The Newsletter of the Mythic Imagination Institute, a Non-profit Arts and Education Corporation
      In preparation for Mythic Journeys 2004 in Atlanta, GA
September/October, 2003 
The Artist as Shaman: Madness, Shapechanging, and Art 
in Terri Windling's The Wood Wife

By Mary Nicole Silvester 

Terri Windling, author of The Wood Wife, the novel referenced in this article, is a Mythic Journeys guest speaker and a member of our board of advisors. Write to Niko Silvester at:

If you'd like to purchase The Wood Wife online and support the Mythic Imagination Institute at the same time, please see page 4.


In popular thought, if not always in fact, shamanism is associated with altered states of consciousness and borderline madness, with shapechanging and otherworldly journeys, with creativity and genius. Terri Windling’s novel The Wood Wife weaves these elements into the story of a woman who meets spirits of place when she travels to the Arizona desert.

On one level -- that of the genre fantasy novel  -- The Wood Wife is simply the story of those encounters and the events that result. But, like any true art, this book contains meaning on many levels; a deeper reading reveals interwoven stories of the power of art and the attempt to master that power, the compelling presence of place -- both physical landscape and elusive spirit -- and the deep human need to belong. These elements and others contribute to the multi-level meaning of the work, like the many layers of otherworlds a shaman travels through in search of a wandering soul.


The word “shaman” comes from a Siberian language, Tungus, in which it refers to a particular kind of spiritual practitioner. Alice Beck Kehoe has argued that “shaman” should properly be used only to refer to Tungus spiritual practitioners and the practitioners of culturally related peoples. Her arguments are convincing, but anthropologists and popular writers alike have followed Mircea Eliade’s work for so long that the idea of shaman as a cross-cultural category is unlikely to go away anytime soon. But what, then, does “shaman” refer to? Lessa and Vogt define a shaman as “a ceremonial practitioner whose powers come from direct contact with the supernatural, by divine stroke, rather than from inheritance or memorized ritual,” as opposed to a priest, who uses codified and standardized ritual (301). They also say that shamans “are essentially mediums, for they are the mouthpieces of spirit beings” (301-302).

Functionally, according to Eliade, “[t]he shaman is medicine-man, priest and psychopomp; that is to say, he cures sickness, he directs the communal sacrifices and he escorts the dead to the other world” (“Shaman”2546). All of these functions are accomplished by the shamanic ability of otherworldly travel out of the body and by the help of spirits. In one sense, then, the shaman is an intermediary between the world of spirits and gods and the world of human beings.“The function of the shaman,” says Leslie Ellen Jones, “is to mediate between the mortal world and the Otherworld, and therefore, while he is not wholly of the Otherworld, he knows it better than ordinary people” (79). [1]

This liminal function is illustrated in the story commonly known as the Sedna myth. Knud Rasmussen described one version of this myth in detail, where the shaman journeys to the bottom of the sea to visit Takánakapsâluk, the Iglulik version of Sedna. The shaman must convince the sea spirit to allow the seals and other game to return so his people won’t starve. The shaman returns to his body to convey the message that someone, or many someones, has broken a taboo and offended the sea spirit. When community members confess their sins and set their intentions towards living properly, Takánakapsâluk will allow the animals to return. The shaman is here a messenger between his people and the spirit who controls the animals of the sea. As we will see, the shaman-artist figures in The Wood Wife are also intermediaries between the spirits/nature and the human world. The artists speak to and for the spirits.

Another aspect of shamanism important to this discussion is the way a person can become a shaman. According to Eliade, there are three possible ways: “first, by spontaneous vocation (the ‘call’ or ‘election’); second, by hereditary transmission of the shamanic profession; and, third, by personal ‘quest’ or, more rarely, by the will of the clan” (“Shaman” 2546). All three of these appear in The Wood Wife, but the first is the most significant.

Before I go on throwing the term “shaman” about, I should note that Windling does not use the word in her novel (except once, on page 296). [2] “Mage” is used, though not in quite the same way I am using “shaman” (but the two will converge later in this paper). I have chosen to use “shaman” for its resonances and because it is a useful popular concept.

Madness: Initiatory Illness

The figure of the shaman is closely associated with madness. When an initiatebecomes a shaman by Eliade’s first method, “spontaneous vocation,” he “takes the risk of being mistaken for a ‘madman’” (Myths 80). The behaviour of someone chosen in this way becomes more and more strange. Such a person “seeks solitude, becomes a dreamer, loves to wander in woods or desert places, has visions, sings in his sleep, etc.” (75). Leslie Ellen Jones describes similar absentminded, solitary behaviour (90). A number of characters in The Wood Wife are potential shamans. Primary among these are Anna Naverra and Juan del Río, but Davis Cooper, Maggie Black, Fox (Johnny Foxxe) and Tomás Yazzie are also significant.

