Review: New Paths to Animal Totems

This is the first book to be knocked off my massive “to-read” list. I had actually forgotten that I had pre-ordered this book months before. It’s always nice when a surprise comes in the mail, isn’t it?

The latest book from Lupa, New Paths to Animal Totems: Three Alternative Approaches to Creating Your Own Totemism is intended to be a guide for people who are new to any sort of work with animal totems. To that end, Lupa presents three different approaches to working with these entities: the Correspondence model makes connections between animals, the directions, the elements, seasons, etc. for those who like a more structured approach, the Bioregional model, for those who wish to connect with the animals in their area, and the Archetypal model, which looks at the internal landscape of the psyche, and touches on Jung’s theories as well as stages of development. A chapter is devoted to each of these approaches, but she also includes suggestions for combining these approaches, as well as other work that one can do with totems, appendices include the ubiquitous totem-finding meditation, a glossary of terms, a list of animal nonprofits, and recommended reading as well as a bibliography.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. Yes, it is published by Llewellyn, you can all deal with having one book with a crescent moon on its spine on your bookshelf, trust me. This is one of those rare good books to come out of the Llewellyn publishing machine.

For one thing, rather than ape (pun intended) New Age-y plastic shaman-y non-indigenous totemism that pretends to be indigenous, Lupa differentiates from indigenous systems and what she terms “Neopagan totemism” which is based on the individual (rather than the group) and encourages her readers to break out of the mindset that working with animals in their capacity as “totems” (or power animals, or whatever word you would like to use) isn’t strictly a Native American (or even indigenous cultures in general) thing. Lest you point out the irony in using the term “totem” while encouraging her readers to disassociate with indigenous traditions, Lupa notes that the word has become a shorthand (if problematic) term for “animal that is spiritually significant to me” in much the same way as the term “shaman” (no less problematic). She encourages her readers to talk about these things using the language of their own traditions.

What? A Llewellyn book that actually includes a glossary entry for “cultural appropriation”? Such a book does not exist! Yes, such a book does exist.

One thing I really liked about this book was how Lupa stresses that you needn’t use just one (or even any) of the approaches that she outlines in this book. Even if you aren’t completely sold on the idea of animal guides apart from one’s fylgia, the Bioregional approach in particular has some good advice for connecting with your local environment, and getting to know the beings that live there. The book prompted me to look up my local bioregion (Mixedwood Plains) and species that make their home here:

Mammals: White-tailed Deer, Southern Flying Squirrel, Red Fox, Raccoon, Striped Skunk, Beaver, Gray Squirrel
Plants: Eastern Prairie Fringed-orchid, White Trillium, Bitternut Hickory
Insects: Monarch Butterfly
Birds: Barred Owl, Wild Turkey, Great Blue Heron, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Killdeer, Red-tailed Hawk
Fish: Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Yellow Perch
Reptiles: Snapping Turtle, Five-lined Skink, Bullfrog
Molluscs: Northern Riffleshell

If I was looking to connect spiritually to my bioregion, the local flora and fauna would be a great place to start.

The one thing to keep in mind is that this is very much a “101” book, written for people who are completely new to totemism, so there’s a lot of defining what a correspondence is. Interestingly, Lupa suggests orienting directional correspondences to coincide with your bioregion, so if you have a big important body of water to the east, why not assign that direction to water? If it’s what works for you, go for it! (As long as, she cautions, you don’t start passing it off as “ancient wisdom” etc.)

If there’s one part of the book I had trouble grasping, it was the section on the Archetypal approach, because, as a hard polytheist, I found it more difficult to relate to the animals as purely symbolic representations of parts of the Self (although concerned readers will note that the Jungian archetypal theory she discusses actually resembles what  I learned in my psychology of religion class in university, unlike so many other Pagan-y books), but I think if you’re interested in delving into the inner workings of your psyche, this chapter might be useful (provided you’re, you know, safe about it). I should mention here that Lupa encourages the reader to read the book the whole way through before trying any of the exercises, something I’d like to echo.

In a nutshell, the experienced practitioner might find the information to be a little basic, but there’s some useful info in here, and if you’re looking for a good “working with animals that you find spiritually significant guide 101” and are really sick of totem dictionaries, this book is top notch. If you would like to explore this topic in greater depth, I strongly recommend another of her books: DIY Totemism, which has more advanced stuff (and includes some of the stories (such as Lupa’s encounter with Dodo while working with extinct totems) that she only hints at in this book.

If you’re looking for a classic text on the subject, Ted Andrews’ Animal Speak is the way to go, although be aware that it’s not without its problems. If you’re looking for something a bit more Pagan-y, Yasmine Galenorn’s Totem Magic: Dance of the Shapeshifter is another good one (and it contains a delicious recipe for a honey cake).

Overall, it’s very 101, but it’s still light years away from your average Llewellyn book, and it’s a really good 1o1 text. As far as I’m concerned, if this is an area that piques your interest, you could do a whole lot worse (like buy a 101 book that sucks).

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2 thoughts on “Review: New Paths to Animal Totems

  1. I’m not sure how I missed this before, but I wanted to thank you for the review, including the constructive crits! It was really helpful to get a review from someone familiar with my previous works; I do agree that this one is more basic than my other stuff, though that is an effect of trying to broaden the readership. But I am really happy you liked it overall, and I appreciate you taking the time to write this all out. Thank you!

    1. I’m actually amazed that you managed to publish it through Llewellyn, I’ve heard they have dracomian publishing contracts.
      I did like it. It’s a great 101 book and I know many will still go to Ted Andrews’ work first, but I’d much rather give yours to a newbie, it actually contains the words “cultural appropriation” and discusses same. For that, it’s worth it.

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