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Animal Parts And Paganism
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Author: Lupa [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: May 22nd. 2011
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For over a decade I have been incorporating animal parts into my artwork and pagan practices (1) . I started in 1998 when, while on a quest for better beads than what the big box store had, I discovered a small arts and crafts shop that happened to carry hides, bones and other such things. The shop catered to the local powwow circuit, but although I had no connection to any Native communities, I got to know the owners pretty well over time.
The shop has long since closed, but my work continues. And while my artwork has gotten better and my spiritual practice has evolved over time, the basic reasons I have for working with animal parts are still the same:
-- Offering a better afterlife to the spirits in the skins and bones than being a trophy on someone’s wall or a coat in a closet. This is why I work so much with old taxidermy and secondhand leather and fur coats. However, a lot of the newer remains I work with are remnants of the fur industry that might otherwise end up incinerated or thrown in the landfill, neither of which would be a good idea given the chemicals used in commercial tanning.
-- Raising funds to donate to nonprofit organizations such as the Defenders of Wildlife and Wolf Haven International, as well as helping friends with emergency veterinary bills. My partner once told me that the most impressive magic I do involves the alchemy of transforming the remains of dead animals into money to help living ones!
-- The art. Always the art. While I have worked in a variety of media, this is the one I enjoy the most and which I feel I am the best at.
That’s where I am, though. Everyone has to come to their own conclusions and boundaries as far as the use of animal remains goes. This includes not just preserved remains like leather, but food like meat and eggs, and even items that incorporate animal parts in surprising ways, like cigarettes (pig hemoglobin) , glue (horse hooves) and life-saving vaccines (eggs) . In paganism, there are people across the board on this issue. Some are strict vegans, or otherwise see the use of animal parts as antithetical to pagan religions. Others see absolutely no problem with it, and may even raise food animals themselves. And, of course, there’s a wide spectrum in between.
If you’re considering working with animal parts in your spiritual practice, there are several areas to consider. The three biggest ones are legalities, ethics, and spirits. I’m not going to preach the right way to you; as anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a “you’re doing it WRONG!” lecture knows, there are more and less effective ways of getting your point across. Rather than try to convince you of what you should do, I want to offer you some food for thought to make your own decisions.
This is the one that unfortunately tends to get overlooked the most. I can primarily speak from the perspective of someone in the United States, and so this portion will reflect that. However, I would recommend looking up the laws in your country on possessing, importing and exporting animal parts, as well as buying, selling and bartering if applicable. Knowing what the laws are helps you to make more informed decisions.
In the United States, there are a lot of animal parts that are simply illegal to possess, notably most wild bird feathers. I discussed this further in my essay here on Witchvox, Do You Have Eagle Feathers? (2.) The short version, however, is that even feathers that are naturally shed are illegal to possess because there’s no way to tell the difference between a naturally molted feather, and one that was ripped off a bird you just shot. There aren’t game wardens knocking people’s doors down for having a single blue jay feather, but since there are a lot of pagans who like to wear feathers at public festivals and elsewhere, I figure letting people at least know they may be breaking the law is a useful practice.
There are also many animal parts that are highly restricted in trade and possession. In addition to the federal and relevant international laws, each state has its own laws. This can get pretty confusing as the laws can vary widely from state to state; black bear parts, for example, are legal to possess and sell in some states, while legal only to possess in others.
In order to help people do research on animal parts-related laws, I have created a resource page with laws at varying levels, located at http://www.thegreenwolf.com/partslaws.html . It’s not meant as legal advice, and should not be considered the do-all and end-all of your research. However, it is a starting point if you want to familiarize yourself with the laws that may affect you. When in doubt, contact the relevant state’s fish and game department.
This is highly personal, and there is no one right answer. Since many people wish to minimize the impact they have on the environment and its denizens, though, here are some things to consider as possible routes:
-- Avoid the parts of endangered species. Some endangered species have populations that are healthy enough to allow limited hunting; for example, Alaska and Canada have thriving populations of grey wolves that make the laws there more permissive than in the 48 contiguous United States. Some species, such as most big cats, are much more at risk, and the trade on their parts is a lot more restricted. Again, I recommend being familiar with legalities as the strictness of laws reflects the amount of risk a species face. As a stand-in for these species’ remains, you may consider reproductions, such as resin casts of skulls or goose feathers painted like raptor feathers. As magical symbols, these work just as well in my experience.
