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.

5 thoughts on “The Caretaker of Critter Bits

  1. I do believe that what you are doing is largely possitive and totally genuine, but I still feel that the vast majority of pagans who seek and use animal parts are largely doing it for the look and the ego-boost that that brings though they’ll hide the fact (even from themselves, it seems) with talk of totemic connection and whatnot.
    There’s always been a part of me that insists that I “need” a bear skull and a wolf pelt but I would sicken myself if I gave one shred of power to genocidal murderers of said species. Buying a wolf pelt with an unbroken chain to its murderer would feel like buying Nazi gold…sure it’s pretty and I had nothing to do with the attrocities that put it in my hands but it is ultimately tainted. The pact Wolf pressed me into pretty much states that I am not allowed to benifit in any way from government sactioned killing of Her children. That doesn’t mean Wolf isn’t capable of making different pacts with different folks though. Not judging, just stating my views.

  2. I just felt like adding that when it comes to judging the morality of the actions of others, especially among environmentalists, learning to give others a fair amount of wiggle room is an important exercise. Let two different environmentalists analyse the lives of the other and I promise they’ll each come up with ten things the other does that they disapprove of. Vegans aren’t going to be happy with me. I’m not going to be happy with people who have kids. And so on. Ultimately, I judge folks on how much they truely give a damn about the living community not by if each and every action they do matches mine.

  3. I too have been called to work with certain critter bits. Being a vegetarian for the past 15 years seems to be in conflict with this, but the critter bits I work with are the Spirit of the animal, not the spirit of an individual, and the work I do is with things I have been “gifted” with (which happens in a variety of ways). And I have learned that not every critter bit is meant for me; sometimes I am just the one who finds them and prepares them for their final destination.

    I think that westerners have become cut off from the gifts of the four-leggeds, and honoring their spirits helps to recreate the connections and restore some balance.

  4. Paleo–We all have our personal boundaries with this sort of thing, and I truly don’t believe there’s any single right answer. My thought is that as long as one lives as close to one’s conscience as possible, then they’re far ahead of most folks.

    Denise–*nods* That’s one way of looking at it. I always find it fascinating to see the different ways people hash out their boundaries; while I don’t always agree with everyone, I still learn a great deal.

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