Tag Archives: hunting

Tracking as a Way of Knowing: A Commentary

Tracking as a way of Knowing: A Commentary

There has been quite the flood of great material coming out lately, and to be frank I am having a hard time keeping up. Maybe I shouldn’t put the expectation upon myself that I will ever keep up, but at the same time it doesn’t really stress me out all that much. It is more exciting for me than stressful, knowing other people are exploring things along similar lines that I am.

Or at least, I am becoming more aware of that fact.

In addition, it doesn’t help when I feel like I have been dog piled with my own writing projects. As an advanced warning, this blog may go on (semi) hiatus in the near future. There is a longer project starting to poke on prod at me. I may decide to give that project my full attention, but that is up in the air at the moment.

Things have been pretty chaotic in my own life, and I don’t feel like I have had much time to breathe. In addition, the world on the whole has seemed pretty chaotic too. It has all left me feeling overwhelmed and anxious. I’m dealing with that the best I can, and life goes on.

As such, I bring my commentary on a piece I came across lately, called “Tracking as a Way of Knowing” by Sophia Sinopoulous-Lloyd. This particular piece really spoke to both my spirituality, and my practical on the ground skills as a hunter. This is kind of a long commentary, which isn’t usually my habit. Some people just won’t read longer pieces, or don’t have the time to do so. For that, I apologize, but I didn’t want to break this up either.

As such, we start here with this quote from the author;

“One of the central themes in permaculture (as in ecology) is that living beings—both plant and animal—build alliances with each other and form natural communities characterized by certain highly efficient cycles of energy. Part of this efficiency owes to the fact that the structure of ecosystems is the opposite of mechanistic. Everything has multiple functions, and there is no such thing as waste. Naturalist knowledge not predicated on a neoclassical production-oriented view of the environment is critical to the skillful practice of permaculture farming. To this end, tracking seemed to promise a way of beginning to build relationships that lead beyond the boundaries of the homestead and private property, into the wild…”

There are several aspects of this quote that also apply to an animistic worldview. The most obvious of which is that living beings build alliances with each other and form natural communities. This is a foundational part of my own animism; being primarily concerned with people living in relationship with each other. In addition, I love the parallels between my spiritual practice and the patterns of natural ecosystems.

That is part of the reason I am animist to begin with. It runs parallel in many ways to many scientific disciplines, not least among them ecology. To me at least, the natural environment is a social environment, in which many non-human agents are in constant connection with each other, and forming self-organized networks and systems. These systems, whether they are deciduous forests, or wetlands, or watersheds, they tend to be self-organizing, self-regulating, and self-governing. I think there is a great deal to learn about society by studying natural systems.

More than that, as opposed to many mechanical production methods, as the author points out, almost nothing is wasted in an integrated natural ecosystem. Unlike many of our human productions methods, that run linearly from extraction —> production —> consumption —-> waste, natural systems tend to have a higher degree of multilinear networks that continuously cycle material as well as energy.

Lastly in the above quote, the author introduces the practice of tracking as a way to build relationships with the natural world. I cannot agree more, and my own experience tracking has highlighted a lot of the points the author makes. There will be more on that in a moment, but first we have to ask what is tracking? Here the author picks up the thread;

“Tracking is an umbrella term for discerning an animal’s endeavors from the marks it has left on the landscape. Its subdivisions include things like clear print identification, gait and track pattern analysis, trailing (where you follow a particular animal’s tracks to find out other things about it), and identifying other signs of behavior, like feeding or territorial marking. Tracking is not limited to uncovering the past of animals though. We can use the rings on an old tree stump to diagnose an ancient forest fire or a particularly hard winter, and we can examine the topography of the forest floor to discern the effects of a century-old ice storm. Such things leave their own sorts of tracks. Our ancestors didn’t only track things on the earth—they tracked the skies too, charting movement of constellations, the paths of planets, and the phases of the moon, giving us the basis for our understanding of time. “

There is so much more to tracking that simply following animals. There is a lot of knowledge and practical experience that goes into being able to do it well. It is so much bigger than the individual tracks themselves.

I was learning forestry from a very young age, rather or not I realized it at the time. My childhood home was heated with firewood in the winter. This means that I spent a lot of time learning from my dad not only how to cut and move wood, but also basic understandings of forests. How to identify trees, as yes how to read their rings. I have seen first hand evidence of burns, rot, disease, seasons that were wet, seasons that were dry and so on. You began to realize on a holistic scale, that you are part of an unfolding story. The trees, the animals, the plants, all it is part of a story that you are smack in the middle of.

You also realize, as the author points out, that your ancestors understood this too. When I hunt, when I track, when I spend time in the woods it brings me a little closer to their stories. I become entangled in the webs around me, in the unfolding story of the land, sea and sky.

As the author points out, this also included the stars and planets, the Cosmos on a much wider level. Tracking in this way becomes a means of connecting with the past, being in the present, and looking to the future.

That is what my animism is all about, building those connections across time and space. It is learning the stories that bind us to the past, telling the stories in the present, and wondering about the stories of the future. The telling of these stories shapes reality around us, and shapes our position in those stories. Tracking is just another way of learning a story, of what has gone before.

“Hunting especially in a survival situation requires a basic familiarity with tracking. Since then though I’ve put in dirt-time in service of a less particular goal: a glimpse of the unique and specific creatures that live around me. Getting familiar with my non-human neighbors is driven by an open-ended desire for relationship. My wish to track now doesn’t feel so different from my impulse to connect with the spirit-world. After all, the all-but-forgotten root of religion is in part the multifaceted need to relate to something both deeply “Other” and also deeply, invisibly, woven into our lives. The necessity of securing food and resources and the communion with the invisible and holy are not by definition distinct endeavors. In much of human history they have been complementary— they’ve even required each other. The first spirituality had to have been practical.”

