The Thing About “Spirit Animals”


January 30, 2014 by Beatrice Marovich


Image from Shadow Wolf’s (Deathric) Photobucket. Accessed via creative commons.

A few days ago, on Facebook, a friend posted a link to US Magazine where it was being reported that former Abercrombie & Fitch model and Teen Wolf star Colton Haynes had tweeted something about Jennifer Lawrence (“JLaw”) being his “spirit animal.” My friend’s question, on Facebook, was essentially: “since when are we calling other people ‘spirit animals’?” Being drawn toward both celebrity gossip and conversations about animality, I (of course) had to get involved. At the time, I hadn’t yet read Colton Haynes’ Wikipedia page. So I didn’t yet know that he’d been involved in a werewolf drama, or that he describes his parents as “free-spirited hippies”. So I gave him absolutely no credit for his potential expertise on the subject matter. I simply made the more mundane points that: 1.) Humans are animals, after all. And, 2.) Given that racial and sexual others have long been animalized by white men, it’s no great surprise that a white guy is animalizing a successful woman in a public forum like this (subtext: “if only I could be a crazy animal like JLaw, instead of a serious human being…”) And then I continued to follow the conversation about spirit animals that ensued.

Why, you might be asking, was I then compelled to say anything more about this? How much can we possibly say about this inane comment that appeared on Twitter? Why would I bother with a trite comment that was obviously dished out in a spirit of irony? What’s the point? What interests me about this comment are the various threads and strands it pulls together: “New Age” culture, pop culture, gender in the cult of celebrity, human and animal relations. I am, perhaps, most interested in the way that New Age culture and conversations about animality come together so seamlessly, here. But it is also the case that terms we use today, with a sense of irony, have their own histories, and sets of associations that often go unacknowledged when we don’t bother to interrogate them. Basically, I just think “spirit animals” are something worth having a conversation about.

Part of the reason that things like “spirit animals” rarely generate much intellectual curiosity is, perhaps, related to the fact that the academic disciplines equipped to discuss such matters are also fringe disciplines in the contemporary academy. There may be latent content related to religion and theology, in many other disciplines, but it tends to be awkward to have serious conversations about this. As an academic who works in both religion/theology and animal studies, I am often painfully aware of a certain kind of under-discussed subtext in conversations about human-animal relations: what I would call a kind of “spiritualization” of the human connection with other animals (I put the term “spiritual” in scare quotes because it’s contentious, and difficult, and I want to underscore its strangeness). There are certainly thinkers in animal studies, such as Kathy Rudy, who are rather forthcoming about the fact that there are either spiritual or theological stakes in their argument about human and non-human animal relations.  A number of ecofeminist thinkers, such as Marti Kheel and Carol Adams, were trained in the divinity school context and—from time to time—verge into discussions about things “spiritual”, religious, or theological (such as vegetarianism, in Adams’ case). And, of course, my colleagues in theology tend to be absolutely forthcoming about this, as well (nature of the discipline, you might say). But there is also a sense in which these sorts of conversations (frank about the “spiritual”, religious, or theological stakes of an argument) tend to get pigeonholed in broader academic conversations. Forgive the pun. Or don’t (perhaps it’s helpful). These conversations may appeal, in other words, to a great number of non-academic thinkers. But in the context of “serious” and academic discussions about humans and animality, this sort of content often tends to be quickly relegated to an uncomfortable sort of “outside.” It is, however, an “outside” that keeps growing and burgeoning anyhow, despite its academic incredibility.

Donna Haraway’s work is an interesting example of someone who both engages with, and forecloses on, this sort of content. In her cyborg manifesto, for example, Haraway suggests that she would “rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” Here, she dissociates herself from the New Ageiness of goddess feminism… while, at the same time, capitalizing on some of its “spiritual” appeal and plugging it into the ironic figure of the cyborg. Haraway is everywhere critiquing the violent legacies of Christian theology, and yet she also engages in figurative mimesis of this tradition with tropes such as the martyr-creature OncoMouse. It’s a crafty strategy, I think. Haraway is, perhaps, more willing than most feminist theorists to engage with the “spiritual”, religious, or theological content that’s often found at the margins of feminist and ecological scholarship. Her theoretical relationship with this content is contentious, but at least she engages it. And, for some reason, it does tend to be in the places where ecological issues (such as animals and animality) intersect with feminist politics that we see the consistent appearance and re-appearance of “spiritual”, religious, or theological tropes. What is it about these issues and politics that keeps drawing it there? Karen Crowley’s book Feminism’s New Age: Gender, Appropriation, and the Afterlife of Essentialism (SUNY Press, 2011) is an excellent analysis of the cavern that has developed between popular and academic forms of feminism. Crowley is critical of how “New Age feminism” (goddesses, crystals, tarot cards, etc…) has distracted many contemporary feminists from the kinds of political issues that academic feminists have been concerned with (race and feminism, sexual violence, economic justice, etc…) But she’s also critical of the fact that academic feminists have ignored New Age feminism. Ignorance, for Crowley, isn’t particularly bliss. There are affective and and political stakes in New Age feminism that are important to understand, and analyze, she suggests.

