How to learn from animal messengers
Since ancient times, animals have been revered as powerful omens and messengers from the spirit world. The ancient Egyptians believed cats were their guardians and protectors, while in early Greece it was thought that dolphins were messengers from the goddess Aphrodite, each sighting an invitation to love and passion.
Among the Aztecs, the Hopi and the Aymara of Bolivia, moths and butterflies have signified the presence of souls, of those who had recently departed or would soon pass from this world. In many tribal cultures as well, shamans and sorcerers imitated the movements of animals in dance and ritual, adopting the guise of a specific creature in order to awaken its spirit for assistance with fertility or fortune. The Bushmen of Africa would imitate the eland and mantis, while the Native Americans and Australian Aborigines mimicked their fellow creatures in dance.
Animals abound in world mythology, so powerful are their archetypes, and it is thought that each animal represents a different aspect of human nature. By learning to observe your fellow creatures and studying their movements, you can gain wisdom and instruction on how to live your life.
As Ted Andrews explains in his book Animal Speak, “The animal world has much to teach us. Some animals are experts at survival and adaptation. There are times when we can use those same skills. Some animals never get cancerous conditions. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to learn their secrets? Some are great nurturers and protectors. Some have great fertility and others have great gentleness. Some embody strength and courage, while others can teach playfulness.
“The animal world shows us the potentials we can unfold. But to learn from them we must first learn to speak with them,” he says.
You can start to read the language of animals, and learn the lessons they come to bring, simply by noticing the animals that cross your path. Even if you live in the city, you will be visited by animals each and every day, whether you are aware of them or not. Observe a spider patiently weaving its web, watch as a lizard suns itself all day long or listen to the strange cries of the crow.
You’ll begin to notice that each creature on this planet has its own unique habits and survival strategy, otherwise known as its genius. “Every animal has its own talents,” writes Andrews. “A study of its talents will reveal the kind of medicine, magic and power it can help you to develop within your own life.”
Once you start observing, the animal kingdom can teach you all kinds of lessons about resourcefulness, ingenuity, communication, parenting, wooing and even architecture. Did you know that crows have found a way to eat cane toads, those venomous introduced pests, without becoming poisoned? Residents of the NSW north coast report the clever birds flipping the cane toads over on their backs, thus avoiding the poison glands, and pecking at their juicy undersides. Previously, it was thought that the toads would spread across Australia without any apparent predators to stop them.
Stories such as this give us some idea of nature’s ability to find balance, as well as a new respect for the intelligence of animals — in this case crows. It seems our creature companions truly are ingenious when it comes to adaptation and we humans can certainly learn a lot just by observing them.
Signs, symbols, omens
Once you begin to notice the animals that cross your path, you will start to get the strange feeling that they come for a reason. In their book Animal Totems, Trish MacGregor and Millie Gemondo write: “When you attract repeated experiences with a particular animal, then this animal is speaking to you in a symbolic way. To decipher the symbolism — and get the message — it’s necessary to have some idea what you feel about the particular animal.”
As a general rule, you will tend to attract those animals that have a lesson to teach you. These include the animals you are fond of as well as the ones that frighten you. As Andrews writes in Animal Speak, “That which we fear is often something we must learn to come to terms with.” So if you are deeply afraid of sharks, wasps or snarling dogs, these animals could be considered your “shadow totems”, representative of elements you have not yet dealt with in your human life.
When an animal makes itself seen or heard by you, look for its strengths and positive attributes. These are the keys to the lessons you need to learn. Remember that all animals are geniuses at something, including grasshoppers and ticks. When seen for their strengths rather than their weaknesses, wombats are no longer “stubborn” but marvellously passively resistant; cockroaches are no longer pesky but experts at survival and resourcefulness.
Once you spot the positive quality, you will know what quality you need to cultivate in yourself. So the next time you hear a chorus of frogs start up in the Garden, as well as knowing it may be about to rain, know that it’s also time to cleanse any emotional or physical baggage from your life. Or if you see a fox lurking about the back paddock, realise its sometimes OK to be a little cunning when the situation demands it.
Each and every animal encounter, particularly the ones that stand out and stick in your mind, is a potential bringer of wisdom — an important message from the divine.
