I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds at all!
—”Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell
Warm and cool, dry and moist, light and shadow — As human beings, our conceptual frameworks freely draw upon dualistic oppositions. Because we who practice magic are human, our magical paradigms partake of these conceptual divides, though as Magicians we have an intellectual responsibility to question whether our basic assumptions about the world are beneficial, or even warranted, for our magical development. When we find ideas which are useful for our occult endeavors, then cultivating our understanding of these ideas should facilitate their adaptation and application. On the other hand, when our paradigms constrain our capacity to engage our world constructively, we should make the intellectual effort to modify — or even to jettison — the offending assumptions.
From the above examples, we can readily see the influence of dualism and binary reasoning both upon ancient proto-science and within contemporary occult theory. The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, when sketching out the fourfold division of the elements so integral to our contemporary magical thought, assigned to each element a primal quality based upon temperature and another based upon moisture, so that Fire was hot and dry, while Water was cold and wet. These pairs of essential qualities proposed by Empedocles — warm and cool, dry and moist — subsist upon binary thinking; without the assumption of either-or, they largely fail to “click” upon an intuitive level. An object may partake of some quality “Alpha” only insofar as the object does not partake of the opposing quality “Beta.” The composite substances which populate our visible world inevitably fall somewhere between these various extremes, yet by this thinking, the composition of any particular substance can always be defined with reference to absolutes, absolutes which can only exist in opposition one to another. Contribute heat, and thereby we move the object further from the primal absolute of cold. Take away water, and so much less does the object partake of the primal absolute of moist.
Taking the four primary composites of these qualities — what we would call the four elements — we have Fire (warm and dry) opposed to Water (cold and wet), and Earth (cold and dry) opposed to Air (warm and moist). Even in non-occult circles, there is the sense that each element acts as foil for its opposite. So when the practicing Magician first encounters the Watchtowers — and whatever their true origins and natures, they certainly seem to function as intelligences which personify the four elements — there arises the very natural tendency to perceive these four godforms as opposed, one to another, or to employ the paradigm and parlance of game theory, as engaged in a zero-sum game.
In the social sciences, the field of game theory has emerged to explain various social and economic interactions among several actors. Game theory proposes an individual faced with choices can be regarded as an essentially rational player of some game with defined rules, an actor who makes decisions and selects strategies in order to maximize their own self-interest. There exist many different kinds of games, with various actors and rules. One particularly crucial distinction is that between zero-sum and non-zero-sum games. In zero-sum games, one player can only advance when another loses ground by the same amount. If there are only so many bricks in existence, and all available bricks exist as part of two houses, then my house can only expand when yours contracts. (I would very much enjoy a new game room. You weren’t using that foyer, were you?) In non-zero-sum games, by contrast, one player’s advancement does not have to come from another player’s loss, and often there exist cooperative strategies by which all players may advance together. (Let’s work together to build shelter which we can share!)
By the default paradigm, one element meets and potentially neutralizes its opposite upon the zero-sum field of battle. Fire does battle with Water, and vice versa. Earth does battle with Air, and vice versa. According to this paradigm, an individual Watchtower seeks power and influence over the unfolding cosmos, and this power can only come when the influence exercised by the opposing Watchtower wanes. The question arises: Does this conflict-oriented paradigm constitute a legitimate way of viewing the world, and particularly the realms of magical phenomena? Does one elemental force, viewed as rational player attempting to maximize its power and expression, acquire and exert this power only at the expense of another elemental force?
I believe not. To realize the elements are not engaged in zero-sum competition, we need only to consider the visible world. The universe we experience is scarcely possible if we assume all the force of the four elements ultimately sums to zero. In any composite substance, one element would cancel out the opposing element, until only one was left. And yet in our diverse world we almost constantly find objects with the occult properties of opposing elements. Blood bears all the fluidity of water — and, in fact, blood is mostly water — yet blood carries the heat and sustenance so closely associated with Fire that we can hardly consider one without the other. Mountains extend their roots deep into the element of Earth, yet climbing these very mountains enables us to reach skywards and into elemental Air.
