Pagan author Lupa, whom I praised some months back for her book “Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic”, has come out with a new book on the somewhat controversial subculture of Otherkin. The book, “A Field Guide to Otherkin”, explains and explores a growing group of people who identify as something other than human. I have covered this subculture in the past since a large number of Otherkin also identify with modern Pagan religions or occult/magical practices, and there is some tension over their inclusion by Pagans worried about mainstream acceptance. Given this, I felt an interview with the author where we explore this subculture would benefit us far more than a simple review.
I suppose the first question for the uninitiated is what are Otherkin, and what made you want to write a book on the subject?
Otherkin are people who identify in some manner (generally nonphysical) as Other than human. While the stereotype of Otherkin is a person who believes s/he was a dragon or an elf in a past life, there’s actually a wide variety of theories as to how we got to be what/where we are, and what we identify as. Reincarnation is probably the most popular theory, the idea that what you were in a previous/alternate life still affects you to an extent in this one. However, there are also theories involving genetics and physiology, psychology and neurobiology, energy, and even metaphor. (And, of course, there’s the possibility that we’re all sharing a collective delusion.)
As to what sorts of beings we identify as, while you get a lot of elves, fey beings, and dragons, I’ve also met or heard of people who identify as gryphons, unicorns, kitsune (Japanese fox spirits) and even someone who identifies on a certain level as a Chupacabra (look into cryptozoology if you don’t know what I’m talking about). I’ve included therianthropes, people who identify in some way as nonhuman animals native to this plane of reality, as well as vampires. With regards to those groups, some people include them under the Otherkin aegis, while others don’t; it’s mostly an issue of semantics and personal preference. I included them because there is a good bit of crossover among Otherkin, therians, and vampires. Also, I am a wolf therian (surprise!) and I consider myself to be Otherkin because of it. But, as with just about anything involving Otherkin, it really depends on the individual.
I wrote A Field Guide to Otherkin for several reasons. I first dipped my toes into the Otherkin community about a decade ago, though my participation has been intermittent depending on how I felt about that part of myself. Pretty much from the beginning I remembered people posting on listserves every so often saying “Hey, I’m writing a book on Otherkin-wanna fill out my survey?” Other than a couple of books on vampires and one on therianthropy, I never saw anything manifest, and nothing on the Otherkin community as a whole. There have been a few books on Paganism and other topics that have mentioned Otherkin, but as far as I know, the Field Guide is the first book solely dedicated to Otherkin.
Part of why I wrote it was because Otherkin are becoming more well-known as a community, and there are a lot of misconceptions out there about us. I wanted to write a book that would be partly a resource for Otherkin themselves , but also for people who aren’t Otherkin who are curious. There are tons of good websites out there, and you can find a bunch of them in the website section of my bibliography, but some people have the idea that a book is automatically a better quality resource. So rather than putting up yet another website when there are already so many good sites out there, I decided to write a book. Plus I had just published my first book, Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic, so I was open to a new project, and this was a good challenge for me.
I’ll say right now that I am not the ultimate authority on Otherkin, and the Field Guide should not be seen as the do-all and end-all of Otherkin information (the same goes for this interview). I strongly urge readers of the Field Guide to check out the annotated bibliography to find both books and websites that I found really useful, and that have perspective other than my own.
Your book points out several instances of mythological and historical anecdotes that point towards the possibility (or at least the idea) of possessing a non-human soul, yet it is fairly recently that a unifying social construction of “otherkinism” has emerged. Why is it important now that these Otherkin have a shared group identity? Looking closer at some of the different varieties of Otherkin (elves, vampires, therians) many of them seem to have little in common.
I think it’s mainly the idea of “I’m not the only one!” Even Otherkin admit that believing you’re not human through and through is a pretty weird thing, and a lot of us, especially those of us who recognized our “Other-ness” at a young age, questioned our sanity over the years. I know I went through what I call the “belief-doubt-belief” cycle a number of times about my therianthropy. I’d start out feeling okay with the idea of being lupine on some level, but then I’d start worrying “Am I insane? What the hell am I thinking?” And so I’d repress anything having to do with therianthropy whatsoever. This invariably would make me depressed, and as with anything we repress, the wolf side would start creeping out again, whether I liked it or not. I continued in this cycle until I finally decided to just accept that this is a part of me, for better or for worse. I can honestly say I feel healthier and happier now than I ever did when I was trying to shove it back in the box, so to speak.
