When I first encountered magic, it was the seductive appeal of might and agency that first caught my attention. It’s about power. We crave it, we want it, we need it. The intricacies, oddities and quirks of the craft are what sustained my fascination after the initial coup de foudre, but undoubtedly, looking back at my young self, still very much a child, I wanted to live and breathe magic because it was power.
I’ve been thinking about power quite a lot lately — its relationship to witchcraft, its relationship to communities, its relationship with humans and their environment. Our stories are filled with tales about negotiating power, reclaiming power, and ways to use power. Whether by divining the future or praying for better weather, coming together as a community or helping a friend, we seek a level of control over our lives (and other things) that fills us with purpose. For some folks, they answer a call to uncover their place in the world. For others, the appeal is to heal themselves and their community. And of course, there is the appeal of wielding aggressive and protective means to hinder the fortunes of others, or defend against illnesses, danger, and harm.
So much of my reflections on power, “the natural world”, and spirituality so far has been within the confines of my own thoughts and my own readings. I don’t spend much time socialising in general (unless we count Twitter), and even online I navigate spheres regarding spirituality with extreme timidity. It seems much safer to write about poetry, programming, and “praxis”, while leaving absolutely everything about spirituality as the quiet afterthought late at night, after “the real work” is done. But there is something to be said for sharing and doing – without practicing, or experimenting, it is impossible to refine and adjust expectations, to confront one’s preconceived notions, to learn that the real world is not only what you imagined but also, importantly, what you measure. Paradoxically, I am realizing that it is impossible to reflect properly on my own relationship with the nonhuman world, witchcraft, the occult, and community, without actually going out there and having some experiences. This is not only a fact of working with spiritual or community matter, but a fact of living — it happens both in our minds and outside of our minds.
This past weekend I attended a Witch’s Sabbat. Clay paint on our faces and bodies, we ran in the wind and howled beastly appeals to the sky and the forest, the crows and spirits within and below. I ran barefooted with twigs in my hair along the Wild Hunt. While researching the origins of these devilish Witch’s Sabbats, I investigated the origins of the word ecstasy, from which we have designated the term ecstatic ritual. The word traveled to English from Old French from the word extasie, or extase, and the French inherited the word from Greek, meaning being “outside oneself”. The Witch’s Sabbat this past weekend was like being transported to another age and place with wind and smoke – a lovely place filled with wet pine needles and singing birch trees, where the dance carried you in-between the human and the nonhuman.
It was, in many ways, an awe-inspiring experience. I can think of little that could have improved the Sabbat itself, and the humans there were warm, and kind, and the kind of risk-takers who poke fun at themselves but take others seriously, with a large dose of kindness. Nonetheless, as happy as I was in the woods with rain-dew on my face and dirt covering my feet and ankles, I found myself mulling over some rather obtuse questions.
The Question of Consent With Regards to Shapeshifting
Shapeshifters, skinchangers, and other similar animist practices across traditions often entail a negotiation of some kind before the shapeshifting can occur. In northern Europe, recorded as early as the 9th century, there were Norse warriors called berkserkers: those who could channel the fury of the bear, or sometimes the wolf, during battle or physically demanding labour. This kind of trance-state entails inviting the essence of something primal, something animal, something nonhuman within — the boundaries that need to be established are the boundaries of the human who enters the trance state, where any other invited presences become, in other words, the human’s guest.
Where the question of consent (and ethics) becomes murkier for me, personally, is when the roles of the nonhuman and the human are switched. When the human sends their essence out to communicate with animals, often with the aim to occupy the skin of the animal, that is when the question of boundaries becomes much more complicated. During the workshops before the Sabbat, several leaders mentioned asking permission before “switching” skins with an animal. Permission to ride along as the animal goes about it’s daily business makes complete sense at first, but I can’t help but wonder how the animal interprets such a request. This is not to say that animals cannot or do not send out their spirits (it would seem odd for a self-proclaimed animist to say that only humans can manipulate their own spirits) — but in a world as polluted and ravaged, as fragile-yet-resilient as our own — if the animal is capable of responding to skinchanging requests from a human, why on earth would the creature acquiesce?
