Native Americans have totem animals that are sacred to the individual and can be viewed as spirit guides, whether they be wolves, eagles, foxes or horses. Other tribal cultures similarly believe their soul is entwined with a living creature, encapsulating an essential part of their being. Philip Pullman drew on this near-instinctive sense of possessing an inner “spirit animal” when he wrote his Northern Lights trilogy, in which every human has an animal dæmon that shifts shape until that person reaches puberty – at which point it settles into a lasting form that reflects their character. For Perspective’s Animal Issue, we asked some of the magazine’s friends and contributors to enter into the storytelling spirit of the season and reveal which beast is their totem creature, and why.

Philip Pullman

Author
Raven

The idea of a spirit animal, a familiar, a guardian or guiding spirit in the form of a bird or a beast, is an old one. And a ubiquitous one: it crops up all over the world. So I wasn’t inventing anything new or startlingly original when I began my novel Northern Lights with the words “Lyra and her dæmon…” and found the person/dæmon pairing becoming one of the central themes of the story.

What I thought I was doing, to be brutally technical, was making it easier to write about a young girl having an adventure on her own by giving her someone to talk to. That the someone was part of her self was neither here nor there at first; she could say “Let’s do this” and the dæmon could say “You know we shouldn’t” and she’d say “Don’t be such a coward” and so on. Dramatising a doubtful state of mind by turning it into two arguing voices – well, there’s nothing particularly original about that either.

It turned out to be a good idea for more reasons than I can count, and I’m still, many hundreds of pages later, finding new aspects of the dæmon to discover.

But why an animal? The dæmon could have been simply another Lyra, a spirit-twin. Or an actual demon, like the angel-on-one-shoulder, devil-on-the-other little drawings that illustrated Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories. But animals had an immediate attraction, and I never for a moment thought of dæmons as having any other form. For one thing, to know that a character has a dæmon in the form of a snake helps us (and other characters in the story) see something important about them at once: not a moral quality, but a way of being in the world.

The other useful thing for me as a storyteller was that children’s dæmons change form, being a bird one minute, a dog the next, a mouse, a frog, a butterfly – for fun, certainly, but also as a way of trying on, as children do, what an adult identity might be like. Because during adolescence, the power to change gradually disappears, leaving the adult with a certainty about themselves that children don’t have.

Anyway, for someone telling a story it was very useful symbolically, metaphorically, in all sort of ways. People have often asked me what form my own dæmon has, and that’s not easy to answer, because for me it’s a storytelling device and not a statement of my own personal beliefs. But I always have an answer, and I think it might go back to a day about 40 years ago in the Alps, when my family and I spent some time watching a pair of ravens flying about near the spot where we were having a picnic. Their exuberant aerobatics, folding their wings and diving at high speed only to spread them at the last moment and zoom aloft again, were as far from the lugubrious corvid celebrated by Edgar Allan Poe, that “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore” as it was possible to imagine; and yet they had that quality too, of being both sinister and joyful.

So I tell questioners my dæmon is a raven, and I can picture her on my desk as I work, commenting sardonically on the sentence I’ve just laboriously composed, cackling in approval when by chance I turn a good phrase, snapping her beak in irritation when I furtively reach for a cliché. I just feel better to imagine her there. So my dæmon is a raven, and I suppose I’ve known it all my life.

Sarah Perry

Novelist
Sighthound

I am woken most mornings by my dæmons. These are long-legged, half-starved, wide-eyed things, scarred and broken-boned; they burrow into the bedclothes and lick my palms and quiver. They are, in fact, Janey Morris and Ruby Dearheart, two sighthounds rescued from campsites in Ireland and brought to Norfolk in a large blue van. Janey, who is mostly whippet, is the colour of antique book pages, marked with scars acquired by long grass whipping her as she coursed for hares. Ruby is a breathtakingly beautiful saluki, red as a fox save that her ears and tail have been dipped in ink; her paws are immense, giving her a puppyish look, and a friend surmises that malnutrition stunted her growth – she ought to be the size of a shire horse. Her left wrist was once broken and has healed wonky; occasionally she lifts it pathetically for effect.

