bring it into public practice in postindustrial cultures. I do, however, have disagreements with personal practice involving core shamanism; while it’s great for some people, not so much for yours truly.

However, I don’t really fit the definition of classic/traditional shaman, either. No indigenous teachers, and no cultural context other than that which I’m living in. My experience with the spirits is decidedly gentler than a lot of traditional testimonies, though I’m not under the illusion that things will always be easy, or play nice, or be successful.

I wish there was a term for modern postindustrial neoshamanism that was expressly not core shamanism, but that was understood to not be classic/traditional shamanism, either. I like “neoshamanism”, but it does have a lot of core shamanism assumptions around it. And therioshamanism is wayyy too narrow, being what I call the relationship I am creating between myself and “my” spirits. I like the concept of shamanism for postindustrial societies, but it has to be understood that you can’t ever take something entirely out of any cultural context whatsoever. Even if you completely divorce a particular practice from its original context, you are still practicing it within your own cultural context, whatever that may be. Therefore it needs to be tweaked to match the context it’s practiced within.

There aren’t very many non-indigenous shamans who are not practicing A) something based in core shamanism, or B) something based in traditional shamanism but also influenced, to one degree or another, by core shamanism, and who are practicing C) something that is based in a post-industrial cultural context. At least not that I know of, anyway. Maybe they’re all hiding from me.

Of course, sometimes I also wonder why I’m so reluctant to go and try to find an indigenous shaman of one culture or another to train under, and quit trying to mow my own path. I think a lot of it has to do with trying to keep the cultural context as focused on mainstream-America-flavored-by-neopaganism as possible; I feel that if I were to base my shamanism in any other cultures’ practices, then my shamanism would forever have that influence in it–and some things simply just don’t translate well from one culture to another. Of course, if I’m reading about other cultures’ shamanisms in books, then I’m being exposed (thirdhand) to those cultures (which is a poor substitute for actual involvement).

However, books also allow me enough detachment to be able to look at what the goals are, and then be able to figure out how to do them myself, coming from my own context. This way I can pull a “What Would Lupa Do?”, rather than, say, automatically falling back on a cosmology and context learned from another culture which may not be entirely appropriate for where I am. And that’s what I really want–a shamanism that is created from where I’m coming from, that addresses the problems that my culture faces, and that allows me to interact with the spirits in an individual manner, however they–and I–see fit.


This evening as the eclipse hit, I was walking home from the bus stop. I asked the spirits if I should take advantage of the rare full lunar eclipse and do any magic. Their reply was a very loud “No”. When I asked them why, they simply said “Bad energy”.

Whether that holds for this eclipse or all of them will remain to be seen; they’re being a bit tight-lipped about it. However, I’m glad they told me to stay indoors. Not long after I got home, I heard a bunch of shouting and noise on the next street over, followed shortly thereafter by sirens. Normally this is a nice, quiet neighborhood, but the full moon brings out the crazies…and perhaps people took advantage of the darkness of the eclipse to do something nefarious? Though it got nowhere near as dark as in a blackout.

Meh. I’ll bother the spirits about it later when they’re more prone to talking. Tomorrow is the beginning of my final month of my first six months, so I’ll have plenty to keep me occupied in the meantime.

Recommended Reading on Shamanism 101

I’m writing this post partly for my own benefit. Since I am a bibliophile and read voraciously, I sometimes find myself referring books to others. Every so often I’ll be asked for a list of recommended reading for those just getting into shamanism. Rather than continuing to type the same titles out over and over again, I can now just link to this post and say “Here, check this out”. (I also find this is incredibly convenient with other blog posts and articles online where it’s easier to point people to something I’ve already written.)

