The Correspondences Model
When I was a newbie Pagan in the 1990s, one of my first purchases was a shiny new copy of Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, by the late but ever-awesome Scott Cunningham. I was in a voracious stage of information absorption, reading about herbs, animals, stones, deities, and rituals, and so forth. Cunningham’s work was nicely inviting, and set things up in an organized manner, just the sort of “here, try this out!” sampler that goes over so well with newcomers.
His particular set of magical meanings for each fungus and plant never quite stuck with me other than as an occasional reference when I was first putting together little amulet pouches of herbs and stones and such. But the overall structure of that and a few of his other books introduced the concept of correspondences, which has had a much greater effect on my practice over the years.
What are correspondences? In short, they’re a collection of related qualities that are associated with a given thing, concept, etc., to include plants and fungi (often lumped together as “herbs.”) These are generally symbolic, spiritual, and magical qualities, as opposed to physical ones like “Beargrass grows in mountain regions in the western United States and Canada, and produces many tiny white flowers in the spring and summer. Its leaves have been used by Native people to weave baskets.” So, for example, Cunningham says that wood sorrel is a feminine plant associated astrologically with the planet Venus, as well as with the element of Earth, and further connected to health and healing. Most of these qualities have little connection to the physical plant itself, and the health and healing aspect seems to be extrapolated from wood sorrel’s supposed medicinal qualities.
Sometimes the sources of correspondences appear to be almost entirely the projection of the human imagination. Few, if any, people actually believe that a mandrake root will scream or emit any other noise when pulled, or indeed act in any other behavior unbecoming to a self-respecting plant lacking vocal cords. But the humanoid shape of some of the forked roots has been the source of much anthropocentric speculation and mythologizing.
Regardless of their origins, correspondences exist as a quick shorthand of a given fungus or plant’s nonphysical qualities. I promised at the beginning of this book that I wasn’t going to stuff it full of a dictionary of fungus and plant totem “meanings,” and I’m holding to that. This chapter is going to be more about working with the totems to create your own systems of meaning, both while making use of existing correspondence structures, and creating your own correspondences organically. If you’d like some existing systems of plant and fungus correspondences to look at, Cunningham’s book is a good start. You can also use the many and varied tables in Aleister Crowley’s 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings to see how a small handful of plants are associated with everything from tarot symbolism to Goetic demons and even “typical” diseases like Insanity, full Insanity (also known as Death), Syphilis, and even the dreaded Indigestion. For a more modernized and comprehensive set of correspondences across many systems, I recommend Bill Whitcomb’s incomparable The Magician’s Companion and The Magician’s Reflection.
Those books are starting points to get an idea of just how far correspondences may be stretched. Let’s narrow our focus back down to the fungi and plants now, shall we?
Totems, Not Herbs
Plant and fungus correspondences are almost always associated with the physical being to one degree or another. People formed them through direct contact with and use of these fungi and plants, even if their conclusions weren’t always accurate. I’m not going to be talking much about their physical uses in this chapter, though; I’ll cover it more in chapter seven. Instead, what I’ll be building here is a system of working with the overarching totems of these species using correspondences to organize them in your practice.
Correspondences can be useful in working with totems. The physical plants and fungi are direct connections to the totems, and as I mentioned earlier in the book, totems are partly “made of” the stories and folklore we create around them. Sometimes these are based directly on their culinary or medicinal qualities; other times, as with the mandrake, they come more from flights of fancy and anthropomorphism. So while I don’t recommend using someone else’s set of correspondences as your be-all, end-all of totemic lore, these dictionaries and other resources are a part of the whole body of totemic information.
So what’s the difference between working with a totem and an individual fungus or plant spirit? For one, totems have access to a lot more information and perspectives, and have been around as long as their species has. That gives them considerable spiritual “oomph,” as it were. And as I mentioned before, they already have a bit of humanity to them through our stories and lore, and so that can help us understand each other better. With their help you can work with any of a number of members of their species, both incorporeal spirits and embodied fungi or plants. Again, I want to draw a parallel between working with an individual human spirit, and working with a deity.
What does this mean for work with correspondences? Well, they’re all technically a part of a given totem; Rosemary includes all the lore and myths and songs that involve rosemary plants. However, totems have their own personalities, and while they are shaped to an extent by what we think about them, the totems also decide how accurately something describes them. For example, in my work with Rosemary, the totem is mildly amused by the British TV mystery series Rosemary & Thyme that ran for a few seasons in the early 2000s; however, it doesn’t consider itself to be particularly associated with secrets and mysteries. It is, though, rather fascinated by the culinary traditions that have grown up around its evergreen children, and grateful that we deliberately propagate rosemary plants without having to then kill them.