Had you asked me five years ago what animal form my dæmon might take, I’d have considered my appearance (very much that of a galleon under full sail), and suggested I’d be attended at all times by a plump golden retriever puppy, say, or a placid glossy heifer. Now I understand that I am in every respect a sighthound (a lurcher, bred for the peasantry, rather than one of noble lineage), and were I to have a dæmon it would be selected to match my disposition, not my face.

No amount of love will ever meet a sighthound’s need of it, and it cannot be trained by discipline, only by affection. Reckless to an extent, sensitive to an almost absurd degree, Ruby’s fears include sneezes, corridors, thresholds, pigeons and kitchen floors. Rarely lowering herself to visible displays of affection, she so fears abandonment that if I leave the house she is heartbroken, and in her despair lays waste to books and papers and bars of soap. They are jealous, too: if I embrace one, the other bleakly watches from across the room.

Rescued sighthounds will never trouble the podium at Crufts, being little mongrel things, whose unsatisfactory tails and haunches and jaws all indicate their low estate. But try telling them that: Janey, on seeing a visitor to whom she has not been formally introduced, draws herself up with all the hauteur of a dowager duchess. I too have ideas far above my station, and understand the whippet’s pride.

Their idiotic, single-minded pursuit of whatever catches their eye – a magpie, a squirrel, a house cat, a box of Maltesers dropped in the street, is something I admire: I too am always on the chase. Nonetheless these are indolent creatures, who pass the day dreaming on sofas; all night Janey Morris sleeps under an Egyptian brocade shawl I bought ten years ago from a boat on the Nile.

They are sleeping now, a little distance away. We understand each other, for all that I am large and strong and soft, and they have bones as fine as birds’. I may well have the body of a woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a hound.

Robert Macfarlane

Author
Mountain hare

I’ve no hesitation in identifying my totem animal; it’s been clear to me for nearly 30 years that the Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus), aka the Snow Hare or the Blue Hare, is the creature with whom I feel most kinship. Long, leggy, shy quick-runners, Mountain Hares live high in the hills. I’ve crossed paths with them most often in winter in the Cairngorms, when they shimmer out of blizzards or white-outs like ghosts; visible first as a thickening of the snow-light, then by the odd blue aura they carry. I’m always surprised at their size: as big as small deer. When I see them, I greet them as friends, aware that up in that zone I’ve crossed their paths, rather than the other way round. When my friend and collaborator, the artist Jackie Morris, painted me for the author page of a book called The Lost Words that we’d made together, she didn’t bother with my human form, and went straight for a Mountain Hare, sitting upright and looking off into the distance – but with a goldfinch perched companionably on my hare-head.

Keggie Carew

Author
Hare

Old Big-bum, that’s me. I crouch and wait and watch and listen. Then, by the combustion in my big pagan heart I fly. The trick is to melt into the land in my vanishing suit. Milk to mist. I am hare. Nibbler. Dew dweller. Disappearer. On the brow of the hill my sleepless silhouette will pause against the winter moon. Never to go straight home. You might think you know me. You don’t. I hardly know myself. My hare-brained ideas. Lying in the meadow sucking on a stalk of timothy grass. A loner, a lurker, a slink-away. Until it’s time for a ceilidh! Time to explode into the sky, legs shaping windmills, body in a gyre. What’s got into me? Push me too far, boy, and I will box your ears. And do not forget my association with witches: harm the hare and suffer the frightful consequences.

Angus McKinnon

Literary editor
Owl

Who wouldn’t want to be an owl? Although I’m obviously not one, my wife and two boys think I display owlish tendencies from time to time. I certainly have owl-centric dreams in which I glide through ancient deciduous woods or over far stretches of fir forest and tundra, and if reincarnation in some different guise were ever an option, the Ural owl would certainly be a frontrunner.

