The Importance of Ritual Tools

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

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

To which I say: fuck that noise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My First Soul Retrieval

So today I was finally able to take the skills I’ve been developing over the past few years and put them into practice for a long-distance client, doing my first soul retrieval. I don’t want to give info on the client hirself, other than s/he’s had long-term health issues and some other deep-seated factors that had led to an overall feeling of “diminishment”. We suspected a lost soul fragment, but since there are other things that can cause the symptoms that were reported, I went in cautiously.

I actually spent several weeks conferring with my guides about this whole thing, since it was my first time through. Ultimately, Black Bear offered to help guide me through, which was very much appreciated since s/he has done spirit work with me before, though not of this exact sort. My client and I agreed on a time when we could both be available for this, and after a phone call to check in and make sure s/he was prepared and in a good place, and to find out which of hir guides I might run into, I began the journey.

As usual, the horse spirit in my drum came and picked me up as I started to drum. The drumskin was a bit damp from the weather here in the Pacific North*wet*, and her hoofbeats were muffled by mud along the river near my starting place–she needed to take me further up the river to meet Black Bear. She actually carried me inside her ribcage, moving her organs aside, for part of it. I found out later that this was because we crossed the river into the Lower World. Black Bear had apparently made a lot of arrangements on my behalf in preparation for this, for which s/he’ll be getting a nice gift from me. Next time I may have to be the one to negotiate with the River Dragon to cross to the Lower World, but this time I had a lot of help.

When we got to where Black Bear was waiting along the bank of the river, the hose told me she couldn’t go any further. So I stopped drumming, and began to shake my black bear skull rattle. I turned into a wolf, and Bear and I started off further up the river. The place we were at was not at all pleasant. Amid the water-smoothed stones under my paws there were lots of old, dry bones, crab shell pieces, and other dry dead things, dampened only by splashes of fetid water from the river–there was no rain here despite the clouds. There were animals all around, too, coyotes and hawks and deer and other vertebrates, but they were hostile, and Black Bear told me to stay very close so they wouldn’t bother me. Still, they made advances at us like wolves testing a buffalo cow and calf. It was very unnerving.

One thing I noticed about Bear was that s/he was very present and visible in a way my guides often aren’t when I journey. I know they’re there, but they’re not in my direct field of vision. It’s like Bear was more there than usual, and I suspect that if it had just been hir usual presence, I would have had to deal with the hostile animals attacking me, unless I showed myself to be as big and strong as Bear was today. Today, though, I was being protected on this journey.

As we were running along the river, we looked up on the mountain ridges to the north, and amid the trees we saw the lights from houses scattered all along. Finally Bear looked to one way up on top of a ridge, and said “That’s the one we want”. As we approached the ridge it was on, Bear veered off away from the river and to a trail leading up. It was a very narrow trail, with smooth stones, but it dropped off sharply into dark ravines on either side. Bear insisted on going first. “Stay very close to my back end”, s/he told me. “Don’t fart”, I replied. Bear laughed, and we started up the trail.

The climb was actually pretty uneventful–Bear made the way very smooth for me, the dangerous things stayed confined to the dark ravines, and there was no ursine flatulence. When we got up to the top, we saw a lodge like that made by some Pacific Northwest tribes in the middle of a clearing. There was a tall, very thin humanoid guardian spirit with a spear in front of it, with a white bone mask with two black eyes, stiff, grass-like hair all around like a halo, and wrapped in brown rags with no visible limbs or features below the waist, just a drape of rags. Bear told me that since I was the one who sought entrance to the house, I had to go first. This was scary, but s/he told me s/he’d be right behind me. So I cautiously went up to the guardian spirit and got hir attention. S/he didn’t act hostilely at all, simply waited for me to act one way or another. “I wish to know who is in that place,” I said. “Who wants to know?” the spirit replied. “I, Lupa, want to–” and then realized I’d just said my name, if not my legal one then one that I identify with very strongly.

Bear told me quietly to offer something in exchange for the spirit conveniently forgetting I’d said that. So I offered to dedicate something made out of mink skins I got recently to the spirit; while it wouldn’t belong to the spirit, it would have a little something to memorialize it, sort of like a bit of graffiti of someone’s name–not enough connection to the spirit to make it hirs, but kind of like “Kilroy was here”. This was acceptable. Bear then gave the guard a false name of mine to replace the true name that was taken back.

