Grey Wolf Ritual

Today was the ritual for Grey Wolf. I hadn’t even consciously planned the ritual for today; I just chose a date that seemed convenient. Just so happens that tonight is a blue moon, and the Wolf Moon, or so I was informed. Which is funny, because I inadvertently scheduled the Brown Bear ritual on a full moon, too.

So Tay helped me clear out the living room again. I set up the altar on the coffee table; once again, apologies to those on the LJ feed as I can’t put in cuts from here:




I collected what little wolfish knickknacks I still have and put them on the altar; I’ve gotten rid of most of them over the years as I’ve downsized my collection of shiny objects. There was also the wolf skull that hangs with my collection, and a deerskin painting I did a number of years ago. The beadwork strips are the first two I ever did, way back in high school in the mid-90’s. That actually gives Wolf a connection to my artwork, since that all started with the beadwork (which I no longer do). The long green and brown thing with the bone spike on the end is a hair wrap I wore for a year, and there are a couple of other random things on there. And the wooden plate has the little gift pouches I gave to the participants.

You can also see the Arctic wolf headdress and tail I wear when journeying, and the full wolf skin I’ve danced with for most of a decade. There’s my big drum, and a couple of spares, as well as the elk bells I made last year. Between the drums is the wolf fur coat that’s part of my costume, to be worn (of course) if I get cold. The blanket that covers the altar is just temporary, until in the spring when I retire my old wolf skin to altar guardian duty.

So once everyone got settled in, I did a brief explanation of what I was doing there today. I explained a bit of the context of why I’m creating therioshamanism the way that I am, with the cultural context and why I’m trying to revive performance rituals as an art form as well as spiritual practice. Then I picked up my drum and began to warm it up, explaining to people why I was doing that.

The journey itself was actually one of the fastest I’ve ever done. When I went to go formally invite Grey Wolf to join us, s/he said “Geez, you didn’t even need to come here; all you had to do was ask and I’d show up”. Which isn’t surprising given how omnipresent s/hes been in my life. But I wanted to be formal about things, and so s/he humored me. (“Should I have snarled and snapped at you when you showed up, just for show? Grrrrr! Look at me! I’m fierce!” s/he said.)

So then Wolf sent me back and said s/he’d follow, even though she knows the way quite well. When I got back and cooled the drum down, I then told the other folks there that now, instead of just drumming along to my single-note journeying beat, we got to do fun drumming! They began drumming, and I put my wolfskin on and began to dance (after taking the journeying headdress and tail off!) It was a bit of a sad event for me, since it would be the last full dance I’ll be doing with that skin. We slid into each other’s energy has we always have, and while the dance was indoors in a relatively small space, it was a good one. While I could wish for a place to do outdoor dancing around a fire on a regular basis, for now, the living room works.

Once I was done dancing, and while we still drummed, we talked some about what Grey Wolf was to us, our relationship to that totem. I also spoke a bit about my wolfskin and what we had done over the years. Then we took a break to enjoy the various edibles people had brought and ground a bit. Finally, I closed down the ritual, thanking Wolf and the other spirits who had been there for their presence.

After everyone left, I set up the permanent altar in my ritual/art room:

There were offerings a couple of people had brought that I added in. The wolf skull went back to its usual place on the wall near the altar, and the various skins went to their homes as well.

One of the things I noticed is that I enjoy throwing in little bits of explanation for why I do things as I do them, just to give people an idea of the reasons for things. I think I may make this more of a regular feature of the public rituals.

Also, while I’m still new to this whole group ritual thing, I want to try building up more formality around the rituals–for example, I would have loved to have had a themed potluck, preparing some kind of meat (maybe venison) for the occasion and letting people bring other things for Grey Wolf (with allowances for non-meat-eaters, etc.)

And it’s tougher to build up a good atmosphere for this sort of ritual indoors than it is outdoors, or in a space that is specifically designed for ritual work. But we work with what we have, and I’m sure I can tweak things to create a better setting as time goes on. While I’m very good at individual ritual, group ritual is still new to me, and so it’s going to take practice.

But overall, it went really well, and people seemed to get a lot out of it. Grey Wolf was pleased as well, and is happy to have a formal “home” within my home now.