As I have mentioned before on this blog, hunting is not something I just do as a practical endeavor. It is deeply interwoven with my spiritual practice, and I love that the author brings up this point; that the first spirituality had to have been practical. It had to work, and there was not a clear seperation between the mundane and the sacred.

Hunting is so much more than wanting to fill the freezer. It is how I connect with the spirits of nature around me, it is how I connect with my ancestors and the Huntress I work with. Hunting and tracking is kind of like following in the footsteps of the sacred, that also has the very practical aspect of putting food on the table (on occasion). It is a deeply connective and affirming practice that weaves me into the Greater around me.

It is, as the author states, a communion between past, present, and future.

It is more than that as well, because it also connects you with the greater cycles of life and death, of nature itself around you. I have followed the game trails, tracked my prey through the great mixed-Oak forests of my homeland, and I learned their habits, learned their stories, and in some cases even gave them names. After all this, after taking part as two dancers in the story of life, that is when I had to decide whether or not to take a life I had come to love.

This is something deeply spiritual, and hard for me to put into words. It is one of those deeper Mysteries of my practice that has to be experienced to really understand. In addition, the moment you decide to release that arrow (I’m a bowhunter), that is when the real work begins.

Suddenly, you are connected to the realms of the Dead. With your ancestors, who stand behind you, and with the ancestors of the prey, who stand before you. All will hold you accountable for what you have done, and that in my experience is where the real work begins. I am accountable for what I have done, and obliged to do everything I can to smooth the transition of Dead to the keeping of their ancestors, which return them into the cycle of life and death. I have to calm the confused spirits, and treat the remains with respect. I have to answer to Ancestors of the slain, and return their fallen kin to their keeping.

These webs go deep, and suffice to say that I am still trying to navigate my way through those entanglements.

To take a brief tangent, it is a common perception among non-hunters that hunters are just barbaric ruthless killers. I’m sympathetic enough to agree with that perception in some cases. By my own standards, and the deep animistic way I approach hunting, some hunters do qualify as barbaric under my view. When you frame hunting as a sport, as a game, as a means to rack up points in the “top predator game”, in my opinion you have missed the point.

Life and death is not a sport. Treating it that way has a noted lack of respect, and denies the deep spiritual practice that our ancestors knew some well. In some way, I think all hunters experience a little bit of that, but the degrees of difference between spirituality and sport are wide enough to float an armada through.

That break, that sundering is an important point in and of itself.

Which brings us back to the article;

“For some, following the tracks left behind by a game animal and courting the divine by following a trail of psycho-spiritual signs exist along the same spectrum of activity, both characterized by a sort of sympathetic allurement. Keeney comments later on how this practical spirituality has been largely lost on the modern world: “As we broke the bonds of relationship and interdependency with one another and disrupted our ecological matrix, our link to the divine mysteries became all but lost.” “

From the first time the “animism” as a concept entered our lexicon, it has been littered with this kind of ideology. Animism as a form of indigenous spirituality was immediately categorized as something “primitive” people did, and not something that had any place in “civilized” society. The entire concept is littered with the relics of imperialism, colonialism, and Eurocentrism.

But the ideology goes back even farther than that, at least as far back as biblical times if not further. The idea that mankind, and our “civilization” is somehow separate and dominant to all others. We have tried our best to sever our connection to nature, as “moderns”, and in the process we have sundered away connections that once defined us.

It is so important we rebuild those bridges, and see ourselves once again as part of nature, as part of a wider natural community. It is imperative think, if we are every going to heal those disrupted matrixes that were once so essential to our lives.

Returning again to the article;

“Tracks glow darkly in the snow like icons, triggering some ancient seeker in us, an invisible string pulling us forward. I often hear an astonished “I could do this for hours!” exclaimed by folks from a wide range of backgrounds who are just learning basic wildlife tracking techniques—confirming that it is far more than just the master trackers among us who are tugged by such strings. The metaphor of the invisible string is well known in some old tracking traditions. Keeney quotes a Bushman hunter explaining the metaphysics of spiritual ropes or strings in the context of tracking:

The ancestors and God can attach a rope to you. When that happens, they are able to pull you to where you need to go; that’s the secret behind our ability to track. A Bushman hunter feels something tapping on his arm when it is time to hunt. It is the ancestors pulling a rope that is attached to our arms. The other end is attached to the animal. We simply follow the pulling of the rope, and it takes us to a kudu, giraffe, eland, warthog, or gemsbok.”

There is an important metaphor here that made me want to jump out of my seat and go “yes!”. The metaphysics that I have talked about so many times here, the ideas of strings or “filaments” that connected everything in the Cosmos.

It is not unusual for me to call up my gods, ancestors and spirits when I hunt. It is really strange to think about how deep of a connection I am building in that moment, when I am tracking. I am creating bridges with the ancestors, the gods, and with the animal I am tracking. I am building relationships and connecting with the past in a deep and profound way, a spiritual way that is like going headfirst underwater. The world changes, and your perception shifts. It’s trance work, in a way, reading the trails and learning their stories…

As the article points out, tracking is way more than just following the physical prints;

“Tracking, it turns out, is nothing less than an epistemology: an ecological way of knowing, a green hermeneutics. It is not just a way of seeing “how things are connected,” it is a discipline that redefines and expands what connection and relationship even is. As such it seems to have something to add to nearly every realm of experience and knowledge—an interdisciplinary skill to the core. It blurs modern distinctions between art and science, because it is at once a contemplative practice and also an empirical and quantitative study. It blurs our distinctions between fact and myth because though it is a deterministic study in physical cause and effect, it inevitably lends itself to forming personal relationships with spectral creatures, telling stories about them, and dreaming dreams about them. Eventually, beings are “known” through their tracks, and archetypes emerge. These archetypes have great value to an ecosystem as ways of mapping the world so that a near infinite number of facts can be codified and passed on to future generations. Tracking is unequivocally poetry and it is also unequivocally ecology—at least as long as we humans are involved—and both dimensions are necessary, two halves of a whole. Tracking always leaves room for Mystery with a capital M—it’s impossible for it not to. Whereas in their most dogmatic guises religion protects Mystery sometimes too fiercely, and science perhaps does not defer to it enough, tracking stands innocuously in the middle as the symbiosis of mystery and knowledge.”

