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spirit animal

What does spirit animal mean?

In certain spiritual traditions or cultures, spirit animal refers to a spirit which helps guide or protect a person on a journey and whose characteristics that person shares or embodies. It is also metaphor, often humorous, for someone or something a person relates to or admires.

image of spirit animal

Where does spirit animal come from?

The ancient concept of animal guides, particularly prominent in some indigenous, especially Native American, religions and cultures, was adopted in Pagan and Wiccan spirituality in the 1990s. In these contexts, spirit animals are meant literally, referring to spiritual guides or totems that take the form of animals. Earnest quizzes began to emerge in the mid-2000s to help you find your spirit animal.

Spirit animal has increasingly been used to indicate, ironically, a strong appreciation or identification for someone or something. For example, in 2006, a user in a forum featuring a serious discussion about spirit animals replied irreverently with “my spirit animal is samuel jackson.” In 2007, a commenter on a blog about the television show Mad Men posted “Peggy Olson is my spirit animal.” And by 2010 the phrase was used everywhere from Tumblr to the New York Times.

A few things to note…

A spirit animal in the ironic or joking sense can be virtually anything. It can be cute and funny animals (“This baby panda is my spirit animal”), celebrities or fictional characters (“Beyonce is my spirit animal”), or even food and beverages (“This taco is my spirit animal”)—any and every little thing that someone is really into or “feels” at a particular moment can be a spirit animal.

In response to the ubiquity and appropriative nature of this use of spirit animal, satirist Mallory Ortberg penned a humorous essay on her website The Toast. She writes: “One of these days—and that day is closer than you might think—everyone and everything that you’ve ever called ‘my spirit animal’ is going to show up at your doorstep and make you go on a vision quest, and it’s going to be awful.”

There are still plenty of internet quizzes to help you discover your spirit animal. In some cases, this refers to the concept of finding an actual spirit guide; in others, it’s more about what animal best suits your personality. Spirit animals also show up in fantasy fiction, too, such as the Spirit Animals series by Brandon Mull.

This use of spirit animal is sometimes considered culturally appropriative of and insensitive to indigenous peoples as it can be interpreted as mockery or ignorance of their beliefs, traditions, and history. This is particularly the case when used casually (e.g., “Whiskey is my spirit animal”), but even serious uses of spirit animal, as employed in many popular online quizzes, can be deemed offensive, even racist, if removed from the spiritual traditions they originate from.

Actor Kerry Washington, of TV drama Scandal fame, was notably chided for calling Kate Winslet her spirit animal in 2015, though she received praise for acknowledging that the phrase can be disrespectful. Instead of spirit animal, some people use Patronus, an apparition in the form of an animal, summoned by a powerful spell in the Harry Potter series.

For example…

“It's official: The talented, intelligent, and outspoken actress is our 2016 spirit animal, and here, we’ve put together a list of 15 reasons why.”

Shalayne Pulia, “15 Times JLaw Was Our Spirit Animal,” InStyle (December 16, 2016)

“Deadpool is my spirit animal”

therealbucky05 Tumblr (March 27, 2017)

“If Monday had a spirit animal, it would be a sloth.”

Abi @abi4205 Twitter (March 27, 2017)

This is not a formal definition of spirit animal like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of spirit animal that will help you expand your word mastery.