A Slight Change in Plans

One thing about not being a part of a culture that has an ingrained shamanic path is that would-be shamanic practitioners don’t have much of a standard framework to go on, relatively speaking. A lot has to be done from scratch, including things like cosmology, relationships with spirits, ritual practices, and so forth. On the one hand, this can make it frustrating if you tend to worry “Am I doing this correctly? Should I maybe do it like those people over there? Or do I just read another book and keep listening to the spirits?” However, it can be advantageous in that it offers a decent amount of flexibility.

I did a drum journey to meet with the Animal Father tonight to try to confirm some murmurings I’d overheard from a few of the totems in the past several days. I first found myself clinging to the trunk of my tree, unsure whether to climb up into the branches, or down into the roots. However, I was told to simply drop off onto the grass, and start walking. I found myself in a forest that eventually led to a place here that is very special to me as well as to the Animal Father, but whose exact location is to be kept secret. I proceeded to a particular place, and made myself comfortable.

As I did, numerous animals came out of the trees. Some were native to the area, some were not. As they congregated, the Animal Father appeared as well, and approached me. He was smaller than I sometimes see him, maybe the size of a small black bear. He sat across from me and held my head in his paws and gave me a gift. Then he told me to stop drumming, and to lay back. I did, and he sat behind my head and held it in his forepaws again.

The short version of our conversation involved my work for the next several months. While I’m to continue creating songs and dances for the various skin spirits and corresponding totems I’ll be working with, I also am supposed to start doing more formal work with the totems and skin spirits who already have songs–Wolf and Small Wolf, Badger and Small Badger, Deer and Small Deer, and Coyote and Small Coyote. Additionally, I need to create songs for Bear and Small Bear as soon as possible.

Of these five, only Coyote and Small Coyote are of a species that I haven’t had much experience with. The others are ones I’m quite comfortable working with. In addition, I’ll be working with Horse, and my Small Horse will be my next drum. I’ve been pondering what sort of skin I’ll have on my full ritual drum (as opposed to the small practice drum I have right now), and last week I went to a drum circle where I had a chance to play drums of various sorts. The one that really stood out to me, both in sound quality and in spirit, was a 20″ horsehide with a cedar frame. I’ve had a relationship with Horse since I was a young teenager; it hasn’t always been a good relationship on my end, but Horse has been steadily, patiently there. Add in that Horse has historically stepped in on matters of travel, as well as crucial periods of growth, and it’s not surprising that I’d be drawn to a horsehide drum for journeying.

So, back to the journey at hand with the Animal Father. Once he said what he had to say, he went back into the woods, and the animals began to depart as well. I did stop Badger, though, to ask hir if she would be willing to work with me in a formal ritual. S/he asked me, “What will you offer me?” I replied “What do you want?” S/he stopped then, and looked very pointedly at me, then said “That’s a dangerous response at this level of the game. You’d be wiser to come in to such a situation with something already in mind to drive your bargain with. Come back when you have something to offer me”. Then s/he shuffled off into the woods.

This startled me momentarily, but in retrospect it doesn’t surprise me. While in the past the totems and other spirits I’ve worked with have been relatively lenient with me, shamanism is much more…hmmm…intense than my previous work, relatively speaking. There’s less room for errors (though I wouldn’t say no room for errors). And it was a good reminder to me to take care, that what worked before may not be the parameters I’ll be working with from here on out.

I drummed myself back home, as it were, and got myself grounded with some good food. I’m going to have to think of something significant that I can offer; what I’ll be asking for will be bigger than what I usually do, and more will be asked in return. I’ve had a lot of leeway in the past with regards to offerings, but if I’m going to be stepping up to do more serious shamanic work, I’m also going to have to accept the changes in how things work.

