Category Archives: Animal Totems

So, Lupa, How *Do* We Make Nature Spirituality More About Nature?

Note: I fiddled around with settings on my site; you can now email-subscribe to my blog from any post, rather than on the front page of the blog itself. It’s a great way to keep up on my writing, news, and more–just plug your preferred email address into the box on the right sidebar of this (or any other) post!

In my previous post I made the assertion that a lot of what’s considered to be “nature-based spirituality” is really more about us than the rest of nature. Here I’d like to present some further food for thought, and invite other naturalist pagans and the like to reflect on where the balance between human and non-human nature may be in your own paths.

I’m going to add in my own thoughts on each of these questions, but please don’t take my responses as holy writ; I mainly offer them up in the spirit of “here, I’ll go first, since I proposed this whole thing to begin with”.

Why should we be concerned about the balance of human and non-human nature in nature spirituality?

Humanity, as a whole, is really, really self-centered. This isn’t surprising; favoring one’s own species has been a successful strategy for us and many other species for millions of years. However, one of the things we humans have evolved to face the challenges of everyday life is a big, complex, self-aware brain. This allows us to be more deliberately conscious of our choices and motivations, and to change them if we will. For example, we still have the genetic programming to gather as many food resources together as we can to feel secure; however, we also consciously recognize the devastating impact that our food consumption has on the rest of nature, and the unequal distribution of food within our own species. Therefore, we’re able to (ideally) adjust our behaviors to still get the food we need, but be less destructive in the process.

In the same vein, spirituality is one way we can make sense of the world around us and our place in it. But a lot of “nature” spirituality is really more about us than about the rest of nature. It’s about what special messages and teachings and other gifts we can get from the animals, plants and other beings around us, without having to give anything back. We might show some gratitude for things like a healthy harvest, but that’s still focusing on how nature benefits us. It’s more like “humans asking and thanking nature for stuff” spirituality. We keep inserting ourselves into the middle of things.

How does the emphasis on things like totem dictionaries, animal omens, and other “instant gratification” in nature spirituality mirror our consumption of physical resources?

Look at the shelves in pagan book stores, or the offerings from pagan publishers. They’re full of books on “the powers and meanings of animal totems” and “how to use herbs and crystals in spells” and other “get your answers right here, right now!” approaches. There’s not a lot on taking the time to create deeper, more personally meaningful relationships with other beings in nature, and even less on what we can do for our fellow beings (other than misguided advice to feed wildlife food offerings, and vague, generic “let’s send healing energy to the Earth” rituals, and so forth).

This is a direct corollary to our consumption of physical resources from nature, whether food or shelter or other tangibles. The vast majority of people, at least in the U.S., only care about nature as far as they can benefit from it. And they want their stuff now. They want to go to the store and get everything on their shopping list, whether that’s breakfast cereal and soda, or a new outfit, or cheap metal jewelry that will leave a green mark on the wearer’s skin but which makes an inexpensive gift for that relative you never know what to get for Christmas. Most people who go to national parks never venture more than a hundred yards from their cars; they oooh and ahhh at the highlights and maybe take some photos, but fewer make the connection between the preservation of these places and their own environmentally destructive actions at home.

And that’s the crux of the issue: fast-food nature spirituality continues this disconnect between our beliefs and our actions. We say we want to revere nature, but our actual interactions are brief and on the surface. Most of the people who claim Gray Wolf is their totem have never given money to an organization that works to protect wolves and the habitats they rely on to survive (though they may have bought t-shirts, statues, and other mass-produced, environmentally-unfriendly tchotchkes with wolves on them). We want something that will make us feel good and “more spiritual” in the moment, but it’s tougher to get us to engage with the deeper implications of finding the sacred in a nature that we too often damage in our reverence. The demand for totem dictionaries and other easy answers just perpetuates this trend.

How does the human-centric focus of some elements of nature spirituality reflect the human-centric focus of more mainstream religions?

Most religions start with us. Sometimes we are the chosen creation of some deity; other times one of our own achieves divine status. There might be some directive to “be nice to animals”, or in some cases refrain from eating some or all of them. But for the most part, the bigger religions are about us and our relationship to the divine, what we humans are supposed to do to earn a good afterlife, etc.

Most pagans were raised in such religions, which reflect the anthropocentrism of most existing human cultures. So it’s not surprising that when we move over to paganism for whatever reasons, we take this human-centric view with us. How do we please the gods? What sorts of nifty things can we get with spells and other magic? And, of course, what special messages does nature have for us human beings?

