From time to time people have had the dubious pleasure of reading/hearing me rant about totem animal dictionaries and why I loathe them so. The Dictionary Dilemma was my first formal article on the topic, though I’ve waxed eloquent on it since then, including good reasons to Go to the Source!, and it’s one of the driving forces behind DIY Totemism. And here I go again!
I was thinking this morning about how people who don’t identify themselves as therianthropes still may identify with (but not as) their primary totems to one extent or another. There’s no problem with this in and of itself, mind you. We can learn quite a bit through emulating the totems we work with, and not just our primaries. While not surprisingly I model Wolf quite a bit, I’ve also deliberately adopted traits of other totems to help balance out some of Wolf’s less desirable habits.
However, one thing I am very careful of is to ask the totem what s/he can teach me before I start working with hir. The relationship a particular totem may form with me is not necessarily the same as the relationship s/he may form with someone else. This includes the relationships formed with any totem dictionary author. It’s easier to open up a book and read predigested information than to meditate or journey to get into direct contact with the totem to get more personalized information. Sure, the book might be right, but what if it isn’t? Additionally, what happens if a person ignores what the totem is trying to tell them, instead looking only at what s/he’s been told the totem stands for?
Let’s take Coyote, for example. The first attribute most neopagans will probably come up with for Coyote is “Trickster”. This is based on a body of folklore from various Native American tribes (a good collection of Coyote stories can be found in Barry Holstun Lopez’ Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping With His Daughter).
Additionally, this adherence to stereotypes can lead to justification of unhealthy, destructive behaviors. In keeping with the Coyote vibe, I have met several people who claimed Coyote as a totem who justified being utter and complete assholes to others simply by saying “I’m a Coyote person”. And people around them sometimes turned a blind eye to this behavior with the same justification! Yet just because a person lies, plays a trick, or pulls someone’s cover, does not mean that A) Coyote said to do that, or B) Coyote would appreciate this being done in his name. Some Coyote stories are pure silliness, to be true. However, in my understanding of Coyote, there is a method to the madness, and people are often (though not always) meant to learn from his tricks. While Coyote may have done some things out of maliciousness, or “for the lulz”, that doesn’t justify human beings doing the same thing.
We are not gods, or totems, or other such beings. Some of us may consider ourselves to be no less and no more than them, and I won’t disagree there. However, what’s good for the totem isn’t always good for the human. Coyote’s worldview and experiences are likely to be very different from those of even his closest (or so they may claim) devotees. We can emulate totems, but that does not make us totems, or even mean we entirely understand them. Like deities, they are much larger, more complex beings than we currently are. Just because Coyote floated his penis across a river so he could have sex with some women on the far bank does not mean that he would automatically condone rape (even if it were supposedly to “teach the victim her place”). While I haven’t seen that particular permutation of attempted justification, I have seen the same type of justification of harmful actions done by one person against another–and supposedly Coyote said it was okay.
Part of the problem is when people take a stereotype and run with it. The Trickster role is a lot more complex than “I’m going to do whatever I want because I feel superior to these people and I think they need to learn a lesson”. The Trickster also has to learn lessons, too, and Coyote may abhor a spiritually blind person as much as anyone else–in fact, he may throw tricks at his supposed devotees to help them get past their arrogance, and yet have them completely miss the point.
Additionally, “Trickster” is not all that Coyote is. As I’ve mentioned before, totems “include” all the traits of a given species, not just the human lore. In fact, in order to understand the human lore, it is essential to study the natural history of the physical animals, since that sort of observation is largely what formed the basis of the lore to begin with.
So who is Coyote besides being a Trickster? Coyote is….
–A hunter, as much as Wolf or Cougar, and with the capability to be a social canid, as well as being capable of bringing down large game such as deer
–A loving parent, again similar to Wolf
–An intelligent nonhuman animal with keen problem-solving abilities, like Dolphin, Octopus and others
–Highly adaptable to human encroachment
–Capable of symbiotic relationships with badgers
There’s a lot more to learn here than the sneaky one–which, honestly, could be applied to many animals that work to avoid humans at all costs, or which try to adapt to a changing environment.
And these are just my thoughts on one single totem. It’s just not enough to go on human lore, traditional or neopagan. We need to be paying attention to what the totems have to tell us, not just what they’ve told others. Otherwise we stand to miss out on a lot of important information and lessons, as well as developing a potentially incomplete or skewed picture of the totems themselves.