Lupa’s Den – In Defense of BINABM

Lupa's Den - In Defense of BINABM

If you’ve read much of my writing, either online or in books (especially DIY Totemism), you’ll know that I have a tendency to advocate working with totems other than the Big, Impressive, North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM) that so often show up in totem animal dictionaries. I’ve worked with extinct totems, microscopic ones, and even the totems of “food” animals that we commonly think of only in terms of eating their flesh. And I’ve done more work, since starting on a specifically shamanic path, with the totems of local species.

However, I do believe there is a certain cultural value to the BINABM. As I’ve developed therioshamanism, my own non-indigenous, non-core shamanic path, I’ve paid close attention to how my cultural context — white, middle-class, college-educated American — has affected my approach to shamanic practice. And I’ve also paid attention to how other shamans in my culture, core shamans and otherwise, are informed by that culture.

The animals that are the most common totems in a given culture are animals that are important to the people of that culture. In indigenous cultures, these are often the animals who are most commonly hunted for food and other resources, though this is not universal. In our culture, we actually often vilify the domesticated animals we rely on for food and resources, and even the wildlife we hunt is seen less as a living being, and more as a rack of antlers to be turned into a trophy of one’s supposed prowess. (What sort of prowess may be left to the imagination.)

The animals that are valued as totems in this culture are generally the BINABM. They’re big and impressive, noticeable and showy, and generally are strong (and usually predatory). These limitations have often been criticized, and I’ve been a frequent critic. It’s not that these animals don’t deserve attention, but there are others besides the few dozen BINABM that keep showing up in the dictionaries. However, when trying to construct a cultural shamanism in a culture that doesn’t really have a cohesive shamanic path, you have to meet the culture where it is.

By this I mean we’re going to introduce shamanism into a culture that, while it may be influenced by cultures that have had some form of shamanism, has never had a shamanism of its own, at least not recognized as such. Animism really isn’t a central, recognized part of what is thought to be mainstream American culture. This is why I sometimes question the wisdom of trying to be “a shaman” in this culture, at least if the goal is to try to work for people besides white middle-class New Agers with a lot of money to throw around. There are a lot of American demographics where that just won’t fly.

But besides that, we can be pretty confident that a lot of the wild animals that are valued by this culture are also the most common totems in this culture — Wolf, Brown Bear, Eagle, etc. So if we’re going to weave any sort of animistic practices, whether shamanism or otherwise, into the culture at large — or at least connect with more individual people — then the BINABM can be an excellent gateway, as it were. The charismatic megafauna already do their part to introduce concepts of ecological preservation to people who might not otherwise even think of themselves as environmentalists, so why can’t the BINABM function in a similar way with animism and spirituality in general?

I honestly think this is a big reason why, even with my work with lesser-known totems, as I’ve become more involved in shamanism I’ve had more of the BINABM wanting to work with me more deeply. A lot of my work is going to be with people who may not consider themselves animistic in any sense, but who could still benefit from, say, the imagery of animals, and who may find the BINABM to be familiar and comfortable due to cultural connections. I have, for example, a deck of Susie Green’s Animal Messages deck that I’ll have available as an icebreaker once I start my counseling practice — if a client is having a hard time getting started talking, I can have them pick a card out of the deck and then tell me why they feel like that animal that day. The deck is mainly BINABM, which should help more than a deck of obscure animals a client may not know how to connect to.

So please don’t think I dislike the BINABM. They definitely have a place, and I’ve become more aware of that in a cultural sense. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

©2009 by Lupa.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

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.

Lupa’s Den – Thinking About Dead Animals

Lupa's Den - Thinking About Dead Animals

Over on my LiveJournal, I have a significant number of furries on my friend list; I’m not a furry myself, but I enjoy the artwork folks post, and we tend to have other things in common as well. (Lots of pagan furs, for one thing!) Something that got posted a few weeks back was some controversy over “soft taxidermy.” Basically, there are a handful of artists in the furry community who take whole pelts and stuff them like plush toys. (There are also apparently people who stick bows and other cutesy things on them, but I haven’t yet seen these pics.)

This has caused somewhat of an uproar, even among folks I know who have various hides, bones and other animal parts in their possession. Even folks who are okay with traditional taxidermy have found the real-fur plushies to be creepy, especially as they sometimes seem to be treated like toys (as though being a trophy is any better . . ?). And it’s brought about one of my periodic assessments of my own use of animal parts in my spirituality and artwork.

