Back to the Drumming

Tonight I felt a strong urge/call to drum; Sunday nights are generally good times for me to work, since I’m relatively well-rested from the weekend (though after this week I should be better rested at all times, thanks to a lack of a commute–w00t!). So up I went; I cleared out my half of the ritual area (I really need to clean up the art-clutter!) and sat down in the dark to drum.

I started with a steady drumbeat of just a little faster than one beat per second, maybe one every 2/3 second. I let myself ease into it, and eventually found the beater going clockwise around the drum. As I continued with this, I began to feel something “open up” spiritually around me. I decided to keep going to see what would happen, since I wasn’t getting any feelings to do otherwise. The drumbeats began to form a pathway for the spirits to arrive on; I could see it in my mind’s eye, extending far into the Sky above me and also from the Earth below me at the same time (though I’m not sure if these were literal directions, or just how my mind chose to parse them). The path was filled with animal spirits of all sorts. I recognized a lot of my skin spirits, both the ones that are “mine”, so to speak, and those in my artwork bins waiting to be made into ritual tools and other such things. I also recognized Taylor’s dragon spirit, among others. They were all animals, though, and mostly “native” rather than “mythical animals.

I began to panic a bit. What was I going to do now that I had invited them all? I asked the Animal Father for his advice. He simply told me to explain what I was doing. So I stopped drumming once they were all there, and proceeded to thank them for their time and patience while I was learning to call them. That seemed to satisfy their curiosity (and confusion, in a few cases), and nobody seemed particularly miffed.

Then I began to drum again to give them a path to head back home to, wherever home might be–for some, it was the skins, skulls and other animal parts; for others, it was unknown realms. I had a faster drumbeat, maybe twice per second, and the beater went counterclockwise. I saw them retreat back up the path I had created, to wherever they went, and felt their presence diminish over time. Once everything seemed clear, I stopped drumming, and thanked the drum and beater for their help.

Once thing that stood out to me was that I was visited by individual animal spirits; there were no totems or deities of any sort, and no human spirits (though I work with very few of those)–there were a couple that I recognized, but they were in animal forms they sometimes used. This goes along with the strong suggestion I had prior to going to Arizona to start working with the skin spirits, and apparently now other individual spirits.

So it looks like I’m going to have to get started on writing songs and drumbeats for different spirits I work with, since they seem to want individual “calls” for me to work with them. The drumbeats I used tonight were apparently inviting and farewell “calls”, but the whole middle of the ceremony is missing. it makes sense–call the spirits, call forth specific individuals with their own songs, and then go to work. That’s what their expectation seemed to be as they were waiting for me to do whatever I was going to do once I’d called them.

I also spent some time meditating with my favorite tree at Laurelhurst Park. I was a bit distracted since everybody and their mother was there as well, and I was getting quite a bit of amusement at curious squirrels coming quite close to me as I sat motionless. (Though they quickly retreated up the nearest trees and got rather frustrated that I wouldn’t leave and let them come down!) I’m becoming more acquainted with the Land here as well; once it’s warmer I may do some drumming at the park, since the animal spirits would really like to work with me outdoors, and the Land would like that as well.

Believe me, I have plenty of reasons for wanting it to get warmer. That’s just one more.

Meeting Crow

Tonight’s skin dance was with a crow spirit. Since crow feathers are illegal to possess in the United States under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, I have a couple of wing fans, arm bands, and a tail made from black dyed feathers and inhabited by a crow spirit I evoked. We first danced together; then when it became apparent that the ceiling was too low for me to flap my wings, so to speak, I sat down and continued to meditate with the crow spirit.

S/he made a few requests besides more space (outdoors when possible). S/he wants to work primarily during the day, not surprising since crows are diurnal creatures (despite cheesy Halloween decorations featuring corvids at night). S/he also said that when hir week to be introduced to me more deeply came about in my second six months, that s/he wanted me to study the crows in my neighborhood to get a better idea of how they move. As I mentioned in my work with the pheasant skin spirit, I’m nowhere near as familiar with birds as I am with mammals, so it’s going to be an entirely new area of study and practice.

