Animal Guides

A review of Neil Russack's: Animal Guides In Life, Myth and Dreams, An Analyst's Notebook; Inner City Books, Toronto 2002 by Doris Norrgaard

A review of Neil Russack's: Animal Guides In Life, Myth and Dreams, An Analyst's Notebook; Inner City Books, Toronto 2002, illustrated

by Doris Norrgaard
(Note: an earlier version of this text, in Swedish, appeared in the journal for Jungian psychology, Coniunctio, 2/2004, Sweden)

Instincts to be Trusted - Animals as Inner Guides

Think of three animals! Three animals you feel drawn to, fascinated by, any three animals ...

Have you thought them out now? Say their names aloud, and then read the footnote at the end of this review, please.

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Did you read the footnote already? If you did: thank you very much for your help! Do keep your animals in mind. - Sometimes a random association has no more than a certain entertainment value, and if you feel that this was the case here, it is better for you to go on and make a new choice, till it feels right. But if one is lucky, those things that spontaneously come to mind have the same symbol value as images in dreams, and so they might even bring vitally important messages.

Three animals begin lines of their own in Carl Sandburg's poem ”Wilderness”, too: the fox, the baboon and the eagle. Sandburg ”knows how to integrate animal images so that he experiences them as a part of himself. He has taken them in alive ...” says Jungian analyst Neil Russack approvingly of the poet in his book Animal Guides. Poets, artists and people who live in cultures in close contact with nature often have a straightforward relationship with animal and nature symbols in a playful and healing way. And through them with their own instincts.

Neil Russack quotes C G Jung: ”The instincts are a far better protection than all the intellectual wisdom in the world.” This wisdom forms a gateway into the moving initiation to the animal symbols by Animal Guides . It is important, Neil Russack points out, that we make a closer acquaintance of the animals we have a connection with - that we observe them, muse over their significance to us, read descriptions of their lives in reality and in general find out more about their symbolic meaning in different contexts.

To pursue this track could turn out to be very beneficial, indeed, because animals might show us the path through the phases of life and the passages from one phase to the next, thanks to their capacity to connect us with our instinctual life, Neil Russack underlines. When animals show up in our lives they can herald a change, or give us a nudge to wake up emotionally, or bring us a new sense of security and trust. They can also inspire our spontaneity and remind us to enjoy our bodies. He emphasizes the fact that its instincts define an animal's whole life, and that we can learn from this: so if I am able to take in the animal's natural feeling for its limits, it could help me feel satisfied with my life right now, just as it is, just as it has turned out to be. According to him animals are our prototypes, our natural models. Animals obviously accept their own nature to the full - a wisdom we could absorb directly from them - in this way they are able to empower us in our need to live our own unique lives.

The instincts Neil Russack is talking about here are not about letting go of sexual and aggressive impulses with no heading of consequences. What he aims at is a prompting from the depth of the soul, a voice we should give our keenest attention to. ”Something within us calls us to actualize our natural talents, to pursue our deepest longings, to bring into being the deepest essence of our being,” he explains. (- In this quote you may also hear an echo of his style, that has a ring of poetical realism.)

Neil Russack shows, in a most down-to-earth way, how this message can be turned into actual life, especially how he has managed to do just that in his own. "To bring into being the deepest essence of our being" is both the core-message of Jungian psychology in general and the story-line of Animal Guides. His book teems with animals, human experiences and a range of sources of knowledge. The latter are not hinged solely on intellectual stuff. There is, among others, the Swiss psychologist Ruth Amman who works with animal symbols in her sand tray therapy to help people connect with their body and feelings. In her experience the most common animals are ”snakes, turtles and the black panther for women”. (You wouldn't forget our little party game, would you? See the footnote!) - The panther helps women acknowledge their not-so-lady-like-traits, like passion and independence.

If we did listen to the animals and what they tell us, Neil Russack underlines, we would become more trusting towards life as it evolves, our attitude less rigid and more playful instead, and our sense for choices and decisions could be more intuitive. What is more, we would get a reinforced energy to handle all kinds of challenges that meet us on our life's journey, because the animals we encounter, in reality and dreams, would show us the way through our problems and back to our innermost nature.

