Celtic Totem Animals

Rate this item
(1 Vote)

Celtic Totem Animals

Make a shamanic journey
and meet your animal helpers

John Matthews


Click here to order



Our ancestors imagined themselves as animals. Ancient cave paintings attest to this. Imagine seeing these images thirty-thousand years ago, torch-lit upon the walls, moving and shifting under the flame. Here a bison with human legs strides across the gallery, there an antlered man dances the other animals to life. Imagine now the stories that were sung of such images, and the descendants of those ancient narratives that may still be told. Here are the words of the animal totems.

We have always needed to see the world through animal eyes. Mythological stories are the frequent landscapes for such transformations; they speak of times when the boundaries between humans and animals were few or non-existent. Inuit tradition speaks of a time when a person could become an animal, or an animal could change into a person: all they needed to do was to say the words. As distant as the worlds of myth may seem to our modern sensibilities, these times are not lost to us so long as we have the stories. Stories and sounds are our best passports to the sacred.

Even the language of the stories themselves can blur boundaries. Are we hearing about actual creatures, or a person who plays the role of that animal, or even a tribe or group of people who, because they are named for an animal, have become deeply associated with that animal's powers and symbolism? There are important reasons for such ambiguities: animals are people. They are afforded status. They have lessons and wisdom to impart. Through our interactions with animals, or by imagining ourselves as animals through the telling of a tale, we gain both insight into the workings of the natural world and an ability to see that world from the perspective of the creature with whom we share this world.

While modern industrial 'visions' often blind us to the sacred aspects of the land, animal wisdom encourages us to open our eyes once more, to see our way back to the cave and the forest, to know the crossing of the plain and path of the high hill, to go on four legs or by the beating of wings. In this way, we may come to see animals not as Other but as partners, allies, and friends – guides to the wonders of the living storied lands.

These stories may be seen as doorways, entrances to the animal realms. Here are worthy journeys to be taken. Think of these tales as touchstones for your own imaginative travels. Let them light a path and provide a new way of seeing yourself in relation to the natural world.

Accompanied by the sound of the drum – an instrument used in shamanic work since the world was young – these stories take us to the frontiers of myth and imagination. Traditionally, encounters with animal guides and spirits happen at crossroads: at twilight, deep within an ancient wood, at the water's edge, high upon a hill. Knowledge of the animal totems concerns itself with such frontiers: places where different worlds, different tribes or cultures, or different species come together and interact.

John Matthews' telling of these ancient tales moves us across wastelands, through forests, beyond waters, above the hills. Like the animals themselves, this book guides us into the mysteries and wonders of the borderlands: a voice in the wilderness.

Ari Berk, PhD., Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, 2001



The traditions relating to Totem Animals are very old indeed, but the teachings that derive from them are not something that belongs only in the past. The wisdom of the animals that still roam the countryside today and feature in the ancient stories, like those included here, has not left us; it is still accessible to those who accept their own part in the world they share with birds, beasts and fish in nature, and who feel the presence of the spirits who choose to adopt the forms of these creatures. Like the presence of many wild animals, which has become more and more hidden from human view, the deep wisdom of the totems can still be accessed and shared by those who are patient enough to watch and listen, to attune themselves to an older way of life. The rustle in the undergrowth, the spreading ripples in the stream, the shadow in the thicket all pass the unnoticing eye, but they are there nonetheless. It is only when we tune our senses to nature that we begin to draw near to these abiding teachers who are our kindred, and to learn from them, without fear or expectation.

Every person living has an already existing relationship with the Totem Animals; kinships you may not have guessed at are waiting to be realized. Such relationships match you with your appropriate animal power or totem, which in most cases has already chosen you.

In this pack you will find three steps (three is a sacred number among the Celts) towards learning how you can still work with the totems today.

In Part One, you will find the lore of the totems as they appear in ancient Celtic tradition. In Part Two is a set of nine ancient stories, all deriving from that same tradition, which demonstrate some of the ways in which the Totem Animals interacted with human beings in that far off time, and which help you to tune into the idea of the totems. In Part Three, you will find instructions to show how you can work with the totems through the technique of the shamanic journey, and how you too can learn from them: to live life fully, to face the challenges that come your way, and to deepen your awareness of the natural world and relate to it more fully.

