Tag Archives: ancestors

First, let’s get confused (Rune Cards)

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Here’s my first reading with the Rune Cards.

—1—
2—–3

I’m going to look at the card image alone first and will then consult the little white book (LWB) that comes with the deck. I’m giving the Anglo-Saxon rune names first, followed by the Elder Futhark names (if applicable) in parenthesis, if only so I can learn all names. The images are borrowed from another website that I sadly haven’t bookmarked, so I can’t tell you the source.

1. Where am I in terms of my spirituality right now?Aurochs / Ur (Uruz)

Two big drinking horns lie on a table, together with a die that has the rune of “ur” carved on it. One of the drinking horns has metal decorations at the rim and point, the other is left plain. A male aurochs stands in the background, facing the left and looking slightly to the front. (Actually, the animal looks more like a buffalo than an actual aurochs, but for now I’m willing to accept that as artistic license.)

The opening of the decorated drinking horn is facing the viewer, looking a bit like an entrance to a cave or something. That makes me think of the oft-quoted tunnel-like passage that many shamanic journeyers encounter at the beginnings of their journeys (particularly to the Lower World). From the outside, it’s just a drinking horn, but there’s no telling where the inside passage leads. The fact that there are two entrances also suggests that choosing one (the right one?) might be of importance here. And the die makes me think that consulting an oracle (or, if you prefer that view, making a choice by a random method) might just be the way to go.

The aurochs itself makes me think of wild cattle and the role they played for our ancestors (I’m only referring to what is now roughly considered European territory here because that’s the cultural background of the runes and the illustrations of this deck. That’s not supposed to suggest that aurochs or other wild cattle weren’t present elsewhere.). Aurochs were hunted (I assume that all parts of their bodies were used for food, clothing, and tools)  and paintings of them appear in several prehistoric caves, such as Lascaux or Chauvet. All in all, it makes me think of a very early time in human history, and different ways of connecting to that ancestry (such as shamanic journeying, experiential archeology, scientific research, etc.). And that suggests that there is always more than one method to reach the goal of connecting, and that most likely a combination of them will bring the best (= most useful, most reliable, most respectful) results.

The fact that the animal depicted on the card is not actually an aurochs makes me think that I need to keep checking the “facts” of whatever I’m told is the “truth” about any spiritual path. While a bison or buffalo is probably closer to an aurochs than a Holstein dairy cow, it’s still not the same, and the difference may indeed matter. So this is not about just believing everything, even if it comes from an “expert” but to do my own research and verification process to get confirmation of something.

So, let’s see what the LWB has to add to that. The rune poem given for Ur consists of four stanzas and centers on the value of strength and the will to fight, as well as on the need to temper it with courage, determination, wisdom and cunning. In other words, “Those who have strength but lack strategy will become the captive of others.”

The divinatory meanings mention assertive strength again (not necessarily physical strength, though) and also speak of the need to conserve strength, to rest and recuperate.

All in all, I would say this card is about allowing for some time until I actively go into that cave/tunnel again (that is, before I take any further steps, especially on a shamanic path). Instead, some reflection of whose values and “truths” I want to take on as mine seems to be in order. And that makes a lot of sense, because I’m still busy shedding all the expectations of my former workplace and related environments and reconnecting to my “roots” (mostly of my own life history for now).

2. What’s the next step for me? What should I do?Weapon / Yr

This shows a scene of hands-on battle. There are a lot of helmets, swords, arrows, a few shields, and some faces contorted in yelling. Bolts of lighting strike down from the night sky, ravens (or crows) fly above the battlefield, and a big battle axe with the “yr” rune engraved on it is held up in the foreground of the picture.

I know that thunder(bolts) are associated with the hammer-wielding Northern god Thor, but I’m not sure that the ravens aren’t borrowed from Celtic/Irish mythology here (as related to the war goddesses Badb and Morrígan). However, Wikipedia tells me that “the word [for raven] was frequently used in combinations as a kenning for bloodshed and battle,” so I might be mistaken here.

The battle looks like a scene of much chaos, violence and fear to me, and it’s certainly not a scene that I’d happily enter. I’m in no way the type to engage in physical battle (although I believe I would be able to defend myself against a physical one-on-one attack), and even shy away from peaceful demonstrations or big concerts because I never trust “the masses” around me to be on my side when push comes to shove. However, the battle axe with the rune suggests a guiding principle which might just give structure (if not sense) to the chaos. The lightning bolts make me think of divine intervention, for better or worse, and suggest there might be a bigger plan to all of it, even if I can’t see it from my current point of view.

Besides the idea that finding my own guiding principles probably is a good idea before I enter any “battle” I’m not quite sure what this card is telling me to do.

Let’s see if the LWB can shed some light on this. The rune poem praises the use of the axe-hammer as a piece of war-gear and suggests it is a useful thing to have with you on a journey. The divinatory meanings for the card list several verbs that describe violent destruction of a thing or person and state that the “enemy could be an opponent or an illness, or anything that could be harmful to you.”

Right now, this seems to underline the wild aspect of the Ur card, so perhaps my reading of that as waiting some more before action takes place isn’t quite right? I hope the third card will clarify this matter some more!

3. What should I avoid?Ing (Ingwaz)

A big fire burns upon an otherwise snow-covered hill surrounded by a forest in the night. Its flames merge with a Green Man-like face made of what looks like oak leaves.

The depiction of a god or land spirit (I think that Ing is another name of Freyr, but I need to check that later on) makes this card different from the other two that only used things that are on the more material side of things (or symbols for deities like the flashes of lightning). In terms of something not to do as my next step I would think this means I’m not supposed to attempt any direct spirit communication at this point.

Okay, let’s check Wikipedia first. Ing, or Yngvi, is indeed an older name for the god Freyr. From what little I already know about the Northern deities, Freyr is a Vanir god and embodies a fertile masculinity that is much tied to the land and to sunshine and prosperity. Thor, on the other hand, is an Aesir god who is associated more with battle, protection, and physical strength. In other words, there are two different kinds of masculinity that appear as “do” and “don’t” for me in this reading.

