Working with Totems Part 3

Working with Totems

Author: Robert Oakes

Totems animal spirits are an invaluable ally not only when dealing with spirit realms, but also when trying to understand life lessons.

Understanding that animal spirits choose to work with humans both in spiritual and mundane matters can be highly beneficial.

Part 1 of this article looked at recognizing the various types of totems, while part 2 addressed finding a personal totem. Part 3 will cover working with the totems in daily life, and part 4 will deal with interacting with the totem.

Greatest Strength, Greatest Challenge

A primary totem can point out the greatest strengths someone carries, as well as their areas of greatest challenge. Often this is two sides of the same coin, as the weakest area can turn into their strength if they do their work. For example, let’s say someone’s primary totem is elk. One of the aspects of elk medicine is stamina and strength. Now this person just so happens to have a chronic health condition that causes fatigue and exhaustion. By turning to elk medicine in times of greatest challenge, they will come to develop deep wells of inner strength and resiliency. By working through this issue they will not only come out much stronger than they started, but also will be able to go on much longer than anyone around them. Their greatest challenge became their greatest strength.

Animal Behavior

Ethology is the study of animal behavior. By learning about animal behavior, a person can get great insight into the medicine of a totem. Knowledge about animal behavior not only develops insight into the totem, but into the person working with that totem as well. How the animal behaves in the wild relates to how the person will work with that totem medicine in terms of interpersonal relations, adversity and daily life routines.


Although it is a generalization, people do tend to eat according to the active totem in their life. If the animal is a carnivore, then they will probably need to eat meat at least from time to time. Hoof clans tend to be grazers and will snack throughout the day. Wolves will gorge themselves at one sitting and might not eat for a long while. Bears will eat everything in sight and still look in the fridge for more.

Power Times and Environment

The totem’s natural energy cycle will influence the holder of that medicine. What time of day or year is the totem most active? What type of climate do they like? When is their mating time? When is their birthing time? What part of the year represents their greatest challenge? These are all things that come into play in a person’s life when working with a primary totem.


Totems influence daily interpersonal interactions. This can be in intimate relationships, business transactions and family life. Understanding how the primary totem acts socially will give clues to how the person carrying that medicine will behave. This is covered in greater detail in the article on totems and relationships.


One of the most powerful ways a totem can assist is in the form of protection. Just simply asking the totem for protection is recognized as a powerful defense in most pagan cultures. This might be protection from spirit based forces, or from more immediate physical threats.

Life Path

The type of totem gives interesting clues to life path and purpose. As mentioned in part 1, totems can be indicative of a certain type of medicine. Some basic examples of this would be:

  • Wolf – teacher, pathfinder
  • Bear – healer
  • Cougar – leadership
  • Elk – spirit messengers
  • Eagle or Buffalo – prayer work
  • Coyote – trickster teacher

Overall a totem will point to major work that person has come into this life to fulfill. Ted Andrews’ Animal Speak, Jamie Sams’Medicine Cards, or Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm’s Druid Animal Oracle would all be good places to start learning about specific totem medicines.


Animal Speak; The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small, Ted Andrews, Llewellyn Publications ,1996

The Once Unknown Familiar; Shamanic Paths to Unleash Your Animal Powers, Timothy Roderick, Llewellyn Publications ,1994

Medicine Cards; the Discovery of Power Animals through the Ways of Animals, Jamie Sams, St Martin Press, 1999

Druid Animal Oracle, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, Fireside, 1995