Anna Naverra, a character we hear about but who has been many years dead in the novel’s present, exhibited this solitary tendency. “It’s gotten so she doesn’t want to see anyone with the single exception of yours truly, and on some days barely that,” wrote Davis Cooper in a letter (32). He went on: "She has taken to roaming the mountain by night and it’s no good trying to stop her with tales of rattlesnakes or wolves or mountain lions, let me tell you. She’s meeting her muse out in those hills. When she returns there is a fire in her eyes and she works like a woman possessed by spirits until she drops in exhaustion." (32-33)

Anna developed such an aversion to having people around that she even began to turn away her and Cooper’s friends, who once visited them often, and it was at this point that people began to speculate that she was a bit crazy (111). In fact, “By the time she and Cooper left Mexico City and settled . . . in the United States, she had turned her back on the world, retreating into her own private place of myth, symbolism, and dream” (172).

Later on, Davis Cooper himself is described as solitary. He continued to live in the mountains even after his beloved Anna died and remained alone for many years (69-70). Fox also described Cooper as “crazy” (71). Like Anna with her paintings, Davis Cooper wrote his “Wood Wife” poems like a madman, “like there were devils hanging on his tail” (100). Maggie also thinks of herself as “sounding as crazy now as Cooper,” when she tells Dora about the odd things she has begun to notice, and later thinks she must be loco when she realizes Fox’s sisters are shapechangers (134, 217). And, though Maggie’s behaviour hasn’t been asocial, she did seek a certain solitude in traveling to Arizona in the first place. She wanted to write about Cooper, but she also wanted to get away from her ex-husband Nigel and be on her own (15-18).

Besides being solitary and dreamy, a shaman sometimes “becomes violent and easily loses consciousness, takes refuge in the forests, feeds upon the bark of trees, throws himself into the water or the fire or wounds himself with knives” (75). In the words of Stephen Larsen, a shaman is often a solitary, half-mad creature through whom a god—or demon—may begin speaking unexpectedly. Or he may suddenly keel over in a trance, leaving his body lifeless and glassy-eyed, only to return from the invisible realm of myth with some outrageous demand, not at all in keeping with orderly social processes. The shaman’s primary allegiance is to the supernatural dimension, not to the society. (11)

But, Eliade says, “his ‘madness’ fulfills a mystic function; it reveals certain aspects of reality to him that are inaccessible to other mortals” (Myths 80).

Compare the behaviour of the shaman initiate to the first scene with the character Juan del Río in The Wood Wife:

The doors to the barn were flung open. Inside, Juan stood in the center of the room, a hunting knife clutched in his hand. Ten years worth of paintings hung in tatters, the frames shattered, the canvases slashed. Clay sculptures littered the room in pieces. Carvings smouldered on the wooden floor, threatening to torch the whole barn.

Dora stood and stared at him. Then she ran to fetch a bucket. Juan watched, impassive and glassy-eyed, until she doused the flames with water. Then he wrenched the bucket from her hands and struck her, hard, across the jaw. He had never hit his wife before and even in this wild state the action seemed to startle him; he stopped and looked at her, wide-eyed. And then he made that howling sound, an animal sound, a sound of pain, wrenched from deep in the gut.

He pushed past Dora and out the open door. (10-11)

Juan has become violent, animal-like and uneasy. The ritual implications of this scene are highlighted when Dora finds her husband in the desert later that night:

He was curled up, naked, fast asleep on the flat boulders at the water’s edge. He had marked himself with oil paint: jagged white lines, green snake curves, blue spiral patterns and slashes of red. There was paint in his hair, blood on his chin. He had cut himself above one cheek; any closer and he would have lost the eye. (11)

When Fox brings Juan home after finding the man in the mountains, Dora tries to explain Juan’s behaviour. “Juan has been like that since—well, for a while now,” Dora says. “He takes off at night, and when he comes back he’s dazed or half asleep. Then when he wakes up again, he says he doesn’t remember.” (46). This is exactly like a potential shaman’s initiatory illness.

As Juan’s seeming madness advances he burns more of his paintings, this time inside the house. When Dora tries to stop him, he becomes violent, hitting her and throwing more things—“objects, books, art from the walls”—onto the fire. He is unhappy with his inability to be a great painter. “They’re shit, they’re all shit,” he says of his artworks. After Dora locks herself in their bedroom Juan flees the house (195-6).

This kind of behaviour is normally labelled mental illness in contemporary Western society (Larsen 25-25, 132). It may be the case that such shaman initiates are suffering a metal illness, but the act of curing themselves constitutes a major part of the initiatory experience, as “it is only after having experienced and entered into these hidden dimensions of reality that the ‘madman’ becomes a shaman” (Eliade, Myths 80). “A shamanic illness,” says Jones, “cannot be cured until the sufferer undergoes shamanic initiation in the Otherworld” (91). In effect, by becoming a shaman, the shaman heals his (or her) own illness, and the initiatory madness can be compared to “the dissolution of the old personality” (Eliade Myths 224).