Which is fine; I expected this would happen. Am I worried? Some. As I said, there’s less room for errors. But I wouldn’t be going forward if I didn’t feel confident in my ability to adapt and grow. And the timing isn’t surprising. Next month it’ll have been a year since I started on this path; before that I’d been working with totems and animal spirits for a good decade from a neopagan (and sometimes Chaos magic) perspective. So it’s probably to be expected, at least to an extent.

I’m still here, amazingly enough, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what’s most important.

Locos and Locals

My efforts towards creating songs for my dancing skins and their respective totems continue apace. I haven’t been blogging much about it, because it would essentially be “Today I practiced Deer’s song more, and came up with a drum rhythm for Small Deer”. Not particularly riveting when you’re not directly involved. However, I thought my recent work with Coyote was noteworthy.

For all my work with the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM), I’ve only worked with Coyote in a limited way; once was in a ritual to help protect hir physical children. I also sporadically worked with hir a few years ago when I was more heavily into Chaos magic. At that time Coyote was teaching me a bit about facing my fears, with one particular memorable incident where s/he helped me as I drove my car down a very steep icy hill one winter without panicking! Coyote and Small Coyote were the most recent volunteers to step forward in this endeavor, and so I started with Coyote’s song.

When I speak of Coyote, I don’t only refer to the Coyote referred to in the myths of a number of Native American tribes. Coyote-as-totem, to my understanding, shares some overlap with that other Coyote, but is not one and the same. My experience with totems has been that while they may have a number of bailiwicks, their initial connection with me has a more specific focus, and then as we work more I learn more about what that totem has to offer.

This time, Coyote mainly told me to sing about change and adaptability, as well as the illusory nature of subjective perceptions of reality (though not in those exact words!). While s/he briefly touched on creation myths and the Trickster archetype, these plugged into a main theme of Change. To be honest, I was a bit worried about working with Coyote in a deeper sense. Some (not all) of the Coyote people I’ve met have been chaotic in a very unhealthy, destructive manner; other people talk about Coyote the way that some practitioners of Asatru talk about Loki–a dangerous being that you shouldn’t bother with if you can help it. However, this initial reconnection with Coyote seems to be on common ground that I can understand and have experience with. I don’t expect everything to go smoothly or perfectly–but I don’t expect that with any of the totems or other spirits I work with. Sometimes the lessons we learn are difficult; and if Coyote will be dealing with Change, then it won’t be surprising if there are tough things to learn. However, if I can learn more adaptability, so much the better–that’s one thing I need more of. While I can roll with the punches, I could stand to be less stressed about life’s ups and downs. I think, perhaps, the fear of chaotic change may make some people afraid of Tricksters in general–who wants their lives entirely shaken up? What I understand so far, though, from my work with Coyote is that she’ll help me to learn ways to cope with chaotic changes, both in myself and in others.

I’m also slowly beginning to shape very rudimentary connections with the locals, as it were. Living in urban Portland, the vertebrate animals I tend to see the most are scrub jays, crows, and fox squirrels, with the occasional robin or kestrel. I don’t even see that many insects beyond the pollinators in the garden.

I’ve seen criticism in various online communities of neopagan totemism, specifically regarding the fact that many people seem to have totems whose physical children they’ve never seen. I’m a good example. Wolf’s been in my life since I was very young; however, I’ve only interacted with wolves at rescue facilities, and only on the outside of the pen. I’ve never seen a wolf in the wild, and never really been to a secluded enough place that could realistically support them. Yet Wolf has been one of the most persistent presences in my life over the years.

I did read something that actually makes a good deal of sense to me in Totem Popularity Contests: Why Some Totems Are More Popular Than Others, written by Ravenari. While all of her points are excellent considerations that I think should be talked about more, I particularly am interested in the last one, the idea that “Some animals are popularity-contest winners”. In my experience, there are totems who are more outgoing than others, and there are some who couldn’t care less whether we work with them or not.

