paleo: Grey Wolf as Totem (Grey Wolf)
[personal profile] paleo
MIGRATED FROM LIVEJOURNAL

I may send this to WitchVox as I am feeling a slight desire to share this with the neopagan community at large. But it is only a slight desire and I don't know yet if it is enough to do something so non-reclusive.

What tradition do you follow? That question, asked often in the Neopagan community, used to vex me to no end. Or more honestly, my lack of an answer to that question is what vexed me. There really was no word for a person who is not a shaman but still works primarily in the realm most pagans would call “shamanic”.
So, I would give hesitant and unconvincing answers, “Ummm….I’m like a shaman, but not,” or “Well, I work with animal spirits…..” My answers would trail off without finish, without any sense of solidity or purpose.
What pantheon do you work with? Yet another question that used to fill me with inadequacy as, try as I might, no cultural pantheon interested me enough to work full time with. Also, my European ancestry is so mixed and removed from its source that I feel about as French or German as I feel Hopi or Zulu…meaning not at all save for the way in which we are all world citizens. On top of that, I’ve never felt that being American was a flaw to be covered up by slapping (often untrue) identity labels of “Celtic” or “Norse” or “Greek” over it. Like any other peoples, Americans have their own unique situations and history that they must learn to work with and, in my view, seeing Americans as worse than all others is almost as disgustingly self-centered as viewing ourselves as better than all others.
What tradition? What pantheon? These questions tumbled in my head as if in an eternal spin cycle until, one night a flash of realization came over me. My tradition is Totemism! My pantheon is Nature! The solution had always been right in front of me but I had allowed cultural expectations and trends to blind me to the obvious.

In Neopaganism, totemism is very popular. The vast majority of pagans have at least done a little work with animal spirits, and many of these have one to a handful of animals that they claim as their totems or guides. On the other hand, in Neopaganism, totemism is also seen as a supplemental rather than core activity. At most, a pagan will form a strong and vital relationship to one or a few totems to form partnerships that will aid them in their chosen path. The totems are often seen as beloved teachers, friends, and family, but for most neopagans there is little desire to learn from and seek out the wisdom of the multitude of beings beyond those who come forward as primary teachers.
That’s where I differ. I acknowledge my primary animal guides while also looking for and approaching others on a daily basis. In fact, knowledge of a wide range of beings and the ability to compare and contrast their lessons is a key part of my path.

As a modern Totemist, I am seeking to recreate, possibly rediscover, ways of communicating with, partnering, and honoring the vast multitude of entities spiritually connected to the natural world. To help illustrate the importance of this practice, I like to point to the fact that almost every culture, tribal or otherwise, has a myth which speaks of some great fall from grace, a banishment from a time or place where humans were more in harmony with animals and often could speak with them. It is my belief that these myths probably arose to explain the confusion and struggle the first sapiens must have gone through as they dealt with a less instinctual, more learning oriented mind. They no longer could just *know* how live as most other animals do, they had to *learn* it. Primate ingenuity could only get our earliest ancestors so far. To increase their knowledge of the world around them they quickly learned to observe and sometimes imitate the animals around them. There is much anthropological evidence to suggest that birds taught the earliest cultures many things about song and dance. Wolves and bears are often credited for influencing ancient hunting and warrior peoples. Spiders are often recognized as the creators of weaving. Woodpecker is said to have taught various Canadian tribes how to harvest maple sap. The list of practical knowledge and artistic inspiration credited to animals goes on and on. Because so many skills were taught by animals, it seems natural that humans would quickly seek out more esoteric and spiritual lessons from their teachers. While we can only speculate on the origins and meanings of various myths and cosmologies, there is much that can be gleaned from researching and contemplating the relationships between other peoples and animals and animal-spirits.

