Celtic Totem Animals by John Matthews

Celtic Totem Animals
John Matthews
Red Wheel/Weiser Books, 2002
192 pages plus CD and 20 cards

There are only so many ways you can rehash basic totem animal material. Usually it comes down to “What is a totem animal? How do I meet my totem? What does each totem mean? What do I do once I know my totem?” and so forth. John Matthews has attempted to try to put a Celtic spin on things, as he did with Celtic Shamanism.

Much of the material in the book that came with this set is based on the usual neopagan totemism material, mixed with core shamanism. Guided meditations are presented as “journeys” (when they are not the same thing). Totems are painted as generally benign, and there’s not much offered in the way of warning in case one encounters an unhappy totem animal. He also invokes a number of human-animal interactions, and shapeshifting, as “totemic” or “shamanic” experiences. Some of these are real stretches of speculation; while I can see where the spirit of totemism flows through Celtic mythology, I have to question some of his historical assumptions.

Still, practically speaking, Matthews offers a pretty decent totemic system. While he limits his focus to twenty birds, mammals and the occasional cold-blooded critter that feature in Celtic myth and culture, he does briefly mention that other animals may show up as well. And his yearly cycle for working with the totems does offer a good structure for integrating theory into practice. I wish he’d spent less time talking about lore (which is what a large portion of the book is dedicated to) and more to development of the practical material, as well as discussion of his own experiences.

The totem cards are a complete disappointment. They’re tiny, and the card stock is about on par with a cheap postcard. They won’t last long, and the small size doesn’t really allow the artwork to have as much detail as it could. The drumming CD is a nice addition, though it’s specifically tailored for the totemic “journeying” described in the book–20 minutes of a single drum, 20 minutes of two drums, 30 minutes of one drum. As with any drumming CD, you’re limited by the time constraints of the recording.

It’s a nice effort, but it has a number of flaws. It almost comes across as something that was created primarily to tap the market of totem and other magical “kits” that was just hitting its stride when the set first came out. It’s not the worst totem kit I’ve seen, but neither is it the best. The originality of some of the material gives it some bonus points, but it could have been better.

Three pawprints out of five.

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1 Comment

  1. kelley said,

    December 30, 2008 at 7:45 am

    It sounds like it is a better effort than his earlier work, but I really don’t expect much meat from anything that he does. So many in that strata of “Celtic Shamanism” do not share their experiences. I wonder if that is in part because it’s considered a bit taboo to do so in the Core corner?


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