Tag Archives: shamanism

J is for To Journey or not to Journey…

Standard

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project (PBP). It’s the first – and very late – one for the letter J. It is inspired by a post called “JourneyFail” by courageous devotion, another participant of this project.

Here’s a quote from said post:

All of the Internet Pagans (many of whom are incredible inspirations to me) write almost exclusively of their amazing experiences journeying (or crossing the hedge, or slipping their skins, or shapeshifting–choose your parlance)–and almost none of them write about their failures.
Here’s the thing–I suck at it. I rarely experience success with journeying, when I mean to do it.

I also have a hard time with journeying, and when something actually happens, I immediately doubt that it was anything but my own imagination and wishful thinking. In fact, there hasn’t been anything in my experience so far that I would accept as 100% proof that I actually went anywhere else instead of making it all up as some kind of creative daydream.

I have been assured by some authors that journeying is so easy that only very few people really can’t do it, and that the biggest problem usually is not trusting oneself and one’s journeying experiences. This would suggest that I should accept what I saw and felt as real journeys and stop worrying and doubting so much.

Then again, there are descriptions of journeys as going into full theta trance, which apparently is a different state of consciousness than the one described by most core shamanic-influenced authors. Here we have certain images that are allegedly seen by people who go into that kind of trance (e.g. geometric shapes, tunnel imagery) as well as certain physical reactions (e.g. falling down/inability to stay upright, shaking). According to this definition, I may or may not have made an actual shamanic journey so far.

In short: The information about what makes a shamanic journey has been ambiguous if not outright contradictory. The main difference seems to be that most core shamanic-influenced people tend to emphasize how easy and safe shamanic journeying is and how we will always meet a supportive animal spirit first, whereas shamanic practitioners with different backgrounds tend to underline how difficult and dangerous it can be and how we may also encounter truly scary and malevolent spirits. (By the way, I touched on related issues is my earlier post “C is for Choice vs. Calling (and Core Shamanism vs. Classic Shamanism).”)

Which results in me being confused and torn over whom to trust and what to believe.

At first, I used core-shamanic instructions and went off to visit the Lower World for the first time. The first attempt was a complete failure, which I attribute mostly to my incompatibility with the CD I used (it started out as a sort of guided meditation to get people to their starting places and give them some basic information about what to do and what to expect and then eventually switched to just drumming). The second attempt worked so well that I thought I must have made it up. I left huge gaps between my journeys and therefore always felt like I was starting over again every time I made another journey attempt.

Initially, I deliberately tried to avoid learning about specific cosmologies/deities/animals/plants so that my rational knowledge of these things wouldn’t influence my journey experience (or what I took to be my journey experience). It worked okay, but the landscapes I visited never resembled the intensely vivid ones I had read about. Neither did I have any kind of all-senses-heightened experience – I was lucky if I saw or felt anything at all, but I never smelled anything and rarely heard anything but the drums.

That is, my experiences didn’t quite match with what I read about, and so I never reached the point where I had any kind of trustworthy measuring stick for my journeys (or “journeys”?). Since I also never any insights about anything that I couldn’t have known from elsewhere (unlike friends of mine who also journeyed reported), I never really stopped distrusting my experiences. I never knew if it was just my lack of practice, or my lack of innate talent, or something else that kept me from ever being sure that my experiences were valid.

At this point, let me quote another bit of the blog post that inspired me to write my own:

When you practice an experiential or mystery tradition (like witchcraft or shamanism or something similar, from a technique point of view) as a solitary, you start to rely on the accounts of others’ experiences to guide your experiments, to inform your choices for personal testing. So when Internet Pagans focus on their successes, when they choose to only show the Internet Newbies their best possible face, we fail to communicate to others that this is a long and often annoying learning process.

