Posts Tagged ‘totemism’
She was a shapeshifter: sometimes Jaguar Woman, sometimes fully jaguar—sometimes melanistic, sometimes golden and rosetted—usually female, but sometimes male. She smiled at me, indulgent, amused, lazily protective, as I in my youthful blundering looked to her as a guide and teacher. She led me through jungle, through journey, into the Underworld and back out again.
I called her Soul, because there was no better word that fit her.
She was one of my first and only personal allies, and the only who was more than the archetype and epitome of their species. She introduced me to shapeshifting, which was already my nature and then became my skill; she tolerated my inconsistent visits and humored me when I needed the reassurance. Her love was fierce, but she did not hold tightly—she accepted my company when I was there, but did not pull at me when I wasn’t. This is feline nature, I’ve found, and it is reflected in other feline entities I’ve encountered since.
When I broke, she found the pieces and brought them together again in me. I sang her a song for it, and years later, after I had stopped visiting the Otherworld, writing a song from what I imagined as her point of view was the first “real” song I would create, and the one that would break the dam that had kept me from creating my own music.
I imagine she’s still in her jungle, as flawless and richly-textured as she was a decade ago when I last saw her. Though there is no rhyme or litany I could sing her that would reach her without my delivering it in metaphysical person, unlike my Kemetic gods, I still have the urge to lay out offerings of honey and milk and berries in gratitude for all that she taught a much younger me.
Thank you, Soul.
Last year’s first J post was on journeying .
The spotted hyena is very close to my heart and my personal mythos – I can’t believe I haven’t written about them before now. Surpassing the wolves that I love and nearly all of the big cats that I adore, Hyena joins Scorpion, Snake, and Barbary Lion in the cluster of those few deeply impactful creatures that inspire, educate, and elucidate. If ever I refer to the “red hyena,” it is the spotted hyena, not any of its smaller extant cousins or extinct ancestors.
For those unfamiliar with spotted hyenas, or familiar only with some of the persistent untruths about them, I will give you a condensed overview. (Click here if you want to skip past the zoology lesson to where I talk about Hyena in a symbolic and personal sense.)
Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) are the largest living hyenas, native to Sub-Saharan Africa, weighing 90-150 lbs and standing up to three feet at the shoulder. Females are larger than males and are the dominant sex, and (in)famously have erection-capable pseudo-penises instead of mammal-normative vaginal openings, accompanied by pseudo-scrota. Hyenas are neither felidae or canidae, though they more resemble bearish canids than felines; their shoulders are high, their backs sloped, and their rumps curved instead of squared off. They have medium-length, brushy tails and large, rounded ears, with less of a visible spinal mane than striped and brown hyenas. Spotted hyenas are varying shades of medium grey-brown to golden-tawny with dark or reddish brown spots, a dark tail, and a dark muzzle; they have thick skin that is not easily penetrated by canine bites.
hunting and eating
Hyenas can hunt alone, in small groups, or in large groups, as well as scavenge; they can eat and digest every part of an animal, including bones, hooves, and waste, and have no problem eating a carcass that’s submerged or floating in water. Their usual prey consist of the various ungulate species of the African savanna, such as wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle. Their jaws are stronger than those of the brown bear and generate nearly half again as much force as a leopard’s bite. Their hearts are proportionately large, giving them immense endurance in long hunting chases, and they typically hold large territories in which to wear down fleeing prey. They closely respect territorial boundaries, even to the point of allowing prey to escape if it crosses out of their lands. Hyenas use all of their senses, tracking live prey by sight, hearing, and smell; they find carrion by smell, by watching for descending vultures, or by listening for scavenging opportunities; hyena ears are sensitive enough to hear other predators hunting or feeding up to six miles away. (However, the myth that hyenas scavenge lion kills is not only misleading, but usually happens the other way around. Spotted hyenas and lions directly compete with each other, and while hyenas can occasionally eat side-by-side or drive lions off, they usually just step back and wait for the lions to finish. Hyenas will often steal kills from cheetahs, though, and occasionally from leopards.)
Hyena social structure is the most complex of any carnivore, rivaling some primates, but is competitive instead of strictly cooperative. Despite this, they are highly socially intelligent and can problem-solve cooperatively. Hyenas exhibit very detailed social knowledge, able to recognize great-aunts and the reliability of other individuals; their dominance is based not solely on physical force but on networks of allies. Hyena groups are called clans and can include as many as 80 individuals. Clans are matriarchal, and even the lowest-ranking females dominate the highest-ranking males. Clans live in one or more communal dens, which frequently have several entrances; adults usually can’t use all of the den due to their size, as they usually use dens dug by other animals. They have a wide range of social interactions, including greeting each other by licking the other’s genitals; erection is a sign of submission, more common to males than females. The signature hyena giggle is actually a sound usually made in fear, when attacked or chased.
