Multi-Layered Totemism

Multi-Layered Totemism

Much is made of semantics when it comes to animal magic. You have totems, and animal guides, and power animals, and animal spirits, and animal familiars, and tonal and nagual animals, and so on so forth. Everyone’s opinion varies as to what each of those words means, and I don’t think there’s really any right or wrong to that, just so long as everyone has an idea of what everyone else is talking about. You can have one person talking about their animal totem, another of a power animal, and a third about an animal spirit guide. After a few minutes, they may very well find they’re all referring to the same basic concept. Some people are very strict about their terminology, while others use whatever word works best for their needs. (I’ve found that the animals themselves believe we all think too much, but that’s another observation entirely.)

For my own part, I am quite fond of the term “totem.” I have collected three different ideas of what a totem actually is (as opposed to what it does). The first is that a totem is an archetypal being, akin to the Animal Master of Joseph Campbell, which embodies all the characteristics of a species.1 There’s also the idea that a totem is an individual animal spirit which may or may not have been in a physical body at some point. And from a psychological viewpoint, a totem animal represents one aspect of the human psyche, the whole of which may be mapped out in any pantheon or other grouping of entities, totems included.

I find it advantageous to work with all three of these theories simultaneously. After all, reality is not a simple thing. It is vast, and highly dependent on observation and belief for its forms. “Right” and “wrong” ways of belief are highly subjective, and I don’t think the archetypal theory is any more or less correct than the other two. On the contrary, I find that all three work harmoniously.

Let me give you an example. Earlier today, I wanted to work some magic to bolster my job hunting efforts. I’d been feeling rather discouraged, and even a bit self-sabotaging, and wanted to reverse that trend. You can apply for all the jobs in the world, and get as many interviews as you can, but if you go in with a negative attitude you may as well have stayed home. So it was time to counteract the self-sabotage I’d indulged in.

I’ve been working more with my animal skins; two wolves, a fox, a badger, a deer, and a few others. When an animal dies, it leaves behind a spirit of sorts — not the soul itself, but definitely something that has a personality and remembers what it was to be that animal. I went to them and I asked, “Who can help me with this?” The badger spoke up: “I can teach you how to make your efforts more efficient, and find a means of living that you’ll gain a lot from.” He showed me an image of a hole in the ground with a never ending supply of grubs, mice and other things that badgers find delicious, the closest he had to show as a parallel between what I wanted and what a badger thinks of as a good supply of resources. Not that I expect to end up with a hole full of grubs, of course.

That’s where Badger the archetype came in. Once I opened the ritual and evoked all my friends, family and guardians, I called on Badger and told him of my need. He understood perfectly. The thing about the Animal Masters, the archetypes, is that they serve as intermediaries between animals and humanity. They help us to understand what it is to be animal, and they help animals understand what it is to be human. Therefore Badger was able to communicate further to my badger skin spirit what exactly the objective was.

As I was performing the ritual, I also called upon that within me which is badger in nature. Pretty much every time invoke an animal energy I astrally shift to that animal for as long as the invocation lasts. As I went through the various processes of my magic, I could feel (non-physically) the silver and black fur over my skin, the way that a badger’s limbs are shorter, and the muscle more compact, with a sharp-toothed muzzle. However, the more abstract connections also came to the fore; I felt more grounded and strong, less afraid of the task at hand.

This wasn’t the first time I’d used the tri-layered approach; for years I’ve done totem dancing with a wolf skin, calling on the archetypal Wolf, the spirit of the skin, and my own lupine nature as I danced. It was the first time I’d ever worked with Badger, though. In the past, when working with a new totem, I just called on the archetype; for example, in previous job hunting rituals I had called upon Otter and Beaver, but only through evoking the archetypal totems. The connection to Badger in this ritual was a lot stronger, though time will tell what the full results of the ritual are.

It would be easy for me to simply say that these were separate beings, that the Badger archetype was entirely independent of the badger skin spirit, both of which were unconnected to the internal badger aspect. And some would argue that one was a totem, another a spirit guide, and the third just a figment of my imagination. However, I see them as all connected, as I see all of reality connected. That which we label as Badger manifests in numerous ways, on one level Badger is the archetype; on another, Badger is every physical specimen of several species of mustelids; and on a third, Badger is that within me (and possibly other people) that not only relates to the furry animal that can dig a burrow quicker than a person can shovel, but also the ideas of tenacity and resourcefulness. This increases the power of the totem and also allows a more personal connection because of the physical contact with the skin, and the invocation of the badger-self.

I am definitely going to continue with experimenting with this tri-layered approach to totemism. It brings together a number of magical practices and combines them to make a more powerful combined evocation/invocation, as well as offering me a deeper connection to the totems I work with. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what the semantics are — what I felt today in that ritual, dancing in a slow circle with Badger, as Badger, was beyond the words themselves… magic!

Footnotes

  1. Campbell, 1984, p. 292

©2006 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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