Wasp as totem

by Rachel Creager Ireland

Note: For those who come to Veronica’s Garden to find insight into Wasp totem, there is a follow-up to this piece, which you can find here.

When I moved alone to Strong City, Kansas, it was perhaps not a coincidence that I often found myself praying for strength. I’d cut to long-distance status my relationship with the man I was in love with. My Dad was disabled and my Mom’s mind was decaying into dementia, and while I was supposedly here to help them, I struggled with the old roles and self-perceptions I’d been given in my childhood: the baby of the family, the kid with too much book smarts and no street smarts, the absent-minded-but-desperate-to-please-adults little girl. I’d had a pretty decent life in Chicago, but I walked away from it. What if Kevin decided it was too much trouble being involved with a woman eight hundred miles away? What if I died in a car accident on my commute to Emporia, and never saw him again? Everyone always said I wasn’t a very good driver. I had moved at the prompting of signs, but now I felt unconnected from everyone and everything. I hadn’t prayed regularly before then, but now I prayed every day for strength and protection.

Wasp entered my life. Ted Andrews says of insect magic: “Many modern shamans issue precautions about working with insect totems, implying that the archetypal force or spirit behind it is too primitive and difficult an energy with which to effectively work.” Nonetheless, I took the appearance of wasp as an answer to my prayers. Some days I’d watch dozens of them dancing in the backyard, the late afternoon light glinting off their wings. One day on the front porch I saw what looked like a tiny earthenware jug on the side of a hanging plant, and only had to wait a few minutes for the little wasp to come home, carrying a limp spider, which she placed delicately in the jar. I felt privileged to be in the company of wasps. They were my protectors. I chose to feel safe in their presence, to believe that the powerful sting would never be aimed against me, because they were my friends. When they started building a nest above the front door, I felt it was a bit too close, and I asked for permission to kill them. I received permission, but then they quietly left before I did it.

Still, they were an ally. One summer afternoon I went for a drive in the country, exploring the back roads of Chase County. As I drove over the rough gravel, out where you can see the horizon in every direction, but not a single building, I noticed a wasp buzzing around in the back window. Was it telling me to go back? I didn’t, and after a few minutes it disappeared. Hours later I finally found a way into Emporia, lost, thirsty, and hungry. I stopped for a quick bite and when I got back to the car, I had a flat tire. Then I knew the wasp had been warning me. If I’d needed help out there on the back roads, who knew how long it would have been before somebody came by?

Eventually, however, I began to see the limitation of the wasp totem. Observing them at every opportunity, I saw certain problems recur. If a wasp flies into a building, why can’t it find the way out? It clearly can’t remember and retrace its path in. What it usually does is fly up, which naturally doesn’t work in a room where the only way out is a door; it hits the wall above the door, moves away, circles, and repeats. Even if it’s a wide open door, the wasp doesn’t know how to find it. Finding isn’t the way, flying up is the way. If it doesn’t work, wasp doesn’t appear to be able to try something different. They do respond to their environment, but only with an extraordinarily limited repertoire of behaviors. It so happens that one of those very few choices is to sting. That means that if you spend enough time with wasps, there’s a pretty good chance the sting will come sooner or later.

When I saw this, I understood what Andrews was talking about. While wasp had been the totem I desperately needed for a while, I’d best let go of wasp before I got stung. Paradoxically, the power of wasp to protect can also get turned inside out, into danger. It was time to let go of my need for protection, to allow the unfolding of events with confidence that I could handle what would be given to me. To this day I consider wasp a friend, but one from which I keep a safe distance.

Eventually I married the man I was in love with, and together we bought a motel in Strong City. Here, a new wasp has entered my life, the great golden digger wasp. I’ll save that story for tomorrow.