Sacrifices and Sympathetic Magic

Like many pagans, sympathetic magic is a substantial part of my personal practice; be it drawings, photographs, statues or other symbolic representations. Although I do work with live plants, incenses, resins, animal remains and more, the real thing is not always appropriate, possible or practical.

My shrine to the Outsider uses battery-powered LED candles and lanterns because its hidden position makes using real fire dangerous-and I rather enjoy the humour of using fake fire for pop-culture magic.
The consumption of large, juicy strawberries is a perfectly acceptable substitute for human hearts in ritual as far as Lilith is concerned, as another example.
Since the issue of live animal sacrifice is a purely hypothetical one for me in my current circumstances, I leave those moral quandaries to be unpacked at another time. What I can do, however, is make symbolically appropriate sacrifices.
Although I’m not a strict reconstructionist, I do enjoy research and adapting ancient practices to fit my modern lifestyle. In this research I found accounts of animal sacrifice substitutes in ancient Greece being made with bread, beeswax and reeds. As the sacrifice of livestock would have represented a substantial financial commitment for anyone who wasn’t particularly wealthy, I imagine these sympathetic magic substitutions would have been reasonably common.
I have a lot of local natural beeswax on hand from making my own devotional candles, so it seemed the obvious material to use if I were to create my own effigies. It turns out carving/modeling straight beeswax is incredibly difficult and my first attempts were an ugly mess. Instead, I adapted my sculpting and casting knowledge to create small dog and bull effigies, sculpting them in modeling clay then creating a silicone mould so they could be easily replicated in wax.
I use the dogs as apotropaic offerings to Hekate as part of a cleansing ritual, since my relationship with Hekate has a strong bent towards cleaning. I’m yet to test out the bulls, but I have one set aside for dedication and sacrifice to Dionysus. Bulls are symbolically rich animals, however, and could be used for any number of other deities or purposes.
Since I was on a roll sculpting, I also made a tiny human heart replica for healing/cursing or whatever else one fancies. My companion uses them for enchanting and enclosing within his taxidermy pieces, which is delightfully creative.

In the future, I’d like to experiment with various additives such as incense or tiny pieces of dried bull (Companion jokingly referred to it as ‘homeopathic bull’) or dog hair. I’m not sure how I feel about using the shed hair of still-living animals for sacrifices since my practice has always had a distinctly necromantic bent. But does using the parts of an already dead animal nullify the effect of a ‘sacrifice’? Is the intent all that matters in sympathetic magic? Food for thought.


Totems, tutelaries and the animal messengers of the gods

To start, what is a tutelar?

The Oxford dictionary defines a tutelary spirit or deity as ‘serving as a protector, guardian, or patron’. Wikipedia further expands this definition to include totems as a type of tutelary.

I prefer not to use the term ‘totem’-the reasons for this are elaborate enough that it would be best to keep them for another post.

In the past I have used tutelar and also totem, in the form it’s most commonly used in modern pagan circles, as almost interchangeable. As I delve further into committing my personal practice to writing, it has become apparent that an expansion of this terminology is needed.

The types of relationships one may create within a magical context vary quite significantly; tutelary alone could easily become confusing and vague.

On top of this, many deities have strong associations with non-human animals; if one works closely with both deities and animals, it can be difficult to untangle which direction the signal is coming from.

I have created a set of terms to categorize types of animal tutelars and their associations; That of Regent, Agent and Individual.

In the following explanation, I will be using the domestic cat as an example.

CAT-REGENT

Regent:

A deity-like figure that represents the gestalt of all cats, the parent of all cats, the archetypal essence of what it is to be a cat; the quintessential cat-ness. A nonphysical being, but one that in this case, currently does have living physical counterparts (Regents of extinct taxa would not, but are still relevant).

If I were to meditate with the goal of entering a trance state and communing with an archetypal being that identifies itself as Domestic Cat, this would be the Domestic Cat Regent.

