Madness, Shapechanging, and Art in Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife

by Niko Silvester

with art by Brian Froud


In popular thought, if not always in fact, shamanism is associated with altered states of consciousness and borderline madness, with shapechanging and otherworldly journeys, with creativity and genius. Terri Windling’s novel The Wood Wife weaves these elements into the story of a woman who meets spirits of place when she travels to the Arizona desert.

On one level — that of the genre fantasy novel — The Wood Wife is simply the story of those encounters and the events that result. But, like any true art, this book contains meaning on many levels; a deeper reading reveals interwoven stories of the power of art and the attempt to master that power, the compelling presence of place — both physical landscape and elusive spirit — and the deep human need to belong. These elements and others contribute to the multi-level meaning of the work,like the many layers of otherworlds a shaman travels through in search of a wandering soul.


The word "shaman" comes from a Siberian language, Tungus, in which it refers to a particular kind of spiritual practitioner. Alice Beck Kehoe has argued that "shaman" should properly be used only to refer to Tungus spiritual practitioners and the practitioners of culturally related peoples. Her arguments are convincing, but anthropologists and popular writers alike have followed Mircea Eliade’s work for so long that the idea of shaman as a cross–cultural category is unlikely to go away anytime soon.But what, then, does "shaman" refer to? Lessa and Vogt define a shaman as "a ceremonial practitioner whose powers come from direct contact with the supernatural, by divine stroke, rather than from inheritance or memorized ritual," as opposed to a priest, who uses codified and standardized ritual (301). They also say that shamans "are essentially mediums, for they are the mouthpieces of spirit beings" (301–302).

Functionally, according to Eliade, "[t]he shaman is medicine–man, priest and psychopomp; that is to say, he cures sickness, he directs the communal sacrifices and he escorts the dead to the other world" ("Shaman" 2546). All of these functions are accomplished by the shamanic ability of otherworldly travel out of the body and by the help of spirits. In one sense, then, the shaman is an intermediary between the world of spirits and gods and the world of human beings. "The function of the shaman," says Leslie Ellen Jones, "is to mediate between the mortalworld and the Otherworld, and therefore, while he is not wholly of the Otherworld, he knows it better than ordinary people" (79). (1)

This liminal function is illustrated in the story commonly known as the Sedna myth. Knud Rasmussen described one version of this myth in detail, where the shaman journeys to the bottom of the sea to visit Takánakapsâluk, the Iglulik version of Sedna. The shaman must convince the sea spirit to allow the seals and other game to return so his people won’t starve. The shaman returns to his body to convey the message that someone, or many someones, has broken a taboo and offended the sea spirit.When community members confess their sins and set their intentions towards living properly, Takánakapsâluk will allow the animals to return. The shaman is here a messenger between his people and the spirit who controls the animals of the sea. As we will see, the shaman–artist figures in The Wood Wife are also intermediaries between the spirits/nature and the human world. The artists speak to and for the spirits.

Another aspect of shamanism important to this discussion is the way a person can become a shaman. According to Eliade, there are three possible ways: "first, by spontaneous vocation (the ‘call’ or ‘election’); second, by hereditary transmission of the shamanic profession; and, third, by personal ‘quest’ or, more rarely, by the will of the clan" ("Shaman" 2546). All three of these appear in The Wood Wife, but the first is the most significant.

Before I go on throwing the term "shaman" about, I should note that Windling does not use the word in her novel (except once, on page 296).(2) "Mage" is used, though not in quite the same way I am using "shaman" (but the two will converge later in this paper). I have chosen to use "shaman" for its resonances and because it is a useful popular concept.

Madness: Initiatory Illness