Tokens, Totems, and Talismans

Tokens, totems, and talismans are magical objects, although perfect examples are not usually referred to as such. Every government, religion, and corporation subtly employs magic. The Great Seal of the United States of America is a token, totem, and talisman that incorporates various symbols denoting particular powers, such as: the eagle, the pyramid, the olive branch, and the words Novus Ordo Seclorum. The flag of every nation is more than a matrix of woven fabric. The words “I swear” are more than a random sequence of six letters; like mottoes, the words are imbued with the power of intent. 

More than a mere keepsake or empty gesture, a token can be something that symbolizes and/or is substituted for something else. Tokens are sometimes objects, such as rings, gems, or medals and always represent power by proxy. Sometimes they are symbols of symbols, such as a subway token that stands in place of “legal tender,” vested with its own symbolic value to serve a passkey monetary purpose. The intention of a corporate logo or emblem is to identify, energize, and immortalize the company. School, class, or secret society rings are further examples. Superstition, or something more? Sigmund Freud had matching rings cast for members of his inner circle. 

Totems are similar—objects having symbolic meaning. Totems, like tokens, convey power by proxy, but totems are more iconic in an openly spiritual or religious way—archetypal (in Dr. Carl Jung’s conceptualizing) and part of a tribal myth, a sacred story, as Joseph J. Campbell acknowledged. Like tokens, sometimes totems are symbols of symbols, such as a likeness of a tiger that represents the actual animal and, in turn, symbolizes the qualities attributed to and expressed by a tiger. Any animal, including a human, can be a totem. The eagle, for example, can serve as a totem involving powers such as long-range vision: the ability to see events at a distance in space and/or time. 

Like tokens and totems, talismans are symbolic. Like tokens and totems, they empower by proxy. Unlike ordinary tokens and totems, talismans are less subtle conveyances of power. They are overtly magical tools—sometimes weapons, often associated with a deeply held belief system—links to the masculine or feminine aspects of creational energy. The crucifix is a masculine Christian talisman, as are hilted swords. Rosary and Mala beads, as well as amulets, are feminine talismans with respect to their components, configuration, and application, including mouthed actuation. Talismanic tokens are usually present at turning-point initiations, including marriage ceremonies involving “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.” 

The underlying recognition, reinforced by millennia of human experience, is that there is higher power in the universe and that one’s intention to tap it benefits from use of intermediary devices, channels through which the power is concentrated, boosted, and flows forth to serve specific purposes. A magic wand, or water-diviner’s dowsing rod, directs the user’s consciousness. But such instruments are not absolutely required; the hand or mind alone is adequate for one who has mastered the art of psychic detection. 

It should be mentioned that a proper token, totem, or talisman is not an idol; idols are objects mistakenly perceived to be the origin of power. A worshipped talisman is no longer of use as originally intended. Worse: the channel becomes a barrier. Perhaps this is what happened with the biblical Ark of the Covenant and the Urim and Thummin. Although 100% effective in the Israelites’ earlier days, these highly—perhaps overly—revered sacred instruments failed to ensure the First Temple’s preservation.


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