Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Animals in Pagan Spiritual Practice

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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We are all familiar with the conventional image of the old witch with her black cat. But wild and domestic animals play a much larger and more subtle role in paganism than this stereotype would suggest. Let’s look at some ways in which animals, real and symbolic, enrich spiritual practice in a number of different traditions.

In what capacity do animals participate as part of pagan spiritual tradition and practice? Certainly as familiars, like the old witch with her cat. But they also function as symbols or incarnations of deities.  And in some instances they are part of a deity’s menagerie or following, the creatures that deity protects. In each case the animals’ relation to the gods and to humanity differs somewhat, but regardless, these sacred animals are a way for humans to connect with deity and move along a spiritual path.


A familiar is a physical animal a person actively works with in their spiritual practice. The cat is the most widely-known form of familiar, and indeed many people’s pet cats assist them in working energy and magick and connecting to deity. Over the years I have had several cats who took an active part in rituals and spellwork. But the animal need not be a cat; in fact, it need not even be a domestic animal.

In medieval Europe the term grimalkin came into popular use (thanks to the Inquisition) to describe or name a witch’s familiar. The name literally means “grey cat” in Old English, but as often as not it referred to a rabbit or other small, wild creature who assisted the witch in working magick. People who feel a connection with a particular type of animal, wild or domestic, may be able to use that animal as a familiar. Often, a person who works mostly or exclusively with a particular deity will feel drawn toward the animals associated with that deity.

The concept of animal familiars stems from the belief that animals, like children, are more innocent than adults. Their psyches are not loaded down with the artificialities of civilization, the constraints of “ought to” and “should” and concerns about appearance over substance. Therefore they are closer to the gods, more in touch with REALITY as opposed to adults who operate from beneath a veneer of social rules. How do you think the familiar relationship works in magick? Does the animal provide a channel to the deity with which it is associated, or to the divine in general? Does its innocence help the person move to a more innocent energy themselves, and hence closer to deity?

Do you have a familiar? If you do, why did you choose that type of animal, if it was a conscious choice? If you do not have a familiar, would you consider using one? If you would, which animal or animals would you choose and why?

One of my sweet furbabies who has a magic all his own

Animal and Deity, Animal as Deity

A number of deities have animals associated with them. Some cultures represent gods and goddesses as animals or as having animal characteristics. Egyptian deities, for example, are often depicted with an animal head and a human body, reflective of the animal-head masks their priests and priestesses wore as well as the combination of traits associated with each god or goddess. But wild animals are also representative of the divine. What do cats (large and small, wild and domestic), hawks, eagles, wild boars and bulls have in common? Can you think of a deity associated with a quiet, passive, timid animal? Why do you think these animals are connected with these goddesses and gods? Were the animals’ traits ascribed to the deity, or was the deity defined first and then an animal chosen to match the deity’s traits? Perhaps the association did not happen in such definite steps.

Consider the following deities and their associated animals. How do the images of the animals affect how we think of each god or goddess? How do deities from different cultures compare when they are associated with the same or similar animal? Does seeing the deity’s animal and interacting with it make you feel closer to that god or goddess? Would you consider an animal associated with a deity to be that deity’s familiar?

Anansi = spider
Arachne = spider
Asclepius = cock
Athena = owl
Bastet = cat
Freya = hawk
Freyr = wild boar
Hathor = cow
Horus = hawk
Lugh = wild boar
Poseidon = bull/horse
Sekhmet = lion

Some deities are so closely connected with their representative animal that they are called by that animal’s name and given its full form. Native American traditions include Coyote and Grandmother Spider. Mayan deities name the Macaw, Jaguar and Monkey. We find Serphant in Europe, Dragon in the Orient and Br’er Rabbit in the African-inspired American South. How do you think these deities developed? They are not anthropomorphic, although some are said to speak or walk upright like humans.

We have already seen that deities from one culture to another represent similar facets of the human psyche. Many cultures have deities which represent mother, father, creator, grain deity, trickster and so forth. How do the animal representations of these classes of deity vary from culture to culture? What types of animals are typically associated with the following aspects of deity, and why?

