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Seven Spirit Animals

In researching and writing for the British Druid Order's Druid course, I've been working on the sub-stratum of spiritual beliefs and practices that underlies just about every religion there is. This seems to have emerged about 40,000 years ago in Central Asia. By 35,000 years ago, it had spread across a territory extending from Spain to Siberia. A central feature consists of ways in which humans and other animals relate spiritually. I've identified seven animals, or groups of animals, that have maintained key roles in human spirituality for millennia - at least among peoples who have either retained ancestral ways or are seeking to renew them. The seven are:

eaglehuman temple woodeaton oxonEagles: - Eagles are royal birds, linked with the Sun, sometimes regarded as ancestors, and are messengers between our Mid-world and the Upper-world of the sky gods. Because of this, they are often regarded as bringers of storms and winds. They are also invoked for healing and in childbirth. (Picture: shape-shifting Eagle from Woodeaton in Oxfordshire. Late Iron Age)

Ravens: - Highly intelligent birds, Ravens are noted for their wisdom and also regarded as creators, shapers and shape-shifters, culture-bringers, teachers and tricksters. They are invoked, and their movements studied, for divination. As carrion-eaters, they are associated with the Otherworld of the dead and seen as messengers between worlds. What goes for Ravens applies to some extent to most other members of the Corvid family, Crows, Magpies, &c..

Brandsbutt_Stone_serpentSerpents/Dragons/Wyrms, &c.: - By many names are they known. Serpents are chiefly seen as Under-world beings, receptacles of very strong power that can cause earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Some are winged and create thunder-storms. Serpents can also create disease and injury in humans and other animals. Conversely, people of sufficient strength can 'tame' the serpent power and use it just as powerfully for healing. Serpents have long been associated with the Moon, their ability to shed and renew their skins being likened to the lunar cycle. (Picture: Pictish stone with carved Serpent, Moon, lightning bolt and Oghams. Brandsbutt, Scotland. c. 6th century.)

Artio Bear Goddess 2Bears: - Bear cults and societies are pretty much universal wherever there are bears. The bear is seen as a powerful protective spirit, teacher and guide, also as an ancestor, healer and culture-bringer or enhancer. Considered human-like because they sometimes rear up on their hind legs, bears were also invoked by warriors for their courage, strength and stamina. (Picture: The Bear goddess, Artio - from Celtic 'Artos,' 'Bear' - feeds one of her kin. Bern, Switzerland. Late Iron Age.)

 

PictishWolfWolves: - Wolves are powerful teachers and guides, also revered as ancestors. Their pack behaviour teaches us the benefits of community. Wolves, like Bears, were also invoked by warriors, Wolf warrior societies having been common in Europe, Asia and America. Like the others mentioned so far, Wolves are hunters or scavengers, invoked to bring success in hunting. (Picture: Pictish Wolf. Ardross, Scotland. c. 7th century.)

 

Burghead Bull Brit MusBovines: - The primal bovine of ancient Eurasian cultures was the Aurochs, an animal considerably bigger and stronger than the modern-day cattle descended from it. Its hide was usually black. The other major bovine spirit of our ancestors was the Eurasian Bison. Bulls and Cows are both associated with powerful deities, often the parents of divine dynasties. The first, largest and most powerful prey animal on the list, hunted for meat, skins to make clothing and shelters, bones and horns to make a wide variety of practical or decorative objects. Bovine skulls were often buried as spirit guardians of sacred sites. (Picture: Pictish Bull from Burghead, Scotland, now in the British Museum. c. 7th century.)

cerf2 stagCervids (Deer): - Like bovines, the Deer family have long been a major prey species for humans and wolves. Like bovines, their skins have provided shelter and clothing, their bones tools and ornaments. They are often connected with via antlered deities who ensure their health as a species while giving humans permission to kill individual animals. (Picture: Bronze Stag from Nuevy-en-Sullias, France. Late Iron Age.)

If they were still around, I'd have added an eighth: Mammoths. I like Mammoths. I hope researchers find a way to bring them back...

We humans connect with these and other animal spirits in a variety of ways. They often appear to their chosen humans first during life-transforming visions. After the first appearance, their aid can be invoked by mimicking their behaviour and cries and/or dressing as them in ceremonies, by using a feather, tooth, claw or some other token, usually kept about the person for this purpose, by painting them on a drum or making a rattle in their image, or by placing images of them on an altar in the home.

Alexander_CarmichaelIn looking at the copious folklore attached to all these creatures in cultures around the world, I am struck by the fact that folk who study such 'oral texts' these days seem to readily accept them as evidence of ancient beliefs and practices if they are found in, say, Siberia, Nepal or New Mexico. Some of the same researchers then seem oddly reluctant to make the same assumption when very similar folk tales and customs are found in Britain and Ireland. This even applies when the British and Irish tales were collected at the same time and their Asian or American counterparts, usually the late 19th century when interest in folklore was at its height. The folklorists who collected this material at the time mostly believed that it related to ancestral cultures in the same way wherever it was found. Some undoubtedly overstated the case, but the suspicion that overstatement caused doesn't seem to apply to 'exotic' cultures. Could it be that some European scholars, at this point in the 21st century, still feel deep in their bones that 'those people' are 'primitive' whereas our fellow-countryfolk couldn't possibly harbour beliefs similar to ones our shared ancestors held 35,000 years ago? I sincerely hope this isn't so, but the differing attitudes towards different cultures do make me wonder.

The picture is of Alexander Carmichael, who collected folklore in the highlands and islands of Scotland in the late 19th century. He was definitely one of the good ones. His Carmina Gadelica remains a fine source of arcane lore. You can access two volumes of it for free here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg.htm

There are, however, more modern researchers who revert to the older notion of accepting folk tales, specifically those written down in the medieval era, as preserving genuine ancient beliefs. One such is Irish archaeologist, John Waddell who, In his recent book, Archaeology and Celtic Myth (Four Courts Press, 2014), quotes his colleague, Tomás Ó Cathasaigh's opinion that: "what is remarkable about the Irish situation is the extent and richness of the vernacular literature which has come down to us from the early medieval period. Much of this literature is firmly rooted in ancient myth and remains robustly pagan in character."

Awen to that... /|\

For more on Animal Spirits, see my previous post, http://greywolf.druidry.co.uk/2014/11/animal-spirits/

Published on Categories 'Shamanism', Druidry, History, Teaching
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About Greywolf

I'm Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass). My main claim to fame (such as it is) is that I'm chief of the British Druid Order (BDO). I discovered Druidry in 1974, seeing it as a native British 'shamanic' spirituality. An Alexandrian Wiccan coven I joined in 1978 transformed into the Grove of the Badger as Druidry increasingly replaced Wicca in its rites. The end result was the BDO. Emma Restall Orr was joint chief of the Order with me from 1995 to 2002. I live in rural Wiltshire, not far from my spiritual heartland, the area in and around the Avebury henge. I'm a writer, musician, artist, drum-maker, roundhouse-builder and thatcher. I have three sons who share my obsession with music, books and film. Personal obsessions include the work of Britain's greatest bard, Robin Williamson, the comic books of Jack 'King' Kirby (1907-1994) and the speed-freak rock'n'roll of The Screaming Blue Messiahs.

1 thought on “Seven Spirit Animals

  1. avatarCathal Tierney

    Hello Philip I had the honour of meeting Chris Turner of the BDO here in Scotland a kinder man you could not meet.

    Cathal

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