To help you to do these things a set of Totem Animal Cards is included, to aid you in finding your own appropriate spirit-animal helper, which will become your guide and supporter throughout any number of situations. Full instructions for this can be found at the beginning of Part Three, along with further information about the traditional nature and qualities of the primary Celtic totems.

In addition there is a CD of shamanic drumming to enable you to undertake your own shamanic journey safely, to meet with and learn from the Totem Animals, and to find which of these will become an inner helper for as long as it is needed and made welcome. How to use the CD is explained in Part Three.

By working with Totem Animals today, we are following in the steps of our Celtic ancestors, and in the process learning not only to honour the creatures who share our world, but to see through their eyes into a deeper place where spirit is central and all-important. In the process we learn more about ourselves, our own place in the web of creation, and the constantly changing possibilities which are part of our personal heritage. As well, we may find that we have acquired a whole collection of new friends with whom we can begin to explore the inner dimensions of the Otherworld. There, where the infinite opens on all sides, we may find a new perspective on life, and a new understanding of our relationship with the universe we inhabit.

John Matthews
Oxford, 2001



The Eagle of Eli keeps the seas:
He will not fish in the salmonries:
Let him cry for blood! The feast is his!

The Eagle of Eli is up and abroad,
At dawn he will feast in the breast of the wood.
And his feast shall be on my new-slain lord.

The Eagle of Eli is up and abroad,
He lifts his beak from Cynddylan's blood;
Tonight, his eyrie's in Brochwael wood.

The Eagle of Eli: from the thirteenth-century Welsh (trans. by Ernest Rhys)


He had the mind of a fish
That moment. He knew the glitter of scale and fin.
He touched the pin of pivotal space, and he saw
One sandgrain balance the ages' cumulus cloud.

Vernon Watkins: Taliesin and the Spring of Vision



Everywhere one looks in Celtic tradition there are animals. They dance before us, leading us deeper into the magical world of this ancient race, beckoning from behind every rock and standing stone, looking up at us from the still pools of water, floating above us on wings of song that can take us out of time. They are the allies of heroes, the helpers of those who travel in search of wisdom, the guardians of a hundred hidden ways between the worlds. And, above all, they are the companions of a mysterious body of people who hold the keys to altered states of being, to the ecstatic vision of creation – the shamans.

The power of these dancing, shape-shifting individuals has been recognized from earliest times. Their ability to assume the forms of hunted animals made them essential to the continued existence of the tribe, while their communion with spirits in animal form gave them insights far above those of ordinary men and women.

In time of need, the shaman, the virtuoso dancer of the tribe, communes through ecstatic dances with his animal familiars in order to grasp the secrets of the tribe's gods. His animal helpers serve as vehicles to transport him to the pinnacle of ecstasy in dance, from which he climbs, in a state of trance, to divine heights... Through his ecstatic prayer the dancer himself moves closer to immortality: in dancing the god he becomes him.

The Celtic peoples, who emerged from somewhere in Central Europe (the exact place is still debated) around 1500 BCE and proceeded to colonize much of the Western world from the Far East to the Atlantic seaboard, would have recognized these abilities at once. A nomadic people, really more of a loose confederacy of racial types than a nation, they founded colonies throughout Europe, especially in Spain, Gaul, Britain and Ireland, that have lasted to this day. Their culture has exerted a powerful influence over the West ever since, especially as this manifests in their boundless imagination, which has survived as a huge storehouse of lore and legends, much of it orally transmitted until the early Middle Ages, when it began to be collected and written down.

It is from these late sources, augmented by archaeology and a few scattered first-hand reports by the Greeks and Romans, that we have come to know what we do about this fascinating and colourful people. In fact, despite a vast and ever growing literature of 'Celtic Studies', we still know very little about the beliefs and traditions of the Celts. What we can do is look at the surviving literature, which, despite being filtered through the hands of Christian scribes, retains a great deal of genuinely ancient knowledge, and can, with a little effort, help us to recognize how they saw and interpreted their world.

