Animal Familiars, Animal Magic, Animals, Australian Flora and Fauna, Fetch-beast, Fylgja, Norse & Germanic Lore, Pagan Blog Project, Skin Turning, Therianthropy, Traditional Witchcraft, Witchcraft, Zoomorphism
There are a number of animals listed in the Glossary here on Australis Incognita. And in those posts each, a list of things “For Work With”. Unlike the flora on the list (though I would add, not all the flora on the list), getting out and harvesting animals and making them into incense, is, well… Completely uncool! I’ve written before about how it is that any animal material comes into my craft and my personal views when it comes to using them. But there are a many things I’ve worked with that I have only ever whilst they lived, and do not have an object of the animal at all.
How and why do we work with animals then?
In this post, and the next, ‘Zoomorphism & Therianthropy; Working with Animals: Part 2‘, I want to explore just that. Starting with the question why. To do that, I want to expand on my personal practices, understanding, and worldview, and the words I use.
What are we Talking About?
Here is a list of words and terms most commonly relating to animals in terms of witchcraft and shamanic practices:
- Power Animal;
- Totem Animal; and,
- Animal Familiar.
Very often these terms are presented as equivalencies, the same thing in different languages and traditions. Which most certainly they are not. In these cases, when these five terms are used, they (generally) refer to something fixed, unchanging, and linked to the individual ancestrally, or perhaps by way of dedication to a particular spirit or God or magic. They are described as either part of the soul complex, or a soul-form, the animal form of a spirit tribe, an animal ancestor of a family or clan, or an animal form of a God or Great Spirit (and yes, in some cases, sometimes not an animal but something else). Something we could say, preordained, fateful, part of destiny. How you work with animals in any or all cases depends obviously on your worldview; pagan reconstruction, traditional witchcraft, animistic, totemistic, polytheistic (theistic at all), and etc.
Sarah Anne Lawless has a very good post titled ‘Introduction to Animal Familiars‘, which also features the artwork of Western Australia’s very own, Ravenari. (Click the image left, or in text, to visit her site Wildspeak and her ‘Animal Dictionary‘ which features her art, in-depth essays of her insights regarding many animals, AND it includes lots of Australian Natives. She’s all kinds of awesome.) Lawless post is full of useful information, particularly her explanation regarding the differences between animism and totemism.
There is a subtle difference between how I use the term ‘animal familiar’ and how Lawless does. I use the term ‘Animal Familiar’ to describe animal spirit allies that are:
- not part of the soul complex;
- not a soul form of the human animal; and,
- not imps, or servitors.
But that are animal spirits, otherwise not related to the individual, with whom the individual forms a relationship, etc., through which they learn the animals wisdom, spiritual nature, and at the extreme end, travel spiritually, in the shamanic or witch’s flight, in the animals form.
I certainly agree with her assertion that animals “select you, not the other way around.” No matter how much you might want to, try, the animal’s spirit will either show up, or it won’t. Using imps and servitors in animal forms is, to my mind, a form of glamour, and has little to nothing to do with working with animals. One could conceivably force the situation to acquire an animal’s hamr, but that’s not the focus of this post (nor will it ever probably be a topic I would write about).
Hamr is a Old Norse term that roughly translates to “shape” or “skin”. But it speaks to more than just the hide of the líkamr (corporeal body). There’s a nifty little guide to the Norse ideas or concepts related to the ‘The Parts of the Self‘ at Norse Mythology for Smart People which helps put this into context:
The hamr is one’s form or appearance, that which others perceive through sensory observation. Unlike in our modern worldview, however, that which is perceived by the senses is not absolutely and unalterably true or fixed. In fact, hamr is the most crucial word in the Old Norse lexicon of shapeshifting. The Old Norse phrase that denotes the process of shapeshifting is skipta hömum, “changing hamr,” and the quality of being able to perform this feat is called hamramr, “of strong hamr.”
