What I Did on my Summer Vacation, Part One

I just spent the past four days in the woods out at Beacon Rock State Park for a wilderness therapy intensive for grad school. It was incredibly rejuvenating in some ways, and very challenging in others. However, I have a much clearer view of what wilderness therapy is, why it isn’t just “wilderness boot camps” like the media portrays (even though many of the teenage participants are there under duress, mainly because it’s a last resort to keep them out of jail/alive–which is a tough controversy we discussed), and how I as a therapist-to-be can incorporate elements of it into my practice as well as help clients figure out whether it may be a viable option for them or their children.

Where a boot camp mentality deals with strictly regimenting teenagers to challenge them through tough hierarchies, rigid scheduling, and pressure to conform to authority, what we learned about are ways to use the challenges that naturally come up during long-term hiking and camping as parallels to challenges the kids face in everyday life. It’s a matter of waiting until the individual participant hits a point where they need support, offering that support, and helping them to learn a better solution of how to deal with challenging situations than what they’ve been doing. They also learn the value of working with others, not through being ordered to do so, but because cooperation helps everyone involved.

We actually incorporated a few of the more common teambuilding techniques in our intensive experience. One of the most important ones for me was meal preparation. We were divided up into three teams of four (twelve students) and each team cooked one of the three meals each day. In order to get it done efficiently and with the limited gear we had, we had to work together–not as one leader telling the rest what to do, but as a quartet working together, adopting or delegating tasks as needed to get things done. There was no competition between the groups (well, other than a round of rock, paper, scissors to determine who did what meal), just shared appreciation for the work that went into the meals. There were other exercises, but this seemingly simple daily ritual really helped to demonstrate to me the difference between being ordered to do something, and doing it for mutual shared benefit and the pleasure that comes from it.

Anyway, there was a lot more to the formal educational portion of the experience, but I wanted to explore a few things that happened that are relevant to the spiritual aspects of what happened. This is one of two posts that will cover that.

This one deals with a drawing that I did as a bit of art therapy in one of our exercises. We were asked to draw the various influences–media, cultural, spiritual, experiential, etc.–that contributed to our understanding of the word “wilderness”. I ended up drawing an open book near the bottom of the page. Above it there were pictures of lots of wild animals, wolves, elk, foxes, etc., and lots of trees and ferns. Below the book, in a very small space, were the small animals I had encountered a lot in my childhood and beyond–songbirds, snakes, rodents, etc.

What this spoke to was my actual experiences with wilderness, which aren’t very many. I grew up in a family that didn’t hike or camp. And since I didn’t have much in the way of friends growing up, I didn’t really have anyone to take me out to the woods with their families. As for Girl Scouts? Forget it. My troop leaders’ idea of “camping” was having us all sleep in sleeping bags on the floor of an old commercial bakery, where the only wildlife was the cockroaches. So this led to a life completely devoid of camping until my twenties. Seriously.

Living in the Pacific Northwest has made me really self-conscious of this fact. A lot of people here are avid hikers and campers, and not just the kind that park a camper somewhere and walk down the paved road in the middle of the campground. We’re talking through-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, and those who can take a single backpack into the woods and stay for a few days, no problem. I really envy them, though people have been really awesome about helping me get up to speed.

Anyway, one thing that I realized as I was making this drawing was that I got my early conception of the wilderness primarily from books. As a child, I must have read Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild countless times. London, of course, described the Arctic regions in very stark, manly-man, eat or be eaten terms. So that informed a lot of my understanding of wilderness growing up–which just made me even more attracted to it, especially since I mainly had yards and open lots as my substitute for wilderness (and which I still found endlessly fascinating).

And as I got older, and I continued to have really limited access to anything but generic suburbs, I found more and more that I formulated my understanding through books. In a lot of ways being a nerdy little bookworm helped me out a lot. However, I often substituted the map for the territory to the point that I often didn’t realize the difference. I ended up with a lot of abstracts based on not a lot of actual experience.