Many of the stories in this book, though they come late in the historical timeline of the Celts, preserve age-old concerns: with the natural world especially, and with animals in particular. This knowledge tells us that the early Celts practised shamanism, and that they possessed the skills described above. The purpose of this book is to show how these same abilities, once so familiar, can still be practised today, with many kinds of benefit to those who do so, through the acquisition of knowledge and a deepening awareness of our relationship to the natural world.

The amount of animal art and artefacts discovered throughout the ancient Celtic world has long suggested the importance of such representations. The archaeologist Charles Thomas, in his study of animal art, notes that these 'seldom served merely as animal ornaments'. Rather:

Each creature possessed obvious virtues, its own peculiar and widely known mana... ...When we consider that, from an early stage in almost all historically-documented societies, these virtues and special properties were generally expressed in terms of pantheistic religion, we have the real clue to the... animal-style art.

The current view regarding the use of animal iconography in Celtic art refers to theiromorphic deities – that is, gods or goddesses who tend towards animal form or assume such shapes for an indefinite period of time. However, it is my belief that this is a mistaken reading, and that what we are in fact seeing is a catalogue of the various Totem Animal helpers whose aid was summoned by the tribal shaman, or whose form he also, briefly, assumed, either during trance or by donning a costume created from the fur or feathers of the creature in question. This may well have led to the shaman figure becoming identified with the god or goddess he served, and would explain the reason why the Celts did not make representations of their gods until the influence of Roman and Greek art forms made itself felt – there would have been no need to do so if the shaman-priest regularly assumed the form of the animal, bird or fish in question.

Originally emblems which designated the identity of each tribe within the society, these creatures became the 'totems' of the shaman, powerful spirit allies who aided them in their work as healers, seers and guardians of the traditions of the ancestors – the great dead of the tribe.

Another important aspect of the shaman's identification with animals is represented in the glorious cave paintings at Lascaux in France, Altamira in Spain and elsewhere, depicting men in the act of hunting and killing a variety of creatures. These not only represent the magical aspect of the hunt, but also the shaman's dream-magic, performed before the hunt set forth. In this, the hunter (or his representative) entered into a symbiotic relationship with the creature he desired to capture and kill in order to anticipate its every action, and – perhaps more importantly – to make contact with its spirit-self in order to explain the need of the tribe for its flesh and fur. (This is still practised by the Laplanders of the Arctic Circle.)

The fact that the majority of prehistoric cave paintings have been discovered in the very deepest and most inaccessible caves is not without significance. Shamans everywhere sought out dark places in which to work their magic or experience their visions, and to encounter the power of the animal totem they were seeking. There, in the dark, they left behind the only concrete symbols of the experience – painted on the walls, perhaps while still in the altered state of being to which their ecstatic trance had brought them. The famous dancing shaman of Trois Frères in France is not merely a representation of the magical action itself, it is also a picture of the shaman in the act of assuming animal form.

In Greece, in the fifth century BCE, before the iron hand of logic (in the form of Socrates and the school of Plato) descended upon seekers after wisdom, those who sought to penetrate the veils of ordinary perception called themselves pholarchoi, an odd word which can mean 'those who lie down in a lair [like an animal]'. This name derived from the practice of seeking out a dark place such as a cave in which to incubate a dream that would bring the answer to a particular question.

A pholarchos, whom we know about from a single inscription discovered at Velia in Italy, was like the shaman of other cultures, seeking answers from a place associated with animals. The Celts too had an exact version of this, where the seeker after knowledge slept in a darkened place and emerged with answers. We shall hear more of these people later.



The importance of animals within everyday Celtic culture is incontestable. The mere presence of a large number of references in the texts and stories which have survived indicates this. A very great deal of the Celtic shaman's power was bound up with his animal 'helpers', totem spirits who took the form of beasts, birds, or fish and were able to guide him through both their own particular element and through the Otherworld. As well as this, the shaman sought to take on the natural abilities of the creature itself: the strength of the bear, the speed of the hare, the keen-sightedness of the eagle or the hawk. By adopting the shape and consciousness of the animal kind, the shaman projected himself outside the normal range of human awareness, into a world where everything was different: more balanced, less complicated, less bound by the laws of his own world. From this position he could view that world more clearly, with a degree of insight not generally available to him. These concepts are still common in modern shamanic practice, just as they were to the ancient Celts.

