|The Artist as Shaman:
Madness, Shapechanging, and Art
in Terri Windling's
The Wood Wife
Mary Nicole Silvester
Terri Windling, author of The Wood
Wife, the novel referenced in this article, is a Mythic Journeys
guest speaker and a member of our board of advisors. Write to Niko
Silvester at: email@example.com.
you'd like to purchase The Wood Wife online and support
the Mythic Imagination Institute at the same time, please see
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.
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.
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).
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”
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 mortal world and the Otherworld, and therefore,
while he is not wholly of the Otherworld, he knows it better
than ordinary people” (79).
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.
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.
I go on throwing the term “shaman” about, I should note that
Windling does not use the word in her novel (except once, on
figure of the shaman is closely associated with madness. When
an initiatebecomes a shaman by Eliade’s first method, “spontaneous
vocation,” he “takes the risk of being mistaken for a ‘madman’”
(Myths 80). The behaviour of someone chosen in this
way becomes more and more strange. Such a person “seeks solitude,
becomes a dreamer, loves to wander in woods or desert places,
has visions, sings in his sleep, etc.” (75). Leslie Ellen Jones
describes similar absentminded, solitary behaviour (90). A number
of characters in The Wood Wife are potential shamans.
Primary among these are Anna Naverra and Juan del Río,
but Davis Cooper, Maggie Black, Fox (Johnny Foxxe) and Tomás
Yazzie are also significant.
Naverra, a character we hear about but who has been many years
dead in the novel’s present, exhibited this solitary tendency.
“It’s gotten so she doesn’t want to see anyone with the single
exception of yours truly, and on some days barely that,” wrote
Davis Cooper in a letter (32). He went on: "She has taken to
roaming the mountain by night and it’s no good trying to stop
her with tales of rattlesnakes or wolves or mountain lions,
let me tell you. She’s meeting her muse out in those hills.
When she returns there is a fire in her eyes and she works like
a woman possessed by spirits until she drops in exhaustion."
developed such an aversion to having people around that she
even began to turn away her and Cooper’s friends, who once visited
them often, and it was at this point that people began to speculate
that she was a bit crazy (111). In fact, “By the time she and
Cooper left Mexico City and settled . . . in the United States,
she had turned her back on the world, retreating into her own
private place of myth, symbolism, and dream” (172).
on, Davis Cooper himself is described as solitary. He continued
to live in the mountains even after his beloved Anna died and
remained alone for many years (69-70). Fox also described Cooper
as “crazy” (71). Like Anna with her paintings, Davis Cooper
wrote his “Wood Wife” poems like a madman, “like there were
devils hanging on his tail” (100). Maggie also thinks of herself
as “sounding as crazy now as Cooper,” when she tells Dora about
the odd things she has begun to notice, and later thinks she
must be loco when she realizes Fox’s sisters are shapechangers
(134, 217). And, though Maggie’s behaviour hasn’t been asocial,
she did seek a certain solitude in traveling to Arizona in the
first place. She wanted to write about Cooper, but she also
wanted to get away from her ex-husband Nigel and be on her own
being solitary and dreamy, a shaman sometimes “becomes violent
and easily loses consciousness, takes refuge in the forests, feeds
upon the bark of trees, throws himself into the water or the fire
or wounds himself with knives” (75). In the words of Stephen Larsen,
a shaman is often a solitary, half-mad creature through whom a
god—or demon—may begin speaking unexpectedly. Or he may suddenly
keel over in a trance, leaving his body lifeless and glassy-eyed,
only to return from the invisible realm of myth with some outrageous
demand, not at all in keeping with orderly social processes. The
shaman’s primary allegiance is to the supernatural dimension,
not to the society. (11)
Eliade says, “his ‘madness’ fulfills a mystic function; it reveals
certain aspects of reality to him that are inaccessible to other
mortals” (Myths 80).
the behaviour of the shaman initiate to the first scene with
the character Juan del Río in The Wood Wife:
to the barn were flung open. Inside, Juan stood in the center
of the room, a hunting knife clutched in his hand. Ten years worth
of paintings hung in tatters, the frames shattered, the canvases
slashed. Clay sculptures littered the room in pieces. Carvings
smouldered on the wooden floor, threatening to torch the whole
and stared at him. Then she ran to fetch a bucket. Juan watched,
impassive and glassy-eyed, until she doused the flames with water.