Tracking, as with hunting more generally, is a kind of Mystery that is hard to clearly articulate. It is a liminal practice, where art & science, the mythic & the mundane start to mix and swirl in a many unexpected ways. It is a space where stories are told, and where stories are heard. It is in that un-time, in that un-space that the forest and the world around you becomes alive. You are part of that story, apart of that liminal unfolding as you follow the paths that have been led for you.

Hunting in general has greatly influenced my spiritual practice for this very reason. Being in the woods has, being in that liminal place, that is where the real work can happen. We have tried too hard as “modern” people to seperate our “society” from the “natural”. We cut ourselves off from the sacred when we did that, and we lost a whole part of ourselves in the process. We failed to understand that we are part of that great natural community, and the moment we started to separate ourselves from that, it was like cutting away our senses and our limbs.

We are blind and floating in an empty world.

Returning to the article now;

“Ecologist Dennis Martinez points out that unlike the “biocentric” Euro-American model of conservation and land management, a model that can be drawn from Indigenous methods of land management is what he calls “kincentric”; it neither idolizes nor alienates humans, but cherishes and enshrines the alliances among and between humans, animals, plants, and the earth.”

This is both timely and curious that this idea would resurface here. I am working my way through a shamanic intensive, and I am currently in the classwork on Totemism. Now, as I have said before “totem” isn’t a concept I use much at all in my own practice, partly because it doesn’t feel relevant, and partly because I am wary of cultural appropriation. “Totem” is a corrupted version of an Ojibwa word, and I am frankly just not comfortable using it.

That said, in a grand sense the idea behind Totemism is of one’s “kinship group,” that is the close community of human and non-human nature with which we are surrounded. That is what we are talking about here, the realization that nature is part of ourselves, part of our community, and even part of our “kinship group.”

As I have said on this blog many times, we are related to every thing on this planet in some measure. As such building those relationships and alliances is vitally important not only to our spiritual lives, but also to the future of this planet. Reintegrating ourselves within and as part of nature is a vital change in spirit that is required to fully build a sustainable civilization.

If you want to think of it in a very wide sense, the Cosmos is our distant ancestor, the planet Earth is too. My home state of Michigan is an ancestor too in a very real sense. I was born here, the minerals and soil are in my bones. The plants and animals are part of my flesh, and the Great Waters that surround this state are part of my greater community, they are part of my spirit too.

We need to be giving back and being good members of that community.

I’m going to give the last words to the article;

“The words conservation and ecology, as we use them in the Western sense, don’t exactly fit what Indian people did or do with the land. It was their livelihood, which depended on reciprocity. Thus, the trees were not seen just as trees, they were also seen as relatives. The trees are relatives and other species are relatives and they watched you all the time.

In this view, feelings of solidarity, love, and belonging that traverse the boundaries of species and beyond are not luxuries or overly sentimentalized notions; they are functions of ecological interdependency and are integral to survival. Seeing as the majority of beings on our planet (as well as the rest of the universe) are non-human, we can expect a limited view of reality if we aren’t welcoming efforts to soulfully relate to them. Let us see beyond the jaded (and polarizing) caricature of the nature-hippie who escapes from civilization to the forest. If the intention is not to leave but to enter, not to hide but to belong, relationship with the non-human brings back deep value to human community and enriches culture. This is loud and clear in nature-based spiritualities, but it is also buried in our most dearly held stories…”

It is time to tell those stories once more.

Thanks for reading!

Sources/References;

http://writtenriver.com/tracking-as-a-way-of-knowing/

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Spiritual Calendars

Let’s start off with updates. I have been really, really busy lately. I have been working my way towards the publication of my fourth book. I have all the artwork back, and soon as I finish formatting it will be ready for proofing.

I will be finishing up a commission for a friend’s wedding this week. It has really been a fun project. I wish I could talk more about it, but for now it will be considered a secret. Once it has been delivered, and if I can get permission; I will be happy to talk a little bit about it.

In addition, hunting season is only a week away. I am well into my spiritual work for this time of year, which is one of the busiest for me. This year is going to be break neck busy. Not only I am still building the shop, but have plenty of mundane as well as social commitments. Time in the woods is also required, of course. In many ways, I wish I had the luxury to just take the whole month of October off. Alas, I have bills to pay.

Okay; enough of that for the moment.

Today I want to talk about calendars. These things are pretty common in pagany circles. You’ve heard about the Wheel of the Year right? Pretty much anyone that has come into paganism at one time or another is introduced to these concepts.

So it probably wouldn’t surprise you if I said that I too have a calendar. Or more accurately, I have several different layers of calendars I integrate together. I “layer” them, for lack of better phrasing. Hopefully, you will understand as I explain this all a little bit more.

The Physical (Naturalistic)

It is a common caveat for me that you should look for the mundane explanations first before you look for spiritual ones. For example, if you fall off a cliff and land unceremoniously on your legs at the bottom. All of sudden, you find that one of your legs hurts a hell of a lot, and won’t carry you’re weight any longer.

