Power animals (sacred cows)

When choosing an animal ally, spirit guide or totem, it’s odd how often we Pagans find ourselves picked by glamorous top end predators, and how rarely someone admits to being guided by skunks, jellyfish, worms and other, less romantic life forms. You’d imagine, if the animal spirits were doing all the choosing, a few more people might have been called by slow worms and sparrows than seems to be the case. I dare to suggest that all too often we pick our animal guides based largely on how we want to be seen and what qualities interest us.

It’s worth considering the difference between a power animal, and an animal we happen to like and feel fond of, or wish to emulate. I happen to be very fond of owls. I know a lot about owls, and hearing their calls gives me goosebumps. Once, in a piece of deep visualisation work I was eaten by an owl, which led to a few very strange days. It’s not an easy thing to have to handle in your normal life. Actual spirit creatures, I assume, cannot be relied upon to fit neatly round the day job and family commitments. I have no idea how owls feel about me, really, and that tells me there is no magical special thing going on here.

I don’t have a ‘power animal’ – I have creatures I am fond of and interested in, and that’s fine. It is not a necessary rite of passage. We have far too many books telling us that we should all be performing the role of the shaman and collecting this and that symbol of power, and special guides for otherworldly travelling. Never mind that most of us to do not do the work of the shaman, have not been trained that way, and are not called that way. Some people truly are. We do not honour them by purloining the appearance of their work without actually having been called to it.

I like hedgehogs. I am inspired by the work of earthworms in breaking down the old to release nutrients into the soil. I think soil fungi are amazing in their interplay with trees to create forests. I have a longstanding love affair with beech trees, but am also fond of oaks and a bit intimidated by yews. The natural world is full of wonders and lessons to be learned. There are countless examples of life and ways of being. I choose to look around me and to draw what inspiration I can from all that I encounter. In this sense only, can I claim to be ‘guided’.

It is not my path to have a spirit guide. I know this, because nothing has ever come to me in that way. I do not feel in any way inferior or reduced by not being able to point at a creature or plant and claim its spirit as my own. This is simply how I am, and I have other work to do. There is no reason to assume that we should have anything at all. It is not a case of going out there to collect a patron god, a power animal, a medicine plant, a rune, an ogham, as though by cobbling together a set of special things we will in turn become special. We get what comes to us. I am blessed with a lot of inspiration, and for me that is enough.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

19 responses to “Power animals (sacred cows)

  • Bruin Silverbear

    I’ve often thought about this myself, but more from a defensive point of view because my animal selected me a long time before the subject ever really came up for me. Nowadays, everyone is a wolf. Without trying to be too judgmental, it seems as though people pick wolves and other top predators based on common misconceptions. Wolves are predators yes, but they are also social animals like ourselves that demonstrate love, affection and warmth to one another.

    Male Bears (my own spirit animal) have been known to eat cubs, sometimes their own. I am glad I do not share that trait with them. In fact, there are a lot of traits I see in Bears that I find in myself and many I do not. I sometimes wish I were more furry.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Same here, I don’t have any power animals or animal guides, though i have a number of animals that I am attracted to.

  • locksley2010

    I keep having the Stag crop up almost everywhere I turn, badges, art work, roadsigns and even buttons! I wouldn’t call Stag my power animal (it chose me, I wasn’t even looking for it) but for some reason it is making itself known and I’m trying to understand the message.
    Bruin Silver bear: I am so glad you wrote that, there are so many who claim wolf who just don’t have wolf energy about them. When I was younger, wolf came forward and was very helpful in helping me find who I was. However, working with wolf was interesting, I was short tempered and defensive. I often found myself wanting to grow fangs and claws and just run into the night. Once I found who my adult self was, Wolf left. These spirits come and go, teaching us lessons along the way.

  • Nimue Brown

    Thank you all for sharing these experiences and takes. I think it must be a very different sort of experience, to be chosen, than to seek a spirit, but that’s beyond me to comment on, so I really appreciate the input there.

  • Running Elk

    Hehehe… love it!