In some ways I wonder how much my spirituality is based more on the abstracts I’ve constructed. As I’ve finally been able to start fleshing out my experiences, it’s been sobering to see just how much I haven’t been in contact with the natural world. My increased exposure has changed my spirituality quite a bit. I’m finding more ways to ground my beliefs in my experiences, a good example of this is more work with local totems like Scrub Jay. And admittedly I’m pretty embarrassed about the fact that I’ve never seen my primary totem, Gray Wolf, in the wild, even if it’s mainly because I haven’t been in places where I’ve had that opportunity open to me.

I don’t think it’s a matter, though, of scrapping everything I’ve created. Even the abstract bits have helped give me a personal mythological structure to work with. Like my current Elk work. I haven’t met an elk in the wild, either, other than the two that nearly ran me over in a field back in June. But it’s helped immensely, as my next post (when I’ve time to write about it) will explain.

But I do think that I’m going to be spending more time grounding my spirituality in the Nature that it’s supposed to be based in. Neopaganism is full of abstractions, which just helped me to further distance myself from the source of my spirituality. (When you have people who worship deities of natural phenomena who claim they aren’t practicing a Nature-based religion, that should say something to someone, somewhere.) I think, perhaps, that therioshamanism has been in part a way for me to get that groundedness, even if I didn’t consciously realize it until recently. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, and I’ve observed principles of my spirituality at work in it (and vice versa) but I think now I’m trying to make the distinction between the spiritual and the physical less…well…distinct.

More tomorrow.

Environmentalism as a Spiritual Practice

Recently I was at Fred Meyer (your usual grocery/department/everything else store, only unionized and with more sustainable choices). While picking up some socks for my husband, I happened to walk by a sale rack that was full of knee-high white socks with various environmental slogans on them (25% off, even!). “Oh, those are cute!” was my first thought. I almost thought about picking up a pair, but then read one of the slogans a little more closely: “Protect the Earth”, it said. That made me stop and think about the potential purchase. Just what was I about to buy? Socks made in China, out of cotton (which is one of the least sustainable fabrics due to the amount of resources used in processing it)–and since I mainly see socks as a necessary liner for shoes and boots in cold weather, I didn’t exactly need “cute” socks.

So I decided, “Okay, I’ll protect the Earth–by not buying a pair of probably-sweatshop-made, not-even-organic cotton socks that I don’t really need right now”. And walked away. I felt better about myself for having done that, not just because it’s better for the budget right now, as well as my attempt to lower my impulse spending, but because I did feel I made the more ethical choice in that case.

But it also made me feel more in line with my spiritual path. I claim to practice a nature-based path; multifaceted, but still focused primarily on the sanctity of nature. Environmentalism is one of the most physical manifestations of what it is I believe about reality. I do the things I do not only because of the physical realities (reducing waste means less in the landfill, etc.) but what I perceive as spiritual realities in my path (everything has a spirit, and one honors the Earth-as-a-being by reducing and even reversing the negative impact on it).

So I decided to assess my approach to environmentalism as a religion in and of itself, focusing on a few particular areas:

The Divine: I am unapologetically pantheistic. The Divine–whatever its nature may be–manifests itself in all things. “God” is not a presence up in heaven, with an antithesis in hell. “God” is right here, in every being, in every thing; just as each of our cells is a part of us, so are we all a part of the Divine. Now, is the Divine a personal deity who cares about every single one of us? Or is “the Divine” a catch-all metaphor for the sum total of Everything That Is, perhaps with collective awareness (or some other cohesive connection that we may or may not be able to comprehend)?

For me, I find my connection to the Divine/God/whatever label you wish to use in the intricate ecosystems that wrap around the Earth. This includes human beings; we may pretend we aren’t a part of Nature any more, but any time a person catches a disease, or eats, or breathes, they are participating in the local ecosystem. That ecosystem may be largely dominated and shaped by humanity, but humans cannot live separate from all other beings in total. Nor can we subsist without “non-living” natural resources.

Maybe the only hell is the physical and psychological illnesses that often result from attempting to isolate the self from everything else. My attraction to ecopsychology is largely due to the perception that I and others have had that A) disconnection from the natural environment (and other ecosystems) very often has a damaging effect on people, individually and culturally. and B) many people respond favorably to exposure to natural ecosystems to whatever degree they are comfortable (factoring in things like agoraphobia, associations between wilderness and trauma, etc.). I want to help facilitate people’s reconnection to ecosystems, natural and otherwise, because as a general culture most Americans are suffering from one degree of disconnection or another–I know I have my own issues to work through in that regard, and I’ve seen it countless times in others. Rugged individualism is not good for the soul (literal or metaphorical).