That alone is rather interesting, since masculinity has indeed been an issue for me in the more recent past. Not only has my partner transitioned into an everyday life as someone who is almost always read as a “man” (despite his remaining self-identification as a third-gender butch), I have also been read as an “unfeminine” woman, especially in work-related contexts (despite my remaining self-identification as a queer femme). I have struggled (and continue to do so) with how the way his gender is perceived now changes the way my gender is perceived by others (no matter that the changes of his gender as I perceive it away from the rest world have actually been minimal – although that kind of separation is of course an illusion possible only for the sake of the argument). As a result, I’ve come to the realization that outside perception plays a much bigger role in one’s gender reality than I initially thought, and that includes the perception of the gender of the people we’re with. While this is all really fascinating in an academic way, it still means that I’m rather unsure of how to deal with this in my practical life.

I’m also wondering if this emphasis on traditionally “masculine” aspects is just a feature of this reading, or if it is part and parcel of Northern Tradition Paganism as such. I have touched on my own gender issues before, so I’ll just say here that it would be a problem for me if femininity and masculinity in Northern Tradition Paganism were divided along the same old lines of warrior and homemaker/caretaker.

But before I continue to draw the different parts of the reading together to make sense of them all, let’s see what the LWB has to say about the Ing card. Once again, I’m not sure how “purely” Northern the story of the Lord (Ing) and Lady (his sister Eostre) and Ing going to sleep over winter and being roused again by burning holly is (Wikipedia says that Freyr’s sister is Freya, not Eostre, and a superficial Google search finds no relation of Freyr to holly). In fact, the whole “Lord and Lady” business sounds awfully Wiccan to me (although, admittedly, Freyr and Freya actually mean Lord and Lady), and holly is mostly mentioned in relation to the twice-yearly fight of the Holly King and Oak King. At any rate, the LWB rune poem mentions Ing as a hero, and someone who traveled over water. It also lists a lot of positive associations along the lines of hope, optimism, fertility, rebirth, etc.

Well, that doesn’t help me much, I’m afraid. I think I shall continue with my own takes for now.

So let’s go back to whats actually on the cards. One thing that stands out to me is the very similar shape of the Ur and Yr runes. Yr looks like Ur with an extra line down. If I leave everything aside that I have read about the runes/cards during the assembly of this reading, I would say that it could be an extra grounding line. In that metaphor, Ur is the idea, the potential and Yr is the application, the manifestation of it. Nevertheless, the Yr and Ing cards are similar in how they show mostly sky (and spirit) and only a little bit of the earth/ground…

Well.

I think we can safely say that I’ve successfully managed to confuse myself to the point of wanting to scratch the reading in its entirety. I guess that what happens when I mix up research and divination to a point that goes beyond checking a fact that I already have in the back of my mind or looking up the translation of an idiom. The part that confuses me most is the battle scene of Yr as my “do” of this reading because I really can’t relate to that imagery at this point in my life. I don’t want to jump headfirst into any kind of battle, but I want to reflect and heal and go slowly instead.

I did learn a few things about this deck and about the runes as such during this reading, though, and that’s always a good thing. I realized that my usual way of reading cards (or other oracles) probably isn’t working very well with this deck as long as I want to use it to learn the runes as such, because what I see in the images is not what I read about the runes and what I would associate with the rune names, the respective stanzas of the rune poem translations, or the rune shapes themselves. I’m not giving up on the approach of doing both things at the same time (reading with this deck and learning the runes as such) just yet, but if future readings turn out to be equally confusing, I might have to do just that. In that case, I might have to decide whether to take this deck as a paper version of the runes (and ignore the images – which would beg the question why I would then use an illustrated deck) or to use the deck as I use my other oracle decks (and ignore the runes – which would lead me to wonder if it’s possible to learn the runes in some other way and still not get distracted by their presence in this oracle).

For now, I’d be grateful for any input on this reading by any of you. Maybe you know more about the runes and can give me some useful pointers about how to interpret what I drew here? Or maybe you see something in the card images that has escaped my attention? All reading methods are welcome!

C is for Choice vs. Calling (and Core Shamanism vs. Classic Shamanism)

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter C, and it’s almost on time.

I’ve tried to tackle the subject of shamanic practice as a choice vs. shamanism as a calling for a while now, and I don’t think I’m done pondering it. Nevertheless, I figured I’d post this as a sort of random waypoint on my path of making up my mind about this. Maybe writing it “out loud” will help me clarify some of it. If this seems contradictory or unclear that’s because this is how my thoughts look right now. Please expect some detours and maybe a dead-end or two along the way.

When I first got in touch with shamanism as something Western people practiced, it was in the shape of someone close to me who attended several classes of the European branch of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS), whose work is based on Michael Harner’s understanding of “core shamanism.” As I understood it from that person’s explanations and my later reading of Harner’s book The Way of the Shaman (first published in 1980), this “core shamanism” was supposed to be a non-culture specific collection of shamanic techniques and a quasi-universal framework for using them. Harner apparently derived the basic contents of his “core shamanism” from his anthropological studies of shamanic cultures in various parts of the world, where he found many aspects that seemed similar across cultures and therefore suggested to him that there was some underlying common ground to all of them. His idea was to avoid appropriating any specific culture and instead take the bare bones of the methods and teach them to other Westeners as a basis from which to develop/discover their own specific shamanic worldview.

At first, that sounded pretty good to me. After all, I knew there had been way too many Westerners already who had taken elements of other cultures’ spiritualities and used them completely out of context. Not only was that a politically problematic thing to do (colonialist exploitation, anyone?), but I also couldn’t help doubting that methods appropriate for people living in a totally different environment really worked more or less the same for Westeners in a thoroughly urban setting. So taking nothing but the culture-free techniques seemed like a good alternative to that. And unlike a gazillion New-Age crackpots whose writings I had encountered already, Harner seemed at least to have some kind of understanding of the problems that come with the Western use of non-Western culture. That alone seemed a lot in comparison.

