Saturday, May 18, 2024

The first animal ally to make himself known to me was the unicorn. As it happened, I was a child when Galadrial arrived, and had no experience, which could give me an understanding of the being who kept me company on my long, lonely walks back and forth to school. Especially since my companion wasn't visible. But I knew, even then (I must have been about 10 or 11) several things:  that Galadrial was real, that he was my friend, and that my relationship with him was a special one that not a lot of people would understand. I was an archetypal bookworm in those days, from a very stress-filled home, and an incurable romantic. And I was horse-crazy. (Like a great many girls my age.) As I look back, it seems little wonder that the being that took a friendly interest in me, gave me encouragement and love, and a sense of personal worth, chose to show himself as a unicorn.
It was not until many years later, in my mid-twenties, that I first heard about totems or power-animals or animal allies. By then, I was in my first year of a Master's program at a Bay Area Christian seminary, taking a class from a wonderful United Methodist shaman. (I don't think "shaman" is title she uses in her professional life as a lay minister in the church. But, as far as I'm concerned, the title fits.) Somehow, my class project came to be that of finding my animal totems. Somehow, I never doubted that I had animal allies - I just didn't consciously know who they were.

The process of discovering my animal allies took many weeks. During the process of meeting each ally, I spent a good deal of time getting to know them. In each case, I had a plaster life cast of my face made while coming with my ally. I listened to music, used incense and scented oils, and generally tried to immerse myself in the essence of the ally. Once the mask was done, I further molded, painted, and formed the mask into a likeness of the animal  - so that I now have masks which I can wear which fit my face on the inside, and reflect my allies on the outside.

One good example was how I recognized the Hawk of the East. (Certain of my allies are more private than others, and do not wish their personal names published. As with any valued friend who might make such a request, I am honoring this one.) He came to me as I was waiting for a streetcar in San Francisco, out by Ocean Beach. One moment, I was searching the East for my guardian there; the next I felt his wings overshadow my soul, and his name was ringing in my ears. The Hawk's power is awesome, fierce, and directed. It is the power of thought; undisturbed by emotion, will, or physical concerns - like the light of a laser or the blade of a sharp knife. Hawk rules the East, the realm of the mind, the element of Air and the dawning glory of morning. When I cannot think clearly, I call upon him, and his advice is always right to the point. He is also a bit cynical and predatory - but nobody can see farther or fly higher.

Firecat was the next ally to make her known to me, and she remains one of my strongest allies. Her power can rip through my life in unpredictable ways, yet she is my most powerful physical protector. Her form is that of a leopard, with fiery eyes and razor sharp claws. Hers is the power of the will, of the inborn desire to survive, to master any circumstance. When I lived in Berkeley and had to walk at night in neighborhoods where I did not feel safe, I called on all my allies - but Firecat was the one whose prowling presence most strengthened my courage. She rules the South, the realm of passion and will, the element of Fire, and the burning heat of noontime.

Deepwave and Greatsong are whales. What more can I say? A mated pair, deeply in love with each other and with the entire planet, their watery passion swirls through my life like the tides of the ocean in which they make their home. Presiding over the West, the realm of emotion, the element of water and the long hours of afternoon and sunset, their presence helps me to live with my emotions rather than be overcome by them. I have a tendency to ride my feelings like a roller coaster - but Deepwave and Greatsong help me to experience a sense of joy and peace underlying the waves
of emotion.

She Who Roars rules the North, the element of Earth, the realm of the physical, and the time of midnight. In a way unlike any of the others, She is the Goddess in my life. The best way for me to describe my reaction to Her is awe. It is rare for me to call upon her, perhaps because I am still afraid of her, for her presence makes clear to me that I will someday die. Yet, at certain times, it is only She who can comfort me. Her form is that of a great She-Bear; and while I hesitate to approach her immense body, powerful claws and threatening teeth, I find when I lay down in her embrace that she is the most tender and loving of all my guardians. I devoutly hope that when I approach Her for the last time in this life, I will be granted the opportunity to consciously give myself into her care.

Always the outsider, Shadowsinger the Wolf prowls the perimeter of my being. She dwells primarily in the underworld of dream, fantasy, and nightmare, where she roams as a sentry, offering early warnings when there is danger to me or those I love. She is of no one element, direction, or time - but her dark and beautiful presence is a part of all of him or her.

The center of my circle of allies is held by the Unicorn, whose name has changed since I first met him. Filled with a clear light that includes the darkness and colors of the other allies, he stands at the center of my psyche like a large, brilliant crystal, concentrating and balancing their energies, helping me to maintain my balance and centeredness among all the varying influences on my life.

