Updated: Oct 16
The dark, mystical energy of the wolf, the haunting midnight call of the owl, and the untouchable freedom of the soaring eagle; most of us have at one time or another felt a strong connection to the different animals found in nature.
The graceful Arabian Horse as it runs through the fields, and the sleek, glimmering dolphin that emerges from the water. From childhood, we have been inspired by these symbols and for many of us, they hold a deep mysticism that is somehow just out of reach.
Humans have always had a close bond with the natural world. This isn't hard to understand, seeing that we come from nature. The concept that we're above the natural world is a fairly recent one in our history, brought about by our ever-increasing ability to manipulate the world around us.
This perspective, unfortunately, has separated us from our roots and resulted in a loss of cultural identity, leaving many of us wandering this planet in a state of loss and confusion.
As fast as the Western materialist way of life is enveloping the globe and displacing traditional cultures, there are still people who value the old ways. The shamanic lifestyles of the Native Americans, so sadly obliterated by near-genocide, still inspire many.
Similar traditional beliefs and customs in different parts of Africa, although shunned by many of the younger generations, still find themselves existing side by side with modern religious practices and beliefs.
It's true that we're all descended from a shamanic way of life in one way or another. Before the imperialist powers such as Rome established their empires, Europe was populated by tribal peoples ranging from the Celts to various Germanic groups, all of who followed traditional ways not unlike those of the Native Americans as recently as a century ago.
Among the myriad complex beliefs and customs held by our shamanic ancestors, the key to their existence was the honoring of totems, often in the form of animals. This article explores the origin and purpose of Animal Totems, providing an understanding of our own spirit animals and how they play a role in our journeys.
What Are Animal Totems?
Simply put, Animal Totems are energies that connect us to nature. We all identify with certain types of animals. Maybe their beauty attracts us, or other qualities such as strength, resilience, gracefulness, or loyalty appeal to us. Maybe it’s a combination of these.
In recognizing and honoring these qualities, we adopt these animals as a representation of our best selves and the qualities we wish to possess. So, in a way your Animal Totem is YOUR spirit revealing itself in nature.
If we're to understand the role of Animal Totems in our lives, it's essential for us to be able to interpret their appearance. Ted Andrews provides a very holistic explanation of Animal Totems and their interpretation in his book “Animal-Speak – The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small.”
The Origin of Animal Totems
In the past, animal totems were often associated with the clan. It was believed that all individuals within the group were guided and protected by the adopted animal totem. Remnants of this abound in Africa, with many surnames still retaining the name of the animal.
For example, in South Africa, surnames such as Dube (Zebra), Ngwenya (Crocodile), Tau (Lion), and Ndlovu (Elephant) are very common. The concept of the clan adopting an Animal Totem is very ancient and plays the same role as an individual’s totem – bestowing the desired qualities found in the animal for guidance, protection, and well-being of the group/individual.
What Is the Purpose of Having Animal Totems?
Animal Totems are very useful companions to have. They're an energy source that you can call on whenever you need to. They accompany you by providing the qualities you need to overcome challenges, make important decisions, and bring about healing for yourself and others.
It's essential to understand your Animal Totem in as much depth as possible. Do this through reading, research, observation, and interaction with the animal if this is possible. Other tools such as Animal Tarot Cards exist. These assist us to get in touch with our Animal Totems and interpret the signs that they are sending us.
It's another way of tapping into spiritual messages meant for you.
I have found Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power through the Ways of Animals, by Jamie Sams, to be particularly useful in this regard.
How Do I Discover My Animal Totems?
It's important for us not to imagine animals as having a magical and esoteric power that's external to us; a power that we can tap into if we perform the correct rituals and spells. This view is incorrect and has been perpetuated by modern ways of thinking that place the humans outside of the natural web of life and often envelop nature in mysticism.
Here we draw on one of the main shamanic principles - ‘power comes from within.’ Animal Totems are part of our personal nature. Our Animal Totems have certain qualities that we recognize in ourselves or aspire to.
We impose anthropocentric definitions upon this energy relationship; for example, if an individual is highly focused and productive, they may recognize a honey bee as one of their Animal Totems.
In certain cultures, your Animal Totem has to appear to you three times before you can adopt it. These are not just everyday experiences of the animal, such as driving past horse stables on your way to work. They need to be significant encounters that stir the soul and have meaning to your current circumstances.
For example, you may be facing a difficult decision over whether to stay at your current employment or to accept an almost ‘too good to be true’ offer from another company. You might frequently begin to encounter dogs in unusual situations – a new dog next door may be barking incessantly or you may come across a lost dog on the road and stop to rescue it.
These are significant experiences and should lead you to explore the qualities of a dog that are associated with our everyday lives, such as loyalty and dedication.
Other ways people discover their Animal Totems are through dreams, visions, and journeying. Interactive methods such as group ceremonies, rituals, and drumming also assist in identifying one’s Animal Totems.
Chris Luttichau in his book, “Spirit Animal Guides: Discover your Power Animal and Your Shamanic Path,” highlights a number of useful methods of discovering and working with Animal Totems.
Using Your Animal Totem
A Shaman becomes their Animal Totem during rituals and ceremonies. They do this through intense concentration and creativity, going within and using mental and emotional shape-shifting or grokking to a point where they believe they're the animal.
They even behave like the animal, dressing up as their Animal Totem, using parts of it such as the skull, bones, and wings to reinforce the essence of its qualities. The power that this energy creates is immense and drives the belief, intentions, and hopes of the Shaman and those attending the ceremony.
Fortunately, you don’t have to dress up and run around screeching like a crow or a peacock to get in touch with and make use of your Animal Totem. All it requires is for you to find a quiet space, close your eyes, and go within.
Imagine yourself transforming into your Animal Totem, feeling your nose elongating into that of a dog, or your arms spreading out into the wings of an eagle. Picture those qualities you wish to invoke; the determination of a salmon swimming upstream or the patience of a leopard lying in wait.
Allow these qualities to wash over you and infiltrate every cell, every thought, and every emotion. Once you have done this, slowly open your eyes and affirm the desired qualities in yourself through a simple statement – I am as patient as the leopard.
Can I Have More Than One Animal Totem?
The answer is yes. There are no set rules concerning the number of Animal Totems you can have. However, you'll find that there will be one, possibly two, that are always significant and constantly with you no matter what stage your life is in.
Animal Totems can be periodic, they may come to you during a certain part of your life to guide you and then leave. This is fine. Honor them for their role and always keep them close to you. You may never need them again but they're a part of you.
When discovering your main Animal Totem, your ‘Power Animal,’ that which best represents you, it's important to go within and understand your true nature. Go back to your childhood. What animal always appealed to you? Why? How do you view it now? What qualities does it have that describe you if any? If you can answer these questions positively then you're probably on the right track.
Alternatively, it could just be as simple as a ‘knowing.’ Maybe a certain animal appeared to you again and again during difficult times in your childhood, or an animal has been an integral part of your life, leisure, and career, for example growing up with pet snakes and becoming a snake handler.
Whatever your Animal Totem may be, you will find a deep resonance with the qualities of that animal if you're prepared to go within.
Final Thoughts: Believe in the Animal
When working with Animal Totems, the key is to absorb the magic, beauty, and true wonder that embodies the animal. Experience true love for the animal and internalize it. It's the energy and integrity of your beliefs and intentions that will harness the power the animal has to offer you and change your life.
This post was updated on March 27, 2023.