It is unfounded to assume that the spirits are causing pain in your leg. Chances are, you have damaged or broke one of the many bones in your leg. Or ligaments, or muscles, or some other thing. Legs are pretty complex after all.,

The point being, explore the physical reasons first. Sometimes a spoon is just a spoon folks.

And sometimes its demon possessed cutlery from hell.

The same is true for calendars for me. I start with a base level of physical calendars. Just like most folks in the west, most of my days are counted on the Gregorian Calendar. You know, days, weeks, months, and all that.

For both spiritual as well as physical reasons, I also track the astronomical cycles. The phases of the moon, the rotation of the Earth, our revolution around the sun; equinoxes, solstices ect. I also live in Michigan, and we are a solid four season state; so I also get to observe the march from construction season to winter…

I mean spring, summer, fall and winter.

I also get to observe the stars, which change over the year in location and rotation across the sky. When I was younger I use to have them all memorized. I still remember both of them, but some of those skills have gotten rusty from disuse.

For those that are interested, Paths Through the Forests has a fair bit of good writings.

Agricultural

585px-wheel_of_the_year-svg

(From Wikipedia)

This layer is often referred to as the Wheel of the Year. At it’s core, it is mostly an agricultural calendar. Our entire civilization is sustained by an agricultural sustenance base. The Wheel of the Year corresponds to this rather nicely.

I grew up in farming country, and spent my share of time helping out on farms. I understand that winter is typically the fallow time (unless we are talking about Winter Wheat, or livestock). Most of the fields have been harvested and lie dormant.

With spring, comes an assortment of “sowing” holidays. From Imbolc through Beltaine, you get a host of associations with plowing, planting, fertility, and all the generalities that are associated with farming. Ostara falls on the Vernal Equinox, and Midsummer at the midsummer solstice.

These are followed, after Midsummer, by many of the “harvest” holidays. Lughnasadh – Samhain, with Samhain being the pinnacle of “harvest” festivals. Mabon falls on the Autumnal Equinox. * Samhain also is a big time for ancestor veneration and remembrance.

In Finnish folklore, the first of the harvest belonged to the ancestors.

There are also additional/alternate dates for Germanic/Heathen pagans. I tend to pull from this one too.

1024px-heathen_holidays

(From Wikipedia)

There is plenty of good information out there in internet-land.

Hunter’s Year

This part is another layer added onto the above calendars. Even as a hunter, I still exist in the real world, and an agricultural society. So instead of being an “alternate” calendar, it is just one more layer of interwoven meaning into my life.

In many ways, this calendar is still kind of a work in progress. That being said, it has still developed to the point where I am comfortable sharing it. It is based in a lot of my research into hunter-gatherers, as well as my understanding of the year, as well as the legal structure of hunting activities here in Michigan.

While it is not exact, and allows for plenty of nuance, it gives a rough framework in which I work.

For example, under naturalistic and modern pagan cycles, From Vernal to Autumnal equinox is called the “light half” of the year. From Autumnal to Vernal equinox is the “dark half” of the year.

As such, I have taken to calling the dark half of the year; Season of the Wolf. The light half of the year is called the Season of the Bear.

The Season of the Wolf has not real set start or end date, but really covers most of fall and winter. It is the time of the hunt, and of winter. It coincides with deer hunting season (and several species of small game) here in Michigan. Bow season starts October first, and runs through the start of the new year, with firearm season in November.

The Season of the Bear starts in the spring, and starts the season of foraging and fishing.** It corresponds roughly to the light half of the year.

You might be wondering why I choose to name these seasons after Big Name predators. Well, part of is my associations with the wolf. I’ve not kept it a secret or anything. Wolf HAD to be in there.

However, I actually have sort-of logic attached to it. Some of the hunter-gatherer I have researched have strong associations to both the bear as well as the reindeer. The reasoning being that bears hibernate in the winter, and so that is when the Season of the Bear ends. When they wake up in the spring, the Season of the Bear begins. Reindeer too, have seasonal migrations in both the spring and winter when they move between their feeding grounds. Reindeer have a love of certain temperature ranges, and they migrate to stay in that range. They move north in summer, and come back south in winter.

I have talked a little bit about these things here.

Now, like I said this is really a general outline of a work in progress. Obviously bears don’t go into hibernation exactly on the autumnal equinox, any more than reindeer migrate and exactly that time. That is part of the reason I called them “seasons”, as they would roughly correspond to different halves of the year. It only gives maybe 6 months of flex or so…

In addition, hunting and fishing seasons are defined as much legally as socially. Any hunting/fishing season can be changed. These also can vary from state to state. In general though, spring/summer is a great time for fishing and foraging, and fall/winter is when numerous species (including deer) are up for hunting.

A work in progress at the end of the day.

Thanks for reading!

 

Notes;

*In the northern hemisphere. All dates are on the opposite side of the year in the southern hemisphere.

 

Sources/References;

Paths Through the Forests

Wikipedia (Wheel of the Year)

Bears and the Ancient North


Finnish Folklore Atlas Part 5

It has been a slow year so far. Some weeks I feel I am making progress, others I feel I am terribly behind. I am now realizing it is March, and I am behind by more own standards. I think I might switch to another project so I get be a little more productive. I am quite done with being in this rut. Maybe I will just focus my efforts on the blog for the time being, just to keep writing.

Plus, winter can end anytime now. Normally, I don’t mind the snow, and am pretty tolerant of cold. But I am done.