Juan explicitly refers to himself as not being the same person as he was. “I’m not that man anymore,” he tells Dora as he burns his paintings. “Stop making me be that man” (195). His old personality has dissolved because of the “call” he has received from the otherworldly beings, but he has not yet healed himself, so he is caught in the initiatory illness of the future (or possible future) shaman. Looking at his reflection, he doesn’t recognize who or what he is becoming: “A young Chicano man stared back, eyes both dark and bright with visions. He didn’t recognize that man. He had changed. Was changing. Shedding one snake skin and finding another skin beneath. He was turning into someone else” (63).

Madness: Failed Initiation

Where the successful shaman candidate heals herself and becomes a shaman, the unsuccessful candidate fails to heal herself, resulting in “a total crisis” and quite possibly “leading to the disintegration of the personality” (Eliade Myths 224). According to Larsen, balanced awareness in a person requires both dreams/illusions and an understanding of factual reality. Reality without dreams is a lifeless existence. Dreams without reality leads to madness: “Subsumed in myth, the dimensions of consciousness, free will, and compassion are left out, and one is easily capable of becoming the nightmare in another’s waking dream” (4).

Windling adds the concept of the muse to the shamanic elements already mentioned. Anna Naverra had a muse among the spirits of the Rincon mountains (discussed below), and so does Juan. Juan’s muse is the creature Davis Cooper called “the Drowned Girl,” and Anna referred to as “the Floodmage.” The Floodmage is depicted as a cold being, content to drive Juan mad if he is unable to hunt the white stag for her (198). However, this otherworldly creature is not the reason for Juan’s probable failure to become a shaman; that reason is in Juan himself. Dora explains that Juan has a temper that broke up his first marriage, but he has always been good to her (245). It was because of Dora and Juan’s goodness that Cooper entrusted them with Anna’s painting of the Floodmage. And Anna’s paintings are implied to have a certain power; perhaps some of Anna’s own power was incorporated into them. For whatever reason, Juan encountered the Floodmage or Drowned Girl and “the girl was drawing out something at the core of Juan that he’d thought was dead and buried” (246). The violence and anger at Juan’s core drives his ambition to be a great painter, which in turn drives him towards madness instead of healing.

As Anna Naverra became increasingly solitary, as discussed above, she eventually “went crazy,” or “had some kind of nervous breakdown,” whereupon her family took her away from Arizona and back to Mexico where she retreated to a convent (111). She didn’t fail her shamanic initiation, however. In fact, Anna fulfilled her part of the bargain with the spirits, successfully healed herself to become a shaman and gained the ability to paint true paintings (198, 277-278). But she did have a breakdown. Maggie and Dora speculate that Anna was unable to reconcile her visions with her Catholicism (136), but Anna did make that reconciliation by seeing the spirits as angels (and later as devils) (277).

It took more than visions to break her down, though after the breakdown she was unable to endure seeing the spirits of the land anymore; Cooper referred to her as having “fled back to the family bosom” (167). Anna is described as having been a “bohemian young woman” with “a proper Catholic schoolgirl” underneath. She had “pain beneath the protective wit, and a desperate dependency on Cooper” (171). It is not until page 278 of the novel, when Maggie has gone back in time to speak with Cooper, that we learn what it was that drove Anna to her breakdown. She made a bargain with one of the spirits of the mountains, the Nightmage, who functioned as her muse. In exchange for her unborn child, the Nightmage agreed to teach Anna to travel the spiral path and walk in time. The spirits helped Anna lose her unborn child, and that choice—choosing art over motherhood—haunted her. Cooper tells Maggie that Anna “lost her faith in her art, in the mountains, and even her faith in me. She replaced it with her childhood faith” and returned to her family, to Mexico, and to the Catholic Church (278). But this rejection of art and the spirits was not a failure to become a shaman. Anna trapped her muse, the Nightmage, in a painting, and made herself invisible to the other spirits so they could not find her when she left the mountains (278-279). The Nightmage himself was a kind of artist as well as a muse, and Anna was his artwork: “When she [Anna] was strong in herself and in her art, the work they created of each other was good. But later, when Anna was frightened, and a bit unstable . . . then it all went wrong” (277-278).

All of the characters so far described as shamans or potential shamans are characters who ended up in the role without choosing to be in it. Anna Naverra is called to the role by her initial meeting with the Nightmage, where he gives her Sight to see the other spirits (277). Davis Cooper was aware of the spirits through Anna and began to encounter them for himself when she was gone. Juan became aware of the otherworldly beings of the mountains through Anna’s paintings, and then through his own encounter with the Floodmage. And Maggie becomes aware of them through Cooper’s writing, Anna’s painting, Juan’s increasing madness and finally her own encounters. But there is another means of become a shaman, and that is by choice and training oneself for the role. It is in this sense that Tomás Yazzie and Fox (Johnny Foxxe) can be considered potential shamans.

Shaman by Personal Quest

Neither Tomás nor Fox show the usual signs of solitariness, absentmindedness or violence. In fact, they are both quiet and well-grounded people throughout the novel. When we first meet Tomás, he is already apparent as a shaman:

Tomás stared into the fire, aware of the other fire that burned that night several miles away [Fox’s fire]. The flames leapt high in the dark. The mesquite wood burned quick and hot. He could feel a rhythm, a pulse, a drum, sounding deep in the rock below.

