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.

The Caretaker of Critter Bits

I know a number of pagans of various flavors who have things they are essentially required to do by the deities/spirits/etc. they work with. This may be restrictions on things they eat, or a particular ritual they need to do at an appointed interval, or certain requests from others that they can’t refuse. The consequences for not following directions may range from losing a chance to grow and learn, to dealing with angry deities/spirits (and all that entails).

I don’t have anything that I feel I have absolutely no bargaining power on; if I feel my safety, health, or relationships with others may be potentially compromised by something in my path, I do my best to reconfigure it while still accomplishing what I need to be doing. (Considering that most of what I need to be doing includes things like singing songs, planting a garden, and removing invasive species, there’s not much of a chance of my tasks ending up, say, causing a divorce–unless, of course, I decided to practice my singing and drumming in the bedroom at three in the morning every day.)

However, one thing I do feel is a strong calling/suggestion/you need to do this is working with animal parts in artwork and magic. This is something I’ve been doing for somewhere in the neighborhood of a decade. It entails making ritual tools, jewelry and other sacred artwork, but also my work with skin spirits on a more personal level.

I’ve questioned the ethics of what I do a number of times; I’m well aware of the realities of fur farming and trapping, as well as factory farming for meat. There’s part of me that wonders if I shouldn’t just give up the work with animal remains, because I’m one of many people feeding money into the industry, even if I do buy a lot of things secondhand (fur and leather coats, taxidermy mounts, etc.). And a number of times I’ve even asked the spirits whether it would be better for me to retire this part of my life.

Yet every time I’ve been tempted to walk away, both the skin spirits and others involved in this part of my practice have said “Whoa! Hold on! We need you here doing this. If you aren’t working to give these spirits a better afterlife, who will?” And that’s always brought me back. Often it’s the spirits of the animals that have had the worst deaths that need my help the most. While I believe the soul of the animal departs upon death, there are still spirits left behind–the spirits of the skin, of the bones, of the other remains. Whether these are “complete” spirits, or merely memories and energetic impressions, they have enough awareness to be able to communicate with me. And I help them by passing them on to people who will appreciate them, usually through my artwork.

So I compromise. I try to bring on a lot of secondhand remains to try to minimize the money going directly into the industry (though I help whoever needs my aid, regardless of how/when they died). I also do a good bit of barter, and I’ve even had people give me things like old coats, stoles, etc. because they figured I could take good care of them. I also do my best to be up on current legalities and to stay within those parameters.

And I try to educate people on the need to have respect for the remains–as well as the living animals. The thing is, if I stop working with animal parts, it won’t stop the industry. People will still wear leather and fur, and will still eat meat and eggs and cheese. People will still hunt and fish–some for trophies, some for food, some for both. And PETA-style guilt-tripping will just make a lot of people resentful, reactionary, and even less responsive than before.

I would be content if the animals that died for food and other products were well cared for during their lives, and died the quickest, most painless deaths possible. I would be happy if people in general were aware of the animals–and plants–that die to feed them, clothe them, and so forth. I would be elated if non-anthropocentric animism became a wider part of the way people work, or at least some secular version thereof. Within the pagan community, at least I can remind people who believe in spirits that these are spirits, too, and not just shiny objects.

Of course, all this is dependent upon my subjective interpretation of my spiritual path and my interactions with the powers that be. I know animists who have never experienced a plant suffering as it was uprooted, but who refuse to harm an animal. I know pagans who have no regard for the spirits of animals or plants. And I know people who think animism is a reason to suspect insanity. I am fully aware of the subjectivity of my path, and my decisions that are based upon that.

And I will continue to reevaluate what I’m doing periodically–it’s a good idea in general when dealing with spirituality. Faith is one thing; faith without ever questioning is another entirely, and something I’d like to avoid. With something as controversial as working with animal remains, it’s important for me to remember that.

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.

Deer Songs and a New Path

The Song and Dance Project (as I shall irreverently call it) has been continuing apace. Working with Deer and Small Deer has, in some ways, been a sigh of relief after Badger and Small Badger’s rather complex songs. The Deer songs have been very simple, lyrically speaking, and in fact the vocals are less of a focus than the drumming. Deer’s sing is so vocally simple, in fact, that its lyrics consist of a single word.