So the next part of this book is going to help you start sorting through some of the existing lore and other correspondences as an exercise in getting to know the totems themselves better. It will help you get a better sense of how to tell whether a particular correspondence fits the totem it’s associated with or not, as well as finding more accurate information, to include straight from Horse Chestnut’s mouth.
Subverting the Dominant Dictionary
Usually I start discussing correspondences by presenting the four (or more) directions. However, because there is such a wealth of information on herbal and other correspondences for fungi and plants, I thought I would start there.
I know I tend to be pretty hard on dictionary-style collections of correspondences in general. I’m going to ease up on that a little bit, though, for the purposes of this section. Since these books and other resources tend to be the most common portals of information on plant and fungus spiritual work in general, I’m going to show you a way to make use of them that isn’t just rote memorization and regurgitation of someone else’s information.
First, you need some collections of correspondences. The ones I listed earlier by Cunningham, Crowley, and Whitcomb are good to start with, along with Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Correspondences by Sandra Kynes and The Magic of Flowers by Tess Whitehurst. The books by Christopher Penczak, Thea Summer Deer, and Ted Andrews in the bibliography also have some entries on specific plants and fungi. You can also look for resources that are just for plant and fungus meanings—there are even systems of symbolism for flowers, from the Victorian era on! Even books on aromatherapy and plant-based essential oils can be good starting points. If you don’t have easy access to books but you can use the Internet freely, typing “herbal correspondences” into any good search engine will bring you a variety of online results. Do be aware that since most websites aren’t edited, the reliability and screening of content may vary more than in professionally published books. Websites which cite their sources tend to have a little more credibility, though they’re in the minority. If you want to be really picky, email the site’s owner and ask for references.
Take some time to read through them and familiarize yourself with any patterns or preferences each of the authors may exhibit in their writing. For example, some authors tend to prefer plants with flowers or domesticated plants, while others focus on the fungi and plants of a given area such as a specific ecoregion or country. Note whether they stick primarily to magical and spiritual correspondences, or whether they get into medicinal and other physical properties as well; these latter items you can also check against reliable medical and natural history sources for accuracy.
Next, pick a fungus or plant totem you feel comfortable approaching for help with this exercise. You may already have one or more totems you work with; if not, I recommend asking the totem of one of the more commonly referenced plants or fungi in the books and other resources you’ve been reading. They tend to be more willing to converse with us, and are often more likely to accept interview requests.
Once you’ve decided on a totem, make a list of all the magical, spiritual, and symbolic correspondences you’ve been able to find surrounding its species. If you like, organize them according to how plausible you feel they are; for example, the idea that pinning three leaves of holly to your nightgown will help you find out who you’ll marry would probably be under “not very likely,” while “Holly is associated with wintertime” is going to be more likely. 11
Then contact the totem in question and ask for its help in sorting out the veracity of these claims. You can use the guided meditation in Appendix A or whatever method you prefer for getting in touch with a particular totem. If it says yes, go through the list and ask it for its opinion on each of the correspondences and stories. Some of them it may simply say aren’t particularly relevant; other definitions it may wish to explain as more symbolic, and so forth.
Also, the totem may feel that some things are more important to it as a totem than to its physical children. For example, when I first contacted Miner’s Lettuce, it indicated that while the plants themselves weren’t particularly affected by humans adding themselves to the list of critters that eat their leaves, the origin of the name “Miner’s lettuce” had become important to the totem itself. Miners during the California gold rush in the 1800s would eat the plants for much-needed vitamin C, and the totem appreciated the fact that generosity had been reflected in one of the names it was given.
Along with separating the wheat from the chaff (so to speak), you may also wish to ask the totem to fill in the blanks. Does it have other lessons to teach that aren’t listed, or maybe even not well known at all? Is there something specific it might like to work with you on? And since so many correspondences are based on what we can get out of plants and fungi, is there anything you can do for the totem or its children?
Depending on the length of your list and how long you’re able to meditate at a time, you may need to continue this conversation over several meditations. Make sure you take notes after each meditation (or if you’re really good at splitting your focus, during!). They may already provide you with a good foundation for working with that totem further, though they may also just be an interesting addition to the existing knowledge base.
