Vegan Skindancing

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!)

How To Talk To Dead Things

So for those who don’t know, I have been working with animal parts in my art and spirituality since the late 1990s. It’s been a pretty continual process, and I’ve developed a lot of techniques both in the artistic and spiritual ends of the practice.

Being an animist, I observe spirits within the skins and bones and other remains. It’s not the soul of the animal that once wore these pieces and parts and collections of cells, but what remains–the spirit of the skin, collective spirits of hairs, etc. It’s like Russian nesting dolls–each cell has a spirit, and those add up into greater spirits, just as individual animal and plants spirits are folded over into the spirit of the Land. And yet they’re all their own entities at the very same time.

Back when I started all this, there was nothing on how to work with what I term “skin spirits”. I didn’t know anyone who did that sort of work. So, like the rest of my practice, I had to figure it out on my own. And it was a process of trial and error. First I had to realize there were spirits in these remains at all. And then I had to figure out how best to talk to them. (More on that in a bit.) And once we could converse, I had to be able to listen and act on that.

And over the years, almost everyone I met who worked with them had learned how to do so from observing me or reading things I’d written in articles, on forums, or in blogs about the practices I had created from scratch. In an attempt to spread the knowledge even further, I wrote what is to my knowledge the first (and only, at this point) book on the topic, also named Skin Spirits.

I do like hearing from other people who have done this sort of spiritual work, whether influenced by me or not. I know a lot of people who collect or make things with animal remains, but it’s only a small portion who do spiritual work with them, whether they’re literal animists, or simply see the ritual as a good practice. Either way, it’s an additional layer of respect that isn’t mandatory, but which can be quite artistic.

One thing I wanted to share was an introductory “how-to” regarding the actual process of communicating with the spirits in the remains. This will work whether you believe spirits are actual entities with independent agency, or elements of the human imagination. And it works with any hide, bone, feather, claw etc., though you may have to add in a little extra intuition if you don’t know the species! (For simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to use the term “skin” in lieu of listing all sorts of remains.)

First, sit with the skin in a comfortable, quiet place. Hold it, touch it, examine the colors and contours. Get to know the actual material skin.

Next, close your eyes and do your best to quiet your mind. If you need something to focus your mind on, keep focusing on your sense of touch and keep working with the physical skin.

Now, open your mind to the spirit in the skin. If you aren’t sure how to do this, imagine a cord extending from your forehead to the forehead of the skin.

Keeping the connection open, see if any images, words, or sensations come to your attention. Try not to go in with any expectations. Simply see what happens. If you notice something unusual, observe quietly.

You might try starting the conversation yourself. When I do this, it isn’t so much words as it is a stream of consciousness or flow of information, if that makes sense. However, you can use words as well. I find that the aforementioned consciousness/information “translates” to and from words well. It’s all about how your brain processes it.

If you don’t get an immediate response, don’t worry. The spirit may not feel like talking just yet. Conversely, you might need more practice in listening to spirits. One way to help this along is to basically create a vessel for the animal to use. Visualize the animal, whole and alive, in your mind. Start with letting it just stand there. Don’t try to make it do anything else. If the animal starts to move or speak of its own volition, let it do so at its own pace. This is the spirit taking the vessel you have created and using it as a conduit for communication.

As to the conversations? That’s entirely open-ended. One thing I find useful as a topic to discuss is what the skin would like done with it. After all, I started this work in the first place because I wanted the remains to have a better “afterlife” than being a trophy on someone’s wall or a status symbol in the closet. A lot of my best artwork ideas have been ones suggested to me by the spirits whose remains I’m using in those artwork pieces.

You may find after a while that the spirits may “nudge” you when they want to talk, especially if you have them out in your home where you can see them (which I feel is preferable anyway). This can occasionally be a bit much, especially if they’re persistent. You may want to learn how to “turn the sound off” for a while if it’s getting disruptive. However, take some of these opportunities when they happen, too.

This is just the very beginning of my skin spirits work. You can find out more (for free!) in the Skin Spirits category of this blog, or (not for free, but it goes to a good cause!) my aforementioned book.

Wolf Skin Ritual

Aha! I think I figured out how to keep you folks with RSS feeds from getting slammed with all the pictures! Let me know if it works.

Anyway, today I did the ritual I had planned to retire my old wolf skin and dedicate the new one. Only a few folks showed up, but it was a good group, and it was a really successful ritual overall. I’ve got a full writeup and some pictures to share here–enjoy!