Owls are predatory, with excellent binocular vision and very keen hearing. They fly silently – the construction of their feathers and wings is an aerodynamic marvel. With a strong navigational sense, they recognise wayposts and landmarks in their territories. Their claws and the bite of their beak are flawlessly efficient. They are pragmatic too, expelling the bones of their prey orally in pellet form. Then there’s that owl party-trick, appearing to follow you with their intense, large-eyed and flat-faced gaze through 360º when in fact they can only – only? – rotate their head through 260º before they whip it back. Like many aspects of owls, it’s slightly unnerving.

These birds carry a freight of accumulated history and legend – often mythical bearers of wisdom, albeit sometimes at a cost to those for whom that knowledge is vouchsafed. At other times they are their enigmatic selves, creatures strayed from the spirit realm that can haunt or frighten, with calls that can seem like harbingers of dark events or death.

Anyone who has been surprised by the ghost-pale, dark-eyed oval face of a barn owl as it floats across a field in the gloaming will know that sudden shock of otherworldliness. Anyone who has glimpsed the piercingly yellow eyes of a snowy owl on some harsh stretch of Scottish moorland through gusts of, yes, snow will have found themselves lost in wonderment. Anyone who has finally discerned the location of a tawny roosting high amongst the leaves of an oak or, once, an elm on a long summer’s day, will have been pleased with themselves. Anyone who has simply observed an eagle owl or great grey merely perched, watchfully and imperturbably, in an aviary or on a conifer’s branch will have understood these birds’ fearful majesty and power. Just as anyone who has watched a very much smaller burrowing or, say, Scops owl go about its business will have been intrigued, possibly even entertained.

And then, extraordinarily, there is the Blakiston’s fish owl, the largest of them all and a very rare bird indeed, confined as it is to the forests of Far Eastern Russia and the northern islands of Japan. “Largest” is still an understatement: one Blakiston’s wingspan was measured at 6’ 3”, which compares not unfavourably with a Martial Eagle’s 8’ 6’’. But perhaps the most astonishing thing about this owl is that in winter it can, quite literally and despite its size, almost dance across the slippery, largely frozen rivers which provide its food, and then strike into some ice-fringed pool with fatal accuracy.

There is simply no such thing as “an owl” – the very descriptor contains multitudes, and who, if given the opportunity, would balk at mingling amongst them?

Robert Doyle

Author
Cat

If I have an inner totem animal, it must be a cat – and not some Platonic ideal of catness, but specifically Sooty, the cat I’ve been looking after these past few months. I feel I’m only learning at 40 what the rest of the world – certainly the internet – has so long known: that there’s an otherworldliness, a bewitching sense of enigma to these creatures who are at once lovable and aloof, disarming and capricious, affectionate and inscrutable. Now that I’ve lived with Sooty a while, I understand why it is that black cats flicker so persistently in the mythological imagination, appearing as witches’ familiars and auguries of luck, good or ill. I’ve eaten the magic mushrooms that grow wild here in Dublin and watched her for hours, transfixed by her aliveness, her poise, her strange dignity, her lunar alertness when darkness falls – eyes wide and vivid, sensorium attuned to vibrations imperceptible to me. I like to smoke a little weed and pet her – about the most sensual thing you can do short of actually making love to somebody.

Ruth Scurr

Author
Cat

Mine is a black cat. One of my earliest memories is of watching a black kitten called Pickles pick his way carefully across a rockery in the garden of a house we left before I went to school. My mother gave Pickles away because she couldn’t stand the smell of his food when she was pregnant again. But he comes back in different guises, always male, always black, sometimes with a sidekick from the same litter. He understands how to reconcile the need for a home, comfort, routine, with the need for fierce independence. He comes and he goes, we both do. He is very sociable and also intensely private. I’m always childishly delighted when I see him in an art gallery, sitting on a girl’s lap in a Gwen John painting, or curled up in the warm part of an unmade bed from the seventeenth century. I know he had many lives before mine began, and will have many more after me, but in the meantime we are companions and familiars.

Dan Richards

Author
Cat

For a long time I thought my cat was living my best life. He slept a lot, as cats do; occasionally “took an interest” in such things as moths and spiders, but generally picked or ignored his battles to such a degree that he made “disinterested” seem like an active verb. A tripod from an early age due to an ill-advised altercation with a badger – the TB in his front right paw was prevented from reaching higher up in his system by removing the leg – he lolloped around the house, when he moved at all, like a furry William Tell Overture.

