Chapter Nineteen – Song of the Reindeer

Towards Samhain I finally felt it was time to birth a Siberian drum that had been calling to be born for many months. It first came in a dream where I saw horses riding across a vast northern plain with coloured ribbons streaming from them in the wind. As I was waking up from the dream I could hear the tinkling of little bells. I sensed this was a drum communication, as in Siberia the drum is sometimes called the horse, which the shaman rides into the spirit world. In subsequent dreams I would find myself in beautiful lands I knew to be Siberia and where I felt great happiness. In one dream I found myself travelling in Siberia where I met a female shaman with a huge eye and wild black hair. I told her I was going to make a drum and she replied, you mean like this one?, and gestured to a horse. The horse had pink, white and blue ribbons on it. So I knew that the drum needed these. Some research into Siberian drum tradition revealed that the shamans use little bells called tiger bells with tiger faces on them. So I knew my drum must have these as well as the ribbons. The shamanic traditions of the far north are very closely related to the reindeer and so I acquired such a skin from Finland to make the drum. I also got a wonderfully un-round hoop, which I was delighted with as many of the older drums I saw were beautifully distorted and I loved the character this gave. The hoop, by chance, was made of beech. This was significant as this is one of the trees that amanita muscaria, the entheogen most associated with northern shamanic traditions, lives in symbiosis with. Although laced drums, similar to the Native American style of my first drum exist in Siberia I was shown in a journey that this was to be a drum where the skin was to be stitched to the rim. In the lacing style drum, a cross-shaped handle is formed from the lacing itself. With the stitched drum this is not possible so in Siberia handles come in several different kinds. I chose a wooden one, as this is sometimes called the ‘tiger’. In Siberia the Tiger is considered the most sacred animal and I loved the association of this, the tiger bells and my own spirit tiger. For the handle I chose elder wood. This would not be a traditional choice in Siberia but I chose it for a number of reasons. Firstly, I have a long relationship with this tree as for many years I had been making reeds out of it for my uilleann pipes. This was virtually a lost art and was in a way my first shamanic expression. I took joy in producing music from the hedgerow, rather than using cane as most people did. I got to know all the elder trees in the vicinity. The elder could be harvested dead from the ground but if looking for a piece from a living tree it could only be taken when the sap was down in the roots. The lore was that the best time to do this was after the first frost after the first full moon in November. The tree was also to be asked permission and thanked otherwise bad luck would befall. This was clearly a vestige of Irish shamanic practice. Another reason for choosing elder is that in folklore it is closely associated with witches and the supernatural. It’s one of the trees in the ogham alphabet and is veritable pharmacological treasure for healing. Furthermore, the elder branch has pith up its centre, which can be hollowed out. The handle of Siberian drums is also associated with the spine and I felt that the hollow elder beautifully represented the sushumna through which kundalini travels. I chose a piece with lovely blue and red markings shooting up from the bottom to symbolise this. Some Siberian drums have a twisted copper or iron wire running horizontally across the drum from which various objects of significance to the shaman could be hung. I chose for this a silver harp string to bring another touch of Ireland into the drum. Another feature of these Siberian drums is that the handle sometimes doubles into a spirit fetish called an ongon. Usually a simple spirit face is fixed to the handle and then clothes and decorations added also. I had really no idea what the spirit would look like so I asked if it might show itself to me. What came were large feline eyes, they came several times so I felt sure. I thought in fact that this might be my spirit Tiger asking to be shown. I went to the workshop and began to make the piece. It sort of unfolded naturally without any real plan or design. What emerged was certainly feline but looked more like a domestic or small wildcat than a tiger. Once I had the hoop, handle and ongon face prepared, I was ready to make the drum the next day. That night I dreamed I was in annoying petty situations and eventually found myself walking in a run down depressing housing estate in London. Just as I was wondering how I’d ended up in a place like this a bird flew up to me. It was ethereal and the most gorgeous pastel pink and blue colours. It flew right up to my face and alongside me as I walked. I said, you must be the most beautiful bird in the universe! I could feel its feathers fluttering on my face as I woke up, I knew it was a true spirit bird and that its colours were the same as the ribbons on the drum. I felt blissfully happy and felt my work was blessed. I got up at dawn the next morning and lowered the reindeer skin into the well to soak for several hours. I retrieved it that afternoon and spent the rest of the day stitching the drum, finishing the last stitch under the stars. I stood under the oak tree, held the drum up to the night sky and dedicated it to the service of the universe. This was just the first stage as the drum was still to be dressed and decorated and a beater made. That night I slept with the drum in my room and the magic began to happen. First the bird came again. Then the drum would rush up to my face and initiate strong dream images. I found myself in a small cave in a cliff face; the ocean was gently lapping at the entrance where I sat. Floating in the ocean were several large and very beautiful shells, like giant sea snails or nautilus. They were white and spiralled with stunning colours inside, as if each contained a universe. I was told they were called rhino…(?) and I had to extract something from them. I got one into the cave and out of it burst a ferocious black cat, I realised that this was the spirit of the drum. The next day I discovered that these snails actually exist, rhinocerous vasum, the rhinoceros vase snail! It seems the spirit of the cat was drawn up from the ocean of consciousness through the cosmic spiral of the shell. Furthermore, when examining my drum in the light I discovered that a feline face had appeared on the inside of the drum-skin just to the left of the cat face I had made. I painted the face black. The following days brought more strange dreams. In one, an old Siberian shaman with a drum appeared twice to me and supervised me cutting a skin for a truly enormous drum. In a vision I heard the word ‘bluebirds’. I saw two bluebirds; many orbs of white light emerged from them and snaked of into a starry cosmos in parallel lines. I sensed they were the illuminated markings on the back of a spirit anaconda. Driving home with Michèle from the market, a small hawk flew to the left, then a huge buzzard straight ahead. When I awakened the drum in ceremony I saw the reindeer running and incredible sounds of wind and roaring emanated from the drum. That night in my dreams I found myself with the drum. I was pressing on the skin with my finger, which had a red earthy paint on it. As I pressed the skin, the face of an old medicine man began to appear, it seemed that rather than painting this face I was actually revealing what was already there. In my dream the next night I found myself in space holding a drum out in front of me. From around a corner in space came the beautiful orange red golden light of a sunrise. The light snaked in thick tendrils towards the drum. It passed through the skin and was focused and amplified before passing into me, infusing me with radiance.

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