Animals share with us the privilege of having a soul. ~ Pythagoras
It was bizarre and unexplainable: I kept having recurring dreams for about a month, where I would walk into an eerie, foreboding forest at night with a leopard peering at me through the shrubs. Its stare seemed kind, almost motherly, but very intense … somehow I knew that it was trying to tell me something about the depths of the forest ahead.
It was only recently that I discovered the existence of Spirit Animals, and that mine was the Leopard. It is said that we, as human beings, possess at least one Spirit Animal, or totem, in our lifetimes that serve as our personal protectors, guides, helpers and companions. But usually, it is common for us to have many Spirit Animal helpers throughout different periods of our lives.
In this article, I will explore the mysterious origins of the Spirit Animal.
The concept of ‘Spirit Animals’ draws its origins from ancient Animistic and Totemistic beliefs about the world and our connection to it.
Totemism, a system of belief practised by the Native American Indian people, and the Australian Aboriginal people for example, incorporates the notion that each human being has a spiritual connection to another physical being (e.g. a plant or animal).
The Kpelle people of Liberia for instance, possess animal, plant and natural phenomena (wind, rain etc.) totems that are thought to guide and protect their people. Their totems are also thought to be a form of alter ego, or second self.
Animism, on the other hand, is more of a world view held by many Buddhist, Shinto, Pagan and Neopagan groups of people, that all plants, animals and objects have spirits.
However, not everyone is convinced of the validity of Animism. 19th century anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor for instance, was not only one of the greatest sceptics of Animism, but was also responsible for forming the currently accepted definition of ‘Animism’. Tylor believed that Animistic beliefs were characteristic of “primitive” and “childish” peoples, who typically possess “cognitive underdevelopment”, thus discrediting the whole Animistic world view in one fell swoop.
However, it’s not necessarily intelligent to subscribe to Tylor’s opinion. When we look at Animistic belief, we see that it treats all humans, animals and plants as being equal and interdependent of each other. In other words: to the Animist it is morally imperative to treat all forms of life with respect. Not only that, but to the Animist we we are part of nature, rather than being superior to nature, or separate from nature.
This belief is on the opposite end of the spectrum of the modern day “refined”and “cognitively developed” man who believes that he is the master of the world, and everything is subject to his rule. No wonder the earth’s forests, streams, oceans, park-lands and wildlife are polluted, pillaged and dying every day. “Mature” developed man has such a sickly and unintelligent mindset towards nature that he creates nothing but destruction and death wherever he treads.
So, who truly has the primitive mindset here?
Those who believe in the presence of Spirit Animals not only respect the flora and fauna of the earth as equals, but they often perceive the world around them as consisting of one and the same universal energy. This is similar to pantheistic thought which believes that man, nature and animalkind are all the manifestations of God.
Not all new age kooks vouch for the validity of Spirit Animals either. Philosopher Baruch Spinoza concluded similar thoughts about the world:
The mind of God is all the mentality that is scattered over space and time, the diffused consciousness that animates the world.
Even famous physicist Albert Einstein was considered to be a pantheist after writing one letter to a friend in 1954:
We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists in its soul as it reveals itself in man and animal.
So, does this further add to the validity of Spirit Animals existing in our lives? In the end, it’s up to you to decide whether Spirit Animals are merely primitive social constructs, or whether their long history throughout many peoples and cultures points to a higher, deeper truth.
Read our article on Spirit Animals, or find out whether the Wolf is your Spirit Animal.
Note: The phrase “Power Animal” refers to the shamanic idea that certain animals (or tutelary spirits) can physically and psychologically empower us. The Power Animal, just like the Spirit Animal, is thought to lend its wisdom, attributes, and instincts to us in times of need.