I, among many (though not all) other pagans, became pagan because the idea of a spiritual path that focused on nature was appealing to me, almost twenty years ago now. I didn’t realize it then, but what I was searching for wasn’t rituals and rules on how to be a good pagan; what I really wanted was to reconnect with nature, without intermediaries and without abstractions, the way I did when I was young and before life got complicated. And now that I’ve managed to rekindle that, I’m realizing just how much of purported nature-based spirituality in general really isn’t based in nature at all, except for human nature. And it just perpetuates the same human-centric patterns I was trying to move away from when I became pagan in the first place. Not all pagans are naturalist pagans, so for some a more human-based approach works. But those of us who do claim nature as the center of what is sacred may not be looking deeply enough into nature outside of ourselves.

How can we start shifting our focus away from ourselves and more toward the rest of nature?

Naturalist paganism and other forms of nature spirituality have the potential to break us out of that anthropocentric headspace, to remind us that we, the ape Homo sapiens sapiens, are just one species among thousands. For that to happen, we need to be paying more attention to the other species and parts of nature, and not just in manners that earn us freebies from the Universe.

We can start by becoming more aware of how often we ask the question “What do I get out of this?”, whether we use those words or not. This leads to an awareness of how much of our relationships to the rest of nature hinge on what we get from the deal. Sometimes it’s in the obvious places like assuming every animal sighting is a super-special message from nature, or focusing seasonal rituals only on the harvest of foods we’re able to eat and ignoring everything else happening in nature right then. But this self-centered approach can be more subtle, like using herbs in a spell but never once acknowledging the sacrifice the plants made and the resources they’d need to replace the leaves and other parts taken from them (assuming they weren’t just killed outright for their roots). By being aware of where we’re holding our hands out for gimmes, we can stop taking nature for granted so much.

Next, we can start incorporating the question “What can I give?” into our nature spirituality, again not necessarily using those words. What offerings do we make and to whom, and what actual benefit will they have to physical nature versus the harm? Part of why I emphasize donations and volunteering toward environmental causes as offerings is because they have an actual, measurable positive impact, much more than “I’m going to send some energy to endangered species by burning this petroleum-based candle made with toxic dyes”. If we take leaves from a plant for a spell, what do we give the plant in return? Is it something it can actually use, like water on a hot day, or something absolutely useless like sprinkling a few chips of quartz on the ground around its stem? Can we redirect our resources in more beneficial ways, like instead of buying a cheap wolf statue made in China we use the money (even a few dollars) to help fund the restoration of gray wolf habitat?

We can also start putting more emphasis on appreciating and honoring nature in its own right. A great way to do this is by simply learning more about biology, geology, and other natural sciences, and being able to appreciate the beings and forces of nature without having some spiritual or symbolic overlay involved. The fox that darts out into our path ceases to immediately be a portent of some important spiritual message, and instead becomes a remarkable creature borne out of billions of years of evolution and natural selection, whose strategies for surviving and adapting are equally effective as our own. And that’s all that creature has to be–amazing for itself regardless of some subjective “meaning” we glue to it.

Finally, we can realistically assess how much we’re walking our talk. I remember the very first big, public pagan gathering I went to; it was a picnic in a park, and all the food was on styrofoam plates with plastic utensils that all ended up in a big garbage bag destined for the landfill at the end of the day. It was incredibly disheartening since many of these pagans claimed to be nature-based in their own practices, and the ritual they performed even gave lip service to the “sacredness of nature”. Now, I understand that they probably didn’t want to wash a bunch of glass and ceramic dishes at the end of the day, and maybe didn’t want to spend the extra money for paper plates made from recycled paper, and perhaps they didn’t think to ask everyone to bring their own dishes to the event.

But this dissonance was important, because it gave me reason to assess my own actions and why I took them. It was the first in a long line of events that made me think “Wow, I want to do things differently”. Not “I’m a better pagan than they are”, but a realization that this thing bothered me and I wanted to make a different choice. And perhaps for those pagans, simply gathering outside on a sunny day was nature enough for them. But I wanted more, and I think naturalist paganism in particular would do well to include encouragement toward regularly assessing and improving one’s actions in relation to one’s beliefs when it comes to nature and the environment.

