All Our Relations?

Witches & Pagans #20 - The Animal IssueThere’s no easy answers to cross-species relationships.

The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men. — Alice Walker

I don’t live with any non-human companion animals, but often wish I could. Allergies to every fur-bearing mammal I have ever encountered and the adamant veto of my dear husband has kept our home petless for most of our family’s existence. (There was a series of companion rodents about a decade ago, but I gradually became allergic to them as well, and pets in cages never really agreed with us anyway.)

Perhaps my hominid-only life is why I’m repeatedly drawn to the topic of animal magic; while assembling this issue I discovered to my surprise that this is the fourth time this topic has been covered by one of our magazines. Reading through our previous efforts, I was struck by the number of articles we’ve featured focusing on specific animals, including insects (“Welcoming the Multi-Legged Goddess”), horses ( “The Divine Charger”), and ravens (“To Fly with the Raven”)1 as well as ferrets (“For the Love of Ferrets”), wolves (“Wolf: from Mammal to Metaphor”), bats (“Bats: the Cutest Superheroes You’ve Never Met”), and bears (“The Bear Whisperer”).2 There’s even an entire issue dedicated to cats!3 (That one can’t be attributed to personal interest, since I am so not a cat person.)

 

Totems and familiars are another major theme; relationships between “spiritual” creatures and humans is a major focus of SageWoman #38 “Women and Animals,” and R.J. Stewart’s powerful “Ambassador to the Animals” gives a much-deserved slap to the head to plastic totemism in PanGaia #40.

Another related topic we have previously visited is Pagan vegetarianism. The best anti-meat argument I’ve ever published was the poignant “The Goddess on My Dinner Plate,” authored by my then-editorial assistant Erin Holmes, balanced in tone, if not precisely in topic, by Donna Henes’ powerful account of giving death to an injured bird in “Rites and Responsibilities,” both in SageWoman #38. We have also hosted a vigorous debate in “Toe-to-Toe” (in PanGaia #19) on whether Pagans should eat meat, and explored the pro-animal sacrifice arguments of the Heathenist traditions in PanGaia #40.

The discerning reader might be wondering at this juncture what remains to be said about Neo-Pagan human-animal relations. As it turned out, quite a bit.

Unraveling the conundrum of human/non-human relations begins with a simple question: how big is our family? If non-humans are existentially equal to humans, then we must treat them with respect; if they are as different from humans in kind, as, for example, a human is different from a chair, then our moral obligations to them are slight. I believe that most contemporary Neo-Pagans would concur with Ted Andrews when he writes, “When we learn to speak with the animals …the animals are no longer our subordinates. They become our teachers, our friends, and our companions.” 4

Yet accepting non-humans as members of our (extended) family only leads to more questions. Cross-species predation and exploitation are not unique to humans, and some of the most striking examples of such behavior occur in highly organized non-human societies such as chimpanzee communities and ant colonies, some of which parallel human traits like waging war, farming, and animal domestication.5, 6 Although we may imagine nature as a great, loving mother, the hard facts force us to ponder: if non-humans treat each other as objects (as evidenced by behaviors as fundamental as predator-pray relationships), why is it morally repugnant for us to do the same?

In this issue we wrestle with the messy, tangled, and even intractable questions of genuine relationship: honest ambiguity (“when are shamanistic techniques universal, and when are they forms of cultural exploitation?”), subtle definitions (“what is the difference between animal spirits and totems”), and surprise revelations (“what, you are my totem?”).

Join us as we meet far-ranging urban shaman and otherkin Lupa; explore the still-evolving Witchcraft of Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone; trip through the ever-shifting shoals of the urban Witch’s playground, New York City, and probe more deeply into how totems choose us (instead of the other way around.) We also feature musings on the benefits of relationships with companion animals, the mysteries of polarity, avoiding the perils of dualism, how to make your own witchy jewelry, promoting a healthy magical mindset, and even how to prepare for the disposal of your magical “stuff” after you die. Plus two short stories, a triplet of poems, and a true-life tale of post-mortem animal magic. It’s a rich, even heady, curry of ideas, people, questions (and sometimes, but not always, answers). I hope it stimulates your thinking about these thorny, but fascinating ideas.

Backnotes
1 PanGaia #19
2 PanGaia #40
3 PanGaia #33.
4 Ted Andrews, Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small, Llewellyn, 1993, p. x.

Sanjida O’Connell, “Apes of War: Is it in our genes?” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3317461/Apes-of-war...-is-it-in-our-genes.html. Accessed 12/18/2009.

“Are Ants Intelligent?” http://hubpages.com/hub/Intelligent_Ants, author unknown. Accessed 12/18/09.
 

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