by Irina H. Corten, Ph.D.
Power animals help us cope with life's challenges.. .The Shaman's Path
A power animal is the spirit of a wild animal species who comes from non-ordinary reality to give us teaching, guidance and protection. Power in this context refers not to large size or physical strength but to the knowledge and wisdom of the universe that the spirit animal represents. There is no hierarchy among these animals. Shamanically, a butterfly is just as powerful as an eagle, only their specific functions are different. Domesticated animals, because of their dependence on humans and remoteness from nature, are not represented in the power animal kingdom as a rule, although there are some exceptions, notably the horse.
It is believed that having a power animal is essential for our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. How many of them we have and what species depends on individual needs. For some people one animal is sufficient, while others are surrounded by a veritable zoo. The more conscious we are of these animals, the better they are able to serve us, so it is important to honor them and cultivate a relationship with them. There are many creative and enjoyable ways of doing that, such as drawing the animal's picture, dedicating a poem or a song to it, impersonating it in a dance, or giving it a physical workout. I, for example, like to invite my spirit menagerie to accompany me whenever I go for a walk in nature.
How does one acquire a power animal? People often say to me: "I've always felt particularly attracted to such and such a species. Is this my power animal?" The answer is possibly, but not necessarily. To meet our spirit animal, we must either have a shamanic practitioner journey to non-ordinary reality to retrieve it for us, or we must undertake a retrieval ritual of our own. There are several ways to go about it. In traditional shamanic cultures, a vision quest entailing a vigil in the wilderness is commonly practiced. Another method is rattling, drumming and dancing for a power animal. It also is possible to ask your power animal to reveal itself to you in a dream. The method most frequently taught to students of "core shamanism" (shamanic practice based on elements common across culture) is that of finding the animal through a visionary journey.
I have several wonderful power animals who made themselves known to me in different ways. One of them appeared in a journey during a shamanic workshop. I would like to share this journey with you, dear readers, for it follows the classic method of going to the Lower World (spirit realm beneath the earth) with the intent of meeting and communicating with a spirit animal. Our workshop instructor, Sandra Ingerman* explained the initial procedure. We were to visualize an opening in the earth through which to enter the Lower World. Once we passed through the tunnel and reached our destination, we were to ask the universe to send us the appropriate animal. After that we were to "go with the flow."
We lay down on our mats in a darkened room, covered our eyes, and Sandra began to beat her drum. I chose to go into an underground spring in a forest glade. Floating rapidly down a watery tunnel, I emerged on the shore of a lake. Telepathically I projected my intent, and almost immediately saw a large, gray wolf running toward me. I greeted him and asked if he would be willing to teach me some wisdom. "Okay, woman," he said rather gruffly, "climb on my back." I happily complied, and he carried me swiftly through a dark forest. At the end of it I saw a chain of hills illumined by a bright full moon, and a pack of wolves sitting on the slopes. My Wolf introduced me to the members of his pack and told me how important it was for them to stick together and rely on each other for survival. We all arranged ourselves in a circle and started howling at the moon.
The mountain air was cold, and when the wolves howled, mist from their breath rose upwards in columns. I felt my soul trying to rise up along these columns toward the sky in an attempt to escape from the burdens of life on our troubled planet. But each time this happened, some force would pull me right back to my place on the ground amidst the wolf pack. At one point my Wolf became so annoyed at me for these escapades that he bared his teeth at me in a most ferocious manner. In this I saw a clear teaching: Do not evade your involvements and responsibilities on earth, however difficult they might be.
Then the whole scene shifted to a frozen wilderness, possibly some place in Alaska or Siberia. The wolves - my brothers and sisters - huddled together around a dying bonfire in bitter cold. The poor animals were starving to death, and I offered my body to them as nourishment. They dismembered and ate it. My essential self remained intact, and I felt happy committing this act of unconditional love and merging with the Whole.
In the final scene of this journey the wolves and I sat in a semi-circle at the foot of a high mountain. Above the peak there loomed a huge, fiery opening that seemed to lead to some celestial cavern or inner sanctum. We sat there warming ourselves and worshipping the divine spirit emanating from this source. My membership in their extended family and the resulting sense of togetherness and mutual support was very gratifying. Symbolically it represented the importance of being a caring and committed member of the human community.
In summary, working with power animals is one of the most rewarding aspects of my shamanic practice. I love receiving their advice and answers to important questions, and sometimes just frolicking and having fun with them in shamanic journeys. I also value their assistance in retrieving power animals for clients. Their strength, energy and wisdom are truly remarkable, and after two years in their company I cannot imagine living without them.
The Shaman's Path
In Siberian lore there is an old legend about the origins of our partnership with animals. When the Great Mother Deity was creating life on earth, human beings were the last to be made. Weary from her labors, the goddess did not work very hard on this task. As a result, humans came out puny and weak, with limited wisdom and poor survival skills. When the non-human animals saw our condition, they took pity on us and decided to bond with us in order to make it easier for us to cope with life. Similar tales exist in shamanic folklore throughout the world.
