Spouses, Partners, and Other Hapless Bystanders

excerpt from Wyrdwalkers: Techniques of Northern-Tradition Shamanism

looking outIn the histories, legends, and anthropologies that we collect, it is not at all unusual for shamans and spirit-workers to be single. (The exception is in some tribal societies where marriage is a very different institution from ours, and shamans have a higher status.) In fact, the classic archetype of the shaman is not generally thought of as someone who has a spouse - someone with whom they argue over the breakfast table about whose turn it is to clean the catbox, someone whose anniversary they must remember, someone whose arms they lie in at night and take comfort. Yet this calling comes to many people, partnered or not, and the partner may have no choice but to either stay and hold on while everything takes a back seat to this spiritual whirlwind, or walk out and leave their lover during this most difficult of times.

Probably the hardest thing to come to terms with for a spirit-worker's partner is the fact that you will never be the first and most important thing in your partner's life. The work will come first, always. This is made more explicit when the spirit-worker is a god-spouse and the mortal partner isn't even the primary one, but even those who simply work for and with the Gods and wights will have to put them first. If that means getting out of bed in the middle of lovemaking because there are dead people at your window who need help, or missing your spouse's company picnic because a particular rite needed to be done right now, no delaying, well, that's the price that both people will pay.

One thing is certain: If the partner actually gets in the way of the Work, or if the partner's disapproval or lack of understanding is used as an excuse to avoid the Work, the Gods will arrange to remove the obstacle. Yes, this is a warning to both spirit-workers and their lovers. Don't be that obstacle. Don't let them become that obstacle ... if you want to have any hope of keeping them, that is.

Children are a particularly thorny problem. Unlike the adult partner who can choose to be there and be supportive or walk, children are stuck and have no choice. However, the Gods are not unaware of this. While the majority of spirit-workers that I've met have been childless (some through choice, some through physical issues), those who have had children have been cut some extra slack during the period of the child's youngest years, and longer if they were single parents. I was given time to see my own daughter to maturity before taking on this job full-time; in the meantime, the deal was that I would learn as many skills as possible in preparation for that time. The Gods, of course, may have a different idea of what "maturity" means; they decided that my daughter was old enough when she was in her teens and still years from being a legal adult.

In some cases, the Gods may also decide that it is better for the other parent (or other family members) to raise the child, leaving the spirit-worker free to work, however painful that might be for them. Generally if this is the order and it is refused, they will do what it takes to lever circumstances until there is no other choice. I've seen this happen worst when someone has been fingered by the Gods, is rebelling against their Wyrd, and getting married and spawning is part of their attempts to get away from their future. That's ended in divorce and loss of full-time custody more times than I can count. If you are going to fight the Powers That Be, my advice is not to bring a helpless child into it.

I spoke to one spirit-worker who had felt the push by the Gods to give up her small child in favor of the Work. She demanded of the mother goddess of her pantheon to only send the primary care of her child away if she could be guaranteed by the Gods to have him pass to a home that was more loving and more appropriate for him than anything she could give. Less than a month later, they visited her brother's farm, and her son fell in love with everything there, including his cousins. Her brother and his wife offered to take her son in temporarily while she got her fluctuating health situation together, with as much visitation as she wanted. Feeling the push by the Gods, she sadly and reluctantly agreed. The arrangement went on until he was an adult, and twenty years later, both feel that it was the right choice.

This does not mean that every spirit-worker should give up their children - as I pointed out above, many manage with the help of other parents, or by making bargains to wait until the children are old enough before taking on the job fully. There is a reason why women, in some cultures, are not allowed to become shamans until they reach menopause - and why their psychic gifts often burgeon at that time. The survival of the young must come first. It is difficult, if not impossible, to take on responsibility to the spirits and the community concurrently with raising young children.