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The Importance of Ritual Tools

First of all, I just want to make a brief announcement–for those of you who will be attending PantheaCon next month, I will be doing a Brown Bear healing ritual as part of the official programming on Saturday night of the con at 11pm; there’ll be an optional-but-recommended informational meeting at 9pm to give folks context.

Now for my main topic, brought on by a conversation with a friend over on Livejournal. S/he was talking about ritual tools, and mentioned the attitude (which s/he does not hold to hirself) that a lot of pagans have that advanced practitioners “don’t need” ritual tools, that one “should” be able to practice one’s magic and spirituality empty-handed, and with the subtle undercurrent that this is the superior way of doing things.

To which I say: fuck that noise.

Okay, okay, so I can accept that that attitude sprang out of reactions to the countless n00bs who tend to be more interested in the pretty shiny objects than in what to do with them. (This happens with all sorts of things, not just spiritual practice. Magpie Syndrome reigns supreme.) But it’s not necessarily true that you grow out of that liking for tools and toys. It’s just that your understanding of them should ideally deepen and develop further.

Personally, I like my collection of tools. I have my main drum, and a smaller one thats mostly become a loaner at this point. I have several skins that I dance, and I’m slowly building altars to individual totems. Plus there’s my general shamanic costumery. Add in that I enjoy making ritual tools, and its pretty clear what side of the divide I’m on.

Part of it’s my animistic tendencies. When I “work with” ritual tools, it’s not as with inanimate objects, but with other spirits embodied in other forms. That’s why I ask my drum and beater, for example, for permission to pick them up, never mind starting to pound them against one another. It’s respect, and acknowledgement of their being spirits.

Creating ritual tools, for me, is a process of working with the spirits within the materials I’m working with. As I explain in detail in Skin Spirits, my newest book that just came out, I work with the spirits in animal remains, hides and bones and other things. This has been a consistent part of my practice for over a decade, and a lot of it I do to give them a better afterlife than being a coat or a taxidermy trophy. That’s why they all get a ritual done for them to help them find the best people who will appreciate them for who and what they are. And with my own tools, I’m not just picking up inanimate objects–I’m handling these spirits’ physical forms/dwellings. They’re right there; I don’t need to go looking all over the Otherworld for them.

Just as important is the concept of suspension of disbelief, of sacred ritual play. As you may have noticed, I’m a huge fan of this concept. Rituals are a time and place apart from the everyday, though ideally they should not be completely removed from it–your journey’s no good if you can’t effectively bring back what you found to the world you spend most of your time engaging with. Suspending your disbelief allows you to temporarily set aside the mental barriers that keep you from Imagination-with-a-big-I, or the spirit world, or however you want to explain That Other Place. We don’t live there permanently for good reason, but it can be very beneficial to visit at times. And, as Joseph Campbell liked to point out, ritual performance is a form of play, something that is vital to a healthy human psyche. Not all rituals are fun, but the play, the engaging of Other Than Ordinary Reality for a time, as well as Czikszenmihalyi’s flow state, serves its own purpose above and beyond the extrinsic reasons.

To my mind, empty-handed rituals take the play out of ritual. As a culture, Americans in particular have a tendency to hyper-intellectualize just about everything. So it’s not surprising that so many American pagans would espouse a form of ritual that primarily engages the mind, leaving much less for the body and other levels of being to work with. Sure, you can do an entire ritual sitting in asana, crafting the ritual temple solely in your head while your body remains perfectly motionless save for carefully timed breathing. But you’re missing out on a lot of potential benefits of engaging more of yourself, starting with your body. The mind is not isolated from the rest of being; psychosomatic illnesses and distress from being ill are good examples. So my thought is that trying to isolate the mind away from the rest has a good chance of not being particularly healthy in a lot of instances.

Ritual tools keep us firmly grounded in the physical reality, even as we soar to other places. Additionally, when we’re back in ordinary reality, they’re a constant reminder of what we’re capable of. They’re a bridge between the worlds, and they help facilitate the transition back and forth. Like the horse spirit in the drum, they are the transportation we use, and they help keep us balanced. They are inherently marked as special, and they continuously attract and reinforce our attention in a way that mental castles never can.

The trick isn’t to transcend the use of tools. The trick is to find the tools that are most effective for flipping the internal switches in your mind–and other parts of your self, body included–that make your rituals work. Yes, it’s possible that the best tools for you may be entirely mental. But for a lot of us, we benefit from and thoroughly enjoy the use of the physical tools themselves. After all, if playing an air guitar were the epitome of play, then Rock Band and Guitar Hero wouldn’t have a market.

