If you desire a spiritual connection with the animal world, but think the experience is available only to the spiritually evolved or gifted—don't despair. A "familiar" is simply a living creature having personal and spiritual meaning to you, and the experience is available to anyone who seeks it. No need for otherworldly experiences or altered states of consciousness. Personal awareness and desire are key, not revelation. A gradual opening of your mind and spirit to the animal world goes a long way toward enriching your life and adding another level to your spiritual practice.
Many people describe enjoying a spiritual relationship with a particular animal, but the nature of that connection differs greatly from person to person. Some describe their familiar as a "spiritual teacher," while others choose words like "companion" or "messenger." A common misconception is that familiars appear only in the form of animals commonly associated with magic, such as the cat, wolf, toad, or eagle. True, these animals seem to enjoy some measure of popularity, but there is no "rule." Such a belief creates a narrow perception of familiars and leaves some spiritual folks feeling left by the wayside. Just as we are all different, there is no "one" way to discover your animal familiar and no "right" way to honor or experience them.
We Are Family
If the idea of having a spiritual connection with an animal feels foreign or strange, try thinking of animals as members of your family. As human beings, we are mammals and already part of the wondrous, intricate web of living creatures that roam the earth, fill the oceans, and speckle the skies. It's easy to lose sight of the similarities between ourselves and other members of the animal kingdom, especially for those of use who live and work in large cities, separated from most animals. However, thinking about our similarities is a great way to raise our consciousness and feel more in touch with them.
Like different animals, individual human beings have unique natures that guide life choices, such as the number of people we live with or our preference for city or country living. Just as animals are instinctively driven to live in certain environments, we also choose "habitats" that meet our spiritual needs and desires. These choices include the type of home we prefer as well as what we surround ourselves with—such as art, music, and furnishings.
Moreover, like any species, we depend on one another, but the amount we socialize differs between individuals. Some people prefer life in highly structured social communities while others prefer more solitary wandering. Our dietary habits also vary widely. Some of us are carnivorous hunters, some vegetarian foragers, and yet others a combination of both. We also show a penchant for particular climates, some people longing for the heat and solitude of the desert while others seek the ebb and flow of the ocean.
Think about your lifestyle choices: your home, diet, and social connections. These things offer hints about the animals with which you share common traits. When you start to think about familiars this way, it becomes easier to find meaningful connections. Which animals seem to be in your "family?"
Search the Ordinary
Most of us know someone who has an extraordinary connection to a particular animal. Perhaps we have an aunt who collects feathers from every bird imaginable or know a photographer with an uncanny ability for capturing images of butterflies in flight. Although these strong connections do occur, many people experience more subtle connections.
Take a few minutes to think about animals you generally feel "kin" to. Think about pets you have kept as companions and what they brought to your life. Which did you feel particularly close to? How did they come to you? Were they orphaned? A gift from a special person? Did you have an instant love affair with them? Did they arrive unannounced at your home and refuse to leave?
You can also take a walk through the rooms of your home or flip through your photo albums. Does one particular animal reappear often? You might also look at your favorite movies and books. Do any of them feature a particular animal character? Many connections between humans and animals are subconscious until effort is made to bring them out.
Think in Groups
If you are still struggling to find an animal you relate to, try to find a category of animal that makes "psychic sense" to you. Consider the various groupings of animals and their most fundamental characteristics, and think about them in relation to spiritual principles of air, fire, water, and earth.
This is the warm-blooded group of animals humans belong to. We give birth to live young and nourish them with our own milk. Most mammals live in groups and demonstrate quite elaborate social organization—much like us!
Spiritual Dimensions: Mammals are typically associated with earth qualities, but, depending on their habitat and individual characteristics, may also embody other aspects.
The cold-blooded group of lung-breathing animals has protective, scaled skin and are often very colorful. Many reptiles shed their skin, or re-grow body parts lost to injury or assault. Cold-bloodedness, normally given a "bad rap," embodies the nature of the adaptive, and suggests responsiveness to environmental changes. Reptiles lay eggs and are not particularly doting parents.
Examples: Lizards, turtles, snakes, crocodiles, and alligators.
Spiritual Dimensions: Depending on the individual animal, reptiles may represent earth or fire. Their changing and adaptive natures reflect spiritual growth and healing.
These egg layers feature feathers and lightweight, hollow bones. They have no teeth and high metabolisms—eating a tremendous amount of food and producing much heat. They are known for having beautiful voices and their unique ability to "speak." Complex behavior is found in migration patterns, courtship, and incubation behavior. Birds are often associated with oracles and predicting the future.
Examples: Songbirds, seabirds, carrion eaters, birds of prey, woodpeckers.
Spiritual Dimensions: Birds belong in the realm of air, the intellectual and realm of the spirit.
The word itself means "double life." Amphibians have cool skin that is usually slippery, making them hard to catch! They have four limbs and no scales. They have toxins in their skins, and are often brightly colored.
Examples: Salamanders, newts, toads, frogs, and caecilians.
Spiritual Dimensions: Creatures of both earth and water, these animals are highly adaptive, and embody many of both characteristics.
These egg-laying residents of water do not breathe air. They may inhabit either fresh or salt water. Some make their homes close to the surface while others exist in the darkness of the ocean's floor.
Spiritual Dimensions: Water. Realm of the emotional, the subconscious, and the instinctive.
The collective mass of insects on our planet outweighs the mass of all other species combined. These creatures have no backbone, and many—such as the bee and the ant—demonstrate elaborate social organization. They are also known for their ability to undergo incredibly dramatic metamorphoses.
Spiritual Dimensions: Because insects are found in almost every corner of the planet, they may be associated with any of the elements. A careful look at their individual characteristics will offer hints about their spiritual natures.
Are you someone who hates to get animal hair on your clothes? Never had a pet or enjoyed bird watching? Do you feel nervous around dogs and cats? Don't assume this means that you are unlikely to have a familiar! Quite the opposite, in fact. Often, we fear or avoid those things we repress in ourselves or those things we most desire, but are unable to accept. Examine your fears, aversions, and dislikes of animals; you may be surprised what you find there and how much you can learn about yourself!
Honoring Your Familiar at the Altar
There are many ways to increase your connections with the animal world, and one of them is to include them on your altar as part of your everyday spiritual practices. Again, there is no right or wrong way to do this. It is simply a way to turn your mind and spirit to the ways of the natural world and become more attuned to the animal kingdom. If after thinking about animal familiars you feel an attraction to a particular animal, you might find some pictures or representations of them to add to your altar or your home. Such items might include statues, artwork, sheep's wool, feathers, turtle shells, birds' nests, or snakeskins. You might also want to find poems or songs about the animal, and commit them to memory. If possible, find recordings of the animals' sounds and listen to them, noting the emotions that their noises evoke.
Being connected to the animal kingdom happens through conscious intent, meditation, and desire. There are so many things animals can teach us when we have eyes to see and ears to listen them. An early step to exploring spiritual relationships with animals is simply raising your awareness about them. Going to the library on a quiet Saturday afternoon and searching for folktales and information about specific animals is a wonderful way to increase sensitivity and enjoy an emerging sense of oneness with creatures of the animal kingdom.
Excerpted from Llewellyn's 2008 Magical Almanac. Click here for current-year calendars and almanacs.