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Totemism 201: Why Totem Dictionaries May Be Hazardous to Your Spiritual Growth

Those of you who have been following my writing for a while know that I’m biased against totem dictionaries. A totem dictionary is any of a number of books on totems (almost always animal totems) in which the bulk of the text is dedicated to dozens of dictionary-style entries on stereotyped meanings of various totems. The entries are often formatted thusly:

  • * The totem’s species (usually a large mammal or bird, less often a reptile, fish or invertebrate)
  • * Key words (the Cliff’s Notes version of the totem’s stereotyped meaning)
  • * Some random stuff like astrological signs, moon phases or other correspondences that supposedly match up with this totem
  • * A few paragraphs on mythology about the animal and what the animal symbolizes in various cultures (usually assorted Native American cultures, or the dreaded “the Native Americans believed…”)
  • * A bunch of writing of what the author thinks the totem means and/or whatever meanings they gleaned from other totem dictionaries, all presented as The One True Meaning of this totem

Seems pretty simple, right? All you have to do to get the answers you seek is open up the book to the animal you seek, read about it, and hey presto–you have your answers, all in a neat little package. So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, actually, you can criticize a few things:

–What the book says isn’t what may be

Totems are not one-dimensional characters; nor are they Pokemon. What they are, as far as I’ve been able to discern over the past couple of decades, is archetypal beings that embody the qualities of their given species, as well as the various relationships that species has with others, humans included. They have personalities, often more complex than we give them credit for, and they don’t act the same toward every single person who contacts them. Gray Wolf, for example, is not always “the teacher”, and is not always happy to see everyone who seeks him out. While my relationship with him has been pretty positive (he’s been with my much of my life), I know people that he’s been rather hostile to. And even with me it’s not just a matter of “Yay, this is my totem, he’s going to give me lots of awesome powers and do things for me!” There are times he’s been harsh with me and, quite honestly, times when I’ve had to work with other totems to help un-learn and balance out some of his less favorable traits.

So when someone asks “What does the totem Wolf mean?” and they get a bunch of books and websites giving them a bunch of stereotyped meanings, they’re likely to just stick with those and not go any further. That’s like someone who want to meet you asking a few of your friends and acquaintances for a one-word summary of who you are and then expecting you to only behave according to what you’ve been told. You can see how limiting that is!

I do understand that some people, especially newcomers to totemism, like reading what other people have experienced, especially with less common totems. But that should be only for comparison’s sake, not as holy writ. Otherwise you run the risk of closing yourself off from what a given totem really wants to talk to you about.

–No dictionary can include all totems

There are literally millions of animal species worldwide (not counting the ones we’ve driven extinct), including almost a million insect species alone. Add in all the many thousands of species of plant, fungus, bacteria, archaea, and other living beings out there, and there’s a LOT of biodiversity to take into account. Every single one of those species has a totem. So do all the extinct species that have ever graced this planet. We don’t even know the identity of most of them.

So it’s not at all surprising that you simply cannot fit every single totem into a dictionary. This means, of course, that totem dictionaries (and, by extension, totem divination decks) are severely limited in possibilities. Most of them tend toward what I call the BINABM (Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals), like Wolf and Elk and Eagle and Fox and Deer and Hawk and are you sensing a pattern here yet? Note, too, that few of them talk about the totems of individual species; every snake totem from North Pacific Rattlesnake to Reticulated Python ends up smushed into the general category of “Snake”, and “Spider” somehow is supposed to stand in for a diversity of arachnids ranging from Black Widow to the many sorts of Assassin Spider to the plethora of Tarantulas running around without woven webs. That’s akin to someone saying “Well, your last name is Smith and so that must mean you’re exactly like every other Smith out there, oh, and do you do blacksmithing because I really need a ritual knife made for our coven’s next sabbat.”

The totem dictionary discourages people from exploring outside of this slender, and rather inaccurate, set of definitions it sets out. Some of them admittedly do give you a few exercises to do with your totem, even if it’s not one that’s listed in the book. But I really think these authors would do better to spend more time giving people more material for working with their totems, rather than padding out the page count with dozens of dictionary entries.