Returning to the field of magical correspondences, and especially those found in folk magic, we observe composite elements which defy any attempt to characterize the world as zero-sum. Citrine is one species of quartz, an expression of Earth, and yet citrine bears all the magical resonances of elemental Air. Quite recently I lit incense scented with pink carnation, an object brought to life by Fire, yet with energetic vibrations much more akin to Water. Indeed, “opposing” elements don’t so much neutralize one another, as they engage in complex interactions — often graceful dances, occasionally violent clashes.
As above, so below — So speaks the ancient and timeless wisdom penned by Hermes Trismegistus. Just as there are four elements which, together with ineffable quintessence, compose the macrocosm of our visible world, there are four elements which compose the microcosm of the human experience, and each macrocosmic element finds its echo within the microcosm. Thus we correlate the Mind with elemental Air, the Soul with elemental Fire, the Heart with elemental Water, and the Flesh with elemental Earth. Within these pairings, we discover further evidence that straightforward oppositions — and the resulting conflicts they suggest — rest upon an ultimately untenable paradigm, for the apparent oppositions implicit within the microcosm flow along different lines. Within the human spirit, the intellectual Mind is opposed not to the Flesh, as the macrocosmic Air-Earth relationship might suggest, but to the emotional Heart, which properly corresponds with the macrocosmic element of Water. Likewise, the physical Flesh finds its opposite not in the Mind, but in the spiritual aspect of Soul, an aspect which metaphorically burns with the passionate energy of elemental Fire.
Does the microcosm of the human experience really rest upon lines of battle different from those of the macrocosm? Does elemental Water quench elemental Fire outside the human soul, only to find its counterpart of human emotion at odds with the microcosmic equivalent of Air? Do the four elements we know so well, both outside and in, obey one set of interactions above, and quite another below? Such a disharmonious arrangement seems at odds with the Hermetic saw, and I daresay with our experience of the world as Magicians. My solution, which I hope will be no great innovation for most of my readers, is simple: To assume a world of straightforward, binary oppositions, subsisting within the context of a zero-sum game, misses the beautiful and terrible complexity of our world.
The apparent oppositions between Fire and Water, Earth and Air, are nothing more than assumptions which we as humans make about the most primal components of our world, assumptions which ultimately fail to capture adequately the complex interactions of these elemental forces. Likewise, our own microcosmic experience of the apparent conflict between Flesh and Soul, Mind and Heart, are persistent and pernicious illusions which keep us from conceiving the human experience as this experience really is. To be sure, we conceptualize such oppositions quite naturally within the context of our shared culture, and not without reason. The mistake is in assuming that these elemental forces exist in perpetual conflict with one another, a zero-sum game wherein one element only gains at the expense of another. Rather, we must consider the alternative model of the non-zero-sum game, wherein all players can advance (or decline) together. If we consider the Watchtowers as elemental intelligences which participate as players in the universal game of reality, we can observe more clearly the ways by which our shared reality reflects this essential premise of non-zero-sum games.
Considering life in all its myriad complexities, we observe life forms composed of all four elements, whether we regard the macrocosm of classical elements or the microcosm of human experience. These forms of life, upon the material plane and elsewhere, assume ever more sophisticated ways of interacting with their world and with one another, and while I’m hesitant to assign moral value to complexity in itself, certainly the development of sentience and the capacity for magical interactions with the world points towards life-affirming tendencies which evolve across time. This evolution occurs not within the context of a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers, but through non-zero-sum interactions wherein — through the complex dance composed of cooperation and dynamic tension — the Watchtowers intertwine to create the sophisticated and magnificent world we perceive everyday. Within this world, Air can imbue with power objects made from Earth, and the vibrations of Water can be placed in motion by the power of Fire.