Nevertheless, I remained skeptical about the FSS workshops I heard and read about. If nothing else, they seemed way to large to me – how would any teacher be able to even notice every student’s needs (not to mention their hangups, issues, and possibly even characteristics that made them thoroughly unfit for that kind of work) in a weekend workshop with  fifty participants? Or even twenty? I also didn’t like the idea that after the workshop people were basically left to their own devices. How would any teacher be able to remain available to their students should something come up when they usually didn’t even live in the same area, and were off to the next twenty-person workshop (or their own private practice or whatever else they did when they didn’t hold workshops) a month later? To be fair, I did hear of some FSS teachers who told their students that there might be unexpected aftereffects and to get in touch with them if they experienced any problems as a result of the workshop, but I have no idea how many students took them up on that offer and how they then dealt with that. But the more famous their name, the more in demand they were, the less individual attention they seemed to be able to offer their students. (Mind you, this is my very own outside perspective that doesn’t necessarily mirror how the students themselves experienced the workshops.)

I’m not sure where I initially got the idea that shamanic work wasn’t just something one could play around with, but apparently I had (and have) a strong belief that one should be properly informed and prepared before taking any steps in a shamanic direction. I suppose the idea must go back a long time because I’ve felt the same about drug use, tattoos, ouija boards, extreme sports, or BDSM practices going back to at least my teenage years: If it alters your state of consciousness or has the potential to permanently change your body, you better know very well what you’re doing. Maybe it’s just an expression of a desire to stay in control on my part, but I believe in taking calculated risks. (Which doesn’t mean I’ve never had any not-so-pretty experiences in any of these areas. It just means that I knew what to do if a heretofore unknown boundary had been crossed inadvertantly. And often it simply meant that I stayed away from something altogether because I wasn’t ready to risk the worst-case scenario of what might have happened as a consequence.)

Oh, and while I’m definitely able to suspend my disbelief about a whole bunch of strange things if I trust the person who is telling me about experiencing them (e.g. talking to the Dead, seeing illnesses, shamanic healing of conditions termed incurable by Western medicine), I usually reserve actual, true belief for things I’ve experienced myself (e.g. non-binary gender, pain as pleasure, energy body parts or energetic shapeshifting, divination). There’s a lot that I consider to be theoretically possible, but I also know that people sometimes make up stuff they haven’t actually experienced/witnessed for many reasons. All in all, this general skepticism means I often just file away reports of extraordinary experiences other people claim to have had into the huge “maybe” archive unless I have good reason to turn them over to the “no, I don’t believe this happened to this person in this way” folder or the “yes, I believe that” one.

I can’t reconstruct which queer-trans-BDSM-spiritual link exactly led me to Raven Kaldera, but I eventually found him and some of his books and his many web presences. I don’t remember what piece of his writing I read first (Hermaphrodeities maybe?), but ever since my first encounter with his stuff I’ve had a thoroughly ambivalent opinion of what he had to say and the way he said it. He certainly deserves credit for speaking about difficult topics that I don’t see mentioned anywhere else (or didn’t, back when I started reading him). More specifically in terms of shamanism, he also deserves credit for pointing out that things are often difficult, dangerous, and not necessarily even the completely free choice of the practitioner/shaman (let’s not get into linguistics here just yet). I truly cherish his voice as a welcome deviance from the mass of other voices who claim to be able to teach “shamanism” in just a short weekend seminar or three, that every single one of us is able to learn this kind of stuff, that becoming good at it is largely a matter of practice, and that there really isn’t anything to fear as long as you have your Animal Guide with you (which often you just “fetched” only a few short minutes or hours ago). With that kind of context, an emphasis on the dangers and difficulties of shamanic practices really is badly needed. I also like his general non-nonsense approach and his dedication to making information available, no matter how controversial it might be.

Among the many things written by Kaldera I read over the past ten (or so) years, some of his texts particularly stuck with me. One of them is his comparison of shamanic practitioners and shamans. The main difference for him doesn’t seem to be whether one practices shamanism in a Western or a tribal culture, but the amount of choice (or lack thereof) one has about practicing at all. I recommend reading his article in full, but I’ll give a brief summary here.
What Kaldera terms “classic shamanism” and “shaman” refers to people who were chosen by Spirits to do this kind of work. They always experience some kind of serious physical or psychological illness at the beginning (so serious that there is a true risk of them ending up mad, dead, or both). They can’t just refuse and walk away from shamanic work whenever they feel like it without suffering serious consequences (see above: mad, dead, or both). And finally, they predominantly act in a position of service to both the Spirits (of a specific cultural context) and some kind of community.
In comparison, what Kaldera terms “core shamanism” and “shamanic practitioners” refers to people who basically keep their ability to choose when, where, how often, for whom, and even if they want to do any kind of shamanic work. There may be some minor ill effects from breaking deals with specific Spirits or stopping the practice altogether, but nothing serious. Shamanic practice may be a path of service or mainly a source of income, it may serve a community or just the practitioner themselves, it may be culture-specific or not. Generally, it’s all a lot less binding.
It should be said, however, that he implies no value judgment of the general abilities of shamanic practitioners, although it is hard not to notice his own preference for “classic shamans.”

