Aumakua, Familiars, and Spirit Animals . . . Oh My!
Animals and Spirit Animals
From the Rainbow Serpent of the Aborigines of Australia that birthed the land and its inhabitants, to the “Cowardly” Lion that accompanied Dorothy to Oz, to the tale you tell of the hummingbird that hovered for several seconds two feet from your nose, cultural and personal stories and mythologies (or mythos) are rampant with animals and spirit animals. These stories and experiences resonate with our instinctual connection to the animal kingdom, as well as conveying an innate kinship with this vast realm of beings we share our planet with. We owe a great deal of thanks to our animal brothers and sisters who give so much to us humans, such as companionship, warmth, and food. In some traditions it’s even told that humans descended from the animals.
As for animal spirit guides, the awareness that Spirit sometimes shows up in animal form was inherent in the cultural beliefs of indigenous peoples. These traditions all have some variations depending on the mythos of the particular culture, but the common thread is the unquestionable acceptance of animals as spirit guides. Even some creation myths credit spirit animals with the birth of the world, such as the Rainbow Serpent mentioned above. As human consciousness continues to evolve during this present era, we look with greater interest and curiosity at what these ancient peoples can teach us, and some of the greatest lessons are what we can learn from the animals, whether in the flesh or in spirit.
When an animal makes an appearance (whether physically or symbolically) in an unusual way or repeatedly in a short span of time, the spirit of that animal is attempting to get a message to you. Often you’ll have a hunch or a sense of the message from this spirit guide. Trust it. As you’ll see, it might even be a distant, long-deceased relative that is guiding and protecting you by showing up in animal form.
As I mentioned, every culture has a slightly different take on this idea of animal spirit guides. From ancient Hawaiian spirituality, still alive today, comes the concept of aumakua—spirit guides clothed in the language, customs, and mythos of this culture.
Aumakua (ow-ma-koo-ah) are very simply the spirits of deceased ancestors. They can be called on for protection, guidance, and spiritual support. The very first ‘aumakua were the children of humans who had mated with the Akua, or primary gods, the main ones being Ku (Koo), Kane (Kah-nay), Lono, and Kanaloa (Kah-nah-low-ah). When someone died, they went through a period of time where they stayed with these Akua and thereby acquired a degree of mana, or power. Eventually they could make themselves known to their descendants. One of the most prevalent ways they could make their appearance—although not limited to this—was through animals and animal spirits. They could also show up in the wind, rain, or lightning, or in your dreams.
Very soon after her father’s death, Ellen took a walk on the beach. She noticed a dolphin jumping along the water, much closer to shore than usual. She realized that this was her father’s spirit expressing through and in cooperation with the spirit of Dolphin, embodied in the one that was tracking her as she walked along the shore. Ellen was reassured that her father was just fine in the spirit world. His spirit had elicited Dolphin’s help in getting this message to his daughter. This was her aumakua.
From Western Europe a few centuries ago comes the idea of familiars. During the Middle Ages, familiars were mainly associated with witches, while these days they’re associated with Wiccans. Familiars are spirits often showing up as animals, although they can also inhabit objects, such as rings or lockets. The spirit animal can also be the companion of magicians and sorcerers. Think Harry Potter’s Owl.
Another term for familiars that has been grossly distorted over the centuries is daemon or demon. Up until the persecution of witches that began in late 13th century, the word itself did not mean something evil. In other words, the word demon got . . . well, demonized. In more contemporary terms, a demon would simply be an animal spirit guide or power animal, often embodied in a companion animal, such as a cat or dog. In fact, older women who kept a cat during the persecutions were often accused of being witches and put to death, whether or not they actually practiced witchcraft.
So an animal spirit guide by any other name, whether called ‘aumakua, a familiar, a power animal, or a totem animal, is still an animal spirit guide. And they can help you navigate through this lifetime. And who knows—maybe the next time you spot that hummingbird, it just might be great-great-great auntie Jane telling you that she’s watching over you, so try to cheer up!