A power animal, which is also called a spirit guide or spirit helper, is unequivocally one of the shaman's most important allies in the spirit world. Without a power animal and, more often, a series of power animals, a shaman is essentially powerless and thus vulnerable to innumerable misfortunes, including death and illness.
A power animal provides a diagnosis, and then directs and performs much of the healing in core shamanism. They are the guiding force and protection in all shamanic journeys, whether for healing, returning power, or acquiring information for the shaman.
The relationship that builds between a shaman and power animal is one of deep trust, love and mutual respect. In both ordinary and non-ordinary reality, a shaman must continuously defer her intellectual perceptions to the deeper, animal instincts and authority of her power animal or spirit guide.
In essence, she must become a "hollow bone" through which the spirits of the universe can perform their "magical" healing on earth.
A power animal, which is also called an animal totem, represents the "medicine" of its entire species. In effect, when a shaman is aligned or merged with a power animal such as a Bear, he or she is aligned not with just one animal, but with the strength, wisdom, and healing capabilities of the broad spectrum of the entire archetype of Bear.
An alignment with an Eagle, for instance, gives the shaman the capabilities of Eagle. Traditionally, with Eagle, this often means the ability to perceive humanity or a certain problematic situation from a position high above the mundane realities of life.
In his book about his shamanic teachings from Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda often mentions the sighting of Raven as an Omen. Raven, in my life, is most often, a warning.
Many of us may hear or see ravens and crows throughout our day or night. But when Raven appears in a low tree branch, and I pass within a few feet of him, and feel a sudden pulling from my solar plexus toward's Raven, I know He has a message.
There are certainly thousands of arbitrary sightings of animals and birds that do not pull on our power center (our power/shaman center is right below the belly button). We do not keeping thinking about the sighting throughout the day (or dream about a night).
The Animals and Birds who are trying to help us often take on a certain significance. It is either energetically, or visually, or through sound, color or vibration. In other words, they catch and hold our attention. When I ignore Raven, it is always a mistake.
Native Americans consider Eagle to be able to see with the eyes of God because he flies higher than any other bird or being. Eagle is also a great hunter and tracker. A prey has little hope of escape once caught in the powerful talons of Eagle. (I have witnessed the sublime grace and instinctual wisdom of an Eagle who is tracking and the awesome ferocity of Eagle when he attacks an illness or an intrusion inside the body of a human).
Power animals are in spirit form and reside primarily in Lower World. They represent a large array of animals from earth, including Mouse, Deer, Armadillo, Moose, Deer, Lion, Tiger Giraffe, Wolf and Coyote. In essence, almost every animal on earth has a collective, intelligent archetypal spirit representation in Lower World available to defend, protect, enlighten, direct, or heal ordinary people, as well as shamans here on earth. The exception to this rule is insects or beings which may appear disturbed and/or menacing, who may show their teeth or fangs, or in other ways behave or portray negative energy. In which case they are not a power animal, but most likely a spiritual intrusion which needs to be removed or ignored. If a spider or insect does not appear threatening and gives out a feeling of love or benevolence then they can be considered approachable and even helpful. In fact, in several shamanic traditions the spider is considered sacred.
Power animals and spirit guides can also appear as half human and half animal, as well as in other combinations, such as bird and human or human, bird, and animal. Clinical psychologist Dr. Ann Drake's book Healing of the Soul: Shamanism and the Psyche (which is about how shamanism can enrich the psychotherapy practices of the West) states that her primary spirit guides name is the "Garuda" and she describes him as being a "shape-shifting bird man in appearance" who has his origins in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. (p. 31).
Spirit guides such as Drake’s may originate from other times on earth, but come forward to help shamans and their clients. Beings that we often classify as belonging only to myth and fairy tale, such as unicorns, mermaids, dragons, and centaurs, are very much alive for some shamans who acknowledge them as their spirit guides. Human-like spirit guides, Gods and Goddesses, Ascended Masters, ancestors who are our spirit guides, and other spirit helpers reside primarily in Upper World. The list is diverse and extensive but might include spirits such as Isis, Hecate, Diana, St. Germaine, St. Paul, Jesus, and or the Aztec Indian Goddess Lady Guadalupe.
