During the long Michigan winter, the land is notable for its silence. The insects are sleeping, many birds have migrated, and several animal species are in hibernation. Summer’s riotous noise of buzzing cicadas, chirping katydids and the concert of cheerful birdsong has been quieted. Colors are muted, and the meadows, forests, and even the skies are blanched a pristine white. This is a season of calm and introspection, a fine time to meditate, rest and recuperate, and to formulate plans for the future.
One type of soothing, healing meditation can include a walk in a park or local woodland. Listen to the soft crunching of your footfalls in the snow. Breathe in the crisp, icy air. Observe the bare tree limbs, and see if you can discover any Runes or Ogham in the shapes of the branches. Pick up a stick and inscribe magickal sigils in the fallen snow. And take some time to just stand quietly, enjoying the silence of Nature. What birds do you see? Many feathered kinfolk are clothed in their drab winter plumage: browns, grays and tans to merge with the landscape. Occasionally, a bright cardinal or blue jay will add some color to the white blankness. What animals are still active? Even a city park has darting squirrels and flocks of pigeons searching for sustenance. This is a fine time to connect with a winter totem, an animal or bird that symbolizes the season, or frequently appears at this time of year. Here are a few:
Badger: Although the groundhog (woodchuck) is famous for predicting “six more weeks of winter” if it sees its shadow on February 2nd, this legend was originally attributed to a European badger. Semi-hibernators, badgers may emerge from their dens in late winter, seeking food. They represent tenacity, aggressive pursuit of goals, and knowledge of the hidden realms. To “badger” someone means to pester them until they grant your desires. Some British Isles and Asian stories featured badgers who led people to treasures in the underworld. In Native American legend, a female badger assisted healers by finding roots with medicinal powers. The Druid priesthood were often called Badgers by the Roman soldiers, because the Druids dwelled in the forests and hid “underground”. Another word for badger is Brock, which translates from Welsh, Scottish and old English as “gray”, carrying the implication of ambiguous situations which are neither white or black. Call upon the badger totem when you desire strength, assertiveness, force, and to discover hidden treasures or deeper knowledge.
Goose: While many types of geese flee to the South in autumn, others overwinter on ponds and in marshes throughout Michigan. Canada geese actually migrate to the area – this is their idea of a warm climate! The goose is a symbol of wandering and journeys. In Norse and Celtic folklore, a flock of geese flying overhead at dusk or dawn was equated with the Wild Hunt. Native American legend tells us that the goose represents perseverance and ambition. Geese are good parents, and will drive away predators. They are also used in farmyards worldwide as an “early warning system”, honking furiously when strangers approach, and even biting. The term “silly goose” is usually unwarranted. It may have been a way of disparaging older knowledge and folk wisdom. “Mother Goose”, that famed keeper of folk tales and fairy stories, usually appeared as an elderly woman wearing the stereotypical black conical witches’ hat (which is actually part of the Welsh national costume) and riding on a goose. The Norse Goddess Hulda was also said to ride a female goose on her journeys across the sky. Meditate on the goose totem when you wish for safe travel, determination, protection, finding direction, vigilance, and good parenting skills.
Mouse: The little common wild rodent represents sustenance, tidiness, organization, shyness, quiet and stealth. Field mice can store large quantities of seeds and nuts right in your home, often without you noticing them. If a mouse invades your home, you may wish to discover the issues and concerns that you’ve overlooked. The term “quiet as a mouse” comes from the mainland of Europe. Most schoolchildren are familiar with the Jataka tale of the lion and the mouse, when the tiny rodent removes a thorn from the fierce lion’s paw. Aesop’s fable of the country mouse and city mouse extols keeping to situations of familiarity and comfort. The mouse can represent courage and kindness. Visualize the mouse when you require silence, industriousness, bravery and to remain unseen. I caution against “summoning” mice to a ceremony, because real mice could soon over-run your home!
Woodpecker: In some Native American legends, the woodpecker had been transformed from a scolding wife. The cartoon Woody Woodpecker may be based on another woodland Native American story of a trickster. The term “peckerwood” often refers to a rural person, now used in a derogatory manner. The forests’ drummer, the woodpecker may also represent music, persistence, and attention-seeking. Woodpecker signifies the removal of small nuisances that can, if ignored, build up into a significant problem. The bird can also represent frugality. Visualize woodpecker drilling into a problem and removing tiny irritants a little at a time.