As far as what the crow spirit wants to work on with me, a lot of it focuses on trickery. Not so much pulling pranks on others, but the fine art of deception in the spirit of “every actor is a liar”. Costumery and subterfuge are a big part of this crow spirit’s experience, since s/he wears non-crow feathers that are disguised, feathers that came from male and female birds both and contributed to an androgynous energy. S/he is the Mastress of knowing when to hide the truth and when to reveal it–not so much to cause harm to others, as to protect the self and loved ones (such as being in the closet out of necessity). S/he is very concerned with image; not just the shallow surface, but what the image can either reveal or conceal, and how the surface and what’s under it interact. In this s/he can also teach honesty, showing how to make the ouside better reflect the inside, even if it’s scary. If I end up incorporating sleight of hand and visual trickery in my shamanizing, s/he’s willing to help with that, too.

The crow spirit is also a resourceful one. S/he knows as much as s/he does in large part because s/he talked a lot with the totemic Crow about what I might need help with. Additionally, being an urbanized animal, s/he had to adapt to humanity and the changes we often bring, as well as exploiting our civilization for an easier life. Scavenging is an art form to this one.

There’s a lot to the crow spirit. It’ll be interesting to see what s/he has to teach in more detail when the time comes to work with hir more intensely.

Some Rambling on Totems

I’ve been chewing some more on my conception of totem animals within a neopagan context, specifically my personal neopagan context. (I’m not the only one; while I was still chewing, Paleo beat me to the punch on the topic with this great post. Zeitgeist!)

Unlike most people, I have worked with numerous totems over the years. Wolf’s just my primary; there are plenty of others, from Deer to Silver Dollar, who have graced my life for various amounts of time. Totemism has been central to my practice pretty much from the beginning. It’s a neopagan form of totemism, rather than anything traditional–I work with totems on an individual, rather than group-based, basis.

I don’t see the totems as individual spirits; Wolf is not just a random wolf spirit, nor is Wolf really Greymuzzle the Ancient Wolf Spirit Reincarnated Fifteen Times. I don’t see totems as a replacement for power animals, skin spirits, and other helper spirits. While I haven’t yet determined my power animal(s) (if, indeed, I have any) and I’ll be spending the six months between the Spring and Autumn equinoxes finding and working with spirit helpers of all sorts, I don’t confuse the power animals with the totems. Wolf the totem is a very different animal from a wolf spirit that becomes a power animal. Additionally, Bear the totem is a different being from the bear spirit that resides in my bear skin that I dance with (and which could potentially be a power animal at some point, if my understanding of power animals is correct).

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I perceive totems as archetypal beings that embody all of the qualities of a given species of animal–natural history, human lore, and the relationship between humans and that species. However, unlike a strict interpretation of archetypes, totems don’t solely exist in my head. They’re independent beings with their own existences. It is simply in their nature to be archetypal; they are embodiments of their species.

And they’re much “bigger” than individual spirits. I see totems as akin to deities; deities can also be archetypal in nature, but are not just constructs of our minds. Deities are to humans as totems are to nonhuman animals, very roughly speaking. So sometimes it boggles my mind that the totems rarely seem to mind when I contact them for various purposes, whether to ask for help with a particular situation, or to satiate my curiosity about them. I find them to be much more approachable than deities. How many people can just “walk up” to any member of a given pantheon of deities and start communicating? There seems to be a lot more protocol and pageantry associated with that particular endeavor. Totems, on the other hand, seem to not mind what I’m wearing, or how much formality I go into before talking to them. If anything, they seem to get impatient if they need to talk to me and I spend a lot of time setting the stage, as it were.

