Finding Your Animal Totem
1. This exercise is best performed outside, in Nature, for it is there, after all, that the animals reside. If you can manage it, pack your drum in a day-pack and hike out a ways. Find an isolated spot to sit. Bring a blanket or mat to sit on if that makes you more comfortable.
There are many, however, who live in the city and do not have ready access to the great outdoors. Don’t worry about it; this exercise can easily be practiced indoors as well. All you really need is some room to move and a place to sit.
As you sit, you may wonder which way to face. There are, in fact, many shamanic traditions about the four cardinal directions. To the earliest European farmers of the Neolithic, the happy Other world and all its wisdom and grace was symbolized by the west. Most traditions that have emerged from shamanism maintain this symbolism, with the west serving as the direction of transformation, death and rebirth. The east, as the opposite direction, represents all the opposite qualities embodied in the notion of beginnings; thus Hermetic and Kabbalistic rituals typically begin with the practitioner facing east, and yogis face east each morning to honor the rising sun. The north is commonly regarded as a difficult direction; it is from the north that the winter snows descend upon humankind to chill the earth. The opposite direction, south, is symbolic of abundance and fertility.
The answer to our question, then, is to face any direction you please, though east or south would be preferable.
If you are working outdoors at night, you may wish to focus your gaze upon the North Star. If you live in the city and are working indoors, you can simply visualize the North Star shining above your head. The easiest way to find the North Star is to look for the Big Dipper. You probably know where it is already, for it is one of the best-known and most easily identifiable constellations in the heavens. Now focus on the Dipper’s bowl. Note the end of the bowl farthest from the handle, and follow its line to the top or rim of the bowl. Then keep following the same line with your eyes until you reach the next star. This is Polaris, the North Star. You will know you’ve located it correctly if the star you’re gazing at forms the top of the handle of yet another dipper–the Little Dipper.
2. Indoors or out, begin this exercise with drumming. Drum slowly and rhythmically at first. If you can work with a partner, so much the better. Let your partner do the drumming for you, the better to focus your own concentration.
As you feel yourself become part of the drumbeat, build up your inner World Tree in your imagination. Breathe in and out with deep and constant rhythm that harmonizes with the drumbeat. Breathing in, draw the energy up from the earth to the topmost branches of the tree; breathing out, circulate the energy back into the earth.
3. When you feel fully empowered with the energy of your own Internal World Tree, stand up and increase the pace of the drumbeat. If you are working alone, you may need to get the hang of holding and beating your drum while moving around. (This, along with the difficulty involved in dragging a large object through the outdoors, is why it is best to work with a drum of relatively modest size.) Moving and drumming all at once may seem awkward at first, but Native American shamans do it all time. Of course, if you are working with a partner, you won’t have this problem; and when you stand up you will be signaling your partner than you are ready to dance, and that the pace of the drumming should increase.
If you genuinely feel that dancing with drum in hand is likely to cramp your style, and if your powers of imagination and will are sufficient to keep the drumbeat pounding in your head without the aid of the physical instrument, then by all means you may set down the drum at this juncture.
4. Move around the room, or around the outdoor space you have selected, in a circular motion. For this kind of work, always move in a clockwise direction. Walking in the path of the sun symbolizes increase and beneficence, while moving counter-sunwise or widder-shins produces the opposite effect (and is best left to experienced magical workers who know what they’re doing). As you move, feel free to use any kind of footsteps you please, but try to keep your movements more or less in time with the drumming. If someone else is drumming for you, or if you feel sufficiently confident to work without the drum, then you can use your hands as well.
As you dance, mentally call upon all the world’s creatures to be with you in your circle. Send forth a voice from your mind, and see the sound waves traveling out through the universe. You will soon begin to sense the presence of the animal powers, to feel wings brush against your body, to hear the birdsong and the howling of wolves or coyotes, the neighing of horses, the scream of the jaguar–all the sounds and sensations of the animal kingdom.
5. As you dance in a circle, surrounded by the animal powers, be aware of how your footwork changes, and be aware of your hands and arms, if you’re using them. You will take on a particular gait, a particular stance, a particular set of motions. These movements are characteristic of your animal, whose presence you will now begin to feel.
When an animal has fully established itself within you, let it dance in your spirit for a while. Then, stop dancing. Stand still until your breathing is slow and rhythmic once again. Welcome your animal into your soul.
When working with animals, be open-minded. Most Americans want to have a really trendy animal for a totem–a wolf, a bear, an eagle. I remember a Native American poet who joked about attending a men’s group where “all these white guys wanted the biggest animal they could think of for a totem. I told’em just skip the small stuff and go with Tyrannosaurus Rex.”
But the biggest or cutest or trendiest critter isn’t necessarily the most powerful animal for you. In European lore, the little mouse was the spirit traveler par excellence, and hence an animal of great power. Don’t try to bend the powers of the animal kingdom to your will, just let your animal come to you. Your animal totem may change over time, anyway, or you may find yourself hosting more than one. Records from the witch trials suggest that many witches had a least two or three animal familiars at one time.
Though the rituals are both interesting and powerful, they aren’t the whole story. More often than not, we acquire our familiars in the most ordinary ways–a stray dong or cat may approach you in the street, begging to be taken home; or, if you live in the country, your familiar may turn out to be the wild critter who’s friendly enough to eat from a little bowl on your front porch.
Don’t intellectualize about the qualities attributed to different animals–by doing so, you will only end up choosing an animal image of how you want to be, rather than finding the totem you really need. You can go read about you animal totem after you’ve found it. You may still wish to examine some of the relevant Native American animal lore, simply to acquire a fuller perspective. All lore and myth arises from the earth, and cannot be separated from the land out of which it was born.
“North Star Road”, by Kenneth Johnson