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Power Animals, Animal Spirits

Power Animals:
Spirit Helpers in Animal Form

What is a ‘Power Animal? Well, actually it is the spirit of a certain kind of power, assuming the form of an animal that expresses something powerful in our full and complete personhood.

Here’s an example: when we hear of a woman standing up against all odds and protecting her child, we might respectfully refer to her as a ‘Mama Bear’. If you had the chance to meet her and ask her if she could relate to that term, odds are she would smile and nod in agreement.

So where is this Mama Bear? In shamanic terms, we can say that ‘Bear’, and in particular ‘Mama Bear’ might be a piece of this woman's power. ‘Mama Bear’ could be one of her animal spirit helpers. In any event, she and Mama Bear exist together, as she is fully and completely empowered with the Mama Bear spirit.

Problems show up when we become separated from our full and complete nature. Taking this Mama Bear woman situation further, we could imagine how she could have, for any number of reasons, grown up not developing the Mama Bear potential. She might not have been shown that it was possible for her to have that kind of ferocious willingness to protect and defend her young. Perhaps she had been taught just the opposite: that she was not strong, could not defend herself, and would be incompetent to defend her children. Then as an adult, she would be missing an important part of herself.

If she recognized this and sought out encouragement and support, she might find a way to bring ‘Mama Bear’ back to herself on her own. If what was missing was not recognized as such, perhaps by living within a culture or family that disempowered women, she may feel weakened and not her full self, but not know why.

Power animals are actually quite common. Most people have had extremely personal, sometimes longstanding relationships with animal spirits, however they just didn't know it. When they learn about one of their animal spirit helpers, they are sometimes surprised and immediately recognize a relationship that was already there. When people have a power retrieval and obtain an animal spirit, they are empowered with that spirit.

One person who first learned to journey 'came back' from her first experience in the lower world having found a hummingbird as her power animal. She started looking back over her life, and realized that hummingbirds had been around her all along. She then realized that humming birds had always been something special to her, frequently encountered, and in other ways somehow seeming more important to her than to other people who she knew.
‘Power animal’ is a particularly American Northwest term for a spirit helper in animal form. These spirits have specific skills and strengths that vastly out-measure humankind’s, such as fearlessness, strength, patience, and innumerable other abilities: powers that we can use to help ourselves, as well as serve in the course of bringing healing to others. Thus, a spirit helper in animal form can provide protection to any person, not just to a shaman. They can also provide guidance, or in the case of a shaman, transportation (such as on their back, held in their claws, etc.)

Each of us has at least one, and more commonly a number of spirit helpers. To find them and ask for their assistance, we most often journey to the shamanic lower world, because that is where they are more frequently found. It is known that animal spirits actually want to help us and bring us their special power, particularly at a time of our life when we most need them. They can also travel with us, guiding, protecting, and providing us with information, something that holds true for all people, not just shamans. As is the case with our upper world teachers, these animals may also test us to determine the sincerity of our bond with them and the cleanliness of our heart.

It is unfortunately common that along the way we have become separate from one or another powers that as a full, complete, whole true self we would have had. Without our complete power, we then may find ourselves stumbling through life. The retrieval of one's power animals for ourselves or (when trained to do so) for others (when as a shamanic practitioner one is in service), the retrieval of such animals can restore a balanced wellness as we regain our full, empowered self.

And yes, regarding bears, a practitioner actually did once write to me and asked, "I was wondering if you had any information you could share with me from your particular tradition about bears, bear medicine, or bear clans. I am extremely curious."

Well, first with respect to tradition: I never felt it was appropriate or wise to restrict myself to looking for information from only one person or one particular school. That would be like going into a library and refusing to read from any more than one book, because that was 'tradition'. Of course, I have ideas about what Bear might mean to me if Bear shows up at one time or another in my life. If I had been a reader of only one book (like a practitioner who learned from only one teacher), I might be quite certain ‘bear’ meant one thing in particular (something that my single particular teacher or school espoused). But as I said, that's not me.

In the example I gave at the beginning of this article about the woman who drew upon her ‘Mama Bear’ qualities to defend her children, it would make sense to that woman that ‘Mama Bear’ was indeed one of her spirit helpers and that this power manifested itself in her when she needed to draw on it. But how do we know for certain? The only to really know what a particular spirit helper means and why it is showing up during a power animal retrieval, is when I ask the spirit world directly why it in particular is there and why it is showing up specifically at this time.

It is only directly from an animal spirit and through conversations with other non-ordinary spirit teachers that we can really know why a particular spirit helper shows up for ourselves or for one of our shamanic clients. It is only from the animal spirit itself that we can really learn what power it brings and how the person it is returning to can best work with it.

I always hesitate to suggest any ideas about what another person’s spirit helper might mean for them. It is not even credible to assume that a one of my own spirit helpers would mean the same thing to me at one time and place, or bring the same power, or work with me in the same way as it did in the past or in the future.

People go to shamanic practitioners to they can be reconnected with one or more of their animal spirit helpers. This is one of the primary functions of shamans throughout time. Perhaps, as in our earlier example, a young woman, disempowered by her cultural milieu, might go to a shaman who journeys with their own spirit help and returns to bring this young woman back a ‘Mama Bear.’ This is another way of saying that this woman now has been given the opportunity to become re-empowered with a quality that would have been her full and complete self, and now will be!

Spirit helpers are always ‘context specific’. In other words, it is a stretch to assume that a spirit helper in animal form means the same thing in all times and places. ‘Mama bear’, or ‘Bear’ can signify any number of powers, protecting one’s young being only one of them. Bear is known also known for strength, clearly, and as such a large animal they can run extremely fast.

Yet there are also widely differing qualities. For instance, Bear can also represent hibernation. What happens during Bear’s ‘sleep time?’ Is Bear, not merely sleeping, but actually journeying? Is Bear a shaman, too? If one has Bear as their spirit helper, does this mean that they have a shamanic quality that is coming out, or that they are a shaman? Certainly, there is a lot of consistency among animals in that they show certain qualities, however, there is also room for great variance. With an animal spirit helper, one should never leap to conclusions.

Ultimately, the meaning and purpose of a spirit helper is something specific and intimate between that person and their helper. Once you learn to journey, you will probably get some hints from spirit helpers during your journeys as to why they are there, and ‘flash’ on stuff when you happen to run across items and information about certain spirit helpers during your daily life, literature, the internet and so on. Moreover, there are certainly books that can lend ideas about spirit helpers. However, remember that these are just ideas and collections of associations that others have made, and any and all associations with a particular animal may or may not apply to someone in particular.

In shamanism: there is no absolute text. What is closest to the truth is always learned directly from the spirits themselves. Any formal education we receive in shamanism, just as it is with what you might find in a book about spirit helpers, is not anything more than a ‘guess-timate.’ Shamanic teachers merely teach how best to learn shamanism, and a book about spirit helpers merely gives on ideas about how someone might start inquiring about spirits. But, there is nothing absolute about the appearance of a spirit helper. Nothing about them is universal and ‘set in stone’.

As in all shamanic work, we must go back to the spirits themselves to inquire. In this case, we need to go to our animal spirit helpers to let them tell us why they are in our life at this time.