Animal Allies and Helping Spirits In Western Shamanism

Shamans in traditional cultures do not work alone; they receive help from entities living and dead who populate the many realms and dimensions of creation.  But how well do we, as western students and practitioners of shamanism, adapt to such seemingly alien customs?

I have come to believe that the advent of beautiful, uplifting animal presences – Eagle, Buffalo and Bear – is  one of the first signs that Shamanism is entering ones’ life. I have come to believe that these living animal figures are Archetypes, and they are as real and energy-filled as any of the other archetypes we talk about – not only in Jungia n but also literary and psychological contexts.

In indigenous communities, the shaman acquires many psychic connections with particular animal spirits called allies.  This connection with non-human entities, including spirit forms, is considered essential to the shamanic identity and role in the community. They are sources of power and creative energy which protect, sustain and guide the shaman in his or her own life, as well as assist the shaman in working with others.

The indigenous shaman also connects with the souls of dead family members and with other shamans in this world or in other dimensions.

All shamans work in the three dimensions of the World Tree:

“The universe of the shaman can be broadly divided into three zones – the Upper, Middle and Lower worlds, or heaven, earth and the underworld. The World Tree is the bridge that connects these three worlds; it is the axis mundi about which the universe of the shaman extends. And it is on the Tree that the spirits pass from one world to another.” (From The World Tree in Classical Shamanism by Karen Kelly 1996).

But some shamans tell us that when they work at the  of higher-level or heavenly realm, they have met Great Shamans – those who visit this world only occasionally;  to elevate the vibrations of the world in a kind of Christ-like mission.

Archetypes and Animal Allies

In my early years as a psychic and former Catholic convert, I was open to other realms – indeed I was naturally drawn into them. Certainly the Catholic Church attracted me precisely because of its pagan origins and still-magical practices and beliefs.

But I was also well aware, from personal experience in our rather haunted, old, Ontario farmhouse, that there were those “on the Other Side” with whom you did not wish to connect. And my mother had some very disturbing experiences as a medium when she and my father held psychic sessions in our home.

We were taught by her guides that it was very unwise to open channels to those souls who should be moving on, to higher realms, not hanging around hoping for contact with those still alive here on Earth.  So I was always very cautious about opening the mind carelessly or in shallow activities like using the Ouija board.

And shamanism was a foreign country to me till my mid-life years. What I knew of it seemed off-limits to westerners, the preserve of indigenous peoples in whose ancient cultures shamanic practices were embedded.

My camel * Symbol of the Higher Self, but perhaps an animal ally too – more than I know.

I was uncertain – when I thought about it – as to how the energies of an animal like a bear, or wolf, or great eagle could interact with the spiritual life of a human being.  Much less would I have imagined a strong bond with the desert and a camel. And I wouldn’t have thought it safe to create relationships with souls, spirits, entities, from unknown dimensions.

However, all that changed around my 40’s when my morning meditations took a new direction.  I had been doing psychic readings professionally for several years and those readings had already led me to psychology, an old interest of mine, and the works of Carl Jung.  I realized my readings were connecting with deep psychological realities within my clients – including past lifetimes – and I was meeting what I called “personality fragments” and which Jung’s work had encountered and called subpersonalities.

My work was expanding and – as it turned out – so was I.  And suddenly, my morning meditations included the presence of large and non-threatening, very supportive entities such Bear and Eagle, particularly the Eagle, on whose back I seemed lifted up and transported to a peaceful “safe” ledge high above a great canyon.

Of note, this Eagle first appeared when I was at my most exhausted from events in my life such as my father’s death, and likely from the strain of the psychic readings as well.  It seemed to me that the Eagle was in some way saving my life, and I simply held on as it flew, with a comlete sense of trust.

As I found, these initial appearances can be alien and intrusive to the rational western mind, yet opening the heart and mind to them seems to be part of a letting go process which is also a form of spiritual initiation.

In the beginning, though, my first reaction to the presence of the Bear, for example, was almost an indignant rejection.

I had always disliked the idea of a westerner copying, exploiting, the essential features of indigenous culture into their own lives.

In many ways, I had never been a true New Ager – I felt that a fair amount of New Age rituals were a form of play-acting. The new western dalliance in shamanism seemed like cultural appropriation of the worst, most dishonest kind, a most inauthentic approach to spirituality.

Yet here I was, meeting a great shaggy Buffalo on an open plain, approaching him with humility, hands outstretched, making a solemn promise “I will never eat buffalo meat again…” This, though I had never eaten a piece of buffalo meat in this life. I knew then, though, that I had hunted buffalo as an American Indian, and this promise had to be made as part of the new sacred relationship.