I wonder if this familiarity with them is really so unusual. Sometimes I feel like such a small being surrounded by great giants, and yet they seem to respect me just the same. And it’s been that way from the beginning; while they haven’t always been happy with me (especially when I screw something up, or neglect something I said I’d do), they nonetheless seem to appreciate my place in their lives as much as I appreciate their places in mine. I’ve even had them be downright overjoyed to see me and work with me, and not just because I’m paying attention to them.

I think the nature of our mutual relationship is part of why I’m so invested in them. As Paleo mentioned in her essay, linked above, if you work with totems long enough there’s a tendency to take the relationship deeper than the initial “Bear is the Healer, Wolf is the Teacher” dictionary and stereotype interaction. People who work with totems long term, and as a significant part of their paths, almost always become more aware of physical animals and their needs, whether domestic or wild. (This also goes for people who work with animal spirits and other animal entities.) For me, at least, it’s a way to help the totems that have helped me so much. The physical members of a species are the young of their totem; part of that totem’s existence is completely concerned with their safety and well-being in this world.

I’m currently working on DIY Totemism: Your Personal Guide to Animal Totems. One entire chapter is dedicated solely to offerings to the totems. This isn’t just things like leaving a bit of food in the woods (which I argue against for a number of reasons). How better to help a totem whose children are endangered than to take part in activism to help those animals? Or to work magic on behalf of the totem to help with something s/he’s concerned with? When we work with totems, we aren’t just working with abstract concepts; it’s too easy to anthropomorphize a totem to the point where we only see what benefits us directly–and what we can get out of the deal. Yet it’s a two-way street. What do we give back to the totems? What do they ask of us? Where do their physical counterparts figure in? For that matter, are we really listening to anything but our own wants and needs?

Left to my own devices, I doubt I would have seriously considered shamanism as a life-path. I was pretty content with what I had. However, one of the main reasons I’m developing therioshamanism is for the totems. They’ve done a lot for me over the years, and this is one way for me to give back to them. They asked it of me, as I’ve asked so much of them, and I decided to at least give it a try. If it works out, then great–this helps me to help them. If it doesn’t, then we figure something else out.

And I think that’s part of why I’ve worked with them for so long. I don’t just feel like they’re trying to get something out of me, or get me to worship them or follow their rules and taboos. They genuinely like me, and we’re involved in mutually beneficial and enjoyable relationships. I help them, not because I feel like I have to, but because I want to–and vice versa. I’ve been approached by a few deities over the years who wanted worship, attention, power, energy–and I turned them down because I simply wasn’t interested in that kind of relationship. I had gotten spoiled by the totems, who actually worked with me even before I met Artemis. (I don’t worry too much about getting harassed by rejected deities–some of the more protective totems in my life, Wolf in particular, have proven to me in the past that they’re not just going to stand aside and let bad things happen for no good reason.) Why would I want to be in a relationship where I felt like I was being essentially bullied, when I have numerous relationships with powerful beings who genuinely like me?

Eclipse

This evening as the eclipse hit, I was walking home from the bus stop. I asked the spirits if I should take advantage of the rare full lunar eclipse and do any magic. Their reply was a very loud “No”. When I asked them why, they simply said “Bad energy”.

Whether that holds for this eclipse or all of them will remain to be seen; they’re being a bit tight-lipped about it. However, I’m glad they told me to stay indoors. Not long after I got home, I heard a bunch of shouting and noise on the next street over, followed shortly thereafter by sirens. Normally this is a nice, quiet neighborhood, but the full moon brings out the crazies…and perhaps people took advantage of the darkness of the eclipse to do something nefarious? Though it got nowhere near as dark as in a blackout.

Meh. I’ll bother the spirits about it later when they’re more prone to talking. Tomorrow is the beginning of my final month of my first six months, so I’ll have plenty to keep me occupied in the meantime.

Bear With Me, Here

I did some skin spirit work with my bear skin this past weekend. She’s a rather small brown bear salvaged from a very old rug; while the wrinkles in her muzzle have relaxed over the years since I took the taxidermy form out, she’ll always have a bit of a snarl. But she’s quite sweet.

