Totems and Spirit Guides


Interesting blog post. I asked a similar question in the Thoth forum as to whether the Thoth, as a Thelemic deck, hence geared toward spiritual development toward knowledge and conversation with one's Holy Guardian Angel gives readings according to True Will. Now, one could of course ask that about every deck, not only the Thoth. As you said, food for thought, I certainly don't have an answer either way. Also, an HGA is of course more of what could be called a "spirit guide" rather than a totem.

I wonder if this is another form of cultural appropriation, calling a... hmmm... "guide from the other realm," however you choose to define it, as a totem.


I think the word "totem" has become a lot like the word "shaman" in a sense that both words have become catch-all terms for "clan totems/personal power animals" and "religious specialist" respectively, when different groups have their own words and understanding of either concept. Technically, the term "shaman" should only be used when discussing Siberia, but then early (white) anthropologists started applying the term to similar practices they saw in North America and elsewhere, and now we have a bunch of practices that are conflated under the term "shamanism".

Neopagan author Lupa has written a very good article on this subject, entitled "The Differences Between Traditional and Neopagan Totemism":

Myself, I prefer the term "power animal" or "animal that has spiritual significance to me as an individual" which is a mouthful, but it gets the job done.


She's right, totem animals and power animals are too different things. A totem animal refer to an entire clan, not an individual, and most often they do not show themselves, it's rare and it's viewed as a great blessing when they do. And there are animal guides too. I often see people use totem guides for everything and I try to correct them and they keep on using the totem term anyway, they totally ignore me, that makes me cringe. I've been doing core shamanisim, mixed with celtic stuff, in our coven. Most often what people see are power animals, they're here to teach us something and protect us for the moment, and once we learn that lesson they leave, to be replaced by a new power animal. My power animal per example is the frog. Once I'll learn what the frog has to teach me he'll leave and I'll get a new one. A person can have more than one power animal at once. As for animal guides, unlike power animals, they don't leave to be replaced by new ones.


I think this is a big problem with the New Age type community in general. The (sympathetic) desire to find commonalities between ideas can sometimes be so strong that people start to ignore the individual beliefs of the cultures they are talking about! There is an awkward tension between inclusive spirituality and appropriation. Mi-Shell's post is a helpful reminder of how we have to walk a balance between recontextualizing ideas for our own understanding and being respectful and appreciative of the author of the idea!

Thanks for sharing AJ. :)


This is a great thread, I think -- I'm the type to get very concerned about using proper terminology, definitional stuff, etc., so I appreciated reading Mi-Shell's post, plus all the thoughts here. This is definitely a specific case that had me all confused, too: "totem" vs. "power animal" vs. "spirit animal" vs. "animal guide"... Which one means what, and where do you go for a final, official ruling?? I even have a couple of books sitting on my shelf right now whose very titles seem to be in violation of what Mi-Shell and WolfyJames have said (ie., one is called "Totems," and one is called "Power Animals," yet I think both are really talking about what WolfyJames has dubbed "animal guides").

I think I might stick with the phrase "animal guides" when talking about myself and my "animals that have spiritual significance to me as an individual," to borrow from HighPriestess (not that I talk about them much anyway, but it's good to have a game-plan should the need for one arise)...


I read the post from the link too and it was very interesting and insightful. I can point out a rather "inappropriate" use of the term totem that crossed my path recently. Others may have noticed this example too, since it's part of something famous. Enough with being cryptic, what I'm referring to is the movie "Inception" (such a great movie otherwise) and how the characters use the word "totem": they each have an object that they create and a symbolic representation of it appears in their dreams so that they can tell the difference between the dream and reality. This item is what "they" call a "totem."

I don't have much experience with this, but regarding "power animals," might another possibly acceptable term be "spirit helper"? Just an idea. I mean, I agree w/ frac__ture, you look across the Internet and see so many differing terms for this same thing, there's so much misinformation out there about it...


what annoys me in the new age community is that everyone's "totem" animal is either the wolf or the owl.

Of course, I am not so knowledgeable about this stuff myself - I thought you had one animal for life, and maybe "helpers" that would come and go as needed. I had a reiki experience where I "felt" a bear during the session, but I didn't say anything, it was just a weight on my chest, and was one of many weird feelings I had - but then after the session, the reiki practitioner told me that she felt bear energy around me - so I took that as meaning that maybe the bear was my power animal. Which I thought strange, as I have never had any particular interest in bears.

I have a few animal decks, most recently got the Wolf Song deck - but it's all north american "pretty" animals - so probably worthless for figuring out your animal. And, can't your "animal" be a...grasshopper? It isn't necessarily a glamorous animal or creature, right? For fun, my niece and I have played around trying to find our power animals with my Ted Andrews Animal Wise tarot, which does include the less desirable critters - but every time I do it, I get a different answer....

Maybe I should dig out my old Sunbear books and see what he has to say about all this....