In my experience, you will have a main, or chief animal ally but this may change over time.  You may or may not feel a strong connection all the time, and even in prayer and healing work as a solitary western shaman in your armchair, you may not, for long periods, feel your animal ally’s presence.

Remember, there seems to be a connection between your own inner needs for physical, emotional and psychic protection and renewal which is just as important as your ally being a power source for your work. How these relationships “work” is still, quite frankly, a mystery to me, and to most westerners not immersed in a culture which accepts and explains them.

You may be surprised to find several such allies appear over time, and feel a sense of temporary loss if one of them simply leaves, but you will soon find equilibrium again.  There is a great deal to be learned from coming to know and understand as much as you can about this special animal that has come into your life.  Yes, it will always be a mystery, but that is part of the great spiritual Road.

Spirits As allies * Drawing On Catholic and Other Religious Traditions

The practise of calling on “spirits” as helpers in indigenous shamanism is even more problematic for western shamanism than the presence of animal allies.

In indigenous shamanism there is a real emphasis on calling on spirits to both help and hinder others in the course of the Shaman’s work in the world. These spirits are often those of the ancestors, immediate and distant, and their connection with the living through the Shaman  is viewed by Shaman and community alike as essential to all problem-solving, healing and cementing the bonds of kinship and tradition.

Like Wicca and Paganism, indigenous Shamanism seems comfortable with using spiritual power for helping or harming, depending on the situation.  This alone is enough to put off most western modern Shamans, since we come largely from a New Age tradition in which using any form of energy to harm another would be a grave wrong and incur karmic penalties.

However, spirit helpers corresponds roughly to the surviving belief within Catholic Christianity that there can be ongoing communication between the living and the dead, in a mutual-assistance relationship.

While the Saints are considered stronger “allies”, it is quite acceptable for a Catholic to feel that a relative or other person who has died is still able to be present and helpful – though none of this amounts to the dramatic “calling up of spirits” which the Shaman achieves in direct spirit communication.

Within New Age thought and practice, “channelling ” of spirit entities is quite natural and expected, given the framework of beliefs, but few would describe this process as one of enlisting aid for specific tasks, except in a “behind-the-scenes” presence and helping hand.

Nor is there any emphasis upon spirits being those of ancestors whose continued presence maintains the fabric of a people or community. Guides are contacted for advice and information, but their energies are not usually enlisted as power to be harnessed and directed in a specific enterprise.

On the other hand, In Wiccan and Pagan communities, there is a pantheon of gods and goddess and numerous nature spirits, most of whom have names and are invoked as part of rituals and with requests for help in specific undertakings.

Archetypes – Gods and Goddesses – and Spirit Helpers

It is possible to see at least some of these spirit helpers as the gods and goddess – archetypes – of ancient Platonic, Jungian, and New Age Thought.  However, most indigenous shamans would insist that their “sources” are unique and highly personal, whereas we think of an archetypal energy as universal, a Form.  That does of course leave room for each Form to have its own unique Content, and so we may be able to conclude that some spirit helpers are one of the vast array of archetypes we human beings seem wired to perceive and interact with.

Archetypes * Still Mysteries to Human Beings

I think it likely that spirit helpers are both archetyes and unique personal beings – each individual has to decide if they are benign and genuinely helpful.

Some, perhaps most, psychics feel the presence of “guides” when they are doing their work for a client.

Some mediums – like Jane Roberts and Seth – directly channel personalities which may be fragments of their own personality. But they may be parts of their OverSoul, such as one of their own Selves from another lifetime.

Still more mysteriously, these psychic entities may truly be from other dimensions, including what we call aliens, beings from other planetary systems. These may be of similar essence to us, even sharing DNA, but seem to be much more advanced – not in the technology of science fiction fame, but in the higher spheres of living.

We all know there is a fine line between mental illness and the psychic, shamanistic world. And I am still cautious, from the early years at Hillshore, and the guides’ warning then to take very good care of the Mind.  I acknowledge the realms of spirits so essential to indigenous shamanism, but I still – for now – do not open to these realms in my private or professional work.

I do sense and welcome those I assume are my guides – a general presence in meditation and in psychic/astrology readings all of my life. Oddly, I have never known them as specific beings with names though I sense their love, and I love them, with deep gratitude for their presence – in return.

And I still fly, rarely, on the wings of my Eagle, and I embrace my Buffalo with all of my heart, giving thanks for what has been safely given…

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