My efforts towards creating songs for my dancing skins and their respective totems continue apace. I haven’t been blogging much about it, because it would essentially be “Today I practiced Deer’s song more, and came up with a drum rhythm for Small Deer”. Not particularly riveting when you’re not directly involved. However, I thought my recent work with Coyote was noteworthy.
For all my work with the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM), I’ve only worked with Coyote in a limited way; once was in a ritual to help protect hir physical children. I also sporadically worked with hir a few years ago when I was more heavily into Chaos magic. At that time Coyote was teaching me a bit about facing my fears, with one particular memorable incident where s/he helped me as I drove my car down a very steep icy hill one winter without panicking! Coyote and Small Coyote were the most recent volunteers to step forward in this endeavor, and so I started with Coyote’s song.
When I speak of Coyote, I don’t only refer to the Coyote referred to in the myths of a number of Native American tribes. Coyote-as-totem, to my understanding, shares some overlap with that other Coyote, but is not one and the same. My experience with totems has been that while they may have a number of bailiwicks, their initial connection with me has a more specific focus, and then as we work more I learn more about what that totem has to offer.
This time, Coyote mainly told me to sing about change and adaptability, as well as the illusory nature of subjective perceptions of reality (though not in those exact words!). While s/he briefly touched on creation myths and the Trickster archetype, these plugged into a main theme of Change. To be honest, I was a bit worried about working with Coyote in a deeper sense. Some (not all) of the Coyote people I’ve met have been chaotic in a very unhealthy, destructive manner; other people talk about Coyote the way that some practitioners of Asatru talk about Loki–a dangerous being that you shouldn’t bother with if you can help it. However, this initial reconnection with Coyote seems to be on common ground that I can understand and have experience with. I don’t expect everything to go smoothly or perfectly–but I don’t expect that with any of the totems or other spirits I work with. Sometimes the lessons we learn are difficult; and if Coyote will be dealing with Change, then it won’t be surprising if there are tough things to learn. However, if I can learn more adaptability, so much the better–that’s one thing I need more of. While I can roll with the punches, I could stand to be less stressed about life’s ups and downs. I think, perhaps, the fear of chaotic change may make some people afraid of Tricksters in general–who wants their lives entirely shaken up? What I understand so far, though, from my work with Coyote is that she’ll help me to learn ways to cope with chaotic changes, both in myself and in others.
I’m also slowly beginning to shape very rudimentary connections with the locals, as it were. Living in urban Portland, the vertebrate animals I tend to see the most are scrub jays, crows, and fox squirrels, with the occasional robin or kestrel. I don’t even see that many insects beyond the pollinators in the garden.
I’ve seen criticism in various online communities of neopagan totemism, specifically regarding the fact that many people seem to have totems whose physical children they’ve never seen. I’m a good example. Wolf’s been in my life since I was very young; however, I’ve only interacted with wolves at rescue facilities, and only on the outside of the pen. I’ve never seen a wolf in the wild, and never really been to a secluded enough place that could realistically support them. Yet Wolf has been one of the most persistent presences in my life over the years.
I did read something that actually makes a good deal of sense to me in Totem Popularity Contests: Why Some Totems Are More Popular Than Others, written by Ravenari. While all of her points are excellent considerations that I think should be talked about more, I particularly am interested in the last one, the idea that “Some animals are popularity-contest winners”. In my experience, there are totems who are more outgoing than others, and there are some who couldn’t care less whether we work with them or not.
While it’s a very, very rough comparison, and should not be seen as a one-to-one parallel, I think we can look at some pre-Christian religions that had large numbers of deities, including a major pantheon. The Romans are a good example; while they had their major pantheon including Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, etc., there were also countless minor deities, local deities, demi-gods, and so forth. It’s not entirely inconceivable that within a neopagan context, where we have the influence of that somewhat tiered structure, that there could be some totems who roughly correlate to a major pantheon, perhaps due to a greater tendency to interact with more people.
