Animal Magic: What’s with all the different names?
There are many different names for animal guides and it depends on what tradition or pathway you follow and a lot of them seem to be interchangeable.
Totem appears to be one of the more commonly used terms although it is often associated with Native American and Aboriginal tribes, then there is animal spirit guide, messenger, companion, kindred animal, counsellor, fetch, medicine, ally and power animal to name but a few.
Interestingly enough when I looked up the word ‘totem’ to find the original meaning it says “a totem is a spirit being, sacred object or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people such as a family, clan, lineage or tribe”. So actually it seems that in modern paganism we have completely misappropriated the term to mean ‘power animal or guide’.
Spirit guide seems to be the term used mostly in shamanic practices and that makes sense to me because the animal guides are met whilst journeying in the spirit realm/Otherworld. But a lot of cultures believe that animals have a spirit and the term has been used all over the world.
Messengers and counsellors is a general term applied to those animals that pop in and literally give messages or deliver counsel.
Fetch is an Irish folklore term that means a spirit guide which can be in the form of a person or an animal. There are varying beliefs about the fetch some say that it is the true spirit of a person and appears in three forms; the fetch beast, which equates to our ideas of a totem animal, the fetch wyf, a contra sexual spirit of the person whom it guides and the fetch god which is the divine face of our own fetch. The fetch in this case would be your true or lifelong familiar/totem.
Fetch can also mean a spirit doppelganger spirit that takes on the appearance of someone who has just died or is about to die. It isn’t actually the ghost of a person but an imitation of someone who is still alive. Although folklore states that seeing a fetch is a sign that the person it portrays is about to die.
Similarly the word fylgja is from the Norse tradition and means the same as a fetch - a spirit (person or animal) who accompanies a person in connection to their fate or fortune. A Norse vitki (sorcerer) would not only draw power from his fylgia but could also project his conscious will into it in order for it to carry out magical workings. The fylgia brought huge responsibilities and power but could also throw hardships and challenges into the mix too. The fylgia would mould itself to the personality of the person it was attached to and the well being of the human would depend on the well being of the animal fylgia. Many Norse believed that the fylgia was in fact part of the hugr or soul and that it was capable of leaving the body and projecting itself elsewhere.
Animal medicine is another Native American term which describes the power and spirit that the animal carries within. Just as you would work with plant medicine for magical purpose animal medicine is the same, it is the essence and characteristics of the animal that can be tapped into.
Power animal is another shamanic term that refers to the idea that the spirit of animals can physically and psychologically empower us, hence the term ‘power’.
Excerpt from Pagan Portals Animal Magic by Rachel Patterson