A totem is any entity that watches over or assists a group or an individual. In practice, it was usually an animal, a natural landform, or a piece of wood with spirit faces carved into it. Traditionally, a totem would support large groups and shamans would meditate on them to tap into a sort of social consciousness that would fill them with resolve and desire to better their group. Whatever the symbol, the totem was thought to be imbued with a spirit that was prayed to in order to secure the tribe security and good luck.
The term “totemism” is of American Ojibwa origin but, despite this, totemistic beliefs are not limited to Native Americans. There are examples of this belief existing in shamanic systems found in Western Europe, Africa, Australia and the Arctic region. Of course, many anthropologists have studied totemism, including the renowned Claude Levi-Strauss, who wrote what many consider the definitive essay on the subject, Totemism Today. This essay puts forward the idea that human cognition can in fact be enhanced through totem use. Before this, many had thought of totemism as analogous with a “primitive” mentality. Levi-Strauss believed totemism was not a primitive way of operating at all but made perfect sense as a simple and powerful way of coping with a lifestyle where abstract ideas were not common and the culture has to learn to cope with its immediate environment. In this sense, totemism could be seen as being as valid as any other religion while doubling as a social focal point for tribes to rally around.
Totemism was usually based on similarities between the tribe and the totemic animal. Tribes seeking to emulate certain qualities would pick their totem (and thus animal spirit) based on those criteria. These were usually put in symbolic form of some sort, the most popular being the totem pole. The totem poles of the world have many different designs, usually revolving around animals that are given human qualities. Animals were seen as equals and even worshiped in most shaman cultures. Totemism was a way of tapping into these animal spirits. Beyond that, a totem was also a symbolic representation of the group that empowered the whole. Metaphors like this have been unifying elements in religions across the world.
Animal totems and you
In modern times, animal totems have moved beyond being emblems of a group and have been adopted by individuals as either reflections of their own nature or embodiments of desired qualities. The adoption of animal totems is based on the belief that an animal spirit can give insight into your innermost self. Choosing a totem is relatively easy as it really is any animal whose energy you feel closely associated with. What the animal totem brings to you is its energy and its attributes.
Animal totems are animals that can teach you through their attributes and show you the way if you pay attention to them. Most people can say which animal they are particularly attracted to, or have pictures of them hanging in their homes. If you take the time to connect with the rhythms of your world you may begin to see a vast number of animals in your everyday life that you never noticed before. As much as you are able to choose your animal totem, the totems equally pick who they need to guide, help and heal. Animals that have previously held a small or no place in your consciousness may suddenly begin to appear in your life, indicating the qualities of that totem are relevant to you now.
It’s believed that the real gift of an animal totem arrives when you realize that everything is connected and make the effort to hear what your world is saying to you.
Animal totem qualities
Below is a range of animals that may resonate with you as a totem. The qualities listed may be reflected in you if you are attracted to the totem in question, or else contemplation of the totem may bring those qualities to you.
Alligator: Maternal, with survival instinct, quickness and aggression. The mothering instinct exists with protection of one’s young with jaws that can dispense death. Redirection of aggressive energies towards positive.
Ant: Industrious, self-sacrificing, knowing your place. Working for the good of the community. Determined. Building a sustainable community in a crowded world.
Antelope: Able to move with speed and grace, the ability to be still and silent, awareness of your surroundings and the ability to advance quickly.
Badger: Tidiness and organisation. Fearlessness and courage.
Bat: Free to fly and soar.
Bear: Protective mother. Strong. Going within to find answers.
Beaver: Determined. Opening new ways of communication.
Bee: Organised, industrious, communication.
Buffalo: Awakens the spirit to pray, to seek peace, to seek oneness.
Bull: Fertility, courage, fighting spirit.
Butterfly: Able to transform and to accept change. Balanced in all things.
Camel: Endurance, conservation, economising, patience.
Caribou: Adaptable to adversity
Cat: Independence, liberty and the ability to walk alone and yet find comfort, support and love. Detachment, sensuality, mystery and magic.
Cattle: Ability to heal self and others.
Cheetah: Preparedness, swiftness, focus.
Chicken: Inquisitive, observant, knowledgeable.
Cougar: Leadership, self assurance, balance.
Coyote: Humour in all things. Deceiver (without malice). Trickster. The ability to develop alternatives.
Crane: Solitude. Indicator of good fortune. Independence. Emotional stability. Spiritual awakening. Able to restore faith in your self and spirit.
Crocodile: Appropriate displays of emotion.
Crow: Crows are symbols of creation and spiritual strength. They remind us to look for opportunities to create and manifest the magic of life.
Deer: Kindness, mildness, gentleness.
Dingo: Duality. Sees life as a game and invites others to play. Can detect subtle energy changes.
Dolphin: Joy and happiness. Harmonious with ones self and surroundings. Connection to your self.
Dog: Unconditional love. Serve selflessly. Loyal.
Donkey: Perseverance. Servitude. Strong dedication to spirit. Able to get out of dangerous situations.
Dove: Love, romance, loyalty. Security and maternal instinct. Sensitive to emotions.
Dragonfly: Skilful in avoidance. Refined, tenacious, relentless.
Eagle: Overcoming the boundaries of this world. Sacred messenger. Bringer of visions from spirit. Able to see beyond the horizon.