Many of the stories retold in this book give examples of the way such helpers featured in the work of the shamans. Stories such as The Story of Leithin and the Coldest Night and The Search for Mabon show that spirit allies in animal form were called upon to answer questions concerning the ancestral past, to discover things which had been forgotten by living people.

Elsewhere, anecdotes such as the following one, found in an ancient Irish text called The Yellow Book of Lecan, show that animals were seen as supporting humans in all kinds of ways – actually not very different from the way we relate to our own pets today. In this instance, the story refers to a white boar owned by the eponymous Marvan, which was according to its master 'a herdsman, a physician, a messenger and a musician'. When asked how this was possible, Marvan replied:

When I return from the swine at night, and the skin is torn off my feet by the briars of Glen-a-Scail, he comes to me and rubs his tongue over my foot, and [then] he goes after the swine ... He is [also] a musician to me, for when I am [too] anxious to sleep I give him a stroke with my foot and he lies on his back with his belly uppermost and sings me a humming tune, and his music is more satisfying to me than that of a sweet-toned harp in the hands of an accomplished minstrel.

There is something wonderfully human about this, and though the owner of the boar is a herdsman rather than a shaman, his communion with the wondrous beast is the same; the boar is both servant and friend to Marvan. In another text, an ancient poem called the Hoianau ('Greetings'), the great seer Merlin confides in a pig, addressing it as he lies mad and desolate in the forest.

Listen, little pig!
O blessed pig!
If you had seen
All I have seen,
You would not sleep,
Nor root on the hill.
Listen, little pig,
Is not the mountain green?
In my thin cloak,
I get no repose.

Again, the animal is both friend and confidant, invoking a response from its human companion which might not otherwise have occurred.



Considering the importance of this deep and abiding relationship between human and animal, it is scarcely surprising that there are a number of Celtic stories relating to shape-changing, for in this way the shamans sought to establish an even more intimate relationship with the creatures they saw as allies. Numerous parallels exist from worldwide shamanic practice, the point being that:

A corridor between earth and heaven, mortal and immortal, is maintained by servicing, magically, whatever is patent around them: rocks, roots, leaves, streams, wind, stars, and most commonly animals, which can serve as totems.

The sixth-century Welsh shaman-poet Taliesin, whose story appears below, listed numerous animals into which he had personally transformed, including snake, eagle, sow, crane, buck, cat, goat, salmon, serpent, roebuck, cockerel, stallion, wolf, dog, bull, hare, fox, marten, squirrel – a veritable menagerie of magical creatures, from each of which he had learned valuable knowledge. The Irish seer Tuan mac Carill, whose tale appears on page 77, spent a vastly extended life in the form of various animals, each of which supplied him with a unique view of events taking place in the world of men.

Elsewhere we learn how the lives of heroes and heroines in Celtic myth are intimately connected with the lives of certain creatures. In a ninth-century Irish text, The Destruction of Der Derga's Hostel, for example, Mes Buachalla, the daughter of the mighty king Cormac mac Airt, is abandoned at birth and brought up by cow-herds. Word reaches King Eterscal of this mysterious girl and, since there is a prophecy that a woman of an unknown race will bear him a wondrous child, he sends men to fetch her to him. Before this can happen, however, a bird comes to her and tells her what is about to happen. Then, shedding his plumage, the bird takes the form of a beautiful man and lies with her. Afterwards he tells her that she will have a son called Conaire, who must never kill birds. The girl is then betrothed to Eterscal, and it is generally believed that he fathered her child while in bird form.

Here the bird is clearly an Otherworldly personage who chooses this method to beget an heir on a human woman. Such stories are by no means unusual in Celtic mythology, where the parentage of heroes was continually attributed to the participation of deities. Among those who could claim supernatural parents were Mongan (whose father was Manannan mac Lir), Cuchulainn (who was fathered by Lugh), and Owein (who was the offspring of Urien Rheged and the goddess Modron). The Irish story of The Dream of Aengus spins a similar tale of shape-shifting magic, in which the god can only be with the woman he loves when they are both in the shape of swans.

