Reindeer Spirit

(Excerpted from Neolithic Shamanism by Raven Kaldera and Galina Krasskova, through Inner Traditions Press. Check out the rest of the book!)

Spirit of the ReindeerRaven: Reindeer Spirit came into my life a few years ago, at the behest of my long-dead ancestor Uncle Noiade. I had been having health problems, and Reindeer gave me some crucial aid. When I asked what I could do to help, Reindeer told me that she was in danger, and that I needed to help. Some research confirmed this: many of the indigenous reindeer-herding people of the tundra and taiga have had to give up their traditional lifestyle in order to survive, and the herds themselves have shrunk drastically due to mismanagement from modern governments, global warming killing off their food, wolf attacks due to the disrupted ecosystem, modern diseases, inbreeding, radiation from Soviet nuclear testing in Siberia … and most surprising, a lack of shamans to tell the herders where to take the deer and to propitiate the wilderness spirits for the survival of the herds. Nearly all of the traditional shamans were converted or killed off over the past century.

Save the reindeer and the reindeer people? How could I possibly do such a thing? While the problem seemed vast and terrible, I decided that as a child of the modern era as well as a shaman of an ancient tradition, I would turn to the Internet. I created the website as a clearinghouse of information about the plight of the reindeer and the reindeer people, and listed various charities that are taking on the problem, so that people could donate. It’s a first step. Hopefully Reindeer Spirit will show me the next step soon.

I have reindeer-leather boots, and with Reindeer’s help I have charmed them to have a shadow of reindeer feet cast onto them – they make my clumsy feet more dexterous over slippery ice. I also have reindeer-fur boots of the traditional sort for deep snow – turned-up toes for skiing, and a sole made of pieces of fur going in three different directions, so that no matter how you turn your foot there is traction. They are the warmest things I’ve ever worn on my feet, without exception. They are as soft as bedroom slippers when I’m walking through knee-deep snow, and at the same time my feet are entirely warm and dry for hours.

Galina: I was first introduced to Reindeer through Kari the God of the North Wind. I have a working relationship with Kari, and one day he arranged for a fellow spirit-worker to gift me, out of the blue, with a reindeer skin. Once I accepted the hide, it turned out I was also initiating contact with Reindeer. I don’t work with her, really, but I do honor her. She occasionally helps me in working with the winds and their magic. She has helped me to stay clean energetically, and has lent me her sight for the occasional journey. One thing in particular awes me about this animal: Reindeer thrives on rhythm. When I connect to her, it’s the vibrating drumming of the heartbeat, the cracking of the ice, the rhythmic chanting of the glaciers. (Glaciers sing, each with their own unique song.) Reindeer is in the middle of this symphony, exquisitely aware of every note, every chord, every thrumming arpeggio of sound, and moves within it, rides it, uses it to aid in fleetness of foot. Reindeer is a magical creature, truly blessed by the Gods of the Wind.

Reindeer herding is an ancient profession, going back to the Ice Age. When humans left Africa and spread out over the continent of Eurasia, glaciers sheathed the upper areas of the continent all the way down to what is now Kyrgyzstan. The humans who spent hundreds of thousands of years in that frigid area learned to depend on the Reindeer for survival, and some of their descendants – living much further north now – still do today. They began with following the reindeer and living off the wild herds, but eventually began to ally with the deer, tame them, ride them, harness them, milk them, and breed them. For a beautiful and heart-wrenching account of both the ancient reindeer myths and the struggle of the modern herders, we recommend Piers Vitebsky’s The Reindeer People.

One myth of the Saami people regarding the Reindeer Spirit is that Reindeer is fussy about cleanliness. The story is told as to how a young maiden marries Reindeer and goes to live with him in a tent on the edge of the tundra. He is kind to her and treats her well, but he has very strict rules as to how the tent should be kept, and how often skins should be chewed and thrown away. When she becomes lax and fails in her constant cleanliness, he leaves her. This fable is reflected in the reality that reindeer are very prone to parasites and diseases. They actually do better in arctic weather, because there are fewer of those at sub-zero temperature. When reindeer are raised further south in warmer areas (or migrate there during the warmer months) it seems like every parasite and lethal insect in the world wants to leap on them. On a spirit-ritual level, it means that approaching Reindeer should be done only after some kind of purification, if only a bath. If you have psychic parasites that you have picked up along the way, Reindeer will not come near you. (It’s a good way to figure that out, actually, if you don’t have a shaman around to check you out.)