Perhaps even more critically for the practicing Magician, across the human experience we all conceptualize certain oppositions which dissolve upon genuine introspection. The philosophical paradigm into which our civilization defaults recognizes a vast conceptual divide between human reason and human emotion. Through the Enlightenment, emotion was often shunned as something passive, something by which the outside world impinged upon the soul, all too often to the individual’s detriment. Today, alternative fields of study which brush up against the New Age movement often suffer from the opposite extreme, denigrating reason in favor of commitment to one’s emotions. The conflict between these two aspects of the psyche arises at least in part based upon our English language, which places Mind and Heart in opposition to one another. (By contrast, the German language contains the one expression, “geist” — etymologically related with the English “ghost” — which encompasses both Mind and Heart as one singular entity.) Understanding these apparent oppositions cannot lock the elements into zero-sum conflict, we can instead focus our attention upon those ways via which Mind and Heart can work in concert, in order to effect our True Will.
Mayhaps the most cogent argument for the conception of elemental interactions as an essentially non-zero-sum game may be found within the Magician’s Circle. Within this astral construct, we call all four elements, both macrocosmically and microcosmically. (And indeed, both macrocosm and microcosm meet within the context of the Circle!) As we call each of the Watchtowers, the power flowing into our Circle grows ever stronger, precisely the opposite of what we would expect if the apparent oppositions neutralized one another and summed to zero. Rather, we acknowledge all four elements both without and within, and through this acknowledgment we become part of the cosmic dance, the dance of ever increasing complexity which arises from non-zero-sum encounters among the primal forces of creation!
Over the coming months, I challenge you to consider the ways in which the elements combine and interlace to compose the beautiful and terrible cosmos which we inhabit. I’ve offered my intellectual arguments against that view of the universe which reduces to conflict, and ultimately to annihilation into a zero-sum state. I simply don’t believe we inhabit so bleak a cosmos. My faith in the cooperative nature of the elements, however, stems from something more experiential, moments of precious insight acquired through magical practice and developed with heartfelt introspection. I challenge you to practice, to reflect both with Mind and with Heart, and to arrive at those cosmic truths which best speak towards your experience of the world.
©2009 Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey
A plethora of works exist on the subject of the Tarot; some well informed, some less so. At the outset of the formulation of this essay, permit me to state that there are two key maxims derived from the teachings of the Golden Dawn and of Aleister Crowley to which I adhere as well as I am able:
- As above, so below
- The goals of religion, the methods of science
This philosophical framework compels and requires that observations and analysis concerning the Tarot should be harbored within the contexts of broader occult and scientific philosophy, without which its symbols would have little or no meaning. For the Tarot is most assuredly not in any sense an entity with absolute properties and values as its dominant trait, but rather comprises a complex set of mirrors and microscopes through which an attuned mind may view the universe that lies beyond the confines of four-dimensional space and time. Thus, if we wish to examine the properties of complex molecules with a view to discovering more of their intrinsic physical properties, we may use an electron microscope as our tool, whereas exploration of the universe’s more subjective and spiritual phenomena and properties is aided by the instrument of the Tarot.
But before we can use any instrument, we must first understand and become intimately familiar with that instrument. In the case of the electron microscope, this requires a fairly deep understanding of physics, of the the dual wave/particle nature of electrons and their interaction with other particles of various classes. To achieve this understanding we rely on a prerequisite understanding of mathematics, and of course of engineering which is the discipline through which our scientific mastery is both expressed and expanded.
Although the Tarot is predicated on an understanding of metaphysics rather than the physics of Einstein and Penrose, et al. And yet, there are overlaps that provide tantalizing glimpses of how we might yet arrive at a “Theory of Everything,” or TOE, by eventually combining the teachings of both schools. Such an achievement lies many decades into the future though, as the criteria of measurement adopted by each of these schools are divided by differing views on the nature of consciousness and its role in perception. Let us proceed then to the framework within which the Tarot exists, and the natural world which it both reflects and focuses within the mind of the practitioner. We will not be discussing the history of the Tarot here, as we are concerned with its properties rather than its provenance, much as a physicist is generally concerned with the nature of matter rather than the history of science. The suits are those of Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck: Wands, Swords, Cups and Disks.
