Saturday, February 8, 2014

Familiars, Totems, and Guides: What's the Difference? Does it Matter?

There are vastly different schools of thought within the pagan community about animal familiars, totem animals, animal guides, or power animals and what they are, what they aren't, how many you can have, and how you get one.  Obviously, with animal guides, totems, and power animals (and yes, I use those words non-interchangeably for a reason) it will depend upon the path you or your teacher walk as to which words are used and if they are used in an interchangeable manner, among other things.  With the witch's familiar things get even more ambiguous, so we will start there.

In Medieval European folk-belief, the familiar was a spirit who would help the cunning-folk (which they tended to categorize differently from Witches) with his or her practice of magic.  Sometimes this entity would take the form of an animal while other times it might be incorporeal, according to various accounts.  However, for the sake of argument, we are going to focus on animal familiars, the most recognizable concept in most modern Wiccan traditions.

In most modern practices, the animal familiar is a helper with magic.  Traditionally, the familiar is a cat, specifically a black cat, but this is not always the case.  I have known witches and Wiccans with dogs, snakes, mice, cats, and a menagerie of other animal familiars.  In today's world, the animal familiar tends to be an animal that the practitioner has a special connection to.

In the early days of my own practice, I never put much stock into the notion of a familiar.  I had a dog, a very large, caring, and mundane canine, and I didn't see the need to have another animal.  Then, I met a stray Lab.  It was December and she was cold, hungry, and obviously in need of medical care.  (Someone had thought it would be fun to take this gentle soul and carve her up with a knife of some kind.)  So it was, I had two, rather large, blonde dogs.  Belle was a large Labrador Retriever, and I'm almost certain, not 'just' dog.

About a year after bringing her into my life, I was chosen (literally) by a tiny tabby kitten whose litter mates all had names of Greek deities.  He didn't, though.  At about six weeks old, when all of his siblings were climbing on everything and falling and being super adorable, he sat patiently at my feet, watching me, until my sister noticed him and told me to pick him up.  He perched on my shoulder and snuggled into my hair.  I was chosen and had to figure out how to introduce this little guy to my two giant dogs without them eating him.  They didn't eat him and, as a matter of fact, Belle took to him like he was her tiny little brother.  Her tiny little brother, then grew up and became her small-ish brother.  At adulthood, he was as large as a Boston Terrier, weighing in at somewhere around 25 pounds.  (That's a LOT of cat!)

 As time went on, I noticed that the two of them would come into my crafting room whenever I was working energy.  I wouldn't call them, they would just come.  Mr. Mao would sit at the edge of my circle and watch as Belle would dance and wiggle and help me raise energy.  To this day, I believe that I had a familiar and a guardian.  The latter, something that I didn't know could happen (at the time).  Even my very conservative, Christian mother commented on the strangeness of my animals, often telling me that there was 'something not right' about my cat.  He loved her, but his stares unnerved her, I think.

As for animal guides, totems, and power animals, this concept is a whole different beast (pardon the pun).  As a general rule, these labels come from shamanic backgrounds all over the world.  These creatures are purely etheric, generally, and guide us in the astral plane or Otherworlds.  Depending on your flavor of shamanic practice, the 'rules' change in regards to animal guides.

Many moons ago, when I was learning a particular brand of indigenous shamanism, I was taught that the words 'totem' and 'power animal' were synonymous, but 'animal guide' meant something different. In reality, my teacher used the word 'totem' in lieu of 'power animal', but now I don't remember why she had such an aversion (it was around 10 years ago).  So, that being the case (in my own teachings), why was there this clear delineation?

That particular line was drawn because totems had a couple of different categories and you didn't just have one.  There were familial totems and your own personal totem, which meant you could have up to 5 different animals that were with you from birth.  The familial totems were from each of the 4 branches of your family and, to my understanding, were more like guardian spirits.  They were there and, once you began your walk, they guided and protected you.  Your personal totem could be one of these animals, too, or it could be something completely different, and it works in the same way power animals do.

On top of these particular animals, you have 'animal guides'.  These are the animals you meet in the Otherworlds who are there to help you on your journey.  They may or may not manifest in the physical (as an upsurge of seeing them at odd times or experiencing odd behavior from them), but they are there to give you messages and impart omens.  These animals also only stay until it is clear whether or not you learned their particular lesson or received their message.  There is, very much, a transience to their presence.

Since that time, I have learned that there are diverse ideas of totems/power animals and how we get and keep them, but the most prolific is that we all have one and we have had it since birth, no matter how long it takes us to actually discover it.  I find this teaching just as comfortable as the many totems/guides teaching.  It's less complicated.  It's more concrete.  Everyone can identify with it, no matter how much or little they have been exposed to a shamanic path.

If you walk a shamanic path, what are your experiences?  Were you taught something completely different from what I have talked about?  Were you taught something similar?  Do you have any specific thought about familiars and how they come to us?  Did your Wiccan or Craft Tradition teach something all together different in terms of familiars?  I would love to hear your thoughts on this, dear readers.  I am always looking to have my horizons expanded based upon the experiences of others.

Brightest Blessings, Friends!

1 comment:

  1. Well, I'm a Hedgewitch, which is a type of Shamanism. I wasn't taught by a specific person, but by reading other's experiences, as well as my own with the Spirits and my own Guides. I've had pets, but never a Familiar, and I'm fine with that. Not having the experience with them, I don't really have a thought about them. They're not important to my practice. Which as a Hedge Witch, I mainly work with Spirits anyway.

    I used to lump totem and spirit animal together, until I realized that there is a difference. One of mine stood out from the herd and wasn't all that social. This is my Totem, an emblem of my life. I don't interact with my Totem like I do with my Spirit Animals. Although Mountain Goat appears once in a while as a reminder of who I am.

    My Spirit Animals--I have five--are more like friends, companions, guides, and guardians. I have four who visit me here on this realm, in the dreamscape, and in the astral, then I have one specifically for the Spirit World. He's new :-)

    I don't bother with "power animal". However other Animal spirits come along with their own teachings, but they're not companions, but Messengers. They come and go.

    I believe that we are born with Guardians and Guides. Some see them as angels, others as ancestors, and/or animals. I believe that one is with you from birth, others change as you live; and that they choose you. They teach you something, as well as learn about themselves, or so I've witnessed.

    Great post. I think I may elaborate more on my blog. I love the Totem/Spirit Animal topic. Mine are very important to me. :-)