What is a Totem?


So exactly what IS a totem?

Webster’s Dictionary defines a totem as:

1). a natural object or an animate being, such as an animal or bird, assumed as the emblem of a person, clan, family or group.

2) anything serving as a distinctive, often honored and venerated symbol or emblem.

BORING!  I don’t blame you for snoring through that definition, but now it’s time to wake up to a deeper meaning of what a totem means.

horse totem and what is a totem
Horse totem reminds us of qualities like freedom, stamina and teamwork.

More Insight About the Question:
“What is a Totem?”




Totems are the symbolic essence of a living thing. It is an icon that we can turn to for lots of important reminders. For example, some people look to the bear totem when they need to be reminded they are powerful.  Others might look to the oak tree as a totem to encourage personal growth, or remembering their roots.

Totems can also be a logo for a person, or a group of people.  Take a look at the bald eagle – it is essentially a totem for the people of the United States of America.  Same concept for the people of Wales who feature a dragon as their totem, which is featured on their country’s flag.

A totem captures the spirit of a living thing and simplifies the magnitude of that spirit into a tidy package. A totem is more easily digestible for our psyche. A totem packs all the attributes of something important to you in a single symbol.

So what is a totem in terms of representation?  Does a totem have to be an effigy (like a figurine)?  Nope. This is often the case, however.  Commonly a totem is carved from stone or wood.

what is a totem
Each animal represents a power and personality for various clans.

Totem poles are a great example of this. Typically each animal stacked on the pole represents the power and personality of respective clans.

But a totem doesn’t have to be something tangible.

Consider a totem tattoo.  A tattoo of something that lifts your spirit, and reminds you of the things you aspire to attain, or already have. Tattooing a totem is just as profound as a totem figurine.

And what about our heart, mind and soul?  Why can’t we hold our totem in our spirit and in our consciousness.  Call up that image, and receive the power our totem means to us.  There is no rule book that says a totem has to be chiseled out of a piece of marble.

Can only animals be a totem? Nope. Trees, bugs, birds, plants, sea creatures…basically anything alive on this planet that means something uniquely special to you meets the definition of totem. I’ll grant you, most totems do manifest as animals, but that’s not exclusive.

When Asking “What is a Totem” The Answer is Not Exclusive to the Animal Kingdom

For example, certain trees were a kind of totem to the ancient Celts. Consider the Celtic Ogham. It is a list of trees and plants that were a big, fat hairy deal to Celtic Druids. Some were considered ‘chiefs’ (like the oak tree), and represented big juju.

Consider the Canadian maple leaf. Believe it or not, it’s a totem. It is a symbol that represents Canada. It is on their country’s flag, the leaf is featured on some of their coins…it even identifies their hockey team!

what is a totem
A totem is something in nature that we look to when we need to be reminded of our goals, attributes, strengths. Totems are not exclusive to animals.

Why would a plant be a totem over an animal? I mean, an animal as a totem is pretty clear. We can easily anthropomorphize animals. Which is a ridiculously fancy way of saying we often attribute human characteristics to animals because animals often display human-like qualities. But a leaf? A sunflower? A tree?  How can we attribute qualities to things in the plant kingdom.

Pretty easily, really.  It’s all about observation.  Just as we observe characteristics in animals, the same can be done with plants. Observation is key. For example, the maple tree (and by association, the maple leaf) is in a constant state of renewal and transformation. It is also produces a commodity that has been essential to humans since ancient times: Sap. A special kind of sap which filled needs from healing wounds to sweetening foods.  So, we could say the maple leaf is a totem that represents: Renewal, Transformation, and Provision.

Essentially, whatever you are drawn to, whatever represents something that is extremely important to you…that is a prime candidate for your totem. 

In the world of totem meanings, there are little to no rules. You and your totem are two spirits connected.  The essence of you marries the essence of your totem. That, I think, is the best answer to “What is a totem?”.

Closing Thoughts on ‘What is a Totem’?

I sincerely hope this page on totem meaning gave you some clarity on the subject. I further hope this blog offers you lots of inspiration and an excitement for the potential totems offer us. From personal guidance, to reminding us of the things that are important in our lives – totems offer a wide range of wisdom.

As always, thanks so much for reading!

Bright totem tidings to you,

Avia