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A few oddball thoughts on spirituality - Baxil [bakh-HEEL'], n. My Sites [Tomorrowlands] [The TTU Wiki] [Photos]
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March 23rd, 2010
09:36 pm
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A few oddball thoughts on spirituality
... before I get back to plotting my Fireborn game (where the PCs have just learned they need to slay the seven siblings of Chaos -- the closest thing to gods/creators that the human race has -- before a new and growing darkness drives the gods all mad) ...

I. A tangential thought spun off from skimming through the webcomic Pantheon (warning: NSFW for nudity, heresy) earlier today...: Cultural appropriation. More specifically, self-cultural appropriation.
  1. Is it even a meaningful concept to talk about appropriating one's own culture?
  2. Assuming yes to #1, when is it harmful and when is it a necessary part of cultural/religious evolution?
  3. Is it possible to discuss this idea without being offensive to people who are genuinely hurt by (cross-)cultural appropriation?
I'm not trying to single out Pantheon here (which is an example, albeit mild, of more traditional appropriation; it's nigh-impossible to create stories about gods of multiple religions without crossing that line). This is a more general question.

Take for example one of my college acquaintances Gary, who was a devout cultural Jew, and utterly non-religious -- to the extent that he celebrated Passover by eating ham and cheese sandwiches on matzo bread. Or what about Christians who insist (contra the more traditional denominations) that Jesus was gay? Or in the pagan community, practitioners of chaos magick, who basically are this trope embodied?

II. Something that's been circling my brain as I've been reading through lupagreenwolf's excellent "DIY Totemism":

Mages in shamanic traditions work with totems: either (depending on who you ask!) an archetype of that animal, or a representation of ancestral/group connection, or a spirit animal, etc.* Totems are representations of entire species: Bear, Eagle, Fox, Wolf, etc.

Why not Human?

I should first make clear that I identify as dragon, thus negating the complaint that totems should be a chance to connect with something other than yourself**. To the related complaint that totems are about nonhuman and thus non-sapient animals, I point out that the entire point of working with totems is to communicate with them, so even "unintelligent" animals have totems that can speak with you. (Besides, don't even try to pretend that neoshamans don't use dragons as totems; turnabout, fair play, etc.)

Of course, since there is quite a body of human religiosity already, this begs the question: how are "the totem Human" and the human god(s) related? Are they separate entities, or do the things a species worships come from the same pool of spiritual space and/or archetype that the totem is drawn from? Does the fact that humanity has an endless pool of variety and an endless pool of gods complicate the attempt to condense the species down into a single archetype, or merely mean that we can't grasp it all at once and must see one facet of a much larger gem? But what reverse implications would that have for our work when we invoke a totem of another species to/into ourselves?

What lessons does the totem animal Human teach? What qualities does it possess?***

Could therians and Otherkin benefit from developing a healthy relationship to totemic Human as they go through the arduous process of reconciling their spirit and their body?

(And yes lupagreenwolf, I'm looking at you with this one. I know you're still having problems with posting LJ comments, but I'd love to pick your brain about this offline sometime.)

* Speaking purely personally, it makes sense to me to think of a "totem" as something greater than a mere spirit helper; otherwise there's little point in making the vocabulary distinction, and thinking of your personal spirit animal Yiffles as being somehow capital-F Fox can ... seem a little egotistical/disconnected.
** Though Lupa -- who is a wolf therian with Wolf as a totem -- would take issue with that complaint from a different direction.
*** I somehow doubt that one's in a whole lot of totemic dictionaries.

Current Location: ~/Brainstorm
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(18 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:March 24th, 2010 04:37 am (UTC)
Cant get the pantheon link to work...
[User Picture]
Date:March 24th, 2010 04:49 am (UTC)
Fixed, thanks.
[User Picture]
Date:March 24th, 2010 04:56 am (UTC)
In my experience, every species has a representative Totem, humans included. I would presume, having not asked, that Human represents the best and worst of humanity: not gods, but worship; many facets showing the vast fullness therein, and a single complete Self with but one face -- your own. All variety is part of one great thing.