The comments below were gathered from the partners of some of the spirit-workers interviewed for this book. They ranged from the completely nonreligious to those who were spirit-workers of various sorts themselves, and their attitude toward their partner's work varies from skepticism and worry (in the case of J.K.) to complete acceptance. I deliberately kept in the more ambivalent comments, because it's not unusual for partners to go through several of these stages, including the ones that are not all that flattering to the spirit-worker, and they are perspectives that need to be honored. It's not an easy thing, especially in this day and age, to have a lover who has been grabbed up by a path that may seem so bizarre to society. However, the hope and devotion inherent in many of these testimonies tells us that love is possible no matter what the Gods may have in store for you.

As I helped to edit my spouse's unfinished shaman sickness article, I jokingly added certain humorous yet true comments to her text. While I was doing so, she commented that I could perhaps lend some insight into the trials of being on the other side of the fence.

I would imagine, given the nature and severity of such a process, that many relationships falter or fail completely due to the incredible stress put forth by the 'awakening'. I would also guess that the level of closeness in the relationship would have more to do with the actual ability to accept the inherent changes and alienation occurring during said process. Although I am no stranger to spiritual awakening, I have but a faint murmur at this time, compared to my mate's thrumming spiritual pulse. At times she seems consumed by it, her every waking moment seemingly being spent thinking about her past tasks, lessons, and work to be done.

There are many levels to this transformation that I have watched happening. In her article she wrote: "You're in the process of dying and being remade, and your loved ones may not recognize or like who and what it is you are becoming." This could not ring more true, and as she also stated, it really is reminiscent of a 'boot camp' experience. Depending on where you are in your relationship, this alone may cause a disconnection. Once again, communication is key, I know personally that I could not initially accept many of the circumstances that came with this journey. At times I reacted quite poorly, rejecting the notion of it entirely, isolating myself from the truth and reality of the situation at times. Ultimately, though, whether you want to address it or not, having a significant other that is in the shaman-sickness process makes you part of that process. It may awaken things within yourself that you may personally be unable to handle, or afterwards, contain. It may cast a light on the spiritual path that you are to take, possibly even shoving you unwillingly onto that path.

This shamanic journey is such a strong thing that you become involved via osmosis. The energies and gods that interact with your mate - in your own home - will affect you, whether you like it or not. It really isn't something to be taken lightly, but talking about things and not harboring resentment is crucial. In order to have an understanding, even when there is hostility, one must think constantly of how this feels to them. They may not be handling this painful transformation very well themselves. In the end, though, it will be much better for everyone if you talk about things rather than hide from them.

I believe that balance is a major part of what makes the 'big wheel' turn, and as life during this time will be frequently turbulent, once certain benchmarks have been crossed, it will get better. Know that this process is ultimately going to make them become what they really are meant to be, and that if your love is truly 'unconditional' (as I'm sure you have told them many times), when they arrive at their 'true self' they will be a much happier and centered individual. The person you fell in love with is still there, but over time we all change. These changes are healthy and necessary; remember that. Take heart that many of the problems and baggage that plagued your mate in the beginning will probably be addressed, if not worked though entirely. I have realized that this is all part of the journey, and that dealing with 'skeletons in the closet' is part and parcel of shaman sickness. It won't be pretty, and it will likely involve more effort than the energy possessed ... but they need you now more than they ever have. Being supportive doesn't mean agreeing with or liking everything that happens, but you will be surprised at how much of an effect you can have on their journey by being a positive influence if you really do love them.

-FX, spirit-worker's husband

Being a spirit-worker myself (though not a shaman), it made the whole process of watching my partner Wintersong's shaman sickness both easier and harder. I could see that what he was going through was necessary, and I could ask Them and get the answer that no, I couldn't help too much, because that was not the point. That all helped, because I didn't feel like I was flailing in the dark. But at the same time, I knew that I was going to have to do something myself eventually - not what he was going through, but something. Seeing what he was going through made me very nervous, no matter how many times I asked and was told that I was going to go through something different. That answer only made think of different and equally painful ordeals that I might have in store for me.

