Disclaimer: Your personal experiences may differ from mine. That’s okay. Your feelings and experiences are the most valid for you, as mine are for me.
If you think that something in my experience is helpful to you, take it and be welcome. If you don’t, it’s okay to disagree and to go do something
else. I can’t think of a more boring job than parcelling out real estate in other people’s heads, and I am not trying to apply for that position.
It’s your decision, not mine and not anyone else’s, as to who and what you “really” are.
I’m not saying that any particular combination of wereside(s), totems, spirit guides, etc, is impossible – just that there are some differences between all
of these things and you are the only person who can really judge which one(s) you might be experiencing. It’s a good idea to learn how to tell them apart,
especially if you think you may have dealings with more than one of the above.
Totem Animals and Weresides: Which One Do You Have?
I occasionally hear people talking about their wereside(s) but describing their relationship with this animal in ways that are much more similar to accounts of
animal totems or helper spirits. Of course there is nothing preventing someone from being wolf-souled and also having Wolf (or Bear, or Cougar, etc) as a totem
or a spirit helper. But it does make me wonder if we are all using the word “wereside” to mean the same thing. I also wonder about polyweres – are
there really that many therians around with more than one animal soul, or might at least some of them have very strong relationships or affinities with more
than one animal totem?
I define my wereside as strictly internal. It doesn’t appear to me in visions or talk to me in dreams. It’s just plain old me, and I’m not in the
habit of talking to myself. It isn’t any smarter, wiser or more spiritually advanced than I am, and it doesn’t have any messages for me aside from
“Hungry! Food! Pounce eat bite NOW!” Basically it is nothing more than my own animal hindbrain. My experiences in learning to understand and cope
with my internal wereside are very different from my experiences of communicating with animal spirits.
A typical experience for me of my wereside manifesting is to experience a mental or phantom shift where I feel as if I was walking in a four-legged body. I am
very aware of the bulky musculature of my shoulders, my big paws, my thick forearms and my short but heavy jaws. I can’t see my tail or my hindquarters but
I am also aware of them behind me. Shamans who have temporarily allowed animal spirits into their bodies may also report similar experiences, but they can
usually see and speak to this animal spirit also as a separate entity. The animal spirit comes and goes, acting as a teacher or helper.
Another typical experience for me of managing my wereside is a strong desire to do something. Sometimes that something is socially acceptable and sometimes it
isn’t. My most powerful impulses generally have to do with pouncing and crunching small live things. I very often want to vocalize with a rumbling sound
that is midway between a purr and a growl, and occasionally with short chuffing coughs or grunts. I generally refrain from doing so when other people can hear
me, except when I am taken by surprise or experience sudden and unexpected pain. At those times I usually don’t have a choice, no matter how embarrassing
Shamans with animal spirits do not normally report these kinds of experiences as part of their everyday life, though they may in the context of immediate
contact with their animal spirit. The main difference between a shaman with a strong relationship to an animal totem and a therianthrope seems to be the
duration of their experience rather than the details, and whether or not it is consciously invoked. Just about every “shifting” experience I have
heard reported by modern therianthropes online has a close counterpart in historical accounts of shamanic experiences. My suspicion is that we are not looking
at two entirely separate things, but something more like a spectrum.
Weresides Don’t Go Away – even when they aren’t convenient.
One of the reasons I have had to explain my wereside to anyone whom I am really close to is that they will inevitably hear me snarl when I stub my toe or if
they come up on me from behind and touch me or speak loudly. I feel a little more dignified presenting a scholarly explanation of shamanism and therianthropy
with a cultural overview of the phenomenon around the world, and admitting that I seem to be a personal participant in this phenomenon.
Depending on how bad the surprise/pain is, the involuntary reaction may be more than a snarl. I don’t clearly remember getting a nasty electrical shock
from an old toaster I was plugging in. I returned to full awareness a second or two later as I was in the process of snarling and leaping forward to attack and
kill the appliance. This caused no end of hilarity around the breakfast table. I had apparently managed to leap back across the room, hit the far wall and
launch myself forward again in an entirely involuntary reflex. I have no memory of the backward leap. If no one had been watching to tell me differently I
would have assumed that I had only moved forward. It was educational, if embarrassing.
The first time I moved in with a guy and started sleeping in the same bed with him, I used to wake up every so often snarling and cuffing. It took me a few
months to get used to waking up next to a different person, after which it generally stopped. After enough of my adult years spent sharing a bed with a
companion, I don’t do this any more unless I am awakened very roughly or by someone who is a total stranger to me.