For those who don’t know, for over a decade I have been creating ritual tools and other artwork from hides, bones, feathers and other animal remains. It’s been an integral part of my spiritual practice because an animist, as I work with the spirits of the animals who once wore those remains. And it’s something I’ve always struggled with, ethically speaking, because I know and understand that by buying some of the things that I do, I’m directly supporting the fur industry and the deaths of numerous animals. Granted, I also support the deaths of animals by eating meat, though that’s due in part to a metabolic condition in which I need to have meat protein to maintain my health.

I always have a few options to choose from when I do this periodic questioning:

  • Keep doing what I’m doing: Obviously, this has been my choice up to this point. When I talk to the spirits of the animals themselves, they express appreciation that someone has actually taken the time to work with their remains in a respectful manner. This is especially true of things I’ve “rescued,” such as old fur coats and taxidermy mounts. What I create is intended to be respected in a spiritual manner, to include the gravity of the fact that yes, these were once living beings, and they didn’t have to die this way. I really ought to emphasize that latter part more.
  • Only use secondhand and found animal parts: In some ways, this would be a more ethical choice, because there’d be less of a direct impact overall, and I’d still be recycling. Honestly, the majority of what I work with is either old coats and other reclaimed remains, or things that other people have gotten rid of. I actually buy very little of anything new. But still, there are animal parts that I do buy new, and I do own up to that.
  • Use up what I have, and then quit: I have a lot of things I saved up over the years. When I lived in Pittsburgh, I went to one of two huge flea markets on a daily basis, and almost never came home empty-handed. Plus I do a lot of barter, and occasionally people will just give me furs and other things that they don’t know what to do with because they figure I can make something neat out of them. So I’d still have enough to keep me busy for quite some time.
  • Quit entirely: Or I could just sell off everything I have that can’t be safely buried (hides, for example, are generally tanned with nasty chemicals that we don’t need concentrated in the soil).

But the thing is — and this is the selfish part, and perhaps the biggest motivator — I enjoy my artwork. I can’t paint worth a crap, nor can I draw, or sculpt. This is really the only visual medium that I’m any good at. It’s one of my biggest stress-relievers, and it’s also a small stream of income for me. But mostly it’s the enjoyment I get out of it.

Also, it is a significant part of my spirituality, and has been since just about the beginning of my paganism over a decade ago. I have some personal skins and bones that are in my own set of ritual tools, and I work with those spirits as well as their corresponding totems on a regular basis — from the skins I dance in, to my horse hide drum, to the bear skull rattle, and then some. Maybe it’s all in my head (and maybe all spirituality is wholly subjective and used to justify personal preferences), but the spirits enjoy working with me as much as I enjoy working with them. When I dance a skin, it gives its spirit the chance to ride my body. When I create something out of remains that would have ended up incinerated or left to hang on a wall as a trophy, the spirit gets a chance to be a part of someone else’s practice — or maybe a participant thereof.

Yet I do realize the physical, real-world implications of what I do. Which is why I still mostly stick to second-hand remains, and why I donate a portion of the money I make from artwork sales to the Defenders of Wildlife and other nonprofits. I know that none of these choices will have as much of an impact as if I were to quit entirely. But I have my reasons for continuing, and I follow those reasons with the understanding of the consequences.

I’m not going to go and criticize the soft taxidermists, or the people who wear fox and coyote tails as a fashion statement, or those who wear fur coats, because in the end I know that I don’t have room to talk. My spiritual and personal reasons for what I do don’t make me a better person for it. But they do add value to my life, and I balance that out with the knowledge of the impact of my choices.

©2009 by Lupa
Edited by Sheta Kaey

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.

Lupa’s Den – Creepy-Crawlies and Heebie-Jeebies

Lupa's Den - Creepy-Crawlies and Heebie-Jeebies

I had a nightmare last night — about bugs. Scorpions, spiders, biting flies, centipedes, and other creepy-crawlies that could potentially do damage to the soft flesh wrapping my endoskeleton. (Why couldn’t it have been butterflies? Or snails?)

Back when I was a kid, I spent countless days when the weather was warm overturning rocks to catch various insects and other bugs. I walked through the grass scaring up grasshoppers, and while I never touched spiders, I did marvel at them, particularly the big, fat yellow and black garden spiders in their webs with the little zigzag. I had no fear in handling what I found, as long as it wasn’t poisonous. However, as I got older and more detached from the natural world through circumstance, I found myself picking up the common revulsion associated with bugs. Instead of being wowed by the structure of an arthropod’s body, I found the prickly, sharp sensation of the exoskeleton to be unnerving at the very least. Eventually I found myself yelping in fear at the sight of a bug on the floor, no matter what it was. (To be fair, I got startled as a child whenever I found bugs in the closet, or under the bed, or wherever else they hid themselves in the house — but it wasn’t as bad a reaction!)

