What is a Spirit Animal? It’s not what you think…

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“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.” ~ A.A. Milne

Just about every day someone asks, “What is a Spirit Animal?” While it’s easy to simply reply, “The animal spirit you are inside” that’s not necessarily accurate.

This article gives history, definitions, and ideas from around the globe. No one way of thinking is right or wrong. If you truly want to work with your animal allies, you’ll gather all the wisdom and use the bits that most speak to you as you need them.

What is a Spirit Animal:
Spirit Animal vs Totem Animal vs Power Animal

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Depending on the culture, you might hear or read the terms Spirit, Totem, or Power Animal. Each means mostly the same thing. However, here at WhatIsMySpiritAnimal.com I ‘categorize’ and further define the terms only for the purposes of making it easier to work with the energies and medicine of each.

My way is not the only way or even the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way. It’s just the way I’ve ‘invented’ through my 20-plus years of teaching Shamanism, Psychic Development, Tarot Reading, and working with Spirit, Totem, and Power Animal energy and medicine.

The short definitions are here and the expanded Spirit, Totem, Power Animal definitions are below so keep scrolling! You’ll be glad you did!

Spirit Animals are animal spirit guides who appear when we need love, strength, support, inspiration, and guidance.

The Totem Animal is who you ‘are’.

The Power Animal is a spiritual energy that you call on from within or invoke for assistance in a specific situation. You can ask this energy to stay ignited in you for your whole life or only in certain circumstances. We are all connected. We share so many DNA pairings with plants and animals that you really ‘are’ a Mammal, Insect, Bird, Fish, Reptile, Amphibian, Fish, and Crustacean! So, when invoke or call on from within means a literal re-awakening of a part of your ‘self’ that has been lying dormant or has been injured and needs healing.

Spirit Animal Definition

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So, what exactly is a Spirit Animal and how do we work with it effectively?

Even Einstein felt that God revealed itself in both man and animal. That’s a pretty good letter of reference.

Your Spirit Animal will present to you during the times when you consciously call on it and during times when your conscious mind is not aware of what you need but your soul is. By way of example, perhaps you keep seeing Butterflies in the oddest places. And you want to leave a toxic relationship or job but just don’t know how or are afraid to make the necessary changes. Butterfly teaches us that it’s OK to live in the dark (cocoon) before transforming into a ‘place’ of beauty. Butterfly says you’ll be OK when you make the transition and allow metamorphosis in your life. Just one animal can appear in a dream, on TV, in songs, in art, et al or it can be many. The animal spirits know what to do and when to do it.

Can a Spirit Animal Be a Human

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Humans are technically animals so, yes. I believe humans can be a Spirit Animal

You know that guy or girl who helps you change a flat tire? Spirit Animals are somewhat like that. It (s/he) has come into your life to fix, encourage, teach or offer perspective on something. This is typically a short-lived relationship. Once the Animal Guide’s work is done they move on but they can and do come back whenever you need assistance. In the case of issues that last for months or even years, a person may come into a deeper relationship with the Spirit Animal knowing it is behind life’s stage cueing you with information and suggestions.

Because life has many phases, occasions, transformations, tasks and proverbial journeys, you can or might encounter more than one Spirit Animal in your lifetime. How many? That depends a lot on how open and aware you are. A Spirit Animal will try and capture your attention, but if you brush off all those signals as happenstance the Guide won’t hang around waiting for you to answer, as they say, the clue phone.

How does an Animal Spirit make itself known?

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In any number of ways including:

  • Dreams
  • Encounters, particularly in odd places
  • Images during meditation
  • Pictures on advertisements, products etc.
  • Sense cues (hearing, smell, taste, touch, psychic impression)

Starting with dreams this one is pretty forthright. If you dream of the animal, again and again, there’s something to it. Perhaps the creature actually conveys a message to you in the dream. Now that’s a truly fortunate experience as it leaves little doubt. It is important to remember that Spirit Animals may use non-verbal communication like body language, facial expressions, etc. in order to get their point across. Take notes when you wake up so you can think about the entirety of your experience compared to your waking reality.