Keep in mind, of course, that I’ve only been actively pursuing a (neo)shamanic path since September 2007. However, I have spent over a decade as a solitary, self-taught pagan, and so discerning useful books from not so useful ones has become an acquired skill. These books can all be found in my bibliography; however, I’ve extracted a few particularly good for beginners (and yes, I fully admit to having cut and pasted the information from my biblio). Additionally, I strongly recommend checking the shamanism-related links in my blogroll. I’ve listed the books in the order I think would be most useful to read them in (separated into two different categories, neoshamanism and traditional shamanism–you don’t have to read the neo before the trad).

Books on Neoshamanism:

Webb, Hillary S.: Exploring Shamanism

This is pure neoshamanism–and the author gets points for admitting it up front. It’s a great guide to making shamanism relevant to mainstream postindustrial societies, and is a nice, down to Earth exploration of the concept. It’s got a good mix of theory and practice, too. 101, but it gave me some good ideas for integrating my practice into everyday life.

Harner, Michael: The Way of the Shaman

It’d be kinda tough to study neoshamanism without reading this book. Harner isn’t teaching “genuine Native American shamanism”; rather, he did to shamanism what Carroll did to magic in general–boil it down to its bare-bones components, sans cultural context, and present it as a working system for modern practitioners. Unfortunately, he only presents a partial perspective on what shamanism is, and leaves a number of cultural elements in there that can lead people to believe they’re doing it “just like the Indians”. I think the misunderstanding people have is that this book–or the weekend seminars that have ultimately derived from core shamanism–will automatically make you a shaman. I think it’s more accurate to say it can make you a practitioner of shamanic techniques, but one book a shaman does not make. Still, this is a useful handbook for said techniques, and as long as it’s taken in the proper context it’s an okay resource.

Endredy, James: Ecoshamanism

This is a very important book to me. Essentially it takes shamanism and plants it firmly in ecological awareness and environmentally friendly practices. While traditional shamanism isn’t all about environmentalism, therioshamanism is very much an environmentally active practice. It’s quite obvious that Endredy knows his stuff, both with wildcraft and shamanism, and it’s one of my favorite texts for reminding me of my focus on the Earth.

Books on Traditional Shamanism:

Vitebsky, Piers: The Shaman

I like this book because it’s a good anthropological introduction to shamanism–primarily traditional, but with a brief mention near the end of neoshamanism. It’s a nice blend of text and illustrations, and the author covers a lot of ground. He seems particularly interested in altered states of consciousness, and the involvement of the shaman in both the community overall, and politics (including conflict with large governments–shamanism as subversive!).

Eliade, Mircea: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy

Yes, I finally got around to reading this classic. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though chewing through hundreds of pages of pure vintage academia took two weeks. It’s going to be one of those books that I go back to every so often to re-read, and will probably get more out of with each time. It’s apparently withstood the years pretty well, too–while there’s obviously newer material out there, it hasn’t become obsolete. I can appreciate the comparative aspects of the book, though it’s also good to see how cultures have different cosmologies and traditions. A nice thorough resource.

Walsh, M.D., Ph.D, Roger N: The Spirit of Shamanism

This is a superior academic text on the psychology of shamanism. Unlike earlier academic works, though, the author is careful to not allow Western bias to color a negative picture of the topic. Rather, he explains in great detail (and with in-text citations, even!) about how shamanism differs from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, the psychology behind shamanic healing (such as the placebo effect), and the psychological states involved in initiation and journeying. I took away a much better understanding of the internal mechanics of shamanism from this book, as well as some good arguments against “shamans are crazy”. One of the most recommended books on this list.

Harvey, Graham (ed): Shamanism: A Reader

This is an awesome anthology with a great collection of primarily academic perspectives on both traditional and neo shamanism. While I didn’t like every essay, I did learn quite a bit from it, particularly on some of the more interesting niches, such as Siberian shamanic gender roles, the aesthetics of Korean shamanism, and Russian documentaries on shamanism. I wasn’t as impressed by most of the essays on neoshamanism, but it was nice to see them included instead of ignored. The writing on some of the essays is somewhat tough to chew through if you’re not used to academic writing, but this didn’t hinder me too much.

