Letting Go of Therianthropy For Good

Back in 2007, I published my second book through Immanion Press, A Field Guide to Otherkin. When I started the project in late 2005, I was feeling pretty confident with my first book due to be out soon, and I wanted to follow it up with something awesome. “Well, why don’t I take a shot at the book on Otherkin that everyone’s been threatening to write for years?” I thought. And so the challenge was set. Little did I know just how much I’d bitten off!

It took me over a hundred surveys, countless footnotes, and gods only know how many hours banging my head against the computer, and it was by far the most difficult book I’ve written due to the sheer amount of information I had to wrangle from scratch. But it happened, and as far as I know it’s still the only book wholly dedicated to Otherkin as a general topic (as opposed to an entire book on one specific type of Otherkin, or a book that mentioned Otherkin in the context of a different topic, etc.)

Which makes it tougher for me to make the decision to take A Field Guide to Otherkin out of print at the end of this month, because it is the only book out there. There are plenty of good websites and online resources available, but some people really like the format of a book (dead tree or ebook, your choice). And I know I’ve managed to fulfill most of my goals with it, primarily in offering a basic introductory guide to the subject matter at hand. I’ve gotten lots of emails and messages and in-person comments since it came out from people who have found it quite useful in exploring their own identities. Each one has shown me that, to an extent, I’m doing my job as a writer.

But please allow me to be selfish for a moment. Every book I write is a piece of artwork, every word infused with a bit of myself. And, like so many authors, my relationships with my books change over time. The books remain the same, but I am constantly moving and evolving. Even in the time between when a manuscript is turned in and when the book goes to press, I cease to be the exact person I was when I wrote it. Meanwhile, the book remains a snapshot of the time period in which it was written, a reflection of the knowledge base and headspace I brought to that project.

Some books age better than others. Unfortunately, Field Guide feels like it isn’t keeping up very well. A lot of this is because I feel it’s a flawed work. For all the effort put into it, and for all the help it’s done people, I could have done a better job.

I took on the project before I had proper research training, and so even as a qualitative review, it’s lacking. The 140+ surveys I got were a pretty meager representation of Otherkin as a whole. Even though there weren’t as many resources for Otherkin when I was writing it seven years ago as there are now, I might have been able to get a less biased sample to work with, since I spent more time on Livejournal than anywhere else at the time. And yes, I’m well aware of the many typos and other errors in the text. That’s one of the downsides of publishing with a small press; while Immanion is pretty damned good for what it is, human resources are stretched more thinly, and so it can be harder to find professionally trained editors and proofreaders to work on a part-time scale.

Not that the blame lies entirely on the publisher; far from it. I wasn’t as experienced a writer as I am today, and if I were writing it now, there are a lot of things I would do differently, and not just with more careful editing. Part of it is simply that the community and its ongoing  dialogue have changed and expanded over time, and I’d have a lot more to present to people as far as who and what Otherkin are, what their concerns and perspectives are, etc. And it’d be better written, too. The bulk of the writing happened in 2006, and I’ve had the better part of a decade since then to refine my craft, both with writing and with research in general. And, of course, I’ve grown and changed as a person, which always affects creativity; who here can say they’re the same person they were seven years ago? The Field Guide was written at one of the most challenging times in my life, and I think that affected its quality. Since it came out, I’ve moved several times, gotten divorced, changed careers entirely, and shifted my spiritual focus, all for the better; maybe a 2013 Field Guide would be a better book. It would certainly be different, just as I am different now.

Speaking of time, since it has been out since April of 2007, a lot of the information is out of date. Online resources come and go, and lot has happened in the Otherkin community in the past several years. So why don’t I just make a second updated edition? When I first wrote the book, I was sure I’d update it in a few years. I just needed a little time away from the whole Otherkin “thing”, to take a break after having been part of the community to some extent since the late 1990s. Problem is, I never really came back from that break. I got burned out, and while I still liked hanging out with my friends who happen to be ‘kin (and yes, I still want to come to the PCon meetup because you people are awesome!), I never got back into the community-at-large again.

So now here I am in 2013, and I have a confession to make: I no longer identify as a therianthrope, and I haven’t for quite some time. I’ve sat with that reality for a while, checking in with myself and making sure it wasn’t just a phase. But no, it just doesn’t fit any more; it’s not a framework that explains me. There’s still a piece of me that I feel resonates more with wolf than human, but at this point I don’t think it’s anything more than a bit of creative personal narrative, part of the ongoing myth I tell about myself. For me, the wolf is a metaphor, a piece of spirituality internalized. Sure, I’ve always leaned toward the personal mythology hypothesis of “what are Otherkin”, but the idea that I am fundamentally not human on some level just doesn’t fit. I am a human animal, 100%, just with a particular connection to the idea of “wolfness”. Call it an inner connection to my totem, or a super-charged “favorite animal”; either of those fit me better than “therian”, or “shifter”, or any of the other terms that set animal-people apart from humanity as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t regret exploring myself in the Otherkin framework. For the time, well over a decade, it was what fit best in explaining that resonance with “Wolf”. It was a fascinating interpretation of reality that allowed me an outlet for exploring imagination and flexible identity in a way that is usually reserved only for the play of children. Sure, there are those few who take it to the point of impaired functioning and enabling of some unhealthy mental patterns, but there are also plenty of people who have an Other identity and still manage to be quite well integrated into consensus reality, even if they aren’t quite happy about the current state of affairs. If nothing else, interpreting my wolfness as therianthropy was a fun way to take play seriously, if that makes sense.

But my head’s just not there any more, and my heart’s not in it, either. I can’t really force myself to write a second edition for the hell of it, either. It’s hard to write about something I’m not passionate about. You can look back at all the books and other writings I’ve created over the years, and you can see where my heart was at that time. And it’s gone in very different directions in the past few years.