-Fireheart Tashlin

I met Aleksa near the end of her "shaman sickness". My part in the recovery was, and is, being a stable grounding for her to anchor to, and to be there as a steady support mechanism for her while she does her work. We're in many ways the opposite sides of a coin, so I can understand what she needs, and having my own brand of magic makes it easier for me to help out with any required background work.

Sometimes the Ancestors request (or demand) certain behaviors or lifestyle changes, but so far those have all been very rational and easy to take, as well as educational. I believe Aleksa has mentioned the growing insistence on a seasonal, local, and organic diet, for example - sure, it takes some work to shift from our usual supermarket shopping habits, but it's less of an inconvenience than a truly better way of eating and living.

I feel very blessed that Aleksa's work is very much ancestor-based. Because of this, I've never had the issues that some spirit-workers' spouses may have with having to "share" her with a Deity, spirit, or the like. In fact, it's rather the opposite, in that Family (living or dead) is the primary core of her community, so that once the Family (especially her dead great-grandmother, who is her spiritual mentor) had accepted me into the family, there was no conflict. Overall, in my case, being the spouse of a spirit worker presents far more blessings than hardships.

-James, spirit-worker's partner

When this all began to happen to my wife, I was confused, and then angry, and then confused some more. At first I refused to believe it - I was a Pagan, but nothing like this had ever happened to me or anyone that I knew. As some of the other partners of spirit-workers who were there in the beginning have pointed out, we didn't sign up for this kind of a relationship. We didn't sign up for a partner who has to rearrange the furniture in the house because the Gods want a room all to themselves, just for altars....and then she would spend half the night in there, talking to no one, as far as I could see. This stuff grew and grew until it took over her life. She quit her job to do runes for pay, but so far it hasn't paid off like her job did before, and I've had to pick up the financial slack. That's been the biggest problem. The second biggest problem is that it takes up all her time, morning and night. It's like being with someone in the Army, with no paycheck.

I would try to help with things, only to have her tell me that I wasn't doing it right ... or worse, that I was doing it with the wrong attitude. That really burned me. OK, later I realized that I was desperately trying to make this part of her life somewhere that I had some say, some control, but at the time I just felt like I was trying and being rebuffed. Why would the Gods care about my attitude? But things that I would buy her and give her for her work would mysteriously break, while the "magical" gifts of friends would stay together. I accused her of deliberately, or even unconsciously, breaking them. She would cry, and I would yell, and it would turn into a fight. Which would always end with her steadfastly saying that she had to do this or that, there was no choice in the matter. I'd storm around the house, trying to get her to see that this was crazy, that she only thought she had to do these things.

Until the day that I, in a rage because she was gone out in the middle of the night for hours after telling me she'd be back soon, I walked by an altar and the hand-thrown pottery chalice I'd given her to use for Freya fell off and shattered in my wake. It was like a cold finger ran down my spine. I went to pick up the pieces and put them back on the altar, and I couldn't do it. I literally couldn't make myself do it. It was like someone had put out a hand and stopped me cold. I know that it sounds crazy, but I felt like a sword had just whistled past my head, deliberately missing me. I had never experienced that before, and I was so freaked out that I had to leave the house for four days.

When I came back, I couldn't approach the altars at all. Not because I think that the Gods will hurt me - although I think that I came really close, there - but because I think that I can barely understand the powers that my wife has to deal with, and they scare me. Maybe I can't hear them, but maybe I don't want to. Anyway, I believe her now when she says that she has to do some things or the Gods will hurt her, or that they break things they don't like. I have more sympathy with her now, although there have been nights when she's come to bed exhausted as the dawn is breaking, from doing what I don't know, and I have to yell at the Gods and curse them. But they don't answer me, and truly I don't know what I'd do if they did.

