A Note On My Work With Totems

I was having a conversation on another blog, specifically about shamanic performance and my plans for eventually integrating that into my practice. I’m a big fan of ritual psychodrama and the element of Play as a way to help observers (and participants, as applicable) of a ritual suspend their disbelief. This need not always be Dour and Serious and Grave. As far as I’m concerned, there’s plenty of room for fun amid the serious work at hand. Journeying itself is generally something I see as serious, and not to be taken nearly as lightly as it often is in neoshamanism. However, that doesn’t mean that other elements of a ritual, especially a ritual performance, can’t be fun.

And that led me to think about my own experiences with ritual as an enjoyable, fun experience, even as important things were happening. While I’ve only been developing therioshamanism for a year and a half, I’ve been working with some of “my” totems for over a decade now. I’ve worked with them in several paradigms, including but not limited to chaos magic, neoshamanism, and generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism. I feel comfortable with them, and I’ve found that at least in my own experience, they’re perfectly happy with ritual play, even preferring it to more “serious” rites. Not that there isn’t a place for the latter, but it’s interesting how they explained it to me.

I mainly work with mammals and birds (especially corvids) as totems, so most of this is informed by them. For these totems and their physical counterparts, play is almost always preferable to fighting. Just as it is with humans, play is enjoyable and fun (even if it does teach survival skills that may mean the difference between life and death). Someone might get injured by accident, but generally not to the extent that injury occurs in a fight. Injuries are a lot more serious for other animals than they are for humans in the 21st century. There aren’t antiseptics and antibiotics and bandages, and in many cases no one to fetch food for you or make sure you aren’t left behind. A broken jaw for a human means a trip to the emergency room, and maybe several months of recovery. A broken jaw for a wolf that just got kicked in the face by an elk means death by starvation.

So it doesn’t surprise me that the mammal and bird totems I work with don’t have a problem with choosing play over real violence. We can be more serious when and as we need to, but they don’t see a need for real violence with no real reason behind it. While I’ve no doubt they’re perfectly capable of biting me, so to speak, I’ve never had them do anything over the past decade and change to make me feel I couldn’t trust them overall. While some animals are quite capable of deception for survival, I haven’t had a totem resort to trickery just to watch me get hurt (not even Coyote who, for me, more resembles the animal than the deity). And I haven’t had them lay a bunch of unreasonable demands on me, though they’ve certainly guided me through some very difficult experiences.

Perhaps, when so much of your existence revolves around survival and the cycles of life and death, having a chance to take a break and play is a welcome thing. I know it is for me; while the challenges I face every day are much different from those other animals in all forms face, I can still appreciate the time out that play provides. Hence part of my reason for wanting to incorporate ritual performance.

4 thoughts on “A Note On My Work With Totems

  1. After reading the book Never Cry Wolf, and in my own views before this, I think I’d agree with you. From the author’s description, wolf adults would let loose and have fun, playing with the pups or just laying about after bringing down a kill or bringing home food otherwise, i.e. regurgitating rats for the pups. After so many hours of sheer exhausting work, who would not want a break?

    It doesn’t mean that the relationship is somehow lessened by play with your totems, even in the midst of a serious working, but I think it’s enhanced because of the level of trust that is shown to you in that act. Good post; I found myself unconsciously nodding at several points as I read it.

  2. You make a great point about fun or play. To be honest, that is a major factor that led me to this shamanic path. I hope that doesn’t sound flip, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t take this all seriously. But the rituals and practices allow me a way to jump out of my usual, serious, responsible way of life. Christianity had become just as dull and serious as anything else. THere was no fun, no play–no enchantment. I don’t claim to understand fully all my motivations, and in some ways I still feel “play-deficient.” Ultimately, I hope I don’t wring all the fun and play out of this current path. I think it’s a balance, between being serious when necessary and knowing when to relax. This path seems to offer that option, at least, whereas others do not.

  3. Very nice post. I’ve recently been reading about the Sangoma’s (shamans) in Africa and their practices. If you’re studying Shamanism you might find it interesting 🙂

  4. Having just stumbled on your ideas I am finding a wonderful resonance with many of the thoughts that have been bumping about in my own life.

    Specifically regarding the importance of play: wow. Thank you for solidifying the concepts into language. Obviously there are times for serious, even grave workings but it’s always seemed so lopsided not to have play-centric rites.

    Not everything has to be so grim all the time! Joy belongs to us as well!

    I don’t think that working with energy should be undertaken lightly. Far from it! But I do believe that there is room for play and humor. There is a difference between a flip attitude and a play attitude.

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