Finally, to be quite honest: I’m tired of talking about Otherkin. Even before the book came out, it’s what most podcasters and other interviewers wanted to talk to me about, and even today it’s a frequent topic when people ask me about my writing and spiritual work. Never mind that for years I’ve been writing extensively on my work in neoshamanism, on animal and plant and fungus totems, on ecopsychology and bioregionalism and a whole bunch of other things that I am deeply fascinated by. Invariably, people want to talk about the Otherkin thing (though to be fair some of them wanted to talk about other things, even if Otherkin ended up being a dominant topic). It was fine when it was still something that I identified with and was actively working with, but I feel like my later work has been somewhat overshadowed by the topic of Otherkin simply because I “wrote the book” on it.

I don’t want to be the only person to have written a book on Otherkin, and it’s not just to get out of having to talk about it in interviews. I had hoped that once Field Guide was out, it would entice other writers to make their books happen. Just because there’s one book on Otherkin out doesn’t mean there can’t be others; and diversity of voices gives a topic more strength. (And I wanted more reading material, dammit!) Maybe with the book out of print, someone else will feel they can fill that niche now.

I know I’m taking away a resource by pulling the book out of print, even if it is imperfect. But it’s not the only resource out there. Even if there is a scattering of broken links here and there, Otherkin.net has always been one of my favorite resources. Otherkin Alliance has, for several years, offered a good collection of essays along with an active and well-moderated forum. Dreamhart.org is run by one of the most reliable long-time members of the Otherkin community, and features a relatively recent wiki that’s undergoing current expansion. And while O. Scribner hasn’t written a book per se, the excellent writings on this page are, in my opinion, essentially an ebook in several parts.

And there are plenty of other people besides these writing on Otherkin, on blogs and websites and the like. Hell, Otherkin are even being discussed in terms of social justice on Tumblr. I know for a fact you all can find lots to work with without my book being in print any more. The internet has the added benefit of being easy to update, unlike a dead tree book written by someone who’s already stretched pretty thinly.

To be honest, I think there are people out there who could do a better job at writing a book on Otherkin, even better than a carefully overhauled second edition of the Field Guide; for all the reasons I’ve stated above, I’m not that person. Even with the flaws I still like the book. But I think it’s run its course, and rather than try to patch up its imperfections and put forth something I’d still not be happy with, I’d like to see someone else take on that project.

Finally, please don’t take my moving on from therianthropy as a personal worldview as a wholesale denial of the entire concept. I am not the arbiter of anyone’s identity but my own. My path is taking my further and further away from “Lupa the therianthrope”, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow me. Nor should you use this as an excuse to tell other people who do still identify as Otherkin/therianthropes/etc. that they’re wrong. Let each person set their feet and their will wherever they choose.

As for me? I’ll keep exploring the world around me and finding my place in it with every hike I take. And I’m happy to keep talking about the work I’m doing today on a variety of levels. One door closes, another opens, and I’m taking that first step through.

(I mentioned A Field Guide to Otherkin is going out of print the first of May. I wanted to give people time to grab a copy while they were still available; I have a few left here, and the page also has links to other sites that may have a limited number left. Yes, there will be copies available a while after it officially goes out of print on May 1, since shops will need to sell off their remaining stock. Give it year and even used copies will be selling on Amazon for exorbitant prices, since only a few hundred copies exist in the world. So now’s your chance!)

In Which We Determine I Am Not an Indoor Wolf

I have spent the better part of two weeks being sick with a gut bug. I’m almost recovered at this point but am still fatigued enough that it’s going to be a couple more days before I can reliably leave the apartment for more than a little while. It’s definitely going to be a bit longer before I get to go hiking again. But even going outside so far as to walk down the block has been a challenge. I went out Friday afternoon to walk an errand, and was overjoyed to get absolutely drenched in the rain, simply because it meant I wasn’t inside.

Now, my apartment is a pretty cozy place to be. I have just about everything I need here–my work, lots of books, my computer, company in the form of my partner, and so forth. So being restricted to this place isn’t the worst thing in the world. Even on the days when I was so tired I mostly just slept, I had a nice, warm, comfy bed to snooze and snuggle in. I even popped open the bedroom window during the day so I could see the cherry and maple trees outside, with the squirrels and scrub jays and crows busying themselves with autumn chores. So it sure beat being stuck in a hospital somewhere (not that I was anywhere near that sick this time around).

Still, it wasn’t outside. And due to being sick twice now in the past month, my outdoor time has been almost nil. To be quite honest, it’s been driving me up the wall. Once festival season settled out for the year and I was able to get out more, I got used to my weekly hikes and other sojourns. And now they’re sorely missed. I’ve felt so starved for outdoor time that even walking downstairs to the mailbox or the car has felt like a banquet of smells, sights, and sounds for my sensory enjoyment.

The entire experience been an immediate illustration of the human need for nature. I noticed a definite difference between the first time I was able to get in the car and have my partner drive me to the grocery store, and the first time I was able to walk a mile around my neighborhood on one of the last sunny days. Sure, the former was a change of scenery, and the source of much-needed provisions. But the latter….that fed my spirit. I often take for granted just how much the trees and the gardens and the small creatures in my urban neighborhood improve my overall well-being. That first walkabout was a strong reminder of what had been missing. I went from a small space of a few rooms and the endless distractions of the internet, to a full, living world brimming over with flora and fauna. I encountered thousands of living beings–the last remaining orb weaving spider, chrysanthemums, moss greening the rain-soaked pavement, my fellow humans jostling for space in a small market.

I vary from day to day how much I’m able to get out, but every moment under the sky is precious now. It was before, too, but never to such a conscious degree. And every day I direct my efforts in growing stronger and healthier with the goal of being well enough to hike, even if it’s just a small hike. That’s what has helped keep my sanity intact in these days of illness and fatigue and confinement. Between my walks outside, and the promise of more wilderness, I can keep myself calm while I heal.

I am not an indoor wolf. I never had the ability to fool myself into thinking that the city was enough, that the virtual reality of the internet and all its shining interruptions could replace the living world. I have uses for technology, of course, but they are no substitute. I am a living, breathing, evolved being, and like my ancestors before me, I need open landscapes to roam. We may have developed some incredible and even beneficial technologies over the past century, but we are still the mammalian animal, Homo sapiens, and evolution doesn’t work so quickly that tech replaces biology.