According to shamanic belief, every human being at birth has one or more animal guardians. If we fail to recognize and honor them as we get older, they are likely to go away and leave us without power. (In shamanism, power means vigor and energy rather than control over others.) It is thought that losing a power animal makes one prone to illness and misfortune, and shamanic practitioners devote much time to retrieving power animals for their clients.
I would like to share with readers some of my own work in this field, but with a word of caution. Power animal retrievals on behalf of other people should not be attempted unless one has some experience with shamanic journeying and an established relationship with one's own power animal. Another important thing to remember is the ethics of this practice. No shamanic healing work, be it animal retrieval, soul retrieval, or divination, should be under-taken without the client's knowledge and consent. If the client is too ill to understand, the care givers should be consulted.
Power animal retrievals may be done in physical proximity to the client or over long distance (space travel is not a problem for spirit animals). If the client is absent, I work with a photo or a strong mental image of him or her. In either case, I usually start with a ritual to summon the helping Spirits. I like to burn some sage, light a candle, and do some rattling, drumming and singing. When my consciousness expands and I begin feeling the Spirits' presence, I turn on my shamanic drum CD, lie down, cover my eyes, and journey into non-ordinary reality. As soon as I am there, I call one of my own power animals and ask it to help me find an animal for the client. When this happens, I ask the animal if it is willing to serve. If the answer is yes, I embrace the animal and return with it to ordinary reality. I then blow this animal into the client's body or toward the absent client's location.
Animal retrieval journeys often contain imagery and messages that are relevant to the client's life, either symbolically or literally. The practitioner' s task is to recount these details as accurately as possible without commentary; interpretations are offered only if the client wishes. All of these proceedings are confidential unless the client does not object to sharing them with others, as in the case described below.
About a year ago I retrieved a power animal for a friend who writes for Star Beacon under the names "Watana" and "Lorraine (Lori) Cordini." Lori is continually coping with the task of balancing the demands of ordinary human life and those of her other, extraterrestrial existence. This is difficult and requires strength and clarity of vision. After discussing this situation, Lori and I decided that she would benefit from the support of a power animal. We had no pre-conceived notions of who that animal might be, and my shamanic journey was an adventure for us both.
Entering non-ordinary reality through a cave, I emerged at the foot of a high mountain where Mother Goat (a mountain goat, my power animal) was waiting for me. After we exchanged affectionate greetings and I told her the purpose of my visit, she led me to a region of very high mountain peaks covered with snow. On one of them I spotted a nest with two hungry and noisy eaglets. Soon their mother arrived, She fed the babies and turned her attention to me. She told me to call her Sister Eagle and agreed to being Lori's power animal.
Sister Eagle communicated to me telepathically that she wished to demonstrate a teaching for Lori. She spread her enormous wings and began to fly. Her feathers were tipped with gold, and her white head glistened in the sun. At first, the flight seemed difficult for her. Pulled down by the force of gravity and by worries about her brood, she started to lose altitude. She struggled but eventually rallied and began to soar. We flew over the Blue Ridge Mountains and circled above Lori's town. I could feel energy vibrations spiraling down from the bird's wings and surrounding the whole town with a powerful field of protection.
Then we rose into Earth's upper atmosphere and beyond. The space around us was dark, but Sister Eagle flew resolutely higher and higher. I asked her if she had a faraway destination in mind for Lori. She said yes, but there was no need to be concerned about it at present. What was important was the flight itself and the overcoming of fear and uncertainty. After a while we returned to the aerie on top of the mountain. Having fed her babies again, Sister Eagle indicated that she was ready to go with me. I cradled her large body securely in my arms, returned to ordinary reality and, with a blessing, sent her off to the direction of Lori's home.
Traveling from Minnesota to North Carolina was easy for the great bird. Later Lori told me that she felt Sister Eagle's presence about her at the time of the retrieval, although I had not informed her in advance exactly when I would be journeying. She also understood the symbolism of the bird's behavior and its relevance to her (Lori's) life. Now Sister Eagle not only guides Lori's journeys in metaphysical realms but sometimes also helps out with mundane tasks. I quote from Lori's letter:
"I don't like night driving on mountain roads . . . My family was coming home from a visit with some friends. The four lane road was under construction, and there were those big yellow marking barrels on it, and I hated that . . . oncoming lights and all. I usually drive very slowly and cautiously at night... Suddenly, the car was whizzing along with great assurance. I knew I wasn't driving! Then I heard a 'wheeeeeeee' and received a message that Sister Eagle was driving. I sensed her enjoyment and her ability to get us home safely. Our family laughed and enjoyed a safe ride home as Sister Eagle put her wings comfortably about me, guiding my hands on the steering wheel . . ."
Power animals, thank you for being there for us!
Irina Corten is a college professor of Russian living in Minnesota. *Sandra Ingerman is the author of one of the best books on contemporary shamanism, titled Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self (1991)