Review: Animal Totems and Spirit Animals – The Shamanic Approach

This review is potentially triggery for rape, racism, and general idiocy, read at your own risk.

I knew this book was going to be terrible the moment I found it for free on Amazon (the Kindle reading app for PC is amazing).

Seriously, just look at this cover:

Don’t look inside, please don’t.

I just finished it a few moments ago, and upon reflection, I realize that I, as a white woman of European descent, have the luxury to be amused by this dreck. Horrified, yes, but also amused, amused in a very “godsdammit there go my fellow white folks making idiots of themselves,” instead of going “Oh great, another example of cultural genocide,” which is what my First Nations friends must be feeling right now, assuming they are reading this post or (gods forbid) they actually bought this book.

Anyways, for those of you who don’t want to pay $3 to read this drivel, let me summarize it for you:

White people = bad, Native Americans = good, with a side of “technology is bad” and a heaping helping of HARMONY WITH NATURE! Yes, it’s the “noble savage” stereotype:

Granted, certain tribes used harsh methods to obtain what they wanted; but they weren’t too different from military officials these days who drop missiles on unsuspecting third world villages. Members in these tribes were seen by the wise elders in other tribes as misguided.

Really? Did she (I’m assuming the author is a woman from her name) seriously compare first peoples who defend their homes to war criminals? Right, because Real Native Americans (TM) never had any need for warriors, because they never had any enemies! Especially not other tribes!

Oh wait, THAT’S NOT TRUE AT ALL!

I wish I was finished with this book, but that’s honestly not the most offensive part. You heard me, the “noble savage” crap isn’t the most offensive part of the book, check out this passage:

These individuals [who are out of touch with their feelings] often end up needing the help of a psychologist or therapist, or even a dietician. Some of them may turn to drastic measures like rape or theft, just to fulfill the negative aspects of their primal urges. They seldom find balance in their lives. (bold mine)

Do you hear that, everyone? Rapists do what they do because they’re out of touch with their feelings! Obviously, if we were more like Native Americans (who have never raped anyone, ever) there would be no rape. Rape has nothing to do with power and control, and certainly nothing to do with kyriarchy, it’s all about feelings!

Thank you for spitting in the face of every rape survivor ever, Carly van Heerden.

*takes a deep breath* Okay, I’m ready to continue now. By the way, this book makes the classic mistake of assuming that “Native Americans” are a monolith. Do me a favour, imagine that the book was talking about Europeans, and saying things like “Europeans believed that a part of a person’s soul assumed animal form (known as the fylgia or fetch). Europeans also believed that their deities were mortal, and needed magical apples to maintain their health.”

Now do you see how incredibly stupid it is to refer to “Native Americans” as if they were one homogenous group? The example I used for Europeans is specific to Northern Europe, and not even specific to all of Northern Europe. I said nothing about Greek, Roman, Irish, Welsh, Finnish, and a whole slew of other traditions which are all European, to say nothing of the traditions from non-European nations that came there when their people came to Europe. Seriously, no one lumps European traditions t0gether, so WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING IT TO NATIVE PEOPLES? You don’t have to go to university like I did to know that there’s a world of difference between “Plains cultures” (like the Lakota) and tribes that live in the American Southwest (like the Hopi) but there’s also a world of difference between Lakota and Cree even though we (that is, white people of European descent) like to put them in the same neat category. (Also, sorry everyone, I only know the Anglicized European names for groups, hopefully no one is offended by my use of terms that most white people would recognize.)

Right, so, the rest of the book is a re-hashing of the bullshit “Native American Zodiac” THERE IS NO “NATIVE AMERICAN” ANYTHING! Fun fact: Isn’t it interesting how the dates for the “Native American” zodiac line up *perfectly* with the Western Zodiac, which uses the Gregorian calendar, you know, the one invented by Europeans? Yeah, moving on, we have….a totem dictionary, and it’s not even a halfway decent totem dictionary. For starters, it’s mostly populated by (to borrow a term from Lupa) BINABM (Big, Impressive, North American Birds and Mammals) or, at the very least, Big and Impressive Animals. The dictionary might have been decent if van Heerden gave any indication that she’s studied the folklore and mythology behind these animals, to say nothing of their actual behaviour, you know, in the wild, but the most we get is a little paragraph that relies heavily on stereotypical perceptions of said animal and vague statements about how certain animals are “guardians” or “healers” with no indication of where that idea came from. What’s more, the descriptions are often redundant (and at times plain contradictory) like this entry for Crow:

Crows are respected as the keepers of sacred law. They are seen as messengers with the ability to shape-shift or change form. They are associated to the power of the intellect. They represent lawfulness and justice, and the gateway to the supernatural. They are noted for forming strong communities that exhibit spiritual strength, energy, creativity and balance. They are also associated with the power of illusion and magic.(bold mine)

TBH, I don’t like totem animal dictionaries in general, because nature is so diverse that it’s impossible to include every animal (and the symbolic associations assigned to that animal) in one book, and I also think that in focusing on the BINABM, you miss out on some really interesting creatures.

Let’s take a favourite of Heathens: the wolf. Let’s narrow it down a bit and talk about the gray wolf (a subspecies of the gray wolf, the forest wolf, is native to Northern Europe).

What are the kinds of things you might hear about wolves? You might hear that they are pack animals, devoted to their tribe family, that they have a complex system of domination and submission and, oh fuck this–THEY’RE PREDATORS, CHILDREN OF ODIN ONLY THE ALPHA MATTERS!

Calm down, ciswhitedudebro, okay, so the following was a caricature, but think of how many times we (white North Americans of European descent) associate North American wolves with predatory behaviour: a “wolfish” smile, the big bad wolf, wolves and sheep/lambs.

Now let me introduce you to this creature:

The picture above is of Lycaon pictus, commonly known as the African wild dog, painted dog, painted wolf, or ornate wolf. They live in packs (which are organized around submission, not dominance, as mothers will always be dominant over their pups). They also have a successful kill rate of around 80% (I’ve heard that it’s closer to 90%, but I’m going with the more conservative number).

And the Gray Wolf, the Mighty Hunter of the Americas, the supposed uber-dominant uberpredator? They have a kill rate of around 30%.

These skinny, goofy looking dogs manage to out hunt lionsĀ and wolves, widely seen as some of the most successful hunters ever.

If it came to Odin’s wolves vs. Shango’s wild dogs, screw pantheon loyalty, I’m going with the wild dogs.

The thing is, we’re so focused on wolves being the ultimate predator that we don’t realize that they suck at hunting compared to species like lycaon pictus. So why don’t these animals get a lot of attention. Well, since the majority of people who write these totem dictionaries are from North America, they want to write about animals native to North America, but for some reason, they don’t seem to have a problem including elephants and giraffes when it suits them. These dictionaries also tend to be lacking in reptiles, amphibians, and insects, because EW GROSS! Did you know there’s a species of lizard who not only decides the sex of their offspring, but determines their temperament as well? Imagine saying “I don’t want t a grumpy kid this time, I want a sweet one,” and actually getting a sweet kid? There’s also a jellyfish that is, for all intents and purposes, immortal. (Seriously, google “immortal jellyfish”.) And those are all creatures you can see. There are tons of tiny organisms that are so badass they live in fucking VOLCANOES and ZERO OXYGEN ENVIRONMENTS (like, you know, SPACE). Perhaps I’m being a bit of a hypocrite, after all, I count red fox and bottlenose dolphin as “animals of special spiritual significance to me” but seriously, when was the last time you heard about someone with an immortal jellyfish as a totem/power animal/animal spirit guide?

*takes a deep breath*

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you could do a lot better than this book. If you really want to learn about Neopagan totemism (which is different from traditional totemism), I’d recommend checking out authors like Lupa (who has written extensively on this non-traditional form of totemism) especially the book DIY Totemism and for a discussion on cultural appropriation in Paganism, Talking About the Elephant. If you want information about traditional totemism or Native American animal symbolism, I’d recommend looking for the specific tribe you’re interested in. Please, for the love of Freyr, find books by actual Native authors, or, even better, go talk to actual Native people! Some might be more willing than others to share their knowledge, if you ask and they refuse, DON’T WHINE ABOUT IT! No one is obligated to share their knowledge with you, especially knowledge of spiritual matters.

Here’s another good idea: go explore your own native European traditions (I’m assuming that you, like me, are of European descent, but feel free to insert your own geographical area into that last sentence). Cultures all over Europe had their wise women and cunning men, their oracles, witches, seers, mystery cults, magical and mystical types. Contrary to what New Age material would have us believe, white people of European descent aren’t “devoid of spirituality” we just lost sight of our polytheistic past for a moment.

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