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General chit chat mode: Happy Halloween! Here is my humble gift to my friends list. I actually had the idea for this topic in my head for a while but decided to create it for Halloween.

This was a difficult essay to write in terms of avoiding sugar-coating things, scaring people away, and trying not to make these totems seem like the Bad Ass Leather Coat Wearing Bad Boys of all totems.

I was able to get some good talks in with Vampire Bat and Mosquito for this essay. Flea, Leech, and Tick weren't chatty but added some good input. For whatever reason Bedbug and Lamprey put up "Go Away" signs which I respected, even though I was particularly curious about Lamprey.

I really don't envy folks who work with these guys. They are a tough bunch to get to know and they ask hard questions and can teach harsh lessons. Of them all, Vampire Bat was the "nicest", but I strongly suspect that's because she, being a fellow mammal, has a closer worldview to humans than the others.

So long as you give me credit, feel free to copy and send this where you like. Especially if you know someone who works with one of the totems or is thinking of working with them.

And Happy Halloween!




Blood is Their Life: a Look at "Vampiric" Totems

We humans often like to view ourselves as being at the top of the food chain. This in some ways, is only a slight exaggeration even if at times animals such as sharks, tigers, and crocodiles choose to make convincing counterarguments. Our intelligence, adaptability, and tendency towards urbanization have made it such that most of the human population living today never have to worry about large animals attempting to make a meal of them. And yet, we are still on the menu for a number of smaller, less easily avoidable animals.

Hemotophagy (literally “eating blood”) is a dietary strategy found among many species of invertebrates as well as a few vertebrate species. Hemotophagy can be described as an optional or obligatory practice based on if the consumption of blood is a needed or supplementary activity. A large number of animal species, including some surprising examples, will supplement their their diet with an occasional sup of blood when they have the chance. Some butterflies will lap at an animal's wounds, as will some birds who at times aggressively reopen wounds for the liquid. Carnivores, such as felines and canines, while not actually “bloodthirsty”, do ingest blood when they can. Even humans, despite creating many cultural taboos against eating blood, have invented examples of sanguinary dishes such as blood sausage, blood pudding, or the traditional Masai drink of cow's blood mixed with milk.

In some species, hemotophagy is obligatory only in some members of the species, or only at certain times, such as in some species of mosquito where only breeding females are required to feed on blood. Other animals like ticks, some leeches, and vampire bats require blood throughout their whole life.

Blood, and anything related to it, has long been a source of fear, fascination, and mystery for humankind. Blood equally represents life and death. Blood symbolizes anger and lust because our faces (and other body parts) become flushed with it when these emotions are present. The word “sanguine” can mean both “bloody” or “cheerful”. Fear of blood borne disease has inspired many superstitions and taboos about contact with this liquid. Women's intimate connection to blood through menstruation, pregnancy, and birth has led them to be revered in some cultures and reviled in others. And of course, there is the idea of blood sacrifice, seen as a high honor to one's god(s) or a barbaric and evil act depending on the culture commenting on it.

It naturally follows that people often have pretty strong opinions about animals who dine on blood...most often very negative ones. The desire to avoid bloodsuckers is perfectly reasonable. Some of them can carry lethal diseases. The most devastating epidemics in human history were spread by mosquitoes and fleas. Even if there is no disease present, their bites can be extremely irritating and cause health problems. There have been cases of livestock dying after being assaulted by a swarm of bloodthirsty insects. And what pet owner has not had to endure at least one prolonged war against fleas?

It's no wonder, then, why hemotophages are among the least talked about animals when it comes to modern totemism. Very few of the numerous totem dictionaries available mention them, Ted Andrew's “Animal-Wise” being a notable exception for including entries for Flea, Leech, Mosquito, and Tick. An online search is even less likely to be helpful (in this case the notable exception would be the entries for Flea and Leech found in Ravenari's Totem Dictionary: http://www.wildspeak.com/totems.html ).

Yet modern totemism posits that all creatures are potential teachers. Even the unpleasant ones. Sometimes **especially** the unpleasant ones. And often, the totemist isn't always given a choice on whether or not to pay attention to a given totem. (Just try ignoring Mosquito...it can't be done. I've tried.) So what should one do if their teacher has a particular fondness for the red stuff?