I find myself regretting this change in my behavior. While I’m still quite comfortable with the warm-and-cuddly animals (and even the cool and scaly ones), the creepy-crawlies still bother me to a degree they didn’t used to. As I’ve become a grown-up and, unfortunately, lost some of the seemingly easy connection to Nature that I had as a child, my discomfort with the “icky” things in Nature has grown. Like most Americans, I’ve become antagonistic towards those parts of Nature that don’t fit my comfort level.

There’s a lesson in all of this, of course. A large part of why I became a neopagan in the first place was to reconnect with Nature, to try to rebuild what I lost somewhere in my teens. For years I focused mainly on the abstractions, the symbols, the nice, safe, distant representations. Once I began practicing (neo)shamanism a couple of years ago, though, I could no longer distance myself, and was in fact encouraged to dig in to the earthy, raw bits of Nature as much as I could. It’s been good for me — I’ve come to appreciate the joys of compost as I’ve gardened, and I’m more liable to let myself go out and get muddy in the wetlands near my home. But I still have issues with the bugs, and that’s who I need to be learning from.

Some people would try to categorize the totems of these species as “shadow totems,” totems which scare us and, through that fear, teach us about things we may not want to face. If that’s the case, then I have a lot of shadow totems to work with! However, this is a complex situation. It’s not just a matter of “I don’t want to get my clothes dirty” or “EEEEK! SOMETHING JUST LANDED ON ME!” It’s an overarching detachment from the natural world, through my perception of it, as well as the decrease in the amount of time I’ve spent in it.

I can shut myself away from lions, tigers and bears, and so forth. However, the Little Ones won’t let me forget that, even in my nice, warm home, I’m part of Nature. From the tiny brown ants that persist in poking into the kitchen and garage (and occasionally the bathroom), to the moths that attempt to gain access to the pantry, to the wandering spiders who find shelter and food in the corners of my home when it rains, they all let me know that there’s no place to go where Nature doesn’t touch me. If it weren’t those critters that were reminding me, it would be the tiny beings in my digestive system, or the food that I eat. It just so happens that the creepy-crawlies are the ones who make the biggest impact, for all their size, right now.

And I write this as I have a healing spider bite on the inside of my left elbow, probably sustained while I slept. (There was no dead spider in the bed, so I’m guessing it got away!) I’ve been thinking about the creepy-crawlies in the couple of weeks since that happened, because if nothing else the bite made it clear that I do have to live with their existence, even in the comfort of my own home. This is my decision on how to deal with it, rather than the typical “GET OUT THE BUG BOMB!” reaction that most Americans would have.

I am a natural being; I am a mammal. I eat, I breathe, I drink, and I live in an environment populated by numerous other beings, large and small. They don’t exist according to my convenience, and the creepy-crawlies especially remind me of that. Time for me to remember that lesson.

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.

©2009 Lupa
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Lupa’s Den – Animal Totems in Context

Lupa's Den - Animal Totems in Context

In my decade-plus of being a pagan and magician, animal magic and animal totemism have always been my main focus regardless of what paradigm I was working in. Since I began practicing shamanism in earnest back in 2007, I’ve become much more aware of how interconnected everything really is. While I was already an active environmentalist, my experiences with shamanism gave me even greater reasons to be tuned into the ecosystems around me and the inhabitants thereof, including on the physical level. And while the animals initially ushered me into the shamanic path I’m walking now, they made it clear early on that they were not to be the do-all and end-all of my guides in my experiences.

The more I practice, the more I realize that working exclusively with animal totems is limiting, and it’s really an artificial separation. I think people who work with animal totems are attracted to them partly for their charisma, and partly for the familiarity. We can relate well to animals because we are animals. We especially find ourselves allied with mammals because we are mammals. The further away from Homo Sapiens a totem is, the harder on average it is for a person to connect with it because of a lack of familiarity. (Though the opposite is true with primate totems, who may be too close to us for many of us to feel that there’s anything to learn — which couldn’t be further from the truth!)

Yet just as we can’t really understand physical animals when they’re taken out of their natural habitats, we can’t really understand totems fully when we work with them exclusive of the rest of their environment, spiritual and otherwise. Animals are just one part of a collective, complex ecosystem made of plants of varying sorts, fungi (including mycorrhizal fungi in the root systems of plants), the soil and other geological phenomena, the weather and other climate elements, and any bodies of water — and that’s just the basic view. All of these factors have an effect on animal behavior and biology, and vice versa. An ecosystem is just that — a system. Taking any single part out of the whole changes both. This is why wild animals in a zoo behave differently from their counterparts in the wild, often drastically so.

