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Explaining the Power Animal

By Staff | May 16, 2014

This is the fifth installment of a monthly column on spiritual development.

This month I am picking up from my last column which described my transition from being a Jesuit to exploring shamanism and becoming a shamanic practitioner. Last month I described how shamanism and Christianity, or any systemic religion, are not mutually exclusive any more than praying to St. Jude about a hopeless cause is a slight to Jesus.

This month I would like to develop an aspect of shamanism which seems to be what people have heard about the most and associate most readily with shamanism and that is the Power Animal.

In the shamanic worldview there are three worlds: the Lower, Middle and Upper. The Lower World is the realm of plant and animal spirits. Early on in the practice of shamanism a person journeys to the Lower World with the intention of discovering his/her Power Animal. When the process is complete the person now has a spiritual ally who has power to share. This ally can be called upon for advice in time of need.

One wag once asked me if a mosquito could be a Power Animal. The answer is “yes” but I have never heard of an actual instance. The reason a mosquito can be a Power Animal is that anything can be. The point of its power is the role it plays in the ecosystem not whether we humans consider it pesky or weak.

In the Judaeo-Christian heritage there is a long tradition of animal spirits associated with human and divine beings. This can be found in Ezekiel 1 and 2 in the vision of the chariot of Yahweh and the vision of the scroll. The Christian evangelists (writers of the gospels) are each associated with a winged creature. While Matthew’s is a winged man or angel, Mark’s is a lion, Luke’s an ox or bull, and John’s an eagle. Up until the thirteenth century these four icons were depicted in the four quadrants of portraits of Jesus.

Recently in my work as a practitioner Stag has been appearing. Stag combines strength and courage with the gentleness of Deer. In the sixteenth century the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross makes Stag a symbol of Jesus in his Spiritual Canticle, “the wounded stag is in sight on the hill”

I am restricted to 500 words but hopefully the reader can get a peek at the survival of shamanism, a spiritual practice pre-dating the great religions by many millennia, in the worldview of at least two great religions.

(Bill O’Brien is a spiritual development practitioner. He and his wife Linda have lived in Shepherdstown since 2005. He can be reached at nathanielcenter@gmail.com)