Using animal spirit guides or animal medicine as a basis for our connection with the divine is a tradition as ancient as the first civilizations that settled on this earth. With its roots in Native American culture, European Paganism, Chinese medicine, Aboriginal mysticism and African folklore you probably wouldn’t find a land on this planet that didn’t acknowledge the power of animals and the importance of our harmony with these fellow creatures.
The mark of kindness and human virtue throughout religious texts often draws parallels to how one treats animals and reflects on the degree of our inner barbarity. Even in heavily meat-eating cultures like the nomadic Thule people the Inuit’s have descended from, or Islamic culture that annually celebrates Kurban Bayram, (the sacrifice of an animal to divide between extended family and the poor), believe in upholding the highest respect for the animal kingdom, for they are as equal expressions of the universe as we.
In the Native American totem, there consists of nine spirit guides that will stay with a tribe or individual throughout their earthly life, usually with one main guardian spirit. In the diverse multitudes of pagan practices throughout the west, spiritual beings and shamans often conversed with an animal familiar. The fear associated with witchcraft and the past lives we may have lived in a different form breeds a certain kind of ignorance and is generally connected to those who vibrate at a lower level or consciousness. In fact, this is one main way to advance our consciousness; in showing an animal kindness or by acknowledging and working with the animal spirit within.
Two animals that are commonly found by human’s side (or vice versa, whatever way you want to look at it) are the cat and the dog.
‘In ancient times, cats”, as author Terry Pratchett points out, “were worshiped as Gods; they have not forgotten this.” The cat or lioness was worshiped as Bastet and Sekhmet in ancient Egypt, Goddess of Love, Joy and protection, and has always been honored as reflecting the independent and protective aspects of ourselves. In Slavonic mythology there was Ovinnik; a great black cat that watched over farmer’s herds and livestock but was known to cause mischief if you upset him. In Norse mythology, two grey cats – given as a gift to her by the sky God Thor – pulled Freyja’s chariot, encouraging farmers to leave gifts of mice and rats for the neighboring cats to ensure a plentiful harvest.
The cat has commonly been known as a familiar for witches; with their orb-like eyes that look like scrying bowls and sagacious natures they are known to stalk between two worlds and be sensitive to things we may not. Amazonian tribes affiliate with the much feared and admired Jaguar, believing him to be the God of darkness and his spots a canvas of stars; a cat capable of causing the sound of thunder with its roar and eclipses by swallowing the sun.
The prophet Mohammed is said to have loved cats and blessed them with the gift to land on their feet and had a high regard for them for burying their faeces and keeping themselves clean. He is also said to have cut off the sleeve from the garment he was wearing when the call to prayer sounded to avoid waking the sleeping cat who sat on it. The ‘Kasha’, or burning wheel in Japanese folklore is often said to have taken cat form and would steal or even eat corpses from their coffins on the transition from their place of death to their final resting place.
It was seen to be a journey fraught with danger, especially if they had had questionable dealings with evil deeds during their lifetime, which enticed this demon-like being from its nest to come and seek out to devour their souls. “When a cat leaps over a coffin, the corpse inside the coffin will wake up”.
According to Steven D Farmer, author of Animal Spirit Guides, the cat is your power animal when you are introspective and favour your own advice over others, are independent and most of your creative work is completed at night, and can often seem self-absorbed and oblivious to those around you. Whatever the attributes of any individual cat, they are known to not give a damn about what others think of them but are incredibly graceful, alert and wise, and above all; spiritual.
Dog medicine however, is quite the opposite. Predominantly about loyalty, they can be likened to the tarot card of The Fool; trusting eternally no matter how much cruelty you show them. Any aggression comes from a deep inner imbalance when the evils of human nature have pushed them to the edge. Ordinarily they really are man’s best friend and will stop at nothing to please their ‘masters’.
In Chinese mythology, one account of how the Chinese Zodiac came to be in that order originates from a tale where all the animals competed in a race to swim across a river. The dog, despite being an accomplished swimmer, chose to play about; splashing and chasing his tail in the warm waters. The dog is most certainly not competitive, unlike the cat who will often commit sly acts of manipulation to get what they want and are leaders and individuals who seek to stand out from the rest.
The dog, being part of a pack from birth is more family orientated and will often step aside to let others shine. However, it’s in Chinese mythology that we find parallels between the two animals, as the Tiangou, or heavenly dog who takes the shape of a meteor swallows the sun or moon during an eclipse much like the South American jaguar. Although unlike the feline Kasha who is to be feared by the newly dead, paper dogs are an integral part of rituals in Northern China designed to protect corpses from harm.
The kind but lowly station of the dog extends to Jesus’ parables such as that of Lazarus whose wounds were licked clean by street dogs. The dogs and the beggar Lazarus illustrate the value of humility and the heavenly riches of appreciating true wealth in comparison to the material wealth of earthly riches that get us nowhere and invite greed and cruelty to others into our lives.
The dog is often the one who transports us to the afterlife or guards the doors to heaven and hell. One Egyptian Jackal God, Wepwawet, or ‘Opener of the Ways’ performed life resuscitating ceremonies for many a Pharaoh in order to give to him the power of speech well into the afterlife and beyond. In the Mesoamerican region dogs were buried alongside the dead as they were believed to carry spirits over to the underworld.
But not all dog depictions and myths are positive. In some Aztecs beliefs there existed a God named Xolotl who was essentially a monster hunted during the creation of the fifth sun by none other than Death. Death followed him as he transformed into various beings – including a salamander in a pool of water – until he was able to trap and eventually kill it.
And as depicted in the mythology of the Popul Vuh of the K’iche’ Maya of highland Guatemala, dogs and other such supposedly ‘stupid’ animals got their revenge on those who had beaten them by hunting down and killing them. If you were lucky enough to escape this fate then you transformed into a monkey and reverted back to your previous incarnation to learn the lesson of being a human from square one.
Other forms of dog medicine include the wolf; a great teacher and common totem animal in Native American culture. Again the wolf signifies family leadership and a strong sense of intuition; howling at the moon to gain insight into complex or shadowy matters, and keeping ones strength through all degrees of adversity.
Steven D. Farmer describes ‘dog’ people as having strong faith, working well in teams and motivating people towards the greater good. With a strong sense of community, dog spirit guides also offer stamina when one feels like giving up and reveal to us the more childlike facets of our nature; that which hasn’t been sullied by the ‘real world’ and the harsh realities of human nature.
Whichever animal you feel allied with; each individual medicine can teach us more about ourselves and those around us. About our deepest motivations and the spiritual path we were destined to tread.