These aren’t the only books on shamanism I’ve read; you can see more at Pagan Book reviews. But this is a brief booklist I’d recommend for beginners and the curious. I’ll probably add to it at a later date, but it’s here for posterity (and my easy linking needs).

My “Golden Rules” of Magic and Spirituality

A while back, in this thread on the Wildspeak Forums, I wrote this in response to “What if it [magic/spirituality] isn’t real?”:

For myself, there are a couple of checks and balances I keep in place.

1. Is what I’m doing negatively affecting my mundane life? If so, I need to evaluate very seriously.

2. Am I hearing only things I agree with? If so, I need to question what I’m hearing.

However, there also comes a point where I have to stop questioning, and accept that yes, this is real. Yes, the spirits have an objective existence of their own, though they interface with my subjective perception of them. And when there is positive change being made in my life, that’s proof enough that regardless of what the “reality” is, this is a valuable thing to me.

This also ties into some continued thought-chewing from my post a few weeks ago where I asked some questions about shamanism and service to the gods/spirits. And having thought about it, I’m pretty happy with my two Golden Rules. Here’s why.

#1: Is what I’m doing negatively affecting my mundane life? If so, I need to evaluate very seriously.

This rule pretty much came into play early on; it’s one of the first things I figured out to keep myself sane and grounded amid mysticism, spirituality, and magic. It’s easy, especially when you’re just beginning to learn about magic and other such things, to get carried away by the perceived Otherworldliness of the whole thing. I remember how awesome it was to find out that magic wasn’t just in my head, that it existed, and that there were explanations for it besides “It’s just superstition” or “You’re going to hell”. It was also nice to know that I wasn’t the only person who talked to spirits as a kid, who didn’t just see it as imagination, and who thought Nature was more than just resources to be used and abused by “dominant” humans.

When I talk about negative affects, I’m not just talking about the grandiose self-delusion of Apocalyptic Destinies, wherein you are convinced you and your friends are at the center of a great war to save the Universe or something similarly ungrounded but otherwise harmless. Nor am I talking about things such as BDSM spirituality and kink magic where consensual kink is utilized for ritual purposes. I’m referring to using your spirituality/magic as a crutch to excuse harmful patterns in your life. For example, if you spend all your time holed up in a ritual chamber and isolate yourself from the rest of the world except to get food and (if employed) go to work, something’s probably going very wrong with you. Spirituality and magic should enhance and be balanced with the rest of your everyday life, not replace it.

Being interested in a subject or having a bizarre belief (by mainstream standards) isn’t a problem in and of itself. When I was writing A Field Guide to Otherkin, I interviewed a therapist about her thoughts on the concept of Otherkin (the interview may be found in one of the appendices of the book). One thing she said that really stuck out to me was that, as a therapist, it was not her job to determine the validity of my beliefs. What her concern was, was how my beliefs affected my life overall. Since I function just fine in modern society believing that on some spiritual/psychological level there’s part of me that registers as “wolf”, I take it as a clean bill of health. In fact, the concept of therianthropy gives me a good structure on which to examine and understand this part of myself, and therefore is a benefit. On the other hand, if I had clinical lycanthropy (which is an exceedingly rare disorder) I would be so convinced that I was literally, physically turning into a wolf that I would be crawling around on all fours, trying to bite people, and be quite unfit for public consumption. Still, I keep a sharp eye on where my beliefs intersect with all areas of my life, not just in the ritual room.