I think that “spirit animals”, as a phenomenon, could probably be classified among the set of things that are relevant to this object of analysis called New Age feminism. But they also extend beyond it, to the potentially less feminist worlds of Colton Haynes, etc… I don’t mean to limit “spirit animals” to any one cultural world. I feel safer arguing that they are a pop culture phenomenon that most academics (even those in animal studies) would rather ignore, and would assume to be something that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Sure, taking “spirit animals” serious means that you risk being associated with projects like this, or this. There is a certain risk in taking these things seriously, clearly. But I’m of the opinion that we can learn a lot more by taking this stuff seriously, than by ignoring it. If there are (as I agree with Crowley that there are) affective and political stakes in things like goddesses and crystals, there are also affective and political stakes in things like “spirit animals.” Moreover, those affective and political stakes are often tangled up with forms of sexism, racism, and colonialism that are important for us to take note of. The history of “spirit animals”, particularly, is rife with these things.

To be fair, I don’t know the exact etymology of the term “spirit animal”. I don’t know exactly when it came into popular use in the American context. This isn’t the subject matter of my dissertation, and I don’t know as much about it as I should. What I do know is that it’s a term that makes a vague reference to the set of (western) anthropological theories on totemism that begin in the 19th century, fusing this with the Christian theological term “spirit.” Those who’ve been educated in religious studies are probably familiar with arguments from figures like Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, Sir James Frazer, Emile Durkheim, Franz Boas, and Sigmund Freud (among others) who in various ways attempted to weigh in on the “meaning” behind the cultural act of associating and connecting groups of human kin through the symbolic figure of an animal. These theories have, of course, become suspect for methodological reasons: these thinkers tended to refer to the communities they studied or described as “primitive”, as if they were simply some ancient past history of western civilization, etc… an historical re-enactment, put on for the benefit of western scholars. These theories were loaded with colonialist assumptions, and judgements that attempted to re-affirm Christianity or western monotheism as the civilized and evolved pinnacle of culture. Although there are thinkers in the field of anthropology who are starting to re-visit theories of kinship, this conversation about “totemism” tends to be relegated to an era in the intellectual and academic past.

In so-called New Age circles, however, curiosity about phenomena such as shamanism, as well as totemic animal figures, has continued unabated. To refer to totemic animals as “spirit animals” is to layer this conversation (with roots in anthropology and sociology) with a theological film—that of “spirit.” Although the use of this term, today, is broader than Christian theology (and is commonly used in the English language to refer to a generic life force, or vital principle) it is etymologically related to the Latin spiritus and has developed in the genealogical context of western Christian culture. Thus, when the term “spirit” is used to describe facets of (say) Ojibwa culture, Australian Aboriginal culture, or indigenous cultures in Sibera, it only has the ability to roughly translate facets of these cultures. If we forget this, we risk falling into the lull of unproblematically colonizing these non-Christian cultures with our “westernized” descriptions—imagining that what these cultures are “really” referring to is the “spirit”, historically one of the persons of a Trinitarian Christian divine. Our words have limits, and these limits mean that translations fail to illuminate things. This is fine. Missed connections are endemic to life in the world. But pretending that our terms don’t have limits can allow us to lose sight of these limits, and the humility that comes with recognizing them. The term “spirit” is one that is particularly resistant to limitation. To speak of spiritual things has long meant to “transcend” the matter of earthly (material, concrete, tangible) concerns, and to enter into something allegedly more blissful, or benevolent. To “spiritualize” something must be good, right? Feminist theologians have been particularly critical of this transcendent impetus of “spiritual” matters and have (in the Christian context) honed in on tropes like “incarnation” that emphasize embodiment, or fleshiness, rather than the immaterial world of spirit. Thinkers like Sharon Betcher—working with disability theory—have also critiqued the way that theologies of spirit (“pneumatology” is the technical term) have emphasized wholeness and holism, abjecting partialness, or non-whole (“disabled”) bodies from the outset. Many of my colleagues in the field of theology are analyzing the trope of spirit from decolonial, feminist, or critical race perspectives. But, of course, these kinds of analyses haven’t really worked their way into pop culture, or even other fields such as animal studies. In the aspirationally secular academy, theological conversations are often understood to be totally beside the point.

