What is an Animal Totem?
The phrase “animal totem” literally means a symbolic representation of your animal guide; such as a crest, a totem pole, an emblem, a small figurine, or anything else that depicts your animal guide. A totem could be symbolic for a whole tribe, clan or family – or just an individual. However, the phrase “animal totem” also means “animal guide”, receiving spiritual assistance from an animal.
Shamans throughout the world have relied on the guidance and wisdom of spirit animals for thousands of years. Totems have been used in shamanistic practice as far back as human history stretches, it is one of the oldest forms of magick in the world. Hunters would paint the form of their prey on walls during ceremonies to bless the coming hunt with good fortune, and to acknowledge, bless and thank the spirit of the animal, as well as even ask for its assistance from the spiritual world. Many ancient tribes revered certain animals for their particular characteristics. Animals are embroiled deeply in all the ancient religions, and were often deified.
In simple terms, your animal guide instructs you, protects you and teaches you important lessons as you navigate your spiritual and physical life. They also help us reconnect with our earth roots, reminding us that everything is interconnected and we are all part of the same cycle of life. This knowledge is the most important and powerful truth that we can hold. Working with animal totems is a form of medicine in the Native American Indian tradition. Animals that call to you in a particular way are calling to you in the way of power. They carry special medicine for you, and may well call to you through your dreams once you start learning about them. In learning to call on the medicine of any person, creature or natural force, one must maintain an attitude of reverence and be willing to accept help. This power is truly at its most effective when used from a space of unity – of each being having within itself a part of all other beings, the law of oneness.
Do We have more than One Animal Totem?
Because our personalities, just like Mother Earth, just like Creator, have many facets, we usually experience more than one totem animal in our lives. Various traditions have differing teachings on whether there is a specific number of totems we experience. The Native American tradition, for one, teaches that we are each connected with nine different animals that accompany us through life as our guides (more on this further down).
We experience the wisdom and assistance of these different animal guides as they come into and out of our lives throughout our journey. They join us during new tasks, changes in direction, lessons to be learnt, and all events involving spiritual growth including simply bettering ourselves in day to day living. Bear in mind that as old totems exit our life, so new totems arrive, and this is the way it must be in order to continue growing and learning. Remember to always give thanks and blessings to a departing or departed totem, when you become aware that its energy is moving away from you.
Despite the changing nature of life and our totems, most traditions agree that we usually experience at least one animal guide who stays with us for our whole life, in the spiritual world and often in physical manifestations. This animal acts as our main guardian spirit (Life Totem). You share a connection with this animal that will show itself in shared characteristics, your dreams, various interactions, and an ongoing interest in the animal throughout your life. This animal guide offers power and wisdom to you, and as you learn to communicate with it, a relationship of respect and trust will develop and deepen. It is with you to assist you in your soul’s purpose in life during this manifestation.
Most people have encountered and recognize the popular image of a witch and her black cat. A familiar is an animal that physically lives with a witch, and assists her/him in her magickal workings. Traditionally, witches worked primarily with cats, but a familiar could be any animal living with the witch – a dog, rabbit, horse, snake, etc. A familiar represents all the good qualities of that animal and is in tune with the witch energetically. It provides the witch with a link to the animal kingdom, and the essence of their power. A witch’s familiar may or may not also be one of her animal totems, likewise her animal totem may or may not join her in physical form.
How Can One Work with Animal Totems?
Obviously you cannot always work with a physical familiar, for obvious reasons (space limitation, for one). Therefore, shamans / energy workers / witches find working with animal totems in the astral of huge benefit. You can at any time call on the animal kingdom for assistance – it can be as simple as asking a question and going for a walk in nature, or as complicated as a full ritual to acknowledge a specific power animal – as long as you make the effort to open up to the natural world.
Healers: You may choose to work with an animal totem specifically for one magickal working that would benefit from that animal’s medicine, guidance and power. In terms of healing, many animals have unique resistance to certain diseases, and drawing upon that animal’s energy helps us/our patient be more resistant to it as well. Some animals are archetypal symbols of healing, like the snake, as it sheds its old skin and moves into the new. As a symbol for transformation, by meditating and focusing on the snake during times of illness, it can assist in accelerating the healing process. Animals that appear to us at times of illness can also be providing us with vital clues as to the best way to focus our healing energies. You may also find that the spirit of a power animal may choose at times to enter the consciousness of one who has walked the “Medicine Way” (or in other words, works with the Animal Kingdom energies) for many years, and align itself to aid in healings. This is part of the initiation process of Animal Medicine, and brings great power to the healer.
