In my last post, ‘Zoomorphism & Therianthropy; Working with Animals: Part 1‘, I wrote about why we might work with animals, and what that means in terms of my own craft. In this post, I want to explore some of the techniques for working with animals, and the habits, and the perspectives of an animistic skin turner.
Conceive of yourself as Animal
Experience begins and ends with perspective. The further we move from nature, the further we move from understanding the process of becoming animal, the way through which the shaman or witch would adorn themselves with the skins, horns, antlers and teeth and enter into the dance of the animal. Not only are we increasingly less knowledgeable in terms of animals, their sounds, calls, movements and daily life here in Midgård, but our access to these sorts of accoutrements is limited. Very few of us are sporting pelts and horns these days, for many sound reasons. But perspective is not to be found in a fur coat, never has the nature of this magic been more evident than in this day and age, else many more wealthy women would have been great shamans. We do not need these things to change our perspective.
In order to get into that perspective, we first need to consider how and when we do already conceive of ourselves and other humans as non-human animals. Consider how often a child might be a monkey, a small woman might eat like a sparrow, an angry man is a bear with a sore head. When was the last time you called someone a pig, a rat, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a bitch, a dog and etc.? How regularly do we zoomorphize humans in order to denote a negative, something humorous, or diminishment, and how often to denote exceptional skill, positive characteristics in contrast?
One of the most beautiful depictions of this fundamental difference in thought regarding animals, between contemporary western culture, and traditional animistic societies can be found in Tungijuq, featuring Tanya Tagaq and directed by Paul Raphaël, Félix Lajeunesse. “An organic expression of Inuit culture and traditional practices”:
If we would seek aid of the animal kingdom, the first shift so many of us have to make is from the perspective of ourselves as more than, greater than and “higher up”. There are Masters in the Animal Kingdom, masters of things that humans are not the very best at. Every creature has a secret wisdom, and plays a part in the Whole. Even those things we feel we dominate because we eat them, by virtue of them sustaining our very lives, have gifts that we ourselves do not have. We need to place ourselves on equal footing, and conceive of ourselves first, as the human animal. Then, imagining ourselves as another animal becomes much less difficult and confronting.
On the street where they Live
There’s probably a lot ill-advised about armchair occultism, but there’s plenty of virtue in bird watching occultism! There’s life to be found even in the garden, in the suburban park, if we took time to look for it, to sit quietly and let it emerge, even as the din of traffic drones on in the background. Of course, it depends on what you are looking for, some beings require more patience and adventures into the wild.
If you want to work with an animal, walk on the street where it lives. Find its home, watch silently, become aware of its favourite times, places, weather, seasons, foods. Find its tracks, nests, favourite rocks. And then find its perspective.
When we observe something, it is always from the human perspective, for me, that’s anywhere between 3 and 6 feet off the ground, with human eye and hearing. In some cases, the animal is not far from that perspective at all, like a dog, or even a wallaby standing alert in the field, is still viewing the world from one close to a human sitting. The higher, smaller, deeper the animal, the more effort we have to put in to get literally, on its level.
- Get down low: if you ever catch me on one of my walks in the bush, it is likely you will find I spend only half the time walking, and the other half on all fours, dedicated to a wallaby or pademelon track, that requires me to get into the undergrowth. It’s actually very easy to see these tracks and pade roads in the bush from the perspective of 5’4” and see them sprawled out, but getting down, gets you into their size, and gets you to a place of understanding, why they choose to make their tracks in this fashion, rather than straight in the clear. They’re excellent hiding spaces, and their tracks are broken up by these sojourns into covered areas. But this same thing is excellent when following lizards and smaller creatures, what we see as amorphous dirt and dust, to them is a rich terrain of rock of multi colours. What we crush underfoot becomes a labyrinth of obstacles.
- Get out the magnifying glass, the binoculars, and the goggles: You may feel like a little kid again (for myself I know pretty much nothing has changed for me since I first was able to hold a magnifying glass), but remember that kids have very little problem with the concept that animals are their equals, nor any issue imagining themselves as one.
- Research the animal: We’re very lucky in this day and age, we have the ability to film an animal in its habitat at ground level (or up high!) and see what it does, we can synthesise what they hear, see, and understand how their senses work in ways different to ours. Indeed, in the scientists themselves, great examples of observation and respect can be found, and this patient reverence has resulted in a vast body of wisdom and understanding. Learn from the masters, like Jane Goodall.