Moving forward in the FFA, we revisit the idea of shamanism in Sarmela’s work. Now, I don’t really want to rehash what the author has already said on this topic, so this time around my focus will be a little different.

Let us look at some of the roles the shaman played in the North;

” The shaman of northern peoples was originally the spiritual and social leader of small hunting communities, acting as intermediary between the worlds of the living and the dead, providing answers to vital questions for the individual and community on subjects such as illness and death, the movements of quarry animals or reasons for unexpected
events.”

Then, as Sarmela says, we can say that the shaman was a leader, negotiator, diplomat, teacher and healer. This does not apply only to the realm of humanity, but extends to animals, plants and spirits as well. In short, the roles of the shaman extended well beyond the needs of the human community, and was interconnected and interwoven with non-human communities as well.

To add to these roles, Sarmela adds:

“The shaman was a religious interpreter operating in the environment of souls. On his soul journey, the shaman was capable of contacting the souls of ancestors or the supernatural guardians of nature and influencing the basic issues of living. He might get a newborn child its soul, restore the soul of a sick person or animal in his body, guide the soul of a deceased person to the realm of the ancestors, as well as the soul of a bear killed in a hunting rite back to its original home, and also entice quarry animals to the hunting grounds of his community. The innermost essence of animate beings was controlled via the soul, and through the soul technique, the shaman of hunting communities was able to obtain information on matters significant to them, on nature and the future, which were controlled by the inhabitants of the world in the hereafter, the souls of the deceased and the supernatural guardians of animals, ‘gods’. The shaman of hunting communities took care of the constantly reincarnating soul, the continuity of life, the future.”

The tasks of the shaman are immense, and far ranging. In my own experience, working with spirits is an almost constant state of negotiation and diplomacy. It is not a stretch to call spirit work very political. You build alliances, shape friends, negotiate touch contracts, and make enemies in the process. It is difficult to express the diverse range of potential interactions with spirits. They can range from ‘just business’, to long term friendships. Also, each spirit is in no small way the center of their own social network. If you work with spirit X, the enemies of spirit X may now consider you an enemy. Their allies may now consider you an ally. Some won’t have anything to do with you.

The hunting aspects of this really speak a lot to my own practice. In my own work, I have tried to entice animals to my hunting grounds, as well as guided the spirits of the dead to the keeping of their ancestors. Reincarnation and the continuity of life are a big deal.

Now, let’s talk about the technique of the shaman. Sarmela says;

“The rite technique of northern shamans has been characterized by entering a state of trance or altered consciousness, which has been deemed to be an identifying sign of shamanism. In a state of trance, the shaman was able to go off on a soul journey, to detach his soul from his body and to guide it in different forms, usually of some animal or among some Arctic peoples of various ancillary spirits, to the invisible world on the other side, to the dimensions of the dead and supernatural guardians.”

There is so much here, in so few words. The trance state is notable, and of course has many different methods, ranging from drumming and dancing, to chant and song, to hallucinogenics and other mind altering substances. The focus of course, is not the means to trance, but the revelations found in that ecstasy. The shaman was expected to answer questions the people might ask, and so the trance was only the technique to find those answers, not the answer in an of itself. The soul, or the spirit if you prefer, was sent out in various forms. Sometimes other spirits acted as guides. The shaman would send his spirit to the otherworld in search of whatever was sought, healing, answers, guidance, or negotiation. This was done often on the behalf of others in the community. The soul flight leads nicely into the next point;

” Perhaps the essence of shamanistic thinking is the belief in the soul, the idea that all living things have an inner substance that makes it living and is constantly reborn. Different peoples have many different interpretations of the soul, but particularly in shamanism, the soul has had a kind of a separate form that is independent of the body. It might leave the body when a person became sick or died, or take on different forms and wander around the world of souls or dreams, outside visible reality.”

Here, Sarmela comments on some of the reasons the shaman may journey. Sometimes spirits may get lost, and have to be found. Other times, foreign spirits may enter the body and make a person sick. However, the are certainly not the only interpretations, but many cultures see some sicknesses in terms of spiritual intrusion or spiritual loss. Spiritual intrusion is interesting when considered against our modern ideas concerning disease. Some diseases are the results of living beings, such as bacteria or viruses entering the body. In an animistic view, these too have spirits. So it would in fact be a spiritual intrusion, albeit with a very physical counterpart.

Still, there is more to say on this. So thanks for reading!

Sources;

The Finnish Folklore Atlas, by Matti Sarmela. Pg 309 – 310


Finnish Folklore Atlas Part 2

Alright, I guess we can start with updates. I am feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment. There are so many projects competing for my attention, that I am having a hard time getting anything done on most of them. In addition, spring is closing in, which brings with it a whole new host of projects and seasonal work. I am working away weekly on what might be my first “animist” book, though the progress has been slow, not to mention frustrating. Another book has just come out of the editing pipeline, so that one goes for revisions. Honestly I wish I had more time and energy to get my backlog of work done. There is new stuff coming, I promise. I am just behind. As paradoxical as it may sound, I almost feel like I need a vacation just to get caught up.

On to other things. In the second part of this series, we will start off with a quote from Sarmela;

“In hunting communities, ecological security depended on the permanence of the natural habitat, on nature restoring itself like spring follows winter or birth follows death. Hunting communities do not practise ‘fertility magic’: the relationship of the hunter with nature is different from that of the farmer. The basis of everyday faith and hope in the coping thinking of hunting period man was eternal return. Constitutive religious ideas included the immortal, reincarnating soul, the engine of life, which is the key structure of the world view of the time and the basis of shamanism.”

