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A Haida Shamans Rattle

I recall earlier this year talking to a person during the The Australian Fair Freedom of Belief and Religion at Mona in Hobart; pagans –  we’ve got the good bling. The Tasmanian Pagan Alliance table was way exciting, with all sorts of tools and items.

It’s true, we love a ritual tool, an altar or shrine item, devotional, practical and any-other-al. We are, generally, users and makers. For myself, writing, knotting, drawing, these things can be vital, for the entire time it takes for me to craft them in spell-work and ritual, until I burn/bury/destroy them. About half of everything I do/make for myself goes elsewhere, and I know I am not alone, many tools last as long it takes to make them and to give them as offering to the spirits. And pagans are not alone in that, I think immediately of the sand madalas of Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, many of our most beautiful creations are made in sand and dirt, and are as fleeting as the breeze or the dance in the great scheme of things.

Namgyal monks completing a sand mandala.

These kinds of creations are vastly different in nature to the ones we keep. I do not feel from my own practice, more or less important than the kinds of things whose lifespan is shorter, just different. The tools we make and have made specifically for the long haul are different. To be always ours. Our drums, rattles, stavs, stangs, smudge fans, ritual jewellery, masks, devotional icons, images of our Gods and Spirits. Notwithstanding my drum, of this list, I made and make all my own. And as it happens, I make them for other people too.

And I’ve written before about it. About the importance of my tools and why I make them for others, and about the kind of special animistic fetishism that exists in my craft. And I talk about it a lot too. As the making increases to a daily habit, I find myself pretty lucky. I’m out and proud about my practices, and my family and friends, even those not pagan, are perfectly accepting, encouraging, and even very helpful. Indeed, the appeal of my craft seems to extend well beyond the pagan community, and I am currently creating a rattle for a dear friend’s son, a musically inclined individual who has a thing for bones. Obviously, I’m your go-to girl. And what’s great about that, I can make it, as I make all of the custom makes, with him in mind. There’s no less ‘magic’ in the process for me, and with any luck, it will take place next to his drum kit, and there’ll be no less awesome in having a custom made shamanic style bone rattle for his next heavy metal composition either. For myself, I have but one wish for the tools I make for others: That they are used, and that they are aesthetically pleasing. How they are used, and why they are aesthetically pleasing is really quite besides the point.

I have made rattles for healers working with various shamanic and energy healing techniques, for people who use them ritualistically, in their own practice, and even in conjunction with their own making, and people who use them for festival musical celebration in much less ritual-like settings, and those completely outside of the “pagan practice” experience. And it’s all good, I love it, the rattles, and all my tools, start and end with the land under my feet, and it’s the same land under all those feet too.

How we use a tool and what a tool is, is so varied, and by itself extremely fascinating. Particularly from the perspective of one who makes them, which all start and end the same way. How I find things to use, what I use, how I make, these things don’t vary too greatly, they are anchored within my own animistic witchcraft practice.

It was something I thought of further, after spending the weekend with my Mum, who brought with her from NSW, this little morsel of organic awesome, that my Dad had found and preserved especially for me. It’s been seasoning since Midwinter, when I wrote about how our craft overflows then. I can not wait to work this gnarly, club-like piece of wood, which currently resides on the shelf between my shrines to the Goat Horned One, and the Antlered One, the Mercurial Master, and the Old God. It has the most lovely spiral twist, and a hourglass curves.

It was Mum’s question, that followed my placement of the piece next to where my stav stands that prompted me to think more about how I use my tools. My stav, obvious in the lounge room, my drum hangs on the centre of the largest wall, my tools of all kinds, are everywhere, and it never occurs to me to hide them. I have some that are put away, but that has to do with the nature of the tool, and less about the nature of my house. “Do you still take your staff when you go walking?” she asked.