As for the issue with not exploring the totems of individual species? I’ll be covering that in more depth in a separate post later on, so I’ll table it for the moment. (Just hold your horses–including Domestic Horse, and Przewalski’s Horse, and Grevy’s Zebra…)

–The dictionary format encourages intellectual laziness and spiritual selfishness

From what I’ve observed over the years, people who seek out totem dictionaries online or in books are usually looking for easy answers. They want someone to tell them “Well, Deer is the keeper of psychic powers, and Rabbit teaches gentleness, and Raven is the darkness in everyone’s soul” and so forth. And then once they’ve identified that tidbit of information, that’s as far as a lot of them go with the relationship. They look in their own lives for places where they can increase their intuition, or become gentler, or, uh, unleash a tide of darkness and woe upon their enemies. And now that they’ve found “their” totem, they may buy a bunch of books and t-shirts and cheaply-made-in-China statues of that being. But they don’t often take the totemic relationship any farther than that. Where’s the curiosity? Where’s the desire to learn more about the totem beyond what some book tells them? Where’s the reward in doing the work yourself? Vanished in a haze of instant gratification.

This is not to say that I am the only totemist who goes into more detail with my work than “Oh, here, read this book.” I know a good number of them, in part because I’ve tried to seek out folks of a like mind over the years and been generously rewarded for my efforts. But we’re still a minority amid the fast-food-spirituality crowd. And to an extent, while I am being rather harsh with the basics, I do admit that more advanced practice isn’t for everyone. Some people are content just knowing they aren’t alone. But when that’s all that’s presented to people, it gets a bit frustrating after a while.

Moreover, when someone asks “What does this totem mean?”, do you know what I hear? “What can this totem do for me?” And that’s the general theme of the overwhelming majority of totem dictionaries out there. Upon doing a casual search for books on “animal totems” and “spirit animals” on Amazon, some of the most common words that come up are “power”* and “messages”, both as bonuses you’re supposed to receive from your super-spiffy totem animal who will fix all your problems for you.

Spirituality is not just about “gimme gimme gimme.” Ideally it’s a set of relationships and connections that go both ways. We are not the totems’ biggest priority; they don’t exist primarily to endow us human apes with mystical wisdom and enlightenment. Their biggest concern is taking care of their own physical counterparts, and because humanity is currently waging war on the environment, by necessity they have to interact with us in an attempt to get us to stop killing everything. It’s not to say that some of them don’t genuinely enjoy working with us, to include in personal growth. But we kid ourselves when we talk about how we’re the golden children of the planet and everything revolves around our bipedal asses.

I can only really speak for myself, but as my relationships with various totems have deepened over the years, I haven’t found myself wanting to get even more stuff from them. Instead, the point at which I consider myself to have left basic totemism behind was the point when I began to be motivated by the desire to give back to them. Now, this isn’t in the manner of supplication and “Please don’t kill me” and “Well, I’m making offerings because my ancestors made offerings and that’s what I’m supposed to do, too.” No, I’m talking about caring so deeply for these beings and their physical children that I wanted to make things better for them, even if only a little. It’s like falling deeply in love with someone; you cease to only be attracted to their surface traits, and you instead genuinely want to make their life better as a whole person, joys and flaws and all.

It doesn’t mean I never ask for help, especially in tough times. But I’ve long since left behind the desire to “access power” through my totems; a more accurate phrase might be “connect with” or “create relationship with.”

One final note: you may have noticed that I’ve written some profiles of various totems here and for my Patreon patrons. These are NOT meant to be holy writ! I write them from a personal perspective because my readers tend to like seeing examples of the concepts I write about in action, and it can help illustrate totemic work a little better. But they’re always phrased as “My work with X totem is this”, not “if X totem comes into your life it means this.”