Animals were frequently twinned with human births, so that the resulting offspring became closely allied with them in later life. (Either that or they were taboo, as in the case of Conaire's prohibition against killing birds.) In the Welsh saga of Pwyll, from the great collection known as The Mabinogion, the hero is stolen from his mother's side by a monster and left in a stable with a new-born colt which afterwards plays a significant part in his life. The fate of the Ulster hero Cuchulainn was linked with dogs (his name means 'Hound of Culainn'), and it was only after he had been tricked into eating dog-meat, and therefore breaking his geis (ritual prohibition), that he was finally killed. It was also said of Cuchulainn that a mare dropped twin foals on the night of his birth, and that these became famous as the Black Saighlenn and Macha's Grey, with whom Cuchulainn had an almost symbiotic connection, and which arose from the depths of a lake at his call.

Another story concerns Cairbre Cinn Cait ('of the Cat's Head'), who is called this 'since it was a cat's head, that is the form or shape of a cat that was on his god'. This is significant in a number of ways. 'Of the Cat's Head' suggests that Cairbre was 'of the tribe of the Cat', that is, a tribe whose totem was the cat. Yet the wording 'the form or shape of a cat that was on his god' suggests something more – that Cairbre partook of the nature of the cat because the deity he worshipped also partook of that nature. From this I believe we may see further evidence of the assumption of animal form by the shaman of the tribe.



The number of tribal names which have animal names hidden within them stresses the importance of animal symbolism even further. For example, there are the Epidii of Kintyre (Horse-People), the Caerini and Lugi in Sutherland (People of the Sheep and People of the Raven), the Cornavii of Caithness (People of the Horn – as in horned animal), as well as the Tochrad (Boar People), Cattraighe (Cat Folk), Gamanrad (Stork People), Taurisci (Bull Folk), and the Brannovices (Raven Folk). These were surely at one time clan totems, if not the power animals which guarded and guided the people of each group. Within the clan, individuals would also have possessed their own personal totems – discovered for them by the shamans or revealed in ordeals or initiations. Modern folklore records of Celtic families indicate that association with a particular Totem Animal continued into more recent times, as for example in the name 'McMahon', which translates as 'Son(s) of the Bear'.

Painted images of these sacred creatures became the source of the heraldic devices worn by men and women in the Middle Ages and after, and which to this day constitute a veritable bestiary of animal symbolism. The early Celts almost certainly would have displayed the head or pelt of their particular totem at the entrance to their settlement, whilst the warriors either painted their shields with devices of their own, or had them tattooed on their bodies.

In the case of the elite Irish warrior group known as the Fianna, there is a text which has preserved a description of the images on the banners carried by the greatest of these men. Such images would have had a similar importance to the imagery displayed on their shields.

Indeed, whilst there is no exact parallel in Celtic literature, there are indications that the idea of magical or powerful shields would have been recognized among the native shamans of these islands. Among the Native American tribes such shields were painted with magical pictograms. Shields could also represent the sacred directions (North, South, East, West, Above, Below) and the Totem Animals of both the tribe and the individual.

Two poems from a ninth-century Irish text called The Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution illustrate this further. Here the poet Dallan describes Dubh-Ghiolla, the magical shield of the King of Oirgiall, and makes several poems about it. The shield was made from one of the five sacred trees of Ireland. It is described as follows:

Fast is thy shield
As the wave which runs its course
A speckled shield, the feeder of ravens,
Wards off the foe from his borders.
[A] surprising and beautiful shield
Is with Hugh the son of Duach

Bright as the speckled salmon of the wave!
Dubh-Ghiolla! panic of the banded brave
Fenced with its thorny mail the holly stands –
So round the prince the guardian shield expands:
The bull's strong hide the needle's point defies –
Thus vainly round him baffled ranks arise

Here the bull's-hide shield is invoked as if containing the essence of the beast itself, and we can be sure that such painted guardians were seen as more than just pictures – they were the strength of the totem itself.



Relate now, O bird of Achill,
The substance of your adventures;
For I am able finally
To converse in your tongue.

The Bird
Though you seem still young,
It is long since you became shrunken,
In Dun Tulera washed by the sea,
O Fintan, O wise man.