While it’s a very, very rough comparison, and should not be seen as a one-to-one parallel, I think we can look at some pre-Christian religions that had large numbers of deities, including a major pantheon. The Romans are a good example; while they had their major pantheon including Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, etc., there were also countless minor deities, local deities, demi-gods, and so forth. It’s not entirely inconceivable that within a neopagan context, where we have the influence of that somewhat tiered structure, that there could be some totems who roughly correlate to a major pantheon, perhaps due to a greater tendency to interact with more people.

Continuing with the pantheon comparison, and especially within a neopagan/modern pagan context, most of the people today who work with the Olympians have never been to Greece, or any of the places where these deities originated from in pre-Hellenic times (or, for that matter, where they travelled to in ancient syncretic blending). So is it really surprising that many people haven’t actually ever “met” their totems “in real life”?

That being said, I do think there’s a lot of value in working with local spirits; some would argue that in order to really practice shamanism that it’s a requirement. I’ve spent much of my time, especially since last spring when I went to Arizona, connecting with the Land here as a whole. However, I’m beginning to make more specific connections. Scrub Jay in particular stands out to me, though Squirrel has also made hirself known, albeit in sometimes irritating ways (squirrels in the attic, squirrels in the garden!). There are a number of plants, one tree in particular, that have become particularly important. And, of course, there’s my ongoing “romances” with several individual places, such as Laurelhurst Park, the Multnomah-Wahkeena trails, and Mount Hood.

I’m willing to bet that the quality of the relationships that I create locally will be different–not necessarily better or worse–than those that I’ve created with the BINABM. Historically my work with the BINABM has primarily involved more overarching concepts, especially involved with personal metamorphosis; for example, Deer has always been the Dreamkeeper for me, and Bear has taught me a lot about healing and balancing it with the ability to bring harm. It will be interesting to see how working with the totems whose children live in the same environment I do will go. Of course, this is mainly conjecture at this point, and the actual results remain to be seen. But that’s what this journal is for–recording of my thoughts as I go along, and later on I can look back and see whether I was right or not!

For now, I’m going to continue focusing mainly on the songs I need to be writing. I’ve asked the Powers That Be whether I should be doing something else, but the message is generally “Nope. Keep writing the songs. Once you have them, then we’ll get into more detail of what you can use them for. Still, keep your eyes and ears open.” Which is fine; I tend to do better focusing on one main thing at a time, building on what’s come before.

Shamanic Performances

One thing that’s interested me since I started reading about shamanisms worldwide is the concept of a shamanic performance. It varies from culture to culture, of course, and not all indigenous cultures have this feature, but it’s pretty common. In a nutshell, the community (or a family, or other group) comes together and primarily watches as the shaman does hir thing on their behalf. It may be part storytelling, with the shaman narrating what s/he is experiencing during hir journey, or the shaman may not express what happened until after the fact. And while there may be elements of showmanship and sleight of hand, the process is quite serious when it comes down to it.

With the exception of seithr/seidr, I haven’t seen much information on shamanic performance in non-indigenous shamanisms (while seithr/seidr is Norse in origin, the majority of people practicing it are not native to Norway). Neoshamans who practice on behalf of others very often will do so on a one-on-one basis with individual clients. While this certainly isn’t unprecedented, since shamanic figures in indigenous cultures would generally work with people individually, the one-on-one structure predominates in neoshamanism.

While I don’t see anything wrong, per se, with the one-on-one ritual structure, I do think the more semi-public/public shamanic performance structure deserves more attention. One of the things that really fascinates me is how the element of performance can aid in the audience’s suspension of disbelief in a manner that is different from experiential rituals (wherein everyone participates in an active manner) or an individual client (in which the client is generally acted upon in some manner by the shaman, whose focus is solely on that person). I see shamanic performance as potentially drawing on some of the same elements of theatre–something that enthralls and engages the audience, and moves them in deep ways. With the addition of the esoteric elements of magical practice, the potential for group altered states of consciousness is even greater.

