A Successful Ritual

Tonight was the totemic drum and dance ritual. It went quite well, even with a relatively small turnout, and I was able to rework the format to fit the smaller group with a more personalized ritual. All told, it was about an hour and a half, one of the longest rituals I’ve done. And it was also my first planned group ritual which, all things considered, turned out better than I expected. (Of course, I do want to give credit to the other participants, corporeal and otherwise, who really helped to make it the awesome experience that it was

I started out with a brief meditation for everyone to get focused on the ritual ahead. Then I called the totems and other spirits of the four cardinal directions, as well as the Animal Father. I asked Small Wolf to aid me in evoking Wolf as the first (nondirectional) totem called, and we danced together. Then, the bulk of the ritual involved me and the other participants taking turns calling on individual totems, then drumming and dancing for each one to invite them in and to honor them, as well as give them the energy we raised.

I danced each totem’s energy as s/he arrived, and ended up dancing some new ones that I’d never worked with before. That was definitely good exercise for my ability to invoke! (Totemic improv theatre?) I was amazed at how energized I felt; I had assumed that dancing new totems would wear me out. Whether it was the general energy of the ritual, aid from the individual totems, or a really good burst of adrenaline (or some combination thereof), something kept me going longer than I normally am able to, even with a normal, nonritualized drum circle.

Then, at the end of the ritual, I acknowledged that there were so many totems that we hadn’t had time to mention, but that we were grateful for anyway. I bade farewell to all who had arrived, and ended the ritual.

I really needed this experience tonight. I’ve been feeling altogether too stagnant lately. I came home tonight with a renewed sense of purpose, and a good reminder of just why it is I’ve been dedicating time to “that shamanism stuff”. I have a much better idea of group ritual structure that works, and despite my nervousness at the beginning of the ritual, I’m more confident in my ability to participate in a group setting as a facilitator. However, there are some things that I’ll also be borrowing for my personal practices as well. All in all, another piece of the puzzle fell into place tonight.

There will be more rituals like this, though I’m not sure how often they’ll be, and I also need to fine-tune the format, especially if I get a group that’s too big for what we did tonight. But this is a good start.

Totemic Drum/Dance Ritual in Portland

This will probably mostly be of interest for people in the Portland, OR area. Wolf and Small Wolf wanted me to do something along the lines of my impromptu ritual at Sunfest, so I came up with an open to the community drum and dance ritual. It’s a fundraiser, too; while I personally have no problem with people being compensated for their time and energy, Wolf and Small Wolf made it clear they wanted this one to be not-for-profit. So anything beyond my cost for renting the space will go to the Defenders of Wildlife.

Here’s the text of the flyer I printed up:

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Totemic Drum and Dance Ritual/Fundraiser
Open to the Community!

Do you work with animal totems? Or do you simply appreciate their presence in the world, as well as that of their physical “children”? Then come join us at the Guiding Tree at 4831 SE Division St. on Tuesday, July 29 for a drum and dance ritual to honor the totems!

Starting at 6:30 in the evening, we’ll begin with an orientation workshop to explain the reasons behind the ritual, as well as answer any questions. The ritual itself will start between 7 and 7:30, depending on how long the orientation takes. We’ll go until a little before 9pm, when the ritual will be formally closed. Until then, though, we’ll be drumming, dancing and celebrating the animal totems!

Drummers–bring your favorite drums! Dancers—come ready to dance like the animals in their honor! Everyone—wear whatever ritual garb or costumery that reminds you of your totems. You may also bring representations of your totems to place on the ritual altar for the duration of the ritual.

Suggested donation is $10 per person; all proceeds beyond paying for rental of the studio at the Guiding Tree will be donated to the Defenders of Wildlife (http://www.defenders.org), a nonprofit organization that works to protect wildlife, especially large endangered predators. If you cannot cover $10, please contact Lupa at whishthound@gmail.com for potential alternate arrangements.

About the ritual host: Lupa has been working with totemism and other forms of animal magic for over a decade. She has publicly danced with a wolf skin at pagan events since 2002, and has danced other animals in private since then. Lupa’s focus is primarily neopagan totemism rather than the totemism of any particular indigenous culture. She is a practicing (neo)shaman with a strong ecospiritual focus, and this ritual is a part of her service to the community as well as to the totems and other spirits she works with. She is the author of two books on totemism and animal magic, and may be found online at http://www.thegreenwolf.com and http://therioshamanism.com.

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If you know anyone who’d be interested in attending, please feel free to pass this along!

In other news, I finished creating Badger’s song and now just need to keep practicing it to commit it more fully to memory. I also recently met a very cool person who reminded me, among other things, that I’m not the only person who still struggles to shove my ego out of the way. And I got a bit of very good news from the Animal Father, though it’s something to keep private for the time being.

