The stock definition of totemism that I give, as I experience it, is “a totem is an archetypal being that embodies all of the traits of a given species”. But what does that entail?
Let’s look at Grey Wolf, my primary totem (and probably the most popular one in neopagan totemism).
Wolf is made of the ever-evolving river-flow of genetic code of Canis lupus, which includes a number of subspecies with individual genotypical and phenotypical traits.
Wolf is all of the variety of behaviors, both instinctual and learned, that are exhibited by any and all members of that species throughout its history.
Wolf is the niche that wolves have sculpted into the complex ecosystems they are integral to, reflective of the mutual refinement between environment and inhabitor.
Wolf includes the relationships that wolves have to other species, the dance of death with prey, the standoff with other predators over a kill.
Wolf embodies the relationship that we humans as a species and as individuals have to wolves in the wild and captivity.
Wolf is all the stories we have told, from Lupa the mother of Rome, to the Big Bad Wolf menacing little girls in red and barnyard critters, to personal interpretations of authors of totem animal dictionaries, and the archetypal weavings of Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
Wolf is every piece of art depicting hir children, from cave paintings to natural history illustrations to the fanciful creations (and criticisms) of wolfaboos over on DeviantArt.
Every time a person forges a connection with Wolf, Wolf changes. This is why it is important when working with Wolf (or any other totem) to make a personal relationship, rather than just going to whatever totem dictionary is handy and assuming that’s the answer.
Because Wolf is bigger than that. There’s so much there that narrowing Wolf down to a few paragraphs in an ephemeral paperback is futile. And the only person who can navigate through that collective of information and ideas on your behalf, is you.