Also, when the spirit spoke with me, the bone face lifted up as if on a hinge, and a little brown weasel poked hir head out to talk to me–“Pay no attention to the weasel behind the mask”. It would have been almost funny if I hadn’t been in a situation where I could have been speared. I had no doubt that the weasel (or weasels, if there were others in there) could have made the “suit” act immediately. Still, in retrospect it was, ah, kinda cute. I wish I could draw better to show it.

I was allowed to approach the house, and I called through the blanket over the doorway that I wished to enter. I negotiated with a voice as to whether that could happen, and finally was let in. There was only one big room, and there were hundreds of weasels running all over the place, doing various tasks. At the very back of the room there was one enormous weasel reclining, with little weasels crawling all over him. Behind him on the wall were rows upon rows of clear glass jars, with colored balls of energy floating inside of them. I would find out later that the big weasel liked the smell of these, and so properly I could call him the Big Old Weasel Who Likes Smelly Things, but for short I’ll just call him the Old Weasel. He wasn’t the totemic weasel. Black Bear, when s/he shows up like a large bear like for this journey, feels like a small part of something bigger. The Old Weasel felt more complete–old, but not bigger than his appearance.

I approached him, but not too closely, with Bear beside me. I asked him if he had anything that tasted like my client, and I breathed out a memory of what s/he tastes like to me through our interactions. He breathed it in, and said yes, and picked out a particular jar full of yellow balls of energy–not a full soul fragment with a personality, but still a substantial part of my client that had gone missing. I told him I would like to give it back to her, and that I was willing to offer part of myself. I held forth a necklace that I had made before the journey.

Now, in the creation of artwork, there is always a piece of myself that goes into what I make. It’s a renewable energy, rather than the core energy that I was trying to retrieve for the client. So that’s what I had in the necklace. Bear also contributed, having me put a bit of black bear hair in the necklace.

“Let me smell you,” the Old Weasel said, “and see if I like it”. I approached closer, but then the Old Weasel lashed out with his huge jaws, and almost bit me. I leaped back, hackles raised. “Ha!” he said. “Almost had you. I could have smelled you across the room, you know”. Then he had a few of his small weasels bring out an empty jar for the necklace. “Not until you give me what I came for,” I said. “Very well,” and he had them bring the jar to me. I placed the necklace in the empty jar, and took the one with my client’s energy. I breathed in the essence of my client and put it in the place where I had stored hir memory.

“Do you have any more?” I asked. “Yes,” the Old Weasel replied, and pointed at eight more jars on the wall behind him. “You can have them if you bring me more of your smell. I like it.” So I’m going to be taking more necklaces to him. Since I’m menstruating, I’m going to make sure they’re made during that time, so I may make one a month for the next eight months, to give myself time to replenish.

We took our leave of the weasels, being sure to back out of the door so as to keep an eye on them. Then we went back past the guard, who couldn’t remember my real name. And when we got to the trail, it had gone all muddy, so Bear and I had a great time sliding all the way down the mountain like otters! We made it back down the river with no problems, too, even with the hostile animals, and my horse was waiting for me. I took my leave of Bear, and the horse took me back home.

I then breathed my client’s energy into the physical necklace I had made, letting it take the place of my energy that had gone to the Old Weasel in the necklace’s spirit form. I’ll be mailing it to the client, who will be wearing it for several days, until that energy reabsorbs back into hir. And I’ll continue this with the rest of the necklaces. I did a followup call with hir to see how s/he was doing and let hir know what happened.

I am exhausted. This was a really challenging journey, but it turned out well. I learned a lot, including some things for when I’m going to have to do this more on my own, making my own decisions and negotiations with the spirits myself. And it’s helped me to see how my strengths, especially artwork, can be woven into my shamanic practice, making it (relatively) easier to do. Most of all, though, this feels right, like I should be doing this.

Bear Ritual

Today I led my first “official” group ritual as a practicing (neo)shaman. Brown Bear has been nudging me to try out some of the ritual techniques and practices I’ve been developing over the past few months to see how they’d work out, and s/he said s/he had wanted a ritual hirself, so this was a good opportunity. I put everything together pretty quickly since it’s getting into hibernation time, but it all worked out.