Then he wrenched the bucket from her hands and struck her, hard,
across the jaw. He had never hit his wife before and even in this
wild state the action seemed to startle him; he stopped and looked
at her, wide-eyed. And then he made that howling sound, an animal
sound, a sound of pain, wrenched from deep in the gut.
past Dora and out the open door. (10-11)
has become violent, animal-like and uneasy. The ritual implications
of this scene are highlighted when Dora finds her husband in the
desert later that night:
was curled up, naked, fast asleep on the flat boulders at the
water’s edge. He had marked himself with oil paint: jagged white
lines, green snake curves, blue spiral patterns and slashes
of red. There was paint in his hair, blood on his chin. He had
cut himself above one cheek; any closer and he would have lost
the eye. (11)
Fox brings Juan home after finding the man in the mountains,
Dora tries to explain Juan’s behaviour. “Juan has been like
that since—well, for a while now,” Dora says. “He takes off
at night, and when he comes back he’s dazed or half asleep.
Then when he wakes up again, he says he doesn’t remember.” (46).
This is exactly like a potential shaman’s initiatory illness.
Juan’s seeming madness advances he burns more of his paintings,
this time inside the house. When Dora tries to stop him, he
becomes violent, hitting her and throwing more things—“objects,
books, art from the walls”—onto the fire. He is unhappy with
his inability to be a great painter. “They’re shit, they’re
all shit,” he says of his artworks. After Dora locks herself
in their bedroom Juan flees the house (195-6).
kind of behaviour is normally labelled mental illness in contemporary
Western society (Larsen 25-25, 132). It may be the case that
such shaman initiates are suffering a metal illness, but the
act of curing themselves constitutes a major part of the initiatory
experience, as “it is only after having experienced and entered
into these hidden dimensions of reality that the ‘madman’ becomes
a shaman” (Eliade, Myths 80). “A shamanic illness,”
says Jones, “cannot be cured until the sufferer undergoes shamanic
initiation in the Otherworld” (91). In effect, by becoming a
shaman, the shaman heals his (or her) own illness, and the initiatory
madness can be compared to “the dissolution of the old personality”
(Eliade Myths 224).
explicitly refers to himself as not being the same person as
he was. “I’m not that man anymore,” he tells Dora as he burns
his paintings. “Stop making me be that man” (195). His old personality
has dissolved because of the “call” he has received from the
otherworldly beings, but he has not yet healed himself, so he
is caught in the initiatory illness of the future (or possible
future) shaman. Looking at his reflection, he doesn’t recognize
who or what he is becoming: “A young Chicano man stared back,
eyes both dark and bright with visions. He didn’t recognize
that man. He had changed. Was changing. Shedding one snake skin
and finding another skin beneath. He was turning into someone
the successful shaman candidate heals herself and becomes a shaman,
the unsuccessful candidate fails to heal herself, resulting in
“a total crisis” and quite possibly “leading to the disintegration
of the personality” (Eliade Myths 224). According to Larsen,
balanced awareness in a person requires both dreams/illusions
and an understanding of factual reality. Reality without dreams
is a lifeless existence. Dreams without reality leads to madness:
“Subsumed in myth, the dimensions of consciousness, free will,
and compassion are left out, and one is easily capable of becoming
the nightmare in another’s waking dream” (4).
adds the concept of the muse to the shamanic elements already
mentioned. Anna Naverra had a muse among the spirits of the Rincon
mountains (discussed below), and so does Juan. Juan’s muse is
the creature Davis Cooper called “the Drowned Girl,” and Anna
referred to as “the Floodmage.” The Floodmage is depicted as a
cold being, content to drive Juan mad if he is unable to hunt
the white stag for her (198). However, this otherworldly creature
is not the reason for Juan’s probable failure to become a shaman;
that reason is in Juan himself. Dora explains that Juan has a
temper that broke up his first marriage, but he has always been
good to her (245). It was because of Dora and Juan’s goodness
that Cooper entrusted them with Anna’s painting of the Floodmage.