Everyday environmental actions help me with this reconnection to the Divine/Everything That Is. Whether I’m in the garden growing the most locally available food there is, or making decisions in purchases based on sustainability, or repurposing an item that may be too worn for its original role, these things remind me of my connection, that I’m not just acting for myself.

Dogma: Because our understanding of the environment is constantly changing, both due to the tools at our disposal, and the changes in the environment itself, there’s no room for unchanging dogma, beyond “Do what is best for the environment without destroying yourself” (though there are a few extremists who believe the best thing would be for the entire human species to commit self-extinction). And I like that lack of overall dogma. It can be easy to fall into dogmatic, repetitive patterns, however, particularly where other people are concerned. It’s tempting to point out another’s flaws, to say “Hey–you didn’t recycle that piece of paper! For shame!” And we do need to speak up to others about the issues at hand, and what people can realistically do to help (as well as holding corporations, some of the worst offenders, accountable for their part in all this mess).

But few people like being forcibly converted to any belief system, whether it’s a recognized religion, a philosophy, or so forth. And the thing that I’ve learned as an environmentalist is that that whole adage about flies and honey is true. Just by blogging about my garden on my Livejournal, I’ve convinced several people to try their own hands at gardening. That’s a more concrete result than the times I’ve gotten up on my soapbox to preach the Good Green Word–I’ve mainly just gotten agreement from those who were already on board, and occasionally some disagreement from others. The constructive approach does indeed work better.

If someone doesn’t do things my way, I have to accept that that’s the reality. Trying harder to get through to that person isn’t going to help; if anything it’s going to alienate them. And my job is not to change people’s minds; my job is to offer information and set an example–and if someone chooses to emulate that example out of their own free will, to do what I can to help. People can convert themselves just fine without my help.

Mythos: A mythos isn’t necessary to environmentalism in general (and in fact some environmentalists distance themselves even from things like the Gaia Hypothesis, for fear of getting accused of idolatry by their own faith communities). For me, personally, though, the mythos grew alongside with my environmental action.

I have a whole other post brewing about subjectivity and belief, but for the moment here’s what I’ll say to this: The mythos of therioshamanism and my paganism in general provides me with additional meaning to the everyday actions I take, both with regards to environmentalism and with other aspects of my life. I don’t believe my actions are dictated by other beings, spirits and deities and such. But the purpose of the mythos, and the rituals and other practices surrounding it, is to find and define meaning apart from the actual physical activities and chains of events themselves.

Why? Why do we create art? Or music? Why do we indulge in this thing called “love”, instead of only thinking of it as a mess of hormones meant to bind people for survival reasons? Not that love doesn’t contain the hormones and messiness, but we don’t have to romanticize it in order to survive. Neither do I have to work with the mythos and spiritual beliefs that mesh with my physical everyday life. But I have the mythos, and I believe in love, because I want to, and I like to, and these things make me happy. And, as mentioned, they add meaning, and additional structure, which are also valuable.

The Afterlife: I’m really not sure, honestly, what I think about the afterlife. I know that my body, which is made of all sorts of molecules that have been all kinds of things, will decompose and go on to become other things. Beyond that? Who knows for sure? I’ve mostly decided that I’m just going to wait until I die, and then I’ll know for sure. Yes, I have my experiences with spirits, which some think should prove to me that there is a spirit world. But I have no way of knowing that those spirits are real for anyone besides me. That’s not enough of a basis to form an afterlife on.

People have a hard time with impermanence. Even I have moments where I’m utterly terrified that there’s nothing beyond this life. But I try hard to avoid compromising the lives of others out of my fear of impermanence. If I want to convince someone that a particular practice is better for the Earth, I’m not doing it for the purpose of racking up bonus points with the Divine. I’m doing it because it’s something I feel will benefit those of us right here, right now–and future generations to come. I’d rather focus on this world while I’m in it, rather than looking forward to another world that may not even exist. I’d rather plant a garden than buy an indulgence.

