It’s late, I’m tired, and my body is creaking from the day’s work. I sit down on the edge of my bed, stretch and feel my back crack. I look up and there is a see-through old man, standing, with tears in his eyes. He wears a button up white shirt, black pants, and his face is crinkled with age lines. He asks “Can you help me?” I want to sleep, but I stay awake, listening to him as he describes a long, hard life with kids who all but abandoned him when he was on his deathbed.
Spirits aren’t always on our time schedule. Sometimes they come to us when we least want to see them. Other times, they make come when we need them, but we refuse to recognize it. And yet some others may simply come to people because they are bored and are looking for company. Too many people react to the latter two kinds of spirits negatively, without analyzing what is going on and what may have prompted a visit. It is like me coming to your house and asking for a cup of sugar, only to be screamed at and bounced out.
I propose that we treat spirits, human or not, more humanely. Have a weird, eerie spirit that lurks around your closet? Maybe it likes the energies you put there, like my books and mementos. Maybe it wants you to notice something about yourself, your surroundings or your life. More than likely, in my experience, it wants you to notice it.
Here we can find several questions: What kinds of spirits come to call? What should we do when they come to call? How will I know if I am dealing with a spirit or something else? If I don’t want spirits in my place, what should I do?
To answer any of these will require you to have an open mind about the existence of spirits, whether earthbound former humans, elementals, or just that eerie sense of a presence. If you simply can’t believe in spirits, it’s likely that most will leave you alone. If you’ve closed yourself off to them, your energies will tend to be inaccessible, and there’s not much in you to attract them. While there are exceptions, you generally have to be open to a visit to receive one.
For those whose spiritual, religious, or metaphysical outlook can include spirits, your experiences reflect how you view the spiritual world itself. If you think that most spirits are out to get you, then that is in no small part what you will attract, or at least see everywhere you look. If all you are looking for is an external enemy, someone to blame for your problems, or a fight to be had, that is all you’ll find, because you’ve narrowed your focus and energies to accept only these into your life.
If you are to more than simply throwing spirits off your spiritual front porch, I would recommend a more balanced approach, one which engages the spirits around you. There is a knowing that you have boundaries which are not to be crossed, but still allowing them to be crossed when you know a spirit is not intending ill will to you or loved ones. There is also temperance in the treatment of the spirits that you allow across that boundary, knowing that one experience with a certain kind of spirit may not translate to another. Just as humans are individuals so, too, I have found, are spirits.
What kinds of spirits come to call? Depending on you and your personality, as well as that of the spirits, a wide range may come. I’ll give some basic archetypal names, definitions, and examples that I have experienced to help give common ground.
- Earthbound Spirits
Definition: Spirits that once had a living body on Earth. Ghosts, specters, and many haunting human spirits are attributed as Earthbound Spirits, but they may also be animals and plants that once inhabited a space. Their “age” can range from the recently deceased to the ancient dead.
Example: An old man who had died recently came to me just as I was about to lie down, wanting to tell me about his life. He was “passing through” and stopped by to pay me a visit. He scared the hell out of me; I almost threw him out of my place because he didn’t know to “knock” on my boundaries (more on this later).
- Ancestor Spirits
Definition: Spirits that are related to a living person by blood, familial, or metaphysical ties. These spirits tend toward guiding, guardianship, or simply part and parcel of being part of a family. Experiencing ancestor spirits tends to depend upon one’s view of blood relations, family, and whether metaphysical ritual do or do not place one into a lineage or spiritual family.
Example: I have blood relatives that contact me, especially my sister who passed on before I was born. She does not guide me or guard me in any overt way, but we speak on occasion.
- Elemental Spirits
Definition: Spirits that are tied to the elements, such as gnomes (earth), sylphs (air), salamanders (fire), and undines (water). I know that some look on these aforementioned archetypal spirits as faeries, but I differentiate the fae from these, the former being a kind of spirit all unto Itself.
Example: The woods near my home have several spirits of earth that reside there, both in the ground and trees. Some prefer to be called tree spirits, noting that while they may rooted in the same element as earth spirits, dirt is not a tree and vice versa. These tend to be communicative when I am quiet or dead silent, and I “listen” with intent.
- Spirits of Place
Definition: Spirits that are the overarching spirit of a place, a being composed of the various energies of an area. Spirits of Place can be a grove of trees as much as they can be an entire city. City blocks, even if the city has an overarching Spirit, may have its own Spirit of Place. Similarly, it can be seen how neighbors contribute to the spirit of a neighborhood, whether by their attitudes, how they treat their homes, how safe people feel there. Like with an environment, even the decor of the place can influence how the spirit of the area is formed, or what parts of a spirit of place people interact with.
Example: The spirit of my nearby grove of trees is peaceful overall, concerned with keeping its area clean and growing. The spirit of my town is concerned with a growing drug problem, its streets having more homeless on it, and its degrading streets and sidewalks because of reduced work on them. The former is part of the latter, but is autonomous, existing within the energy pattern that forms the spirit of my town.
- Spirits of Purpose
Definition: A spirit that exists to perform a specific function, such as protection, guidance, etc. These spirits can be sent from a God/dess, be part of another spirit.
Example: As an example, spirit purely of growth exists to make things grow for good or ill, whether it is a tumor or a patch of grass. Another example would be a spirit of blight, who feeds on and seeks to expand it within its area.
- Constructed Spirits
Definition: Spirits who are specifically constructed by magical practitioners. These tend to have specific functions, but there have been efforts made to create whole spirits who have personalities and motives all their own.
Example: I have created a spirit to protect my car and its occupants from harm, fashioning them out of my own energy. A great example of creating a spirit was carried out by the Toronto Society for the Paranormal (TSPR), “The idea was to assemble a group of people who would make up a completely fictional character and then, through seances, see if they could contact him and receive messages and other physical phenomena — perhaps even an apparition. The results of the experiment — which were fully documented on film and audiotape — are astonishing.”1
- Totemic Spirits
Definition: Spirits that are the overarching spirit of an animal or entity that is revealed to a person. It can be representative of the qualities humans see in the being, or may inherently possess the qualities dependent on the spirit and human involved.
