What Are Animal Totems?
Totem animals are a form of spirit guide recognized by most cultures that contain a shamanic element. The basis of shamanic practice is the belief that all things have a spirit, an animus that makes all things sentient and aware. While they may not share the same form of ‘intelligence’ as we do, they all have their own drives and motivations. The world is full of divine spirits, and all things have their own spirit, from the mountains to the rivers to the stone along the path.
It is important to understand that animal totems as life savers are not *a* specific animal, or even a spirit of a particular animal. They are an archetype, the entity that contains and represents all things that are embodied in the concept of a particular animal. Based on this, if one has Raven as a spirit animal, it is “Raven”, it’s name is properly capitalized since it is a distinct entity.
Finding Your Animal Totems
There are many different beliefs around spirit animals and their role in a person’s life. In some traditions a symbolic totem is gained at birth, and travels with you through your entire life’s path. In others it is a coming of age, and when one is visited by and chosen by their totem animal, it is a signifier of being spiritually mature. Which animal chooses you is also in question, but in most cases animal totems are thought to be representative of some portion of our inner nature.
It is believed in many cultures that it is possible to anger or offend one’s animal spirit. By treating it with disrespect, or defying that aspect of our nature which it represents, we can offend the spirit. We may find ourselves abandoned or without it’s guidance until some form of reparation is made.
The path to obtaining an symbolic animal totem, or making contact with them for the first time, is accomplished through entering into an ‘ecstatic state’. In this case it refers to a state of heightened or altered consciousness, and often both. Shamanism has a tendency to use mind altering substances or practices that will open our mind to the spirit world, and make us capable of making contact with and communicating with these entities.
Common methods of reaching the ecstatic state include fasting, psychoactive drug use (peyote was common in certain southern Native American tribes), or extreme physical trials. Steam huts, for instance, involve increased heat and high humidity, along with herbs placed upon the stones producing the heat. This puts the body into a state where we can start experiencing hallucinations and having contact with spirits.
It is important if you try to use these methods, that you are careful to do so under the watchful eye of someone familiar with the process. By their very nature they are dangerous to the one going through the process, and it is important that we take proper care in doing so. The reason for these experiences is that, especially at first, we need our spirits opened and freed from the mundane coil that we’ve lived in, so that we can have contact with that higher astral plane.
When you acquire your own Animal Totem, it will be part of a long relationship where they assist you with your life’s trials. They will guide you to growing your wisdom and experience, and will walk you through the difficult path ahead to shamanic wisdom. Depending on which tradition you ask, not everyone will have an animal totem symblism, in other cases it is the birthright of everyone.