Sin: I dislike the concept of sin. It’s such a dualistic concept. In my view, we make mistakes, we (hopefully) learn from them, we move on. I would say that deliberate destruction and greed are definitely bad things–but I hate the concept of “sin”, like something is automatically and completely antithetical to “the RIGHT way to do things”. Some things are most certainly bad for the environment, but referring to any action that’s supposedly anti-environmental as “a sin” seems too simplistic. Sometimes people make honest mistakes. Others don’t have the resources to be as green as they’d like. And since our understanding of what is environmentally friendly is constantly changing, what may be “bad” at one point may actually turn out to be better, or vice versa.

This could be a lot more complete, to be sure. I’m no expert theologian. But I wanted to get these thoughts out in their raw form; there may very well be more polished versions in the future. Constructive feedback is always appreciated.

Wolves and Dogs and Therianthropy

Part of my personal mythology involves identifying myself as a wolf therian–basically, I believe that on some nonphysical level of myself, I am more wolf than human. This is something that goes wayyyyyy back to a very young age; therianthropy is just the general framework that I’ve been using to explore and explain it in the past several years. I’ve been evolving into more a personal mythology framework the past couple of years–but not completely disavowing “therianthropy” as a concept. I’m currently explaining it (in my case) as a part of the metaphorical story (that is also true–more on that in a minute) I tell about myself, rather than trying to take the (relatively) literalist perspective of “There’s something wrong with my neurobiology, and that of every other therian, that causes a fundamental miswiring related to identity/senses/etc.”, or the other popular opinion, “I was a wolf in a past life/my soul is that of a wolf”.

Let me make something very clear: I believe that metaphor and mythology are not “just made up”. They come from a complex interplay of the mind and the environment, to include what I believe to be autonomous beings. The modern Western conception of myth/metaphor is that it’s “all in the head’, with no bearing on the real world. I believe these are as much a part of the fabric of reality as physics, and other more materialistic things. I choose to believe that metaphor/myth have autonomous existences independent of the human mind, but that there is interdependence as well. This is a case of both/and instead of either/or. I make this choice A) because I have experienced things that prove to me as an individual that this is true in my subjective reality, and B) because my spiritual path functions much better when I believe this is true.

So. Back to the topic at hand.

As I said, myself-as-wolf is a significant part of my personal mythology. It explains to me a number of traits that “human” doesn’t quite fit–or, at least, that “wolf” fits better. Taylor brought up to me a few weeks ago the concept of myself-as-dog, however. I have a lot more experience working with dogs than I do with wolves, and being a somewhat domesticated critter myself, “dog” may be something to explore in more depth.

What is a dog? One way of looking at it is essentially a domesticated wolf. That’s a very simplistic explanation, but it’s a starting point. A dog is what happens when wolves interact over a long period of time with humans, becoming interdependent. If I am a wolf in human form, interacting within a human paradigm for a lifetime, wouldn’t that create some kind of change in the self-as-wolf? After all, I can’t say that I am only wolf, and while I can guess at how close I am to the experience of being wolf, it’s all conjecture in the end. No on can prove that my experiences when I am in a more wolfish mindset are anything more than my mind’s approximation of what I might assume to be “wolf” things.

Dogs, though, are more of a known quantity. Again, I can’t get inside the head of a dog, but I can observe doggish behavior more often and have a better idea of what a dog is. And from a purely analytical viewpoint, I can compare the outsider’s perspective on wolves and dogs to see where the similarities and differences are.

So working with Dog energy may be an interesting way to get a better handle on myself-as-wolf, filtered through myself-as-human. It’s not a complete parallel, since that part of myself still identifies as wolf rather than dog. However, dogs are the closest things to wolves I have access to on a regular basis. It can’t hurt to at least explore the connections.

Totemically, I may also try working with the totems of different breeds of domestic dog. I’ve always had a particular fondness for more primitive, wolfish breeds–I had German shepherds growing up, and also like malemutes, huskies, and other such breeds. I’m still undecided about what I think about wolf hybrids; I haven’t had much experience with them, and I’ve heard lots of both good and bad testimonies to their temperaments and safety. Still, I’d much rather be around a German shepherd than a Bichon Frise.

