How to Make a Talking Stick
How To Make A Talking Stick
The talking stick is the central medicine of the circle. It comes to us through the Native American Church, and is found in many kinds of circles, not only medicine circles. Anarchistically inclined groups from Buddhists to certain peace action groups use some form of the talking stick as an alternative to the chairman/Robert’s Rules of Order organization. Sometimes it is a conch, sometimes a small stone. Sometimes it is whatever is handy. In secular contexts, the talking stick gives the floor to whoever is holding it–that person speaks without being interrupted until he or she is finished.
In a medicine circle it is the same, but power is involved. The talking stick is a magical instrument, a channel, a bridge to the spirits, to the place where songs come from. Since such magic has the power to heal, care must be taken in its construction. Remember that medicine is a gift, and gift is poison, so the stick needs mojo. The stick has to be able to bring people out of themselves, beyond themselves, so that they can do things they have never done before. Remember the MEAD principle:
Magic is Empowerment by Attention to Detail.
Talking sticks come in various sizes, from a one-handed rattle to a full cane. Size is a matter of taste. Bigger is not necessarily better, but for a rambunctious group, as some that I’ve been in, I like it about the size of a club.
Hey, you! I’ve got the stick. Shut up.
Some sticks rattle, others don’t. I’ve come to favor the rattling variety, as the rattling can be used as punctuation.
A talking stick begins with a vision. The vision doesn’t have to be complete, but you need something just to get going. So that you can find the wood, the stick or branch that you are going to start from.
I like bay laurel that’s been burnt.
A magician I know uses Catha edulis.
Manzanita is good. Driftwood is good.
Every part of this operation is important. You want the stick to come from a good place: good rocks around maybe, a place you like being, a place where you wouldn’t mind hanging out. It has to FEEL right. You’ll know the right tree when you see it. Take something that won’t be missed! Make your negotiations with the tree and cut your branch, feeling it with your hand to make sure it’s right.
If you did all of that, your stick already has power. From this point on, everything gets more dangerous. At each step you want to add power, you want to add to the evocative magic. Above all, as all good physicians are taught, do no harm. This requires attention and taste, by taste meaning an open sensuous relationship with your partner object. Art is the same. You do the most careful work you can with the techniques at your disposal. Sometimes Art is judged by technique. For magical objects technique is less important than vision and attention. Don’t be sloppy, do it well, but if you focus on technique or virtuosity chances are you’ll lose the magic. It’ll be perfect, and perfect won’t do. It’ll be your great creation, but that’s not the point. To make magic you have to attempt the impossible, you have to attempt what is beyond your powers, and accept that it will be imperfect. Then it can have power, the power to heal, which is what this is all about.
When I’m sanding I go with the grain, and think that it’s like making revisions to a poem or manuscript–it’s just sanding–taking away mostly, smoothing the transitions, not adding new ideas. And as you sand the stick it starts to become clear what to add next. I like elementals to be present, stones and metals; I like it to play with light and color, gemstones even, or crystals.
Some add animal, some don’t. It’s a tricky area: you want to avoid cliches, for one, and you have to be mindful of ritual purity. Commercial products are acceptable, sometimes even good, but any material of doubtful history should be cleaned, that is, “purified.” You have to find some way to do that. Some people use tobacco.
As a magical assemblage, a talking stick should have a mandala-like quality–the elements should be in relation, but don’t be formulaic. Feel it as you go along. If you are doing it right, you should hardly ever have to think. Each revelation will lead to the next. If something gets out of balance, maybe too much fire energy, or maybe it’s too masculine, or there is too much water, or it’s too violent, or too docile, you have to sense that, and make a correction. A stick wants to be balanced, even if it’s making a statement. Making a statement can be ok, maybe ok, but that’s more for Art, which, from a magical perspective, is mostly a debilitating disease.
If you look at the talking sticks of peoples who have been doing this for a long time, they have a simplicity and elegance about them. We can appreciate that, but you have to make the stick to fit the situation, and sometimes you need a noisy one.
When you are finished you will know, and those with eyes and deeper senses, the Astute and the Adepts, will recognize it and be able to feel it. Don’t worry if someone else thinks that it is something to put out in a yard sale, that happens to Art lots of times.