Example: A totemic spirit of the Dung Beetle came to me a few months ago in a meditation and has worked with me on rolling the “poop” in my life up and making use of it. In this role, it guides me and helps me out, and I honor it by giving offerings and listening to his wide range of bad poop jokes.
- Spirit Companions
Definition: A spirit that develops a deep connection to a human by intent of the human or spirit. It does not necessarily mean a romantic connection; it can also be a friendly or specific purpose-driven connection.
Example: Calling up a spirit, befriending it, and no longer calling upon it. Being able to call to it and speak with it, and vice versa, and letting it go when it wishes.
- Deity Spirits
Definition: A spirit sent by or representing a Deity.
Example: This could be something like a fae messenger from the Tuatha De Danaan. Alternatively, it could be something like the Metatron or Hunin and Munin from Norse mythologies, who are the spirits of Forethought and Afterthought that sit upon the shoulders of Odin.
So now that we have some definitions to work with, what do you do once you and a spirit meet? Well, be cautious unless you absolutely know the spirit and where it comes from. Essentially, treat it like any other stranger you would. Ideally, with respect, caution, and a give-and-take conversation until you know each other better. But how would you even talk with a spirit?
To start spirit communication, you should be able to do a few things first:
- Be able to ground your subtle energy, center it and your focus, and direct your subtle energies reliably.
- Be able to mark out spiritual space for yourself, such as casting a magick circle, or creating an astral temple.
- Having some method by which you can interpret abstract input / stimuli or input / stimuli from outside yourself; not everyone uses vision for this, though this method dominates most books. Some people “hear” the spirit world, whereas some may “feel” it. I use quotes because many rationalize or have translation from their subtle body/astral body into physical sensation so they can process what occurs in the spirit world. It differentiates from physically seeing an object in the spirit, to spiritually “seeing” it.
- Have a person or people with which to share the experience. Sometimes the best thing to have is a sounding board for your experiences. They can not only keep you grounded, but if you are stuck, can suggest ways of working with your circumstances, and help find solutions to problems you may have down the road.
- Be willing and able to set boundaries. Spirits should not feel they can wake you at all hours of the night, nor should you feel obligated to let them. You should also know when not to communicate with the spirit realm, and when too much is too much.
With that out of the way, what about some actual methods for spirit communication?
- Communication on the astral plane. If you know how to do this, you can project yourself into a protected neutral space and carry on a conversation. For tips on how to do this in depth, I would recommend picking up a guide such as Ted Andrews’ How to Meet and Work With Spirit Guides, or Christopher Penczak’s Spirit Allies: Meet Your Team from the Other Side.
- Communication by talking board. One of the most maligned ways of communicating with spirits, but in my opinion, in can be one of the most effective if you use it right. Using it wrong is calling out to any spirit with no protective magick circle or knowledge of how to clear out entities from a working space, and accepting whatever the spirit says to you, with this or any other method, as gospel. Using it right would be spiritually cleansing the area where you will use the board, casting a magick circle for protection and guarding you in the circle, and having items for a quick clearing spell for the circle on hand.
- Communication by fire, smoke, water, or similar means. Perhaps more abstract than the previous two, I have found this method works best when you elementally align it with the spirit in question. This is because, in my experience, beings like elemental spirits might be more apt to respond via a physical representation of their element. Simply lighting a candle and gazing into it may draw out imagery that you can interpret for yourself as to the intent of the spirit.
- Communicate via a medium. Someone who can help interpret the spirit world can be a great aid, or a great detriment. Open and honest communication (i.e. you respecting their boundaries, they not sugar-coating messages) can empower a great working relationship that can deepen both parties’ spirituality and depth of experience.
- Communication by manifestation. This may sound odd at first, but think of it like this: you want proof the spirit you think is reaching out for you is real. To prove to you that something is trying to communicate, you ask the spirit to give you signs and coincidences that speak to you that others may not catch. Although this takes a bit of open-mindedness and practice, the results can be very interesting. I will caution that this way is probably the hardest and has the slowest way of bringing out results from working with or communicating with a spirit. However, when deity spirits have gotten in contact with me with this method, the messages have been unmistakable and direct, placed in such a way that I know for me that it is not my subconscious.
There are far more means of contacting spirits than I have listed here. Almost every culture has had some way of speaking with the dead and other spirits; even Catholicism appeals to saints for a wide variety of reasons, from protection to selling your home.
The greatest challenge you may have once you open this door is learning to close it. So long as you have established boundaries, such as making sure spirits know what times are off limits, and keep to them, most spirits should leave you alone as you ask. Let’s say for the sake of argument that a spirit won’t stop coming around at bad times for you, or is trying to intimidate or control you; what do you do?
Take a passage from Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t panic.” The worst thing you can do is feed into the spirit’s ego, or empower it by giving it your energy by freaking out. There are some tried and true methods I have used to make spirits leave if they will not do so of their own volition.
- Rebuke them. That’s right; the power of Me compels you. Or the power of your God/dess, your dishsoap . . . anything that gives you the feeling of power and control of the situation. Using an empowered object by your Will, magick, what have you, and projecting energies that assert your authority, in my experience, are highly effective. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Whatever you do, it just needs to either remind the spirit (or yourself) that you are in control of your body / place / etc., and / or that it has no power over you. The rebuking itself can be as strict as a demand followed by a spiritual boot to the ass to leave, to a simple “No, this is my space.”
- Calling on deity / spirits / etc. Don’t be afraid to call in family, friends, and / or allies to deal with a spirit that refuses to respect you and your space. From something as simple as wearing a grounding stone to bed or placing it beneath your pillow, to fashioning an egregores to take your “calls,” you have a wider range of options with help. It is not weak to ask for it, and it is not weak to say “I can do this much, and no more.” In fact, that is oftentimes harder, and better for all involved.