It is, of course, important to study all aspects of a totem rather than obsessing on one trait. Wolf isn't just a hunter and Rabbit does much more than munch leaves and make babies. Likewise, Tick and Vampire Bat are more than “mere bloodsuckers”. Vampire bats live in a reciprocally altruistic, female dominated society that would make most feminists proud. Mosquitoes thrive in stagnant, even toxic, environments which can provide many good lessons on how to survive in conditions most would find intolerable. Fleas are marvels of evolutionary engineering and worth studying for inspiration (especially if you happen to be that one person who is both a totemist and a long jumper). Certainly spend as much time as you can and want exploring other aspects of the totem's life and behaviors. But sooner or later you'll have to deal with the fact that, yes, your totem sucks blood.

Hemotophagic totems almost always require one to carefully study one's relationships to other people. While we would like to strive for nothing less then pure altruism in our interactions with others, this is neither realistic nor possible. We constantly demand the attention, resources, and energies of others and have these things demanded of us. Even the kindest, most caring people in the healthiest of relationships can, at times, find themselves in a sort of energetic tug-of-war with those around them.

Compassion, generosity, and charity are all desirable and admirable traits to cultivate, but we also need to ensure that, at least sometimes, we ourselves are the recipients of resources, energy, and attention. This is where the blood drinking teachers come in. It is important to note that these totems are unapologetic about their needs and methods of meeting these needs. Their lessons can be seem unsavory, even immoral to the human student. An assessment of one's moral beliefs is a must when being tutored by such a totem, but also keep in mind that, from their standpoint, the need to siphon off a little sustenance here, a little energy there is a required activity. A totemist who works with one of these creatures will need to seriously and clearly assess interactions they have with others, the motives behind those interactions, and determine for themselves when and if it is permissible to take energy (in whatever form) from others while giving little to nothing in return.

A blood drinking totem may come into one's life to caution us about letting others drain us of too much time or energy. Compassion, again, is a desirable trait, and it is important to understand that everyone has times when they feel needy or especially desire attention. Just as we don't necessarily have to swat every insect that lands on our arm, there are times when leniency and forgiving attitudes towards someone who is trying to “leech” a little of our attention and energy is the better option. However, we should keep in mind the fact that, while a few mosquito or flea bites will probably do little harm, the same cannot be said about many bites or enduring bites over a prolonged period.

When a vampiric totem comes into one's life, it is time to take a good look at the people and situations in our lives we consider irritating or draining. We may wish we could eliminate (or exterminate) all annoyances from our lives, but such an attempt would be excessive and futile. In many cases, simply brushing off or avoiding such people is the wisest course of action.

On the other hand, irritation, whether physical or mental, is a warning sign which lets us know that we can only tolerate something so long before it becomes detrimental to us. One message that blood drinking totems can bring to us is a need to set up strong and clear boundaries. It will be important to not let a desire to be tolerant place you in a situation where you are constantly having your time, resources, or energy siphoned from you by others. “A little here, a little there” does add up and can become draining, potentially leading to weakened mental, physical, or spiritual health. When vampiric totems enter our lives, we may find it necessary to terminate parasitic relationships as well as strengthen our ability to shield ourselves from forces that can drain us.

Hemotophagic totems also ask us to look at the times we ourselves are the ones taking energy or other resources from others. While not everyone will agree, these totems will argue that “sometimes selfishness is a virtue”. Perhaps you need to find a way to gain more attention from your boss or convince him or her to siphon more resources to you in the form of a raise. Maybe you are trying to find a way to advertise a business and need people's thoughts and attention to be diverted to you. Or it could be that you are ill, broke, or in some other way down on your luck and need immediate care or money. Whether we like it or not, there are times when we will find it necessary to receive more than we give.

Some people's ethical codes will not allow them to dabble in any sort of behavior that could be considered selfish, even temporarily, and even those who will allow it in some situations should tread carefully when learning from bloodsuckers. The totemist should clearly know the motives and consequences of their actions and take care that their behavior is not detrimental or abusive to others.