But having seen her relationship with the Gods, it's changed mine. I used to think of them as entirely kind and good - why I don't know, because I can read the myths as well as anyone else, but I guess I put that down to the people long ago having hard lives and seeing the Gods like they saw each other. Now I know that the Gods have goals, and even if those goals are good ones - and I still do believe that they are - they will do cruel things to people in order to reach those goals. That's something that I can't talk about to my Pagan group. But the Gods use her, and they use me to support her. If I love her, which I do and I guess the Gods know that, then I can't leave her, I have to stay and do what they want. My relationship with her is worth it, and I see how much she tries to make space in her life for me, to not let them take over everything. I guess I've gone from believing in the Gods and not trusting her to believing in her and not trusting the Gods, and it's hard.

But it's only been a few years and we'll see how I feel about it in ten more. I was proud when we went to a gathering in western Canada and people were coming to her in a flock, asking for help. She worked herself to exhaustion and never got to go to any workshops with me, but I was proud of her. Even if by the end of the gathering I was "the seidhkona's husband". She does good work as a seidhkona. So maybe I'll get used to this after a while, being the seidhkona's husband.

-Haley, spirit-worker's partner

I am kind of a skeptic about all of this stuff. I believe in ghosts and spirits, but not Gods. I grew up in a really traditional household in Korea in the 70's, and my family saw shamans and made offerings. and still see the shaman at least once a year in this country. This means that I don't get freaked out around all of my partner's spells or anything, but I pretty much view it as psychosis of some kind.

I try to be supportive. I have respect for the intensity of her faith, but I also see it as an excuse in a way not to deal with immediate problems or goals. It's much easier to blame the Gods because things are not fortuitous than to change them. When my girlfriend went out and spent $1000 we did not have on archery equipment because the gods told her to hunt (which is hilarious because she is totally uncoordinated and does not eat meat), or spends most of the extra money around the holidays on liquor that goes into the ground, I realize all I can do is support her and chalk it up as her eccentricities.

Early on in our relationship she told me that her religion came first, but I had no idea what that meant at the time. At the time, she had a really high paying job she liked, went to graduate school which she loved, had a great apartment she owned, a big religious community, and lots of friends. Over the past two and a half years, almost all of that has gone away. She's gained lots of weight, been really depressed, started having health problems and lately seizures which she refuses to get help for, and claims to have been told by the gods to quit her job. She is looking for work, and she tries really really hard and stays up all night working on resumes and articles, and fails time after time. She told me that this is called shaman sickness. I think she might be going crazy. There are days where she does not leave the house, she won't go to noisy places, smells bother her, she claims she is forbidden to drink alcohol, and needs a ridiculous amount of time by herself because she needs to meditate or pray or whatever. We were just on vacation in the mountains and she made us leave the area because she claimed to be harassed by elves. It's obviously hard to put up with, sometimes rather like having a child with a zoo of imaginary friends.

She cries herself to sleep a lot of the time because she thinks that the gods don't care about her. She thinks that they are holding back her luck and nothing she does is right. I don't know how to give this credence. It's hard. I try really hard to be supportive and loving, but I also know that insanity runs in her family. I've also seen people in her religious community exploit her kindness and hurt her time and time again. It hurts me to see her in all of this pain.

Most of the time I just feel powerless to help her, and I just try to understand her within her world view and focus on her goodness and generosity and compassion. She has stopped talking about it with me for the most part, but I do see her psychosis progressing and I am afraid for her. It's my job to make sure she eats and gets out of the house and does not turn completely inward. I see it as everyone has problems and baggage, and hers is a really tortured soul. It's the lesser of many evils, I suppose.

