The concept of power animals has become pretty common throughout the magickal community now, though my stubborn mind insists it was barely present just a decade ago. It’s a concept that doesn’t play a part in my own practice, despite my being a witch (which, by definition, includes a heavy dose of animism both in practice and in fundamental worldview. I go into this further here, if you’re interested in a greater explanation) and for far too many reasons to rant, I mean, ramble about here*. Suffice to say, while the concept of power animals is prevalent throughout the world, the misappropriated use of the name “totem” to describe the same practice paired with an undeniably appropriated American Indian flare is something that I can’t stomach and want no part of. But I promised not to rant so…
I thought I would share how I do work with animal spirits, as a North American based witch with ancestral heritage stemming from Poland, Mongolia, and Germany. Too rarely do I speak of my own practice on this blog (though I’ve been trying harder to do so the last two years,) so I thought it would be a nice change to shake things up a bit and post something more personal.
To begin with, I think it’s important to note that there was never a point where I thought, “Oh, man. I really need to start working with animal spirits.” At the time of this writing, I’ve been practicing witchcraft for just over two decades and for most of that time my working with any spirits rarely involved the Dead -if so, it was usually on their terms. Yet, my work with animal spirits is primarily with the specific spirits of specific deceased animals.
My practice has always been very land based, very rooted in the land that I grew up on, and was shaped and cultivated by the spirits of that land. The gentle whispering of those spirits paired with a good deal of intuition is the only reason that I am a witch and still continues to be the defining methods of guidance I receive in my practice (unless, of course, the Deity to Whom I am dedicated has something to say about it, which She usually does.) Seeing the world very much alive with spirits was a natural part of my childhood and I’m sure this in part explains my sentimental tendencies, as it’s hard not to have sentimental attachment to anything when you know that thing (whatever it is) has a spirit that has made itself known to you.
And all of that explains how my work with animal spirits came to be: Someone else made the suggestion and set things in motion. I was living in a building filled with spirits, many of which were very liminal, favoring doorways of all sorts. This was a temporary living arrangement for my family and I, but I made the attempts to get along with these very numerous spirits as best I could. My Lady took notice of my paying extra attention to these spirits and decided it was a good direction for me to strike off into. At this time, also, I continuously came across turtle omens, which later would prove to impart a crucial message and bring me one of my dearest animal spirit allies (that story can be found here.)
A casual conversation with my husband in which I expressed an old longing for a stag skull turned into a curious conversation.
“A stag skull? What about that raccoon skull? You know that’s yours, right? I brought it home for you.”
We’d had this skull for nearly a decade at this point, a souvenir my husband picked up while hiking through the forest. I brought out the skull from where it rested -and was immediately surprised to, for the first time, feel the very strong, very real presence of that raccoon’s spirit still lingering within its skull. Struck with this discovery, I imparted my newfound knowledge that this skull had been given to me to the spirit. Raccoon was happy with this arrangement, and I spent the remainder of the afternoon coddling the dear as if it were a kitten, singing to it and carrying it around the house.
My husband went hunting the next day, taking our sons with. To my surprise, they returned triumphantly with a stag skull that they had found in the marsh. My sons proudly handed it to me, my husband smiling smugly over the fact that he was able to find one so quickly for me. Cautiously, I reached out, taking the skull and feeling it over. Despite sitting in the marsh for at least a year, a spirit lingered here, too.
I carefully wrapped the skull in soft fabric and set it in dark, quiet place to rest. It was not as happy as the raccoon spirit who had apparently been hanging out with us for years. More would need to be done to calm it, prove my intentions, and procure its aid. However, this work went smoothly, and the stag skull now sits on my work bench, with the raccoon skull and the primary bone that my dear turtle spirit friend resides in.
Since that time, when my Lady laid a clear path before me, I’ve continued to work with these three spirits. Turtle continues to appear in archetypal form, from time to time, though the specific spirit of the deceased snapping turtle to whom I am so attached occupies the role of intermediary and interpreter.
Of course, my occasional work as a death midwife and as someone who hunts puts me into contact with other spirits of deceased animals, but that relationship is very temporary and does not bare similarity to my relationship with my animal allies. And so, too, does this ally relationship differ from working with totems and having power animals or animal spirit guides. It’s a contractual relationship: one that is based upon a mutual agreement (i.e. “I offer x in exchange for y.”) And, yes, I have had an animal spirit leave its spirit house (i.e. the vessel that the spirit is attached to, in the above mentioned instances, the vessel is the skull or, in the case of Turtle, another of its bones) due to contractual failure; occupational hazard of the witch when life jumps up and bites you in the ass.
These very real spirits of very real animals that once lived and breathed, living their life out to completion in nature, are what encompass my work with animal spirits. In every instance, they found their way into my life through chance, happy accident, and the nudging of Someone Who has Her fingers in all aspects of my life. I don’t pull from a list of archetypal energy to better meet my needs; for example, pulling on the archetypal energy of horse when I need to be strong or of ant when I need to remember to shove my shit to the side and work for the greater good. It’s an effective magickal approach that is no different than using lavender oil to calm oneself before bed or than burning an incense of black pepper and garlic when needing to clear a space. But, it’s just not something I do.
*Where my family lives, there are still women living who endured forced sterilization by the US government (it was the 1970’s: very much a part of living history.) I can’t justify blatant theft of a culture that isn’t open to me (even if it is an adoption of a perverted view of what “Native Americans” are supposed to be, do, and believe) and I don’t believe engaging in systematic racism and cultural genocide for spiritual purposes somehow magically negates the very real harm done by it. I choose to be better than that, to set a better example for my children, and to hold out hope that we can eventually squash this horrific level of disrespect that is so prevalent within our magickal and religious community.
The next post in the Working with Zoological Remains series is still on its way! This will be the fifth of six posts and is titled “Brains & Battery Acid: a Witch’s Guide to Tanning Leather.” No ETA as work and family life have me pretty busy lately (and did I mention I’m pregnant? Oi, so much going on!) but I promise it will eventually be posted, along with the final post of the series, detailing how to begin working with animal remains. For an example of working with animal remains, consider ordering a Bone Reading.
As always, feel free to ask me any questions regarding witchcraft and/or Paganism.
Throwing the Bones
Whether you're struggling with something spiritually or in everyday life, bone divination can highlight areas where focus is needed and identify alternative ways forward.