Think of a shaman, and you normally think of a wild man in Siberia adorned with animal skins and leather belts covered in medicine bags. Shamans are considered to be mediators between the ordinary world we live in and the spirit world surrounding us. They are healers and sometimes even law-givers. So we also may imagine wise eyes with a sparkle in them that we just cannot explain.
No mental image of the shaman would ever be complete without his staff, that decorated wooden stick he (or she) always takes with him. His staff is almost an extension of himself. Not just a symbol of power, it steadies him as he walks and serves as a weapon if he is physically threatened. It is the tangible element of his inner vision. It represents the spirit helper, or the magical influence which guides him through the spirit realm or through healing rituals. The staff is the physical representation of the axis where the two worlds the shaman walks in the physical and spiritual worlds join.
Whether you are also following the path of the shaman or simply want a staff for yourself, there are two ways which you can have a shaman's staff of your very own. The first and easiest way is to buy one. You can find them already decorated or plain and ready for you to personalize. If you do decide to buy one, expect to spend anywhere from $30 to $200 or more. This is worth it if you find a quality staff with no checks, or cracks, that is also sturdy enough to hold your weight as you walk. It also can save you some effort!
If for you there is nothing like owning the spiritual tool that you made yourself, then the second way to get a staff is to make it. One tradition says your staff should be completely personal. There is no real right way to make it, so long as you make it yourself from the very beginning. This gives your staff more personal power and binds it to you. Besides, it can be a matter of pride!
The steps to follow are pretty basic and only require patience and maybe some creativity.
1. ) Find your wood. You can buy this from a place that sells unprepared long sticks, or you can find a piece in the forest. I have seen people walk into the forest and return with a long stick which seemed to "call" to them while I personally found sticks with unusual knots or other interesting features.
When selecting a stick, pay attention to the length and balance. You want one that is comfortable for you so that it can perform when the time comes. As a weapon, imbalance could throw you off from defending against your opponent. As a heavy stick, you would be so exhausted from lugging it along that you would spend more time leaning on it than you would walking. As a weak decoration, it could break at the most inconvenient time. Your goal is to find a sturdy, checkless stick which is both balanced and easy to work with. Making it pretty comes later.
No one particular type of wood is essential, but the most recommended types are hardwood trees like oak and ash. These types of wood are strong enough to hold your weight when you walk while being durable to last a long time. Maple, alder, cherry, diamond willow, aspen and sassafras are also recommended because they are easy to work with. Their bark is easy to remove by peeling, and they can be carved or burned when it comes time to decorate.
Second, you have to decide if you are starting with green wood or dried wood. Green wood is wood that is still alive while dried wood is the dead material you could throw into a campfire. If green wood is the way you want to go, you should be aware that it is not recommended. You have to select a sapling to cut down or cut off the limb from a tree. Harvest your greenwood in the winter when the sap has stopped flowing.
Next you have to dry your newly-chosen wood. Through the drying process, the wood will actually shrink as moisture is released. Winter-harvested wood will shrink less through this process. Sometimes this can cause the wood to split and crack, so you have to be very diligent.
Do you want a clean staff, or would you prefer to leave the bark on? You are going to adorn your staff as your inspiration demands, so the choice is up to how you feel. Some people choose to leave the bark on. If you do so, then you only have to clean the area where you intend to hold it. If you do not, the bark can give you splinters.
You can clean it before you start your wood to dry, or you can wait. The benefit to cleaning your wood while it is still green is that some bark is easy to peel right off. If it is not the type of bark that peels, then you can shave the wood using a draw stroke with a knife. (You can also remove the bark later, so cleaning your wood before drying is not imperative.) Either clean the entire stick or just the place you want to be the hand grip.
Dry your wood slowly. One method is to wrap it in plastic, occasionally unwrapping it to let it air out. Each time you unwrap it, let it air out for longer and then longer periods of time until your wood is completely dry.
An older method is to dampen your staff with brown water while letting it get slowly dry. The brown water, found in boggy areas like swamps, is filled with nutrients which help to preserve the wood. Either way is effective, so long as you remember to be patient and take your time.
2.) Once your staff is completely dry or if you have already chosen a piece of dried wood, examine it for weak areas and checks. If your staff is too damaged you may have to select an entirely new piece of wood and begin again. If not, then you are ready to begin preparing your staff for decoration.