A few years after I read this article for the first time, I met Mi-Shell Jessen, the first (and so far only) person I personally know whom I would call a “classic shaman” by Kaldera’s definition. She has become one of my most important (if rather informal) spiritual teachers, and a cherished friend as well. After meeting her, I can’t pretend I don’t notice the difference between her as a shaman/Kham and other shamanic practitioners I’ve met. It’s not like she’s a perfect human being due to that, or that she never makes any mistakes – in fact, she’ll be the first to tell you about her imperfections. However, unlike Kaldera, who seems much interested in keeping the “wrong” people out from his corner of the world, she seems to be focused instead on finding common ground even with people unlike herself instead of drawing lines between most kinds of “us” and “them” (I won’t speculate about the reasons for that because I know neither of them well enough to do so – if these are indeed facts and not just subjective perceptions). If nothing else, that makes her more accessible to me, which I’ve benefitted greatly from. But, yeah, Kaldera still has a point with that distinction between shamanic practitioners and shamans he makes.

So where does my own practice come into the picture here? Well. I asked a lot of questions about the FSS workshops and about other experiences of people I knew who said they used some kind of shamanic practices. I think I also eventually read The Way of the Shaman. The basic idea of journeying didn’t seem all too difficult to learn but I hesitated… for a long time. I fretted over the “right” starting place for journeying. I fretted over “what if it doesn’t work?,” and I fretted about “what if it does work?” Eventually, I used a CD that came with an introductory book on shamanism (inspired by Harner’s work but not directly authored by him or an FSS member). It seemed okay enough and incidentally also made a distinction between shamanic practitioners and shamans – which seems to be the norm with FSS-related material, by the way. I hated the extended narrative on the CD, and when the journeying part finally was supposed to begin, nothing much happened. I concluded I was a shamanic failure and left it at that for a long time.

A while later, I took a class on “chakra harmonization” because it was taught by a then-friend who seemed trustworthy enough for me to even venture into the territory of spirituality or energy work-related classes. Amongst some other things, we learned to do a certain kind of visualizations there, and during one of those an animal appeared rather unexpectedly for me. I was very moved and impressed by that but couldn’t find any useful guidance about what I had experienced in that workshop or from that person. That didn’t help with my perceived readiness to explore energy-work or spirituality much further, so I focused on reading tarot again and let everything else fall aside.

But I still felt drawn to shamanism, if only because I often react with “I’ll show you!” to an initial failure. So, after some more fretting, I asked someone close to me to journey to bring me a “Power Animal” like they had learned to do in the FSS seminars. I’m not sure what I was hoping for, but I didn’t get it. Instead, I got an animal that made sense on some level but that didn’t really stick around for long. I suppose I’m at least partly to blame for that because I never really believed it was truly “mine” to work with. Well, if nothing else, this experience taught me to do these kinds of things myself and not try and let someone else do the difficult work for me.

Eventually, I tried journeying on my own again. I had someone a little more experienced next to me (that close person I spoke of), but we each did our own thing. My stated intent was to take a first peek at the Lower World to get to know it a little (you may realize that I’m still using core shamanic terms here because I acted within that framework back then and still lack more accurate and more specific terms to describe what I experienced). Well, I ended up being beheaded, burnt and eaten by Spirits during that very first “real” journey I took (and that’s pretty much the kind of stuff that happened during every single journey I did since then – which weren’t all too many, mind you). So what do I do with that? Of course, being skeptical as I am, I immediately questioned this experience. Maybe I had just read too many accounts of the significance of dismemberment journeys and now my mind/unconsciousness made up variations of the theme over and over again… And, if it was actually for real, what did that mean about my shamanic abilities? And why on earth did I even worry about that since I was pretty clear that becoming a professional shamanic practitioner (let alone a shaman) wasn’t even something I secretly dreamed of?!

I think it was at that point that I started reading more. But most of the stuff I came across either just repeated Harner’s core shamanic beliefs (which offered nothing helpful to me) or was so “out there” that I couldn’t see a relation to my own life and experiences. Not to mention the endless parade of people tacking the “shamanic” label onto everything even remotely related to nature and spirituality. Which left me in a strange kind of territory: core shamanism didn’t seem to offer what I was looking for (or maybe I just didn’t find the right practitioners of it because those people were busy doing their work instead of posting stuff on the internet or writing books) and classic shamanism seemed completely out of my league.

I still eventually took a basic class with the European branch of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, taught by this guy. I told myself I would be then able to use it to take advanced classes with the FSS later, should I want to do so. After already resigning myself to not being able to participate due to signing up when the class was already full, I still managed to get into the class via the waiting list, so I figured it was indeed the right thing to do for me. I’m afraid I can’t say too many positive things about this particular class and teacher, though. While we were explicitly told that we wouldn’t learn how to be a shaman in that class (or any of the FSS), we were all too soon doing exercises where one of us was called the “shaman” and the other the “client” or “patient” and our work was referred to as “shamanizing.” This may have been sheer verbal laziness on the part of the teacher, but it did nothing to keep up any distinction between us and other shamanic practitioners or shamans. We were also taught that everyone was able to journey, although not everyone might be able to do so on their first try. Those that didn’t manage to journey were basically left alone and told they should try again later. At some point someone asked if we should always do what the Spirits told us, and we were told to please use our common sense. I tried to bring up the idea of serving the Spirits instead of the other way round (because I still don’t believe that any Spirit is just sitting around like a bored waiter waiting for us to show up so they can take our orders or that they work with us for completely selfless reasons), but that line of thought was first ridiculed (by making me appear as if I would stupidly follow any instructions by any Spirit no matter what) and then quickly ended (mostly because I decided it was pointless to further discuss this point in this context). And don’t get me started on one of the songs we learned there, which goes like this: “I have spirits, spirits have I (repeated 3x); I, I, I” – that’s way too much “I”/ego for my taste (and no, I don’t “have” Spirits, even though I may carelessly say so in some spoken discussion – but I certainly won’t sing it to them)!
Oh well. I still learned a whole lot of things. Mostly that these kinds of classes are definitely not the right way for me to learn any of this (I’d rather muddle along on my own). And what aspects of Western teaching of shamanic practices I find highly problematic, especially now that I have experienced them myself. I’m just glad that I waited so long before I took that class and that I had already encountered some other perspectives on shamanism before I did. (To be fair, I’ve met other people who took FSS classes who were able to focus on the beneficial aspects of them much more than I was. Their accounts therefore are rather different from mine. So I don’t claim any objective truth here.)

