Cultural Honesty: Creating Neopagan Totemism
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Article ID: 12039
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Lupa [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: October 7th. 2007
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How many of you have an animal totem? Please raise your hands.
Okay, you can put them down now. (Bonus points if you actually did raise your hand while sitting at the computer.)
You can't see all your fellow readers, past, present and future, but I bet a decent number of hands, literal or metaphorical, got raised. Animal totemism is a popular topic in the pagan community, and while it may not be the center of everyone's practice, a lot of pagans at least claim to have a totem animal.
In my own case, animal magic in general is at the heart of my path and it's been that way for a decade and change. I love talking shop with other people about totems and animal spirits, and even physical familiars. And my relationships with totems and others is an incredible gift from all of them.
I'm also a serious bibliophile. There are certain topics that I will almost compulsively buy every book I can get on. Animal magic is one of these, and I've read several dozen books, as well as written one of my own (1). Books are a great way to see what other people are up to, and they're also the primary way in which people learn about animal totems.
After a while, many of the books start getting sort of formulaic. You can pretty much count on the following elements:
1. A history of totemism, almost always centering on Native American cultures
2. Some basic techniques for meeting and working with your totem animal
3. A dictionary of different totems and what they "mean"
Some, though not all, books on practical (as opposed to anthropological/theoretical) animal totemism have a decidedly "Native" feel to them, even if members of any Native tribe didn’t write them. A lot of this is because some of the earlier texts (such as "The Medicine Cards" by Sams and Carson) draw heavily from a variety of Native cultures (with varying degrees of quality in research and use of the material).
Unfortunately, it's not always made clear that what's in these books isn't genuine "Native American totemism" (a concept which ignores the fact that each tribe has its own culture and spirituality, which may be very different from other tribes).
I find this to be rather dishonest.
Talking about totems and shape shifting dance, which are actually pretty universal throughout indigenous cultures (as well as some ancient cultures in Europe and elsewhere), is different from constantly citing Native American lore and throwing around words like "medicine" and "Great Spirit".
In the latter case, I believe it's imperative that it's made clear that what's written in a book on the shelves of the local chain book store probably isn't straight out of any tribe's inner teachings.
Let me delineate a few things here. What pagans think of as totemism is actually a mishmash of several different traditions. Anthropologically speaking, totemism is a primarily group-based system found in cultures around the world (not just the Americas) that involves an animal presiding over a clan, tribe or family.
The totem is used not only to convey certain taboos, teachings and values associated with the group, but is also involved in a form of exogamy, a system that determines who can or can't marry each other. (2) A spirit guide is what is commonly associated with the "vision quest" or other journey to find said guide. This is an individual spirit, not an archetype or symbol.
Also thrown into the mix is the power animal of the shaman; this concept enforces the modern idea of a totem as an individual helper to a magic-worker, whether s/he identifies as a witch, shaman, or other label. (3)
So we have the symbolism of traditional totemism, the individual attention of the spirit guide, and the added magical boost of the power animal, all rolled up into the modern concept of animal totemism in the neopagan community.
This isn't a bad thing, nor is it invalid for not being exactly the way other people have done it for centuries. However, it does fit perfectly with modern American culture, as well as other cultures in which neopagans can commonly be found (though I speak primarily from an American viewpoint).
We are in a society that stresses individualism, and which very few people still live within 50 miles of their entire extended family--many don't even live close to the nuclear family. Almost no neopagans have inherited family/group totems that are acknowledged as such by anyone other than himself or herself.
And we don't really need a system of exogamy, since the larger number of people means a much lower chance of accidental inbreeding.
What we have today is an adaptation of totemism that is tailored to modern neopaganism. While some of us are involved in covens or other groups, this is far from universal, and not all work with animal totems or other group egregores. So totemism is usually a solitary practice, even for coven/group members.
Additionally, totemism no longer is limited to the animals in one's vicinity; a person in England can have a Kangaroo totem, while an Australian may work regularly with Polar Bear. All we have to do when a strange animal presents itself in our meditations is go do some research online.
And since we aren't necessarily staying within a particular cultural context, the "meaning" of a totem may vary quite a bit from person to person.
And that's what I really want to stress in this essay: neopagan totemism is its own entity, separate from any form of traditional totemism. And that's NOT a bad thing.
Over the past couple of decades, neopagans (as well as New Agers) have created this system. It's in books like "Animal-Speak" by Ted Andrews and Yasmine Galenorn's "Totem Magic". It's in websites all across the internet, and in classes taught in pagan shops and at gatherings throughout the community.
Rather than being a product of an indigenous culture, or one long-gone, it has sprung forth from the unique subculture that is the neopagan community-at-large. We have taken totemism and made it something specific to our experiences and backgrounds.
While the individual details (not surprisingly) may vary from person to person, here are some of the distinctive hallmarks of neopagan totemism:
1. Focuses primarily on the individual, rather than a group.
2. Emphasizes a personal relationship with the totem, with taboos and other elements of the relationship negotiated on an individual basis.