- Get off balance: When it comes to things that fly, we might be able to find a perch in a tree that helps us out in terms of getting on their level. Sometimes that can be hard. There are some pretty easy and rather childish ways to shift our balance and see the world a little differently. Hang upside down on the monkey bars in your local park, get on the swing! Run! If you want to work with a creature that swims, then you should be doing that. And one of the easiest things to do when it comes to shifting your balance and perspective is to lay flat in a quiet space where you can see only sky. The longer you can do these things the more the particular perspective will set in, like a muscle memory in your body. And you can begin to recall the sensation when it comes time to meditate.
Let’s get Physical, Imagine
Not all practitioners wishing to work with an animal necessarily want to move, in meditations, trance states and “flight”, in the skin or form of the animal. Indeed, you may simply wish to commune with the spirit of the animal in your sacred space. From my experience, the below considerations of dance are equally beneficial to those who would use them as a way to honour, make offering to, and invite the spirit of the animal, as it is for those who would turn their skin. Even in terms of sympathetic magic, birds of a feather flock together.
Once you are in a place of familiarity with the animal you want to work with, there are several things you will have that you can start to take on in a serious fashion; how they move, how they sense, and the sounds they make. Howling like a dingo in your suburban flat might be ill advised, but if you know your dingos, you know this is not the only sound they make. Let’s take canines as a pretty easy example.
Find stillness: It sounds pretty straight forward, you can walk around in the privacy of your own home on all fours, but really, if we look at shamanic dances from the Natives peoples the world over, they aren’t always so entirely coarse. Indeed, in some cases, there seems little movement at all recognisable as animal. Take inspiration. Think outside the square, consider things like the classic Yoga position Downward Facing Dog. Why is it downward facing dog? If you know your dogs, then you know exactly what this stretch is, when it happens, and why. And you will know it almost always happens post nap. Beginning to mimic an animal’s behaviour can often start with a very quiet fifteen minute meditation in the position they sleep. Stretch awake into the animal’s movements slowly. How they stretch, scratch, yawn. The same can be said for lots of things, like reptiles, who can be still for a long time in the sun, like mammals and marsupials, like deer and kangaroo, who can stand motionless, listening, smelling the air and observing their environments for extended periods of time.
What I appreciate about the kangaroo dance in the above video is that it demonstrates that a rest pose is just as valid as quick and often impossible animal movements (which is also helpful to remember, especially those of us unable to go jumping about or running in the bush!). And as in the following, see how otherwise mundane movements like scratching and shoulder stretches become so obviously the animal.
Get Sensory: Ever watched a dog stand or sit still at its favourite view? The high point in a yard, the back step maybe, even a rise or bluff in the wild. See how they listen, watch, move their heads to the sounds around them. Ever noticed how they smell? Sniff, sniff, sniff- then a sort of big blow out of their nose. Short sniffs to hone in on a single scent on the wind, and then they clear their noses, and take a breath before fixing on the next thing. Smalls like mice, rats, bandicoots do a very similar thing, sniff sniff sniff in the ground, then dispel the dust, and then pick up again. Can you do this at home? Can you focus on the last remnants of dinner, clear your nose and focus on the flowers in the room, clear again and focus on your pets, and then again… Hearing is the same, can you focus on the one bird outside until you have identified it? Then shift to the sound of the fish tank in the next room? Many people talk about the wild and the bush, and it is true, all of these things can be done in your favourite secluded outdoor ritual space, often to greater effect. But there is no need to think your home in the city is less a space to do these sorts of things. My dogs live in suburbia, and it does not change their dog-ness. Still my big dog stands in her favourite spot in the yard, head and eyes ever tilting towards the next thing she would identify, sniff sniff sniff, blow! head to the wind, no different to a dingo standing at dusk on the rise. Take their position, enter into their stillness, see how far you can stretch your senses, isolate them, engage them, each one at a time.
Breath in: As I said above, if you’re working with a canine and can let rip with a howl, few things will be more satisfactory. But rarely do I get that chance, if ever, working at home. It might put the neighbours off, and you have to be way, way out of the earshot of any canines in order not to start a neighbourhood chorus. Yes, that’s a thing that has happened. Ah! The joys of shaminic style witchcraft! I like to think it is an indicator that I’m good at it, and my own two dogs think it’s the ant’s pants of verbalisations, and renders any subsequent mediation and ritual a non-event in lieu all-in-pack-fun. But there are other things a canine does. Growling for instance, low and sustained, certainly tells my dogs I’m to be left alone. Panting is another. And what these two things do is shift our breathing patterns which in and of themselves can garner a meditative state or shift in our state of consciousness. Working with birds is the same. You might want to let out a long loud distinct cry, but that signature sound is not their only game. If you know your species, then you know there are lots of lower, quieter sounds and calls they save for their flock and family group. Getting to know their tunes, and then repeating them over and over, is a very effective meditation and trance induction tool, whether you whistle or hum, that will alter your breathing patterns and not infuriate the neighbours with your kookaburra at dusk imitations. You may think these things are rendered moot if you are working with reptiles. But indeed they are not. Reptiles (an amphibians) have the uncanny ability to shift their breathing rhythms far more wildly than any mammal. Can you hold your breath, and then slowly increase your rate of breathing? It’s hard work, but the pay off is huge. And turtles, snakes, lizards, they all enter into a night time torpor (or can stay underwater) and increase their breathing as they warm up in the sun.
