Thursday, 01 October 2009 00:00    E-mail
The role of animals in spiritual practice

Article and Photos by Pia Wyer

Thumbnail image

Download this article: Animals_in_Spiritual_Practice_EO-1009.pdf

To view and order prints of this image and others in the new series 'Animal Magic' click HERE to be redirected

In the beginning, humans were as integral a part of creation as any other species, subject to the vicissitudes and gifts of the elements, subject to the laws of nature. It took eons for us to differentiate ourselves, through technology, religion and other social systems, into the illusion of being separate.

Humanity’s initial artistic impulses involved depictions of the animals with whom we co-existed and upon whom we were dependent for survival.  As humanity’s self-reflective consciousness developed, we learned to interpret the events, behaviors and diversity of the Earth, and derive meaning from our interpretations.

Spirituality evolved within the context of our environment. The earliest forms of spiritual tradition were shamanic in nature, animistic, recognizing the breath and animating force of life in every aspect of creation, learning the ways of the land, its constraints and its bounty. It was not an external, ideological system of beliefs focused upon an intangible space, rather a means of reading the signs presenting themselves in the natural world and learning to live successfully in relationship with them.

As beings dependent upon the natural environment, the presence (or absence) of animals, fish, birds, the sun and moon, the wind and rain, had direct relevance to our survival. We learned to befriend and respect these realities, recognize the cycles of life and death, seasons of light and darkness. We learned to craft stories around our experience in order to pass on the knowledge we learned to future generations.

Thus, we were conscious that animals (and all of nature) were integral to our physical, emotional, spiritual and emergent intellectual life. They taught us by example, by their presence and their behavior, and we listened. We explored our creativity through ritual and drawing and the crafting of utensils and clothing. We still had a sense of reverence toward the unknown and respect for these fellow travelers on the Earth.

Indigenous spiritual traditions evolved in particular ways according to their geographical location, while sharing the unifying thread of interdependence upon creation. Thus, tribal tradition has commonality among tribes, yet differs in their particular interpretation of experience and assignment of meaning. There are so many creation stories that tell how the world came into existence and humanity’s place in the hierarchy of being. All are true.

As human culture and consciousness developed, humanity began to carve for itself a place unique among all creation. No longer considering ourselves on the same level as other species, we developed complex socio-religious systems that not only held us apart from nature, but also from one another. Instead of integration, the shift leaned toward dominion. Creation became a resource rather than a revelation.

It is not my intention to romanticize early civilizations that in many cases were brutal and short-lived. I would suggest, however, that while we have made phenomenal strides in understanding the scientific “building blocks” of nature, we lost ground by dismissing spiritual, mythological and intuitive relationships with the natural world as primitive folklore and superstition.

Animals, keepers of wisdom

Pia-owl-webDepending upon the geographic location of the tribe/community, particular native animals, birds, fish, plants and other species became significant not only physically, but also metaphorically through spiritual experience and dreams. It was recognized that these creatures also have spirits, that aspects of creation we consider “inanimate” in modern day parlance are equally animated in a mysterious way, and it was important to be in relationship with them on a spiritual level. This phenomenon was universal.

Certain shamanic practice involved the use of psychotropic plants, not in order to escape reality as in the West, but to become one with it on a deeper level, and to learn from the spirits of the plants ways in which to bring healing and wisdom to the tribe. Drumming and dancing, wearing aspects of the sacred animals (totem animals in Native American tradition, spirit or power animal in other shamanic traditions) of the individual and tribe in fur, claw and feather, were employed to evoke the spirit and empowerment of the animal and its attributes. These supposedly primitive humans had ways of tapping into a cosmic consciousness to gain knowledge it has taken us generations to cajole from scientific experiment and technology.

Spirit animals are guardian animal spirits who are linked with the soul of the human on an individual and tribal basis, and who serve to guide and protect the human/tribe and bring teaching and wisdom. Shamans journey through consciousness either through use of plants, or other means of invoking a state of altered awareness (drumming, dancing, ritual, fasting, sensory deprivation, etc.) in order to confer with the animal (potentially any species) and elemental spirits to gain insight into the nature of disease or other energetic imbalance within the community and/or individual.

Collectively, in everyday life, it was understood that different species held animal wisdom particular to themselves, metaphorically and actually, and the emergence of any given creature in the environment was a messenger. It might be a messenger of climate change, shift in the seasons, as with bird migrations, it could be thought of as a harbinger of death, of birth, or another omen.  Certain species were considered able to travel between the worlds of conscious and unconscious, this world and the underworld, or sent by the gods for a particular reason. The visitation of animals was, therefore, significant to various forms of divination and ways to understand the world.