Voices of the earth
According to Scott Alexander King, the Australian expert on animal symbolism and author of Animal Dreaming, there is an animal for every single facet of life. Swallows, for example, are symbols of “home”. The reason sailors used to tattoo them on their arms, King says, was because swallows were the first birds to fly out to their ships, joining them on their final passage back to dry land. “Wherever you see swallows circling, you know that only good things can settle.”
Swallows are such a potent symbol of home that, when looking to purchase a property in northern NSW, King told his real estate agent, “I don’t want to live somewhere swallows won’t nest.” Clearly unabashed, he says, “It took him a while, but he found us a house with swallows and we love it!”
A devoted animal-lover, King now shares his five-acre hobby farm with a number of rare breeds of domestic animals, the likes of Plymouth Rock and Light Sussex chickens, black-faced sheep, miniature ponies and Appleyard ducks, which he believes might otherwise face a sort of domestic extinction. “No one keeps those old breeds any more,” he says, mourning the way our food industry is quick to dispose of animals that don’t produce enough or don’t mature quickly enough. Ancient breeds, like the Japanese Bantam, are often highly nutritious but rarely kept because “it takes about 18 eggs to make an omelette!”
We tend to surround ourselves with the animal energies we need, whether as pets or as spirit animals. Many believe that spirit animals, otherwise known as “animal totems”, “muses” or “daemons”, come to you to offer assistance with the various challenges of your life.
When you require strength in a certain area, King recommends calling on the energy of a particular animal for help. “Whenever I go to the bank, for example, I ask the spirits of the squirrel to be with me because she’s a great saver, and the mouse because she’s really small and scrutinises everything, so she’s really good with contracts,” King says. “I call them in, swarm the bank with mice and squirrels and they usually see that everything’s in order — and I get the money!”
Once you have received the animal’s medicine and mastered its particular teaching, your totem animal will tend to take a back seat, allowing others to come forward and teach you new lessons.
There is one spirit animal, though, that never leaves your side. This is your personal “power animal”, a kind of guardian assigned to you at birth and the one that resembles you most in spirit. To find out what your power animal is, King suggests you ask yourself, “If you were to externalise your soul, and have your soul take the form of an animal, and have the animal walk beside you forever and ever, what animal would you be very proud to have standing there?” The answer to this question is likely to be your power animal: your friend, ally and teacher for life.
I’m curious about King’s own power animal and he tells me it’s a barn owl. The moment he mentions it, his eyes start to appear large and luminous, set as they are in a rather round face, which is crowned by tawny hair that sticks up in spiky tufts, altogether giving the impression of ruffled feathers. As he explains, “That’s the animal that gives me strength, the animal that gives me wisdom. When I come back to visit my family after my death, they’ll know to look for a barn owl.”
To be sure of your power animal, King recommends being totally honest with yourself rather than pretending to be the animal you might prefer to be, such as an eagle or a dolphin. Remember, it takes all kinds of creatures on this earth and it is a very good thing that not all are created equal.
Even so-called “pests” and “feral animals” have a place in our world. In his book Animal Dreaming, Scott Alexander King has deliberately included a section on introduced animals because, as he writes, “They may not be indigenous to Australian soil, but then again, neither are most of us, but, like us, they are indigenous to Mother Earth and should be respectfully treated as such.”
Seen for their positive traits, he believes all animals have a rightful place on Earth and should be honoured, rather than despised or seen as pests, for their unique qualities. Flicking through the book, I find spiders described as the weavers of dreams, snakes as transmutation, bats as rebirth — and even cane toads as hidden Beauty.
The appearance of a magpie on your fence may signal the need for greater balance, while a dragonfly flitting across your path shows you the illusions you are harbouring about yourself. A humble lizard sunning itself on a rock asks you to pay more attention to your dreams, while a possum on the roof encourages you to look for opportunities and jump on them.
In King’s view, each animal holds a key to greatness. “They each offer us amazing skill,” he says, “and when you find yourself obsessing over a certain animal, and when you’ve got to collect them and have them all around you, or you see them all the time, it’s because that’s what the spirits want you to work with. They want you to become the dragonfly or they want you to become the swan.”