Enter the dance: Once you start to get into the smaller rhythms and sounds, the experience of your sense increase, larger movements and dance become easier. Running, jumping, flapping your wings, scratching in the dirt, don’t need to be exact copies, but rhythmic extensions of the subtler rhythms and habits of the animal you want to work with. The thump thump thump of a marsupial or a winged one may simply become a drum beat or deliberate march as you continue to pant, sniff, breath, growl, stick out your tongue to taste the air, and sing. Depending on the animal you are trying to work with. If you’re working with a snake, for example, you may never rise from sitting, or stand in the one spot, only ever engaging your spin with the deliberate, rhythmic movement of the serpent.
If you work slowly, and in conjunction with walking the street your familiar lives, then you will effectively be building a dance that will allow you, as I said, to wake into the animal, and by virtue of its narrative, be easy to remember and repeat. You will be able to build on it slowly as you become better acquainted, and if you take the time to practice a little before entering into your ritual space, something else is likely to happen.
The Doorway to the Uncanny
Working with animals is not, in my opinion, easy work. And I think some animals are harder than others. (I’m talking to you, common brush-tailed possum, you unnaturally prehensile, eucalyptus munching, bush baby, you!) Working with those things human beings have long worked with, like wolves, dogs, cats, even hawks, at least gives us a starting point, a familiarity and cultural understanding. The further away from habit it is, noctornal, sea-going, cold-blooded, etc., I think, the more it requires us to stretch and bend our perspective, our senses and understanding. In terms of those things like dogs, working with them on this score is almost moot. (Although, I often wonder at my small dog and consider it might be nice to understand the experience of my own bed without the nuisance small animal constantly trying to shift me from the warm spot. A spiritual experience is ever there was one!) The truth, I believe, is that we’ve already crossed over into a far deeper understanding of the Otherworldly nature of these beings. We no longer speak of the spirit of the domestic dog, we’ve been on a path together since they were wolves, and we now speak of other things, deeper things, like Black Shuck, Odin’s Hounds, the Kyrkogrim, Hell Hounds, Cŵn Annwn, not to mention their countless relationships with deities and Great Spirits all over the world. In a sense, very real in my opinion, and not so far removed as in scientific, biological thought, we share very immediate ancestors and spirit kin. It is useful, when setting out with a new animal you are not familiar with, to remember that dogs were the first animal we domesticated, and we did that at the very least, over ten thousand years ago. (This is also part of why I do believe we needs must turn to the wisdom of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, especially as Europeans in Australia, in order to understand our native animal kin, they have been on the path together a long, long time.)
The domestic dog, more importantly, serves to remind us of something else: The rabbit hole is long and winding, and it comes to places vast and unfathomable. A single animal, in the very same way you yourself do, serves as a doorway to a long and ancient lineage, a deep understanding, and is as complete with its örlog, its role to play in the Cosmos, and Wisdom as anything. We are talking about working with the spirit of an animal, and that is far more, and a truly uncanny thing, in the same way as Hell’s own Hounds are not just dogs. More than that, they are not in need of reconnection, they already work in perfect harmony with the many other beings around them.
It is this, this extension and connection that I have found reveals itself first to the person who would work with animals.
That little lizard, sparrow, maggie on the back fence, are each a doorway into an entirely new way to see the World. As you learn to collect the She-Oak seeds for the bird you are working with, as you leave out water bowls in your garden, remember to set aside the piece of their favourite fruit, a bit of meat, or a strawberry where you have seen the Blue-tongue, learn the times of day the Tiger Snake is on the path in that spot, practice your dance, you might be focused solely on that one animal. But the She-oak, the Blue-tongue, the Tiger Snake, and several species of birds and any number of individuals of the animal you are hoping to connect with, are all aware and watching you. Follow the odd thing. They are each daily watching each other, talking, following each other’s cues, relying on one another, aware of the seasons, the fruiting times, hunting each other, avoiding each other, and are no less capable of adding you to the list of things they are each and all aware of. There’s a whole lot of World out there, and it’s watching you to.
