Totems: Alligator, Part 1 of 2

by Cie Simurro- Thunderbird Starwoman

I AM ALLIGATOR. People see me as fierce because of my powerful jaws, and the strength and speed behind my movements. While this is true, I also have a side so gentle, I can delicately break the shells of my young to help them emerge, and carry them in my mouth – all without harm. I kill only to feed myself – the same reason you eat. Aside from that, it is crucial in these times to conserve life and do everything to save it.

Because my people live in both earth and water habitats, we teach how to balance your physical with your emotional nature, and we will help you keep yourself and your world in balance. That is why historically, we are associated with the 2nd chakra. Be very aware of your surroundings and take precautions, without letting fear rule. 

I wait in the shallows until the time is ripe. You will need to develop patience until it is time to act. When beginning a new venture keep your eyes on the prize. The wait will be worth it.

There I was, walking at the edge of a canal in Florida’s Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park, when I looked down into the water, and saw a rather large alligator. It was floating like a log, sideways to me, and it looked as though it was smiling. I had seen alligators once before. When I was nine, my parents drove with my brother and me down to St. Augustine, Florida. While visiting an alligator farm, I saw some then, but not up close. At Homosassa, I was fascinated with every part of this magnificent creature’s body, but especially its head and mouth. Alligators have very powerful heads. If one turned quickly and accidentally hit a part of your body, you might feel like someone had hit you with a baseball bat. This juxtaposes with the fact that an alligator at rest looks like it’s laughing, because its massive jaws curve upward, so only its upper teeth show.

Alligators (Alligator Mississipiensis) are part of a group of reptiles called Crocodilians, which also include crocodiles, caimans, and gharials. American alligators can be found throughout the southeastern United States. The name, alligator is thought to derive from the Spanish el lagarto, meaning the lizard. Spanish explorers in the 1700s sent letters home telling of “so many terrible lizards 20 feet long, that one might walk across their backs from bank to bank.”

Alligators have been around a hundred times longer than the first humans. They appeared around 230 million years ago in the Mesozoic era (which is when birds, crocodilians and dinosaurs sprang up from a group of reptiles called thecodonts). They’ve survived, whereas dinosaurs have not. They are older than the continent of Africa; even older than the appearance of flowers! Their dry, relatively thick, waterproof skin helps to prevent dehydration and protects them internally. The outer layer of pointy keratin scales called scutes, wears away, but always covers a new layer beneath. Alligator is the perfect totem to awaken us to planning ahead for our future needs. They are tough survivors. Though they may appear sluggish or completely unmoving – if prey, or the need for safety arises, they are pure power.

Have you ever thought about why an alligator doesn’t drown when it is submerged underwater? Well, first of all, the nostrils, ears, and eyes are located high on the head to facilitate seeing, hearing, and especially breathing when above water. When under water, alligator’s eyes are covered with a membrane, and the ears and nostrils have special valves which close. How cool is this? Nature, the penultimate designer, created in alligators, a fold of skin which shuts off the windpipe, so that the alligator can open its mouth underwater without drowning. Because of the way they look, and because they often hide in water, ancient cultures often gave alligators, like dragons, the symbology of being the guardians of wisdom and esoteric knowledge. It is not uncommon for people with this Medicine to be clairvoyant or be visionaries.

Let’s talk a little more about alligator eyes, and their seeing ability. We spoke of the nictating membrane that covers the eye so they can swim underwater, but their pupils also have a distinctive shape – like a football. And the unusual part is that no matter at what angle the head is, the elliptical pupils will be perfectly horizontal. That is, unless they are tossed upside down, as they are sometimes by alligator wrestlers. Then, they would experience severe vertigo. Which is the aim of the wrestler. But aside from these rare situations, the pupil will float like a gyroscope, so vision won’t be distorted.

Another noteworthy quality of an alligator’s eyes is that at night, when it’s easy to see them, the eyes burn like red hot coals. Unfortunately, that makes them a great target for hunters, who are aware of this aspect of alligator eyes, and so they cruise through the swamps to hunt them at night. What causes this eyeshine? The eyes have a thin reflective layer called tapetum lucidum (in Latin, this means “bright carpet”). This layer acts like a mirror just behind their retinas.