Try this with other totems, too. I find that it’s actually a pretty good icebreaker for getting to know a new totem. It shows you’ve not only been doing your research but that you aren’t taking your findings for granted either, and that you’re open to actively working with the totem in the here and now.
Caroline works with a few plant and fungus totems, but the one that really fascinates her is the totem Amanita Muscaria, also known as Fly Agaric. While she doesn’t use entheogenic substances either recreationally or in ritual, she’s done quite a bit of research on the hallucinatory effects of this fungus’s mushroom and its role in indigenous cultures in Siberia and elsewhere. She’d like to work with its totem without actually ingesting the mushrooms themselves, but she wants to know if she’d be missing out on anything important. So she contacts Amanita Muscaria to see what she can learn within her limitations. Amanita Muscaria explains to her that a lot of the journeying and other spiritual work that the hallucinations aid with are very culturally specific, and since she isn’t part of one of those cultures the experience of eating some of the mushroom might have very different meanings and consequences for her. Since that’s not Caroline’s goal, though, Amanita Muscaria starts to discuss alternate ways she could access some of the things it has to teach, perhaps even creating some traditions of her own.
This is just one way to get to know fungus and plant totems through the Correspondences model. The next method also involves using a preexisting set of symbols and ideas for exploration, but from a little different angle—and involving more than one totem at a time.
to Existing Systems
In New Paths to Animal Totems, I spent a great deal of time in the Correspondences chapter on the four cardinal directions. In addition to being a mini-system of totemism all by itself, it’s also a good illustration of the basic concepts of melding totemism with another existing spiritual or magical system of correspondences. Here, I’d like to expand more into some other systems.
The False Morel’s Connected
to the Judgment Card …
What set(s) of correspondences are you already working with? Do you read tarot or runes or some other divination system? Do you work with Goetic demons or Greek deities? Do you work with animal totems and want to find some plant and/or fungus totems associated with them in some manner?
In some cases, there may already be plants and fungi that correspond to whatever or whomever you’re working with. For example, if you are a devotee of some of the Greek deities and associated beings, you probably already know that Bacchus is associated with grapes; while Apollo adopted the bay laurel after Daphne, a nymph he was pursuing, turned into one to escape him; Athena has her olive tree; and vain Narcissus has his very own flower. The feda (or individual symbols) of the Celtic ogam are each famously associated with a particular tree, though other plants correspond with them as well.12 And while the tarot wasn’t originally created with pre-hippie nature enthusiasts in mind, over the years people have created several systems of correspondences between the various cards and assorted plants and fungi; there are even a few plant-themed tarot decks out there.
So let’s say you have a system you like to work with—let’s use tarot as an example. Some of the cards already have their own plant-based symbolism; the Empress in the Rider-Waite deck is shown with a thriving field of wheat; the man in the Chariot wears a bay laurel wreath. You may also wish to create your own connections between each of the cards and the world of fungi and plants. Here’s one example of how you could start this exploration:
Donald has been reading the tarot for a couple of decades, both for personal use and professionally. He has a firm handle on what each card means and how flexible the symbolism can be, how to divine and work magic with them, and is otherwise pretty proficient in its use. But he’d like to start grounding his practice in nature more, not just doing more of his work in the beauty of the outdoors, but also drawing on more natural symbolism and spirits. So he decides to do a ritual with each one of the cards, starting with the major arcana, asking for a fungus or plant totem connected to the card to help him. He does one ritual every evening, nothing too elaborate, just setting up his reading space as he always does and drawing the card he wishes to work with. Over the next several weeks he creates quite the collection of results! For the Judgment card, for example, False Morel appears, reminding him to use careful discernment as he starts on this new phase of his spiritual practice. And when he does a ritual for the Three of Cups, he is greeted by a veritable forest of Giant Kelp’s children crowding around him in a warm sea, reminding him of his childhood by the ocean. Over time, as he continues to read the tarot, he finds the lessons he learned from their corresponding totems give more depth to his understanding of the symbols and meanings, and in turn he begins to develop very valuable relationships to the totems in their own right.
So that’s the basic format of it: get to know your chosen set of correspondences reasonably well, then meditate on or otherwise call on each individual symbol and ask for a totem that resonates well with that symbol. (If you aren’t sure how to do this, I’ll describe one way how later in this chapter.) And, just like Donald, you may find that you end up working with the totems both within that initial set of correspondences, and on their own as well.
