A Paronym of the Earth Mother: Clans and Societies

Building a clan system with all its elemental societies out of thin air is not as arbitrary as one might first suppose. I had to take many things into account before I could weave them all together. It took years. Every clan system that I studied was complex and interwoven, related to plants, animals, essential processes, calendars, and countless other things, then further constructed along gender lines. I had to think about ancestry and the common theme throughout European mythology, that ancient people perceived themselves as the descendents of trees and animals. They regarded their ancestors as those things. Remnants of this persist today in old names that translate into “son of an oak”, “son of a boar”, and so forth. Consequently the challenges of envisioning and building such a system were huge.

One of the things I had to do was construct a calendar or perhaps I should say, two calendars that worked in tandem. Ancient calendars were based on observational astronomy and the ancients were probably the finest observational astronomers that ever lived, mainly because the life of their tribe depended on it, as did the rituals that fueled life. The solar calendar is easy with its solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter dates but that cannot be said of the lunar calendar with its cycles within cycles the longest of which is more than 18 ½ years. These two calendars don’t reconcile beginning with the fact that there are 37 lunations in 36 solar months. Nevertheless we know that both calendars were observed, the best evidence of which can be found in Chaco Canyon and I am sure will discovered or figured out from sites all over the world. Every clan and society had to be given its place within this puzzle, including the markers of disparaging cycles. Many societies once believed that the moon was inherently female and the sun inherently male, which I have done in my work, but that is not true of all. Letters to the Unborn, a new book/blog recently started is about a ritual associated the long cycle of the moon.

Most tribal clan systems also perceive plant medicine as female and animal medicine as male. Out of respect to them the clan system in Ancestral Airs is constructed the same way.

When I studied UK mythology I kept coming across references to the 21 sacred trees of the British Isles and yet I never came across a list. Occasionally a handful of species would turn up, not all of which were actually thought of as trees, but all in all none of it made sense. The first thing I had to do is determine what trees and shrubs were actually indigenous before I got down to the business of studying each of their properties. This too took years because each had to have properties that covered food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and ritual. Then I had to see how my research compared to the ethnobotany of tribes living today. What became clearly evident was that sacredness was measured by how many properties a species brought to the life of a tribe, not if it had mind-altering capabilities as is now erroneously thought today. In fact, every species was regarded as being mind-altering in the sense that it was believed that every species harbored a spirit that had profound influence on human life. I used these criteria to amass my own list of 21 sacred trees, not derived from mythology, folklore, or witchcraft but by each species contribution to food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and ritual. Eighteen of these trees and shrubs made up the women’s clans in Ancestral Airs; three went to men’s elemental societies. A list of the 21 trees can be found in the News blog and all the species in Ancestral Airs are listed in the Botanical Cross Indexes found in the Essays menu. There are hundreds; thousands when sub-species are taken into account. Ancestral Airs includes the five criteria of food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and ritual where as The Compendium for Spirit Handling being published as a blog addresses only the ritual properties found in over 400 species.

Although Ancestral Airs is primarily an ethnobotanical work I still had to understand animals and animal behavior in order to construct the male clan system. I wrote:

“Animal clans were not difficult to understand. They lived, ate, hunted, sired, prayed and died according to the dictates of their animal ancestors. Every part of an animal held a secret teaching. Skins, bones, organs, teeth, hooves and antlers had been given to our people for food, clothing, shelter and medicine. Rituals were born out of the intimate knowledge of these things. Spirit Handlers dressed in their relatives’ skins and antlers, prophesied from their bones or made them into whistles. They wore their claws and teeth, and sang with hoof rattles. From the organs came medicine bags and divination. An animal’s hide was tanned with its own brain, kidney or liver. A creature could be watched and the observer could learn the workings of the world by how an animal moved or in what direction. The flick of an ear held inestimable wisdom or that of a tail might hold the privity of Creation.” You can find a piece under Essays titled Animal Allies which explores the animals used in the men’s clan system.

Everything, plant, animal, stone, water, soil, was held in the same reverence by men and women. And this became the foundation of the attitude conveyed in Ancestral Airs and its complex clan system.

I really enjoyed the study for the elemental societies. Tribal societies often deal with the transformation of everyday things into mystical, ritual, and sacred imperatives. The men’s societies in Ancestral Airs, not unlike other tribal cultures, took care of hunting medicine, pigments, fire, musical instruments, the clouds, and the sun. The men’s societies also included prayer runners.

Women’s societies took care of the medicine inherent in such things as baskets, tanning, weaving, pottery, and gathering, transforming them into mystical and ceremonial objects. They observed the moon and stars, and looked after all the various ecosystems and natural elements such as the alkaline and acidic mountain ranges, fens and marshy meadows, moors and bogs, grasslands and heath. These responsibilities included care-taking caves, springs, waterfalls, and other sources of water including the ocean. Six of the seven basic ecosystems went on to form the villages in Ancestral Airs. Each has a unique collection of plants with which they worked and around which rituals were structured.

It isn’t possible to re-copy from Ancestral Airs the vast amount of material found in it concerning clans and societies, or even the ecosystems around which life and ritual evolved. The vast portion of Ancestral Airs’ 250,000 words is based on them. Perhaps you could visit the book listing where excerpts can be found that illustrate in a small way the flavor of the story.




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