And Anna’s paintings are implied to have a certain power; perhaps
some of Anna’s own power was incorporated into them. For whatever
reason, Juan encountered the Floodmage or Drowned Girl and “the
girl was drawing out something at the core of Juan that he’d thought
was dead and buried” (246). The violence and anger at Juan’s core
drives his ambition to be a great painter, which in turn drives
him towards madness instead of healing.
Anna Naverra became increasingly solitary, as discussed above,
she eventually “went crazy,” or “had some kind of nervous breakdown,”
whereupon her family took her away from Arizona and back to Mexico
where she retreated to a convent (111). She didn’t fail her shamanic
initiation, however. In fact, Anna fulfilled her part of the bargain
with the spirits, successfully healed herself to become a shaman
and gained the ability to paint true paintings (198, 277-278).
But she did have a breakdown. Maggie and Dora speculate that Anna
was unable to reconcile her visions with her Catholicism (136),
but Anna did make that reconciliation by seeing the spirits as
angels (and later as devils) (277).
took more than visions to break her down, though after the breakdown
she was unable to endure seeing the spirits of the land anymore;
Cooper referred to her as having “fled back to the family bosom”
(167). Anna is described as having been a “bohemian young woman”
with “a proper Catholic schoolgirl” underneath. She had “pain
beneath the protective wit, and a desperate dependency on Cooper”
(171). It is not until page 278 of the novel, when Maggie has
gone back in time to speak with Cooper, that we learn what it
was that drove Anna to her breakdown. She made a bargain with
one of the spirits of the mountains, the Nightmage, who functioned
as her muse. In exchange for her unborn child, the Nightmage agreed
to teach Anna to travel the spiral path and walk in time. The
spirits helped Anna lose her unborn child, and that choice—choosing
art over motherhood—haunted her. Cooper tells Maggie that Anna
“lost her faith in her art, in the mountains, and even her faith
in me. She replaced it with her childhood faith” and returned
to her family, to Mexico, and to the Catholic Church (278). But
this rejection of art and the spirits was not a failure to become
a shaman. Anna trapped her muse, the Nightmage, in a painting,
and made herself invisible to the other spirits so they could
not find her when she left the mountains (278-279). The Nightmage
himself was a kind of artist as well as a muse, and Anna was his
artwork: “When she [Anna] was strong in herself and in her art,
the work they created of each other was good. But later, when
Anna was frightened, and a bit unstable . . . then it all went
of the characters so far described as shamans or potential shamans
are characters who ended up in the role without choosing to be
in it. Anna Naverra is called to the role by her initial meeting
with the Nightmage, where he gives her Sight to see the other
spirits (277). Davis Cooper was aware of the spirits through Anna
and began to encounter them for himself when she was gone. Juan
became aware of the otherworldly beings of the mountains through
Anna’s paintings, and then through his own encounter with the
Floodmage. And Maggie becomes aware of them through Cooper’s writing,
Anna’s painting, Juan’s increasing madness and finally her own
encounters. But there is another means of become a shaman, and
that is by choice and training oneself for the role. It is in
this sense that Tomás Yazzie and Fox (Johnny Foxxe) can
be considered potential shamans.
by Personal Quest
Tomás nor Fox show the usual signs of solitariness, absentmindedness
or violence. In fact, they are both quiet and well-grounded people
throughout the novel. When we first meet Tomás, he is already
apparent as a shaman:
into the fire, aware of the other fire that burned that night
several miles away [Fox’s fire]. The flames leapt high in the
dark. The mesquite wood burned quick and hot. He could feel a
rhythm, a pulse, a drum, sounding deep in the rock below.
