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Totem animals

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Totems and familiars

by Yvonne Aburrow


(an excerpt from "The Magical Lore of Animals" by Yvonne Aburrow)


The word totem has been borrowed from one culture and applied indiscriminately to other cultures. Whilst the concept of kinship with animals is similar in many cultures, there are subtle differences between the various ways in which the concept is applied in everyday life, and the explanations given for it by its adherents. It is inappropriate to regard all these different concepts and social structures as totemism per se, as this is to underestimate the complexity of the cultures in which they arise. Similarly, the word 'shaman' has been applied inappropriately to practices which differ in significant ways from the one from which the word was borrowed, as Ronald Hutton has demonstrated in his book, The Shamans of Siberia (1993). I suspect that a similar process has occurred with the concept of totemism. For example, in The Golden Bough, Frazer calls all totemic relationships "the external soul" in an animal. He has taken the concept of an external soul from Indo-European folk-tale, and applied it willy-nilly to other cultures, which would not necessarily regard the totemic relationship in the same way. Similarly, the group totems of indigenous Americans have been taken as the basis for comparison with other cultures' relationships with animals.


So, what is the totemic relationship? In modern Paganism, the concept of a totem animal can be divided up into three distinct, though related, concepts:


a) A species or an individual animal with which a person feels an affinity, either for its attributes or its symbolism;


b) A kind of "spirit guide" in the form of an animal;


c) The "animal self" of the person, i.e. an inner archetype.


These concepts come from a variety of sources. The animal as a spirit guide is partly derived from nineteenth century occultism, and partly derived from the popular idea of the witch's familiar spirit, which was believed to take the form of an animal, frequently a cat. The idea of the "animal self" is mostly derived from Jungian psychology. Jung interpreted mythology in the light of inner processes, and his theories are derived from his interpretation of the significance of myth and legend. The idea of an affinity with a species or individual animal is the closest to the practice of totemism in tribal societies, but it is not quite the same. In modern Paganism, totem animals are regarded as a personal totem. In tribal societies, the totem is often a communal one. It should be emphasised that the concept of totem animals in modern Paganism is just as valid as earlier forms of the concept. Traditions evolve constantly to adapt to changes in society; the fact that modern Pagans have developed a new way of looking at totem animals shows that Paganism is dynamic and not static. Also we no longer live in a tribal society in the formal sense of the word, although we may build up loose tribal affinities with like-minded people. The basis of this developing tradition, however, is personal experience with one's own totem animal. The relationship which is built up is one of mutual respect and affection, and provides a link with the spirit world and with planet Earth. It is based on respect for the environment and for our fellow beings, whether animal, bird, plant, or spirit.


Types of totem:


  • The animal as ancestor;
  • The animal as representative of a clan;
  • An external soul placed with an animal for safekeeping;
  • The animal as friend or relation (if the animal dies, so will the human, but meanwhile the human obtains magical powers);
  • The animal as an embodiment of a deity;
  • The animal as an attribute of a human or deity;
  • The animal as a guide to the spirit realms, also known as a "spirit ally".


Further reading


Familiars, Anna Franklin, Capall Bann Publishing


Sacred Animals, Gordon MacLellan, Capall Bann Publishing


Talking to the Earth, Gordon MacLellan, Capall Bann Publishing


The Magical Lore of Animals, Yvonne Aburrow, Capall Bann Publishing

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