Animal Totems: Elephants

elephants in Mozambique

I’m not quite sure why or how… but I am intensely attracted to elephants. The attraction continues to grow and they are now one of my most favored totems.

Elephants are the largest land mammal and biologically related to the extinct mammoths and mastodons. Today, there are only two elephant species that continue to exist: the African elephant and the Asian elephant. They live naturally throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Male African elephants are the largest surviving terrestrial animals and can reach 13 ft tall and weigh more than 15,000 lbs.

Both elephant species are significantly endangered as their natural habitat vanishes to human development and are all too often victims of ivory poachers or brokers from the zoo/circus/entertainment industries.

All elephants have several unusual features – the most notable is a long trunk – proboscis. Trunks have a variety of uses – breathing, lifting water to drink, grasping objects and food, play/wrestling and touch. Elephant incisors (teeth) grow into massive tusks, which they use as weapons, tools for moving objects and digging. Their huge ear flaps help control their body temperature as they are filled with millions of tiny corpuscles helping cool their blood. Their massive legs carry enormous body weight but also allow them to run and charge as needed. African elephants have larger ears and concave backs. Asian elephants have smaller ears and convex or level backs.

They are herbivorous and can be found in different habitats including savannahs, forests, deserts and marshes. They prefer to stay near water and have the ability to remember the location of water sources from year to year or season to season. They’re considered a keystone species due to their impact on their environments. Other animals tend to keep their distance. Predators like lions, tigers, hyenas and wild dogs usually target only young elephants (calves).

Females (cows) live in very complex family groups that evidence extraordinary communication, social order and hierarchy. These families can consist of one female with her calves or several related and unrelated females with offspring. Aunts and cousins abound. The elephant family is led by the matriarch who is frequently but not always the oldest cow. They have a fission-fusion society in which multiple family groups come together to socialize frequently. Careful observation demonstrates that females teach calves a wide range of social behaviors.

Males (bulls) leave their family groups when they reach puberty and wander off to live alone or with other males in small groups. Adult bulls mostly interact with family groups when looking for a mate and enter a state of increased testosterone and aggression called “musth,” which helps them gain dominance and reproductive success over rivals.

Elephant babies (calves) are the center of attention in the group and dependent on their mothers up to 3 years. The collective family cares for the well-being of the calf and females will go to great lengths to protect young.

They’re known to live 70 years or older in the wild. They communicate by touch, sight, smell and sound. In fact, elephants touch each other with amazing frequency. They use infrasound and seismic communication over very long distances. Elephant intelligence has been compared with that of primates and cetaceans. They appear to have self-awareness and demonstrate empathy-like behaviors for dying or dead individuals of their kind. Of note: it takes a baby elephant years to learn to master the full use of its trunk for its many uses.

Elephants symbolize strength, confidence, royalty, strong libido, fertility, sheer majestic power and the keepers of ancient memories and sacred ancient wisdom. Elephants know. Elephants remember. Elephants understand. They are believed to be gentle giants with extraordinary intuition and psychic abilities for communication and comprehension. They create and sustain profoundly deep meaningful relationships and interconnections over long periods of time and long distances. They represent compassion, kindness and gentle respect. They’re extraordinarily graceful and remarkably quiet despite massive bodies and lengthy trunks. Elephants are believed to have real feelings, be empathic and to cry.

I believe one day we’ll have the technology available to communicate with animals. In those days, elephants will be our master teachers.

Animal Totems: Elephants

Animal Totems: Deer

Animal totems are symbols used throughout Aboriginal/Indigenous and Native American religious traditions. These cultures are deeply rooted in the sights and sounds; visions and voices of Nature. Their Pantheistic subtleties shape an ethics of living in harmony with the Sacred. Animal totems suggest a dimension of reality where people and animals, rocks and plants, rivers and fish, seasons and weather exist in synergy as one integrated whole. Indeed, animal totems are one piece in the mosaic of the emerging signs and symbols of ecospirituality.

I respect comparative religions as a foundation of interfaith theology and my ministry. The beliefs of a culture as reflected in it’s collective psyche and ethics are transmitted and sustained within myths, legends, signs and symbols. Totems offer glimpses and sometimes just shadows of another way or the other worldly.

To that end, consider the deer totem which has taken on significant meaning for me since the sudden death of my best friend several weeks ago. The deer is one symbol representing the profound transformation of our 27 year friendship from life through death to legacy.

Deer represent the spiritual realm.

The symbolic meanings of the deer honor a synergy of soft, gentle qualities with strength, determination and perseverance.
Deer have the flexibility to move through life’s obstacles with grace.
They understand both innocence and threat. Sensitive and intuitive with a keen sixth sense, deer are ever vigilant with the ability to change directions quickly.
Deer blend in with ease. They are humble. Deer help discern what actions should be taken with speed and agility.
They have special connections with children and persons with special needs.
They can touch the hearts and minds of the wounded without pushing change… rather gently nudging toward the better direction.
They are excellent mothers as they innately nurture yet benevolently defend with watchfulness. Deer are keenly sensitive to outside influences and often direct what happens behind the scenes with ease and serenity in chaos.
Deer are associated with the magical abilities to regenerate and are said to be in touch with life’s mysteries.
Their tranquility calms, soothes and satisfies.

*This post is dedicated to the spirit and memory of Sharon L. DeLuca. Rest in peace, my friend, until we meet again.

Animal Totems: Deer

Animal Totems: Hummingbird

Aboriginal/Indigenous and Native American religious traditions embrace the power and cycles of nature. In fact, their beliefs are inseparable from their understanding of nature and the roles they play in a unified cosmos.