He poured kinnikinnick
from a pouch into the scarred palm of one hand, then tossed
a mixture of herbs and tobacco into the dancing flames. The
voice of the fire spoke to him. And the voice of the wind in
the mesquite wood. Of the stone people, and of the water flowing
there at the canyon’s heart.
these voices told him. It has ended and it has just begun. (12)
Tomás takes Maggie to Red Springs to see the white stag,
he treats the fact of the stag leaving behind turquoise where
its hoofs strike the ground as an everyday occurrence; this
is a man used to interacting with the supernatural (124).
is so much the shaman that he is able to call Crow, the infamous
trickster spirit who also appears as a coyote, and gain a copper
bracelet by guessing the spirit’s name:
annoyed. “You must guess,” he growled. “It’s a riddle. You must
guess my name.”
stirred the embers of the fire with his usual careful, unhurried
movements. “Brother,” he named the other at last.
laughed. “I’m no relative of yours.”
is my brother. And the stones below, and the trees and the cactus
on this hill. You’ve entered the circle. You’ve smoked the tobacco.
And I name you Brother,” Tomás said.
stopped. His smile died. He looked at the other uneasily. He rose,
took off a copper band, and flung it down before the other man.
Then he disappeared, melting into the dark of the night and the
unassuming Tomás is better equipped than any other character
in the novel to deal with the land spirits, though he remains
in the background most of the time. He is also the one who taught
both Fox and Davis Cooper to listen to the land (219, 279).
or Johnny Foxxe, is in the process of training himself, partly
under Tomás’s guidance, but he is not really a shaman yet.
When we first encounter Fox, he is returning to his beloved mountains
after a time away, and is camping outdoors to properly greet the
place he loves. He prepares to attempt to hear the land speak
as the scene ends:
He sat down by the fire and
arranged his tools beside him. A copal flute, a deerskin drum.
A hunting knife and a sharpening stone. He sat and bided his time
until the water trapped the image of the moon. He fed live oak
branches into the fire, waiting, preparing himself. (10)
Fox cannot yet hear the spirits or the land. In a later scene,
he builds a sweatlodge and tries to hear spirits while he is waiting
for the stones to heat:
As the fire grew, he stopped
talking and he listened, the way Tomás had taught him.
He heard only the crackle of the fire, the snap of the dry wood,
the hiss of the green. The music of the water. The whisper of
the wind. A single coyote in the hills. He frowned, knowing that
if Tomás had been there, the other man would have heard
this late in the novel, it almost seems that Fox will never achieve
his goal to hear the land. But when Maggie comes across the sweatlodge
and Fox emerges, Maggie “could see pale figures crowding the doorway
behind him.” Fox has had his encounter at last, and we know that
it is not just Maggie who sees the beings because Fox asks her
“Did you see?” (226).
of the magical abilities possessed by shamans in many cultures
is that of shapechanging. Jones mentions that both Eliade and
Carlo Ginzburg saw “a connection between the practice of shamanism
and the adoption of an animal guise on the part of the practitioner”
(86). Cooper recognizes that Anna is changing shape. “Our Anna
has become a different creature out here,” he wrote in a letter.
And later in the same letter he said, “She is a wonder to me,
brown as the stones, fierce as a she-wolf, graceful as the deer.
She is something other than woman in this place, she is earth
and fire and sky as well” (50).
of our shamans and potential shamans are also connected to shapeshifting.
Cooper “was a different man” after Anna left and he began to see
the spirits (100). Juan becomes animal-like in his initiatory
madness; he is described as howling with a “strange, feral, ferocious
sound, neither quite human nor animal” (10). He sees in his reflection
that he is not the same man, that “He had changed. Was changing.
Shedding one snake skin and finding another skin beneath” (63).
And he is associated early on with the spiral symbols that characterize
the non-otherworldly shapechangers (11, 49). Though Fox is not
directly associated with shapechanging, he does have two sisters
who are coyote shapechangers, and they both have the spiral tattoos
that mark their shifting ability (103). Tomás is only very
tentatively connected to shapechanging, when Maggie thinks at
first that Crow is Tomás. Otherwise, he is never directly
or in any other way associated with shapechanging, and when Maggie
asks him if he is a shapeshifter, he says, “I’m just a man. And
I’m partial to this old shape I wear” (257). The tiny connection
to Crow fits Tomás’s later role as “Spiritmage,” but it
is his very contentment with his own shape that gives him stability
and power as a shaman.
