In recent months I’ve been working with some rather unorthodox totem animals in an attempt to break through the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM) stereotype of Neopagan totemism. BINABM refers to the tendency for most modern pagans who work with totems to stick with critters such as Eagle, Wolf, Bear, Deer, and other high-profile North American animals. This trend stems from earlier works on totemism which laid this particular practice almost exclusively at the feet of Native North Americans; much of the early Neopagan literature is a bastardization of indigenous lore all wrapped up in a pan-Native pseudo-tradition.
One of the groups I’ve been working with is what I call the “Food” Totems. These are primarily domesticated animals that, in this culture, are seen as sources of meat and other comestibles as well as leather and other products. While Pagans and Magicians have a tendency to be more aware of the sanctity of animal life in general, wildlife tends to be more glamorized than domesticated animals with the exception of dogs, cats, horses, and other American non-edibles. Totems are animals that we either have been taught not to eat (dogs, cats and horses) or ones that we generally don’t eat on a regular basis (wildlife). We assume a predatory role with regard to nonhuman animals, even if it’s only a result of conditioning that lies primarily within the subconscious mind.
This means that very few people actually work with such totems as Pig or Cow. Some do not even acknowledge that domestic animals can be totems, often stating that domestication has caused these creatures to lose their “medicine” (this word, by the way, is another bastardization of an indigenous concept). This displays quite clearly a predatory, consumerist bias. If an animal is unattainable for some reason, it must have some form of power, while the “dumb” animals that we slaughter by the millions every year in inhumane conditions are obviously powerless.
However, if we take an honest look at indigenous cultures around the world, many of them did eat sacred animals. Some members of the tribe may have abstained from eating the animal that represented their clan totem as a part of a traditional taboo. However, if we look at the case of the Lakota, the bison was (and still is) one of the most sacred animals in their totemic system precisely because they killed and ate it. The bison represented life to this culture; this is where the stereotype of “Indians always use every part of the animal” originated.1
Pig, Cow, Chicken, and Turkey hardly have that sort of reverence attached to them in modern American culture. All of them are seen as stupid animals, and Pig is additionally stereotyped as dirty, stinky and gluttonous. Yet the majority of Americans rely on them to survive, though not as completely as the Lakota and Bison. Because we can live without eating meat, and because we assume that meat will always be available, drained of blood and wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam, we take these animals for granted. There is an overabundance of domestic livestock; we even impact faraway places like Brazil in our hunger for beef, with thousands of acres of rain forest being slashed and burned to create pastureland for cattle.
This is an unhealthy relationship on all levels. Factory farming demonstrates just how low our consideration for our fellow animals has sunk. At least deer and other wild animals are glamorized by the “thrill of the hunt” (no matter how macho and canned it may have become). Domestic animals live their brief, horrible lives in cramped, filthy quarters and die terrified and surrounded by the mechanically slaughtered carcasses of previous victims.
Totemism can be a way to reach out to other species. Totems, in the archetypal sense, translate information between their respective species and humanity. They are the Collective Unconscious’ answer to our increasing distance from the immediate natural world. All species have archetypal totems, descended from the Animal Master of Joseph Campbell’s theories on Paleolithic religious rites and artifacts.2 This includes domestic animals, both edible and otherwise.
One night a few months ago, after a supper of crab legs, I realized that I shared the cultural irreverence for the animals that I was eating. The entire steamed crab was brought out to me, a reminder that what I was consuming wasn’t just something manufactured in a factory somewhere, but had been alive and well just a few hours before. This connection to the life of the animals is something I’ve worked to be mindful of not only with my food, but also the animals whose skins, bones and other remains are incorporated into my artwork. Sitting there looking at the shell of the crab, I began thinking about how I was taking this animal for granted, seeing it solely as a delicacy to be dipped in melted butter. I thought about how I would react if I saw a slab of wolf meat on my plate, and realized that my reaction would be much more respectful — not just because I would be eating an endangered species, but because I was eating my primary totem.
That night when I got home I did a meditation to contact Crab. I invited her to come and talk to me and allowed her to say whatever was on her mind, as I figured she probably didn’t get many people talking to her. The first thing she homed in on was my perception of her as different because she wasn’t a vertebrate. She showed me the strength and functionality of the exoskeleton, and the delicate gills that allowed her to extract oxygen from water. Then she contrasted it with my own soft flesh wrapped around calcified bones, and lungs that drew in air.
She explained to me that part of the reason that I saw her differently from other animals was because she was so alien in concept. Humanity in general seems to have a primarily negative view of invertebrates; crabs and lobsters are seen differently because they’re “useful.” But ask most people to hold an insect, spider, or other “creepy-crawly,” and they’ll very vehemently decline. (I’ll admit to being more uncomfortable with “bugs” than I was as a child.) Sure, I could eat a crab, but I was less willing to see the totemic Crab as an equal with Wolf or Elk.
Granted, Crab isn’t a domestic animal; neither is Salmon, another animal that commonly ends up on my plate. However, I noticed that I treated them the same way as Cow, Pig, Chicken and Turkey, and I’m not alone in that. I’ve since then talked with Chicken and Pig, as well as Cornish Game Hen (which, if bought from Tyson Foods, is actually just a very young chicken). They have emphasized in various ways the need for respect for their physical children and, by extent, themselves. Chicken took me on a tour of life in a battery cage, while Pig very strongly recommended giving the respect that’s due if we’re going to have a relationship.
And it is that last point that particularly concerns me now. I’m continuing to talk to these food totems, but it’s going to be a while before they trust and respect me enough to work with me. I have to do some serious revamping of my attitudes towards them and their children. They all have lessons to teach, but they’ve been so burned and hurt by the ill treatment of their children and the cultural attitudes in general that they seem incredibly reluctant to work with a human magician, at least until the concerns of respect have been thoroughly addressed.
This doesn’t surprise me. The relationship between human and totem is not as simple as evoking the animal and saying “Do this for me because you are an animal spirit and therefore you are always willing to help me.” Instead, these relationships have to be cultivated, and it’s hard to do when there’s not enough respect involved. So I’m going to take my time with these unappreciated totems, and really consider my relationships with them. I’ll keep y’all posted on my progress.
- Brown, Joseph Epes (1997). Animals of the Soul: Sacred Animals of the Oglala Sioux (Earth Quest). Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books. Pgs. 6-7.
- Lupa (2006). Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic. Stafford: Megalithica Books. Pgs. 19-20.
©2006-2013 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.