I’ve noticed a trend among Norse Polytheism and other European Polytheist traditions that there is a particular fascination, and emphasis on, the possession of some special, powerful totemic spirit. And I’m certainly not the only person who finds this suspect. As a very dear, valued, and wise friend brought up in conversation recently:
Why is it, whenever someone is declaring their Spirit Animal, or that they’re a particular type of Otherkin or whatnot, it’s never anything unglamorous. There are far more insects than mammals on the earth, some of which have very complex behaviors indeed, but nobody ever gets chosen by those because . . . they find them ugly or gross. No, it’s always wolves, bears, lions, something cool and bad-ass and predatory and sleek, with the occasional rabbit or stag thrown in. It’s never a hippo, despite hippos being bad-ass and ‘evil’ and dangerous, because hippos are regarded as aesthetically displeasing.
She makes an excellent point-in-observation.
To add to hers, I find that there are overwhelmingly Eurocentric schemata plastered over these various concepts of “animal guides” (and, yes, before anyone asks, there were formerly many species of European lion which have long since been hunted to extinction by the Medieval and Early Modern Periods). And certainly, if one were to know that the fly, flea, moth, cockroach, snail, crab, or mosquito were their Animal Identity, who would want to admit that publicly? I can imagine a great deal of shame would be felt by most Modern Polytheists, to own such an association, and a feeling of not being as “special” as other braggarts touting wolf, lion, bear, and Gods spare us all, DRAGON Spirit Animals, familiars, Fylgjur, and so on.
One would almost never expect to hear someone say “my totem is the koala!” or “my Spirit Guide takes the form of a rhinoceros,” or “I’m a were-giraffe.” Because — exempting the rhinoceros, since rhinoceroses are brutish, masculine, and obscenely strong, and who wouldn’t want to own that? — those examples would sound ridiculous, wouldn’t they? No, it’s far more posh to say “I’m a lycanthrope,” and “my Fylgja takes the form of a giant, mean wolf.” Not knowing, of course, that werewolfism factors more prominently into Hellenism than most other Mediterranean and Northern European traditions (see also Lycaon, King of Arcadia, and the etymology of the word “lycanthropy”)!
It seems as though every bro-questing, Vikingdude Norse Polytheist wants to cast himself in the likeness of the Úlfhéðnar and Berserkir — particularly when very, very precious few of them have ever been to war, much less have blood on their hands or waistlines below 45 inches of beergut, and truly know the Battle-Madness (I can count exactly one friend in the US Army Rangers who has done several tours in “the Stan,” who comes close to that description, and has earned and proven his association with the bear in nearly every respect — in stature, attitude, lifestyle, and deed).
Many people want very much to be tied up in the identity of the creatures tied up in the identity of their favorite Gods, plain and simply. Rather than admit to a mundane fascination and relationship, an earnest desire to be closer to their Gods and what-have-you by focusing on and “working with” the spirit or essence of those creatures in order to gain a higher, more complete understanding of Deity (i.e., exploring the nature of the stag, its life and behavior and fate within the greater chain of being, in order to become closer to and achieve greater understanding of, say, Cernunnos, or Freyr) . . . no, it must be an overinflated, artificially important, mystical, tremendous relationship. They have to be Gods-given totems or Spirit Animals, not something one takes any conscious, prosaic initiative on.
I’ll say it in plainspeak. It’s nonsense. Pure, unadulterated nonsense. The reality of the situation is that most people consciously, actively choose their Spirit Animals. I wager that very few people came into the world with a wolf, bear, or lion spirit attached to or meant for them. I suspect there are far more moth, dung beetle, cedar waxwing, piliated woodpecker, siren, toad, groundhog, and chipmunk people in the world. It seems a bit unrealistic, trite, and contrived, that practically EVERYONE would have a lupiform Fylgia hanging around, even by Spiritual/religious/”metaphysical” standards.
I’ll use myself as an example. I identify heavily with the boar. Masculine, raw, impatient, stubborn, fierce, earthy, grounded, pragmatic, fights to the death, dangerous when wounded, a leader animal, a territorial and protective beast. I share many personality traits with the boar, though there are certainly attributes the boar possesses that I seek to cultivate within myself. The boar is also a chief symbol of both Freyr and Set, two Gods with Whom I have longstanding devotee-to-deity relationships. I have a black boar tattoo on my right arm to commemorate my devotion to Set (Who took the form of a black boar in one myth to devour the moon — an Ancient metaphor for lunar eclipses), to Freyr, and my affinity for the boar.
This identity was, and is, largely self-imposed, something done under my own power, with my own sense of initiative. Sure, we share “character traits,” though it ought to be understood that these are anthropomorphisms that humans give to the boar. I’ve had a few powerful boar-dreams. Does that mean “Glory Tusks,” as I affectionately dubbed my dream-boar, is my Fylgia? Not necessarily. I can only assume; I can never be certain. To err on the side of rationality and caution, I can only confine it to the realm of dreams, and refrain from making some huge mystical drama out of it. Having a few cool boar dreams doesn’t make me a Svinfylking (which refers more to the wedge shield wall attack formation, but some mistakenly use it to refer to “boar warriors”). It doesn’t mean my Fylgia is some bad-ass monster-boar, or indeed, that I’ve ever seen my Fylgia before.
I just really like boars. It’s not the only symbol of my “chief” deities — Freyr features more prominently with the horse, and to some degree, the stag. Set has the crocodile, the hippo, the bull, the hawk, the Oxyrhynchus fish, the Sha, the donkey, and according to R. T. Rundle Clark, the flea. The boar I chose because it fits best with me. The boar by no means “chose” me.
The boar is not the only animal I identify with. The bull, the bat, the bee, and the snake are also animals whose qualities I share, and possess others that I wish to take into myself.
Even if the creatures I’ve dreamt of and associate myself with are not my “totems,” animal dreams or “visions” aren’t useless by any stretch of the imagination. Our brains problem-solve in sleep, and in trance-like states. The human brain, in these states, is able to peel back the layers of trauma and conscious mental construct to access the recesses of one’s being that are in trouble, need to be heard and heeded, what-have-you. Various animals can be symbolic of changes occurring in one’s life, changes one needs to make, among other life lessons. In visions, an animal appearing often means “be like me to overcome this, or to accomplish this,” or “you’re being like the negative aspects of me; stop it.” It could also be (in what I deem far rarer cases) a “Godsign;” that is to say, a God wants to convey something to the individual visually and symbolically, or wants the individual to come to Them in-shrine. And, as is frequently the case, it could just be a matter of the brain toying with popular images in one’s head at night or in-trance.
Ultimately, not everything is an omen or a portent. Not every relationship has to be Gods-given or mystical. As unattractive as prosaic explanations are, a cigar is often just a fucking cigar. It’s okay to do things under one’s own power. It’s okay to be normal, and to let things just be as they are, without making a major production out of it. And, above all else, NOT EVERYONE IS A SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE. EVERYONE BEING SOOPER SPESHUHL TAKES THE MEANING OUT OF UNIQUENESS AND SPECIALTY, DOESN’T IT? Not everyone is a spirit-worker, not everyone is worthy and capable enough for the title and office of “priest.” Most people are normal, honest-to-goodness people, not shamans or Goðis with superpowers and beastly Spirit Animals or whatever else. And that’s perfectly okay. Embrace it. Be yourself.