Elephant: Teacher of compassion. Loyalty. Strength. Intelligence. Discernment. Guidance.
Elk: Strength and agility, pride, majestic, independence, purification, strength, and nobility
Falcon: New beginnings, adventure, passionate, and leadership.
Fish: Graceful, slyness, open-minded, quick to change one’s mind.
Flamingo: Heart healing, psychic, people person, flirtatious. Power of illusion. Shapeshifting. Work with group consciousness. Clear sighted
Ferret: Elusiveness. Opportunistic. Extremely focused. Holds the power of observation. Intuitive. Sensitive. Can see and know hidden meanings
Fox: Intelligence. To change with subtleness but decisiveness .
Frog: Cleaner (spiritual cleansing). Rebirth, adaptability, and opening to creative alternatives.
Giraffe: Clear vision and perspective in seeing what is next.
Goat: Lust, surefootedness, and stubbornness.
Gorilla: Gentle, protector, powerful, healer.
Goose: To bring back safely, prudent, reliable, protector of the home.
Hawk / Falcon: Messenger. Able to move between the seen and unseen world. Prophetic Insight. Clear Vision. Unified with the Great Spirit.
Heron: Able to maintain balance. Has a secure inner foundation.
Hippo: Intuitive knowing. Practicality and stability. Able to see beneath the surface.
Horse: Freedom, stamina, mobility, ability to learn new things.
Hummingbird: Power within, messenger, and knowledge of your heart.
Kangaroo: Balance, warmth, security.
Kingfisher: Able to express oneself. Able to go into the unknown without fear. Connected to past lives. Powerful teacher.
Leopard: Intuitive. Understanding the mysteries of the unconscious, the shadow aspects of ourselves.
Lion: Family, strength, energy, courage, guardian and protector. For any large or difficult undertaking.
Lizard: Survival and transformation. The ability to let go. Elusiveness, hidden defences.
Lynx: Fleeting, elusive, rare, beautiful.
Magpie: Intelligence. Adaptability. Resourcefulness. Ability to change the environment.
Meerkat: Harmony, equality, living socially without hierarchy.
Monkey: Observational clarity. Ability to see that which is hidden. Unpredictable. Power and grace.
Moose: Power, confidence, self-esteem, potency, success.
Moth: Strong healing abilities. Ability to perceive with clarity.
Mouse: Getting into the details of life.
Otter: Joyful, playful, sensitive, able to “feel” a way through life.
Owl: Wisdom. For the dark uncertain times. Ability to see in to shadows. Insight (for self and others). Messenger.
Panda: Willpower. Willingness to learn. Inner sight. Clarity of Vision.
Panther: Hidden emotions. Caution. Shape shifting. Invisibility.
Peacock: Good luck, serenity, psychic protection.
Porcupine: Ability to express yourself and stand up for yourself.
Rabbit: Alertness, attentiveness, awareness, fertility, creativity, and renewal.
Rat: Adaptability. Self assurance. Sensitive to the environment.
Raven: Trickster, transformer, survivor, messenger with higher powers. Explorer of the unknown.
Rhino: Solitude. Luxuriate, relish, enjoy and delight. Longevity and health.
Robin: Giver of love and joy
Rooster: Vanity. Likes to be showered with gifts.
Salamander: Keeper of dreams. Sensitive to low frequencies. Knowledge of inner child. Can teach subtlety.
Salmon: Strength, stamina, wisdom to understand the mysteries. Determination. Focused energy. Perseverance.
Scorpion: Transforming, strong, inspiring. The Scorpion is a master of self defence.
Seal: Agility. Intuition. Active imagination.
Snake: Death and rebirth. Sexuality and sensuality. Transcend limitations and go beyond restricting mindsets.
Spider: Careful, skilful preparation. Caution. Able to interconnect. Busy
Squirrel: Planner and gatherer. Patience when life becomes harsh.
Swan: Grace, balance, innocence, Beauty of the self. The ability to move on from grief and loss.
Tiger: Focus. Patience. Inner sight. Taking time to assess a situation. Taking whatever opportunities come along but doing things carefully.
Tortoise: Longevity, protection, wisdom, perseverance.
Turtle: Good luck, good fortune, being in the right place at the right time.
Vulture: Adaptability. Sacred trust. Resourceful. Innovative.
Weasel: Strength, energy, ingenuity and stealth.
Whale: Knowledge of the unseen past. Being open to ideas or experiences.
White Tiger: In Chinese mythology the white tiger is the symbol of the west, autumn, and all metals. The tiger is a night hunter and most with this totem work best at night, too.
Wolf: Success, intuition, and spirit. Wolf will help you eliminate your own weaknesses and non-productive thoughts. The Wolf will guard you as it teaches you, sometimes strongly sometimes gently, but always with love.
Wolvering: Cunning(can be a trickster). Inner vision. Able to see and face challenges with clarity. Invisibility.
Woodpecker: Sensitive, protected and devoted. Inner strength. Mentally strong.
Zebra: Agility. Enjoyment of challenges.
This list is derived from a blending of three sources:
- Swimming Wolf, Shamanic Wisdom II : The way of the animal spirits 1994, Earthspirit Inc, California.
No single definitive source can be established for the symbolic or totemic meaning of animals so this list brings together the areas of agreement from three different sources hoping that from this framework the truth will emerge for you.