I don’t think that I’ll ever give up embracing “wolf” as the primary theme in my life, though the work with “dog” may bring some interesting perspectives. “Wolf” is too deeply ingrained in my fundamental self, and there are certain things that I know will always fit “wolf” better than “dog”. However, I’ve also been embracing the concept of feralness again, the idea of a once-wild being (or lineage of beings) that has been brought into captivity, and then released to the wild again. Your average dog is not feral, but has the capacity to be. It may be that I can find some parallel patterns in my own life as I find once again the part of myself that was born wild, was made captive, and is only now finding itself free again. Given that this part of me is very closely tied to myself-as-wolf, this work with wolf and dog and related concepts may be valuable indeed.

Animal Father =/= Horned God

Over the weekend I came into the possession of a marvelous set of eight-point red stag antlers, a vintage mount on a velvet-covered board. My original intent was to incorporate them into some sort of artwork. However, not long after I brought them home, the Animal Father started hinting that he’d like them as part of a personal shrine, since Artemis has one herself. (We’re still debating, since I had some ideas for these antlers, but I’m also not completely opposed to keeping them around–and the stag spirit wouldn’t mind, either.)

This whole business with the antlers brought up something that I’ve been aware of since I began working with the Animal Father–he is not the same deity as the Wiccan Horned God, or the various horned deities who get tossed under that aegis from time to time (Cernunnos, Herne, etc.). Yes, he’s depicted with antlers, but he has made it very clear to me that he is is own being, and that the Horned God motif doesn’t fit him.

One reason is because he has a much less “human” feel to him than the Horned God. He would never be found on horseback, with or without the Wild Hunt. He is only as anthropomorphized as is necessary for humans to interact with him, and to bring forth the melding of humanity with other animals. As he is a patron of shapeshifting, something that primarily concerns humans, having some human traits helps to connect him, in our minds, to that particular practice. However, he is no more (or less) human than he is any animal. Even in his anthropomorphic form, he is much less humanoid than many other deities. Most depictions of the Horned God and various associated deities show a rather normal looking man, maybe with a beard–and antlers. In fact, the antlers, and maybe a couple of dead pelts, are all that really show the Horned God as being an animal deity. One could easily see a humanoid Goddess lying in the grass with the humanoid-with-horns Horned God. However, rutting with the Animal Father might be just a little too close to less savory practices.

Additionally, while the Animal Father does have antlers in the most common depiction of him, he is not a “stag god” as the Horned God has more and more come to be in modern paganism. Nor is he limited to hoofed animals, or mammals, or vertebrates. He could actually show up as any animal or combination of animals; he is the Animal Father, and he could be anything from a worm to a whale. While he could show himself as entirely human, he generally does not, particularly in this day and age where humanity is so far removed from its animal self. It would be a most unpleasant experience for him, to my understanding–we’re talking about a deity who much prefer to meet with me out in the wilderness, rather than my ritual room or even the nearby park. The wilder, the better. To draw from the energy of modern humanity, even with the remaining indigenous hunter-gatherer and agrarian cultures, would be too alien an experience for him. So he chooses to appear only as part-human when necessary.

The antlers have become well-known, and he knows that they would be quite evocative for me, though he would want me to incorporate other animal parts to the shrine as well, if I give in to his wishes. The culture he came from and the pagans he has since worked with are most familiar with large mammals in their religions. These tend to evoke a lot of primal feelings in humans, moreso than, say, carp or June bugs. So he most often wears the guise of creatures that cause us to remember that we, too, are animals, and we can only distance ourselves from Nature so much.

And that’s something I came to realize this weekend as I was writing about the term “therioshamanism”. “Therio” already refers to the animal spirits I work with, and the spirit and physical animals that are part of my “community” as a shaman, and for whom I will be shamanizing once I’m trained. However, one thing I’ve noticed during my first six months is that my training has reminded me that I am an animal. I’m not just talking about my therianthropy and that which is wolf in me. I’m talking about myself as the human animal–maybe something I need to know about even more than me-as-wolf. My training has not only gotten me in more touch with my instincts, but has helped me to have a better awareness of my physical body, my needs and my health. The therianthropic aspects are there, but they aren’t necessary to this aspect of “therio”. I could be not a therianthrope, and it would still be the same.