Alright, that’s it for now. In the next post I’ll go into more detail about why it’s important to know the species of the totem you’re working with. And in a later post I will talk about how you can connect with and learn more about a totem without relying on dictionary entries, so stay tuned!

A master list of Totemism 201 posts may be found here.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider purchasing one or more of my books on totemism and related topics! They include more in-depth information on working with totems, to include topics not discussed in this essay series.

* I recognize that “power animal” is a specific concept in and of itself, and I’m not including that use of the term in this complaint. Rather, I’m talking about phrases like “access the POWER of your totem animal!” and “POWERFUL magic of totems!”, indicating that you, too, can access power by buying this book.

Totemism 201: Totems Are Not Pokémon

I’d like to start the meat of this essay series by criticizing a few of the limitations of non-indigenous totemism as it’s commonly practiced. And I’d like to start with the idea that everyone has a set number of totems, and that’s that.

In years of reading of other people’s work on totems, I frequently come across the idea that everyone has a set number of totems. Some say each of us has only one, and that one totem stays with us for life. Others claims we have two, one for each of our halves (as though we are composed of nothing but dichotomies.) Or they say we have four for each of the cardinal directions, or add in another for center. Countless people are convinced that “the Native Americans”* teach that everyone has nine totems thanks to Jamie Sams’ and David Carson’s book and deck set, The Medicine Cards.

I know exactly where it comes from, too: the insistence on some neat round number that signifies “Okay, you’ve finished the work, now you can relax and bask in the glory of your spiritual development!” I’ve seen people get so caught up in trying to figure out what the “missing” three or four totems in their set of nine are that they don’t actually work with the ones they’ve already identified. Moreover, if they reach that magic number nine (or four, or whatever), if yet another totem makes contact with them then they get all confounded and wonder whether they misidentified one of their totemic dream team.

Folks, this ain’t Pokémon, and you don’t have to catch ’em all. You aren’t prevented from progressing to the next level of your spiritual path if you don’t have a complete set. And you don’t need to look up your totem’s stats in a spiritual Pokédex (a.k.a. the Dread Totem Dictionary, which I’ll skewer in my next essay) before you start to work with them.

The Pokémon approach (“I must have X number of totems!”) is troublesome for a couple of reasons:

–It’s about making totems fit your preconceived map of correspondences and meanings, rather than letting those relationships develop organically. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to shove them into pigeonholes labeled things like “North” and “South” or “left side” and “right side.” This is especially pernicious because the sorts of non-indigenous authors and teachers who perpetuate this sort of pigeonholing apply specific definitions to each category. Picking on The Medicine Cards again, Sams and Carson say that the right side animal “protects your male side” and “your courage and warrior spirit”, while the left side totem “is the protectors of your female side” and teaches you about “relationships and mothering.” Not only is this incredibly sexist and heterocentric, but what if the totem you get for your left side in your super-spiffy card reading is Loggerhead Sea Turtle, who buries her eggs in the sand and then abandons the babies to their fates while she returns to the ocean to live a largely solitary life? Moreover, what if what she wants to teach you has absolutely nothing to do with relationships and mothering, and everything to do with, say, physical endurance and longevity? I suppose if you engaged your human pattern-recognition skills long enough you could make some connection there–but why bother trying to make Loggerhead fit into that tiny little definition when she could be teaching you the wisdom in learning how to swim, figuratively and literally (or whatever she feels like showing you?)

–It stays at the surface of things and entangles you in minutiae rather than allowing a more organic exploration of a deepening relationship with a totem. Like the totem dictionary, the Pokémon approach to totemism feeds you a bunch of structures you’re supposed to plug your totems into. You’re not really told what to do when things deviate outside of that neat but narrow little worldview. Sure, you can likely figure it out on your own, but there’s a surprising number of people who adhere to the stuff in these books as though they’re holy writ. Some of this is probably a result of many pagans, New Agers and the like having come from the sorts of religions that hand you a pile of dogma that outlines what you’re supposed to believe, think and do. While people in these religions can certainly have deep, meaningful relationships with their own Powers That Be, there are plenty of fundamentalists who stick to the letter rather than the spirit. And that same desire to have all the answers laid out nice and easy carries over into some totemists as well.