Quarter Guardians: Some animals are associated with the quarters (four elements) and can be called in to activate the quarters.
Advisors & Guides: Totem animals are also great advisors and can be called on for help in particular situations. They can lead us and help us in sacred quests and journeys, as well as bring us direction about situations, choices, decisions and activities we’re involved in. A closer study of their characteristics and behaviours provides clues and insights as to what our own behaviours and actions should be in particular situations.
Teachers: You can also personally select a “power animal” – i.e. a totem animal to work with within the astral for a time (weeks, months or years) in order to learn specifically from that animal. All animals that come to us are teachers. They teach us about our own potentials, about energies at play within our lives and about our spiritual paths. We can learn something from every animal, but those that appear to us, and those that we choose to work with, can teach us special wisdoms.
Protectors: Animals are also protectors, and can be called upon to give us extra strength and energy. They can alert us to trouble, physically and spiritually. Pay attention to what animals appear in your life in order to benefit from their messages of warning. You might find yourself having dreams of conflict in which an animal appears – the animal lets us know what qualities to draw on to handle the conflicts in our life. Protection animals are not always big and ferocious – every animal has its own unique defence strategies and abilities. While bears can be powerful protectors for many aspects of life, the opossum can also serve as a protector, warning that things and people around us are not what they seem to be. We may need to “play possum” in some situations.
How To Find Your Animal Totem
When you find an animal is speaking strongly to you, that you feel drawn to it, or you find it keeps cropping up (e.g. you see a poster of an eagle, then hear a song about an eagle on the radio, then look out your window to see an eagle fly past), you need to acknowledge and open yourself to it. You can do this very simply by placing pictures or totems (statues/crests etc) in your environment, and learning more about the animal. This will assist your subconscious in being more open to the energy of the totem, and thus allow messages and wisdom to flow to you from your animal more easily, as well as encouraging the energy of the animal to be welcome in your space.
There are several questions you can meditate on if you have not become aware of your animal totem/s yet. Remember that you cannot be wrong! Just trust your intuition and relax as you contemplate the answers:
- What animal, bird or insect do you feel most drawn to?
- When you go to a nature reserve, park or zoo, what animal are you most interested in seeing?
- What animal do you most often see (in nature and in your ordinary surroundings – contemplate any interaction, whether images, sounds, or the actual animal)?
- What animal are you currently interested in learning more about?
- What animal most frightens you, intrigues you, or makes you feel “out of your comfort zone”?
- Have you ever been bitten, scratched or attacked by an animal?
- Do you ever have recurring dreams about a particular animal?
- Are you drawn to figurines or pictures of a specific animal?
More exercises to try:
- Make a list of animals that have drawn your interest or have left a deep impression on you from paintings, photographs, stories, movies, carvings, etc. This will help you identify what animal/s has/have played a meaningful part in your world.
- Keep a journal of the animals present in your dreams or that you encounter through the day for the next month. How did the animal behave? Did you interact with the animal? This will help you identify which animal shows up in your life most frequently.
- Find a place where you can be alone to meditate. Sit quietly and ask your animal to make its nature known to you. Feel free to use tools such as incense, smudge, and candles to help you. A particularly helpful meditation is picturing yourself standing in the middle of a large forest glade, with a river and/or lake, or perhaps a cove by the sea. Ask your guide to come to you, as you walk in the surroundings.
As already discussed, different traditions vary on the specifics when it comes to the exact number of totem animals you work with, and what they are called. Below I list two DIFFERENT views – the point is to do your own research and go with what suits YOU. It’s a personal choice based on what you resonate with.
View One – Types of Totems:
Your Life Totem animal is the first totem you should connect with, intuitively, once your understand its significance. Your Life Totem animal is with you throughout your entire incarnation, and is always there for you when you need its abilities. It is possible to have more than one Life Totem animal that join you during your journey.
Primary Life Totem
Your Primary Life Totem represents your key focus at this time – that which you are currently working on, learning, developing. The messages brought to you by your Primary Life Totem are important reminders from the Universe about your present purpose on Earth, and your inner spiritual nature.
