Some Rambling on Totems

I’ve been chewing some more on my conception of totem animals within a neopagan context, specifically my personal neopagan context. (I’m not the only one; while I was still chewing, Paleo beat me to the punch on the topic with this great post. Zeitgeist!)

Unlike most people, I have worked with numerous totems over the years. Wolf’s just my primary; there are plenty of others, from Deer to Silver Dollar, who have graced my life for various amounts of time. Totemism has been central to my practice pretty much from the beginning. It’s a neopagan form of totemism, rather than anything traditional–I work with totems on an individual, rather than group-based, basis.

I don’t see the totems as individual spirits; Wolf is not just a random wolf spirit, nor is Wolf really Greymuzzle the Ancient Wolf Spirit Reincarnated Fifteen Times. I don’t see totems as a replacement for power animals, skin spirits, and other helper spirits. While I haven’t yet determined my power animal(s) (if, indeed, I have any) and I’ll be spending the six months between the Spring and Autumn equinoxes finding and working with spirit helpers of all sorts, I don’t confuse the power animals with the totems. Wolf the totem is a very different animal from a wolf spirit that becomes a power animal. Additionally, Bear the totem is a different being from the bear spirit that resides in my bear skin that I dance with (and which could potentially be a power animal at some point, if my understanding of power animals is correct).

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I perceive totems as archetypal beings that embody all of the qualities of a given species of animal–natural history, human lore, and the relationship between humans and that species. However, unlike a strict interpretation of archetypes, totems don’t solely exist in my head. They’re independent beings with their own existences. It is simply in their nature to be archetypal; they are embodiments of their species.

And they’re much “bigger” than individual spirits. I see totems as akin to deities; deities can also be archetypal in nature, but are not just constructs of our minds. Deities are to humans as totems are to nonhuman animals, very roughly speaking. So sometimes it boggles my mind that the totems rarely seem to mind when I contact them for various purposes, whether to ask for help with a particular situation, or to satiate my curiosity about them. I find them to be much more approachable than deities. How many people can just “walk up” to any member of a given pantheon of deities and start communicating? There seems to be a lot more protocol and pageantry associated with that particular endeavor. Totems, on the other hand, seem to not mind what I’m wearing, or how much formality I go into before talking to them. If anything, they seem to get impatient if they need to talk to me and I spend a lot of time setting the stage, as it were.

I wonder if this familiarity with them is really so unusual. Sometimes I feel like such a small being surrounded by great giants, and yet they seem to respect me just the same. And it’s been that way from the beginning; while they haven’t always been happy with me (especially when I screw something up, or neglect something I said I’d do), they nonetheless seem to appreciate my place in their lives as much as I appreciate their places in mine. I’ve even had them be downright overjoyed to see me and work with me, and not just because I’m paying attention to them.

I think the nature of our mutual relationship is part of why I’m so invested in them. As Paleo mentioned in her essay, linked above, if you work with totems long enough there’s a tendency to take the relationship deeper than the initial “Bear is the Healer, Wolf is the Teacher” dictionary and stereotype interaction. People who work with totems long term, and as a significant part of their paths, almost always become more aware of physical animals and their needs, whether domestic or wild. (This also goes for people who work with animal spirits and other animal entities.) For me, at least, it’s a way to help the totems that have helped me so much. The physical members of a species are the young of their totem; part of that totem’s existence is completely concerned with their safety and well-being in this world.

I’m currently working on DIY Totemism: Your Personal Guide to Animal Totems. One entire chapter is dedicated solely to offerings to the totems. This isn’t just things like leaving a bit of food in the woods (which I argue against for a number of reasons). How better to help a totem whose children are endangered than to take part in activism to help those animals? Or to work magic on behalf of the totem to help with something s/he’s concerned with? When we work with totems, we aren’t just working with abstract concepts; it’s too easy to anthropomorphize a totem to the point where we only see what benefits us directly–and what we can get out of the deal. Yet it’s a two-way street. What do we give back to the totems? What do they ask of us? Where do their physical counterparts figure in? For that matter, are we really listening to anything but our own wants and needs?

Left to my own devices, I doubt I would have seriously considered shamanism as a life-path. I was pretty content with what I had. However, one of the main reasons I’m developing therioshamanism is for the totems. They’ve done a lot for me over the years, and this is one way for me to give back to them. They asked it of me, as I’ve asked so much of them, and I decided to at least give it a try. If it works out, then great–this helps me to help them. If it doesn’t, then we figure something else out.

And I think that’s part of why I’ve worked with them for so long. I don’t just feel like they’re trying to get something out of me, or get me to worship them or follow their rules and taboos. They genuinely like me, and we’re involved in mutually beneficial and enjoyable relationships. I help them, not because I feel like I have to, but because I want to–and vice versa. I’ve been approached by a few deities over the years who wanted worship, attention, power, energy–and I turned them down because I simply wasn’t interested in that kind of relationship. I had gotten spoiled by the totems, who actually worked with me even before I met Artemis. (I don’t worry too much about getting harassed by rejected deities–some of the more protective totems in my life, Wolf in particular, have proven to me in the past that they’re not just going to stand aside and let bad things happen for no good reason.) Why would I want to be in a relationship where I felt like I was being essentially bullied, when I have numerous relationships with powerful beings who genuinely like me?

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