Depending on the Spirit Animal there may be moments when their earthly visage appears in your life. Bird Guides, Dog Teachers, Gopher Allies – these critters can help your Spirit Animal say hello. A Bird of the same species might land near you with an expectant song, or fly by your window several times. A strange Dog might sit at your feet and gaze upward, or perhaps you see several dogs in one day in peculiar settings. The Gopher might keep digging up those Magnolias until you accept the “hello” it offers. Balancing that it is highly unlikely that you will run across a stray Tiger or Monkey any time soon.

Also a word of warning. If you have a Bear totem do not go merrily hiking out in the woods hoping to find the earth-bound brother of your Spirit Animal. This is a recipe for disaster. Wild animals are called WILD for a reason. Matters of spirituality require some common sense too! You know how all warnings on labels come from someone having done something ‘not smart’? Well there’s a reason I caution about traipsing out in the wild to encounter your Spirit Animal. LOL Just be careful!

If you are meditating and a picture begins to form of an animal that’s a pretty good indicator. It may not be like a photograph. Sometimes the images are smoky or a little incomplete. That’s not a bad omen, it just has to do with human psychology and how we handle unexpected spiritual matters.

Our world is filled with imagery. Say you turn on the TV and see a show that has a Wolf in it. Then you see a magazine ad featuring a Wolf. Next, you’re browsing “miss you” cards for a friend, and there again Wolf stares at you with those engaging eyes. Time to get your howl on and ponder the meaning of Wolf in your life.

What about 6 Sense cues? These are a little tougher. Take smell, for example. Except when you are dealing with a fragrant Animal Spirit like a Skunk who would know? Alternatively, maybe it is the smell of a plant like lavender that keeps lingering nearby. Lavender attracts Bees and Butterflies so you have a starting point. Some folks are a little off-put with the idea of an Insect Animal Spirit, but these little critters have a lot of sound Medicine.

How to Understand Your Spirit Animal’s Message

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The message from Animal Spirits is highly personal. We begin with what we think of immediately when that creature comes to mind. If you associate Lion with its roar, then maybe the message here has to do with communication and using your voice. Or, if Crow has come into your awareness and you deem it a negative sign, then move to the next question. What plans or activities are going in which you need heightened awareness and protection?

If the Animal Spirit is unfamiliar to you, then seek out a guide that shares the symbolism, meaning, folklore, religious connotations etc. of that creature. Nearly every Spirit Animal has an underlying theme along with other secondary energies. Take Shark Spirit. The keynotes of Shark are strength and survival. Do either of those strike a chord based on your current circumstances? If not, dig a little deeper. Shark has ties to the Water Element (our emotional nature), adaptability, intuition and personal power.

No matter what, these two steps are those that most people take when first encountering a new Spirit Animal. If after this you find you’re still having a disconnect try mimicking the animal in dance, meditating, reading about it, etc.

Once you figure out your Animal Spirit’s message what you do with it is truly in your court now. What’s happening may work itself out quickly or slowly. You may choose to act immediately, ponder or wait a while. Situations may shift and change showing another lesson from your current Spirit Animal altogether.

Some things to remember about your Spirit Animals

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A Spirit Animal may return to you on more than one occasion increasing your rapport.

If a Spirit Animal’s presence seems to disappear before matters are tied up, ask yourself if you have done something that implies disrespect or a lack of appreciation? There are ways of mending errors, but first you have to figure out exactly what that was. Alternatively, a Spirit Animal may leave in order for another Guide, better suited to this moment, to enter the picture. i.e. the initial Spirit Animal has done all it can. You need a different type of help.

You may get seasonal Spirit Animals that guide you through that cycles energies. An example would be a baby Bunny in Spring, a Badger in Summer, a Whitetail Deer in Fall and a Penguin in Winter.

