Articles and Media

Animal Knowledge

by Ana L. Palles

Phoenix In societies where literacy is low and life is dependent on the land, storytelling and symbology becomes a primary means of communication and education. Speaking in parables offers a way to express common experiences in an easily understood and entertaining fashion.

Aesop's fables are an excellent example of stories where animals undergo lessons that resonate deeply with our human experience. Take for example such well known fables as the Tortoise and the Hare, The Fox and the Grapes, and The Hen and the Golden Eggs. Written sometime in the mid 6th century B.C., these short stories are still used today to teach moral lessons using the attributes of the animals to create a framework that most listeners understand.

Animal traits even make an appearance in many of the yoga poses. This is because the poses originated from observation of the world we live in. The cobra, downward-facing dog, and the crane are all illustrations of day to day life.

We see stories coming from all parts of the world depicting animals. We find that we have a shared experience when we talk about the free spirited Horse or the powerful Lion. Somehow, intrinsically, we translate these figures and traits into a more basic and simplistic language to describe learning and behavior.

Past and present indigenous tribes observe nature and use it as a canvas for conveying adventures and ideas. Invoking the spirit traits of animals allow for easier communication and a sharing of a wealth of knowledge. Much of this knowledge is group-based as with stories handed down in various tribes and clans, with other knowledge much more personalized. Vision quest experiences, for example, certainly add a deeper and more individualized intimacy with the spirit animals in question.

All of us have a mini reference library, so to speak, that helps us describe and understand these archetypes and metaphors. This is due to our education, travels, television, zoos and personal history. Test this out by sitting still and picturing a deer, antelope, bear, eagle, or any other animal of your liking. What do you know about this animal? How does it walk, and find food? What kind of climate does it live in and what are it’s basic survival skills when threatened? You would be surprised at what you know. This information translates into a deeper level of understanding.

Like our ancestors, Shamanic practitioners often see animals as part of their journeying into altered states. These animals are generally viewed as metaphoric messages intended to communicate particular messages to the Shamanic practitioner. Shamans speak about using specific animal medicine as part of their practice. In the communities I have interfaced with, this is not meant literally as a physical medicine, ointment or food. Instead, this is meant more as an internalization of the animal's characteristics or strengths.

For example, snake medicine may represent the ability for the person to shed their skin and renew themselves. Individuals may leave behind what is no longer useful to them and this transformation is a wonderful metaphor for a time to embrace transition.

Bear medicine is about healing. In the wild, Bear is known as an animal that has the ability and knowledge to self medicate. Indigenous peoples learn a great deal about medicinal plants by observing bears. When hurt, a bear will seek out specific plants, chew them and use their paws to spread the plant material on their wound. In the book, Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We can Learn from Them, Cindy Engels documents how animals in the wild medicate themselves.

The shamanic journey is an altered state that a Shamanic practitioner willingly enters into, either for personal spiritual guidance or on behalf of others and their community. According to Roger Walsh, professor of psychiatry and philosophy at the University of California Irvine: 

... shamanism might be defined as a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves, or their spirit(s), traveling to other realms at will and interacting with other entities in order to serve their community (Walsh 1989 a, 1990)

The experience of journeying is not limited to Shamans and can be found in other spiritual practices that use deep meditation techniques such as in Tibetan Buddhism.

Shamans speak about animal spirits as protective agents providing guidance and information as they navigate the various landscapes. But it is important to realize that these animal spirits are not the exclusive property of Shamanic experience. The natural world exists all around us ready to help us in our day to day life. Whether it is the lost dog that nuzzles up to us as we're talking an afternoon walk, or the hawks that suddenly and majestically fly overhead sometimes dropping a feather. The opportunities for spiritual experiences are boundless and varied if we remember to stop and observe.

Modern day shamans are quick to point out that there is a great deal we can learn from nature spirits and it is available to everyone. In times of danger, it can be very resourceful for us to assume the characteristics of a lion or the deer, depending whether we want to confront the danger directly or become less visible. Using animal spirit metaphors is like downloading a set of skills and knowledge into our tool belt.

Children, of course, have no trouble with this concept. Attend a children's drum circle and watch them begin to naturally emulate different animals as they move to the beat of the drumming. Sometimes the drum leader will suggest that they pretend to be an elephant, a tiger, a fox. The transfer of information is instantaneous and the youngsters experience becoming the elephant, the tiger, or the fox in their imaginations. This becomes another piece of information and discovery.

There is a variety of information available on animal spirits and guides. Ted Andrew's classic book, Animal Speak, is an excellent reference resource. Jessica Dawn Palmer's book, Animal Wisdom, is another worthwhile resource on some of the myth and folklore surrounding animals. If you are interested in the journey experience to explore these other realms further, you may begin with a book and compact disc on basic instruction.

At, we recommend Sandra Ingerman's Beginner's Guide. Sandra is a respected Shamanic authority with years of training. She provides solid foundation and principles of integrity in her work.

If you feel that you want to work with a Shamanic practitioner. you may want to look at our Referral Listing for information on specific practitioners whose work we recommend. You may also take a look at the Shamanic teachers website for more information and listings.


Engels, Cindy. Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We can Learn from Them. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

Walsh, Roger. The Shamanic Journey: Experiences, Origins, and Analogues. 1989.