My Totem Animal

Author’s Note: Lately, my art partner Michelle Anglin and I have been exploring Native American trickster stories in our art blog Two Twitch A Tale. At the same time I am re-reading Lewis Hyde’s amazing book, Trickster Makes This World and discussing it with my book group. As it happens, my totem animal Rabbit is also a trickster figure. This posting began as a short piece on my process to accompany Br’er Rabbit’s collage, but it evolved into a full-blown essay more appropriate to Mused by Magdalene. Hope you enjoy it!

The twentieth century developed quickly, leaving more and more people cut off from their traditional spiritual, cultural and historic roots. At the same time, knowledge about world religions increased. Native American culture, despised for so long in the Americas, began to make a slow comeback from the evil ignorance perpetuated by a colonial-minded culture. Shortly after mid-century in the 1960’s, a generation of postwar baby-boomers began coming of age. Raised in a burgeoning economy by upwardly mobile, overprotective parents anxious to erase all memory of the horrors of WWII, they were totally unprepared by their upbringing for the normal hypocrisy endemic to the politics of the human condition. Rejecting everything their parents held dear, they struck out on a search for meaning in every exotic and esoteric locale they could find. Gradually, they grew up, settled, made money, but continued to hanker after what they’d discovered. New, food, new ideas, new religions, encouraged and promoted by new technologies, spread through the culture of the United States like wildfire and began to fuse into new configurations, patterns and belief systems. America finally began to be the melting pot in which we’d been taught to believe.

Of course there’s another viewpoint to be considered. One can easily perceive this willy-nilly appropriation of bits and pieces of other people’s culture as a sort of neo-colonialism in which white people raid the civilizations of everyone else in the world to hack out the bits they like and stitch together a patchwork pseudo-culture of their own. Native American cultures have been particularly hard hit by this phenomena.

Many indigenous cultures consider totem animals to be non-human ancestors of their tribes. These animal ancestors become the protagonists of the tribe, clan or family’s creation myth. Overtime stylized depictions begin to symbolize the animal and are used as marks of identification for the group. The people consider their particular animal as kin and pay particular attention to its natural ways and habitats in order to learn the wisdom of their animal’s way of moving through the world. The characteristics of the group’s totem, learned from years of careful observation become valued and emulated by tribespeople.

This affinity with animals, particularly mammals, is incredibly attractive. Our urban culture deprives most children of contact with the animal world and yet, they long for it. US citizens spent 53.33 billion dollars on their pets last year, but only about a third of us have animal companions. It’s no wonder we developed a fascination with totem or power animals.

In current “New Age” thinking, totem animals are believed by many to represent one’s soul. Others see them as spiritual guides, which appear as animals to lead, direct and advise. There are dozens of theories about what these animals are, what their purpose is, how to find them, how many one can have, etc.  An astounding number of complete cosmologies have developed around this concept each with its own set of convictions and devotees.

As it happens, I distrust belief systems of any kind. I’m very wary of setting limits on mystery, trying to define the ineffable or implementing a set of rules and regulations that purport to speak for the universe.  On the other hand,  wisdom seems to seep through almost every form of human endeavor and there are “more things in Heaven and Earth” than any philosophy dreams.

More selfishly, I too, found the idea of my own special animal soulmate utterly seductive. So, presented about twenty-five years ago with the opportunity to participate in Flor Fernandez’s workshop Finding Your Power Animal, I  happily agreed to play.

Flor is a true artist – she showed me what a workshop could be and taught me the utter importance of making learning experiential. But that was just the beginning. She took us on a carefully crafted journey through a set of exercises involving meditation, physical contact, dancing and group visualization. At one point we were all given lumps of clay and sent off into the forest to find a spot where we could sit quietly and fashion it into whatever animal we saw in the visualization.

I have to tell you something about me and guided visualization it just doesn’t work for me. I think too much; I try too hard. This disability used to humiliate and confuse me, sometimes to the point of tears. That day was no exception. Had an animal appeared to me at the edge of the clearing? Of course not.

I found a spot overlooking the lake to feel sorry for myself and sulk, but it’s difficult to maintain a good pout outside on a fine summer afternoon especially with water lapping at my feet and pine scent infusing the air.  Eventually, I began poking and pushing the clay into a body with four legs. Somehow it needed longer ears. Slowly the lump turned into a barely recognizable rabbit. But I didn’t want a rabbit! I wanted a lion or wolf, an owl or an eagle!  Suddenly, the gong sounded, signaling our return to the circle, and it was too late to change anything. Everyone else held much cooler animal – wolves, owls, bears, and horses abounded. My rabbit was the tamest lamest creature in the bunch. Flor refused to comment on the meaning of any of our animals, just advised us to accept for now, what had come to us…

Thus began my long relationship with rabbit. The Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams and David Carson started me off.  In the intervening year, I have read a lot about rabbits and experienced many synchronicities with these fascinating creatures. Their mythology is international, rich and varied. Every aspect of their “rabbitness” has held a personal message and proven meaningful to me.

Relating to rabbit has allowed me to feel my connection to this world. Our relationship gave me a pathway into the forest, prairies and gardens that exist in the here and now, but also into those mythic landscapes that linger in imagination and hide behind veils of mystery.

Rabbit lives underground, burrowed into the body of Mother Earth and so I learned to love the dark Mother. Trickster rabbit taught me how deceitful humanity can be, but also how to be wary without despair or cynicism. Some lessons took longer to learn than others, some I’m still working on.

In retrospect, having learned the value of focus, I think every animal could teach me as much. Like any relationship, the value lies in journeying together. Nevertheless, Rabbit and I suit each other very well and I wouldn’t trade now, for the world.

I feel immense gratitude and respect for this animal’s teaching. I honor it as kin. My heart thrills when I catch a glimpse of Rabbit or see a likeness in a poster, t-shirt, sculpture or painting. I am proud Rabbit picked my lump of clay through which to manifest.

There’s a lot to be said for keeping traditions pure and lineages clean. I deeply respect this position and feel profound compassion, shame and regret for the atrocities that created the anger and grief surrounding it. I also think Rabbit, who laughs at regulations and thumbs a nose at dogma, would agree with me that life demands more of us than tradition.

In my life, I’ve found that Wisdom is no respecter of boundaries and Spirit responds to every overture. So, I accept the ancient teachings about the value of forming a relationship with a particular animal in order to explore and sustain my connection with the whole. I’m grateful the teachings survived the centuries and grateful Flor Fernandez felt called to share them. I acknowledge it took Rabbit to bring me home to my briar patch – the planet we call Earth and I don’t believe our meeting was an accident.

This entry was posted in Animals, Archetypes, Art, Consciousness, Meaning, Myth, Rabbit, Storytelling, Symbol and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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