Indeed, I lacked comparison with others in a similar situation. Did others also struggle with the same doubts? Did they feel/act the same as I did when they were doing what they called journeying? How fast or slow a learner was I compared to others, and how much (or how little) talent did I bring to the table? That nearly all of my communication about shamanic issues took place via written text online didn’t make it any easier for me to even sort out who was just telling tales and who actually had experienced what they claimed. Not to mention that I often didn’t even know if we were talking about the same kind of journeying in the first place. It often remained unclear where the differences between guided meditations, daydreams, and deep-trance journeys were, which I guess is partly because there isn’t much useful vocabulary around to describe and properly define these things.

After a while, I also came to the conclusion that the core-shamanic idea of using shamanic techniques detached from any specific culture/tradition didn’t feel right to me. Maybe it was because I read one time too many that one should be firmly rooted in a cosmology before one even attempted to travel anywhere (the analogy being that of not traveling to a foreign country without at least having a map and/or guidebook and knowing a few basic sentences in the language spoken there). Or maybe I really felt a bit lost in comparison to friends who had culture-specific traditions on which they based their shamanic practice (or of which their shamanic practice was a fundamental part). At any rate, I eventually stopped journeying altogether and instead began looking for a tradition that made sense to me and that I felt alright about using, mostly by reading about the ones that are out there.

This is more or less where I am now. I’ve decided to spend some time learning about Northern Tradition stuff and I’m happy to report that I’m slowly learning names and that I can even already tell a few story basics from the Eddas. So far, no deity or other being in particular has stood out for me or demanded my attention in a dramatic way, although I seem to be drawn more to the whole Angrboda-Hela-Jormungandr family of Jötunns and other monstrous beings than I feel drawn towards the “regular” Aesir and Vanir deities. It remains to be seen, however, if this is just my default identification with and love for the outsiders in most stories, or if there is more to it.

The last journey I tried (after about a year of not journeying at all) was what I would call a failure. Perhaps my intent/question was too fuzzy to get anywhere. Maybe it just was a bad day. But I’m still thoroughly unsure whether I should attempt to journey again soon, even if I’m still far from having a map or being able to ask for directions in the local language, or whether I should wait until I feel more at home in the Northern Tradition cosmology. Should I focus on systematically building a basis for my spiritual practice and do things like practicing grounding and centering regularly and try to remember to actually talk to my ancestors instead of just glancing guiltily at the neglected ancestor altar? Or should I ignore the standard “curriculum” and forge ahead and learn by practical try-and-error as I usually do?

In any case, I should definitely make up my mind sometime soon or I will end up doing nothing at all… But how?

Opinions? Thoughts? Ideas?

Advertisements

F is for Finding entrances (and avoiding fairies)

Standard

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter F, and it’s pretty late. Compared to earlier ones, it’s also rather light-hearted and a bit random.

Judging from my cell phone photography over the last few years (all photos in this blog have been taken by me), it seems I’m a little bit obsessed with entrances into smaller worlds than the one I usually inhabit.

 

Partly that goes back to my childhood (at least as late as ten or twelve years old) where I could get lost in looking at landscapes of moss and roots and twigs and leaves. I remember imagining that tiny people lived there, but I never saw anyone. I also remember imagining that I could shrink down and walk through these worlds. I clearly remember a feeling of being in a kind of “alternate reality,” of not being quite in this world (but also not being quite gone). At the same time, I don’t want to make this sound bigger than it was, in a wrong-headed effort to “prove” my lifetime connection to these things. Looking back, I can’t say how I got there, but I can say it felt like losing myself in the world of a really good book, but without the filter of letters on paper inbetween. I can’t say how often I went onto those mental “trips” but I clearly remember doing it one day in the rough of a golf course of all places (it was a very small golf club, whose fairways were still in the making, so there were plenty of opportunities to just go off into the not-quite-woods).

 

To this day, I keep finding places that look like doors, or like landscapes, for beings smaller than I am (but somewhat human in appearance, in my imagination). To this day, I often imagine I could become small enough to go in there and explore the world from that perspective.