- Using a sigil. Sigils are shortcuts, graphics that can be word amalgamations, random scribbles, or made from a standard sigil creator. It can give you a direct line to the spirit involved, especially if a spirit “gives” it to you in telepathic communication or automatic writing. A sigil can empower your Will against or with the spirit it is of, or aligning your energies much more naturally with it because you are engaged with its symbol. This works like a sympathetic link, much like having someone’s hair, or an image of a person, one more way of energetically connecting to a person or thing. I have found the Rosy Cross of the Rosicrucians to be an effective method for making sigils, as I have combining letters into a graphic. For instance, TBL for Table, as shown here:
- Cleansing. From a shower to a full-on ritual with a censer and aspergillium, the rite is to cleanse a place or person of spiritual ties or excess spiritual energies. A shower can double as a cleansing area, whether you perform the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram in it or visualize the excess energies dripping off of your body as you clean yourself. The specifics of it are up to you; if you want to rectify or keep the relationship with the spirit, don’t cut off all ties with the cleansing, but target the rite to help cleanse the relationship itself. Again, using the shower method, you can visualize your connections as colored cords connecting you to the spirit, washed clean but not washed away. If you plan on having a long-term relationship with a spirit, this may simply be good spiritual hygiene on your part.
- Putting up “walls” / empowering your “shields.” Putting up shields is projecting protective energy to make a barrier, preventing contact you do not wish to have, and accepting that which you do. I tend to meditate every day on my shields, through visualization, meditation and other practices layering them up or performing upkeep so they continue to work the way I want them to. Putting up walls is intentionally arranging heavy amounts of your energies, and / or energy body, to block reception and oftentimes the giving off of certain energies. For instance, if you do not want any kind of spirit communication from the outside world, putting up walls (again, through visualization and the like) will block any and all spirits from contacting you. Think about this: you are effectively cutting yourself off from a form of communication. Before putting up walls, weigh the pros and cons. What are you cutting yourself off from? What are you allowing in? What are you keeping in with your walls?
Should you decide to communicate with spirits, your own experiences will tell you best how to do so. This text is just a beginning primer to get your ideas flowing, to ease you into spirit communication, and give you some solid ground to lift off.
- Wagner, Stephen. “How to Create a Ghost”
©2010 by Sarenth.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
If you’ve read much of my writing, either online or in books (especially DIY Totemism), you’ll know that I have a tendency to advocate working with totems other than the Big, Impressive, North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM) that so often show up in totem animal dictionaries. I’ve worked with extinct totems, microscopic ones, and even the totems of “food” animals that we commonly think of only in terms of eating their flesh. And I’ve done more work, since starting on a specifically shamanic path, with the totems of local species.
However, I do believe there is a certain cultural value to the BINABM. As I’ve developed therioshamanism, my own non-indigenous, non-core shamanic path, I’ve paid close attention to how my cultural context — white, middle-class, college-educated American — has affected my approach to shamanic practice. And I’ve also paid attention to how other shamans in my culture, core shamans and otherwise, are informed by that culture.
The animals that are the most common totems in a given culture are animals that are important to the people of that culture. In indigenous cultures, these are often the animals who are most commonly hunted for food and other resources, though this is not universal. In our culture, we actually often vilify the domesticated animals we rely on for food and resources, and even the wildlife we hunt is seen less as a living being, and more as a rack of antlers to be turned into a trophy of one’s supposed prowess. (What sort of prowess may be left to the imagination.)
The animals that are valued as totems in this culture are generally the BINABM. They’re big and impressive, noticeable and showy, and generally are strong (and usually predatory). These limitations have often been criticized, and I’ve been a frequent critic. It’s not that these animals don’t deserve attention, but there are others besides the few dozen BINABM that keep showing up in the dictionaries. However, when trying to construct a cultural shamanism in a culture that doesn’t really have a cohesive shamanic path, you have to meet the culture where it is.
By this I mean we’re going to introduce shamanism into a culture that, while it may be influenced by cultures that have had some form of shamanism, has never had a shamanism of its own, at least not recognized as such. Animism really isn’t a central, recognized part of what is thought to be mainstream American culture. This is why I sometimes question the wisdom of trying to be “a shaman” in this culture, at least if the goal is to try to work for people besides white middle-class New Agers with a lot of money to throw around. There are a lot of American demographics where that just won’t fly.
But besides that, we can be pretty confident that a lot of the wild animals that are valued by this culture are also the most common totems in this culture — Wolf, Brown Bear, Eagle, etc. So if we’re going to weave any sort of animistic practices, whether shamanism or otherwise, into the culture at large — or at least connect with more individual people — then the BINABM can be an excellent gateway, as it were. The charismatic megafauna already do their part to introduce concepts of ecological preservation to people who might not otherwise even think of themselves as environmentalists, so why can’t the BINABM function in a similar way with animism and spirituality in general?
I honestly think this is a big reason why, even with my work with lesser-known totems, as I’ve become more involved in shamanism I’ve had more of the BINABM wanting to work with me more deeply. A lot of my work is going to be with people who may not consider themselves animistic in any sense, but who could still benefit from, say, the imagery of animals, and who may find the BINABM to be familiar and comfortable due to cultural connections. I have, for example, a deck of Susie Green’s Animal Messages deck that I’ll have available as an icebreaker once I start my counseling practice — if a client is having a hard time getting started talking, I can have them pick a card out of the deck and then tell me why they feel like that animal that day. The deck is mainly BINABM, which should help more than a deck of obscure animals a client may not know how to connect to.
So please don’t think I dislike the BINABM. They definitely have a place, and I’ve become more aware of that in a cultural sense. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.
©2009 by 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.