A “totem” is a symbol, emblem, logo, trademark – usually a person or thing that represents something else. Anthropology teaches that totems are representative of individuals, groups, families, clans, sects and tribes.

Frequently, but not always, totems are animals. Some totems are deeply personal… while others are collective or universal. Animal totems are also called “spirit animals.”

Some Christians and Jews and Muslims believe in guardian angels. Indigenous peoples believe in totems. Totems are outward signs. Some are messengers; some are heroes; all are symbols that have purpose and meaning. Understanding totems presents the possibility of understanding the subtle communication between totems, their meanings and the people that honor them.

Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about the purpose of totems, their messages and their powerful contribution to the development of a culture people to people, generation to generation, place to place. Totems exists to remind us of something else.

Look around. Indeed, totems surround us:
tattoos, body art, jewelry, T shirts, dollar bills, billboards, wedding rings, the American flag, the Christian sign of the cross, Chevron’s logo, the Jewish Star of David, the peace sign, the Nike swoosh, NBC’s peacock, Wells Fargo stagecoach, Twitter’s bird, the Buddhist man with the fat belly sitting in the lotus position – all totems. Totems are simple ways to communicate complex meanings.

I have come to appreciate and especially honor animal totems – particularly having lived in the desert Southwest – New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada for many years. Native signs and symbols permeate the history, the land and the local culture here. They are part of our story.

Personal totems are things personified with special personal meaning and significance beyond the ordinary. Totems are usually cherished and sometimes revered.

At particularly intense moments in my life, hummingbirds show up. I have no logical reason to explain why. They just do. And sometimes, they seem to show up repeatedly until I “get the message.” I have learned to stop analyzing the synchronicity… and simply cherish the moments they visit my experience.

Hummingbirds represent life’s enjoyment literally while seemingly appearing completely out of no where…hovering for a moment and then vanishing just as fast as they appeared. Their essence is joy.
They are innately attracted to the sweetness of life which sustains them.
Hummingbirds symbolize fearlessness, ceaseless efforts and the reminder of a jeweled iridescent tiny dancer filled with grace and beauty.

“Myths suggest this extraordinary bird has the ability to float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy and celebration.
Hummingbirds are capable of amazing feats despite their small size. They are known to travel great distances and are the only bird that can fly backwards. Their delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.”

They working really hard – biologically, a hummingbird’s tiny heart can beat 1,260 times a minute while breathing up to 250 times per minute. They are extraordinarily efficient with their use of energy.
They can lick up to 15 times a second while feeding and drinking.
They cannot smell but they have excellent eyesight.
Hummingbirds can fly up to 30 miles per hour while being able to to reach up to 60 miles per hour in a dive.
They are truly aviary acrobats and gymnasts.
Hummingbirds lay the smallest eggs of all the birds.
They are native only to the Western Hemisphere.
They need to consume 1/2 of their weight in sugar every day.
Most hummingbirds eat 5-8 times an hour.

My connection with hummingbirds has proven them to be messengers… reminding me to take lessons from their extraordinary adaptability and enchanting resiliency while staying playful, optimistic and joyful.

Animal Totems: Hummingbird

Rainbow Bridge Prayer

Rainbow Bridge Poem
Rainbow Bridge Prayer

Pets have been an essential part of our human experience since prehistoric times. History suggests people and dogs have shared special bonds for at least 11,000 years. Asian dogs, African cats, Peruvian guinea pigs, Chinese goldfish, European polecats, Cuban birds, Syrian Hamsters – all have evolved toward domestication for the delight and special companionship of young and old.

We love our pets. Our pets love us.

Pets enrich our lives. Indeed, pets our truly beloved members of the family and integral to the herd. Many have told me that pets help motivate them out of bed in the morning and provide a consistent and predictable reminder that life is better not lived alone. Pets can help improve mood, enhance health and well-being, lower blood pressure, speed healing, boost vitality and actually lengthen the long term survival rates of heart attack patients.

I have witnessed the magic of pet therapy with severely disturbed children, recovering addicts and nursing home patients. The special bond between pets and caretakers inspires, redeems and ensures. Pets provide unconditional love and extraordinary acceptance without judgement. Their companionship soothes and protects.

The death of a pet can be devastating and profoundly painful. The hole left in the fabric of our lives can ache in our minds and in our hearts. Grieving the loss of a pet hurts. Although the emotional suffering varies from person to person, there is no one way or right way to grieve. We all need to find our own ways to say good-bye and make peace with the loss.

Spirituality and spiritual beliefs can provide meaning and comfort during these hours of need. I will not debate here whether animals have souls. However, I will share that I believe the same Life Force that created me and sustains me, so too, creates and sustains all of Creation. We are all in this together.

Prayers and blessings for pets who have died are simply a logical extension of my spirituality and my interfaith ministry. If this is in sync with you and resonates with your beliefs, please consider the Rainbow Bridge today… and whenever you might need it.

The Rainbow Bridge is a poem that appeared on the Internet and in some veterinary officers years ago. Its popularity has grown and is respected. Its author is still unknown although it was most probably written by Paul Dahm, a grief counselor from Oregon. Using the Viking myth of the Bifrost Bridge, the poem provides a compassionate metaphor of hope and consolation for those grieving the loss of a pet.

I have used The Rainbow Bridge both as a prayer and a blessing for my own pets and others’ pets who have died… after all… all pets do go to heaven!

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.

All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.

They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; his eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.

You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together. . .

*This post is dedicated to Plato, Precious, Francois and Marg – each of whom touched my soul and changed my life.

Rainbow Bridge Prayer