I’ve been dancing with this old guy since 2002:

He was my very first wolf skin, purchased in the late 1990s, and he told me before I went to my first pagan gathering that he wanted to dance with me. So I split him open, rigged him up with some leather straps to tie him to me, and we went out and danced at the fire circle, with great success! Since then, we’ve danced together around numerous circles. Sadly, I didn’t know much about taking care of hides til much later, and between rainy, damp nights in tents, and heat from the fires, he decomposed over time even though his was a pretty good quality tan.

So I recently made the final payment on my new wolf skin, and wanting to have him dedicated before going to a Beltane festival next weekend, today was prime time for making the ritual happen. Here’s a picture of him right after he arrived in the mail:

At some point I want to post a tutorial on how I got him from that to his present state, but now’s not the time.

So I got things set up for the ritual. Here are a couple of pictures of the altar:

There are some items from the permanent Grey Wolf altar in my art/ritual room, along with my Black Bear rattle which I use to call and send home spirits, a fern frond and a turtle shell of water that I use to purify the ritual area prior to ritual, my ritual knife, and a platter with pouches for part of the ritual later on. You can also see the two hides curled up together, and a collection of spare musical instruments, as well as my own drum.

I started the ritual with purification by sprinkling water with the fern, since I dislike smoke and therefore smudging. (Sprinkling water on people is especially fun depending on their reactions. I’m definitely keeping this!) I then called the various spirits and places of the directions to join us, along with a couple of other beings I wanted to invite, Grey Wolf included.

Then I picked up my old wolf skin and carried him around the altar, talking about our history together, how he taught me to wolf dance, and some of the things we had been through. I talked about how it was going to be our last dance together, and that this was a very special event. Then I put him on for the last time, and while the other participants drummed and rattled, we danced around the altar. I could feel how tired and worn-out he is, but he made a good go of it, and we ended it with three good, long howls.

Then I took him off, and I was crying as I did so. I thanked him one more time for the good years dancing together. I laid him out on the floor, and stretched out the new skin as well. I took the leather straps from the old skin and transferred them to the new skin, whom I had previously prepared.

And then I danced the new skin. And I could most definitely feel the difference! This guy was ready and raring to go! We didn’t so much dance as run, leap, pounce, and gambol. (Yes, I said gambol.) It was tough at times to get him to stay focused on the dancing, which was fine–I’m just glad he was so happy to be moving around again. There’ll be time enough to work out etiquette between us. It was good, though, and I’m looking forward to the fire dancing next weekend.

We then took a break to chow down on the potluck goodies people had brought, and enjoy some social time. After that, I had people bring the small leather pouches I had given them, and I cut off small bits of fur from both wolves and put them in the pouches. Mind you, I never give away fur from my personal wolf skins, so this was a really unusual thing–those who got them received very special gifts. And then I closed down the ritual, said farewell to the assembled (both corporeal and otherwise) and went to ground.

I put the old wolf skin on the permanent altar; here’s a pic:

You can see the Brown Bear altar beneath it, and also some assorted ritual and art effects on the floor at the base. No surprise, I’m already running out of room on the Wolf altar.

And while I didn’t have pics taken during the ritual, here are a few pictures of me in the new wolf skin. (No, that’s not my ritual wear–it’s the outfit I wore during the pics I took for the potential tutorial I may do.)

It takes a very large wolf skin to be able to fit over my 5’4″ frame like that. It’ll take some time for us to adjust to each other; I need to fit the straps properly, and add a couple of others. Also, my arms do fit through the holes that his forelegs went through on the front leg skins, but it’s a tight fit. It’ll loosen over time, though. Still, he fits nicely like my old skin did, and we were very comfortable dancing together.

Also, small bit of timing–my period started in earnest while I was dancing the new skin. Given that the moon is waxing, and Artemis has recently come into my life again, and I am a Luperca in the Ekklesia Antinoou it’s an interesting series of convergences to note.

The Importance of Ritual Tools

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

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

To which I say: fuck that noise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead Critters

I’ve just sent in the final .pdf proof of my next solo book, Skin Spirits: Animal Parts in Spiritual and Magical Practice, which should hopefully be out in the next couple of months. Already there are things I wish I could add in, even though I know there’s a certain point where one has to say “Okay, the book is done, get it out there!”

