Most people use the term "Spirit Animal" when they relate to certain characteristics of a natural animal. Whether it's the guile of a nimble cat, the dominance and authority of a mighty lion, or the plain laziness of a sloth, we usually say that the creature with attributes similar to ours is our "spirit animal."
Nowadays, the term is usually used in a humorous manner. Centuries ago, our predecessors would approach it more seriously – religiously even. Today we're here to tell you the story behind spirit animals and some of the most prominent belief systems that feature the concept.
Dozens of sources regarding spirit animals point towards animism – a system of beliefs that all things possess a soul (or at least spiritual essences or residue). However, this belief system encompasses everything from living creatures to inanimate objects and even abstracts such as words and thoughts.
The idea of Spirit Animals was reinforced by animism. Adherents to the principles of animism would explore all possible ties between the human soul and everything we, as humans, could perceive through our five senses.
Although this dogma is too broad, it shows us that pre-civilization humankind understood that animals had souls, which means those general elements of religion and spirituality could apply to them as well. Primitive cultures that practiced animism differ from each other substantially, but all imply that animal spirits existed.
Spirit Animals And Natural Crises
After centuries of pondering whether animals have spirits or not, war, famine, droughts, floods, and countless other disasters fell upon primitive tribes and societies.
While primitive cultures were constantly in survival mode, they brushed off such events as natural. As groups of people became more organized, myths and legends of beasts spewing fire, stealing their crops, and unleashing hailstorms on their huts ran like wildfire.
Cultures with a fundamental understanding of religion fashioned their gods as humans with animal elements. For example, ancient Egyptian gods had animal heads and features, while Hermes is famously depicted carrying a caduceus – a wand entwined by a pair of serpents.
Totemism is the pinnacle of animal worship, and it can be argued that this is a departure from animism's practices into more religious waters. Totems are objects that house the spirits of people or animals who watch over the land and people who've built them.
One of the most curious things about this belief system is its shared practice between numerous indigenous groups that did not have the means or technology to communicate with each other. Yet, many totems had similar aesthetics and are believed to have served the same purpose.
With totems, prehistoric humans have made concrete advancements towards the belief that animals had spirits. Totems were also perceived as the guardians of the clans that built them, dissuading would-be trespassers and intimidating enemies.
Arguably the final step towards the concretization of the term 'Spirit Animal' - shamanism is a doctrine whose practitioners did not only deify animal spirits but they're also said to possess the ability to communicate with them.
Shamans had many roles across the ages, from spiritual leaders, doctors and healers, to political figures. The tribes they belonged to believed that shamans could harness the powers of animal spirits, but more importantly, shamans were the ones that are presumed to have introduced the term 'spirit animal' as we know it today.
By engaging in various rituals, foretelling fortunes, reading people's minds, and generally talking to them, shamans would serve as spirit guides, helping their fellow tribals to find their spirit animals, which often involved drinking special mind-altering potions.
Among the many different iterations of the spirit-guide concoction, Ayahuasca, the 'Soul Vine' is one of the best-documented ones. It's packed with numerous psychoactive ingredients that are said to take whoever imbibes it on a journey to the astral plane, where people could learn everything about their individual spiritual animal.
Spirit Animals Were Unique To Each Tribe, Culture, And Civilization
Every bit of mystique regarding spirit animals is largely dependent on the geographical location of cultures that nourished it. Tribes living on the shorelines knew quite a bit about marine life, while jungle dwellers were probably horrified by whales and sharks.
Tribes that hunted wolves would feel a spiritual kinship to these animals, as they essentially provided them with sustenance; fishers were more connected to water in general, while farmers rarely paid too much attention to helpful garden pests, though.
Essentially, spirit animals of prehistoric civilizations were usually animals that were dominant in their particular regions. Animals that were blessed with abilities similar but superior to humans were the easiest to relate to.
Chronology Of Spirit Animal Beliefs
In a nutshell, prehistoric civilizations first wondered whether anything besides humans could have a soul. Through animism, people realized that even inanimate objects have spiritual residue, possibly out of a belief that human souls rubbed off on the environment. This is the earliest point in time where animal spirits were brought to question.
The "dark ages" of early humankind led people to believe in various superstitions, which somewhat helped the concept of spirit animals survive until totemism came – a dogma that deified animal spirits and rose them on the highest spot of the pillars of spirituality.
With shamanism came the concretization of what spirit animals were and what they meant to prehistoric people. Although most people would not be lucid during the time they connected with their spirit animals, they at least believed they did.
Shamans plucked out the 'animal' element out of the broad spectrum of things animism attributed souls to and reinforced what totemism almost achieved.
Spirit Animals Today
Nowadays, people don't need to visit prehistoric totems, chase their spirit guides, or drink poisonous beverages to find their spirit animals – a simple quiz would do the trick just the same.
Even though numerous centuries have passed since the concept became somewhat solidified, the beliefs of a modern-day man regarding spirit animals are not too far from what our ancestors believed them to be.
We hope that this guide was helpful to you and that you have learned something new today on the story behind spirit animals and where the whole story is coming from. Make sure you stay safe in these times we are all going through, and have a good one, guys!