But what if tarot isn’t your cup of tea? That’s okay! As long as you’re flexible (and not too attached to orthodoxy and orthopraxy), you can find fungus and plant totems for just about any set of correspondences you work with. Here are some potential examples:
Other divination systems: I’ve already mentioned runes and ogam, each of which have symbol sets that have well-fleshed-out meanings on a variety of levels. But what about I Ching, dice, or Yoruban Ifá? What about something more personal, like palmistry? If you aren’t sure how to start, simply sit quietly with whatever tools or symbols you use (even a chart of palmistry meanings will work) and see what pops up in your mind as you connect with the means of your divination.
As with other systems, you may find that some of your divinatory symbols already have fungi or plants associated with them. Keep an open mind, though; you may find that the totem of a different species shows up to help you work with that particular symbol, and in general it’s better to go with the one that’s a personal fit than the one that someone else says you’re supposed to connect with. (Yes, even if they say that it’s a horrible, terrible idea to work with any tree besides yew when tapping into the energy of the Norse rune Eihwaz, your meditation with that rune might bring up the totem Baobab instead. Just go with it and see what happens; better to find out it wasn’t a good fit through experience than to eschew the idea without even giving it a try and miss out on something good.)
The four (or more) directions: Okay, okay, I’ll give the directions some space here, even though they hogged it in the last book. The four cardinal directions have a lot of correspondences associated with them in cultures around the world, and so they’re a good starting point for directional work. In popular Neopagan practices, various elements of ceremonial traditions and other systems have come together so that North also means the element of Earth; physical matters; big furry animals like stags, bears, and wolves; and the land of the dead. The other cardinal directions have similar sets of correspondences.
But what about Up and Down, since we’re three-dimensional critters? And what happens when you add in the ordinals like Northeast and Southwest? Let’s get really weird—if you add in the fourth dimension, Time, what sorts of directions are associated with that, including (and besides) Past, Present, and Future?
Really, the directions are simply a way of orienting ourselves to wherever we are at any given point. North isn’t really “up” and South isn’t really “down”; it’s only what the mapmakers want us to believe. While you’re welcome to work with the same directions everyone else does, you may end up orienting yourself according to features in your home, or your wider community or bioregion, or some other system that works better for you. Just so long as you know where you are and where you’re going, the directions can be a valuable map.
So what about plant and fungus totems? You might work with totems whose species are traditionally associated with the directions, or the elements connected to them. Or there may be totems whose physical counterparts are located east or west of where you live, and so they represent the directions in which they lie. You can even meditate or otherwise tap into the energy of each direction and see what totems show up on their own. Over time, these totems can help you feel oriented and grounded to a place, no matter where you go.
Dreamwork: If I dislike totem dictionaries quite a bit, then I loathe dream dictionaries even more. Dreams are some of the most personal and subjective experiences one can have. On the most basic level, it’s how your sleeping brain files through and puts away your waking experiences while you snooze. While your brain may pick up on common symbols in your culture to represent experiences, thoughts, and so forth, that need to be tucked away, the reasons it chooses what it does and the exact meaning for those symbols are unique to you.
So it shouldn’t surprise you that I don’t like the rote, stereotyped meanings for symbols in dream dictionaries. They can keep you from exploring the more personal meanings for these things, thereby causing you to potentially miss some important realizations or messages. Additionally, most dreams are just your brain at work, so the meanings of symbols in them are less “BIG IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM THE UNIVERSE” and more “Oh, hey, this kinda reminds me of that, so I’m going to slap this image onto that concept and call it good.”
However, sometimes you may have what is often called a Big Dream. This is a dream that leaves no doubt about its importance. It feels like there’s more to it, and that you should find out more. Sometimes the message is clear; other times you need to do a little more reflection. If you end up with a fungus or plant in one of these dreams, even if it shows up frequently, don’t automatically assume it’s a totem trying to get in touch with you, but do check in with that totem just in case.
That being said, if you keep a dream dictionary and you find that you dream about plants and fungi, look back at the dreams they were in and see if you can suss out what they were representing. For many years I’ve had nightmares of running through a burning conifer forest, with the tops of the charred trees falling all around me, and when those happen they usually mean that my anxiety level is higher than usual, and that I’m worried about my safety or that of places or people I care about. Some of the trees are Eastern white pine, a species that I spent a lot of time around when I was a child. White Pine was one of the totems I had but didn’t realize I had when I was younger, and while my connection dimmed once I moved out of the Midwest and its territory there, dreams about the burning pines still signal that things are restless at home and heart. I do dream about other plants and fungi now and then, but none of them have nearly as much meaning in the dreams as the white pines.
