When I first started my shamanic path six months ago, I had the idea of creating a more formal practice involving the totems, skin spirits, and other animal spirits I worked with and who had been herding me towards the idea of shamanism. Therefore, I used the term therioshamanism as a convenient label, since in my mind to name something is to give it more form. “Therio” means animal, and I figured that since I’ve focused largely on animal spirits over the past decade and change, my shamanic work would follow the same trend. This idea continued as I developed a relationship with the Animal Father, protector and embodiment of all animals.
However, as my experiences have deepened, and I have begun to incorporate more sustainable practices into my everyday life, spiritually and otherwise, I began to find that my awareness was expanding beyond the animal spirits, that I was finding more connection to plants and the land itself. I didn’t think much of it, since I was still mostly working with totems and skin spirits. And wouldn’t environmental activism contribute to helping animals in preserving their homes?
This weekend shook me out of my stubborn adherence to animal-centric practice. Over the past few days I have been introduced to the Land as a whole—not just the animals who populate it (most of whom were asleep or hiding while I made my diurnal sojourns into the desert) but also a wide variety of plants, stones, and the spirit of the Land itself. I have spoken with a cliff covered in petroglyphs left by the ancestors of the Hopi Snake Clan, and with ancient juniper trees. I have had prickly pears and crucifixion thorns as my companions, and I have conversed with caves as I sat in their depths. My encounters with animals were brief, though special—a circling vulture, a hummingbird following me down a path as I walked blindfolded, tiny lizards, a startled kit fox in a tree.
All of these came together to contribute to the Land, sustained by it and being a part of its very fabric. Yet I persisted in my single-minded focus. How could I, an animal shaman, divide my time among the animals, the plants, and the stones, never mind the spirits of Lands in numerous places? After all, hadn’t it been the Animal Father who called to me at the beginning of my path? Hadn’t the animals been the ones who kept me company and taught me over the years? Was I losing my focus?
But as I continued to walk the Land, and especially when I took my solo pilgrimage to a personal power spot on Friday, where I spent five and a half hours with no one but the Land to talk to, I found it harder and harder to ignore the draw that it had on me as a whole. And as I watched my instructor, James, calling on all manner of spirits who aided him, from mountains to totems to various plants, I finally began to open myself up to the possibility that perhaps I’d been a bit hasty in assuming that my shamanic path would just be a continuation of my previous animal-based practices.
Finally, I gave in. One of the main themes of the weekend for me was learning to open myself up more to the Land, not just the parts that I found most interesting; in fact I think it was intentional that my interaction with other animals was minimal compared to the plants and stones. And once I opened myself fully, allowing the Earth to embrace me, calling on the Fire and telling it my story, I became aware of a much, much bigger picture.
As I worked with the Sun, and the Wind, and the Fire, and Growth, and numerous other forces of nature, the Animal Father tossed me an idea that I’m amazed I totally missed before (and yet my lack of observation doesn’t surprise me). He explained that like the Sun and Moon and Earth and Wind, he himself is the embodiment of a force of nature, specifically the animal kingdom. This makes sense to me on so many levels, not the least of which being why he didn’t “read” like other deities to me, and why he struck me as more primal than deities I’ve worked with in the past. Not that deities can’t be primal; however, there’s not the amount of anthropomorphization that often accompanies many deities. He is to the various Horned gods what Father Sun is to Apollo or Lugh; while the deities may be associated with these natural phenomena, they have become somewhat removed from their roles as embodiments of the phenomena themselves, acquiring other traits along the way. While there may be myths and stories involving the Earth Mother, the Sky Father, and other such entities, their primary role is still within the natural processes themselves.
Or perhaps it’s just my perception, that I find my connection with them not so much in the myths and stories, as in the direct interaction with them on a daily basis. I’ve known of people who worship Odin, Zeus, and other sky gods, or deities associated with the wilderness, or fertility, or death, and then deny that their religion is even remotely nature-based. There’s no getting around that here; what I am discovering is less a worship of a pantheon of deities, and more a worldwide pantheistic animism in which the spirits may be much bigger than ancestors or plant spirits. Beings such as the Animal Father seem more to be like animal totems—archetypal embodiments of natural phenomena (or specific animal species in the case of totems) that have connection to all of their “type”, but are independent beings. It’s just that the Animal Father and others embody much larger, more widespread phenomena.
