Finally, Something For Myself

So–there’s a new post I did over at No Unsacred Place, about my work with skin spirits both as art, and as a funereal process. Go, take a look, and then come back here.

For someone who works with dead critters as much as I do, I really don’t have very many that I keep for myself. My job has primarily been to help these sacred remains and skin spirits to a better “afterlife”, generally with other people.

But I do have a few. I have my wolf skins, and a few other hides and ritual tools I’ve made. I even have the old antler-handled knife I bought as a ritual blade way back at the beginning of my paganism in the mid-90s. And I have my tail.

Well, okay. It’s one of two tails. I have an Arctic wolf tail that’s part of my formal shamanic costumery. But then I also have my “wear-ever” tail, a big grey wolf tail that I’ve had for years. And despite the increasingly varied sorts of attachments I’ve been making for tails over the years, my poor wolf tail’s been stuck with a couple of straps of leather that I stitched on hastily, and which have broken several times (hence why the belts I make for tails I sell are braided).

My most recent “flavor” of tail has been a belt tail with a matched pair of belt pouches. I decided that I liked this design so much that I wanted my own tail to have that setup.

But I didn’t want to use just any leather. Instead, I decided to make use of my old, beat-up, now-retired-and-replaced leather biker jacket that I’ve been wearing around–and wearing out–for over a decade (after getting it from Goodwill, mind you). I saved the painted panel on the back, which is going to get hung up on the wall with the various pins I wore on the coat. And then I went to town with the leather shears.

And, a couple of hours later, I had this:

I’m rather pleased with it. I used a pair of wolf toe bones for the toggle-clasps on the pouches, and all the leather is from that old coat. Given that the coat had been damaged and repaired so often as to be unwearable, I was happy to be able to keep making use of the leather for such a special project–and my own wolf tail no longer had to go around with just a couple crappy strips of worn out leather 🙂

I’ve been wearing it all weekend at vending events and OryCon, and have already gotten compliments. Plus it’s just a fun thing to wear about. If I decide I want to wear a skirt, I can still have pockets. If I want to incorporate it into festival garb, I get pockets AND a tail! I’m all pleased an’ stuff, in case you couldn’t tell 😉

I don’t keep very much for myself, but when I do, it has to be something very dear to me. This definitely counts.

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The Care and Feeding of Your Totem Animal Dance Costume

I’ve been giving people information for years on basic care for the dance hides and such that they buy from me; however, I finally wrote up something to send off with orders, and I thought it would be worth sharing, just for informational purposes. (If you’re interested in seeing the art itself and what I offer, this is my website, this is my Etsy shop, and this is my online archive at deviantArt.)

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The Care and Feeding of Your
Totem Animal Dance Costume
By Lupa

Thank you for bringing home your new totem animal dance costume! As I’m sure you intend to have a long relationship with this new spiritual companion, please allow me to give you some information on how to care for real animal fur over time.

Over time, hides can dry out and become more fragile. I recommend treating the hide with mink oil or another leather conditioner; cremes are easier to work with than liquids. Carefully rub the conditioner into the skin side of the hide, and then lay it out skin side up for a few days to let the conditioner dry. If you live in a dry climate or if you dance with your skin around fires, you may want to do this twice a year; less often otherwise. You may also wish to carefully apply a vacuum brush attachment to the fur side every few months to remove dust and other debris.

Keep your dance skin out of overly humid places. If it gets wet, such as in the rain, dry it out immediately. If you have a newer skin, and it becomes excessively dirty, you can wash it in water and gentle soap, but again, dry it out as quickly as you can. Hang it out to dry; do not apply a hair dryer or put it in a clothes dryer. Older skins* should not be bathed, and need to be dried out if they get accidentally wet. Small amounts of dirt may be removed from most skins with a damp washcloth.

Spiritual care tends to be much more personalized. The most important thing is to know what the spirit of the skin itself wants. If you’ve never done this before, I have a basic tutorial available for free at https://therioshamanism.com/2011/04/04/how-to-talk-to-dead-things/. I do a full ritual purification on everything I make with animal parts, and a portion of the money I make goes to groups like the Defenders of Wildlife or Wolf Haven International, among others.

If you’re looking for more ideas on how to dance with your skin, please see
https://therioshamanism.com/2011/08/20/skindancing-shapeshifting-dance/.