So I come back to Kaldera (and by now also Galina Krasskova and some others who seem connected to them in some way) again and again, for reasons still not entirely clear to me. I often leave these pages (digital and printed) both impressed/delighted/inspired and alienated/furious/hurt (going by a quote Kaldera often uses – “‘Tis an ill wind that blows no minds” – I suppose he’d count that as a success). And I kept wondering: Could I even be a serious shamanic practitioner if I didn’t experience some kind of dramatic shamanic initiation similar to what Kaldera’s “classic shamans” experienced? Assuming I was given the choice, would I pay that kind of price? And then, again: Why was I even worrying about that when I had no desire whatsoever of becoming any kind of Spirit worker beyond my own personal practice?
Well. I do have very high standards for myself (which I often fail to meet), so I don’t usually measure myself against average people in any area – not even where it would be highly appropriate for me to do so. But being mediocre just won’t do. So I look towards the most serious practitioners/shamans I could find – and of course find myself lacking. I worry about a potential step #357 of a “shamanic path” when I haven’t even taken step #3 – which is probably not surprising given that I rarely learn things in their proper sequence and often jump in at around step #15 and pick up the basics I missed somewhere along the way, usually without anyone ever noticing my haphazard ways.
On some days I think I should just come to terms with the not unlikely possibility that I might indeed be spiritually/shamanically mediocre. Not completely head-blind (yes, I read a lot of Marion Zimmer Bradley as a young adult), not entirely useless in that area, but also, for once, most certainly not among the best in an area I’m actually interested in. That in itself would probably teach me a whole lot of valuable lessons.

I am certainly not ready to serve any community in any spiritual function (if you don’t count sharing my thoughts in online spaces, which for the purposes of this argument I indeed don’t count). From what I hear, I should be grateful for every day that the choice about my path remains firmly my own. As a result of what I’ve seen and read about the work and life of a “classic shaman” in the Western world (or elsewhere), I’m actually taking great care not to send out an accidental wish to the Universe to “make me a shaman.” At the same time, I still occasionally worry that I’ll never be good enough to do that kind of work – and I’m not even sure it’s only my ego that’s speaking there. And even while I worry I’m also sure that the worrying is pretty pointless: If I believe that the Spirits pick the shaman, and the shaman doesn’t have all too much to say in that deal, then it won’t be my choice anyway whether I am ever called for that job. Because that’s exactly the point about a calling, isn’t it: lack of choice.

So I keep reading/listening and struggling. And every time I find a little snippet of something that has some practical application in my own life as it currently is. And then there’s Mi-Shell Jessen again, who reminds me in a positive-sounding way that there is a lot of inhabitable space between not having a spiritual life at all (which is where I originally started at) and being a full-blown shaman. Not to mention that growing into a shamanic worldview as an adult may take some time, and that I’ve still just started out on my path. In other words, don’t obsess about where this is leading you but be present for the path as such.

Either way it can’t hurt to learn more, just in case someone else needs this or that skill at some point. And really, truly studying something is also a skill I never acquired. It just wasn’t necessary. I usally pick up more than enough by passing through, by skimming, by transferring knowledge from other areas, by thumbing through, by looking over people’s shoulders, and occasionally by asking a few questions and experimenting a bit on my own. And I’m not saying that to brag, I’m just neutrally describing my usual mode of operation. And this is exactly why I’m so proud that I’ve actually developed a nearly-daily spiritual practice (even though I regularly doubt that I’m doing it “right”). To pick up my drum every morning and do at least a short round of prayer(?) to the directions/elements, my Ancestors, and the main Animal Guides I have encountered so far, even if I can’t really focus, even when I’m already late, even when I have to skip breakfast to still be able to leave the house on time, even when I’m sure no one is really listening is a huge accomplishment for me.

Believe me, I’ve questioned the way I’m doing it countless times. Is it appropriate to use a melody from a song of an unremembered source (possibly Native American)? Is it appropriate to use English words even though my first language is German, I live in Germany, and my Ancestors are at least predominantly German as well? Am I using the right elemental and other associations for the directions? Which Spirit Animals do I include in my song (all of them that ever appeared to me on a journey or otherwise? only the main two ones? the main two plus any recent appearances?)? Etc. But for now I’ve decided that it is better to go ahead with something unfinished and thoroughly imperfect (another lesson for me!) than to pause everything until I have figured out what spiritual tradition I actually belong to.

And this is something I am grateful for when it comes to the Harner kind of “core shamanism” I encountered: it enabled me to learn a basic method for journeying into the Spirit World without having to pick/find the right specific culture/tradition first. One may of course question the value and realness of the experiences I’ve made so far (in fact, I’ve done that myself countless times!), and I’m probably still guilty of lacking basic protection skills when it comes to journeying. But still I feel I have something to start with. Because apparently spiritual learning and explorations don’t always follow the ideal path of learning each step after another, at least not for me.

That said, I haven’t journeyed for months now, ever since I took that FSS workshop. In fact, that’s been nearly a year now. I keep wondering about that tradition thing and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need some kind of framework/cosmology that I can use without feeling that I’m just borrowing someone else’s stuff because I don’t have any of my own. So maybe it makes sense for me not to journey at all right now (although it’s not a conscious choice, it just “doesn’t happen”). Maybe it makes sense that I’m pondering my Ancestors so much lately. After all, that’s the one starting point that Galina Krasskova recommends strongly in her own blog (I’m still reading my way through her archive, which is definitely worth it, and I’m still slowly taking a small step or two towards following some of her advice), and it does make sense to me. I’m still not sure how to get in touch with my Ancestors (or, somewhat relatedly, the Spirits of the Land I’m living on) without outright journeying but I hope I’ll find a suitable way. I’ve also decided that it won’t hurt if I learn a little bit about Germanic/Norse mythology because it does seem wrong to just give up this territory to the Nazis (old and new). I have no idea if I will eventually find my spiritual home in that area but if nothing else I will learn interesting new things.