Here’s where a lot of people run into the sticky trap of dogma. I’m betting a lot of readers have, like me, run into that one variant of Wiccan who interprets “An if harm none” to mean “don’t eat animals!” and then insists that only vegetarians can truly be Wiccan. That’s just one example of where personal choice turns into an attempt to sic one’s dogma onto others. I don’t want to advocate that here. Just as each person’s spiritual path varies according to their needs and restrictions, so too are the actions associated with that path dictated by individual limitations and choices.

More importantly, it’s awareness, reflection, and conscious choice that are at play here. I am well aware that the car I drive, even if it does get pretty good mileage, still contributes to climate change and other results of pollution. However, I would not be able to vend my artwork at events, or take huge piles of packages to the post office, or run weekly errands associated with my business, if I didn’t have my car. Or at least it would eat a lot more into my time and lower my income more than what I currently pay for its maintenance and upkeep. But I try to balance that out by keeping it in good working order and not driving it more than I need to, and by walking or taking transit when I can. It’s that consideration and carefully-made choice that is more important than blindly adhering to the idea that if you have a car you don’t love nature enough.

And that brings me to the last question to ponder: What can I realistically change in my life right now to be more in line with my approach to nature spirituality? This is a question we can ask repeatedly–even every day, if that’s appropriate. The answer is likely to change quite a bit over time through growth and knowledge and experience. But that’s part of having a living, evolving spiritual path: you have to give it space to grow. The answers aren’t all set up in one concise book somewhere. They’re organic and they adapt to change much as we do. It’s a challenge sometimes to always be updating one’s path, to incorporate new information and reflections, and occasionally it may be tempting to just find a one-stop-shop for all the secrets of the universe.

But nature isn’t stagnant, and we only fool ourselves into thinking that only religion stands solid. If we are going to truly align ourselves with the currents and courses of the natural world, if we’re going to understand even a bit of what nature really is, then like the rest of nature we need to be prepared to adapt and explore. That means putting down the book of easy answers and “meanings”, and opening our senses to the world around us.

Sure, it’s scary sometimes, but exciting and full of curiosity, too. And I’m right here with you; you’re always welcome to comment or email me with your questions or thoughts as you walk your own path.

Why Do We Make “Nature” Based Spirituality All About Us?

A few times a month I get an email or other message from someone that goes something like this:

I saw such-and-such animal run across the road/fly into my yard/otherwise enter into my field of vision. WHAT DOES IT MEAN???!!!

My response is generally along these lines:

Chances are it was just going about its business and you happened to catch a glimpse of it. If you really, really think there was something spiritually significant about the event, try talking to the totem of that species to see whether it was anything of importance, or just coincidence. Otherwise, appreciate the fact that you got to observe a critter you don’t normally get to see.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the emphasis so many pagans and others place on animal omens and other supposed “messages from nature”. It’s as though we have to insert ourselves into every single sacred thing in (non-human) nature. We can’t just experience the wonder of a grove of old-growth trees, or the delightful surprise of a red fox racing across our path, or the split-second beauty of a meteorite flaring across a nighttime sky. No, we have to make it more meaningful to us in particular. We have to be the special centers of attention–“Nature noticed me! What a moving experience in which I was the special being chosen to have this amazing revelation given unto me by the spirits that have nothing better to do than place a well-aimed fox in my direction!”

I get that spirituality in general is, in part, a way for us to make sense of the universe and our place in it. And many of us were raised in religions and cultures that place humanity and our relationships at the center of everything. We want religion to give us all the answers and tell us what it all means for us. So it’s not surprising that when people enter into a version of paganism that’s expressly nature-centric, they still start with themselves and work outward. We want to honor nature (and, if applicable, the spirits and/or deities within it)–but we also expect to be paid attention to in return. We feel a bit cheated if nature doesn’t dignify our efforts to notice it with special signs and symbols meant just for us humans.

Yet every day, millions upon millions of animals, plants, fungi, weather patterns, geological processes, and other forces of nature go about their business whether we notice them or not, and it doesn’t change their experience much, if at all, just because we happened to be nearby. The fox only wants to get away from the potential threat we pose and continue on its merry way; the tree couldn’t care less whether we’re walking by so long as we don’t break off any branches; and the avalanche will come tumbling down by gravity’s pull regardless of how many hapless humans (and other living beings) are trapped in the way.

This isn’t to say there are never, ever any special moments in nature where we have that deeper connection, or where some spiritual being from the natural world makes contact with us. But it’s quite telling when the very first reaction someone has at seeing a bird in their yard is “What special message from the Universe does this bird bring to me? Why was I chosen to see this bird at this moment? Is it my spirit animal?” Not “Huh, I’ve never seen that species before; I wonder if they’re migratory?” Not “Wow, there’s a tiny dinosaur* flitting about my yard!” But “ME! ME! ME! MEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!”

