Can human beings/inanimate objects—like, say, Keanu Reeves—qualify as someone’s power animal? What’s the difference between a spirit animal and a power animal, anyway?
—Konfused at KUGS
The nebulous nature of nomenclature requires me to take your second question first. The terms “power animal” and “spirit animal” appear to have been invented by anthropologists to describe any of several concepts. Based on a cursory search through Western’s databases of scholarly articles, I have found that they refer most frequently to the animal associated with a family or clan’s totem. Shamanistic and animistic traditions often assign particular human qualities to animals, which are often used, in turn, to describe the particular strengths and, sometimes, weaknesses of a particular group or individual.
In other cases, the terms may refer more broadly to the animal manifestations of particular gods in polytheistic religions or to animals believed to occupy particularly holy places within religious or spiritual contexts.
But it seems to me that your question hinges more upon the definition of “animal” as being exclusive or inclusive of humans, since both terms share this word. The definition of a word is highly dependent upon the context in which it is used. In my research for this column, I have not found any spiritual tradition in which human beings are lumped into the definition of animal. In spite of the fact that humans are, indeed, biologically animal, from a spiritual standpoint there appears to be a discrete divide between the definitions of human and animal. Even when we speak of creatures that possess a mixture of human and animal features, such as the faun or the sphinx, the term “animal” is used to describe those features that are not human.
This is certainly not to say that animals are invariably viewed as inferior to humans. To the contrary, the deification and sanctification of animal beings is not uncommon among the world’s religions. Hinduism, for example, takes the view that all life, taken as a whole, comprises a greater spiritual oneness (sometimes interpreted as God by Western civilizations) and that, according to the “Srimad-Bhagavatam,” “from it the appearances of all different living beings are created, heavenly beings, animals, humans and all other kinds. … Thus you should regard deer, camels, monkeys, donkeys, rats, reptiles, birds and flies as though they are your own children.” It is important to note here that Hindus do not observe the concept of power animals in the sense of a guardian spirit, although many Hindu deities take on animal attributes.
In any case, neither term seems to have acquired any universally accepted definition from an anthropological point of view; rather, they seem to be terms of convenience anthropologists occasionally use to refer to animals in any spiritual context.
Some neo-pagan traditions, such as Wicca, do use the expressions “power animal” and “spirit animal” to represent an individual’s guardian spirit.
“In popular legend the familiar is a toad, cat, goat, raven, dog or some other creature that aids and protects a Witch,” according to Raven Grimassi’s Encyclopedia of Wicca and Witchcraft, which gives “power animal” as a synonym of “familiar spirit.” It seems implied in this context that the familiar is represented solely as a non-human animal, although I was unable to verify this with a practicing Wiccan for this article.
Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of shamanistic, animistic and pagan traditions have existed throughout the world, on every continent except Antarctica, and it would be improper for me to lump them all together to generalize the relative importance of animal spirits in their traditions, especially to shoehorn the term “power animal” onto concepts that warrant much more nuanced and culturally specific interpretations than I am qualified to give.
If you are genuinely interested in learning about power animals or familiars according to a specific tradition, I would highly suggest seeking out a spiritual leader and discussing the importance of the power animal in your spiritual journey. Approach them with respect, humility and emotional honesty, especially if you come to them from outside of their cultural sphere. The shaman, witch or other spiritual leader will need assurance that your questions are in earnest and that you are committed to your spiritual journey, whatever that may be, before they are likely to open up to you unreservedly.
As an interesting side note, Keanu Reeves is a member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens and is therefore a human being, not an inanimate object—even though his acting may sometimes conceal this fact.