I didn’t dance with her; rather, I simply sat with her and stroked the fur on top of her head and talked to her for a while. She’s old, and tired, and didn’t feel much like dancing just then. She was fine with that. Our conversation wasn’t particularly deep; she mainly talked about how glad she was to have a home with me (after spending years stuffed in a trunk somewhere–I rescued her from an antique shop). We made some agreements about our working relationship, and then I gently laid her back among the other skins.

Beyond that, I’ll just say that my Water month has presented a LOT of healing, especially in the emotional arena. (It’s also inspired me to read my copy of Kristin Madden’s <em>Book of Shamanic Healing</em>, which is excellent so far.) As I continue with my six months, I’m finding that I’ve learned quite a bit–and this is just the beginning!

Waiter! There’s a Spirit in my Drink!

Ravenari made an excellent comment to my bunny hop post from the other day. This part in particular got me thinking:

I wonder as well, if that sort of familiarisation with each animal spirit (even onces you’ve danced with before) is also a method to broaden your base of animal helpers. Because I feel that as you become more familiar with the energies as you skin dance, more will come through as clear helpers.

It’s one of those moments where I smack my forehead and say “Geez, why the hell didn’t I see that before?” This is sort of a continuation of our conversation a couple of weeks back about spirit helpers in general–and how it’s not a great idea to go journeying with just a power animal. I’ve been more aware since then of how the various spirits in my life interact with me, particularly as I walk along this particular path. I’ve been particularly focused on the totems, since they’re at the center of a lot of my elemental work in my six months. But I haven’t been too sure as to what would happen after March when the six months were up.

The Animal Father telling me he wanted me to work with the skin spirits on a daily basis after my six months was my first indication, along with him making it clear that part of the transition from the six months to the next stage of my training would involve dedicating myself to him. However, Ravenari’s comment above made it hit home to me that I’ll probably spend the second six months (at least) just working on strengthening my relationships with the spirits and determining who’s willing to help me and how. These first six months have been a process of cosmology building, creating the setting for the work to happen in, and next I’ll be figuring out who’ll be walking the path with me the most, at least to some extent–spirits may come and go as they please, as the relationships change, etc.

So this helps me make some sense of what’s going on. This is why I believe it’s crucial for those of us who work on a solitary basis to talk shop with others regularly. Other people can have perspectives on things that we may have totally missed. Ravenari is a practitioner of a traditional Russian form of animism/shamanism, and her viewpoint gives me something besides the neoshamanic/core shamanic/etc. material that’s a lot more common in neopaganism. It’s not so much that I think I should be a practitioner of Vilturj, mind you–it’s that what she says makes sense to me in a way that core shamanism and its derivatives haven’t, at least not on the subject of spirits. Most of the neoshamanic material deals a lot with the shaman doing most of the work, with little “interference” from the spirits. And, as she noted in her original post on the topic, it’s not a great idea to go journeying with only a power animal, because a power animal only has so much influence in certain places. (Granted, it’s dangerous to go alone, too.)

My point is that while I may not personally draw on every single thing Ravenari has in her practice, in both her original post, and her comment to my post about her post, she was able to offer me a unique perspective based on her experience. It may have gone against conventional neoshamanic wisdom in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean it can’t ring true to me, a neoshamanic practitioner. We don’t always have to toe the party line, and when something works with what I have, I’m going to run with it. And it does make a lot of sense that the various spiritual relationships I’ve been cultivating over the years–not just the skin spirits, but many others–would come into play as I started on my shamanic path. I think there was part of me that was expecting to have to find a whole new “set” of spirits for this work, and perhaps I will meet some new faces along the way, but it is quite comforting to realize that some of my best allies have been around all along.