Over the past few months I’ve been working with my relationship with Death. It’s a rather uneasy one. I haven’t had anyone really close to me taken suddenly, and the deaths among family and friends have been few. This has historically caused me to feel anxious about Death, and what it will be like the first time I do lose someone close without warning. Plus, of course, there’s dealing with my own mortality, especially as I’ve entered into my early thirties, and I don’t feel quite so immortal as I did in my twenties.

One of the alterations I’ve made to the rituals I go through when purifying things I’ve made out of animal parts is to consider the mortality of my own flesh. I look at the hides and the bones lying prone and dead on the floor, and I then look at my own flesh, and the bones beneath it, and I contemplate the fact that some day this vehicle that I am intimately connected to 24/7 will cease to move, and will be akin to the remains around me. It makes me even more appreciative of being able to work with the remains of these once-living beings, and by extension being able to continue my life by eating the remains of animals and plants that were only recently still alive.

It’s like the (in)famous epitaph on certain gravestones, which are variants of this:

Remember Man as you go by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so shall you be,
Prepare yourself to follow me*

And this all goes back to a large part of why I work with animal parts in my art and spirituality. Yes, there’s practicality to it, but there’s also reverence. I never view the skins and bones as trophies, or toys, or really even as possessions. It is a privilege to work with them in the way that I do, aware of the death that occurred, and that these were once warm, living beings the same way I am now.

I know I can’t inspire the same reverence in those who buy my artwork, but it’s my hope that at least some of them will see what I create as more than just “pretty shinies”. I know there will be people, for example, who buy the totemic dance tails as fashion accessories, not as connections to archetypal spiritual beings, or even the individual spirits of the animals whose tails they were when living. And I know that some of the things I create as ritual tools will end up instead as part of people’s “collections of dead things”, more for display than active work.

But that’s why I do the spiritual work I do, and then write about it, and how others can utilize it. Because some people will pick up on what I do, and adopt it to their own practices.

And it’s also why I do the food totem work that I do, honoring the totems of the animals and plants whose physical counterparts I eat to stay alive. I cannot live without killing something, unless I went entirely fruitarian, and even then some would argue that eating seeds contributes to the loss of potential life.

I don’t take Death for granted any more. No matter whether the death was from a trap or bullet or disease in the wild, or by gas or electrocution after a lifetime in a cage; no matter whether the intention of the death was for food or for fur; no matter whether the death was at the hands of humans, or another animal; no matter whether it occurred after two weeks or two centuries; the fact is that some living being ceased to be a part of this life and the world that I still have the privilege to interface with, and that is reason for a moment of solemnity, moreso if I was directly involved with that death.

All of the afterlife theories in the world cannot provide incontrovertible proof that there’s anything once the body shuts down. That objective uncertainty is even more reason to be aware of when we send another being into that unknown before us, and to be aware of the fact that someday we’ll be there, too. Not necessarily to dwell in gloom over it, but to simply consider the immense change we are facilitating when we contribute to a death.

* Of course, there’s also the witty reply to this: “To follow you I am not content/How do I know which way you went?”

The Journeying Continues…

Tonight I tried my first journey with a purpose beyond exploration. I had a favor to ask of Badger, and so I went to see hir. I had an offering in mind, something I could give hir now, and something later, if s/he would help me.

I asked Small Horse and Small Deer (the drum and beater) for their aid, warmed up the drum, then I played Small Badger’s song to ask him to help me to negotiate with Badger. He was quite pleased that I played the song for him and asked him for his help, though I may make it a habit to make a small offering besides that for the skin spirits and other helpers.

So we all went to go see Badger. I drummed for a bit to let Small Horse and Small Deer take me to the starting point. When I arrived, I sang Badger’s song as loudly as I could, just to let hir know I was there. In retrospect, I could have gone looking for hir, too, but s/he didn’t seem miffed about coming to me instead. This is probably at least in part because s/he was expecting me; we’ve already talked a bit about the situation, and this time I came armed with offerings.

Badger made hirself look very large and impressive, and s/he towered over me, even for being a normally close to the Earth animal. I was sufficiently awed, and s/he and I got down to business. I told hir what I wanted hir help with, and also what offerings I would make. S/he was surprised, though not unpleasantly so, that I was offering something now and something later. S/he knew how important this situation is, and also that it would take some time to complete. So s/he accepted, and I was happy. I sang Badger’s song for hir again, to boast about how wonderful s/he is, which tickled hir even more.

Then I came back, and sang songs for Small Badger and Small Deer, and played Small Horse’s drumbeat, though I don’t have a song for hir yet. I warmed the drum down, and set out to start making things happen on my end.