It’s especially crucial to question what you’re doing when it negatively affects someone else, not just (or instead of) yourself. In certain religions, for example, it’s perfectly acceptable to marry a spirit or deity. Voodoo is a good example; marriages to the loa aren’t for everyone, but they do occur. In healthy situations, this does not prevent the person from having relationships and marriages with other people. An unhealthy example, on the other hand, would be if the spirit or deity told the person they wanted to marry “You must leave your present significant other and spend all your time with me!” This is different from, say, a deity or spirit telling a person to get out of a patently abusive relationship and seek professional help. If you’re using your spirituality to excuse something you wouldn’t otherwise be doing to another person, there’s something very wrong, and you need to take a step back and evaluate the mundane, woo-free reality of what you’re doing. Look at the situation as if you had absolutely no belief in spirituality whatsoever. Be brutally honest. If it sounds crazy or toxic from that perspective, if it’s something you would tell other people not to do, then there’s a good chance you need to really seriously consider your choices.

Now, the concept of negative effect is open to interpretation. For example, a gay person who is out of the closet could be said to be negatively affecting family members who are embarrassed and scandalized by hir choice to come out. However, there’s also the consideration of what staying in the closet does to the gay person. Having been stuffed in a few closets myself, I know just how screwed up it can make a person, and how much healthier it is to have the room to come to terms with who and what you are rather than hiding it. Is the other person’s embarrassment worth my depression, stress, anxiety and ill health overall? Is it worth spending my life feeling like I’m a mistake? Sometimes it’s a delicate balance between being aware of the effect on others, and on yourself.

However, if the concrete, mundane, physical effects of what you’re doing are running counter to your spiritual justifications, either in regards to yourself or others, it’s time to take a time-out and have a realistic, detached look at what you’re up to.

Let’s look at the second Golden Rule:

#2: Am I hearing only things I agree with? If so, I need to question what I’m hearing.

This is a later refinement based on the first rule. Every person relies, to one extent or another, on Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG). Even in religions with a well-established set of dogma and rules, such as the various denominations of Christianity or the various types of Judaism, there are disagreements and individual interpretations. For example, one church may be fully in agreement with the idea that “God hates fags”. Another may say that God says to “Love the sinner and hate the sin”. A third insists that “God is love”, no matter who you are. Even so, individuals within each church may disagree to some extent on the details. Having a collective of people who back up your beliefs can be seductive–no matter how many people agree with you, it’s still important to have an amount of healthy skepticism.

And this is something that fundamentalists of all religions (yes, pagans have fundies, too) don’t want to hear–that our relationship to the Divine may be more subjective than we initially believed. I believe very strongly that deities and spirits are much “bigger” entities than we are, or at least live on a more multifaceted dimension. Therefore our understanding of them is the understanding a two dimensional world would have of a three dimensional being. Since we can’t comprehend them all at once, they show us each the face we most need to see. It’s like a more complex version of the faces we put on for different people; you probably act a bit differently around your boss than you do around someone you’re flirting with!

I also don’t believe that deities and spirits communicate to us in words. When I communicate with the totems, or the Animal Father, I don’t think they’re speaking English to me. Rather, whether they communicate through energy or emotions or some other force, the best way for me to interpret it, at least initially, is through words and, to a lesser extent, images. Sometimes, though, with an entity I have a good connection with, I can open myself temporarily to pure stream of consciousness that transcends the limitations of words–but still makes sense. However, even then, that information is filtered through my tunnel vision, my experiences and my headspace. In other words, as an anonymous person put it, “You know you have created God in your own image when your God hates the same people you do”.

And this is why we need to be wary when we’re only hearing what we want to hear. It’s very easy to misinterpret things, or to selectively use them to justify our position on something. Religious fundamentalism comes about when a person of any religion insists that the way they understand things is the most correct way to interact with that deity/spirit/etc. and anyone else is doing it wrong. While simple disagreement is more common, everything from murder to war has been justified by “God told me to….”. When your belief tells you it’s okay to negatively impact someone else’s life (especially if you think “It’s for their own good”), there’s a damned good chance that you’re actually using religion as an excuse to further your own personal agenda, even if you don’t consciously realize it. As numerous tyrants have learned over the years, religion is a great veneer for political and social agendas–it gets people emotionally riled up, and their rationality goes right out the window.

