I have had difficulty in the past with the concept of a “totem animal.” Most of what I read about them didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. It still doesn’t, actually, even now that I have something like a “totem animal” of my own. At first I thought it meant that you felt a particular friendly connection to a certain animal, as I feel for horses, cats and some dogs. Or maybe it meant that you felt some strong emotion in the presence of some certain animal, the way some people really get into dolphins or bears, and that there was some spiritual link there based on that reaction. Or that you particularly admired some aspects of an animal and wanted more of that sort of thing in your life, so you worked with the image of the animal in order to get something from it.  But in exploring the concept, none of these ideas seemed to fit. There are animals that I connect with in all these ways, either as individual beings for themselves or as symbols of something bigger. None of these feelings, though, even approached what it seemed like people who talked about “totem animals” were getting at – unless those people sounded particularly shallow or unsure on the concept, as I was. The ones who sounded serious and wise on the subject seemed to be talking about something else entirely.

I like deer. I think they’re beautiful animals. It’s always special to see one in the wild, even if you live where they are quite common. They have that admirable wild combination of shyness and ferocity that I also associate with rabbits. They are resourceful, prolific, and also very tasty. As a kid, I enjoyed Felix Salten’s “Bambi” books (though I detested the movie, as only someone who loves a book can hate a movie that messes with it) while also being quite happy when hunting season yielded a freezerful of Bambi. That’s pretty much the extent of my past association with deer. There are other animals that I have a lot more love for. Horses. Cats. Owls. Elephants. Goats. Wolves. Pine martens and various other mustelids. Butterflies. Whales. All of these would be fabulous candidates for Nettle’s Totem Animal. But, as I said, I never felt much need for one, as all of the descriptions I read of totem animals either made little sense to me or seemed shallow and uninteresting and New-Agey. Mostly it sounded like having a cool imaginary pet, which is fun but not all that useful.

I sat down to write this post with the intention of telling Sandy about how I came to have a big-ass tattoo of a deer skull on my lower back. I still haven’t come close to doing that and am a little surprised as to the territory I’m wandering into. I think I’ll get to the actual tattoo and some of my thoughts about tattooing in a later post. This is going to become a long series leading up to the one about How (and Why) I Got Decorated. It wasn’t done lightly, and there are all kinds of threads leading up to it. One of those threads, one of those reasons, is that Deer is my guide and guardian. I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t look for it, and I didn’t understand it when it came, but there it is. I’m going to try to explain what that means to me, even though it sounds very different from what I read in popular sources on “power animals” or “totem animals.”

It’s hard to talk about, as all mystical experiences are, and I think this difficulty is part of why it’s hard for me to relate to other accounts of this concept – it’s not that everyone else is getting it wrong, or that I have some special and different insight; it’s just that my lived experience can’t be talked about very well and the same is true for everyone else’s experiences. The dumbed-down version sells well, and maybe it works really well for some people – maybe it’s not shallow or dumb for them at all. And maybe my account will sound nonsensical or shallow or mad to someone who isn’t me. Maybe someone will say, “no, that’s not it, it’s not like that at all.” I think poetry might work better for talking about this, but I’m still practicing with poetry and not functional enough with it yet.

When I say “Deer” (as opposed to “deer”) I’m not talking about an individual spirit, as I am when talking about other sorts of guides or faeries or gods. I’m also not talking about those animals out walking around in the woods called deer that resemble Deer. I don’t think I have any special connection to actual deer, nor do I think that see me any differently than they see any other human. There is a connection there, certainly, but I think it’s more of a morphological similarity – the shape, the substance, and the image of Deer is connected in some way to the animal deer, but they are not the same. I am not sure what this relationship is, but I think it would be simple arrogance to imagine that I have any special insight into deer. They live their own lives with no concern for mine, and their world is not mine. But Deer, on the other hand… Deer is part of me as well as part of the Otherworld. Deer makes a connection, a bridge between this world and that. Deer is there to lead the way, to leave clues and hints, to challenge and to protect. When I go to the Otherworld and say that I need something, Deer is there to help me find it. Deer doesn’t always speak; sometimes Deer is just an antler on the ground, the flash of a tail through the trees, the glimmer of an eye in the dark – Deer is a symbol, not a person. Sometimes Deer is just a patch of fur or an antler on some other being, like the wink of an eye to remind me of the connection. And sometimes he is fully personified, in the form of a deer or a man with a crown of antlers, but even then those personifications are only partaking in Deer. Deer is present in the Horned God, but the two are not the same, and Deer is not a god. When I die, I am sure that Deer will be waiting for me on that bridge as well.

west philly deer