Individual:

A single cat entity. May be a living cat, a spirit housed in remains of a once living cat, or the incorporeal spirit of a cat.

The feral cat skull I have on my mantle was untrusting of humans in life, and remains so in death. The spirit housed in this skull is generally uncommunicative, and is another example of a Cat Individual.

Agent:

An individual as above, that is acting on behalf of another being, such as a deity or a tutelary regent.

Once, while meditating in my bedroom, I attempted to contact Bast using a small statue of Her image, but I wasn’t able to make a connection.

My cat-son had been sprawled on my bed behind me, and we had been mutually ignoring each other as he didn’t usually involve himself in my magical practice.

This time however, Bast decided to use him as a vessel for communicating with me.

‘Why use a statue when there is a real live cat right here?’ She had chided me affectionately.

In this instance my cat-son was operating in the capacity of agent, albeit for Bast rather than Cat Regent-in this instance, the human equivalent could be deemed to be aspecting or possession.

In my previous post, I described how a living individual domestic cat had acted as a messenger for Lilith. This cat was also acting as an agent.

If I wished to communicate with Cat Regent, I may set up my feral cat skull on my altar to act as an agent.
If Eurasian Lynx Regent was keen to communicate with me, it may use this skull as an Agent. Note-I have had American Badger Regent send me messages through a raccoon skull, so the species don’t necessarily need to be closely related-however if one were attempting to make contact rather than receive, a closer connection may be more viable.

I chose these terms as they are reasonably self-explanatory with context; How would this play out in conversation for example? Someone, upon learning that I work primarily with nonhuman animal energies, may ask me ‘what is your spirit animal?’

I would answer ‘I’ve been working a lot with coyotes lately, but Ringtail Possum Regent has been looking after me for many years.’

This would be referring to the many individual coyotes I work with, but the more abstract nature of my relationship with Ringtail Possum.

If anyone has any thoughts on this method for labeling and classifying types of interactions with animistic spirits, I’d love to hear them.

Why I don’t work with dead babies

Skinning, dressing or otherwise prepping a once-living being is an intimate procedure. The body is not decontextualized, wrapped in plastic and lit with fluorescent lighting like the most common experience of meat in urban areas.

It’s not for everyone.

The infant mortality rate for many non-human animals is extremely high; finding that bodies are very young is a common experience among those who seek them out. Many people I’ve spoken with are dispassionate over, or unconcerned by working with baby animals. Some find the experience distressing, but persevere nonetheless.

It’s common in the Vulture Culture community to have no qualms about processing the bodies of infants or juveniles.
Newborn or foetal animals are often prized to be processed into wet specimens (a whole specimen preserved in fluid, sealed in a jar). Some anomalies such as cyclopic calves, attractive to collectors, rarely live beyond infancy, making it a necessity.

Preserving bodies of the young dead has its own set of challenges.
Baby birds don’t have feathers worth preserving, and the skin of smaller mammals is very thin and fragile.
The skulls of infants are not yet fully fused; this allows them to grow rapidly in life, but easily fall apart in death. They can be re-constructed later, but this requires patience, time and skill. Young bones are delicate, sometimes even almost spongy.

I don’t collect wet specimens because my interest in keeping remains is less scientifically motivated than some. I prefer the tactile experience of being able to hold my specimens-keeping dead things in jars is too clinical for my taste.
Less rationally, I’m also nervous they might get broken-like little unexploded biohazard grenades.

But I also have a more personal reason for passing over infant dead bodies when I find them.

Deceased babies may have stronger ties to the spirit world than this one; they haven’t inhabited their bodies for very long, after all. A newborn rat may or may not have as much knowledge of the fundamental state of Ratness, and what it is to be a rat, and live as a rat, than an older one.
Perhaps Rat, or any other Archetype Spirit progenitors are impartial towards the age of their children when they pass on. Perhaps not-I don’t claim to know.
But since I work with ‘skin spirits’, it makes sense to avoid ones who were badly mistreated in life (including violent deaths and fur farms), or infants.