I would recommend taking a similar approach to the fungi and plants in your dreams. Make note of them, but also take the time to figure out what the significance of each is to you. You can even extend this work into your waking life—for example, incorporating dream totems into ritual work if it’s appropriate.
Astrology Around the World
Humans have long loved to look to the stars, to create and observe patterns, and to write stories about them. Out of this stellar fascination sprang numerous systems of astrology, from the well-known Western astrological traditions to the too-often-simplified Chinese zodiac. In any astrology, though, each symbol or sign has particular correspondences that are supposed to affect people born in—or living through—the time when it’s most powerful. As someone whose Western Sun sign is Scorpio, this supposedly makes me intuitive, with a tendency toward all things occult, and highly sexual. Regardless of how well I do or do not fit these descriptions, there are plenty of people born at other times of the year with similar characteristics (and, to be fair, a properly done astrological chart includes much more than just one’s Sun sign).
You can use these astrological systems as frameworks for discovering and working with totems. Sometimes the appropriate fungi and plants may have already been suggested by others. Culpeper and others assigned a particular planet in the Western esoteric tradition to various herbs, but for the most part the earthbound plants and fungi aren’t the first thing most people think of when they look to the stars. Still, that contrast may be exactly what you need to ground your astrology—as above, so below and all. Alternately, if you work with an astrological system that uses animals as symbols, you may also find that the plants and fungi you discover are also associated with these animals.
Don’t let these be holy writ, though. If you’re meditating on the planet Jupiter, and a plant shows up that is traditionally associated with another planet, go with it. Also, please keep in mind that while I use the term “symbol” throughout this section, I recognize that some of these things are more than symbolic for some people, such as the deities in a pantheon, or the spirits watching over a given divination system. Treat these however you see fit: as symbols, beings, both, or neither.
A Ritual to Start With
I’ve made allusions to people meditating and performing rituals to explore the connections between fungus and plant totems and other symbols with which they correspond. If you’re new to all this and would like a bit of extra help, here’s one ritual you could use; feel free to modify it as you like. This ritual involves working with all of the symbols in a given set, such as each of the animals in the Chinese zodiac or the ten Sephiroth in the Qabalistic Tree of Life.
First, find yourself a place where you won’t be disturbed for a couple of hours, and where you can preferably set up an altar or other ritual setting. The privacy of your own home may work well, though if you live in a very busy home lacking much personal space, you may prefer to retreat to a quiet wilderness setting. I’ve even known people who rented out inexpensive hotel rooms just to have unsullied privacy for a few hours!
Next, set up a small representation of each of the symbols you’ll be working with; for example, if you’re looking for totems associated with the four cardinal directions, set up a miniature altar in each direction. You can make these as simple or as elaborate as you like; for something like the tarot, which already has a rich set of symbols associated with it, you may find yourself drawing on certain colors, astrological symbols, and so forth. On the other hand, you may just wish to go ultra-simple; if you read runes, you might put out the stones or staves in a circle around you and leave it at that. It’s entirely up to you.
Keep in mind that your time is limited, and you may not be able to get to every single correspondence in the set. For example, you might choose to perform this ritual once daily with each of the cards of the tarot over two and a half months, rather than trying to do a marathon session with all seventy-eight at once! Or you could devote a day apiece to each of the three Aettir (sets of eight) of the elder futhark of runes. Do whatever works best for you, and be willing to be flexibly inspired; if you intend to work with only one in a given ritual, but another comes up as well, go with it and see what happens.
Once you have your ritual space set up with the rep-resentation(s) of the symbol(s) you’ll be working with, spend a few moments getting yourself quieted down and focused on the task at hand. Even something as simple as focusing on your breathing and clearing your mind of random thoughts can be enough.
Next, formally start the ritual. Some people call the guardians of the quarters/directions, or call on personal deities and spirits; others simply light a few candles in a circle around their sacred space. You may even wish to state these things out loud, for example:
I call on my guardian spirits,
and those who protect this place.
I ask you to keep this ritual
and all in it safe and well.
I call on the [symbols, for example “the spirits of the tarot” or “the beings of the zodiac”], and I ask you to help me as I understand and know you better.
I call on the plant and fungus totems, and I
ask you to help me find those of you who may
help me as I further explore the [symbols].
Now you’re going to focus on one of the symbols that you’ve chosen for this ritual, such as the direction South, or the zodiac sign Taurus. Go to its physical representation, and ask it to work with you:
[Name of symbol], I invite you to join me today/tonight. There are plants and fungi dear to you,
and I would like to meet them with your help.
