I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892), from 'Song of Myself.'
You may have noticed that I have a bit of a thing about animals. As a child, I had an instinctive understanding that they were a special breed of people. I suspect this is an extremely common human experience. After all, traditional stories told to children around the world are full of talking animals, animal helpers, teachers and guides, and animal transformations.
One of my earliest connections with a non-human species was with herons. As a misfit amongst family and contemporaries, I was naturally drawn to these solitary birds. I saw them standing perfectly still at the edge of the ditches that criss-crossed Romney Marsh, on the borders of which I lived. They would hold this pose for hours at a time, just occasionally shifting from one leg to the other, waiting for fish or, more likely on the Marsh, eels, to swim past and provide them with food. There was a calm simplicity, an unpretentious dignity, about them. Their muted colours, pale grey with flashes of white and black, added to the sense they exuded of being “so placid and self-contain'd.” My first recollection of anything resembling meditation, before I even knew there was such a thing, consisted of trying to put myself into a similar state of calm, to render myself unruffled and untroubled like the heron. I did indeed “stand and look at them long and long.”
In my book, Druidry: A Practical and Inspirational Guide (Piatkus, 2000), I wrote of an experience at a Druid camp of swapping consciousnesses with an eagle and soaring high above the world on powerful wings. I've also written of the sweat lodge in which I first encountered the spirit wolf who was to become such a central part of my life and from whom I draw the craft name, Greywolf. He and I have also traded spirits so that I perceive the world through his eyes and he through mine. In other circumstances, when called for, I have become a serpent or a dolphin.
These experiences of becoming other-than-human are well described in Whitman's poem, famously quoted by Lord Summerisle as played by Christopher Lee in the film, The Wicker Man.
I share Whitman's sense of animals having a different, much clearer, less encumbered engagement with life than we humans with our tangled webs of guilts and fears. They perceive clearly what needs to be done and go about doing it in the most efficient way possible. We, on the other hand, often fail to act, held back by worry about possible consequences. While in many cases this is clearly a good thing, we often take it to extremes where we are paralysed from taking any action at all, even when circumstances demand it. The results of inaction then often add to our worry and frustration, erode away our sense of self-worth, and can lead to severe psychological imbalance.
Becoming animal breaks us free of this destructive cycle by allowing us a clearer perspective, enabling us to see what is really important and to discard the rest. This has been proven to me time and again. Things that have angered and frustrated me as a human and which I have felt unable or unwilling to address have often melted into insignificance when I have become wolf or eagle. Either that or, in animal form, the right and only course of action to pursue has become crystal clear and my animal self has had the strength and courage to follow it through.
In shape-shifting, the physical perspective alters, so that as an eagle you see fields and houses way below and have a clear, unbroken view to the far horizon, while as a wolf, your visual perspective is much nearer the ground while your sense of smell and hearing are hugely enhanced. However, it is not just the physical perspective that shifts. Inhabiting the body of an animal, seeing through its eyes, experiencing the world through its other senses, also changes how we feel about the world and our place in it. As Whitman says, animals “do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.” For us as humans, this psychological shift is profound, freeing us from doubt, fear and all the other stifling emotions that prevent us from achieving clarity and acting decisively on it. The importance of this gift cannot be over-stressed.
In my experience, we all have spirit animals who protect and guide us. At least, I've only ever encountered one person who didn't. He was a long-term drug addict whose physical and mental state had deteriorated to such an extent that no spirit animal had felt able to remain with him.
It is my belief that we do not choose which spirit animals we have, but that they choose us, drawn to us by who we are, how we think and what we do. When these things change, one set of spirit animals may leave us and another take their place. With me the major transition was from solitary heron as a child to pack animal wolf as an adult.
How we discover our spirit animal guardians, guides and helpers varies from person to person and place to place. They may be encountered in vivid dreams or spontaneous or deliberately sought for visions, or may emerge simply through a deep fascination with one particular species.
Having discovered one's 'power animal', what happens next? In my case, the discovery of 'my' wolf was quickly followed by the acquisition of a wolf-skin cloak, wolf stories and images, a wolf tooth and a wolf chant. The chant as originally given to me in the 1990s originated with the Seneca people of North America. However, it immediately transformed into a native British wolf chant very different from the Seneca original. I posted it on youtube a while ago.
Deer are prey animals to wolves and, as such, have an important place in the wolf's world. Visiting a deer park one day about ten years ago, an albino fallow deer shed one of its antlers next to our car. I accepted this rare and precious gift, gathered it and took it home. Washing it off in the shower later, the deer's spirit gave me a song that I recently posted on youtube. I still have the antler...
Having studied other cultures and shared ceremonies with indigenous peoples including the Quileute ('Wolf People') and Makah tribes of the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest U.S.A., I know that such animal spirit songs and chants are common around the world. In Britain and Northern Europe, they have been largely lost to the erosion of history and in particular to the onset of Christianity. Early Christian edicts specifically outlaw dressing up as, and acting like, animals. In spite of this, animal-like costumes are still worn as part of folk festivals across much of Europe. Charles Fréger has photographed several such costumes in a series called Wilder Mann.
While some of these folk figures may have traditional songs that accompany their appearance, as does the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss in Cornwall, they have no doubt changed considerably over the years under the influence of a hostile church.
Having been given the two chants featured here, it struck me as a good idea to try and restore a set of spirit animal power songs to our native tradition. The wolf and deer chants represent a beginning and other chants will be added as they come. I've worked with eagle quite a lot, so have high hopes there. My son, Joe, has strong bear magic, so I hope we can come up with a good bear chant. I already have a serpent chant, though not yet recorded. The plan is to establish a collection of songs and chants relating to some of our most prominent native (or formerly native) species and to put them out on CD. In the meantime, I'll post them on youtube and facebook as and when they emerge and I have time to record them.
I'd appreciate your help. If you work with an animal spirit and have a song or chant that you use to help maintain your link with that animal, please record it (however roughly), post it (letting me know where), and we'll polish it up, re-record it if necessary, and add it to the collection. When the CD comes out you will, of course, be fully credited. Having no idea how much interest in this project there might be, I'm unable to make any estimate as to what, if any, royalties might flow from it. To be honest, that's not my concern. The intention is simply to restore or re-create another, potentially very powerful, aspect of our native spiritual tradition and to share it with those who might find it useful in making, enhancing and maintaining their own relationships with the spirit animals who have so much to teach us and share with us.
I think I could turn and live with animals,