On Totems and Categorizing

I’ve recently started working with Elk for help with emotional regulation. I’m working through some of the most deep-seated issues I have, and needless to say it’s been a real roller coaster–only not as much fun for me and those around me. Now, just out of curiosity, I did check a few totem animal dictionaries out of curiosity to see what Elk had taught other people, because s/he wasn’t who I would have expected to help me with this particular effort. I didn’t find anything specifically on healing psychological aches and pains, though I did find some emphasis on community involvement and intense emotions. This isn’t surprising, given the herd formation (particularly of females) and the aggression of bull elk during rutting season.

But then I found that I was really trying to come up with a label for Elk. Was Elk my emotional totem? My heart totem? My psychological health totem? My working through depression and anxiety totem? And I realized just how limiting a mindset that really is. Having been neopagan for over a decade, I can look at countless examples of books and other sources that treat not only totems but also deities and other beings as pigeonholed, categorized, and neatly shuffled into place, like so many correspondences. I even have heard plenty of pagans talking about which deity or totem or spirit to “use” for what purpose. Yes, different beings have their bailiwicks, but there’s almost no talk of the individuality and personal evolution of the spirits.

I decided I had to stop myself from doing was trying to put Elk into a category. I have the habit of thinking of Brown Bear as my healing totem, Whitetail Deer as my dream totem, and so forth, because those are the main ways they’ve interacted with me thus far. But I also know they’re not limited to these things, especially as I begin journeying again, and as my shamanic practice has deepened my relationships with them.

And that’s really one of my biggest complaints about the dictionaries–they unnecessarily limit our perception of what different totems can do, to the point where it almost becomes plug-and-play totemism. It’s a bad habit I need to get out of, myself. Totems are individuals; yes, they’re archetypal in nature, but archetypes continue to be shaped by the changes in what feeds and becomes them. For instance, our relationship as humans to elk as animals, as well as symbols, has changed over time, and from culture to culture. It doesn’t mean that older observations and relationships go away; they simply are joined by newer ones. And that all goes into the continuing evolution of Elk as totem. It’s that way for everything and everyone–we shape the world and the world shapes us, even if that shaping varies depending on the nature of the individual beings involved. Totems aren’t physical human beings or even physical animals, and to treat them as such is inaccurate.

At the same time, totems and other archetypal beings aren’t labels. Yes, it can be useful to have some shorthand ideas for casual discourse among totemists and others. But as I’ve maintained for years, what a particular totem tells me may not be what that totem tells someone else, and it’s ridiculous to expect that everyone will get the same message. Part of why I avoid going to dictionaries when I get a new totem or other animal spirit in my life is because I want to get to know them on our own terms, not bias myself by seeing what others had to say. Yes, I went and checked up on Elk in a couple of dictionaries, but that was after we’d already established some form of relationship, and I went in with curiosity, not seeking answers.

So I’m going to continue de-conditioning that tendency to say “Bear is the healer, Deer is the dreamkeeper” because it’s too limiting, both for them and for others–as well as myself. It’s a really bad habit, and I suggest my readers who work with totems in a neopagan/neoshamanic sense take a look at similar patterns in your own views of the totems and other spirits you work with.

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7 thoughts on “On Totems and Categorizing

  1. When I do my totem animal files, I generally ask the animal in question what it wants to transmit to many – as opposed to personal messages. For that reason, the file on Australian raven – my personal totem – is somewhat radically different to what I feel Australian raven means to me in my life. And it’s also why I add a caveat.

    I’ve never really experienced the problem of over-categorising in these areas though. If elk came into my life to teach me about emotional regulation, it wouldn’t occur to me to label it as a certain kind of ‘totem’ or ‘guide’; nor would it bother me if its lessons were very different from the mainstream. I suppose that is one of the overt benefits of only really believing in one totem; everything else after that becomes a varying degree of ‘animal energy’ that is defined by the animal it is and less by dictionaries, labels and terminologies.

    I don’t have a ‘heart totem’, an ‘art totem’ and so on. I have an evolving number of animal energies, and my relationship with them is ever evolving. The only label I tend to need for myself is ‘snail,’ or ‘olm.’

    That said – maybe because I don’t really find categorisation or stereotyping totems a problem – I also think totem animal files are a great gift; and that’s why I continue to write them. Just as a book on the value and meaning of human archetypes might provide wisdom and illumination where solo jouneys may not be able to reach.

  2. Oddly enough, my own sense of which creatures operate as totems for me comes entirely from personal encounters with living animals and plants. Many of these experiences took place when I was quite young and unaware that they were, as later events revealed, magically important over the course of a lifetime.

    Because of this personal foundation for my totemic creatures, I’ve felt little temptation to categorize the functions or responsibilities of these creatures. I’ve taken the lessons and guidance they’ve offered as complete in themselves, conversations with other living presences. Not as tokens of psychological functions or symbols of magical interests. So I haven’t paid much mind to lists of functions, archetypal energies, or divinatory clues. I just take them as teachers and pals.

  3. This.

    It’s a difficult habit to get out of. I’m really new to the pagan scene, so the animal magic resources out there are full of pigeonholes. When that is your intorduction to the subject, it’s hard to break out of it.

    But it’s something we need to break. 🙂

  4. I think this is an excellent observation, and good for approaches to deities as well. I know that as I connect with more people who work with Ereshkigal, I’m seeing that She has a variety of aspects, far more than a dictionary would give.

  5. I’m inspired and encouraged by your ability to continually work with various totems and deepen your relationships to them. I’m struggling with this and often seem to hit a wall–so I head to the dictionaries, but I’ve never liked the idea that totems are limited to a few “functions.” It’s nice and tidy for our human brains, but I just don’t see nature working that way.

    So I will keep working, working with wolf, vulture, bear, groundhog and turtle. I have lots to learn!

  6. Ravenari–I think the problem I perceive is the tendency to over-rely on dictionaries on the part of a lot of totemists. I can see where other people’s experiences can add depth to one’s understanding, but unfortunately mostly I just see people blindly following whatever the dictionaries say.

    And I’d liek to be at the point where you are with simply thinkking of the totems as themselves; unfortunately, the whole neopagan tendency towards categorization and labeling has rubbed off on me entirely too much! Working on it, though 🙂

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