You can hold the representation in your hand or otherwise make physical contact with it. Some people then like to meditate with it and let the meditation be a conduit for communicating with the symbol. Others prefer more active means of altering their consciousness, such as doing an interpretive dance that represents the symbol’s qualities, or chanting its name over and over, or reciting a poem written for it. Do whatever you feel will help you get into closer contact and communication with the symbol.
If all goes well, the symbol will introduce you to at least one fungus or plant totem it is associated with, or that it might otherwise feel is appropriate to work with. Take some time to speak with this totem; if you feel inspired to create an on-the-spot song or other performance for it, or otherwise begin to actively connect with it, by all means go for it! You may end up simply having a conversation, too, and that can be just as effective. Either way, take note of who you’re introduced to, and any other information you can glean from this experience.
Once you’re done speaking with the initial symbol and its totem(s), thank them for their time and ask them if you can work with them in the future. Then it’s up to you whether you wish to move on to the next symbol and ask it to show you its totem(s). Be in touch with yourself and your health; in the middle of a good ritual you can feel very energized, like you could go on for days! Before you move on, though, briefly check in with your body, your mind, and your energy to make sure you aren’t exhausting yourself; you may even wish to give yourself a time deadline to work within. At the very least, give yourself a few moments to mentally transition from working with one symbol to working with the next.
After you’ve contacted all of the symbols you intended to, or are otherwise ready to wrap up the ritual, take the time to thank all the symbols and totems and other beings that you’ve worked with. You may wish to make offerings now if you haven’t already, whether a bit of your energy, or shared food, or a few small, drilled stones on the appropriate altars, etc. Some of those you’ve worked with may also have requested favors or tasks of you in the process of getting to know them better, and you may reaffirm your commitment to seeing these through within a particular amount of time. Formally end the ritual. Here’s one possible hail and farewell:
I thank all of those who have participated
in this ritual with me today/tonight.
[Names of symbols/totems/etc.], you have guided
me today/tonight and helped me greatly, and I
am ever grateful for your efforts and attention.
I look forward to working with you again,
and these altars are special places in
my home where you are welcome.
Extinguish any candles or incense that may be burning, and otherwise undo any actions you may have taken to formally open the space. You are welcome to leave the altars intact, or at least keep a few of their components out, and to put them back together in full whenever you work with these symbols/totems again.
Once you’ve finished the ritual and have grounded yourself with some food and sit-down time, write out everything you remember—how the ritual went, what symbols/beings you worked with and what your experiences with them were like, any other impressions you may have had, etc. If this is your first time performing a formal ritual, or if you feel more worn out or otherwise strongly affected by this ritual than by others, give yourself a few days off to rest and to contemplate your results before going on to the next one. You can also do a ritual over again to revisit a particular symbol or totem if you feel unsure of anything, such as not being clear on how Alpenrose corresponds with the Death card in the tarot, or why both Penicillium Chrysogenum and Wood Sage appeared to you in a ritual with the zodiac sign Scorpio.
If you liked all this material on blending totems with other existing symbol sets, wait until you get to chapter seven! There I talk about blending plant and fungus totemism with entire spiritual and magical paths, not just correspondence systems. You can go skip ahead to see what that’s all about, but make sure you come back and finish this chapter at some point. In the meantime, let’s talk about how to create a set of correspondences organically.
If You Wish to Make a Set of Correspondences from Scratch …
… you do not have to first invent the universe as noted by Carl Sagan, but you do have to create a cosmology of sorts. Unlike working with a preexisting system of correspondences, where everything’s already laid out for you and the dots are at least somewhat connected, this endeavor doesn’t give you a whole lot to start with—or so it may seem. Part of why people find comfort in religions, spiritual paths, and other such things is because these systems provide answers to questions their adherents may have, from very specific ones like “What does this particular arrangement of stars mean?” to broader topics such as “How should I treat my fellow human beings?” This is also why books of correspondences, totem dictionaries, and the like are popular—meanings and definitions are already provided, and all the reader has to do is to follow the lines that have already been made.
