Dangers of Stereotyping Totems

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.

9 thoughts on “Dangers of Stereotyping Totems

  1. You know, while reading this post, I (a neo-pagan/ceremonial/chaote/mystic/philosopher rather than a shaman) began to reflect on Coyote and Eris, specifically contrasting the attitude of their devotees to them.

    The two seem quite similar, at least in the Trickster sense you describe above (I might argue similarity/interesting interactions in some of the others you mention, but those aren’t germane at the moment). Both have this element of silliness and an often-paired-with-it element of teaching or creating growth in the other person. I don’t restrict it to teaching because I don’t feel that Eris always has a goal or lesson in mind — and, in fact, often times rather intentionally so, as that smacks of hierarchy and indoctrination! — but rather specializes in creating situations where people can grow in a quantum leap in a direction they Dadaistically (and, therefore, in some sense randomly/according to the Will of the Universe).

    I’m rambling, aren’t I? 🙂

    Again, I am not a shaman, so have not floated in those circles where I would have met many (ok, any) devotees of Coyote. I am going entirely on your description of some of the common pitfalls thereof. It’s a behavior that shows up among Discordians as much as in anyone, but I don’t see people interacting with Eris in such a fashion that Her Beautiful Mistress of Bad Jokes becomes an excuse for their asshattery, the way you describe Coyoteans doing. Rather, most Discordians have either a propitiating attitude towards Eris (invite her so we don’t have to fight a war!), or a Taoist/Buddhist point of view (non-attachment and such), or just a playful attitude.

    Regardless of its specifics, Erisians seem to focus on the asshattery of Our Lovely as it interacts with them, whereas (it seems you are saying) Coyotites focus on the asshattery of their totem as it interacts with others, and thus some take it as a model to be copied.

    First question: Does this seem accurate to you?

    Second question: Why do you think that is? Is it something about the population that is attracted to each, or about the presentation of each, or about the egregore of each, or the methods of each, or something else entirely?

  2. One of the best versions of Coyote I’ve read was in le Guin’s “Buffalo Gals”. Much more rounded representations than any others I’ve read.

  3. I’ve noticed the same. The Coyote/Trickster people I’ve met have almost always been at least in some ways shady, playing games with people, tricking people, “stirring the pot” if you will. Even genuinely nice people, and when you say “wtf?” and get angry their response is “my my, watch your anger… see, there’s a lesson to be learned there!” even if they were just playing around because they were bored.

    I”ve noticed that it’s different with Erisians too. Maybe Erisians are less into playing such tricks because they involve too much planning and orchestration? I guess what I’m trying to say is Coyote people seem to be on the lookout for someone to trick, while Erisians seem more concerned with just being wrapped up in the Chaos of it all.

  4. I fell into this trap when I made fun of my best friend (when we were both teens) for having Mouse for a totem. All that I could see was the stereotype (small, timid, “what other totems eat”), and it took me a while to get beyond my own boorishness and see the other aspects of Mouse.

    I don’t talk to folks much about this aspect of my spirituality, though, because I tend to get an immediate and negative response as soon as I tell them that, 85% of the time, I work with Hyena. “Oh, aren’t they scavengers? Don’t they steal food from lions? Aren’t they considered pests in Africa?” After a bit, I can get sort of tired of explaining that most of the stereotype of Hyena is wrong.

    Any more, if I end up talking about totems with anyone, I try very hard not to assume things about their relationship with said totem. It’s a lot easier, and I learn things about their point of view with regards to a particular animal that I wouldn’t have known or thought of otherwise.

  5. We are not gods, or totems, or other such beings.

    Yes! We’re humans and we’re going to be held accountable for our actions by our friends, family or community. If you act like an asshole to me, I’m not going to keep interacting with you, regardless of what your totem is or other excuse.

  6. Wizard Lizard–I can’t really speak for all Coyote people, and not all the ones I’ve met have been jerks. I’ve also seen similar excuses made by people who are Satanists and other LHP practitioners, Lokeans, various sorts of “dark” Otherkin, and so forth. But it’s not every member of those groups. I do think that Coyote people do *sometimes* have a tendency to pay more attention to tricks on others, but again this isn’t universal.

    As to why? That could be any number of variables. It could be cross-cultural interpretations–mainstream American interpreting Native American, or Greek, or Norse, etc. It could also be a tendency for immature, irresponsible people to adhere themselves to the Trickster archetype as an excuse, without looking into the archetype and the beings associated with it in any depth. I tend to think the mistake is more on our end than on the deities’.

    Amanda–It’s now on my to-read list!

    Matt–As I mentioned above, it’s dependent on the person, though I can see some truth to your general statements. I dislike when people try to say “all Tricksters are one Trickster”–they have individual personalities and preferences, and their devotees are the same way.

    Molly–Yup. There’s a definite tendency to stereotype all beings, totems and otherwise. Solo over at Cynanthropy has some interesting thoughts on people not learning about the actual animals they associate themselves with on various levels, and I think we really suffer when we don’t do our research.

    Ash–There is that level of accountability, yes. I think sometimes “spiritual” people see themselves as above the standards of “mere mundanes”, but just as we are animals, so are we also integrated into everyday human society.

  7. I see Coyote the deity and Coyote the totem as being different beings. By virtue of being a totem, Coyote-totem can assume the aspect of Coyote the deity just as he could assume the aspect of Wile E. Coyote. But what many people in neopagan circles forget is that Coyote the deity is as specific a deity as Zeus or Anubis. I know Ted Andrews was big on mythical connections, but I think immediately looking for deity symbolism while working with a totem is kinda disrespectful. You know, automatically assuming Anubis when you see Jackal or Epona when you see Horse. Of course, I’m saying this when I’m in a relationship where it is hard for me to tell where Cat ends and Lady Bast begins and sometimes I have no idea which I’m talking to. *sigh*

  8. Paleo–I do see them separately, but there’s a lot of grey area, IMO. Coyote the totem, being made of all things Coyote-ish, does draw on Coyote the deity. But the Trickster is not the sum total of Coyote the totem (or even Coyote the deity) and that’s why I like the natural history end of things–it helps to ground the human lore.

  9. lol oh boy /).(\ I have met someone like this,
    when they told me they had coyote as a totem i was rather happy (to find someone with the same totem as me :D)
    T_T they don’t understand what coyote is. you are so right, coyote is no excuse to be an asshole to people. (Especially your loved ones, like the individual in question >.>)
    Coyote is a teacher, true. But coyote teaches through example! He is the biggest fool of them all, many of his plans backfire on himself, often times coyote is a guide on “what not to do.”
    😛 ^_^ that is coyote. loving, intelligent, observant, silly, nurturing. the wise fool, upwards downwards ass backwards sometimes not-so-respectable clown.

    >note how “malice” isn’t on that list.;) mwuahah! lol :p

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