Becoming Animal: Tutelary Animal Spirits
I write about animals in folklore and folktales often — see my posts about horses, chickens, and the role of birds in “Aschenputtel” as examples. I also research animals frequently to learn more about them — their behaviors, their roles in their ecosystems, their physical traits that enable them to survive in various ways. And I enjoy watching animals firsthand in my backyard or on hikes — it’s important to see them in their environment, how they move and behave (although it’s always a good idea to keep a safe distance, both for yourself and the animal). I’ve learned so much about deer since moving to a more rural area, watching them in the twilight hours as they travel to and from our woods, things I wouldn’t have learned from reading. Like how one doe emerges first, standing still to scan the area, and then turns her head to the others to let them know it’s safe before bolting fully into the open.
It’s that closeness, that attentiveness, to animals that I’d like to see more of — not whittling animals down to simplistic tropes but understanding them deeply, on their own terms, and valuing their unique power and what it might teach us. This is not “animal medicine” or “animal power” in the pseudo-totemistic sense appropriated from vague notions of Native American religions, but a spiritual practice of earnestly coming under the tutelage of specific animal spirits — the way we would our deities and ancestors — to learn how to operate magical power in new, more powerful ways. This isn’t a new idea but an ancient one, practiced in different cultures in different ways across time: taking animal spirits seriously, growing our power through our close ties with them, becoming more than ourselves.
Slug, Toad, Snake
If you’re familiar with the anime Naruto, then you’ll recognize the names Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Orochimaru, the Three Sannin who have blood contracts with toad, slug, and snake spirits, respectively. These characters were inspired by the legendary “Tale of Jiraiya,” in which the young robber Jiraiya learns magic from a mountain spirit whose true form is a giant toad. He learns how to transform into a toad, invoke living toads and ride them, and control the elements and weather. His wife, Tsunade, similarly learns slug magic from a slug spirit (the only specific power of hers that’s mentioned in the version of the story I read is the ability to walk on water, but I assume there’s more*). Orochimaru, the villain, learns snake magic and can spit poison. The trope is based on a Japanese hand game, similar to rock-paper-scissors, with origins in China: slugs are consumed by toads; toads are consumed by snakes; and snakes are… consumed by slugs? The slug element is founded on a mistranslation from Chinese to Japanese characters, but it can be argued that ultimately slugs may eat snakes: as detrivores, some slug species consume carrion, which snakes and all other animals eventually become. At any rate, with Jiraiya and Tsunade working together, they eventually overcome Orochimaru, and all ends well.
The source behind each human’s magical power is so compelling: animal spirits who taught humans their secret powers, their methods transferred through attentiveness, humility, and practice over time. The idea that power can be gained from alliances with animal spirits — not by treating them as cheaply-bought badges but truly seeking wisdom and power from them — is both ancient and universal, a class of traditions lost when cultures divide humans from the rest of the world.
European Shapeshifting and Tutelary Animal Spirits
There are hints of similar attitudes about animal spirits and magic among European peoples. Old Norse literature mentions berserkers and ulfhednar — warriors who sought to emulate bears and wolves in their warmaking. It wasn’t just a name they gave themselves or a felt kinship — they aimed to truly mimic the behavior and power of these animals, even wearing the furs and skins of their tutelary spirits. Boars are another tutelary animal for northern European peoples, including Germanic, Finnic, and Slavic groups. A battle formation called svinfylking in Old Norse resembled a boar’s snout and tusks, and Tacitus mentions warriors who wore the image of a wild boar rather than armor in battle. Beowulf mentions the boar as a guardian and inspiration for those in battle:
“but the shining helmet guarded his head, (the helmet) whose duty it was to stir up the mere depths, to seek the surging water… wonderfully adorned with boar-images, so that afterwards no brand nor battle-sword might bite through it” (ibid.)
French and German werewolf lore, too, contains hints of a deeper spiritual tradition of close relationships between humans and animals. Some werewolves owned a girdle, belt, or strap that would enable them to transform by putting it on and taking it off. Benjamin Thorpe mentions one example of a man observed by his co-laborers rising from a nap, putting on a “strap, whereupon he became a wolf” (27). Other werewolves put on wolf skins, like the one who underwent trial in Livonia: “We have wolf skins that we simply put on,” although when questioned about the names of his fellow werewolves, he changed his story and stated that they “would go into the bushes, take off their usual clothes, and turn immediately into wolves” (Lecouteux 170). The werewolf in question, for what it’s worth, claimed to have been working on behalf of his community, not against it, by bringing wheat seeds back from hell to keep the fields fruitful. Lecouteux likened this kind of werewolf to the Benandanti — Italian magic workers who fought against malevolent sorcerers who sought to ruin harvests, spread illness, and the like. Whether or not the werewolf at trial changed his story to protect certain friends is uncertain, but his second claim fits neatly with Lecouteux’s thesis that werewolves were people whose spirits would leave their bodies and take the form of wolves — the clothing or girdles perhaps symbolically aiding in the shedding of the human body by the spirit or Double.