If you have not done this yet, now is the time to clean away all unwanted bark and make sure there are no bugs living in the wood. If the bark stubbornly refuses to let go, roast your stick over a fire to encourage it to let loose. Steam also works the bark free, but be careful not to saturate your staff.
Now that you have a clean staff, it is time to smooth it. Again, you do not want any splinters working their way into your palm. Sandpaper is very effective for this, and it makes short work of the process! Simply place a sheet of sandpaper in your palm and rub the staff in an upwards and downwards motion. Do this until the staff is as smooth as you like it to be.
3.) At this point, you have to decide if you are going to carve or wood burn your staff. If not, then it is time to seal the wood and prepare for your final decorations. Sealing the wood helps preserve it from rotting away or being infested by bugs such as termites. However, assume that you have decided you want to carve decorations into your staff.
The images you choose are a matter of personal preference. Some people choose images they see in the wood grain, carving them out into the shapes of birds and other animals. Essentially they let the wood bring itself to life by letting it be their inspiration. Others have a specific image they had in mind from the beginning.
Perhaps your personal spirit totem is the wolf. This might be the time for you to carve one into the side of your staff. Or you might want some simple geometric designs burned in using the wood burning kit you keep in the closet. Just be careful not to cut too deeply into the wood. I have actually cut so deeply into a staff that it later broke because I had weakened the wood too much. Your decorations should not change the shape of the staff itself but merely enhance the tool.
Once finished with any carvings or burned decorations, it is time to stain the wood if you want. Do this before you seal it. There are a variety of colors to be found in any hardware store, and they are easy to apply. You can also choose to leave your wood its natural color have no fear! The sealant will bring out the wood's natural flavor.
Before you begin staining, make sure there is no dust or shavings clinging to your staff from carving it. Simply wipe it down thoroughly with a soft cloth as if you were polishing it. Now you are ready to stain.
While staining, paint with the wood grain of your staff. Your brush strokes can make the difference in your stain; if you stain by brushing against the grain the color may look botched and even ugly. Remember to follow the directions on the can and do this outside or in a well-ventilated area as the fumes can make you sick.
Once that is dry, you are ready to apply a nice coat of varnish or wood lacquer. Again, follow the directions and brush with the grain. When done, set your staff in a clear area and allow it to dry for twenty-four hours. Make sure there is nothing nearby that can fall on it. Even dust can ruin the beautiful gloss of your staff's sealant.
4.) This is where the real fun begins: the final decorations. Do you want bells, to wrap it in leather, or attach beaded decoration? The choice is yours because, as I have said before, the staff is your personal creation. Typically a shaman chooses to decorate according to his spiritual path and the meaning behind his staff. Their use of animals and color have symbolic meanings. Color symbolism alone plays an important part in the shamanistic path.
For example, bells clear the air and signal a change in consciousness. Their chiming rhythm in ceremony shifts everyone's focus to where the shaman needs it to be.
Birds, one of the most commonly used and ancient symbols, represent the shaman's spirit flight, rebirth, and the power of healing. The "bird on a pole" is found in Siberian petroglyphs and is thought to be at least 13,000 years old. It is the oldest known symbol for the human soul.
Bones to the shaman means the "hollow bone", or the shaman's power to channel the spirit. They also mean death and rebirth. Some shamans use them to scrye the future.
Dots represent the veils between the dimensions, or the different planes of existence beyond this one. Red and black together symbolizes the warrior to many Native Americans, while blue can mean defeat and red victory.
Obviously you can paint your staff with the colors and symbols of your choice. You can also wrap it in leather you purchased at a craft store or Indian trading post. Be sure and wrap the leather tightly around the wood, tying it securely to make sure it does not come off. When you tie the ends of the leather, you can leave parts of it hanging down and attach something to them later.
If you are good at bead work, you can bead your staff in part of entirely in the colors of your choice. If you have not carved a decorative top to your staff and discover you want one, make it separately and attach it. Some staff owners use animal skins, skulls and crystals. The possibilities here are endless because it is entirely up to you.
5.) Now that you have the final decorations, it is time for the final step that is often forgotten in the joy of creating your staff. Look over every part of your staff carefully to make sure your decorations are on securely, that the wood is not splitting at the last minute, and that you have sanded your hand grip into a safe, smooth finish.
If the staff passes your inspection, you are ready to consecrate it according to your spiritual belief, use it to hike the Yukon trail, or set it in the corner as decoration. The best part is that you can feel good knowing you created this useful tool yourself, and everything about it is truly your own.