So the point is that animals can be our guides, and that this might show on many levels: they can show up in our childhood memories and in dreams, in what we read or talk about with others. They might just be there, in our real life, here and now, as living animals in our home and its surroundings. In Animal Guides the symbolic meaning of many different animals is highlighted, among them the ant, butterfly, frog, octopus, snail, egret, osprey, owl, eagle, duck, crane, hawk, goose, chicken, dog, camel, bull, elephant, deer, weasel, bear, boar, lion, tiger, wolf, dolphin, whale, and even the unicorn, dragon and phoenix.

Neil Russack has actually made an effort to order these animals and others according to the elements they belong to and so he first goes into water, earth and fire, but this plan has stayed rather makeshift. But it does not really matter if the joints remain conspicuous in this work - it stays a captivating bricolage-in-progress, embarked upon in love and devotion, and the creation this far is all alive and irresistible. - I long for the story to continue, for example in a book about animal guides and initiation/individuation in old age ... Anyway, this building under construction is kept together by a personal candour that shows through all the disparate parts. Not to forget that there is a clear continuity in the style: his is a friend's voice, not a salesman's - making it a truly unusual and unforgettable experience. And so, when the last section, surprisingly, is not called ”air” but ”returning home” instead, you feel it is not just all right, but in fact deeply meaningful! In other words: the animals who are (in the cited words of Robert Hass) ”at home in the world in a way that human beings are not” are also guiding us step by step all the way, until we ourselves feel at home at last.

* * *

Reading this book, getting more and more fascinated by it, and so reading it through again, I found a great deal that applied to myself that has given me much in return. That is really what you expect from any good psychology book. But in addition to this, it is astounding how easy the animal symbols make it to understand others more feelingly, even those you always have felt to be strangers.

Let me take horses and ”horse-girls” as an example. In me neither category has seldom called forth more than a vague admiration at a distance, usually with a distinct shudder topmost; horses, and especially riding-horses and wild horses, are beautiful, no doubt, but they are so big, so strong, so unpredictable, too.- In short: scaring. And I do think the horse-girls are very brave to dare to ride, but they also are daring to the very extent that I have felt rather alien to them even when we were closely related. Workhorses and ponies have been those that I rather have been able to relate to, because they have inspired less fear in me. - Well, isn't that revealing!

Neil Russack again gives the horse as a symbol ample space and simultaneously sheds light on the horse-girl in a case-study full of empathy. Contrary to myself his client is a ”daddy's girl”.

She is a ”thinking” type with an education in sciences, and intelligent and ambitious, too. And to top it: she is a full-fledged workaholic and probably also addicted to alcohol as such (needing it to relax). When she was small she was dad's favourite. But, says Neil Russack, as so often with fathers who project their anima on to their young daughters, the father loses interest in the girl in her adolescence (maybe she does not embody the father's superficial ideal of femininity?) and so he abandons her. And the girl goes on trying to repair the relationship by achievement after achievement.

This is a brilliant, vital, creative female client, and Neil Russack possibly falls in love with her for a while (so it seems to me). What she needs is to become her own best parent. She lacks caring, but her own motherliness is too weak and undeveloped. As a remedy she looks for increased manliness, for a stronger animus dominance. (I see in her an Athena in Jean Shinoda Bolen's sense. The ideas of her father has shaped her personality. The mother is conspicuous by her absence.) The girl's relationship with her horses, close yet distant, reflects her mixed feelings about relationships with people. - And so the horses have become this client's vicarious family.

The horse then is a symbol of her unredeemed need for love, a need that instils anxiety into her - she easily starts, rears and bolts away. This pattern emerges very clearly during the therapy, all of it sensitively related in Animal Guides. The horse appears to be, as tamed and domesticated, a symbol of control. According to Neil Russack this is based on a wish to steer a powerful inner energy, to bridle it. I am reminded of the horse-girl who is often just a child, but still slaves away inexhaustibly in the stables, working like a man. Will daddy be impressed now? (And the mother is still conspicuous by her absence.)

