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Instinct As Guide: Animals in Women's


Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37

Written by Barbara Platek

Jungian psychotherapist Barbara Platek explores the ways the appearance of

animals in the dreams of women evokes the power and potency of the deep
feminine and its connection to body and instinct. This article was originally
published in Psychological Perspectives in 2008.

Instinct As Guide: Animals in Women's Dreams

by Barbara Platek

And so it is Goldilocks who goes to the home of the three bears, Little
Red Riding Hood who converses with the wolf, Dorothy who befriends a
lion, Snow White who talks to the birds, Cinderella with mice as her
allies, the Mermaid who is half fish. (And when we hear in the Navaho
chant of the mountain that a grown man sits and smokes with bears and
follows directions given to him by squirrels, we are surprised. We had
thought only little girls spoke with animals.)
--Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature
Not long ago I found myself growing increasingly alert to the presence of animals
in women's dreams (my own included). I began to notice, for example, that my
clients (predominantly female) would often bring an animal dream to session
within a short while after beginning therapy. Perhaps there was something in our
initial interactions that gave rise to these dreams, I am not sure. I do know,
however, that there was often a palpable hush that fell over my therapy office as

we strained to catch site of whatever creature--bear, cat, horse--was slipping

silently through psyche's terrain.
I decided to follow my attraction to dream animals by collecting dreams of women
that featured animals in some way. I placed no restriction upon the dreams-though I did ask for those that especially moved, awed, touched, or inspired. In
each case, I found the dreams, and ensuing conversations, profoundly stirring on a
number of levels. I was reminded again and again that the appearance of animals
in dreams carries power and numinosity. Perhaps most striking to me was the fact
that each of us often reacted to the dream conversation as though we had
encountered a real presence--a living animal--with its own guiding intelligence and
I believe that there is something about encountering our own nature in dreams--as
imaged through animal form--that can stop us in our tracks, causing our senses to
become alive and alert, much like real-life encounters in the outdoors. I agree with
James Hillman that "animals wake up the imagination. You see a deer on the side
of the road, or geese flying in formation, and you become hyper alert. I've found
that animal dreams can do that, too. They really wake people up. Animal dreams
provoke their feelings, get them thinking, interested and curious."
Several years ago, while sitting at the water's edge in Mendocino, California, my
daughter and I were startled by the sudden appearance of an otter popping its
sleek, furry head up from the waves not 10 feet from where we sat. The feeling
was much like that described by Hillman: a sense of encounter, of visitation, which
for a moment brings awareness of continuity and connection with that mysterious
realm we call nature. In that split second encounter, a corresponding note was
sounded within my soul: I felt myself to be immediately and unquestionably alive.
I believe that much the same experience occurs when we meet animals in our
Animal dreams can refund our sense of participation in embodied life. They can
show us where we have gone astray--as when we seem to fall into disharmony
with a particular animal. They can also remind us of instincts and powers we
already possess or could bring into being if only we would trust our animal-like
nature. Animal dreams seem to communicate something from the ancient vestiges
of our functioning on earth--all the head knowledge in the world can't match the

sheer vibrancy and power of our own animal. Or, as Jung once said: "The instincts
are a far better protection than all the intellectual wisdom in the world."
In speaking with women about their animal dreams, I found, almost without
exception, that they took these dreams extremely seriously. It was as if some part
of them knew, without necessarily having ever read Jung or a dream book, that
contact with their own animal life mattered--that paying attention to the animal, in
whatever manner they could (in imagination, art work, body movement, journal
exploration) was vital to their health and well-being. Like the shaman or those on
a native vision quest, these women for whom turtle or horse or duck came to visit
seemed to sense the importance and honor of the encounter.
Animal Healing
One of the great fortunes in my life has been the ability to live in the woods. My
house, tucked in a pine forest and overlooking a pond, has large glass windows
through which I often catch site of deer, chipmunk, squirrel, and woodchuck. Their
activity mirrors my own: As I cook dinner, I can see deer sipping water at the
pond's edge; as I clean my living room, I notice squirrels collecting nuts for the
coming winter; and perhaps most magical of all, as I feel shifts of consciousness in
myself, I sometimes catch a glimpse of blue heron alighting on the pond or small
red fox skipping across the front yard.
That I am able to live so close to nature is especially poignant to me, as I have
lived so much of my life feeling disconnected from my own rhythms and instincts. I
am keenly aware that my desire to explore women's animal dreams is intimately
linked to a desire to find some deeper connection to my own nature. It is as if, in
experiencing animals in dreams, I am also glimpsing the possibility that the power
of nature--that which our ancestors experienced under the open night sky--still
exists both within and without my own life.
I am reminded that Jung built himself a tower, in part to be alone with nature--to
gather wood for a fire on which to cook, to take long walks in the woods, to carve
images in stone and play at the water's edge. These moments of dipping into the
stream of natural life seem to help heal the effects of a fragmented, overly
technology-driven life. They remind us that we are part of a far bigger reality than
that shown on television or transmitted across the Internet.

Nonetheless, the impact of living in a culture that denigrates and ignores nature is
tremendous--particularly for women. Because women's bodies are tied to natural
rhythms--the mysteries of menstruation, conception, and birth are, after all,
mysteries of body and blood--the demands of a heroic, patriarchal, superachieving
society are especially wounding. In a world where the reality of nature is not
honored, it is difficult for women to find ground upon which to embrace the
rhythms and nuances of their own bodies.
I believe that it is at this point--when the split between women's own nature has
grown so painful and dominant--that the appearance of animals in their dreams
can be remarkably profound. Just as the sudden encounter with a helpful animal
can serve to guide and reassure the heroine of fairy tales, so, too, the experience
of an animal dream can remind the dreamer that something inside still has access
to the deepest layers of instinctual wisdom. No matter how alienated they may feel
at a conscious level, they carry within them the potential to access the power and
healing of the archetypal feminine that remains alive within the unconscious.
Dream Animals
There are many images through which the archetypal feminine can emerge in
women's dreams. It may reveal itself as a priestess or female lover, as plants
blooming or a strong tree bursting through the family home. Hurricanes may
come, shattering the old assumptions of the father/husband world. Or the dreamer
may receive a gift--perhaps a precious ruby ring presented by a wrinkled crone.
Whatever the particular image, when women are called into a relationship with the
feminine ground of their being, they are simultaneously called into a deeper
relationship with our own instincts and emotions. Dreams of animals can assist
women in their process to retrieve that connection consciously. Animals are canny
and alert; many can see in the dark. Perhaps most importantly, they are pure, in
the sense that they are unable to be other than who they truly are. Unlike women,
who may attempt to be "more like a man," animals cannot be anything other than
Just as animals seem to "sense" when something is amiss--dangerous weather on
the horizon, dangerous humans in the vicinity--so, too, do dream animals have an
unerring sense of danger when it comes to the choices we make in our own lives.
A striking example of this occurred my practice, when a woman told me that she

needed to cut back on our therapy time together in order to help out financially in
her marriage. She came to the following session with a dream of a small woodland
animal--a woodchuck, she thought--caught in a hunter's trap with a damaged leg.
This woman "knew," even without working on the dream with me, that the
decision to halt or limit her therapy time would be hugely injurious to her own
I agreed with my client. My sense was that this dream came to warn her: to show
her, through the image of a wounded animal, the potential for deep wounding to
herself. It is not difficult to imagine the "hunter" in the dream, the one who sets
traps, as some form of negative masculine energy who would impose his own
aggressive, killer instincts upon the rhythms of nature. In my client, as in many
women, this energy manifests in the set of "shoulds" that imposed upon her a
sense of duty to the marriage rather than a fidelity to her own process. But what
of the particular small animal caught in the trap, the woodchuck?
In his book Animal Speak, Ted Williams notes the following about the woodchuck:
"The groundhog or woodchuck is a burrowing rodent, actually a member of the
squirrel family. It has chisel-like teeth, and it lives at the edges and open areas of
woods and forests. It is known for its digging and tunneling ability . . . .
Groundhogs go into a true hibernation and spend about four to six months in that
To be groundhog-like, then, might suggest a state of burrowing down into the
psyche--tapping into the unconscious through dreams and imagination in order to
more deeply hear into oneself. The act of digging beneath the surface is suggestive
of the work of therapy. Similarly, the image of hibernation suggests, first, an ability
to pull away from the demands of outer life and go inward, and second, the
possibility of finding nourishment within oneself. We might view the woodchuck in
the trap, then, as an imaged response to this women's stated intention to cut back
on her therapy. That is to say, she is brought into an emotional recognition of the
harm that would befall the more introverted part of herself, should she "give up"
the time and space she had created to delve into her own psyche.
The need to descend into the deeper layers of one's being in order to find
sustenance and direction echoes ancient feminine initiation rituals. From Inanna's
descent to the underworld to the ancient ritual of the Thesmophoria or the

initiation ceremonies at the Villa of Mysteries of Pompeii--all portray the archetypal

need women feel to pull back into themselves periodically and plumb their own
depths. Even as I write these words, I am aware of my own need to forego my
addiction to having a clean house or serving breakfast to my family (who are
perfectly capable of slicing their own bread and placing it in the toaster) in order to
write this piece. Whereas our culture overemphasizes the feminine virtue of
caretaking and being all things to everyone, female animals know when enough is
enough and are quite capable of turning their backs when the time is right. So,
too, the psyche seems to encourage women to claim the right to their own time
and process--to nurture themselves on a soul level.
Another woman, also struggling with issues of time and energy for herself versus
her relationship, work, and friendships, had the following dream:

I'm at a big party. The place is big and open and on two levels. There
are lots of people milling around. I am walking down some steps to the
lower level. I sense that [boyfriend] is in front of me in the distance. I
become self-conscious that I am following him around. I don't want to
be tagging along. Then I suddenly become conscious of the fact that I
am not tagging along. In fact, we had started out together and I had
gotten distracted and waylaid and now I am behind him trying to catch
up. This knowledge hits me like a revelation. I know that he really
wanted me alongside of him and that the feeling of tagging along is a
distortion on my part. Then I see lobster parts--I associate them with
eating lobster. It is a turtle--very small. I look at it. It is on its back and
it looks right in my eyes with an open softness that takes me in. It looks
directly at me and waves. I feel my heart melt. I am surprised and
deeply saddened that I didn't realize that creatures had such
consciousness and could connect with us so directly, eye to eye, heart
to heart. I look at the face and realize that it is very ancient. Just as I
am struck by this knowledge, I hear a voice clearly say: "Take nothing
from this earth that you do not really need." I see the earth as from a
distance. It is red and yellow--hot, dry, and somewhat depleted. I see
and feel the significance of my current actions.
In speaking about the dream, the woman began to realize the significance of the
shift in perception that it portrays: the realization that she has not been left behind

by her partner (but rather had temporarily lost track of him in her distraction). In
the process, she also got in touch with old feelings of abandonment that were
easily transferred onto the current relationship. But what of the vision of the turtle
and the parched earth that seem to emerge in response to her inward shift of
awareness in the relationship?
We know that turtles have the ability to withdraw into their own "house," which
they carry with them everywhere they go. They have an extremely slow
metabolism and move quite slowly, as well. Psychologically, a turtle might
symbolize the ability to withdraw into ourselves, to slow down, to feel our own
interiority and sense of boundaries (within our own shell). Perhaps the appearance
of the turtle in this woman's dream is an invitation to enter or reclaim an ancient
part of herself--one that she recognizes in a heartfelt way--that would allow her to
journey more deeply into the reality of her own being as separate from her
relationships. This invitation seems to be underscored by a warning--to take
nothing from the earth (the outer world) that she does not need, as there is
danger of some huge depletion. The tendency toward extraversion (the party) and
being too other-focused (concern about catching up to the partner) seems to want
to be balanced by some deep withdrawal into a feminine, more protected part of
Turning attention toward ourselves, nourishing and nurturing ourselves at a soul
level, honoring and accepting the rhythms and needs of our own psyches and
bodies--all these connect us, as women, to a more feminine ground within the
psyche. Many fairytales and myths show images of the feminine need for waiting,
gestating, brooding, reflecting, and so forth. So, too, animal dreams seem to guide
women toward living more harmoniously within their own feminine bodies.
Another dream, very beautiful and clear, came from a woman in her 50s. The
dream had occurred several years prior to her sharing it with me for my research.
Despite the fact that it was no longer "fresh," however, the power and poignancy
of this dream remained for her:

I am traveling on a long journey with a horse. The horse tells me that

our journey will take years, and that we will travel over varied terrain,
sometimes sleeping on rough ground, other times traveling in comfort.
At the end of the journey, he/I will give a spiritual discourse. The horse

tells me that he is physically sick and that the only danger to me in this
journey is that he may die before it is completed. And, indeed, he is
hospitalized but decides he really doesn't want to be in the hospital and
therefore escapes so that we can continue the journey.
As it turned out, this dream correctly anticipated (by at least a year) a subsequent
diagnosis that may, in fact, cut short this woman's time on earth. The fact that her
own body/dream mind could "know" something about a medical condition of which
she was unaware was very much a part of her experience with this dream. She
was especially moved by the realization that her horse, her own nature, was quite
wise and capable of relationship. As she described her habitual way of being, she
acknowledged that she had long taken her body for granted, denying its existence
and needs, focusing primarily on spiritual concerns and ideals. Coming into
awareness of her horse as a living, caring being was part of an overall shift toward
taking better care of herself physically--toward recognition of the value of her own
embodied life.
According to Regina Abt, "carrying and drawing man, the horse works for man. In
this function, it corresponds to the physical, instinctive energy, to sexuality, hence
to the entire domain of Mother Nature's body and instinct." (Abt, Bosch, &
MacKrella, 2000, pp. XX). It was precisely from this domain of "Mother Nature's
body and instinct" that this woman had felt herself cut off. Following the dream,
and the subsequent diagnosis, she was literally forced to bring more attention to
this area of life. In the process, she began to slowly soften her attitude toward the
rhythms and needs of her own female body. The experience of encountering her
inner horse--and sensing its dedication, wisdom, and love--was profoundly moving
for this woman and continues to inform her decisions and approach to life even
Perhaps one of the most striking discoveries for women who have placed great
value on head knowledge at the expense of instinct and feeling, is that the body
and its instincts actually carry wisdom and intuition. Far from being a dumb lump
of matter that needs to be starved or exhausted in order to conform to some ideal
standard, our bodies actually contain the life and intelligence we need to become
more authentically in tune with our feminine natures. In learning to trust our own
animal, we can feel ourselves guided into a more grounded relationship with our
deeper selves.

In my own life I have struggled a great deal with being able to stay close to my
impulses and intuitions--finding, instead, that I am often pulled into activities and
experiences that meet the demands of either internal or external pressures.
Identified for many years as a "father's daughter," it is difficult for me to put aside
the demands of a driven, animus-oriented consciousness to listen to the small
voice of my feelings and body. Not long ago, I had this dream:

I am in a class or lecture setting, when I notice two dogs leave the room
via the back door. I am aware that they have left, but tell no one.
Instead, I stay where I am, pretending not to "know" that they have
gone. Later, I see an old friend. I expect her to criticize me for not
alerting someone to the fact that the two dogs had wandered off
somewhere in the building. Instead, she looks directly at me and asks
"How do you really feel?"
Barbara Hannah suggests that dogs are domesticated and dependent upon us in
every way. In other words, they live quite close to us and often have a strong eros
attachment to and from us, as well. Says Hannah: "The dog instinct has an
unerring flair . . . . We must trust it in the dark unconscious, for it sees far better
than we do there and its interests are usually identical to our own" (p. X).
To my view, dogs are utterly faithful: They bond with us and will travel great
distances to return to us if separated in some way. Psychologically, the image of
the dog, with its unconditional love and fidelity, suggests precisely the sort of
energy that is required to "sniff" out our direction in life, to live close to ourselves
as who we truly are, to follow and love our own journey without regard for
collective pressure and conformity. In my dream, then, the fact that the dogs slip
out the door while I remain seated, unwilling to either follow or comment upon
their disappearance, suggests a tendency in me to place more value on
appearances (in this case, some classroom "knowledge" perhaps) than on following
where my energy or attention really wants to go. This is underscored by the friend
asking "How do you really feel?"
To remain without the dogs is essentially a betrayal of my own nature. The vitality
or feeling has left a situation, but I am unwilling to follow, choosing instead to
pretend as though everything is "fine." I believe that this is exactly the type of
position that women find themselves in when they have grown separate from their

own true natures. Their dogs have run off, but they continue to will themselves on,
At this point, the dream acts in much the same way as a dog might: It comes as
an instinctive response to a situation that is out of balance. Our own nature rises
up, sticks its nose in our face, and says "Look here, don't you see what's
happening?" If things are really out of whack, the dream might portray our animal
as attacking or harming us in some way (or being harmed). On the other hand, the
dream might come with a powerful numinosity (as with the woman's horse dream)
that acts like an invitation back to what is true and meaningful in the life.
The specificity and uniqueness of how each of us will reconnect to our own nature
are as varied as animal imagery itself. Although I had space to write about only a
small number of dreams, in actuality I received a great deal more--dreams of
kittens, lions, snakes, birds, ancient unrecognized animals, domestic animals, wild
animals, and imaginary animals. In every instance, the dreams and attendant
conversations opened onto a landscape of surprise and wonder, as we found
ourselves catching a glimpse of the mysterious currents of natural life running
beneath daily experience.
The opportunity to sit with women and their animal dreams, as well as to work
carefully with my own dreams of animals, has been deeply meaningful. Each time,
I was reminded of the power and potency of the deep feminine and its connection
to body and instinct. Each time, I was brought into a closer relation with my own
sense of femaleness and its corresponding echo in the dreams and lives of the
women who were gracious enough to entrust their stories to me. As Russack
suggests, "The reality that comes from sharing the power of the animal and the
dream world makes our life feel natural." I am enormously grateful for all the
many moments of "feeling natural" that we were able to share.
Futher Reading
Abt, R., Bosch, I., & MacKrell, V. (2000). Dream child: Creation and new life in the
dreams of pregnant women. Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Daimon Verlag.
Griffin, S. (1978). Woman and nature: The roaring inside her. New York: Harper
Hannah, B. (1992). The cat, dog, horse lectures. Wilmette, IL: Chiron.
Hillman, J., & McLean, M. (1997). Dream animals. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Jung, C.G. (1976). The visions seminars. (2 vols.). Zurich: Spring.

Russack, N. (2002). Animal guides in life, myth, and dreams: An analyst's
notebook. Toronto: Inner City Books.
Williams, T. (1993). Animal speak: The spiritual and magical powers of creatures
great and small. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.