I do free repairs on everything I make, as has always been my policy. If you ever need a strap replaced (or even more significant repair), or if you have any other questions, please feel free to contact me at whishthound@gmail.com

* In addition to skins from indigenous and subsistance trappers, I work with a range of vintage and reclaimed hides and furs; generally, “reclaimed” means hides that I have procured from other artists & collectors or discards from the fur industry, so they may not be technically secondhand in the way a recycled old fur rug would be. You are welcome to ask about the origin of your particular hide.

Skindancing: Shapeshifting Dance

You know how I got into making totem dance costumes in the first place? It’s because I wanted to dance in my own wolf skin! My old grey wolf skin, shown in this post, has been with me since about 1999. However, I didn’t start dancing with him until 2002, when I started going to pagan festivals. I had no one to show me how to wear him, so through a process of trial and error I figured out how to properly split him to wrap him around me, plus trying to find the best places to put the various leather straps to distribute the weight. And then I had to figure out that whole shapeshifting thing–not physically, of course, but allowing the spirit of the skin to “ride” my body, even as I felt, for the moment of the dance, what it was like to see through the eyes of a wolf. And I want to be able to share that with you, so here’s a brief tutorial on how to make it happen.

First, you need to know what skin you’re going to dance. You may, like me, prefer full skin dance costumes. However, that’s not necessary; you may be working with a headdress or tail, or even just a small skin pouch. You don’t even need actual animal parts–even vegans may participate in skindancing! What’s important is how you connect with the skin spirits, regardless of their “housing”.

If you’ve never talked with the skin spirits before, I wrote out my own method here; it may be useful to you, though you may find your own personalized way as well. Being able to connect with the spirit, whether you see it as a literal being or not, is crucial to shapeshifting dance. So before trying this more advanced practice, spend some time getting to know the skin you’re going to dance with. It’s especially important to be able to tell when the spirit is or isn’t wanting to work with you at a given time, because you’ll want to ask permission each time you want to dance with it or otherwise work with it.

Once you have a good working relationship with the spirit, it’s time to try it on for size. A pouch will probably hang with no problem around your neck or from a belt, though it’s best to have at least some physical contact with it. However, something larger may take a little practice to get it to fit just right–every person’s body is shaped differently, and so one person may have to wear the same headdress further back or forward on their head than another one. So before you even get out to the dance circle, spend some time just wearing the skin in your home and learn to adjust its fastenings and your movements as needed.

If you haven’t danced much before, or you’re not feeling quite sure of yourself, you can try dancing at home as well. One thing I recommend to people is to either watch the actual living animals in the wild or at a zoo or wildlife park, or watch videos of them, to see how they move. Then imitate that to the best of your ability. In many cases we simply aren’t able to move in the same way–we can’t fly, for example–and you may have physical limitations particular to you that need to be factored in. Never fear–it’s not about perfection! Again, the connection is what’s important.

And that’s the other half of this practicing–you want to invite the spirit to be a part of you, and allow you to be a part of it, during this dance. For a while, it may just be you moving around, concentrating on just “getting it right”. However, eventually you may find that you can feel the spiritual boundaries between you and the skin melting away. (This is why I don’t line any of the dance costumes I make, other than as needed to strengthen older hides. Direct physical contact with the skin helps facilitate spiritual connection as well!) Take some time to keep practicing and getting to know each other as dance partners.

You may also find that the totem of the species you are dancing, as well as the individual spirit of the skin, may come to dance with you. This can be a VERY powerful experience, but it can also differ from just dancing with the skin spirit. It’s easier to get overwhelmed, but it’s also good practice in deeper spiritual connections and invocation. Have a plan to get out of the trance and ground yourself if things get to be too intense; generally speaking, a totem will leave if asked politely, at least in my experience.

Once you feel ready to do this in a group setting, such as a drum circle at a pagan gathering, there are a few things to be aware of. You may find yourself distracted the first few times you do this, either by trying to not get stepped on by other dancers, or being overwhelmed by all the drumming, or overheated by the fire. (If you’re wearing a full skin dance costume, wear as little clothing as you can and still be decent in the given setting–a swimsuit, for example. Yes, even in cool weather–fur and fire will make you warm in no time!) Don’t worry; it happened to me when I was first starting out, and I still have recent experiences where someone bumped into me and knocked me out of trance. That’s another thing–know who you can go to if you need some help grounding. Taking the skin off breaks the connection, but it won’t necessarily get you back to your baseline headspace. If there are no professional fire tenders, have a friend or two there who can help you come back to yourself.

