Totemic magic is a broad category that covers a number of lesser known traditions of magic. Totemism involves using a natural object, animal, or supernaturally significant being a symbolic channel through which to work magic. Each approach to totemism considers itself a unique tradition, despite the similarities between the various "schools." The most commonly known forms of totem magic in the Empire are:
- Heraldic magic - primarily used in Dawn, witches draw on the symbolism of powerful magical creatures.
- Spirit animals - primarily used in Wintermark and Varushka, but also practiced in parts of the Marches and Dawn, this approach calls on the symbolic nature of natural creatures, most commonly birds (in Wintermark), or the Virtuous Animals (in Varushka).
- Theurgy - viewed with some suspicion, this school of totem magic uses the names and characteristics of paragons and exemplars as channels for magical power.
- Goetia - most commonly used in Urizen, this school likewise has some questionable associations for some magicians. It involves calling on the name and characteristics of eternals.
Totemic magic bears strong similarities to dramaturgy, in that there are a series of specific entities that are used to create a magical effect. It is generally seen as much less subtle than dramaturgy, and less versatile. Totem magic tends to deal best with straightforward, primal magics and struggle when used to perform more sophisticated, complex magic. Evoking the miraculous healing power of the hydra to restore a crippled limb is one thing; finding a magical beast that resonates with the complex serendipity at the heart of a ritual to increase the prosperity of a business is an entirely different matter.
This is not a universal quality of totemic magic. Theurgy, for example, has the opposite problem. It is much easier to evoke the name of a paragon of Prosperity to "bless" a ship so that it derives greater profit from foreign trade than it is to find a paragon or exemplar who symbolises the restoration of a broken leg.There is usually little crossover between schools of totem magic - a Dawnish witch might find it distasteful to evoke rats and crows to curse an enemy, preferring to call up the rough, slouching appetite of the manticore; their Marcher counterpart by contrast might see evoking a manticore as foolish, when the natural vermin of the fields and hedges are much easier to work with. The exception is goetia -
The physical form of a totem may be used in totemic magic - a picture, a statue, or the actual physical components of the creature - but the core of the practice is in the symbolic nature - not what the totem looks like or what it does, but what it is believed to mean.
There are three main techniques used in heraldic magic, and they largely differ in terms of who takes on the role of the totem. Totemism is often explained as having the quality of girding someone in the symbolic power of an iconic being. Magicians who disdain the reference to the Dawnish hearth magic often talk in terms of "donning" the nature of the totem, or "rousing" or "calling up the power" of the symbolic channel.
The first approach is for the magician themselves to take on the role of the totem. A heraldic magician might make themselves into a firebird, and bestow their healing touch on an injured friend; a magician who evokes a spirit animal might take on the might of a bear or boar to inspire their allies with additional vitality, or the mien of a raven to examine a magical aura; while a theurgist might evoke the name of Good Walder, taking up a wooden club, and going forth to exercise the wrath of that paragon when delivering a curse of penury to a wrongdoer. By taking on the symbolic nature of the totem themselves, the magician becomes a very active part of the magic. They may demonstrate their new identity with props (the club for a theurgist evoking Good Walder, for example, or a burning torch when drawing on the power of the firebird), through their body language and actions (voicing the mighty roar of a bear, or performing a spinning dance designed to evoke the image of the kraken's flailing limbs), or through costume (a mystic may ceremonially don the mask of an ox before blessing their allies with incredible fortitude).
Alternatively, the target of the magic may take on the totemic role. The magicians weave the nature of the totem with words and symbols, as the target takes on its characteristics. This may leave odd lingering effects; a warrior who takes on the role of one of the grim legionnaires of Kaela as part of a ritual to gain Unyielding Constitution may find that the lingering effects of the ritual are more pronounced, or find themselves detached from their emotions. Likewise, when a coven girds a scholar in the nature of a sphinx to grant them supernatural insight, they may find that the enchanted sage becomes disconnected from events and wishes to observe them rather than involve themselves in the world around them.