A big handsome cat – half-French Tom, half-Norfolk farm ratter – he was always supportive of my writing because the laptop keyboard was warm and a good place to lie. He was my constant companion for years, stoic sounding board, dear friend. My totem, feline lodestar, all round hero.

Moz the Cat.

Sarah Hall

Novelist
Robin

Despite being a patron of the Humanists, I reserve the right to ditch rationality and embrace magical thinking from time to time. Not long after my father died last year, I was clearing out the many books from his house with a friend who owns a second-hand bookshop in Carlisle. The front door of the cottage was open and in flew a robin. The bird landed on a chair nearby and assessed the surroundings with a polished eye, bravely, possessively almost, as if right at home. It said something loud and insistent, then flew out again. Oh, I thought, well that’s dad. It was hard to tell whether he was annoyed at our trespass and the taking of his stuff, or just saying hello. Perhaps – robins being very territorial – he was patrolling his former kingdom.

That night I told a friend about it, and she told me a beautiful phrase I’d never heard before: Robins appear when loved ones are near. Over the last year I’ve noticed a lot more of them and, coincidentally or not, it often seems to be when I’m feeling sad or lonely or pondering something difficult. Sometimes their trills sound like old-man chuckles. It’s as if they’re offering companionship and reassurance. Dad had several characteristics in common with robins, including a proclivity to wear bright, jolly waistcoats. The same roundy shape. The same cheeky boldness. Enjoyed a good sing.

Losing the last parent is incredibly hard – a feeling of being orphaned, afraid, disaffiliated. I miss him every day. I don’t doubt our temporary, terrestrial existence, the lack of an afterlife. But I love the idea of visitation. I love the company of a robin, whenever he appears, chirping away, hopping down the path ahead of me, keeping very close – for a bird.

Anthony McGowan

Author
Manatee

As a kid I became fascinated by the sad story of Steller’s Sea Cow, a colossal, placid, rather innocent sirenian, hunted to extinction almost as soon as it was discovered, in the Bering Strait, in the 1740s. When harpooned, the victim’s friends would hang around, as if to bring solace to the stricken animal, and so could be easily butchered, too. My obsession extended to the sea cow’s two surviving relatives, the manatee and dugong. In particular, the manatee appealed to me. It’s been argued that the best explanation for the mermaid myth is the manatee’s habit of bobbing about in the ocean, nursing its young in an almost human fashion. But the poor old manatee is far from that curiously alluring image. Leathery, grey, halitotic, flatulent, obese, slow-moving, a little dim, the manatee has a ponderous, thoughtful air, as though gravely contemplating deep issues. But it doesn’t really do anything, beyond munching kelp and defecating. So, yes, I am the manatee.

DBC Pierre

Novelist
Capybara

My soul creature is a capybara. The world’s largest rodent came to me when I was sixteen, before anyone had heard of such a curiosity. If I had thought more about it as a lad I might have wanted a panther or an ocelot as a spirit mascot – but spirit animals can’t be chosen; one look at this meek, sociable creature told me that it was for me, and that my path, in a crunch, would reflect its noble values. The capybara is a creature free from the animal food-chain: not a predator, it makes no trouble for other species, being much loved by all. The buck stops with it when anacondas, wildcats or piranha come to prey. To see all that a capybara embodies you have only to meet its gaze – even in a photograph. Look a capybara in the eye and you’ll know what I mean. That’s me.

Flora Smith

CEO TopFoto
Horse

My spirit animal is the horse that gallops beside any train I’m on. It keeps pace by leaping both hedges and houses. No saddle, no rider, and mine since probably nine years old. As a rural child, desperately lonely at school between the ages of nine to eleven, then happier, if constrained at boarding school, I was drawn to both real and imaginary horses. I was still tiny when mum taught me to predict rain with mares’ tails clouds (cirrus uncinus); later I spent hours with Black Beauty and the talking horses of Narnia. In my twenties, I galloped through Russian forests with real Cossacks, unusually led by a woman. That was pretty magical. They wore their grandfathers’ uniforms and the horses were much wilder than the schooled ponies I was used to. However, one thing feels like actual magic. I never talked about my own spirit animal, but before she died of cancer in 2014, my sister told me she’d always had a mind-horse, keeping pace with her. On train journeys.

