Totem spirits play an important role in traditional native beliefs and feature prominently in native mythology. They are spiritual incarnations of animals (like fox or bear) or natural forces (the north wind, or grandfather thunder) which exemplify the traits associated with that animal or phenomenon. They may be present in their earthly manifestations, but they aren’t bound by physical forms.
The totem ‘Raven’, for example, is not just ‘a raven’, or ‘all ravens’ but The Raven – the one who personifies what it means to be a raven, and from whom all raven-like qualities are derived. Raven is the spiritual father of all ravens, and of all who are called by him.
Totems are not ‘gods’, however. You don’t worship a totem – you follow it. You learn from the lessons it teaches. You practice living by the ideals which it embodies. The Way of a totem is something you aspire to, rather like someone who aspires to live according to a code of honor.
You don’t choose your totem, either. It’s not like going to a supermarket and checking out the different paths available. “Hm.. this one teaches the importance of generosity and focusses on selflessness… I’m not sure I’d be good at that. This one emphasizes courage and strength… not bad. Ah – here’s one which says we should all have a good time. Yeah – I like that. I’ll follow this totem!” No… your Totem chooses You.
In traditional practice, a young adult would go on a spirit quest – a journey to find one’s self, and be found by a totem. Often elaborate preparations were undertaken: sweat lodges, ritual cleansing, peyote ceremonies, fasting, and long journeys or extended isolation were all commonly used. It was expected that the questor would have a dream or vision in which they would be visited by their totem, and find direction in life. The totem which came may have reflected ideas which were important to the questor (such as a strong young brave being called by Bear, or a wise woman being visited by Owl) but it was also possible for a totem to choose unlikely followers (a timid boy might be met by Wolf, or Rabbit might call a noisy prankster). The questor did not have any choice in the matter – the totem knew who to call, and those who were called were expected to follow.
In modern times, spirit quests are less common, but many people still find themselves called by or drawn to a totem. Perhaps a certain animal seems to be present at key times in their lives, or their dreams are haunted by a particular animal. Maybe a stressful event in life woke something within them, and they’re trying to make sense of it all. Whatever path leads them to their totem, finding it seems to bring a special comfort in their lives, and a new sense of direction.
Raven as a Totem
Raven is a special totem. They are all special, of course, but Raven holds a unique place among totems. He is considered by many to be the creator, and sometimes savior, of man. According to legend, he made mankind, he brought them salmon to eat, he stole fire from the sun so mankind wouldn’t freeze, he brought them water to drink during a drought, and he taught a man to enjoy life. Raven is a cultural hero – a creator… and a trickster.
Raven’s mischief is legendary among the native tribes of the northwest. He is always playing tricks, changing shape, and never quite who or what or where you expect him to be.
With such a complicated, shifting totem, it’s not surprising that different people have different interpretations of Raven’s personality and gifts. Still, several main themes come up when you look at Raven. Here are a few of the main aspects of this complex totem.
The Creator Aspect
Raven is seen as giving life. He is primarily a helping, nurturing the spirit. There is also a certain amount of self-sacrifice in his actions. He does what he does to ensure the happiness of others.
The Trickster Aspect
Raven is associated with joy and laughter. He is known to play tricks, but they are usually beneficial ones, teaching people to laugh at their own follies.
The Great Magician
Raven is seen as a shape-changer. He has the power to alter form, and to bring great changes in people’s lives. He can also see through false forms, lies, and the tricks of others.
The Seeker of Secrets
Raven has a great sense of curiosity. He is a gatherer of information and a sharer of secrets. The search for the Truth is predominant.
The Juxtaposition of Opposites
Raven is a contradiction. He is both black and white, joy and sorrow, savior and nemesis. He is about both knowledge and secrets. He can be, and not be.
Other Totems in the Corvidae Family
Although Raven gets the most press, other members of the Corvidae family have been recognized as totems in their own right. Most are close variations of Raven, but each of them has its own special Way as well.
As a totem, Crow is recognized as a messenger between the worlds. His concern is less with tricks and more with knowledge. He is not held by boundaries of flesh and time. He may cross into the spirit world with ease, and can bring messages to or from the deceased. Crow is not to be taken lightly when he warns of danger or foretells an event.
Crow is also a master of illusion. He can warp natural laws, and make things seem to be other than they are – sometimes changing one thing into another – in order to reveal or obscure some essential truth.
Followers of Crow often have great insight about life’s events. Their eyes may be open to things others do not see if they learn to look beyond their mortal limitations. They are in tune with death and dying, and should not be afraid of the unknown, for Crow knows it.
Magpie is a social creature. She has generations of lore at her disposal, and knowledge gleaned from experience. She has advice on every topic. Her words are often sharp, but it is wise to heed them. Unpleasant truths may be exposed by her, and old wounds picked open… but she brings healing, too.
Magpies followers are often as talkative as she is, and many have wisdom beyond their years. They are quick to pick up on discrepancies in people’s stories and have learned to spot a lie. While they may be prone to nag or gossip, most are caring and wish the best for others.
The Grey Jay, also know as the Whiskey Jack (a nickname derived from the MicMac ‘Weskejak’) is a little rogue. Small and quick, he can pull a prank which most won’t notice until he’s gone. He is bright and cheerful, and quick to catch the humor in any situation. He is also a survivor, living by his wits and by watching for an opportunity.
Weskejak’s followers are usually quite cheerful, and the joy they bring to others usually makes up for the jokes they like to play. They learn how to watch, and when to act. They can usually get their hands on anything they need, with just a little preparation. Many are social butterflies and have friends in the strangest places.
Of course, as every person is unique, everyone’s relationship with their totem is unique. Where one person might find Raven calls them to laugh, another might be called to cry. Much of it defies understanding, but those who profess to have been called by a totem say they know in their heart the way they are called to follow.