O bird of Achill of the Fian,
Whom I have long desired to see,
Now that you are here indeed, tell me
Why you cleave to Achill?

The Bird
O Fintan, never was there
A single night in Achill,
When I failed to obtain by my strength
Fish, game and venison.
O son of Bochra, speak fair,
And, since we are able to converse
Tell me of your life.

Before the black flood
My life was more than two hundred years;
Afterwards I was given
A further five thousand five hundred.
O Hawk, out of cold Achill,
Blessing and success attend you!
From the time of your hatching
Tell me the number of your years?

The Bird
Equal is my life to yours
O Fintan, son of mild Bochra:
Exactly equal the period
From the time of the Deluge.
O Fintan, son of fair Bochra,
Since you are a poet and a prophet,
Tell me now without delay
The evils and wonders that befell you.


As mentioned above, an important role attributed to animals was their ability to provide inspiration, or to possess a knowledge of the past that far outstripped that of a human. The average lifespan of a bird or beast was probably unknown at this time, which may account for such a belief. But it was the spiritual life of the creatures which was important, rather than the physical span of years. Certainly some creatures were believed to live to very great ages, or were seen as of Otherworldly origin and thus possessed of wisdom deeper than that of mortals. In the story of The Hawk of Achill, this is part of an ancient theme known as 'The Oldest Animals', in which a number of creatures are consulted about various things and refer the questioner to successively more ancient beings.

A similar story appears in the Welsh saga of Culhwch and Olwen in which various animals – blackbird, stag, owl, eagle, and salmon – are consulted as to the whereabouts of the lost god Mabon, who is finally discovered, and rescued, by the warriors of Arthur, helped by various of the animals.

In the seminal poem known as The Hawk of Achill, which is an ancient Irish myth of great depth and ancestry, Fintan, who represents a vast lineage of wisdom-holders dating back to a proto-Celtic demi-god named Vindos, addresses the bird in a way that makes a shamanic association apparent: each learns from the other in a mutual exchange. The poem is remarkable for the clarity with which it presents the life of the ancient poet, who has lived through most of history in the shapes into which he is cast. An extract from the poem, which takes the form of a dialogue, gives us an idea of the power and mystery with which such Totem Animals were imbued.

Fintan rehearses a catalogue of events to which he has been witness, then refers to his own misfortunes, and finally speaks of his transformations into the forms of eagle, hawk and salmon, in which shape he continued for long ages, following the course of the rivers of Ireland.

There is much more of the poem, with Fintan and the Hawk swapping stories and traditions until they finally reach their own time and, having apparently nothing further to say to each other, die on the same day. The Hawk itself reappears in several other texts, including The Story of Leithin (where it is described as a crow).

This text quoted here, which combines both the shamanic shapeshifting of the poet and a recital of the history to which he has gained access at first hand, is virtually unique in Celtic literature. In essence it is a summary of Irish mythological history, and there is a suggestion that Fintan, who loses an eye, may have done so as a kind of fee for the acquiring of his great wisdom (as in the case of the Norse god Odin, who gave up his eye in return for the wisdom of Mimir). Since the Hawk itself admits to this act, while it was in the shape of a crow, and later discusses the deaths of Fintan's sons, whose remains it seems to have picked over, we may assume that the bird itself was able to assume other shapes.

We are seeing a very ancient theme here, one which flows through both The Story of Taliesin and The Hawk of Achill poems, in a similar fashion. It is the age-old theme of the Quest for Knowledge, in which the shaman poet or priest sought out the deep places of the inner realms and returned with riches beyond the dreams of mere men. Here, we see this done through the adoption of the form - and wisdom – of sacred Totem Animals.

Login to post comments

Gothic Image Tours


Gothic Image Tours is a small company which has been specialising in tours to ancient and sacred sites since 1980. These tours offer a unique opportunity to visit some of the most beautiful and powerful places in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Each place has a tale to tell and these are related to us at the very place of their origin by authors and researchers who are experts in the fields of history, myth and legend, folklore and earth mysteries. Gothic Image Tours are organised from a flourishing bookshop and publishing enterprise based in Glastonbury.