Okay, yes, that’s a bit hyperbolic. My point stands: we’ve been making nature-based spirituality more about us than about the rest of nature. Really, it’s an extension of humanity’s self-centered relationship to the rest of nature in general: for the most part, we only value it as far as we can get something out of it. We want stuff and things from the bounties of the Earth; we want our metals mined and our food harvested and our wood chopped down and we want it NOW. And our nature spirituality has gone in the same direction. We want a totem animal dictionary to tell us what a particular totem means for us. We use dried herbs and crystals in spells to make things better for us. We spend our Sabbats and other seasonal celebrations thanking nature for what it’s done for us. And we want those answers NOW.

It’s a long-ingrained habit, and I think we need to spend some time breaking ourselves out of that headspace. We don’t need to abandon personal meaning and messages entirely; they do have their value. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand one’s place in the Universe. Hell, I still write books that are largely about helping readers connect with totems and other spiritual nature-beings, to include for one’s own spiritual growth.

But my own practice has been steadily moving away from a human-centered nature spirituality. I have my totems and other guides, but the work I do with them is less about me, and more about them and their physical counterparts. When I am out hiking and I see a new species of bird I haven’t encountered before, I experience a great deal of wonder at the diversity of life around me; it’s an occasion to stop, count all the plants and fungi and animals and other things I see, and be amazed by it all. I don’t study spells or rituals any more; instead I read books and watch documentaries on biology and astronomy and physics and geology. I don’t celebrate the turning of the seasons with rituals about humans and our agricultural cycles, or projections of ourselves through anthropomorphic deities; instead, I go hiking and observe the shifts in nature, and I do volunteer work to clean up my adopted beach along the Columbia, and I ask my totems what more I can do for them and their physical counterparts. That’s why, more and more, my books have emphasized the two-way relationships with totems, what we can give back as well as what we can receive from them. As my practice goes, so goes my writing.

It is impossible to divorce spirituality experienced by humans from being at least somewhat human-focused; we are looking at the world through human eyes, after all. But if our nature-based paganism really is going to be about nature as a whole, and not just the celebration of humans in nature, then we need to be critical of how often we place ourselves squarely in the center of our nature spirituality. We need to stop asking what nature can give us and teach us, and instead focus more on what we can give to nature amid the constant pattern of take, take, take. Some pagans claim that paganism is a solution to more overbearing, dominating religions; yet if we’re going to truly and radically make naturalist paganism a path of relationship rather than dominance, I think we still have some work to do.

In my next post (scheduled for next Monday) I’m going to go into more detail as to what that work might look like. (Hint: there’s no one true way!)

*Okay, so technically birds aren’t dinosaurs–but they’re directly descended from theropod dinosaurs, so the eight-year-old in me likes to think they’re just Dinosaurs 2.0.

Purification Ritual For Hides, Bones and Other Animal Remains

My artwork and other practices with hides, bones and other animal remains have always been intensely spiritual. I didn’t like seeing them displayed as mere trophies or status symbols, and so set out to remake them as sacred creations and beloved personal artifacts, guides in costumed shapeshifting and curiosities for consideration. I wanted them to be revered, not merely possessed.

There are a lot of factors outside of my control in this. I can’t control who buys a particular item (other than turning away the occasional rude customer) or what they do with something I made once they have it. I’ve just had to learn to let go and let gods in that regard. But I can do my best to seek out my target audience and present my work in a way that will appeal to them, and keep working my intent into everything I create. And I add a bit of a ritual to it, too, whether you want to believe it changes things on a distinctly spiritual level, or simply helps me stay focused on my task.

I realized recently that while I reference the ritual I do quite a bit, I haven’t actually written about it much. So I figured now would be as good a time as any to share it with you in detail. You’re welcome to try it out for yourself, modify it as needed, but please do give credit when sharing.

There are three parts of the ritual: the meditation, the purification, and the offering.

The meditation is the part that takes the longest. I’ll sit with each piece that I’ve created, and meditate with the spirits of the animals whose remains are incorporated into the art. I have a conversation with them, and ask each of them to show me what they’d like me to know about their lives and deaths. Sometimes I get a vivid, play-by-play of their last moments; other times I get highlights of their lives, especially when they were young (even other animals like to reminisce about childhood). I’ve often gotten some of this information already; as I create the art I’m having an ongoing conversation with them about what I’m creating and what they’d like me to include, and it’s a good opportunity to chat with them about other things as well.