So I guess my main question at this time is this: What do you do as someone interested in an animistic/shamanic worldview and practice who does seem to have a choice about things and still doesn’t want to be an idiot about it? After all, having a choice doesn’t necessarily make things easier in terms of making good choices – and especially because I have a choice I’d rather not exploit people or other living beings (including Spirits), act stupidly and/or disrespectfully, and generally do things “wrong”… Your thoughts and ideas are – as always – welcome!

—–

For further insight into the debate about “core/Western shamanism” and “classic/indigenous shamanism” see these articles. I’m sure there are many more but these are the ones I came across recently, so these are the ones you get.

[Edited to add (17 February 2012): Corrected some grammar mistakes today.]

Eggs, ink, and candy

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I was so hoping I’d have more time this week to use the Key to the Kingdom transformation cards. But then I also wanted to partly catch up with the Pagan Blog Project (see the previous three posts), and then there was my full-time job, and in the end it just didn’t happen. I didn’t even do a single exchange this week!

So, today is my last day with the deck and I wanted to do at least a final reading. I already know it’s a definite keeper for me, and I’m really glad I bought it.

Since my ancestors were on my mind a lot this week, I decided to finally do an ancestor spread. It’s a modified compilation of two other ancestor spreads: this one from the 4 of Wands blog, and this one from Flaxen at AT (which unfortunately isn’t accessible by non-members). I’m not addressing any specific ancestor because I’ve had the impression that there are quite a few that have started to stir now that I pay a little attention to them but none of them is sticking out particularly.

1. How can I best honor my ancestors at this point?Seven of Clubs

A light blue egg with black club-shaped dots has cracked open to reveal two thin gray legs (on which it is standing now) and a long yellow beak. The bird that is about to hatch is turned to the left, which is the past to me.

To me, this suggests that by simply “breaking through” the barrier of unawareness about my ancestors I have already taken the first step. Just paying attention to where I came from is a good start for now. Baby steps are fine since I’m only just starting out on this path. The blue color reminds me of the Sky, which also tells me that simply opening up to my ancestors is a good thing to do.

As I went through a field of wheat,
I picked up something good to eat;
It had neither flesh nor bone,
But in twenty days it walked alone.

~ unknown author

Maybe it’s selective perception on my part but food has come up in relation to ancestors quite a bit for me during the last few weeks. I’ve seen countless pictures of altars where people regularly offer food to their ancestors/beloved dead, and I’ve also read several articles about cooking food someone’s ancestors would have eaten as a way to honor them. For some reason they stood out to me more than other things that were equally present in these photos and texts.

At any rate, it got me thinking. You see, I’m really not much of a cook. I have terrible performance anxiety about my cooking and feel like the biggest loser at preparing food, both of which I suspect are in no relation to my actual skills. In fact, I can quite adequately feed myself, I can cook and bake from scratch at least a few simple dishes, I’m pretty good at improvised cooking with whatever is there after all the shops closed already, and I can also change basic recipes to replace missing ingredients or to use up something that needs to be consumed before it goes off. I also have basic knowledge about what makes a healthy diet and what kinds of nutrients are in what kinds of food. Still, I don’t enjoy cooking, and I don’t feel at home in the kitchen the way my mother does or some of my friends do. At the same time, I much admire people who enjoy cooking, I wish I was a better cook, and I really, really like to eat, especially in pleasant company. To sum it up: cooking brings up all kinds of baggage for me, about most of which I don’t even know what it’s about or why it’s even there. So, yeah, I guess cooking for my ancestors would indeed be a HUGE offering and even sacrifice on my part.

And then comes the big question of how and where to offer any food and what to do with it afterwards. I wouldn’t want to leave out food in my bedroom (where my altar is) for fear of attracting animals I don’t want in the house. I also wouldn’t want to regularly put out cooked food on the tiny terrace we have for fear of attracting rats. I know some people just put out food for the duration of a ritual, letting the spirits feed on its essence, and then share it among the human participants. But would that really feel like a proper offering to me? Others put any offered food out for the local wildlife, and I guess that works fine if you either have a bigger garden/backyard or live in a non-urban area. But I’m just not comfortable about taking food out regularly under the prying eyes of my neighbors in this apartment building. Nor does the local park feel like the right spot to put any cooked food. The third option is throwing the food away, but that feels even worse than eating it myself because I really dislike throwing away good food – and I also assume it’s not the most respectful way to treat an offering (composting would be different but our garbage goes to the incineration plant – which could be thought of as offering by burning, but the actual burning is a bit too far removed from me for that idea to convince me).

At any rate, I think I should explore this area some more and find a way in which food works as a way to honor my ancestors for me. Maybe I could cook regional foods or dishes I knew my Dad or Gran liked and then make a nice meal out of them for myself (and my Beloved if he was so inclined to join me) and eat it in their honor, possibly while telling stories about them. That would avoid quite a few of my conflicts about the disposal of (uneaten) offerings and it would make me learn some more family recipes (which I would like to be able to cook myself anyway). I could even invite a few friends for such a meal and ask everyone to bring a dish that was in some way connected to their ancestors (however they define them) so we could all feast and share stories. I’m actually liking that idea a lot right now!

Oh, and it could all be vegetarian, too, as the little rhyme above suggests. That would also suit (nearly) all of my friends.

2. What ancestral talent can I draw on more than I currently do?Nine of Clubs

A pot of black ink has spilled. Its label shows a cat and the word “black,” and there are club-shaped prints on the table/floor that look like a cat’s paw prints.