These are the experiences I would characterize as dealing with my animal side. I do not define them as spiritual or shamanic. I define them as living with
Animal Spirits: Talking to Totems
The experiences I would characterize as communicating with animal spirits are almost always voluntary. Many of them correspond to what a Christian might call
prayer. I set aside conscious time to meditate on the natural world and to acknowledge respect and reverence for the Mother Earth and for all Her children. My
attitude towards the natural world is profoundly different from the one most people understand, and it is much closer to that of a so-called tribal primitive.
The Lakota Sioux have a saying “Mitaque oeyasin” which literally translates to “All my relations.” It is difficult to fully explain the
meaning of this concept; a lot of people seem to take it as a shallow platitude. It isn’t. The interrelationship I have with animals and plants and the sea
and the earth and the sky is very much like being part of a family with all of the obligations and responsibilities that this implies.
Modern society does not easily permit this deep level of awareness and interdependency, because very few people today hunt and fish and grow crops for their
primary sustenance. But I think that a lot of people know what’s missing on some level, and they go looking for it.
I am deeply aware of the fact that I depend on the plants and animals for my very life. They nourish me, and in turn I have a responsibility towards them. I
also feel different levels of family obligations and relationships towards different plants and animals. These generally have to do with spiritual
relationships, where I have learned specific lessons from a totem spirit or obtained certain gifts, and in return I do specific things that are appropriate to
show respect, or things that these spirits asked for.
Most of the interactions I have had with animal and totem spirits have nothing to do with my wereside. The majority of them are extremely simple and come under
the heading of either “normal good manners” or “primitive superstitious practices” depending on whether you are a tribal primitive or an
Acknowledging the Spirit World
I am walking through the woods to collect some tasty wild mustard or fennel or whatever else looks good that day. I am also keeping my eye open for small game
if I have a gun and am in a legal hunting area. Maybe crayfish or trout tickled out from under a rock if I feel like getting wet and I’m near a river. When
I come upon something I want to collect, it’s normal good manners to me to silently acknowledge the animal or plant totem spirit, thank them for the gift
of abundance and ask if it is all right to take.
Usually I don’t get much of an answer at all. Sometimes there is a little whisper of acknowledgement. Occasionally the answer is “no, not this
one” or “Only take a little from this place; leave the rest for one with greater need” or “Take, but leave such and such as an
offering”. I listen with respect to these spirit voices, because that’s what I was taught to do.
When I am in a “consciously listening” state, there are lessons I can learn from many different plant and animal spirits. I learned a very deep
admiration for the wisdom, courage and peaceful quiet that is Snake, mostly by sitting myself down in front of one with a respectful attitude and asking Snake
Spirit to share. Reptiles have never looked or smelled like food to me, so I’m able to relate to them both in person and in the spirit world without the
annoyance of the usual **EAT! POUNCE BITE CRUNCH NOW NOW NOW!** voice in the back of my head.
Raven showed up early in my life and taught me a lot. When I looked up at a raven and respectfully acknowledged Raven Spirit, there was my animal hindbrain
urging me to eat him. And Raven Spirit heard me. Being a trickster he laughed and said that was perfectly okay to eat him, since he would return the favor
especially if he caught me when I was already dead. He said very clearly, “I eat knowledge and turn it into wisdom.” And he told me that I should eat
him so that I could learn how to do the same.
That was the point at which I knew I was having a significant interaction with a totem spirit, not just exchanging polite good-manners with the spirit world. I
did not shoot the physical raven that I was looking at, despite the clear invitation of Raven Spirit. I’d never eaten one before and didn’t think the
meat would be any good. My animal side wants to eat EVERYTHING including mice and insects; if the meal it proposes looks too unappetizing or inconvenient to my
human side it generally gets outvoted.
This time it was my human side that got outvoted. A while later I was walking home and I saw something black on the sidewalk. It was a raven, and it was dead
and still warm. I couldn’t tell how it had died but it seemed plump and had no physical injuries that I could detect. Note: any meeting of bird and car
windshield can cause these circumstances, as I learned later doing wildlife rehab.
I got the picture. I prayed to Raven Spirit and I listened. I was told to eat the meat and take the wings and the claws to keep, but leave the head and the
tail feathers on the carcass when I buried it so the spirit of this raven could find its way to the Upperworld and become my spirit helper.
The raven was actually pretty tasty, but I ate it in a shamanic state of consciousness in a ritual manner so I’m not sure how aware of physical reality I
was at the time. I’ve never eaten another one and I don’t think I’m supposed to. But one of the more valuable lessons Raven taught me was to ignore
foolish or arbitrary food taboos and by extension all social restrictions that don’t make any good sense and that interfere with my personal growth or
Scavenging, he said, is the art of accepting the good gifts that are all around you and not paying attention to people who want you to reject those gifts for
their own foolish or selfish reasons.