The base elements—earth, air, fire and water—also had spiritual significance and were associated with the animals and birds, as were the directions, and the ecological calendar of seasons, day, night, and the phases of the moon. Diverse and complex cosmologies were developed by tribal communities to derive meaning and a sense of belonging in the world.

The concept is, of course, comparable to more recently developed religious systems, although the past 10,000 years or so seem to have yielded a disproportionate level of anthropocentrism and resulting perception of separation between humanity and the natural world. This has not been enriching for either side of the equation.

Listening to the wild

It does not seem surprising to notice a resurgence of interest in Earth spirituality in the present day.  We have traveled so far into space and our own heads and find ourselves marooned in an environment of man-made products, machines and the environmental degradation that accompanies generations of industrial and post-industrial cultures.  It seems as though the collective soul is rising up to remind us that we cannot live in a vacuum, and there is a wild soul aspect in each of us, buried deep below layers and layers of socialization, education and habit, that longs for release.

As the diversity of spiritual tradition, culture and symbolism is far too great to encapsulate in this article, how do we, as modern day travelers, reintroduce an appreciation of the wild to our spiritual traditions and practice? We know more about the world on a factual level, but we are not in relationship with the natural world on a meaningful level. Even those of us who have the luxury of living in a rural environment are not necessarily receptive to the “being-ness” of other species.

How do we open to a new sense of humility and awe before nature? How do we rediscover the joy of surprise in encounters with the wild, and learn to receive wisdom from these encounters? How do we move from trivializing nature, taming it, genetically altering it, or eradicating it to suit our whims, toward recognizing the intrinsic value in each creature and the miracle of creativity and engineering inherent in its environmental adaptations?  The first step is to learn to see without prejudice and preconception. When we are still before another creature, our ego slides off its perch and we are able to appreciate the beauty, fierceness and grace of that creature and allow its life to resonate in our own being.

Some of us live in cities and never see any wild creatures except on television. This is a profound tragedy because the human heart is motivated by love and relationship, or it is motivated by less illustrious aspects like fear, greed and desire for power. If we recognize (as surely we must) that the environment of the Earth is being compromised by industrial and post-industrial practices, and our own psyches are being consumed by consumerism and fear, how do we wake up?

How do we begin finding our way back into the forest (mountain, ocean and sky) to retrieve the many aspects of our soul that are intrinsically connected with other forms of life?

Rather than going out to choose one’s spirit animal (the modern acquisitive mentality, the tendency being for the ego to choose an eagle or other creature imbued with the characteristics we would like to think we have) the animal comes to choose the human. It is our task to be receptive to the animals and other creatures that present themselves to us and to learn about their habitats, types of community, diet and behaviors to understand the teaching they offer. An animal that may be considered lowly in our culture’s system of hierarchy can offer profound wisdom when understood from its own perspective.

Typically, one creates a sacred space, engages in a vision quest and/or takes a shamanic journey to meet one’s spirit animal(s). If we are not able to embark on such a journey, we need simply notice the creatures that we encounter—be they coyotes, ravens or spiders—notice patterns of presence and repetition and learn about those creatures.

Upon reviewing one’s life, it is possible to see thematic presence of certain creatures. It is believed that we have spirit animals who are with us from birth, while others move in and out of our lives in response to particular situations, to protect us and teach us new adaptive behaviors.

We might even use the tool of a pack of animal divination cards, for example, the Druid Animal Oracle or the popular Medicine Cards. Uncovering one’s spirit animals is something that must be done by the individual and not another person. The relationship is deeply personal and needs to reveal itself to us through our inner knowing.

It is important to allow the wildness and innate nature of the animal to manifest and to treat it as an honored guest rather than a pet or trophy. In our modern consciousness, our spirit animals need not be restricted to those of geographical location. They can be present in dreams and spirit form only, representing archetypal realities from both the individual and collective consciousness.  Thus, we may have Horse as our spirit animal without necessarily having a physical horse in our lives.

Here is a basic introduction to some behavioral and metaphysical qualities associated with animals we may encounter in Arizona.

The list is far from complete. Arizona is a rich environment for many fascinating creatures, and I encourage you to explore their significance in more detail


The nocturnal bat, too often the recipient of negative superstition, represents growth through transformation, past lives, new ideas and understanding grief. Bat has limited sight vision but acute sonar sight and can teach us how to see in the dark and fly by our own inner compass.


A nocturnal animal, Bobcat energy sees what others may attempt to hide and has highly tuned empathetic experience. Bobcat is a solitary creature, somewhat nomadic, an effective and silent hunter. Its relatively small size belies its power.