There is not always a dire reason for a Spirit Animals’ visit. Sometimes they may swing by on a special occasion like your birthday just to say hi and bring more positive energy into that moment.

Spirit Animals can, and often do, work cooperatively. A good illustration of this is when a Priest or Priestess invokes a sacred circle calling on four Animal Protectors in each of the four corners. The Priest or Priestess develops contact with these Beings beforehand, and they freely agree to the situation. Now, we have to be smart here. Don’t put Cat Spirit near Fish Spirit or Bird Spirit. Even in their magical forms, the underlying nature of our Animal Guides remains. We must honor that accordingly.

There may be times when more than one Spirit Animal is “in the house” so now you have a sticky wicket. They each may have messages that you need now or maybe combining energies for a more complex lesson. Take a Frog and a Dove as a 1-2 punch for an illustration. The Frog speaks to you about your words, while the Dove symbolizes peace. So, watch the way you communicate. Move gently, maintaining accord as best you can in order to reach a resolution. In any case, there is no hard and fast rule that you can have only one Spirit Animal Guide at any given time.

Totem Animal Definition

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Totemic beliefs appear around the world. However, there are two types of Totemism – one that’s individualistic and one that’s related to a group. Totemism is not considered a religion perse, even though elements of religion, like ritual, take place. And Totemism is not Ancestor Worship.

Group Totemism:

Group Totemism has several features. It collectively recognizes an animal, plant or phenomena as important to a family, hereditary line, tribe or clan. This association between the group and the Totem may go as deep as believing that Totem is an ancient ancestor to all people within that family or community, akin to a great, great, great, great (maybe 15 more greats?) Grandmother or Grandfather. An ancestor may have a key role in Creation myths too.

Overall, the group will describe the Totem as having magical powers, particularly those of protection and assistance. It may also have shapeshifting abilities, often turning into a human visage. This mystical energy is the reason for showing the Totem respect.

Totemism goes further in that there are symbols and taboos often associated with the Totem (such as “no harm”). The Group Totem has myths and observances tied to it. The consistency of these beliefs creates communal bonds that support the whole group in a vision, behaviors and activities. We can find examples of group totemism in areas as far separated as Australia (Aborigines), the Northwest Coast in the US (Tribes and fishermen), Africa and Oceana.

Individual Totemism

Individual Totemism is where we see the modern reawakening of intimate spiritual Animal connections expressed more clearly. A person believes that an animal or natural object gives them power. This Totem becomes part of the ego through a bond that likely begins before birth as if it there is a soul contract between the Totem and the human to work in tandem. For instance, all my life I’ve been obsessed with Bears. Long before I knew anything about Shamanism, Spirit, Totem, and Power Animals, or even metaphysics I LOVED BEARS! Then, one day, I discovered that my name “Bernadette” is the feminine of the male French name “Bernard” – which means ‘brave, strong bear’! It was an incredible moment in my life! At that second I knew I was one with Bear! I kind of even look like Bear and have many similar personality traits and characteristics. I’m funny and always want to play. But when you threaten my home or the ones I love I am a protector. Oh, and I crave sweets! LOL

The Aztec described this as a hidden simultaneous existence between the person and their Birth Totem. This magical creature was important to Chiefs, Medicine men and Shamans as it delineated not only their status but also skills and virtue. The phrase “clothing makes the man” comes to mind. We are the clothing – a partner with the Totem within. Make mine tweed, please!

Among the Aboriginal people of Australia, the mother transmits a Totem to the child, considered a spirit companion within. It is prohibited to eat of that creature because it would be akin to eating your own flesh and blood. Provided the Totem has not been insulted in any way, it will guard a person during sleep and ritual. For the Shaman the Totem can also move into other realms capturing important tribal information. There is also a lovely tradition here of “singing” in the Totem. Performed by an elder Medicine Man, the song helps the energy sink into a youth. Afterwards, there are lessons on how to treat this new companion.