Then again, I've recognized souls and spirits in six dimensions, and experienced All Are One directly. This one is almost a no-brainer.
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Date:March 24th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
> a single complete Self with but one face -- your own

Hm! Food for thought. That would certainly make sense for human-as-totem, although again, part of the question is what reverse implications it would have for totemism-in-general. So when we connect to totems of other species, are we connecting to ourselves-as-Fox or whatnot?
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Date:March 24th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
Yes and yes. Everything in the universe has a reflection of everything else in it; but to what degree? Fox is not Human, nor vice-versa. But because there is some part which is foxlike, we can relate to Fox, and Fox to us.
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Date:March 24th, 2010 06:29 am (UTC)
(Thank you for reminding me about Pantheon. It always amused.)

I'm going to perhaps post something more coherent and thoughtful later, but this was a great brain-twister for myself on a night with too little sleep.

It's the influence of my brother in my life, a proudly-Human agnostic secular type, that really thinks all this supernatural Otherkin and pagan and magic nonsense of mine is politely a bit silly. To crib from another webcomic I read, Human is Superhuman quite easily all on its own.

This also has intersections with some of the more ceremonial or kabbalistic schools of esoteric thought, I think. Human the Totem wouldn't quite be like one's Highest Self, or like the kabbalistic conceptions of Adam, or like Hu-Man-As-Divine, but it seems like it might intersect them.

Just so long as, when looking to draw lessons from human, we take thought of both the past of Homo sapiens sapiens, and the present. Like the way there are differing shades of implication for Feral City Pidgeon and Rock Dove, though they be the same species. Or the significance of Rabbit in Australia.
[User Picture]
Date:March 24th, 2010 07:12 pm (UTC)
Would you expand on your second paragraph ("It's the influence ...")? I hear what you're saying about your brother but I can't quite square it with the context of the remainder of the post.

You raise a good point, that domesticated human and primitive human really are different creatures. (I hate linking to NYT behind their subscription wall - but I can't find another good article online talking about Belyaev's rat experiments.) When talking to totem-Human (should I accept that mission), it's something I will take into account.
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Date:March 24th, 2010 06:55 am (UTC)
I believe that cultural appropriation and redefinition has always been going on. It is part of the natural process of cultural change over time. Ganesa wasn't originally part of the religion the northerners brought with them into India; the Vanir are associated with the Aesir through some cultural change that happened long before Snurri and those guys wrote things down; Beowulf outfits a very pagan story with a Christian gloss; the standard deck of 52 playing cards wasn't a Mongolian invention, but can be used by Buryats for oracular work; St. Francis of Assisi went to the Holy Land and returned to Europe with ideas that looked a lot like Sufism. And so on.

I think that cultural appropriation is more of a big deal now than it has ever been because of the recent nature of Europeans bulldozing our way over the local people; because of the way that, partly thanks to the less-yielding nature of Christianity as a religion, cultural appropriation doesn't have quite the same nature of integration as, say, Romans adopting Mithraism, Kemetic religion and Christianity as mystery cults. F'rex, I don't think people swiping Lakota tradition would rankle quite so much if the actual Lakota themselves weren't being so screwed.

I think that the idea of appropriating your own culture fits into that. Integrating stuff your ancestors recognizably had isn't terrible, especially because you probably aren't blithely grabbing Greek or Scandinavian mythology while ignoring actual Greek or Scandinavian people getting totally shafted. That aspect of rubbing salt into the open wound just isn't there.

I think that totems, like gods, are meant to be archetypical. The gods pretty much are the closest thing to Human as a totem, because they represent facets of human existence - there are religions which try to condense all of human experience down into one totemic entity, and honestly I don't really think that works. Dragons, however fictitious or real, are valid archetypes; the union of sky and earth, of fire with air. Big powerful Jungian shit. I find it abhorrent to suggest that totemic beasties or trees or whatever are non-sapient; by definition they are archetypical, as far beyond being mere humans with funny ears and tails tacked on as they are beyond being mere animals with funny human speech patterns tacked on.

The idea of relating back from Otherkin to humanity through a totemic connection is interesting. If you're Otherkin, then you are neither human nor animal, much the same way the gods and spirits are neither human nor animal. Very few gods are without animal associations. You'd figure that would be something pretty easy to empathize with, and follow as a way of gaining a greater understanding.