Whilst the introduction to this essay may be regarded as generally true for all students and practitioners of the occult sciences in general, this section is focused on three specific areas of practice and study of particular importance to this author:
The Tarot deck we shall be considering is the Thoth deck designed by Aleister Crowley and painted by Lady Frieda Harris. You may then deduce that our essay has a somewhat Thelemic bias. However, given the universal scope of the Qabalah, I venture to say that its chief metaphysical construct, the Tree of Life, encompasses all belief systems whatsoever and that by using its remarkable properties we are able to continue the Great Work of synthesis to which so many adepts from all schools have contributed for millennia. In other words, if you are a Pagan, a Witch, a Christian, A Buddhist, a Thelemite, or any other type of spiritual or occult practitioner, there’s room for you and your beliefs on the Tree. However, some may find the context in which their belief systems are set somewhat difficult to accept. Let us then make our first definitive statements on The Tarot:
- The Tarot is an active Mirror of the Universe comprised of agents and forces through which an adept may view the trajectory of events and forces that underpin events in the real world, and thereby achieve knowledge of “real world” events.
- The Tarot reflects four levels of existence, as do the Qabalah and Alchemy.
- The Tarot incorporates the forces of astrology.
We will illustrate the validity of these statements as we examine each of the four suits in turn. We begin with the Suit of Wands.
The Suit of Wands
Image ©2009 by Hettie Rowley
As is well known, alchemy claims four elements as the foundation of the universe: Fire, Air, Earth and Water. We will not here attempt a separate exegesis on this matter, but rather weave the essential nature of each element to its attributed suit.
The Suit of Wands represents the alchemical element Fire, which we consider to be a limitless force of passion that finds expression in great outbursts of energy. As much as we find the passion of Fire concealed within the nature of combustible materials, so do we also in the hearts of men. Not for nothing are the Celts known as a fiery, warlike people.
We see then that the Suit of Wands is associated with Archetypal Ideas, a concept that we will shortly reinforce. We should consider Alchemical Fire as a metaphor for its mundane namesake, and thus readily intuit the passionate yet short-lived nature of the phenomenon by which its nature is expressed: the fury of the raging bull, the battle lust of the inflamed warrior. But equally, we see the inspiration of the thinker and prophet, the sudden thought underlying the inspirational speech of the orator, and the potential for combustion lying within the atomic structure of potassium and the molecular structure of petroleum.
Moving on to Qabalistic schema, we find that this suit represents the most ethereal of the four levels of creation, Atziluth, which is the domain of archetypes, of the potential of all things in the most tenuous sense. Although we may regard the world of Atziluth as eternal, it is important to be aware that in its realization in our material existence, it takes the form of fleeting inspiration, of sudden realization and compulsion to action. We need also to understand that the element of Fire is but the vehicle that conveys the one aspect of the impulse of a higher source and state of being. So when we find a card from this suit in our spread, we immediately note these elementary aspects.
But of course, Fire is modified by its environment. For instance, in the Two of Wands we find the astrological attribution of Mars in Aries, wherein the fury of the rage of war is ascendant and a great release of energy must ensue. In a Thelemic sense, this may represent “Pure Will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result… (Liber Al I:44).” And so we see the neat interlocking of the astrological and alchemical schema with those of the Qabalah and Thelema, thus affirming our conviction that the Tarot is indeed a map of the universe.
The Suit of Swords
Image ©2009 by Hettie Rowley
The Suit of Swords is assigned to Air. Alchemical Air is considered to be the issue of Fire and Water. As such, it is a more complex idea than those underpinning other elements. The first and foremost power we attribute to Air is that of intellect, of cold, dispassionate analysis. The act of analysis, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is to break something into its constituent parts. And so it seems that nature itself has an inbuilt capacity for introspection.
In humans, this capacity, this expression of Air, is usually tempered with the illusions of Water, the reality of Earth and the passion of Fire. When this is not the case, we observe a sad and sorry creature, a human mind denuded of an appreciation for beauty, incapable of feeling; a calculating machine that knows logic alone.