Rebecca Rukeyser

Novelist
Megabat

I love megabats and, at one point when I was seventeen, a handful of megabats loved me. These were spectacled flying foxes, a species of fruit bat that churn through the night of Queensland and Papua New Guinea and are unusually susceptible to tick-born paralysis. Paralysed mothers crash to the forest floor. Pups, clinging to their bodies, often starve.

As a volunteer at a sanctuary near Cairns, I swaddled and bottle-fed rescued pups. In the evening, I sat watching an Australian medical drama with four or five pups hanging upside-down, gripping my t-shirt with their toes.

Months later, I got sick. A stunningly high fever left me muttering at my hallucinations: a cat kept falling from the ceiling and bouncing back up when I blinked. My diagnosis was tick-born Q fever. The hallucinated cat was, maybe, my fried brain communicating “paralysed megabat falling to the forest floor”.

I’m not mad. I’d happily launch into the orbit of Q fever in exchange for another evening in that Lazy-Boy, torso covered cosily in bats, their ears twitching happily.

Robert Wilton

Novelist
Bear

Somewhere in a forest – darkly-fertile and echoing with ancient rituals and crimes – an old bear is shambling through the undergrowth. It is wary of noise, life, light. It finds contentment by a stream; in mossy secret places; in gloom. It carries my strength. It remembers pride, uneasily. It does not roar, yet it sustains the idea of roaring. It is clumsy rather than mighty, but hints that something uncomfortable could cast a shadow of greatness. It suggests warmth.

I am content enough to be seen through this creature. Yet it speaks for a dangerous solitude. It leads me further into myself, and offers consolation there but little comfort. Surely the essential question, especially as one contemplates a Christmas hearth, is the very different animal spirit of one’s lover. I hear a strange echo in the winter night, and trudge towards it.

Joanna Grochowicz

Polar writer
Polar bear

The no-fixed-abode existence of the polar bear speaks loudest to my spirit, which longs to roam the icy regions lost in thought. Despite that white and featureless habitat, it is among the planet’s most curious creatures. A polar bear does not complain between meals; it will live off its body fat for months at a time, or swim vast distances to investigate a pleasing scent carried on polar winds. Fortitude is a most excellent quality in polar travellers, as is patience. To stay completely still for hours on end beside a seal’s breathing hole, a polar bear knows about marking time. It is all the proof I need that my spirit animal is a champion daydreamer. But where does a polar bear travel in its imagination during these heroic stretches of waiting? Perhaps to the spirit animal realm, where any interactions with humans will convince this fine creature that a life lived in blank spaces is far preferable to our colourful chaos.

Julie Myerson

Novelist
Seagull

I was going to say I don’t think I have a spirit animal, but it’s not entirely true. Because I have an eerily profound connection with seagulls that is deeply mysterious to me. Not the most glamorous of birds – those yellow eyes, the incessant shrieking – and certainly not one I’d choose to align myself with. But when I watch a gull alight on a shingled seaside rooftop before lifting off again and gliding, wings outstretched, right over the sea, a memory lights up in me. And I mean that as literally as it’s possible to mean it without sounding crazy. I’ve done that. I’ve felt the salt air under my smooth white wings. Seen the water ruffled and glittering beneath me. I’ve experienced the ecstatic circling sensation as you dip down over the water and then return to land again. Watching the seagulls brings it all back and I’m there again. It’s the strangest feeling, delicious actually. The first time I told my husband about it he assumed I was joking – I’m sure he still thinks that. But no, I swear it’s true: my whole self, body and soul, contains some kind of muscle memory of how it feels to be a seagull. Though as far as I know, I’ve never swooped down and stolen anyone’s chips.

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December 2022, Main Features

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