But remember the last part of my post?

However, there also comes a point where I have to stop questioning, and accept that yes, this is real. Yes, the spirits have an objective existence of their own, though they interface with my subjective perception of them. And when there is positive change being made in my life, that’s proof enough that regardless of what the “reality” is, this is a valuable thing to me.

Caution is good. Questioning is good. However, if what I am doing is overwhelmingly constructive, and if it isn’t being used as a justification for screwing someone (myself included) over in a way I would not normally do, then I’m more likely to move forward. One way that I know therioshamanism has been good for me is that I look back over the time since I started my initial training in September, and I see where what I have done and learned has provided me with very useful tools that I’ve been able to use to improve situations in my life overall. I have become a better, healthier person through it, and I feel more confident in my ability to help others do the same. That doesn’t mean I won’t keep a watchful eye on any negative “side effects”, but I can point to very concrete, physical ways in which my spirituality has had a positive effect on my life. If other people point out blind spots, then they can be dealt with.

However, overall I can say that the path I have walked for over a decade, and most recently therioshamanism, has contributed greatly to my overall health and happiness, and to making me a better person. It has also helped me to become more aware of the world around me and my impact on it, and while I haven’t yet achieved perfection, I have many tools at my disposal to help me get a little closer. My Golden Rules give me the focus and grounding I need to continue in this endeavor.

Metamorphosis (Part II)

Last night I finally found time and energy to do the ritual I promised to Artemis, to say a temporary farewell to her so I could allow the Animal Father to have a more pronounced effect in my life. A little later than I thought, but better to do it when I’m actually feeling up to it.

I started by putting on the ritual gown I’ve worn for years, and which I’ll be retiring for the time being other than for one pre-scheduled exception. I then began to talk about the night we first “met”, so to speak. She asked me to dance, simply dance, as I had ten years before. So I started slowly pacing back and forth around the room in the moonlight–just like before–and let the energy slowly move me into a dance. Once I hit the rhythm, though, I let myself go once again, ecstatic. As I danced I spoke with her, telling her that there was no way I could ever repay her for everything she’s done to help me over the years, and that I appreciated everything.

Artemis then asked me to sit before my altar and simply listen. She told me she was proud of me, even with the rough spots over the years, and she seemed really pleased with how I turned out. Then she told me that at some point in the future, she would come back, and she would call me to her again, but for something more intense. She asked me to kiss her, and I saw her before me in my mind’s eye. I did, and I felt/saw an archer’s bow made of silver enter me when I inhaled, through my lips and down into the center of my body, shining like the crescent moon overhead. I could feel her essence in it, and felt it as her promise to return.

She told me that the shamanism was the Animal Father’s gift to me, and that later on she would return to give her own gift, but for now I should focus on my shamanic practice. She didn’t indicate when that would be, other than that it wouldn’t be a conflict with the shamanism. Nor did it seem she would replace the Animal Father, either. So it may be that, long after I gave up on the popular “I must have a God and a Goddess to be complete” newbie stage, it looks as though I may end up with just that!*

After that, we said our goodbyes, and the Animal Father came in. He greeted me, and sat down to talk to me a bit about what’s to come. Should I choose to continue to walk this path after my first six months are over, his tasks for the second six months are thus:

–Dedicate each week to a different one of my skin spirits, to get to know each one better, and to come up with a drum rhythm, dance and song for each.
–Practice journeying with the drum at least once a week.
–Use the prayer beads once a day (this one has a bit of flexibility since it can take a while, but daily is preferred).

If I do well with these, I may get even more asked of me (ack!) For the time being, though, in addition to my daily prayers/etc. this seems manageable for where I am now.

I’ll be curious to see where the next six weeks take me as the spiritual changeover happens. It’s not going to be huge, instant ka-blammo or anything like that, but change nonetheless. And while I can feel Artemis’ presence has diminished a lot, I’m okay with that now, I have a sense of closure, and I’m ready to move on. She’ll be back eventually, but for now, I have this path to walk.