Working with animal spirits may seem to many to be something that was only applicable to Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures. I couldn’t find this farther from the truth. It is fact that modernity cuts us off from many of the modes and experiences available to tribal peoples. Most humans today are far removed from the “natural world”. Many today never see living, growing examples of the animals and plants they eat. Most only experience contact with domestic pets, the handfuls of native species able to live in diversity-killing urban sprawl, and various “pest” animals attracted to human homes. Any plants they see are as likely to be foreign species chosen for ornamental reasons as native ones. Even the weather-beings are somewhat denied as most folks work in buildings devoid of natural sunlight, wind, or rain.
My defense of modern Totemism comes from the facts of this very deep disconnect with our fellow beings. We may no longer have the option of doing things “old school”, but if animals can teach us anything, it is how to adapt. We still have so very much to learn from animals. We live in a time where people have access to knowledge of far greater species than ever before. For better or worse, each continent has been explored thoroughly (though by no means completely). We have sent mechanical eyes to the bottoms of the seas. Microscopes allow us to peer into once invisible realms of beings. Each year fossils unlock secrets that help us understand the past that made the present possible.
Paradoxically, our species is living in a time where we possess the greatest amount of technical and scientific knowledge of the natural world, yet functionally we are the most ignorant. One of my aims as a modern Totemist is to correct this paradox.
For example, when I see news of polar bears drowning due to their ice fields melting, the message is clear. Polar bears are literally losing ground due to climate change and humans may soon lose ground for the same reasons. This leads to a desire to change my habits in ways that could help humans and bears alike. Or perhaps I read about how deer, rats, and pigs have all been known to shun genetically modified crops. If Rat and Pig are shunning these new species as a source of nutrition, it would perhaps be wise if humans did the same. I feel that we are living in times where valuing what animals teach us is especially important. Our early ancestors learned from animals to increase their chances of surviving and thriving and we may have to do the same. We need to relearn the ways of our fellow beings in hopes of seeing more clearly a path to a way of life that will allow us *all* a better chance to survive and thrive.
There is still much practical and spiritual wisdom to be gained from watching and learning about animals. The lessons can be literal, such as when elephants knew well before humans about an impending tsunami and thus saved the lives of the humans who followed them. The lessons can be more symbolic but still fairly obvious, such as Quail offering teachings to a parent or caretaker of many children. The lesson can also be highly esoteric with the animal spirits offering lore not easily connected in any logical way to the species. Examples of this may include the animal sending a person on a spiritual journey, initiating them into shamanic death and rebirth, or taking on roles more commonly associated with deities.
I won’t say much on my methods for working with animal and other spirits as that is for another essay, but I will boil down the three skills that I feel a modern Totemist needs to work to master. First, one needs the ability to recognize and seek out animal guides. Secondly, one needs to find a way to form a working relationship with the totem where lessons may be transferred (popular options being ritual, meditation, spellwork, and shapeshifting). Lastly, one needs to cultivate an honoring, honest, and often humble attitude and seek ways to thank the totem for its guidance (popular options are creating altars and artwork or donating time or money to animal and environmental charities).
One of the problems I find with the way many neopagans deal with totems is that many often only superficially touch on the honoring and thanking of the animal-spirits. When a totem is treated like a mere wish-granter or status symbol, I began to question the depth of that person’s spirituality. If someone enters into a relationship with an animal-being in a way that is honest, open, and sometimes deep enough to qualify as intimate, they cannot help but feel for the plight of that being’s earthly family. That which hurts the Totem hurts the Totemist. Equally, that which nurtures the Totem nutures the Totemist. This understanding applied on a wider scale could be modern Totemism’s gift to the neopagan community. Totemists know on a deep, deep level that all life is sacred and connected and that much of that life is in danger because of the actions of our species. If we can impart a fraction of that desire to learn from and honor our fellow living beings we will have done a great service for all. There can be no greater gift I can give the animals and animal-spirits I love so dearly than to work to save them and encourage others to do the same. There are times when I believe that Totemists could help us reconsider the concepts of “human” and “animal” in the same way Goddess worshippers and others helped us reconsider the concepts of “man” and “woman”. Totemism could help bring about a more honest look at the way humans view and live with animals.
I know my path and I know my purpose. I feel that what I do is important, perhaps even necessary. I practice Totemism for its own sake and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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paleo

January 2013

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