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Animal Totems, Meanings, and Significant: How To Understand and Interpret Messages

A woman holds a Blue Jay as it recovers from hitting a window. It flew away and was just fine!
Animal totems and messengers show up for different reasons in a variety of ways.

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Nature is our partner in life. Not only are we made of natural elements and exists because of nature, we are intimately intertwined in our energetic and spiritual experience on the Earth. Even if your interaction with nature is "just" through moments of awareness on a walk or in a window, it makes an impression and soothes our senses.

Sometimes, different elements in nature reach out to get our attention! Birds, mammals, insects, short plants, tall plants, weather, water, stones, the wind... we can't always explain the feeling we get or the interaction we have, but on a deeper, personal level, we know it was significant for some reason.

You might have found your way here because of googling about such an experience. If so, welcome! Anything I write about totems is a collection of what I've learned over 25+ years of study, observation, and mentorship. It's a conglomeration of different traditional beliefs, biology, and my personal experiences so, with that, please know that your experiences and traditions may be different - receive what resonates and feel free to bypass what doesn't. Also, out of respect for the cultures I'm referring to at times, I'll do my very best to identify those cultures and any teachers I directly learned from.

First, let's talk about some of those cultural aspects. Every culture's ancestry in the world held beliefs, stories, and traditions around nature and its inhabitants. The beauty of some of these cultures is that those ancient practices are still being taught and handed down to new generations today. However, that's not totally the case for others. Modern western cultures have seen the majority of people move away from these beliefs and stories, although they are beginning to be sought out more frequently these days.

As an example, my own ancestry spans a lot of Europe and the United States. I feel very drawn to Celtic traditions from my ancestral roots familiarity, but also First Nations/Native American culture and practices because this is the physical location of my ancestral roots for the last ~400 years. Also, I feel that some spiritual practices are reaching out to more people in different places around the world than ever before: for example, the shamanic practices of the High Andes in Peru. Knowing that certain people around the world are seeking such connection and reverence, those energies and healers/practitioners within that culture are opening to the idea of bringing non-Peruvian people with a heart for honoring and learning into the practices. This keeps the traditions alive and boosts them farther!

Because of this, I have often felt as though I didn't have a clear spiritual "culture" in my practice. I was drawn to anything earthy, but I didn't resonate completely with witchcraft, true paganism, etc. While those are also fascinating, I wanted to find what worked best for me - and many elements of earth-based spirituality overlaps and even mirrors from one practice to another.

As an aside for those who are Christian and may feel uncomfortable: Native Americans regularly blend their medicine work with Christian beliefs in a very harmonious way. God's creation and being stewards of it is the idea. Here is an article that talks about how some tribal members are blending the two in their lives.

Anyway, my earth-based beliefs are a mishmash of practices that feel right and respectful to the cultures and ancestry I'm surrounded by and in-line with. The reason I wanted to outline this is because it affects my outlook and understanding of animal totems and symbolism. There are hundreds of books and thousands of websites that talk about totems, giving meanings and predictions, and more. I love these books and have several.

That said, no one explanation or guide is going to serve as an end-all-be-all for every person, every animal, or every situation. If you read an explanation of an animal and it really doesn't resonate with you, it might not be accurate in that moment. You'll want to get grounded, sit in a quiet place to settle your awareness into your heart and solar plexus (gut), and check in to be sure you're not trying to avoid a message that might be uncomfortable but is, in fact, true. If it comes back that it isn't true, make a note of how the experience with the animal totem made you feel, what stood out to you, any behavior from the animals, oddities, etc... and the message will begin to make itself more understood.

I'm going to use Barred Owl as an example. Birds are inherently messengers with their voices, personalities, and ability to "swoop in," deliver a message, and disappear. In several First Nations/Native American cultures, owl is a premonition of death in some way (remember: death = transformation), might be a dead ancestor making contact, or even seen as witches or evil spirits. In Celtic symbolism, while it can also be seen as a harbinger of death, it can also symbolize wisdom, magic, mystery, and ancient knowledge. In ancient Greece, they symbolized wisdom and power in war. In parts of Northern England, it's considered good luck to see an owl. In Chinese philosophy, owl is seen as a symbol that attracts prosperity and abundance. In both ancient Egyptian and Celtic cultures, the belief that owls are guardians of the underworlds was shared.

Now, I've had a lot of really cool encounters with Barred Owls. They're actually quite small under all that feathery fluff and their distinctive "who-cooks-for-youuuu" call always catches my attention. However, that hasn't meant that every time I've been fortunate enough to be face-to-face with a Barred Owl that someone died. Not at all! As far as seeing "death" as transformation - let's be honest - LIFE is a constant transformation and it's sometimes hard to tell until well-into-hindsight that the time period we were living through was actually significantly transformational.

For me, I resonate much more closely with the idea of clearly having awareness around my inner/shadow work learning and healing when I run into owls. That, indeed, is very transformational. And just as owls come alive in the dark of night, we step into shadow work to do significant healing. I always feel like I've had an encounter with a mystical-powerhouse when associating with owl and that my own abilities and wisdom are boosted. Owls can say a lot without making a sound.

Keep in mind, too, that you don't have to have up-close encounters with animals and birds to receive messages. You might feel particularly interested in or drawn to a certain animal that's coming to mind in order to get your attention. Follow that interest and google it - see what you discover! Another tool I love (and it's good practice to listen to that inner self-awareness) are divination cards. I have this deck and really enjoy it, pulling it out when I want to have a wider conversation with the animal world in my own space. (This is an affiliate link: I receive a commission if you purchase at no extra cost to you).

My point with all of this is regardless of what you read, you have to feel it out personally and discern, which requires a certain level of self-trust. You've got this. Chances are the first things that come to mind about the messages are the most accurate and it's easy to overthink it. I liken it to sensations: when the feeling around a message is "smooth," it's probably the one. Likewise, if it feels scratchy, unsettled, or staticky, it's probably not. You may have a different way of feeling it out! Take that ancient wisdom that's being shared in the totem guides you read, check in with what your personal ancestry speaks to you, and feel it for your personal situation. Read about the biology, behavior, habitat, and habits to better understand the totem as it exists in our world. I really recommend this website as a place to start! Keep in mind that it can even change depending on the event, the time of your life, and many other factors.

If you're interested in reading more about the Barred Owl totem, check out this post (I share some personal stories about this dear owl). Also, I had a really wild experience with a juvenile Great Horned Owl as a totem that you can read about here!


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