Like Jiraiya, werewolves not only shapeshifted into wolves but were also believed to be able to charm wolves and ride them, especially in Bavaria and Austria. The völva Hyndla rides a wolf in “The Lay of Hyndla,” and Freyja, the goddess most closely associated with the ecstatic practice of seidr, rides a boar as well as transforms into a falcon with the use of a cape of feathers. Folklorist Benjamin Thorpe mentions a witch who rides a black chicken to her Sabbaths, and Holda’s devotees rode various animals on their nocturnal flights. Folklore is rife with witches who turn into rabbits, cats, mice, and other animals. The Benandanti, for example, became mice or rats (Lecouteux 91). The Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie had a charm that she would recite:
I shall go into a hare
With sorrow and such a mickle care
And I shall go out in the devil’s name
Ay, till I come home again.
There are also women who transform into waterbirds — geese, swans, ducks. Typically, they are believed to be supernatural beings, but Thorpe mentions at least one living, human woman who would sometimes “be a duck and swim on the water” (other times, she would become a hare) (26).
Claude Lecouteux recalls a story in the Landnamabok of two feuding men who transform into animals at night to battle:
“One night, around sunset, a man who was gifted with second sight saw a fat bear leaving Hvall and a bull leaving Dufthaksholt. They met at Storolfsvellir and started a furious fight. Eventually the bear got the upper hand. The next morning, the earth of the little valley where the bull and bear had met each other looked as if it had been torn up.”
Norse witches and wise women, as well as Finnish and Sami magic workers, were recorded in Old Norse texts transforming into various animals to spy, steal, or battle. Nennius’s Historia Britonum claims that
“There exist certain men of the Celtic race who have a marvelous power that they get from their ancestors. By a demonic force, they can, at will, take the form of a wolf with large sharp teeth… When they are of a mind to transform themselves, they leave their human body, ordering their friends not to change their position or touch them in any minor way whatsoever” (Lecouteux 110-111).
This taboo against touching the body is found in accounts of shapeshifting across Europe.
For many Europeans and European diaspora, the traditions for how these transformations are achieved is lost, and anyone who wants to learn must turn to the spirits to teach them — which, honestly, is how they were learned in the first place.
Animal Spirits, Animal Power, and the Animist Witch
What if, instead of treating animal archetypes as badges for personal validation — gained from superficial assumptions about animal qualities — we studied animals directly and deeply? What if we sought to learn from them — how they engage with the world, their roles in their ecosystems, their unique traits that enable their survival and contribute to their environment’s health? Reading books on animal biology, animal behavior, ecology. Watching nature documentaries. Going out into the forest, on the water, climbing mountains, and observing them and their environments firsthand. Making thoughtful offerings and petitioning them to teach us. Making sacred oaths to protect living members of their species as well their environments.
It all comes back to animism: increasing our awareness of and sensitivity to the spirits that occupy this universe with us; understanding that we are only one species, one piece in the jigsaw puzzle; and having the knowledge, skills, and etiquette to engage with other members of our universal family when needed and/or desired. Spirit veneration. Spirit work. Allowing ourselves to embrace that we are animals; we are fibers in a breathing, undulating, wakeful cloth, powerful but also interwoven and interdependent. We can be made stronger through our bonds, and we can lend our strength to help others thrive.
*Note: It’s probable that Tsunade has more powers than mentioned if her slug magic is meant to overcome snake magic. Tellingly, the Naruto anime’s Tsunade can soak up massive amounts of ambient energy to increase her spiritual power, just as slug mucus can absorb 100 times its weight in water from its environment to stay moist. She also has significant healing powers, and scientists are discovering the many healing and protective functions of slug mucus, from sealing wounds to topical anaesthesia.
Unlinked Works Cited
Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies. Inner Traditions, 2003.
Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology. Vol. 2, Lumley, 1851.
Featured image: Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Jiraiya and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Inaka musume Otsuna (Utagawa Kunisada, 1852, woodblock print)