The third, and perhaps most common approach, is to cast the magic itself in the totemic role. This is common with goetia in particular, where the name of an eternal is called out and they are petitioned to lend their power to a ritual, or in theurgy where the name of an inspirational legendary figure is evoked along with a petition that they offer their assistance to the targets of the ritual. This method is also commonly used with spellcasting - rather than symbolically becoming a unicorn to shatter an enemy’s shield, the magician might ‘summon’ one to the tip of their rod instead.
Totemic Magic in the Empire
Heraldic magic is primarily used in Dawn. It is perhaps the most formal and widespread tradition of totem magic in the modern Empire, with a shared body of knowledge and several tomes detailing magical beasts and their correspondences. As powerful legendary beasts are a common part of the heraldry of Dawnish houses, witches who practice this tradition often keep track of which noble houses are employing which beasts and in what context.
Heraldic magic sometimes uses an additional technique rarely suited to other forms of totem magic - the metaphor of the ritualists or the targets of their ritual defeating or overcoming a symbolic beast. For example, when performing a ritual such as Bound by Common Cause, the ritualists may create a hydra (the many heads representing a warband of many enemies) for the general who will be the subject of the enchantment to overcome. They might evoke the spirit of a hydra or a manticore as the "sickness" that must be "defeated" during the performance of a ritual to purify a patient of disease or poison. Overcoming these totemic challenges does not always involve a battle - a ritual to grant insight might involve a ritualist in the role of a sphinx engaging in an exchange of riddles with the target of the ritual.
A key element in this form of totem magic comes from how the creature is presented. A proud chimera beneath a crown brings a very different resonance to a fearsome chimera poised to attack, or a sleeping chimera. A wounded gryphon is a very different element in a ritual to a ferocious strutting gryphon.
List of beasts and associations
|Gryphon||strength, pride, potency, hunting prowess and keen senses,|
|Unicorn||Strength, ferocity, nobility of spirit, protection of the weak or innocent,|
|Pegasus||Speed, grace, pride|
|Chimera||Ferocity, danger, destructiveness, terror, battlefield prowess.|
|Firebird||wisdom, insight, knowledge, resurrection or reincarnation, healing and purification|
|Yale||Strength underestimated, defence of home, stubbornness and tenacity|
|Hydra||poison and regeneration, life and death, threat, danger, strength found in unity, revenge|
|Sphinx||Wisdom, intelligence, knowledge, serenity; protection, magic, riddles and mysteries|
|Manticore||Hatred, bloodlust, savagery, disease, death, carrion, jealousy and hoarding|
|Dragon||Overwhelming force, majesty, wealth, hoarding, tyranny, oppression, demands for sacrifice|
|Wyvern||Viciousness, cunning; poison, ferocity, stubbornness|
The symbolic characteristics of animals are evoked most often in Wintermark and Varushka, but there is also a tradition of Marcher magic that calls on symbolic animals. While they are often lumped together in a single tradition, practitioners from different nations use subtly different groups of animals. Varushkans, for example, primarily draw on the Virtuous Animals for their rituals, although whether they reference the associated virtue directly or not varies from cabal to cabal. There is some evidence that this form of magic predates the foundation of the Way, and adds credence to the idea that the virtue associations of the animals were a later addition to an already extant body of lore. Varushkans often weave the magic of totem beasts through the telling of stories, sometimes acting them out as a narrator describes the events.
|Virtuous Animal||Common Associations|
|Bear||Physical strength, leadership, authority, devastation|
|Bee||Wealth, business, castles, transformation|
|Boar||Fearlessness, fertility, confrontation, truth|
|Fox||Deception, concealment, darkness, dreams|
|Goose||Watchfulness, war, alarms, armour|
|Hare||Vision, alacrity, comfort, children|
|Hound||Warding, enemies, protection, bones|
|Spider||Intrigue, connections, traps, poison|
|Squirrel||Preparation, concealment, treasure, walls|
|Stag||Rulership, authority, crowns, lineage|
In Wintermark, the virtuous birds are often used, but there is a long tradition of using other animals in magic, especially among the Kallavesi and the Suaq. A Kallavesi coven may don animal masks and wrap themselves in hides to evoke the strength of the bear, while a Suaq coven may enact a symbolic hunt to bless their herds with fertility. The Steinr are not left out - songs, poems, and tales of powerful beasts and the heroes who over come or tame them are common.
