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10 Things to Know About Spirit Animals

Spirit animals reveal a lot about human nature.

Key points

  • Spirit animals, or totems, represent archetypes and are thus important in a historical sense.
  • Spirit animals are universally viewed as protectors.
  • We see reflections of spirit animals in the mascots of certain sports teams, coat of arms, and children’s stories.

Some anthropologists suggest that the Paleolithic cave paintings famously discovered in southwestern France may have been meant for animal deities. They could represent prayers by early peoples to help with the hunt or have been a form of thanks to these animal deities. Nonetheless, the prospect that early peoples were messaging animal deities dovetails with what we now refer to as spirit animals or totems.

To many, the concept of a spirit animal is merely an anthropological curiosity. But, in recent years, the allure of a totem, or an animal, bird, reptile, fish, or insect that a person feels affinity to, has caught on in various circles.

Source: Byrdyak/123RF

What exactly is a spirit animal, or totem?

Although there is no evidence for the presence of such animal spirit guides, there is literature on the subject which points back to archetypes as old as man. Consequently, it may be worth taking a closer look at spirit animals for their historical and anthropological value.

Based on extant literature, here are 10 observations concerning spirit animals.

  1. Scholars who study spirit animals agree that these spiritual entities are believed to offer help to man, whether a person realizes it or not.
  2. Spirit animals may or may not overlap with a person’s Zodiac sign.
  3. Some metaphysical researchers suggest that a person has one main spirit animal, while other spirit animal helpers may assist as needed. Alternatively, a person may have several spirit animals.
  4. Indigenous people of Siberia believed that each member of the community had a reindeer spirit animal.
  5. Celtic peoples believed that animal deities guarded entire groups of people. These animal spirits included griffins, wolves, and deer, and could aid warriors in battle. For instance, some warriors wore horns and animal skins during battle to garner help from animal deities.
  6. The animals found in a coat of arms may hearken back to spirit animals. Dogs could mean loyalty, lions could symbolize courage, and bears could represent protection. Some authors note that the animal mascots of professional sports teams, such as the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, and the San Jose Sharks, could also allude to spirit animal beliefs of yore.
  7. Akin to the concept of spirit animals, in the book Social Zooarchaeology, author Nerissa Russel points to tales where children are raised by animals or animals take husband-and-wife roles. As with beliefs concerning totems, these stories show similar patterns of animal-human kinship.
  8. In a case study authored by Reet Hiiemäe, spirit animal experiences disseminated by modern Estonian narrators are explored. According to the author, “Belief in and narratives about spirit animals are an example of contemporary vernacular lived religion … The social or belief background of the experiencers and narrators can be quite different; however, more elaborated stories usually came from people with a history of at least some forms of spiritual seeking or practicing. Several authors have stressed that the majority of vernacular belief forms attract particularly women, but there were also a number of male narrators who shared their stories about beliefs related to spirit animals.”
  9. In other results from the aforementioned Estonian study, narrators usually presented only a limited diversity of spirit animals, including wolves, deer, bears, horses, and eagles. Additionally, although Estonian narrators often alluded to Native American kinship in their animal spirit beliefs, these beliefs were otherwise usually free of any other context.
  10. Starting in the past decade, Hiiemäe noted a “liquidity” of belief structures among narrators, with those ascribed to the spirit animals harboring little historical or cultural knowledge of the phenomena, mixing elements from various cultures, and stereotyping of animal roles. In other words, their promotion of animal spirits could represent a form of appropriation.


Alexander, S. The Secret Power of Spirit Animals: Your Guide to Finding Your Spirit Animals and Unlocking the Truths of Nature. Adams Media; 2013.

Hiiemäe, R. Belief narratives of spirit-animals: A case study on Estonian contemporary folklore. Electronic Journal of Folklore. December 2019. DOI: 10.7592/FEJF2019.77.hiiemae.

Russell, N. Social Zooarchaeology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory. Cambridge University Press; 2012.

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