I never really thought about who exactly lives there, though. In my mind, I don’t see images of little child-like figure with transparent wings, or little men with beards, or any other knows species of “little folk” I’ve read about. In fact, I usually roll my eyes at all the glittery fairies that populate so many altars (and websites) of so many other Pagan(ish) people because I tend to find them terribly kitschy and overly cute. And yet, at least a part of me seems pretty sure that some kind of “little people” exists, even if I don’t know how they look like.

Unlike many other people, though, I’m very glad these “little folk” haven’t yet visually appeared for me. For quite some time, one example of “things that would freak me out if they actually happened” was seeing fairies dance in our little garden. And still, I left a little corner in the garden where I let everything grow however it wants to, “for the fairies.” I figure they can play there as long as I’m not looking.

I’m still not sure if this is all just an extended childhood fantasy of a little girl with a big imagination, or if there is more to it. After all, I’m not exactly the only one to feel drawn to openings at tree roots. The idea clearly is around in other people’s minds as well. There are even some tarot and oracle cards that feature doors in trees, for example the World Tree and Hermit from my beloved Greenwood Tarot, the redrawn version of the former from the Wildwood Tarot, or the card titled “Home” from the Enchanted Map Oracle.

And indeed, when I started doing shamanic journeys, I first entered the Lower World through the base of a tree (not the one pictured). During a later journey, I even came across a tree with an actual door, and for once I had the right size to go inside (which turned out to be a very interesting experience). There were also other encounters with doors in tree trunks on other journeys.

So there must be something to this. (As I was titling the images for this post, I also started wondering about the possibility of a linguistic connection between “entrance” and “in trance” or “into trance”…)

And even if it’s nothing but a fascinating idea, I’m still not cured of my desire to walk through a forest of moss or live in a cave beneath a tree’s roots…

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

Standard

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.]

Appropriate research – you’re doin’ it WRONG

Standard

Today, on my last day with the Tarot of Northern Shadows, I found some stunning cultural inaccuracies in the deck. Let me give you an example.

The Magician

The book says this about the card:

The image of the magician is based on a Lappish shaman in deerskin costume with club, drum and runic symbols. The reindeer gead is part skull symbolising the cycle of life and death. Behind the kneeling figure the moon in the night sky blends with the day, and Bifrost, the flaming rainbow of Norse mythology, linking the physical and spiritual realms of earth and heaven. In the grass the squirrel Ratatosk regards the shaman.
Norse legend relates how this squirrel was able to run as a messenger between the three worlds of the mighty ash tree Yggdrasil. This tree’s roots linked the Norse equivalent of heaven, earth and hell, thus this shaman is able to receive and convey all knowledge. The reindeer horns reflect the spreading branches of Yggdrasil beneath which the shaman encompasses all levels of creation.

Whoa… wait a minute. First of all, while there was some Viking trade and accompanying cultural exchange between the two, the Sámi people never were the same as the Norse people. Therefore the appearance of the Norse mythological elements of Bifrost, Yggdrasil, and Ratatösk/Ratatoskr in connection to a Sámi shaman is simply wrong (compare the Wikipedia article on Norse mythology or Norse cosmology).

Then, it has already been known in 1997 when the book was written that many Sámi consider “Lapp” or “Lappish” a pejorative term. I’d expect people who create a deck based on Northern mythology and culture to pay respect to that.

The “reindeer head” also seems strange to me. Reindeer antlers are typically round at the tips, not pointy, due to the velvet they are covered with during growth. The general shape seems wrong to me as well, but I’d let that go as artistic freedom if the antlers looked like reindeer ones otherwise.

