This post is based on the outline of an exploration session presented at The Silent Eye  (a modern mystery school) “Leaf and Flame: the Foliate Man” weekend in 2016. Whilst I have attempted to retain some of the flavour, and changes in direction, of the actual talk, the interactive elements of the exploration are absent, and since most of it was done “on  the hoof”, it is not really a true reflection of the session. Many of the sections are expanded considerably from that presented on the day…

Whether we recognise it or not, we receive guidance, often in areas in which we have no direct experience, from what can only be considered an “external” source. This “subconscious” guidance may be considered to emanate from many sources, including “spirit animals“.

Belief in spirit, and spirit guidance, is firmly rooted in the Paleolithic. Much rock art remaining from that time includes the shamanic “conjuring” of animals, the dedication of the hunt, and relies on the primary concept that there is no separation between the physical object, its spirit, and the depiction of that object in art.

This system of belief is referred to as animism.

In animistic society, everything is considered “as”, “containing”, or “of” spirit. In additional to the Gods and the Ancestors, this included objects in nature; stones, trees, springs, mountains, and streams; the forces of nature; wind, rain, lightning, and fire; the inexplicable nomads; the stars, sun, moon, and tides; humans, themselves, and the plants and animals upon which they relied in order to survive.

A core principle, in living a hunter-gatherer existence, particularly at higher latitudes in which times of uncertainty and scarcity would be the norm in certain seasons, was that of gratitude; for each new day, for continuing health, and, particularly, for the sacrifice of spirit made by the animals and plants on which they survived.

[Group discussion: expressing gratitude for everything we eat. The spirit of breakfast and the sacrifices thereof.]

We know how our Paleolithic ancestors thought, because there are still societies who maintain a hunter-gatherer existence. Much of what we know, of course, has been gleaned from cultures destroyed by exposure to European agricultural civilisation: Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals, when first encountered, remained largely unchanged, reliant upon, and completely in balance with nature.

It was our Ancestors of the Neolithic period who began to shift away from merely subsisting. Taming and controlling nature, however, came at significant cost. Whilst periods of food scarcity might be generally avoided, the invention of agriculture ended a hitherto nomadic lifestyle, and required considerable investment of both time and energy to be successful. (Every Monday morning, as you press the snooze button for the third time, it is your Neolithic Ancestors whom you should thank for the invention of work!)

With the move from nomadic to a settled cultural model, Nature slowly lost her spirits. The objects of gratitude shifted to the spirit of “things”: land, seed, livestock; leading to a perversion of the relationship between Man and Nature. The Gods, ultimately, supplanted by the veneration of Things.

Talking of things.

It is important to make a distinction. A totem animal is NOT a spirit animal, despite the two phrases being all too freely regarded as interchangeable in much discussion on the subject. Totem is strictly reserved for a sacred object that acts as an emblem, either of a group of people, a clan or a tribe. This may be a natural object which has the appearance of the symbol for which it stands, or a man-made object which serves the same function. In this respect, a “totem animal” might be a carved representation of that animal, or its spirit; but never the spirit animal itself.

Although you may hear otherwise, you CANNOT choose your spirit animals. They choose you! The form of that choosing can take many forms; including appearing in dreams, physical sightings in unusual circumstances, “signs” and “symbolic” appearance which have a significance beyond the mundane reality of that appearance.

There are four main types of spirit animal which you may readily encounter without much effort.

The first of these is the Messenger. This augury has a single, definite purpose for appearing in your life. He may be persistent, but generally comes and leaves quickly, especially if you remain open to hearing and accepting the guidance he has come to impart.

The second is the Shadow guide. You probably know this one better than you realise; this guide fills you with fear. It is very worthwhile to spend quality time with the Shadow: understanding the source, and root, of your reaction will assist in shedding the fear that he engenders.

The third is the Journey guide. This spirit animal walks your current path with you, guiding and following in turn. He may be with you for a considerable amount of time, sometimes a whole lifetime, but can also change should you choose to walk a different path, come to a major crossroads, or following a significant crisis.

Finally, the Life guide, of whom we will speak further, remains with you through your entire life. Irrespective of changes in direction, life circumstances, or belief in self, he remains constant.

In a modern context, devoid of belief in such things as Spirit, how can we best consider the concept of spirit animals, in a manner both recognising their inherent power to inform, and accepting their validity as a guiding force?

Probably the easiest way, is to see them as an extension to Jung’s Archetypes. Indeed, the four archetypes of Jung align surprisingly well (with a little work) with the spirit animal types outlined above. It is worth noting, of course, that, as with working with Jung’s archetypes, each spirit animal brings a negative aspect, not just a positive one. The importance of being open to the negative message; refusing to fall into a “habit” of focusing only on the positive; certainly if the experience is to be one of meaningful, spiritual expansion and growth, cannot be overstated.

Of course, since we are at a Silent Eye weekend, it must be possible to reconcile the teaching tool of the school with the archetypal model proposed. Luckily, it may be easier than anticipated!

Around each of us, at all times, there are nine spirit animals. In addition, each of us are guided by a significant group of ancestral spirits, grounded by spirit of place, and maintain spirit connections with a wide range of events, people, and concepts which are important to our personal expression of Self.

The nine spirit animals “choose” us at birth, but can change as we develop spiritually, physically and emotionally.

Six of them are directly associated with the six directions. Correspondences, which may differ depending on the tradition being expressed, are:

  • East – spiritual connection
  • West – personal truth
  • North – gratitude
  • South – trust
  • Below – grounding
  • Above – connection to Great Spirit

The other three are considered critical aspects informing the outward expression of our deepest self :

  • Centre – usually our life guide. Informs how we express our inner joy, core personality traits, and our path to personal truth
  • Left – expression of our feminine aspect; including relationships, and nurture of others
  • Right – expression of our masculine aspect; including courage, and our inner warrior

If you show willingness to communicate with them, each of these spirit animals will communicate more joyfully and openly with you. One way to achieve this, is to spend time with a totem of an animal to which you feel drawn. So, this morning, we will work with the totem cards you chose yesterday, and, hopefully, you may get something adding to what you may have already managed last night.

[Group exercise:

  • Exchange of breath – making the initial connection to the spirit animal through the intermediary of the totem.
  • Imagination! – Be open to whatever comes. We haven’t defined spirit, for good reason, as “it” may present very differently to each if us.
  • Sound! – journey work through use of drum and rattle.

Optional sharing of experience. ]

So how can we develop a closer relationship with our own spirit animals, and become more open to the guidance they offer on our path? **

  • Spend more time in nature
  • Express gratitude often; particularly to the spirit of the animals and plants sustaining us
  • Observe animals and how they act, and react – what is their nature?
  • Pay attention when an animal appears in your life – particularly if repeated
  • Pay attention to animals appearing in dreams
  • Consider animals that you are drawn to
  • Meditate
  • Keep a journal
  • LOOK for patterns
  • Finally, find out what the spirit animal’s associations are. Use more than one source, but REMEMBER, your own associations and personal insights are always more important than anything that external sources might say.


** Irrespective of the tradition we follow, spirit animal work has something to offer. After all, no-one told the spirit animals that they had nothing to provide in supporting our desire to become Buddha / the greatest Magician since John Dee / Satan’s little helper…


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