The purification involves a physical smudging of the completed artwork. I used to use sagebrush, but these days I tend more toward cedar or sweetgrass as I like the aroma better. I generally only use a tiny bit at one time; rather than burning an entire sage smudge stick, I’d just pull out one lone leaf and light it. Part of this is to keep from aggravating my asthma, but it’s also so I’m using fewer resources. One leaf purifies as well as thirty in my experience, even if it takes just a touch longer to smudge the entire piece. It’s really an issue of quality over quantity. Other forms of purification can work, too, though I recommend against water-based ones since water can hurt certain hides and other remains. I also say a prayer over each piece at this time, asking that they will go to someone who will love them and cherish them for who and what they are, and thanking them for letting me work with them in the first place.

The offering is the part that’s changed the most over the years. When I first got started, I would offer small drilled stones and shells to the totems of the animals whose remains I used. When I had enough to fill a small leather pouch dedicated to that totem, I would make the stones into a necklace, and then give it to someone who worked with that totem. Over time I became less enamored of this. What was I going to offer to the totems of the stones I made as offerings to the animals? After all, they’re a part of nature, too, not just objects to be given and taken. So I instead diverted the money I would have spent on the stones and shells toward donations to nonprofit groups, and increased my volunteer time to compensate as well.

No purification ritual goes exactly the same way as another. Sometimes the meditation is brief, other times it’s looooong. Occasionally I get a spirit making a special request for an offering or other gesture. That’s why I don’t have this all written out in one big “First say this, then do this” format. It’s more a set of guidelines than holy writ. The point is to remind myself that I am working with skin spirits and sacred remains, and that what I do is meant to honor.

Note: If you enjoyed this post, please consider bringing home a copy of my book Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Uses of Animal Parts, which details my years of spiritual work with hides, bones and other animal remains, along with step by step instructions on how to make assorted ritual tools with them.

Werewolf as Totem

Recently, a fellow Twitter user, @LilMissCoyote, asked me my opinion on “the ‘werewolf’ as a spiritually distinct entity from a wolf”. I gave her a quick answer, but I wanted to go into more detail now that I’m not limited to 160 characters at a time.

A werewolf, of course, is a human being who turns into a wolf, often during the full moon, though some werewolves are thought to have more control over the shift from one form to another. While the werewolf is best known from European mythologies, wolf and other shapechangers are spoken of worldwide. They are on the threshold between humanity and the rest of nature; moreover, they embody that liminal space. That is the first part of what makes Werewolf different from Wolf. Gray Wolf is its own being. While all totems can act as bridges between their species and humans, they are still, ultimately themselves. Gray Wolf is not human any more than we are wolves ourselves. But Werewolf is some of both.

The concept of the werewolf has its roots in the differentiation between humans, and all other nature. Once, we were just another animal in the landscape, struggling with other creatures for food, shelter, and safety. At some point we gained a certain awareness of ourselves as a species, and particularly what made us unique among animals. We noticed our unique ways of communication and the advanced tools we created and used. Eventually, we got this idea that these things made us not only special, but separate from other animals and the rest of nature. Some even considered us to be superior to everything else, somehow chosen by a higher power or made in the image of the Divine. We ceased to simply be “the People” among “the Ravens” and “the Tapirs” and “the White Oaks”, and lorded ourselves over the lot.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Romulus_and_Remus#mediaviewer/File:Estatualoba.JPGSo began our supposed separation from the rest of nature. So began the birth of the werewolf.

Wolves, you see, aren’t that different from us in personality. We’re both social and have something of a hierarchy in our family-based groups. Once we humans came down from the trees, ate more meat, and headed north, we discovered that we could learn a lot from our lupine neighbors, and in almost every culture that shares space with wolves, these four-legged creatures have featured prominently in our mythologies. They are charismatic megafauna, big and impressive and noticeable. And even today we share space with their descendants, domestic dogs who are our closest non-human companions.

Wolves, then, became our symbol of the rest of nature, and the werewolf the bridge between that and us. How a given community viewed werewolves closely reflects their feelings on nature as a whole; benevolent shapeshifters reflect a more respectable and close-by natural world, while vicious, terrifying monsters often herald a fear of what lies beyond the light of the campfire. In Europe, particularly as Christianity took hold, werewolves and their wolf kin alike were seen as symbols of evil and desolation, and wolves were slaughtered mercilessly to “tame the land”.

