Ancient cultures in every region have used animal images as means of representing intangible concepts like strength and courage. Animal fetishes have stood as markers of clan or tribe since the dawn of human kind. More recently, these shamanistic totems have been revisioned. In modern times, corporate mascots and entertainment mascots have penetrated to every corner of society. Do these modern totems function in the same way as the ancient ones did?
In traditional cultural practices, the totem is a ritual device that functions by association. Because the crocodile is powerful, its totem is powerful, and those who claim the crocodile totem have that power too. The oldest totemic figures tended to come from animals that natives would encounter in their natural splendor. The power and grace of the natural world is captured in the totem.
As human culture has transformed, so too has our use of totemic figures. The use of mascots as a university symbol to drag out at sporting events, for example, is a relatively new trend in the human scale of things. College athletic leagues first took on the use of mascots in the early 19th century.
Since becoming a university symbol, the mascot has taken on other characteristics unique to modern culture. Particularly the ironic tone in some mascots is interesting. For example, Sluggo the banana slug mascot for the University of California at Santa Cruz does not immediately strike fear into the hearts of his opponents. By choosing the banana slug, the university works against our expectations while also emphasizing the complex biodiversity of the campus region.
To some degree, these icons and totems share a similar function, but there are important details that separate them as well. How are a logo, a totem, a mascot, and an icon different? You can distinguish them by their engagement with things like corporatism or ritualism. Mickey Mouse means different things to children and to the corporate world. The bat means something different to Bruce Wayne than it does to DC comics.
Businesses of course have very special relationships with their mascots. Business logos like the Exxon tiger are meant to remind us of the good and positive things that the corporate product can do for us. The tiger assures us that our car will run the best. Logos are a tool to divert our attention toward these positive things and away from a corporation’s sometime shady past. The tiger doesn’t tell us anything about oil spills or the suppression of governments.
Being aware of this discrepancy, knowing the difference between how a logo represents a group and what really constitutes the group, and being able to articulate this discrepancy are the basic components of media literacy. Because the media has saturated our lives, we must be sure that all of our children are trained in these skills. They cannot be contributing citizens without being able to think critically.
I have a totem that I often turn to for inspiration and courage. Like all of the corporate mascots and entertainment mascots, I think my bear totem is a sign of strength and power.