One of the exercises in the Foundational Druidry course of our Order is to take a spirit animal. On occasion someone will object to the practice because in the United States we tend to associate this practice with Native Americans, but ancient Celts, the people of Scandinavia, the Mongol people, the people of Asia, and even the early indigenous peoples of Europe all had some sort of practice of taking a spirit animal.
The association of spirit animals with Native American culture probably came from the idea of “totem animals.” “Totem” comes from the Ojibwa language and may be roughly translated as “kinship.” A totem animal is considered part of the family and guides a person throughout life. Not all Native American people took on totem animals, but many did. It’s probably safe to say that most Native American nations engaged in the practice, but it was not universal.
Also, although the word “totem” is exclusive to Native American culture, the practice itself was and is a worldwide phenomenon. Hiiemäe (2019) studied the northern European country of Estonia and found that the practice is still widespread to this day. In the study, Belief Narratives of Spirit-Animals: A Case Study on Estonian Contemporary Folklore, Hiiemäe found that belief in spirit animals help those who held such beliefs to cope with life stress. The study also found that belief in spirit animals offered psychological support in many other areas of life.
In Norse lore the fylgjur (pronounced FILG-yur) in the plural and fylgja (pronounced FILG-ya) in the singular, are animal spirits like totem animals. This Norse word means “to follow,” and the fylgja is said to follow the person throughout their life, offering guidance. The spirit animal that chooses to attach itself to a person is said to embody the characteristics of that person. A sly person might have a fox fylgja, a strong person might have a lion or a bear, a timid person might have a rabbit, and so on.
The Celtic púca (púcaí), (pronounced POO-ka) are shapeshifters who can take on many forms, including human form. They can be associated with good or evil. They were made famous by the Mary Coyle Chase play Harvey, about an alcoholic man who sees a púca in rabbit form. They are like the shapeshifting bakemono from Japan, who can also take the form of humans and work either good or evil. The Chinese jīngshén dòngwù and the Korean dongmul-ui yeonghon have similar characteristics. The further back into history we go, the more we find that indigenous cultures had some concept of spirit animals.
How far back does the practice go? There is some indication that it may even predate modern humans. A Neanderthal burial site that was the inspiration for Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series featured a skeleton that was buried with herbs and flowers of a healing nature. Near the skeleton several cave bear skulls were arranged in a ceremonial fashion, leading some archaeologists to conclude that this person must have been a shaman or healer for the tribe whose spirit animal was the cave bear.
While this conclusion is speculative, there is another piece of evidence from southern France that seems to be less so. This is an image called the Reindeer Shaman. Believed to have been painted circa 13,000 BCE, this cave painting at first glance appears to be a reindeer, but on closer inspection it can clearly be seen that the face is that of a man with a long beard, and the arms, legs and genitals are human.
This means that as early as 15,000 years ago Europeans were engaged in the practice of taking spirit animals. It would be hard to draw any other conclusion from the image.
How does this relate to spirit animals in North America?
It has long been believed that North America was first settled by migrants from Asia. The accepted theory is that they came across the land bridge at the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age some 17,000 years ago.
A recent discovery, called the Solutrean Hypothesis, indicates that this theory may be incorrect. The theory centers on a Solutrean-style spear point found in Virginia. Solutrean culture was based in what is present-day France, Spain and Portugal, from roughly 21,000 to 17,000 years ago. This particular style of spear point is more advanced than the Clovis point commonly found in North American sites settled by Asian migrants due to its sharper edges and more lightweight construction. Solutrean points are 100 times sharper than a steel blade and make it possible to kill large prey like woolly mammoths.
Solutrean-style points are particular to the Solutrean culture of Europe and to date have not been found in any other culture.
The interesting part of this find is that carbon dating of organic material found at the site shows that the spear point to be around 20,000 years old, predating the Asian migration from the Bering Strait by at least 5000 years.
When this discovery was first made it was controversial for its speculation that immigrants from Europe were the first humans to arrive in America. Because this hypothesis went against the predominant paradigm that North America was settled by migrants from Asia, it was largely rejected by the archaeological community. However, since the initial discovery of the spear point, a 2014 study revealed that anywhere from 4% to 38% of Native American ancestry originates from an ancient Western Eurasian population. This conclusion lends credence to the Solutrean Hypothesis, making it a distinct possibility that the first settlers of North America were from Europe and not Asia.
So we can safely conclude that Europeans engaged in the practice of animism using spirit animals at least 15,000 years ago, and that it is highly probable that the first North Americans were from Europe and not Asia, predating their Asian counterparts by around 5000 years. Could this mean that the Native American migrants learned the practice of taking spirit animals from their European predecessors? It’s not outside the realm of possibility, since Europeans were probably here first.
In all honesty, I personally doubt that this was the case. Spirit animals are the result of an animistic worldview, and that worldview was and still is to this day held by people who live closely with nature in tribal societies. In other words, the practice of taking spirit animals evolved independently in various cultures throughout the world, possibly having a common source when our ancestors migrated out of Africa.
I prefer to think of the practice as belonging to all of humankind, and not just specific cultures decided upon by those with a political agenda. While I agree that exploitation of Native American culture is a terrible thing and should be stopped, in our zeal to end such exploitation we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Various Native American cultures did and do take spirit animals, but so did virtually every animistic culture throughout the world, dating back to Neanderthal times.
Respect is the key to avoiding cultural appropriation, and respect is a two-way street. I prefer to focus on how the practice can be utilized today for spiritual seekers who are re-discovering animism.
For more on the Solutrean Hypothesis, here’s an excellent documentary on the subject.