Today, all species of wolves are endangered to one degree or another–those, of course, that haven’t been driven extinct already. And more would be extinct, too, had we not had a shift in our own consciousness, particularly those of us in Western countries where the most damage was done. Sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, as the modern environmental movement began to coalesce into more than a basic appreciation for nature, there came scientists and others who spoke up for wolves. Their narratives were not of bloodthirsty killers and two hundred pound monsters lurking in the trees, but of intelligent, family-oriented animals just as fragile and vulnerable to the challenges of the world as the rest of us. They awakened more and more people to the reality that we were more of a danger to the wolves than they were to us–and we were so close to killing them all.

Lon_Chaney_Jr.That change caught up to werewolves, too. Once a mainstay of horror fiction (and still keeping that throne, thank you very much), werewolves are being seen in a more sympathetic light. They may still be fierce and strong and capable of great destruction, but we get to see their softer, more relatable wolf and human sides–and even the occasional cuddliness, too. We see werewolf families, something Lawrence Talbot could never have dreamed of. We watch them muddle through dating and growing pains of all sorts, balance out a normal human lifestyle with the call of the wild, all to varying degrees of success.

And that’s how we see nature. No longer is nature something harmful to be tamed and turned to our service. Now we accept it as it is, value it for itself, appreciate it in all its blood and glory. We still allow it to have its fangs, but we no longer assume those fangs should not exist because they’re dangerous. And we see the need to preserve nature, kind or harsh, not just for ourselves, but for everything on Earth.

This is the primary lesson of Werewolf. Not bloodlust, not being a furry id, but balance, awareness, turning the strict duality into a continuum. Werewolf is the one who reminds us, more than any other, to come home to nature. Werewolf is the answer to the nature/human perceived divide, and the internal conflict we feel over what makes us unique as a species, and what of us weaves into the rest of nature. Werewolf allows us our individual adventures but waits patiently for us in the moonlight to show us our way home.

Note: This blog post first appeared as exclusive content available only to my patrons at Patreon. Want to be the first to see new content before it goes public, along with work in progress pictures, monthly perks, and other neat things? Support me here on Patreon–just $1 a month gets you the sneak peeks!

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Wolf_tracks#mediaviewer/File:Wolf_print_on_the_Anaktuvuk_River._North_Slope,_Alaska.jpg

Totem Profile: Gray Wolf

(Photo source.)

One of the features I’m offering some of my patrons on Patreon is a monthly totem profile, featuring a different animal, plant or fungus totem each month. I’m still not a big fan of totem dictionaries for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being what a particular totem teaches me may not be what it has to say to you–if anything. So rather than offering up the usual “This totem means this, that totem means that” dictionary entry, my goal is to offer up fuel for your own explorations. It’s a little more specific than the exercises and ideas I offer in my books on working with totems in general; these monthly profiles provide some inspiration for connecting with a particular totem. However, they should NOT be seen as “Lupa says this is what the totem means, so you can just stop trying now”, and you should always keep yourself open to the possibility that the totem has bailiwicks that aren’t mentioned in the profile. And, as always, these profiles are from the perspective of non-indigenous, neopagan totemism, and are colored heavily by my own experiences and interpretations.

If you would like to receive access to these profiles, become my patron at Patreon at a level of $5/month or more. In addition to the profiles you’ll also get access to other patron-only content like work in progress shots of art projects, sneak peeks of completed blog posts before they go public, nature photos that I don’t post elsewhere, and other exclusive goodies.

This Gray Wolf profile is just a sample; I’ll be posting an additional profile on another totem for my patrons for August.

***************************

Name: Gray Wolf
Scientific Classification: Animalia Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Canidae Caninae Canini Canis lupus
Range: Almost all of the Northern Hemisphere historically, now reduced to less human-populated wilderness areas of Europe, Asia and North America

Physical Characteristics: The largest existing wild canine, the gray wolf is a lean, powerfully built hunter made for long-distance chases and ranging over cast territories. Wolves are typically about twenty-six to thirty-four inches high at the shoulder and may be up to six feet in length. Average weight for wolves is seventy to eighty pounds, with females being slightly smaller. Wolves in northern areas are generally larger than their southern cousins. The wolf’s double-layered pelt can be a variety of colors ranging from silvery-gray to brown, red, yellow, and even pure white; black wolves, which often have paler gray hairs mixed in, are derived from lineages that crossbred with domestic dogs in the distant past. In the wild, the wolf’s average lifespan is six to eight years, though wild wolves have been known to survive up to thirteen years, and captive wolves a few years beyond that. Wolves are primarily carnivores, and will hunt prey ranging from field mice to moose and other deer depending on availability. However, they may also consume a smaller portion of high-calorie vegetable matter such as berries and fruit.