Back on the main topic, those are the main reasons that the Animal Father is not the Horned God. I did a flocked post in my Livejournal about the antlers and the Animal Father, and had a couple people tell me that they’ve actually worked with him before, or are otherwise familiar with him other than through my work. This pleases me–perhaps I’ll have something besides my own UPG to go on as time goes on. Not that my UPG isn’t “good enough”, as it were, but it’s nice to get some external validation.

ETA: Another consideration: I’m not an expert on Indo-European mythology. However, a bit of research brings up potential links between the Hindu Pashupati, and later horned deities such as Cernunnos. Assuming that the Animal Father does stem from the painting at Les Trois Freres (if not earlier) then he would still predate the proto-Indo-European peoples (from whence both the Indians and the Celts sprang) by several thousand years.  Thoughts?

An Addendum to One of Yesterday’s Posts

I do have another post planned for today, but wanted to pop this up here while I was thinking about it:

When I talk about looking at the Otherkin concept from a metaphorical perspective, this is not to the exclusion of other angles, such as reincarnation. As I mentioned in my essay, I see the metaphorical angle as well as psychological and spiritual angles. While for me, personally, reincarnation isn’t a part of the spiritual aspects, it is for plenty of other people.

What I want to make clear is that multiple theories of explanation are not necessarily opposed to each other. It is quite possible to look at a situation from more than one perspective and have more than one explanation for what happened. For example, in regards to my therianthropy, from a purely psychological level it’s a product of early imprinting and conditioning, as well as ego-identification with Canis lupus. However, that doesn’t negate the spiritual/totemic aspects, or the mythological/metaphorical aspects. It’s not a situation of either/or. It’s one of both/and.

I think that one of the shortcomings of the Otherkin community is that as a group we’ve* too often bought into the rational OR metaphorical argument. Since what we believe about ourselves is often challenged anyway, we scramble for the most “solid” explanation we can come up with, which is usually reincarnation; those who don’t have past life memories often beat their heads against brick walls for years because they feel that’s what they *must* exhibit in order to be “legitimate”. And because we live in a society that demands as much literal proof as possible, and since reincarnation is the closest we have (since people with past lives almost always see them as literal, linear events that actually happened in this reality), people sometimes fear “diluting” what literal proof they do have.

However, that’s buying right into the overly literal/rational perspective that dominates modern post-industrial thought. Sometimes we want so badly to be accepted that we’re willing to play by the mainstream’s rules, even if it cuts us off from other possibilities.

When I espouse a metaphorical perspective on Otherkin, I am not saying that you have to give up whatever other views you have in order to embrace it. Rather, I encourage people to look at themselves on multiple levels–in fact, reincarnation can easily be seen as a part of one’s personal mythology, specifically the mythology we tell about ourselves. “Mythology” has unfortunately been given the connotation of “not true”, because it may not be literally “true”–but IMO, that doesn’t make that a correct assessment. Metaphor is true–it’s simply true on a different level of reality. Therefore, while reincarnation (as an example) can be literally true in that one believes that somewhere in linear time one was incarnated in another life, it can also be metaphorically true as a part of one’s personal mythology that helps one to understand the macrocosm in relation to the microcosm.

* Should also add that when I say “we” I mean the community in general, with the understanding that individuals’ mileages may vary.

A Mythological Perspective on Therianthropy

I originally posted this to my personal blog, but I thought I’d crosspost it here as well since it does deal with spiritual beliefs. I’ve met several people who believe that therianthropy (and Otherkin in general) are just those who have an odd interpretation of animistic/shamanic concepts; while I don’t think that explains everyone who identifies as Otherkin/etc., I do think it’s an angle I want to explore more for my *personal* purposes.

*************

This is quite possibly one of the most difficult parts of my personal cosmology for people who aren’t Otherkin to grasp. On the surface, it seems entirely delusional and escapist–“You believe you’re a wolf? Have you looked in the mirror lately? Maybe we should get you to a psychiatrist…” And believe me, plenty of us have gone through the belief-doubt-belief cycle.