Ecoshamanic Training

So I’ve alluded to doing a rite of passage at the end of my six months, which will be the full moon just before the Spring Equinox. I’m pleased to say this will actually include a special treat for me.

If you’ve ever looked at my bibliography page, where I list the various written resources that have been a major influence on me in creating therioshamanism, you’ll notice that James Endredy’s Ecoshamanism is among them. It’s actually one of my all-time favorite books. It isn’t traditional shamanism; rather, it is a modern form of shamanism that is specifically focused on increasing not only awareness but action with regards to the natural environment and the damage that’s been done to it. Unlike some “green pagan” books that talk more about herbs, and crystals, and other such things, this one is full of dozens of practices and rituals that are specifically designed to bring the environment the reader is in into sharp focus, and make a very real connection between the abstract symbols many pagans work with, and the gritty, beautiful reality the symbols spring from. Basically, it’s a great “walking your talk” book.

Due to some creative budgeting on the part of my incredible partner, I will be able to go through the first and second initiations through Endredy’s Earth Spirit Foundation over a long weekend. It just so happens that these are going to happen right when my six months end–in fact, the first will be happening on a Wednesday and Thursday, the second on a Saturday and Sunday, and the full moon when the six months are up will occur the Friday in between. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Granted, I’ll be dedicating time and other resources to this endeavor that a lot of pagans either A) wouldn’t pay, or B) would invest in training with an indigenous practitioner to learn indigenous practices. However, I have very good reasons for what I’m doing. In regards to A), I believe in paying people for their spiritual services when payment is asked for. This isn’t Siberia, and I don’t have land that a shaman can borrow to use for grazing for hir personal herd of reindeer, so currency will do. And I know a lot of pagans have kneejerk reactions to money in spirituality in general, the whole idea that “You shouldn’t have to pay for spirituality!” However, as far as I’m concerned, this person will be dedicating four out of five days to intense instruction and guidance, using his own property and taking me (and whoever else may be there) to his personal power spots. For the second initiation, he’ll be staying up all night Saturday night while I go through the vigil, making sure everything goes right and no one gets hurt (it’s a mock burial). And a person’s gotta eat and pay bills, never mind however much he may have invested in his own education. So I’m not going to begrudge him what he asks, especially when a fifth of it goes into charitable causes.

As to B), I’ve said it before but I’ll explain again–I’m not interested in shoehorning myself into someone else’s culture where I’m not wanted. Therioshamanism is tailored to my cultural context–modern mainstream American with a neopagan influence. Ecoshamanism is right up my alley–it addresses some of the problems I face in my culture, without trying to push someone else’s cosmology on me. While I think that there’s value in learning indigenous practices, it’s not my personal choice. To me, being able to go through Ecoshamanic training is my version of learning that particular shamanic practice in the cultural context it was developed in. I may be a solitary, but I know that there’s a difference between reading someone’s teachings in a book, and learning about them from the author hirself. Sure, I could go dig a hole in the back yard and throw a blanket over it and bury myself that way–but then again I could also shove bone spars in my pectorals and call it a Sun Dance. I want to experience Ecoshamanism in its original context, which means going down and training with the person who developed it. That has a lot of value to me.

I’m quite excited about it, to be honest. Granted, the Friday in between when I do my more personal therioshamanic work will be….interesting. I’m going to be taking the beads and findings for my prayer beads and creating the actual necklace that Friday. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Animal Father or other entities made cameo appearances during the second initiation ritual. I have plane tickets and transportation, and time off at work. So now there’s only the time to wait, and in the meantime prepare through the rest of my Water month and the final month focusing on all four elements again.

Composting as a Spiritual Act

I just got back in from taking the kitchen scraps to the compost bin in the back yard. We’ve had the bin out there for a couple of months now. There’s no real compost yet, but that’s mainly because I started it so late in the year. Still, things are breaking down some, and I’m sure once spring hits and it starts to warm up we’ll see more decay. For now, the pile seems to have a few resident moths, and that’s about it.

People have this idea that compost bins are smelly, probably because garbage is smelly. However, it all depends on what you put in the bin. If you don’t put meat scraps, fats, and other such things in there, you’re fine. And of course, don’t put any animal waste in there–who wants that going ultimately into their garden? Unless you maintain one pile for edible plants, and one for decorative–but even then, animal waste will smell. So we limit the scraps to vegetable matter, paper towels (we always buy the ones made of recycled paper and bleached without chlorine), hair, and eggshells. There’s no smell, and other than a bit of mold nothing really scary in the decaying process.

This is my first compost bin, and I’m rather proud of it. I went and got one of these for thirty-five bucks–took me less than five minutes to assemble. However, I could just as easily have used a stack of four worn-out car tires held in place with posts. Or, if we didn’t have access to a yard, I could have taken two big plastic bins and made a cheap and easy worm bin–that’d be great to go with some indoor container gardening. (One way or another, next year, I WILL garden!)