Beyond Shapeshifting, Our Relationship With Land
The legacy of human civilization on our environment is largely a legacy of domination, resource extraction, and exploitation. There is a marked interest in manipulating public perception of the human’s place in relation to our environment. In the early 20th century, there was a nationalistic literary wave in Canada that wanted to establish a Canadian literary genre in order to enhance Canadian national pride during the Two World Wars – much of this national pride was built upon romanticizing Canadian settler relationships with nature. Indeed, even Christianity has a vested interest in ethically resolving mastery over animals and land, and so the Bible decrees in Genesis 1:26, that humans hold dominion over animals on the earth. Much of Western civilization is built on the Christian ideal that humans decide with absolute mastery the fates of generations upon generations of livestock bred for our needs. This assumption of domination goes far beyond the realm of sustenance into the realm of luxury and entertainment.
As human societies go, there is not a bit of this planet that hasn’t been carved out (except perhaps the far, black depths of the ocean) and been laid claim to.
I thought about these global systems of control and delineation as I stood digging my toes into the soft, cold earth of the pine forest of Raven’s Knoll, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of these animist practices unconsciously perpetuate these exploitative dynamics.
Why do we shapeshift into animals, or seek to communicate with nonhumans via these subtle yet ecstatic means? If we are having conversations with the spirits of nonhumans, why would we expect them to drop everything and let a human come along for the ride? If a spirit wanted all of a sudden to invade my body, my life, and come along for the ride, I would be highly perturbed. If I was asked out of the blue to share my body with a passerby, I can imagine myself being very disgruntled indeed.
Many teachers, both at the workshops at Raven’s Knoll and elsewhere, emphasize that animals have a lot to teach humans. Certainly, animals do not destroy their habitats in the cataclysmic ways that humans can. Whether by studying marine biology, trying to learn who your cat is as a cat, or trying to have conversations with the spirits of the wild, there is certainly a trove of self-discovery and knowledge to absorb. But do humans have the right to expect that that knowledge be handed to us? Are we wrong to seek out animals to have these experiences with – should we really be waiting for animals to offer us the opportunity instead? Just as the berkserker warrior has to open up to invite the spirits of bears within, perhaps we need to be waiting for the opposite to occur. It makes me wonder if there is anything from our own experiences as humans that we can actually offer animals.
These questions may not have easy answers, if they have generalised answers at all. This is where the “bioregional” in “bioregional animism” may come in handy — just as traditional witchcraft isn’t really about a set tradition but about a set of rituals or beliefs that are handed down with a relationship to a particular place, forest, or community, bioregional animism, as I understand it, is an animism that wants to know specific contexts and environments. The human must learn to communicate not with a romanticized ideal of nature but with the specificity of the human’s immediate environment.
The theme of Raven’s Knoll this year was I Shall Go Into a Hare: The Fylgja, the Fetch and the Animal Within with particular attention paid to Scottish and Scandinavian folklore. I appreciated the conversations very much, and the enthusiasm was infectious. But in conversations about connecting with the animal within and without, I found there was little talk about our place, both in regards to our spiritual place and our environmental place. As humans have created this notion of the “natural world” separate from the “human world”, perhaps communicating with animals is a first step in healing our own abusive relationship with our environment. It is difficult, during a Sabbat where each person brings a different faith and practice to the table, to try and mount constructive conversations about these issues. There is limited time, and limited mental space, to prepare for.
It does worry me a lot, I must admit, that we don’t talk about power dynamics between humans and the environment more before attempting to contact the nonhuman. A single human is no match to a bear or moose, and one-on-one the human is going to get seriously hurt (or killed) if the bear or moose woke up in a bad mood that day. But on larger scales, humans have done immeasurable damage to bear and moose habitats and societies, in ways that are shaped by human mastery over the environment.
This post has been, mostly, a series of questionings on my own assumptions with regard to animist practices. I don’t have any answers, and I’m sure my thoughts on these matters will evolve over time.
As a parting note, I want to thank the people who helped make Raven’s Knoll a success and who helped me feel included. Dancing in the rain, in the woods, around the fire, is unbelievably healing, and I hope to do it again soon.