Messages from The Bird Tribe
In March of this year (2013) I arrived at the Breitenbush Hotsprings and Conference Center in the mountain forests and of northern Oregon to teach a week-long Visionseeker workshop to a group of spiritual seekers. These gatherings are designed to assist non-tribal western people in achieving expanded states of awareness, bringing them into connection with those inner sources of wisdom and power and healing that traditional peoples call spirits.
This is a known experience for me having been involved with the shaman’s path for more than 30 years. I have been teaching at Breitenbush since 1999, and I love to be there as the center is embraced within a forest of great trees, some of which are 120 feet high or more. To spend a week in this locality is magical for me as the transpersonal forces of the place respond to our work. It’s like we are feeding the land with our journeywork, and the spirits of Nature make their presence known to me from the moment I arrive. It’s usually then when I sing one of my songs to the forest to announce my return.
This year was no exception. As I walked alone through the great forest toward the cleared meadow that fronts the historic lodge, softly singing my song, I heard a sound from the trees above me… a sound I recognized as the throaty chuckle of a raven.
Looking up, there she was watching me with her black shiny eye from a branch overhanging the trail. As we made eye contact, she clucked again “tick… tuck-tuck-tuck…” When I made no response, she repeated her message “tick… tuck-tuck-tuck…”
She was obviously conveying something, and considering the fact that I had just arrived, I took it as a greeting of ‘welcome back.’ So mimicking her as best I could, I marshaled my tongue and responded with “Click… cluck-cluck.” In response she stared at me at some length, then replied with more force “TICK… TUCK-TUCK-TUCK!”
I suddenly got it. I had only responded with two clucks rather than three and she had corrected me. So I returned her greeting with a click, followed by three clucks. She continued to stare at me for long moments, then she repeated her greeting – a tick plus three tucks-and flew off into the trees.
I took this interaction as contact with the spirits of the place, and throughout the magical week that followed, whenever ravens were in proximity, I offered them the raven greeting. They, in turn, always paused in their raven pursuits, staring at me with intensity, and then returned the greeting. By weeks end, I had a dozen new feathered friends, yet I still had no clear idea of exactly what they were saying. I knew from my academic studies that the Corvids—ravens, crows, magpies and jays—have an extensive vocabulary, especially ravens, and are very, very intelligent.
Two months later, my lady Jill and I were at the Westerbeke Ranch in Sonoma, California, where we were offering two week-long workshops in a row to our advanced students. When we arrived, a pair of ravens promptly joined our group, approaching us each day, perching in the ancient oak trees above us as we ate lunch and dinner on the broad deck fronting the picturesque tile roofed old California adobe of the dining room. They showed up on the very first evening during the orientation and started vocalizing at me while Margaret, our host, talked about logistics.
I was more than a little surprised given my recent raven encounters in northern Oregon, yet I immediately discerned that their clucks were different… more of a “tuck-tuck-tuck-tucktucktucktuck-tuck-tuck-tuck.” I suddenly wondered if they had gotten the word, so to speak, from their northern cousins of my connection with their tribe… and I understood in a flash that they were attempting to teach me to speak raven…
However… it was also immediately apparent that the southern dialect of the Westerbeke ravens was distinctly different from that of their northern cousins and when I replied to them with the northern greeting, they stared at me for long moments then corrected me forcefully, repeating their own greeting several times until I repeated it back to them correctly. Then satisfied, they flew off.
I might add here that the ranch staff has actually given this particular raven pair names— Richard and Muriel—names that reflect their sense that these birds could be the ancestral spirits of two of the Westerbeke family members now in the other world.
Throughout our time there during the next two weeks, the big black birds approached us daily and our raven dialogue continued, beginning with that curious series of clucks achieved with the tongue. I repeated the series back to them and as always, the ravens kept correcting me until I got it just right. Yet I had still no idea of what it meant. But I continued each day… and they continued to teach me.
On the last morning, as I was loading our car with our baggage, from the trees above me came that distinctive series of clucks. I looked up and there they were—the two of them, Richard and Muriel. We looked deeply into each others’ eyes and then...unexpectedly… the female reached back to preen her feathers with her heavy, gleaming beak and a black feather detached itself from a wing, spiraling down… down from the tall eucalyptus in which she was perched… and I caught it before it touched the ground.
Holding her feather, I looked up at the raven and she gave me that series of clucks that I now repeated to her satisfaction. Then after another long look, they flew off.
I tucked her jet black feather into my drum and brought it home to Hawai’i where it now resides in a place of honor with other feathers from others of the bird tribe with whom we have come into relationship across the years.
Now… It is of more than just passing interest to me that in the old mythology of the Norse peoples, the god Odin, who was also the archetypal shaman and who was the embodiment of wisdom, was in relationship with two ravens. This implied in a shamanic sense that he could understand their language.
Their names were Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Wisdom), representing in Norse mythology two helping bird spirits which Odin, the great magician, sent to the four corners of the world to gather information, an intention that the scholar Mircea Eliade has described as a true shamanic act.
As birds, the ravens are Nature’s representatives, and because they can fly like shamans engaged in soul flight, they can transcend the ordinary world, penetrating into the worlds of things hidden and symbolizing the potential for our human conscious awareness to achieve this as well. The fact that ravens can also communicate in an articulate bird language that resembles human speech implies that to be able to speak their language conveys the understanding of their considerable wisdom.
The ravens’ flight also suggests the symbolic transition from our conscious mental soul to the ‘subconscious’ physical soul, creating a link directly to our higher spiritual oversoul and giving us a freedom of experience that is so needed by the human psyche in our own time. Odin, the old Norse shaman, blazed the path for us to follow as he underwent his own initiations and his mystical journeys with his ravens, creating a symbolic relationship between humans and the bird tribe that we find repeatedly in our mythology and in our literature.
Because the wizard Odin was capable of understanding bird language, he is thus revealed as a master shapeshifter capable of literally becoming a bird, both psychologically as well as physically, allowing the wisdom of the birds to be understood as Odinnic knowledge available to all humans with the desire to understand it. This suggests that Odin, in a metaphorical sense, is a bird man.
Understanding this, we are able to comprehend the deep truths embodied within the old myths… truths that reveal that we are not really becoming animals once again; rather we are becoming ourselves… especially in relationship with our transcendent overselves… with the support of our old friends from the natural world… and this takes place through soul flight, in an expanded bird-like way.
Two months later, back home on our farm on Hawai’i Island, I had an interesting dream one morning just before dawn… a dream in which I was in a castle, a big, stately chateau in which I was standing on a long stone stairway, one that was reaching up into the light and descending down into darkness, with me standing on the broad steps in between.
Above me I saw movement, and glancing up, a woman approached me down the stairs. She was dressed in a long flowing black gown and had long jet black hair, black lipstick, black nail polish and black eye makeup, offsetting her very white skin. On descending to my level on the staircase, she stopped and looked long into my eyes. Then, with a dramatic gesture, she opened a folder she was carrying under her arm… and reaching into it… she withdrew a single black feather which she then gave to me with a flourish and a bow. She glanced up at me and smiled as I accepted her gift… then she turned and re-ascended the stairs once again until she moved into the light beyond my vision.
Did we click to each other in the dream? I do not now recall, but in sharing this story with you, allow me to affirm that this is part of what it means to walk the shaman's path...
With warm thoughts ~ Hank Wesselman
Two last quotes:
"Once upon a time when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy."
— Terry Tempest Williams…
“Body, like the mountain,
Heart, like the ocean,
Mind, like the sky.”