To flesh out this self as understood in the Norse worldview, as Dan McCoy writes in his brief guide, there is “the líkamr (“vital processes”) [or corporeal body], the hamr (“shape/form/appearance”), the hugr (“thought”) [or mind], munr (“desire”) [or will], the fylgja (“follower”), and the hamingja (“luck”).” And not to mention Dísir, Vörðr, and the sorcerous concept of the Spaedìs (spae-idis) / Spaealfr (spae-alf). It’s also worth noting these things are not simply translated from Old Norse and Icelandic (etc.) into English, and their interpretation and meaning as given by contemporary practitioners is on something of a sliding scale, dependant upon understanding, experience and perspective (scholarly, pagan, sorcerous, etc.). I mention it though, because what a human being is is vastly complex, and it seems that our Norse ancestors had a pretty firm grip on that complexity. More importantly, as an animist, it occurs to me that if I am a líkamr, and am therefore also hamr, hugr, and hamingja etc. then, every líkamr is also. Perhaps it is less complex, perhaps there is a far greater level of integration than in the individualistic human animal. But when thought of in this way, and considering that each of the Gods of the Norse have multiple animal forms and friends, communion with animal spirits, and the garnering of multiple familiar animals, or animal allies, could serve to unravel the mystery of ourselves, as part and parcel of, intimately connected to the land, ancestors and beings around us. Perhaps, where I see Freyja and say “Goddess”, the Falcon sees Freyja and says “Hamingja“, where I see the God Odin, the Raven recognises its Hamingja. It’s worth thinking about. On the other hand, by virtue of our individuality, the human animal may be the only one able to be hamrammr, where other animals are far more integrated and fixed spiritually by their hamr.
However, taken altogether, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that there is nothing that has spirit that can’t be a spiritual ally, should you wish it. Moreover, perfectly reasonable for a person to actively seek them out. It’s also perfectly reasonable for other spirits to reject you. Because life is like that.
It may be that the parts of the self as described in the Norse are fixed parts of the individual’s örlog (the individual as woven by the Norns), whereas the ability to garner new allies, connections and learn speaks more directly to the less predetermined, the more flexible aspects within the concept of Urðr (the entire web of all things woven by the Norns). This sort of strange flexibility in the Norse “Fate & Destiny” suggests that waiting about for your one or two animal guides to show up is far from the whole story. Particularly in terms of those living in the New World. We have the ability to help weave örlog, our own and the next generations. My first best animal allies, and part of my ancestry, are European forms, but I live in Australia, and setting out to know it, live it, understand it, learn from it, and weave it into my craft and life seems the only way forward as an animist.
I also note Lawless consideration that one might have animal, plant, mineral, and Spirits of place (genus loci) as familiars. I agree completely. And from my personal experience, there are often crossovers. Spirits of place that take hybrid animal and plant forms, plant spirits who have a very clear elemental nature, be it water or rock. Which further serves to demonstrate the intricate nature of the vast web we are all part of.
So, seeking out and working with animal familiars outside of the above listed spirit types, or, parts of the self, is helpful, not simply for themselves as teachers and their Wisdom, but because; a) such activities can still be useful for people who are not practising inside the traditional witchcraft worldview(s), but from animistic ones, or similar, in terms of meditation practices and environmental understanding; b) they can serve as ways to begin to understand and contact your fetch, power animal, or totem should you wish it, that is I suppose, help reveal you to you; and, c) I believe animals, being also homo sapien sapien (us), are a closer kin, in a manner of speaking, and therefore an easier first step than working with flora, insects, and spirits of locations. We all bleed red, and this I think makes it easier for the individual to commune with experientially, especially at the beginning. (Though in the last case, I will say, people have different abilities and penchants, and this is a generalisation.)
In the end, you may find that you have many animals that you call friend and ally, in whose form you can travel, whose help and aid you can call on, whose wisdom you have integrated into your Craft and life, and many other kinds of spirits as well, insect, plants, large and small, spirits of specific locations that become power places for you, on top of your ancestral spirits, beloved dead, and the spirit forms that comprise of the Self, inside the worldview and cosmology in which you work.
