An Administrative Note Regarding Comments

Well, three notes, actually.

1. WordPress, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to want to consistently email people when new comments are made to posts they’ve already commented in. So it may be worth your while to go back and check comments you’ve made; I usually reply to all comments to a post.

2. I have started moderating comments, mainly because I’ve seen a bit of a jump in spam comments on my other blog, Pagan Book Reviews. I usually moderate comments within 24 hours during the week.

3. For those of you reading this on the Livejournal feed, I’d prefer it if you posted your comments on the WordPress blog rather than to the LJ feed post–I don’t get comment notifications for the latter. You don’t have to have a WordPress account to do so.

Thanks 🙂

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.

Animal Father =/= Horned God

Over the weekend I came into the possession of a marvelous set of eight-point red stag antlers, a vintage mount on a velvet-covered board. My original intent was to incorporate them into some sort of artwork. However, not long after I brought them home, the Animal Father started hinting that he’d like them as part of a personal shrine, since Artemis has one herself. (We’re still debating, since I had some ideas for these antlers, but I’m also not completely opposed to keeping them around–and the stag spirit wouldn’t mind, either.)

This whole business with the antlers brought up something that I’ve been aware of since I began working with the Animal Father–he is not the same deity as the Wiccan Horned God, or the various horned deities who get tossed under that aegis from time to time (Cernunnos, Herne, etc.). Yes, he’s depicted with antlers, but he has made it very clear to me that he is is own being, and that the Horned God motif doesn’t fit him.

One reason is because he has a much less “human” feel to him than the Horned God. He would never be found on horseback, with or without the Wild Hunt. He is only as anthropomorphized as is necessary for humans to interact with him, and to bring forth the melding of humanity with other animals. As he is a patron of shapeshifting, something that primarily concerns humans, having some human traits helps to connect him, in our minds, to that particular practice. However, he is no more (or less) human than he is any animal. Even in his anthropomorphic form, he is much less humanoid than many other deities. Most depictions of the Horned God and various associated deities show a rather normal looking man, maybe with a beard–and antlers. In fact, the antlers, and maybe a couple of dead pelts, are all that really show the Horned God as being an animal deity. One could easily see a humanoid Goddess lying in the grass with the humanoid-with-horns Horned God. However, rutting with the Animal Father might be just a little too close to less savory practices.

Additionally, while the Animal Father does have antlers in the most common depiction of him, he is not a “stag god” as the Horned God has more and more come to be in modern paganism. Nor is he limited to hoofed animals, or mammals, or vertebrates. He could actually show up as any animal or combination of animals; he is the Animal Father, and he could be anything from a worm to a whale. While he could show himself as entirely human, he generally does not, particularly in this day and age where humanity is so far removed from its animal self. It would be a most unpleasant experience for him, to my understanding–we’re talking about a deity who much prefer to meet with me out in the wilderness, rather than my ritual room or even the nearby park. The wilder, the better. To draw from the energy of modern humanity, even with the remaining indigenous hunter-gatherer and agrarian cultures, would be too alien an experience for him. So he chooses to appear only as part-human when necessary.

The antlers have become well-known, and he knows that they would be quite evocative for me, though he would want me to incorporate other animal parts to the shrine as well, if I give in to his wishes. The culture he came from and the pagans he has since worked with are most familiar with large mammals in their religions. These tend to evoke a lot of primal feelings in humans, moreso than, say, carp or June bugs. So he most often wears the guise of creatures that cause us to remember that we, too, are animals, and we can only distance ourselves from Nature so much.

And that’s something I came to realize this weekend as I was writing about the term “therioshamanism”. “Therio” already refers to the animal spirits I work with, and the spirit and physical animals that are part of my “community” as a shaman, and for whom I will be shamanizing once I’m trained. However, one thing I’ve noticed during my first six months is that my training has reminded me that I am an animal. I’m not just talking about my therianthropy and that which is wolf in me. I’m talking about myself as the human animal–maybe something I need to know about even more than me-as-wolf. My training has not only gotten me in more touch with my instincts, but has helped me to have a better awareness of my physical body, my needs and my health. The therianthropic aspects are there, but they aren’t necessary to this aspect of “therio”. I could be not a therianthrope, and it would still be the same.

Back on the main topic, those are the main reasons that the Animal Father is not the Horned God. I did a flocked post in my Livejournal about the antlers and the Animal Father, and had a couple people tell me that they’ve actually worked with him before, or are otherwise familiar with him other than through my work. This pleases me–perhaps I’ll have something besides my own UPG to go on as time goes on. Not that my UPG isn’t “good enough”, as it were, but it’s nice to get some external validation.

ETA: Another consideration: I’m not an expert on Indo-European mythology. However, a bit of research brings up potential links between the Hindu Pashupati, and later horned deities such as Cernunnos. Assuming that the Animal Father does stem from the painting at Les Trois Freres (if not earlier) then he would still predate the proto-Indo-European peoples (from whence both the Indians and the Celts sprang) by several thousand years.  Thoughts?