Then there are the drum and drum beater which – you guessed it – are also all wrong. The drum in the card image is perfectly round and has two plain, big runes painted on it. If you do an image search for “Sami drum” you will see that historical Sámi drums were oval or egg-shaped and often a bit irregular. The illustrations on the drum head were much more detailed and patterned in a certain way. (I don’t even know if the Sámi used the same runes as other Nordic cultures, but someone else will have to do more research on that.) The drum beater on the card looks like a short wooden baseball club. Historical Sámi drum beaters, however, were hammer-shaped and look like they are made from antler or bone. There is some more detailed information about Sámi drums here, complete with some photos and drawings.

And then there’s Ratatösk again (who, by the way, regards the drum, not the shaman). Even within Norse mythology I’m not aware of its messenger qualities being linked to any human, no matter how spiritually gifted. As I described in my earlier post, it is only mentioned as carrying back and forth messages between the lower world and the upper world, most of them apparently insulting and malicious. The middle (human) world isn’t mentioned.

These are more than just editorial glitches – these is major misinformation that make me disrespect the deck and book immediately.

Let me end on two much more amusing but equally facepalm-worthy snippets.

The Emperor

This card portrays the Norse god Odin. The books says this about the wolves on the card:

Norse legend say that these creatures [the wolves Geri and Freki] were fed by no one else but Odin, who gave them some of the meat set before him, for Odin was sustained solely by sacred meat.

No, no, no. Odin consumed nothing but mead, that is, honey wine. Not meat. ‘Nuff said.

And then there are the acknowledgements.

They refer to three people/organizations and are three sentences long, so the amount of text is pretty manageable. Her’s the third sentence:

To may wife Marie, for her greatly appreciated editing skill.

Ouch.

New deck: Margarete Petersen Tarot

Standard

My random numbers relate to these decks this week:

I’ll go with the Margarete Petersen Tarot. The number for it actually came up twice, one directly after the other, so I’ll take the hint. I’ve used the deck for a couple of weeks in the summer of 2009, so I’m curious to see how it feels in a different season. Back then, I relied much on the companion booklet, and remember it had some interesting poetry for the majors. It’s probably a bit absured that I bought the English version of a German deck (being a German in Germany, and all), but my tarot/spirituality language really is English, so that makes sense to me. I’ll try to see if I find the German versions of the poems somewhere – might be an interesting comparison!

As usual, here are some initial impressions:

The cards are huge and nicely proportioned (I prefer wider/shorter decks than the standard Lo Scarabeo ones). Most of them are pretty abstract (the minors more than the majors) and have a beautiful range of colors. This deck has some of the most gorgeous backs I’ve ever seen. Which is a good thing since I’ll be shuffling slowly and carefully this week, so I’ll see a lot of them. One spontaneous thought is that these cards might work well with the Shaman’s Oracle by John Matthews and Wil Kinghan — the two decks have a similar way of working with color.

I’m a little bit worried about my ability to read these images without using the book all the time, but I’ll try to do some extra exchanges for reading practice. Maybe I’ll also offer some readings for feedback on AT.

The Margarete Petersen Tarot connects me with an earlier time in my life. I actually once got the Star on a postcard from a very dear friend back when I was a young lesbian feminist. I didn’t know it was a tarot card back then, but I had it up on my wall for a long time because I had (and have) a thing for spirals. The foreword for the companion booklet has been written by Luisa Francia, who is a very unique German author of very unique feminist spirituality books. I first encountered her writing around the same time as the Star image. I didn’t agree with everything she wrote but I liked her “anarchist” approach to spirituality. She just didn’t seem to have any conventional taboos, and I admired that. I also associate the deck and its creators (and the community they came from) with a certain kind of feminist shamanic/trance work, something I knew about early on but was never able to fully embrace despite some attraction. Even today, I remain torn about this, feeling partly drawn in and partly repelled.

The last time I used it, I had just finished university and was also working through a strange crush on someone rather unexpected (which in itself offered many flashbacks to earlier crushes). It was a time of many changes and many questions.

So I’m very curious to see how I will connect to the Margarete Petersen Tarot this week and if I will make any re-connections to these times/themes of my life (and if so, what kind)!