From animal-headed Deities to Totem Poles and Familiars, animals are a large and special element in the practice of Witchcraft - as well as Vision Quests, Dream Interpretation, Healing and Mythology.
I wrote an article about Animal Totems in Llewellyn's 2011 Magical Almanac - specifically a primer for the relatively uninitiated - along the lines of a Vision Quest, including a Correspondence chart.
Later on, I'll include an updated version of the Correspondence chart - since that was nearly ten years ago and I've learned a lot more since then!
For the purpose of this Grimoire, I'd like to start by profiling the basic "garden variety" animals that we usually come into contact with on a daily basis, then I'll branch out and even go as far as to include Mythological creatures.
Like the rest of my content on this website, I am not striving for the information to be all-encompassing and/or totally inclusive, as I will build on it as the years go by. Also, we all experience animals in different ways, so the following information is by no means the be all and end all.
For some people, cats and dogs can be ferocious animals and for others - a perfect example of a trusted familiar or pet. Looking into the mythology of each animal, along with their basic traits, magical associations, healing medicine, dream symbols/archetypes and guidance in ritual, I'd like to offer these profiles as a starting point for those who might want to delve a little deeper on their own.
Finding your Spirit Animal
At this moment in time, I'm sure you could at least think of one animal that resonates with you, whether it's the family dog, a beloved bird or a stray cat. Throughout my life, I've been sought out by animals, came across them by accident or enjoyed their company at a friend's or acquaintance's home.
Not one to frequent a zoo or attend a circus - due to concern over the entrapment and abuse of animals - I have visited animal sanctuaries and marveled over their mystery and beauty. I've petted snakes and frogs (not slimy at all - but cool and smooth), made friends with turtles and played with lizards.
Out of all the animals I've come across, the ones that have been closer to my heart are cats and horses, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate other animals or that I haven't used their magic in various ways.
If you're not sure who your animal spirit is, the following exercise might help you discover your personal totem - but first - an introduction into the magic of the animal kingdom.
Animals have been an integral part of myths, legends and storytelling since time began, since they represent our true nature, which can include our animalistic sides, hidden desires, hopes and dreams. They have been represented as friends as well as enemies and have symbolized spirituality, along with acting as guides.
In Native American lore, animal totems have guided seekers along the Shamanic path during Vision Quests. In order to visit the other worlds (lower kingdoms), wisdom and deep spiritual knowledge is required. In some tribes, the young seeker or warrior will embark on this rite of passage, as a way of initiation.
After finding a suitable location in the wild, such as a cave or shelter, they might fast for a while and/or take an hallucinogenic substance, which triggers a physical reaction so they can access the spirit world or void. In a trance state, the seeker will meet a spirit guide, who usually appears in animal form and who will share insights on the seeker's true nature and life purpose.
This wisdom makes the seeker more evolved and mature, and when they return to the tribe, they can share this knowledge with others or it will be interpreted by the Elders.
Sympathetic Magic and other Considerations
Sympathetic magic was apparently first used by prehistoric people and is often used in magical rituals, where the desired result was mimicked or imprinted in order to bring it about, whether influence over a person or situation. Ancient hunters would adorn themselves with animal skins and other items found in their surroundings to look like the beast they wanted to procure for feeding their tribe and themselves.
Re-enacting the scene was a way of magically ensuring that the hunt would be successful. These workings have also been used to gather strength - such as the power of a bear or the elevated sight of a bird. Many cave paintings have images of people with a horned head-dress, to depict bulls, bison etc.
The main idea is akin to "like attracts like", where the adherent acts as though the desired result has already occurred. Since animals have always been used to represent the different characteristics in humans, sympathetic magic is a great way to explore personal totems or spirit animals.
When doing your research, it's important to contemplate various levels of reference, such as:
and so on. You might even be drawn to a certain concept or design principle that incorporates the imagery or behavior of any particular animal.
Before you decide on your own personal animal totem, it's important to start with yourself, by exploring the following:
Who are you and what do you define as your authentic self?
Where have you been, in terms of your background, upbringing and beliefs?
Where are you now, in regards to your circumstances and responsibilities, etc.?
Where do you want to be and who do you want to be?
What are you missing in your life?
What messages are you receiving in your dreams and/or your waking life?
What symbols keep appearing for you and what do they mean?
What animals have been important in your life and which ones do you feel drawn to?
It's natural to be attracted to beautiful or fantasy totems, like dolphins, unicorns and butterflies. Those of us with Gothic sensibilities might be drawn to bats, dragons or snakes. You might be surprised to discover that your totem could be a garden variety animal or domestic creature like cats, dogs and birds - but that can also lead to the Lynx, the Wolf and the Falcon!
Look into your family history/ancestry and see if there have been specific animal motifs or a link to a particular creature. For me, Boonjil the Eaglehawk and Waang the Crow are the creator totems for my Aboriginal Tribe - the Wurundjeri - back in Australia. I have always felt an affinity with these animals, as well as turtles.