Composting is a spiritual process for me. Sure, it’s Earthy, and involves things decaying. But mine is a nature religion, thanks. I know some pagans cringe when the term “nature religion” is applied to what they do. Fair enough–if your gods have been abstracted away from the natural forces that birthed them, then I’m not going to try to force you into a compost-bin-shaped-pigeonhole. But for me, Artemis isn’t just the abstract concept of the Hunt and the Moon and liberty–she’s also the reality of blood and death, and the moonlight trying to shine amidst blinding artificial light and air pollution. The totems aren’t just aspects of my psyche–they’re embodied in every living animal out there, from the moth in the compost bin to the kitties snoozing at my feet. And I seek greater awareness of the physical reality of my spirituality.

I am constantly amazed to see the transformation that occurs in the compost bin. The ends of carrots and celery, this past summer’s dead tomato vines, are all transformed from brightly-colored things to somewhat of a mush and mixture of browns and greys (and don’t forget the pale green mold). Maybe this isn’t lead into gold, but it’s an alchemy all on its own. Unfortunately, humanity seems to do its damnedest to interfere with that magical process. Yard Work As Viewed From Heaven may be a humor piece, but it has a message.

Take fertilizer, for example. Nature provides its own fertilizer. When something dies, it feeds the living. Taking dead trees out of the forest weakens the soil, the tree could provide numerous nutrients to small animals and plants and bacteria. Ultimately, the dead tree would enrich the soil. But instead the soil suffers, having fed the tree but not receiving the nutrients back through decay. And, to bring things closer to home for a lot of us, when we cut the grass and bag the clippings, we’re taking away the natural fertilizer in that grass. You know where that fertilizer is going? Into the landfill. And do you know what happens to grass in a landfill? Absolutely nothing. It doesn’t matter how biodegradable something is–if it goes into a landfill, it’s not breaking down. There’s nothing to break it down. I remember as a kid I watched a 20/20 episode where the reporter went to a landfill and excavated through several years’ of trash. He found a carrot that was almost perfect, other than being shrivelled and dirty.

Decay does take a certain mixture of factors. In my compost pile, for example, I need to balance the “greens” (carrot ends and celery leaves) with “browns” (dead leaves, paper towels). A lot of people make the mistake of not having enough browns, which makes the decay go slower. Additionally, I turn over the compost whenever I add more to the pile to help all the compost get air, which promotes decay as well. I don’t think that landfill is getting nearly enough air.

By composting, I’m returning some of what has been taken from the Earth and putting it back into the cycle, instead of the dead zone of a landfill. Rather than throwing away perfectly good, nearly free, fertilizer for the garden, I toss it into the compost bin and let it do its thing. It’s quicker than going to the store, and it keeps me locked into the cycles of Nature, instead of letting myself be drawn away from those cycles, pretending that they don’t actually affect me, numbed by the out of sight, out of mind of the landfill.

Much is made, in neopaganism, of the Wheel of the Year, and the mythology surrounding it. Sure, it’s important to pay attention to the Solar and Lunar cycles–but I think more is made of the symbolism and the abstract mythology surrounding those cycles, than the cycles themselves. It’s easy to get caught up in celebration in the living room with your coven or family or other group. But then, when everyone’s gone home, we can go back to our everyday lives, complaining about the weather and going to work far away from home and surviving trips to the crowded grocery store. The Sun God has been born, we know the sun will come back soon, and eventually we’ll switch back off of daylight savings time (and lose an hour of sleep).

Composting brings me into a cycle that hasn’t been so abstracted. There’s nothing glamorous about that pile of decaying matter in the bin. Nor are worms and moths particularly flashy. We have the Horned God, but we don’t have the Slimy God With Multitudinous Setae. Composting makes the processes of fertility very apparent to me in a way that the Sabbats and Esbats never did when I followed a more generic, Wiccan-inspired neopagan path. In that bin is death turning into the fuel for life. Next year, that compost can be mixed in with the Earth and feed tomato plants and mint and gods know what all else. It can feed the plants that become food for me. In that bin is nutrition cycling through one stage to the next. The compost is life.

This is why I’m so diligent about filling up the bucket of kitchen scraps. Every leftover scrap from making salad goes in there. Every paper towel that isn’t soaked in cleaning chemicals gets tossed in, and the hair from our brushes. Last night I poured the last of the milk on a bowl of cereal–unfortunately, the milk was spoiled (nothing says “Mmmmmmm!” like fluffy milk!). I drained the milk into the sink, and tossed the cereal into the bucket. Crumbs from the bottom of a bag of herb-flavored popcorn, every last bit of eggshell from breakfast–it all goes in there. Every bit of nutrition and energy that I can salvage gets poured back into that sacred cycle.