Yes. Obviously not when I’m taking the bus to do groceries, and  when I know I’m going to collect botanicals, then I like my hands free, but if I’m just walking, with or without going out to mediate under some random tree who seems friendly, or to do a ritual style offering or working, then yep, that’s what it does, it’s an outstanding walking stick. Besides that, it’s been used to leaver stones and rock, dig holes and roots and draw on the dirt. It’s a substantial piece of pointed hard gum, and it get’s wet, dirty, burnt, and then cleaned, anointed and offered to.

This is obviously my style of craft. My most special things, jewellery, tools, fetish jars, they are used, daily. In my life, as my craft, the tools I use in it, and the spirits that inhabit those tools work in my daily life. I have always described my craft is far more earthy and much less ceremonial. Very often, my tools, like me, are natural things, and no less filled up and recharged by going out and getting our hands in the dirt and our lungs full of the bush air.

This does not mean I am careless, and not all tools are the same. I have tools that I use almost exclusively in ritual ceremony and spell-work. And then I have tools like my Stav. I have tools hidden away because their nature demands it, not because I am precious about it. And I have tools that are large in my household, visible to all. A fine piece of heirloom jewellery is used as it is designed. And my gum Stav goes bush with me.

How do you use your tools? And why? Are they different, and does that difference denote and importance or significance above or beyond another? For myself, there are ways of defining my tools that informs how they are used.

  • Meditative tools and symbols: These tools do not necessarily serve as vessels for spirit, but are used as meditative tools to connect with spirits and beings, and states of consciousness. For the most part I find these things to be visual, sigils, pictures, Icon of Great Spirits and Gods. As well as mirrors, bowls etc.

    My Black Mirror I hand painted and put together from various parts.

    My Black Mirror I hand painted and put together from various second-hand parts.

  • Ritual, ceremonial tools: These tend to be the classic cups, cauldrons and wands. Things used almost exclusively in this capacity.
My Acorn Pendulum, I made myself used specifically in ritual divination.

My Acorn Pendulum, I made myself used specifically in ritual divination.

  • Spirit Vessels: Things that have a regular inhabitant. Specifically crafted for this one spirit. These are most often jars, poppets, ancestor bottle fetishes, and sometimes witch ladders and knot charms.
Beloved Dead Spirit Vessels

Beloved Dead Spirit Vessels

  • Extensions of our own Spirit/Soul-selves: Tools like my rattle are like this. Like a power socket that I plug into, neither I nor what it connects to are separate in the function of using it.

What I find interesting is how often these things are not so clear cut. My Drum, my Rattle and my Stav are each all of these things. And it is these variations, crossovers, and peculiarities that make the “Tool Rules” so very important.

  1. Never touch or handle another’s tools without asking first! It may look like another piece of random household bric-a-brac, but you can’t know that it is passed down, and serves as an object link, is a hand-crafted devotional item, or has something “living” in it! Witches and healers houses can be surprisingly alive with inhabitants. Ask.
  2. Wash your hands! Before and after. Exploring, appreciating and even working with another’s tools should be like holding a baby. Start there. Assume also that you have no idea what is rubbed on it, what anoints it, and etc., and good hygiene, spiritual and physical, is always well advised before and after ritual. For the sake of yourself and the tool.
  3. Treat it like a being, not a thing! I will never forget my Drum’s first outing, and having a random person come up to look at it and then slapped it rather hard several times with “what does it sound like?” My first instinct was to slap her rather hard several times and ask “what sound do you make?” Of course I didn’t, and I swallowed down my rage, but I recall thinking that if this person understood the kind of spirit that inhabited the Drum, she would likely not have touched it at all, let alone stand close to it. Animists, like myself, believe that everything has spirit. It may be the spirit of the thing that makes it, or a spirit invited to reside and work with it in conjunction with the spirits of the land from which it was made, or the spirit of an ancestor that haunts it. And we can be rather offended if it’s randomly slapped.

That’s my list, anyway. I’d love to know if people have other rules, uses and considerations when it comes to their tools and sacred objects. And the “heads desk” instances when someone has been a knucklehead with a ritual or sacred item.

P.S. ‘Y’ is for “Your Tools”. This post participates with the Pagan Blog Project 2014.