Reindeer are herd animals, although females tend to stay with the herd and males tend to wander off for long periods of time. Unlike other European deer, both males and females have large antlers. The males go into rut in the fall and fight each other for the right to mate with the best females; after this they shed their antlers. The females, on the other hand, retain their antlers well into the winter, as theirs are for defending the young they will bear from predators. (Some scientific studies have suggested that female reindeer actually have high testosterone levels during part of the year in order to grow those huge antlers and use them aggressively.) They don’t stay in one place, but migrate as the seasons change, often over a huge area, crossing roaring rivers and surviving temperatures that would easily kill a human being. They are made to survive in extreme conditions, and Reindeer can teach you a lot about survival … and about what you don’t need in order to survive. It is said that the North Wind rides a reindeer. It is also said, by the Saami people, that the heart of a sacred reindeer lies under the earth, and anyone who puts their ear to the earth to listen for it can hear it beating. Listening for the reindeer’s heart under the earth is a good thing to do as an opening to calling this spirit who has given so much to humanity.

Exercise: Borrowing Reindeer’s Legs

To contact Reindeer Spirit, it helps to have a piece of reindeer fur – the warmest fur in the entire world, as the arctic peoples will tell you. Its winter overlay has hollow hairs that catch and contain the light and heat for warmth and insulation. While other animal spirits may prefer to be given some appropriate food, Reindeer’s favorite moss is hard to come by, and anyway, what Reindeer seems to want right now is an offering of help toward its species’ survival. Check out the website listed above and make your offering, and ask for Reindeer’s help in running. Don’t worry that Reindeer will be upset about you holding a piece of a dead member of their species; Reindeer has sacrificed herself to keep many generations of humans warm with her fur and understands the need. Reindeer shamans of northern Eurasia wore reindeer-fur coats and boots like everyone else.

This exercise is especially useful for people who have arthritis or bad knees or some other disability of the leg that prevents them from even a light jog. While actually shaping one’s energy-body legs into something strengthening can help with physical disabilities, it takes the aid of an animal spirit to, at least temporarily, entirely bypass a physical disability and do the nearly-impossible … such as run without pain when the flesh body would never allow such a thing on its own.

Do some utiseta, ideally in very cold weather (we guarantee you that Reindeer will not be sympathetic to your complaints about the cold, so bundle up and do your best), and see if this dignified, guarded spirit will respond to you. If so, ask her what she wants in return for lending her legs to you on occasion, and do that. Then return to her and take a walk with her in the cold. Don’t presume to touch her; let her decide when to move toward you. Remember that she may decide to run away at any time – not because she is shy, but because she has decided that she’s had enough of you – and you will never be fast enough to follow her, so let her set the pace. If she drops back to walk behind you, she is ready, and she will walk right through you. As she does, feel her legs and hooves melding with your own energy body’s legs. You may go up on your toes for a few steps as you get used to it, which is all right. In fact, you might want to take your first running steps on your toes.

Reindeer have broad hooves that splay out sideways in order to move on heavy snow without plunging through it, and because of this their tendons give a characteristic “click” whenever they take a step. You might want to hang something that clicks on your footwear, like small pieces of hollow wood. (Raven actually wears bells when running with Reindeer, in honor of the people who belled and harnessed this ally.) The hardest part will be holding those reindeer legs in place, carefully and mindfully, as you run. The idea is not to win a race, but to do this piece of shamanic work perfectly, even if that only means a few steps. (Raven actually only ran twelve steps the first day, and worked up by a few steps each day.) As soon as you feel Reindeer’s legs slipping away, thank her and slow to a walk. If she is willing, come back and meet her again the next day. She is a good companion for daily jogging.

Afterwards, write down the sensations you felt for future reference, and watch yourself over the next half hour or so for specific food cravings or other unusual behavior. The residue of Reindeer Spirit affecting you for a short while will not be harmful, but it’s good to be aware of what’s going on.

Artwork by Sigurth.