Spirit Animals and Totem Animals
There is a lot of talk in the Pagan community about spirit animals, total animals, and familiars. I’ve already talked a bit about familiars, so today I’d like to discuss spirit animals and totem animals.
They’re not the same thing.
Before we get into the differences between the two types, let’s consider natural animals. All animals possess certain characteristics that make them supremely adapted to one behavior or another. They all have qualities from which humans can take inspiration, and they can all teach us lessons on how to get through life’s obstacles and challenges.
If you think about natural animals, they have one thing in common: they are always, without exception, themselves.
Animals don’t pretend to be something they’re not. They might lie to you (the cat who tells you in all honesty they haven’t been fed yet, when your partner fed her an hour ago, for example), but a predator doesn’t pretend to be prey. An herbivore doesn’t pretend to be a predator. They own their true qualities and they don’t try to be something they’re not.
People will do this all the time. I know someone who will tell everyone she meets that she’s an alpha wolf, when in reality she’s a rabbit. She runs from conflict and will do anything in her power to avoid facing things that are difficult, unpleasant, or dark. She’s no wolf. Wolf is a teacher and a protector, and in all the years I’ve known her, I’ve never seen her protect anything but her DVD collection. This person is not walking her own truth. An animal, real or in spirit, would never stoop to this level of deception – lying to others and lying to themselves.
The same is true of spirit and totem animals. They are true to what they are, and they present their qualities as lessons to humanity.
Spirit animals come into your life when you need them, and on their own terms. They will bring you their examples to help you navigate the stream of your life. They don’t come when you call them, and when your lesson is learned, they move on.
Some spirit animals are with you always, and they come when you call to render aid and to support you with their special qualities and gifts. These are totem animals. Totems are protectors and guides, and they are with you throughout your lifetime. They aren’t for singular instances or assistance with one troublesome moment. They are your soul friends for your entire journey.
Spirit animals and totem animals present themselves in different ways. So what’s the difference, and how do you know which is which?
You may have spent your entire life fascinated by one particular kind of animal. Like many little girls, I was in love with horses. I loved drawing them, watching them on television, reading books about them, and collecting Breyer model horses.
Unlike most little girls, though, I didn’t want to ride these horses. I wanted to be these horses. In fact, it infuriated me whenever I would see a horse yoked to a cart or under saddle. I hated pictures of people riding horses. I wanted horses to be free.
I noticed that when I was around horses, they seemed to respond to me in ways that didn’t happen with other people. Horses I’d never met before made a point of coming to the fence to visit with me. They would watch me with open curiosity while they more or less ignored the people with me. I felt a kinship with these giant, gentle animals, and when I learned about Epona, the Great Mare, it all clicked. The horse is my totem.
You may have noticed something similar in your own life. Perhaps you’ve always loved dolphins, and this love started at an early age. You’re drawn to dolphins in art, in books, and in documentaries on television. You love to swim, and maybe you’ve even taken a trip to a place where they offer the experience of swimming with dolphins. When you got there, the dolphins seemed to like you and related to you in a way that felt almost spiritual.
Congratulations. You have dolphin as your totem animal.
Totems are animal spirits whose energies are in harmony with your own. They are always with you, like a constant presence in your soul, helping you through hard times and giving you power and impetus. They reinforce your own character traits, and in a very real sense, deep down inside, you share similar souls.
Many indigenous tribes felt this kind of kinship, and as a result, they often identified themselves as “Bear People” or “the Wolf tribe”. Some even trace their family lineage to an ancestral animal, which has given rise to family traits that are in keeping with the traits of these totems.
Every person in the Bear tribe has bear energy, and their families are protective, nurturing and earthy. People in the Eagle tribe are far-seeing and vigilant, like eagles. If you really think about it, when you know more than one person in a family and see their behavior, you can pick out commonalities that might relate back to their family totem.
Now, spirit animals are slightly different. As I said before, they come and go. I’ll give you another example.
I was going through a very difficult time when I first graduated from college. Finding a job, a new place to live, and a way of being myself without the routine of school was daunting, and I was floundering. While this was happening, I started to notice butterflies.
I don’t mean that one or two butterflies showed up one summer day. I mean that I saw butterflies everywhere. Each time I went outside, they were fluttering around the yard. When I went to stores, I would see butterflies on T-shirts, butterflies on mugs, and butterflies as decorations.
The power of butterflies is transformation, since they go into their cocoons as caterpillars and emerge as these beautiful winged creatures. I was transforming my life, and Butterfly as my spirit animal was there to help empower me to make the changes that I needed to make. Butterfly shared its energy and I became a reasonably functional adult, and when the need for transformation ended, so too did my constant butterfly sightings.
That’s the way spirit animals work. They’ll come into your life when you need them the most, and they’ll share their unique energy to help you with the path you’re walking. A spirit animal might appear in person, or in effigy like the butterflies on the T-shirts I was seeing. You might notice them on television, or in your dreams.
If you suddenly feel haunted by a particular animal, pay attention – the Universe is sending you assistance. If you recognize what energies these animals have to offer, you’ll understand what guidance you’re receiving, and chances are you’ll understand exactly why.