He poured kinnikinnick from a pouch into the scarred palm of one hand, then tossed a mixture of herbs and tobacco into the dancing flames. The voice of the fire spoke to him. And the voice of the wind in the mesquite wood. Of the stone people, and of the water flowing there at the canyon’s heart.
It has ended, these voices told him. It has ended and it has just begun. (12) [3]

When Tomás takes Maggie to Red Springs to see the white stag, he treats the fact of the stag leaving behind turquoise where its hoofs strike the ground as an everyday occurrence; this is a man used to interacting with the supernatural (124). 

Tomás is so much the shaman that he is able to call Crow, the infamous trickster spirit who also appears as a coyote, and gain a copper bracelet by guessing the spirit’s name:

Crow grew annoyed. “You must guess,” he growled. “It’s a riddle. You must guess my name.”

Tomás stirred the embers of the fire with his usual careful, unhurried movements. “Brother,” he named the other at last.

“Wrong.” Crow laughed. “I’m no relative of yours.”

“The fire is my brother. And the stones below, and the trees and the cactus on this hill. You’ve entered the circle. You’ve smoked the tobacco. And I name you Brother,” Tomás said.

Crow’s laughter stopped. His smile died. He looked at the other uneasily. He rose, took off a copper band, and flung it down before the other man. Then he disappeared, melting into the dark of the night and the mountainside. (145)

Quiet, unassuming Tomás is better equipped than any other character in the novel to deal with the land spirits, though he remains in the background most of the time. He is also the one who taught both Fox and Davis Cooper to listen to the land (219, 279).

Fox, or Johnny Foxxe, is in the process of training himself, partly under Tomás’s guidance, but he is not really a shaman yet. When we first encounter Fox, he is returning to his beloved mountains after a time away, and is camping outdoors to properly greet the place he loves. He prepares to attempt to hear the land speak as the scene ends:

He sat down by the fire and arranged his tools beside him. A copal flute, a deerskin drum. A hunting knife and a sharpening stone. He sat and bided his time until the water trapped the image of the moon. He fed live oak branches into the fire, waiting, preparing himself. (10) 

But Fox cannot yet hear the spirits or the land. In a later scene, he builds a sweatlodge and tries to hear spirits while he is waiting for the stones to heat:

As the fire grew, he stopped talking and he listened, the way Tomás had taught him. He heard only the crackle of the fire, the snap of the dry wood, the hiss of the green. The music of the water. The whisper of the wind. A single coyote in the hills. He frowned, knowing that if Tomás had been there, the other man would have heard more. (219)

Even this late in the novel, it almost seems that Fox will never achieve his goal to hear the land. But when Maggie comes across the sweatlodge and Fox emerges, Maggie “could see pale figures crowding the doorway behind him.” Fox has had his encounter at last, and we know that it is not just Maggie who sees the beings because Fox asks her “Did you see?” (226). 


One of the magical abilities possessed by shamans in many cultures is that of shapechanging. Jones mentions that both Eliade and Carlo Ginzburg saw “a connection between the practice of shamanism and the adoption of an animal guise on the part of the practitioner” (86). Cooper recognizes that Anna is changing shape. “Our Anna has become a different creature out here,” he wrote in a letter. And later in the same letter he said, “She is a wonder to me, brown as the stones, fierce as a she-wolf, graceful as the deer. She is something other than woman in this place, she is earth and fire and sky as well” (50).

Other of our shamans and potential shamans are also connected to shapeshifting. Cooper “was a different man” after Anna left and he began to see the spirits (100). Juan becomes animal-like in his initiatory madness; he is described as howling with a “strange, feral, ferocious sound, neither quite human nor animal” (10). He sees in his reflection that he is not the same man, that “He had changed. Was changing. Shedding one snake skin and finding another skin beneath” (63). And he is associated early on with the spiral symbols that characterize the non-otherworldly shapechangers (11, 49). Though Fox is not directly associated with shapechanging, he does have two sisters who are coyote shapechangers, and they both have the spiral tattoos that mark their shifting ability (103). Tomás is only very tentatively connected to shapechanging, when Maggie thinks at first that Crow is Tomás. Otherwise, he is never directly or in any other way associated with shapechanging, and when Maggie asks him if he is a shapeshifter, he says, “I’m just a man. And I’m partial to this old shape I wear” (257). The tiny connection to Crow fits Tomás’s later role as “Spiritmage,” but it is his very contentment with his own shape that gives him stability and power as a shaman.