Several years ago I happened across a program on cable about non-violent horse “breaking.” I don’t recall the trainer’s name, but I still recall the method: The horse was in an arena with a high wall, no visuals to the outside; the trainer stood in the center with a long rope. The trainer kept tossing one end of the rope over the horse’s back, which caused the animal to gallop and move around the edge of the space. According to the trainer, it would take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour for the horse to start giving in and communicate information using its body language. When the horse paused and turned toward the trainer, the man turned away — signaling he was not a threat — at a forty-five degree angle from the horse. The animal walked up to him and touched his shoulder with its muzzle, a sign it had accepted him as the higher-status creature and was willing to be partners with him and start working.
How does this relate to the Horse as totem? It is clearly indicative that the horse as animal is at service to humans and it can be made to understand this of its own accord. It is a natural partner in the things that humans need from it, such as travel, portage, and working the land. This quality is part of the essential spirit of the horse because it is a universally shared trait in all domestic horses (I am excluding the ones who have been so badly treated they cannot be helpful to their owners/ handlers). It is part of the Horse totem and is passed from it as a common, shared essence to all horses on the physical plane. It is part of what makes a horse a horse.
I have worked with a Horse as my totem. Its primary function, what made it happy to do, was carrying me to the spirit world when I was seeking a vision. The Horse provided passage for me as a partner in my sojourn. Apart from that transition, it did not participate in my experiences. It was distinguishable from an imaginary horse by the fact that I saw it after I intentionally began my search for a totem animal; it appeared with a feather attached to its mane, and its coloring was not like a physical animal: oxblood red and white piebald. Several people have said to me, “Oh, it’s an archetype you’re contacting.” This is a blithe, presumptive view that is based in what seems to be a misunderstanding of an archetype.
Webster’s online dictionary defines “archetype” as “1: the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies . . . 3: an inherited idea or mode of thought in the psychology of C. G. Jung that is derived from the experience of the race and is present in the unconscious of the individual.1” The most common understanding of an archetype is as an “original pattern” per the first definition, and that all others are copies; this does not fit the Horse totem in that the spirit Horse does not look like Eohippus2, any more than do the horses in our everyday world. Eohippus was the original, but evolution has altered and changed it to the point that horses are no longer copies.
So, strictly speaking, the Horse totem is not an archetype. The third Webster definition references Jung’s theory of inherited racial experience; in that sense, the Horse totem is a better fit. Its suggestion, however, is that of karma (learning from past lives) and so leads to the notion of animals having souls which can learn over long periods of death and rebirth. It would be the only way that race experience could affect the horse’s mode of thought and perception of itself. Since we are not exploring that theory (and its implications), then we are left with the definition of “race” as it applies only to human beings and the soul’s karmic lessons. In that context, the Jungian reference does not apply to animals at all and animal totems, such as the Horse, are not an archetype.
The Horse is not a deity, since a “deity” is a god or goddess, a Supreme Being, or of divine character3. Horses are beasts of burden and work. A god or goddess is no servant. Animals can be symbolic of deities: The Horse is Epona’s symbol (and the Grey Mare is symbolic of Mala Laith, the Scottish Moon Goddess), the Raven is symbolic of Morganna, the Bull for Zeus, the Goat for Pan, and so forth.
We have established that the totem is not an archetype, nor is it a deity. Then where in the pagan cosmology would it fit? I postulate that it is in the middle ground of spirits along with faeries, elves, gnomes, undines, angels, demons, etc. As a totem it is a class unto itself, just as the other spirits I mentioned are in their own classes. To refer again to our dictionary definitions, a totem is: “1 a: an object (as an animal or plant) serving as the emblem of a family or clan and often as a reminder of its ancestry . . . a usually carved or painted representation of such an object. b: a family or clan identified by a common totemic object. 2: one that serves as an emblem or revered symbol.” The etymology is Ojibwa, oto·te·man, “his totem,” ca. 17764.
In the sense of the first definition, a good example is the Lakota Sioux, who know themselves as the “People of the Horse.” Yet the usual definitions fall short of delineating the totem as a living being on another plane of existence that can, and does, connect directly with those who seek out the totem that relates closely with him or her. For example, a person who meditates with the intent of finding his totem might encounter the Dragonfly. Such a totem indicates imagination and creativity, but also flightiness. A person who receives such a totem, and who is not particularly creative, may need to find those qualities within himself; the Dragonfly totem is there to show him what he must do at that time. Flightiness may also be part of the person’s psychological makeup, or it could be a problem later, so the seeker may have to work on being more stable, committed or focused.
I mentioned ‘intent” in regard to finding a totem animal, and that is the vital difference between imagination and hallucination. The seeker deliberately, with purpose and conscious effort utilizing learned meditation techniques, sets about the task of attracting a totem animal to her. Through meditation she enters the spirit world; by keeping an open mind and an attitude of expectancy a creature of the natural world will approach, showing itself to the seeker in three different viewpoints (front and each side), which is how one recognizes the true totem animal. Anything else will indeed be imagination or a flight of fancy. A seeker must allow the totem to approach — no chasing after it! — and to gratefully accept whichever animal has decided to assist her in the work. A seeker skilled at carving may create a representation of her totem, known as a “fetish,” to keep in the meditation area as a home for the totem’s spirit and energy.
Many people like to “dance” their totems after they have arrived, to create unity with them and to give them energy so they will be happy and will stay. Dancing a totem means moving the way it moves and making the same noises: growls, snuffing, lumbering about as a Bear if that is the totem; buzzing and flying motions for Bee or Fly; hopping and croaking for Frog, and so forth. Some people will go out into the woods and dance their totems to the extent that they will run and leap and give each spirit animal the freedom to be itself, using the seeker’s body as its vehicle. Totems have been known to leave if they are neglected.
These spirit animals are there to help the seeker learn more about herself, so if you are looking for one or you have one already, make sure you meditate with it so you can gain intuitive knowledge from it. Why is it with you? What do you need to learn from it? What is it willing to show you? It is necessary to keep an open mind, for it might have surprises in store. It is not always a comfortable experience but it is fruitful if you can accept the unpleasant sides of yourself as well as the positives.