Raven also taught me to journey to the Upperworld, a technique that had frustrated me for some time during my shamanic training. I was always drawn too
strongly to the Lowerworld because of my animal soul. My raven literally lent me his wings so that I could Journey upward.
I still thank Raven for his wisdom and I enjoy his good gifts of roadkill, but he is no longer with me. At one time in my life I felt called to give away my
Raven bundle to another woman who sought a connection to this spirit. My lessons with Raven were at an end.
So What’s The Difference?
Raven is not my animal soul. I related to Raven as a totem spirit and also a helper spirit. To differentiate between these three things, I would say that Raven
Totem acknowledged me and sent me a helper raven spirit that taught me a lot about how to cope with being an animal souled person.
The totem spirit of Coyote is related to but is not the same as the coyote wereside that may live inside of you and look out through your eyes. A totem spirit
is like an archetype. It is not one cat but all of Cat. You may also run into animal spirits who are wolves but who are not Wolf. These may be helper spirits,
or they may be symbols in a dream or vision that are teaching you something. Neither totem animals nor animal spirits are the same thing as your internal
wereside, though they may be the same species or they may be related in a different way.
Most shamans whether they are weres or not will say that they relate to multiple totem spirits or helper spirits. These spirits may teach or guide or initiate.
They may even be invited to enter inside a shaman’s mind and body for a time to teach their special lessons. The result of inviting an animal spirit inside
is mental or spiritual shapeshifting. You feel as if you have become that animal and are walking in its body. A shaman who is “dancing an animal” may
move like that animal and make sounds like that animal. He may even appear to become that animal, whether or not he physically puts on an animal mask or
costume. Is this the same as therianthropic shifting? Not exactly, but I suspect it’s somewhere on the related spectrum.
For me there are some major differences between consciously choosing to dance a totem spirit and what happens when my animal nature shifts to the forefront,
which almost always happens without my conscious choice. There are also some similarities. When I am dancing an outside totem spirit to honor it, I take on
some of the feelings and perceptions of that animal. I have flown as Raven and lumbered as Bear, and learned valuable spirit lessons from each. It’s just
not my core self; it’s more like getting a peek through another animal’s eyes and inviting its spirit inside for a little while. I have a very clear
sense of being a visitor in another world, or of an outside spirit being a visitor in my world.
I don’t know how other peoples’ experiences differ. I don’t think that being therian made me any better at inviting other animal spirits inside,
though there didn’t seem to be any particular conflict either. Dancing the totem spirits and “shifting” with them is a basic shamanic technique
that anyone can learn. From the experiences I had doing this, I would say that it might even be possible for a non therianthrope to consciously choose and
invite an animal spirit inside for longer and longer periods of time. Whether this could result in their moving across the spectrum from “shaman with an
animal spirit” to “animal souled therianthrope” I don’t know.
I cannot sit in judgement over anyone else and say for sure whether they are animal souled or whether they have a strong relationship with a totem animal or
spirit helper, or possibly all of the above at the same time. I also do not know how much qualitative difference there is between having an animal soul
resident in your body all of the time, some of the time intermittently or only when you consciously invite an animal spirit inside. Certainly nobody should
consider any one of these states as better than any other.
Many therians seem to experience cycles of being more or less animal souled which may depend on the season, the moon cycle, the time of day or just what
happens to be going on in their lives at the time. This does not always mean that their animal souls are actually outside animal spirits that may not always
live inside them. But for some people in some circumstances it might. The only way you can personally know (and it really isn’t anyone else’s business)
is by splitting your time between listening carefully to the voices inside of you and also listening to what the serious scholars have to say about shamanism
and animal shifting throughout history. I don’t mean the newage (rhymes with sewage) crap, I mean Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell and other accredited
scholars who are more likely to be found in a university library than a Newage bookstore. Michael Harner is one of the very few modern authors I consider worth
If your personal experiences sound to you like certain of the accounts anthropologists have collected from experienced shamans and animal shifters in primitive
cultures, you can learn something valuable from that. Therianthropy is not necessarily the same thing as shamanism, but it shares many of the characteristics
and personal experiences in common. Anthropologists consider all accounts of animal shifting to fall under the category of shamanism, so that’s where
you’ll find it in the library. If you are a therianthrope, a modern shifter, you may find much of value in listening to the voices of animal shifters from
other times and cultures.
In my opinion their collective wisdom is a better guide than anything you may find on the Internet, since long-dead shamans don’t have weird agendas about
forming cyber-packs and convincing other people that they are really 800 year old vampire hunters. Naturally they might have had such Trickster ideas when
talking to the anthropologist, so it’s a good idea to sift through a large enough number of them to see what the common elements are.
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