So I wait as patiently as I can for my body to complete its healing process from this damnable illness, letting my immune system work its magic, and taking in calories and rest as I need to to help it along. And then someday soon I’ll find myself strapping on my day pack and picking up my hiking stick, and I’ll be on the trail again before I know it.

Why Basic Research Methodology Is Important To Magical Knowledge

Quick note–a couple of days after I wrote this but before it was scheduled to go live, I was interviewed regarding Otherkin on the Pagan Musings podcast with KaliSara and RevKess, as well as guest “Arthur”. It was a really good discussion; I jumped in about 45 minutes into the show as the special “surprise” guest. Take a listen if you’re interested; we get into what basics of what Otherkin are, but also some of the spiritual/religious and psychological elements of the phenomenon as well.

So. On to the intended post.

Recently on Livejournal I wrote a response to a post someone else wrote about proposed experiments to try to “prove” the objective existence of Otherkin. These experiments ranged from Kirlian photography to try to get pictures of phantom limbs, to using EEG to measure any neurological abnormalities in Otherkin compared to the general population. I feel it applies not only to proving Otherkin as something other than collective imagination, but also proving the objective existence of magic. Here’s what I wrote (with a couple of minor edits and some helpful links added):

With regards to experiments, most of the proposed quantitative experiments over time have been horribly flawed and have not been designed with solid research methodology. Here are a few particular potential flaws:

–Poor research design: A good piece of research starts with good design. What is the experiment meant to measure? How is it measured? Is it using any existing instruments, or is one created specifically for the purpose of that experiment? Is the instrument you’re using reliable–does it measure consistently? Is it valid–does it measure what you actually are trying to measure? Finally, the simpler, the better, especially in new territory such as this. Keep it to one independent variable and one dependent variable, if possible–and know which is which.
Confirmation bias: This is a BIG problem with anecdotal “evidence” of Otherkin, magic, etc. Confimation bias basically means seeing what you want to see, and excluding anything that doesn’t support your desired results. This is often done unconsciously. Example: I keep seeing signs that Tiger is my totem. I want Tiger to be my totem, so I give greater attention and value to things that support Tiger being my totem than not, even though, if the evidence is taken by the numbers, the evidence points toward Tiger not being my totem.
Sampling bias: This was a notable reason for why my surveys for the Field Guide were NOT formal research, and a big potential issue with trying to do any experimentation with Otherkin in general. Your sample is most likely going to be biased toward people who A) are willing to be identified in some manner as Otherkin and are not so paranoid as to assume even anonymous research may be used against them personally, and B) more often than not WANT for Otherkin/magic/etc. to be proven. It’s a small population to begin with, too, so you’re most likely going to have a small sample, which can heavily affect whether the research is even solid.
Confounds and Correlation vs. Causation: related to some of the earlier things I talked about, confounding variables are variables other than the identified dependent and independent variables that come into play and affect the results. Another, very closely related concept is “correlation does not equal causation”. Just because two variables seem to affect each other in one’s results does not mean that they automatically are causal to each other. There may be a confound or third variable that is the actual vehicle of causation, or the correlation may be coincidence. This is why multiple experiments need to be run, and the results thoroughly analyzed, before making any theoretical conclusions.
–Applying more significance to results than the statistics show: Statistics are how you analyse your results in various and sundry ways. They allow for a certain level of variation (such as standard deviations from the mean, or identifying outliers) and the statement thereof, and they also help you to rule out whether your results occurred by chance or not (whether your results are statistically significant or not). Through statistics you can use the hard data to determine whether or not you proved your hypothesis (or disproved the null hypothesis).

Because most “evidence” of Otherkin/magic/etc. is anecdotal, and experiments “proving” it often manipulate or inflate the significance of the results, and the best research so far has not supported the objective existence of magic and other spiritual things, any research done to try to “prove” Otherkin/magic/etc. on an objective level needs to be of the highest quality and avoid the above and other pitfalls.

I added one last postscript to my initial response:

(Or, tl;dr – a small handful of people who say “This happens when we do that” does not constitute proper research methodology and does not hold water when trying to prove anything objectively.)

Observing “Well, every time I do this, this happens” is fine if all you want to do is self-confirm a subjective experience. But if you’re trying to prove that magic really works as an independent, objective force (rather than your results being from your own psychological biases, or other external factors that are not “magic”), then you need more rigorous testing then just a handful of people doing the same spell, ritual, or meditation once or twice and comparing their results over coffee. Just because you claim you can replicate your results doesn’t mean that you can prove that your independent variable and your dependent variable are causative as well as correlated. Are you constructing your experiments with a large enough sample to make a statistical difference? Are you doing your best to rule out confounds and confirmation bias? Would your results hold up to heavy statistical analysis?

Every shoddily constructed experiment and instrument, every poorly interpreted or deliberately manipulated set of results, every anecdote held up as firm “evidence” across the board–all these things do absolutely nothing to further your cause, and in fact do much to harm it. This is one example of what happens when people push bad research into the general consciousness. (And before you say “Well, bad magical research never killed anybody!”, here’s a sizable collection of recorded instances of people being injured or killed by the misapplication of everything from faith healing to dream interpretation (and, apparently, also GPS systems.)

And before anyone tries to start a science vs. magic debate, or argue that there’s no such thing as objective reality, both derailments of which are going to get killed before they get on their feet because I do control the comments here*–my point that I am making is that if you are going to claim that magic can be proven through experimentation, then your methodology needs to not be half-assed. If you are going to claim that you have any authority on anything that involves proving something exists objectively, then you need to be literate in the methods used in proving something exists objectively. Finally, understanding the basics of research methodology is an incredibly valuable part of critical thinking skills, skills that are woefully under-represented in magic and spirituality, and really are a necessary part of being human.**

That last paragraph that I just wrote right up there? THAT’S the intended take-away. You want to prove magic (or any other similar force or concept) exists in an objective, consistently measurable manner? Then have the correct tools, and be willing to be wrong, if that’s where the evidence and statistics end up taking your research.

* I’m not avoiding them because I don’t think they’re good topics of debate, but I want to keep things focused on the actual topic I’m discussing here, rather than getting derailed. Thank you for respecting that.