The mother alone cares for her cubs, with no assistance from the father or other females; hyenas don’t form long-lasting pair-bonds. Females actively prefer younger males as mates, and older females additionally prefer males with whom they have had amicable past relationships; passive males win more females than aggressive ones. Mothers usually give birth to just two cubs, and the rank of those cubs corresponds to the mother’s, as she imparts to them her general androgen levels, which are directly related to her dominance and her rank within the clan. Hyena cubs are the only carnivorous mammals to be born with their eyes open, and they attack each other shortly after birth, frequently killing the weaker sibling, especially in same-sexed litters. Spotted hyena milk is enormously protein- and fat-rich, and cubs will nurse for over a year, though they mature socially and physically with remarkable speed. They are sexually mature at three years and have an average (zoo) lifespan of twelve years. Hyenas have a number of antibodies against deadly diseases, including rabies.
hyenas in myth and art
Hyenas have an generally negative place in the mind of humans, both Western and African… but, nonetheless, they have had a place there since Palaeolithic times. They are depicted in Upper Palaeolithic rock art in France, including the Chauvet Cave, Lascaux, Le Gabillou Cave, and La Madeleine rock shelter. In Africa, the hyena is typically seen as abnormal, dangerous, ugly, greedy, and dirty, as well as often related to witchcraft; Western culture traditionally thought of hyenas as cowardly, unholy, and comically stupid. However, in some East Africa mythology, the hyena is a solar animal that brought the sun to warm the earth. There are multiple myths of were-hyenas, but they do not return to their human selves when killed. Ethiopia has stories of the King of Hyenas, an albino animal with great power. In some African cultures, hyenas are linked to the end of rituals (because they devour corpses) or with liminality (because they’re frequently considered hermaphrodites and thus “in-between” sexes), or with fortune-telling and apotropaic properties. Some hunters treat slain hyenas with the same respect as they would deceased tribal elders to avoid vengeance by hyena spirits.
Much like I did for Harpy Eagle, I’m going to distill some symbolism from all of the awesomeness that is the spotted hyena. As before, all of this is my individual interpretation and is not (to my knowledge) drawn from any other source, let alone any traditional/tribal one. I’m also leaving out some of the most general and obvious bits (like their environment and symbolism related to being a mammal and a carnivore).
- Hyenas have immensely powerful jaws and can crush, devour, and digest just about anything, including things that other carnivores cannot. [Drawing nourishment and sustenance from anything, without metaphorical indigestion. Sustaining oneself on what others couldn’t access or couldn’t bear.]
- Hyenas are female-dominant, and the females’ genitals resemble the males’ with a startling degree of accuracy, including function. Typically dominant male displays, such as erections, are actually signs of submission in hyenas (and are no longer only the domain of males). [Balancing a strong feminine with a soft masculine. Gender-bending, both as an individual and as a society.]
- The most choice male mate is the most passive. [Choosing gentleness and longevity of (prior) relationship over aggression and force.]
- Hyenas use all of their remarkably keen senses with no particular bias. [Not only the ability to actively intake all sorts of things, but to passively observe with every sense and to use the best sense for the job. Overall: flexibility, diversity.]
- Hyena cubs are born with their eyes open and mature physically and socially very quickly. [Being precocious, either as a literal child or, more metaphorically, as a “child” in a given situation, field, activity, or group.]
- Hyenas have large territories and respect their boundaries. [Holding one’s own space, even when it’s not small, and letting others have their own.]
- Hyenas are unaffected by rabies and certain other deadly diseases. [Being immune to what is normally crippling and fatal.]
- Hyenas are plentiful in a wide variety of climates and terrains and can live alongside or compete against a staggering number of other species. [In a word or two: survivable, adaptable.]
- Hyenas both cooperate with and compete against members of their own clan. [Being precariously balanced and actively variable between self-interest/self-gain and group-interest/group-gain.]
- Hyenas eat the dead, both animal and human. [Being the link between death and life; doing the necessary job to maintain a larger balance, despite the unfortunate reputation that comes with it.]
- Hyenas are neither felidae nor canidae and have frequently been mistaken for wolves or various hybrids of other carnivores. Even today, many African languages do not distinguish between spotted hyenas, striped hyenas, and brown hyenas. [Being unique; being falsely categorized when the truth of uniqueness is not comprehended or acknowledged.]
hyenas and Set
As an additional note: While some modern Kemetics associate Set (Seth, Sutekh) with hyenas, at least in theory, I must disagree with this concept. Set Himself is the strongest of the Netjeru and is very much masculine, for all that He is effectively bisexual in His mythology; there is nothing to draw ties between Him, a dominant/dominating male god, and the female-dominant spotted hyena whose males are most successful when they are at their most submissive and friendly. There is no solid correlation between a strong man’s bisexuality and the hermaphroditic/gender-bending characteristics of the hyena. While a link may be drawn between Set and hyenas based on shared liminal natures, it is a weak one at best, and I don’t feel that correlation can stand firm beneath the contradiction of more prominent attributes.
