Grave Moss & Stars

PBP Fridays: E is for Extinct Totems

Terminology Note: In this post, I will refer to “totemism” instead of “shamanism.” I want to talk specifically about totemism as a practice of learning from and studying the archetypal and mundane properties of animals – this includes an animal’s mythological characteristics, as well as the lessons it can teach us by virtue of understanding its real-life behaviors and physiology. If I reference source material or an author with whom you do not agree, please know that all learning is a process, and we do go through some less-useful things on our way to finding the more-useful. :)

When I was younger, digging into Wicca and gradually learning more about earth-based spiritualities, I stumbled into totemism. I was absolutely enthusiastic, having spent my entire not-that-long-yet life loving and learning about animals. I devoured Ted Andrews’ Animal Speak and quickly hopped into more traditional totemism through Michael Harner’s The Way of The Shaman. I swam from to, and I dove into practicing totemism happily and heartily. I discovered the value of studying the original myths to garner my own meanings, rather than just using someone else’s bulleted list, and learning the zoology of each animal to come to my own conclusions about what it could teach and, in turn, what I might learn from it. I combined interacting with that species in spirit and, where possible, in person, with hard research and personal shapeshifting practices, and it was (and is!) a wonderful thing for me.

But this post isn’t about totemism in general.

At some point, my exuberant love for dinosaurs overlapped with my fascination with totemism. I wondered: Would it be possible to know an extinct animal as a totem? Not just recently extinct, like the Barbary lion who is gone from the wild or the thylacine who is gone from everywhere, not even like the cave hyena that died out some 11,000 years ago. But extinct for millions of years, well beyond any possibility of recovering myth or behavioral records that can give us some base from which to leap in studying them.

For, in my methodry, without myth or fact, what could I learn that would help me understand the species and its spirit?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a paleontologist. I wanted to bring these long-dead animals that so intrigued and thrilled me back to life. And that urge is still strong with me, even after spawning the related urge to create diverse, believable, fictional alien/fantasy creatures. The idea of being able to, somehow, access the spirit of these animals and learn from it, even just a little bit, is incredibly enthralling. For a brief moment in my past self’s excitement, I entertained the idea of trying to make this A Project – to devote years of myself to approaching and studying dinosaurs and other extinct species in hopes of developing a totem-like relationship with them. I thought that I might be able to learn enough, research enough, to write a book on it. At the time (and at the present, to my knowledge), no one had done that. I wanted to.

I did not. I figured it was scientifically futile and metaphysically laughable. Who was I, some well-meaning kid, to try to become a scholar and a spiritual ambassador? When I was thinking about dinosaurs as totems, the idea that they weren’t cold-blooded was still a new and crazy thing among paleontologists.

But things have come a very long way since then, in a relatively short amount of time. We know more about dinosaurs than ever before. We’ve found records of pigment and impressions of feathers. We’re rebuilding better and more solid theories about their behaviors, rooted in recent finds and extrapolations based on living species’ patterns. We’re constantly discovering new things and adapting what we thought we knew.

So, I wonder: With more accurate dinobiology and a growing body of modern dinosaur mythology, would it be possible to…?

This post brought to you as part of the Pagan Blog Project.