This covers multiple functions in the existence of a society. The “eternal” return is the basic cycle of death and rebirth. As I have discussed before, hunters are not as concerned with fertility in the same way as agrarian communities. This is not to say they are not concerned with fertility at all of course. Fertile animals, especially game animals, were essential to the survival of the hunters. On a practical as well as a spiritual level, the hunter is concerned with regeneration. Making sure the animals are around for the next hunt, the plants for the next season, the fish for the next trip. To ensure that the hunter survived, they did all they could to make sure their kills came back the next year. Because, without the game, there would not be a hunter. This leads nicely into the next point.

“Northern fisher-hunters have undoubtedly been interested in all the forces that affected obtaining a catch and preserving the balance of nature. The hunting culture era is the source of the ideas that all natural sites had their own haltia: its supernatural original inhabitant, master, in the same way as animals had their own haltias, female progenitors, who took care of their own species. The haltias of animals and nature also determined whether man received a catch, how successful the hunting or
fishing was.”

Now here is a new concept for me, the haltia. It is obvious it is a kind of spirit that shows up in a variety of contexts. In some way, it is similar to the fylgja and vord I have discussed previously. In other ways, it is notably different. What is really interesting to me here is that animals had their own haltia, a kind of ancestor that is concerned with the well being of the species. I do disagree with such haltias only being “female progenitors”, as not all species reproduce sexually. I would say a haltia can be male, female, both, neither, or something else entirely. Circling back to a previous post, I would say the great deer I met might be a haltia, an ancestor that looks out for its own. On another point, it seems haltias also have a say with how successful a hunt or fishing trip might be. Again, another segway into the next point.

” The catch was man’s share of what the haltias divided between the inhabitants of the natural environment on this side and the other side, and evidently a very common idea has been that man had to live in a reciprocal relationship with the supernatural owners and guardians of nature. Hunterfishermen had to give a reciprocal gift, an offering, for all that ‘nature gave’. Thus, the ritualization of hunting may be interpreted as supernatural exchange…”

I cannot ever stress enough how foundation something like reciprocity is to the animist and the hunter. The very core of much of what I do comes back to this point, that for everything “received” something must be “given.” Gebo, the rune, means “a gift for a gift.” Also, this doesn’t just include humans. From an animistic perspective, dealing with nature is a relational exchange. As such, for continued success in the hunt, as well as good relationships with the spirits/haltias, one had to be a “good neighbor.” Because, as Sarmela points out, spirits such as haltias have the capacity to withold luck, and therefore food, from the hunter. This is both a spiritual exchange, as well as a physical one. The hunters got meat for food, fur for clothing and shelter, and in return nature should get something back. It worked on multiple levels, from the mundane/practical as well as the spiritual/socialcultural realms.

There is quite a bit more to say here, especially on shamanism, haltias, and ancestors. There are more posts coming on all these things!

Sources

Finnish Folklore Atlas, By Matti Sarmela. Pg 29


Finnish Folklore Atlas Part 1

For those of you that might be interested, I would like to draw your attention to the top of the page. There is now a master index for my various series. Makes navigation much nicer. On to the meat and potatoes.

It is time to start digging into the Finnish Folklore Atlas, by Matti Sarmela. As I have mentioned before, this is an immense work, compiled over thirty some years. It is simply a treasure trove of information, and much of it is applicable to my path and the things I believe. Now, I will admit, some of the things I will touch upon I have talked about before. Some repetition will result, whether because other scholars have referenced/quoted this work, or because other scholars have come to similar conclusions. Either way, it gives me a chance to revisit some of these ideas and develop them further.

For the first part of this series, I want to look at the ecological role played by hunters of the past, and in some way, hunters of modern times as well. Sarmela lays out a 6 point framework for discussing these ideas. I will go through them one at a time and add my own thoughts.

(1) Hunters have a detailed knowledge of the living area, nature and
animal behavior. Northern hunters possessed extensive knowledge of the geography of their environment
and their hunting routes stretching to hundreds of kilometers.

This is equally true of hunters today. It took me several years of scouting and hunting to learn trails and animal patterns, and there is still so much to learn. Now, it is hard to say how far my hunting routes travel. I guess they might span hundreds of kilometers, but I certainly don’t cover that all on foot or horse, as hunters of the past did. My truck does most of the long range work. That being said, my travels on foot can range from a few hundred feet to over a mile per trip, depending on where and how I am hunting. Sometimes I sit in a stand, sometimes in a blind, and sometimes I range and scout a bit. It varies, depending on what prey I am hunting and how I go about it.

(2) Hunting communities adapted directly to their habitat.

This does not come into play as much as it once did. Part of the reason is civilization itself, and that hunting is more of a hobby now then our primary occupation. As such, those of us in modern times are more removed from that habitat then we once were. In fact, we are removed from a lot of things. Many of us are not even farmers any more, so we are removed from the habitat, from our food production, from a lot of things. That disconnect is a problem in my opinion. We are no longer as close to nature as we once were, and so, separate ourselves from it. Ancient hunters did not experience that disconnect. They lived close to nature, in such a way that there was little if no separation between “society” and “nature.” The two were integral.

(3) Hunters lived in the real time of nature and moved according to the seasons, fishing, hunting or gathering whatever was best available at the time.

This one is interesting, for a lot of reasons. Modern paganism is coming back to this, being more aware of the natural progression of seasons and the cycles of nature, but there is still a pretty big disconnect there. Ancient hunters had no clocks, nor hours in the day, and so they tracked time solely by the seasons and the availability of food. When the bears went to hibernate was the start of winter. When they awoke began the spring fishing season. Reindeer migrate north in the summer when it gets too hot, they migrate south when it cools down again.