** Even people who have never, and will never, run a formal experiment still benefit from knowing the basics of research methodology so that they can have a better idea of what the people who do those experiments tell the general public through their published results (and why that’s important to everyday life). Yes, people who are experts in their field and have access to knowledge and training the rest of us don’t do have an advantage and authority. But knowing the basic processes by which they acquire their knowledge, to include research methodology, can help those of us on the general level of “consumer” of information and products to have a better understanding of why, for example, “studies show Brand X is the best!” or parse out whether a news story on “This food/medication/material COULD KILL YOU” is worth paying attention to.

Just a quick note….

I’ve been getting a few hits from a forum thread about therianthropy as religion. If you check the FAQ, I explain that the only connections between therianthropy and therioshamanism are a root word in terms, and the fact that I I.D. as a therianthrope myself. So no, therioshamanism isn’t short for “therianthropic shamanism”.

Cheers 🙂

Totemic Therianthropy

A little over a year ago, I posted A Totemic Perspective on Spiritual Therianthropy, and a bit before that, A Mythological Perspective on Therianthropy. A few months later, I kicked around some ideas on therianthropy, Otherkin, identity, and hermeticism, among other things. These were some of the first written manifestations of thoughts and understandings I’ve been testing out to one degree or another for the past few years.

So I’ve finally come to a conclusion from all this testing of ideas. My therianthropy–the structure on which I examine why it is that I feel that on some (nonphysical) level I am wolf in nature–is directly related to and caused by totemism. It’s something that was given to me by Wolf, my primary totem, who has been with me my entire life. It is still something that permeates my being at all times, not something I can simply take off and put back on at will, and not something that is separate from me. I am wolf on some level, as I am also human on other levels (the physical included).

This isn’t something that’s easy to say. There are a lot of kneejerk reactions to mentioning therianthropy and totemism in the same sentence. There’s been a good deal of effort put towards making the differences between therianthropy and totemism very clear, particularly because there has been a lot of confusion (especially among newbies to the concept of therianthropy). What commonly happens is you’ll get someone who has recently (or not) discovered hir totem, whether s/he knows what it is or not, and because s/he feels a strong draw towards this animal, s/he assumes s/he IS the animal. Additionally, while most of the furries I know know the difference, there also seems to be some confusion among totemism, therianthropy, and the fursona. Often newbies will leap to conclusions without having done much research or self-searching and introspection, and try to speak as authoritatively as someone who’s actually done the work over time. Granted, this happens with newbies in any group–but I digress.

This results in a tendency to try to keep the lines between totemism and therianthropy as sharply delineated as possible. Unfortunately, this can occasionally mean situations in which the combination of the two in any way is discouraged, particularly if the nice, safe lines get blurred. I’ll freely admit that I avoided exploring this possibility for a while specifically because I’d seen so much negative press about it, and wanted to make sure I was “doing things right”. However, as my need for external validation diminished, and my ability to validate my own beliefs and experiences became stronger, I said “Fuck that noise” and decided to explore it anyway. I’m glad that it did, because it’s been the most fertile exploration related to my therianthropy I’ve ever had.

However, I didn’t come to this conclusion quickly or lightly. As I mentioned, I’ve been working with these ideas for the past few years, and have been working them out in writing (one of my best forms of processing) for over a year. Some of the material on personal mythology in A Field Guide to Otherkin, which came out in 2007, was a precursor to some of the ideas woven in to my current theory. But it wasn’t until I started developing my therioshamanic practice that I really reached a greater understanding.

While I’ve been an actively practicing totemist since the mid-1990s, and have had Wolf as a presence for my entire life (and became aware of it at a very young age), my relationships with the totems deepened significantly after I started practicing shamanism. Shamanism, by necessity, is built on relationships with the spirits. It isn’t about techniques, or shiny objects. First and foremost, it is communication with spirits and travelling to their realms (or in a few cultures, mediumship). The techniques and trappings stem from and support that communication and those relationships.

As I got to know Wolf better, s/he began telling me more about myself-as-wolf, as s/he felt I was ready for it. S/he told me the significance of our first meeting, when I first remembered realizing there was something wolfish in me–and that it never stopped being there, ever, no matter how much I sometimes tried to get rid of it. Most of the details are private, but I can definitely say that that which is wolf in me, was a direct gift from hir, and is part of the ongoing relationship that’s developed over this lifetime. It’s something that I did question a number of times, just to be sure I wasn’t making it up. S/he confirmed each time.

So, what of my personal experience is therianthropy, and what is totemism?

Therianthropy: I am wolf on some (nonphysical) level. This is not a wolf spirit carried within me, or any other being independent of me. It is not me carrying Wolf hirself in me, though I see what is wolf in me as having originated with hir. This is me. I don’t believe reincarnation factors in. The part of me that is wolf is something that, as far as I understand, is part of this life.

Totemism: Wolf is a totem, an archetypal being who embodies all that is to be known about wolves. Specifically I work with Timber (Gray) Wolf, who protects all the subspecies of that species. Wolf is an external being who gave me a piece of hirself that was integrated into who I am from the beginning. Just having a totem does not make me a therianthrope; it is the specific part of myself that Wolf gave me that is important. None of my other totems have given me something like that, and therefore I am not, for example, a fox therian, or a badger therian.

So, yes, I can definitely say that at this point the best way to explain my own therianthropy, myself-as-wolf, is through my relationship with Wolf the totem. I am wolf in and of myself, but it is something that was given to me by Wolf. I’m still going to continue exploring and working to better understand myself in parts and in whole, but this is the closest I’ve come to an explanation of myself-as-wolf.

Shamanically speaking, this gives me even more understanding as to how my therianthropy can be incorporated into my shamanic practice. It explains more of why Wolf has been around the whole time, and it also offers up some intriguing possibilities for forging stronger, potentially permanent connections with other totems. I’ve often wondered if, assuming they were willing, other totems could give me (or other people) similar pieces of themselves. Though it also may be something that is not easily given, or given at all. We shall see.

