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.

A Mythological Perspective on Therianthropy

I originally posted this to my personal blog, but I thought I’d crosspost it here as well since it does deal with spiritual beliefs. I’ve met several people who believe that therianthropy (and Otherkin in general) are just those who have an odd interpretation of animistic/shamanic concepts; while I don’t think that explains everyone who identifies as Otherkin/etc., I do think it’s an angle I want to explore more for my *personal* purposes.

*************

This is quite possibly one of the most difficult parts of my personal cosmology for people who aren’t Otherkin to grasp. On the surface, it seems entirely delusional and escapist–“You believe you’re a wolf? Have you looked in the mirror lately? Maybe we should get you to a psychiatrist…” And believe me, plenty of us have gone through the belief-doubt-belief cycle.

As I’ve gotten older, though, and this odd bit of my psyche hasn’t gone away (no matter how I’ve tried ignoring and even repressing it), I’ve started looking at it from different angles. The concept of therianthropy, the idea that a person is, on a certain psychological, spiritual, or other nonphysical level, a nonhuman animal, is the concept that best explains what’s going on in a *functional* manner. Telling me I’m crazy doesn’t make me more functional. I’m already quite functional; therianthropy doesn’t hinder my ability to live a perfectly normal life, with a husband, a job, and a decent social life. However, part of that functionality comes from being able to accept myself as I am and integrating everything about myself into my life, rather than trying to play the Pigeonhole Game.

Many therians see therianthropy as a psychological/neurobiological thing. Many Otherkin in general are enamored of the idea of reincarnation, that who and what we were in previous (or alternate, depending on your view of linear space/time) lives affects who and what we are now. For myself, though, I’m gravitating more and more towards a metaphorical perspective (in addition to psychological and spiritual layers).

I like Joseph Campbell’s work, warts and all. I’m particularly fond of the concept that people need mythology in order to have a complete worldview, that mythology answers a need we have on a very deep level. IMO, rationality appeals to the left brain, while mythology appeals to the right hemisphere (and keep in mind this is very generalized). Now, granted, I can’t speak for everyone. But for myself, spirituality, and by extension, mythology, are part of my psyche’s complete breakfast. Rationality answers my need for a physical, down-to-earth, left-brain explanation of things. However, if anything, I’m canted more towards the right brain (I’m even left handed, and I’m one of those damned artsy types ;). Therefore, in order to be happy, I need the mythological/metaphorical end of things as well. (I’d make an awful rational atheist/materialist.)

Mythology occurs on two levels, IMO/IME. It occurs on a collective/community level, where a group consensus of belief is arrived at. This is where the more outward trappings of religion and spirituality come into play, as well as the cultural mythology shared by an entire group, tribe or nation of people. It’s more commonly recognized in modern American society, though in a fragmented manner. We do not, as a nation, have a cohesive cultural mythology that permeates the fabric of our society in the same way that mythology shaped, say, the ancient Greek or Norse cultures. (And even then, the collective mythology could vary according to individual culture-within-a-culture, by region, etc.) However, we do not have a national mythology (or a national religion). We are a patchwork quilt made of a number of different cultures that arrived here over several centuries, and who are still arriving. Additionally, America as a whole is incredibly materialistic and possessed of a short attention span. The closest we have to heroes and other mythological entities are the denizens of pop culture, who (with rare exception) last a few weeks, months, or years, and then drop out of existence. We worship what we see on the T.V., though it’s not conventional worship and we don’t always realize what we’re doing. Additionally, we have a rather destructive relationship with that form of mythology–we create heroes, and then take malicious joy out of knocking them down. The evening news and “reality” T.V. are testaments to our cultural fetish for watching the mighty tumble back down to our level; rather than aspiring to become better people through their examples, we revel in dragging them down to our level, made rabid by our insecurity and fear of success.

There’s also the mythology inherent in religion to consider. The most common religion in America is Christianity, but the values of that religion are largely based in ancient Hebrew society, and in some ways don’t mesh particularly well with modern American culture. Not that it can’t be done, but many of the original values of Christianity and its predecessor, Judaism, have been dropped by liberal Jews and by Christians in general–how many Christians routinely slaughter cattle as per Leviticus, or throw stones at adulterers? My point, though, is not judging whether any particular religion is right or wrong–that’s up to the individual to decide. Rather, I want to make it clear that this is in no way a Christian nation, and although the motifs of Christian myth* do permeate society to an extent, it’s not the same as Native American or other indigenous cultures, or the pre-Christian cultures of Europe–or even primarily Christian societies prior to the past two centuries or so.

