Lupa’s Den #1
Well, hey, look at this — I’m a columnist now! (Has the Apocalypse started yet?) But in all seriousness, I’m honored to have a regular spot here. I really believe that what the good folks here at RtV are doing is a worthy project, and I’m definitely all for supporting it! So here in my little corner of the ’zine I’ll be bringing you monthly chatter and ponderings on what I’m up to magically. A lot of it, as you’ve already seen, will deal with the various manifestations of animal magic, which is one of my specialties. However, I reserve the right to deviate from that as I see fit (and as my editors approve!). I’m really looking forward to this, and I’m glad to be getting in on the ground floor; I see a lot of good potential for this that’s already being manifested. Anyhow, on to this month’s column.
In Animal Wisdom, Bobcat and Lynx are listed as having many of the same qualities. Yet they are two distinct species, with different ranges of habitat and varying genetics and habits. The same goes for Raven and Crow, who also end up stuck together in the same entry.1 While admittedly there are some similarities in biology and especially in the case of Crow and Raven, folklore and mythology, putting them together is like putting Wolf and Coyote in one slot. Similar does not mean the same.
Brad Steiger’s Totems, along with several other books, also gives Crow and Raven the same treatment. Additionally, frog, lizard, fish, and snake are single, generalized entries.2 Yet you don’t see entries just for “odd-toed ungulate” or “wild feline,” do you? This again shows a lack of respect (probably unintentional) for individual animals. But it also reveals our bias — many dictionaries have separate entries for Deer, Elk and Moose. Anyone who has worked with reptiles and amphibians, though, knows that Iguana is very different from Anole, Goldfish scarcely resembles Shark, and Sea Turtle possesses qualities that differ from Galapagos Tortoise. If you want to get very particular, you can even look at individual species and subspecies, particularly those in different environments (such as Box Turtle and Green Sea Turtle).
Neopagan Totemism continues to suffer from one of the same problems it has since its inception several decades ago — too much focus on Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM). Dictionaries like the ones above list Eagle and Hawk, Wolf and Coyote, Rabbit and Hare — but lump cold-blooded animals into larger groups, as if they all have the same qualities and nothing unique to share.
Maybe it’s because we’re still having trouble getting past our own anthropocentrism. It’s a lot easier for us to conceptualize and identify with the consciousness of another mammal or bird. Once we “regress” to that reptilian stage, suddenly the consciousness seems too primitive and alien — or so we think. I think sometimes it’s a matter of laziness; it takes more effort for many people to connect with an animal who isn’t so close to us in consciousness. (This is probably a big reason why cats and dogs are more popular as pets than snakes and turtles, the difficulty of reptile care notwithstanding.)
Another factor to consider is BINABM. Thanks to early Neopagan Totemism’s cultural appropriation, we’re conditioned to think of totems as being A.) primarily Native American in origin, and B.) limited mostly to the animals that are native to North America.3 While Ted Andrews’ works (Animal-Speak, Animal-Wise) in the 1990s addressed other species from around the world, most books still focus heavily on BINABM. It’s only really been recently that authors like Alexander Scott King (Animal Messengers) and Stephen Farmer (Animal Spirit Guides) have really started branching out into global territory in this respect.
Despite these explorations, the dictionary format is still limiting, and more often than not Box Turtle, Corn Snake and Horned Toad get overlooked in lieu of Bear, Elk and Cougar. After all, there’s not much room for extensive entries on specific animals, even when you’ve got several hundred pages to work with. On the other hand, there seems to be a bit of a race as to who can produce the dictionary with the largest number of animals in it. But even the most extensive dictionaries still include our friends the BINABM, and animals like Lobster and Gila Monster are seen as exotic.
In our defense, it often seems like certain types of animal all seem to resemble each other — for example, all butterflies feed on nectar, go through the stages of egg, pupa, larva, chrysalis, and adult, and tend to be short-lived. Therefore, it may seem that Butterfly is an appropriate category for certain sets of traits that may be extrapolated from the common traits that all (or most) butterfly species possess. Additionally, the research into butterfly behavior isn’t as extensive as that of various pack-based canines, such as wolves and African wild dogs. Plus, there are more species of butterfly than pack-based canine, so that categorizing the unique traits of each butterfly species could take up a book itself!
However, I believe that if a Totemist feels the need to lump all of a certain genus or family into one dictionary entry, s/he should at the very least acknowledge the differences between species. This is particularly true for so-called “lower” animals such as insects and other invertebrates, who often end up being represented by Butterfly, Ant, Bee, and occasionally a couple of others. How many people have tried talking to Sea Cucumber?
To be honest, I’m just as guilty as anyone of this bias. So I’m issuing a challenge to myself between now and next month’s column. I’m going to talk to a variety of lesser-known totems and see what I get. That includes several species that are often grouped together. I’ll compile my results in a later column. I invite my readers to try this experiment as well, and leave any results you’d like to share in the comments.
- Palmer, Jessica Dawn (2001). Animal Wisdom: The Definitive Guide to the Myth, Folklore and Medicine Power of Animals. London: Thorsons. pgs. 91-99, 219-223
- Steiger, Brad (1997). Totems: The Transformative Power of Your Personal Animal Totem. San Francisco: HarperSanfrancisco. pgs. 174-176, 187-189, 197, 203-206
- Lupa (2006). “The Differences Between Traditional and Neopagan Totemism” at Spiral Nature.
©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.