* Though they’re not a “matched set” as some people feel a God and Goddess must be. Nor is this “shamanic Wicca”. Though (neo)Wicca seems to be the open-source neopagan religion of choice, I actually am trying to distance myself from more general neopagan practices and more towards something resembling traditional shamanism but tailored towards my own cultural context.


It is February 8, 2008 (just barely–53 minutes left).

Ten years ago tonight, I was nineteen and home after a date with my then-boyfriend. The relationship was just beginning to deteriorate; by September it would be over after two and a half years. I had been studying magic and paganism for a couple of years, but hadn’t really focused myself. I was a sophomore in college, and still living with my parents to try to get through college without student loans.

Little did I know that I was on the verge of a change. While I spent most of my teen years rather isolated since I didn’t have much in the way of friends until college, my twenties ended up being roaring, to say the very least! On the cusp of that incredible decade, I met Artemis for the first time. I think she had always been there, but hadn’t really had a good opportunity to introduce herself. I remember being vaguely dissatisfied with my relationship with my boyfriend, and so it shouldn’t have surprised me that what would happen that night would help me to break out of some bad patterns, including with relationships.

There I was in my room, with the moonlight streaming in (the moon was not quite full). And then I had the sudden urge–to dance. I had never danced before. I had always been that one at the school dances who sat on the sidelines, scared to go out there. I had been so out of touch with what was popular I didn’t even recognize the music. And I was terribly self-conscious, so the concept of dancing was alien to me. Yet there, alone in the moonlight, I danced, and I danced freeform. Back and forth around the bed I danced, exulting in the beauty of the light, the feeling of my graceful body, the sheer joy of not giving a damn what anyone thought. And in that moment Artemis made herself known to me, and told me I was hers.

I don’t remember what she told me, exactly. But from that moment on, I began to change. I became more independent and self-assertive. I became more bold in my relationships. I stopped hemming and hawing about paganism, and decided to just dive on in. And over the next decade I would do my best to emulate this goddess I admired so much, and who taught me a lot just through her example.

She never demanded strict worship from me; all she asked was that I come and talk to her every February 8 in remembrance of that first night. And so I have done so every year. Sometimes I did a formal ritual; other times we simply took a walk together. This year she came and chatted with me as I walked from work to the train station. She told me that the reason she never demanded a lot from me was that she wanted me to grow with my own mind and heart, that she wanted me to be wild, not domesticated. It left a lot to be desired in the discipline department, but she felt I honored her through my freedom and growth as an individual, something I needed a lot more than living by rank-and-file.

Today, though, was different. A year ago, when I spoke with her, she told me that a male god would be coming into my life soon–she didn’t tell me who, but she told me to prepare to work with him more closely. Not that she would go away entirely, but she would step back and let him take over for a while. And it turns out that that god was the Animal Father, with whom I’ll be working more closely for the time being. While I still haven’t made the final decision to take the shamanism route, I will be working with him one way or another. So this weekend the change will happen, and start a new phase.

The changes in me and my life won’t be immediately apparent, of course. Nothing like that really happens overnight, no matter how big the catalyst. But I am changing my life-role, so to speak. I’m going from the young maiden running wild through the woods, traveling hither and yon on her own, learning to be herself, but ultimately rootless, to the one who protects and sustains the tribe, maintaining good relations with the land we rely on for life. My need in the past year or so to start settling down, my marriage a year and a half ago, my growing interest in sustainable living–these are all things that are necessary to this new stage of life, and adhering to the archetype that is presented as a role model for me. It’s time to take the things learned in the past decade, and make something new of them. My most immediate “tribe” may consist of me, my husband, and our cats, but there are numerous people and other living beings that I can help.