-J.K., partner of spirit-worker

I knew from the beginning that he was a devout pagan and “a shaman”, but I didn't actually know much about either of those things. Early on, he sat me down and told me there were two very important things he had to discuss with me. First, he wanted me to know that this spirit-work he did was not a hobby he could take up and put down as he chose. He told me that even if it became a great source of discontent between us, he would always do this work. At the time, I was not a very religious person, but I had a great deal of respect for religion and didn't like to see it treated lightly. I understood this shamanism as a spiritual vocation, not much different than being a minister of any other faith. I assured him that I would hope a clergyperson would not consider putting their romantic affairs above their calling. I understood his priorities, and I respected him for them.

The second thing he told me took longer to sink in. He told me that one of the consequences of doing this spirit-work was that it made him and the people close to him face their issues. He said it speeded up their "karma". Since he is a very intense and keenly insightful person, I didn't doubt that any intimate relationship with him could bring all manner of psychological issues to the surface. We'd already had a number of interactions that had made me seriously rethink things about myself and my understanding of the world. I liked this about him, and tried to assure him of that. I didn't really understand what he meant.

Later that weekend, out of nowhere I had a big cathartic episode about something I had been doing for the wrong reasons. I hadn't discussed it with him, it had nothing to do with our relationship, and he had no opinion on it. I just suddenly realized that what I was doing was at odds with what I believed in, and instantly I became incredibly uncomfortable with doing something I had done for years without much thought. Afterwards, I asked him if this is what he had been talking about. He seemed worried that I would be angry at him - perhaps after years of lovers reacting in this way - but I just said, “Well, this is really going to suck, isn't it?” He still teases me about that.

I don't see it as a bad thing. It just means living under closer spiritual scrutiny, quite literally. The gods and wights are a much more tangible presence in my life than they ever would be otherwise. While I am not a spirit-worker, I have become a deeply religious person. I cannot doubt the presence of the gods in my partner's life – not because I trust his word (though I do), but because I can watch him and see things happen that would make no sense otherwise. Eventually I became exhausted by the increasingly bizarre mental gymnastics required to explain it all away in “rational” terms. After a while, Occam's Razor left me with the conclusion that this is all entirely real. It gives me a certainty in my spirituality that seems unique to the god-touched and those close to them.

I have a new appreciation for “superstition” based on this sure but limited knowledge of powerful and ever present forces which I can scarcely perceive. If I'm cleaning the table and my partner has left something there that he's asked me not to touch, I'll get clarification about whether he meant that literally before I move it, and not because I'm worried he will be upset with me. Spirit-workers have things that normal people really ought not to touch. Curiosity is a dangerous trait when live in their home. In fact, unless you have good reason to, you'd often do best to not spend too much time handling or even looking at the spirit-worker's things. They are not only trained in how to handle these things properly, they are equipped to handle things that normal folks simply cannot do safely.

I remember watching the Saami movie Ofelas (Pathfinder) and there is a scene where the old shaman has just killed a bear and taken his spirit, and for the whole next day no one is allowed to look him in the eye – or the power of the bear spirit would harm them – except through a magical ring which the young female assisting him holds up to her eye. I wondered if I was the only person in the audience besides my partner who appreciated this as a perfectly rational and necessary safety measure, not some primitive superstition. So not only do you have to put up with your partner's strange activities (sometimes in public), but you often end up doing some strange actions of your own, out of self-defense.

The most difficult thing about spending time with my partner and other spirit-workers is that as his assistant I need to know a great deal about the practice of spirit-work, but I can't actually do any of it. I've studied a bit of magic and energy work in order to do my job, but I have limited aptitude. It is especially frustrating when folks assume I can perceive things which I cannot. I've had to deal with a lot of feelings of inadequacy about that.

My partner doesn't have a great connection to his body, and doesn't always think about taking care of his physical needs. I think a lot of spirit-workers ignore their bodies, which is a terrible thing because spirit-work is actually a very physically demanding job. People often don't realize that. They may not look like they are doing much besides sitting on a stump for a few hours, but they often come back from it starving and exhausted, and in no shape to prepare themselves a healthy meal. The spirits can drive a person to their physical limits, and sometimes the spirit-worker can get so accustomed to it that they don't think to take better care of themselves when they have the opportunity.

There is a good deal of scut-work involved in this work, and as his assistant, I try to take care of as much of it as I can. If he's going to have to drag himself out in the middle of the night into the cold to talk to some wight who doesn't have the good sense to drop by at a more convenient time, there is nothing I can do about it. But I can at least remind him to wear his gloves, get together appropriate food or drink for the wight, and have some hot tea ready when he returns. In the morning I can pull the offering dishes out of the snow bank and wash the grime off the special coat that the spirits insisted he make of white wool, even though he has to run around in the woods in it. It isn't much, but it helps. Every little bit helps.

Living with a spirit-worker, I think you eventually have to either accept that their worldview is basically accurate, or accept that they are profoundly delusional. There isn't a lot of comfortable middle ground where you can both politely accept each other's differing but equally valid religious views and not make a big deal of it. You don't have to like what they do or worship their gods, but if you don't believe that their spirit work has a strong basis in reality, how can you come to terms with how they live their life? Their religious beliefs and practices guide every decision they make – food, clothing, employment, finances, hobbies, friends, ethics, everything. It isn't as simple as going to different churches, or celebrating different holidays, or not discussing theology at the dinner table. For a spirit worker, their theology is their reality. It starts becoming your reality too, if you stick around long enough.

Suddenly, gods and wights are everywhere, whether or not you can perceive them. Every single day your partner is doing something for or with the spirits. Altars spring up like mushrooms. Votive figures seem to multiply while your back is turned. Things that used to be fine are now taboo. Every conversation comes back to one spiritual thing or another. More and more of their resources go into this work. They buy gifts for the spirits, and then don't show up to your birthday party because they were “busy”. It is worse than them taking another lover, because you can't hope to compete with it. You can't woo them back. Getting angry at them doesn't help. It just keeps escalating and there is nothing you can do but hang in there and hope that when they come through this, there is still a place in their life for you.

A related important job that the partners of spirit-workers often end up doing is being their link to humanity, and reminding them to appreciate being human. Being in such close contact with the spirits can blind them to the fact that most people – even deeply and sincerely religious people – are not. You can end up in the position of mediating between them and the outside world, or explaining one to the other. Spirit-workers often have a hard time knowing how to describe what they do or believe to other people. Their pragmatic and utilitarian view of religious practice can be nearly inexplicable (not to mention irreverent) to the average religious person, who is guided by tradition and what feels right to them, not by what gets "results".

On the other hand, the spirit worker can have a hard time understanding what the average religious person's relationship to the gods is like. Most religious people would consider themselves blessed to have a single experience of personal, direct divine contact. It would be a defining moment in their lives, not a hassle that got them out of bed at 3 a.m., again. Many people can't imagine that level of connection even being possible, let alone ordinary. They shout their prayers into the void, and struggle to maintain a sense of connection to the divine presence. If they turn their minds away from the gods, the gods will not chase after them with a stick.

People base their religious beliefs on sacred texts, and tradition, emotion, and philosophy because they don't have a whole lot else to go on. You can't really fault them for that. One spirit-worker commented that people arguing over theology looked like dogs fighting over scraps on the floor, because they couldn't see up on to the table. I don't think spirit-workers always appreciate how far away that tabletop looks to most of us. The spirit-worker's job is often such a burden to them, and their experience of the gods so ever-present and overwhelming, that I don't know if they can really appreciate how much the rest of us cherish our little scraps, and how easy it is for us to become jealous and defensive over them.

However, although I don't have that kind of access to divine presence, being partners with a spirit-worker has let me know just how possible that is, and I get to watch that, if only from a distance. There are spiritual experiences that I've had and information that I've been given just from being around my partner that I never would have had otherwise, experiences that are incredibly moving. It's all worth it for that.

-Joshua, spirit-worker's partner