Let’s say, for instance, it is the kookaburra’s medicine you need. Chances are you will see one sitting on a telegraph line or printed on the side of a truck or on a biscuit packet. Failing all this, the kookaburra will appear to you in your dreams or you will simply hear its voice, laughing, telling you to give up being foolish and to heal what needs to be healed in your life.
Reading the signs
Not every animal is a message from the spirit world, of course. “Sometimes, a wombat is just a wombat,” King explains, “but sometimes you’ll see an animal and the experience sticks in your mind and you think, ‘That means something.’ The key is to ask yourself, what was I pondering or thinking about at the time?” Chances are, though, the animal has been sent or has coincidentally appeared at just the right moment to answer your question.
As King explains, the natural world is, effectively, “that little in-between space that the spirits are able to access. They hear your prayers. They hear your yearning. They send a Mother Earth symbol, which says, ‘Try this’, and if you try this, you’ll do well. Sometimes a wombat’s just a wombat, but sometimes that wombat is the bringer of enlightenment.”
When an animal makes its presence known to you, consider the possibility that it has paid you a visit in order to deliver the wisdom you need to resolve your present troubles. A snake, for instance, appearing to you in a dream, on a poster or — heaven forbid — in the wild, may be trying to push you towards a painful rebirthing, shape-changing or transmutation in your life.
This may seem frightening at first but is inevitably a healing process. Because, while the snake, King tells me, does contain a deadly poison, it also contains within itself the antidote to its own venom — just as you contain the capacity to shed your old skin, heal yourself and become, quite literally, a whole new person.
Common Australian animals and their meanings
Angelfish — Guidance
Black swan — Grace
Carp — Reward
Crab — Diplomacy
Cuttlefish — Legacy
Dolphin — Breath
Eel — Breaking of addiction
Fairy penguin — Willpower
Goldfish — Sanctification
Jellyfish — Supernatural forces
Nautilus — Resilience
Octopus — Infidelity
Pelican — Piety
Platypus — Women’s wisdom
Sand dollar — Hope
Seal — Inner voice
Shark — Authority
Starfish — Existence
Stingray — Masquerade Trout — Health
Turtle — Mother Earth
Whale — Record keeper
Bat — Rebirth
Black cockatoo — The void
Bowerbird — Dowry
Brolga — Dance
Butcherbird — Arrogance
Crow — Law
Cuckoo — Freeloading
Dove — Peace
Eagle — Spirit
Fig-bird — Conception
Frogmouth — Secret keeper
Galah — Joy
Hawk — Messages
Ibis — Sacredness
Jabiru — Vigilance
Kookaburra — Healing the self
Lyrebird — Genetic memory
Magpie — Balance
Owl — Deception
Raven — Magic
Wagtail — Motion
Bandicoot — Industry
Dingo — Trickster
Echidna — Personal protection
Emu — Endurance
Frog — Cleansing
Grey kangaroo — Abundance
Kangaroo — Family
Koala — Journeys Lizard — Daydreaming
Mouse — Scrutiny
Numbat — Care
Possum — Opportunity
Snake — Transmutation
Tasmanian devil — Purification
Thylacine — Wisdom
Wallaby — Progression
Wombat — Gentle aggression
Ant — Strength
Bee — Potential
Beetle — Misconception
Butterfly — Transformation
Cicada — Cycles
Cockroach — Resourcefulness
Cricket — Good fortune
Dragonfly — Illusion
Earthworm — Sustainability
Flea — Frivolity
Fly — Awareness
Grasshopper — Success
Leech — Vampirism
Mosquito — Living family spirit
Moth — Lingering energy
Praying mantis — Prophecy
Spider — Weaver of dreams
Tick — Exploitation
Wasp — Immobilisation
Cane toad — Hidden beauty
Cat — Sexual healing and protection
Cow — Motherhood
Dog — Loyalty
Goat — Determination Guinea pig — Motivation
Horse — Personal power
Pony — Challenge
Rabbit — Fertility
Red fox — Cunning
Sheep — Conformity
Courtesy of animaldreaming.com by Scott Alexander King
Angeline Meloche writes to share her passion for nature and the divine. She currently lives in Byron Bay, NSW, the most easterly point of Australia. E: email@example.com
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