I’m immediately thinking of writing here. It seems that at least some of my ancestors were avid letter and diary writers. My maternal grandfather also wrote a bunch of poems. I could easily follow their footprints here and do more of my own writing. I’m also thinking of drawing ink and my terribly neglected drawing and painting skills which I very clearly inherited from my father. And now I even have his art supplies on top of that, as a material heritage. I miss drawing and painting anyway, so that’s a great nudge into the right direction.

O cat in semblance, but in heart akin
To canine raveners, whose ways are sin,
Still at my hearth a guest thou dar’st to be?
Unwhipt of Justice, hast no dread of me?
Or deem’st the sly allurements shall avail
Of purring throat and undulating tail?

~ Agathias

Oh, right. The cat as such. Well, once again this is connected to writing since “Cat” is my penname here and elsewhere on the internet. But my mother’s family did share their house with a tabby cat named “Mimmi” and I’m constantly dreaming of living with a cat again (I used to when I lived in a shared apartment where someone else had a cat, and when I first lived on my own and had my own cat – which I eventually had to give away to a friend’s roommate because I wasn’t able to find a new shared apartment where bringing her would have been possible). For several reasons, that doesn’t seem like such a great idea in the current apartment and life situation but I do hope I will be able to make room in my life for a cat again eventually.

3. What ancestral pattern do I need to let drop?Seven of Diamonds

Seven pieces of a special kind of pink-white-black liquorice are set out between four other pieces of black candy.

I like liquorice except for the kind pictured here that comes pressed between layers of some sweet and spongy stuff. I’m actually not quite sure what this image is supposed to tell me since I’m not aware that liquorice has played a special role amongst my ancestors.

Maybe the poem helps?

Handy spandy, Jack-a-Dandy,
Loves plum cake and sugar candy;
He bought some at a grocer’s shop,
And out he came, hop, hop, hop, hop.

~ unknown author

Hmmm. Not really. I’m not eating all too many sweets anyway, and I’m not aware they were an issue for any of my ancestors.

I think I’ll leave it at that for today. Maybe the last card will become clearer later on. Or maybe one of you has an idea?

A is for Ancestors

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The second post for the letter A is about Ancestors. This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project.

So who are my ancestors anyway?

The first thing that springs to mind is looking at my blood family tree: my parents, their parents, their parents, and so on. So let’s take a little glimpse in that direction.

My maternal grandmother (1936)

My mother (who is still alive) was born in Freiburg in southern Germany (Black Forest area) and both of her parents come from roughly the same area (Baden). Her mother (I’m told) was a cheerful, curious person who spent two years in Algeria as sort of a combined nanny-teacher in a French family in the mid-1930s when she was in her early twenties. I have transcriptions of her letters to her family about that time but haven’t read all of them, yet. Her father was a building inspector (I’m not quite sure what work that entailed back then, probably something architecture-related) and many of her other relatives were farmers.

My maternal grandfather with his father, sister and mother (1917)

My mother’s father came from a background of craftspeople, went on to become a teacher and eventually became a school principal. He also was an idealistic Nazi before and during the Second World War. I have a lot of letters he exchanged with his wife during the war but, again, I haven’t read all of them yet (because I can only digest so much of his naive glorification of Nazi Germany at a time). I believe he eventually ended up both wounded and a prisoner of war somewhere in the East. His wife (my maternal grandmother) died of cancer when my mother was 18, so I never met her. We didn’t see this grandfather very often (at most once a year), and I never really liked him. He eventually suffered from dementia and died at 90+ years when I was 16/17.

My paternal grandparents (late 1930s)

My father, who died almost exactly three years ago of cancer at the age of 69, was born in Lüchow in north-eastern Lower Saxony (Germany). His mother comes from the same area, and I assume his father did as well. His father used to be a forester/hunter. I don’t know much about him and never met him. His mother came from a family that owned a linen shop in Lüchow. She spent part of her youth in Spain, which she considered one of the best times of her life. She raised three sons basically by herself after her husband was killed in the Second World War and remained single for the rest of her life. She was very present during my childhood, which was easy since she always lived in the same city as we did or at least close by. I loved her a lot. At the end, she also suffered from dementia and eventually died at the age of 90+ years when I was 28.

As I was looking for a picture or two to go with this post, I realized that I have way more photos, letters, and transcribed diaries of my mother’s side of the family than I was aware of. Among these is a genealogy chart of my grandfather that goes back to the 1700s to what amounts to my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. Ironically I have the Nazis and their demands for “racial purity” to thank for this, since he apparently had to fill it out to to be allowed to enter the Nazi teachers’ professional organization in the late 1930s.
The vast majority of these ancestors died in the same village near Heidelberg they were born in. Most of the men were (linen) weavers or some farmers (tobacco and asparagus were popular crops in that area), with a few other craftsmen and day-laborers sprinkled inbetween. It looks as if my grandfather actually was the first one to get any kind of higher education, and my mother was the first woman of her direct paternal line to ever attend any kind of university (not considering any siblings because I don’t have any data about them). It’s a bit strange to not see any professions listed for the women, because I suppose there was no shortage of work for them, and they probably did much of the same things as their husbands. Most of these ancestors were some kind of Protestant (Reformed or Lutheran), and one or two women were Catholic. That makes me the first child of that direct line never to be baptized in any kind of faith (my parents wanted to leave the decision what religion – if any – I wanted to belong to to me). I also saw that I share my birthday with a (great-)great-great-great-grandmother (she is both since two of her children married in two different generations), who was born in 1799.

Now that I know so much about that one branch of my family tree, I want to find out more about the other three of them. I believe a talk with my mother and a cousin of my father (who did some genealogy research of his own) is in order sometime soon.