Now, since I don’t like to complain without offering at least one solution, allow me to offer up a workable alternative. And it starts with one very simple concept:

There is no single universal number of totems you’re supposed to have, and no universal structure with which to organize them.

Ditch that idea. Toss it out. Right now. Because when you do, you leave yourself available to whatever totems are willing and able to work with you over the course of the rest of your lifetime, whether that’s one or one hundred or any other number. Now you’re able to let them come to you at their own pace, and you can have your initial conversations with them without worrying whether they fit in the proper slot. It’s a very liberating feeling as far as I’m concerned.

How do you view your totems now that you no longer have a scaffolding to hang them in? Well, think of how you treat your friends. You likely don’t think in terms of “Bob is the friend I go to supper with every Thursday night, and Sally is the friend I go hiking with on Sundays, and when I want to go shopping I call Erica” and so forth. No, you let them be individuals and you appreciate them as such. You connect with them for different reasons, but you see them as whole people. And that’s a good way to approach your totems. Not all of them will be buddy-buddy with you, either; some of them might be quite aloof or even borderline hostile. But at least you can let those personalities and relationships grow at their own rate, and appreciate each totem on its own merits rather than whether it fits into your preconceived worldview. And you can decide what your end of the relationship will be like; if you have a totem you’re less comfortable with you can maintain a safe distance until you get more of a sense of why they showed up.

One more really important benefit: you’re able to see how the totems interact with each other. Because you’re not all caught up in “Wait, does Pigeon really fit the qualities of East?” you’re more likely to notice things like how Pigeon responds whenever you call on him and Common Raven in the same ritual. And if one totem introduces you to another, you can pay more attention to how they work together because you’re not busy figuring out where in your structure this newcomer fits. This sort of observation may very well lead to you being able to coordinate your work with several totems at once, combining efforts to achieve a common goal, allowing each participant to contribute as they see fit.

In the next essay, we’ll shake off more preconceived notions by picking apart the totem dictionary.

A master list of Totemism 201 posts may be found here.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider purchasing one or more of my books on totemism and related topics! They include more in-depth information on working with totems, to include topics not discussed in this essay series.

* Any time someone says “the Native Americans believed…” look askance at them. “Native Americans” comprise thousands of individual cultures throughout the Americas, each of which has their own set of ever-evolving cultural and spiritual traditions, not all of which include totemism. Like many non-indigenous writers, Sams and Carson have nabbed little bits of lore and practice from an assortment of indigenous cultures, mish-mashed them together with New Age frippery like the lost continent Mu (from whence all the Native cultures supposedly originated), and then call it genuine Native American spirituality. Moreover, despite five hundred years of genocide, many Native American cultures still exist today, and it’s more accurate to say members of a given culture “believe” something rather than “believed.”

Totemism 201: An Introduction and Purpose (And Master List of Totemism 201 Posts)

As of this upcoming spring it will be nineteen years since I became pagan and began working with totems, among other spiritual beings. While my path has wended its way through a variety of areas of study and practice, the totems have been a constant presence throughout. While my initial work was exclusively with animal totems, since moving to Portland in 2007 I’ve expanded my work to include the totems of plants, fungi, landforms, and other manifestations of nature. From the beginning my relationships with the totems have been influenced by my status as a non-indigenous person trying to bond with the land I found myself on. I’ve been inspired by others authors’ writings on the subject, both historical and contemporary, but rather than following traditions from other cultures I have primarily worked with the totems to create my own path.