So why do we so often try to work with animal totems outside of their ecosystems? Ecosystems exist spiritually as well as physically — totems in general are just one manifestation thereof. I know very few people who work with plant or mineral totems (and I completely admit to slacking in that regard). I do work with the archetypal manifestations of more overarching phenomena, such as the Earth, Sky, Sun, Moon, Wind, Water, etc., as well as genii loci and other land spirits. But while I’ve worked quite a bit with animal totems as archetypal representations of their given species, I haven’t done so in the same way with plants and minerals, and that’s a pretty significant hole in my work with ecosystems in general.

As graduate school has eaten a lot of my time (though as a counseling psych student it is a part of my shamanic training/practice), I haven’t done as much direct spiritual work as I might like (though the spirits I work with are patient). But as Scrub Jay’s entrance into my life has indicated, paying more attention to where I live locally is of the utmost important. My view may not be as broad as it was, but it’s a lot more detailed. And in those details I’m beginning to see the places and beings that I’ve missed. As I continue to strengthen my connection to the Land here, I’m going to be increasing my focus on the plants, the minerals, and the other beings that I may have overlooked while focusing so heavily on the animals. Not that the animals will go away, but instead they’ll be brought into a richer, fuller context with all of the spirits of their ecosystem, spiritually and physically.

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.

©2009 Lupa
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Lupa’s Den: Scrub Jays in the Garden

Lupa's Den: Scrub Jays in the Garden

When I moved to Portland, OR in 2007, one of the first locals to greet me wasn’t human. Instead, I found the trees outside my first apartment to be full of scrub jays. These gray and blue corvids have a similar place in the urban ecosystem here that their cousins, the blue jays, did back East. I got a kick out of watching them in their territorial squabbles, raising their young, and making their harsh “VWEET! VWEET!” call. (I admit that I looked up a recording of a scrub jay call online, set my laptop up in the window, and drove one pair nuts for a couple of minutes looking for the invisible intruder.)

Now, I’m very much not the kind of person who, upon seeing a particular animal on a regular basis, automatically assumes there’s some significance. And given that both my old apartment and the one I presently live in are located within the territories of several pairs of scrub jays, I had an easy answer to why I kept seeing the birds all over the place. But as I got settled into Portland, I found myself continuing to get “pings” every time I saw them, especially as I put out more effort to connect to the Land here. I saw even more crows, and plenty of insects of various sorts, but no other animals provoked the same reaction.

It was last year, when I put in my first container garden up on the downstairs apartment’s roof, that Scrub Jay started getting bolder in trying to get my attention. As late summer came around, I found that some critter had been digging in the pots, uprooting plants and occasionally nabbing strawberries. Since we had a nest of fox squirrels in the attic who had already raised my ire, I assumed it was them, and took measures to try to scare them off. Unfortunately, the digging continued. It wasn’t until shortly before we moved to the new apartment this past December that I caught a scrub jay in the act, poking around in a pot of carrots. I never saw what, exactly, s/he was up to, but I knew I had my culprit.

After the move, Scrub Jay mostly left my mind, replaced by my getting used to the new area and starting up the new semester of grad school. I did see scrub jays — as well as more elusive Stellar’s jays — out in the new yard, getting by just fine in the rainy winter. I noticed them more as it warmed up enough for me to start putting in this year’s garden.

Scrub Jay did show up in my journeying in my shamanic practice as one of my guides in the Middle world. S/he informed me that, among other things, s/he could help me find resources in the Middle world (which includes the physical plane of reality we live in).

But I didn’t really think about what all this might have meant until a couple of weeks ago when a fellow shamanic practitioner, Ravenari, posted her own interpretation of what Scrub Jay has to teach . One of the main themes dealt with survival, doing what one needs to do to get by and making the most use of the resources available. And, as with animal sightings, although I generally don’t automatically take other people’s interpretations of totems to heart, this one resonated with me pretty strongly.

It makes a good deal of sense. I first started gardening as a way to create a more sustainable lifestyle from a primarily environmental perspective. However, as the economy slumped more and more, I began to shift my focus more towards economic issues. Sustainability is still very much about survival, but it’s mostly in the long-term. Economic realities are more apparent to most people, and too often even I will have to choose to buy something that’s not as sustainable because I can’t afford anything more expensive. But the garden is both better for the environment and for my food budget.

