Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Totem Animals

Japanese scrimshaw shank buttons

I've been interested in the concept of totem animals ever since I was a kid and learned about totem poles in school. The teacher told us about a belief common to many Native American tribes that when each individual is born an animal spirit comes forward as a life-time helper and guide. Of course I was very curious as to which animal might have come forward for me.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I feel that having a totem animal guide is not in conflict with Christian beliefs, unless it becomes a form of worship. I have friends who consider their totem animal a "higher power." There must also be some who don't accept the idea of an animal guide. What are your thoughts and feelings about it?

Whenever I mention "totem animal" to anyone, they always ask how they can know which animal is their guide. One way suggested by Ted Andrews (who wrote Animal Speak), is to look at your past, especially your childhood.

What animal were you most drawn to in books?
What animal was first on your list to see at the zoo?
What animal story appealed to you most?
Did you ever have an imaginary animal friend?
Have you saved any childhood animal doll, picture, charm, etc.?
What animal have you collected?
What animal has shown up consistently in your life?

My favorite book as a child was Marshmallow, written and illustrated by Clare Turlay Newberry. Meet Marshmallow below. I still have my original childhood copy of this delightful book (which has totally fallen apart from constant reading), as well as a copy I bought on eBay (which is less worn).

illustration from the book, Marshmallow by Newberry

And here is Marshmallow with Oliver, who wasn't so sure about the advisability of adding a bunny to the family, but who by the end of the book was completely won over.

illustration from the book, Marshmallow by Newberry

Here is a poem from the book, which I could recite as a child from memory.
A bunny nibbles all day long.
A bunny doesn't think it's wrong.
He nibbles mittens, mufflers, mops,
He only pauses when he hops.
He nibbles curtains, lamp-cords, shoes,
He only stops to take a snooze.

Sofa pillows, ribbons, rugs -
He takes a mouthful, then he tugs.
Galoshes, boxes, books, and string -
A bunny nibbles everything.
Here are a few of the rabbit buttons I've collected in recent years.

rabbit buttons of assorted materials

And here are some of my more special rabbit buttons - scrimshaw on bone - made in Japan.

Japanese scrimshaw shank button
Japanese scrimshaw shank button
Japanese scrimshaw shank button

Here's just a few of the many rabbit things I have in my studio.

collection of rabbit things

When I took a needle felting class about 6 years ago, here's what I made.

needle felted rabbit by Robin Atkins, bead artist

Here's a beautiful little quilted rabbit wall hanging made for me by a dear quilting/beading friend. It hangs in my studio above a picture of myself at about 3 years old.

quilted wall hanging by Christy Hinkle

I've always been drawn to rabbits. I am upset to tears (and financial contributions to PETA) by industry's use of rabbits for testing cosmetic and household products. Until recent years, I collected rabbit things without even realizing I was doing it. Could these things be an indication that rabbit is my totem animal? According to Ted Andrews, the answer is yes.

If there is an animal that has shown up consistently in your life, you might want to look it up on this site and check out what Animal Speak has to say about it. Also watch for frequent signs in the next couple of weeks. Did you open a magazine and there was a picture of this animal? Did you look at birthday cards for a friend, and the first one you picked up was of this animal? Were you suddenly aware of this animal in an ad during your favorite TV show? If you get signs such as this, it's further confirmation that this may be your totem animal.

At this point in my life, I'm fairly certain that I have two totem animals - one is my life guide, the other showed up in my late 40's. I will share some more about that in my next post.
Japanese scrimshaw shank button
PS. Click on any picture to see it enlarged. Look in the comments to this post for my reply to your comments.


  1. Anonymous6:44 AM

    Okay, I have to admit to 3 animals. My favorite book as a child was "Fuzzy, Wuzzy Was a Bear." I've always been drawn to horses and cats as well. Upon reading the totem animal stuff I'm redouble in my certainity about mountain lions being a special animal for me. I'm not sure that it is a good thing, but there you are.

  2. Anonymous6:51 AM

    Hi, Robin! If you love rabbits, you must check out; they have the most adorable rabbits (and other pets and animals) all the fact, today's new post is a "sea" of bunnies!

  3. What a wonderful post, Robin! I love your bunnies...
    I don't pretend to understand the role of a totem animal, but I know it is a serious subject.
    The creature that has spoken to me the most loudly over the last many years is the ant. I have an anthill in my garden and cherish it. My brother sent me some info about the ant as totem animal and it seemed to fit...
    I do know that I love sewing them onto everything. They are like a talisman of mine...If you check out the heading of my webpage you will see them there!

  4. Mary T ~ I'd love to post a picture of your mountain lion when it's finished. Thanks for your comment.

    Robin B ~ I just spent an hour on CuteOverload on the bunny page. Some amazing pictures there! Thanks for the link! (Are you the famous Robin B. of paper doll quilt fame?)

    Allison ~ Yes, I've noticed your ants. And thanks for reminding me to mention that there are rabbits everywhere in my work as well... maybe I'll post a few detail pictures.

  5. When I was a child I was very drawn to otters...I often went fishing with my dad and occasionally we'd see them...for most of my life as an adult I've been drawn to cats but when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, bears started turning up everywhere and I usually tuck a small stone bear into any amulets I wear or make...and lately I've been seeing a lot of herons and egrets...they've been showing up in lots of my nature pics, so I'll have to look them up too...
    what a great post, me thinking!

