Lupa’s Den – Animal Totems in Context
In my decade-plus of being a pagan and magician, animal magic and animal totemism have always been my main focus regardless of what paradigm I was working in. Since I began practicing shamanism in earnest back in 2007, I’ve become much more aware of how interconnected everything really is. While I was already an active environmentalist, my experiences with shamanism gave me even greater reasons to be tuned into the ecosystems around me and the inhabitants thereof, including on the physical level. And while the animals initially ushered me into the shamanic path I’m walking now, they made it clear early on that they were not to be the do-all and end-all of my guides in my experiences.
The more I practice, the more I realize that working exclusively with animal totems is limiting, and it’s really an artificial separation. I think people who work with animal totems are attracted to them partly for their charisma, and partly for the familiarity. We can relate well to animals because we are animals. We especially find ourselves allied with mammals because we are mammals. The further away from Homo Sapiens a totem is, the harder on average it is for a person to connect with it because of a lack of familiarity. (Though the opposite is true with primate totems, who may be too close to us for many of us to feel that there’s anything to learn — which couldn’t be further from the truth!)
Yet just as we can’t really understand physical animals when they’re taken out of their natural habitats, we can’t really understand totems fully when we work with them exclusive of the rest of their environment, spiritual and otherwise. Animals are just one part of a collective, complex ecosystem made of plants of varying sorts, fungi (including mycorrhizal fungi in the root systems of plants), the soil and other geological phenomena, the weather and other climate elements, and any bodies of water — and that’s just the basic view. All of these factors have an effect on animal behavior and biology, and vice versa. An ecosystem is just that — a system. Taking any single part out of the whole changes both. This is why wild animals in a zoo behave differently from their counterparts in the wild, often drastically so.
So why do we so often try to work with animal totems outside of their ecosystems? Ecosystems exist spiritually as well as physically — totems in general are just one manifestation thereof. I know very few people who work with plant or mineral totems (and I completely admit to slacking in that regard). I do work with the archetypal manifestations of more overarching phenomena, such as the Earth, Sky, Sun, Moon, Wind, Water, etc., as well as genii loci and other land spirits. But while I’ve worked quite a bit with animal totems as archetypal representations of their given species, I haven’t done so in the same way with plants and minerals, and that’s a pretty significant hole in my work with ecosystems in general.
As graduate school has eaten a lot of my time (though as a counseling psych student it is a part of my shamanic training/practice), I haven’t done as much direct spiritual work as I might like (though the spirits I work with are patient). But as Scrub Jay’s entrance into my life has indicated, paying more attention to where I live locally is of the utmost important. My view may not be as broad as it was, but it’s a lot more detailed. And in those details I’m beginning to see the places and beings that I’ve missed. As I continue to strengthen my connection to the Land here, I’m going to be increasing my focus on the plants, the minerals, and the other beings that I may have overlooked while focusing so heavily on the animals. Not that the animals will go away, but instead they’ll be brought into a richer, fuller context with all of the spirits of their ecosystem, spiritually and physically.
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.
Edited by Sheta Kaey