In this light of impaired parental caring I am able to see the courageous horse-girl differently. And simultaneously as she, the other, the strange one, opens up to me, I am being guided myself. My own father complex, for instance, becomes clearer in its nuances and I get more aware of that I have sought my solutions in quite another quarter. Not long after I had read Animal Guides I encountered another ”daddy's girl”, who in mid-life relieved herself of her internalized compulsion to achieve and demands of perfection with the help of Jungian analysis - in this context many an animal symbol played an important guiding role, and sure enough: especially a horse. (Susan M. Tiberghien writes vividly about her experiences in Looking for Gold.)

* * *

Neil Russack underlines that the horse as a symbol also stands for deep transformation: ”The Trojan horse that conquered the older matriarchal Troy came to symbolize a new Greek patriarchal order. The horse stirred things up; life was no longer stable.” My thoughts go back to Eva Bjoerkander Mannheimer's essay in the last issue of the Swedish Jungian journal Coniunctio, where she writes about the Trojan horse and the biased alliance between Odysseus and Athena, the man in quest of power and his girlish anima-figure. At stake is how this ill-matched relationship affects our world. My associations move on to Robert Bly and his Iron-John and the fact that we are all made to suffer for the lack of loving fathers on this globe. Athena and the realm of ideas and science remind me of Carolyn Merchant's book The Death of Nature, criticizing the western (male) main-stream science that as an Enlightenment (!) project turned life-processes into dead objects. Further back I am reminded of early clear-sighted Swedish author Elin Waegner, who in her brave Vaeckarklocka (Alarm-clock) already in 1941 expressed her hope that, as a counterweight to the power of the father, the vision of a prehistoric ”mother-age” could help the world to get on an even keel again.

The horse-girl's problem is the problem of the world, I conclude after reading Animal Guides. There is a basic lack of caring, for people, for lives, even one's own most authentic needs. The commercial life-style is running head-long into the destruction of our global heritage, Mother Earth. As The Right Livelihood Award founder Jakob von Uexkull has pointed out the economists (and we?) are blind to our dependence on nature and in their preposterous calculations they do not count with the risk of a hasty end to the orgy of buying and selling. Homo oeconomicus has become so self-absorbed that he has lost the most basic instinct of them all, the reproduction-instinct, the concern for the survival of the off-spring. And there are not many who dare go over to that voluntarily simple life-style that ecologically conscious Elin Waegner advocated, a life-style of solidarity with and in service of our fellow-men, as she put it. The situation being like this, what can Jungian psychology do, to help us open our eyes to see both our fears and our capacity in this context? Could Jungian psychology help us to a greater personal and social courage in defending the diversity of life - that of the animals in their natural richness and that of the human beings in their individuality? What do we have in store or in progress to refer to? We don't believe in an animated world any longer, for sure, where places, plants, animals have souls of their own to be respected. And we do not really, as a society, regard anything as holy anymore - possibly with The Market as the only exception.

The closest substitute for our lost reverence for the spiritual side of nature might be that we still cherish lingering, deep feelings towards nature - nature as an entity and in all its parts. (What we suppress always returns, in one way or another, doesn't it?) A feeling of awe still expresses itself in a surviving strong connection with nature as a symbol, as symbols. Under the varnish of the latest technology, the nature-symbols still are full of life. Not even in a party game are we willing to be likened to any animal whatsoever, I gather. And in the same vein: today gardening and ornithology are the biggest pastimes in the US and they expand year after year. All kinds of wild-life experiences are also becoming more and more vital for the growing tourist trade world-wide. As individuals we do seem to care, for animals, plants, scenery, environments... We thrive where they thrive, quite simply.

But the production of everyday life screens us ever more off from all of the natural world. Still we can, and have the right to, affirm our love for nature in all of its forms. Affirm them as our carriers of symbols, as our symbol-saturated guides, too. There is something in us, there is something in the natural phenomena themselves, something in the whole interaction between ”outer” and ”inner”, that makes this symbolization function. The natural phenomena are more than physics and biology, they are also psychology and sociology, and in some respects, that each individual has the right to define him- or herself, they are religion, too. With this ”right” I imply that it is futile to try to frighten us away from our attitude, our feeling, that something holy does adhere to natural things - that feeling is neither irrational nor superstitious: it is life-enhancing.