In New Guinea children can choose between the totems of their mother or father upon initiation into adulthood. Malaysian lore says that a person dreams of an Ancestor who introduces the Totem and even reveals its name. A belief in India says that a person my have physical similarities to their Totem and in Liberia, the Totem is a “thing of birth” (an alter ego) that acts as a guide and protector.

One key commonality in Totemism is that one does not “choose” a Totem. It chooses you and reveals itself in due time. Sorry readers, we cannot all be glorious Horse, Eagle, Dolphin or Lizard. In truth that would be very boring. As a person becomes more aware of this cooperative relationship, a greater understanding of the Totem, its qualities and characteristics develop. The personal connection to that inner Animal Wisdom is truly sacred.

Power Animal Definition

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The definition of Power Animal is sketchy from a global standpoint. Some Shamanic societies see the Power Animal as a guide who protects individuals. From our perspective, this applies to a Spirit Animal too. Going one step further we have beliefs that say the Power Animal has a symbiotic connection to the human that defines the quality, character and power in one’s life akin to a Totem.

The Power Animal may infuse your spirit with its energy through dreams, during meditation or in physical form. The gifts a Power Animal manifests comes directly from their natural symbolism and meaning. More importantly, you can become, shapeshift, or metapmorphosize into the animal of your choosing.

So, let’s say you need patience. You might invoke ‘Stick Insect energy’ go to give you the strength to sit perfectly still until just the right moment. And, when the time is right, the Stick Insect can help you make the giant leap you’ve been planning to take! Or maybe you are afraid to have children but do want them. The teachings of Cow can be a great helpmate. You can literally tap into, call forth, or invoke all the Cow’s maternal instincts to help you work through your fears and become a great momma. These are just two examples and the possibilities are endless!

Shamans and wise people tell us that honoring our Power Animal is very important. That particular piece of advice resonates across the Animal Spirit realm. Gratitude is the name of the game, especially if one has asked a favor of the Power Animal, and it is certainly one with which modern seekers agree. The thoughtful act of thanks also builds a greater understanding of the Power Animal beyond what we might simply assume.

The Attitude of Gratitude

Even though your time with a Spirit Animal may be fleeting being thankful for its help is very important. Just as you shouldn’t let kind gestures between people go by without notice, your Spirit Animal offers you a great gift. Hold it in your heart as a cherished treasure.

Look for ways to give back.

Spirit, Totem, & Power Animal History

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When we speak of Spirit Animals it’s necessary to look at our Animistic roots as human beings. Animism takes its name from a Latin term that literally means “life breath”. In this worldview, everything has a spirit or ‘soul’ – from rocks and trees to animals, insects and stars (although we might make an exception for mosquitoes LOL).

Studying this vantage point it becomes clear that our most ancient ancestors laid the foundation of what could be called the “supernatural” or a ‘spiritual world’ throughout indigenous cultures. More interesting still is that the notion of a living universe felt so natural that some languages don’t even have a word describing this concept (let alone “religion”). It was as ordinary and usual as eating and sleeping, which really sets Animism apart from many modern attitudes that say humans have dominion over nature. Hint: nature is going to win.

At its foundations, Animism tells us that all phenomena we experience has an agency or force behind it. There was no separation between the mundane and spiritual, the physical and natural. Eventually the myths and folktales of the world reflected this abstract belief, and kept those stories alive through oral tradition. Hence, here come the “bards”, record keepers and historians who played a vital role. They gave us a peek into a culture and setting that otherwise may have disappeared.

Bouncing off of Animism, the notion of Spirit Animal helpers seems completely intuitive. In more modern times we have the terms “Spirit Animal”, “Totem Animal” and “Power Animal”. These descriptions have mixed and mingled into one homogeneous, confusing tangle that we have to unravel.