We ended up clearing out the living room, moving the dining table into the kitchen temporarily, and pushing the couches against the walls. Then the little table in front of the TV ended up doing double duty as an altar and place to keep my ritual implements when I wasn’t using them. Here are a few pictures (apologies to those on the LJ feed who don’t have the benefit of an LJ-cut for this):



The hide covering the altar is an old skin, possibly bear but not entirely sure, that was left on my porch at our old place–we think we know who it was. It’s incredibly old, just about falling apart, probably from somewhere in the early 20th century. The other hide, the bearskin in the foreground on the second picture, is my ceremonial skin–she was an oooooold rug I got at an antique shop over a decade ago. I removed all the rug stuff, and while she’s very delicate, some mink oil helped to rehydrate her. Still, she’s many decades old, and I have to be very careful with her.

There’s also a rattle made from a black bear skull and a deer leg bone that I use to call in the spirits, and a deerskin bag that holds some of my other Brown Bear items. The plate in the center has small Bear packets that would be given out during the ceremony. Leaning against the altar are my big drum, a small drum that was my starter drum but is now a spare, and the elk antler bells I made a while back. And the white fur is the wolf headdress and tail that I wear while journeying, as I journey as a white wolf. There’s also a very small bear statue on there, along with a packet of small bear fetishes leftover from making the gift packets for participants.

There ended up being seven of us total–me, Taylor, the three practitioners that I took on as students a while back, and who are now going off in their own unique directions with the material, and two other folks from the local pagan community who wanted to attend.

I began with rattling in the spirits that I wished to have in attendance, calling them each by the name they wished to be known by. I didn’t call in everyone, because not all the spirits would have been a good fit for this ritual. Black Bear also helped to let me know who to welcome. I then warmed up my drum, rubbing it with my hand and then with the beater. After that I called the horse spirit of the drum with a specific beat that I use.

Once that spirit came out of the drum, I began the journey drumming, and I asked the rest of the participants to drum with me to help me get to where I was going. I had journeyed to see Bear the day before to take hir a preliminary offering and to check in with hir about last details for today, but I didn’t want to make the assumption that s/he would automatically come to the celebration we had set up for hir. So I went with my bearskin spirit, and once we got to Bear’s den, I asked everyone to stop drumming since they had gotten me to where I needed to be, and to simply listen as I told what I experienced as it happened.

The bearskin spirit and I went down cautiously into Bear’s den, even though we had been there before. Bear was there, and grumbly because s/he was sleepy. I very carefully asked hir whether s/he would like to come with us to the celebration and to see the gifts for hir, and also to place hir energy/scent on the bear packets I had made. S/he grumbled some more, and then told me that if s/he was going to show up, I would have to dance for hir, wearing the necklace I had made for hir before. The bearskin spirit and I then retreated. I had been keeping the drumbeat slow and quiet throughout all this, trying to keep myself calm, but turning my back on Bear was frightening, and I fought to keep the beat slow and quiet as we went back up to the surface.

The horse of my drum carried me back as the participants all drummed and rattled again to help bring me back home. Then they drummed more as I carefully draped the bearskin over me, put the necklace on, and danced like a bear. It was odd, because I’m used to wolf dancing up on my toes (and I also walk on my toes as a matter of course), but bear dancing required me to stay on my heels. Plus the movement is much different, a larger animal, with a different heft of momentum.

And Bear did arrive, using the dance as a vehicle. I growled and whuffed and sniffed at the altar and the goodies on it–and the food people had brought, too. Once the dance was done, I talked a bit about my relationship to Bear, and also gave folks some time to interact with Bear on their own. Then we got to the food! I still held Bear inside me to an extent, and let hir taste the food through me. There were many good things–foccacia bread, and containers of fresh berries and grapes (which Bear loved). And I made cookies, too, with applesauce I made from scratch earlier this year and gave to Bear as yesterday’s offering. (Eating offerings in celebration is apparently a perfectly acceptable way to deal with the physical portions.)

Then once that was done, I thanked all the spirits for being there, most of all Bear, and we drummed for them a while, and I danced as I drummed. Then I rattled them back home, and saw the attendees out.

I got the permanent Brown Bear altar set up in my ritual/art room:


There’s the Bear bag, and also the assorted stone bear fetishes. There’s also a bear claw carved from horn that was offered by one person, and some sage and herbs offered by another, all of which will stay on the altar. And there are some spare packets from the ritual that will probably end up being gifted to people who could use a boost of Bear energy, as it were. No doubt I’ll add more stuff as time goes by, but that’s a good start. Incidentally, the table above it will be a Wolf altar, once the time comes for that. (The other hide is normally on my main altar, where I returned it after the ritual was done.)

