So for those who don’t know, I have been working with animal parts in my art and spirituality since the late 1990s. It’s been a pretty continual process, and I’ve developed a lot of techniques both in the artistic and spiritual ends of the practice.
Being an animist, I observe spirits within the skins and bones and other remains. It’s not the soul of the animal that once wore these pieces and parts and collections of cells, but what remains–the spirit of the skin, collective spirits of hairs, etc. It’s like Russian nesting dolls–each cell has a spirit, and those add up into greater spirits, just as individual animal and plants spirits are folded over into the spirit of the Land. And yet they’re all their own entities at the very same time.
Back when I started all this, there was nothing on how to work with what I term “skin spirits”. I didn’t know anyone who did that sort of work. So, like the rest of my practice, I had to figure it out on my own. And it was a process of trial and error. First I had to realize there were spirits in these remains at all. And then I had to figure out how best to talk to them. (More on that in a bit.) And once we could converse, I had to be able to listen and act on that.
And over the years, almost everyone I met who worked with them had learned how to do so from observing me or reading things I’d written in articles, on forums, or in blogs about the practices I had created from scratch. In an attempt to spread the knowledge even further, I wrote what is to my knowledge the first (and only, at this point) book on the topic, also named Skin Spirits.
I do like hearing from other people who have done this sort of spiritual work, whether influenced by me or not. I know a lot of people who collect or make things with animal remains, but it’s only a small portion who do spiritual work with them, whether they’re literal animists, or simply see the ritual as a good practice. Either way, it’s an additional layer of respect that isn’t mandatory, but which can be quite artistic.
One thing I wanted to share was an introductory “how-to” regarding the actual process of communicating with the spirits in the remains. This will work whether you believe spirits are actual entities with independent agency, or elements of the human imagination. And it works with any hide, bone, feather, claw etc., though you may have to add in a little extra intuition if you don’t know the species! (For simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to use the term “skin” in lieu of listing all sorts of remains.)
First, sit with the skin in a comfortable, quiet place. Hold it, touch it, examine the colors and contours. Get to know the actual material skin.
Next, close your eyes and do your best to quiet your mind. If you need something to focus your mind on, keep focusing on your sense of touch and keep working with the physical skin.
Now, open your mind to the spirit in the skin. If you aren’t sure how to do this, imagine a cord extending from your forehead to the forehead of the skin.
Keeping the connection open, see if any images, words, or sensations come to your attention. Try not to go in with any expectations. Simply see what happens. If you notice something unusual, observe quietly.
You might try starting the conversation yourself. When I do this, it isn’t so much words as it is a stream of consciousness or flow of information, if that makes sense. However, you can use words as well. I find that the aforementioned consciousness/information “translates” to and from words well. It’s all about how your brain processes it.
If you don’t get an immediate response, don’t worry. The spirit may not feel like talking just yet. Conversely, you might need more practice in listening to spirits. One way to help this along is to basically create a vessel for the animal to use. Visualize the animal, whole and alive, in your mind. Start with letting it just stand there. Don’t try to make it do anything else. If the animal starts to move or speak of its own volition, let it do so at its own pace. This is the spirit taking the vessel you have created and using it as a conduit for communication.
As to the conversations? That’s entirely open-ended. One thing I find useful as a topic to discuss is what the skin would like done with it. After all, I started this work in the first place because I wanted the remains to have a better “afterlife” than being a trophy on someone’s wall or a status symbol in the closet. A lot of my best artwork ideas have been ones suggested to me by the spirits whose remains I’m using in those artwork pieces.
You may find after a while that the spirits may “nudge” you when they want to talk, especially if you have them out in your home where you can see them (which I feel is preferable anyway). This can occasionally be a bit much, especially if they’re persistent. You may want to learn how to “turn the sound off” for a while if it’s getting disruptive. However, take some of these opportunities when they happen, too.
This is just the very beginning of my skin spirits work. You can find out more (for free!) in the Skin Spirits category of this blog, or (not for free, but it goes to a good cause!) my aforementioned book.