I learned a valuable lesson the day a skunk crossed my path. It was about animals as totems and the magical medicine they offer. Seeing animals as spirit guides was at the heart of a public ritual I created for Samhain, the Celtic festival that marks the death of summer. The mysteries of Samhain are at the heart of the holiday we call Halloween.
Samhain marks the third and final harvest of the season. The first harvest is of grain, the second of fruits and vegetables, the third of meat. Centuries ago, the third harvest marked a critical time. If a family didn’t have enough, they couldn’t simply grow more. Not with winter on the horizon. Whatever they had harvested would have to sustain them through the darkest, coldest time of the year.
An article by Dennis Thompson in HealthDay talks about a recent study at Lund University in Sweden that found an increase in heart attacks when the weather is cold, the wind strong, and sunlight low.
I see that as affirmation of what the ancients knew as the dying season. For them, reminders of what was to come were everywhere: shriveled grass, plants blackened by a killing frost, dried leaves that scratch and rattle as they dance across the roads, coughs and colds that already seized the vulnerable young and the weakest of elders. Those who knew the healing arts would dry herbs in bundles, boil roots, and bottle potions. Those who didn’t know the ways of plants at least kept a pot of onion syrup over the fire. My dad often talked about the pot of onion syrup his mother made every year, how it sat on the stove, how it thickened over the winter, how he hated the taste of it. He grew up to be a pharmacist. I suspect there was a connection.
Every November, my grandparents sent photos of the meat they had butchered. They were South Dakota homesteaders who settled there in the early 1900s. They lived 10 miles of dirt road from the nearest settlement, 50 miles from the nearest town. I grew up in Tidewater, Virginia, in a baby boom development. We bought groceries at the commissary on the Navel Base. I doubt it ever occurred to my parents to mail photographs of our groceries to my grandparents. It would be years before I understood that those grainy, black and white photos of meat were meant to assure us that we needn’t worry. My grandparents had enough food to survive the winter.
I share that memory as a reminder of a time, not that long ago, when no one took having food and heat and medicine for granted. Winters were long and filled with dire “what ifs.” Going back centuries, people called on their ancestors to get them through any difficult time, especially the winter.
In the Celtic world, there were only two seasons, summer and winter. Winter begins with Samhain. Astrologically, Samhain occurs when the Sun reaches the 15th degree of the fixed sign of Scorpio. It heralds a time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin and travel between the realms is possible. A GPS won’t do you any good, though guides are definitely helpful. That’s what I had in mind when I created a ritual that focused on the myth and magic of animals as spirit guides.
I held the ritual at Meg’s Inspirations, a gift shop and spiritual boutique in Manchester, Connecticut. To begin, I asked everyone to be mindful of the animals outside, in the sky. Here in the northeast, this is the season when the Big Dipper lies close to the northern horizon and the night sky tells the story of how the Great Bear is coming down to wash its paws in the northern lakes before they are sealed by winter’s ice. Pegasus, the winged horse, rides overhead, as does Cygnus, the graceful Swan. In the southwest sky, Aquila, the Eagle, glides lower and lower toward the Earth.
We talked about the ways of seeing animals. In his book, Animal Speak, the late Ted Andrews offers four ways. The first way is obvious: Simply see an animal’s beauty in the natural world. Ask questions. Does it live on land or in the water? Does it depend on a particular type of food? Is the food plentiful. Is the animal found all over the world or only in particular areas? Is it distinguished by its color? By its fur? Its feathers? Is it hunted freely? Is it an endangered species?
The second way is to get in touch with what the animal means to us. What does it symbolize? Does it feed a fear? Trigger an urge? Does it suggest something we have neglected? Repressed? Denied? Does it symbolize something we desire? Do we associate it with a childhood memory, or a story such as the ugly duckling that becomes a swan? If we can understand, embrace, and transform the meaning we associate with an animal, we can enrich our inner world.
The third way to see an animal is to view it as a power animal. Andrews talks about how animals exist in the spirit world just as people do. Those of us who have lost pets will find that idea comforting. He says animals in the spirit world can give us energy and advice. They can help us heal.
I think some power animals are created by cultures that recognize an animal’s ability to inspire both fear and admiration. Tigers in India, elephants in Africa, buffalo in the Midwest, whales in various oceans, eagles in various skies. Those are just a few examples. I’m sure you can think of more.
The fourth way of seeing an animal is by embracing it as a personal totem. Your personal totem may or may not be a power animal. To me, a power animal is like a college professor and your totem animal is a private tutor.
From what I understand and from my own experience, you don’t choose a totem animal. It chooses you. It enters your life in a way that draws your attention – like the evening I was walking with friends in downtown Saratoga Springs in upstate NY and a skunk boldly waddled in front of us. As you can imagine, we all froze. We didn’t want to startle the skunk or in any way encourage it to see us as the enemy. Anyone sprayed by its powerful odor would be immediately ostracized! Someone in the group knew a lot about animal medicine and told us that skunk medicine is all about boundaries, about how a person can establish boundaries without the use of force. Think about it. That skunk’s presence alone was enough for us to back off. As it happened, I was dealing with a significant boundary issue at the time. I took note and made some changes in my life. That incident happened over 15 years ago. To this day, whenever I see or smell a skunk, I do a boundary check.
Once an animal catches your attention in the way a totem animal will, you’ll detect its presence in the days and weeks to come. You might be see it in photos, movies, song lyrics, logos, gift shops, cartoons, or real life.
All of these thoughts about animals and the need to survive the winter formed the canvas on which I created the Samhain ritual. A few hours before it started, I set up an altar. Picture two tables, each six feet long, placed end to end, veiled with black fabric, decorated with symbols of the season. I had dried leaves, acorns, pumpkins and skeletons. I had three witches. I had figures in stone, wood or metal of an owl, a cat, a frog, a turtle, a bull, a whale, a pig, a bear, a raven, two swans, several snakes, lots of silver spiders, and a copper-colored dragon nearly three-feet tall.