It’s not just a matter of waste not, want not, though that is a factor, too. It’s the fact that I have participated too much in breaking the alchemical cycle of decay, in taking the gifts of the Earth and locking them away in the landfill, away from where they could do any good. Some things can’t be composted–cardboard, for instance–but it can be recycled, and that in itself is a cycle that mirrors the natural cycle of decay.

As a species we’ve grown too detached from the cycles of Nature. We may still be ruled by them to an extent as mammals, but we tell ourselves we’re different. Composting reminds me that I am still very much a part of those sacred cycles, and that I have a very real connection to them even when I pretend otherwise. But I choose to engage in them again, to contribute to them and participate in them. I still haven’t figured out what I’ll do to celebrate the Equinoxes and Solstices, but I do feel comfort in at least one cyclical celebration–the humble, yet exceptionally important, joy of composting.

More Potpourri (Holiday Scented!)

Okay, so the holidaze knocked me out for a few days. However, I have been up to plenty, and here’s the round-up of what you missed via my limited web presence.

First, I’ve added a few new journeying blogs to the blogroll. Love, Hope and Life is Danmara’s journey in working with the gods, including both observations as well as practical matters, described as “a living devotion”. Cynanthropy is Solo’s explorations on further discovering himself as a canine therianthrope, as well as thoughts on cynanthropy in general. And Poison Hara is a personal account of working within the Deharan magical system detailed in Grimoire Dehara: Kaimana by Storm Constantine. Go take a peek, see what you think!

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So, Solstice. I decided that the Stag-Wolf-Bear-Lion progression really wasn’t resonating with me, and the Animal Father was fine with that. So I took the formality down a notch. For now my ritual will primarily consist of a nature walk at a nearby park, regardless of weather conditions.

Winter Solstice in Portland is pretty mild. It was in the lower fifties, with rain (a staple of Portland weather). As I walked, I saw a ton of fox squirrels bouncing around foraging. In other places I’ve lived, they’d be all curled up in their nests snoozing away the cold, but it’s mild enough here that I still see orb weaver spiders on occasion. I was treated to the sounds of Stellar’s jays screaming (an odd sound compared to the blue jays I’m used to out East) and the occasional caw of a crow. Because of all the rain, everything is exceptionally green except for the deciduous trees, which I think must lose their leaves here more out of propriety than anything else–though it does get colder once Winter proper hits. But the grass and moss are verdant, and the conifers don’t really shed that much in the way of old needles. Winter is relatively gentle here. (Of course, I mean relatively–I get cold at anything under sixty degrees Fahrenheit!)

Once my six months are up, right around the Spring Equinox, I may start using the Solstices and Equinoxes as turning points for focusing on the elements cyclically. For example, I may work with Air in the Spring, Fire in the Summer, Water in the Autumn, and Earth in the Winter. Or I might just take the time to review how I’m doing with all four elements, and maybe (or maybe not) choose to focus on whichever one needs the most work. I’m just really not big on celebratory rituals–if there’s a magical purpose, that’s fine, but I feel kind of odd doing a solitary celebration. It’s kind of like throwing a party with no one there–I mean, sure, the spirits and such are there, but it’s not really quite as much of a celebration without other people there in the flesh. Plus it helps to have a solid cosmology to tell you what, exactly, you should be celebrating. Right now the only thing that really stands out to me about Solstices and Equinoxes is that a lot has changed in Nature since the last one, and it’s a good time for transitions (hence the potential elemental workings starting on each one). The rest of the existing neopagan mythology surrounding the holidays has always left me sort of lukewarm–I see why people celebrate it, and I’ve done a few informal Sabbat celebrations with other people, but it never really struck me on any deep level. So for now, I’ll just take my walks and see what the Equinox brings.

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My Air month ended over the weekend. Hawk was quite pleased with my progress, and told me to keep it up. I have gotten better with communication overall, both with others and with myself. Granted, one month isn’t going to fix things. But I’m a bit braver about scary confrontations, and I’m a bit less “clammed-up” about my feelings. Plus I’m more aware of my actions, being conscious of the choices I make. The last one is tough for others to see, sometimes, because it mainly involves me making an effort NOT to do something (such as say something really dumb/insensitive/etc.) and being successful entails being quiet, or saying something more civil/thoughtful/etc.

I’ve been pretty good about remembering to record my dreams, though I’m much better about it during the week when I have a routine to work it into. I’ve also been remembering to pray both in the morning and evening, and meditate over my lunch break, about four times a week on average. My meditation has mostly turned into “Conversations with My Wolf Totem”, which is fine–Wolf has always been one of my main connections to the spirit world. I’m going to keep working on it, of course.

Being more aware of my actions has also helped to calm me down–which, appropriately, has meant that I haven’t had my asthma crop up (it did once in my Earth month, as a reminder to RELAX). I find that I can “ground” into the Sky as well as the Earth, with just as much ease. And, as I’ve started my Fire month, I’m finding already that the burning energy of the cellular breakdown of nutrients flares up easily in conjunction with the Earth and Air energy. It reaches out to the sunlight (even through the clouds) and connects me to the Sun, which is a primary source of energy and nourishment sustaining life here.

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Which brings me to the beginning of my Fire month. Fox met with me to figure out what I should focus on. Sex and sex magic will be part of it, though for personal reasons most of that will remain private. However, there are also a lot of changes going on in my life (though this seems to be a semi-regular thing for me) and part of the Fire month will involve being more responsive and flexible with change. Also, reading through Starhawk’s The Earth Path, I gained a new appreciation for energy as an interconnected web among all things, and the implications thereof. It’s not that this wasn’t already a part of my perspective, but the six month process has done a lot for magnifying certain aspects of my beliefs and showing me what I really feel is central to my path.

I think the lessons in communication from the Air month will be broadened in the Fire month to include numerous types of communication, not just person to person. The importance of what we take into ourselves and what we put out, which I first concentrated on in the Earth month, is also revisited, though on a more energetic rather than physical scale. Fox instructed me to get outdoors at least a couple of times a week for purposes other than walking to and from work and the train station, even if it’s just to go to the park nearby. I get unhappy and sluggish if I stay away from the wild too long, and even a trip to the park can be an energetic quick fix, though I should still get out to hike in wilder areas when I can.

Fire has started pretty well, burning off impurities created as byproducts of communicating about some unpleasant things during my Air month. I’m looking forward to the rest of the month.

On Being a Bird (Now With Bonus Stream of Consciousness!)

So last night I managed to make up for delaying my skin spirit ritual from last weekend. What I’ve been doing the past few months has amounted to me going to the pile of skins in the ritual room and letting one or two of them volunteer to dance or otherwise work with me. Last night when I went up, I was a bit surprised that the pheasant skin, one of only two bird skins that I have, made the most “noise”. I’ve had this skin for the better part of a decade, and most of the time he’d just been hanging on the wall by a string. However, when we moved to Portland, he insisted on being placed with the rest of the critters.

I picked him up and then lay down on the floor on my back with the pheasant spread out on my chest and stomach. He had me visualize my body as that of a bird:

Hollow bones, scaled feet with three toes and a heel, wings tucked up against a deep-chested body, feathers all over (modified scales), including a tail. Sensitive skin and delicate muscles to move feathers, crest, tail, fluff the body to stay warm. Stretch out the wings, wind resistance. Wings not important in the same way as legs–when on ground, feet and beak used to pick up things. Wings for locomotion. Like the two pairs of limbs were reversed. Stretching wings wide, then tuck close to body again. Food in beak, chew, then down gullet. Tip of beak pointed for precision pecking. Skin itchy, scaly, mites, take a dust bath to get rid of them. Slick with rain water. Intelligence to avoid predators, find food, mate, raise young. But die eventually–food, roadkill, shot. Pellets hit, tumble down as thunder crashes.

It was really an incredible experience. I’m so used to working with mammals in shapeshifting and other magic that this unusual experience really struck me. Birds may be warm-blooded, but in some ways they’re just as alien as reptiles. Not that this is a bad thing; it’s just mind-boggling to really be confronted by it. I’ll do a minor shift to Hawk when I call East/Air, but that’s mainly stretching wings in warm sunlight and clear blue sky. At least with the mammals I’ve worked with I’m still dealing with a quadruped whose forelegs are there for grasping or moving things as well as locomotion. It felt odd to keep my “wings” tucked in unless I was flying. And it amazed me how delicate the motor control over the feathers was. Most people can’t make their skin move independently of muscle, yet birds can move specific sections of feathers as opposed to the whole thing just with certain motions of skin and muscle. Even horses can twitch their skin to shoo away flies. Among humans, you’re talented if you can wiggle your ears. Other than that, it’s mainly lips, nose and eyelids that move.

Of course, birds are more body-expressive than humans. Birds pay attention to the whole body, not just facial expression (which is limited by the rigid beak). There’s so much more that I want to learn about what it is to be a bird with this sort of magic. While I’ve experimented with various totems over the years, my more intense workings have primarily been mammalian. If the pheasant skin decides to keep working with me, I look forward to the experiences ahead!

I’m actually not surprised that I ended up working with Pheasant. It’s still my Air month, and in addition, a large portion of Saturday was dedicated to a ritual involving the spirit of a free-range chicken I prepared, and Chicken, the cousin of Pheasant. Last night’s ritual only seems more appropriate for all that.

A Question of Sheer Logistics

(As opposed to opaque logistics.)