You Journey Totem animal is with you for a specific period of time – whether that be weeks, months or even years, depending on how long it takes you to walk the path and learn the lesson/s that your Journey Totem animal is guiding and assisting you with. You may experience several Journey Totem animals appearing in your life more commonly than all the others, as if by coincidence. When two or three animals suddenly make an appearance in your life, and they share a similar nature, it means that you have established the basis of your path.
A Message Totem arrives suddenly, neutrally, and at random times throughout your life (or maybe even only once). A Journey Totem, in contrast, stays a little longer and tends to slip in and out of your life over a period of time. The Message Totem brings a powerful message of self growth and spiritual awakening – a sudden step forward. The experience will stand out as unique.
A Shadow Totem animal is one of a number of totems sent to us to test us, and will be the one that you initially fear. The Shadow Totem represents your inner fears and weaknesses that you need to overcome. Once you are able to see the fascination or attraction in a previously feared, ‘dangerous’ animal, you have succeeded in learning its lesson, and its power and strength will be open to you. For this reason, facing the fears that the Shadow Totem brings out in you can result in major spiritual growth. Failing to face your fears could result in the Shadow Totem being unable to assist you, and in fact force it to work against your life, holding you back from enlightenment.
A Spirit Totem is what a Shadow Totem becomes in your life once you have overcome your fear. It is one of your most powerful Animal Totems.
View Two – The Native American Indian Nine Totems:
Each and every person has nine power animals that represent the medicine they carry on this journey/lifetime. For example, a person who is connected with Wolf is a born teacher, pathfinder, innovator and self-starter. If they are not living their truth/not walking their true path, you may find they emulate the opposite of these qualities. The number nine is based on the concept that we are born on Earth with seven directions: East, South, West, North, Above, Below and Within (which they teach is inside us AND around us since the entire Universe is inside our consciousness). We have a totem animal in each of the seven directions to teach us the lessons of these directions. The other two animals are the ones that walk on either side of us at all times. We may experience them in recurring dreams, a fascination with them throughout our lives, or simply a recognized “connection”.
In this context, the word “medicine” must be redefined. Medicine is a Native American Indian concept which refers to anything that improves one’s connection to Creator/Great Spirit/The Great Mystery, and all life. This includes physical healing, mind healing and spirit healing. It also encompasses anything that increases or brings about growth in personal power, strength and understanding. It is a way of living that brings healing to Mother Earth and all life forms. Therefore, in essence, Native American medicine means a way of life – walking on Earth in perfect harmony with the Universe.
Animals’ characteristics, behaviours, patterns and even their very appearances, relay messages to us – we just need to learn the language. This is an ancient form of “reading the wyrd”, the way the world worked before technology made us blind and deaf to the natural world around us. This precious information, and gifts of healing, are completely free to us.
When you call on the power or energy of a specific animal, you are asking to be drawn into complete harmony with the strength of its essence. All understanding that we gain, all wisdom that we collect through these valuable interactions with our animal brothers and sisters, is a healing process, and must be approached with both humility and intuitiveness. Certain aspects of the lessons the animals choose to teach us are reflections of our soul lessons. These are essential truths about being human, being vulnerable, and seeking wholeness with all that is. They are a part of the pathway to power. The power lies in the wisdom and understanding of your role in the Great Mystery, and in honouring every living thing as a teacher.
Learning to interact with the Animal Kingdom in this way is about reactivating your instinctual intuitiveness, remembering your innate knowledge of natural truths, learning how to relate to all of the Great Mystery’s creatures, and how to “observe the obvious in the silence”.
“The silence of a quiet mind is the sacred fertility of the receiving spirit.” –
Medicine Cards, Jame Sams & David Carson
Look out for the next few posts where I’ll be providing lists of animals and their totem meanings. Obviously the meanings of each animal have been extremely simplified and in many places only one aspect has been focused on. This is simply due to time and space constraints – to try encompass the whole of a complex creature and all the hundreds of lessons it has to impart would be an impossibility. But hopefully the information will be enough to get you on your way, and once your eyes and energies are opened, the animals will begin to fill in the rest as needed :)
Sources for this series include:
“Indian Power Animals and Totems” by Marguerite Elsbeth
“To Ride a Silver Broomstick” by Silver RavenWolf
“To Stir a Magick Cauldron” by Silver RavenWolf
“Animal-Speak Pocket Guide” by Ted Andrews
“Medicine Cards – The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals” – by Jamie Sams & David Carson ***HIGHLY RECOMMENDED***
“ Earth Medicine” by Kenneth Meadows
“Psychic Pets” by Barbara Woodhouse