No More Spirit Animals


Tonight at sundown, “Walpurgis Night” or “Hexennacht” begins. The evening of April 30th through the daylight of May 1st is a traditional pagan holiday in Europe, a turning point of the transition from spring to summer. It’s analogous to Halloween/All Saint’s Day in the autumn months, a day when the veil between our world and the worlds beyond is thin.

In Ireland, the holiday had a Gaelic name, Là Bealltainn, and many modern American neo-pagans call this celebration Beltane nowadays. Personally, I’m good with whatever people call it. In ancient times this was the day that the cattle were driven out into their summer pastures. Bonfires were lit across Europe and rituals of protection and prosperity were performed, as people celebrated the beginning of the warm months and prayed for a fruitful season.

In modern times, there are still some lingering celebrations of this holiday throughout Northern Europe, and it has also been repatriated by Leftists and anarchists as a celebration of Revolutionary ideals. However you celebrate the First of May, there’s usually booze and fire, speeches and rituals, and there’s the lingering knowledge that this day is about…life, and summer (and possibly resistance).

Which is good.

I have celebrated this day in various ways for the last 30 years. Today, I thought I would try celebrating it with a quick essay about cultural appropriation among modern white neopagans. For the past hundred and fifty years, there has been a rising movement of European and American people trying to reclaim or reconstruct the lost spiritual heritage of pre-Christian Europe. “Neopaganism” is at core a heritage movement, and it springs from an incredibly rich and diverse history of beliefs and practices which began in the Paleolithic and evolved continuously until Late Antiquity.

It’s no accident that this spiritual movement began in earnest after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had restored a great many images and ideas from Classical Greece and Rome…and around the same time that Deep Time, the science of archaeology and the Theory of Evolution dealt death blows to the power of the Church in public life. People throughout Europe stumbled onto the iconography of their ancestors at a time when the choke-hold of Christianity was weakening.

When they first encountered this iconography, some people felt a deep answering thrum of response. Many of us still do.

Along with this deep resonance there comes longing, and not a small amount of melancholy. Neopaganism among white people is, in many respects, an act of defiance and repudiation, a gesture of mingled love and fury.

Imagine a child who is raised to adulthood by people who murdered her parents. As an adult, she discovers the truth and begins trying to reconstruct her heritage. She has nothing to go on but a torn photograph, a handful of bones and buttons, a few pages left from family journals. Everything else is lost.

I think it’s natural to reconstruct your identity from a tissue of longing, imagination, and present knowledge. If the image of your mother’s face is ripped in half and you can only see her eyes, which are the same shape and color as yours, you imagine that she looked exactly like you. If your image of your father is fuzzy, you squint and say that you can clearly see that inherited his skin tone, his curly hair.

What’s less forgivable is to leave your search for your heritage–the evidence, the longing, the gaps filled in by your  imagination–and start stealing your sense of self from others.

I’ve already been uncomfortable with the use of the phrase “spirit animal” by white people for a few years–as of now I’m axing it completely. I’m also not going to use the word “totem” anymore to try to explain a spiritual affiliation between human beings and elements of the natural world, in my religious framework.

“Totem” and “spirit animal” are essentially the same term. The only difference is that the word “totem” was stolen from the Ojibwe people by anthropologists in the 1850’s, and “spirit animal” is a modern translation of the same mispronounced word which has been appropriated by New Age authors. White people usually use the word to describe a personal relationship with a non-human force of Nature.

This is not at all in keeping with the Ojibwe use of the term. Ojibwe totems are part of a social/kinship system that unites people into a clan. It’s an important part of  Ojibwe identity; it’s one of the ways you introduce yourself to other people.

Upshot is? White people cannot have a “spirit animal” or a “totem”. Unless they happen to be a white-passing Ojibwe.

They might have a daemon, as described in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: a mystical partner which is the animal embodiment of one’s inner self. If you use that terminology, mine would be the timber wolf. A lot of non-pagans claim that their version of this is Samuel L. Jackson, Ru Paul, or a honey badger. As long as they don’t call it a “spirit animal”, they’re welcome to make all the jokes they want about their inner selves. No one cares.

White people might have a patronus, as described in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series: a manifestation of the soul’s capacity for joy and emotional resilience which takes the shape of an animal. If you use that terminology, mine would be the otter. Yours might be Winnie The Pooh, or a tiny tortoise eating a strawberry.

Tiny tortoise eating a strawberry is a perfectly acceptable patronus.

Or maybe this monkey in a tank.

Or maybe this chimpanzee in a tank.

White people might have a charge, a heraldic symbol which has personal meaning to their family line, and could reasonably be incorporated into a coat-of-arms that represents the House or Family that they belong to. This is an ancient European tradition and people of European descent are entitled to use it–it’s certainly  the closest thing that Europeans have to the totems of the Ojibwe. My last name, Dembo, actually means “place of the oaks” in Lithuanian. My ex-husband had a Latvian name meaning “Skylark”. If we had made a coat-of-arms for our household, those would have been the two best symbols to incorporate into it.

White people might also have a tutelary deity, a powerful animal Mentor  or Teacher who is often the center of a myth cycle. A tutelary deity is a guide, a hero, an inspiration. He or she offers both children and adults a series of valuable life lessons through his/her mythic adventures.

As an American, mine is probably Bugs Bunny.

Or possibly this version of Corduroy.

Or possibly this version of Corduroy.

I’m sure you get my drift here. The upshot is that it’s time for to stop trying to rebuild the holes in a tattered cloak from ideas and symbols that were ripped away from other societies. The indigenous people of North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia have been suffering the same onslaught that was first used–very successfully–against the peoples of the Mediterranean basin, North Africa and Europe.

On a serious note, I don’t want to add to their pain.

I can’t regain my lost family by kidnapping the Grandmother of the family down the street and forcing Her at gunpoint to bake me cookies. I can’t kindle the warmth of parental nurture by making some other child an orphan. All I can do is comb the cold ashes of my own heritage to find the remaining threads of evidence and tradition, and re-weave them into something new.

My ancestry is Proto-Indo-European–Lithuanian, Germanic, British Isles and Romany–as well as Jewish. My culture is North American geek culture.

No more spirit animals for me.


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About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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