The problem of the theologian is to keep his symbol translucent
so that it may not block out the very light it is supposed to convey.
- Joseph Campbell
According to a Passamaquoddy Indian named George I met at a rest stop on the Massachusetts Turnpike last week, the word totem means, “that to which a person or thing belongs.”
“It comes from the word ‘Wuhohtimoin,’” he said.
“That leaves it pretty open to interpretation,” I replied.
“Well, let’s just say it’s a natural object assumed by some Native American medicine societies for the purpose of maintaining a personal mythology. It helps give order and meaning to our lives. Something to hang on to.”
“So then it could be a bowling ball,” I said. “I mean, wouldn’t you consider a bunch of guys who get together every Tuesday night at the local bowling alley ‘totemists?’ They cherish their bowling balls and wear matching windbreakers with their names and little bowling pins embroidered on them. Sounds like a cult to me…”
George grinned and shook his head. “I think you missed the point.”
“Now hold on a minute,” I said. “These guys belong to some sort of league. They get together every week. They have an unspoken understanding of the way things are done. They share stuff they feel is sacred – beer, hot dogs, pretzels, the sounds and smells of a bowling alley. Most likely these guys are direct descendants from some Neanderthal bear cult. They probably danced at Kwakiutl mummy feasts and believed a monster swallowed the moon on the lunar eclipse. These guys should be considered dangerous!”
George laughed. “Man, what have you been smokin’? And where can I get some?”
“I don’t smoke that stuff too much anymore,” I replied.
“Well what will you have?”
“Soy chai latte. Grande.”
“That’ll be $4.50. Now listen,” he said seriously. “A totem is like a shish kebob of images that tells a story, portrays a vision of the past, which if you keep close to, creates continuity to your life. You gain strength from it and a growing belief in who you are. This is not merely a preoccupation with an object. The worship of totems is regarded as marking a higher religious advancement than fetishism. In other words it’s better to have it on your front lawn than in your closet.”
With that I grabbed him by his little green apron and pulled him across the counter. “What the hell are you doing working at Starbucks?” I demanded.
“I make a mean Caramel Macchiato. And I need the health insurance,” he replied.