Maggie is closely associated with shapechanging through her connection with Crow, the trickster, who is the first spirit she meets and who ultimately teaches her to walk the spiral path (discussed below). Crow’s “body was marked with spiral tattoos” (222), and the fact that he has many tattoos presumably indicates his greater shapechanging abilities compared to lesser shifters like Pepe, Fox’s sisters, and Thumper, who each have only a single tattoo and a single other shape. Maggie also describes herself as a shapeshifter of sorts:

“I’m many different people,” she said. “So I guess I’m a bit of a shape-shifter too. In West Virginia, I’m Emil Black’s granddaughter. In L.A., I’m Nigel Vanderlin’s ex-wife; in London, I’m Tatiana Ludvik’s crazy friend. I’m a vagabond writer to my friends in Holland; a sweet summer affair to a sculptor in Florence; a hopeless klutz to every gym teacher I’ve ever had—do you want me to go on?”

“Those are just shapes [said Crow]. What’s underneath? The essence, that doesn’t change from shape to shape? That’s what a shape-shifter has to know, or you lose yourself. You can’t get back. You’re trapped in one shape, and you can’t get out.” (223)

Maggie is a shapechager both by association and by nature.

Not only is there a connection between shapechanging and shamanism, but in some Celtic stories there is a strong connection between madness, shapechanging and poetry. Suibhne, or Sweeney, is one example. He was a warrior-king who insulted a cleric. The cleric cursed Suibhne with madness so that he “levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion "like a bird of the air” (Heaney, unnumbered pages). Suibhne leaps into the air—he is sometimes described as being feathered, but seems to be neither wholly bird, nor entirely human during his madness. He lives in the wilderness, eating only watercress and drinking only water. In addition to becoming wild and birdlike, Suibhne also becomes a poet and frequently speaks in poetry.

One shamanic method for changing shape is “undressing” down to the skeleton and “putting on” an animal form. This may be related to the dismemberment of the shaman initiate. Jones describes the dismemberment visions of the initiate shaman during his initiatory illness: his or her body is cut into pieces, boiled in a cauldron or the flesh scraped off the bones until it is nothing but a skeleton; the eyes may be removed or replaced in order to supply supernatural vision; pieces of crystal may be implanted to provide a link between the shaman and the spirits. Quite often the head is cut off and set aside to watch all that is done to the body. (90)

Jones compares the shamanic/shapechanging story of Lleu in Welsh mythology to this initiatory dismemberment. Lleu transformed into an eagle when he was wounded by his wife’s lover. He was discovered by his uncle Gwydion high in a tree with his flesh rotting and dropping off from the wound. When restored to human form, Lleu is a gaunt figure, but one more powerful than before his ordeal (72).

Anna’s thinness can also be compared to the ritual dismemberment vision. Cooper described her as “strong and brown, and so terribly thin” (33) and Anna said of herself, “I am thin and strong” (175). According to Eliade, “The ability to see oneself as a skeleton implies, evidently, the symbolism of death and resurrection” and the theme of being reduced to a skeleton “constitutes . . . a symbolico-ritual complex centred in the notion of life as perpetual renewal” (Myths 83). Bone is, is Eliade’s opinion, “the ultimate root of animal Life, the matrix from which the flesh is continually renewed” and “[b]y contemplating himself as a skeleton, the shaman does away with time and stands in the presence of the eternal source of Life” (84). Thus in recognizing her own thinness, Anna steps out of time like a shaman. She even recognizes a connection between her thinness and her strength, perhaps an awareness of her shamanic nature?

Otherwordly Travel

The ability to assume animal form is also sometimes associated with otherworldly travel, though a shaman doesn’t necessarily have to change shape to visit the Otherworld (in the Sedna myth, the shaman visits the sea spirit in his own shape). In The Wood Wife shapechanging is associated with otherworldliness, travelling “the spiral path.” There is also an association between Otherworld travel and time in shamanism; in The Wood Wife, the spiral path is a path through time where all times exist simultaneously. As Maggie sees it and Crow describes it:

The clouds below them spun and roiled, then formed the shape of a white spiral that seemed to be made out of fine spun sugar. It covered the valley, blocking it from sight, and unlike the other cloud forms, it moved—a slow, barely perceptible movement, steady as the orbit of the earth.

“This is our path, the spiral path. This is how the world looks to us. We have no Time, as you know Time. We know only that-which-moves. On the spiral path, the past and future are simply two different directions. I stand in the present, at the center of the spiral, and I can walk as easily to one as to the other.” (264)

Not all of our shaman figures in the novel attempt the spiral path. Anna plans to travel it but cannot take the final step off the cliff and onto the path that appears to be formed in the clouds. Crow explains to Maggie that the spiral path is a solitary one, and Anna, who had always had her family, her church or Cooper near her, was incapable of such a journey alone (264). Cooper does successfully travel the path—he bargains away his final manuscript of poems, The Saguaro Forest, to gain the chance from the Floodmage. But travelling the path results in Cooper’s death, as the tricksy Floodmage gives him exactly what he asked for, without telling him that he will be walking straight into a flooded creekbed. And so Davis Cooper drowns in the middle of the desert (282-283). Maggie is the only one successful in her attempt. Under Crow’s guidance, she is able to walk the path and meet Cooper at two points in the past, the only times she ever meets him in person. Maggie’s own strength brings her back to her own time unharmed (270-285). Tomás does not walk the spiral path, but he may sometime in the future; the copper bracelet he earned from Crow is the same as the one Anna Naverra got from the spirits and that Maggie now wears, marked with the spiral of shapechangers, who are also walkers in time (264).