Still neither pop culture nor religions make for a cohesive *cultural* mythology in America. Additionally, more than any known society before us, modern America is incredibly individual-based. This has only really cropped up in the past several decades, and while it has had some definite benefits (such as encouraging people to challenge stereotypes, prejudices, and other negative elements traditionally accepted by the status quo), it has contributed to the lower possibility of cultural mythology.

However, the rise of the individual increases the exposure of *personal* mythology, something which has always existed but has been largely downplayed in more group-oriented societies. Personal mythology is understanding reality from the microcosmic view, determining one’s own perspective, and telling the story of what the world is from a single viewpoint. It often meshes with a cultural mythology (in some cases, more than one), though it may have completely unique elements as well (as in Unverified Personal Gnosis).

And this is where my therianthropy ties in to all that stuff above this point–it is a part of my personal mythology. Part of the story I tell about myself is that, inside me, there is a part of me that is a wolf–in that respect, I am a wolf. This is something that I’ve recognized in myself for most of my life, and have found different ways to explain it. When I was a child, I called Wolf my “favorite animal” because that’s what I was told it was. When I first learned about totems, I thought perhaps Wolf was my totem (and I was right). However, therianthropy fit my experiences even more, particularly the identification WITH Wolf.

There are no cultural motifs in modern America for explaining this feeling beyond classic lycanthropy (fiction) and clinical lycanthropy (insanity). We don’t have a system of animal totemism, nor is there widespread functional belief in animal spirit guides; our totems and spirits are relegated to children’s cartoons and sports mascots. Additionally, we are detached from the concept that we, humans, are animals–some people get incredibly offended by the assertion that we share the majority of our genetic material with all other mammals (and all vertebrates, for that matter). “But we’re special! We can reason! We’re (insert deity’s name here)’s chosen beings!” That may be, but other animals are pretty special, too–could you survive in the woods if you were thrown out there naked with no supplies? Can you smell a deer a quarter mile away? Our big brains, evolutionarily speaking, are our species’ adaptation, just as more olfactory glands are the adaptation of scent-based predators such as wolves. We have gained reason, but we have lost a healthy grasp of instinct.

I acknowledge I am an animal, a mammal, a primate. Because the basic human social structure, more pronounced in hunter-gatherer societies, resembles that of wolves, and because American culture often equates the Wild (instinct, wilderness, base emotions) with wolves (werewolves being the most common shapeshifter in American culture, and in many of the cultures that shaped modern America), it’s no surprise, then, that when the instinctual part of myself, the archetype of the Wild (Wo)Man, raises its shaggy, sharp-fanged muzzle, it manifests as a wolf.

This does NOT mean that therianthropy is ONLY “make-believe” for me, that it is only metaphorical–there are also psychological and spiritual levels to it as well. However, we live in a setting where “metaphor” is taken to mean “not real” because it doesn’t manifest literally on the physical/rational. Go beyond a certain level of abstractness, and people want to delineate between what is “real” and what is “imagination”. Yet in mythology–the study of myth–metaphorical is just as real as literal. It may be real in different ways–but it has a very real effect on people. Let me say that again: metaphor is real, because it has a very real, concrete effect on how people view the world around them and how they act on that world and its denizens. Whether it’s the ancient tribe that placates the spirits of the dead to keep them from harming the living, or the anti-abortion protester who believes wholeheartedly that God wants hir to protect unborn lives, or the person who believes s/he was an elf in a past life and that part of hirself still resonates with that, the mythology we believe in is very real for us–particularly on a personal level.

And this is part of why I identify as a therian–because it answers my need for mythology, and meshes with my personal mythology. It answers questions that the rational/literal reality denies even exist, and functionally, it helps me to feel I am a more complete person. My life is enriched by this belief. On a left-brain level, yes, it’s possible that I have a weird neurobiological quirk, or a strange bit of psychological imprinting/conditioning (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been called weird or strange 😉 But on a right-brain level, this makes sense. And rather than trying to pick between the left/literal and right/metaphorical, I choose to embrace them both as possible explanations for myself–not just for therianthropy, but for everything that encompasses my life.

The left brain is the Earth–grounded, solid, physical; the right brain is the Sky–free of hindrances, open, with breezes that carry me ever higher. As long as I am between the Earth and the Sky, things can’t be all that bad.

* No, “myth” does not equal “fiction”. However, the current subjective treatment of myth, of declaring one myth to be more true than another, sometimes makes it difficult to speak of some religions in mythological terms for fear of offending adherents.

ETA: And an addendum to this post.