Squirrel: As we meditate on the totem of Squirrel, we give thanks for shared bounty and stored abundance. Small and quick, squirrel can also represent energy, fast action and playful irrelevance. Squirrels may also represent trust, as does their cousin the chipmunk, as these semi-tame rodents can sometimes be trained to eat from humans’ hands. The stories of squirrels preparing for winter while other animals loaf – and subsequently starve – can be found in Native American, European and Asian legends. Call upon squirrel when you need a burst of energy or speed, to help discover hidden opportunity, and to find lost objects.
Sparrow: America has hundreds of species of sparrow, living in every possible environment, from wetland to desert. We are likely most familiar with the common European sparrow, called the English or House sparrow, which does not migrate. Their nests of straw, sticks and trash can be found in cities and countryside alike. Thus, sparrow can symbolize adaptation to varied environments, determination and resolve, and even recycling unwanted materials into something useful. One sparrow entering a house can signify misfortune, even death, in English legend. Conversely, a flock of sparrows can foretell good luck. In the middle ages, sparrows represented the peasant class. During the 1800s, sailors often received a sparrow tattoo for longtime service onboard a ship. Christian legend says that God knows when each sparrow falls, signifying that he is concerned with every creature. The Greek Goddess Aphrodite had a sparrow as her companion. Sparrows also symbolize freedom, endurance, air travel, socialization, and home.
Rabbit / Hare: We often think of the rabbit as a symbol of springtime, because of her fertility and relationship with the Norse Goddess Oestara. Yet rabbit is also a winter totem. Although not a Michigan native, the snowshoe hare can represent the transformation from winter to spring with its changing fur coat, camouflaged white, then spotted, and finally the ticked brown color known as “agouti”. African, Native American and Mexican legends extol the rabbit as a trickster and funloving character, perhaps the model for Bugs Bunny. The African American Br’er Rabbit usually got the best of his foes. In the Chinese zodiac, the rabbit is one of the celestial representations of the lunar months, and is closely associated with the moon. Likewise, Native American, Korean, and Japanese lore all feature a rabbit who lives on the face of the moon. The “lucky rabbit’s foot” came from African American “hoodoo” folk magick. Rabbit may be seen as a nurturer and protector of children during winter, perhaps because its skin in used for “baby bunting”. Call upon rabbit for sustenance, speed, outsmarting an opponent, change, cleverness, and renewal.
Deer: Besides the sacred image of the God Herne or Cernunnos, or our own Bucca, the deer appears often in fall and winter legends and symbolism worldwide. The stag with seven tines represents wisdom. All across the British Isles, there are Mummer’s Plays and Morris dancing that include a representational Stag Hunt, most notably the Abbots Bromley horn dance. Other folkplays and ritual dances contain a stag-headed figure. Japanese and Nepalese folktales have a stag prince who was transformed into a man. Cave paintings worldwide depict several half-deer, half-man figures. Shamans may have taken on the aspect of a deer in order to attract herds to the hunters. In Finland and Norse territories, the reindeer is a valuable herd animal, used for transportation and milk as well as meat. This may have given rise to Santa’s ubiquitous reindeer, first made popular in the poem “Night Before Christmas”. Deer were also considered messengers to the fairy realms in Celtic lore. Native Americans looked to deer to find patches of healing herbs, and for sustenance during the winter. Deer represents the wild spirit, foraging, evading danger, and also fertility and plentitude. Call upon a male deer (buck) to help in defense of family and for protection. Female deer symbolize peace, grace, beauty and kindness. Meditate on the deer when you wish swiftness, generosity, and plentitude.
Bluebird: We usually don’t think of the cheery bluebird as being a winter totem, yet in older European legends, the bluebird was called the harbringer of spring. She is often the first migratory bird to return, long before the snow begins to thaw. A few years ago on Imbolc, I glanced up from my keyboard to see a male bluebird perched on my windowsill. This was a symbol of good luck, prosperity and happiness. Navajo people associate the mountain bluebird with the dawn. During their winter ceremony, a sacred song honoring the bluebird is performed just before sunrise to greet the new day and new season. Russian folklore uses the bluebird as a symbol of hope. Bluebirds enjoy the suet at feeders, and will live in man-made nest boxes facing a meadow or field. Cultures worldwide equate the bluebird with luck, joy, abundance, birth, and home. Visualize a bluebird when seeking confidence.
Note: The word "totem" comes from the Objibwe (Anishnaabec, Native American) language. I am using it here in a generic manner o represent any animal or bird that has magickal significance or meaning. In the Cymraeg language it would be Anifal ysbret.