Even if you are dancing your totem, have carved a fetish for it, and have meditated with it to glean what information it may offer, your totem animal still might leave you. There is nothing that can be done about this, for it simply means that the animal has nothing more it can teach you or help you with and it must move on. You may then seek another totem, one that is ready and willing to help you with your next stage of learning.
To return to my Horse: I was, at the time it came to me, seeking passage to the world of visions, to learn more about myself. After the piebald spirit showed me it was my totem, it indicated it wanted me to get on its back, so I did. It then carried me to the Underworld where visions happen. The entire venture was a success, and I have traveled there several times since.
As a helper for journeying, the Horse is swift and certain as long as you, its rider, keep in mind where you want to go. Intent and goal are its guides, much as a bridle and reins. The Horse comes when the seeker has gone into meditation as preparation for journeying. It will invite the seeker to mount up by presenting itself sideways and moving closer; if the seeker is slow to understand it will turn its head and “point” with its muzzle to its side — a directive to climb on board. The rider keeps her goal of the Underworld firmly in mind. The Horse will start galloping and will go into the Earth tunnel to take its rider safely to the perceived destination. After emerging into the spirit world, the rider dismounts to continue her intended work. The Horse remains where it is, usually grazing, waiting until it is time to bring its rider back to the everyday world. I like to reward it with a nice, big apple and a couple of carrots as a way of saying thanks before I come out of my meditation.
If you wish to try attracting a Horse totem to yourself so you may work with it as a journeying aid, I suggest going into your meditation with that purpose in mind. Make sure you visualize that you are carrying treats for it. Focus on Horse in general, not a specific breed, color, build, etc. In a sense you are “calling” the spirit animal to you. If a Horse totem chooses to respond, it will do so and show itself to you in three different views as I have mentioned above. Allow it to approach you; offer the treats and if it
accepts them you have your Horse totem to ride as a journeying partner.
- Archetype. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved September 5, 2009.
- Anonymous. (2008). Evolution of the Horse. Retrieved September 5, 2009.
- Deity. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved September 5, 2009.
- Totem. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved September 5, 2009.
©2009 Lady Eva Michenet
Edited by Sheta Kaey
Over on my LiveJournal, I have a significant number of furries on my friend list; I’m not a furry myself, but I enjoy the artwork folks post, and we tend to have other things in common as well. (Lots of pagan furs, for one thing!) Something that got posted a few weeks back was some controversy over “soft taxidermy.” Basically, there are a handful of artists in the furry community who take whole pelts and stuff them like plush toys. (There are also apparently people who stick bows and other cutesy things on them, but I haven’t yet seen these pics.)
This has caused somewhat of an uproar, even among folks I know who have various hides, bones and other animal parts in their possession. Even folks who are okay with traditional taxidermy have found the real-fur plushies to be creepy, especially as they sometimes seem to be treated like toys (as though being a trophy is any better . . ?). And it’s brought about one of my periodic assessments of my own use of animal parts in my spirituality and artwork.
For those who don’t know, for over a decade I have been creating ritual tools and other artwork from hides, bones, feathers and other animal remains. It’s been an integral part of my spiritual practice because an animist, as I work with the spirits of the animals who once wore those remains. And it’s something I’ve always struggled with, ethically speaking, because I know and understand that by buying some of the things that I do, I’m directly supporting the fur industry and the deaths of numerous animals. Granted, I also support the deaths of animals by eating meat, though that’s due in part to a metabolic condition in which I need to have meat protein to maintain my health.
I always have a few options to choose from when I do this periodic questioning:
- Keep doing what I’m doing: Obviously, this has been my choice up to this point. When I talk to the spirits of the animals themselves, they express appreciation that someone has actually taken the time to work with their remains in a respectful manner. This is especially true of things I’ve “rescued,” such as old fur coats and taxidermy mounts. What I create is intended to be respected in a spiritual manner, to include the gravity of the fact that yes, these were once living beings, and they didn’t have to die this way. I really ought to emphasize that latter part more.
- Only use secondhand and found animal parts: In some ways, this would be a more ethical choice, because there’d be less of a direct impact overall, and I’d still be recycling. Honestly, the majority of what I work with is either old coats and other reclaimed remains, or things that other people have gotten rid of. I actually buy very little of anything new. But still, there are animal parts that I do buy new, and I do own up to that.
- Use up what I have, and then quit: I have a lot of things I saved up over the years. When I lived in Pittsburgh, I went to one of two huge flea markets on a daily basis, and almost never came home empty-handed. Plus I do a lot of barter, and occasionally people will just give me furs and other things that they don’t know what to do with because they figure I can make something neat out of them. So I’d still have enough to keep me busy for quite some time.
- Quit entirely: Or I could just sell off everything I have that can’t be safely buried (hides, for example, are generally tanned with nasty chemicals that we don’t need concentrated in the soil).
But the thing is — and this is the selfish part, and perhaps the biggest motivator — I enjoy my artwork. I can’t paint worth a crap, nor can I draw, or sculpt. This is really the only visual medium that I’m any good at. It’s one of my biggest stress-relievers, and it’s also a small stream of income for me. But mostly it’s the enjoyment I get out of it.
Also, it is a significant part of my spirituality, and has been since just about the beginning of my paganism over a decade ago. I have some personal skins and bones that are in my own set of ritual tools, and I work with those spirits as well as their corresponding totems on a regular basis — from the skins I dance in, to my horse hide drum, to the bear skull rattle, and then some. Maybe it’s all in my head (and maybe all spirituality is wholly subjective and used to justify personal preferences), but the spirits enjoy working with me as much as I enjoy working with them. When I dance a skin, it gives its spirit the chance to ride my body. When I create something out of remains that would have ended up incinerated or left to hang on a wall as a trophy, the spirit gets a chance to be a part of someone else’s practice — or maybe a participant thereof.
Yet I do realize the physical, real-world implications of what I do. Which is why I still mostly stick to second-hand remains, and why I donate a portion of the money I make from artwork sales to the Defenders of Wildlife and other nonprofits. I know that none of these choices will have as much of an impact as if I were to quit entirely. But I have my reasons for continuing, and I follow those reasons with the understanding of the consequences.