Evolutionary History: Some of the earliest known ancestors of today’s wolf were the creodonts, Cretaceous-era carnivorous mammals that were dwarfed by their dinosaur neighbors over 100 million years ago. About fifty million years later one branch of creodonts became the carnassials, which had evolved better jaws for meat-eating and began to resemble today’s canines. Miacis is the specific member of this group that we think gave rise to canines and related modern carnivores like bears and weasels. Miacis gave rise to Cynodictis around 35 million years ago, which then later evolved into Tomarctus at about 20 million years ago. We don’t start seeing truly wolf-like creatures until about three million years ago, and the gray wolf proper first appeared about a million years ago in what is now Eurasia, later moving into North America. Today around forty subspecies of wolf (including a few now extinct) are recognized, including the domestic dog and the Australian dingo.

Behavior: Gray wolves are among the most social of canines, living in packs generally composed of a mating pair and their pups from previous years; a litter averages four to eight pups. This social lifestyle offers the wolves the opportunity to hunt larger prey as a group than they would as individuals. Wolves hunt their prey by chasing it down, first getting as close as they can to the prey, then running after it to separate it from its herd and tire it out. Wolves have been known to chase prey in shifts, with new wolves replacing those that are tired out, much like passing a baton in a relay race. A wolf can eat up to twenty pounds of meat or more at one sitting, after which a long nap is generally warranted. Hunting is only a small part of a wolf’s life, though. They are quite playful creatures, both with their pups and with fellow adult packmates. They enthusiastically greet each other when they reunite after separation, and use a variety of sounds to communicate both close by and at a distance. The pack is highly territorial and will defend their territory from other packs with some ferocity. While most pack disputes are settled without violence, on occasions fights may occur, leading to injury or even death. Contrary to popular myth, wolves are generally shy creatures when it comes to humans, and usually take great pains to avoid us. It is only a very starved or very sick wolf that will attempt to attack a human being, though wolves close to human settlements have been known to hunt loose dogs and cats and, on occasion, livestock.

Cultural Impact: The gray wolf is one of the most recognizable wild animals in the Northern Hemisphere, and has had a significant contribution to the symbolism of various cultures throughout the land. The wolf’s ferocity in hunting and defending its territory have earned it a reputation as a powerful being, sometimes revered and sometimes feared–and often both. The Big Bad Wolf of fairy tales is just one of several iterations of the wolf as a terrifying monster, and is derived in part from the villainous wolf of Aesop’s fables and the Brothers Grimm. The Navajo in the southwest United States tell of the yee naldlooshi (popularly known as a skinwalker), a human witch who transforms into a wolf (or other animal) to attack and terrorize people. And Fenrir (or Fenris), a monstrous wolf of Norse mythology, is said to be the killer of the god Odin when the end of the world, Ragnarok, arrives. But the wolf is often seen in a positive light as well. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were said to have been raised by a female wolf, and a similar lupine kinship has been adopted by cultures worldwide, from the Chechen people of Eastern Europe to the Mongols of Asia to several Native American cultures. The strength of wolves also makes them a common symbol of warriors and warrior culture, and their prowess in hunting has been emulated by humans for millenia. Today, the wolf is a common representative of the wilderness and the need to protect it, and several environmental groups use it as their emblem.