My maternal grandfather with my mother (1940)

But let’s look at other kinds of ancestry. Most related to my blood ancestors is the national heritage of being a post-WW2 German, which I believe has a huge influence on my political thinking (which was already the case before I knew that my grandfather had been a convinced NSDAP party member and Nazi officer and several of my other relatives were at least casual Nazi supporters). To this day I often choose to speak up about injustices, even if it is to my disadvantage, because I don’t want to be accused of “not having said anything.” I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of previous Germans. I’m also very suspicious of any kind of national pride that some of my fellow Germans claim (and which has apparently become shockingly acceptable to display in relation to World Cup soccer matches again). I just can’t see how I can be proud of something I didn’t contribute to, especially a country I was more or less accidentally born into (depending on what you believe about previous lives, karma, and such things). I constantly question concepts of national or “racial” identity, point out the historical mutability of national borders, and try to show how the search for something “pure” and “original” in terms of ancestry and heritage is pretty pointless in a world where humans have always been migrating between areas, have been trading goods and customs with other cultural groups, and formed relationships with members of a different cultural background. So my German-ness is a kind of ancestry I claim somewhat hesitantly, although I also see that I am able to choose what to do with that heritage in terms of educating myself and others towards a non-Nazi-esque worldview.

So now that I’ve touched on the idea that my blood ancestry and national ancestry probably have an influence on me, even though I don’t believe they determine my fate, I would like to take my questioning the concept of ancestry a step futher.

I believe that there are influences that may have been at least equally important than these biological or geographical ancestors were to me. I mean, it’s not like my relatives played a major role in my upbringing (with the exception of my paternal grandmother). I saw them all maybe once a year, sometimes even less often. In my actual daily life, neighbors, friends, and some teachers were much more present and influential for me.

Lesbian bar (USA, 1940s)

And then there are the ancestors I also never met and with whom I share no blood relation or even geographical ties. You see, as a queer femme, I claim parts of the North American butch-femme and LGBT history as mine (I also claim small parts of German LGBT history as part of my heritage but not to the extent that I identify with much of North American LGBT history). And can I even call them ancestors when many of the more vocal members of certain generations and movements are still alive? Sure, some of this “ancestry” may be rather selective and romanticizing, but that doesn’t mean it feels any less real to me. I certainly can relate a lot more to their lives than I can relate to even my own grandfather.

It’s probably apparent by now that it’s a matter of perspective and (inner) debate who even belongs to my ancestors. Not to mention making any decisions about honoring any or all of them. Do I really want to honor a convinced Nazi? Do I ignore the political views of my grandfather and honor our shared love for nature instead? How do I handle the fact that he didn’t bring much happiness to his own wife and children (especially his daughter, my mother), even if he didn’t outright abuse any of them? Is it possible to view him as a human being and still condemn the opinions he held and his active support of the Nazi regime? What if I find out in reading more of his letters that he knew of the concentration camps and/or participated in killing people during his time in the military (at the least the latter of which seems pretty likely)? And what about my two grandmothers who were at least casual Nazi supporters for at least some of the time? I see that their main concerns wasn’t what happened in the political arena or even on the war fronts – the letters I have read clearly show that their everyday lives consisted of trying to feed their children in a war economy and getting by without their husbands instead. But still. What – if anything – did they know about Nazi cruelties? Did they denounce any neighbors? Or did they find their own small forms of resistance that didn’t endanger their husbands’ lives? Is ignorance an excuse for not doing anything against the Nazi regime?

Despite the length of this post, it’s all still a very superficial look at these issues, raising more questions than answering any. I’m definitely not done thinking about them, I’m not done researching, and I’m not done trying to put my thoughts into words. But for today, this post shall suffice, as imperfect as it is.

Any last words, sticks?

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As I did with the Quantum Tarot, I decided to ask the Celtic Wisdom Sticks for some parting words…

I got Ruis (Elder) in North.

Now that’s a nice combination that by way of some odd chain of associations basically just says one word to me: Ancestors.

Frau HolleElder is Holunder in German, also called Holler. It’s said to be dedicated to the goddess (and Brothers Grimm fairy tale character) Frau Holle (Mother Hulda, read it here), and may in fact have gotten its name from her. There are also relations from Frau Holle to a general Earth goddess, and to other Germanic/Norse goddesses like Hel or Frigg (worthwhile sources for more information: German Wikipedia, English Wikipedia). Of course, Frau Holle is also an Elder in the sense that she is a wise (and slightly scary) old woman. Since Frau Holle is a German fairy tale/mythological figure/goddess, I’m making a connection to my own German ancestors here.

ElderberriesElder is a plant that also makes me think of growing up next to a small forest because I think it was the plant that had a very distinctive and not particularly pleasant smell when cut/broken off (I never actually checked later on if that memory is accurate). But a bit of elder didn’t spoil the forest for me. European mixed forests are in fact one kind “landscape” that nearly always feels like home to me.

I also associate North with Ancestors, foundations, and the element of Earth.
After these associations of my own, let’s see what the companion book offers.

First, I learn that Ruis comes from the word “to redden” and that the elder tree is related to blushing out of anger or shame. Then I’m told that elder is “believed to be unlucky for general use” and that it “is very much a tree of endings and completions.” I could interpret that to mean that the Celtic Wisdom Sticks don’t work for “fluffy” questions, and that my time with them is actually over. Finally my smell memory is confirmed because “elder blossom has a pungent, unpleasant smell” (so it’s not the wood but the flowers).

Here’s the actual quote for Ruis in North:

Give bounteously from your store of good things.
The goods, gifts, and resources that make you who you are need to be used. If they are kept for some mythical rainy day, their beauty fades, their savour sours. You may possess the very thing that is required at this moment — the lack of this thing or quality may make a great difference to the lives of many.
Question: In what ways is your innate bounty being called upon?

That ties in with another reading I got today, and with a project I have just started. I also believe it tells me that there’s no sense in keeping this oracle just in case I ever find myself in the situation of needing this and none other. Instead, I should pass it on — which fits well with my idea of gifting the set to someone else instead of selling or trading it.

At least we part on talking terms, so that’s a nice final note.