The Lower World: Shamanic Spirit-Animals (Jill Hammer)

I was once at an outdoor shamanic event where we explored the South American (Peruvian) belief in three worlds: an overworld of spiritual beings, a middle world of humans, animals, plants, and physical forms, and a lower world of power animals or helpful animal spirits. Siberian shamans, we were told, held a similar belief in a three-world system.

We lay down in an outdoor field to the sound of drumming. Each of us was asked to meditate and go on a journey to the lower world (by imagining a hole in the earth or a tree, or simply imagining an elevator with a button labeled “lower world”) to discover our power animal. A power animal, we were told, was a helper spirit, an animal representing our instinctive knowledge and elemental gifts. I appreciated the opportunity to imagine a world that was entirely wild, without roads or buildings. I entered this world through an old hollow tree I remembered from my childhood, and saw in my mind's eye an underworld full of forests, mists, and caves. The scenery was beautiful, but I was full of anxiety that I would imagine an animal that was too grand—or too small—for my liking. Soon I came face to face with a black wolf.

Irritated by the arrival of this large and aggressive animal, and suspicious that I was not being humble enough or original enough in my choice of mythic familiar, I snapped, “What are you doing here? I expected a deer or a songbird or a platypus or something!”

“But I’ve been with you since you were a little girl,” the wolf said.

“Well,” I demanded, “if you're with me all the time and I’m supposed to be taking care of you, what do you eat? The souls of rabbits?”

“Darkness,” said the wolf.

I discovered that this wolf had been taking care of me all along by eating the darkness that cast a shadow over me. She symbolized my ability to be fierce, to get angry, to hunt the thoughts and memories that caused me pain, to heal and grow stronger. I also remembered how I used to pretend to be a wolf when I was a small child. The wolf was right—she had always been with me. I was unhappy to see her only because I was somewhat unhappy to see myself.

In the three years since that day, the wolf has helped me own and temper my aggression, and has helped me to learn that I am powerful in ways I do not always want to admit. I have read in the shamanic work of Gershon Winkler that in the Jewish tradition, the wolf represents loyalty and nurturing: two qualities I admire. And I have been told by a shaman that she saw the wolf with me, protecting me. Thinking about my wolf helps to guide me when I am experiencing conflict or coping with powerful emotions. She reminds me that my self-hatred, my darkness, can be “eaten” or dissolved into my fuller self.

I have found only one cryptic statement in the Jewish mystical tradition to echo the belief in three worlds and the idea that the lowest world is a world of animal spirits. In the Zohar (II, 20a) it is written: “Everything above has its counterpart below, and everything below has its counterpart in the sea, and yet all form a unity. God created angels in the upper worlds, human beings in this world, and the Leviathan in the sea, “to couple the tent together, that it might be one” (Ex.36:18). The "tent" here is the Temple and the sacred world of the Divine.

The Leviathan is the primordial sea monster. In some readings, this creature represents instinct and the unconscious. The three levels—angel, human, and primordial oceanic monster—seem to parallel the three worlds of the shamanic tradition. They suggest that the human experiences higher beings (the angels) and lower beings (the sea monsters) but that all three are one. So too, in the shamanic tradition, the human may be helped by spiritual beings or ancestors, or by power animals, all of whom reside inside the human spirit.

According to Adin Steinsaltz in his book The Thirteen-Petaled Rose, different spiritual creatures live on each level of the four worlds. In the first world, the earthy world, are humans. In the second world, there are angels, created by feelings and actions. In the third world, there are seraphim, creatures of thought. In the fourth world, there is only God. Steinsaltz does not make room for any good creatures who are “lower” than the physical world, though demons may reside in lower worlds. Yet I have always thought that perhaps, just as the highest part of the highest world is reserved for God as exalted, hidden deity, the lowest part of the lowest world is reserved for God in the form of the deep animal self: the one who knows the path, and can lead us on it.

An additional thought:

There are four Jewish new years. On Rosh haShanah, the new year for people (in September or October), we honor and reflect on our own souls. On Tu B'Shevat, new year of the trees (in January or February), we honor trees and also the unfolding of the faces of the Divine. On the first of Nisan (in March or April), the new year for time, we honor the presence of the Shekhinah in our world. The first of Elul (in August or September) is the new year for animals. Maybe, as Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb has also suggested, we might use this day to honor our relationships with animals, birds, fish, and other creatures. We could also use this day to honor the animal instincts that dwell within us. In shamanic terms, 1 Elul would celebrate the lower world, 1 Tishrei would celebrate the middle world, Tu B'Shevat would celebrate the upper world, and 1 Nisan, the day on which the Taberncle stood for the first time and "the tent was coupled together," would represent the whole.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is a poet, author, ritual-maker, and editor. She is senior associate at Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project, where she serves as editor of Journey and as a teacher of text and ritual.

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