Overall, I think it went really well. I was nervous as hell, but managed to keep myself focused on the ritual itself. The feedback confirmed that others enjoyed it, too. One of the things that concerned me is that in neopaganism group rituals usually involve a lot of participation on everyone’s part. The whole spectator thing is often considered to be “boring”, or so I had feared. But as a performance ritual, this seemed to work out really well.

The other thing I noticed was how quickly I got to my starting point with the help of everyone else drumming/rattling! It was like having a huge push behind me as the horse carried me there. Between that, and Bear’s den being very close to my starting point, plus it being a pretty straightforward, mostly pre-arranged task, the ritual itself didn’t last too long, under a half an hour [ETA: the portion prior to the food, I mean]. But it was strong, and I know I’m on the right track with this. There’s some fine-tuning that needs to be done, and things will get better with experience, but for a first time out, I’m really pleased, and everyone else (including Bear) seemed to agree.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation, Part 2

Eeep. So this was a little later than “tomorrow”. But better late than never.

So I didn’t really get a chance to talk about the big OMGSPIRITUALEXPERIENCE I had when I was out on the wilderness therapy (WT) retreat. One of the tools used in WT is the “solo”, which is basically the really short, really watered-down version of what non-indigenous people assume to be a “vision quest”, though the WT people I was with were well aware of the cultural issues, etc. Anyway, a solo happens late in a WT experience (which generally will take anywhere from a few days to a couple of months, depending on the program). It’s long enough for the individual person to have had a lot of experience not only with practical wilderness skills and teambuilding, but also to reflect on the problems encountered both in the backcountry, and in the setting that person left behind. The solo itself is where the person gets left in a particular spot for a matter of a few hours to a few days to have that time to hirself for reflection. After, there’s a period of time for reintegration back into the WT group, followed by transition back to the life left behind.

My solo was only a few hours, appropriate for a four-day retreat. We hiked up West Hardy Ridge, going about three and a half miles one way, with roughly 2,000 feet elevation, at a pace of about 3mph average. It’s rough, rocky terrain, especially higher up on the ridge, so it wasn’t easy going. In fact, it’s the toughest hike I’ve done to date; we didn’t stop for breaks, and my pack was about a fifth of my body weight since I took a lot of water to account for the 90+ degree heat.

Honestly, there were a few times where I seriously considered just sitting down on the trail and not going any further. I’m in good physical condition, but the many factors wearing at me combined to create a really tough challenge. I have a tendency to get frustrated when things go beyond a certain level of difficulty. But I did recognize that I was getting frustrated, and I was able to take a step back and observe myself in that frustration–and I was able to tell myself that it would pass, and that I had a goal worth going for. So I worked through the frustration, while acknowledging that I felt it, something nearly unprecedented for me (and also an important step in my Elk work).

We made it to the top of the ridge, and we were then escorted to our individual spots. I ended up getting a really choice one, a rock slide overlooking the Columbia River, surrounded by small conifers and underbrush. Granted, the rocks were all small, to the point where I really had nowhere comfortable to sit, and I had to secure my gear to keep it from sliding down the ridge. But other than that? Excellent place.

I took a little time to settle in, getting some water and food, and letting myself rest. Then I took in my surroundings in brief, just to get some orientation for where I was. My clearing was about fifteen feet wide, and the slide itself was roughly fifty feet long from the top of the ridge to where the brush began again.

Then I started thinking about how I should spend my time there. Should I do work with Bear, who had been wanting my time and attention? I’d brought my drum, after all, since it’s not heavy at all and hooks onto my pack nicely. Should I meditate? Should I try talking to the Land? I tried for the lattermost option, opening myself up and expecting a dialogue. Instead, the Land simply kept telling me to look at the plants. So I did. Though I didn’t know most of them, I took the time to study them in detail, how they grew together in layers from the ground up, and how I was surprised by how many deciduous trees there were mixed in there. Then I looked at the stones around me, and the fallen logs. And then I noted the animals, who are normally the ones I notice first.