All this does make me feel better overall about what I’m doing. I think there’s a certain amount of uncertainty that comes from “creating” your path rather than working with one you’ve been raised with. It’s so easy to be led astray by one’s own UPG; I’ve been exceptionally cautious about my discoveries. There are things that I’ve discovered but haven’t yet talked about or accepted because I’m still waiting to see if they pan out into something more substantial or not. But while I don’t expect to have everything I do verified by someone else before I accept it, the external validation I got in this case was a nice treat. Obviously, if the second six months end up being entirely different, then I’ll of course change my views. But the idea that cosmology comes first, then comes learning how to work with the spirits more effectively, makes perfect sense with what I’m doing.

One final thing I do want to make clear, on a bit of a tangent. I am not yet a practicing shaman, though I may refer to myself as a therioshaman for short. Therioshaman-in-training is a better term (but it’s a mouthful!). While I’ve made a few practice runs journeying with the drum, and done years of trance-dancing and shapeshifting, I won’t start with the actual shamanizing for a while yet. It looks as though the spirits want me to have at least a solid year of training in the basics–cosmology and working with spirit helpers–before I even get the bike with training wheels, never mind taking the training wheels off! Occasionally it’s frustrating, because I realize how much work there is to do once I am practicing. However, mostly it’s a relief, because I know I’m not going to get sent off unprepared. I know that shamanizing isn’t safe, that not all spirits are friendly, and not every journey will be successful. But I do feel that I am being directed through effective training, and it’s things like the experiences above, as well as the fact that both I and the spirits have been seeing a lot of very concrete progress come out of the past few months, that show me that I’m on the right track.

Lupa Does the Bunny Hop

I was a little late in doing my skin spirit work this month, but today I managed to spend some time with my rabbit skin, a rather small brown pelt from a domesticated rabbit. Right before I went to choose a skin to dance, I kept thinking about El-Ahrairah from Watership Down, who is somewhat of a pop culture version of the totemic Rabbit, as well as a useful depiction thereof. So I chose the rabbit skin to dance today.

He was a little unsure before we went into things; he’s the first skin from a domesticated animal I’ve danced, and he told me that as he’d spent his life in a hutch, he really wasn’t sure how much like a wild rabbit he was. I told him, “Well, I’ve not worked with Rabbit much myself, so maybe he’ll give us a little help and we can figure this one out together”. Indeed, El-Ahrairah gave us the boost we needed!

I draped the skin over my shoulders like a cape, tied with two leather cords around my neck. Then I got down on my hands and knees and attempted to lollop like a rabbit–and got about two inches ahead of where I’d been before. I’m used to large, striding animals, or at least those that walk in a four-beat pace. The two-beat lollop of the rabbit is another story entirely. It probably took me a good ten minutes at least to figure out how to get more than a few inches forward at a time. I ended up with a rather ungainly, probably ridiculous-looking quasi-lollop on my hands and balls of my feet. In fact I know it was silly to watch–even the rabbit skin was laughing, though having a good time.

I then got up to try to mimic the lollop in a more bipedal fashion. I really didn’t want to have to rely on the infamous “bunny hop” with two feet together (with or without the “right, right, left, left, jump forward, jump backward, jump forward three times, repeat” pattern!) That would annoy me entirely too much for me to hit a good trance, and it didn’t remind me of the movement I’d done before. I finally ended up with a two-step dance, where I would dip my torso and arms forward when stepping with my lead foot, and come back up when stepping forward with my hind foot. I also kept the characteristic “lub-dup, lub-dup” rhythm from the lollop, which bound the two moves together really well.

Learning to move in an entirely new way was pretty exhausting–not to mention hard on my back. But both I and the rabbit skin had a great time figuring it out together. I didn’t even try approximating a run; I figure I should learn to thoroughly lollop first.

The Animal Father nudged me while we were dancing. He told me that once my six months were up that he wanted me to dance a different skin every night for a week each week until I’d danced them all and gotten to know them. I’m sure the skins will appreciate this; I don’t dance as much as I’d like since my job takes a lot out of me, and they always seem so sad when I get done dancing and they realize that no one else will be dancing that day/night. I am looking forward to it, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Moon – Skin Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrogate Traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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