The Dictionary Dilemma

The Dictionary Dilemma

Animal magic always has been and probably always will be my favorite form of esoteric study and practice. I’ve been fascinated by critters since I was barely old enough to toddle around on my own; I’ve had many pets, and I was always the kid out in the woods catching garter snakes.

So it was no surprise that the very first book I picked up was Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak. While it wasn’t the first animal totem dictionary (being predated by Conway’s Animal Magick, Sams’ and Carsons’ Medicine Cards, and a few other books by several years) it was by far the most complete book on the topic at the time. It, and the later sequel Animal-Wise, covered the totemic and magical meanings and uses of numerous animals from around the world in great detail. Andrews also provided the reader with substantial material for finding and working with animal totems.

Ten years later I’ve read most of the books out there on totemism and animal magic. I’ve picked through some really horrible animal magic cookbooks of prefabricated spells, and I’ve enjoyed seeing some really innovative twists, too. However, overall I’m disappointed at where this particular field of study and practice has gone in the past decade.

The primary problem is that it seems that just about everyone is trying to be Ted Andrews. His totem animal dictionaries were so popular that other authors have since then tried to cash in on the format. These days the standard book starts off with historical information on totems, then goes into methods of divining and working with your totem(s), and after that includes a series of entries detailing specific animals and their qualities. The order and exact execution of these may change, but they’re almost universally present.

Of the twenty-five books I’ve reviewed on Amazon concerning animal magic, nineteen of them contain dictionaries. Of the six books that lacked dictionaries, only one, Yasmine Galenorn’s Totem Magic, was specifically tailored to the neopagan crowd. Of the rest, one was an early 20th century treatise on serpent worship, two were anthropological studies of animal symbolism in indigenous cultures, one was a book of meditations based on the spirituality of various First Nations, and the last was a psycho-therapeutic system combining totems and the seven primary chakras.

These are just with the books that are specifically about totem animals. This doesn’t include several books on Neoshamanism that included very abbreviated power animal dictionaries. There are also a number of animal totem divination decks out there, most of which are purportedly designed to identify your totem. The books are again dictionaries with prefabricated information, often with even less detail than the dictionaries without cards.

Admittedly, there have been some improvements. Thanks to Andrews’ inclusion of many different species, writers on totemism no longer seem to limit their study to big, impressive North American mammals and birds. I am seeing more books that avoid cultural appropriation of indigenous cultures. Where in 1988 we had the Medicine Cards, which lumped all First Nations people into one group of noble savages (apparently the progeny of Atlanteans), in 2006 I’ve managed to find at least some books that avoid trying to be more Native than the Natives, though it still happens.

In the past couple of years, a few authors have started covering new territory. Galenorn’s Totem Magic is a notable example, as is Animal Spirit by Patricia Telesco and Rowan Hall, both of which go beyond the usual “This totem means this, and this one means that, and now stick a feather on your altar and light some incense,” etc. The latter book particularly perked my ears because it had a chapter touching on the uses of animal parts in magic, breaking a bit of a Pagan taboo. For my own part, my Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone covers a number of topics in animal magic, including a unique look at totemism, practical magic with animal parts, and even a chapter on animal sacrifice.

But that’s really about it. Eight and a half years after I picked up Animal-Speak, nearly ten years after I discovered Paganism, I read Steven Farmer’s Animal Spirit Guides, published in October 2006. I was hoping for something new. Instead I found… just another totem animal dictionary.

This is my challenge to animal magicians, whether you work with totems or power animals, familiars physical or spiritual, animal parts or animal sacrifice: Stop doing the same old stuff! There’s a lot of potential in animal magic, even within a neoshamanic format. For example, try combining totemism with the eight colors of chaos magic to do some inner pathworking. Or do as I did and create new species on the astral plane to help you with your magic. Try working with pop culture-based animals, too, and utilize the mythology in our own culture.

And if you are doing something different, speak up. Share what you’ve discovered with the world. You don’t have to write a book; even an article or a website would suffice. But there has to be something available besides totem animal dictionaries. We don’t need any more. The only reason I’ve kept as many as I do is so that I have some introductory material for the people I lead on guided totem meditations, just to get them started. I’ve stopped keeping the newer ones I acquire once I’ve read them — one backpack full is enough. The rare book I do keep is the one that shows me something new and innovative.

I have 24 books or book-and-deck kits on my Amazon wish list that are related in some way to animal magic, plus one or two books on my shelves I haven’t gotten to yet. About eight of them are more along anthropological lines and another eight or so are book-and-deck kits. Of the ones that are written for a pagan audience, I’m hoping at least one will show me something new. Here’s to that hope.

©2007 Lupa. Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Lupa is the author of Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic, A Field Guide to Otherkin, and co-author of Kink Magic, among other works. You can read her blog at http://therioshamanism.com and see her website at http://www.thegreenwolf.com.

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