Most of the spirit animal oracles and books that you will encounter explain the powers of these animals in Native American terms, but spirit animals aren’t exclusive to that culture. Celtic and Norse beliefs have spirit animals and the attributes that they bring to humanity are well understood.
Different cultures have different animals that appear most often in their iconography and myths, which makes sense, considering our ancestors could only point to animals they actually experienced. Interestingly, even though there have been dozens if not hundreds of native tribes from which we descend, they all see certain animals in the same way.
That’s both because animals always have the same biological and physiological characteristics, but also because specific types of animals have specific types of energies that our native ancestors knew and understood.
Many of the gods and goddesses we worship in Paganism are associated with particular animals, and these animals lend their energy to the deities they serve. As I’ve mentioned before, I worship Epona as the Goddess’s Mother aspect. She is the Gallo-Roman goddess of fertility and a protector of horses, ponies and donkeys. She’s known as the Great White Mare.
Other gods and goddesses are well known by their animal associations. Athena in the Hellenic pantheon has an owl. Freya in the Norse pantheon is accompanied by cats. Odin has his ravens. The Celtic pantheon has Cernunnos, the Horned One, who is so linked with stags that he shares the animal’s antlers. In each case, the animal associated with the god or goddess is a living embodiment of that deity’s special power or concern, and is often the medium through which the deity contacts his or her human followers.
If you want to encounter your totem or spirit animal, you can do this through meditation. Start out with mindful breathing and let your mind envision a natural space. Normally this is a forest, but some people see sea shores, deserts or mountains, depending on where their souls need to go.
You will find a path to follow, and as you do, you will encounter many animals, or virtually none. Some animals will cross your path but pay no attention to you; it’s believed that these are totems of your friends and family, so take note, but keep going.
Finally, one animal will present itself to you, usually standing on the path before you. It will look at you, really look at you, and you might even find yourself merging with the animal spirit so you’re one being. This animal will be your totem. This is called a spirit journey, and it’s a very simple form of shamanism.
When I went on my spirit journey, I found myself on a path through a deciduous forest. A raccoon passed in front of me, and a snow leopard was lurking in the shadows, but my own animal didn’t appear right away. I finally found myself at the edge of a stream with high banks. On the opposite side of the water, on a high bank that was crowded with trees, I saw a white horse. The horse snorted and stamped its hoof, and I got the impression that it was saying, “Well, it’s about time you got here!”
My spirit horse is a little sassy. I should have expected that.
There are commercially available decks that can help you locate your totems, if you’d like to go that route. The ones I’ve used are The Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams and David Carson, which takes a more or less Plains-centric Native American view of totem animals; Power Animal Oracle Cards by Stephen Farmer, which is more New Age with a little Native American thrown in; and the Beasts of Albion by Miranda Gray, which has a Celtic basis.
There are also dozens of books on the subject, and a quick tour of the internet will probably lead you to many products that can help you on your search.
Briefly, this is a listing of the most common animal spirits and the kinds of energies they bring into your life. This list is by no means exhaustive, and you may find that some animals speak to you with a different meaning.
Your soul knows your own truth. Some of these animals might be your totems, and some might be helpers, but they’re all with you for your benefit. Good luck seeking your animal spirits, and may love and light follow you!
Ant – patience; perseverance; group unity; industriousness
Bear – power; healing; leadership; solitude; introspection
Bee – diligence; commitment; cooperation
Butterfly – transformation; change; freedom; lightness of being
Cat – independence; intuition; protection; magic
Cougar – action; agility; cunning; loyalty
Crow – shapeshifting; big changes; omens; spiritual communication
Deer – gentleness; benevolence; love; discernment
Dog – loyalty; protection; devotion; forgiveness
Dolphin – lightheartedness; kindness; harmony; innocence
Dove – peace; serenity; love; self-nurturing; spirit
Dragonfly – illusion; emotion; perspective; expression
Eagle – initiation; tests; freedom; higher power; higher perspective
Fox – cunning; camouflage; intelligence; ingenuity
Frog – cleansing; solitude; transformation
Hawk – messenger; vision; focus; connection with spirit
Horse – power; stamina; endurance; bravery; intelligence
Hummingbird – joy; accomplishment; swiftness
Lion – courage; bravery; leadership; strength; dignity
Otter – woman power/woman medicine; laughter; playfulness; curiosity
Owl – wisdom; clairvoyance; insight; inner wisdom
Peacock – pride; integrity; holiness; guidance
Rabbit – fertility; watchfulness; fear; hidden wisdom
Raven – magic; visions; mysticism; owning your power
Salmon – knowledge; determination; courage; instinct
Seal – imagination; creativity; balance
Seagull – freedom; releasing fear; communication with faery
Snake – transmutation; healing; elusiveness; cycles
Spider – feminine energy; creativity; the shadow self
Squirrel – preparation for the future; vigilance; caution
Swan – grace; inner strength; faith; elegance; beauty
Tiger – power; patience; sensuality; will power
Toad – solitude; cleansing; transformation
Whale – record keeper; wisdom; spiritual expansion; communication
Wolf – teacher; power; balance; self-control