Totemic Inspiration: It is difficult for me to write about Gray Wolf sometimes because he has been such a significant part of my life from a very early age and has taught me so much of who I am today–persistence, drive, the ability to connect, but also a sharp tooth and not always at the appropriate times. Gray Wolf’s cosmopolitan children and high cultural profile makes her one of the most popular totems and almost sort of a “gateway totem”. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as he is often associated with teaching and guidance in neopagan totemism, and in my experience tends to be pretty patient (think of a wolf being gently mauled by a litter of playful pups!) Because wolves are persistent long-distance hunters, Gray Wolf may be called upon for help with staying the course in long-term projects and endeavors, though with an eye toward adapting one’s tactics to be more effective, much as a wolf must change course when prey darts off in another direction, or when a new prey animal becomes evident in chasing a herd. This adaptability is reflected in the wolf’s incredibly large range and ability to live in habitats ranging from deserts to tundra to forests, and for myself I’ve learned quite a bit about making the most of the resources available to me from Gray Wolf. Wolf is not without her shortcomings, though; while territoriality can be helpful when resources are limited and need to be protected fiercely, humanity in general has a lot to learn about generosity, particularly in cultures where there are many resources, but those resources are treated as though they are scarce. It’s not that wolves can’t be cooperative or benefit other beings; they frequently partner with ravens in finding food and in play, and a wolf’s kill can feed dozens of other animals. But Gray Wolf’s loyalty is to his own first and foremost, and this may need to be offset with a conscious reminder that as humans we do not need to restrict our intentional loyalty only to our nearest and dearest. Finally, as mentioned earlier, Gray Wolf and her children have become emblematic of ecological protection efforts because of the wolf’s place as a keystone species, and my co-blogger Rua Lupa and I discussed this earlier this year over at Paths Through the Forests. Please note that these are my interpretations of my experiences with Gray Wolf, and they should not be seen as “totem meanings”. Your mileage with Gray Wolf may vary quite a bit, so get to know him on your own terms if she’d like to work with you.

Sources/Further Reading:

River of No Return: Gray Wolf Fact Sheet
Wild Earth Guardians: Livestock Losses
Basic Facts About Gray Wolves
What Makes a Wolf a Wolf?
Wolf Origins
Lopez, Barry Holstun (1979). Of Wolves and Men. Scribner, 320 pages.

Red Fox as Animal Totem

Most of my totems that I’ve written about here and back at Therioshamanism are ones I’d consider rather uncommon. I talk about the totems of plants, lichens and fungi because I want to reinforce the idea that they’re out there and are every bit as important as their animal compatriots, and even the animals I’ve written about, like Dusky Arion, aren’t the big, popular totems. This time around, though, I want to talk about one of the more ubiquitous totems that I’ve been working with for a decade now: Red Fox.

As I mentioned in a previous post, 2004 was kind of a rough year for me, but it also produced a great deal of growth. During this period of chaos, I was going through a lot of internal changes and realizations, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Some of my worst traits came out under the stress; as is common with primary totems, I identified quite deeply with Gray Wolf, and all too often under stress my fangs were showing. I’ve talked about secondary totems as those that enter into our lives to help us through a particular period of time or teach us something specific. And that’s where Red Fox came in.

In some ways, Red Fox is much like a gentler Gray Wolf–still a predator, still possessing sharp teeth and keen senses, but not quite as aggressive a totem. My relationship with Red Fox started with her helping me calm down some, finding a bit of focus in these hard times. I did a great deal to invite her into my life more, even dyeing my hair red with henna for a number of years, and that helped to break me out of my usual headspace and introduce me to new ways of viewing the world. It didn’t fix everything, but it helped.

See, I had a very lupine-centric narrative of myself (not at all surprising). There were certain expectations of myself that I had, behavior patterns that I’d always exhibited that weren’t especially healthy, but that I just assumed were permanently a part of me. And Gray Wolf didn’t really have answers for me as to how to fix them. Other totems I worked with didn’t really have a deep enough connection with me to be doing that sort of intensive internal work–except Red Fox. She helped me to learn that I could change, that i wasn’t destined to stay the same person forever, and at a time in my mid-twenties where I really felt I was far behind other people my age as far as life developments went, it was incredibly good for me to be shown that I wasn’t a complete failure.

And the work we started together a decade ago never really ended, either. Red Fox has ridden every shakeup with me, every time I’ve blown my life up and put a new life together from the pieces. She encouraged me to write my first book, and she rode with me across the country to the Northwest. She sat with me through divorce, through grad school, through living alone and moving in with my current partner, through working for others and working for myself. She was one of the totems to encourage me to look beyond the animals and explore the world of plant and fungus totems, and even further into the totemic ecosystem than that. She was there for every crisis of faith and deep realization, and no doubt will continue to witness my ongoing evolution, even as its rate levels out some with age.

I don’t do a lot of ritual work any more, but when I do, I still call on the animals of the four cardinal directions. Red Fox is my South, my fire, my Change. She is the shapeshifting force in my life, and with her, I’ve become so much more than I thought I would be. I am still a Wolf’s child, of course; my name is still Lupa. But Red Fox is right there, working with Gray Wolf and alone as well, adding her fire to the metamorphosis of my life.

If you liked this post, please consider buying a copy of my book New Paths to Animal Totems, or one of my other titles on totemism and nature spirituality. Your support is greatly appreciated!