Scrub Jay reminds me that survival takes work, effort that’s often taken for granted in a largely automated economy, or in social strata where the hard manual labor is done by Someone Else. Additionally, the occasional jay digging in the garden helps me keep in mind that nothing is certain or runs perfectly every time, and additionally that my garden doesn’t exist in a bubble. Other living beings rely on and compete with me for the resources of nature, and while it’s easy for me to be offended when “my” vegetables get pilfered by wildlife, I also have to admit that my presence in the ecosystem reduces the available natural resources on many levels, food being one.

This is especially important as I continue to explore my place in the local ecosystem, including humans as well as “nature.” One of the benefits of having a local totem to show the ropes, so to speak, is that the totem can point out details on how to better integrate into the ecosystem. If I am going to have a harmonious relationship to my ecosystem and, later on as an ecopsychologist, teach other people how to do the same, I need to accept that not everything is going to go exactly the way I want — but that it’s not all about me, either.

So I’ve accepted that the scrub jays in the garden are a reminder to me of the survival and interconnections that Scrub Jay has taught me. Scrub Jay is really the first totem I’ve had whose physical children I’ve interacted with on a regular basis, and so it’ll be interesting to see how the relationship develops compared to those with other totems. In the meantime, I’ll keep being patient when I occasionally find the product of little beaks digging in the garden, and enjoy the sound of the raucous “VWEET!” as I go through my day.

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.

©2009 Lupa
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Lupa’s Den: Shrine to Dead Critters

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

Lupa’s Den #3 – Therianthropy

April 30, 2007 by  
Filed under columns, lupa's den

Lupa's Den #3 - Therianthropy

We’re beginning to veer back into animal magic this month — sort of. It all depends on who you talk to.

Remember how I rambled about UPG last month? Well, here’s a chunk of my personal UPG for your perusal — therianthropy. Therianthropy comes from the Greek therios (animal) and anthropos (man).1 While originally it referred simply to any sort of wereanimal in legend (to differentiate it from lycanthropy, which is limited to werewolves), modern therianthropy describes people who, either psychologically/neurobiologically, spiritually, mentally or otherwise nonphysically identify as a nonhuman animal. Therianthropes identify as various animals; while wild canines and big cats are common, I’ve also met or heard of horse, bear, snake, and even insect therians. Most therians identify as a single animal, though occasional exceptions do exist.

Unsurprisingly, I am a wolf therian. I’ve known since I was two years old that there was something lupine about me. Unlike most pieces of childhood imagination, though, this never really went away, no matter how much I tried to ignore it. When I first discovered paganism, I started working with neopagan totemism and animal spirits. However, this never really answered why I felt like I was the wolf inside. A totem is an external being, which didn’t fully answer my question — why have I often felt like I should be a wolf instead of a human?

I’ll bet some of you are blinking and/or shaking your heads at this point. (Has she gone flipping mad? Or is she just escaping reality?) Bear with me here (no pun intended), and let me explain a few things. First off, therianthropy isn’t clinical lycanthropy. The latter is a medical condition in which a person is convinced that s/he has physically turned into a wolf and is thoroughly unable to work, relate to other people, etc. due to all the growling and crawling around on hands and knees. Therians, on the other hand, live perfectly normal lives (or at least as normal as lives get).

It’s not about being stuck in an animal mindset 24-7. The exact manifestation of the nonhuman aspects varies from therian to therian; commonly, though, both human and nonhuman aspects color the perception. To use myself as an example, genetically I’m all Homo sapiens. I don’t turn furry at the full moon or lust for raw meat. I sometimes mentally/spiritually shift more towards the wolf end of the mental/spiritual spectrum, but these days I’ve got my human and wolf aspects pretty well integrated. I suppose the best way to describe it is that I’m what happens when you translate wolf into human — my body and conditioning are human, but there’s a perceptual overlay of wolf. I rely heavily on my instincts, and I tend to emphasize the more primitive mammalian parts of the brain. I use a lot of body language and pay attention to the body language of others. I often use nonverbal vocalizations. While no particular trait designates my therianthropy, and one or all of these habits exist within the normal range of human behavior, the combination of them, along with my own spiritual UPG, makes therianthropy a convenient structure with which to support things that everyday human society really has no answer for.

I can’t speak for all therians. For some people, the mental/spiritual/etc. shifts between human and nonhuman animal are very pronounced, even uncontrollable. You could think of it as similar to full-on trance possession, except instead of an external being, you’re possessed by the part of you that isn’t human. With more time, for many therians the shift becomes akin to invocation — still a near-total takeover, but more controlled. This isn’t a perfect parallel, but I wanted to put it in magical terms since readers of Rending the Veil tend to come from that paradigm.

Therianthropy may bear some resemblance to totemic systems, particularly magical shapeshifting and invocation, but there are marked differences. Totems are external beings, while the therioside (nonhuman animal aspect of the person) is a constant part of the therian. While Wolf is my primary totem, that’s not what makes me a therian; additionally, some therians who practice totemism have totems that are totally different species from their theriosides.

Not all therians practice, or even believe in, magic. Some are exceptionally materialistic and/or atheistic in their worldview, and see therianthropy as a purely psychological or neurobiological quirk (though not all who adhere to this theory are materialists/atheists). Others see themselves as a product of reincarnation or a nonhuman/animal spirit in a human body, but these perspectives don’t necessitate the practice of magic.

Therianthropy isn’t magical in and of itself, and it’s not a religion, either. Aside from the aforementioned psychological/neurobiological common viewpoints, there are no specific deities, holy writ, or beliefs associated with therianthropy; even the things that therians generally tend to agree upon are often debated in the details. Therians adhere to a wide range of religions, from pagan to Christian and on into agnosticism and atheism. Therianthropy may, or may not, be linked to an individual’s spirituality — it really depends on the person.

So what do I get out of holding a belief about myself that could easily be misconstrued as delusion, misinterpretation of spiritual principles, or trying to be “special”? I get a concept that explains to me certain beliefs about myself that have been a part of my worldview for almost my entire life. I get access to parts of myself that aren’t going away, and that respond poorly to repression. Because I see myself as both wolf and human, it’s easier for me to break out of an anthropocentric viewpoint, which makes working with totems more effective, and it’s easier to shift my mindset out of its usual parameters. This flexible view of identity — that a person can be more than one thing at once — has carried over into other aspects of my life. It aids my conscious evolution through use of metamorphic magic, and helps me to access and appreciate multiple viewpoints. While the wolf aspect and the human aspect are both me, I can see the differences between the two, and tell where one affects my perceptions more than the other at any given moment.

Ultimately, it’s an effective piece of personal mythology that fleshes out my overall UPG. As I said last month, I don’t expect everyone to get my UPG (though I share similar ideas with numerous therianthropes and Otherkin in this particular respect). But it works for my purposes, and it’s the best explanation I’ve been able to come up with for why I feel the way I do, and for what makes me tick.

I don’t really think I’m a product of reincarnation, or if I am, I don’t have any clear memories. I’m more inclined to think that it’s a combination of energetic resonance, psychological development and conditioning, and spiritual evolution (probably at least somewhat related to, but not a complete result of, my totemic work).

Footnotes

  1. Wikipedia. “Therianthropy.” Anonymous (2007). Retrieved 6 March, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Therianthropy.

©2007 Lupa. Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Lupa’s Den #2 – I Want My UPG!

Lupa's Den #2 - I Want My UPG!

Alrighty, this month I’m going to diverge from my usual fare of animal magic to talk about something a little different that’s been bouncing around in my head: UPG.

Depending on where on the internet you hang out, you may have run into the acronym UPG. Unverified or Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis is essentially any information about a deity or other entity, magical topic, or related spiritual item of interest that is gained through one’s own intuition and experiences rather than third-party sources.1 It originated in the heathen communities in the 1970s or 1980s, but has been used with greater frequency, particularly with the advent of the internet.

UPG is used to differentiate historically/mythologically accurate material, particular with regard to the reconstruction and study of pre-Christian religions, from things that people either acquired in personal experiences or otherwise couldn’t show any outside evidence for. Reconstructionism, especially with regard to Celtic, Germanic and Norse cultures and religions, tends to be meticulous about details. There’s debate in the respective communities about how much UPG is too much; for example, the Celtic Reconstructionism FAQ provides some guidelines for dealing with UPG in relation to accepted lore.2

Anyone who’s been in the pagan community for any length of time knows that it floats on a sea of UPG. Many pagans quite happily mix traditional mythology with personal experiences to meet their own spiritual and magical needs. A survey of various books on the market aimed at the pagan crowd shows a wide range of scholarship that traverses the wide spectrum between Uber-Serious History and What The Hell Were You On? and UPG can be found in a large selection of these texts.

Unfortunately, problems arise when UPG is presented as historical evidence (with or without other poor sources). The many books on “Celtic Wicca” are a good example. One particular thread of ficti-myth is the persistent “Irish Potato Cult” that arose in the early 1990s. Despite the fact that the potato wasn’t imported into Ireland until a few centuries ago, it’s been claimed that the pre-Christian Celts saw the potato as a fertility symbol and even created rituals around it.3 Whether this was UPG or just some really shoddy scholarship, nobody’s quite sure.

Still, it resembles the sort of thing that often ends up as UPG, and the issues that can occur when it is then presented as historical fact. Additionally, various pagans may combine several threads of myth and religion from assorted cultures because of UPG; again, the problem comes when this blended mixture is presented as something historically accurate. And then there are cases in which UPG goes entirely against the accepted canon surrounding a particular topic; for example, someone viewing Kali as a loving, gentle innocent maiden, or Aphrodite as an ugly hag.

It’s entirely possible that deities may show sides other than the most commonly seen ones to individual pagans. In my opinion, deities are not one-dimensional characters, and I don’t believe they are limited solely to their mythical portrayals. For example, Artemis is a maiden goddess in the Greek pantheon; technically, when I got married I should have given up my relationship to her. Despite this (and the opinions of some modern radical feminists that Artemis only likes lesbians and hates all men), she never had a problem with the idea. In my private conversations with her, her main concern was that the relationship was a healthy one, and that I had enough room to be myself.

Granted, I’m not a Hellenic pagan. I’ve never really studied the details of Greek religious practices with regard to Artemis or any other Olympian. And honestly, I have no interest in doing so. I like the relationship I’ve developed with Artemis (or at least the independent, masculine female, wild-loving deity who refers to herself as Artemis in my presence). I’ve been maintaining that relationship for a decade or so, and it’s been quite spiritually fulfilling. My worship is through emulation, my offerings through actions and prayers. And that’s what works for me.

I admit it — I want my UPG. I am not a Reconstructionist of any sort, nor am I a Wiccan. In fact, I rather dislike pigeonholing myself with regard to religion — “Pagan” or “Neopagan” works quite nicely. The bulk of my spirituality and practice is UPG-based. My writing on Totemism? UPG-based Neopagan Totemism, not traditional. My relationship to and understanding of the Divine? My UPG coupled with observations of others’ UPG, as well as psychology, mythology and occultism. I tend to bristle a bit when people attempt to limit Paganism only to the modern worship of ancient deities; while I acknowledge the presence of deities, I neither see them as the ultimate manifestation of Divinity, nor even believe there is such a thing other than the sum total of all Realities.

To me, Paganism is the path I take to understanding my relationship with regard to all forms of consciousness and energy in the Multiverse. Deities and spirits are simply some of the other entities that I coexist with. In order to figure out where I stand, I have to use a lot of UPG to formulate my individual perspective on what’s both within and outside of me. For some people, preexisting religions and philosophies are sufficient for explaining Life, the Universe, and Everything. There’s nothing wrong with that; I just prefer to blaze my own trail, occasionally crossing those of others along the way.

Of course, there will always be those who are appalled that I’m “just making it up as I go along.” So what? I know that my beliefs aren’t Holy Writ or Accepted Canon. But they explain things to me, and in my worldview, that’s more important than making sure they match up perfectly with what works for others. To each hir own; I believe we’ll all end up in the same place eventually anyway.

Footnotes

  1. Anonymous (2006). Unverified Personal Gnosis. Retrieved 6 March, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UPG
  2. Laurie, Erynn Rowan, Kathryn Price NicDhana, et. al. (2006) The CR FAQ: An Introduction to Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism (How much UPG is acceptable in CR? How do you know?). Retrieved 6 March, 2007 from http://www.paganachd.com/faq/intermediate.html#howmuchupg
  3. Hautin-Mayer, Joanne (1998). When is a Celt not a Celt? Retrieved 6 March, 2007 from http://www.irishwitch.org/grove/When_is_a_Celt_not_a_Celt.shtml

©2007 Lupa. Edited by Sheta Kaey.

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.

Lupa’s Den #1

Lupa's Den #1

Well, hey, look at this — I’m a columnist now! (Has the Apocalypse started yet?) But in all seriousness, I’m honored to have a regular spot here. I really believe that what the good folks here at RtV are doing is a worthy project, and I’m definitely all for supporting it! So here in my little corner of the ’zine I’ll be bringing you monthly chatter and ponderings on what I’m up to magically. A lot of it, as you’ve already seen, will deal with the various manifestations of animal magic, which is one of my specialties. However, I reserve the right to deviate from that as I see fit (and as my editors approve!). I’m really looking forward to this, and I’m glad to be getting in on the ground floor; I see a lot of good potential for this that’s already being manifested. Anyhow, on to this month’s column.

In Animal Wisdom, Bobcat and Lynx are listed as having many of the same qualities. Yet they are two distinct species, with different ranges of habitat and varying genetics and habits. The same goes for Raven and Crow, who also end up stuck together in the same entry.1 While admittedly there are some similarities in biology and especially in the case of Crow and Raven, folklore and mythology, putting them together is like putting Wolf and Coyote in one slot. Similar does not mean the same.

Brad Steiger’s Totems, along with several other books, also gives Crow and Raven the same treatment. Additionally, frog, lizard, fish, and snake are single, generalized entries.2 Yet you don’t see entries just for “odd-toed ungulate” or “wild feline,” do you? This again shows a lack of respect (probably unintentional) for individual animals. But it also reveals our bias — many dictionaries have separate entries for Deer, Elk and Moose. Anyone who has worked with reptiles and amphibians, though, knows that Iguana is very different from Anole, Goldfish scarcely resembles Shark, and Sea Turtle possesses qualities that differ from Galapagos Tortoise. If you want to get very particular, you can even look at individual species and subspecies, particularly those in different environments (such as Box Turtle and Green Sea Turtle).

Neopagan Totemism continues to suffer from one of the same problems it has since its inception several decades ago — too much focus on Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM). Dictionaries like the ones above list Eagle and Hawk, Wolf and Coyote, Rabbit and Hare — but lump cold-blooded animals into larger groups, as if they all have the same qualities and nothing unique to share.

Maybe it’s because we’re still having trouble getting past our own anthropocentrism. It’s a lot easier for us to conceptualize and identify with the consciousness of another mammal or bird. Once we “regress” to that reptilian stage, suddenly the consciousness seems too primitive and alien — or so we think. I think sometimes it’s a matter of laziness; it takes more effort for many people to connect with an animal who isn’t so close to us in consciousness. (This is probably a big reason why cats and dogs are more popular as pets than snakes and turtles, the difficulty of reptile care notwithstanding.)

Another factor to consider is BINABM. Thanks to early Neopagan Totemism’s cultural appropriation, we’re conditioned to think of totems as being A.) primarily Native American in origin, and B.) limited mostly to the animals that are native to North America.3 While Ted Andrews’ works (Animal-Speak, Animal-Wise) in the 1990s addressed other species from around the world, most books still focus heavily on BINABM. It’s only really been recently that authors like Alexander Scott King (Animal Messengers) and Stephen Farmer (Animal Spirit Guides) have really started branching out into global territory in this respect.

Despite these explorations, the dictionary format is still limiting, and more often than not Box Turtle, Corn Snake and Horned Toad get overlooked in lieu of Bear, Elk and Cougar. After all, there’s not much room for extensive entries on specific animals, even when you’ve got several hundred pages to work with. On the other hand, there seems to be a bit of a race as to who can produce the dictionary with the largest number of animals in it. But even the most extensive dictionaries still include our friends the BINABM, and animals like Lobster and Gila Monster are seen as exotic.

In our defense, it often seems like certain types of animal all seem to resemble each other — for example, all butterflies feed on nectar, go through the stages of egg, pupa, larva, chrysalis, and adult, and tend to be short-lived. Therefore, it may seem that Butterfly is an appropriate category for certain sets of traits that may be extrapolated from the common traits that all (or most) butterfly species possess. Additionally, the research into butterfly behavior isn’t as extensive as that of various pack-based canines, such as wolves and African wild dogs. Plus, there are more species of butterfly than pack-based canine, so that categorizing the unique traits of each butterfly species could take up a book itself!

However, I believe that if a Totemist feels the need to lump all of a certain genus or family into one dictionary entry, s/he should at the very least acknowledge the differences between species. This is particularly true for so-called “lower” animals such as insects and other invertebrates, who often end up being represented by Butterfly, Ant, Bee, and occasionally a couple of others. How many people have tried talking to Sea Cucumber?

To be honest, I’m just as guilty as anyone of this bias. So I’m issuing a challenge to myself between now and next month’s column. I’m going to talk to a variety of lesser-known totems and see what I get. That includes several species that are often grouped together. I’ll compile my results in a later column. I invite my readers to try this experiment as well, and leave any results you’d like to share in the comments.

Footnotes

  1. Palmer, Jessica Dawn (2001). Animal Wisdom: The Definitive Guide to the Myth, Folklore and Medicine Power of Animals. London: Thorsons. pgs. 91-99, 219-223
  2. Steiger, Brad (1997). Totems: The Transformative Power of Your Personal Animal Totem. San Francisco: HarperSanfrancisco. pgs. 174-176, 187-189, 197, 203-206
  3. Lupa (2006). “The Differences Between Traditional and Neopagan Totemism” at Spiral Nature.

©2007 Lupa. Edited by Sheta Kaey

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.

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