In the Marches, the tradition of calling on spirit animals is roughly divided into two categories. Domesticated animals are called on for positive aspects - oxen for strength and fortitude, hounds for loyalty and keen senses, pigs for cleverness and adaptability, cats for cunning and subtlety, rabbits and hares for speed and agility, and so on. Wild animals are considered more dangerous - while wolves, bears, and boars may be evoked to grant great strength, they are often tied to uncontrolled or dangerous magic. A Marcher magician who instils the spirit of a bear into a target is much more likely to use images of bloodlust and berserk rage than a Wintermark or Varushkan magician working similar magic. Vermin - rats and carrion birds especially - are often evoked as part of a curse. Interestingly, the Marcher magicians include several plants in their list of totems - from trees such as the strong oak and poisonous yewtree to healthy wheat and beautiful meadow flowers.
As with goetia, it is not uncommon for a coven that otherwise practices a different tradition to call on a spirit animal for a specific ritual. There are Freeborn magicians for example who will use the imagery of albatross or dolphin to support a ritual designed to guide a ship through dangerous waters who would scoff at the idea of totems.
Goetia is relatively common, but covens specifically dedicated to the tradition - who work all their magic by petitioning eternals - are rare. It is one thing for a coven to offer a respectful nod to Sorin when performing Hunger of the Draughir, but quite another for a coven to dedicate all their rituals to powerful supernatural beings. In the past such covens have been found guilty of idolatry. There are plenty of recorded incidents where a goetic coven slipped over the line into cultish behaviour, reverencing an eternal or group of eternals to the point where they became agents of forces inimical to the Empire.
The tradition is most commonly practiced openly among Urizen, especially among illuminates, who have a more practical attitude to the eternal realms and their inhabitants. Many covens who practice goetia are extremely focused - such as a conspiracy of League reckoners who draw on the Whisper Gallery to work Night magic, or a secretive Highborn cult that reverences the Winter eternals and ascribes mastery of various rituals to each in turn.
Theurgy is much less common. In the past, the use of paragons and exemplars to work magic was often denounced as blasphemy by the Imperial Synod. The last case of a coven prosecuted for treating a virtuous figure as a symbolic channel for magical power was in 348YE, but modern practitioners of the art tend to avoid drawing attention to their tradition just to be on the safe side.
While it has been used in all parts of the Empire, especially by the illuminates of Urizen, theurgy has always been most popular in Highguard - where it is also paradoxically viewed with the greatest suspicion. Some theurgic scholars argue that what they are doing is inspiring the target of the ritual, or the ritualists themselves, with the iconography of the paragon or exemplar - that they are empowering human beings to draw on hidden reserves of spiritual power to more effectively wield their magic. Critics are unconvinced; there is a strong sense that theurgy is too close to the superstitious ancestor-worship practices of the orcs, and the Axou, and that it attempts to cast inspirational human figures in the role of spirits, demiurges, or even gods.
Totemism and magic items
As with other traditions, especially rune magic, totemism is also employed by artisans. An obvious example is the Roaring Chimera Rod that uses the martial power of the eponymous beast. There are many other examples - magic items decorated with spirit animals, or with the feathers, bones, or fur of creatures both mundane and legendary; objects marked with the symbolism of an appropriate eternal; there is even a case to be made that items such as icons are employing a form of theurgy.
Thanks to Greg Weir for additional work on Heraldic Magic.