One further otherworldly connection of interest is “[t]he connection between hunting and Otherwordly adventure [that] has been noted before by scholars” and that “it may be that in some way, hunting itself causes Otherwordly adventure” (Jones 83; italics in original). Remember that in the Sedna myth, the reason the shaman makes the journey to visit the sea spirit is to convince her to send the seals back to the ice for the hunters to catch. Other cultures also have shamanic hunting rituals—rituals to entice game or to locate it, or to placate the spirits who make hunting plentiful. Dora mentions Juan’s new interest in hunting (287) and his task for the Floodmage is to hunt the white stag. By doing this he will gain his reward: becoming a great painter. But Juan has chosen the wrong spirit to make a bargain with. It was the Floodmage, the Drowned Girl, who brought about Cooper’s death, and she is not concerned that Juan will be driven to madness if he is not stopped (198). That the stag Juan is to hunt is really the missing Nightmage, Anna Naverra’s imprisoned muse, only adds to the artistry of the Floodmage’s plot. The Mages are the spirit world’s artists, using humans as their art works, as the Nightmage used Anna (see above).

Shamanic Art

David Lewis-Williams formulated a theory about prehistoric South African rock art being produced by shamans. He even suggested that this hypothesis might be expanded to include all rock art (Kehoe 71-80). Lewis-Williams based his ideas on !Kung healers he observed in trance. But, “[u]nfortunately for Lewis-Williams’ theory, the observed San practitioners did not then [after a trance healing] go paint or engrave rock faces, or make any other representation of what they may have experienced” (74). Alice Beck Kehoe, who I have quoted here, discusses and debunks this theory, and says:
Like the actually observed !Kung ritual practitioners, other mystics did not, as a rule, draw or paint representations of what they saw. Like the observed !Kung practitioners, and Siberian shamans, other mystics often expressed themselves in poetry and music. Poetry and music are not preserved among archaeologists’ material data. (74)
But the idea of a connection between shamanism or other mystical experience and art of any kind is an intriguing one. Larsen refers to myth as “the bubbling lifespring of our consciousness, that comes from inner reservoirs no man has fully fathomed. It is the source-font of our highest creativity as well as of our worst delusions, and the secret is all in how it is tended” (4). In other words, myth is the true source of human creativity and mystics access myth more closely than other humans.

The connection of mysticism or shamanism with poetry is clearly illustrated in such figures as Suibhne (discussed above), Merlin and Taliesin. Merlin and Taliesin have particularly strong connections to magic and possibly shamanism, and Taliesin in particular was a great poet. In addition, Leslie Ellen Jones, in discussing possible shamanic elements of ancient druidism, says of the early Celtic manuscripts: 

The shamanic elements we find in this material seem to cling to the figure of the poet, since we have references to poetic ecstasies of composition, and since generally shamanic modes of behaviour are found attached to the figures of Taliesin, Finn, Myrddin, Suibhne. (71)

She also mentions that, in many traditions, “[s]hamanic elements often arise in conjunction with poetry and prophecy,” and gives the example of the Orpheus myth as having shamanic overtones including an underworld journey and a dismemberment theme (74). Shamans and poets both are known to have larger than usual vocabularies—Jones compares Eliade’s Yakut shamans (with 12, 000-word vocabularies compared to the 4, 000 words of people in the rest of the community) to ancient Irish poets and storytellers known for their huge store of words (74).

As for shamanism and painting, as unsupported as Lewis-William’s theory may be, there is an interesting connection between visual arts and mysticism. Hugh Mynne wrote a new age book called The Faerie Way, which “offers people of European descent their own shamanic road to travel” (back cover). Mynne describes the poet AE (George William Russell) as “a deeply intuitive seer and mystic who had lifelong communication with faerie beings,” and says AE “left an astonishingly detailed account of his visions, both in his beautiful prose writings and his numerous faerie paintings” (44).

There is also a longstanding association between creativity and madness, in particular, painting and madness. Interestingly, a number of painters of fairies were, or were thought to be insane, and fairies are cognate with the spirit beings in The Wood Wife; it is the term Davis Cooper uses to describe them, while Anna called them angels (277). John Anster Fitzgerald painted works that, “unlike the majority of fairy painting which relied on an external literary source, they sprang straight from the artist’s imagination, an aspect which caused some contemporary critics to speculate on the artist’s personal sanity” (Phillpotts 5-6). Fairy artist Richard Dadd murdered his father, thinking the other man was the devil. Dadd  painted some of his most remarkable work within the asylum. His madness aided rather than impeded his artistic vision; fairyland continued to fascinate him and his heightened perception created a delicate but threatening microcosm of human society which exercises an abiding fascination. (6)

He was kept in the care of Bethlem Hospital, the famous “Bedlam” (15), itself associated with fairies in the folk song “Tom O’ Bedlam” in which the narrator intends “to cut mince pies from children’s thighs with which to feed the fairies.” Charles Altamont Doyle, a fairy painter and brother of a fairy painter (Richard “Dicky” Doyle) painted pictures that “display yet more bizarre imaginative twists, heightened by the artist’s later madness” (16). He “had kept an illustrated diary which was full of drawings of fairies” while in various mental institutions (Smith 382). Charles Altamont Doyle was also the father of Arthur Conan Doyle, famous creator of Sherlock Holmes and avid fairy believer. The younger Doyle risked his reputation to support the veracity of the Cottingley fairy photographs.