  • greycatsidhe

    This was the topic of discussion on an ADF chat one night a few years ago. Rev. Mike Dangler asked why nobody had a sea cucumber as a spirit animal. lol

    I’ve found a bond with the deer spirit. It’s helped me think about vegetarianism in an interesting way, and also helped me understand how even a non-predatory animal can be tough, which helped me make sense of my desire to do as little harm as possible but, if you threaten my family or I, you better watch out for my antlers!

  • Bruin Silverbear

    I didn’t articulate very well early as I had just been released from my slumber…call it a long winter nap. In any case, I generally wonder if so many people don’t pick such animals because those animals represent “Power”. There are a lot of people who seem to be Pagan because it allows them an air of mystery and fear. That is certainly not all Pagans, but there are a certain number for sure, who are more interested in being observed in a certain way and beings like “Wolves” is what they aspire to. Not because of what Wolves ACTUALLY are but more because of the common misconceptions about Wolves. I tend to find it troubling but not in a threatening way. I am fortunate in that the community I spend my time and energy with I have yet to encounter this. I see it mostly online. This is one of the reasons I am happy that things like “Jurassic Park” are unlikely to happen, that’s all we need is for a bunch of Pagans with Tyrannosaur and Velociraptor spirit guides running around…

  • Sylvia Pearson

    Beautifully put. I am drawn to moles, it is a joy to deepen ones knowledge of the characteristics of what is around us. I just found out moles anesthetiser worms, store them, and squeeze out the earth before they eat them, how cool is that?

  • angharadlois

    Spot-on as usual. I think there is a tendency in the wider pagan community to almost go looking for patron deities, power animals, spirit guides etc… perhaps partly because we’re all making this up as we go along, and without these sorts of signposts on our path we can easily feel that we’re “doing it wrong.” And it’s just as well to remember that inspiration alone can be powerful and important in its own way. I have a lifelong fondness for foxes, from which I took my online druid name; they are not power animals or spirit guides in my life, but they are an enduring source of inspiration. I also happen to be very fond of snails, and had a wonderful, deep visualisation once where I almost experienced what it might be like to be one. Perhaps working with snails and earthworms is less useful to hunter-gatherer communities, but more useful to communities like ours which have to re-learn our deep connection to the earth and the importance of small things.

    I’ve had a strange few experiences in recent months, concerning magpies – a type of bird I would never particularly describe as my favourite (I’ve always preferred passerines to corvids), though I am trying to learn more about them. They act as guides or intermediaries, both in this physical world and in my inner journeying, in a relationship with a deity who I never expected to encounter and who is, frankly, quite intimidating, but clearly has a lot to teach me. Oddly enough, I had never really given much thought to the notion of ‘spirit guides’ until writitng this comment, but I suppose that might be what they are, for me. Two, for joy… or mirth, if you know your Terry Pratchett/Jaqueline Simpson!

  • lornasmithers

    I dislike the term ‘power animal’ and the use of the word ‘spirit guide’ in a possessive sense. Both words suggest that the physical and spirit animals we relate to are objects of personal empowerment, beings we go to solely to seek wisdom and progress along our paths rather than persons we care about and seek relationships with.

    The spirit animals I relate to are mainly those I have had physical contact with most of my life- horses, dogs and the occasional cat. I’ve also had experiences with other animals who live or once lived in my local area. Strangely whilst I get on better with wild plants than garden plants I tend to get on better with domesticated animals than wild ones.

    • Nimue Brown

      that’s a very good point about the language, it is possessive, isn’t it? I hadn’t thought of that in a conscious way before, but yes.

    • angharadlois

      I’ve been mulling this over recently and I think you have put your finger on why I dislike the term “power animal” – it is almost invariably used to talk about the (human) individual’s sense of personal power. What does the animal gain in return?

      “Spirit guide” is also a phrase I shy away from using (aside from venturing it in my comment above), but it feels very different to me. Having worked as a guide, I see it as a role not unlike that of teacher; it has a similar dynamic.

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