Choosing animal guides and why saying “spirit animal” is a no-go

I’ve always been an animal lover and when I was a kid I wanted to be a veterinarian. That never panned out, but as I’ve matured into my witchhood, I’ve found my connection to animals has only grown stronger.

Different spiritual traditions have been honoring animals since ancient times, but North American Indigenous practices are arguably the best known.

Over the years those traditions have been mocked, stolen, and repackaged. According to pop culture, a “spirit animal” can encompass everything from an animal that appears in a dream to a Real Housewives’ alcohol-fueled rant. However, to certain Indigenous cultures, spirit animals represent something specific and sacred. By bastardizing their beliefs into trendy online quizzes, we commit microaggressions against these communities. Try replacing ‘spirit animal’ with patronus, animal familiar, or animal guide instead.

I was in a pretty dark place when I found the support of an animal, or in my case insect, guide. I was out for a walk one day when a butterfly flew into my path. It was a bright blue monarch and it reminded me of how I would chase and catch butterflies as a kid. I kept expecting it to flutter away, but it seemed like this monarch was playing tag with me. It danced around my head and drank nectar from every flower we passed. I soon found my problems forgotten and my mouth upturned in a smile as I watched my butterfly friend. Eventually it disappeared into the sky, but not before I decided that every butterfly I came across would represent a sign from the universe that I was moving in the right direction.

To some that may seem like a cop out, a cheap way to use the universe to validate all of my decisions. After all, I live in sunny Southern California and butterflies are hardly rare, especially in the spring and summer months. To me, the butterfly was a reminder that there are no wrong choices and what truly matters is the attitude we bring to what we perceive as problems. Many cultures associate butterflies with transformation, freedom, change, hope, and endurance, which I also resonated with.

After about six months, I began to bore of butterflies. They had taught me rich lessons around transition, acceptance, and how to break free, but it was time to move on. One day during another walk, I asked the universe for a new animal guide.

Not ten minutes later, a hummingbird flew in my face, nearly knocking me into traffic. I’ve always been attracted to the hummingbird and its iridescent plumage, but at the same time was intimidated by their needle-like beaks. As my blood pressure began to drop, I considered that the hummingbird might be my new patronus. Later on I found out that hummingbird wings move in the pattern of the infinity symbol and that they represent wise use of energy, optimism, and joy.

Now that I’m further into my personal practice with animal guides, I find the hummingbird speaks to me in ways the butterfly never did. Whenever a hummingbird flies near my face, I know to be on the lookout for surprises. Every now and then I will come across a hummingbird sitting perfectly still and recognize it as a nudge from the universe to slow my roll.

The more I attempted to translate messages from the animal realm, the more they went out of their way to communicate with me.

Once, I was leaving a client’s home when we both saw a mangy coyote cross the street. It looked malnourished, with pieces of fur missing and its tail tucked between its legs. As randomly as it appeared, it quickly scampered away.

Another time, I was hiking when a curious coyote blocked my path. It was just after sunrise and I was the only person on the trail. I knew that coyotes were not typically aggressive, so I cautiously took a couple of steps forward. As I did so, it took a couple of steps towards me. I then took a couple of steps backwards and the coyote followed suit. It felt like we were playing a game, but before we could finish, a pair of hikers rounded the bend and the coyote ran away.

These experiences taught me that just because a certain species keeps visiting you doesn’t mean it’s always bringing the same lesson. Pay attention to your mood and present circumstances as you try to understand what the animal might be teaching you. I could tell from the difference in the coyotes’ appearance that they were bringing vastly different messages. Over time, I’ve learned to look at attitude, posture, and for health indicators when attempting to decode an animal’s unspoken language.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to incorporating animals into magical practices. Some witches take it a step further with items like rabbit feet or shark teeth. Some communicate much more clearly with animals and meet them in their dreams.

Whatever your practice is, remember that these animal helpers are doing so on their own accord and to show gratitude for their wisdom and guidance.

Images: Beth Maiden

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  1. Laura says:

    Yes! Thank you for naming this. I am happy to see more awareness of this within spiritual communities. It is of course possible for persons of any ancestry to have deep, meaningful relationship with non-human animals, and also, the particular ways these relationships are held within diverse indigenous communities are not to be taken lightly or trivialized.

  2. Evelyn Garing says:

    What a fun post. I have explored this when camping, but never really thought to bring into my daily life. Thanks! The tools that have helped me the most, consistently, are those that are Nature based, be it inwardly or outwardly.

  3. Paige says:

    It is so wonderful to see someone explain why using certain language is not okay. As a person who comes from a Navajo/Mexican background, it really hurts me to see people who trivialize and tokenize Indigenous traditions. In a lot of ways is very difficult to explain why that approach to acknowledging tradition isn’t okay. You explained it beautifully while also helping people who haven’t grown up hearing about the medicine and messages our animal friends. I think it’s also important to say that all animals aren’t tokenizable beings and their messages aren’t always ground breaking, like us they wish to exist in peace on our earth mother so we must respect them, their bodies and atonomy.

    • LiLMaMaRox says:

      I am an indigenous native and I do say spirit animal. I am highly offended by the story and your reply. Namaste/Reiki crap has moved from middle eastern & European countries to come here and try to force out the native American spiritual / Celtic / shaman beliefs. Not a chakra it’s an aura. It’s not an insect or animal guide it’s an animal spirit. We use real drums not technologies man made frequency! We the natives of American and Celtic ancestry are authentic BACK THE FUCK UP FAKES!

  4. Nikki says:

    Very happy for the guidance expressed in this post! I do think that the use of the term patronus is interesting – I tend to stay away from terms generated in J.K. Rowling’s universe after her appropriation of North American indigenous cultures in her online fiction releases.

  5. Randi says:

    I’ve always been drawn to animals and have recently been trying to figure how to best hone into that part of me and perhaps find an animal guide. This post came at the perfect time for me and I see it as a sign to be open and mindful to the universe. Thank you so much!

  6. Angharad says:

    Thinking about the way that the language of Harry Potter books has permeated modern witchcraft is actually rather lovely, and I can see how ‘patronus’ would work here. I was about to make a joke about how my current snail patronus wouldn’t do much against dementors – but then I realised that it already has: the wisdom of snails helped me recover from depression, with their lessons of perseverance, resilience, self-sufficiency, security and tenderness. They are still helping me figure out how to withdraw when I need to, and how to bring a sense of security with me wherever I go. Now that spring has (finally!) arrived, colonies of snails are coming out of hibernation and their young are hatching from the cracks of the drystone walls all around my home landscape. I love watching them.

    As Paige said above, all animals aren’t tokenizable beings, and I think it’s important to appreciate that – kind of in the same way we don’t owe every angry bigot on the internet our time and energy in explaining injustice – plants and animals don’t owe us their teachings. But if we’re patient and attentive, we can learn so much from them.

    • Beth says:

      “plants and animals don’t owe us their teachings” Thank you for stating this. Many of us have really taken on this message that we can take what we want from the earth, that it is ours to help ourselves. It’s humbling and really fulfilling to challenge this taught assumption and start viewing ourselves in reciprocal relationship with plants and animals. There is an exchange and it’s not up to us to force it or take without asking, or to come to take without also seeing how we give back.

    • Haile says:

      I love that your animal patronus is a snail! Can you ask them to please stop eating my garden? 🙂 Seriously, this has inspired me to think a little more kindly of them.

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