Finding Your Animal Totem

by Ana L. Palles

Totems in Vancouver “Can you tell me what my animal totem is?” We hear this question often. While it might seem fairly straightforward the answer takes a little time to sort through.

Some groups base a person’s animal totem on astrological designations. This is perfectly valid and resonates deeply for many. For example, Taurus is clearly a bull, Leo a lion and Sagittarius, as the sign of the centaur, would correspond to the horse.

The Chinese horoscopes also categorize by animals and elements, such as the metal Dog or the fire Monkey, based on the year and month of birth of the individual. Other calendar systems and cultures have similar associations with animal and nature spirits. All of them try to work with the specific attributes or talents of these animals to create a basis for understanding, communication and teaching. So in short, there are many answers, all of which have strengths.

Perhaps it is best to start by defining what we mean by an animal totem. Sometimes these are referred to as one’s animal spirit guide or power animal. A totem or power animal is a symbolic, or metaphoric, representation of specific qualities or skills that an animal possesses and whose teaching and skills are needed by the person to whom the animal has appeared.

An animal totem or guide is not a religious concept nor does it take the place of angels, saints, deities or other spirit guides. This is where spirituality is seen from a very broad view, enfolding all the wonders in life and in nature with purpose, beauty and grace.

In shamanic circles, a person has a variety of totem or power animals that appear to the shaman in order to offer their service for different tasks, or situations. Some shamans teach that power animals are a representation from your higher self. In other words, the power animal and the animal’s attributes are parts of yourself, representing themselves in a manner easier for many to understand and work with.

Some shamanic groups believe that power animals are advanced guides that assist us along our journey. They can be likened to guardian angels or spirit guides. The reason they use an animal spirit as the way to show themselves is to bring specific focus to the lesson or strength being accessed. For example, someone with an owl as a power animal would be expected to see things that most people would miss in the day to day.

Some species of owls see movement underneath a thick carpet of snow. The owl’s yellow eyes are sometimes likened to a sun at night and this imagery represents the ability for the light of day to shine even in the darkest night. Some groups see the owl as a symbol of knowledge and hope, while others might find the owl an omen of fear. People who see a great deal below the surface of ourselves or a situation can make many of us feel exposed. Regardless of whether you admire or fear the owl, people that share the owl’s archetypical skills can be disconcerting for the person who is worried about staying hidden and out of sight.

The bear is another very powerful spirit guide and can be found in a variety of native lore. The bear is a king in his forest. He moves with power and assurance, using his knowledge of healing to find roots and berries that help him survive. Bear sleeps through the long winter by using his fat stores to go into deep sleep of hibernation. The lesson is about going within the self for introspection, restoration and survival.

All of these are reminders, mental triggers to get us thinking more in depth about the talents we have, the talents we are seeking and how best to bring these into our lives.

There are times, of course, when a totem or power animal has a slightly different role to play, such as when they are acting as your guardian. Shamans often have to journey into a client's energetic space to obtain guidance and help uncover the keys to a person’s healing. There are times when aspects of the person are not ready to heal and will inadvertently sabotage both himself and the shamanic practitioner.

Since the shaman is journeying in altered space, the shaman must navigate accurately and return wholly back to himself. A power animal assists the practitioner in returning from their journey and in shielding both the person and the shaman from any negative energy. The power animal as a spirit guide helps the practitioner determine the truth when conflicting or misleading information is being presented.

Many ancient cultures taught their children how to work with animal totems and often gave their children animal names to remind them of the connection. Remnants of this continue today with the animal stories and toys that we often surround our children with from the time they are born. A stuffed bear, gently rubbing a cheek and held close to the heart, often comforts a child. Adults working with animal spirits also find it comforting to assume the qualities and strength of a spirit bear when walking home late at night in a metropolitan city.

But, how does one find their own power animal?

How we determine our animal totems or guides is fairly simple. Is there an animal that keeps coming across your path? Is there an animal that you find yourself thinking of or dreaming about often? Are you fascinated by any particular animal? Many folks find they are attracted to specific key members of the animal community, whether out in nature or in story books.

Living a consciously spiritual life suggests that we look at the events around us and the interactions that we experience as all having meaning. This means that we look around us and at nature itself to deliver the answers we are searching for.

Once when I was doing a journey for a client, one of the first things that happened was that a Hawk appeared. I was interested in this hawk because it looked different than the hawk I was used to seeing. The plumage color was darker and the hawk seemed heavier than the one from my experience. I soon realized that this was not my hawk, but the hawk of the client. When I told him what I had seen, the client was deeply moved. He told me that he often sees hawks when he’s out and about and even at times when he’s the only one that has caught a glimpse of the hawk streaking by. He had been greatly attracted to hawks and was considering volunteering at one of the raptor rescue programs.

If you have a need or would like to connect with an animal spirit, first go into quiet meditation. Try to blank out your mind and quiet your thoughts. As you sit dissolving into a oneness of spirit, ask for your animal totem to show himself. Trust the face that first appears and do not try to force or second guess. If you are unfamiliar with the animal, ask for its name. You will hear it and know.

Often, the most unlikely animals have a powerful lesson to teach. Many folks have a skunk show up as their power animal. Skunk may be hinting at a need for stronger boundaries. Otter, gecko, catfish, mouse, ladybug, they all have great power and messages for us. Remember that quiet reflection and notice courage, joy, acceptance, hope and power gently wash over you as you observe your animal totem.  This is a powerful lesson in accessing information that is all around us. 

For more information on animal totem metaphoric interpretations, consult Ted Andrew's excellent book, Animal Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small. And remember, our Whisperingtree store carries a beautiful selection of animal totem jewelry, carvings and drums. Check it out.