So, About Them Thar Totems…

Wheee, another “Add a New Category” post!

Actually, this is one of my favorite aspects of my spirituality. I suppose it should be no surprise to me that I ended up gravitating towards totemism and animal magic pretty much from the beginning of my pagan/etc. path. I’ve always loved animals, ever since I was shoulder-high to a German shepherd dog. Though I’m not sure the adoration was always mutual–one of my earliest memories was of catching roly-polies and playing with them (and when you’re a toddler you don’t always understand the meaning of “gentle”). In fact, that early predatory instinct kept on as I grew up, and one of my favorite past times was catching (and releasing after a few days of observation) box turtles and garter snakes. I also read voraciously (as I still do today, as evidenced by yesterday’s post) and checked out every book I could from the local library.

My first book on totems, like so many people, was Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak (I was elated when I finally got it signed by him this past February, after dragging the thing around with me for a decade through half a dozen moves and a flood). While I didn’t follow it religiously, it was formative to my early practice.

I already knew what my primary totem was. When I was about two or three (or so I recall), I had an experience where Wolf “met” me and made hir presence in my life known. After that point, everything was about wolves–wolf this, wolf that, I want to be a wolf (this was before I discovered therianthropy, by the way). I think I must have done at least one book report apiece on Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild every year from first through about sixth grade. The teacher just sort of shrugged and let it go. While totemism didn’t explain everything about the presence of lupine influence in my life (particularly internally) it did make a lot of sense once I had a better idea of what Wolf actually was.

There have been other, secondary totems that have come into my life to help balance out some of Wolf’s not-so-great aspects. Horse took over for most of my junior high and high school years, helping me cope with the harsh reality of being incredibly unpopular; she helped to take the edge off of Wolf’s hyper-sensitivity to aggression-submission displays. Cat came in at one point to teach me to be more graceful and in touch with beauty, and Fox has helped me to be more focused on magic. And I have called on other, tertiary, totems for help with specific problems–Badger, for example, has helped me land the past couple of jobs I’ve had, though I’ve also asked Beaver and Otter for help there.

Again, most of what I do is UPG-based, including the primary/secondary/tertiary denotations. Additionally, my observations have led me to come up with three basic theories as to what totems are:

–Archetypal beings that embody all the qualities of a particular species, to include natural history and human lore and myth, as well as the interaction with humans. This somewhat resembles Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Animal Master.

–Individual animal spirits which may or may not have been in physical bodies at some point.

–Psychological aspects of the self that embody different chunks of the psyche; just as entire pantheons can be a map of the psyche, so can a group of totems.

I see the validity of each of these, though I personally tend towards a combination of the first and third (as within, so without).

Now, please keep in mind–I am referring to *neopagan* totemism here. Traditional totemism, in the majority of extant cultures that still utilize the concept, see it as largely a group-based phenomenon. Totems are meant for clans, families, tribes. etc., and one of their main functions (generally speaking) is exogamy–determining who can marry whom with a minimal chance for incest (something that’s much more likely in smaller overall populations). In neopaganism, the tendency of some totemic systems to act as guides for morals, as well as the general symbolic quality and identification purposes got mixed in with the idea of an individual animal spirit guide (particularly as taken from certain Plains Native American tribes, often in a bastardized manner). Additionally, the power animal of shamanic traditions got mixed in there as well, along with the “travel down the tunnel” method of finding said animal. So what passes for totemism in neopaganism today is actually a hybridized creation.

Not that it isn’t effective, of course. We live in a much more individual-based society, and lack the community cohesion that other cultures have had. Therefore it’s not surprising that we have a much more self-centered conception of totemism. And, in my experience, the totems I work with don’t seem to mind the “unorthodox” manners in which I’ve worked our relationships into a modern, middle-class urban American neopagan lifestyle.

So how do I work with them? I include some that I’m actively working with in my prayers in the evening (and morning, if I’m awake enough to remember). I also routinely evoke (and sometimes invoke) them in magical rituals for specific purposes, and I always invite them (or whoever’s willing to show up at that time) into my ritual area for general protection and aid. Sometimes when I do skindancing (shapeshifting dance involving animal skins) I’ll invoke the corresponding totem as well as the spirit of the skin. And, as I mentioned earlier, I have totems who work with me for specific purposes; I don’t do formal rituals with Lynx, but she helps remind me to watch my words and try to remain civil, especially in the event of internet-based stupidity. And Wolf is a constant presence in my life; sometimes I’m not even sure where s/he really affects me, because s/he’s always been there.

I’ve also been reaching out to less common totems as of late. For example, I’ve been working with “food totems”, the totems of animals that are generally perceived as food in American culture–Chicken, Pig, Crab, etc. (You can see two articles I’ve written on my results so far, here and here.) I’ve also done some work with paleolithic and earlier extinct totems, including dinosaurs; later posts may include my notes from these meditations and experiences. And I’ve been working with the totems of endangered species to give an added magical boost to mundane efforts to preserve the last remaining physical members of their species (along with activism and minding my footprint, of course).

I do like the “fly through the tunnel” flavor of meditation/journeying to meet with totems outside of a ritual context, though I do it freestyle rather than with any sort of script. It’s an effective way to meet on neutral ground, so to speak (not that I worry I’ll get eaten by Bear for no good reason, Siberian dismemberment rituals notwithstanding). And I like the setting better, especially if my ritual room is the only other choice at the time–while it’s comfy and warm, blue carpet and light bulbs aren’t the same as grass and sunlight. If I can do my work outdoors, I do, and generally get the best results that way.

The totems have appreciated the increased attention as of late, though they’re patient with me, and there’s still a lot more for me to do. I’m trying to figure out ways to allow them into my daily life more often, other than observation, general presence during ritual work, and hikes in the woods. While I’m doing some exploring with different groups of totems right now, I want to start deepening my relationship with certain ones, as well as the skin spirits I dance with. Additionally, I want to step up my efforts as far as magic for endangered species’ totems go.

So I think a lot of my practice will focus on that. I’ve already got ideas for what I want to do for the equinoxes and solstices (including rethinking the way I do rituals). But I would also like to utilize the full and new moons as well–I’ve been needing regular involvement, and I need to figure out what the special occasions are. Actually, I already have had the new moon set aside for work with skin spirits, so perhaps the full moon will be time for totems. Last night was the peak of the full moon, but I consider the day before and after to also be valid. And, in this case, it’s less about lunar energy and more about reminding me of what I need to do.

I’ve been blessed by the totems’ patience in my life, and I’m glad they’ve stuck with me even when I’ve demonstrated the ability to be a supreme procrastinator and excuse-maker.

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2 thoughts on “So, About Them Thar Totems…

  1. Keep in mind there are other cultures that had a view of “totem” animals more in line to the current neopagan one. Norse is a stellar example of this, and I highly recommend looking into material on the fetch/fylgia. In fact, if you don’t yet have it, you’d probably love the book “Witches Werewolves and Fairies” whose title is misleading as it’s a wonderful book about the Norse/Germanic concepts of the soul and would likely fit in well with your work.

  2. I think part of the issue is the semantics of the word “totem”. I use it generally as anthropologists have used it, primarily to refer to a group signifier in the form of an animal–totems are partly defined by the fact that they’re attached to groups, not individuals, in traditional societies. So I would categorize the fetch as more along the lines of individual spirit guide, or even as one’s double or animal-self, depending on whether you see it as independent from a person, or as a part of the person. The fylgia also resembles the nagual animal in MesoAmerican cultures. The nagual also differs from the animal totem.

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