Introduction to Animal Familiars
“White-Tail Deer as Totem” by Ravenari
True witches and shamans have familiar spirits – we just do – whether we like it or not. Some have animal, plant, mineral, or ancestral spirit guides/ helpers/ allies/ familiars, and some have one or more of each, but in this article I will be talking specifically of animal familiars. Most modern Pagans believe you can only have an animal familiar and that it’s a real animal you go to the store and purchase or to a shelter and adopt. Another misconception is that your familiar is your “totem” and of course due to this there are the armchair reading Pagans who say you cannot have a totem if you are from non-Native descent, that’s culture theft, haha so there! Well, they’re wrong too and I’ll explain why, but first I must define Animism and Totemism.
Totemism stems from Animism which every culture’s spiritual beliefs evolved from at some point in time. Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit and a consciousness — a soul– from the tiniest microorganism on earth to the planets in the heavens. Animists usually believe in rebirth & reincarnation either as another human, or an animal, tree, or star. Anything or one can be an ancestor and in a way this is true as even scientists will tell you every single thing in the Universe is created from the same dust resulting from the explosion of the “big bang”. Spirits of place (genus loci) are thought to be a soul who has come to reside in a hill, stream, or grove as its guardian and benefactor. Animism is usually viewed as more primitive with Polytheism being seen as more advanced (think Stone Age vs. the Roman Empire). But as many modern religious scholars have discovered there is more natural harmony and more earthly wisdom within animism than almost any other world religion. You can easily have one without the other, however, in some cultures the two did go hand in hand: the Norse had their pantheon as well as strong beliefs in land spirits and even the ancient Greeks had spirits of springs, rivers, hills, forests, etc which were worshipped almost at the same level of devotion if not more as their pantheon of deities with sacrifices, offerings and festivals in their honour. Anthropologists call these divisions the “low cult” (animism) and the “high cult” (polytheism).
Totemism is the belief that your family, tribe, or village have some kinship link with a specific animal, plant, or mineral –contrary to the belief that totems are just animals. My own Scottish clan was known as the Yew Tribe once upon a time, meaning we believed we had a kinship affinity with the Yew tree. Another example is a small tribe in Africa today who believe they are descended from crocodiles and revere them as ancestors in an annual ceremony where a cow is butchered and fed to the crocs. There are many such folktales which explain the origin of a tribe’s totem. Each person has only one totem and it is the same as everyone else in their family. You do not work with this totem on a regular basis, you do not ask it for aid in your magic or day to day tasks, and you do not ask for your totem’s aid except in life and death situations of dire need. Even then, it is taboo in most animistic cultures to call upon your totem more than once or twice in your lifetime. It is totems you do not eat of as it is taboo, not animal or other familiars. The consequences are supposed to be severe illness, severe bad luck, or death.
So you can only have one totem for your entire life, but your animal familiars may change throughout the course of your lifetime and you will usually have more than one at a time.
“Totem Art” by Ravenari
Can anyone have an animal familiar?
Yes, you do not need to be a shaman, seer, priest/ess, witch, hedgewitch, etc to have or acquire animal familiars. The ordinary layperson/pagan throughout Pagan Animistic cultures also takes on spirit guides, the differences being: the layperson’s is an ordinary animal found in nature and the shaman has at least one supernatural creature or being as a familiar; the shaman or witch can see and/or directly communicate with their animal familiar whereas the layperson cannot; and the shaman’s familiar(s) gift him or her their supernatural powers as well as knowledge and wisdom whereas the layperson’s might gift them with knowledge, foreknowledge, or aid with troublesome situations, but not with magical abilities. Anyone can be a Pagan, but not everyone has the ability to be the priesthood of the Pagans as it is an innate talent and gift one is given and cannot be taken.
Can you have more than one animal familiar?
Yes, records of witches and shamans report they had anywhere from one to ten familiar spirits which can include plants allies, mineral allies, or spirits of the dead as well. I myself currently have six – two plants, two insects, one land animal, and one bird.
Why have one or more?
Because, as mentioned above, they can gift you with their knowledge and/or power. Imagine knowing all the uses of the your local wild plants and medicines that can be made from them. Imagine all the wisdom an animal has living in perfect harmony with nature by following their true purpose and instinct as the animal they are. They can teach you how to live in harmony with your body and your environment. Also, your animal familiars can come to your aid when called or even when they sense you are in danger. They can gift you with supernatural powers: second sight, foreknowledge, healing with your hands, the ability to travel between worlds, the ability to see and hear spirits of the unseen realms, the ability to converse with the spirits of the dead, among other talents. Also, when you converse and work with spirits both great and small and travel to the Otherworlds, your animal familiars can take you there and back safely as well as protect you while you are there. Think of the Siberian shaman flying into the heavens on his Reindeer or on the wings of an Eagle. It is incredibly easy to lose your soul to spirits or to get lost in the unseen realms and your animal guides prevent this from happening.
