(excerpted from Animal Spirit Guides by Dr. Steven Farmer)
Those spirits that are in animal form that teach us, guide us, empower us, and help us heal are called animal spirit guides or spirit animals. In shamanic and indigenous cultures they’re usually called totem animals or power animals. Often these terms are used interchangeably, although there are subtle differences in meaning.
The term totem animal has two meanings. First, a totem animal is typically one that is shared by a family, clan, or group. In indigenous cultures, the family you were born into all have a totem animal in common. In modern societies, various groups also have communal totems, such as sports teams or clubs that identify with a totem animal. A second meaning of totem animal is a representational object of a particular animal, like a small tortoise, owl, raccoon, or hawk figurines. We often give our children totem animals, like teddy bears or bunny rabbits to give them comfort.
The term power animal has its origins in shamanism. This is a specialized animal spirit guide the shaman or shamanic practitioner acquires early in their initiation into their practice. Their power animal travels with them whenever they go on a shamanic journey, which is an altered state of awareness in which the practitioner sends his soul or consciousness into non-ordinary reality—another term for the spirit world—to receive teachings, guidance, and healings. You can, however, have a relationship with a power animal even if you’re not a shaman or shamanic practitioner. They may come to you in meditations, visions, dreams, or shamanic journeys. It’s a highly personal and specialized relationship with an animal spirit guide, one where the personality and characteristics of the particular power animal that you have attracted to you are reflective of your own personality and characteristics.
Although every creature on the planet can be an animal spirit guide, in some traditions domesticated animals can’t be power animals because they’ve lost much of their wildness and are removed from the natural world. Likewise, some traditions believe that insects are to be excluded from being power animals because of their size and nature. I have, however, included both domesticated animals and some insects such as butterfly and dragonfly my book, and even two mythological animals, dragon and unicorn, to account for those who have enough of a special relationship with them to call them power animals.
However to experience the tremendous value of working with animal spirit guides you don’t need to be a shaman, have any interest in shamanism, nor be associated with an indigenous culture. For most purposes you don’t even need to be concerned as to whether an animal spirit guide is a totem or power animal. Instead, consider these wonderful beings as spiritual allies that want to reach out to each and everyone one of us who are open to their guidance and, when called with sincere intent, will respond.
One of the great advantages of working with animal spirit guides is that the actual animal is physically and symbolically present in so many ways throughout every society and culture on earth. Because of their abundant representations in third-dimensional reality, they’re continually in our consciousness. Depending on how and in what way they show up in the material world, whether in the flesh or as a symbol, their appearance can be a representative of the spirit of that animal. When an animal shows up in an uncommon way or repetitively as spirit guide, that animal isn’t just the single animal, but is representing the entire species. The hummingbird that flits about and then hovers for several seconds directly in front of you isn’t just a hummingbird but is carrying with her the essence of all hummingbirds, and is therefore Hummingbird with a capital “H.” That’s also why when we speak of an animal spirit guide, we leave out the “a” or “an” as a way of recognizing and honoring that spirit animal. The hawk that visited me wasn’t only a hawk, but in those instances was representing the essence of all hawks, and was therefore Hawk.
Not only do these spirit animals help us in many ways, but another positive effect is that you’ll deepen your appreciation for the magic and mystery of all animals, whether they are of the air, water, or the land. Every being on this beautiful and majestic planet has its place in the web of life, and as we develop our consciousness and awareness of the unique quality of animal spirit guides, we enhance our relationships with all of our animal brothers and sisters.