It's late and I'm not all that awake, so hopefully I'm not just sounding like a blithering idiot. I'm definitely not immune to blithering idiocy.
[User Picture]
Date:March 24th, 2010 09:56 pm (UTC)
We prefer to call it Fevered Philosophy instead of Blathering Idiocy. ^_~
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Date:March 25th, 2010 12:40 am (UTC)
I think one of the reasons that appropriation hits harder in the modern age is that, compared to the examples you list, modern America/first-world doesn't have anything to integrate into! The primary religion is exclusivist rather than pantheonic, and the contingent of Americans that bucks the Christian trend is both historically and culturally rootless (true even to some extent in Europe - where centuries-to-millennia of Christian whitewashing has made remote the people's original pagan beliefs). So when beliefs are appropriated, there isn't really much of an exchange ... well, ok, there's capitalism, which as you've already mentioned ain't that great of an export if the receivers are on the wrong end of the power structure. (Let's not go deeper into that just now; neither of us needs the rant.)

Appropriating from your own ancestors -- while a really interesting question! -- is slightly different from modern-day self-appropriation; the way I see it, resurrecting material that is essentially culturally dead is a victimless crime.

And I agree, totems are certainly not non-sapient! (Probably even smarter than us.) I was just trying to make a point about how totems are above and beyond their source animals, even when the source animal lacks methods of effectively communicating with us, its would-be students.

"Humans as Totem Animals" is an essay waiting to be written. :)
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Date:March 24th, 2010 04:01 pm (UTC)
In regards to totems of Humanity--I'd say they exist, that the "totems" are probably on a continuum of spiritual beings (yes, ranking up to what people would term normally demigods or Animal Masters), and in some cases are probably culturally linked to boot and/or linked to certain locations (how to put this--thinking in part of something *sort* of similar, but not quite, to the concept in Shadowrun (and if I recall, Fireborn played with this too) of essentially totemic spirits of cities or locations).

And yes, I'd say that Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty WOULD be technically "Totems of Man" for the US. Possibly the Founding Fathers have been elevated to this too (then again, the Vietnamese synchretist religion Cao Dai (speaking of self-cultural appropriation and a bit of cross-culture synchretism/appropriation) pretty much DOES have the Founding Fathers specifically as totemic helpers).

Arguably, the Eastern religions have been doing this forever, with probably the most dramatic example being Guan Yu (who started out as a RL soldier, then got his story fictionalised in "Romance of the Three Kingdoms", then ended up deified in Chinese folk religion, and now is seen as the patron god of not only warriors but law enforcement).

(And just to make this very interesting and potentially heretical, and possibly an example of self-cultural-appropriation to boot--yes, technically Jesus could be considered in this category. Yes, there are traditional Native American spirituality groups, particularly in the Southeast US, who do literally consider Jesus as a totem (particularly the Nighthawk Keetoowah traditional society among the Cherokee, and the Square Ground religious society among the Miccosukee/Creek people). And yes, I have personally interacted on this level (as in talked in the same manner I do with Animal Masters and other spirit folks) with the fellow before. Actually, he's quite a nice guy. Shame what happened to his religion in the hands of fundamentalists.)
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Date:March 25th, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC)
As far as "spirits of locations"; Fireborn does have what are called "primordials," which are elemental spirits that are bound to a specific place, although the things you call up with Spirit dots in Mage: The Awakening are probably closer to what you're envisioning. </geek>

Interesting, I hadn't considered cultural figures as totems - though Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty are certainly invested with enough significance as to be archetypical for something! Extrapolating one step further, would that make Santa Claus a totem? :)

Honestly, here I think it makes a big difference how you define "totem." All of those are definitely archetypical in some respect of the human experience - by birthplace or by aspiration or by virtue -- but to me they don't seem species-representative in the same way that, say, "Wolf" does. I'm no expert on shamanism, though, and there are a lot of different ways to do it!
[User Picture]
Date:March 25th, 2010 10:55 pm (UTC)
I'll take your word on the whole stuff re Mage: the Awakening (honestly, I don't really play "new" WoD). :3 (Pretty much what was coming to mind was...for want of a better term, a sort of gestalt intelligence that in and of itself was a reflection of the people living there. NYC and Chicago, for instance, have DEFINITELY different "feels" even on the psychic level, so to speak--and I don't think it's the location that's entirely colouring it.)

