hawk shamanism

“Passage” from Gracious Wild

The advanced student of shamanism learns many techniques including extraction, soul retrieval, and what’s called psychopomping. Psychopomping involves assisting souls that have died but not yet crossed over in getting to the other side. In this excerpt from me book, Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks, I share how my hawk companion, Thalia, takes on the task of psychopomping the soul of her prey to the other side. This special glimpse into hawk shamanism shows how nature can be as much, or more, a teacher as the highest guru or the most radiant angel…

I walked into the large flight cage now overgrown with weeds and tall grass, took a timid, live mouse out of a box, and showed it to the harrier. She watched intently as I walked across her mews to the stump and placed the white mouse down by his tail. I barely took one step back before she was on top of it. Her toes were wrapped snug but careful around the mouse. He looked up at me as if to say, “I’m trapped,”but I saw no signs of pain in his eyes. I looked at his sweet face, then up at her confident one. She let go of the mouse for a split second. He ran to leap off the edge of the stump and in a flash he was in her grasp, squeaking in pain. The hawk clenched hard.

Unlike other raptors I knew, she didn’t proceed to ravenously tear at the shaking body. She stood stoic over the struggling soul, honoring the life sacrificed to extend her own. Time folded in on itself. I can’t imagine how long we stood there because we had slipped into another realm. I could feel the hawk’s spirit lift off with the spirit of the mouse in her talons. She was carrying the soul of her prey to the afterlife. It had never occurred to me before this moment that hawks, as hunters, could possess this special gift. From my earth-bound, anthropocentric viewpoint I hadn’t ever stopped to wonder how a hawk related to the spirit of her prey at the time of the kill. For me, this experience dispelled the idea of the greedy, mindless killing machine. There was much more than the flow of the food chain going on here. This was not just mouse meat becoming hawk flesh. This was a mouse offering its body and the hawk offering the mouse passage to another world in return.

While our consciousness returned to the cage, the late sun’s horizontal rays split through the oak trees and cage walls. We stood quietly as the mouse’s muscles grew soft. I watched Thalia’s entire body language shift. Pride radiated from her. Tears began streaming down my cheeks. I thought of how good a mother she would have been. Her fiery aggression and deadly swiftness would have protected many healthy, well-fed young. I cried that she hadn’t gotten to be the terror of the marsh, afraid of no one. I cried because this box and these pony tricks had been her life.

She looked down at the limp mouse warm in her grip and then glanced up at me. I understood that she was asking for solitude. She wouldn’t eat a freshly killed meal in my company. I didn’t ask why, but rather left her to her wild ways.

I quietly slipped out the door to allow her to eat in peace and set to leisurely pacing the grounds. I could feel the dampness of the night start to creep in. A wild great horned owl hooted overhead. I peered into the dense canopy, unable to pick up the winged one with the haunting voice. Softly I carried on past the cages neighboring Thalia’s to check in on the education birds or recovering animals within. I was well into my time as a vet tech at Willow Brook and was at least partly responsible for the welfare of every animal there. Like a mother with a litter of newborns, I always had my eyes and ears open for signs of trouble. As I turned to watch the mallards paddling in their pool, I caught the sight of struggle in the corner of my eye. Between the screen and wire in the wall of an empty cage was a fury of scrambling black, white, and rust-colored feathers. Eerie, blood red eyes were full of panic. I quickly moved closer and recognized the captured bird as a spotted towhee. He was struggling to find his way out of the mess he’d somehow gotten himself into.

Spotted towhees reside in thickets and are regularly heard scratching under leaves for insects, seeds, or fruits. Given their proclivity for the underbrush, these large members of the sparrow family have an innate knack for squeezing through tight spots. Apparently, this bird had found a hole in the screen and wormed his way in. I searched everywhere, but could not find the opening he used. He couldn’t seem to find it either.

I put my falconry equipment in a pile on the ground and hurried up to the clinic for some tools. I returned five minutes later with a pry bar and was able to rip off the wood strip that held the screen in place. With a little bit of nudging towards the opening, the towhee was set free. His wings burst forth in a cacophony of sound. I felt the waves of release hit my body as he flew off. Then I noticed that someone was watching me. I turned around and looked across the lawn into Thalia’s mews. She stared back, head cocked to one side. In that moment I understood. In her ceremony for the mouse, the hawk had honored what I was doing for her own spirit. In my rescue of the towhee, I had paid tribute to what she was doing for mine.

Author: Stacey Couch

The medicine wheel and the qualities of each cardinal direction.

Calling the Directions & The Medicine Wheel

Working with the Medicine Wheel

Honoring the directions within the framework of a medicine wheel is a common practice of shamanism found throughout the world and at the root of each of our ancestral lines. This prayer to honor the directions can be called a number of things depending on the culture and preferences of the person praying. Some say we are “calling in the directions” while others state we are “calling ourselves to the directions”. Others just see that we are setting up sacred space to do sacred work.

Regardless of the nomenclature, it is important to take a moment and reflect on why you have chosen to enter in to this practice.

Intention for Calling in the Directions

Are you worried about negative energy entering in as you open up to meditate or journey, so you feel compelled to set up protection around yourself? Do you wish to offer your gratitude to the seasons and rhythms of nature? Is it just because you learned it in a class and you’re trying to explore the power of the medicine wheel practice? Are you asking for help from all of creation for a healing? Are you offering yourself as a channel for the Divine? Would you like to call yourself back to center so that you can be your authentic self and be grounded in your being? Do you intend to set up a quiet space for meditation free from the chaos of the everyday?