(Yes, I totally just compared ritual practice to video games. Blame my geekhood.)

If you do prefer open-handed ritual, don’t consider that to be automatically superior to those of us monkeys who like our tool use to be a little more blatant. The shiny surfaces are connected to much deeper things, and, unlike many of those n00bs who are just figuring things out, we know not to mistake the map for the territory.

My First Soul Retrieval

So today I was finally able to take the skills I’ve been developing over the past few years and put them into practice for a long-distance client, doing my first soul retrieval. I don’t want to give info on the client hirself, other than s/he’s had long-term health issues and some other deep-seated factors that had led to an overall feeling of “diminishment”. We suspected a lost soul fragment, but since there are other things that can cause the symptoms that were reported, I went in cautiously.

I actually spent several weeks conferring with my guides about this whole thing, since it was my first time through. Ultimately, Black Bear offered to help guide me through, which was very much appreciated since s/he has done spirit work with me before, though not of this exact sort. My client and I agreed on a time when we could both be available for this, and after a phone call to check in and make sure s/he was prepared and in a good place, and to find out which of hir guides I might run into, I began the journey.

As usual, the horse spirit in my drum came and picked me up as I started to drum. The drumskin was a bit damp from the weather here in the Pacific North*wet*, and her hoofbeats were muffled by mud along the river near my starting place–she needed to take me further up the river to meet Black Bear. She actually carried me inside her ribcage, moving her organs aside, for part of it. I found out later that this was because we crossed the river into the Lower World. Black Bear had apparently made a lot of arrangements on my behalf in preparation for this, for which s/he’ll be getting a nice gift from me. Next time I may have to be the one to negotiate with the River Dragon to cross to the Lower World, but this time I had a lot of help.

When we got to where Black Bear was waiting along the bank of the river, the hose told me she couldn’t go any further. So I stopped drumming, and began to shake my black bear skull rattle. I turned into a wolf, and Bear and I started off further up the river. The place we were at was not at all pleasant. Amid the water-smoothed stones under my paws there were lots of old, dry bones, crab shell pieces, and other dry dead things, dampened only by splashes of fetid water from the river–there was no rain here despite the clouds. There were animals all around, too, coyotes and hawks and deer and other vertebrates, but they were hostile, and Black Bear told me to stay very close so they wouldn’t bother me. Still, they made advances at us like wolves testing a buffalo cow and calf. It was very unnerving.

One thing I noticed about Bear was that s/he was very present and visible in a way my guides often aren’t when I journey. I know they’re there, but they’re not in my direct field of vision. It’s like Bear was more there than usual, and I suspect that if it had just been hir usual presence, I would have had to deal with the hostile animals attacking me, unless I showed myself to be as big and strong as Bear was today. Today, though, I was being protected on this journey.

As we were running along the river, we looked up on the mountain ridges to the north, and amid the trees we saw the lights from houses scattered all along. Finally Bear looked to one way up on top of a ridge, and said “That’s the one we want”. As we approached the ridge it was on, Bear veered off away from the river and to a trail leading up. It was a very narrow trail, with smooth stones, but it dropped off sharply into dark ravines on either side. Bear insisted on going first. “Stay very close to my back end”, s/he told me. “Don’t fart”, I replied. Bear laughed, and we started up the trail.

The climb was actually pretty uneventful–Bear made the way very smooth for me, the dangerous things stayed confined to the dark ravines, and there was no ursine flatulence. When we got up to the top, we saw a lodge like that made by some Pacific Northwest tribes in the middle of a clearing. There was a tall, very thin humanoid guardian spirit with a spear in front of it, with a white bone mask with two black eyes, stiff, grass-like hair all around like a halo, and wrapped in brown rags with no visible limbs or features below the waist, just a drape of rags. Bear told me that since I was the one who sought entrance to the house, I had to go first. This was scary, but s/he told me s/he’d be right behind me. So I cautiously went up to the guardian spirit and got hir attention. S/he didn’t act hostilely at all, simply waited for me to act one way or another. “I wish to know who is in that place,” I said. “Who wants to know?” the spirit replied. “I, Lupa, want to–” and then realized I’d just said my name, if not my legal one then one that I identify with very strongly.