To return to my polemic, however, I will simply emphasize (again) that we will learn more from paying attention to uncomfortable subjects such as “spirit animals”, and the theological conversations they stir up, than ignoring them. Let’s look, for instance, at a figure like Jack London. There are those, like Theodore Roosevelt, who’ve accused London of being a “nature faker”. But, more often than not, London is celebrated as an American novelist who really took animals seriously. London, himself, was given to emphasizing the continuities between humans and other animals. As he put it in his memoir No Mentor But Myself, “we who are so human are very animal.” London was, especially, famous for his figuration of dog and wolf life. To my knowledge, London never called the wolf his “spirit animal.” But London certainly treated the wolf “totemically.” He named his house “Wolf House”, and he had a a special wolf emblem designed, for his books. In his fiction, London was also invested in the political or spiritual metaphors that might reside in the figuration of the wolf. He named one of his fiercely independent and masculine characters (Wolf Larsen of The Sea Wolf) after the creature. And of White Fang (OK, sure, not properly a wolf in his entirety), London indicated that he was a figure of spiritual tenacity and power. Nature, said London “had given him plasticity. Where many other animals would have died and had its spirit broken, he adjusted himself and lived, at no expense to the spirit.” Although London never called the wolf his “spirit animal”, the wolf seemed to function in London’s intellectual and creative life the way a “spirit animal” might function for someone who takes these things seriously, today. The wolf seemed to resonate with some aspect of himself that London wanted to either cultivate or underscore. We see this more clearly when we can see how London “spiritualized” the figure of the wolf.

We might even make the case that London’s own religio-spiritual identity resonates with facets of contemporary New Age culture. According to his biographer Alex Kershaw, London was apparently picked up at the age of 18 on the charge of vagrancy and held in the Erie County Penitentiary for 30 days. His occupation was listed as “Sailor” and his religion as “Atheist.” But London was not uninterested in matters of the “spirit”. According to Jeanne Campbell Reesman, London’s mother was a spiritualist who believed that she could channel Native American spirits and ancestors. Perhaps this gave London an early interest in Native American culture and practices. He also imbued aspects of humanist culture with a certain kind of spiritual authority. In his 1915 introduction to The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest (edited by Upton Sinclair), London called it a “humanist Holy Book” that “preached the gospel of service.” I won’t belabor this point too much, here. Primarily what I want to suggest is that London’s figuration of the wolf isn’t alien to contemporary discussions about “spirit animals.” One might argue that most contemporary use of the term “spirit animal” is ironic. But I don’t think we have conclusive evidence that London’s engagement with the wolf wasn’t, also, done at least partially in the spirit of irony as well.

There is, however, a more troubling aspect of London’s use of the wolf as figure. London may have been inspired by Native American culture (particularly the figurative practice of carving animal totems) in his adoption of the wolf as personal creature. But, in the end, London was merely “borrowing” (to use a neutral term) or appropriating a cultural strategy and making use of it (ultimately) to celebrate his own identity. The wolf was the totemic figure for his house, it was the emblem on his books. To the extent that the wolf was a “clan” figure in London’s life, it represents the subjectivity of fiercely independent white guys, who exist at the fringes of both (mixed gender) white and Native cultures. The wolf becomes a figure who can symbolically express a critical difference between London (or guys like him), and everyone else. The fact that this figure is non-human, and the fact that it is spiritualized, makes it more difficult to see clearly that it is being used as a kind of proxy to make racial and gender distinctions. In his study Male Call: Becoming Jack London Jonathan Auerbach argues that the wolf is essentially, for London, a symbol of white supremacy. The wolf, in his stories, is always on the side of London’s white man (who, of course, exists independently on the fringe of white culture). The wolf gave London more than just personal power: it gave him white power. London distinguished himself from the white community as someone who (like Native cultures) adopts “totemic” animals, such as the wolf. But he reconfigures this figure as an animal who craves community with the fiercely independent version of the white man.

