by Niko Silvester
with art by Brian Froud
The ability to assume animal form is also sometimes associated with otherworldly travel, though a shaman doesn’t necessarily have to change shape to visit the Otherworld (in the Sedna myth, the shaman visits the sea spirit in his own shape).In The Wood Wife shapechanging is associated with otherworldliness, traveling "the spiral path." There is also an association between Otherworld travel and time in shamanism; in The Wood Wife, the spiral path is a path through time where all times exist simultaneously. As Maggie sees it and Crow describes it:
The clouds below them spun and roiled, then formed the shape of a white spiral that seemed to be made out of fine spun sugar. It covered the valley, blocking it from sight, and unlike the other cloud forms, it moved — a slow, barely perceptible movement, steady as the orbit of the earth.
"This is our path, the spiral path. This is how the world looks to us. We have no Time, as you know Time. We know only that–which–moves. On the spiral path, the past and future are simply two different directions. I stand in the present, at the center of the spiral, and I can walk as easily to one as to the other." (264)
Not all of our shaman figures in the novel attempt the spiral path. Anna plans to travel it but cannot take the final step off the cliff and onto the path that appears to be formed in the clouds. Crow explains to Maggie that the spiral path is a solitary one, and Anna, who had always had her family, her church or Cooper near her, was incapable of such a journey alone (264). Cooper does successfully travel the path — he bargains away his final manuscript of poems,The Saguaro Forest to gain the chance from the Floodmage. But traveling the path results in Cooper’s death, as the tricksy Floodmage gives him exactly what he asked for, without telling him that he will be walking straight into a flooded creekbed. And so Davis Cooper drowns in the middle of the desert (282–283). Maggie is the only one successful in her attempt. Under Crow’s guidance, she is able to walk the path and meet Cooper at two points in the past, the only times she ever meets him in person.Maggie’s own strength brings her back to her own time unharmed (270–285). Tomás does not walk the spiral path, but he may sometime in the future; the copper bracelet he earned from Crow is the same as the one Anna Naverra got from the spirits and that Maggie now wears, marked with the spiral of shapechangers, who are also walkers in time (264).
One further otherworldly connection of interest is "[t]he connection between hunting and Otherwordly adventure [that] has been noted before by scholars" and that "it may be that in some way, hunting itself causes Otherwordly adventure" (Jones 83; italics in original). Remember that in the Sedna myth, the reason the shaman makes the journey to visit the sea spirit is to convince her to send the seals back to the ice for the hunters to catch. Other cultures also have shamanic hunting rituals — rituals to entice game or to locate it,or to placate the spirits who make hunting plentiful. Dora mentions Juan’s new interest in hunting (287) and his task for the Floodmage is to hunt the white stag. By doing this he will gain his reward: becoming a great painter. But Juan has chosen the wrong spirit to make a bargain with. It was the Floodmage, the Drowned Girl, who brought about Cooper’s death, and she is not concerned that Juan will be driven to madness if he is not stopped (198). That the stag Juan is to hunt is really the missing Nightmage, Anna Naverra’s imprisoned muse, only adds to the artistry of the Floodmage’s plot.The Mages are the spirit world’s artists, using humans as their art works, as the Nightmage used Anna (see page 2).
David Lewis–Williams formulated a theory about prehistoric South African rock art being produced by shamans. He even suggested that this hypothesis might be expanded to include all rock art (Kehoe 71–80). Lewis–Williams based his ideas on !Kung healers he observed in trance. But, "[u]nfortunately for Lewis–Williams’ theory, the observed San practitioners did not then [after a trance healing] go paint or engrave rock faces, or make any other representation of what they may have experienced" (74). Alice Beck Kehoe, whom I have quoted here, discusses and debunks this theory, and says
Like the actually observed !Kung ritual practitioners, other mystics did not, as a rule, draw or paint representations of what they saw. Like the observed !Kung practitioners, and Siberian shamans, other mystics often expressed themselves in poetry and music. Poetry and music are not preserved among archaeologists’ material data. (74)
But the idea of a connection between shamanism or other mystical experience and art of any kind is an intriguing one. Larsen refers to myth as "the bubbling lifespring of our consciousness, that comes from inner reservoirs no man has fully fathomed. It is the source–font of our highest creativity as well as of our worst delusions, and the secret is all in how it is tended" (4). In other words, myth is the true source of human creativity and mystics access myth more closely than other humans.
The connection of mysticism or shamanism with poetry is clearly illustrated in such figures as Suibhne (discussed above), Merlin and Taliesin. Merlin and Taliesin have particularly strong connections to magic and possibly shamanism, and Taliesin in particular was a great poet. In addition, Leslie Ellen Jones, in discussing possible shamanic elements of ancient druidism, says of the early Celtic manuscripts:
The shamanic elements we find in this material seem to cling to the figure of the poet, since we have references to poetic ecstasies of composition, and since generally shamanic modes of behaviour are found attached to the figures of Taliesin, Finn, Myrddin, Suibhne. (71)
She also mentions that, in many traditions, "[s]hamanic elements often arise in conjunction with poetry and prophecy," and gives the example of the Orpheus myth as having shamanic overtones including an underworld journey and a dismemberment theme (74). Shamans and poets both are known to have larger than usual vocabularies — Jones compares Eliade’s Yakut shamans (with 12,000–word vocabularies compared to the 4,000 words of people in the rest of the community) to ancient Irish poets and storytellers known for their huge store of words (74).
As for shamanism and painting, as unsupported as Lewis–William’s theory may be, there is an interesting connection between visual arts and mysticism. Hugh Mynne wrote a new age book called The Faerie Way, which "offers people of European descent their own shamanic road to travel" (back cover). Mynne describes the poet AE (George William Russell) as "a deeply intuitive seer and mystic who had lifelong communication with faerie beings," and says AE "left an astonishingly detailed account of his visions, both in his beautiful prose writings and his numerous faerie paintings" (44).
There is also a longstanding association between creativity and madness, in particular, painting and madness. Interestingly, a number of painters of fairies were, or were thought to be insane, and fairies are cognate with the spirit beings in The Wood Wife; it is the term Davis Cooper uses to describe them, while Anna called them angels (277). John Anster Fitzgerald painted works that, "unlike the majority of fairy painting which relied on an external literary source, they sprang straight from the artist’s imagination, an aspect which caused some contemporary critics to speculate on the artist’s personal sanity" (Phillpotts 5–6).Fairy artist Richard Dadd murdered his father, thinking the other man was the devil. Dadd
painted some of his most remarkable work within the asylum. His madness aided rather than impeded his artistic vision; fairyland continued to fascinate him and his heightened perception created a delicate but threatening microcosm of human society which exercises an abiding fascination.(6)