I am quite pleased to note that my ritual structure is coming together nicely. When I started all this stuff out last year, I was doing things in a much more generically neopagan manner. I did a circle casting with an athame still, and swept the place with a broom beforehand for purification. I won’t say that my ritual structure now is the exact same as such-and-such culture’s shamans do it, because it isn’t. However, the structure has changed quite a bit.

Part of this is due to my beliefs. I no longer feel that I need to create a “world between worlds” to practice in, and I see all space as sacred, even if the Land in one place is tougher for me to connect with than in another place. While I greet the totems at the directions, I don’t do this as part of circumscribing a circle to divide me from the rest of the world. I don’t see myself as calling them, either–they’re already there; I need only remember that.

As I’m also focusing more on journeying, the ritual structure has evolved to support that as a central practice in many of the rituals, preparing me to go in, and helping me to come back out, as well as interact with the spirits at all points throughout. And the drumming has become much more prevalent, essentially having replaced the athame in greeting the directional totems and others.

Obviously, there are things that are in common between the previous structure and what I use now. But these are the most significant changes I’ve ever made, taking whole sections and tools and things out, and adding others in because they work better. It’s made things a lot more effective, even in this relatively short period of time.

So we’ll see how things progress, and what Badger ends up bringing about. While at an earlier point in my life, particularly when I was heavily into Chaos magic, I was very focused on the end results of my magic to determine my success. While that’s still important, what constitutes a good result may vary more than “I asked for X and got X”. It may be something as simple as “I asked for X, but Badger decided that Y would actually be better–and s/he was right”. Or it may end up being something much more complex, something that can’t be quantified in a linear, cause and effect fashion. “Success” is a very subjective notion, and a ritual that didn’t result in the intended way may still end up being more success than failure.

Not that I’d mind getting what I asked for, of course 😉

So It’s Been About a Year…

This week marks a year since I started developing therioshamanism. I made the first posts here on September 20, but the idea was percolating for a few days beforehand, along with a few experiences that pushed me in this direction. I look back at those first posts, and holy cripes–there’s been a lot of change in the past year on many levels. For one thing, my practice is a lot less neopagan-y, and while I still value the input of books, I’m much more aware of just how important practice is in comparison. Books can give ideas, but unless I put those ideas to work, what am I really doing at all?

My first six months saw a lot of restructuring and cosmology-building, as well as figuring out what from my past practices was really useful, and what I could leave behind. After that things got a lot less linearly organized, and as I’ve evolved into actual practice beyond meditation, with activities ranging from writing songs for my guides to taking some exploratory journeys, I’ve come to realize that this isn’t about “Your first year should mean the accomplishment of this, and then the second year will bring that”. There aren’t degrees, and I’ve evolved at the rate I needed to. I think the structure of the first six months was exceptionally helpful in getting me started, but it fell away afterwards, and I think things went better for that.

I look back, and I see a lot of time spent working on figuring things out for myself. I see a lot of useful comments that helped me when I was trying to bounce ideas off others for feedback, and I see times when the spirits I work with nudged things into place just at the right time. I see some times of frustration, of doubt, and of insecurity, but I also see times of learning and victory and states of flow. I see where I fell flat on my face (usually due to my own actions), and I see where my spirituality contributed to my going back to graduate school. I’ve been to numerous places, physically and otherwise, and I’ve learned so much–not the least of which being the knowledge that I still have so much left to learn.

It’s been a good year overall. There’s so much potential before me, and while I’m not under the misapprehension that everything will be a cakewalk, there’s a lot of potential to create good things out of this.

So how did I celebrate? By hiking, of course. This was something more instigated by me and my need to mark the occasion, than by the spirits, who are working more along a “Okay, the time is right for this” “schedule”. I wanted to do a bit of a dedication ceremony for my new drum, and also wanted to make offerings to a few particular local guides associated with my sacred place in the Gorge (which is mirrored as my starting place when I journey in the spirit world).

So, having prepared the offerings, basic hiking supplies, and also having strapped my drum to the back of my pack, I hiked on up the mountain. I had just gone hiking with Taylor a few days before, so I was still a bit tired, and the temperature was in the nineties. I ended up taking a lot of short breaks on the way up. But I made it with no major complications.

A couple of auspicious occurrences happened on the way up. First, I found a deer leg bone. This is unprecedented, as I have never found anything more than a few stray feathers at this place, let alone bones. However, there was a slightly dirty but intact deer bone right in the middle of the trail in front of me. “Pick me up!” its spirit said. I did, and got an instant mental image of the bone as the handle for a drum beater. Now, the beater that I got with my new drum was well-made, but the stick that was the handle just didn’t really connect with me. So I resolved that once I got to the top of the mountain and to my place that I’d do a quick replacement.

The other occurrence traces back to some of my recent journeying. There’s a particular place I haven’t been able to get past due to certain spirits blocking it. I know I need to get up there, and I never have a problem getting up there in the physical world. As I sat resting near this place, Stellar’s Jay came swooping across, shrieking loudly as if to say “Clear the way!” I decided that next time I journeying I’d ask for Stellar’s Jay to help me get past these spirits.

Once at my sacred place, specifically the location that is the home of the Animal Father, I rested and refreshed myself. I then went around and placed the offerings in their proper places; these were not food, but rather small shiny objects that I made over the weekend. One was for the Land itself, and contained some of my hair. The others were for local guides: Stellar’s Jay, whose presence in the wilderness resembles (but isn’t identical to) Scrub Jay in the city; Northern Harrier Hawk, who is the raptor closest to me in this area, replacing Redtail back east; Great Horned Owl, who is a particular guardian of this place, and for whom the offering was less about me and more about the place; Raven, whose quorks have often accompanied me here; Douglas Squirrel, bold and brash, but with caution when it’s necessary; and Red Fox, who is rarely ever seen, but is a silent shadow here, and wanted to make hir presence known to me.

After the offerings were made, I redid the drum beater with the deer leg. Then I did my first journey with the new drum. I warmed the drum up with my hand, raising the energy of it and waking it up. Then I drummed slowly, gradually speeding up in a pattern that I’ve found to be effective for me. I saw the horse spirit in the drum, and learned her name (though I’ll refer to her from here on out as Small Horse, as with other skin spirits I work with). Then I began the formal journey.

Every time I’ve journeyed so far, I’ve found myself in the form of a white wolf, and this time was no exception. The Animal Father approached, as numerous spirits of the Land surrounded us. He led me down a trail, then into the woods. He showed me an opening in the trees that he told me was the entrance to the Upper World. While he could go there, he couldn’t take me with him, and told me I’d have to find a guide to help me with that.

Next he took me to a small trickling stream across the path I had walked. He told me to start following the River Dragon down the mountain, starting at that stream. I bounded down along the stream as it joined others and got larger, until the River Dragon finally arrived at a specific point where s/he could go to the Lower World, but I couldn’t, same as with the Upper World. S/he suggested that I try talking to some of the fish about getting help.

Before I could do more, though, I heard a Douglas squirrel making an alarm call in the physical world, and was told I needed to go. The Animal Father told me as I began to head back that Douglas Squirrel would always tell me if I needed to go back, or if there was a threat. In this case it was good that I left when I did. While the place I was at is pretty secluded, and populated only by more serious hikers, there was relatively heavy traffic today. I managed to not be bothered during the journey, but after packing up and heading out, I ran into a pair of women not 100 yards away from where I’d been.

All in all, it was a good day. And it’s been a good year, too. I have accomplished more, spiritually and magically, this year than any other. It’s been intense, but overall positive. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.

The Return of Horse

Because I’m going to start doing more formal shamanic work, it became time to get a new drum. I’m still keeping the small goatskin drum I made for my Earth month a while back for practice purposes and backup as necessary (plus it’s quieter, good for apartment living). But I’d been told a while back that once I was ready to start practicing seriously, that I’d need to get a new drum for that. The timing was good–this is my last splurge for awhile, since I’m now a full-time student as of this week.

I chose to go to Cedar Mountain Drums, which is in my neighborhood. I’ve been there a few times, including when I got the kit to make my first drum. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a drumming circle they held there and had a chance to play a number of drums. I hadn’t been sure what sort of drum I was going to get, so this was a good opportunity to try out different sounds and creations. The one that I kept gravitating towards was a large horsehide drum on a cedar frame; the sound was lovely, other than a tiny, barely perceptible vibration at the end of the note.

So when I went today to get my own drum, I headed towards the 17″ unbleached horsehide on cedar frames. I was fortunate in that the owner of the shop had just made a few yesterday, and though they were just a wee bit damp still, they had a very lovely sound. It took me a bit, but I settled on one that had not only a nice voice, but also a good energy to it as well. I picked out a beater as well, and was ready to go. I paid, brought the drum home, and it’s now sitting up in the ritual area along with the smaller drum:

I won’t be playing the new drum yet, not until the Equinox when I’ll be doing a private anniversary ceremony, since it’ll have been a year since I first started on this path.

