“The animals which are our totems are mirrors to us. They reflect lessons we need to learn and abilities we can most easily develop…(they are) a medicine for healing your self and your life, and a power that can be accessed to help manifest your dreams”.
Animals are one of the most common dream images. They can delight, scare, intrigue, or puzzle us when they show up in our dreams. Animals contain some of the most complex layers of universal and personal symbolism. Our “animal selves” contain our purest expressions of our emotions and psyches. When we react to sudden danger, our instinctive reptilian brains go into flight or fight mode, and if we are lucky and /or skilled, our animal instincts keep us safe. When there is a saber toothed tiger or marauder approaching, we don’t want to take the time to reason something out- we need to act fast.
So, one layer of meaning or symbolism of animals in a dream can be about our primitive instincts. Are we listening to or ignoring them? As always, we need to contextualize the meaning of the animals that visit us in the context of the dream itself, the feelings and emotions we have in the dream, and about that animal. When Fluffy shows up in our dream, is she is our beloved cat or the “cat from hell” in our lives. Are we allergic? Does she make a mess around her litter box? Is anyone making a mess like that in your life right now (or are you)? Do you need more time to sleep 18 hours a day in a warm sunny spot? Then there is the broader layer of cats in general- both the pets and the wild kind. Whether we dream of a generic or a specific animal, we also want to ask ourselves about the other category to get at the fullest meaning. Curiosity, cleverness, and independence are a few of the qualities of a cat, but your cat may also be cuddly or aloof.
Native and indigenous people put great stock in animal visitations. They believe that the spirit of the animal has great meaning or a message for our lives. In fact, if we frequently dream of the same animal, they may be our “totem” animal-a sort of guide or guardian whose qualities we should learn about and perhaps embody. As spirit-animal helper, the root of the word totem is from the native Ojibway, meaning “brother/sister kin”.
My favorite go-to guy on the meaning of animal symbols in dreams is Ted Andrews. In his classic book “Animal Speak”, Andrews teaches that our relationship with animals is not only in the physical world, but in the spiritual or mystical on as well. He combines myth and factual information to let us learn about and tune into the essence of the animal who showed up in our lives or our dreams. My universal caution regarding “other people’s ideas” about what your dream or symbol means holds here as well – it’s only true for you if it resonates with you. Andrews does a nice job giving us a bunch of options to choose from, including mythological references, behaviors of animals in the wild, prey and predator relationships, the season they represent, and the “keynote” or core message of each animal.
Snake, for example, has been the subject of great controversy and paradox. It is seen as both the highest and the lowest of symbols- blamed for the downfall of mankind in the Garden of Eden, and a symbol of death and rebirth as it renews itself time after time as it sheds it’s old outgrown skins. The snake is seen eating it’s own tail in the symbol of the ouroborus; endlessly re-incarnating and symbolizing eternity, and as the symbol of healing powers in the entwined caduseus of medicine. Sometimes, as Freud would say, a cigar is just a cigar; but the snake can also be a phallic symbol of sexuality or fertility; and is the symbol of creative kundlini energy in Eastern traditions. When snake shows up in your dreams, it often means that some kind of death and rebirth may be happening or needed in some area of your life; usually not an actual death, but a transitional time of change.
Our friend the owl is known as a symbol of the feminine, of the night, of magic, of the secrets the darkness has to offer. Andrews calls them the “eyes of the night”. It has both keen vision and keen hearing, and has been purported to be able to see into the soul of a person.
Finally, don’t forget about the mythological and fairy tale associations with the animals of your dreams- the “big bad wolf”, the “ugly duckling”, the centaur, the unicorn, the Owl of Athena; goddess of wisdom. These deep archetypes can take us even farther along the road to our truest selves, as our dream exploration then includes following the story or myth in which they occured.