An experience I had many years ago, early in my practice, solidified this rule. I found a baby bird that had fallen onto the ground and died. I hadn’t been collecting remains for long, so I was a little over-eager in processing things that I’d pass over today.
I went into a meditative journey/trance state to ask permission of the baby bird if I could take its body, and to perform my usual funerary rites when doing so.
The young bird was very wobbly, probably only a few days past hatching, but agreed that I could keep its bones.
The mother of the baby bird swooped me repeatedly, making frantic distress calls. She was upset and grieving, and I ended the meditation. I did not keep any of those remains, and the experience is one I’ll never forget. Consent and caring for the dead, and respecting their wishes are important aspects of spirit work. As animals all develop at different rates, I don’t have any strict guidelines for age, but it’s something to consider when bringing home a new specimen.

This experience set me on a path of a deeper  understanding of consent and the proper care of the dead; a simple yes/no answer is not sufficient. The circumstances that surround the question need to be delicately examined, and personal responsibility must be taken. After all, these are not simple objects and should not be treated as such; they deserve all the reverence and care one can provide.

On trusting yourself-featuring Fox and Coyote

I’m very prone to self-doubt; a self doubt beyond a healthy skepticism and desire to keep ego in check, at that.

To me, Fox is illusive, the secret keeper, the shadow trickster, hunter and prey. I have never once gotten a clear, good look at a living wild fox.

As a teen living on the Mornington Peninsula, a gang of them would slink across our front lawn, activating the motion-sensor porch light. My mother often saw them, but no matter how fast I rushed to the window, I never did.

I’ve skinned and tanned foxes killed by hunters, and seen unfortunate souls crumpled up on roadsides aplenty. Sometimes I’ve witnessed a blurry, fleeting glimpse of one out of the corner of my eye, so swift that I began to doubt it was real immediately after.

Early in my practice, I worked with Fox energy extensively. I found a very old antique fox tail, inhabited by a lively skin-spirit that loved to dance. I’d wear it on my belt for special occasions and public rituals.

A few years later a companion of mine gifted me with the face skin of a coyote. It was badly crumpled up and it’s skin-spirit grumpy (years later, reshaping it improved his disposition significantly). Knowing Coyote’s reputation I was somewhat aghast. I wasn’t ready for that kind of responsibility. I packed it away and largely forgot about it-it wasn’t the right time.

I went on a hiatus from spirit-work.

Later on, I acquired three much more personable Coyote skin-spirits. A skull, who sits on my altar, a tail, and another face skin. I have no doubt they chose me.

I began to wear at least one of my two tails as part of my regular attire. For a short time I wore both-on opposite sides of my body-as Fox and Coyote have an antagonistic relationship, with Coyote nipping at Fox’s heels.

The fox skin-spirit expressed a desire to retire from being worn; I’d had it for over a decade, and it must be older than that by several more. This was the moment that Fox energy slipped off the main stage of my life.

Enter, in force, the coyotes.

They have much to teach me, and I appreciate the company as they trot along by my side. Coyotes are generally warm, playful and chatty. A different kind of trickster; the bold, brash type that will encourage you to build a tower, only to push you off it so you learn humility.

Now, thinking about the past, that ever-present sense of doubt began to creep in.

I began to wonder if the connection I had with Fox was genuine. Did I simply want to work with foxes because I thought they were glamorous, alluring? Did I never see one because I had chosen them, and not the other way around? In my practice, cooperation is vital-the strongest bonds are the ones we don’t choose/initiate.

In a dream, ever the realm of mysteries, a handsome red fox appeared, very deliberately letting me get a good look at it before disappearing back into the scrub, going about its fox business. A sign that our connection was real, that I shouldn’t doubt it’s validity.

Fox taught me to keep chasing the intangible, to trust my intuition. To keep reaching for that goal, the one it’s too dark to see and just out of reach, but to keep stretching until I can brush it with my fingertips.

I best not forget it.