It’s more challenging for many to create correspondences from seemingly nothing. Sometimes it’s due to uneasiness with stepping into seemingly uncharted territory. “How do I know if I’m doing it right? What if I’m wrong? What if I connect with some totem or other being I really shouldn’t? What if everyone else laughs at me because I’m doing things so differently?” These are just a few of the legitimate concerns you may have. Just keep in mind that every set of correspondences, even those that are well-loved and long-established, had to start somewhere. You don’t have centuries to test yours out, and maybe you’ll be the only one who ever uses them. But you can check your own work as you go along, and the nice thing about working solo is that you can change directions more easily than if you were working in a group. If you’re creating these with a small group, you can still have more flexibility than a large, well-established religion with millions of followers.
Even if you’re ready and raring to go, it can be a little difficult to decide where to begin. Here are a couple of potential starting points that may help:
Symbols first, then totems: You can start by looking at some of the most potent symbols and ideas in your life and then finding totems that embody them. Look at your values, for example. Mine include compassion, curiosity, and understanding, among others. I could meditate on each of my values and see if any particular fungus or plant totems presented themselves as embodiments of these concepts and practices. For example, Oak Moss Lichen embodies understanding to me, because one of its lessons for me had to do with allowing people to be complex, multifaceted beings instead of one-dimensional characters, thereby getting to know them better than just the single caricature.
Totems first, then symbols: On the other hand, you may already have a totem or three that have made contact with you, and while you may not have much of an idea of why they’ve gotten in touch, this is as good an excuse to find out as any! When I first moved to Portland, the very first new plant totem to catch my attention was Douglas Fir. At first I wasn’t exactly sure why, other than the fact that I tend to get along well with conifers in general. However, over time I found that this totem wanted to help me get grounded in the place I’d moved to, and eventually became a strong representative of the value of “home” for me.
You don’t have to stick with one or the other of these formats once you get your momentum. You might already be well on your way to making these correspondences just through your work with totems so far, and now it’s just a matter of organization. Or you may find that once you’ve worked with a couple of plant and fungus totems and gotten some idea of other things they correspond with, then all of a sudden other totems seem to “fall into place” within your understanding. I’ve often seen it described by other intrepid spiritual adventurers as everything “just starting to make sense.” It might not seem to come so easily to you all the time, but you may very well have moments of insight where one connection leads to another, and another, and suddenly you find yourself with a large part of the overall puzzle in place.
Be open to change. Connections you made between totems and symbols early on may no longer work after a while. Change isn’t always because you screwed something up, either. Yes, maybe your perception was a bit off and now you understand things better since you’ve gotten to know the totems more, but your initial observations may also have been quite meaningful. So let’s say the first totem you connected with was Pineapple, and because you immediately observed the prickliness of the outside of the physical fruit, but knew about the soft sweetness of the center, you felt that perhaps it might symbolize a person’s ability to seem tougher on the outside to hide vulnerability inside. Pineapple might initially have wanted to work with you more on cooperation, since a pineapple’s fruit is actually made of many individual berries. Over time you may find that these two concepts come together. In order to cooperate, a person needs to have some level of vulnerability toward those with whom they’re cooperating. Pineapple could end up helping you to take down some personal barriers in order to enter into more harmonious—and mutually beneficial—relationships with others.
Keep in mind, too, that totems are made in part of the lore that we create around them, and we can add to them with our observations. This is why I encourage people to focus on what’s constructive and helpful. This doesn’t mean always sticking to what’s nice and light and friendly. Sometimes the strongest lessons we learn are ones that come from adversity. My relationship with Poison Oak started off with itchy rashes from its physical counterpart’s urushiol-soaked leaves. It would have been easy to write off the entire species due to resentment and bad feelings, but what I found was a totem that helped me learn to firm up my personal boundaries and to respect myself more because of that. I’d rather help improve Poison Oak’s reputation with these valuable lessons than just add to the hate for the allergic reaction.
So what can you use as the foundations for the structure of your initial set of correspondences? Here are a few ideas:
· I mentioned values as one possibility. Look at what’s most important to you in life—family and friends (relationships)? Honesty? Integrity? Sustainability? Spirituality? Make a list of your values; if you’re already working with some fungus and plant totems, see if any of them seem to lend themselves to any of your values already. If not, it’s time to go exploring! You might try, for example, spending a week (or even longer) on each of your values, thinking about how they manifest in your life, where they came from, how you might increase their presence, and so forth. Once fully immersed in that value, try to contact a totem that embodies it and may be able to help you work further with it.
· Your bioregion can be another good starting point. As discussed in the previous chapter, bioregional totems help us connect to the land we live in, but you can also take that further: use correspondences to add more layers of personal meaning to your bioregion. For example, there may be specific totems connected to particular locations within your bioregion that are especially important to you. (I’ll talk more about blending the different models of totemism in chapter six.)
