Sunday, February 14, 2010

Totem Spirits

In the first entry of this blog, I mentioned that the dragon is “my personal totem in a deeply spiritual sense.” I think it’s time to discuss just what that means.

A totem is a source of magic and an image of the soul. The word and concept come from shamanism. Traditionally, a totem is the image of an animal, something that a person living in a primitive society might meet while wandering in the world near his village. Obviously that’s not quite the case with mine, though. No one is likely to meet a dragon in the flesh. Dragons are not part of our physical-plane existence, any more than unicorns, fairies, or honest politicians. But even in its aboriginal form, a shaman’s totem animal was never the same as the beast that bore its name and image. A shaman with a bear for a totem would not by virtue of that be able to turn to a bear in the forest for aid, and indeed might be mauled and killed by one like anyone else. In view of which, I’m just as happy that real, physical dragons don’t exist in our world.

But if my totem is not a physical dragon – and if the bear totem or wolf totem or eagle totem of someone else is not a physical bear, wolf, or eagle – what is it? Is it merely an imaginary creature?

No: because the imagination does not deserve to be called “mere.”

Unless you are currently out hiking in the wilderness and reading this on your smart phone or some such, most everything you see around you is a product of the imagination. Your home or office, the floor beneath your feet, the device you’re reading this on, the clothes you wear, in short everything man-made, existed first in someone’s imagination and could not have been manifest in physical reality if it had not first been imagined. Imagination links the world together and recombines its elements in new patterns. Imagination is crucial to all thought, all feeling, all social interaction, all life. Imagination is the essence of art, of science, of problem-solving. The reality we experience is composed of four elements, sensation, thought, emotion, and imagination, and imagination is as important as any of the others.

To make a contrast between the imaginary and the real is sloppy thinking. The imaginary IS real. It’s just a different type of reality than what comes in over the sensory lines. Imagination has power. Imagination remakes the world.

A totem, then, is a powerful creature of the imagination. Through the power of association, it links a person to some aspect of the universe which has particular significance for him. It expresses and strengthens certain qualities of a mage’s personality and character. It provides guidance, companionship, insight, and empowerment.

One interesting thing about a totem compared to other imaginary forms important in magic, such as deities from religions or mythos, the Sephiroth of the Tree of Life in the Kaballah, the Major Arcana of the Tarot, etc. is that a totem is very personal. The dragon isn’t everyone’s totem, it’s my totem, and my particular dragon is only my totem, shared with no other mage, not even those who also have dragon totems. It relates to aspects of my nature in its power of flight, its intelligence and cunning, its visionary depth, and its ruthlessness. It cautions me as well through its dark side, its potential for selfishness and greed, arrogance and autocracy. I know that all of these are qualities I share with it, even the power of flight or to breathe fire, though of course these are symbolic and not literal. Another person with a different totem will also find that its personal characteristics resonate with her own.

So how does one choose a totem? One does not. One feels the resonance, the attraction, to a particular image, a particular animal. It isn’t a rational decision any more than falling in love. Not much in the working of magic is rational; one can apply reason to understanding how it works, what it can do now and what it might be able to do in the future, and to the design of rituals, spells, and magical systems, but the actual doing comes from the shadow side of the mind, the moonlit night, the self of dreams. It comes from the heart and the soul more than from the mind. In a very real sense, the totem chooses the person.

Does all this mean I believe magic to be real, of the sort I write fiction about? I imagine some reading this may wonder at that. Yes and no. The sort of magic that Correl could do before he became a Star Mage, yes, that’s real. Deep-tier magic, manipulation of probability at the molecular or quantum level of events, is theoretically possible but I have seen no evidence that it can actually be done by any real person; it’s a fictional device, an element of fantasy and that’s all it is to the best of my knowledge – at least for the present. Thus I cannot, as my characters do, physically assume the form of my totem. It would be a splendid thing if I could. How delightful to soar on the wind above the ocean, my great wings spread until they blot out the stars. How satisfying to cast my shadow upon the makers of war, the greedy and tyrannical, the merely human monsters of our world, and send them fleeing and disrupt their wickedness. But it may be that Correl is right, and the universe does not trust human beings with power like that. Or at least, does not trust this particular human being. And I have enough self-knowledge, partly thanks to the dragon spirit itself, to recognize the possibility that the cosmos is wise in this restraint.

But if in reality and outside of fiction the power of a totem spirit (and of magic in general) is more subtle than that, it is still an intoxicating thing. Although I must leave my flesh behind to do it, I can indeed soar on dragon-wings against the starlit sky, and see the world through eyes not bound by the human spectrum, and contemplate the timeless mysteries with a dragon’s understanding. There is a deep knowledge and an instinctive wisdom buried at the roots of the brain. To connect with a totem spirit is one way to access that knowledge and wisdom.

Nothing comes free, and there are prices to be paid for this. To invite a totem spirit into one’s life is to invite painful transformation. It shouldn’t be done lightly, but then, that’s impossible anyway; a light call is not answered, only one made from deep in the heart. In any case, a totem’s gifts and the price for them are not separate things, but two sides of the same thing. It’s the paying that’s the gift, and it’s the gift that pays.

1 comment:

  1. Noqw you know why I call myself The Grey Badger online.