Continuing with the pantheon comparison, and especially within a neopagan/modern pagan context, most of the people today who work with the Olympians have never been to Greece, or any of the places where these deities originated from in pre-Hellenic times (or, for that matter, where they travelled to in ancient syncretic blending). So is it really surprising that many people haven’t actually ever “met” their totems “in real life”?
That being said, I do think there’s a lot of value in working with local spirits; some would argue that in order to really practice shamanism that it’s a requirement. I’ve spent much of my time, especially since last spring when I went to Arizona, connecting with the Land here as a whole. However, I’m beginning to make more specific connections. Scrub Jay in particular stands out to me, though Squirrel has also made hirself known, albeit in sometimes irritating ways (squirrels in the attic, squirrels in the garden!). There are a number of plants, one tree in particular, that have become particularly important. And, of course, there’s my ongoing “romances” with several individual places, such as Laurelhurst Park, the Multnomah-Wahkeena trails, and Mount Hood.
I’m willing to bet that the quality of the relationships that I create locally will be different–not necessarily better or worse–than those that I’ve created with the BINABM. Historically my work with the BINABM has primarily involved more overarching concepts, especially involved with personal metamorphosis; for example, Deer has always been the Dreamkeeper for me, and Bear has taught me a lot about healing and balancing it with the ability to bring harm. It will be interesting to see how working with the totems whose children live in the same environment I do will go. Of course, this is mainly conjecture at this point, and the actual results remain to be seen. But that’s what this journal is for–recording of my thoughts as I go along, and later on I can look back and see whether I was right or not!
For now, I’m going to continue focusing mainly on the songs I need to be writing. I’ve asked the Powers That Be whether I should be doing something else, but the message is generally “Nope. Keep writing the songs. Once you have them, then we’ll get into more detail of what you can use them for. Still, keep your eyes and ears open.” Which is fine; I tend to do better focusing on one main thing at a time, building on what’s come before.
Interesting point about working with animals you’ve actually met. I suppose I can see the value, but I wonder if it’s truly necessary. Seems maybe those who are critical are trying to lay down rules and be legalistic (if I want rules, I’ll be a Christian).
I’m sure some in our community “adopt” an animal totem that seems cool or ferocious or has whatever qualities they themselves value. I can’t worry about these folks or about the ones who tell the rest of us how to practice. I think it’s important only to be as authentic and honest with ourselves and the spirits we meet—wherever we meet them.
“My experience with totems has been that while they may have a number of bailiwicks, their initial connection with me has a more specific focus, and then as we work more I learn more about what that totem has to offer.”
This is generally what it is for me as well. That, almost, all the cultural and mythological trappings of whatever animal comes to me (though often the ones that come to me don’t have any that people know of!) fade in comparison to specific lessons which may have more to do with its behaviours or natures than its mythologies. And then over time more and more opens up. I have been working with Western Brush Wallaby for… a long time now. Years and years.
And after many years I feel I know Wallaby well, but S/he still isn’t interested in me learning about its mythology. I couldn’t tell you what the local Nyungah or Mooro people thought or think about Wallaby as a teaching spirit. And it may be 10 years again before I’m pushed in that direction.
“I’ve seen criticism in various online communities of neopagan totemism, specifically regarding the fact that many people seem to have totems whose physical children they’ve never seen.”
It’s an understandable criticism, but… it doesn’t make sense a lot of the time. Why criticise something that simply does happen? And how much more complicated must it be for people with extinct totems?
“In my experience, there are totems who are more outgoing than others, and there are some who couldn’t care less whether we work with them or not.”
*nods* I think there are even some which *must* be approached, and even worshipped, sometimes for a long time before really opening up as a totem. Completely throwing dirt in the metaphorical eye of the idea that ‘totems must always approach you’ (which is something that I mostly believe, but… well I can’t in the case of some animals which must always be approached, lol).
Riverwolf–I can understand trying to weed out people who are making false claims of historical information and the like; however, I think sometimes the more extreme elements of the nonfluffy movement get a little too interested in weeding, and try to pull out helpful folks as well. IMO/IME, time and experience help people to figure out which of their experiences are imagination-with-a-little-i, and which are more solid (Imagination-with-a-big-I as per Patrick Harpur).
