Animals have long been connected to the metaphysical world. Tribes all over the globe have imbued and invoked the power of animals to guide, protect, and strengthen for millennia. Witches have used familiars to ground and amplify magickal workings for centuries. In short, animals have been considered powerful allies in both the mundane and magickal worlds for as long as time has been recorded.
The terms “spirit animal,” “totem animal,” and “power animal” are often used interchangeably, even though they have slightly different meanings depending on the context in which they are used. The definitions I have found have obvious overlap in their descriptions. I find, like many on the pagan path, that using whatever feels right for you is the way to go.
A totem is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol of a tribe, clan, family, or individual. Some Native American tribe’s tradition provides that each person is connected with nine different animals that will accompany him or her through life, acting as guides. While totem animals can be spirit guides as well, they typically are more definitive of a person's or family's characteristics.
Totems are those animals that you have had an affinity for or have seemed to have walked with you for a very long time period. They may have walked with you for many lifetimes, many years, or just have recently come into focus as you have had need of them. Your totem animal need not be limited to animals on this planet at this time, mythical creatures and extinct ones are useful totems too.
Since Totems are traditionally used by Native American practices more than any others, I tend to use spirit animal as a general term and guide if I am referring to the specific guidance spirit.
Spirit animals are typically associated with traditional as well as modern Western shamanic practices. During initiations or shamanic journeys, the shaman would find one or several animals that she or another person is associated with. Traditionally, the spirit animal is used for guidance.
Think of your spirit animal as a guardian spirit or spirit guide. It can play the role of protector and provides guidance. It’s like a “personal guide or protector” that has a personal affinity with the person it’s associated with. Guides are animals that come around quickly as you need help at certain times of your life and then just as quickly can leave. They may linger as long as a glance or for many months, or even years, but they are always a transient spirit. Distinguishing Guides from Totems can be difficult but not impossible. If you are needing help at the moment in your life or when something happens, then the animal that has crossed your path more than likely was a guide giving you the wisdom to help you along the way. You don’t choose a spirit guide, it chooses you. Can you have the same animal be a totem animal and spirit animal? Of course. The only difference is their presence and timing in your life. Do you need guidance or help right now? Then what you are getting is a guide. Have you felt a lifelong affinity with a certain animal or set of animals? Then they are a part of you as totems.
In addition, the spirit of the animal could unite with the person it “chose” in more personal ways and one will often find similarities in traits of personality, characteristics, and synchronicity between the two. As such, the power or essence of the animal can be felt or communicated. In that sense, spirit animals can also be referred to as “power animals”. I tend to think of power animals as spirit guides that were upgraded to personal totems. They are intrinsically personal and their connection is to an individual rather than a group. It is that connection at the individual level that differentiates the power animal from the animal totem that tends to symbolize a group or person’s identity.
Another spiritual animal connection is the Familiar. Unlike other types of animal guides, familiars are living creatures that bond with a human and assist with metaphysical lifestyles. The bond between you and your familiar is often very deep and built on respect. Familiars are not pets, but animal soul mates.
A spirit animal characterized by a personal relationship to the individual it is associated with. You can have one or several spirit animals throughout your life, during a specific phase of your life, or on specific occasions.
Your spirit animal often represents qualities and attributes that you may see in yourself. It is instructive to learn about the habits and characteristics of your power animal and see how they are reflected in your own personality and life.
How do I find my Spirit Animal?
There are many ways to find which spirit animal is linked to you. When starting on the path of discovery, it’s important to remember that a spirit animal cannot be chosen. It “chooses” you.
Now, I am not trying to tell you your spirit animal is an owl. It could be anything! Cats, butterflies, bees, dragons, dogs, wolves, bears…literally anything. If you notice a theme of animal presences in your life, write them down and research what the animals mean. You may be finding your spirit animals.
Finding your spirit animal can lead you to try different approaches.
- Look in nature and observe around you. Pay attention to animals and their behavior.
- Be attentive when an animal appears in your life in a way that is noticeable when it has an unusual behavior; it may be a spirit animal trying to grab your attention
- Watch for repetitive encounters with the animal either in its physical or symbolic form (an object or image)
- Read books on animals and reflect on an animal that is standing out
- Meditate either with the general intention of finding a spirit animal or on a specific animal you’ve found earlier
- Be attentive to dreams featuring animals
What to do once you have found your spirit animal
Here are a few things you can do once you think you have found your spirit animal or know what your spirit animal is.
- Learn about your spirit animal as much as you can: Observe it when you see it in physical form, learn about it in books or in other media, feel it, imagine it.
- Quickly list the qualities or attributes of the animal you feel could be your spirit animal. Don’t think about it too much, just respond to these questions as quickly as you can, then ask them again and see if you can find more associations:
- How do the animal's traits relate to you?
- How does the animal and what it represents connect to experiences you have or had in life?
- If your spirit animal had a voice, what would it say to you right now?
- Hang art to give visual reminders of your spirit animals. You could make pictures of them, even if your art isn’t that good.
- Build a small garden shrine or addition to your altar to honor your spirit animal
- Wear jewelry that represents your spirit animal and can go with you everywhere.
Do you have any spirit or totem animals? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!