I do highly recommend Cedar Mountain Drums if you’re in the market for a drum; the owner has 17 years experience in drum making, and runs a very good business.

It is appropriate that the drum ended up being horsehide. I’m finding myself reclaiming some things from when I was younger, things that I had rejected or gotten burned out on. One of these is my relationship with Horse. Horse was the second totem to come into my life, after Wolf. When I was a preteen, not long after I turned twelve, Horse came in to the point that s/he temporarily replaced Wolf for a few years, staying with me until near the end of my senior year of high school.

This was an incredibly awkward time of my life. I was not the most socially adjusted teen in the world, and ended up being picked on more than just about anyone in the school. It wasn’t any one thing; I simply didn’t fit in. Most girls my age had been interested in boys and clothes and makeup for a few years. I was more interested in grubbing around in the woods, reading books about animals, and collecting Breyer Horses. Being in a small town with a small student population that was particularly prone to cliquishness, I didn’t have much in the way of friends. So I ended up spending a lot of time alone.

There were various attempts, over the years, to try to get me to conform in one way or another–a new haircut, an attempt to show me how to use makeup, an inquiry as to whether I should maybe try to make friends with such-and-such clique (who had never shown anything but contempt for me). None of it worked. I tried a few times to be like other people and blend in–and the results were usually disastrous. I simply didn’t get it, and wasn’t interested enough to try any harder.

What Horse did was support my independence, and show me that I didn’t need to conform. Unfortunately, I ended up blaming Horse in part for what I perceived as too much sheltering and the continued proliferation of my social awkwardness–instead of taking responsibility for my actions, as well as understanding that I wasn’t responsible for the emotionally abusive words and actions of my peers. So I ended up pushing Horse away once Wolf came back late in high school. For years I denied any connection with Horse whatsoever.

What was I so afraid of? Honestly, I think I worried that I would lose what independence I did have, and get sucked into some life that I didn’t want to be a part of. I wasn’t secure in myself at all, even into my twenties, and it took moving out on my own, along with some hard life lessons, to really begin to formulate a solid sense of self. Sadly, some of that was so wrapped up in being a Wolf person that I ignored most other totems, and deliberately avoided Horse.

Now, as I’m approaching thirty and looking back at the last decade, I’m beginning to reclaim some of the things I let go of which in retrospect were things I really do value. I don’t blame myself or castigate myself for my previous actions; in a way, these things had to happen for me to learn. But now I can look at them with more confidence, and not be afraid. I can still make boundaries with the things that I know even more don’t suit me, but still accept that other things are alright.

This includes Horse. I feel very honored that s/he has chosen to come back into my life. I’m hoping we can talk more about my experiences as a teenager and how they shaped who I am today. And I’m looking forward to Small Horse’s guidance as my drum.

Plus I’ll see what Horse has to say about the future, not just the past. I’m aware, for example, that the hide that is on my drum almost certainly came from a horse that died in a slaughterhouse. This is a charged issue; on the one hand, it’s been considered a victory that horses are no longer able to be legally slaughtered in the United States. However, this has led to an unexpected side effect–horses are now being shipped further away into even less humane facilities in Mexico. I wonder what Horse and Small Horse will have to say about this issue.

I am grateful for the return of Horse. May our relationship be renewed, and be healthier than ever.

A Slight Change in Plans

One thing about not being a part of a culture that has an ingrained shamanic path is that would-be shamanic practitioners don’t have much of a standard framework to go on, relatively speaking. A lot has to be done from scratch, including things like cosmology, relationships with spirits, ritual practices, and so forth. On the one hand, this can make it frustrating if you tend to worry “Am I doing this correctly? Should I maybe do it like those people over there? Or do I just read another book and keep listening to the spirits?” However, it can be advantageous in that it offers a decent amount of flexibility.

I did a drum journey to meet with the Animal Father tonight to try to confirm some murmurings I’d overheard from a few of the totems in the past several days. I first found myself clinging to the trunk of my tree, unsure whether to climb up into the branches, or down into the roots. However, I was told to simply drop off onto the grass, and start walking. I found myself in a forest that eventually led to a place here that is very special to me as well as to the Animal Father, but whose exact location is to be kept secret. I proceeded to a particular place, and made myself comfortable.