One final thing I want to make absolutely clear–this is something that is unique to my experience. While I know a very small number of people (count on one hand) with similar experiences, the vast majority of therianthropes who also practice totemism don’t (to my knowledge, anyway) have the same relationship with their totems that I do with Wolf, in that their therianthropy isn’t directly related. I do think it’s possible that this happens more often than I realize, but the thing I want to emphasize is that I came to this conclusion after nearly three decades of being aware, on some level, that there was something about me wolfish, after over a decade of active totemic work, and after a few years specifically spent on exploring the connection between my personal therianthropy, and my personal rel,ationships with my totems, including the intensity of shamanic practice. While I don’t want to discourage people from considering a similar possibility for themselves, I also want to make sure it’s understood that it’s not to be considered lightly–but then again, when is any of this to be decided through hasty processes?

Wolves and Dogs and Therianthropy

Part of my personal mythology involves identifying myself as a wolf therian–basically, I believe that on some nonphysical level of myself, I am more wolf than human. This is something that goes wayyyyyy back to a very young age; therianthropy is just the general framework that I’ve been using to explore and explain it in the past several years. I’ve been evolving into more a personal mythology framework the past couple of years–but not completely disavowing “therianthropy” as a concept. I’m currently explaining it (in my case) as a part of the metaphorical story (that is also true–more on that in a minute) I tell about myself, rather than trying to take the (relatively) literalist perspective of “There’s something wrong with my neurobiology, and that of every other therian, that causes a fundamental miswiring related to identity/senses/etc.”, or the other popular opinion, “I was a wolf in a past life/my soul is that of a wolf”.

Let me make something very clear: I believe that metaphor and mythology are not “just made up”. They come from a complex interplay of the mind and the environment, to include what I believe to be autonomous beings. The modern Western conception of myth/metaphor is that it’s “all in the head’, with no bearing on the real world. I believe these are as much a part of the fabric of reality as physics, and other more materialistic things. I choose to believe that metaphor/myth have autonomous existences independent of the human mind, but that there is interdependence as well. This is a case of both/and instead of either/or. I make this choice A) because I have experienced things that prove to me as an individual that this is true in my subjective reality, and B) because my spiritual path functions much better when I believe this is true.

So. Back to the topic at hand.

As I said, myself-as-wolf is a significant part of my personal mythology. It explains to me a number of traits that “human” doesn’t quite fit–or, at least, that “wolf” fits better. Taylor brought up to me a few weeks ago the concept of myself-as-dog, however. I have a lot more experience working with dogs than I do with wolves, and being a somewhat domesticated critter myself, “dog” may be something to explore in more depth.

What is a dog? One way of looking at it is essentially a domesticated wolf. That’s a very simplistic explanation, but it’s a starting point. A dog is what happens when wolves interact over a long period of time with humans, becoming interdependent. If I am a wolf in human form, interacting within a human paradigm for a lifetime, wouldn’t that create some kind of change in the self-as-wolf? After all, I can’t say that I am only wolf, and while I can guess at how close I am to the experience of being wolf, it’s all conjecture in the end. No on can prove that my experiences when I am in a more wolfish mindset are anything more than my mind’s approximation of what I might assume to be “wolf” things.

Dogs, though, are more of a known quantity. Again, I can’t get inside the head of a dog, but I can observe doggish behavior more often and have a better idea of what a dog is. And from a purely analytical viewpoint, I can compare the outsider’s perspective on wolves and dogs to see where the similarities and differences are.

So working with Dog energy may be an interesting way to get a better handle on myself-as-wolf, filtered through myself-as-human. It’s not a complete parallel, since that part of myself still identifies as wolf rather than dog. However, dogs are the closest things to wolves I have access to on a regular basis. It can’t hurt to at least explore the connections.

Totemically, I may also try working with the totems of different breeds of domestic dog. I’ve always had a particular fondness for more primitive, wolfish breeds–I had German shepherds growing up, and also like malemutes, huskies, and other such breeds. I’m still undecided about what I think about wolf hybrids; I haven’t had much experience with them, and I’ve heard lots of both good and bad testimonies to their temperaments and safety. Still, I’d much rather be around a German shepherd than a Bichon Frise.

I don’t think that I’ll ever give up embracing “wolf” as the primary theme in my life, though the work with “dog” may bring some interesting perspectives. “Wolf” is too deeply ingrained in my fundamental self, and there are certain things that I know will always fit “wolf” better than “dog”. However, I’ve also been embracing the concept of feralness again, the idea of a once-wild being (or lineage of beings) that has been brought into captivity, and then released to the wild again. Your average dog is not feral, but has the capacity to be. It may be that I can find some parallel patterns in my own life as I find once again the part of myself that was born wild, was made captive, and is only now finding itself free again. Given that this part of me is very closely tied to myself-as-wolf, this work with wolf and dog and related concepts may be valuable indeed.

Therianthropy (and Otherkin) and Universal Connection

I’m going to deviate a bit from the shamanic end of things and delve into some other thoughts–specifically thoughts sparked by reading Green Hermeticism by Wilson, Bamford and Townley. Published last year, it’s a marvelous work on hermeticism and alchemy with a strong ecological focus. I’ll have a review up hopefully by the end of the week over at Pagan Book Reviews.