Every culture has its own belief system and this is often reflected in their spiritual guidance.
Shaman Ted Andrews considers the "medicine" of an ant to be industriousness, orderliness, and discipline (Andrews, 1993, p. 336). Bee's helpful qualities include teaching us about accomplishing things that are thought to be impossible, fertility, and extracting the “honey of life" (Andrews, 1993, p. 337-338). When Drake was given Alligator medicine by her shaman teacher "the Bomoh," she had to walk through alligator infested waters and she described the power of Alligator as "ferocious”. Native American writer and shaman, Jamie Sams, describes “medicine” as "anything which improves one's connection to the Great Mystery and to all of life" (Sams, 1988, p. 13). She outlines the special medicine powers of 44 power animals in her cards and book (co-written by David Carson), Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals.
The supportive relationship between shamans and animals may seem surprising, but there are some people who believe that there once was a time when all humans, not only shamans, experienced a profound oneness with animals. Writer and shaman Ted Andrews (1993) states:
There are many myths of a magical time and place in which there were no boundaries between humans and animals. Humans were at peace with the animals and spoke their language. It reflected a time of mingling between divine and human. Wild and tame had no meaning. Animals and humans could speak together sometimes humans learning the animal tongue and sometimes animals learning the human tongue. (p. x)
A person who has a strong connection with her power animal is believed to be power-filled. This state of power makes the person generally immune to illness, bad luck, and provides protection from the negative energies which are believed to have originated in negative thought projections.
According to Allie Knowlton, a shaman who lives in Maine, there are some shamans who believe that epidemics such as the black plague, which have occurred throughout history, have been caused by a high concentration of negative thought forms contained in highly populated areas such as cities. A strong connection with a power animal would potentially protect a person against such plagues. When a regular people looses their power animal it is possible that they can become dispirited, ill, depressed, experience a sense of hopelessness or powerlessness and/or become vulnerable to traumas. If a shaman loses her power animals she has lost her power and can no longer perform as a shaman until power is restored.
A “regular” person or a shaman can lose her power animal by repeatedly ignoring the power animal’s advice and direction, partaking in activities which disconnect them from true power, such as some addictive behavior, or otherwise not honoring the power animal. Power animals can be honored in a variety of ways, including creating its image in art, owning figurines representative of the animals, dancing its power, doing things the power animal likes to do, like running through the woods, or supporting its species by donating to organizations which help them in ordinary reality.
Dr. Michael Harner (1990) and Andrews (1993) talk extensively about the fact that the relationship with a power animal is reciprocal, and if the animals feel ignored or unnecessary, they will wander further and further away until they may ultimately leave for good. A power animal can be recovered or replaced by another through a core shamanic process known as "Power Animal Retrieval," which is performed by a shaman for a client. A shaman can also work to retrieve her own power animal by utilizing a drumming, dancing and rattling ritual talked about by Harner (1990) in his book referred to as "Calling in the Beasts."
A power animal can leave a person without causing power loss if a new animal immediately moves in to take its place. This switch is not due to disrespect to the human, but a natural event occurring frequently as the needs of the shaman or person changes over time. One of my shamanic teachers is currently experiencing the introduction of Snake and the loss of Wolf as her primary power animal.
When I was much younger, I once asked one of my shaman teachers the question, "If I have God, why do I need a power animal?". I honestly can't remember her answer, but I formulated my own. We could ask the same question, "If I have God, why do I need friends?" The answer is clear. We all need friends who are immediately accessible, pure and loving, who have are best interests in their heart. Power animals play that role in a humans life. They live close to our frequency. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The Higher Powers, The Ancestors, The Angels, The Power Animals, The Ascended Masters, and God/Goddess (who created all of this beauty) compliment each other and work on different frequencies best suited to their abilities and corresponding to the needs of humans incarnated. All you need to do is ask.