Unlike a fair number of non-indigenous practitioners, I’ve taken these relationships far beyond the basic “This totem has this meaning” level. While I’m far from the only advanced neopagan totemist out there, I’d like to see more people move their practices past stereotyped meanings and begging totems for help. I recognize I’m somewhat in the minority in this regard. Most folks who pick up a book or hunt for a website on totemism are just looking for quick and easy answers like “What does the (totem) Fox say?” and “What sort of spiritual message am I getting when a highly territorial bird like a red-tailed hawk keeps showing up in my yard, using the nearby telephone pole as a perch to hunt for delicious, delicious rodents?” I prefer writing about more complex ways of relating to these spirit beings of nature, and insist that my readers do the work themselves, even if it takes years. While I have a growing audience of folks who agree, I’m not very likely to topple Ted Andrews and his eternally-loved Animal-Speak* for “most popular totemism book ever.”

So why do I feel it’s so important to grow one’s totemic practice when so many insist on buying into an easy-answers format? Well, for one thing there’s a lot more to learn from an individual totem than whatever blurb that’s passed around from one totem dictionary to the next. Just like any other relationship, your connection with a totem grows and evolves over time, and what they have to show you may expand far beyond what you read in such and such book; Gray Wolf may say nothing whatsoever about being a teacher, and Red-tailed Hawk may never mention being a messenger, and so forth. It’s crucial to cultivate an open mind; I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve seen posting in forums about how a totem tried to teach them something that wasn’t in the book, and rather than simply going with it they worried they were doing something wrong. I find that rather sad; when faced with such a situation I prefer to promote a sense of enthusiastic exploration over one of self-doubt.

More importantly, the common totemic paradigm is incredibly selfish. Look at almost any book or website on animal totems (or spirit animals, etc.) and the emphasis is on what you can get from these beings, how they resonate with you, how they can enhance your life, and so forth. As far as I’m concerned, one of the first steps to becoming a more advanced totemic practitioner is the realization that it’s not about you, and that you (and humanity in general) are only a very tiny portion of the grand scheme of things. Beyond that it’s imperative to look at what you can give back to the totems, their physical counterparts and the habitats they live in. The New Age emphasis on non-indigenous totemism keeps saying “take, take, take, take!”; my own practice has grown to encompass “give, give, give, give!” more and more as the years have passed by. The balance of give and take may shift over time; sometimes I need to rely more heavily on my totems than others. But I have long since given up the solely “What’s in it for me?” approach so popular with the dictionary style of totemism.

I’d like to see that trend spread. Each totem is the guardian of its own species; they’re concerned with far more than us, something we all too often ignore in our quest for personal enlightenment. We humans already take so much from the rest of the beings on this planet, and we insist on taking a lot from their totems without giving back to them. I want to foster an approach to totemism that nurtures a sense of responsibility toward the totems and their children rather than this “I want all the answers and I want them now!” approach that’s so popular.

When I wrote my first book, Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone, almost a decade ago, I wrote it because I was tired of totem dictionaries and wanted there to be more on totemism and animal magic than easy answers. My books and other writings have continued in that tradition, and you can consider this essay series the newest iteration thereof. You won’t find pre-scripted rituals here, and certainly not dictionary entries of what totems supposedly mean universally; I’m also not going to go into introductory material like how to find totems. It’s not an exhaustive how-to resource; that would be counter to its very intent. In part it’s a collection of essays punching holes in some (figurative) sacred cows of neopagan totemism. These writings are also meant to offer several potential starting points for expanding and growing your own practice in the directions you and your totems deem best. Let go of the idea that you have to grow your practice in a linear manner; instead, let it grow organically, and use the essays I write as seeds for that endeavor.

Master List of Totemism 201 Posts:

Totemism 201: Totems Are Not Pokémon
Totemism 201: Why Totem Dictionaries May Be Hazardous To Your Spiritual Growth
Totemism 201: Why Species Are Important
Totemism 201: It’s Not Just About the Animals
Totemism 201: It’s Not Just About Us, Either
Totemism 201: Why Going Outside is Important

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider purchasing one or more of my books on totemism and related topics! They include more in-depth information on working with totems, to include topics not discussed in this essay series.

* No offense to the late Mr. Andrews; his book was admittedly my first book on the topic, and while much of it is the sort of dictionary I don’t care for, he did include a lot of useful exercises for bonding more deeply with one’s totems, and my signed copy that I’ve been toting around for almost twenty years is one of my prized possessions on my bookshelf.