First came the flies–not biting flies, thankfully, but sort of housefly-types. At first I shooed them away when they landed on my skin, and they persisted. But then I saw that what they wanted was my sweat–there wasn’t any water nearby, so moisture must have come at a premium on that hot day. So, exercising patience again, I let them land on me and drink their fill, even though it tickled, and there was part of me conditioned to feel revulsion at having “dirty” flies touching me. But once they were done, they left me alone for the rest of the time.

Much of my company was flies, a few spiders and other arthropods. However, I ended up with an awesome spot for birdwatching. I startled a scrub jay who was about to come in for a landing on a tree next to me, but then thought better of it after seeing me. There were some swallows (not sure of the exact species) flying overhead, and of course I heard the occasional raven. Later on, a quartet of turkey vultures came flying overhead, harried by a peregrine falcon (the falcons nest nearby on Beacon Rock). And then at one point I heard the “keeeeeer” of a bald eagle, and was fortunate to stand up quickly enough see a mature adult cruising parallel with the river, fifty feet away at the most!

What I realized in all this is that I saw so many things I would have missed if I hadn’t sat down to be patient. I have a tendency to be an impatient person, hence my common frustration. Being out in the woods like that, settling down quietly for a space of hours, showed me one of the many rewards of patience. In fact, this was a really good trip for Elk work in that vein. I had ample opportunities to experience the natural challenges associated with being in the wilderness and to face my own behavior patterns that came up as a result. And I came away with some good lessons.

I also actually got to do my first sort of “official” shamanic work on behalf of others. I know the human-based portion of my shamanic work has largely focused on myself and making myself a better vessel for this sort of thing, but I’m starting (finally!) to get to the point where I can do work for other people. It wasn’t anything too elaborate; one of the instructors for the course asked me to drum as part of the preparatory ceremony before we started out on our hike. (Ecopsychology doesn’t equal animism, but ecopsychologists do strongly draw on animistic practices in a secular context, such as the role of ritual.) So I very briefly explained the importance of my drum and what I was about to do, and told people that I would be calling on Horse, Deer and Elk, and that they were welcome to ask any/all of them for their guidance and protection on our “journey”, such as it was. And then I drummed while one of the instructors smudged all the participants with sage picked in eastern Oregon before we got going.

I’ve done some work since then, but I’m not ready to talk about it just yet. Needless to say, things seem to be evolving more as I’m coming back to my practice more actively. But my wilderness therapy excursion was a definite turning point.

Just a Thought on Offerings

I posted this over on my Livejournal, but wanted to share it here as well. It’s a paragraph from an essay I’m working on for an anthology:

Too often pagans have the tendency to take and take from the spirits and other beings who help us; too often we forget offerings. Or if we do make offerings, they’re rote and prescribed, and offer little practical aid to the spirits. While there’s nothing inherently wrong, for example, with leaving a place for the genius loci at the table at a feast to celebrate the harvest, this does nothing to relieve the actual soil that grew the food at that feast. We offer the spirits the “spiritual essence” of what we have benefited from, but we do nothing physical to help the physical phenomena that these spirits are attached to. In that, these sorts of offerings are somewhat of an empty gesture if we take both spiritually and physically, but only give back spiritually.*

* Yes, some people like to leave out food from the feast for wild animals as an “offering”. I fail to see how encouraging wild animals to do something mutually dangerous like associate humans with food is an offering, especially when it was the soil and not the animals that made the crops grow.

All Hail the Scavengers!

First off, before I get into the main topic of this post, I just wanted to give a brief squee of joy: I am not the only person to actively connect animism with bioregionalism! I got an appropriate comment on Bioregionalism and the Genius Locii with the above link, and having looked over the blog, I found it full of lots of good brain-foods (as well as some good ideas for further getting to know the bioregion I’ve chosen as my long-term home). Highly recommended.

So. Scavengers. A friend of mine over on Livejournal had remarked a few days ago that despite the importance vultures have had in various paleopagan religions and cultures, most notably Egyptian, neopagans really have a tendency to either ignore scavengers, or romanticize them as not-scavengers (think ravens as spirit guides–more on that in a bit). That really says a lot about the cultures that formed neopaganism; my experience is primarily with American neopaganism, so I’ll speak mainly to that.