the red hyena
For a Water-child, I have a strange predisposition towards red or Fire-related entities, perhaps as a way to balance out my own internal biases; and the red hyena is no exception. I began working with Hyena as an older adolescent and adopted her social behaviors in order to achieve a higher functionality in certain inescapable social situations. (I am innately a solitary hermit, so trying to wrangle a raucous group of teenagers as an otherwise-quiet peer-leader was a challenge. Hyena helped.) Since then, I have balanced my inner tendencies with Hyena’s patterns, and I can measure my success in real-world terms: I am currently managing a department of some fourteen people, all creatives and thus fiercely individualistic and opinionated, and I am doing so with extreme success. Additionally, Hyena’s gender-bending fits well with both my habit of flipping a dichotomy upside-down (which shines most brightly in my fiction) and my own genderfluidity. I am, in fact, so enamored of spotted hyenas that I am retelling a couple of my favorite ancient Egyptian myths through a fictional society of hyena-people, based heavily on real spotted hyena behaviors and facts; that novella is about 60% done and has not ceased to delight me yet.
I end this long and information-heavy entry with this, a gorgeous photo of the red hyena:
Last year’s second H post was on Hethert-Nut (which became a permanent page on the site).
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing harpy eagles in person for the first time at the Fort Worth Zoo. The walkway is enclosed beneath their habitat, and the male perched on the wire ceiling of the walkway with his meal while the female periodically flew from one side to the other. We could feel the wind off her wings; she was twice his size. On her last pass over our heads, a tiny piece of white down fluttered down through the wire mesh right in front of me, and I captured it carefully in both hands before it hit the ground.
I don’t usually connect strongly or easily with birds, but there was something special about the harpies (and Andean condors, but that’s for another post). My first step, when an animal catches my attention in that particular way, is to do some basic research and see what I can glean from that on a more symbolic/totemic/mythical level. If my interest or gut instinct continues to ring bells, I’ll do more in-depth research and study to continue interpreting science into symbol. (Yes, I am a zoologist-totemist. Best of both worlds!)
Harpies are very large eagles (but not the largest, as they are often described as being); they live in tropical lowland rainforests, and their wingspans are somewhat short for their overall size so they can maneuver in the dense forests. [Being sizable without forsaking agility; navigating a cluttered environment.] Like other eagles, the females are nearly twice the size of the males, but both sexes will take very large prey, up to their own weight, which is a startling feat of strength when we’re talking flying off with a live animal. [Choosing worthy and challenging targets instead of the easiest possible targets; operating at a level respective to one’s own strength and proficiency.]
Apex predators, harpy eagles primarily feed on arboreal mammals like sloths and monkeys, but will also eat other birds, reptiles, larger ungulates (even deer), or (very rarely) livestock. [Being versatile enough to find nourishment in many forms; being capable of seizing a variety of targets successfully.] Harpies have the largest talons of any living eagle, with claws longer than even a grizzly’s at 5.1 inches; their feet are immensely strong and capable of easily suppressing prey. [Extraordinary innate power, which can be used to anchor oneself or to seize and hold a target; ability to overpower and strangle.] Harpies tend to perch-hunt, scanning for prey while perched on boughs between short flights from tree to tree, but also still-hunt, which involves staying in one location and swooping down on prey when it’s spotted. They can also chase flying birds. [Versatility again in methodry; ability to keep moving or to wait motionlessly or to full-fledged chase, depending on the need.]
Harpies tend to be quiet when not attending their nests; they mate for life and raise one eaglet, ignoring their second egg unless the first fails to hatch. [Vocal when at “home” with family; focused on one partner and one offspring alone.] The nest is large, made of sticks, and frequently built in one of the tallest trees of South America, the kapok tree; it can be used for several clutches, which are spaced 2-3 years apart. [Finding safety and home-ness in high places; having a more stationary sense of home.] Both sexes will incubate the egg and bring back food for the other; the eaglet is fed and tended for the first year or more of its life. [Shared responsibilities, despite inequality in size; devotion to offspring past the point of strict necessity.]
Harpies tend to be aggressive and fearless of humans, leading them to be targeted by hunters, even though they pose no actual threat to human life as predators. [Persecution based on appearance instead of action; fearlessness in defending offspring and home.] Threatened primarily by habitat loss, they are anywhere from Critically Endangered to Near Threatened, depending on the area, but overall are classed as Near Threatened globally.
Overall, I’m getting an impression of lessons in strength (without forsaking agility), versatility (in both prey and hunting methods), and fierce devotion to (a small) family. Two particular tidbits that perked my ears were the boldness around humans and the size and strength of harpies’ talons. I am finding myself very interested… which means I get to do more and better research to see what else I can uncover. :D
Last year’s first H post was on heka (Egyptian magic).
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 AnimalSpirits.com to Wildspeak.com, 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…?
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