How do I acquire an animal familiar?
First of all, they select you, not the other way around. Everyone wishes their familiar was a bear, wolf, mountain lion, fox — all the usual suspects — but in reality this is usually not the case. In most cases an apprentice witch or shaman starts with smaller less powerful animal helpers and over time as their power and knowledge increases they acquire stronger and more powerful animal familiars. Keep in mind that the size of an animal does not reflect its power as some of the most powerful animals are also the smallest. In cases of true hereditary witchcraft or shamanism animal familiars can be inherited from a dying elder as they have a vested interest in you as family. Even though you cannot select one, you can seek them out and invite them into your life, but you cannot request which animal they will be.
Do not expect your animal helper to appear to you inside your home or within a city as domesticated creatures are as far removed from harmony with nature as we are. Also, do not think you have to go on a vision quest to acquire them – this is only to be used within the cultural context – as in you’re from an indigenous tribe who practices it. Don’t spend all your energy looking for your familiar to be one of the usual suspects everyone claims when in reality that golden orb spider on your favourite woodland path has been trying to get your attention for years! Do not forget that “animal” familiar includes insects, birds, as well as creatures of fresh and saltwater. Today’s city dwellers have such negative views of wild animals and insects that no wonder many haven’t found their familiars – they’re terrified or grossed out by them!
To acquire your familiar you must first venture out into nature – real wild nature, not a tidy safe campsite full of playing children and blaring stereos. This factor is prescribed in all Animistic cultures who take on familiars. First, the animal will appear to you plain as day – whether it is a vision, daydream, or real life – who is to say? But they will appear before you nonetheless – in reality not in a visualization or guided meditation. You may miss it completely if it is a native animal, but exotic species will definitely get your attention! As in “what’s that tiger doing in the Saskatchewan prairie?”! If it is a native animal do not assume right away it is your familiar, it could just be a chance meeting, but if it appears to you 3, 4, or 7 etc times in unusual circumstances there is no question. Unusual circumstances can mean out of season, strange behaviour, interacting with you in a way the actual animal simply does not, or it listens to you and understands your speech and reacts to it… and sometimes talks back. These are dead giveaways you’ve met your animal familiar. Also keep in mind that sightings or dreams of a particular animal may not mean it is your familiar, but sacred to your God(s) and a messenger from them – to find out use divination. Many have recurring dreams of animals, this is them trying to get your attention, but until you see the animal before your very eyes, they are not yet yours.
Disclaimer – I do not recommend any or all of the methods prescribed nor do I take any responsibility for those who chose to try them
However having said all this, the seeing is not the acquiring it is the knowing. In order to claim your familiar there is a ritual ahead; you must lose consciousness without falling asleep — the little death, the sacred threshold between sleep and awake, life and death — to achieve an altered state. This can be achieved in multiple ways so chosing one that fits your comfort level is not difficult. Some methods include ingesting or inhaling entheogens (mind-altering drugs, but never alcohol as it is for a different purpose), breathing techniques (breathing too little or too much), death postures, extreme physical exhaustion (pushing your body to its absolute limit until you pass out), fasting & dehydration (results in hypoglycemia which creates an altered mental state), extreme purging of bodily fluids and waste by using purgatives or emetics (also results in dehydration and hypoglycemia). Traditional methods within tribes included practices as dangerous as being kicked and beaten until unconscious, thrown into freezing lakes or rivers repeatedly until you pass out, having to run up and down a mountain until you pass out, being ritually cut or mutilated until you faint, etc. The other methods aren’t looking so bad now…
The idea is that when you are in this special state your spirit can journey to the spirit world to meet with and learn from your animal familiar. When you return/wake up you will have any knowledge or wisdom the animal gave you as well as possibly supernatural powers that you did not have before the rite. Sometimes they will give you a new name or title you bring back to your people and this is how shamans of old determined if you were faking or not, but this is not reported in every Animistic culture.
The rest is up to you my friends. May you be worthy.
References & Resources:
- Anderson, Cora. Fifty Years in the Feri Tradition
- Bates, Brian. The Way of Wyrd
- Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation : The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth
- Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
- Jilek, Wolfgang G. Indian healing : Shamanic Ceremonialism in the Pacific Northwest Today
- Jorgensen, Grace M.M. A Comparative Examination of Northwest Coast Shamanism
- Müller-Ebeling, Räsch, & Storl. Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants
- Wilby, Emma. Cunning Folk & Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic