Animal Medicine – The authors describe the Native American concept of medicine as “anything that improves one’s connection to all life…the healing of body, mind and spirit”, as well as, “anything that brings personal power, strength and understanding.” The lessons of this medicine are based on major concepts, such as rebirth, loyalty or stealth, and assigned to an animal. Although Native American Tribal Elders did not use cards, they often used parts of animals (Wolf tooth, Bear claw, etc) to advise members of the Tribe when they were in need of guidance.
The Medicine Wheel – This is a symbol of the Wheel of Life and is used to bring together the energies of all the creatures and elements of the Earth. It usually consists of a center stone surrounded by a circle of twelve large stones, the four largest stones at the four cardinal directions, with lines of rocks radiating from the center making the spokes of a wheel. You can read more about the Medicine Wheel here and here.
The Medicine Shield – This is unique to each individual. The wearer of their Medicine Shield has crafted it themselves, using animal symbols to display their own personal gifts, talents and skills. They were used as personal talismans for a source of protection or to honor the Spirits of the Earth. Medicine Shields were also made for special occasions, such as a marriage or other rites of passage, as well for the start of a project or to tell the story of a successful hunt.
Totem Animals – Many Native American Tribes have a tradition that each person has nine totem animals that are with them throughout their life. Each animal represents an ability, trait or challenge within that person. The nine animals are each associated with a direction – east, south, west, north, above, below, within, to the left of you and to the right of you. These last two are to be thought of as walking beside you at all times.
Directions – The four cardinal directions have their own symbolism in Native American traditions. Their meanings can vary slightly between the different spreads used with the Medicine Cards, depending on if you’re reading in regards to a personal issue or to the outcome of a situation. You can read more about the meaning of directions in the links about the Medicine Wheel above.
In general, the goal of using the cards is to help you call upon the strengths and powers of the animal and to “be drawn into complete harmony with that creature’s essence.” There are 52 cards in the deck, each illustrated with an image of the animal, and a very nice accompanying book to guide you through using and understanding them.
I am not of Native American descent (as far as I know), but as someone who has always had an affinity for the spirits of animals, the study of their meaning in various belief systems is of great interest to me. I discovered the Medicine Cards about ten years ago because a friend of mine had them, but didn’t really use them that much. We would look at a card occasionally and I had flipped through the book a few times, but secretly I wanted to take them home and eagerly explore their meaning! It wasn’t until several years later that I acquired my own set and now find myself quite connected to them. I have used the traditional Rider-Waite Tarot deck, as well as a few other various tarot decks, but none have resonated with me as the Medicine Cards.
When I look at the image of the animal I can easily visualize it in my mind. I imagine how its fur feels (or scales or wings…); I see how the shape of its body is suited to how it lives; I hear the noises it makes when it’s calling for its mate or warning of danger; I see its eyes, bright and alert. Then I visualize the animal in its environment – where does it sleep? where does it eat? where does it play? All of these images help me understand the behavior of the individual creature – why does it move like that? how does it find its prey? how does it attract its mate? why does it hang out alone or in a group? Then it becomes clear what special skills this animal has that are like no other. Understanding this enables me to interpret the role of that animal in the spread of the cards.
The spreads used with the Medicine Cards are different than traditional tarot decks, although I have used traditional tarot spreads with fine results. The Medicine Card spread most similar to traditional tarot is called the Pathway Spread. There are seven cards representing your past, present and future, what is currently moving through your life, what has just passed out of your life, what is working for you and what is working against you. The other Medicine Card spreads all center around the four cardinal directions, with or without a card placed in the center. Each spread is for a different purpose, such as for personal reflection, to reveal how others see you, to determine the outcome of a project or to help one uncover that which is hidden in themselves. The variations are not just in the purpose of the spread, but also in the meaning of the directional positions.
I often pull just one card for inspiration and clarity in a particular moment or two cards when I’m looking for balance within myself or a situation. On this beautiful, crisp October day I’ve decided to draw one card for the purpose of inspiring others to take a closer look at the lives and ways of the creatures around them:
Turtle represents Mother Earth and is one of the oldest symbols for the Earth in Native American teachings. Turtle reminds us to honor ourselves and our world with compassion, to stay grounded and have patience. Regarding the purpose of pulling this card, it’s quite appropriate that Turtle has decided to serve as our inspiration today!