Though most folks haven’t thought a lot about alligators, by the time you’re finished reading about them here, you may develop a healthy respect for them. For example, alligators use tools for hunting. Yes, you read that right. During nest-building season, herons, egrets, storks, cormorants, and ibises are all looking for materials to build their nests. So, what do those crafty alligators do? They float around the nesting area with little sticks across their snouts waiting for some unsuspecting bird to come and pick up the stick. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Alligators are strictly carnivorous, and will feed on almost anything that wanders close enough to be snatched up and will fit in their mouths. They use their feet to dig catfish from bottom mud, or wait to ambush prey near forest trails, or float on the surface of the water waiting for a fish. They even hunt fish cooperatively, forming a line and letting the current bring fish toward the group, or else forcing fish toward the shallows, where smaller alligators can easily catch them. Yes, alligator totem has a lot to teach us about conservation of energy, because they take energy wherever they can get it – like from basking in the sun – and they never expend energy if they don’t have to. Humans would do well to remember to conserve energy too, instead of keeping our adrenals constantly secreting cortisol, the flight or fight hormone.

Now, you would think it would take a ton of prey to feed a body as big as an alligator’s, but in fact, because they are cold-blooded, they need about 10 times less food than a warm-blooded mammal of the same size needs to eat. Being cold-blooded means that they must seek out warm places to keep from getting cold, because unlike mammals, they have no internal thermostats. They have an intrinsic relationship, therefore, with the element of fire. If you live in an alligator habitat area, you might see them basking in the sun. The fire element gives us energy as well as heat, which also enables quick movement, for which alligators are famous when catching prey. So, this totem will help you go after what you want, powerfully, and swiftly sealing the deal. People experiencing this Medicine are also sensitive to their environments, and to the people in them. They may be somewhat affected by others’ moods and actions, so it is important they live, work, and play, in environments that are good for them, and will be ultimately beneficial. 

American alligators are adaptable and can survive in many kinds of habitat – from rivers and large lakes, sinkholes and irrigation ditches, to salt-encrusted edges of mangrove forests. If the water level drops too low, they will dig, what Southerners call gator holes, which have the advantage of providing water not only for them, but also for local mammals, other reptiles, and insects, when other sources of water have dried up. There is an altruistic side to those with this totem. Often, the decisions they make, and the actions they take, are also good for their neighbors and community.

A large part of Alligator Medicine is resilience and adaptability. Alligators were once almost extinct, but with some help have made something of a comeback. Given the opportunity, people with this Medicine also bounce back after hardship or challenges, and sometimes they do so in a spectacular way. There is an element of death and rebirth to the initiations that Alligator Medicine folks go through. At these times, it is helpful to remember that the purpose of initiation is for greater wisdom, new ability, and better circumstances to powerfully enter one’s life.

There is a certain reciprocity between Rabbit and Alligator in the tales of Native American people of the southeastern United States, for even though alligator is often the butt of Rabbit’s tricks, ultimately, it was Alligator who snapped Rabbit’s tail off, leaving him with only the cottontail with which we are familiar. Alligator is a powerful guide in acquiring personal empowerment. Like its skin, which is tough and strong, those who have alligator as an ally will come out of trials and challenges in this earth experience. It takes persistence and resilience to follow a spiritual path. Alligator as a guide will see to it that you stick with the practices that keep you balanced, healthy, and strong, and also help you remember that having a tough hide doesn’t mean that you should have to hide your vulnerabilities. It just means you should be discerning where, and with whom, you open yourself up.

Part II will be in the next issue of Wisdom Magazine

Cie Simurro- Thunderbird Starwoman has been a Healer, Writer, Minister, Advocate and Steward for the natural world for over 45 years; author of this column for 20 years. Send me your email if you wish to be notified with a link to Wisdom when a new Totems article comes out.

In order to be of the greatest service during these challenging and stressful times, if you want or need healing, I am available for a healing consult with you via video-conferencing and for long-distance healing for you or your pet. Call or email for more details and to arrange an appointment.  Phone: 413 625-0385 or email: