Approaching the Animal Self

I’m a white guy.

I mean, a seriously white guy. My DNA profile shows me as having 100% Northern European ancestry, pretty much all of which is English/Irish except for 1.2% Scandinavian, which has GOT to be a Viking raider. Not one of my ancestors ever had the courage to mate out of group, to choose someone different than the people s/he was raised by.

As a white guy, I’m the first to admit that I’m kind of crippled. I am the product of centuries of European cultural “bleaching out” of human wildness in favor of manners, rectitude, forebearance, privacy, and shame. Of steady alienation from the body in favor of the mind. Some of that was probably inevitable, given cold weather and high-density living, but some of it is unquestionably the legacy of Protestantism and its naked hostility to all things pleasurable and bodily, and the narrow range of emotion that is allowed to men under our patriarchal culture.

Underneath all that, though, I am what we all are: an animal.

Yes, an animal. A thinking one, but an animal nonetheless, who eats and shits and sweats and fucks.

And as I get older, I find I treasure more and more the times when I can experience my animal self. Singing. Dancing. Howling at the moon.

In ritual, there are techniques that make it easier. Masks are amazing: you wouldn’t think that a mask would really make you feel as anonymous or Other as it actually can. Face paint, too, to a lesser degree, but you feel the separation from your ordinary self in a mask. I have a small collection of masks from sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania, which amaze me with their aliveness and extraordinary diversity. I don’t use them in ritual because to me that would be an inappropriate theft of their native cultures, but I admire them greatly for the visceral power they communicate.


The confluence between the human and the animal is a motif found in Paleolithic cave paintings more than 25,000 years old, and it persists in many indigenous cultures today. Siberian and Arctic shamans, Native American medicine men, African and South American and Australian cultures represent in costuming and masks this vivid reality: that we are both human, in all the unique ways that is true, and animals, tied to the greater natural world and subject to the urges and requirements that animals share. Here, for example, from the cave of Les Trois Frères in France, is a 17,000-year-old representation of a demi-man, demi-beast, dubbed by modern academics as “The Shaman”:

cave painting-shaman

There is great joy in living in the animal self for a time, such as dancing around a fire to the beat of drums. It’s a challenge, for bleached-out men like me, getting to that animal self and honoring it.

But I try, and I encourage you to try, too.

Own your animal. Feel the breath going in, the happy surge of blood sugar as you eat on an empty stomach. Indulge the urge to howl at the moon, to dance about the fire. Find a way to get outside naked, and feel the sun on your skin. Run your hands over your body.

Feel that you are an animal, here on planet Earth, not only thinking and wondering at the glory of what we can understand, but grunting and snuffling through the underbrush for something delicious and sustaining.

Both are true. Both are what we are. Celebrate it.

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