Either way the truth may be, this weekend has made my way much clearer. While I am going to continue my work with the animals, I’m also going to broaden my experiences to a great degree. And this feels right. Not easy, not a cakewalk—the desert made it clear to me, for example, that while it allowed my presence for a few days, it could also kill me if it wanted, or if I didn’t respect it. There’s a definite respect here that doesn’t allow me to just waltz on in without asking permission. I’m much more aware of my place in the natural cycles, civilization or no.
In my wanderings and readings I’ve run across numerous definitions of “shamanism”, ranging from “anyone who likes animal totems” to “you do whatever the gods tell you to whether you like it or not, and you have no choice”. What I have discovered here, or rather, what James taught me, is the definition that a shaman serves the community. In terms of ecoshamanism, this includes (but isn’t limited to) being a mediary between the natural world and humanity—which is pretty much what I’ve been trying for the whole time. He’s just done it more thoroughly and eloquently, and with a hell of a lot more experience! While I’m not going to give up my own “flavoring” and the useful things I’ve learned, I’m going to be incorporating a lot more ecoshamanic techniques in my practice, because they are exactly what I’ve been looking for.
It’s not that I wasn’t aware of them before; I first read Ecoshamanism in 2006. However, there’s a difference between reading about something, and seeing it demonstrated. Having not only seen the ideas and practices in person, but actually being able to apply them practically for a few days, has made a huge difference, and made the impact that much greater. Now I understand more fully why you can’t just learn to be a shaman from a book; my own previous experiences showed me that to an extent, but this made a much more vivid point.
A good example of this is something quite simple—the titles Grandfather/Grandmother, Mother/Father, Sister/Brother as applied to the spirits of natural forces. I used to avoid using these terms like the plague, mainly because I thought that the neopagans using them were “just playing Indian” (especially since a lot of my exposure to them was through books that were steeped in mishmashes of practices presented as “genuine Native American”). However, I’ve spent the past few days working within a “nondenominational” shamanic path; James doesn’t claim that ecoshamanism is 100% genuine Huichol shamanism, though his training in the shamanisms of that tribe and shamanisms have influenced him to an extent.
What I found, as he referred to Brother Wind and Sister Water, Grandfather Fire and Grandmother Growth, and as I started to make my own connections with these great beings, was that these titles fit. The immense presence and power of these spirits didn’t require titles, but it seems almost inadequate to refer to them without the titles of respect and honor. I didn’t feel, as I used these titles myself, that I was “playing Indian”. Instead, I simply felt I was calling them by proper names; I felt humbled by them, and felt the need to give them respect—and this is one way of doing so. However, because they are familial terms, they also acknowledged my connection to the spirits, rather than distancing me even more. Some things are less about culture than they are about experience; as far as I’m concerned at this point, calling the wind my Brother is no more culturally-specific than being immensely grateful for a cool breeze on a hot day, or the power of the wind blowing on a mountaintop, or praying to a gale to spare you when you’re caught in a storm on the water. Being in awe of natural phenomena isn’t limited by culture; it is only limited by one’s perception which may or may not align with the perception of the majority of people in your culture.
So I have found a path that really fits, and I have found who and what I will commit to—the Land and all its denizens, whether that Land is the Sedona desert, or Multnomah Falls, or even a distant star. I think I can be comfortable saying “I serve the Land”, rather than “I am the slave of X deity and have no choice in the matter” or “Shamanism is all about fixing my psychological problems and all the spirits are there just to help me actualize my Higher Power”. Not that these can’t be valid paths, of course; YMMV. But this path, service to the Land, made a lot of things click into place for me this weekend. Of course, there will no doubt be more lessons to come, and more recalibration as I grow and experience more. This weekend offered me a lot of answers to what I’ve been seeking.
As to other aspects of shamanism, such as drumming, journeying, the Tree with Three Worlds, and other such practices that are common, I’ll wait and see what emphasis needs to be placed on each. While I will still most likely start spending more time getting to know the skin spirits and practicing journeying with drumming and other methods, my priority has become more about getting connected to the Land. I’ve learned some valuable skills that I’m taking home and applying in my own “territory” as it were; the Sedona desert was a good teacher, but that’s not my home. The mountains and forests and ferns, and the deserts on the east side of Oregon—those are my home, and those are the places that I will be trying to develop deeper relationships with.