In the Qabalistic scheme, Air corresponds to the domain of Beriah, the realm wherein the inspiration and passion of Atziluth is reduced to working schema and plans. This is the realm of the engineer as much as it is of the artist. So when viewing cards of this suit we should always be aware of the detachment implicit in the agency of Air. I have written elsewhere that we should always consider Air as the seed of the potential for division. This links most appositely with Thelemic scripture, wherein it is stated that, “For I am divided for Love’s sake, for the chance of union. . . (Liber Al 1:29).”
For as the redoubtable Mr. Crowley once told us, there are only two operations in all of nature: division and synthesis. To illustrate the astrological influences on this suit, we will use the example of the Two of Swords, which is assigned to the Moon in Libra. The Moon we regard as indicative of illusion, of distortion through the lens of Water and Libra, an Air sign as balanced force. Combining these things, we deduce that this card indicates a strongly driven intellectual force that is balanced and yet potentially misleading and illusory.
The Suit of Cups
Image ©2009 by Hettie Rowley
This suit is allocated to Alchemical Water. Immediately, a range of relationships and attributions spring to mind here: the Moon, Scorpio, illusion, the Sephira Binah, Cancer, Pisces and much else. An analogy with the mundane element is instructive when we consider the long term erosive effect of water; its power to confuse through reflection and distortion of reality exists together with the correlative power to most perfectly reflect an image of reality without ever being reality in itself.
Water is the fluidity of all things, nature’s capacity to dissolve the universe. Equally, Water is the element of rebirth after death, the incubator of time and life, the source of love. Which aspect is represented on any card depends as always on its position on the Tree, whether as a court card or a numbered card from one through to ten, each number representing a specific aspect of reality as existence unfolds from the nothingness of eternity into the fourfold realm of the Qabalah. Let us examine the Three of Cups as an example whereby we may illustrate the synthesis of meanings.
The Three of Cups is assigned to Mercury in Cancer. This means that the torrent of Water, or unrestrained love, symbolized by Cancer is quickened by the Word of the Logos, which provides us with the archetype of fertility, of an act of impregnation giving rise to the birth of the realization of an idea, of a concept. One of the children of water is of course Air, as described for the Suit of Swords, above. The problem for the reader and the querent is that Water is always the dominant influence in this suit, and so discerning reality from illusion may be difficult.
Further reinforcing this viewpoint is the attribution of the Suit of Cups to the Qabalistic domain Yetzirah, which is the realm of formation, of the fluidity of merged and swirling concepts that are about to differentiate and solidify in the “lowest” of the worlds, Assiyah. We readily observe that the properties of Yetzirah are fully consonant with the alchemical and astrological symbols we have so far attributed to this suit.
Further insight to The Suit of Cups is provided by the above image of Our Lady, the Holy Whore, Babalon. Here we see the Cup of the Blood of the Saints contained in Babalon’s Grail. On her forehead is the alchemical symbol of water, complemented by the Hebrew letter Mem lower down, symbol of the Great Sea of Binah, the Great Mother from whom all life and consciousness arise. Babalon accepts all, but first, every drop of blood must be surrendered to her Cup. Notice also the Moon representing the reflective powers of Water, its mystery and periodic brilliance.
To summarize then, in The Suit of Cups, we have the expression of alchemical Water, representing the womb of those things that will rise from death. And yet, Water also represents the decay of death, the final phases of corruption. We end this brief and inadequate section by repeating our assertion that Water is both truth and illusion, and remains so even under the influence of Mars or Jupiter, but most assuredly when refracting the light of Venus or the Moon.
The Suit of Disks
Image ©2009 by Hettie Rowley
We arrive now at the Suit of Disks, corresponding to the Qabalistic domain of Assiyah, the material world (in some respects, at least). Here we expect outcomes in measurable and identifiable morphology and dimension. Disks are assigned to the alchemical element Earth and, as such, represent the properties of the universe as we commonly perceive it. Whilst the origin of time for instance is with Binah, third of the emanations (Sephiroth) on the Tree of Life, in the domain of Earth, we are familiar with the fruits of time as aging, decay, sorrow and renewal.