Should the totemist decide that there are times and places to adopt the behavior of a hemotophagic totem, the totems themselves do give some good clues as to how to proceed while avoiding negative impact. Often, vampiric totems will teach how to acquire energy and resources from others without harming them or even without them noticing. In order to avoid immediate retaliation from their hosts, many bloodsucking creatures have adapted ways of breaking through skin without causing pain. The teeth of vampire bats are razor sharp, allowing them to quickly make thin, precise incisions which aren't likely to be felt by an animal who is in deep sleep. Mosquito saliva contains an anesthesia which it injects into the area it is feeding from, making the initial bite go unnoticed as it feeds.

The consequences of bites from mosquitoes and similar insects provides another very important consideration for those working with such totems. While a mosquito can feed for time without being noticed and move on, its saliva contains proteins, digestive fluids, and other substances that the host's immune system eventually detects and works to combat. This is why mosquito bites become swollen, red, cause maddening itchiness, and in some people cause allergic reactions. For many people, one or two bites causes little reaction, but more bites causes an accumulative effect.

The lesson here is a warning against making a habit of constantly trying to take from others. A few such actions may go unnoticed or be tolerated, but more than that is likely to place you in the “irritating pest” category. Prolonged, habitual parasitic activity enters the area of “harmful and abusive” and the people around you may, justifiably, take action to avoid you or retaliate against your actions. Once someone is seen as a parasite, they are likely to find their resources and relationships dry up around them. While blood drinking animals are often seen as greedy and insatiable, these totems more often then not will urge caution and moderation. Many of their lessons involve causing as little pain/annoyance as possible, taking only as much as you need, and quickly moving to the next opportunity. Vampiric totems may not be paragons of virtue (by human opinion), but they are also not advocates of wanton harm and abuse. Their lessons are, on the whole, morally neutral and it is the totemist's responsibility to filter their lessons through whatever ethical and moral beliefs they follow.

Vampiric totems, in a roundabout way, can also teach the importance of giving back to the community. Humanity has received many medical benefits from studying hemotophages. Leeches were used by ancient and medieval physicians who practiced bloodletting as an attempt balance the humors (four hypothetical bodily fluids considered responsible for health and temperament). Humoral theory and the use of leeches was eventually abandoned, but in recent times doctors have once again turned to leeches for aid, this time using them to increase healing blood flow to tissue during certain types of surgery. Studies of the saliva of vampire bats and ticks has led to the invention of drugs which may potentially help fight certain cancers or increase the recovery rates of stroke victims. Currently, the various anticoagulants created by a number of hemotophagic species is being studied in hopes of creating drugs that may significantly decrease the dangers of heart disease. There is a certain amount of irony to appreciate in the thought that creatures capable of causing epidemics may also hold the key to cures to other devastating diseases. Or maybe, just maybe, it represents some sense of balance in the universe, a reminder that everything has a place and purpose. At the very least it is a good reminder that even the things in Nature we most fear and loathe may one day gift us with important, life changing knowledge.

The lessons of vampiric totems is best summed up as, “All life is transaction between giving and taking”. These totems challenge us to take a good, hard look at where these two forces fit in our lives. When one of these totems arrives to teach us, we must pay careful attention to who in our lives is doing the giving and taking. If we are the one being taken from, it will need to be determined when and if these situations should be tolerated and when they should be avoided or fought. If we are the ones doing the taking, we need to be honest with ourselves about why we are taking, if we feel it is ever right to take, and ensure that even if we must take at times we do not become harmful and abusive. Blood drinking totems also teach that even the creatures (and people) we consider nothing more than pests may provide us with surprising benefits if we learn to work with them in a different manner. They ask us to take a closer look at and strengthen our boundaries, but also to avoid an extreme desire to eliminate all irritations in our lives. We will need to find a healthy balance between tolerance for others and a need to protect ourselves.

Work with these totems can at times cause much discomfort and not everyone can or should work with them. As a group, they are very matter-of-fact, unapologetic, and not concerned about human morality or politeness. On the other hand, few totems can match them in terms of knowledge of blood mysteries, understanding of working with the flow spiritual energy, and the ability to acknowledge and come to terms with the less noble aspects of our natures. They also understand (and seem to accept) the fact that not everyone will welcome them. They rarely actively seek students, but when they do they can be persistent and impossible to ignore. So long as the totemist accepts and prepares for the possible dangers of this path, the potential for self-knowledge is great.
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