-- Secondhand first. This means buying secondhand parts such as fur and leather coats, antique taxidermy, and so forth. While it still does create demand for animal parts, it’s feeding that demand with what’s already out there before creating more demand for freshly killed animals.
-- Shed, not dead. Shed fur and molted feathers from legal animals are just as powerful as the whole hide. They’re harder to get hold of, however.
-- Natural death. Some people also consider remains of animals that died naturally instead of at human hands to be a better alternative. However, it’s rare to find more than an occasional partial skeleton in the wild. Nature is highly efficient, and when an animal dies, it becomes food often within minutes of dying. Unless you spend a lot of time walking around in the same patch of wilderness, the chances of finding this sort of thing is very rare. And zoos and other such places don’t generally sell the remains of their animals once they die.
-- Smaller, not larger. Depending on the needs of your work, consider just getting a single claw or scrap of fur instead of an entire cougar pelt, for example. Not only is smaller cheaper, it also allows a modest supply to feed overall demand more broadly.
My work with animal parts is closely related to my work with animal totems. Animal remains are a way for me to connect with the totems and spirits of animals. When I dance with my wolf skin, I am connecting both with the spirit of the skin itself, and also Grey Wolf the totem, the archetypal being that embodies all things related to grey wolves, from natural history to folklore.
I know a lot of people who got into animal parts in spirituality because a totem or animal spirit requested it. The physical remains, even something small like a single toe bone or bit of fur, can create a strong connection. I do recommend being aware of the spirit of the animal that once wore the remains regardless of whether they were the ones requesting the connection or not.
Spirits may also add restrictions to your work with animal parts. Some people are unable to work with the remains of the species that is their primary totem, for example. Or they may only be able to work with ones that died naturally, or have been ritually purified.
I do a ritual purification on everything I make with animal parts. Generally speaking this includes a sage smudge, along with meditations with the spirits on their deaths (and preferred afterlife) , as well as offerings made to those spirits. This is where the donations to various nonprofits comes in, too -- you may want to consider something similar, both on spiritual and physical planes of reality. (Even if you don’t have a lot of cash to throw around, volunteering time, whether with a group or with something solo like cleaning up a wild area, can be a great offering!)
All these factors may be considered in making the decision to work with animal parts (or not) . As mentioned, in the end the decision is yours to make. I know I highly dislike it when people lecture me about how what I’m doing is wrong for whatever reason, and it makes me even less likely to actually listen to what they have to say. (3.)
I do hope, however, that you find the information here helpful. I’ve written more about my experiences in working with animal parts on my shamanism blog, http://therioshamanism.com (check out the “animal parts” category on the left sidebar) . I also covered this information and much more in great detail in my book “Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Use of Animal Parts”, which is still currently in print.
1.I am also a conscious omnivore, in part because my body chemistry does best with a certain amount of meat protein in my diet, though I buy free-range whenever I can. I wear secondhand leather to further reduce my share of the demand for commercial animal products.
2. Do You Have Eagle Feathers?
3.Note to the audience: writing me vitriolic arguments against what I do is most likely going to result in me deleting your email without a reply. I’ve heard all the arguments, and I am well educated on the fur, leather, meat and related industries. Attempted guilt trips have also been proven to be highly ineffective. Constructive feedback, on the other hand, is always welcome.
Copyright: Copyright Lupa, 2011. Linking to this URL is fine; please do not post the full text of this article elsewhere.
Location: Portland, Oregon
Author's Profile: To learn more about Lupa - Click HERE
Bio: Lupa is a (neo) shaman happily ensconced in the Pacific Northwest. She is *this* close to getting a degree in counseling psychology, and is also self-employed as an artist. She may also be found hiking around Mt. Hood, the Columbia River Gorge, and related places. Her books on animal totemism and related topics are available from Megalithica Books, an imprint of Immanion Press. Find her (and her art and books) online at http://www.thegreenwolf.com and http://therioshamanism.com as well as on Twitter and Livejournal as lupabitch.
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