New Paths to Animal Totems by Lupa

New Paths to Animal Totems: Three Alternative Approaches to Creating Your Own Totemism
Lupa
Llewellyn Publications, 2012

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Review by Jennifer Lawrence.

Choosing – and then having – a totem, or spirit animal, is one of the most ubiquitous experiences in Neopaganism today. It is such a well-known experience that there are even memes about it, where people turn the situation humorous by claiming Bruce Campbell, Chuck Norris, Lady Gaga, Darth Vader, or some other celebrity or fictional character as their spirit animal.

When people think about totems, generally they think of them through the lens of a particular culture. Very often – as much as nine times out of ten, perhaps – the specific culture they think of is “Native American”. Not a particular tribe, but a generic composite spanning an aggregation of the better-known tribes: Cherokee, Apache, Lakota, possibly Seminole, Cheyenne, Comanche, or sometimes Tlingit or Haida (Raven is a very popular totem). Rarely, someone will study up on the beliefs of other peoples around the world as regards spirit animals. But cultural frameworks are not the only way to study or meet totems, and this book provides three other pathways to learn about them: Correspondences, Bioregional, and Archetypal.

The author, Lupa, has been developing these paths for a number of years now, and her blog, A Sense of Natural Wonder (http://www.thegreenwolf.com/blog/) has become a key resource for seekers wanting to learn more about totems and learning to become closer to the spirits of nature in general. She has published three previous books on related topics and served as editor to two anthologies on unconnected Neopagan topics. A fourth book, Plant and Fungus Totems: Connect with Spirits of Field, Forest, and Garden has come out since the publication of this one.

The first pathway discussed in this book, that of Correspondences, begins by explaining – for those new enough to Neopaganism that they don’t yet know – what correspondences are, and then listing some examples of correspondence systems: astrological, seasonal, directional, elemental. Other forms of divinatory systems are discussed (Tarot, ogham, runic), and the section on astrology discusses the Chinese zodiac as well as the Western one. She points out that systems of correspondences can change over time, and emphasizes the need to make personal connections with the totems linked to these systems, rather than relying solely on stereotypical associations. There are invocations and outlines for rituals and spells in the last half of this section, and many suggestions meant to inspire thoughtful introspection that can lead to a much deeper, richer relationship with the totems you interact with.

The second pathway in the book – this reviewer’s favorite – is that of Bioregionalism. Specifically, it emphasizes learning about the specific animals native to the reader’s part of their country. For the reviewer, for example, who lives in the Midwest, in a suburban area near Chicago, by Lake Michigan, that means the totems more likely to be interacted with are apt to be animals like raccoons, tree squirrels, possums, the occasional coyote, robins, sparrows, garter snakes, American toads, and once in a while, hawks or falcons. Larger mammals like wolves, buffalo, and moose are nowhere to be found in this part of the States, and even deer and foxes are more likely to be seen only once the city itself is left behind and one travels out to more rural areas. This approach to totems helps the reader build a stronger relationship with the creatures he or she is more likely to see every day, and the frequency of that interaction is one of the qualities that makes it possible to connect all the more closely. In Arizona, an individual might have connections to sidewinder rattlesnakes, scorpions, Gila monsters, and buzzards; in the far north in Montana, a reader would indeed be likely to see wolves and elk, but also animals like marmots, Canadian lynx, bighorn sheep, and black bears. In Florida, there might be endangered Florida panthers, manatee, red wolves, bobcats, otters, armadillos, and capybara. Each bioregion will play host to its own set of creatures, some of which will be common and found over most of the country (deer, raccoons, squirrels), and others which will be found in that area alone.

The final section of the book deals with the pathway of Archetypes. In this system, creatures become symbols – metaphors — for particular concepts, experiences, and qualities. In the work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who defined and described the concept of archetypes, archetypes dwelt in the unconscious of the human brain, and an understanding of archetypes as guideposts to human behavior helped individuals to understand how that behavior was shaped by behavioral, neurochemical, and biological events and processes that had happened a long time in the past. The author points out that while a common understanding – or misunderstanding – of archetypes has led to any number of well-known symbols (dogs as hard workers, bears as healers, etc.), in the system of archetypal totemism, each creature may indeed have a different meaning from person to person. She stresses the importance of the self-interview and several other psychological tools described in this section to make certain that the meaning an individual ascribes to an archetypal totem actually fits what that totem means to that individual. She also cautions that, although working with archetypal totems is a process born from a psychological set of tools, it is in no way a replacement for actual psychological therapy, and should not be construed as such.

The final two sections in the book deal with learning how to combine the systems in the book and work in those combined models (Chapter Six) and other sorts of work with animal totems (Chapter Seven). Both chapters provide a wealth of advanced practice and ideas for individuals who have thoroughly practiced the exercises and ideas in the first part of the book. Part of chapter seven deals with certain American taboos – working with parts of dead totems (deer antlers, animal hides) and extends to eating parts of them; chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys, sheep, geese, ducks, and goats are all considered food animals in most countries, and yet they are all animals that can be connected to in totemic work. In some cultures, eating the flesh, eggs, milk, etc. of such animals is considered a way to become closer to that creature, and partaking of its essence, although it is a practice that vegetarians and vegans would not choose to take part in. This chapter also discusses working with the totem spirits of domestic animals that we commonly regard as pets: cats, dogs, parrots, snakes, fish, rats, hamsters, lizards, and even horses.

Finally, at the end of the book are a bibliography, a list for recommended reading, a glossary, and two indexes that will provide helpful research material for those wanting to do and learn more: a list of animal nonprofit organizations, and a guided meditation for finding totems.

This is one of the most useful and well-written books on totems ever written, and most certainly the finest one written in the last decade or so. In the years to come, it is not unrealistic to believe that it will come to be regarded as a foundational work in the study of totems and how to work with them. It is certainly not unrealistic to state that, for those who wish to not only begin learning how to work with totems but also to work with them in a myriad of ways that deepen the connections one makes, this is the book to add to one’s library.

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