Bear told me quietly to offer something in exchange for the spirit conveniently forgetting I’d said that. So I offered to dedicate something made out of mink skins I got recently to the spirit; while it wouldn’t belong to the spirit, it would have a little something to memorialize it, sort of like a bit of graffiti of someone’s name–not enough connection to the spirit to make it hirs, but kind of like “Kilroy was here”. This was acceptable. Bear then gave the guard a false name of mine to replace the true name that was taken back.

Also, when the spirit spoke with me, the bone face lifted up as if on a hinge, and a little brown weasel poked hir head out to talk to me–“Pay no attention to the weasel behind the mask”. It would have been almost funny if I hadn’t been in a situation where I could have been speared. I had no doubt that the weasel (or weasels, if there were others in there) could have made the “suit” act immediately. Still, in retrospect it was, ah, kinda cute. I wish I could draw better to show it.

I was allowed to approach the house, and I called through the blanket over the doorway that I wished to enter. I negotiated with a voice as to whether that could happen, and finally was let in. There was only one big room, and there were hundreds of weasels running all over the place, doing various tasks. At the very back of the room there was one enormous weasel reclining, with little weasels crawling all over him. Behind him on the wall were rows upon rows of clear glass jars, with colored balls of energy floating inside of them. I would find out later that the big weasel liked the smell of these, and so properly I could call him the Big Old Weasel Who Likes Smelly Things, but for short I’ll just call him the Old Weasel. He wasn’t the totemic weasel. Black Bear, when s/he shows up like a large bear like for this journey, feels like a small part of something bigger. The Old Weasel felt more complete–old, but not bigger than his appearance.

I approached him, but not too closely, with Bear beside me. I asked him if he had anything that tasted like my client, and I breathed out a memory of what s/he tastes like to me through our interactions. He breathed it in, and said yes, and picked out a particular jar full of yellow balls of energy–not a full soul fragment with a personality, but still a substantial part of my client that had gone missing. I told him I would like to give it back to her, and that I was willing to offer part of myself. I held forth a necklace that I had made before the journey.

Now, in the creation of artwork, there is always a piece of myself that goes into what I make. It’s a renewable energy, rather than the core energy that I was trying to retrieve for the client. So that’s what I had in the necklace. Bear also contributed, having me put a bit of black bear hair in the necklace.

“Let me smell you,” the Old Weasel said, “and see if I like it”. I approached closer, but then the Old Weasel lashed out with his huge jaws, and almost bit me. I leaped back, hackles raised. “Ha!” he said. “Almost had you. I could have smelled you across the room, you know”. Then he had a few of his small weasels bring out an empty jar for the necklace. “Not until you give me what I came for,” I said. “Very well,” and he had them bring the jar to me. I placed the necklace in the empty jar, and took the one with my client’s energy. I breathed in the essence of my client and put it in the place where I had stored hir memory.

“Do you have any more?” I asked. “Yes,” the Old Weasel replied, and pointed at eight more jars on the wall behind him. “You can have them if you bring me more of your smell. I like it.” So I’m going to be taking more necklaces to him. Since I’m menstruating, I’m going to make sure they’re made during that time, so I may make one a month for the next eight months, to give myself time to replenish.

We took our leave of the weasels, being sure to back out of the door so as to keep an eye on them. Then we went back past the guard, who couldn’t remember my real name. And when we got to the trail, it had gone all muddy, so Bear and I had a great time sliding all the way down the mountain like otters! We made it back down the river with no problems, too, even with the hostile animals, and my horse was waiting for me. I took my leave of Bear, and the horse took me back home.

I then breathed my client’s energy into the physical necklace I had made, letting it take the place of my energy that had gone to the Old Weasel in the necklace’s spirit form. I’ll be mailing it to the client, who will be wearing it for several days, until that energy reabsorbs back into hir. And I’ll continue this with the rest of the necklaces. I did a followup call with hir to see how s/he was doing and let hir know what happened.

I am exhausted. This was a really challenging journey, but it turned out well. I learned a lot, including some things for when I’m going to have to do this more on my own, making my own decisions and negotiations with the spirits myself. And it’s helped me to see how my strengths, especially artwork, can be woven into my shamanic practice, making it (relatively) easier to do. Most of all, though, this feels right, like I should be doing this.