I’ve always been fond of Homo ludens as described by Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (and yes, I do need to hunt down a copy of Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (Man the Player)). In the modern U.S., play in adults is largely forgotten outside of sports and the bedroom–and even then it can still often be stunted in both settings. The beauty of a well-crafted ritual, even as a spectator, is that it fulfills the need for play in our lives. It allows us to really let go of our inhibitions–not in harmful ways like getting smashed and having unprotected sex with someone whose name (and sexual health) you’re unaware of–but in healthy, aware, albeit often catalytic manners. It allows us to exercise our Imagination-with-a-big-I, the one we often stuff down into Being An Adult and which we mistake for shallower, relegated-to-childhood imagination. (Understand, of course, that children and grown-ups alike are quite capable of exercising Imagination as well as imagination.) The Imagination is not just daydreams that are limited to our brains and minds, but are a connection to Something More, whether you want to call it the Collective Unconscious, the Anima Mundi, etc. (For a really good treatise on these concepts, I would highly recommend Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality. Dense, but a delicious read with every bite.)

This is not to say that other ritual formats can’t exercise the Imagination and allow us to play; quite the opposite. However, something about the shamanic performance, in which there are tricks as well as journeys, sleight of hand as well as theurgy, and where the shaman gets to play a part as much as be hirself–this really appeals to me.

I see a couple of issues with actually bringing this into reality as my practice progresses. One is that there’s a definite stigma against deliberate showmanship in spiritual and religious practices in this culture. It’s assumed that any sort of chicanery will automatically be a lie, that it can’t be a vehicle for something greater. If I were to carry beads under my tongue, and suck out the illness from a person and put it in the bead, then display the bead as proof of my work, most people would say “That bead was in her mouth the whole time–what a sham!” Only a few would understand that the bead was a vehicle for the act, that it absorbed the illness and gave people a physical focus for seeing that illness leave the person’s body. In an age where many put faith only in the five physical senses and call that objectivity (regardless of how subjective our senses are!) any ambiguity is cause for suspicion. We’re not taught how to consider more than one form of reality simultaneously and with equal truth–we’re raised with either/or, not both/and.

Another problem is that the shamanic performance originated in relatively small communities of people who spent significant portions of their lives together. While I advocate bringing one’s shamanic practice (and other ways to aid) into the local community, even in the most liberal areas you can’t turn your neighborhood into a village and expect people to come out for rituals. I know there are pagans who are neotribalists, who want to artificially create communities and villages–but you’re not going to get the same infrastructure; this culture is just too different. I applaud efforts to bring people together, but I also believe in having a realistic expectation of the parameters you’re working within.

Somewhat related to that is that a lot of people, especially in the pagan/etc. communities, are more geared towards being practitioners than spectators. Neopagan rituals are very commonly interactive so that no one gets bored “just watching”. There are groups who may rehearse seasonal rituals to the point where they have a good theatrical element to them, but even then there’s still focus on making sure everybody gets to participate at least a little bit (again, more than “just watching”). And I’ll lay odds that the majority of pagans who say they’re interested in shamanism are interested in being practitioners, not spectators. In the pagan community, we generally intercede with the spirit world on our own behalf a good deal of the time (some of us, all the time!). Too many cooks, not enough diners.

I wonder, if my practice develops the way that it would, if there would be an interest in shamanic performances–rituals that people don’t necessarily have an active hand in beyond perhaps drumming, or (as in seithr/seidr, asking questions), but where people come prepared to appreciate the performance as well as the actual reason for it (healing, fertility, divination, etc.). I’m perfectly happy creating more interactive rites where appropriate, as well as one-on-one work, but there’s also a mutual attraction for me and the spirits I work with for the shamanic performance, where we do our thing on behalf of others, and the others are primarily witnesses to what happens.

I also wonder if there are (nonindigenous) groups/individuals who do this sort of shamanizing outside of seithr/seidr in any significant form. And if I have any misunderstandings about this ritual format, I’m always open for more information! This is something that’s still very raw in my conception of it, and a lot of it won’t fall into place until I move beyond the theory and into the practice.