And yeah, this does of course depend on what one sees as a totem per se--I tend to see things as a general continuum, others don't so much.

As far as a totem representing humanity as a whole, I can see it, but I'll admit it's difficult for me to wrap my head around fully; I just suspect that under a human totem there's probably different "Spirits of Man" per se for different cultures (that ultimately tend to be facets of a whole--I hope I'm making sense here). That said, I don't see why it's any less likely than having a totem for (say) Dragon or whatnot.

And yes, I do think cultural figures can be totemic (and yes, potentially Santa could be totemic, and one can argue he may have been "pre-imbued" seeing as Santa is an Americanisation of St. Nicholas--hell, I've known folks who on occasion worked with Captain America as an archetype before).
[User Picture]
Date:March 24th, 2010 06:56 pm (UTC)

Totems are Anthro Anyway...

Jack (the web comic, also relatively NSFW), is mostly furry with AFAIK a single fully human character. The whole notion of anthropromorphising things is that you take something out of it's default context, and put it into your own. So, to ask what qualities a totem human represents, you need to ask what a therian perspective of human behavior is.

It seems like the formation of a totem as a cultural entity is really the establishment of a common context for communication. As such, many animal species and genera are perceived very differently depending on context and culture - Ravens, Vultures, Serpents, Wolves, Spiders and, I'm sure, a whole menagerie of others.

[User Picture]
Date:March 25th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)

Re: Totems are Anthro Anyway...

> to ask what qualities a totem human represents, you need to ask what a therian perspective of human behavior is.

If I were going to be the one to answer that question, the first thing that comes to mind is "ingenuity" (and its brother concepts curiosity, etc ...) I think many/most of the other qualities attributed to the species stem from that novelty-seeking and outside-of-the-boxness.

(n.b.: Those other readers who don't believe the average human is ingenious need to learn some appreciation for their skill at jerry-rigging.)
[User Picture]
Date:March 26th, 2010 01:03 am (UTC)
Gah. I keep trying to come up with a decent response to this, and it just isn't working. I mean, the short version is that I agree with the concept of the totemic Human, but the details vary. Deities sort of are totemic in that they embody certain forces, just as totems embody certain species. But Human as an animal has gone in some interesting directions. Will have to think on that more.

As to appropriating one's culture, yes, it's possible. Are you misrepresenting it to others for profit or other gains? Does what you're doing benefit your culture?
[User Picture]
Date:March 26th, 2010 09:35 pm (UTC)
Thanks for trying - it's a hard question, and it's interesting exactly because of that. :) I myself have no solid ideas on this yet (especially since I have very limited practical experience in the shamanic arena), although the idea of separate species/totems for "domesticated human vs. primitive human" mentioned in a comment above does make intuitive sense to me. I hope to return to this line of thought occasionally and nibble around the edges of it for a while. Of course, maybe we could tackle it at a Pcon lunch conversation; we're already pre-booked for next year. ;-)

The idea, in the abstract, that we have an obligation to "benefit our culture" raises my hackles -- but I also realize it's not that simple. I don't have an obligation to benefit my government, either, but both my government and my culture do provide useful services and support that I would be unable to enjoy as a single individual; there's an implied social contract that comes from simply partaking of those benefits, and breaking that social contract does and should carry sanctions. In the case of government, I'm fine with that -- given complete freedom, I wouldn't choose anarchy -- but when issues of obligation and (self-)appropriation get to religion, my instinct is wholly against community. I'm sure this is not tenable for everyone, but I can't stomach spirituality as anything but a hands-on activity, and the idea of religion being a cultural institution (anything bigger than elective working groups of like-minded friends) pushes some buttons. I've already ranted too long about this though, and it really needs some careful approach and context if I want to talk about it productively.

(Rant off.)
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Date:May 29th, 2010 04:54 am (UTC)


Please excuse the, uh, off-topic reply to your post (which I found intriguing, by the way, though I have nothing intelligent to add to the conversation)... But I just wanted to say "SQUEE! FIREBORN!"

Ahem. What I also wanted to do was ask how it is? Unfortunately, the game has been gathering dust on my shelf since I've bought it, though not for the want of playing it. I simply haven't had the time to really learn the system and plan a game. I was really intrigued by the dice rules, though. And, of course, I was completely squee'ed by the concept. ^_^
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