And for me, as well as a lot of other Otherkin, having others who have had at least somewhat similar experiences around is comforting, just as Pagans often feel happier when around other Pagans. It’s not that Otherkin at gatherings and meetups only talk about Otherkin things; it’s just nice knowing that if someone cracks a joke about bumping into someone with ethereal wings, or mentions something that involves being Other, it’s not a big deal. It really does resemble the Pagan community in that way; you have a bunch of people with an eclectic mix of beliefs and backgrounds, but we feel better in each other’s company because it’s safe space with people who share a certain level of understanding.
Do you think there is a larger reason or purpose to all these “awakenings” into Otherkinism, or is it simple a by-product of the Internet allowing more networking.
Okay, first thing before I go into this question-”Otherkinism” isn’t a word, at least not one that Otherkin use. “Otherkin” is pretty much a general use term, including as a collective noun. “Otherkinism” is like saying “Wiccanism”. It also gives the wrong impression that Otherkin is a religion, which it isn’t; it’s more properly a subculture with some spiritual aspects that not all Otherkin adhere to.
But linguistic details aside, I don’t think there’s any huge cosmic purpose, personally. I know some Otherkin, especially more newly Awakened ‘kin, often try to fit themselves into some sort of Apocalyptic destiny or other crucial story. I’ve heard the idea that at some vague point in the near future “the Veil between the worlds” will fall, and all Otherkin will take their “true” physical forms in order to fight some massive battle between the forces of Light and Darkness. I’ve also seen similar stories among
people who are brand-new to magical practice in general; it’s not just Otherkin. That’s actually why I asked Chris Carter to write his guest essay on personal mythology for the book. There’s a definite purpose for telling a story about yourself, as long as you stay grounded in the realities of this world. I think Chris did a great job of showing the boundaries between personal mythology as a way of enhancing one’s understanding of this life, and personal mythology as a way of disconnecting from this life.
I do think the internet has had a definite impact on Otherkin. As to what the exact nature of that impact is, who’s to say for sure? Saying that all Otherkin are a bunch of introverted, unemployed basement-dwellers who have poor personal hygiene and no real social life outside of the computer is a grossly inaccurate stereotype (and I hold myself up as an example contrary to that stereotype). On the other hand, I think it’s possible that at least some people “Awakened” because they found the concept of Otherkin on the internet and thought it was cool. However, a lot of Otherkin I know felt something Other about themselves long before they ever encountered the internet; finding other people online (and in person) helped give us a structure and a common jargon to use in exploring that part of ourselves. Even without the internet Otherkin were finding each other; the Elf Queen’s Daughters, and later, the Silver Elves, were all doing their elven communications via newsletters in the 1970s. People find each other using whatever communication method they have available; the internet has simply sped up the transfer of information to an unprecedented level.
Regarding reincarnation, (one of the most common explanations for Otherkin) some schools of thought teach that all of us were animals at some point in our many lives. If you subscribed to such a view wouldn’t almost everyone be “Otherkin” technically speaking? Or is Otherkin identity predicated on remembrance and identification with that past life?
I have met Pagans who believed they were nonhuman animals in a previous life, but didn’t identify as Otherkin. I think part of what makes one Otherkin is the conscious present identity with the Other self, whether through reincarnation or another theory. In my own case, for example, I’m not sure whether I was a wolf in a past life or not; it might just be a weird piece of psychological imprinting and conditioning. Regardless of how I got to be this way, though, there has been a part of me, since I was very young, that always felt that I should have been born a wolf rather than a human. I’ve balanced it out with the rest of me, so it doesn’t rule my life, but it’s a definite influence on how I perceive the world. I consciously accept and embrace that which is not human within me, and I think that’s one of the main differences between me as Otherkin, and a Pagan who had a previous life as a wolf that doesn’t really affect who s/he is now.
By the way, reincarnation just seems to be the theory of origin that gets used the most; I think part of it is because it allows a certain amount of literal interpretation, and people feel that “literal” is more legitimate than “metaphorical”. Not that there aren’t people who could literally be reincarnated dragons, but I think sometimes people may assume that a feeling or dream or vision they get in meditation is automatically a past life memory, when it may in fact be the subconscious mind’s way of communicating information about the self to the conscious mind. It really depends on the individual person, though; I don’t think it’s accurate to attribute all Otherkin to one particular theory of origin.
Perhaps of special interest to readers of my blog is that a large number of self-described Otherkin (though not all) are involved in some form of modern Paganism, or occult/magical practice. Do you think there is a special reason for this, or is it simply that these religious/magical subcultures are more accepting than most of ideas outside the accepted norms?