Shaman as Mediator

As mentioned earlier, one of the primary functions of the shaman is to mediate between the mortal world and the Otherworld. Jones comments that “The Otherworld can perhaps be regarded as a psychological state related through language” (79), making a poet a natural choice for shaman. This psychological state is another state of consciousness that alters the perception of reality (79-80). In normal life, we live in consensus reality, to purpose of which is “to provide a structure for filtering masses of potentially perceptible raw data into a manageable flow that offers enough information about the environment to enable us to function, but not so much information as to be overwhelming.” A shaman is able to leave consensus reality and enter another state; “[a]n altered state is merely a different filtering of the same mass of available data” (80). Larsen phrases it this way:
The shaman obviously has access to dimensions of consciousness usually unavailable to us. Whether in trance or awake, he seems to be able to see things that others do not see. In our culture this condition is regarded invariably as a symptom of psychotic episode. Yet the shaman is not psychotic . . . . (80)

Shamans perceive the world differently, and can relay the important aspects of those differences to their people. People, like the shamans and potential shamans I have been discussing, gain the ability to see the spirits through a change in perception. This change can be given as a gift by the spirits themselves, as the Nightmage gave Anna the ability to see the other spirits (277), or as the Spine Witch gave to Maggie in exchange for the turquoise stones the spirit took from Maggie’s night table (by kissing her eyelids, a very Celtic fairy means of conferring Sight) (125). Cooper’s poems were thought by one reviewer to be transcriptions of drunken hallucinations, and a hallucination is one kind of altered perception, just not the kind that actually resulted in the composition of the poems (114).

One theme in The Wood Wife is that the spirit beings wear shapes given to them; in the novel it is the artists, the painters and poets, who create those shapes. This idea is echoed in other literature. E.L. Gardner, a Theosophist who brought the Cottingley fairy photographs to Arthur Conan Doyle’s attention, wrote: “The diminutive human form [of fairies], so widely assumed, is doubtless due, at least in a great measure, to the powerful influence of human thought, the strongest creative power in our cycle” (in Doyle 174). Commenting on this statement, Paul Smith says “[f]or Gardner then, the way fairies look to us was determined by the way our collective unconscious shapes them, in that it may ‘select archetypal images and project them on to the raw elemental force, producing the materialization of our choice’” (380; quoting Picknett, 159). This is somewhat comparable to Larsen’s comments on the function of myth: “Firsthand mystical experience is sometimes so powerful that one must render it, translate it, shape it, into a form comprehensible to consciousness” (34). Myths and mythic characters, then, serve two functions: “They reawaken man to an experience of the divine, and yet also safeguard him from having to deal with it in its formless aspect: pure power and meaning” (34). Without such a safeguard, mystical experience would drive people to madness (as it probably has done). So shamans give form to otherworldly creatures. The shaman is an “imposer of form. He refuses to be baffled by stimuli which are diffuse and lacking in significance,” says Richard A Shweder (329, italics in original).

That the artists give the spirits shapes to wear becomes more and more evident as the novel progresses. Cooper described the spirits, which he calls fairies, thus:

They are not supernatural beings, they are as natural as the land itself. I believe them to be an essence, a rhythm, a language, a color beyond the spectrum of our sight. They appear in the shapes we clothe them with—and at first I though it was only Anna who had the power to do this, but now I’ve seen creatures from my own recent poems, flickering like moths in the mesquite grove. Perhaps it is art that gives them these shapes, or belief, or our own expectations. (167-168)

It is when the artist becomes a shaman, whether they are aware of it or not, that they gain the power to shape the fairies or spirits, and to shape the perception of others who see the beings. Maggie comments that “Anna believed that all she was doing was creating shapes for them to wear. Like clothes, she said, that they put on for our sake, not for theirs” (229), and Cooper said that what these beings are called, whether it be personal names like “Thumper” (named by Maggie) or a name for all such beings, like “fairies” or “angels” or “spirits,” “are ones they wear for us. They don’t much matter to them” (277).

Whatever state or reality the shaman is in, in The Wood Wife the artists who are shamans do better work than they did before they were shamans. Anna Naverra painted her greatest, truest work after discovering and beginning to associate with the spirits, and Cooper wrote his best poetry when he, too, could see the spirits. His final manuscript was composed while he was the Spiritmage, a human mage chosen to replace the missing Nightmage as protector of the Rincon Mountains. Though Cooper was unaware of being Spiritmage, he had the increased artistic power that goes along with the role and he heard the land and could translate the voices of the place into poetry. After Cooper’s death, the role of Spiritmage was again unfilled; by the end of the novel Tomás has stepped into the role naturally. On his assuming the title Spiritmage, Tomás says, “I look after this land as best I know how. I listen to it with respect. Mage, shaman—those are just words” (296). 