I’m not going to go and criticize the soft taxidermists, or the people who wear fox and coyote tails as a fashion statement, or those who wear fur coats, because in the end I know that I don’t have room to talk. My spiritual and personal reasons for what I do don’t make me a better person for it. But they do add value to my life, and I balance that out with the knowledge of the impact of my choices.
©2009 by 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.
Dim Light Books; 1st edition (2008)
Beyond a certain point, we can really know only so much about cultures prior to written history in a region. The stories supposedly tell about the people who lived in the British Isles 6,000 years ago, well before there were any written records; while the author draws from texts about the Celts and other older cultures, these are still newer peoples than what Smedley describes. Whether the people of 4000 BC lived in ways the book described is unknown; nonetheless, the author does a lovely job of weaving together a solid description of her thoughts on the matter, and we get a good picture of what it is they did and believed.
So I chose to primarily read this for its storytelling value. Similarly to my experience of reading MZB’s The Mists of Avalon, it didn’t matter whether the story was literally true or not. I found myself sinking into a world where animism was the central belief, where the plants, animals and other denizens of nature were so important to the people that they took their names from them. I read about the rituals these people performed, as well as the participants’ feelings about them. I witnessed the interactions between individual groups of people, and how they wove into the greater overarching culture of the time. It didn’t really matter whether this was the way things “really happened”; it was a great journey anyway. Even if seen only as a novel, it’s a worthwhile read.
I can’t entirely vouch for the validity of the herbal information; the author knows more about that than I do. A lot of the information about plants peppering the stories dealt with magical uses; however, there were some medicinal uses mentioned as well. For those intrepid enough to backtrack the author’s research, there’s an appendix with the common and Latin names of all the plants (numbering in the hundreds) mentioned. Additionally, she included a thorough bibliography for further research and fact-checking.
This is a book I had to read in bits and chunks over time; at 700 pages, it’s a lot to read! The formatting left a bit to be desired, most notably the complete lack of page numbers which, in a book this length, is frustrating when trying to find where I left off, or where I found a piece of information or a snippet of story I wanted to go back to. Also, I can’t for the life of me find information about the publisher, the owner of the publishing company, or the author.
Ancestral Airs is a thoroughly enjoyable read, regardless of how much salt you choose to take the research with. Whether you choose to read it as I did, in little pieces, or simply spend several hours going from cover to cover in one fell swoop, I hope you like this unique combination of research and narrative.
Four and a half pawprints out of five.
Review ©2009 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.
I had a nightmare last night — about bugs. Scorpions, spiders, biting flies, centipedes, and other creepy-crawlies that could potentially do damage to the soft flesh wrapping my endoskeleton. (Why couldn’t it have been butterflies? Or snails?)
Back when I was a kid, I spent countless days when the weather was warm overturning rocks to catch various insects and other bugs. I walked through the grass scaring up grasshoppers, and while I never touched spiders, I did marvel at them, particularly the big, fat yellow and black garden spiders in their webs with the little zigzag. I had no fear in handling what I found, as long as it wasn’t poisonous. However, as I got older and more detached from the natural world through circumstance, I found myself picking up the common revulsion associated with bugs. Instead of being wowed by the structure of an arthropod’s body, I found the prickly, sharp sensation of the exoskeleton to be unnerving at the very least. Eventually I found myself yelping in fear at the sight of a bug on the floor, no matter what it was. (To be fair, I got startled as a child whenever I found bugs in the closet, or under the bed, or wherever else they hid themselves in the house — but it wasn’t as bad a reaction!)
I find myself regretting this change in my behavior. While I’m still quite comfortable with the warm-and-cuddly animals (and even the cool and scaly ones), the creepy-crawlies still bother me to a degree they didn’t used to. As I’ve become a grown-up and, unfortunately, lost some of the seemingly easy connection to Nature that I had as a child, my discomfort with the “icky” things in Nature has grown. Like most Americans, I’ve become antagonistic towards those parts of Nature that don’t fit my comfort level.
There’s a lesson in all of this, of course. A large part of why I became a neopagan in the first place was to reconnect with Nature, to try to rebuild what I lost somewhere in my teens. For years I focused mainly on the abstractions, the symbols, the nice, safe, distant representations. Once I began practicing (neo)shamanism a couple of years ago, though, I could no longer distance myself, and was in fact encouraged to dig in to the earthy, raw bits of Nature as much as I could. It’s been good for me — I’ve come to appreciate the joys of compost as I’ve gardened, and I’m more liable to let myself go out and get muddy in the wetlands near my home. But I still have issues with the bugs, and that’s who I need to be learning from.
Some people would try to categorize the totems of these species as “shadow totems,” totems which scare us and, through that fear, teach us about things we may not want to face. If that’s the case, then I have a lot of shadow totems to work with! However, this is a complex situation. It’s not just a matter of “I don’t want to get my clothes dirty” or “EEEEK! SOMETHING JUST LANDED ON ME!” It’s an overarching detachment from the natural world, through my perception of it, as well as the decrease in the amount of time I’ve spent in it.
I can shut myself away from lions, tigers and bears, and so forth. However, the Little Ones won’t let me forget that, even in my nice, warm home, I’m part of Nature. From the tiny brown ants that persist in poking into the kitchen and garage (and occasionally the bathroom), to the moths that attempt to gain access to the pantry, to the wandering spiders who find shelter and food in the corners of my home when it rains, they all let me know that there’s no place to go where Nature doesn’t touch me. If it weren’t those critters that were reminding me, it would be the tiny beings in my digestive system, or the food that I eat. It just so happens that the creepy-crawlies are the ones who make the biggest impact, for all their size, right now.
And I write this as I have a healing spider bite on the inside of my left elbow, probably sustained while I slept. (There was no dead spider in the bed, so I’m guessing it got away!) I’ve been thinking about the creepy-crawlies in the couple of weeks since that happened, because if nothing else the bite made it clear that I do have to live with their existence, even in the comfort of my own home. This is my decision on how to deal with it, rather than the typical “GET OUT THE BUG BOMB!” reaction that most Americans would have.