· The roles of the physical fungi and plants in your life may also be helpful. A lot of early correspondences for certain plants and fungi arose from their (actual or assumed) medicinal properties. If you have totems and/or their physical counterparts that you work with in various areas of your life, such as taking herbal supplements for your health, or growing vegetables in your garden, explore each individual relationship in more detail. For example, if you grow petunias because you like the smell and you grow carrots because you like to eat them, could Petunia perhaps be a totem associated with aesthetic pleasures while Carrot is one of sustaining physical life?
· If you’ve already created one set of personal correspondences from scratch, you may find that it helps you to build up your system for understanding and working with fungus and plant totems. For example, you may already have your own animal totems you’ve been working with for a while. As you begin to interact with their plant and fungus counterparts, you might find that some common themes start coming up. If you work with Brown Bear as a healing totem, you may notice connections with the totems of fungi and plants commonly used as medicines, such as White Willow and Penicillium Rubens.
Karl is an avid hiker and backpacker. He’s also a bit of an amateur naturalist, and he enjoys learning about the flora, fauna, and fungi of the places he visits. One of his favorite things is discovering a new species he hasn’t encountered before; he often strongly associates these species with the places he first observed them, even if he later finds them in other locations, too. A friend introduces him to the idea of totemism. After thinking about it a bit, Karl wonders if perhaps some of these plants, fungi, and animals are totems of these places. He decides to investigate further.
Remember that correspondences often branch outward, and you may end up with several interconnected systems. Domestic Tomato started out as a totem of the kitchen for me, since I use tomatoes in my cooking quite a bit. However, over time this totem also became associated with South and Fire (for the heat of the stove and the sunlight stored in the tomato fruit), and with the value of sustainability, since my gardening and cooking with raw ingredients was one way to cut down on my dependence on a very fossil-fuel-heavy food distribution system. Other totems made their way into the domestic sphere, such as Black Morel and Garlic, and set up their own correspondences from there. Don’t feel you have to stay within a strict one-to-one set of totems and correspondences and the like. Let everything grow … organically!
Grounding the Map in the Territory
The Correspondences model is designed to be a bridge between the inner and outer worlds. It’s us taking our observations on the world around us and turning them into an internal framework of symbolism. One potential problem involves getting so wrapped up in the many layers of symbolism and meaning that we lose track of the plants and fungi from which the totems arise.
New Paths to Animal Totems mentioned “map vs. territory,” specifically with directional animal totems, those that were associated with North, South, and the like. I wrote “I don’t believe … we should ignore the place of our own created cosmologies in light of the physical place we live. That goes for directional totems, too.”13 Whether you’re connecting any totem to the four cardinal directions, or your values, or some other area of your life, make sure you keep your totemism relevant to your everyday life and the world you inhabit. Symbolism is good and useful, but keep in mind what the symbols stand for.
It’s one thing to say that a totem is connected to something but entirely a different prospect to behave as though that connection is real and manifests in your life. You can talk as much as you like about how Saguaro Cactus is associated with protection of self and others, but if you don’t actively work with that totem on areas where you might be letting others walk all over you, you’re missing out on a potential growth opportunity. Conversely, if you let Saguaro Cactus’s thorniness be an excuse to not consider the effects of your actions (no matter how well-intended), it doesn’t save you from possibly becoming a real jerk whom others need to be protected against.
In short, don’t become so enamored of symbolism that you let the symbols become detached from their roots. Symbolism is a starting point, nothing more. There are countless symbols and elements of meaning in everything, but only a comparative few will ever have enough significance to stand out. If it’s important to you, embrace it, but embrace it fully, not just its surface appearance.
If you are particularly enamored of the internal, psychological elements of totemism, you may be especially interested in the next chapter, about the Archetypal model of totemism.
11 The more elaborate version states that “three holly leaves were pinned, opposite the heart, to a young girls [sic] nightgown, and three pails of water were placed in her bedroom. She would then go to bed. She would first be awakened by terrible wails and screeching, later by the sound of a horse neighing. Following this, her future spouse would enter the room. If he was to be greatly in love with her, he would rearrange the pails of water. If not, he would leave the room unchanged.” (Leitten, unknown) No word as to whether it only works for unwed, heterosexual girls.
12 If you happen to be interested in ogam beyond the trees, I highly recommend Erynn Rowan Laurie’s well-researched and well-received Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.
13 Lupa, 2012, p. 81.