I think that Neopaganism appeals to a lot of Otherkin because it allows for a magical worldview that a lot of Otherkin adhere to, as well as the existence of nonhuman entities (at least on nonphysical planes of reality) and broad interpretations of concepts like reincarnation. I also think the fact that Pagans tend to be (as a group) more open-minded also helps. This doesn’t however, mean that “Otherkin” should be seen as a subsection of Paganism. For one thing, there are Otherkin (particularly therians) who explain themselves solely through psychology, and who are incredibly skeptical about anything magical or mystical. And there are Otherkin who aren’t Pagan (at least not Neopagan)-I know of Otherkin who are various types of Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Agnostic, Atheist, etc. As I mentioned earlier, “Otherkin” isn’t a religion, though some ‘kin may work it in with their religious beliefs or vice versa.
Finally, while the Pagan community does tend to be more accepting of various subcultures with which it has some crossover (including the GLBT and kink communities), there are still a lot of Pagans who automatically shunt “Otherkin” into the fluff bin. This seems to be particularly so in light of the “de-fluffing” movement that seems to have gained popularity in recent years. Unfortunately, those Otherkin who do examine their beliefs about themselves critically often get thrown out along with those for whom this is all an excuse for escapism.
Pop-culture and fictional stories seem to weigh heavily on the Otherkin community, to the point where some have accused Otherkin (sometimes quite harshly) of simply being over-imaginative role-players. To complicate this you even point out that there are “mediakin” people who believe themselves to house the soul of a character from a fictional world (like Neo from the Matrix), a group that even a fair number of Otherkin have a hard time accepting. So how can an outsider tell the difference between someone with an out-of-control imagination (perhaps to the point of mental illness), and someone who healthily identifies themselves with an inhuman soul.
In general, I judge sanity by functionality. If a person can hold down a job, maintain a healthy social life, and otherwise function as well in society as anyone else, then I don’t consider hir to be insane. This ties in with one of the appendices from the Field Guide, which is basically a description of a conversation I had with a therapist about my therianthropy. One of the main points she brought up was that her job, as a therapist, was NOT to judge the validity of a person’s belief, but how that belief affected the person on a daily basis.
Are there people in the ‘kin community I look askance at? Sure. But they’re the people who seem to have a hard time reconciling being Otherkin with having an everyday life, and particularly those who seem to be deliberately causing that schism. A theoretical example might be a therian who refuses to work around other people because s/he swears s/he’ll bite them, and so “can’t” get a job. Part of being Otherkin is being that Other within *this* reality. Don’t like it here? Tough. You’re here, so deal with it. There’s only one other option, and I don’t recommend it. (And anyway, there are some pretty nifty things about this world—biodiversity, good books, Ben and Jerry’s…)
As to Mediakin, admittedly that concept takes a little more mind-twisting than Otherkin in general. I think a lot of people get hung up on the idea of literal reincarnation involving “fictional” beings. For a more detailed explanation from a Mediakin perspective that clears up some of the misconceptions, I strongly recommend http://otakukin.atspace.com/.
The recent news article featuring someone claiming to be Neo and Trinity from The Matrix got a pretty negative reaction, including from the Mediakin community. I’m frien
ded to a few Mediakin on Livejournal, and the sense I got was “Oh, no, not THEM!” It’d be sort of like if Kevin Carlyon ended up being the media’s first exposure to witchcraft. (I don’t make any personal judgment in any case; I’m just describing the reactions I encountered.)
To a certain extent the vampire and elvish communities that are now grouped under the Otherkin label were (and are) self-supporting subcultures that existed before the idea of Otherkinism. Is there resistance from these groups to being lumped under this umbrella term? It also seems that some of the vampires, instead of believing themselves to be “vampire-souled”, instead simply claim to *be* vampires (just as some elves/fairies claim to be actual bloodline descendants). Does this still make them Otherkin?
As I mentioned before, there’s discussion as to whether therians and vampires in particular are or aren’t Otherkin, and it depends on who you talk to. Certainly there’s a fair amount of interaction among the various communities, but I think it really just boils down to a debate of semantics. There are also people who could be described as Otherkin who dislike the negative connotations the term has picked up and so either use another word entirely or no label at all. You also see that in therianthropy, people who call themselves, for example, animal people instead of therians.
