Female Shamans and our Animal Allies

Female shamanic shape-shifting deity of the Indus Tree of Life, the Pipal Tree, ‘dancing’ with a horned tiger, Indus River Valley Civilization, c. 4,500 BCE

I’ve written a couple of short pieces on Medium recently, about women, horses, and their animal allies — and what I infer to have been the role of women and girls in bringing canines, equines and raptors on-side in the human battle for survival during and shortly after the last Ice Age. My belief is that it’s a shared consciousness thing available to most women and girls — in fact all children — and retained in artists and shamans.

I was deeply afflicted with ‘horse madness’ at a young age, though my riding was certainly never very spectacular. I’ve always fancied myself a dog-whisperer, and continue to try my best with cats. I used to feed generations of crows from my deck, until the most recent of a series of Great Dane puppies came into my life — more repugnant to the crow families than even my half-feral, hunting-obsessed Savannah Cats.

The ability to ‘talk to the animals’ ranked just under the ability to ‘call the animals’ for artist/shamans, shamanism being the prototype of all the arts, and the shaman being the prototype of the artist (think rain dances, animal dances, ritual enactment and theatre, shamanic vision narratives and story, mark making and abstract language, magical symbols and inscriptions, etc.). This explains why these uncanny abilities show up in so many traditional folk and fairy tales of the ‘Taltos Magician’ and other heroines and heroes of wonder tales worldwide, by my reckoning.

The earliest art is now thought to have represented spirit animals and beings encountered by means of shamanic trance in anthropologists’, archeologists’ and prehistoric art historians’ accounts. It is now thought that many, if not most, of the earliest artist/shamans were female. Max Dashu has documented many of these findings, as has a new wave of feminist scientists and scholars, based on the evidence of the predominance of feminine hand prints in prehistoric art. In an article titled ‘Ancient Women Artists May Be Responsible for Most Cave Art,’ Smithsonian magazine documented findings first published in National Geographic, whereby archaeologists “analyzed hand stencils found in eight caves in France and Spain… and by comparing the relative lengths of certain fingers determined that three-quarters of the handprints were female.” Hand stencils have also been found in caves in places such as Africa, Borneo, Australia, and Argentina.

It is thought that the earliest patterns of reverence and awe among humans concerned birth magic, with hunt magic as a corollary to that primary sacrality of the urge or compulsion to nurture. A similar reverence pattern can be seen in the invocation to the Aztec goddess, Temazcaltoci, below:

“Mother of the gods and us all,
whose creative and lifegiving power shone in the Temazcalli, the place where she sees sacred things, sets to right what has been deranged in human bodies, makes young and tender things growing and strong, and where she aids and cures.”

Aztec Invocation to Temazcaltoci,
Grandmother of the Sweatlodge

Human mothers are known to have fostered animal ‘children’ and vice versa. Patterns of cooperation and mutual nurture among species are as old as mammalian biological birth. Could these simply be aspects of a hormone-driven compulsion to nurture — to share consciousness with another vulnerable being? In shamanic cultures, the ability to effect this trans-species connectivity has always been seen as the special ability to commune directly with Spirit, in all of its manifest diversity, and not solely restricted to the capacity of humans to perform.

Sculpture of Romulus, Remus and the Capitoline Wolf, principals of the Founding of Rome

Stories of abandoned children being brought up by animal mothers such as she-wolves and bears were widespread in Europe from Pre-Christian times, surviving well into the modern era. And, indeed, the founding myths of the greatest pre-modern empire the world has known features the suckling of two human children by an ancestral Wolf Mother.

I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.