Lately, every time I’ve gone up to drum, I’ve run through all the songs I’ve written so far, usually three times for each, before starting on a new one. I’m doing my best to commit these all to memory. However, there will be a few dozen songs just from the totems and skin spirits–and there’s no telling who’ll want a song after them. I do want to sit down at some point with an audio recording program and a good mike and do basic recordings of each song, just so I have them on hand. Even after I finish writing all the totem and skin spirit songs I’ll still be practicing them regularly, in addition to whatever actual ritual use they get. But as my memory is still a bit impaired from years of sleep deprivation, a little technological backup can’t hurt, so long as I don’t let it replace regular practice.

That’s pretty much been my main focus as of late with my practice. This is perfectly fine with me; the first six months were pretty intense, and after that things were a little up in the air. It’s nice to have something resembling a linear set of tasks for a little while, though–it helps to keep me focused. It’s also helping me build a solid foundation for when things refuse to even resemble “linear”.

In other news, life has taken an interesting twist. Dissatisfied with making my living in the field of technical writing and editing, which mainly benefits large corporations and does little to help make the world a better place, a while ago I began seriously questioning what I wanted to do with my life. In reviewing what really interested me, I found myself continually coming back to psychology. While I didn’t have a formal background in it other than a couple of courses in my undergraduate work in college, in my own readings in the years since I graduated I found that psychology was something I kept coming back to. Ecopsychology was a particular interest, not surprisingly.

An added perk was the fact that psychology could easily be applied to real-world efforts to help people–and healthy individuals contribute to healthier communities. So I did some research on local universities and found one that, while it didn’t have a full degree in ecopsychology, the community counseling program did have an ecopsychology track as one possible emphasis.

After going to an open house for the graduate department in May, and finding out there were still openings for the Autumn semester, I rushed around to get everything pulled together in the space of a month to apply. I had never taken my GREs, so I got them scheduled and taken; I also rounded up reference letters, and ordered a transcript from my undergrad university. I got everything in just under the wire.

And…..I got accepted! I’ll be starting in September. If all goes well, in a few years I’ll have a Master’s degree in community counseling, and after 2400 hours of monitored practice I’ll have my license as well.

This bodes well. While psychology doesn’t automatically equal shamanism, and vice versa, counseling is a profession that, besides being something I can see myself committing my life to, I perceive as being quite complementary to my shamanic practice. While I’d most likely keep them as relatively separate parts of my life (i.e., I wouldn’t advertise a private counseling practice as being “genuine modern shamanism!”), I can still see the experiences from one meshing well with the other.

The spirits I work with are pleased about this (just so long as I don’t get so overwhelmed by school that I neglect them, of course). So I’ll take it as a good sign.

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.

Small Badger’s Song

Tonight I put the finishing touches on Small Badger’s song (Small Badger, of course, being my badger skin). I wasn’t happy with some of the lyrics, so I asked him if he minded me tweaking them. He said just so long as I said good things about him, he didn’t care. So I made my tweaks and was happy. He seemed quite happy with it as well, but I was boasting about him.

Small Badger does like to brag. However, it’s for good reason–he’s got a lot going for him! He’s a good teacher of healthy boasting, of being honestly proud of one’s accomplishments but without being a jerk about it. Too often in this society we’re told not to brag because it makes us look self-centered. Unfortunately this sort of stifling can lead to A) not talking about ourselves at all, or B) seeking too much attention (and thereby reassurance). Being able to speak of one’s strengths is vital in most things dealing with prosperity, which is the area where Small Badger and Badger have been of the most help to me. Whether it’s showing off one’s best skills in a job interview, or demonstrating responsibility in signing a mortgage, there are times where bragging rights come in handy.

I also worked on the drum rhythm for Badger (the totem). No words yet, but s/he definitely showed interest (and, not surprisingly, asked for sushi–or, to be more specific, sashimi. It’s become hir offering of choice.) So tomorrow I’ll probably work on the lyrics.