is closely associated with shapechanging through her connection
with Crow, the trickster, who is the first spirit she meets
and who ultimately teaches her to walk the spiral path (discussed
below). Crow’s “body was marked with spiral tattoos” (222),
and the fact that he has many tattoos presumably indicates his
greater shapechanging abilities compared to lesser shifters
like Pepe, Fox’s sisters, and Thumper, who each have only a
single tattoo and a single other shape. Maggie also describes
herself as a shapeshifter of sorts:
many different people,” she said. “So I guess I’m a bit of
a shape-shifter too. In West Virginia, I’m Emil Black’s granddaughter.
In L.A., I’m Nigel Vanderlin’s ex-wife; in London, I’m Tatiana
Ludvik’s crazy friend. I’m a vagabond writer to my friends
in Holland; a sweet summer affair to a sculptor in Florence;
a hopeless klutz to every gym teacher I’ve ever had—do you
want me to go on?”
are just shapes [said Crow]. What’s underneath? The essence,
that doesn’t change from shape to shape? That’s what a shape-shifter
has to know, or you lose yourself. You can’t get back. You’re
trapped in one shape, and you can’t get out.” (223)
is a shapechager both by association and by nature.
only is there a connection between shapechanging and shamanism,
but in some Celtic stories there is a strong connection between
madness, shapechanging and poetry. Suibhne, or Sweeney, is one
example. He was a warrior-king who insulted a cleric. The cleric
cursed Suibhne with madness so that he “levitated in a frantic
cumbersome motion "like a bird of the air” (Heaney, unnumbered
pages). Suibhne leaps into the air—he is sometimes described
as being feathered, but seems to be neither wholly bird, nor
entirely human during his madness. He lives in the wilderness,
eating only watercress and drinking only water. In addition
to becoming wild and birdlike, Suibhne also becomes a poet and
frequently speaks in poetry.
shamanic method for changing shape is “undressing” down to the
skeleton and “putting on” an animal form. This may be related
to the dismemberment of the shaman initiate. Jones describes the
dismemberment visions of the initiate shaman during his initiatory
illness: his or her body is cut into pieces, boiled in a cauldron
or the flesh scraped off the bones until it is nothing but a skeleton;
the eyes may be removed or replaced in order to supply supernatural
vision; pieces of crystal may be implanted to provide a link between
the shaman and the spirits. Quite often the head is cut off and
set aside to watch all that is done to the body. (90)
compares the shamanic/shapechanging story of Lleu in Welsh mythology
to this initiatory dismemberment. Lleu transformed into an eagle
when he was wounded by his wife’s lover. He was discovered by
his uncle Gwydion high in a tree with his flesh rotting and dropping
off from the wound. When restored to human form, Lleu is a gaunt
figure, but one more powerful than before his ordeal (72).
thinness can also be compared to the ritual dismemberment vision.
Cooper described her as “strong and brown, and so terribly thin”
(33) and Anna said of herself, “I am thin and strong” (175). According
to Eliade, “The ability to see oneself as a skeleton implies,
evidently, the symbolism of death and resurrection” and the theme
of being reduced to a skeleton “constitutes . . . a symbolico-ritual
complex centred in the notion of life as perpetual renewal” (Myths
83). Bone is, is Eliade’s opinion, “the ultimate root of animal
Life, the matrix from which the flesh is continually renewed”
and “[b]y contemplating himself as a skeleton, the shaman does
away with time and stands in the presence of the eternal source
of Life” (84). Thus in recognizing her own thinness, Anna steps
out of time like a shaman. She even recognizes a connection between
her thinness and her strength, perhaps an awareness of her shamanic
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,
travelling “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.
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 travelling
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
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
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, who
I have quoted here, discusses and debunks this theory, and says:
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
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.
