So I’ve started writing some posts about specific plant totems over at Therioshamanism. For a while now I’ve been expanding my understanding and practice of totemism beyond animals and into the bioregion as a whole system, paralleled in the spirit world as well as the physical. I’ve been engaging with the geography, geology, waterways and other “not-alive” natural phenomena, but plants are where my writing’s going, probably because it’s still easier to relate to something that at least breathes.
Anyway. I want it to be very, very, very clear that I am NOT writing a plant totem dictionary. The posts I’m writing are largely for me. They are not “This is what Douglas Fir means, that is what Poison Oak means”. Rather, they’re “Okay, this blog is a continuing experiential record of my shamanic path, and as I feel ready to start talking about this work I’ve been doing for a while, these individual plants are good starting points to get me actually writing”. And that’s how I want them interpreted—not “Hey, Lupa’s writing a totem plant dictionary!”
I really don’t care for the totem dictionary format; part of what inspired me to start writing my own books was being sick of not finding anything BUT dictionaries, with rare exception. While this essay softened my opinions about totem dictionaries somewhat, I still have my frustrations.
A lot of it has to do with how many people approach totem dictionaries. They treat the material therein as holy writ. If such and such dictionary says Wolf is the Teacher, well by golly then that’s what it must mean if Wolf is your totem! And so they go in with these stereotyped definitions that have been developed through OTHER people’s experiences with the totems, and keep shoehorning all their OWN experiences to fit these schemas, and so keep upholding these “definitions”.
But totems are not words in a dictionary. Totems are aware and evolving beings that shift as their physical counterparts and their relationships to other species shift. They are dynamic and complex, and cannot be limited to a few words on a page. This is why, when asked “I think such-and-such animal is my totem, what does it mean?” I tell people “Ask the totem hirself. Go directly to the source. That’s the only way to know A) if that is a totem of yours, and B), if so, what significance that has”.
A totem does not MEAN anything. A totem no more means something than your significant other means something, or your parent, or your friend or sibling. None of these are restricted by definitions.
A totem IS. A totem DOES. And all too often people’s interpretations of dictionaries just uphold the emphasis on “meaning”.
So what do I recommend instead of dictionaries? Guided meditation—here’s an essay that includes the one that I use, and here’s an essay explaining how and why the meditation actually works. Additionally, read up about the physical animals themselves—totems are “made of” all the information about their species, to include natural history, relationships with environment and other species (including humans), myth and lore, etc. Knowing about the physical animal’s behavior, for example, can help you better understand why the corresponding totem asks you to do a particular thing, or emphasizes a specific lesson.
And if you do look at totem dictionaries, don’t look at it as “I need to know what this totem means, and this book can tell me”. Look at it as “Here’s a record of this person’s experiences and how they work with the totems—maybe I can take some inspiration from what they did and use it to further my own explorations”.