The part that really got my gears going was in Bamford’s chapter, “Quilting Green Hermeticism”, specifically the section “Perception and Imagination”. It’s an examination of a way of perception that differs dramatically from most folks’ everyday perception. Found throughout various spiritualities and magical traditions, it is the application of the idea that all things are connected to the point that true perception involved not just observing and analyzing something, but instead breaking down our barriers and experiencing it, experiencing what it is to be it, identifying ourselves with it to fully know it. Bamford cites Paracelsus’ example of the Scammonea herb. Instead of only knowing facts and figures about Scammonea, Paracelsus says, “When you overhear from the Scammonea the knowledge it possesses, that knowledge will be in you just as it is within the Scammonea and you will have acquired the experience as well the as knowledge”. (p. 148)

This perspective also echoes the concept of the holographic universe, in which every individual thing contains a reflection of the All, the entirety of Existence (including beyond what we are aware of). It breaks down the habit of dichotomy and duality, and instead embraces the union of opposites. Rather than perceiving based on either/or, we perceive both/and. Green Hermeticism espouses a viewpoint that is based on the understanding that the entire Universe is alive and aware. Rather than looking at a bunch of individual components that are all separate from each other, we are encouraged to start by looking at the One Universe, and then move outward from there. However, Bamford puts this perspective much more eloquently than I can:

Hermetic thinking…works through paradox and metaphor (and patience) which essentially overturn the laws of logic in that they demand the ability to hold two contrary realities simultaneously in the heart/mind as a unity…Whereas ordinary thinking and science begin with a multiplicity of parts and somehow hope to move from the details of the many to some kind of wholeness or unity, Hermeticism begins with the unity or wholeness of opposites and seeks to realize their reality in the experience of the world. (p. 136, bold emphasis mine)

So what has this to do with therianthropy and Otherkin? A good deal. Back when I was writing A Field Guide to Otherkin, my editor (and husband) Taylor questioned the role of the concept of Otherkin (including therianthropy for simplicity’s sake). Specifically, he wanted to know what purpose the concept has beyond identity. That’s a damned good question, given that a significant number of Otherkin seem to be so concerned with remembering every single detail of their (assumed) past lives as a (insert nonhuman being here) that they never seem to think outside the identity box (Rialian has dubbed such people “identitykin”). While they are far from being the majority of Otherkin, identitykin are still pretty common.

And Taylor is far from being the only person who has raised the question of what good is being Otherkin besides having a nifty identity. How does being Otherkin benefit a person, other than perhaps explaining some questions about themselves? What does it do besides apply a label? That’s something I’ve really been focusing on since Taylor brought the query up to me well over a year ago. It’s not that I didn’t have purpose besides identity for my therianthropy, but I’d never really thought about it.

Reading the above ideas in Green Hermeticism helped me to take some vague ideas that have been floating around in my head ever since, and put them into something resembling a coherent idea. So here, for your reading pleasure, is the initial result. Please keep in mind that I only speak for myself; not all Otherkin work with magic and esotericism. Additionally, many Otherkin are leery of putting the concept of Otherkin into anything but literal, attempted objective terms; metaphor, subjectivity, and minority perceptions are often eschewed for fear of “invalidating” the concept of Otherkin in the eyes of others. (Never mind that what someone else thinks should have no bearing on the personal validity of one’s own experiences; if you’re trying too hard to please others, you’re probably distracted from more important things.)

The statement “I am a wolf therianthrope” boils down to this: while I am in a human body, raised by humans with human conditioning in human civilization, there is a significant part of me that says, sincerely, “I am a wolf”. It’s been there almost as long as I can remember, and no amount of denying it made it go away, so I simply integrated it, using the concept of therianthropy as a framework to understand it better. In doing so, I have opened myself to the possibility that I am more than what is apparent, and that the boundaries of identity are more fluid than commonly assumed.

However, I want to take this idea further. Let’s assume that the hermetic perception is correct, and that it is possible to not only know about, but to experience anything in this Universe–animal, vegetable, or mineral, as the alchemical trinity is composed. Let’s also assume that experiencing anything will allow the perceiver to fully understand that thing in a way that simply knowing about it cannot.

Having already experienced numerous times what it is (or what I perceive) to be a wolf as well as a human (the latter of which may be considered my starting point and home base), and, through invocation, having experienced (to a lesser, more temporary, degree) what it is to be various other animals, as well as deities and other spirits, it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility that I could extend that ability to experience toward literally anything. Since “wolf” is what I understand best through therianthropy (the idea that I am wolf as well as human), could I not take the lessons and dynamics learned through balancing wolf and human to begin to integrate other things into “I am”? Does being Otherkin give one a potential head start on union with the All, in that it requires a person to accept that s/he is not only human, but not-human as well?

If this is true, then it stands to reason that for some people, the concept of “Otherkin” can be taken far beyond mere identity. Of course, that gets into the argument of “Well, what if people start ‘becoming’ Otherkin, or adding new Otherkin selves like new clothes?” From a “normal” perception, that is a concern. However, it’s a perception that is based on division and boundaries, rather than unity and exploration of the unity through multifaceted experience. In order to make this exercise work, being able to adopt the latter, hermetic perception is necessary. Otherwise it’s kind of like looking at a 3-D movie through sunglasses instead of 3-D glasses with their red and blue lenses–right idea, wrong filter, and you miss out on the important parts.

This will also prompt more thought on labels, and our adherence to them. We use labels as convenient ways to communicate, and they have their place. However, we sometimes cling to them too tightly and don’t stop to think what those labels really stand for. Additionally, there’s that aforementioned tendency to want to try to put the concept of Otherkin (which is already highly questioned by skeptics) into as literal a format as possible to try to maxmize its legitimacy in the eyes of everybody, ‘kin and non-‘kin alike. To look at it through a perception that has been degraded for centuries as outmoded, crazy, and dangerous just makes people more insecure about it overall. Yet I believe if we are to truly understand and utilize the potential of “Otherkin” as a concept–and as, to be honest, a practice–then we have to be willing to go outside of our comfortable pigeonholes. There is a time and place, true, to argue legitimacy and literalism. However, I am speaking from a current headspace of transcendence and alternative manners of thought and understanding that flow beneath the surface of commonly accepted consensus reality. We already believe that we are Other than what our genes (and society) dictate we are, which challenges consensus reality enough as it is. There’s value in challenging it further, and this is just one potential way of doing so.

I am far from being an expert on hermeticism, so if there are any flaws in my logic on that account (or any other) feel free to constructively critique. (Same goes for anything else you may feel like commenting on.) This is a very rough draft of an idea, the first time I’ve been able to find anything even approaching the right words. I feel humbled by the eloquence of Bamford and his co-authors, who have expressed their ideas on green hermeticism most excellently. Still, this is a good start, and something I will continue to chew on, especially as the “Everything Is Connected” is a significant part of my cosmology. It may not be “pure” shamanism, per se, but it’s integral to what I’m personally working with.

Animal Father =/= Horned God

Over the weekend I came into the possession of a marvelous set of eight-point red stag antlers, a vintage mount on a velvet-covered board. My original intent was to incorporate them into some sort of artwork. However, not long after I brought them home, the Animal Father started hinting that he’d like them as part of a personal shrine, since Artemis has one herself. (We’re still debating, since I had some ideas for these antlers, but I’m also not completely opposed to keeping them around–and the stag spirit wouldn’t mind, either.)

This whole business with the antlers brought up something that I’ve been aware of since I began working with the Animal Father–he is not the same deity as the Wiccan Horned God, or the various horned deities who get tossed under that aegis from time to time (Cernunnos, Herne, etc.). Yes, he’s depicted with antlers, but he has made it very clear to me that he is is own being, and that the Horned God motif doesn’t fit him.

One reason is because he has a much less “human” feel to him than the Horned God. He would never be found on horseback, with or without the Wild Hunt. He is only as anthropomorphized as is necessary for humans to interact with him, and to bring forth the melding of humanity with other animals. As he is a patron of shapeshifting, something that primarily concerns humans, having some human traits helps to connect him, in our minds, to that particular practice. However, he is no more (or less) human than he is any animal. Even in his anthropomorphic form, he is much less humanoid than many other deities. Most depictions of the Horned God and various associated deities show a rather normal looking man, maybe with a beard–and antlers. In fact, the antlers, and maybe a couple of dead pelts, are all that really show the Horned God as being an animal deity. One could easily see a humanoid Goddess lying in the grass with the humanoid-with-horns Horned God. However, rutting with the Animal Father might be just a little too close to less savory practices.

Additionally, while the Animal Father does have antlers in the most common depiction of him, he is not a “stag god” as the Horned God has more and more come to be in modern paganism. Nor is he limited to hoofed animals, or mammals, or vertebrates. He could actually show up as any animal or combination of animals; he is the Animal Father, and he could be anything from a worm to a whale. While he could show himself as entirely human, he generally does not, particularly in this day and age where humanity is so far removed from its animal self. It would be a most unpleasant experience for him, to my understanding–we’re talking about a deity who much prefer to meet with me out in the wilderness, rather than my ritual room or even the nearby park. The wilder, the better. To draw from the energy of modern humanity, even with the remaining indigenous hunter-gatherer and agrarian cultures, would be too alien an experience for him. So he chooses to appear only as part-human when necessary.

The antlers have become well-known, and he knows that they would be quite evocative for me, though he would want me to incorporate other animal parts to the shrine as well, if I give in to his wishes. The culture he came from and the pagans he has since worked with are most familiar with large mammals in their religions. These tend to evoke a lot of primal feelings in humans, moreso than, say, carp or June bugs. So he most often wears the guise of creatures that cause us to remember that we, too, are animals, and we can only distance ourselves from Nature so much.

And that’s something I came to realize this weekend as I was writing about the term “therioshamanism”. “Therio” already refers to the animal spirits I work with, and the spirit and physical animals that are part of my “community” as a shaman, and for whom I will be shamanizing once I’m trained. However, one thing I’ve noticed during my first six months is that my training has reminded me that I am an animal. I’m not just talking about my therianthropy and that which is wolf in me. I’m talking about myself as the human animal–maybe something I need to know about even more than me-as-wolf. My training has not only gotten me in more touch with my instincts, but has helped me to have a better awareness of my physical body, my needs and my health. The therianthropic aspects are there, but they aren’t necessary to this aspect of “therio”. I could be not a therianthrope, and it would still be the same.

Back on the main topic, those are the main reasons that the Animal Father is not the Horned God. I did a flocked post in my Livejournal about the antlers and the Animal Father, and had a couple people tell me that they’ve actually worked with him before, or are otherwise familiar with him other than through my work. This pleases me–perhaps I’ll have something besides my own UPG to go on as time goes on. Not that my UPG isn’t “good enough”, as it were, but it’s nice to get some external validation.

ETA: Another consideration: I’m not an expert on Indo-European mythology. However, a bit of research brings up potential links between the Hindu Pashupati, and later horned deities such as Cernunnos. Assuming that the Animal Father does stem from the painting at Les Trois Freres (if not earlier) then he would still predate the proto-Indo-European peoples (from whence both the Indians and the Celts sprang) by several thousand years.  Thoughts?

A Totemic Perspective on Spiritual Therianthropy

While therioshamanism isn’t “therian religion” or “therian magic”, my conception of myself as a therianthrope is a part of my spirituality. Therianthropy, for those who aren’t aware, describes people who identify in some (generally nonphysical) manner as a nonhuman animal. Some claim it’s a neurobiological/psychological disorder, that there’s something in the hardware that is wired “wrong”. Others see themselves as products of reincarnation, having had previous lives as nonhuman animals that inform who they are in this life.

And there are theories beyond that, though those are two of the most common ones. At this point, this is the multi-layered way I understand my therianthropy:

Psychologically: There are parts of my brain (I’d imagine the mammalian/reptile bits, the instinctual parts) that resonate more with “wolf” than “human”. I work with these parts best if I allow myself to personify them as lupine in nature. Also, on a “software” rather than “hardware” note, I had an early spiritual experience when I was a very young child with Wolf the totem, which really imprinted on my psyche; subsequent conditioning strengthened the identification with “me-as-wolf”.

Spiritually: As I said, Wolf the totem came to me when I was young, and has been a strong influence on my life ever since then. While I don’t think totemism = therianthropy, and not all therians have or even believe in totems, for me personally there is a link between the external Wolf totem and the internal me-as-wolf. (I’ll talk more about this in a bit.)

Metaphorically/mythologically: I’m a strong believer in the human need for mythology to be a complete person, along with more rational studies. Mythology speaks of metaphorical realities that are no less real than the physical one we primarily are used to. Just because something isn’t real on a literal level doesn’t make it all imaginary. So part of my personal mythology is that on a spiritual-metaphorical level I am lupine, while on a literal-physical level I’m human. Most people simply consider the latter to be more “real” and therefore more important.