  6. I am crazy about rabbits too....always have been! Something about the roundness of each and every part! We had a large rabbit named "Rosie" for years. She was a very large lop earred. My husband was so wild about her she had total run of the house with a litter box to do her duty. She would circle his feet every morning while he was making his coffee and would jump onto the ottoman around 9 p.m. every evening to eat an apple! Rog, my hubby, went through a depression when she died. She died very unexpectedly and was having convulsions when he arrived from work. Evidently she had an ear infection or something along those lines.....but it was VERY SAD! Sorry to ramble......Linda

  7. I loved horses for a very long time, but I also loved big cats... At the zoo, I loved to see the giraffes... My favorite childhood book actually featured a bird, and it was called 'Are You My Mother?' by P.D. Eastman. (I guess I just couldn't believe that the little bird didn't know what his mother looked like. LOL!)... The only 'animal' that I've ever collected were unicorns... I find that birds seem to follow me through life... And, right now, there is a stuffed zebra on my bed. LOL!!

  8. Hi, Robin!

    As usual, you make some interesting points and provoke thought and introspection. I love it!

    If my totem animal ISN'T a bear, then you could knock me over with a whisker. My favorite toy as a child, which I still have, is a well-loved teddy bear -- and I've collected 100 or so more since that time. And when I was diagnosed with a rare bone disease 10 years ago, I started collecting bear fetishes. I didn't know at the time that the Zuni consider bears to be symbols of healing, but when I learned this, my bears became even more precious to me.

    I also remember that on a family vacation to the Great Smokies when I was a child, a huge black bear strolled out of the woods & came right over to me. My mom told me to stand perfectly still, which I did, and the bear didn't harm me at all. I seem to remember it sniffed my pockets, looking for food -- and when it found none, it returned to the woods. I don't know if this encounter has any significance or not, but if the bear is my totem animal, we share a love of the woods -- and of good food!

    P.S. My favorite childhood book, however, was "The Velveteen Rabbit." I still love that book!

  9. aI was always drawn to gentle creatures - caterpillars, toads, Mighty Mouse was my favorite cartoon hero. But on the wild side, as a child, I looked out our picture window one snowy morning and sitting on a 3 foot drift looking in the window at me was an owl. After I moved to Colorado and learned of Pygmy Owls, I took that for my email to shore up my intention to see one.

    On a drive home, I saw a shape that looked like an owl by the side of the road. I stopped and it was a PYGMY OWL that had been hit by a car. Her right side was severely injured - her leg and wing useless and her eye was sunken in and tiny rocks lined the closed lids. But she stared at me piercingly with her one yellow eye!

    I drove her to the bird rehab center but she died on the way. It has felt like a part of her soul entered me when she stared into my face. I've wanted to make some art about that, but haven't done that yet.

    I used to think that totem animals and shamanic studies were completely different than Christianity and I had to renounce one for the other. But who's to say that the Divine doesn't communicate with us through animals as much as through words and angels? That makes ours a much richer and holier world!

  10. How interesting we have one grand daughter who is drawn to frogs and a grandson who lives spiders..................mmm! I wonder!
    your post is very interesting for sure.

  11. I don't know if it makes it my totem, but I often feel like a dog and I don't particularly like it.

  12. Ah Robin - after reading this, it confirms that my love of Moose (which started then I was about 13) is completely correct. I have long felt a connection to the animal.

    Now, I just need to move to the moosey areas of the country to be closer to them.

    When are you coming back to teach in Michigan??

  13. First of all, thanks for adding my blog to your side bar! Secondly, although I am ambivalent about totems, bunnies have a firm place in our family culture as we all grew up with Bunnykins china by Royal Doulton. I've even made a Bunnykins baby quilt which you can see under "Cot Quilts" on my website

  14. Thanks to all of you for your encouraging posts. Because of your acceptance, I've worked with this topic again in my next post about tigers!

    Beadbabe ~ You've made an interesting point... I think bears are showing up in lots of peoples lives at this time, as they are thought to be the animal that most connects humans to the animal spirit world. Maybe it's a time of need for all of us.

    Lindaharre ~ Thanks so much for sharing the story about your lop-earred Rosie. It must have been very sad to loose her.

    Lonebeader ~ I can tell by your beaded Divas and owl that, like Mary Preston, you have a great affinity for all animals. No wonder you've connected with quite a number of them.

    April ~ I don't think anyone's going to be knocking you over with a whisker. What an amazing experience! How did your Mom know to stay calm and not run or scream? Although she must have been very frightened, she did you a great service. Thanks for sharing.

    Vicki ~ Poor little pygmy owl, and poor you... made me cry to read your story. Maybe trying to write a poem about it would be good. Maybe your piece about vulnerability has some relationship to this tragic incident in your life... I love the great wisdom expressed in your last paragraph. Thank you for adding that.

    Lee-ann ~ Have you thought to introduce your grandchildren to this topic?

    Lane ~ Think about wilder versions of the dog. Wolf, fox, dingo, etc. Maybe there is some message for you in your dog comment.

    Liz ~ The moose is a magnificent animal. Your animal is all about self-respect and inner strength.

    Brenda ~ I really appreciate your comment and honesty about totem ambivalence. I respect your reservation about it. Bunnykins! What a joy for any child! And your quilt is too. You're quite a prolific artist! Thanks for visiting.

  15. Hi Robin,

    As always, delightful post (heading to the tiger one next). Going by what I am/was drawn to, I'd say that the cat is one of my totems then. I absolutely adore those animals. I once would have included horses but at some point in my life I just stopped liking them. Who knows.

  16. What an interesting and thought-provoking post. I love the rabbits, they are a favorite of mine too. I have oodles of them around the house...but I have two dolphins nose to tail as my only tattoo. What can I say, I had a rough time turning 30!


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!