Native American and Celtic shamanistic beliefs are strong on animal symbols. These symbols are referred to as "totem animals" or "power animals." You'll often hear the two referred to synonymously, but those who follow traditional Native beliefs explain that a totem animal is one that is with you for life, often an animal with whom you share a connection, either through interest in the animal or your resemblance to or shared characteristics of the animal in question. A power animal is a spirit in animal form that comes through with a specific lesson for you, and will change throughout the course of your life.
Totem animals are essentially spiritual allies. We do not choose our totems, but rather, they choose us. They offer confirmation when needed, support when invoked and choice when obstacles appear. A totem is anything of Nature with which we feel a strong bond. Not everyone notices their animal totem, but they may feel a pull toward the mineral kingdom or the world of plants instead.
Animals that we fear can be seen as our Shadow Totems. Shadow Totems are equally as important and as valuable a teacher as one's totem animal. They represent those aspects of our psyche that we choose to ignore - our fears, our secrets and dark thoughts. They characterize our personal boundaries, our self-imposed limitations and those parts of ourselves that rejects spontaneity, risk taking and the development of self-esteem. Shadow Totems represent our dark side - the shadow aspect of our soul that we tend to ignore or suppress due to the connotations that they represent and the responsibilities that they force upon us. They make us to look at ourselves, to stand before our weaknesses and our frailties and to honour them as lessons and as stepping-stones to power.
When we come across certain animals in our lives it can be an indication that they are put in our path to give us messages or guidance from Spirit about what it is that we need to focus on at that moment in time. Some animals are with us for our whole life time and others come into our lives for a short period of time to help deal with a particular situation. In the lists above are some generalities about different animals and what it means when we have contact with them.
(from Animal Speak by Ted Andrews)
The following questions can help you determine which animals are probably totems to you in your life.
Which animal or bird has always fascinated you? (We are drawn to that which most resonates with us. Those animals which fascinate us have something to teach us.)
When you visit the zoo, which animal do you wish to visit the most or first?
What animal(s) do you see most frequently when you are out in nature? Have you had encounters with animals in the wild? (The animals we encounter, in their city environments or in the wild, have significance for us. We can learn from them, even if only about survival within that environment.)
Of all the animals in the world, which are you most interested in now? (Our interests in animals change. Yes, we usually have one or two that are lifetime, totem animals, but others, power animals, become prominent when there is something importance or specific to teach us.)
What animal most frightens you? (That which we fear the most is often something we must learn to come to terms with. When we do that, it then becomes a power. Some shamans believe that fears will take the shape of animals, and only when we confront them without fear do their powers/medicine work for us instead of against us. Such an animal becomes a shadow totem.)
Have you ever been bitten or attacked by an animal? (Historically, if a shaman survived an attack, it was believed that the animal was the shaman's spirit totem and the attack was the totem's way of testing the shaman's ability to handle the power.)
Do you have dreams with animals in them or are there animal dreams you have never forgotten? (This is especially important if the dreams are recurring or if at least the animal image in the dream is a recurring one. Children often dream of animals, & attention should be given to these animals. They will often reflect specific spirit totems of the child.)
You may wish to meditate and see which animal comes to you.
Note that as your totem animal may not appear clearly to you at first, you'll want to check various similar animal types (alligator vs. crocodile, for example) before assuming that it's a specific one. Also be aware that some animals may have a specific meaning to you other than what is listed in the index above. This list is not meant to supersede your own symbolic meanings, but rather instead to supplement it. Always go with your own instincts.