I’m deeper into Eliade’s Shamanism, currently reading about some of the Siberian shamanic ceremonies, including the detailed description of the shaman’s experiences during a horse sacrifice. What has struck me with this is the elaborate structures of the ceremonies, and how they’re very much community-oriented events. Even a “simple” healing may involve the participation of at least the family of the patient, if not the community at large. The horse sacrifice and other journeying ceremonies may take days to prepare for, and last several days for the ritual itself. And this goes not just for Siberian tribes, but shamanic systems from around the world–while there are exceptions, in almost every culture there are at least some elaborate rituals for the more “important” shamanic activities. The “solitary shaman” seems to be a minority; while the shaman may not always be completely trusted in hir community, more often than not s/he is at least a part of it, at least in cultures where the people are in a cohesive unit rather than scattered all around.

I compare this to most of what I see in neoshamanism. Neoshamanism is, by the very nature of the cultures it’s prevalent in, more of a solitary practice. In America, at least, few people (comparatively speaking) need a shaman to shamanize for them. And among the subcultures where neoshamans are found, such as the neopagan and New Age community, there’s a definite lack of emphasis on the need for a clergy-type person to intercede with the gods and spirits. Why hire someone else to do it when you can learn to do it yourself? And people outside of these communities may see no real purpose for shamans that they assume are superstitious, crazy, or even evil.

One thing that I have noticed for myself (and this may vary from practitioner to practitioner) is that it’s a lot easier for me to hit a trance in a group setting. Some of it is energy; however, there’s also the atmosphere of sanctity, of celebration, and of mystery that helps to trigger an altered state of consciousness. The power of belief in one person can be strong, but multiply it by many–and that’s part of why group religions and spiritual practices are so popular. We feed on each other’s enthusiasm and belief.

Additionally, the more time that I take in setting up a ritual and making it just right, the more deeply I get into it. The act of preparing a place, going through specific ritualized preparations, and making it very clear to myself that I am about to step into a different headspace, all help with the transition of consciousness from one level to the next.

However, being one lonely person, there’s really only so much I can do. It’s kind of hard to set up a ritual psychodrama all by yourself, even without an audience. So part of what I’m going to have to ruminate on over the coming months is how to make up for the lack of group participation. Right now my rituals and journeys tend to be rather on the short side (a half an hour is average for a full ritual) and I will admit that I simply don’t usually get as much intensity as I have the few times I’ve done work in a group setting, though not necessarily as a part of a group. For example, wolf dancing is a lot more intense when I have my full pelt and I’m at a drum circle, than when I’m simply dancing to a drumming CD in the ritual room in our home.

Shamanism isn’t one of those things that really works effectively in a group where everyone’s a shaman, at least not unless A) you take turns shamanizing, or B) you stick to relatively mild things such as the guided meditation that lasts through twenty minutes of drumming. But I want to get into the more intense altered states of consciousness, and given how my mind works, I know that more elaborate ceremony is one of the keys of doing so.

There’s also the option of asking people to aid with drumming, ritual setup, etc. However, while I think I could justify that for something like my eventual initiation into shamanhood (whenever I and the spirits agree I’m ready) I can’t be calling up folks once a week or more and saying “Hey, I need you to come over all day Saturday and drum and play this part in my awesome ritual where I’m the center of attention, etc.”. My friends love me, but not quite that much.

I can certainly set up elaborate rituals myself. Granted, I’d have to work on my short attention span, but that’s part of the point of this whole formalization process. However, again, unless I perfect at least quad-location (that bilocation is for wimps!), I’ll be limited as to how much I can reasonably do before worrying about the details distracts me too much from actual shamanizing. This seems to be my most realistic option at this point.

I know for a fact that bells and whistles, so to speak, make rituals more effective for me (plus the totems and other spirits seem to like the effort). And I know from experience that the more time I put into a ritual, the better results I’m likely to get. I’m just going to have to work around the fact that I don’t have a bunch of helpers or apprentices, and that my neighbors are more likely to complain about the noise than come help me drum in my back yard.

New Moon – Skin Spirits

It’s the new moon, the time I’ve set aside specifically for work with skin spirits. This time around I’ve been making an effort to really get to know the dancing skins I have; some of the newer one’s I’ve never actually danced with. Additionally, a couple of weeks ago I was idly chatting with the dancing skin spirits while meditating in the ritual room, and they wanted it made quite clear that instead of me working magic with skindancing animals I had worked with before, they instead, for the time being, wanted me to acquaint myself with all of the skins. There are over a dozen of them; my wolf skin, a fox, a pair of reindeer legs someone else had used for dancing, and an Australian possum, among others. Not all of them are in perfect condition, but they’re still good for dancing with me.

It’s a fair request. No time like the present, after all. So this weekend I’ve been alternating among working on DIY Totemism, creating artwork, and getting to know the dancing skin spirits more deeply. Today, my dance partners were the red fox and skunk skins.