An important note: Be aware of the animal’s behavior versus your own preconceived notions! I have seen people use skindancing and other shapeshifting practices to act out–basically using the imagery of Wolf to excuse their inability to control their own anger and aggression, for example. How much of yourself are you projecting onto the animal? How much aggression does the animal actually use on a daily basis versus what popular media states? Wolves can be aggressive, but they’re also highly social, and the pack hierarchy is much more relaxed in the wild, as opposed to in the sorts of captive refuge situations where a lot of observation has taken place. (Captive wolves tend to exaggerate the hierarchy due to being in such close quarters.) So dancing Wolf isn’t just about being a snarling beast embodying all the animal qualities we humans tend to repress; it’s also about being loving and playful and sleeping a lot after a big meal!

You don’t have to restrict yourself to just one animal, either. I primarily dance Wolf, but I have also dance Bear, Deer, Buffalo, Leopard, and many others. And even if you dance multiple skins of the same species, get to know them as individuals. Some like dancing more than others, and some just prefer special occasions.

There’s a lot more to this, but these are the basics. If you want to know more about my work with skin spirits, feel free to read more of the entries in the Skin Spirits category of this blog. You may also purchase a copy of my book, Skin Spirits, in the bookstore portion of my website. And I’m always happy to answer questions and give feedback as my time allows 🙂

Death and Skin Spirits and Ethics

I know, I know–I’ve been talking about this a lot lately. But there’s a lot to chew on, so bear with me here.

So the other day, when I was talking about dead critters, I mentioned some of the ethics surrounding the use of animal parts in my art and spiritual practice. Specifically in that post I discussed the ethics of honesty in admitting the source of said parts, especially the issue of people misrepresenting supposedly vintage or otherwise secondhand parts. However, the ethics go much further than just how we represent what we offer.

As mentioned in the earlier post, one of the important reasons for accurate representation is because there are a lot of buyers out there, either of animal parts or things made of them, who restrict themselves on what they may or may not buy for ethical reasons. Some only want secondhand/vintage. Others only want parts from natural deaths, or even only shed antlers or molted fur and feathers. For these people it is imperative to know that what they offer didn’t come from a fur farm or otherwise have a bad life and/or death.

I don’t restrict myself that much. I am an equal opportunity spirit worker when it comes to skin spirits. The only limitations I make are regarding legalities, which is why I put so much effort in trying to educate myself on the laws. I don’t support poaching, and I don’t support other illegal acts. Beyond that, though, I don’t discriminate.

Why? Because all the skin spirits deserve attention and honor, as do their remains. And, in my experience, it’s the ones that have had the worst deaths that need the most spiritual help and cleansing. I do a full purification ritual on everything I make with animal parts, and part of that includes talking with the spirit of the skin or bone I’m working with to be sure it’s ready to go to a new home. Some of them? They’re just not there yet, and I respect that.

And? It’s all death, one way or another. No matter how it happened, or at what point in the lifetime, some animal lost its unique vehicle for interacting with this world. The soul moves on; the “spirits” that are left are more impressions, haunts, though they may have strong personalities. The death doesn’t change, either. A farmed fox tail from fifty years ago is still from a fox that lived and was killed on a fur farm. The vintage status doesn’t change that. Any way the death happened, whether through snare or bullet or gas or electrocution or roadkill or parasitic disease, the end result is a carcass. And that’s where my work starts.

Yes, I try to balance my works with donations and volunteering to help animals and their habitats. But I still own that my art, and my income, rest directly on the backs of hundreds of deaths, and I can never forget that. To do so would be to the detriment of everything I have done for the past 13 years.

On Dead Critters

So after my last post about strip-mined crystals and sustainability, it got me thinking more about the animal remains I use in my spirituality and artwork.