Hamrammr, Skin Turning, & Riding Animals
Wearing the form/skin of an animal is possible in three ways;
- which is the topic of this post, working with the animal and travelling with its spirit, in its form as kin and ally;
- capturing a skin without the pleasantries, which I don’t do; and,
- by way of glamour.
If you are thinking of the later two, you are still going to need to know your species. Few things humour me more than a poorly put together glamour. We do not turn the skin in the physical way, but nevertheless, I have seen many an animal dance in my time, and done more than my fair share, and the difference between “I think I pulled it off”, or “I’ll keep at it”, and “holy crap, there’s something happening to that person” is as clear to me as the thumbs on my hands. Quite often, a naturally gifted skin turner will be evident well outside the ritual space.
I practice ecstatic trance and altered states of consciousness. From the very beginning learning this Craft, animals. There be animals. From the beginning, spirits that I might describe as being parts of the self in the Norse as detailed previously, also continued to appear as multiple things, often hybrid, two, three, four things at once. It was very confusing. And felt a bit like being pulled pillar to post. It wasn’t what I was looking for, nor even what I was being taught in terms of British Craft; one had a fetch-beast. Certainly, there is one, very close to me, dominant, by nature and proximity, I suppose, and almost everyone who has entered the circle with me has made mention of it. But explaining these strange occurrences and being suddenly pulled along by some seemingly random animal form resulted in disbelieving comments. I recall once, still learning, explaining my experience, one replied “You can’t have all the animals!”
I had to follow my ancestral threads to find a term for it, to understand what it was, when it was not me actively working a glamour. Hamrammr. Some people just have a lot of animals.
And it certainly is not “all the animals”. And it is not, from my experience, simply the ability to alter one’s form, or glamour (actually, I would argue that would be harder in the context of the ecstatic trance). Nor is it simply about concealing one’s own human nature, being a skin turner is hard work, and a total shift in one’s sensory perspective. It is why I say it is always and must be in conjunction with the animal spirit itself. There’s a reason why I think it was called “Hide Strong”, when the ability to shift form might otherwise indicate a softness or flexibility. In researching extra reading for this post, I came across Wandering Woman Wondering, and her post ‘Hamrammr: Lessons in Shapeshifting‘, in which she writes:
In shapeshifting, a portion of one’s consciousness is open and connected to a particular animal’s might. Without rootedness in my own psyche and awareness of shadow, becoming lost in the animal hamr is not an unreasonable concern. The animals (and animal-shaped spirits) that I work with can dredge up stuff if you don’t have a firm handle on your shadows and related baggage.
I agree, the hide, and the nature, you really have to have a good grip on, is your own.
But this is not the only way to work with animals, and there are some whose form I have never taken. Instead, they serve as mounts, beings I ride in a sense, and for those less inclined towards shape-shifting, this is something to think about.
What are we trying to Achieve?
We might seek out a new animal familiar for numerous reasons:
- We wish to augment and magnify work in a particular current of power that we know the animal to resonate with;
- We seek wisdom and guidance in meditation and the animal has a skill or wisdom that will aid our search;
- We seek to further our skills in augury by better acquainting ourselves with the natural rhythms of our immediate environments;
- We wish to work with a particular deity or Great Spirit (even ancestor) to whom the animal is sacred, and seek their guidance in furthering that relationship;
- We wish to propagate a particular characteristic in ourselves, of which the animal may be master. A Lion might give us strength, a canine to strengthen family bonds, a small mouse to help us with fine tasks that require determination, we might seek a raptor for their increased vision, a bandicoot for their fertility, for a few examples; or,
- We want to better understand a new place, to which the animal is native and numerous, to help seek out places of power, entrances to Otherworldly locations, and other helpful Spirits, and understand how to garner further relationships with the genius loci and wights, or various plant species.
Regardless, of why you seek out a new animal ally, I do believe there are ways in which to go about it that will help in almost every situation. In the next post, I want to explore some of the techniques for working with animals, and the habits, and the perspectives of an animistic skin turner.
P.S. ‘Z’ is for “Zoomorphism”. This post participates with the Pagan Blog Project 2014.