My most recently discovered ally is very timid. This one (who changes gender from time to time) is a small animal, whose only defense against predators is to run away and hide. I was unaware of this deeply hidden ally until a vision journey in which I prepared to face that part of myself which most deeply terrified me. I sat calmly, waiting for some terrible beast, an enormous monster  - and out into the middle of the sacred circle hopped a tiny baby rabbit. I was very surprised. I couldn't believe that this little, nameless one was my shadow ally, the one whom I most greatly feared.

Then the depth of its fear struck me. Having called on my other allies to protect me, I was at the center of a circle surrounded by fierce beasts  - a sharp-talented hawk, a hungry leopard, enormous whales, a great she-bear, a prowling, circling wolf. No wonder my rabbit ally was terrified! It struck me then, how very frightened I was of being small, helpless, and alone  - just like a tiny baby rabbit.
The   unicorn was nowhere in sight  - having   abruptly disappeared when the rabbit arrived. This struck me as odd at the time, but I didn't understand the significance of this fact until writing this account. The Unicorn is the center of power and energy in my center - but hidden beneath that gleaming light is my deepest, smallest self, the one who fears being abandoned, helpless, and powerless. The two are intrinsically the same, two faces of the one Being at my center.

As I cradled my shadow self, still quivering with fear in the center of the circle, I had an idea. Carefully, I carried the rabbit over to the East, where the Hawk sat, watching intensely. Then, drawing my hands over her body, I cast glamour upon the tiny rabbit so that, to the hawk, it appeared that a baby hawk lay before him. Immediately, his eyes lit up and he covered the fledgling with his wings, welcoming her to the circle. Around the circle I went, letting each of my allies welcome and nurture the tiny, frightened one as their own child. When I was finished, I held her in her own form as I dissolved the circle and bid each of my ally's farewells. Finally, the tiny rabbit hopped back into the shadows from which she had appeared, and the vision was ended.

It may be obvious by now that I experience my animal allies as actual beings. I also understand them to be the embodiment or personification of different aspects of my Self. These two different understandings of their nature are not contradictory, but complementary, similar to my understanding of the Goddess and God. They are part of us - and we are part of them. So, too, with animal allies. Whether I view them as aspects of my psyche or as beings whose reality is different from mine, I treat them as respected elders.

I experience my allies in several ways. First, at times, they act as if they were physically present. For example, when I'm walking alone (perhaps in an unfamiliar place) and feel in need of protection, I call my allies to my aid. They appear each from their own direction, consult with me, and then fan out as scouts or guardians to protect me from whatever danger may be lurking in their direction. Although I never see them with my five senses, their presence is very apparent to me as a physical one, if not entirely on this plane of existence; surrounded by the Hawk, Firecat, the Whales, and Bear, with Wolf prowling the perimeter and the Unicorn (and Rabbit) at my center, I feel much more protected and able to move ahead. (I might add that my five senses seem somewhat heightened with my allies present, and I have never yet been harmed in any way while under their protection.)
 The second way I experience my allies is when one of them inhabits my physical body for a short period. This occurs with my consent, in a kind of exhilarated or altered state, usually brought on by drumming and dancing. Occasionally, it can have unexpected results. I remember one time at a reggae dance in a club, when I allowed Firecat to take over during   one particularly powerful song. When the song ended, She didn't want to leave - she wanted to dance some more! My body, however, was exhausted, and I had quite an internal struggle. When my lover intervened, and took me outside for some air, I bit him. (Not hard, fortunately!) That was the last straw, and I rather firmly banished Firecat for the remainder of the evening. These sorts of experiences are rare, but powerful; I still remember that dance with excitement, even if I feel a bit chagrined about the aftermath!

I also experience the presence of my allies when I am on a vision journey or dream quest. At times they act simply as guardians, as I described in my account of my first meeting with my rabbit ally. At other times, they allow me to take their shape while on a vision journey; as the time when I flew over San Francisco in the Hawk's form.

Finally, there are times when my allies seem to be internal beings, reflecting different aspects of my Self with whom I consult when making decisions or am in need of advice. Whom I call upon depends on the circumstances and my moods - for example, when overwhelmed with emotions I often ask Greatwave and Deepsong for help - but if I am trying to make a rational decision and feel panicked, the Hawk of the East usually comes to my aid. And so it goes  - different allies filling different functions, but each a respected and honored companion - even friend.

I feel closer to some allies than others do at different times; and there are times when some of them even go away for a while  -- but, like true friends, we always seem to get together again. I've read in some books on Shamanism that it's not possible to have more than one ally at a time or that one must constantly guard against losing one's allies; but this hasn't been my experience. I feel very fortunate to have met these special beings, who have taught me so much about myself and this planet, and I hope that my introduction of them to a wider group of people will help spread the blessings they have brought to my life.

~Anne Niven

Copyright 2001 SageWoman Magazine,
Unauthorized reproduction is strictly forbidden.
From issue #38, "Women and Animals"
This article is used by permission from the author.