The butterfly represents change and transformation.  Butterfly has transformed itself from being a slow earthbound creature into a creature of flight, fragile beauty and freedom.  Often associated with joyous light-heartedness, Butterfly can be a gentle reminder that change is growth in a positive way.


Coyote is another animal of complex lore and magic. A sociable animal with a welldeveloped community hierarchy, Coyote is reputed to be a wily trickster, alternating between wisdom and folly. Coyote is creative and adaptive, finding ways to exist on the fringes of human communities.


Eagle is held sacred in almost every culture.  A strong, swift, majestic and effective hunter, Eagle can soar to the heights of the sky while simultaneously grounded in the Earth. Eagle is considered to be a messenger of the gods, a bird of vision and strength.


Horse has had an integral role in the growth and development of human consciousness and community over the ages. Horse is connected with travel (physical and expanded consciousness), strength, sexuality, freedom and empowerment.


Lizard is swift, sensitive and has acute hearing.  It has the ability to defend itself by disengaging its tail (literally) when attacked by a predator, and growing a new one. Lizards have excellent vision, both physical and psychic. They are cold blooded and require sunlight to remain their temperature.


Owl is a favorite creature of myth and folklore, known as an omen for wisdom, walking between the worlds of light and darkness, the underworld and psychic space. Owl is associated with the moon and the feminine. It is a fierce hunter and flies silently due to specially adapted feather guards. Owls have extraordinarily developed vision and sensitive hearing.  They are reputed to have the ability to extract secrets and confer esoteric knowledge.


Raccoon is a creature of mystery, dexterity and creativity. The mask it wears across its eyes represents a mastery of disguise, the ability to keep secrets and serve the process of transformation by concealing vulnerable growth until it is strong enough to emerge. A nocturnal creature that loves water, Raccoon is curious and clever and associated with shape shifting.


Raven is a powerful bird representing mysticism, healing, magic, introspection and prophecy. Also associated with shape shifting, Raven represents death and rebirth, selfknowledge and the ability to bring light out of darkness. Ravens have developed speech patterns and are intelligent tool users.


Skunk is a peaceable animal, adept at selfprotection without violence. The precision and speed with which it aims its malodorous spray when threatened are legendary. Skunk is a solitary animal that moves through life at its own pace. It warns before it defends, exhibits self-respect and demands respect from others.


Snake represents death, regeneration, rebirth, wisdom, initiation and healing. Often maligned in contemporary western tradition, the snake has represented the creative and sexual life force in eastern traditions. It is important to differentiate between the types of snake that appear in your life to learn their teaching.  Snakes are not offensive, they strike in defense, but when they do, they are swift and accurate.


Wolves embody the wild spirit in our imagination. They are intelligent, social and mysterious. They live in organized hierarchical communities and are ritualistic in behavior.  They are loyal, have a developed range of language and can be fierce. They have a highly developed sense of smell and hearing, are insightful and intuitive. Wolf is the ancestor of all our domestic dogs, the wild unbridled side of our familiar companions. There are many kinds of resources available to us to begin our acquaintance with the different roles animals have traditionally held in spiritual traditions as well as a means of developing our cosmologies where we are geographically. It is important to differentiate the particular species of animal, for example a rattlesnake embodies different teaching than a nonvenomous snake; a great horned own differs from a barn owl, etc.

Beginning the conversation

On a practical level, if you are in Arizona, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has many interesting educational programs, including their rehabilitation center at Adobe Mountain (Earth Odyssey, May 2009) where we can learn about Arizona’s native creatures.  We might also train ourselves to be more observant of our environment when we go on hikes or visit national parks.

It is a good idea to take a pair of binoculars and a good camera and more important to be open to the encounter on a conscious level. Gradually, we will begin to notice all the forms of life that surround us on a daily basis and learn the meaning their appearance has for us.

If you do not already do so, begin to keep a dream journal, taking note of the animals, birds and other creatures that present themselves to you in the night hours. If you are driving home one night and see an owl fly in front of your vehicle, or a coyote run across the road, consider the significance. In times of trouble in our human lives, it can be a great comfort to rediscover our sense of relatedness and belonging to the natural world.  Myth and magic inform and protect in ways we can come to understand.

If you live in the heart of the city where few creatures venture, there are decks of cards illustrating animals, birds and other creatures and their spiritual significance. A daily practice may be to shuffle these cards and choose one intuitively to gain a message from nature. It is a place to start.

Afterword: There are many wonderful print resources available as introduction to the spiritual discipline of listening to nature and re-acquainting yourself with your wild soul. Here are a few examples:

“Animal Speak” and “Nature Speak” by Ted Andrews; “The Druid Animal Oracle” by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm;

“Medicine Cards” by Sams and Carson; and “Soulcraft” by Bill Plotkin.