Not all Otherkin in general claim to have nonhuman souls; for some it’s a matter of energy, or psychology, or in rare cases physiology/genetics (as in the case of elves and fey who claim to have had a nonhuman ancestor). Again, that’s the common misconception that Otherkin = reincarnation. Vampires are a special case, because the majority have some physical symptoms of vampirism. Sanguine vampires require blood to maintain their health, while psychic vampires need to feed off of others’ energy to stay physically healthy. If either type of vampire stops feeding, very commonly there’ll be physical weakness and illness as a result. While it’s possible that at least some of these cases could be psychosomatic, there’s also the conscious identification with vampirism involved. So that could mean, for some people, that vampire = Otherkin, regardless of the physical aspects.
How should a non-kin approach the subject of a friend or family member “coming out” (or being found out) as an Otherkin? As you note in the book, most people will most likely see that person as a bit “touched” in the head. You also note that possible Otherkin should have real mental problems treated at once. So I guess the question is how do we draw the line between personal gnosis about your soul’s identity and simple mental illness? What resources are there for Otherkin and non-kin to access to tell the difference?
Again, I stress functionality. Just as friends and family of Pagans found out after a while that we weren’t running around eating babies and sacrificing the neighbor’s cat in the graveyard, so the people close to those Otherkin who are out eventually discover that the dragon or elf in the family is the same person as before, albeit maybe with an “odd” belief about hirself. Obviously, if a person is using the concept of Otherkin to excuse unhealthy behaviors or is exhibiting signs of a definite mental illness, s/he needs to get help. However, believing you are Otherkin isn’t necessarily a symptom of a mental illness, same thing as believing in magic or pre-Christian gods isn’t, either. If you get a Pagan who tries to sacrifice hir children because the Goddess said so, or a dragonkin who believes that hir kleptomania is because s/he naturally likes hoarding shiny objects, those are cases of people using their beliefs to excuse very unhealthy behaviors. But those behaviors probably weren’t *caused* by Paganism or Otherkin; the people would have found some framework to wrap their illnesses around regardless. People use Christianity as an excuse to shoot homosexuals and abortion doctors; that doesn’t mean Christianity itself is to blame. It just means you have a seriously imbalanced person using the trappings of a belief system to justify hir behaviors.
In the last chapter you switch gears from a field guide to a primer for those who may think they might be an Otherkin. What would be the most important piece of advice to pass on to newcomers exploring the world(s) and cultures described in your book?
It’s okay to have your head in the clouds as long as you have your feet firmly planted on the ground. It’s very easy to get carried away by the idea of being something special, and more than human, and ever so amazing! I ought to know, because when I first discovered the concept of therianthropy, I kept waiting for my first physical shapeshift. After the first few fruitless full moons, though, I started talking to other therians and found out that it wasn’t quite like that.
Part of the reason I emphasize research and networking so much is to make sure that newly Awakened Otherkin have a sounding board to bounce their experiences off of. No matter what you’re going through, chances are that someone else has been through a similar experience and can give you some advice. In the words of Tyler Durden, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake”-any more than any other person, Otherkin or otherwise. That doesn’t mean that what you’re going through isn’t important to you, but it does mean that being Otherkin doesn’t make you better than human or exempt you from the rules of this reality. Explore this part of yourself, but don’t forget to weave it in with the rest of who you are. I don’t like meat with my salad, and work with animal totems, just because I am a wolf therian; I am a wolf therian who also happens to be omnivorous and practices totemism and other forms of animal magic.
Finally, what is the most important thing about Otherkin that an outsider should know and remember?
The Otherkin community is incredibly diverse; in some ways it makes the Pagan community look positively monolithic! Don’t judge all Otherkin by a few examples. We have our nuts and flakes in our community, admittedly, but chances are so do you. Some of the really loud people in the Otherkin community are newbies who probably haven’t done a lot of soul-searching yet, and who are really enamored of the idea of “I’m different!” Many of the more mature people who’ve explored and questioned and critiqued themselves over and over are pretty quiet and in the background, either because they see no need to be “loud and proud”, or because they dislike the automatic negative reactions and stereotyping that some non-’kin throw at anyone who admits to being Otherkin. After all, if you tried to talk about something you were interested in, and someone immediately tried to shoot you down with all the worst possible aspects of what you were discussing-repeatedly-wouldn’t that discourage you after a while?
For Pagans, think of it this way. The Pagans that the media often runs into first are the newbies and the flakes (though, thankfully, we’ve seen some improvement in that regard). How long has it taken the more mature members of the Pagan community to feel comfortable coming out and talking to the media without the automatic fear that they’ll be sensationalized? Otherkin are the same way. There are Otherkin out there besides “identitykin”; you just have to look for them sometimes.
Thank you for the chance to chat about this, Jason!