Also, different creatures enter our lives at particular times, depending on our needs and circumstances, so - while you may have one overall totem that's special to you, other totems play their part from time to time.
I remember a time when I was depressed for no particular reason and I was living with a friend who had a wonderful Doberman called Lara. I was sitting on my bed with my face in my hands and weeping, when she came into the doorway and sat there looking at me, tilting her head one way then the other. After a few minutes she came up to me and put her head on my lap, her big brown eyes looking up at me as if to say “what’s wrong? Cheer up!” I was so taken aback that she snapped me out of it and we became good friends!
I took her for walks along the beach and one time she protected me when a man approached, who was jogging along the shore. He slowed down when he saw me and I felt a strange feeling in my gut. Lara stopped chasing the seagulls and started racing around him in circles, growling and barking with her shackles raised. I called her off but when he jogged on, I thanked her and gave her a kiss on her head.
Finding your Totem Ritual
Feel free to adjust anything that suits you.
Shower or bathe before the ritual and anoint yourself with oil - either Sandalwood or the recipe in the Grimoire. Try to conduct the ritual Skyclad (naked) - unless you're worried about anyone walking in your ritual, especially if you're outside!
Find a space to conduct your ritual where you won't be disturbed. If preparing an altar or sacred space outdoors is not appropriate, you can do so indoors. Make sure the area isn't cluttered and set your altar with items that reflect the energies of nature, such as shells, stones and herbs, after laying down a brown or green cloth. If you don't mind using animal skulls or bones, feathers or abandoned nests, these are good sources of animal energy. Other items include:
A consecrated white candle, with inscriptions of your Astrological sign and name. Use Sandalwood Essential oil for the consecration - while thinking about your purpose and asking your Higher Self to assist - rubbing from the outer ends towards the center of the candle.
Symbols of the elements, such as a gemstone for Earth (or a bowl of dirt); a feather or incense for Air; a bowl of water or a shell for Water; your candle or the burning charcoal for Fire and a Pentagram.
A symbol or amulet for the Deity (or Deities) you'd like to invoke.
Herbs for the incense (to be thrown on the coals) - choose 3-5 from the following:
These herbs/plants are aligned with the planets Mercury and the Moon, for assistance with accessing the subconscious mind and communication with the animal kingdom. It's a good idea to conduct your ritual on a Monday or Wednesday. Deities to be invoked could be Hermes and/or Artemis or Thoth.
Write your statement of purpose to read aloud during the ritual. It could be something along the following lines:
“On this night, I seek communion with my true Animal Totem. I enter this circle with a pure heart, mind, body and soul. I ask for your assistance and guidance. Please bestow your wisdom upon me, so that I can be true to myself, to others and to pay homage to the Earth and all its creatures. Hail to the Elements - who keep the balance! Hail to (Deity) who assists me in my communication with my Totem! Hail to my Higher Self – who watches over me! So mote it be!”
Once your altar is set up and you're ready to start, cast your circle and call the Quarters, followed by invoking the Deity (or Deities.) Then call on your Higher Self to assist with your pathworking after lighting the candle and the charcoal. Throw a pinch of the incense onto the charcoal and waft the smoke to share with the Deity (or Deities.)
Settle into a meditation, (occasionally throwing more incense onto the charcoal through the ritual) and visualize the following:
A pathway through nature (forest, field, beach etc.) Take your time and take note of any creature that might appear. Don't overthink it and don't ask questions unless it feels natural to you. Don't disregard a creature just because it's not what you think is relevant or expected. If it's a beetle or even a fly, that creature is meant for you at this time.
Relax and see what happens. Allow your imagination to open up to endless possibilities and don't force it. Are there any colors, textures, shapes or patterns that come into view? What can you hear in your mind's eye? Are you receiving any messages? Meditate on what occurs and what it means for you or how it relates to your current situation. Does it evoke memories from your past?
Ask the creature to guide you in your dreams and in your life. Once you're done, thank the totem (or totems, if more than one reveals itself to you) then thank the Deity (or Deities), your Higher Self and the Quarters, before closing the circle.
Pour the leftover incense and water on the ground outside as a libation while thanking the elements for their assistance. Write down your impressions in your Book of Shadows and remember to dedicate yourself to your totem by learning all about them. Seek out any associated paraphernalia or amulets that pertain to your totem and try to draw pictures or create art related to them.
It's nice to have a journal especially for your totem (or totems), where you can record any dreams, thoughts, visions and ideas, as well as any lessons they might teach you or lead you through.
Animal Totem Guides
There are many great books out there about animal magic and reference guides to the animal kingdom, but I'm offering here the following information to help set you on your journey. Feel free to mix it up and try different herbs, stones, amulets, talismans and symbols for specific animals. These guides can be used like stepping stones to your own journey through working your own animal magic!
Please note that I have included significant characters and mythological creatures in some of the deity columns. The information contained in these guides is not meant to be exhaustive, so by all means, do your own research and see what feels right for you. The symbols are just suggestions, in regards to what could be easily inscribed on a candle or illustrated for use on your altar.