Animal Totems, by Matthew Wood

The use of totem animals to represent powers of Nature, the body, the personality, the clan, and society, is characteristic of American Indian or Native American medicine, and also of other shamanic societies.  It is hardly lacking in Western culture, where animals still figure prominently on family crests and coats of arms, as well as in stories and fables.  The totem represents a ‘power’ that manifests throughout Nature, including in the body, soul, family group, and in society in general.  It can represent a kind of knowledge or an occupational undertaking.  In Native culture there were Bear, Raven, Corn, and other societies, dedicated to different studies, knowledge, and tasks.  Animals might appear in dreams, carrying messages or new medicine for the dreamer to absorb into their consciousness.  After a powerful dream about an animal medicine, one would be advised to make an acknowledgment during the hours of consciousness, to anchor the “friendship.”         

An animal medicine power can be either innate or acquired.  Some are inherited.  This can happen at birth, but more often occurs afterwards.  People generally have an animal type that fits their constitutional type or genetic inheritance, one that corresponds to the gut-level or animal instincts (these can be the same or different), and then various acquired medicine animal friends. 

Three Important Medicine Animals

The clan system of several of the Southwestern pueblo tribes and the totem fetishes they make and use in art and dance became very important symbols, not only for themselves, but in American life.  Today, many of these speak to non-Indian people and many identify with the totems, or with animals from elsewhere around the world. 

To propose that the totems were merely symbols, or that they only legitimately belong to the Indian people and cannot be used by others, would be wrong.  They appear in the dreams and imagination of many people, conveying diverse meanings.  I shall relate them as I have learned about them, from diverse sources.

11599Turtle.  Throughout the world, the idea that the earth rests on the back of an enormous is a fixture of mythology and storytelling.  As I heard it, Grandfather Turtle rose up out of the primordial water to become the first earth.  Such stories are, on the one hand, of the type taught to children.  On the other hand, they carry within them the deeper truths that explain the origins and destiny of life in general and of the life of the individual.  When early visitors and anthropologists gathered stories from around the world they often were told the children’s versions.

The Indians widely refer to North America as ‘Turtle Island’ for the same reason that societies of the Old World thought of the earth as sitting on the back of a turtle.  The turtle is conceived to be the representative of ‘earth.’  It has a hard shell, which is like the earth, inside of which is a living being, like the living earth.  The markings on the back of the turtle represent the basis of the calendar and the principles by which the world runs.  Hence, the turtle is associated with all knowledge and wisdom from the beginning of time down to the present.  The turtle is therefore, to a certain extent, the repository or record-keeper, of life on earth. 

The turtle is also the doorway to the hidden world, the living Nature with the earth, and hence, the spiritual world.  When, in the course spiritual development, a person is able to become aware of their own genetic make-up and become free of the pull of their genes, they have to trace back and become conscious of the history of the world, because this is their genetic nature.  The turtle is therefore also the representation or symbol of the occult society.  It is indeed one of the symbols of the “Grand Medicine Society,” and there is an Ojibway saying that “everything you need to know is written on the back of the turtle.”  It represents the medicine lodge, self-contained and withdrawn within a shell, separate from mundane society, also the living spirit within the earth, the knowledge of the earth and spirit world, also all the things a person needs to become aware of in order to free themselves from the calling of the personal genes, from programming, to become a citizen of Spirit.  This is the ‘Old, Old Path,’ which few today have ever sensed, or take.    

To say that the world rests on the back of a turtle is, therefore, a fiction for children, but it is also “everything you need to know.”  It would be enough by itself to provide the spiritual teachings necessary for self-transformation and self-fulfillment independent of the teachings of any society.    

Grownup-Zephyr-NYWCCWolf.  This is a powerful type of medicine because it gives the capacity to change profoundly.  In human life it is not always easy to change.  However, the tendency of wolf medicine is either to hold things where they are (no change) or to cross the entire spectrum to a complete and profound transformation.  Thus, the relationship of wolf medicine to shape-changing, i.e., werewolves. 

Wolf medicine exerts an influence on the autonomic nervous system, which runs the unconscious, automatic functions of the body, and in particular, the flagship of the autonomic, the gall bladder.  It corrects imbalances due to fever, especially malaria, influenza and other kinds of intermittent fever where chills are followed by fever, and then again by chills.  It also acts on the gall bladder, as seat of the “egoic will” (people with a lot of “gall”), to cause complete change of consciousness.  Every healing event is, to some measure, a “shape-shift.”

Ursus_americanus_kermodei,_Great_Bear_Rainforest_1Bear.  Bear provides one of the most powerful and important medicines in human society.  The bear, which occassionally walks upright, is the animal most analogous to the human being and from it the Indian people learned which plants to eat and many medicine plants.  With his claws bear digs up roots, pulls off berries and bark, catches fish and small animals and insects.  Thus, the bear is “totem” or representative of the food and medicine gatherer and preparer.

Bear medicines strengthen what we would call the “adrenals” (adrenal cortex).  They give reserve, power and stamina.  One set of bear medicines are oily, brown, furry roots (there are more of these than one would suppose).  The oil builds up the adrenals, which are composed of oil.  Another set are berries, which bears love to eat.  These sedate and cool, since fats and oils build up energy reserves which can cause heat.

People with bear medicine are constitutionally usually large and powerful, though they tend to be introspective.  Like the hibernating bear, they like to sleep and dream.  Often they are not active in the theatre of life until some powerful stimulus awakens them to their destiny.  They need the first of the two categories below.  People who need bear medicine of the second category are thin, weak, with “exhausted adrenals.”  They need dietary oils to rebuild their system.

Bear medicine gives knowledge of food and herbs, because the bear takes such good of her young.

To learn more and explore ways to integrate animal medicine and herbalism teachings in your life, join Matthew and Sacred Warrior founder, Vanessa Chakour at the Open Center in NYC Friday from 6-9pm on July 29th and at Radicle Herb Shop on August 2nd from 7-9pm. 

About the Author

MatthewWood250Matthew Wood, is an internationally renowned herbalist practicing since 1982, is the author of six acclaimed books, including The Book of Herbal Wisdom, The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, and 2 definitive guides, The Earthwise Herbal, one volume on Old World and one on New World plants. He is a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild. Matthew and Vanessa have developed multi-dimensional workshops working with plant and animal medicines as guides unto the self.

Posted on July 28, 2016 in Earth Connection, Plant Medicine, Wildlife

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