No matter the phrase, Spirit Animals are the ‘souls’ of animals on the other side – the ‘other side’ being the realm of the Great Spirit, Force, the Universe, God, the Great Mystery, angelic realms, et al. The idea is these animal spirits are our allies. They appear when we need them most to offer love, support, warnings, protection, teachings, and inspiration.

8 thoughts on “What is a Spirit Animal? It’s not what you think…

  1. Jesse Daniels says:

    I did your questionnaire for spirit animal, it was a dog – but my spirit animal is the wolf, which came to me many, many years ago for reasons I didn’t even know and then I found out that wolf in some Native American tribes is a teacher, and at the time that is what I was studying to become. Wolves had never meant anything to me, and all of a sudden, they were in my head and meant many things to me and have for over 2 decades – So I’m not sure why the quiz said “dog”. Although I love dogs (and have 2), I don’t consider them my spirit animal or totem.

    • Jonbrandon Rancman says:

      Dog is a very vague group. There are many breeds, and his bloodline can be traced back to the wolf. Like the wolf, Dog is of the Canidae family. Also like the wolf, the dog protects his pack and pack leader (you). That you have two dogs of your own may be a testament to your connection to the wolf. In this way, the quiz may be accurate.

  2. Jonbrandon Rancman says:

    Spirit animals, Totems, and Power Animals have always been a big interest of mine. Ever since I was a kid I have looked at animals in a way that is different the most of society. While the majority have always feared these wondrous beasts of nature for one reason or another, I have always seen a reason to be inspired by them. Animals are kinder than many humans will ever be. For a long time now, I have believed that all things (the wind, sky, mountains, plants, animals, stars, etc) have a spirit and a voice of their own, and if you listen closely enough they can speak to you. The animal I feel the most connected to, and most misunderstood, is the wolf. I often dream of having a pack of my own, and joining him in the hunt. Anyway, I wanted to thank you for sharing this with me, and I would like to delve deeper into my connections and spirit animals. I know am I connected to the wolf already, just not sure how. I believe I understand him better than most, and I am fairly certain that he is my guardian spirit. What I would like to do is deepen my connection with him and the other spirits and if you knew of any books, or other reading materials that could help. Also if you know any true Shamanists in the Northeast State of Ohio, I would be glad to have their name.

  3. Kaitlyn says:

    So I have always loved the black Panther. And when I think of my self, I see a black Panther in my head. I tell people that my spirit animal is the beautiful creature. And they say they can see me being one. I took your test a long while ago and it sayed I was a black Panther. But it has been a year and I forgot what it sayed the black Panther was. So I did it again and again. But I couldn’t find or get it. Did you guys take it off or something?

  4. Zara says:

    ok, so I loved to wolves for a long time now, and I don’t know if they are my sprit animal or totem animal. This article really helped with Spirit, Totem and power animals, and I really wanna know what my sprit animal is. I’m kind, sensitive, observant when I’m interested in something, and I get sad easily. anybody know what sprit animals I am?

  5. Zara says:

    I also am protective of my friends and family

  6. Nancy says:

    I love animals, all animals including many insects and reptiles, and have felt a connection and deep affection since I was a very young child. As a toddler I would follow our barn cats until I found their hidden litter of kittens that I would treat with love devotion. It wasn’t surprising that these barn pets quickly became house pets and many were rehomed to loving families. As an adolescent I was drawn to large cats… panthers and cougars in particular but am now more attracted to domestic cats. It is not unusual for a less than friendly feline to choose my lap out of a group of people. I have a similar but not as strong of a connection with dogs including fox and rare encounters with wolves and coy dogs. Because of my love for nearly all animals and wildlife, I would find it difficult to realize my Totem and Power Animal. Cats and dogs have always been a comfort to me in difficult times. I have had spiritual visits of pets , cats and dogs, who are no longer with me and I miss them dearly.

  7. Tami says:

    It’s hard for me to receive animal spirit wisdom from someone who thinks gophers can dig up magnolias. Has anyone ever seen a gopher dig up a giant tree before? That is one powerful spirit animal!

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