So basically, the concept of therianthropy, and on a wider scale that of Otherkin, is a framework to help me understand the parts of myself that “human” doesn’t quite cover. While I consider the possibility that it may all just be in my head, I do know that I live a perfectly functional life even with this unorthodox belief about myself, and that on certain levels of my being it makes total and complete sense.

One thing that the therian community is quick to disclaimer is the idea that therianthropy isn’t totemism (as I mentioned earlier). This is because the community has dealt with a lot of people coming in and talking about having totems, and then asking if they were therians or not because of it. So the hard and fast line that’s been drawn is that therian = internal (you are the animal) and totem = external (the animal is your companion/guide/etc.). Seems pretty clear-cut, right?

Well, maybe, maybe not. This is all entirely based on my own experience, so have a grain or two of salt. One thing that I have noticed is that whenever I work with a totem for the first time, especially with regards to invoking the totem into myself, the totem leaves a piece of hir own energy within me, and takes a piece of my energy with hir in exchange. This acts as a sort of “homing signal” which makes subsequent invocations and even evocations with those totems easier. I’m not the only person to notice this, either; my husband, Taylor, has also noted it (I think it was in Inner Alchemy that he did so).

So thinking back to the first time I encountered Wolf the totem, as well as became aware of something in me that was lupine…I was a very young child at the time. Wolf made hirself known to me through what I can best explain as a “spiritual overlay” involving our German shepherd dog–the dog looked very Wolf-ish in that moment, and Wolf took that opportunity to make first contact, so to speak. After that point, I felt the part of myself inside me that was lupine in nature, though I didn’t, of course, recognize it for what it was. I just knew wolves were suddenly really, really cool, and a few years later decided that I should have been one instead of human. Of course, this didn’t go away, as “favorite animals” usually do after a certain point, but stuck with me to the present day.

What I’m wondering is if my therianthropy is a result of the cultivation of an early energy exchange with Wolf, and that since it happened at such a young age it became a formative part of myself. I can’t say this explains therianthropy for everyone; I’ve never heard of the exact same experience with anyone else, though I’d heard of experiences that are similar in certain ways (maybe a different age, perhaps, or another way of becoming aware at an early age).

And if that’s the case, I wonder if I can develop other theriosides through cultivating the internal connections I have with other totems, to the point where the identity as those animals becomes inherent instead of as a temporary identification through invocation. I’ve already theorized in Shifting, Shamanism and Therianthropy that shifting is a form of invocation in which the most nonhuman-animal part of the self is invoked. And “shamanic shifts” with other totems can be every bit as intense as a “therian” shift, at least for me. Plus, an experiment I did with myself a few years ago in which I divided myself temporarily into four personae to get to know different aspects of myself better resulted in a split not only in the “human” identity but also the “animal” identity, leading me to believe that the psyche is a lot more fluid than most people assume.

While I have plenty of other things on my plate right now, it’s something I’m going to continue chewing on, so to speak. After all, it took me a quarter of a century to get to where I am with Wolf, and the two cases of people I know who “became” Otherkin through magic were not just “Hey, let’s burn a candle and turn into a (insert being here)”. But it’s something I’m going to continue working with as a potential explanation for at least my own therianthropy.

And it raises some questions. Does the fact that I can point to a potential outside influence that “made” me wolf mean that I’m not a “real” therianthrope? Must the internal and external realities always be split into a dichotomy, or can it be more of a continuum? If I were to attempt to strengthen my internal bond with a totem besides Wolf, would there be marked differences in the quality of the connection? Would there be something that always made that connection different than the one to Wolf?

And, in the end, does it really even matter, as long as I’m satisfied with my relationship to the entities I work with, and to myself?

An Addendum to One of Yesterday’s Posts

I do have another post planned for today, but wanted to pop this up here while I was thinking about it:

When I talk about looking at the Otherkin concept from a metaphorical perspective, this is not to the exclusion of other angles, such as reincarnation. As I mentioned in my essay, I see the metaphorical angle as well as psychological and spiritual angles. While for me, personally, reincarnation isn’t a part of the spiritual aspects, it is for plenty of other people.

What I want to make clear is that multiple theories of explanation are not necessarily opposed to each other. It is quite possible to look at a situation from more than one perspective and have more than one explanation for what happened. For example, in regards to my therianthropy, from a purely psychological level it’s a product of early imprinting and conditioning, as well as ego-identification with Canis lupus. However, that doesn’t negate the spiritual/totemic aspects, or the mythological/metaphorical aspects. It’s not a situation of either/or. It’s one of both/and.

I think that one of the shortcomings of the Otherkin community is that as a group we’ve* too often bought into the rational OR metaphorical argument. Since what we believe about ourselves is often challenged anyway, we scramble for the most “solid” explanation we can come up with, which is usually reincarnation; those who don’t have past life memories often beat their heads against brick walls for years because they feel that’s what they *must* exhibit in order to be “legitimate”. And because we live in a society that demands as much literal proof as possible, and since reincarnation is the closest we have (since people with past lives almost always see them as literal, linear events that actually happened in this reality), people sometimes fear “diluting” what literal proof they do have.

However, that’s buying right into the overly literal/rational perspective that dominates modern post-industrial thought. Sometimes we want so badly to be accepted that we’re willing to play by the mainstream’s rules, even if it cuts us off from other possibilities.

When I espouse a metaphorical perspective on Otherkin, I am not saying that you have to give up whatever other views you have in order to embrace it. Rather, I encourage people to look at themselves on multiple levels–in fact, reincarnation can easily be seen as a part of one’s personal mythology, specifically the mythology we tell about ourselves. “Mythology” has unfortunately been given the connotation of “not true”, because it may not be literally “true”–but IMO, that doesn’t make that a correct assessment. Metaphor is true–it’s simply true on a different level of reality. Therefore, while reincarnation (as an example) can be literally true in that one believes that somewhere in linear time one was incarnated in another life, it can also be metaphorically true as a part of one’s personal mythology that helps one to understand the macrocosm in relation to the microcosm.

* Should also add that when I say “we” I mean the community in general, with the understanding that individuals’ mileages may vary.