3. While it may sometimes resemble the totemic/etc. systems of other cultures, it has a decidedly eclectic feel to it, and involves the general aesthetic of neopaganism as a subculture.
4. The totems are not limited to local species, but may be any animal--some say even fantastic/mythological or extinct species can fill the role of totem.
5. Unverified/Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis (UPG) is often a large part of totemism, rather than cultural context.
6. It's not uncommon for people to "have" more than one totem, or to "have" a primary totem, but to also work with others as needed or as called.
7. While totem animal dictionaries are commonly referred to, many people find that their totems will give them specific lessons to work with that may deviate significantly from their traditional associations.
8. Members of all sorts of neopagan religions, as well as eclectics and "just plain pagans" have totems, even if the traditions they're drawing from didn't necessarily include a totemic system.
Because of the inherent flexibility of neopagan totemism, I have spent the past few years experimenting with the concept, as well as other forms of animal magic that may sometimes overlap with it.
For example, I've started working with what I call "food totems", the animal totems of domestic and other species that people most commonly think of as edible. I believe that totems in general are archetypal beings that embody all the qualities associated with a particular species--not just the natural history, but the lore told by humans, and the treatment that the physical "young" of the totem receive at the hands of humanity.
Needless to say, Chicken, Cow, Pig, Crab and others are not particularly happy with the current situation. My work with them has helped to make me more aware of the treatment of livestock and the reality of sustainable farming and fishing. I've also altered some of my grocery habits to allow more free-range meat and sustainable seafood into my diet. (4)
And I am proud to call myself a neopagan totemist. I don't feel I have to try to legitimize my path by trying to connect it to cultures I'm not a part of. I can acknowledge the background of neopagan totemism (both the good and the bad--cultural appropriation is a big issue in paganism in general (5)).
However, I am a product of my times, and I'm fine with that. I don't mind living in urban Portland, OR. I don't mind that I've worked with totems that aren't native to my time period, let alone my region. I don't mind that the majority of my personal practice is made of UPG.
I'm honest about where I'm coming from, and I don't feel the slightest bit of shame for not having an ancient tradition to work with (though I don't have any animosity towards those who do--to each her own, in my opinion!)
What I want to encourage is open embracing of neopagan totemism as a unique system, rather than continuing the confusion between neopagan and traditional material. I think sometimes people are afraid to admit that what they're working with isn't ancient, and I think that these people are missing out on a lot of good potential.
I encourage people to go out and experiment with the concept of animal totemism. Get in contact with uncommon totems, such as those of extinct or "food" animals. Create your own rituals for working with them, rather than going by what is supposedly "correct".
Consider what the role of totems in your life really is, as opposed to what it "should" be.
Don't rely solely on totem dictionaries for finding out what a totem means--get into meditation and ask the totem directly. You'll get a much clearer and more personally relevant answer than if you spent hours poring over texts. The books are a starting point, not the end result.
If you find inspiration in a culture, or in a book, no problem--just don't be afraid to deviate from that because you're worried you won't be doing it the way someone else did. As long as you're honest about where you're coming from, create a system that best honors the relationship you have with your totem (s).
One final note: this isn't necessarily a free-for-all. As with any primarily UPG-based work, it's a good idea to question what you come up with, especially if it sounds strange.
For example, if you delve into mythological beings as totems, and your Dragon tells you you're the key player in an upcoming apocalyptic battle, get out your shaker of salt. (This is a good idea with spiritual beings in general--not necessarily because they lie to us, but because we can sometimes let our imaginations/wishful thinking/etc. get in the way.)
Talk to other people who work with totems, including (and perhaps especially in) a neopagan context. I've found, as a solitary practitioner in general, that bouncing ideas off of others can help give me important perspectives I might have missed otherwise. Keep a journal, and read it periodically to see how you're progressing.
But with that being said, I invite you to adopt neopagan totemism as its own entity. It's something that we as a community have created, and I believe it's a worthy practice to embrace.
1. To see reviews of the books I've read on animal magic, among others, my book review blog is located at http://lupabitch.wordpress.com . To see my own book, go to http://www.thegreenwolf.com/ffbb.html .
2. Levi-Strauss, Claude (1991) . "Totemism". The Merlin Press.
3. Please keep in mind that these are generalizations, and specific cultures may vary.
4. For more information, please see the essays I have written on this topic at http://www.rendingtheveil.com/article.php?article=28 and http://www.rendingtheveil.com/article.php?article=94
5. See "Pagans and Cultural Appropriation" at http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a= and c=words and id=10725
Copyright: Copyright Lupa, 2007. Please link to this page rather than copying and pasting the text. Thanks!
Location: Portland, Oregon
Author's Profile: To learn more about Lupa - Click HERE
Bio: Lupa is an author and artist living in Portland, OR with her husband, Taylor, their cats, and too many books and art supplies. She has written "Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic" and "A Field Guide to Otherkin", as well as the coauthor of "Kink Magic: Sex Magic Beyond Vanilla". She may be found online at http://www.thegreenwolf.com and http://www.kinkmagic.com
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