Malidoma Patrice Somé is a healer, teacher, and elder of the Dagara peoples in the small West African nation of Burkina Faso in West Africa. He travels extensively giving classes and workshops, and in one of his teachings, he describes how the Dagara believe there are three levels of intelligence on Earth. Plants are considered to be the most intelligent beings, animals second, while humans capture the ribbon for third place. It’s a different way of looking at life and our relationship with plants and animals, one that contradicts the more typical and subtle arrogance ingrained within many of us in the more “civilized” societies.
Whether we agree that we’re somehow less intelligent than plants or animals, most indigenous peoples, who are more intimately connected to the natural world, know that we are intrinsically related to all life on this fair planet. Chief Seattle, of the Suqwamish and Duwamish tribes of British Columbia said it best: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”
So how is it that those of us who have been raised in the more “civilized” parts of the world have forgotten this connection? How did we forget how to talk with the animals, to listen to their language, to connect with their spirit, and to show them compassion and gratitude for all they give us? How did we come to live in this illusion that we’re somehow separate from all other beings and nature herself?
Of course there’s no single cause for this dissociation from the natural world and specifically from animals, yet we can point to a couple of powerful influences. One of these was the beginning of the scientific revolution, heralded by Sir Francis Bacon in the early 16th century. Considered the founder of modern science, Bacon claimed that goal seeking was a specifically human activity, and attributing goals to nature misrepresents it as human-like. It became science’s job to objectify nature, and to think otherwise became a cardinal sin. Then in 1637, along came Descartes, famous for his quote, “I think, therefore I am” (although it’s more accurate to say, “I am, therefore I think!”). Descartes maintained that only humans have souls, so animals can’t really feel pain, and thus pioneered the practice of vivisection, further objectifying the animal world.
In the 20th century many others would openly disagree with this way of thinking. Darwin was one who challenged this view and demonstrated that animals had their own unique intelligence. Yet paradoxically, in the past century and even to today, animals have continued to be treated like objects, as having no soul or spirit, here mainly to serve humankind’s needs and purposes. Yet these attitudes are slowly changing.
With the spark of ancient memory awakening in many of us comes a deep longing to experience the intimacy with the natural world that was a way of life for our ancestors, who expressed their gratitude for the gifts of the earth through continuous prayer, ceremony, and ritual. They appreciated that whatever you took from nature, you always gave something back, and you used every part of what you’ve taken. They knew that every aspect of life was infused with Spirit and consistently honored that fact. Animals were seen as kin, as brothers and sisters, and even when hunted for sustenance, they were honored and treated with the utmost respect and gratitude for sacrificing their lives.
Another aspect was the relationship to the spirit of these various animals. Typically a clan, tribe, or community would have a spirit animal in common, called a totem animal, one that everyone in the clan could call on for protection and guidance. Shamans in these communities typically had one or more spirit animals that they used in their work on behalf of the people, called power animals. An animal spirit guide was any animal that showed itself in an unusual way or repeatedly. The animal was believed to be bringing a message from the spirit of that animal.
The purpose of my books and cards (Animal Spirit Guides, Power Animals, and Power Animal Oracle Cards) is not only to help people discover how our animal brothers and sisters and their spirits can help us in our lives with guidance and healing, but also to encourage the re-awakening of that inherent connection we have to animals. As they did for our ancestors, the spirit of an animal will attempt to reach us through unusual or repetitive visitations, whether the physical animal or a symbolic representation. If a crow lands three feet away and looks at you, or a crow shows up repeatedly throughout the day, Crow spirit is trying to pass along a message. Crow may also show up symbolically, such as in dreams, on a TV show, or a ceramic figure in a bookshop. Regardless, Crow spirit is trying to pass along a message.
I always suggest to pause and ask Crow (or whatever animal) what the message is before referring to any of these books or cards that contain possible meanings of any such sighting. Once you ask the animal, pay attention to any impressions that comes to you, whether visual, auditory, thoughts, or sensations in your body. Ifthe message isn’t clear right away, often through the coming days you’ll pick up other signs or omens that clarify the message from the animal spirit.
Our animal brothers and sisters want to reach us, teach us, and heal us. It’s simply a matter of being open and receptive to Spirit’s communication through the specific animal spirit, and doing whatever we can to maintain the awareness of our relationship our brothers and sisters.