Without our inexplicable awe of nature and our uneasy wonder about our place within it, we would only lose. Without these our existence, and our outlook on life, would only be the more shallow. As it is, we are able to use and we have the opportunity to use the language of symbols, and that enriches our lives by energizing our experiences. The animal symbols renew our energy, as Neil Russack points out. And if we, as a society, would take this in earnest it would increase even the very material richness on our planet: thousands and thousands of species could be rescued, thousands of landscapes, natural and cultural treasures could be saved, instead of the depletion that is running amok on the globe right now, on our Mother Earth, our Mother Nature. For ever and inescapably present after all.

Though not exactly in these words, Neil Russack does place his work within the frame of Jung's ”diagnosis of the modern condition as a state of fundamental estrangement.” And Neil Russack maintains that the ”values animals hold for us give yet another degree of urgency to the disappearance of so many species.” - But how about the failing/disappearing fathers, then? The presence/absence of fathers surely is more conditional (see e.g. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane) in that psychological and social reality, which is so vital to human beings, and some would argue that the presence of mothers is so much more crucial. I would still like to point out that anyhow our predicament is fatal, because fathers (the patriarchy) do have most power and in spite of this they s acrifice their sons and daughters (mankind), leading society like a lemming migration towards the abyss.

Of course there are individual loving, caring fathers, too. We just do not honour them enough. And they have far too little of say in this world. (How come?) So I am the happier to follow Neil Russack's own growing attitude of wonderfully loving fatherliness - even though he might be unaware of it himself, at least he does not use this word for it - he is being carrying, earnest, playful, personal ... he is fatherly in a wholly new way, far from Zeus and Odysseus, and their overweight of aggression and intellect.

Contrarily, here we get a glimpse of a growing organic deeply rooted fatherliness, with a sane recognition of our similarity with animals, of our body, instincts, intuition, feelings, soul. Neil Russack affirms both our corporeality and our spirituality, both our dependence and our autonomy, both our belonging and our separateness and individuality. Without hierarchies, only both-and. Very appealing, very liberating!

This fatherliness is an attitude to life that Neil Russack has loved and nurtured in an interchange between his own frustrated need for both parents' love, his interest in wildlife and animal symbols, and his working life as a Jungian analyst. He has found strength in a life near the motherly (as in mater, material, matrix) nature. The turning-point is his encounter with an unyielding bull in Varanasi by the Ganges. It makes him return home. But his home-coming does not resemble that of Odysseus'. Neil Russack's journey through life (his notebook of it) so far is a study not only in how animals can guide us and teach us to be more ourselves, but also an indirect report of how that new fatherliness grows in him; a fatherliness that is able to be the other work-horse of a pair with motherliness, and a worthy one, too; a fatherliness that can point out the way home for the whole human being. So Animal Guides becomes an empowering book for both adult sons and adult daughters, a book that strengthens the capacity to carry life on, a book with deep roots in nature, our common inescapable foundation.


1. Think of three animals - this was a kind of party game when I was a student. Now reminded of this game again a bear, a dolphin and a butterfly showed up in my mind's eye. The provocative declaration of this game is that the first animal symbolizes the impression you want to make on others. The second symbolizes how other people actually see you, and the third animal is a symbol of who you really are deep inside. This intellectual experiment always started very profound and lively conversations! Additionally, and interestingly enough, this game made it very clear that all participants had strong feelings about the animals as symbols, and especially about those that they themselves had pointed out, naturally. The strong feelings for the animals, the sincere relationships with some species rather than others, reveal that we, people of today, too, still are mentally very close to our forefathers who cherished totem-animals and an animated environment, where everything in nature was human-like and everything human was natural. A time when the earth was the home of both animals and people. Home - needed by man as the snail needs its shell. Home - the archetype of origin and fulfilment in fairy tales and myth. Home - creative and collaborating men and women respecting (Mother) Nature. Home - in the words of Ernst Bloch: still the most important utopia of all.

© Doris Norrgaard 2004

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