So I’m in the process of writing a new book; it’ll be on totemism, but it’s going to be something of an experiment–and that’s all I’m going to say right this moment 😉 Also, in case you missed it, I have an article on animal parts and paganism on Witchvox this week.
Anyway, I was paging through my previous books about totemism and animal magic in preparation for working on the new book, and I read over the part in Skin Spirits where I talked about vegan alternatives to using actual animal parts. It seems a little odd to sandwich that into a book all about using dead animal remains for magical and spiritual purposes, but really, the basic principles in the book apply even if you don’t have actual animal parts to work with. Since not everybody has rushed out to buy the book (not that I would complain if you did!), and since I still really like this concept, I thought I’d share it here.
See, it’s all about the spirits in the remains. The main spirit/soul of the animal departs on death, but what is left is a sort of spiritual “residue”, a haunt or memory if you will. It’s that which I work with when I do skindancing, or make artwork, or anything else involving animal parts. The actual work described in Skin Spirits, though, can really be applied to any animal spirit.
Let’s take skindancing, for example. I started dancing in a wolf skin at Brushwood Folklore Center way back in 2002, and while the Pacific Northwest hasn’t yielded very many opportunities for dancing*, I still try to get out to dance when I can. (Sunfest next month will be my next known opportunity, and I’ve always loved dancing there!) Now, I’ve always danced in an actual skin; my first one has been retired, and I’m on my second, who hasn’t gotten nearly enough time out at the drum circles. The basic concept is the same regardless of what skin I wear, though: I am connected with the spirit in the skin, and with the more overarching totem, Grey Wolf in this case. The spirit in the skin helps to serve as a conduit for the totem, being closer in nature to that totem. (In my practice, I conceptualize totems as archetypal beings that embody everything about a given species, to include individual animal spirits.) So not only is the spirit getting a body to wear for an amount of time, but the dancer gets to experience a bit of what it is to be a wolf, or a deer, or a bear, or whatever animal is being danced.
You don’t, however, need an actual dead animal for this, though. Vegan costumery can also work just as well. After all, look at the various animal masks made of wood and other plant materials in indigenous cultures worldwide. Are those going to be less effective in connecting to the totem or other animal being than fur or feathers? Perhaps there may need to be a certain amount of work to add to the plant materials what comes naturally in animal materials, but this can be done. Some would observe that the very act of creating the mask or other costumery in the image of the animal creates the connection with the animal; however, you can even go a step further and make the costume into a spirit house.
Basically, you’re inviting an animal spirit that does not currently have any physical form to come and live in the costume you create. You can do this prior to creating it, during the process, or after; it all depends on how you want to make the invitation. Some people find that contacting the spirit beforehand and having its guidance during the creation process works well. Others may find that having a completed house ready is a better option, especially those who prefer to buy other people’s creations. How you invite the spirit in is up to you; while the actual trappings of the ritual may vary from person to person, the intent is to either invite a specific spirit in, or set a sort of “open house” sign up to invite a spirit of the appropriate species to take up residence. You can even talk to the relevant totem and see if s/he can connect you with an individual animal spirit to work with.
There’s also the potential for “created” spirits. If you put enough energy into something, it can literally take on a life of its own, even if you didn’t intend it that way. (This resembles the concepts of servitors and egregores in Chaos magic, by the way, among other parallels.) If you’re going to deliberately go this route, talking to the totem can be very helpful in getting feedback on determining what qualities of the species to infuse into the costume as you create it or begin working with it.
As to the actual materials? I’m a big fan of using secondhand things, so stuff like old faux fur coats works great. There are also manufacturers of fake animal teeth, claws and bones; the Bone Room has particularly high quality reproductions of a lot of different animal skulls. And if you’re artistic, creating your own out of various media is most definitely an option.
What you want is to have something that you can wear while dancing or otherwise invoking the spirit and the totem, and something that the spirit can feel comfortable living in, a sort of movable shrine. Whether this is made of real animal parts or not, may you find it to be a highly effective connection to the beings you’re working with!
* For some reason, at every pagan festival I’ve been to here in the Pacific Northwest, instead of dancing in a moving circle around the fire like everyplace else I’ve been, people just stand in a circle and dance in place. It confused the hell out of me at first. Some places have been wonderfully accommodating, and the people who have gotten to know me well have been awesome enough to share space with me so we can each dance our own way. Others…well…not so much. FWIW, I am always looking for opportunities for wolf dancing at drum circles! (Hint, hint!)
And then there are the plant spirits themselves. 🙂 I know it’s not your focus but making a plant or mineral based skin and dancing that spirit seems like a logical extension.
Absolutely–a great idea!
Oh! And sorry for double commenting, but for some animals there’s the possibility of knitting part or all of a costume. Sheep, rabbit, and alpaca of course, but more exotic fibers like yak can be had if one’s willing to pay a premium. (I know it’s hard to harvest yak fibers…not sure about other exotics.) The Knitter’s Book of Yarn by Clara Parkes gives an exhaustive list as well as information on the fibers’ properties.
Plus knitting can be quite meditative!
I agree that creating a plant or mineral “skin” is a great way to work with those spirits, but I’m not sure if dancing would be the proper method for plant-oriented shape-shifting. I can’t imagine becoming like an oak or a beech as anything other than sitting and rooting into the earth, perhaps swaying. I am no expert in plant spirit work though.
In this case, it’s dancing the animal. However, you’re very right in that shapeshifting into a plant brings a very different set of ways to engage with the world. Plants do move, just not in the way we commonly think of it.