The good news is that calling in the directions using the medicine wheel does all of the above and more. Your intent will shape the content and power of the chants or prayers you say. So take the time to reflect on your intent and then be willing to allow that intent to shift over time. The beauty of a shamanic practice is that it is personal and place based. Depending on who you are, where you live and what stage of your life you are in, calling the directions will look different because your relationship to nature will be different.

Directions of the Medicine Wheel

The medicine wheel can be broken into five or seven parts depending on your inclination, but always contains the four primary directions: East, South, West and North and a central point or axis.

“Above” and “Below” can also be recognized individually or not because the central axis is seen as inherently connected to these two spaces. As you determine what qualities, gifts, elements and power animals to acquaint with each direction of the medicine wheel I have a simple framework for you to start with.

  1. Path of the Sun: The medicine wheel is laid out in relation to the path of the sun. The East is the place of dawn (beginnings) and the West is the place of dusk (endings)
  2. Seasonality: The medicine wheel can be laid over a seasonal calendar which for us places spring in the East, summer in the South, fall in the West and winter in the North (see photo above). If you lived at the equator you would only recognize two seasons, rainy and dry, or if you lived at the poles you would recognize light and dark, so your associations would be different.
  3. Diurnal Cycle: You can also overlay the wheel with the a 24 hour clock with the East being sunrise, South being midday, West being sunset, and North being midnight.

Qualities of the Directions

To help you determine your own, unique blend of qualities to associate with the directions of the medicine wheel, I offer the following ideas that I’ve accumulated from studying a number of cultures and nature herself. You may see some qualities listed in more than one direction. Feel into the quality and see where it fits for you.

  • Qualities of the East: dawn/sunrise, spring, new beginnings, birth, infancy, mental body, element of air, seedling plants, new shoots, fresh start, innocence, play, childhood, the Sun or Mother Earth, blue, yellow, green, swords tarot suit, astrological houses 1-3.
  • Qualities of the South: midday, summer, adolescence, physical body, mature crops, abundance, element of fire, the Sun or Mother Earth, passion, drive, vitality, fullness, ripeness, maturity, red, orange, wands tarot suit, astrological houses 4-6.
  • Qualities of the West: dusk/sunset, fall, adulthood, emotional body, leaves dropping from trees, letting go, harvest, gathering resources inward, the void, discernment, element of water, the womb, the Moon, surrender, trust and faith, the unknown, black, blue, cups tarot suit, astrological houses 7-9.
  • Qualities of the North: midnight, winter, elder, spiritual body, frozen landscape, silence, communion with Spirit, element of earth, the Moon, death, union, intuition, complete understanding, being filled with the Divine, white, pentacles tarot suit, astrological houses 10-12.
  • Qualities of the Center: Heart of the matter, in the moment, timeless, ageless, integration of all bodies, openness, channel/hollow reed, grace, connection to above and below, trees, mountains, inspiration, rainbow, all colors.
  • Qualities of Above: Cosmic currents, collective unconscious, movement of the heavens, wisdom of planetary bodies, future, possibility, stars, galaxies, expanded consciousness, God, angels.
  • Qualities of Below: Planetary currents, collective history, ancestors, roots, creation, fertility, the womb, the cave, Goddess.


Want to learn more?
Read this article about How to: Prayers to the Directions


The Little Selves Seen

Today I was sharing with a group the value of employing power animals to help us in our daily lives. I have a great egret that I call in to help me manage my energetic boundaries in a group setting. I see her fly in and then dance, wings flowing, around me to help me stay clean and clear about what is mine and what is that of the people I’m negotiating with. I have a red fox that helps me look for something, or someone, I’ve misplaced. When I see him run out after the prize I trust that what I am missing will come back to me, and it does.

I love these spirits and have an intensely intimate bond with them. I cannot imagine my life without them. At the same time, I understand that my attachment to them is the same as my attachment to my role as a wife, animal mother, herbalist, shaman; the same as to my attachment to my ego. I love who I am in the world and I trust that it is not me.

I am the witness. As Ken Wilber says in the introduction to Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle, “we have at least two selves, or two sorts of selves – there is the self that can be seen and known, and the self that cannot be seen or known. There is the unknown seer, and there are all the little selves seen. ” This unknown seer is considered our “true self” and is referred to in many meditative practices as the “witness”.

How can I view my power animals and my roles as “little selves seen” and hold the truth of the witness that is me? Do I hold one over the other?

The one that judges the little selves as less than the true self is just another little self. When we judge our power animals as mere projections we are not speaking from our true self. When we dismiss our role as a woman we are not acting from our true self. This is one little self judging another. In our polarized world we fragment into these multiplicities to have the experience that is human. These selves are what make our lives so unbelievably rich. Their judgements create our experience.

All the while, our true essence remains intact watching, accepting and learning from all the little selves do. Our true essence does not know how to judge, only watch. We have access to all the forgiveness and love that is the witness at any given time. Whenever a little self feels defeated she can release the shame to the witness and be overcome with an overwhelming sense of relief. Whenever I am asking a power animal for help, I am stepping outside of my role as a wife, employee, boss, etc. and becoming the faith that is the witness.

This goes against many teachings that encourage people to release their ego for the sake of the true self. What I’ve found is that we all are a work in progress and to expect any one of us to be free of ego is asking a lot. It is a tough road to follow and not fit for everyone. I am here to suggest another path. Instead of struggling through all the doubt and self-judgement that comes with severing oneself from the ego, I have chosen to instead honor the value of the little selves seen. The more I love them, talk with them, and share them with the witness, the more I find they align with my true nature. In the end, that is the ultimate goal, unity with all that is, was, and ever will be.

Quote from Entering the Castle: An Inner Path to God and Your Soul by Caroline Myss