One of the things that I have always tried to do, ever since I started doing artistic and spiritual things with animal parts in the 1990s, is to try and use secondhand ones as much as possible. Early on while still in the Midwest, I haunted antique shops for old mink fur coats, and one of my best finds ever was a very old bear skin rug for $50! Since then, I’ve found more sources for old fur garments, taxidermy, even old Davy Crockett hats with real raccoon tails stitched to fabric tops. And I still generally prefer secondhand over new.

However, there are different degrees of “secondhand”. There’s secondhand as in the antique bobcat rug that I turned into a dance costume. And then there are the tails I use in my art, which mostly come from furriers, who don’t generally use the heads, tails or feet of hides, so other people like me make stuff out of them. And that’s a different sort of re-use.

See, if something is left over from food or subsistence hunting/trapping or the garment industry and never had a specific post-death use before, it’s really just a discard. Whoever had it first (other than the animal who wore it) didn’t actually do anything with it other than toss it away, or offer it to be sold to craftspeople like me. That’s using every part of the animal, but saying it’s secondhand is like saying that the bags of dried corn husks left over from food-grade corn that are used for tamales or crafts are secondhand. Yes, it’s great that the processor of the corn can sell the husks instead of tossing them, but they’re still technically a new product. In the same ways, the bundles of fox and other tails that are left over when fur coats are made are new as well. Granted, they’re not being incinerated or tossed in a landfill, but I wouldn’t call them secondhand.

So what do I consider more properly secondhand?

–Old fur and leather coats that I cut up to make into other stuff
–Taxidermy bought from a taxidermist’s private customer, not the taxidermist directly
–Animal parts that were owned by another private individual as part of a collection, or destashed from art supplies
–Other random items that were previously owned by another private individual, ranging from real-feather feather dusters to novelty armadillo purses

Why is this important? Because some people feel very strongly for spiritual and/or ethical reasons that the animal parts they work with in their spirituality should be secondhand. Leftovers from the fur industry are great to be reused, and I am happy to incorporate them in my work, but they are still new, not secondhand. And for some people, that’s not far-enough removed for their comfort, which I can certainly understand.

I feel it is important to make the distinction between discard and secondhand for honesty’s sake. I have seen sellers of animal parts at various places on the internet claiming that the heads, tails and other new discards they get from the same sources I do are “secondhand”. And, caveat emptor, there are sellers who will even claim something is not only secondhand but vintage in order to try to seem more ethical. Not all sellers do this, of course, and there are some people who do offer genuine vintage and otherwise secondhand animal parts; additionally, honest misidentification can happen. However, I feel those who are deliberately misrepresenting things with dubious stories are doing a huge disservice to the customers who trust them as well as to the spirits of the animals they misrepresent.**

And that latter part, about the animal spirits, is especially important to me. My whole reason for starting this form of artwork over a decade ago was to give the skin spirits and their remains a better afterlife than being a trophy or status symbol, and that is still one of the central goals of my work. If I deliberately sell a farmed fox tail as wild–or for that matter, as a “natural death”***–or a new one as vintage, it dishonors the spirit, the customer, and my art. It is both a spiritual and ethical issue, one that I feel needs more discussion.

**It might be enough to make some go vegan!

***A postscript on that whole “natural death” thing and related topics: I occasionally will have people contact me and ask whether I have any animal remains from animals–such as wolves–that died naturally, either in the wild or a zoo or other facility, or at the very least were accidental roadkill, or were “nuisance kills”. If an animal dies in the wild, it will almost always become food immediately; the best you can hope for is to find bones and maybe a scrap of rotted hide, for the most part. Zoos and wildlife preserves generally don’t sell the remains of their deceased inmates; they are usually either cremated or donated to science (and here’s a great article about dead zoo animals for your reading pleasure!). Roadkill often is too beat up to do more than salvage some bones, and enough states have laws against picking up roadkill that it’s a legal risk anyway. As to nuisance kills? Well, sure, there may be some use to killing a coyote as part of population control, but hunters and trappers help keep the population down, too–“population control” is just another term for “officially enacted hunting and trapping”. Ethically, it’s really not much better than regular trophy or food hunting.

****Somewhat related, and continuing the discussion on ethically-sourced art supplies, is this great bit of research on Fire Mountain Gems’ suppliers. Since a lot of people buy jewelry supplies from them, to include stone and metal beads and findings, this is good info to have!

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!)