I am partially Native American. Cherokee, to be precise. I only found out about my heritage, though, when I was in college taking a course on Colonial America. We were studying the Cherokee and I thought they were the coolest people ever. (Did you know that Sequoia is the only known person in the history of the world to create an alphabet?) When I mentioned this to my dad he casually replied “Oh yeah, you know we’re Cherokee, right?” No, I did not. In fact, I have enough Cherokee blood to apply for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation. But I digress.
One of the things that has always tickled my fancy about Native Americans and their spirituality is the concept of Spirit Animals. Spirit Animals are your unique, individual guides through inner and outer life. You may see them in visions, you may come across them in nature at random times, or you may find yourself collecting artwork that depicts them. I do believe the Pagan concept of familiars is roughly similar to this. In fact, I think a lot of ancient religious traditions have Spirit Animals. One could even argue that Christianity does too in the form of the lamb, the lion, the dove, and more.
I have three Spirit Animals that represent three different aspects of my life. I love my two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo, dearly, but while they might be my familiars, they are not my Spirit Animals.
The first is Frog. I absolutely love frogs and have since I was a child. While most little girls would run screaming from frogs and toads I used to go hunting for them in the creek across the street from my house. This involved a lot of standing in the mud ruining shoes and being peed on by critters that didn’t want to be picked up. But frogs reminded me, and still do, of my Mom. She would read the Frog and Toad books to me and my brother when we were little and do different voices for each character. A frog sings one of my favorite songs ever written, “Rainbow Connection”. Later I found out that frogs represent fecundity and transformation. They’re pretty transcendental little critters, those frogs. I have about two dozen frog sculptures and pictures scattered in my apartment.
My second Spirit Animal is Turtle. Turtles are just super cool. They always seem to pop up in connection with my dad though, which is bittersweet since I have a contentious relationship with my dad. Perhaps it’s no surprise that turtles have a hard shell into which they retreat when they feel threatened. Most turtles have a reputation for being slow, but if you’ve ever seen a beach full of freshly-hatched sea turtles scrambling to get out to sea you know that turtles can run like a wind (thus one of my all-time favorite phrases: We’re off and running like a herd of turtles). Turtles seem to find me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found them wandering where they shouldn’t only to pick them up and carry them across the street or to a nice, safe garden. Yep, turtles.
My third Spirit Animal is perhaps the most curious one of all, Hermit Crab. Unlike my other two Spirit Animals, which have lovely childhood associations, the curious hermit crab just scuttled into my life in the last few years. Or at least made me aware of its presence. I am a hermit crab. Hermit crabs spend a lo of time growing. The side-effect of this is that they outgrow their home. They stay in their home until things become uncomfortable and they are forced to admit that they just don’t fit anymore. Then they shake off the old home and go in search of a new one. Once they find one they move on in and take over, making the new shell their home. But they outgrow this home eventually as well. The benefit of this is that they are adaptable. They can move on without being shattered (or if they are shattered they can move on). It doesn’t matter if the shell they choose is beautiful and elaborate or plain and dumpy, it’s still home. They move fast and are self-sufficient. Yes, I have become a hermit crab.
I like to imagine that thousands and thousands of years ago when people were hanging out with their friends they would spot animals in the forests, plains, or beaches of the world, point and laugh and say, “Dude, you have a nose like an aardvark.” And then that person ended up with the nickname “Vark-nose” and thus the association began. We find associations with animals because in so many ways they are so human. We see ourselves in them.
So as one hermit crab to everyone else out there, who are your Spirit Animals?