I am a natural being; I am a mammal. I eat, I breathe, I drink, and I live in an environment populated by numerous other beings, large and small. They don’t exist according to my convenience, and the creepy-crawlies especially remind me of that. Time for me to remember that lesson.
Edited by Sheta Kaey
March 21, 2007 by Lupa
Filed under altered states of consciousness, columns, lupa's den, magick, mysticism, perception, self-created styles, self-transformation, shamanism, therioshamanism, totemism and animism
Alrighty, this month I’m going to diverge from my usual fare of animal magic to talk about something a little different that’s been bouncing around in my head: UPG.
Depending on where on the internet you hang out, you may have run into the acronym UPG. Unverified or Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis is essentially any information about a deity or other entity, magical topic, or related spiritual item of interest that is gained through one’s own intuition and experiences rather than third-party sources.1 It originated in the heathen communities in the 1970s or 1980s, but has been used with greater frequency, particularly with the advent of the internet.
UPG is used to differentiate historically/mythologically accurate material, particular with regard to the reconstruction and study of pre-Christian religions, from things that people either acquired in personal experiences or otherwise couldn’t show any outside evidence for. Reconstructionism, especially with regard to Celtic, Germanic and Norse cultures and religions, tends to be meticulous about details. There’s debate in the respective communities about how much UPG is too much; for example, the Celtic Reconstructionism FAQ provides some guidelines for dealing with UPG in relation to accepted lore.2
Anyone who’s been in the pagan community for any length of time knows that it floats on a sea of UPG. Many pagans quite happily mix traditional mythology with personal experiences to meet their own spiritual and magical needs. A survey of various books on the market aimed at the pagan crowd shows a wide range of scholarship that traverses the wide spectrum between Uber-Serious History and What The Hell Were You On? and UPG can be found in a large selection of these texts.
Unfortunately, problems arise when UPG is presented as historical evidence (with or without other poor sources). The many books on “Celtic Wicca” are a good example. One particular thread of ficti-myth is the persistent “Irish Potato Cult” that arose in the early 1990s. Despite the fact that the potato wasn’t imported into Ireland until a few centuries ago, it’s been claimed that the pre-Christian Celts saw the potato as a fertility symbol and even created rituals around it.3 Whether this was UPG or just some really shoddy scholarship, nobody’s quite sure.
Still, it resembles the sort of thing that often ends up as UPG, and the issues that can occur when it is then presented as historical fact. Additionally, various pagans may combine several threads of myth and religion from assorted cultures because of UPG; again, the problem comes when this blended mixture is presented as something historically accurate. And then there are cases in which UPG goes entirely against the accepted canon surrounding a particular topic; for example, someone viewing Kali as a loving, gentle innocent maiden, or Aphrodite as an ugly hag.
It’s entirely possible that deities may show sides other than the most commonly seen ones to individual pagans. In my opinion, deities are not one-dimensional characters, and I don’t believe they are limited solely to their mythical portrayals. For example, Artemis is a maiden goddess in the Greek pantheon; technically, when I got married I should have given up my relationship to her. Despite this (and the opinions of some modern radical feminists that Artemis only likes lesbians and hates all men), she never had a problem with the idea. In my private conversations with her, her main concern was that the relationship was a healthy one, and that I had enough room to be myself.
Granted, I’m not a Hellenic pagan. I’ve never really studied the details of Greek religious practices with regard to Artemis or any other Olympian. And honestly, I have no interest in doing so. I like the relationship I’ve developed with Artemis (or at least the independent, masculine female, wild-loving deity who refers to herself as Artemis in my presence). I’ve been maintaining that relationship for a decade or so, and it’s been quite spiritually fulfilling. My worship is through emulation, my offerings through actions and prayers. And that’s what works for me.
I admit it — I want my UPG. I am not a Reconstructionist of any sort, nor am I a Wiccan. In fact, I rather dislike pigeonholing myself with regard to religion — “Pagan” or “Neopagan” works quite nicely. The bulk of my spirituality and practice is UPG-based. My writing on Totemism? UPG-based Neopagan Totemism, not traditional. My relationship to and understanding of the Divine? My UPG coupled with observations of others’ UPG, as well as psychology, mythology and occultism. I tend to bristle a bit when people attempt to limit Paganism only to the modern worship of ancient deities; while I acknowledge the presence of deities, I neither see them as the ultimate manifestation of Divinity, nor even believe there is such a thing other than the sum total of all Realities.
To me, Paganism is the path I take to understanding my relationship with regard to all forms of consciousness and energy in the Multiverse. Deities and spirits are simply some of the other entities that I coexist with. In order to figure out where I stand, I have to use a lot of UPG to formulate my individual perspective on what’s both within and outside of me. For some people, preexisting religions and philosophies are sufficient for explaining Life, the Universe, and Everything. There’s nothing wrong with that; I just prefer to blaze my own trail, occasionally crossing those of others along the way.
Of course, there will always be those who are appalled that I’m “just making it up as I go along.” So what? I know that my beliefs aren’t Holy Writ or Accepted Canon. But they explain things to me, and in my worldview, that’s more important than making sure they match up perfectly with what works for others. To each hir own; I believe we’ll all end up in the same place eventually anyway.
- Anonymous (2006). Unverified Personal Gnosis. Retrieved 6 March, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UPG
- Laurie, Erynn Rowan, Kathryn Price NicDhana, et. al. (2006) The CR FAQ: An Introduction to Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism (How much UPG is acceptable in CR? How do you know?). Retrieved 6 March, 2007 from http://www.paganachd.com/faq/intermediate.html#howmuchupg
- Hautin-Mayer, Joanne (1998). When is a Celt not a Celt? Retrieved 6 March, 2007 from http://www.irishwitch.org/grove/When_is_a_Celt_not_a_Celt.shtml
©2007 Lupa. Edited by Sheta Kaey.
