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Three Ways to Find an Animal Totem

This article was written by Lupa
posted under Paganism

Any animal species that has ever existed has a totem. (The same goes for plants, fungi, and the like, but we'll stick to the critters here.) Even better, we're not limited to working with just one totem. People often ask me, "How do I find my animal totem?," to which the response may be, "Well, which one?" Mind you, I'm not talking about a set number of totems. In my experience, we don't all have a template that we have to fill up with our own totemic menagerie. The nature and number of totemic relationships we have are unique to each of us.

The most common way people find animal totems is through guided meditation. This usually involves traveling a path or down a tunnel that comes out into a place where you can meet your totem. (One example may be found here.) The benefits of this method are that you have enough structure to get you into a meditative state of mind, while having enough freedom to allow whatever totem wants to meet you to show up.

But what other options are there, especially for those who may not want to grub around in metaphysical tunnels? A deck of totem cards is simple, but severely limits the potential range of totems that can come up (since there is just one totem per card, and you can only fit so many cards into a deck). Animal sightings in dreams and waking life may or may not have significance, but most of the time the former is a matter of your brain picking out animal symbols at random while you sleep, and the latter involves living animals going about their daily business without a care for any human's spiritual business. Your favorite animal isn't necessarily your totem, either; totems most often choose us, especially those who shake us out of our familiar comfort zones.

So what's an aspiring totemist to do? Here are a few possibilities that may work for you.

Totems of the Four Directions
First, make a list for each of the four cardinal directions (North, East, South, and West). In each list include all the qualities and correspondences that you associate with that direction.

Next, set up a ritual space and set each list in its corresponding quarter, along with any other symbols of that direction you like. (Avoid any animal symbols, as they may subconsciously bias you toward the species depicted.)

Start with North. Settle yourself comfortably in the Northern quarter. Meditate on all the qualities of North that you wrote down, and any others that come up. As you do, be on the lookout for animals that come up in your stream of consciousness. If you like, quietly call for a totem to step forth out of the North, and see if anyone shows up.

You may find you get a very clear answer, or you may just get hints of a fin or wing. Either way, once you're done meditating in each quarter take down as detailed a set of notes of your meditation as you can, before moving on to the next quarter. If you only get definite totems in some quarters, start working with them, and then "check in" with the other quarters periodically to see if any totems show up after time.

Meeting the Totemic Self
When Carl Jung wrote about archetypes in the first half of the twentieth century, he wasn't just talking about "the archetypal dragon," but rather about deep impulses in the shared human psyche that took on particular forms. For example, the Shadow archetype embodies our most hidden (and sometimes shameful) drives, the things about us that we may find very frightening. The Persona is not who we are, but who we present ourselves to be, the mask of being a social creature.

In my own totemic system, the totem that most people think of as "my" totem is what I call the primary totem. (While you can have more than one primary totem, I'm going to refer to a singular primary for the time being.) In many cases, the connection a person has with their primary totem isn't just a very strong bond; it stems from the Self, who they are and what makes them an individual. While Jung's original conception of the Self isn't in animal form, and it shouldn't be seen as exactly the same as an animal totem, one's primary totem can represent the Self in a convenient personal shorthand, as it were. On the other hand, your primary totem, and the totem that represents your Self to you most closely, may be two entirely different species.

Some of you may already know exactly which totem(s) are your Self totems. If not, ask yourself these questions: Have I ever thought of myself as a (non-human) animal, in play or symbolism? Do I feel a particular resonance with another species? Have others thought I reminded them of a type of animal?

If you've never thought of yourself in animal terms, take the time to do so now. If you were going to be any other animal, what might it be? Spend some time reading about animals around the world, watch some documentaries, and otherwise immerse yourself in finding out about the great diversity of beings on this planet. Do any of them remind you of yourself?

Don't assume that the animal(s) that come up when you answer these questions are totemic, but they are starting points. Again, you can check with the totems themselves through meditation to ask them whether there is a real connection, or if it's just wishful thinking on your part. Also, the Self is a very deep archetype, and the totem(s) you associate with it may not be the sum total of what that archetype is, just as you are not limited to your totem. Over time, though, you may discover very intricate relationships among you, your Self, and the totem(s) you are closest to.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider Totem
As the Self totem brings you to your deepest inner workings, so Bioregional totems take you to explore the world around you. Your bioregion (also known as an ecoregion) is the natural area around you, often defined by a particular type of ecosystem, or delineated by the boundaries of a given watershed. Bioregions may also overlap and even contain each other.

Your first step should be to identify your bioregion(s). Wikipedia has a listing of ecoregions by country that you can use as a starting point. You're welcome to hone your focus even more finely, sticking to perhaps a mile radius from your home as an example.

You may already be familiar with the local fauna; however, if not, this is a great time to get out and get to know the area and its nonhuman inhabitants better. While a lot of them, especially the smaller critters, are sleeping here in the Northern hemisphere as winter approaches, others may be out and about (and on the other half of the world everyone's waking up, being born, and otherwise making a fuss!) And, of course, you can continue your explorations indefinitely.

While you're exploring your territory, as it were, you may find that certain animals really jump out at you (hopefully not literally!) These may just be the most noticeable of the local fauna, but there's also a chance that their totems may be willing to help you connect to your area. If you do think that a particular bioregional totem may have a special connection with you, again take the time to ask it directly. This is especially effective when done in a place where you see the physical animals quite a bit, if possible. And if it does turn out that this totem wants to work with you, take special care to get to know the habits and adaptations of its physical counterparts in the places where you find them. Understand their relationship with their habitats, and you'll have a good, strong start to knowing both your totem and your bioregion better!

Checking Your Work, and Other Troubleshooting
One of the potential pitfalls of trying to identify one of your totems is letting your expectations get in the way. For example, many people think that their totems should be big, powerful animals like Gray Wolf or Bald Eagle. Sometimes they may be right, but other times they may be ignoring totems that are a better fit for them, like King Salmon or Western Telipna Butterfly or even Organ Pipe Coral.

If you want, use the guided meditation I linked to early in the article to go and talk directly to the totem you think may be contacting you. It could be a case of mistaken identity, but it could also be the beginning of a beautiful friendship! Also, the proof may be in the pudding—over time, anyway. If you find that a totem's presence in your life is disruptive, or simply doesn’t seem to be a good fit, you may have misidentified the totem, or the relationship may simply not be a good match.

If more than one totem shows up during your explorations, don't assume you have to choose among them! As I mentioned before, there are no hard and fast rules as to how many totems you can (or must!) have. It may be that you have three totems that want to show you different parts of your bioregion, or four different totems that each represent the direction of South depending on what season it is.

Finally, if you don't get a totem to show up immediately, don't fret. Sometimes the totem that's the best match may not feel ready to approach you, or may not feel you're ready to work with it just yet. You could be having trouble concentrating enough to get a good connection (this is especially true for those who are fairly new to meditation and other spiritual practices). Give yourself a few weeks or even a couple of months off from trying, and then give it another shot!

Lupa
Lupa (Portland, OR) is a neoshaman, artist and sustainability geek. She has been working with animal magic in various forms since the 1990s and has developed a self-created and spirit-directed neoshamanic path. She possesses a Master’s degree in...  Read more

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