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:
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,
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
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
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.
was kept in the care of Bethlem Hospital, the famous “Bedlam”
(15), itself associated with fairies in the folk song “Tom O’
Bedlam” in which the narrator intends “to cut mince pies from
children’s thighs with which to feed the fairies.” Charles Altamont
Doyle, a fairy painter and brother of a fairy painter (Richard
“Dicky” Doyle) painted pictures that “display yet more bizarre
imaginative twists, heightened by the artist’s later madness”
(16). He “had kept an illustrated diary which was full of drawings
of fairies” while in various mental institutions (Smith 382).
Charles Altamont Doyle was also the father of Arthur Conan Doyle,
famous creator of Sherlock Holmes and avid fairy believer. The
younger Doyle risked his reputation to support the veracity of
the Cottingley fairy photographs.
mentioned earlier, one of the primary functions of the shaman
is to mediate between the mortal world and the Otherworld. Jones
comments that “The Otherworld can perhaps be regarded as a psychological
state related through language” (79), making a poet a natural
choice for shaman. This psychological state is another state of
consciousness that alters the perception of reality (79-80). In
normal life, we live in consensus reality, to purpose of which
is “to provide a structure for filtering masses of potentially
perceptible raw data into a manageable flow that offers enough
information about the environment to enable us to function, but
not so much information as to be overwhelming.” A shaman is able
to leave consensus reality and enter another state; “[a]n altered
state is merely a different filtering of the same mass of available
data” (80). Larsen phrases it this way:
shaman obviously has access to dimensions of consciousness usually
unavailable to us. Whether in trance or awake, he seems to be
able to see things that others do not see. In our culture this
condition is regarded invariably as a symptom of psychotic episode.
Yet the shaman is not psychotic . . . . (80)
Shamans perceive the
world differently, and can relay the important aspects of those
differences to their people. People, like the shamans and potential
shamans I have been discussing, gain the ability to see the spirits
through a change in perception. This change can be given as a
gift by the spirits themselves, as the Nightmage gave Anna the
ability to see the other spirits (277), or as the Spine Witch
gave to Maggie in exchange for the turquoise stones the spirit
took from Maggie’s night table (by kissing her eyelids, a very
Celtic fairy means of conferring Sight) (125). Cooper’s poems
were thought by one reviewer to be transcriptions of drunken hallucinations,
and a hallucination is one kind of altered perception, just not
the kind that actually resulted in the composition of the poems
theme in The Wood Wife is that the spirit beings wear
shapes given to them; in the novel it is the artists, the painters
and poets, who create those shapes. This idea is echoed in other
literature. E.L. Gardner, a Theosophist who brought the Cottingley
fairy photographs to Arthur Conan Doyle’s attention, wrote:
“The diminutive human form [of fairies], so widely assumed,
is doubtless due, at least in a great measure, to the powerful
influence of human thought, the strongest creative power in
our cycle” (in Doyle 174). Commenting on this statement, Paul
Smith says “[f]or Gardner then, the way fairies look to us was
determined by the way our collective unconscious shapes them,
in that it may ‘select archetypal images and project them on
to the raw elemental force, producing the materialization of
our choice’” (380; quoting Picknett, 159). This is somewhat
comparable to Larsen’s comments on the function of myth: “Firsthand
mystical experience is sometimes so powerful that one must render
it, translate it, shape it, into a form comprehensible to consciousness”
(34). Myths and mythic characters, then, serve two functions:
“They reawaken man to an experience of the divine, and yet also
safeguard him from having to deal with it in its formless aspect:
pure power and meaning” (34). Without such a safeguard, mystical
experience would drive people to madness (as it probably has
done). So shamans give form to otherworldly creatures. The shaman
is an “imposer of form. He refuses to be baffled by stimuli
which are diffuse and lacking in significance,” says Richard
A Shweder (329, italics in original).