In the thousands of years since human and wolf decided to play nice around the campfire and work together for mutual survival, the dog species has exploded into a wide plethora of shapes, sizes, personalities and attributes. When I look at the wide range of books out on the market dedicated to animal totems, most of them focus directly on the wild critters, specifically the ones that seem to be more glamorous or popular. A classic example of this would be the dog’s ancestor, Canis lupus, or wolf. Given that most people these days live and work in environments far removed from the wolf, I find it useful to look to dogs for the wisdom they offer us. Sometimes it takes a dog, not a wolf, to navigate the urban jungles of today’s society.
Although the shape and function of many dogs were specifically the work of human intervention, there are also a large number of dog breeds out there that evolved to adapt to us. We can use either of these types as inspiration and adaptation in the domesticated human world we live in. For example, when I was young, my peers bullied me quite a bit in school. During high school, a girl who identified as a wolf therianthrope confronted me. She used the word “terrier” as an offensive adjective towards me. At first I was offended by this, but then it made me stop and think for a moment about all the negative connotations associated with terriers. They are small, yappy, and hyperactive. However, has anyone stopped to think about the numerous amazing qualities about them? They are good fighting dogs, have amazing endurance, are smart and quick, and they can navigate tight spots that most other dogs cannot reach. I needed those qualities in my life at that very moment.
It was then that Pit Bull Terrier appeared to me, strong and masculine, but patient. He was the inspiration that helped me navigate those halls during the rougher moments of my life. It was hard for me to be a transgendered person in an all-female Catholic environment, but Pit Bull helped give me the strength and courage I needed to weather those rough times. Admittedly, I even called on Pit Bull’s more notorious – as well as misunderstood — attribute, and ended up meeting the therianthrope girl in a deserted hallway to show her just how deep my fangs could bite. (No, I didn’t literally bite her, but I did make it clear that her choice in canine adjectives was a strategic error on her part.)
That said, when working with domestic dog breeds as totems, it is important to keep in mind the positive as well as negative attributes of these creatures, as well as the consequences of working with these energies. For example, though the wolf is unable to adapt to the human environment, the dog is quite suited to the human environment. The dog is the wolf that was able to assimilate into human society and make it its home.
When choosing to work with dog breeds as totems, you should approach it with the same consideration you would use when considering a dog for adoption. What role or function does this dog play amongst humans? Is this breed a working dog such as a Mastiff, a herding dog such as a Border Collie, or a companion dog such as a Pomeranian? Are there any genetic (such as hip dysplasia or deafness) or psychological concerns in this particular breed of dog, and if so, how do you plan to work around that? When questing for your domestic canine totem, do not be dismissive of the little Chihuahua when you were expecting the noble and fearless German Shepherd. Think of the patterns going on in your life right now that would warrant the appearance of this little dog. Hell, when my father was young, his Chihuahua “Honeybee” was the terror of the entire neighborhood. Big German Shepherds would be seen tearing down the road, tail between their legs and yipping madly, little Honeybee at their heels. The saying, “It isn’t the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog,” rings very true in this case. Of course, it doesn’t boil down to fighting or having the fiercest and most glamorous dog. For example, if you are a workaholic and a toy dog such as a Havanese or Yorkshire Terrier comes to you, perhaps you need to lighten up a little and learn how to play more.
A good exercise to help with gaining your dog totem is to visualize yourself visiting a dog pound or kennel. When you arrive in the waiting area, somebody comes out to you with a dog on a leash. This is the dog-archetype that wishes to work with you. The person bringing him out can be a random construct of your mind or the dreaming-space you created in your meditative process, or it could be a spirit guide or someone otherwise important in your life. Take a good look at the dog. What does it look like? How does is behave? Is it bouncing up and down, eager to be acquainted with you? Is it sitting with its tail between its legs, or growling with its ears turned back? The posture of the animal will tell you a lot about your own mental processes and things that perhaps need changing – or enhancing – in your life right now. Also, do not be surprised if the dog turns out to be a mutt. Just because a dog lacks a pedigree or is otherwise not recognized by some kennel club doesn’t mean that it has nothing to offer. Observe the mutt, what it looks like and how it behaves, and maybe wager a guess at what its lineage could be. Those can tell you a lot.
Once you have your dog totem, you might want to consider studying in depth the behavior, habits and function of the dog. You could leave an offering in the form of a donation to a rescue organization specializing in that breed of dog, or donate to the SPCA, or perhaps donate your time volunteering for a local shelter. You might even consider adopting this type of breed, but — and this is a big but — you want to think long and hard about doing this. Ask yourself if your home and lifestyle habits are conducive to owning a dog (especially one of a particular breed), or a pet in general, as this is a huge responsibility. Now, what if you already have a dog, especially if it happens to be one of a differing variety than the one that has appeared to you? No sweat. There is no reason why you cannot work with both types of canine energy in conjunction with each other. Dogs are pack animals and can learn to work cooperatively; keep this in mind when working with canine energies. You may find that both your totem dog and the physical dog you share living space with belong to the same grouping, and even if they might not, the two energies might complement each other or be combined for other workings. How I work with Pit Bull is primarily through meditative sessions and a form of invocation where I would take Pit Bull into myself and try to see things as he would see them. Another method I use is channel-surfing through stations where pet shows are common, such as Animal Planet or Discovery. If I see a show or segment featuring Pit Bulls, I observe what they are doing and how they are being portrayed, and interpret appropriately. Of course, this method also works if you are walking in the park or in your neighborhood where you may see dogs in yards or being walked by their owners.
For further research, I would recommend picking up any books you can find on dogs and dog breeds. Animal Planet’s show Breed All About It is also an amazing resource. Each episode features a specific breed of dog, its purpose, function, and history — all valuable tools in your search. And, above all else, leave your ego at the door. You never know what might pop up and tell you something about yourself that you might not have realized before.
©2007 Edward Cynanthropos. Edited by Naya and Sheta Kaey.
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
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.