As I did, numerous animals came out of the trees. Some were native to the area, some were not. As they congregated, the Animal Father appeared as well, and approached me. He was smaller than I sometimes see him, maybe the size of a small black bear. He sat across from me and held my head in his paws and gave me a gift. Then he told me to stop drumming, and to lay back. I did, and he sat behind my head and held it in his forepaws again.

The short version of our conversation involved my work for the next several months. While I’m to continue creating songs and dances for the various skin spirits and corresponding totems I’ll be working with, I also am supposed to start doing more formal work with the totems and skin spirits who already have songs–Wolf and Small Wolf, Badger and Small Badger, Deer and Small Deer, and Coyote and Small Coyote. Additionally, I need to create songs for Bear and Small Bear as soon as possible.

Of these five, only Coyote and Small Coyote are of a species that I haven’t had much experience with. The others are ones I’m quite comfortable working with. In addition, I’ll be working with Horse, and my Small Horse will be my next drum. I’ve been pondering what sort of skin I’ll have on my full ritual drum (as opposed to the small practice drum I have right now), and last week I went to a drum circle where I had a chance to play drums of various sorts. The one that really stood out to me, both in sound quality and in spirit, was a 20″ horsehide with a cedar frame. I’ve had a relationship with Horse since I was a young teenager; it hasn’t always been a good relationship on my end, but Horse has been steadily, patiently there. Add in that Horse has historically stepped in on matters of travel, as well as crucial periods of growth, and it’s not surprising that I’d be drawn to a horsehide drum for journeying.

So, back to the journey at hand with the Animal Father. Once he said what he had to say, he went back into the woods, and the animals began to depart as well. I did stop Badger, though, to ask hir if she would be willing to work with me in a formal ritual. S/he asked me, “What will you offer me?” I replied “What do you want?” S/he stopped then, and looked very pointedly at me, then said “That’s a dangerous response at this level of the game. You’d be wiser to come in to such a situation with something already in mind to drive your bargain with. Come back when you have something to offer me”. Then s/he shuffled off into the woods.

This startled me momentarily, but in retrospect it doesn’t surprise me. While in the past the totems and other spirits I’ve worked with have been relatively lenient with me, shamanism is much more…hmmm…intense than my previous work, relatively speaking. There’s less room for errors (though I wouldn’t say no room for errors). And it was a good reminder to me to take care, that what worked before may not be the parameters I’ll be working with from here on out.

I drummed myself back home, as it were, and got myself grounded with some good food. I’m going to have to think of something significant that I can offer; what I’ll be asking for will be bigger than what I usually do, and more will be asked in return. I’ve had a lot of leeway in the past with regards to offerings, but if I’m going to be stepping up to do more serious shamanic work, I’m also going to have to accept the changes in how things work.

Which is fine; I expected this would happen. Am I worried? Some. As I said, there’s less room for errors. But I wouldn’t be going forward if I didn’t feel confident in my ability to adapt and grow. And the timing isn’t surprising. Next month it’ll have been a year since I started on this path; before that I’d been working with totems and animal spirits for a good decade from a neopagan (and sometimes Chaos magic) perspective. So it’s probably to be expected, at least to an extent.

I’m still here, amazingly enough, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what’s most important.

Locos and Locals

My efforts towards creating songs for my dancing skins and their respective totems continue apace. I haven’t been blogging much about it, because it would essentially be “Today I practiced Deer’s song more, and came up with a drum rhythm for Small Deer”. Not particularly riveting when you’re not directly involved. However, I thought my recent work with Coyote was noteworthy.

For all my work with the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM), I’ve only worked with Coyote in a limited way; once was in a ritual to help protect hir physical children. I also sporadically worked with hir a few years ago when I was more heavily into Chaos magic. At that time Coyote was teaching me a bit about facing my fears, with one particular memorable incident where s/he helped me as I drove my car down a very steep icy hill one winter without panicking! Coyote and Small Coyote were the most recent volunteers to step forward in this endeavor, and so I started with Coyote’s song.

When I speak of Coyote, I don’t only refer to the Coyote referred to in the myths of a number of Native American tribes. Coyote-as-totem, to my understanding, shares some overlap with that other Coyote, but is not one and the same. My experience with totems has been that while they may have a number of bailiwicks, their initial connection with me has a more specific focus, and then as we work more I learn more about what that totem has to offer.