I’ll admit, I am a little scared, and sad. I think I just got so used to Artemis’ constant presence that I never thought of being without her. It’s not that I can’t still talk to her; it’s just that her influence will be a lot less, and the Animal Father’s much more. While I’m exciting about continuing to grow, there’s still sadness that this phase of my life is ending, one that was really important to developing who I am. This November I’ll be turning thirty, but I’m less worried about that than about this marker of time.

But she’ll still be around; I’m not losing her. And I know she’ll let me know if I’m in need of her guidance (if I don’t think to ask!). I was going to do a ritual tonight, but I’m just too damned tired. So tomorrow will do. Believe it or not, this is pretty incredible for me. Before I started on the therioshamanism path, it was not at all uncommon for me to put off rituals for weeks or even months (a couple got postponed for years), or not done at all. So a delay of a day is pretty good. I still want to be more consistent, but this will do.

And I know she’s proud of me.

Planning Ahead

I’ve been discussing with the spirits what the time after my six months will bring. Looks like there’ll be a lot more foundation-building in store, which is just fine by me. I’ve been erring on the side of caution with this endeavour. Perhaps a bit too far, but having seen so many would-be shamans skimp on things like learning cosmology and getting to know one’s spirit guides and helpers before leaping headfirst into shamanic work, I want to make sure I don’t do the same thing. Plus I want to build more self-discipline, and this is a great way to do it. In fact, I think that’s one of the main reasons we’re focusing so much on taking a lot of time with this; I am not the most disciplined person. I do a lot, but it’s not always organized. This path asks for a certain amount of discipline and organization that I need to acquire before I can be a practicing shaman.

Most likely the six months after the Spring Equinox will be spent improving my relationships with my existing helping spirits and totems; I’m not sure if it will involve meeting new ones. I suspect the emphasis will be on working with who’s already here, though I can’t completely rule out the possibility that someone else may step up in the meantime. I’ll just have to see how it goes.

Beyond that, I’ll probably spend a certain amount of time after the second six months just exploring the Otherworld, getting to know the lay of the land, and practicing various journeying techniques. My progress there will most likely determine when I can actually start serious shamanizing. Of course, this is all conjecture at this point–we’re all just going to see how I do in my second six months. Everyone (myself included) seems pretty confident in how I’ve handled my first six months up til now; there’s still six weeks to go, but so far, so good.

There will, of course, be the chance to opt out at my ritual in March. I haven’t completely ruled it out, especially because I’ll get a good explanation of what to expect if I accept. However, should I choose to continue, I feel that I’ve gotten a pretty firm foundation thus far. The fact that I’ve made it four and a half months without giving up or losing interest is, believe it or not, impressive for me. Not that I’ve never been able to commit to anything, but simply that historically I haven’t been that interested in anything particularly formal.

I’m a different person now, though. I’m more grounded than I was, and more patient. This has been a really good experience for me, and I want to be able to use the tools I’m receiving to help others grow and heal as well. If therioshamanism can help me, then why shouldn’t it be able to help others?

Bear With Me, Here

I did some skin spirit work with my bear skin this past weekend. She’s a rather small brown bear salvaged from a very old rug; while the wrinkles in her muzzle have relaxed over the years since I took the taxidermy form out, she’ll always have a bit of a snarl. But she’s quite sweet.

I didn’t dance with her; rather, I simply sat with her and stroked the fur on top of her head and talked to her for a while. She’s old, and tired, and didn’t feel much like dancing just then. She was fine with that. Our conversation wasn’t particularly deep; she mainly talked about how glad she was to have a home with me (after spending years stuffed in a trunk somewhere–I rescued her from an antique shop). We made some agreements about our working relationship, and then I gently laid her back among the other skins.

Beyond that, I’ll just say that my Water month has presented a LOT of healing, especially in the emotional arena. (It’s also inspired me to read my copy of Kristin Madden’s <em>Book of Shamanic Healing</em>, which is excellent so far.) As I continue with my six months, I’m finding that I’ve learned quite a bit–and this is just the beginning!