(4) One of the basic elements of the culture was mobility and social flexibility; families and kinship groups dispersed and gathered together according to the seasons or as natural conditions dictated, and were able to extensively and diversely
exploit their living environment, eliminating the environmental crises caused by variations in plant and animal stocks.

This one is twofold for modern times. On one side, we are more mobile than we have ever been in the past. We can go farther, and faster then we ever did before. In some way, families and kinship groups are more dispersed then in the past, because farther distances can now be covered in less time. Also, when I think about the holidays, we do generally disperse and come back gather back together at certain times, and certain seasons. And yes, we are starting to EXPLOIT our living environment, but not in any manner that resembles the ancient hunters. For our exploitation goes well beyond the season acquisition of resources as practice by the hunters. Generally, we no longer use our environment in a way that gives it time to recover, not to mention the mass extraction of non-renewable materials. It near impossible to say that our methods eliminate environmental crises. More honestly, if anything we are making them worse.

(5) There were numerous catch-sharing and hospitality norms in hunter-gatherer cultures; the catch
had to be shared among the camp and all those present. Sharing has also been a core element of the
philosophy of life. Sharing of all food ensured the social security of the community, and the individual
hunter or fisherman did not need to fear failure. Reciprocal sharing and hospitality also made possible
the coexistence and social exchange of hunting communities.

Ah, reciprocity, that beautiful concept! There is not much I can say here that I have not already said. Reciprocity is a core of my own practice, and relationships are maintained through a matter of exchange. A gift for a gift. This was not only a part of the hunters way of life, but a necessity. Failures happen in hunting. I have often come home empty handed. The way our society is structured, that is not a big deal. I won’t go hungry. But the ancient hunters did not have the luxury of supermarkets, of even mass agricultural. If they didn’t share, they just might go hungry. It also had a social aspect, that reinforced relations between people, as well as their environment.

(6) The hunter-gatherer did not monopolize nature or make a systematic attempt to change his environment.

This is where modern society diverge quite a bit. Hunters did not “possess” the land, and territories often were seasonal and dynamic. Private possession of land and resources was an idea that did not really take root until agriculture came around. Because hunters seasonally migrated and moved around, they did not, generally, “own” the land. Also, wide scale changes in the environment did not really come into effect until agriculture either. Hunters lived in the forest, and on the plains, and fished in the sea. To the farmer, you cannot plant a field in the forest. So you cut down the forest.

Alas, I cannot cover all the specifics and nuances, so there is plenty of more to come!

References;

Finnish Folklore Atlas, by Matti Sarmela. (Pgs 27 – 29)


Initiations, Bears and Rituals Part 4

The second source I wish to discuss from the article is the Viitasaari Text.  As Haggerty points out himself points out  the Viitasaari Text is a seventeenth century narrative in which a local bishop describes what he has witnessed of local cultic practices. From this text, and a few poems from other sources, we get the basic idea of how bears were hunted. Note the similarities between this basic narrative structure and that of the Kalevala.

” It (the hunt) was done by approaching the lair of the bear and preparing to kill it upon awakening it from its winter hibernation. Once the hunters are prepared the den is broken open and the bear is killed by a single thrust with a spear or later a single shot from a bow or gun.

It is thought that the bear is dazzled by the sudden bright light and shock, which awakens it making the kill relatively devoid of danger if preformed correctly.

The location of the bear is tracked by the hunters while it is near their village. If the bear then makes a winter den nearby, the hunters mark this so they can find the bear later.

It is thought that this practice helped associate the bear hunt, kill and subsequent ceremony with midwinter. The bear also acts as a living source of guaranteed food in the harsh northern winters.”(Haggerty, pgs 43 – 44)

This is a good lead into another piece I stumbled across recently, concerning the bear hunts. It also discusses the bear in context of the Sami.  The author of the article is Brandon Bledsoe. I love the quote he prefaces his article with.

“There is an ancient belief that the bear is in communication with the lord of the mountains and with the sky, and certainly he has from time immemorial been surrounded by an aura which enjoins caution and respect.
-Ivar Lissner, Man, God and Magic, (p.163)”

Bledsoe then goes into a discussion of how the bear rituals serves multiples functions in a society; ”

  1. Religious Level – The bear ceremony is a form of communication with the supernatural world…
  2. Economic Level – This belief-system is the result of a perceived need for reciprocity with nature. Success in hunting and fishing is dependent on the good will of the bear that rules over the reproduction of animals (Shnirelman, 9)
  3. Psychological Level – In hunter-gatherer societies there is a certain amount of guilt associated with killing animals. The level of guilt may be greater when it is necessary to kill an animal that is seen as being more anthropomorphic or rare. The bear ceremony is performed in order to pacify the bear’s vengeful spirit.”

Then the author sets out the hunt as performed by the Sami; ”