This time, Coyote mainly told me to sing about change and adaptability, as well as the illusory nature of subjective perceptions of reality (though not in those exact words!). While s/he briefly touched on creation myths and the Trickster archetype, these plugged into a main theme of Change. To be honest, I was a bit worried about working with Coyote in a deeper sense. Some (not all) of the Coyote people I’ve met have been chaotic in a very unhealthy, destructive manner; other people talk about Coyote the way that some practitioners of Asatru talk about Loki–a dangerous being that you shouldn’t bother with if you can help it. However, this initial reconnection with Coyote seems to be on common ground that I can understand and have experience with. I don’t expect everything to go smoothly or perfectly–but I don’t expect that with any of the totems or other spirits I work with. Sometimes the lessons we learn are difficult; and if Coyote will be dealing with Change, then it won’t be surprising if there are tough things to learn. However, if I can learn more adaptability, so much the better–that’s one thing I need more of. While I can roll with the punches, I could stand to be less stressed about life’s ups and downs. I think, perhaps, the fear of chaotic change may make some people afraid of Tricksters in general–who wants their lives entirely shaken up? What I understand so far, though, from my work with Coyote is that she’ll help me to learn ways to cope with chaotic changes, both in myself and in others.

I’m also slowly beginning to shape very rudimentary connections with the locals, as it were. Living in urban Portland, the vertebrate animals I tend to see the most are scrub jays, crows, and fox squirrels, with the occasional robin or kestrel. I don’t even see that many insects beyond the pollinators in the garden.

I’ve seen criticism in various online communities of neopagan totemism, specifically regarding the fact that many people seem to have totems whose physical children they’ve never seen. I’m a good example. Wolf’s been in my life since I was very young; however, I’ve only interacted with wolves at rescue facilities, and only on the outside of the pen. I’ve never seen a wolf in the wild, and never really been to a secluded enough place that could realistically support them. Yet Wolf has been one of the most persistent presences in my life over the years.

I did read something that actually makes a good deal of sense to me in Totem Popularity Contests: Why Some Totems Are More Popular Than Others, written by Ravenari. While all of her points are excellent considerations that I think should be talked about more, I particularly am interested in the last one, the idea that “Some animals are popularity-contest winners”. In my experience, there are totems who are more outgoing than others, and there are some who couldn’t care less whether we work with them or not.

While it’s a very, very rough comparison, and should not be seen as a one-to-one parallel, I think we can look at some pre-Christian religions that had large numbers of deities, including a major pantheon. The Romans are a good example; while they had their major pantheon including Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, etc., there were also countless minor deities, local deities, demi-gods, and so forth. It’s not entirely inconceivable that within a neopagan context, where we have the influence of that somewhat tiered structure, that there could be some totems who roughly correlate to a major pantheon, perhaps due to a greater tendency to interact with more people.

Continuing with the pantheon comparison, and especially within a neopagan/modern pagan context, most of the people today who work with the Olympians have never been to Greece, or any of the places where these deities originated from in pre-Hellenic times (or, for that matter, where they travelled to in ancient syncretic blending). So is it really surprising that many people haven’t actually ever “met” their totems “in real life”?

That being said, I do think there’s a lot of value in working with local spirits; some would argue that in order to really practice shamanism that it’s a requirement. I’ve spent much of my time, especially since last spring when I went to Arizona, connecting with the Land here as a whole. However, I’m beginning to make more specific connections. Scrub Jay in particular stands out to me, though Squirrel has also made hirself known, albeit in sometimes irritating ways (squirrels in the attic, squirrels in the garden!). There are a number of plants, one tree in particular, that have become particularly important. And, of course, there’s my ongoing “romances” with several individual places, such as Laurelhurst Park, the Multnomah-Wahkeena trails, and Mount Hood.

I’m willing to bet that the quality of the relationships that I create locally will be different–not necessarily better or worse–than those that I’ve created with the BINABM. Historically my work with the BINABM has primarily involved more overarching concepts, especially involved with personal metamorphosis; for example, Deer has always been the Dreamkeeper for me, and Bear has taught me a lot about healing and balancing it with the ability to bring harm. It will be interesting to see how working with the totems whose children live in the same environment I do will go. Of course, this is mainly conjecture at this point, and the actual results remain to be seen. But that’s what this journal is for–recording of my thoughts as I go along, and later on I can look back and see whether I was right or not!

For now, I’m going to continue focusing mainly on the songs I need to be writing. I’ve asked the Powers That Be whether I should be doing something else, but the message is generally “Nope. Keep writing the songs. Once you have them, then we’ll get into more detail of what you can use them for. Still, keep your eyes and ears open.” Which is fine; I tend to do better focusing on one main thing at a time, building on what’s come before.