Taking this not so little idea to heart will open you eyes to the uncanny. Strange and unusual things, and often very helpful things will cross your path. And though it is not necessary, very soon you could find yourself with a feather, a bone, a shed skin, discarded nest, or even a particular individual who has taken a shine to your offerings and presence, and decided to visit the yard more frequently. And it may not be the animal you were trying for. But do not disregard it, the one you want might simply be waiting for the other’s cue. Particularly if he or she is smaller, has fewer numbers in his species flock, or knows always to wait until the bigger animal has had his fill. Shoo the first away, and you could lose them both.
Entering the Ritual
I am not inclined to write rituals for people. For myself, rituals are always structured according to the purpose, spirits, mood, season, desired outcome, or entirely ad lib. Though, I do have consistencies, tools, ritual actions, etc., that are almost always repeated. I feel no reason that any ritual program a person might have can’t be adapted for working with an animal if you have not previously. You are unlikely to be having the actually animal in your ritual space, you are trying to commune with spirit, and so, what you do when working with ancestors, deity and other spirits is probably not so different to working with animals. For those who haven’t before, here are some basic tips.
Offerings: Pretty straight forward. If you go to the effort to make your Beloved Dead Grandma tea just the way she liked it in life, you know detail makes a difference. Collect their favourite seeds, nuts, fruits, leaves, a little meat. Dead moths and such things (without killing them yourself! But sadly, generally easy to find in the house) can be excellent additions for omnivores. A bowl of fresh water, rain, river, or for those who a seafarers, salt water. Construct an incense in the same manner, full of things they take vital force from. If you are working with a native in your area, draw from local lore and myth. And if not, connect with the lore and myth from where they hail.
Creating a space: If they prefer the dark, work then, if they prefer the day, work then. And create a space full of the things they like. Perhaps construct your circle with the leaves and twigs of their favourite tree. I also like to be pretty logical when making an effort to work with a new animal the first time. If you want to work with a small bird, don’t let your cat have free range of your ritual space. In reverse, deciding to work with a large raptor should result in your small pet budgerigar being taken to another room. The spirit of an animal is, like your own ancestors and spirits, first concerned with the life of the animal. In time these more mundane situations will be moot, but start with the corporeal. In this way, also remember, the more wild the animal, the more likely it’s suffered at the hands of humans. You may have more luck going to its space than getting it into yours.
Object links: These can be just as effective as your Grandfather’s pipe, or Great Grandmother’s photograph. Having an object link to anoint, smudge, focus on, and offer to, is no less connected with the animal as an icon is to the God, or photo to your Beloved Dead. My advice working with animals in this fashion though, always, never burn an object link directly. But, don’t worry if you don’t have a full taxidermied specimen either. Pictures, photos, carvings, especially those you make and create yourself, can be far more powerful anyway. Serving as both focal point, and offering and act of honour.
The Dance: As I said above, even if you are not wanting to move in the skin of the animal, your dance, song, chant, is an excellent piece of sympathetic magic, an act of honour and offering, and a way to demonstrate that your space is a bird, reptile etc., “safe place” in which it is honoured as kin.
Wearing the Mask: If at all possible, this can be an very effective tool for working with animals. If you can craft and fashion your own animal mask, or ritual costume, even better. Remember that it doesn’t require the complete pelt of a bear! If you have managed to find a feather, put it in your hair, make a necklace of it dedicated to the animal. Fashioning replicas, of teeth and claws, is excellent particularly for carnivores and not wholly hard to do. Such a thing can serve not only as an effective tool in terms of trance states (particularly masks) but also as fetish items, offerings to the animal spirit, a place for which is power can manifest, and a focal point for future workings.
Inside the Skin
Perspective is so important. From my experience, there’s a kind of cross over that happens in terms of getting into the animal’s skin. In a sense, the animal has to get in you. We can begin to adjust our physical selves in order to do just that. And reminds me of Icelandic lore that suggests a skin turner could turn into whatever animal they themselves had last consumed! I don’t think this is entirely necessary, however, it does make plenty of sense.
Instead, try consuming what the animal would prefer. Particularly in a ritual setting. In some instances this is pretty easy. In others not so much. Try and be creative, because besides being a sort of offering in, it also helps to shift your sensory experience. Taste is a sense after all!
Don’t feel like you have to give up vegetarianism. If you can’t or otherwise have a taboo, then don’t change that. One of the easiest and most effective ritual consumables is water. And whenever I work with any animal, I have it littered about the place in abundance. Not only for this purpose, but because, in the aftermath of any ritual of this nature, I can’t recommend it enough. Have a good long drink.
P.S. ‘Z’ is for “Zoomorphism”. This post participates with the Pagan Blog Project 2014.