First, let’s be clear on what a totem is. Most people will instantly visualise the stereotypical carved wooden pole, which is a representation of a tribe’s hierarchy of totems. But that’s all a totem pole is – an icon. A representation. However sacred it might be, it’s not the totem itself because a totem is a living thing. If anything, a totem pole is simply the focal point for ceremonies and rituals involving the totem.
A totem is much more than a mascot. It’s the collective spirit of all the individual animals of that species, given form and intelligence. It can be communed with through the clan shaman, and negotiated with through acts of sacrifice and ritual.
The totem has something innate in its character which the clan admires, or already possesses. Its qualities or prowess in certain areas will inspire admiration. A complex mythology develops around the totem starting from the clan’s view of world creation to contemporary ‘lessons’.
The totem, then, is almost godlike. Unlike a god though, who often resides outside the realm of humanity, the totem interacts and impacts on the lives of the people in a very real way.
Shamen will impersonate the spirit of the totem by wearing the animal’s head or skins during ceremonies. Entering a shamanic state, they will communicate with it and interpret its wishes. In such a state, they become it in much the same way as they ‘become’ their spirit animal, although this interaction is at a much higher level.
As for the rest of the tribe, the hunters will respect it, adopt its hunting/fishing/running abilities. The warriors will adopt its tactics. The people will learn its ways and strive to emulate them. They will, as a collective, identify so deeply with their totem that their neighbours will come to call them by that name. Wolf Tribe, Bear Clan, Horse People and so on. Depending on their relationship with these other clans, their insults might be coloured accordingly. Consider the terms: sly as a fox, greedy as a pig, stubborn as a donkey.
The totem is sacred, either as a form of food, or as something never to be killed. Should a tribe take the totem of a wild boar as a prey totem, then it is considered a sacred food-source, as well as a fierce fighter. Before going out, the hunters would make a sacrifice – perhaps in the form of burnt herbs or grains – and ask the boar spirit to allow them to take one of its people in return. The meat they take would thus be sacred and would be eaten with due ceremony and reverence.
In the case of an animal that should never be eaten, the horse may be chosen as such a totem. In which case eating horse becomes taboo. In Britain we have such a taboo, leading us to the idea that we once worshipped the horse and considered it more valuable than livestock. Thus the idea of eating horsemeat is abhorent to all but the most robust of British meat-eaters. Predators are also taboo. Consider the preditors in our environment, even domesticated ones, and ask yourself if you would eat it (vegetarians are excused this exercise). Birds of prey, dogs, cats, badgers, foxes. Yum (not). Yet their meat is as wholesome as any other. It’s only our taboos – the leftover concepts of totemism in our culture – that make them ‘inedible’.
The biggest sacrelidge a clansman can make is to harm an albino of the species. These rare individuals personify the totem and bear its name. Its appearance is considered portentous, perhaps forewarning of something calamitous.
In present times, it is still possible to adopt a clan totem. In fact many Wiccan covens will adopt an animal and use it to guide their outlook on life. Clearly, a totem should not be chosen arbitrarily. It should be something an individual already identifies with and admires. Then it’s time to look at the animal’s qualities and decide if they are something you can adopt and live with.
Afterall a totem is for life, not just for… (sorry, no. Can’t do it. My level of corn is only so deep.)