Scholarship in animal studies is beginning to struggle with the myriad ways in which animality has functioned in racial and colonialist politics. I believe that taking “spiritual”, theological, and religious tropes seriously can reveal avenues through which animals have become cultural vehicles where this actively occurs but is “spiritually” concealed. When entities, such as animals, are “spiritualized” this often covers up, or disguises, other motives. The history of hierarchical political relations in western culture is embedded within the cosmologies of theological tradition. Animals have long been called upon (used or abused, you might even say) to support or facilitate hierarchical relations between human beings.

And yet, this is not  to suggest that there is some pure or clean space where we can escape and become fully secular so that we can look upon these practices with a condescending eye, from a great critical distance. As Crowley has argued that there is something affectively and politically at stake in the crystals and tarot of New Age feminism, I do think there’s also something politically and affectively at stake in the trope of the “spirit animal.” What that is… well, that’s a much more complicated discussion, for another time. I’ll simply underscore the fact, here, that in these conversations about academically improper subject matter such as “spirit animals”, we certainly learn things about racism, sexism, and colonialism. But we learn other things, as well. Much as I think it’s important to critique a figure like Jack London for the racist politics that function through his “spiritualization” of animals, or the sexist presumptions that might be behind a tweet from Colton Haynes, I also think it’s important to ask other questions, as well. Where does this enduring desire to make “spiritualized” connections between human and non-human animal life come from? What are the stakes behind it? If it’s about connections between human and non-human creatures, what makes these connections so irrevocably messy, and so deeply ambivalent in human life and politics?

One thought on “The Thing About “Spirit Animals”

  1. ntbronco says:

    Published in 1994, Charles Russell’s book, SPIRIT BEAR (Toronto: Key Porter Books Limited), describes a different kind of spirit animal.

    To move from their camp to their work site, the men waded in the stream because the tangle of logs and devil’s club made walking along the banks impossible. If they sighted a white bear among the trees, she would look like a ghost, indistinct in shape but sparkly with water drops, hence the cognomen, “spirit bear.”

    Found only on Princess Royal Island off the coast of British Columbia, this unique creature is a black bear variant, a product of a double recessive gene, concentrated by the island’s isolation. These white bears are not albinos. They have brown noses and brown eyes. They are officially classified as a subspecies (Ursus americanus kermodei). As of the date when this book was published, the hunting of black bears on this island was permitted, but the white bears (equaling approximately 1/10 of the bear population) were protected by the Canadian government.

    A local Heiltsuk myth explaining the white bears’ origin. When time began, the whole world was covered with ice and snow. Then Raven came down from heaven and made the world green. But, because he wanted something to remind him of the beginning’s whiteness, he chose an island where people had never lived and went among the black bears to made every tenth one white. Then, every time he saw one, he would think about how the world had been. According to Raven’s decree, the white bears would live forever on their island in peace.

    Russell and colleagues, with the cooperation of a B.C. Fisheries officer, were visiting the island periodically over a two-year period, to shoot a video for the British Broadcasting Company. They chose for their visit the time of year when hundreds of salmon swimming upstream to spawn attracted not only the white bears and their more numerous black cousins but also native wolves and an occasional grizzly, which had swum over from the mainland. However, this was also the time of year for fierce wind-and rain-storms and serious flooding. The bears loved it.

    The white bears had not seen many human beings, hence were not afraid of them. Instead, they were curious and trusting. This gave the man behind the camera an unusual problem: a bear would walk right up to him and unhelpfully touch the camera lens with her nose!

    The videographers quickly realized that they had the obligation to leave this Eden of innocence as they had found it. This made them careful never to feed the bears or frighten them. Commuting by boat to the mainland, they always took their garbage with them to town, dumped their compost far out to sea, and removed all evidence of their camping spot when they were ready finally to depart. In writing the book, Russell admits that, in his account, he deliberately falsified names in order to disguise key locations.
    Although today the white bears are still protected, logging companies are building roads, blasting, and eagerly cutting the thousand-year-old trees of the ancient temperate rainforest while tourists enjoy a five-day boat tour that circles the island.

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