Fox-skin (not to be confused with Fox the totem) was quite eager to dance. I’d meditated with him before, but never danced. So I wore him as a headdress, and began to circle the room as I normally do to start getting into the right state of mind. Each skin spirit I’ve been working with has been giving me a unique way to move, either when walking or dancing; Fox-skin was full of nervous tension, taking in all sorts of sensory details around him, especially sight. So that’s what was passed on to me as we continued to move together. I could see squirrels and birds in the treetops that I’ve never really noticed before, and I paid more attention to little details in the room around me, my immediate environment. Sight seemed to be all-important.

Fox-skin then told me that he could help me with divination–not just seeing into the future, but being more aware of details in my circumstances. He called himself “Fox the Finder”. He also reminded me that he could help me with woodscrafting; being in the wilderness would certainly require me to be more aware of what was going on around me, especially if I was attempting to learn how to be more resourceful there. This also made me remember one of the very first magical items I created, something Fox (totemic) told me about way back in the beginning of my practice. I was told to take a black-dyed fox leg skin, paint the nails silver and the pads gold, and decorate it with jewelry made of horn heishi beads and turquoise; its purpose was to help me move through the woods easier. While I didn’t always remember to take it with me, it did help the times I did have it. I still have it, too, and will start taking it hiking with me again. I thanked Fox-skin for his dance, and placed him back with the others.

Later on, I danced Skunk-skin. He was a little shy at first, but warmed up to me quickly. His dance was more of a slow ambling walk–and why shouldn’t it be? Few animals would dare to mess with a skunk! So we ambled. As we did, I noticed myself paying more attention to scents–I kept smelling random objects to see what the differences were; it was rather fun. Skunk-skin told me that scent was his specialty–and not just because of his musk glands. Skunks have excellent senses of smell, and Skunk-skin told me any time I wanted to work on paying closer attention to mine–including when it crosses over into taste–that he’d be happy to help.

I’ll probably do more skindancing tomorrow, though for the night I’ll probably just stick to writing and artwork. I am enjoying having more of a schedule; I get more magic and spiritual work done than I did before, and I feel more comfortable and relaxed about it all. Who’d have thought?

Surrogate Traditions

I’ve been reading Shamanism: A Reader, the academic anthology that Graham Harvey put together a couple of years back. It’s been an interesting read thus far, and while some of the heavier reading has been a bit tough to slog through, it’s been worth it. One of the themes that has cropped up a couple of times in this and other works on shamanism has been the role of hunting in a lot of the cultures that feature shamanism of one sort or another. Granted, the specific roles and rituals vary per culture, and even from time period to time period (there’s a fascinating bit of writing in the anthology about how one particular African tribe’s use of ecstatic trance has changed in just a couple of centuries). Still, among the wide array of spirits that may need to be placated, cajoled and/or befriended are the spirits of animals that have been killed for food and other resources.

Now, I’ve never been hunting in my life. I fished a lot as a kid (though I always caught itty-bitty sunfish way too small to eat) and I tried chasing rabbits, though I never caught one. But I’ve never done the whole get up early in the morning, take a rifle or bow out into the woods, and shoot a deer routine that so many people still go through on a yearly basis. Hell, I never even went *camping* until I was in my early twenties. My girl scout troop mostly did “girly” things like make woven potholders–the closest we got to camping was a night of sleeping bags in an old bakery where the only wildlife was a collection of roaches big enough to carry a few of the scouts off into the night.

My understanding of hunting rituals is entirely academic. However, I remain undaunted. Therioshamanism is a (neo)shamanic path for the version of reality I subscribe to. So while learning to hunt and being able to kill my own meat to be an honest omnivore is on my list of things to learn before I die, I’m not going to put spirituality on hold.

Rather, I noticed a correlation between the apparent role of hunting rituals–or rather, placatory rituals for the spirits of hunted animals–and my work with skin spirits and food totems. While I don’t acquire my own meat prior to the “buy at the market/grocery store” stage of things, and I have never hunted an animal for meat and/or pelt/etc., I still work with the spirits of the (deceased) animals that come into my life in various ways. After all, in pretty much all cases, unless there’s some sort of religious activity going on that I don’t know about, the people who did take these animals’ lives weren’t particularly mindful or respectful of the act of doing so.

So the role I see for myself is one that attempts to take up the slack, to try to right some of the wrongs done. Modern Americans may not have as tight a set of taboos as, say, traditional Inuit cultural practices, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no possibility that angry spirits could be causing problems. In fact, if my experiences have any weight, the “food” totems, such as Crab, Chicken and Pig are plenty angry for what’s been done to their physical children. How much influence they’ve had on modern Americans is another story altogether, and I’m still making progress just on getting them to be willing to work with me.