The Caretaker of Critter Bits

I know a number of pagans of various flavors who have things they are essentially required to do by the deities/spirits/etc. they work with. This may be restrictions on things they eat, or a particular ritual they need to do at an appointed interval, or certain requests from others that they can’t refuse. The consequences for not following directions may range from losing a chance to grow and learn, to dealing with angry deities/spirits (and all that entails).

I don’t have anything that I feel I have absolutely no bargaining power on; if I feel my safety, health, or relationships with others may be potentially compromised by something in my path, I do my best to reconfigure it while still accomplishing what I need to be doing. (Considering that most of what I need to be doing includes things like singing songs, planting a garden, and removing invasive species, there’s not much of a chance of my tasks ending up, say, causing a divorce–unless, of course, I decided to practice my singing and drumming in the bedroom at three in the morning every day.)

However, one thing I do feel is a strong calling/suggestion/you need to do this is working with animal parts in artwork and magic. This is something I’ve been doing for somewhere in the neighborhood of a decade. It entails making ritual tools, jewelry and other sacred artwork, but also my work with skin spirits on a more personal level.

I’ve questioned the ethics of what I do a number of times; I’m well aware of the realities of fur farming and trapping, as well as factory farming for meat. There’s part of me that wonders if I shouldn’t just give up the work with animal remains, because I’m one of many people feeding money into the industry, even if I do buy a lot of things secondhand (fur and leather coats, taxidermy mounts, etc.). And a number of times I’ve even asked the spirits whether it would be better for me to retire this part of my life.

Yet every time I’ve been tempted to walk away, both the skin spirits and others involved in this part of my practice have said “Whoa! Hold on! We need you here doing this. If you aren’t working to give these spirits a better afterlife, who will?” And that’s always brought me back. Often it’s the spirits of the animals that have had the worst deaths that need my help the most. While I believe the soul of the animal departs upon death, there are still spirits left behind–the spirits of the skin, of the bones, of the other remains. Whether these are “complete” spirits, or merely memories and energetic impressions, they have enough awareness to be able to communicate with me. And I help them by passing them on to people who will appreciate them, usually through my artwork.

So I compromise. I try to bring on a lot of secondhand remains to try to minimize the money going directly into the industry (though I help whoever needs my aid, regardless of how/when they died). I also do a good bit of barter, and I’ve even had people give me things like old coats, stoles, etc. because they figured I could take good care of them. I also do my best to be up on current legalities and to stay within those parameters.

And I try to educate people on the need to have respect for the remains–as well as the living animals. The thing is, if I stop working with animal parts, it won’t stop the industry. People will still wear leather and fur, and will still eat meat and eggs and cheese. People will still hunt and fish–some for trophies, some for food, some for both. And PETA-style guilt-tripping will just make a lot of people resentful, reactionary, and even less responsive than before.

I would be content if the animals that died for food and other products were well cared for during their lives, and died the quickest, most painless deaths possible. I would be happy if people in general were aware of the animals–and plants–that die to feed them, clothe them, and so forth. I would be elated if non-anthropocentric animism became a wider part of the way people work, or at least some secular version thereof. Within the pagan community, at least I can remind people who believe in spirits that these are spirits, too, and not just shiny objects.

Of course, all this is dependent upon my subjective interpretation of my spiritual path and my interactions with the powers that be. I know animists who have never experienced a plant suffering as it was uprooted, but who refuse to harm an animal. I know pagans who have no regard for the spirits of animals or plants. And I know people who think animism is a reason to suspect insanity. I am fully aware of the subjectivity of my path, and my decisions that are based upon that.

And I will continue to reevaluate what I’m doing periodically–it’s a good idea in general when dealing with spirituality. Faith is one thing; faith without ever questioning is another entirely, and something I’d like to avoid. With something as controversial as working with animal remains, it’s important for me to remember that.