  1. Departure for the forest. Bear hunting usually takes place during the hibernatory season, late winter or early spring. Once a den has been located the hunters are assembled, the Noajdde and his drum are consulted, and they then depart for the forest. The one who has located the bear takes the lead. He holds a staff with a brass ring attached to it. A Noajdde usually follows him and precedes the hunter elected to strike first.
  2. The Hunt. The one who located the bear is sent into the den to awaken it. The Sami were known to have used firearms, bow and arrow, lances or spears, and even axes as a means of slaying the bear. The animal was not attacked directly if a spear was being used, the weapon was held in reverse until the beast began its attack and impaled itself.
  3. Birching the bear. After the bear has been killed they drag it out from the lair and begin to whip it with soft twigs or birch branches. “A switch is twisted into the form of a ring which is fastened to the lower jaw of the bear. It is tied to the belt of the principal bear-killer; the latter pulls at it three times singing (joiking) in a peculiar tone that he has become the bears master” (Karsten, 116)
  4. The Bear Master returns. When the hunters return to the sijdda their wives greet them by spitting elder bark juice in their faces. The principal bear-killer brings the ring to his goahte, knocking three times at the door. If the bear is female he calls out s–ive neit (holy virgin), if the animal is male he shouts s–ive olmai (holy man) The bear master’s wife keeps the ring in a linen cloth until after the ceremonial meal.
  5. The Feast. It was customary for the men to prepare and cook the bear meat in a specially erected goahte that no woman could enter. Women must cover their heads and during the next five days can only look at the bear killer through a brass ring. After this prescribed period of three days, the bear’s skin is stretched out in the center of the banquet area where various libations of tobacco and foodstuff are offered to its spirit. After an apologetic speech is given the feast of bear meat begins.
  6. Ringing Him in. After the feast the ring is removed and the women and children attach pieces of a brass chain to it, which is then tied to the bears tail. Next, the ring is given to the men who bury it with the bones. Great care is taken to ensure that the bones are arranged in their original form.
  7. Immunizing the women. Finally, the skin is laid out on a stump and the blindfolded wives of the bear slayers take turns shooting at it with arrows.

This last feature is the most outstanding of the Sami ritual. Special care must be taken to guard women and children against the bear’s vengeful spirit. By shooting the carcass they conquer this fear.”

Really, what can I add here? This article is already kind of long…

The next part of this series will be coming next week.

References;

http://www.utexas.edu/courses/sami/diehtu/siida/religion/bear.htm


Following Skadi

The title of this post is inspired by a song. The link to a decent quality version on YouTube can be found at the bottom. More than that though, this post is brought on by the recent changes in my spiritual learning.

I have talked before about how I generally lack what is normally called the ‘god phone’. I cannot speak to deity, it is just not one of my talents. Well, as I have been uncovering recently, this might just be on my end. Perhaps my “sending” doesn’t work, if that makes any sense. “Receiving” on the other hand, works alright. Perhaps the gods just have better service than I do. I can try to ‘call’ them all day, but never get through. On the other end, they seem to get through just fine. That being said, I rarely ever hear from them. As I have admitted previously, I have gotten clear, undeniable messages from deities like twice in my whole life, including the most recent instance.

Now, I’ve read a fair amount of priesting for deities, Gothi, god-spousing or what have you. Let me be the first to say that none of those are my relationship with Skadi. She has picked me up recently, and to be frank, it is more of an apprenticeship than anything else is at the moment. The power dynamic is fairly egalitarian, though this may seem count-intuitive. I would have thought differently, given it is me, a simple mortal, involved with a goddess in a very platonic way. It’s more like she is the mentor, and I am the student. The experienced teaching the much-less-so. I hope that makes sense. That is not to say it is not cruelty-free, because like any good teacher, she is quick to remind me when I am being a skxawng. (Na’vi = “moron”)

Yet, it is a tall order. She is not the kind I would call matronly. Yes, we can quibble about meaning, but she is compassionate in the “learn fast or die” kind of way. Yes, I also realize I am mixing in Avatar metaphors. Maybe it is because I rewatched it recently, but I would argue more towards that Skadi reminds me a little of how Neytiri is portrayed. Perhaps with a little more “hardcore” mixed in. Take out the “Eden” of a jungle, and switch it to a northern winter. Then you get Skadi.

In short, she has given me a metric shit-ton of homework. It will take me years to learn all that she wants me too, and the decade or so I already do have is little more than primer. It may just be a lifelong process, as there is plenty to do. A full list of hunters skills, leatherwork, wildcraft (edible plants, herb lore,foods, skills, magic, foraging stuff), butchery, metal work (knives, wood axes ect), woodwork, tracking, hunting, fishing, and so on and so forth. I already have some good solid experience in most of these areas, but she is asking me to turn it up even more. Specialize, practice, perfect, ect ect. There is even an exercise routine it would seem. I need to be able to keep up, and that involves a level of physical strength, in addition to mental discipline.

This all got me to thinking. If I were going about teaching those things that I understand to a student, I would select someone with an aptitude at least. I started to wonder if the gods do something similar? Depending on how literal you take the creation stories, it could be said we were made in their semblance. To me at least, gods are very human-like spirit beings that have a vested interest in our welfare.

A post I read recently by Galina Krasskova said this, in reference to Odin: “Using myself, patterned as I have been by the Old Man and in His service, while yes, I automatically and instinctually calculate usefulness when I meet someone, it does not mean that this is all I note. Just because someone is not particularly useful in the service to Odin, doesn’t mean that such a person lacks value. He or she may not be suited to *this*. There are many other things for which one might be very well suited that are outside of Odin’s interest.”

I find it worthy of a ponder. I would say, at least on a general level, that many of the gods seem to take an interest in people like themselves. The gods are individuals, and as such have their own skills and interests. When it comes to… picking mortal representatives, students, ect, I would comment that many of the people picked reflect the deity doing the picking. The Odin folk I have met… can be combative at times, in addition to other traits. The Lokeans (still not sure if they like that word), have more than a few of his qualities. I have been picked up by Skadi, and I don’t see that as much of a coincidence. Not saying that coincidences do not happen, because sometimes a spoon is just a spoon. But in this case, I don’t think so.

So where does this leave me? With a hell of a lot of work to do, first off. Also, there will probably be a handful of more Skadi posts going forward. There is certainly more to explore there. I’ll just leave it at that for now.

Fferyllt – Following Skadi (Pagan Folk Metal)

I highly recommend looking up the lyrics while you listen!

 

References;

http://krasskova.weebly.com/blog/odin-is-a-very-utilitarian-god