Lupa’s Den: Shrine to Dead Critters
Recently, my husband Taylor and I moved to a new home. This, of course, meant uprooting everything, packing it into boxes, bins and bags, and trucking it across town (thankfully the day before Snowpocalypse 2008 hit the Pacific Northwest!). After about a week of recovery, I had the time and energy to reconstruct my ritual/artwork area. In the old place, Taylor and I shared the finished attic of our two-floor apartment as sacred space. Here, we each have our own private room in addition to the main bedroom, which has been a nice change. It’s been three and a half years since I had my own private ritual/art space, and I’m making the most of it.
Before I go on, let me explain what my ritual/art space contains. For over a decade, I have been creating ritual tools and other sacred artwork out of animal bones, hides, feathers, and other preserved remains. Many of these are secondhand, retrieved from coats and other apparel, taxidermy mounts, old fur rugs, and so forth. Over time, I learned to speak with the spirits in these remains; I don’t believe they’re the actual souls of the animals, but something leftover once death occurs. Often, they’re not happy, since most of these animals died in some pretty horrible ways.
A large portion of my magical/spiritual practice has involved working with these spirits to help them have better afterlives, so to speak. When I create something artistic, part of the process involves communicating with the spirits to get their input. If a particular spirit doesn’t want to be part of a project, I find something different for hir. Then, when the project is done, it goes through a full ritual purification, and offerings are made to all spirits involved. So my art/ritual space is generally full of various animal parts and other art supplies, along with the skins, drums and other artifacts of my (neo)shamanic practice.
After two days of sorting, playing Tetris with boxes, and pulling indignant dead critters out of storage, I finally had things arranged the way I wanted them. This was by far the most haphazard and last-minute move we’ve had, right on the heels of finals week (I’m in graduate school). So I didn’t get to do the usual ritual that I do with moving. I still added an extra bit of reverence to the careful placement of everything in my new space, and that seemed to make everyone happy.
Let me introduce you to a few of the critters who stay with me on a permanent basis.
Above is my altar. It’s changed in some ways since I was a newbie pagan so many years ago, and this is the newest incarnation, updated to reflect my shamanism more specifically (and to also clear our some of the clutter of things I no longer use in practice). The bear hide serves as an altar cloth. S/he was left on my doorstep back in August, I believe. S/he’s old, and well-worn, with a few holes and bare spots here and there. S/he’s too old and tired for the dancing, but is quite happy to hang out, draped over the altar, with various sacred items nestled into her pelage. That white thing in the center of hir back is the rear paw of a wolf given to me by a friend and fellow canid-person; the spirit in that decided to stay and represent Wolf on the altar. To the left is a pile of red stag antlers, connected to the Animal Father, the archetypal personification of all animals that I work with in my shamanism. The large pair mounted on the backing came to me this past summer, when Taylor and I drove by a small random stuff shop (these things seem to be popular in Portland). Out on the front lawn of the shop, the antlers were perched on an antique chair in the sunlight. I begged Taylor to stop, and once I went over to visit it was love at first sight. Two of the loose antlers came from a small taxidermy shop in the Midwest; one came to me through a barter years ago. On the right side you can see an elk antler that came from the same taxidermy shop. To its left is my horsehide drum that I got from a local shop, Cedar Mountain Drums, a few months ago. The beater originally was made with a stick. However, on a rite of passage in the Columbia River Gorge, where I took the drum to be played for the very first time, I found the leg bone of a deer in the woods that spoke to me and said s/he would be the beater. Finally, along the front of the altar you can see the tiny leather pouches where I place the offerings for the spirits of the remains, until such time as the offerings move on to new places.
This is the Wall of Skulls. Some of these have been with me since the beginning of my pagan practice. The painted skull at the top is a dog skull found in the woods who has always been the protector of the East. There’s also a trio of deer skulls — buck, doe and fawn. A ram, a few black bears, coyotes and other canines, even a bobcat and two domestic felines. These and more witness rituals, and find a safe place to be here in my sacred space.
And these are the skins I dance. The grey wolf on the far left — I’ve been dancing with him since 2002, and have had him in my life even longer. I first danced him at Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman, New York, when I lived in Pittsburgh — I still run into people online who remember me from there. I’ve had a few occasions to dance him here in the Portland area, though dance and drum fires are fewer, and the circles often not large enough to dance in. The bear next to her came from a very old rug in an antique shop from the same little town where I got the elk antler. The coyote to the right came from the very same trip. The pheasant skin was one of my very first skins, and came from yet another antique/curiosity shop in my hometown. The badger skin was one of the first I danced once I began my shamanic practice, and helped me learn to dance with others besides the wolf. Some of these skins even have songs I’ve written for them as I’ve gotten to know them and the totems who watch over them. While I haven’t yet danced all of them, I intend to.
This is my sacred space. This is where the magic happens. I feel comfortable here, and I look forward to spending much more time in this place.
Lupa is the author of Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic, A Field Guide to Otherkin, and co-author of Kink Magic, among other works. You can read her blog at http://therioshamanism.com and see her website at http://www.thegreenwolf.com.
Text and photos ©2008 Lupa
Text and photos edited by Sheta Kaey