I don’t feel that the only reason I should be working with these spirits is to try to avoid further retribution, whatever that may be. Instead, I do it because I see the damage that’s been done, how upset the balance really is between humanity and other animals, and part of my goal is to do what I can to right that balance in the manner that best fits my personal reality (rather than trying to shove a square peg into a round hole).

This, to me, is *my* version of hunting rituals. I may not hunt the animals myself, but I still deal with their spirits to try to placate them and show them that *somebody* cares enough, at least, to give them notice. I don’t think I can say in good conscience that they should go back to their kin and tell them how well they were treated in death, but I hope I can at least demonstrate that they aren’t being completely ignored. And I hope, as I try to make better connections to the food totems in particular, as well as improve my relationship with the skin spirits, that I can determine what (if anything) they’ve done to voice their displeasure. After all, many (though not all) shamanic cultures considered that bad happenings might very well be caused by broken taboos or angry spirits, and the shaman’s role was to help restore that balance. (The anthology I mentioned earlier actually had a really good discussion on the “confessional” atmosphere of shamanic rituals to that effect in traditional Inuit society.)

I’m not about to go work in a slaughterhouse or a fur farm; however, I can be even more mindful of the relationships I do have with the spirits at hand, and work to achieve a greater understanding. The dynamic that I work in parallels that of shamans and hunting rituals, though these necessarily differ thanks to the particular environment and culture that I’m in. And if I can get some suggestions as to what people in this culture can do to treat these spirits better, to make them less angry, then I’ve accomplished part of what I’ve set out to do.

Why, I Otter

(Yes, I like puns–why do you ask?)

Last night I did the Otter ritual that is somewhat of a sequel to the Badger ritual I did a week and a half ago. Now, technically these were both supposed to be New Moon rituals. However, my insanely busy (and exhausting) schedule coupled with remnants of procrastination led to the Otter ritual getting postponed. Rather than getting frustrated and deciding I should just forget the ritual since it was almost the Full Moon, I stuck to my philosophy of staying motivated and stopping guilt. The result was that late is, indeed, better than never.

The Otter ritual was very similar in structure to the Badger ritual (and my skindancing rituals in general). I started by calling on the four directional totems, again doing so without words. My elemental meditations have most definitely been paying off, as the evocations were quite strong and quick, and I’m definitely feeling much more connected to the totems and their respective elements.

I evoked Otter the totem next, using my staff as a channel. Per usual, I did a mild energetic shift to Otter as she arrived, laughing and bouncing, into the ritual room. I then picked up my otter skin and held her so that she could be “seen” by Otter. I then silently explained to Otter what the otter spirit wanted to do to help me, and she agreed to give us an extra boost.

So we danced.

I held the otter skin over my left shoulder, placed the candle in the center of the room, and danced in a circle around it, channelling the energy of both the otter spirit and Otter the totem, as well as my own, in a flood of waves and currents. I started out looping and circling as I danced, very free-form. I then settled into a rhythm of “step-step-step step-step-step DIP” that was repeated every half-circle. The “DIP” involved arcing my body down and then up, like an otter diving into the water, then coming up for air. At first I simply breathed the rhythm, but then began to spontaneously hum and whistle it as I danced.

Eventually the rhythm sped up, and we danced faster, joyfully spinning, drawing the energy in tighter and tighter, until I lifted up the otter skin high above my head, and helped her to “dive” with the energy down to the candle on the floor. The energy flooded into the candle, and as I laughed quietly at the end of this enthusiastic dance, I let that joy pour into it as well, sealing it at the end. I then placed the otter skin on the same side of the altar as the candle holder, lit the candle, and let the spirit take the flow of energy to where she needed to start the task I’d asked her to work on.

Otter the totem came to me at this point and asked to be able to stay with the otter skin spirit while the magic worked. I gave her free passage into my home as long as she needed. She seemed incredibly concerned for this little one, and wanted to be sure that her (the spirit’s) enthusiasm wouldn’t lead her into trouble, since she was a relatively young being. Otter may not always be thought of as one of the “motherly” totems, but she is, from my experience, quite concerned over her own. She can play, but she can also be quite serious when need be.

I bid farewell to the directional totems after this, as well as my spiritual friends, family and guardians. As I did so, I felt the energies of the elements return to their original sources–some within me, and some in the environment around me.

I’m glad I have the help of an otter with this situation; it could definitely use the flexibility and fluidity, as well as a reminder to not stress too much as things develop! Additionally, I’ve been enjoying developing specific dances for each spirit/totem species; before I would dance however I felt at the moment, though I’m feeling more inclined to have more “formal” dances to go with each animal. I do want to pick up a drum sooner rather than later for use in journeying and other practices, and the dances I’ve gotten so far have good rhythms for drumming as well–which could make for some interesting evocation and invocation practices.