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