A Naturalist Pagan View of Death

Samhain’s a month past, now, and autumn hangs more heavily here; deciduous trees have lost all but a few leaves to the increasing winds, and the birds visit my feeders much more frequently than they did just a few weeks ago. Nature is still alive and well, but more somber and quiet in her demeanor. While for me the threat of famine or freezing is incredibly slim, winter historically was–and sometimes still is–time to reflect upon death and those who have gone before. In October I wrote three letters to my ancestors over at Paths Through the Forests, but my thoughts haven’t ended there. I’ve been letting the time of year and the increased struggle of the neighborhood birds slowly turn over in my mind, even as my schedule shifts and slows with the seasonal changes.

Surprisingly, what touched off this particular focus on death was Netflix. Or, more specifically, the new Cosmos hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, which I’m just now getting around to watching. There are echoes of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos, including the exploration of the metaphorical calendar year in which we humans compose only the last few moments. It reminded me of how we only have a tiny eyeblink of time in this life. Some may be comparatively longer eyeblinks than others, but when you consider the mind-bogglingly immense lifespan of Earth, and the even greater span of the universe, the difference of a few decades is imperceptible. Still, to us here in our human lives the count of years is important, and we want as many seasons as we can get.

In American culture that means treating death like the enemy. Everyone dies, of course. But we go through ridiculous means to pretend we’re immortal, even if only in our own minds. We spend more and more money each year on cosmetic approximations of youthfulness, and scientists are working to find the exact cause of ageing so that we may hopefully someday slow it down and enjoy longer lives. Of course we mourn when someone dies, and those who know their days are numbered through terminal illness often go through their own grieving journey for themselves. Few of us ever actually want to leave this place once we’re here, even with all its challenges and sorrows.

Some of it, of course, is our deeply ingrained will to survive; without it, our ancient ancestors millions (even billions) of years ago never would have gone on long enough to give birth to us and the other living beings of the 21st century. But it’s also an appreciation of the good things in this world; we don’t want to lose the people we’re closest to, and we hate the idea of never getting to see the next summer–or the next sunrise. Sometimes instead of enjoying our lives, though, we waste them trying to cheat death. And what good is it to spend your waking moments obsessed with when your eyes shut for the last time? You’ve already made yourself blind.

Yet I can’t help but appreciate the contribution death makes to life. If we were truly immortal, if we knew our lives had no end, how different our attitudes might be! We could cultivate endless laziness and boredom until we damned our lack of death. It is the inevitable ending, and the fact that most of us know neither the day nor the hour of its arrival, that makes life worth appreciating. Death is the price we pay for life. Every one of us is given a finite time on this planet, no more and no less. All our religions and beliefs aside, we cannot know for sure that there’s anything after we die. We don’t even know how much life we have left–it could be a few moments, it could be decades.

Death is a reminder not to take what we do know we have for granted. It’s the thing that makes life so precious–our brief moment in the sunlight before it fades again. We cannot buy more life. We cannot cheat death. All we can do is take each day, each hour, each breath as it comes, and appreciate that we have made it a little longer on this beautiful, chaotic, disastrously wonderful planet we call home.

And from death comes more life. A deer that dies of battle wounds in the autumn feeds countless other animals during the hard, cold winter, giving them the strength they needed to live another day, and in the spring its remains will continue to feed fungi, bacteria, plants. Eventually every bit of its body will return to the cycles that created it in the first place; all the food it had collected in its own body in the form of muscles and fur, skin and bones, will be returned, as it was only borrowed. So do we all only borrow our bodies from the rest of the world for a little while.

All this makes me more grateful to be alive. And all this makes me grateful that death is in this world.

Are you interested in reading more about the role of death and reclamation in my spiritual work? Consider picking up a copy of my book, Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Use of Animal Parts in which I detail both the spiritual and practical elements of my art and ritual work with hides, bones and other animal remains.

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.