Ravenari–Have you considered just learning about Brush Wallaby’s mythology separate from your practice, just out of curiosity?
As I mentioned to Riverwolf, I think sometimes the baby gets tossed out with the bathwater, especially in the “authenticity” struggle. While I think there are well-intentioned attempts to de-fluff neo-paganism/shamanism/etc. in general, being more serious isn’t necessarily equal to being more right in an objective manner.
The “totems/etc. must approach you” thing seems like an attempt to prevent people from automatic assumptions like favorite animal = totem. However, you bring up a good point that I think I’ll toss out to the Totemists comm. on LJ–do totems always have to approach us?
“Have you considered just learning about Brush Wallaby’s mythology separate from your practice, just out of curiosity?”
No, I follow wallaby’s lead on that one. Sometimes an animal will tell me very specifically that it is something about their mythology that I need to know more than their behaviour, lifestyle or physiology… um, black cockatoo comes to mind there. 🙂
But unless I trip over it by accident, I have no actual interest in wallaby’s mythological background. Firstly because wallaby hasn’t indicated it’s important, but secondly because that sort of information is hard to find anyway.
“The “totems/etc. must approach you” thing seems like an attempt to prevent people from automatic assumptions like favorite animal = totem.”
*nods* It is a caution thing, I mostly believe that totems choose a person, and actually I even believe that is true of those who must be approached first. They will still eventually make a choice as to whether it’s a worthwhile relationship or not, an animal who doesn’t will simply disappear or stop interacting with someone. I’ve approached wombat many a time in journey and he just looks at me as if to say ‘and? So? I don’t care about you. Go away.’ (I have personal reasons for wanting wombat in my life, I guess he has very clear reasons as to why he doesn’t want to be there!) Heh.
BUT, I do believe wombat is a totem that likes to be approached, even by people he has chosen.
I notice that people with that reaction or attitude towards Coyote and Coyote-people tend to harbor a fair amount of insecurities. Not to say that the stereotype isn’t completely inaccurate. Hmm, how to explain this further…there is this old Germanic story of a trickster fellow named Till Aulenspiegel. Translated, his name means “Owl-Mirror”. Through his tricks, he holds up the proverbial mirror, revealing things about his victims that perhaps they do not want to face. Coyote is very similar in this respect. I plan on doing an essay elaborating on this a bit later, once I’m a bit more settled and have dug up/organized my notes.
My primary totem is local (though elusive), but the phenomenon of having and working with totems outside one’s geographical jurisdiction isn’t uncommon. Just the same, I do not agree with Ravenari’s comment on why people should criticize something just because it happens. I don’t believe it is always the case with everyone who makes the claim, either local or nonlocal. Criticism is necessary for exploration and growth–and may determine wether it really is happening or not.
Side-tangent: Through my travels to some of the much older, historical places in Germany, I’ve gathered quite a bit of information that has confirmed, at least to me, that primitive/pagan cultures definitely do not have the market cornered on esoteric symbolism and various forms of animal identification. It was quite enlightening, and I managed to get quite a few photos and information to share. Until my German skills get at least somewhat decent, my partner is happy to help me translate and pull up information on a particular person or region. The things we’ve dug up so far on the trip have been pretty exciting, but I won’t clog up your comments with all that now. I might post some stuff to the LJ-totemists group later though, if you’re interested.
Solo–I really think a lot of it is because lots of folks don’t understand the Coyote “current”, as it were. From my very limited experiences with Coyote, it takes being able to look at something from not your usual perspective, which can be incredibly unsettling if you’re used to being straightforward.
I think constructive criticism is healthy, and helps to pare away things that don’t work, and also helps us to question where we stand. I tend to put my own UPG under some scrutiny, just because often there’s nothing much to compare it to other than other experiences of my own and others.
I would be curious as to your findings; and the totemists comm would be a great place to share what you have!