the artists give the spirits shapes to wear becomes more and
more evident as the novel progresses. Cooper described the spirits,
which he calls fairies, thus:
are not supernatural beings, they are as natural as the land
itself. I believe them to be an essence, a rhythm, a language,
a color beyond the spectrum of our sight. They appear in the
shapes we clothe them with—and at first I though it was only
Anna who had the power to do this, but now I’ve seen creatures
from my own recent poems, flickering like moths in the mesquite
grove. Perhaps it is art that gives them these shapes, or belief,
or our own expectations. (167-168)
It is when the artist
becomes a shaman, whether they are aware of it or not, that they
gain the power to shape the fairies or spirits, and to shape the
perception of others who see the beings. Maggie comments that
“Anna believed that all she was doing was creating shapes for
them to wear. Like clothes, she said, that they put on for our
sake, not for theirs” (229), and Cooper said that what these beings
are called, whether it be personal names like “Thumper” (named
by Maggie) or a name for all such beings, like “fairies” or “angels”
or “spirits,” “are ones they wear for us. They don’t much matter
to them” (277).
state or reality the shaman is in, in The Wood Wife the
artists who are shamans do better work than they did before
they were shamans. Anna Naverra painted her greatest, truest
work after discovering and beginning to associate with the spirits,
and Cooper wrote his best poetry when he, too, could see the
spirits. His final manuscript was composed while he was the
Spiritmage, a human mage chosen to replace the missing Nightmage
as protector of the Rincon Mountains. Though Cooper was unaware
of being Spiritmage, he had the increased artistic power that
goes along with the role and he heard the land and could translate
the voices of the place into poetry. After Cooper’s death, the
role of Spiritmage was again unfilled; by the end of the novel
Tomás has stepped into the role naturally. On his assuming
the title Spiritmage, Tomás says, “I look after this
land as best I know how. I listen to it with respect. Mage,
shaman—those are just words” (296).
the spirits themselves, Tomás has no need for a label,
and perhaps that is why he is so well suited to the role. The
Floodmage at first objects that the Spiritmage must be an artist;
she says, “You have no mastery, no artistry. There is nothing
about you that is beautiful,” to which Tomás replies
that his artistry is in his garden, in his ability to grow food
in the desert. The Mages must admit to that (296). Tomás
has heard the land speaking all along, and is perfectly suited
for the position of intermediary between it, between the spiritworld,
and the human world.
the novel’s end, Maggie has returned to writing poetry, and
she is also longing to be back in the desert mountains; she
has come to crave the solitariness and connection to the place
where she had her shamanic initiation. It is implied that the
shamanic journey healed her, returned her to her core essence
(poetry), and so will strengthen her artistic abilities (304-305,
317-318). She has begun to hear the voices of the land itself,
as well as the voices of the spirits, and will be able to take
on the shamanic/artistic function of giving the land a voice
that non-shamans can hear.
all the different hints about art and shamanism in The Wood
Wife, from Maggie’s inheritance of Cooper’s place in the
mountains (his house, anyway), and because inheritance is one
way a person can become a shaman, I was expecting Maggie to
be chosen as the new Spiritmage. Yet she is not chosen. She
seems perfect for the role, but it is Tomás who assumes
it. Why? The Floodmage says to Crow, “Your little poet hasn’t
been here long enough” (296). Maggie is not yet strongly enough
connected to the mountains and desert to take on the role. By
the end of the book, it looks like she will be, but she is not
yet. So what does this mean about art? Perhaps that some kinds
of art, art that is strongly rooted in place, act as a voice
for that place as the shaman is the voice for the landscape
he lives in (for example, relaying the message of Sedna). To
make the kind of art that speaks for place, whether it is painting
or poetry, or even gardening, the artist must have a true knowledge
and attachment to that place. It is implied that Maggie, who
can hear the voices of the desert, may very well develop that
attachment and so be able to speak for the place herself.
The Wood Wife can be read as a nice urban fantasy about
a woman seeing spirits in the desert and her adventures because
of it. But, on another level, it is a novel about the transformative
abilities of art and about the power of place and its connection
to artist and art. It is also about the way an artist can be driven
mad by the frustration of not having a skill to equal their vision.
It is about the human connection with the world we live on. It
is an environmentalist novel and a novel about love and obsession.
But most of all, for me, it is a book about coming to belong to
a place to the extent that you can begin to speak for it. This
aspect comes so strongly for me because I, like Maggie, had a
somewhat rootless existence, and have longed for that kind of
true belonging that Maggie began to find in the desert. To become
a shaman-artist and speak for the land seems a true and productive
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