Totems and Taboos (No Relation to Freud)

A private post on someone else’s journal got me thinking about the nature of the totems I work with. While I don’t consider totems to be the exact same thing as deities, I see them as the theriomorphic counterpart in a lot of ways. And while I have worked with a few deities over the years, my work with totems has been much more extensive.

The thing that I’ve noticed with totems, in my experience, is that relatively speaking they’re pretty laid back when working with me. By this I mean they don’t make difficult demands of me. They’ll make requests, but they seem to have a rather large amount of patience with my inconsistencies and mistakes. Rather than punishing me, they let me pick myself up, dust myself off, and go on–and may even give me help if I’m struggling.

I know, for my part, that there’s really only so much I’m willing to take as far as demands go. If I’m going to work within the parameters of a particular religion, spirituality, or deity/totem/etc., there has to be a good reason for it; it has to contribute to my growth without adversely affecting other areas of my life. I have had experiences where I thought my life was falling apart, but they always turned out to be for the best in the end–appearances may be deceiving. Still, I have my limits on how much I’ll take. While I definitely see the need for boundaries and respect those who go through some pretty intense experiences with some severe boundaries, that’s not where my personal allowances lie. I’m willing to compromise myself, but only to a certain extent. And I tend to prefer a primarily self-directed experience; the situation I’m in with therioshamanism and with the Animal Father is a first for my pagan path. There’s more discipline (though again, primarily self-directed, but with more outside structure) and I’m putting in more effort that’s not directed solely at myself, and learning more about generosity without being guilted into it. Even then, it’s more a partnership than anything; we all give something, and we all get something. I don’t feel like I’m being inconvenienced, only shown where I may give a little more than I originally thought I was capable.

I believe the totems respect my self-direction, and have for the duration of our relationship. They’ve sometimes nudged me to one side or another in an attempt to keep me from going too far over the edge, but they’ve not really openly interfered. Rather, they’ve trusted that I would end up at this point on my own power, a point at which I’m becoming much more receptive to working with them more regularly and with their needs as well as my own in mind. I’ve needed a lot of room, time and growth to get here, and they’ve been generous and patient in allowing me that space.

However, I also have to wonder how subjective the relationship is. How do we know that we’re doing it “right”, regardless of what we’re doing? For instance, I know some pagans who have pretty intense relationships with their gods, with a number of proscribed taboos and other restrictions. Yet other pagans work with the same deities and report a much more laid-back experience. Sometimes there are disagreements about how to “properly” worship a particular deity, with accusations of “You’re doing it wrong!”

I’ll admit I tend towards the more laid-back, free-form approach with both totems and deities. Honestly, a few of the situations I’ve seen or heard of make the gods seem more like the Boogey-man–“If you don’t do this *just* so, I’m gonna GETCHA!” (Or at least this is the sense I get from some of their more stringent devotees, who have conniptions over the antics of eclectics.) Granted, this is me looking from an outsider’s perspective, but I know that I wouldn’t be up for a relationship of any sort, deity or otherwise, that puts so many conditions and expectations on any of the participants.

However, I’m not here to judge others’ experiences; if this is what spiritually fulfills people, then that’s what’s right for them; different people have different needs. This includes when working with the same deity or other entity. But how do we tell who’s doing it right and who isn’t? Does the person with the more intense, sacrificial relationship automatically get more points with the Divine than the one who has a bunch of statues of deities from around the world on an eclectic altar?

I think my biggest question would be: what effect does a relationship have on an individual basis? Does the person get something out of the relationship, regardless of its nature, and is it worth the cost? For instance, people in very intense relationships may appear to be in the spiritual equivalent of an abusive relationship–yet this may be a positive experience for them (the same could be said of lifestyle submissives or slaves in a healthy BDSM context). And the aforementioned eclectic may have very close relationships with a diversity of deities, without ever worrying about whether it’s being done according to the correct breed of dogma. Yes, there needs to be room to give back as well; that’s been an important lesson for me of late. But I don’t want that gift to be wrested from my hands. Just as I do not make demands of the totems, so they do not make demands of me; we make requests of each other.

To bring this back home, my relationship with the totems is decidedly unorthodox, and almost entirely created of UPG. I work with totems from different ecosystems. Granted, I haven’t met much in the way of those who have intense-to-the-point-of-distress relationships with totems (with the exception of those who go on shamanic journeys which may in themselves be intense). The closest I’ve seen have been proscribed taboos regarding not eating the meat or otherwise using the remains of the physical version of one’s totem–and many times that seems to be taken on by the person, not demanded by the totem.

So why is this? Are animal totems naturally gentler? Or is it because the majority of people who work with them today (in a neopagan context, at least, which is my context) don’t expect them to be anything but helpful, or at the most, neutral? If more people expected totems to be taskmasters, would there be more pagans making huge sacrifices of time, effort and convenience for the sake of totemic relationships?

Furthermore, am I doing something wrong because I’m not getting these great demands placed upon me as conditions of my relationships? Am I not giving enough because I still enjoy giving, or because I haven’t given to the point where it hurts, or because we make polite requests of each other? I don’t think so. I think we all end up with the relationships we need, though they may not be the ones we initially *think* we need. We may start out thinking we need A, but when we get A we may find that B is actually closer to what works for us, despite initial impressions. And we age and change over time, which may necessitate revised or even new relationships.

While I don’t think spirituality is all about what we can get out of it, I do think that our relationships to Spirit are a lot more subjective than sometimes assumed. Perhaps we are attracted to paths that appeal to us aesthetically; I have had success, for instance, with paths other than neoshamanism, but this is the one that has been best for me. I don’t think it’s a flaw in the systems, so much as it is finding my little slice of infinity. To limit the gods and other entities only to one way of perceiving them does a disservice to them. After all, our relationships with other people isn’t based on a single model. Perhaps the totems are kind to me, and perhaps with other people who expect a harsher relationship, they may bite more.

All I am sure of is that, in this moment, I have found what is most effective, practically and spiritually, for me AND for the beings I work with. That, to me, is the surest proof in the pudding. So I’ll continue with my request-based relationships unless/until the time comes to renegotiate.

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