As I’ve gotten older, though, and this odd bit of my psyche hasn’t gone away (no matter how I’ve tried ignoring and even repressing it), I’ve started looking at it from different angles. The concept of therianthropy, the idea that a person is, on a certain psychological, spiritual, or other nonphysical level, a nonhuman animal, is the concept that best explains what’s going on in a *functional* manner. Telling me I’m crazy doesn’t make me more functional. I’m already quite functional; therianthropy doesn’t hinder my ability to live a perfectly normal life, with a husband, a job, and a decent social life. However, part of that functionality comes from being able to accept myself as I am and integrating everything about myself into my life, rather than trying to play the Pigeonhole Game.

Many therians see therianthropy as a psychological/neurobiological thing. Many Otherkin in general are enamored of the idea of reincarnation, that who and what we were in previous (or alternate, depending on your view of linear space/time) lives affects who and what we are now. For myself, though, I’m gravitating more and more towards a metaphorical perspective (in addition to psychological and spiritual layers).

I like Joseph Campbell’s work, warts and all. I’m particularly fond of the concept that people need mythology in order to have a complete worldview, that mythology answers a need we have on a very deep level. IMO, rationality appeals to the left brain, while mythology appeals to the right hemisphere (and keep in mind this is very generalized). Now, granted, I can’t speak for everyone. But for myself, spirituality, and by extension, mythology, are part of my psyche’s complete breakfast. Rationality answers my need for a physical, down-to-earth, left-brain explanation of things. However, if anything, I’m canted more towards the right brain (I’m even left handed, and I’m one of those damned artsy types ;). Therefore, in order to be happy, I need the mythological/metaphorical end of things as well. (I’d make an awful rational atheist/materialist.)

Mythology occurs on two levels, IMO/IME. It occurs on a collective/community level, where a group consensus of belief is arrived at. This is where the more outward trappings of religion and spirituality come into play, as well as the cultural mythology shared by an entire group, tribe or nation of people. It’s more commonly recognized in modern American society, though in a fragmented manner. We do not, as a nation, have a cohesive cultural mythology that permeates the fabric of our society in the same way that mythology shaped, say, the ancient Greek or Norse cultures. (And even then, the collective mythology could vary according to individual culture-within-a-culture, by region, etc.) However, we do not have a national mythology (or a national religion). We are a patchwork quilt made of a number of different cultures that arrived here over several centuries, and who are still arriving. Additionally, America as a whole is incredibly materialistic and possessed of a short attention span. The closest we have to heroes and other mythological entities are the denizens of pop culture, who (with rare exception) last a few weeks, months, or years, and then drop out of existence. We worship what we see on the T.V., though it’s not conventional worship and we don’t always realize what we’re doing. Additionally, we have a rather destructive relationship with that form of mythology–we create heroes, and then take malicious joy out of knocking them down. The evening news and “reality” T.V. are testaments to our cultural fetish for watching the mighty tumble back down to our level; rather than aspiring to become better people through their examples, we revel in dragging them down to our level, made rabid by our insecurity and fear of success.

There’s also the mythology inherent in religion to consider. The most common religion in America is Christianity, but the values of that religion are largely based in ancient Hebrew society, and in some ways don’t mesh particularly well with modern American culture. Not that it can’t be done, but many of the original values of Christianity and its predecessor, Judaism, have been dropped by liberal Jews and by Christians in general–how many Christians routinely slaughter cattle as per Leviticus, or throw stones at adulterers? My point, though, is not judging whether any particular religion is right or wrong–that’s up to the individual to decide. Rather, I want to make it clear that this is in no way a Christian nation, and although the motifs of Christian myth* do permeate society to an extent, it’s not the same as Native American or other indigenous cultures, or the pre-Christian cultures of Europe–or even primarily Christian societies prior to the past two centuries or so.

Still neither pop culture nor religions make for a cohesive *cultural* mythology in America. Additionally, more than any known society before us, modern America is incredibly individual-based. This has only really cropped up in the past several decades, and while it has had some definite benefits (such as encouraging people to challenge stereotypes, prejudices, and other negative elements traditionally accepted by the status quo), it has contributed to the lower possibility of cultural mythology.

