The other day in my post about omens, Ash made a good comment, asking about the geographic considerations of totemism. While I replied, I wanted to elaborate more on that in today’s post.
You can probably tell from some of my writing on totems that I already have a rather unorthodox view of them. I don’t interact with them in any indigenous cultural context, and my work has a decidedly neopagan flavor to it. Additionally, I like to experiment with magic in general, and so a lot of my recent magical activity has revolved around taking totemism in new directions. This includes working with a wide variety of totems, rather than limiting myself to Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM).
I can definitely see the argument that it makes more sense to work with the animals native to your area. This sort of geographically-oriented totemism can be incredibly helpful in getting in touch with your local area, where you live and who shares that place with you. All four of my directional totems are BINABM that can reasonably be found near where I’ve lived (though they may be a few hundred miles away, depending). And the fact that they’re all found in North American temperate zones helps me to connect both with them, and with where I live. The daily elemental meditations I’ve been doing are a good demonstration of this connection.
However, I am not only a product of my geography, but also of my culture–and I live in a globally aware culture (relatively speaking). Americans may not know everything about every country outside the U.S. (and in fact may be criticized for international ignorance) but we are as a culture at least aware of the fauna of other places, from Australian marsupials to the creatures of the African Savannah. In my cosmology, every species of animal has a totem, regardless of whether that totem is widely acknowledged or not. And since learning about a new animal is literally a Wikipedia article away, having an odd creature we’ve never even heard of show up in totemic form isn’t cause for utter confusion.
Case in point: two of the totems I’ve worked with recently are Silver Dollar and Bachman’s Warbler. Both of these came up in meditations with an experimental system I’ve been developing. Silver Dollar is a fish commonly seen in tropical aquarium setups; before I got into contact with him totemically I had no idea he was of South American origin. As for Bachman’s Warbler, this little bird, either exceedingly rare or possibly (though not officially) extinct, is native to the Southeastern U.S. and Cuba, and I’d never even heard of that species until the totem came popping in one day. True, she’s still from the U.S., but the totally opposite corner and thousands of miles away. That’s a lot farther extent than the fauna knowledge of the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest had for most of their history.
Additionally, as we become more globally aware, we can’t ignore what’s going on. A current example is the struggle in Burma–I’ve been watching this with interest for a variety of reasons I won’t get into, as I don’t want to start a political debate here (that’s what my personal blog is for 😉 ). Needless to say, it’s an important thing, even if it isn’t happening here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. In the same way, my relationship with totems isn’t just me taking and taking from them; it also involves helping them. Part of my work with Bachman’s Warbler involved giving her aid in trying to locate any remaining physical representatives of her species were left. And one of my goals with therioshamanism is to be able to aid animals around the world with both mundane and magical actions. While there are plenty of endangered species right here at home, some of the most threatened live an ocean away.
Therefore, it behooves me to learn to make contact with totems in all places. Just as it’s important to know what’s going on with humans worldwide, so is it good for me to be aware of animals globally, to include on a totemic level. Totems can make requests of specific ways to help their physical “children”, and while this does not replace mundane actions such as donating to animal-based nonprofits, writing to political figures, and consuming consciously, it is one of several avenues I can take to help improve things.
I have talked to people who claim that working with spirits outside of their geographic location makes the local spirits angry. I haven’t had that problem; I primarily work with totems (particularly the global ones) in my own ritual area in the upstairs half of our apartment, and none of the “local” totems or others have complained. I do make sure to honor the locals (including the directional totems) before each evocation, which I would imagine helps. What I’ve found is that while, to an extent, totems do behave as, well, animals, I don’t end up with conflicts between them, such as Wolf attacking Deer. They realize why they’ve been called, and I haven’t seen any indication that predatory totems need to feed on prey totems, or that anyone feels the need to start a dispute when in what’s essentially *my* territory (which is essentially safe space for all I allow into it).
So this is why I work with such a variety of totems, rather than sticking to the BINABM. It works for me, though as always YMMV.