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.