However, the rise of the individual increases the exposure of *personal* mythology, something which has always existed but has been largely downplayed in more group-oriented societies. Personal mythology is understanding reality from the microcosmic view, determining one’s own perspective, and telling the story of what the world is from a single viewpoint. It often meshes with a cultural mythology (in some cases, more than one), though it may have completely unique elements as well (as in Unverified Personal Gnosis).

And this is where my therianthropy ties in to all that stuff above this point–it is a part of my personal mythology. Part of the story I tell about myself is that, inside me, there is a part of me that is a wolf–in that respect, I am a wolf. This is something that I’ve recognized in myself for most of my life, and have found different ways to explain it. When I was a child, I called Wolf my “favorite animal” because that’s what I was told it was. When I first learned about totems, I thought perhaps Wolf was my totem (and I was right). However, therianthropy fit my experiences even more, particularly the identification WITH Wolf.

There are no cultural motifs in modern America for explaining this feeling beyond classic lycanthropy (fiction) and clinical lycanthropy (insanity). We don’t have a system of animal totemism, nor is there widespread functional belief in animal spirit guides; our totems and spirits are relegated to children’s cartoons and sports mascots. Additionally, we are detached from the concept that we, humans, are animals–some people get incredibly offended by the assertion that we share the majority of our genetic material with all other mammals (and all vertebrates, for that matter). “But we’re special! We can reason! We’re (insert deity’s name here)’s chosen beings!” That may be, but other animals are pretty special, too–could you survive in the woods if you were thrown out there naked with no supplies? Can you smell a deer a quarter mile away? Our big brains, evolutionarily speaking, are our species’ adaptation, just as more olfactory glands are the adaptation of scent-based predators such as wolves. We have gained reason, but we have lost a healthy grasp of instinct.

I acknowledge I am an animal, a mammal, a primate. Because the basic human social structure, more pronounced in hunter-gatherer societies, resembles that of wolves, and because American culture often equates the Wild (instinct, wilderness, base emotions) with wolves (werewolves being the most common shapeshifter in American culture, and in many of the cultures that shaped modern America), it’s no surprise, then, that when the instinctual part of myself, the archetype of the Wild (Wo)Man, raises its shaggy, sharp-fanged muzzle, it manifests as a wolf.

This does NOT mean that therianthropy is ONLY “make-believe” for me, that it is only metaphorical–there are also psychological and spiritual levels to it as well. However, we live in a setting where “metaphor” is taken to mean “not real” because it doesn’t manifest literally on the physical/rational. Go beyond a certain level of abstractness, and people want to delineate between what is “real” and what is “imagination”. Yet in mythology–the study of myth–metaphorical is just as real as literal. It may be real in different ways–but it has a very real effect on people. Let me say that again: metaphor is real, because it has a very real, concrete effect on how people view the world around them and how they act on that world and its denizens. Whether it’s the ancient tribe that placates the spirits of the dead to keep them from harming the living, or the anti-abortion protester who believes wholeheartedly that God wants hir to protect unborn lives, or the person who believes s/he was an elf in a past life and that part of hirself still resonates with that, the mythology we believe in is very real for us–particularly on a personal level.

And this is part of why I identify as a therian–because it answers my need for mythology, and meshes with my personal mythology. It answers questions that the rational/literal reality denies even exist, and functionally, it helps me to feel I am a more complete person. My life is enriched by this belief. On a left-brain level, yes, it’s possible that I have a weird neurobiological quirk, or a strange bit of psychological imprinting/conditioning (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been called weird or strange 😉 But on a right-brain level, this makes sense. And rather than trying to pick between the left/literal and right/metaphorical, I choose to embrace them both as possible explanations for myself–not just for therianthropy, but for everything that encompasses my life.

The left brain is the Earth–grounded, solid, physical; the right brain is the Sky–free of hindrances, open, with breezes that carry me ever higher. As long as I am between the Earth and the Sky, things can’t be all that bad.

* No, “myth” does not equal “fiction”. However, the current subjective treatment of myth, of declaring one myth to be more true than another, sometimes makes it difficult to speak of some religions in mythological terms for fear of offending adherents.

ETA: And an addendum to this post.