There is solidity to this suit that dampens the lighter expressions of the planetary influences. There is an implied sluggishness, a lack of fluidity and fire. All of these things are well known, commonplace truths. But! The alchemists who devised these attributions were creatures of their own time, and worked to the boundaries of the knowledge available in their age. We now live in a radically different time, a transformed age within which our knowledge of the universe has grown immeasurably. Consider the following concerning the known composition of our physical universe:
- Stars and Galaxies: 0.4%
- Intergalactic Gas: 3.6%
- Dark Matter: 22.0%
- Dark Energy: 74.0%
The dark matter and energy are postulated by scientists as necessary factors to explain the expansion rate of the universe. However, they are termed dark because science as yet has no clue as to the true nature of either of these things. That last statement is most assuredly not a criticism of science, but given the gulf that still exists between the scientific and occult understanding of the universe, it seems possible that here lies at least a portion of the answer to the hiatus in our understanding.
Always we look to the gaps in our understanding for enlightenment, for the potential of synthesizing disparate facts into a greater and more cohesive whole. For this reason, I have dubbed Earth The Treasure-House of Limitless Secrets. For far from being the most understood of the elements, Earth may actually be the least, and our current understanding informs us that we must always look deeper than the surface in all earthly affairs if we are to have any chance of reaching the truth.
When we examine the Three of Disks as an example of this suit, we find the assignment of Mars in Capricorn, which denotes the fiery energy of Mars elevated in the domain of earthy Capricorn. This reminds us of the tale of Prometheus, bringer of Fire to humankind, exalted in the eyes of humanity yet brought low indeed in the eyes of the other gods.
The Qabalistic attribution of this card, assigned to Binah on the Tree of life, further damps the energy of fire with the dullness of time, and yet promises the birth of a new entity from the womb of the great mother. And so do we see the element of Earth, modified by its condition on each branch of the Tree of Life, as the dominant trait of the Suit of Disks.
The artwork of the figure just above illustrates the Sun and Moon forming the phallus of To Mega Therion, which is the counterpart of Babalon in her aspect as the fertile Earth and represented here by her seven pointed star. Their act of creation animates creation, penetrating and permeating the universe. Through the exchange of energies between these entities is the power of the Aeon of Horus unleashed. But this is no empty, unconscious outpouring of power, for the power of Horus permeates all even as he gazes over time’s latest landscape, ordering all in accordance with the precepts of Liber Al.
As Crowley states in The Book of Thoth, the newborn emerald green of Isis permeates the world, indicating the rebirth of Osiris as Horus. Again taking our cue from Crowley, the whirling spheres of nature indicate the vitality and power of Earth, of the final creation of Assiyah, and six wings support the composite globe of creation. Scattered in the darkness are the symbols of time and Earth: Saturn, the bringer of sorrow; the Earth signs of Taurus, Capricorn, and Virgo. And yet around the peripheries lies darkness, reflecting the current state of humanity’s ignorance. Surmounting the image is the Hebrew attribution to Malkhut, lowest of the Sephiroth, emphasizing the material level of the Suit of Disks. Finally, the number of the Master Therion, Aleister Crowley, Prophet of Aiwass and deliverer of The Book of the Law, is placed at the heart of the scheme.
We believe that this brief essay illustrates that the Tarot is a map of the universe synthesized from the knowledge of many mystical schools, but chiefly from Qabalah, Astrology and Alchemy. We have not attempted a complete exegesis here, but merely a brief distillation of a broader work in progress at this time.
Sincere thanks to Sheta Kaey, Editor in chief of Rending the Veil, for the opportunity to submit this article to such a wonderful, high quality publication. Hettie and I are deeply honored and grateful.
The artwork embedded in this piece is by Hettie Rowley of the Thelema Trust. The written work is by Keith Rowley, who co-owns the Thelema Trust with Hettie. This piece is derived from an ongoing analysis of the Thoth Tarot that is being developed on the Thelema web site. A blog with RSS feeds and subscription capabilities is available for contributions and comments.
January 27, 2007 by Lupa
Filed under altered states of consciousness, cards, elemental, experimental, magick, mysticism, other, other cards, otherkin, paganism, reviews, ritual, shamanism, theory, totemism and animism
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.
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.