FEMALE: Crone/grandmother, mother, maiden, goddess of the green, Earth, Fate, women’s work (spinner, weaver, cook), wife

MALE: Father, lord of the animals, underworld king, Sky, warrior, men’s work (hunter, smith), husband

EITHER/NEITHER: Creator, trickster, lover, grain deity, sun, moon, child, death, sea, giver-of-all, fire-source, healer

A Cooper's hawk, native to North America

Lord of the Animals

Some deities are considered to be protectors of animals, especially wild animals. Herne and Cernunnos are both called Lord of the Animals, as is Myrddin on occasion. These gods protect the wild animals of the forest, especially the larger ones like the deer. They are often depicted as human but with some characteristics of the animals they are associated with, such as horns or antlers. But Herne and Cernunnos are both described as hunters as well. How do you reconcile these two attitudes toward the animals, that of protector of the animals and hunter of them as well? How would the hunter/protector disparity be seen differently in societies earlier than ours?

The Greek goddess Artemis is also a protector of wild animals, and also a hunter. Artemis, as a virgin (unmarried) goddess, takes on roles that were usually reserved for men in Greek society. Can you think of any other female deities that are considered protectors or hunters of animals?

How would your impression of a deity whose animal is hunted differ from that of a deity whose animal is never hunted? How does your impression of a deity associated with a wild animal differ from that of a deity associated with a domesticated animal? Do you use animal representations or symbols for the deities you work with? Why or why not?

A mama and baby deer in my back yard - what a blessing!

Animal Totems and Spirit Guides

Some traditions use animals as representations of spirit without associating them with individual gods or goddesses. In some cases the animal itself is considered the guardian or ancestor spirit of a tribe or clan. These animals are often referred to as totems. Many pre-industrial societies use animal totems, both as a spiritual focus and as a defining factor for inclusion in the family, clan or tribe. We are familiar with the totem animals of the Native Americans, but there are many other societies that link (or linked, in the past) themselves to animals in a totemic fashion. 

In the British Isles, the tale of the rise of King Arthur is a thinly-veiled myth regarding the shift of the Pictish tribes from a serpent or dragon totem (Arthur’s father Pendragon) to a bear totem (Arthur means bear). This myth also reflects a long-term astrological shift of the pole star from within the constellation Draco to Ursa Major. Called the Big Dipper in America, the constellation of the Great She-Bear is known in Britain as Arthur’s Wain (wagon).

The Norse deities Freyr and Freya, commonly considered part of the Valhalla-based Norse pantheon, were originally tribal totem deities. The god Freyr grew out of a boar totem-spirit that belonged to a Scandinavian tribe. Freya came from a clan whose totem animal was the hawk. As Norse spiritual practice became more ritualized, the totem spirits gradually metamorphosed into deities. When the regions of Scandinavia joined under a more centralized leadership, its religion was united and all the local deities joined the central ruling deities in Valhalla.

Does your ancestry suggest any totem animals to you? What parts of the world does your family come from and what animals live there?

Some pagans follow a shamanic path and use animal spirits as guides or spirit familiars when journeying in the Otherworld. Sometimes these animal spirits simply appear to the shamanic practitioner and sometimes the person chooses the animal and calls it to him or her. In many ways, animal spirit guides function in the Otherworld the same way physical animal familiars do in the material world. They help the shaman “tune in” to that which is greater than human. Often, animal spirit guides act in human-like ways, speaking to the practitioner, walking upright, and so forth.

Have you ever met an animal spirit on a journey or during a meditation? Did you summon the animal or did it simply appear to you? How might the qualities associated with different animals in the physical world be amplified or changed in the Otherworld?

I offer you a friendly challenge: Spend some time today thinking about the ways in which animals (physical or otherwise) impact your spiritual practice. Call to the world of the other animals (yes, we're animals, too!) and ask them to teach you what they can about your individual spiritual path. Offer them friendship and respect, and see where the journey leads.