The belief in guardian or guide spirits originated in tribal cultures. The spirit, usually in an animal form, protects, individuals, tribes, clans, or provides some sort of magical shamanic power. The power possessed by the animal is generally believed to represent the collective power of the entire species or genus, giving the animal magical abilities to perform extraordinary feats, such as the wolf with the power to fight.
These spirits usually appear in animal form, but have the ability to assume human form too. In their animal form it is believed they can talk to humans. This belief in animal formed spirits is derived from a stronger belief that animals and humans were once related.
Beliefs concerning guardian spirits vary among the various tribal cultures. Many tribes believe every male child is born with a guardian spirit to protect him, otherwise he would never reach adulthood. Other tribes believe not every male successfully gets a guardian spirit; those who do not experience weakness and failure in their lives.
Most tribes assume that it is less important for girls to acquire guardian spirits because when reaching womanhood they do not become hunters and warriors. Although, some tribes do have minor rites for girls to acquire guardian spirits.
Totem guardian spirits are known among the Native North Americans, especially among the tribes along the Northwest Coast. These totem spirits can protect an entire tribe or clan with collective power or the individual power of the animal. The totem animal is sacred to that particular tribe. If, for example, a tribe’s totem animal is a bear, no member of that tribe is permitted to kill a bear, but the tribe may eat flesh of a bear killed by another tribe.
In Shamanic cultures the shaman is required to have a guardian spirit. He cannot be a shaman without one. The guardian spirit empowers the shaman with its magical powers and serves as the shaman’s “animal power” or his alter ego.
Within an altered state of consciousness, in which he performs his duties, the shaman assumes the form and power of the guardian spirit. He sees it, converses with it, and uses it to help him achieve his mission. The guardian is never harmful to the shaman but escorts him through the underworld or accompanies him on his mystical ascents into the sky.
The shaman can contact his guardian spirit regularly. This is called “dancing the animal.” Although, one guardian spirit does not remain with the shaman throughout his life. The stays of the spirits are temporary, and new spirits replace them.
Guardian spirits are not the same as “spirit helpers” which have minor powers and specialized functions such as curing certain diseases and illnesses. A shaman may use spirit helpers collectively. And, guardian spirits are not to be confused with helper spirits. Neither are guardian spirits to be confused with the tonal, a spirit in animal form, which symbolizes the person’s soul or birth date; nor are they familiars.
There are several ways of acquiring guardian spirits: seeking a solitary spirit quest or vision quest in the wilderness; spirits may come in dreams to some persons; many tribes require the acquisition of a guardian spirits during initiation rites into manhood. In some rites hallucinogenic drugs are used.
One way of communicating with one’s guardian spirit is during ecstatic dancing when the person enters a trance state and assumes the form of the animal. The Zuni, for example, call this dance “Calling the Beasts.”
From the tribal view point most Westerners still have guardian spirits, but are not aware of them throughout their lives. This is because of their lost contact with nature, and thus they rob themselves of this source of greater reinforcing power. A.G.H.