Medicine animals are variously known as power animals, spirit animals, animal guides, spirit helpers or totems. Cherokee native, Dr. Loretta Standley on her Animal Medicine page, tells us that, “The word “medicine” in Native American practice and in the custom of animal medicine refers to the healing aspects that a particular animal brings to our consciousness.” To Native American author Tristan Picotte, an animal Spirit Helper is a benevolent spirit that, “comes to you in your time of need”, providing strength, insight and/or healing.
Shamanic practitioner Steven Farmer (author of Earth Magic) describes the many ways animal guides appear to us:
- as animals in real life
- in dreams
- physically feeling their presence
- seeing printed and movie images
For example, spirit animals may show up as actual animals in our daily life. For example, certain birds (e.g., Hermit Thrush, owls) show up in my environment when I am in need of spiritual support and connection. Seeing a spirit animal in a dream is also a common occurrence. I share two stories below of such dreams. Physically feeling the presence of a spirit animal is another way. A shaman once sent me a White Horse to help me kick through obstacles, and I felt the hair raise on the back of my neck when I sensed its presence in my house. Seeing images of animals on clothing, posters and in the movies can be a “sign” that they are near us.
I first became aware of Medicine Animals in healing when I had a dream about my nephew Jack. Jack was a toddler, maybe 2-years old, when his parents were discussing treatment options for a strawberry hemangioma, a large raised red birthmark, on the top of Jack’s head. They were worried it might bleed if he bumped his head. Around this time, I had a dream of a Crow trying to reach Jack. In the dream, I tried blocking the path of the Crow, afraid it might harm Jack, but finally, I stepped aside. The crow walked over to Jack and used its beak to pry off the birthmark – the Crow flicked it off. That was the end of the dream. In real life, Jack’s birthmark quickly receded, and his family shortly thereafter moved to Seattle. I did not see them again until a few years later when I traveled to Seattle to visit them. When I arrived, Jack came up to me and, without a word, handed me a crow feather. I felt that he ‘knew’ about the healing at some deep level. This series of events made me aware that the animal spirits are willing to help humans, and what happens in dream-time affects our waking life.
I felt the healing power of another Medicine Animal when I visited Great Serpent Mound in southwest Ohio. I was having some minor gallbladder pain at the time, but traveled to the Mound anyway, curious to see it. It was a quiet autumn day with no one around, other than the gatekeeper. As I walked the trail beside the mound, with numerous signs “Keep off the Mound”, I felt such a thrill to be there. It is a beautiful site, on a small hill surrounded by trees. The geology of the site is unusual; geologists speculate that a comet or meteor may have struck the earth at this location.
As I reached the head of the Great Serpent, I turned and saw that I was alone, so I climbed on top of the mound, despite all of the signs, and started walking the length of the serpent, towards the tail. Suddenly, I felt the ground move beneath me, like a giant serpent moving under my feet, undulating. An actual animal spirit, the Great Serpent, living in the mound! Later I learned that other people have experienced this Spirit both in the mound and in the park. As I drove away, I noticed that my pain was gone.
Steven Farmer tells the story of a young man named Yoshiko who had leukemia. He was sick with the flu and high fever when he had a clear dream of a Wolf. The fever went down right after the dream, and Yoshiko stated, “I felt great afterward!” The Wolf visited him in his dreams throughout his treatment, providing support and guidance during his convalescence.
As another story, I had a high fever with the flu for 10 days, and started to get worried, wondering when the fever would break. I walked out the back door to take out the garbage, turned, and saw a Bald Eagle sitting in a tree across the street. I lived in a city neighborhood, so it was very unusual to see a Bald Eagle. The Eagle sat in this tree most of the day. I felt so uplifted to see this Eagle that my fever disappeared! Another example of a Medicine Animal in healing!
In our city lives, it is rare to hear stories of animal spirits. We are largely disconnected from our animal helpers. These stories are a reminder that Spirit Medicine is available to us. We can connect with them through dreams, ritual, meditation, and real-life experiences. When we receive the assistance of medicine animals in healing, we learn that they can be our friends and allies in times of need.