Like the spirits themselves, Tomás has no need for a label, and perhaps that is why he is so well suited to the role. The Floodmage at first objects that the Spiritmage must be an artist; she says, “You have no mastery, no artistry. There is nothing about you that is beautiful,” to which Tomás replies that his artistry is in his garden, in his ability to grow food in the desert. The Mages must admit to that (296). Tomás has heard the land speaking all along, and is perfectly suited for the position of intermediary between it, between the spiritworld, and the human world.

By the novel’s end, Maggie has returned to writing poetry, and she is also longing to be back in the desert mountains; she has come to crave the solitariness and connection to the place where she had her shamanic initiation. It is implied that the shamanic journey healed her, returned her to her core essence (poetry), and so will strengthen her artistic abilities (304-305, 317-318). She has begun to hear the voices of the land itself, as well as the voices of the spirits, and will be able to take on the shamanic/artistic function of giving the land a voice that non-shamans can hear.


With all the different hints about art and shamanism in The Wood Wife, from Maggie’s inheritance of Cooper’s place in the mountains (his house, anyway), and because inheritance is one way a person can become a shaman, I was expecting Maggie to be chosen as the new Spiritmage. Yet she is not chosen. She seems perfect for the role, but it is Tomás who assumes it. Why? The Floodmage says to Crow, “Your little poet hasn’t been here long enough” (296). Maggie is not yet strongly enough connected to the mountains and desert to take on the role. By the end of the book, it looks like she will be, but she is not yet. So what does this mean about art? Perhaps that some kinds of art, art that is strongly rooted in place, act as a voice for that place as the shaman is the voice for the landscape he lives in (for example, relaying the message of Sedna). To make the kind of art that speaks for place, whether it is painting or poetry, or even gardening, the artist must have a true knowledge and attachment to that place. It is implied that Maggie, who can hear the voices of the desert, may very well develop that attachment and so be able to speak for the place herself. 

Thus The Wood Wife can be read as a nice urban fantasy about a woman seeing spirits in the desert and her adventures because of it. But, on another level, it is a novel about the transformative abilities of art and about the power of place and its connection to artist and art. It is also about the way an artist can be driven mad by the frustration of not having a skill to equal their vision. It is about the human connection with the world we live on. It is an environmentalist novel and a novel about love and obsession. But most of all, for me, it is a book about coming to belong to a place to the extent that you can begin to speak for it. This aspect comes so strongly for me because I, like Maggie, had a somewhat rootless existence, and have longed for that kind of true belonging that Maggie began to find in the desert. To become a shaman-artist and speak for the land seems a true and productive goal, indeed.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Coming of the Fairies. 1922. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1979.
Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries. 1957. Trans. Philip Mairet. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960.
-----. “Shaman.” Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural. Vol. 19. Richard Cavendish, ed. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1970. 2546-2549.

Heaney, Seamus. Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983.

Jones, Leslie Ellen. Druid, Shaman, Priest: Metaphors of Celtic Paganism. Enfield Lock, Middlesex, UK: Hisarlik, 1998.

Kehoe, Alice Beck. Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 2000.

Larsen, Stephen. The Shaman’s Doorway: Opening the Mythic Imagination to Contemporary Consciousness. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. William A., and Evon Z. Vogt. “Six: The Purposes of Shamanism: Introduction.” Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. Fourth Edition. William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, eds. New York: HarperCollins, 1979. 301-302.

Mynne, Hugh. The Faerie Way. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1996.

Phillpotts, Beatrice. The Book of Fairies. New York: Ballantine, 1978.

Picknett, Lynn. Flights of Fancy?: 100 Years of Paranormal Experiences. New York: Ballantine, 1987.

Rasmussen, Knud. “A Shaman’s Journey to the Sea Spirit.” Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. Fourth Edition. William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, eds. New York: HarperCollins, 1979. 308-311.

Shweder, Richard A. “Aspects of Cognition in Zinacanteco Shamans: Experimental Results.” Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. Fourth Edition. William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, eds. New York: HarperCollins, 1979. 327-331.

Smith, Paul. “The Cottingley Fairies: The End of a Legend.” The Good People: New Fairylore Essays. Peter Narváez, ed. Lexington: UP Kentucky, 1991. 

Windling, Terri. The Wood Wife. New York: Tor, 1996.

[1] Most scholars use “he” to refer to a shaman, though female shamans are known. In this paper I sometimes use “she,” sometimes “he” and sometimes “they,” whichever seems to fit.
[2] Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition; I have changed passages originally in italics to normal text for easier reading.
[3] The italicized words here were in regular text in the original, as the whole text was part of the all-italics Prologue.

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