In this culture, everything’s hygienic. Houses. Hospitals. Food production. Even the body-fluid-messy acts of sex and sexuality are presented as “glowing”. Because we are so far removed from our own bodily effluvia and that of other animals, we have the luxury of conveniently forgetting they’re there. So scavengers, animals that eat already-dead stuff that smells to high heaven, aren’t exactly the sexiest critters in the neopagan-totemic world. Well, okay–Raven’s pretty popular. But Raven’s also presented as intelligent, and with glossy black feathers, and associated with cool deities like the Morrigan. However, nobody wants to talk about the fact that ravens eat dead stuff–except for a few people who joke about ravens eating eyeballs. OTOH, ravens eating putrid, half-decayed intestines? Not so awesome. (Mmmm. I could go for some sausages right about now…)

(And let’s not get into glossy black feathers full of mites. Insects = NOT COOL according to a lot of modern totemists. Especially if they aren’t dragonflies or butterflies or other pretty bugs. And beyond that–tapeworms. Totemic tapeworms. Really.)

Ahem. I digress. But you get my point.

So yes. Nobody wants to play with the scavengers in the stinky dead stuff. Only a particular sense of humor would find this comic funny. (I laugh every time I read it–and the rest of the artist’s stuff is pretty good, if mostly more sanitary. /excuse for another parenthetical statement) Not surprising when you consider most people who eat meat have never killed or seen killed the animal they’re about to eat (except maybe crabs and lobsters, but those aren’t cute and furry and don’t count). And most of us here in the U.S. will never have to deal with what your average emergency room employee deals with, or clean up dead bodies–or, hell, see those bodies as anything other than the makeup-bedecked corpses in shiny coffins at funerals.

Lots of people don’t like human scavengers, either–again because we’re so removed from the processes involved with our basic needs. There’s a certain sense of entitlement on the part of some people in this culture. It’s the idea that because we can have access to food all the time, as well as medical care and utilities and other such things, that we’re not only allowed but encouraged to take them for granted. I see this every single time I see people leave a restaurant without taking substantial amounts of perfectly good leftovers home with them, instead leaving them to be thrown away (or, if you’re in Portland, at least they’ve a good chance of being composted). I saw it the time I was walking down a sidewalk behind a guy who was sorting out all the pennies in his pocket change and simply dropping them on the ground. I see it when people throw out perfectly good furniture and household items on trash day, instead of Freecycling it or having a local nonprofit thrift store come pick it up. Waste is a way of life here, because we think that we can get away with it.

So the dumpster divers and other people who take pains to salvage what others discard are seen as “strange” or “desperate”. I know of people who think that never buying anything used is a sign of success, and anyone who does otherwise is beneath them. Look at the trend of where our household appliances are going. Don’t worry about getting things repaired–just get a new one from the store! Anything else is seen as taking up too much time, and who’d be crazy enough to get a toaster repaired when Wal-Mart has a sale on them for ten bucks?

The thing is though…we do this because we do take what we have for granted. We assume that we’re always going to have access to food, water, shelter, safety, utilities, and other such things. We figure that the only way we can’t get a television at Best Buy is because they just had a huge clearance and everyone else beat us to it until they get the next shipment in–and even then, it was only on the one really fantastic new model that just came out. They still have televisions, but who wants those? Yet let there be one tiny hint of a shortage, and people panic. Remember what happened last year when it was reported that there was a shortage on rice? The stores couldn’t keep it in stock, partly because shoppers panicked and snapped up as much as they could. But we don’t actually have to worry about that happening for real, right?

Yet the scavengers say otherwise. They remind us of the uncomfortable truth that security is an illusion. They’re not afraid of that, though. They’re realistic. They make the most of the resources that are available. Most Americans are unfamiliar with just how precarious our situation is. Our economy is based on resources whose prices are artificially lowered thanks to government subsidies. Those resources drive our utilities that we take for granted, the things we assume will always be there that allow us to have the sort of lifestyle we have.

“How quickly you forget your history”, the scavengers say. I’ve heard people refer to the current recession as being as bad if not worse than the Great Depression. I don’t buy it. Yes, it sucks right now; I won’t deny that. But have you ever heard of a Hoover Hog? It’s a rabbit, a common, ordinary rabbit. During the Depression, numerous people, particularly in the southwest, ate rabbits because there was nothing else available. At least now we have the cheap hot dogs and burritos at the convenience store to fall back on. And if all else fails, there’s always ramen, staple food of poor college students everywhere!