There were 19 of us at the ritual. We lowered the lights. Candles flickered. Doug Yager drummed while everyone walked the length of the two tables. We walked slowly, noting each animal and, most importantly, our reaction to it. These were the animals that stood ready to guide us through the winter. We would need to make friends.
At the end of the table, each person received an envelope. On the outside was the name of an animal. Before opening our envelopes, we talked about our immediate association with the animal that would be our guide. Then we opened the envelopes. Inside was a picture of the animal and a slip of paper with three key words associated with its magical powers. I drew the words from several sources, including my all-time favorite book on the subject: The Druid Animal Oracle by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. The book and the associated oracle cards are rich in color, text, and mythical associations. And there are four dragons, one of earth, air, fire, and water. Sometimes it’s easier for a person to think of an animal as having magic if the animal is creature of myth.
While there were more than 30 cards and only 19 people, all four dragons had been chosen. Or, more accurately, four people had been chosen by the dragons.
We talked about the energy of the Fire Dragon to lead, the Air Dragon to enlighten, the Water Dragon to heal, and the Earth Dragon to reveal the treasure buried in the soul. One woman talked about her daughter’s fascination with dragons and how just that morning the little girl asked if she could get a dragon for her room.
Someone else had been chosen by the Bear. We talked about how in Europe and North America the bear was one of the first animals to have been honored as a spirit animal. We talked about the bear’s association with the legend of King Arthur, how the name Arthur comes from the Celtic word Art meaning bear or stone or God and how the constellation Ursa Major – the Great Bear, also known as the Big Dipper, is also known as the Arthur’s Plow.
We talked about other animals:
- The Bee, known for its sense of community, hard work, and for the celebrations that featured mead made from honey.
- The Hawk, known in Ireland as an animal as old as time. Its gift is to help connect you to your ancestral roots and thereby help you see your life in perspective
- The Salmon, thought to be the oldest animal of all. It offers wisdom and the suggestion that in order to gain wisdom, you might have to return to the place of your birth. In other words, look to your Inner Child.
My original plan for this ritual was for each of us to look for connections between our animal and a loved one who had died, with the thought that the spirit of the departed had a role in matching us with our particular animal guide. But three days earlier, one man filled with hate killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. So I opened the ritual by asking that we keep all 12 people in mind – that with the help of the animals we would meet in ritual, the 11 who were slaughtered would be guided across the Rainbow Bridge and the hate-filled heart be emptied, to be transformed by kindness, in this life or the next.
So I changed the ritual. We imagined how the gifts offered by our individual animal guides might help the survivors in a neighborhood called Squirrel Hill.
May the bear guide them through the darkest nights.
May the dog protect all they hold sacred.
May the eagle bring the courage to see through adversity.
May the bee nourish them with the sweetness of life.
May the squirrel help them rebuild.
To close the ritual, we gathered in a circle, held the images of our totem animals for all to see. We went around the circle, each of us naming one gift from the spirit guides that had chosen us that night.
As I write these words, it’s late autumn and we’ve just had our first snow storm of the season. I live across from a nature center. It’s not unusual to see fox, raccoon, coyote, deer, hawk, owl, groundhog, chipmunk, and squirrel. One evening last week, a graceful, majestic stag stood in our meadow. I’ve always thought of the stag as a messenger from the Otherworld. The reasons go back to an old Welsh story about King Arthur and his goal to find and free Mabon, the Celtic Divine Youth, the Son of Light.
According to the legend, Arthur’s knights seek guidance first from the Blackbird, thinking it to be the oldest of creatures. The Blackbird sends the knights to the creature created before him, the Stag. The Stag sends the knights to the even older Owl, which sends them to the even older Eagle. And finally, the Eagle sends them to the oldest animal of all, the Salmon. In The Druid Animal Oracle I mentioned earlier, the authors say that the sequence of animals represents a journey that takes us deeper and deeper into the Underworld, and that when the Stag comes from the other realm, he carries on his back the King of the Fairies …and Merlin himself! So the next time you see a stag, think about where it might have been and about the invisible rider on its back.
And the next time you have salmon for dinner, try this simple ritual. Let your hand hover over the salmon. Spread your fingers. Imagine them as the five magical beasts that will lead the way to the ancestors who can guide you to your through whatever challenge you face, so you can find your own inner light. Then, with sincere intent say:
For the blackbird’s gift of enchantment…
For the stag’s gift of guidance…
For the owl’s gift of change…
For the eagle’s gift of courage…
For the salmon’s gift of wisdom…
I thank the ancestors.
Imagine scooping energy into your hand. Grab the energy in your fist and bring it to your heart. Then eat the salmon. If you’re feeling energetic, leap, dance! The authors of The Druid Animal Oracle tell us that the word summersault comes from a corruption of salmon-sault. Think about that the next time you watch a documentary about salmon.
Now, you might be thinking, what’s the point? Samhain, Halloween, is over. That veil between the worlds has closed. Take heart. The veil will thin again in May for the festival of Beltane. Where Samhain connects us with the ancestors, Beltane connects us with the fairies. In the meantime, befriend your totem animal. Study its history, its habits, its needs. Recognize its gifts.
So…what’s your totem animal? How did it choose you? How have you used its gift? If you’re willing to share your story, email it to me at Zita@RitualRecipes.net I’ll try to use it in a future episode, along with the story of the animal totems that chose me.
Mentioned in this post and in episode 11 of the Ritual Recipes podcast:
The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm
Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small by Ted Andrews