And only a couple of generations ago, during WWII, we had rationing and Victory Gardens. Do you know how people would respond today if they had to ration? We’re still fighting multiple wars, and yet life goes on for most people because we don’t have any immediate reminders of the fact that there are hardships. There are still soldiers (and civilians) dying where these wars are happening–over 4,330 military personnel just in Iraq since the war began. And yet I guarantee that if rationing were imposed, you’d have more people out on the
street protesting that than were out with me and mine when the war first started. Priorities, what?

Scavengers are that reminder that we’re all gonna die. They’re the reminder that no matter how pretty a picture you paint of your life, nothing’s permanent. And it could all fall to pieces before you’re done with it. But, again, the scavengers aren’t afraid. They know what to do. They’re realistic, and prepared. And that’s their message that we so often ignore with our rose-colored glasses.

And the old pagans knew this, too. They didn’t have that luxury of being so removed from death and other unpleasantness. That’s why they didn’t just romanticize their view of nature to the point where it wasn’t real to them any more. We, on the other hand, have so removed ourselves from the reality of the way things are that we would prefer an imaginary stagnancy to the vibrant (and yes, sometimes subjectively unpleasant) variety and vigor of vida, vita, la vie!

Does this mean we should all walk around in sackcloth and ashes and bemoan our fates? Of course not. But what it does mean is (I can’t believe I’m about to use this cliched phrase) a shift in consciousness. We. Are. Privileged. The very fact that we can take basic things for granted that many, many people in other cultures–and yes, in America, too–have to scrabble for on a daily basis means that we have a metric fuckton of privilege. We shouldn’t let that be a reason to berate ourselves or, conversely, artificially inflate our importance. What we need to be doing is actively appreciating the technological and social advances that have made everything from indoor plumbing to antibiotics possible. It’s not just the basic actions we take–it’s the awareness guiding those actions that we need to start with. Many of the problems the human world faces today are due to taking things for granted and acting on some really shaky assumptions, as well as a big honking helping of deeeeeee-nial!

And we need to quit hating on the scavengers, human and otherwise. We need to stop glossing over the fact that yeah, Raven might be a trickster to some people, and a totem of a war goddess to others, and somehow a nocturnal (?) graveyard denizen to yet another, ah, demographic–but that Raven is also the totem over a species of birds that eat stinky dead corpses full of pus and other fluids, and that’s every bit as important as the mythos, if not moreso. Because whether we like it or not, they have important things to teach those of us who have our hands slapped firmly over our ears while we sing “La, la, la, la, I CAN’T HEAR YOUUUUU!!!!”

And if we can’t handle the very basic knowledge that death happens, decay happens, change happens, then how the hell are we going to be able to get anything out of the more esoteric lessons that the facilitators of those changes have to offer us in being more realistic and prepared for the things life may throw at us that we may not like, but need to deal with effectively anyway?

(Oh, and for the record, all you people with cool, impressive carnivorous totems like Wolf and Lion? Guess what? Your totems’ physical children eat carrion, too. Why go through the trouble and potential danger of injury of wandering across the land looking for animals to eat that may very well fight back, when hey–there’s a dead critter right there, ripe for the munching? It’s not just the scavengers who are practical, ya know. That’s why I don’t question whether I misidentified Wolf as my primary totem just because I love scavenging of numerous sorts–wolves aren’t going to turn their nose up at easy resources, no matter the origin.)

Elk’s Journey, Elk’s Gift

Today I did my first journey for a purpose other than exploration. I’ve been doing a lot of internal work lately, trying to work through the unhealthy conditioning and behavior patterns associated with depression and especially anxiety. They’re not a constant active influence in my life, but they do have a tendency to pop up with the right amount of stress in my life. I don’t like them, they don’t like me, and since I had an open invitation from Elk for help with emotional regulation, I decided to take hir up on it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about trying to develop a more formal ritual structure, but not based on the generic Wicca-flavored neopagan ritual structure I used to use. One of the challenges of essentially creating a practice from scratch is that there’s no authority telling me “Well, you need to do things this way or that”. I’m the one who decides, for the most part. The spirits will occasionally have a suggestion, but as far as they’re concerned, most of this is for my benefit and (eventually) the benefit of anyone I do this sort of work for. I have a desire for formality, though, so it’s up to me to create something appropriate that works.

Before my break over the past few months, when I journeyed I basically asked the drum and beater if they’d work with me, and then we’d drum together and I’d head off to where I needed to be. As I’m coming back, though, I’m finding myself being more deliberate about things. I still ask the drum and beater–and the horse, deer, and elk spirits in them–for permission. But then I warm the drum up with my hand, and then the beater; this is inspired by Ravenari’s method of doing so, and the spirits of the drum and beater really seem to appreciate it. It also helps me to ease out of my everyday headspace with all the concerns and stresses and distractions, and into the focus I need for any sort of ritual work.

I also asked the horse spirit in the drum to carry me to my starting point, instead of taking myself as I normally do. She agreed, and it made the trip a lot smoother, again partly because it helped with transitioning from one headspace to the next. I’m a little rusty, particularly in maintaining the visual aspect of journeying (I’ve always had trouble with consistent, unbroken visuals), but I had a good connection, and even when I let my “sight” relax, I was still definitely over in the spirit world.

So the drum-horse got me to the starting point, and I got onto the ground and turned into a wolf. I then worked to pick up the scent of Elk, and went to find hir. I found hir down in a valley not too far away; s/he’s been expecting me. I went to hir asked formally asked for hir help, turning back to a human being. I then held out a small elk antler tine I had brought with me as a symbol of what we were creating. Elk flinched a bit, and said “That smells like Death. Here, let’s go put it in that stream over there to cleanse it”. So we ran over there, and I placed it in the water, feeling the cool stream over my hand as I looked at the antler against the stones.

Then Elk turned into a human with an elk’s head, and so I turned into a human with a wolf’s head to match. We sat facing each other and spoke about the work we wanted to do together with helping me with emotional regulation. Elk brought up how soon the bull elk would be going into rut, and would be a lot more easily provoked, both by each other and other beings. Like the elk, I can be aggressive when I want something and can’t immediately get it or perceive something in my way. However, Elk pointed out that the bull elk don’t use any more force than necessary, even in rut, because injury is a serious thing when you’re a wild critter. Most confrontations between bull elk only end in one running away, and fights often don’t result in serious injury. (It’s still a lot of work for the bull who has a harem, who may barely eat during rutting season!)

Elk put antlers on my head and said the tine I brought was appropriate because while I can wield my own tines and harm others with them, I can also be injured by someone else’s antlers. Therefore it’s important that I’m doing this regulation work to avoid not only exhausting myself with unnecessary effort, but also injuring others or bringing injury to myself that wasn’t really needed.

Additionally, Elk talked about how there is a season to all things. There are times to be aggressive to get what I want, but that’s not all the time. I need to learn which time is which. With regards to depression and anxiety, these conditions are attempts to gain control–which is an illusion. I can’t control the world around me beyond a very limited scope, and the anxiety and depression are my way of trying to grasp at control in a situation where I feel like things are getting out of control. These are obviously maladaptive, and the better choice is to learn to adapt and roll with the punches that life throws–because nothing is ever going to be perfectly safe and secure, and that”s alright. So instead of facing the world with antlers lowered and ready, I need to learn to relax and only react when it’s actually warranted, and only to the degree that it needs to happen.

Then Elk had me retrieve the tine from the stream so I could take it back home with me, as a physical reminder of my commitment to healing myself with Elk’s help. I then offered Elk a set of three brass bells that I had brought with me as a gift for helping me. Elk laughed and said that s/he would have done this for me anyway, but that s/he appreciated the gift. S/he told me I could go; I stood, and waited to watch hir leave, but s/he just stood there waiting for me to go! Finally, s/he snorted and stomped, and I took off, with hir laughing in amusement as I did so.

I scrambled back up out of the valley to where the horse spirit was waiting. I climbed onto hir back, and s/he took me home. Soon as I came out of the journey and brought the drum back down again, I treated the drumskin to some mink oil; she’d been feeling dry and thirsty, and I’d promised her some treatment. Next, I drilled a hole in the elk tine, and put a piece of deerskin that Deer had donated to the cause. Here’s a pic:

As to the bells? Well, a while back, I believe it was Erynn who had suggested that I add bells to an elk antler that I didn’t know what to do with. So as my gift to Elk, I attached the bells to the ends of three of the tines and wrapped the rest of the antler in braided artificial sinew and waxed linen cord. The bells will later on be used in rituals as a way to help keep me oriented to where my body is so I can find my way back home. Here’s how it turned out:

So it was a successful journey overall, and I feel more confident in satisfying my need for structure. It’s all coming together, piece by piece.