Animals in Mythology

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Animals in Mythology

Theme Overview

Since the beginning of human history, people have lived in close contact with animals—usually as hunters and farmers—and have developed myths and legends about them. All kinds of creatures, from fierce leopards to tiny spiders, play important roles in mythology. A myth can give special meaning or extraordinary qualities to common animals such as frogs and bears. However, other creatures found in myths, such as many-headed monsters, dragons , and unicorns , never existed in the real world.

Major Myths

Many myths explore relationships between humans and animals. People may talk with animals, fight them, or even marry them. Sometimes animals perform services for humans, including guiding them through the underworld or helping them complete tasks. One large group of myths involving animals concerns transformations, or changes, between human and animal states. Other myths focus on the close connection between people and animals.

Myths of Transformation A princess kisses an enchanted frog and he becomes a handsome prince with whom, the fairy tale tells us, she will live “happily ever after.” Such transformations, in which people turn into animals or animals turn into people, take place in myths and legends from around the world. Transformation myths are about crossing the boundaries that set humans apart from the rest of the world.

Native American mythologies describe a time in the past when the boundaries between people and animals were less sharply drawn and beings freely changed form. This is known as shape shifting. Bears were especially close to humans, and in some Native American stories, bears appear as humans wearing coats made of bearskins. The Tsimshian (pronounced CHIM-shee-an) people of southern Alaska and the northern coast of British Columbia tell about Asdiwal, a young man who follows a white bear up a mountain to the sky. He discovers that the beast is actually a beautiful woman dressed in a bear skin, and he marries her.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that the gods could blur the boundaries between different classes of beings. Ovid's Metamorphoses is a collection of Greek and Roman legends about mortals whom the gods turned into animals and plants. Both Chinese and Slavic mythologies include tales of people who, under some evil force, turn into werewolves.

The Scots have stories about selkies (pronounced SEL-keez), imaginary sea creatures that resemble seals and take on human form, marry men and women, and then return to the sea. In fact, the theme of animal wives or husbands comes up over and over again in mythology. Native Americans tell of girls marrying bears and men marrying deer. Eskimo and Chinese tales mention beautiful, seductive women who turn out to be foxes in disguise. In one Eskimo story, a woman enters the home of a hunter while he is out. She cooks for him and stays for some time, but eventually she puts on her fox skin and disappears. The well-known fable of Beauty and the Beast is a modern version of the myth of the animal husband whose beastly form cannot disguise his noble soul.

Sometimes transformations are forced on people by sorcerers, or magicians, or as punishment for offending the gods. When people voluntarily seek transformation, however, the change can be a sign of power. In many societies, individuals called shamans were thought to have supernatural abilities, including the power to communicate with animals or to transform themselves into animals. South American shamans were said to be able to change themselves into jaguars.

Connections Myths, legends, and folktales often highlight the close links between people and animals. West Africans and Native Americans, for example, believe that each person has a magical or spiritual connection to a particular animal that can act as a guardian, a source of wisdom, or an inspiration. Among the Plains Indians of North America, individuals had to discover their spirit animal through a mystical experience called a vision quest. Some Native American religions in Central America include nagualism (pronounced NA-wal-ism), the idea that each person's life is linked to an animal or object called a nagual. If the nagual is hurt or killed, the person suffers or dies. One myth says the naguals fought on the side of the Native Americans against invading Spaniards centuries ago.

Sometimes a family, a clan, or a whole society feels a special attachment to a certain kind of animal, usually one they consider to be an ancestor or protector. This connection, called totemism, defines social groups and their behavior. Hunters are sometimes forbidden to kill their group's totem animal, for example. Among the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, the beaver, the eagle, the raven, and the killer whale are all associated with particular clans. People display their identity and status with totem poles, which are tall standing logs carved with images of mythical animals. Totem poles mark village entrances, burial sites of chieftains, and the entrance of each clan house.

In many societies, people believed that shamans had animal helpers who guided them through the supernatural realm. This idea is similar to the common image of a witch's “familiar”—an animal, usually a black cat, that gives the witch certain powers. Traditional African religions had secret societies that performed rituals that involved wearing leopard skins. The men in these secret societies believed they took on a leopard's strength by performing these rituals. Animals offer helpful advice to ordinary people in many legends. Generally, those who ignore the animal's advice will fail to achieve their goal.

Many cultures have legends of human children raised by animals. The Romans claimed that a wolf mother had nurtured their legendary ancestors, Romulus and Remus. The story of Tarzan, who was raised by African apes, is a modern version of this ancient myth created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the early twentieth century.

Roles in Myth and Legend Animals fill a wide variety of roles in myths and legends. Many stories explain the part that animals played in creating the world or in bringing fire , tools, or farming skills to humans. Animal stories also tell how things came to be the way they are or how animals got their appearance or characteristics. A story of the Seneca Indians, for example, says that the chipmunk's stripes were originally bear scratches.

Gods, Creators, and Heroes In some mythological traditions, the gods take on animal form. The ancient Egyptians portrayed their gods as animals or as humans with the heads of animals. Bast (pronounced BAST), for example, was a cat goddess, and Horus (pronounced HOHR-uhs) a hawk god. Although supernatural animals such as Pegasus , the winged horse of Greek mythology , were not gods themselves, they were often created, given power, or protected by the gods.

Some myths associate animals with the creation of the world. Asian and Native North American traditions place the earth on the back of an enormous turtle. Myths of Africa and elsewhere tell that the earth was formed from or supported by the body of a huge serpent. Some legends say that the earth's features, such as lakes or canyons, were carved by the digging of mythic beasts.

Animals are linked to human origins as well as to the origin of the world. Many Native American clans believed they were descended from animals, and the Yao people of southern China traced their origins to a dog ancestor. Animals also helped shape human existence by acting as messengers to the gods. An African myth tells that the gods sent two animals to Earth, one with a message of eternal life, one bringing death. The messenger of death arrived first, which explains why people die. The Pima Indians of North America say that a rattlesnake brought death into the world.

Animals can play a positive role as well, bringing people the gifts of civilization. Various African myths, for example, tell of a dog, chimpanzee, wasp, and praying mantis bringing fire to people. The Bambara people of Mali believe that a sacred antelope taught people to farm long ago. Zuni and Navajo myths show animals behaving heroically on behalf of people. In Chinese legends, monkeys perform brave deeds. In Mayan myth, they possess artistic talent, particularly in writing and sculpture.

Symbols Animals sometimes appear in myths and legends as symbols of certain characteristics they are believed to represent. Common phrases such as “sly as a fox” or “brave as a lion” are everyday examples of the practice of using animals to represent human qualities. The dog often appears as a symbol of loyalty in myths and legends, and the tiger stands for power and vitality. In Celtic mythology , the boar symbolized war, and its image was carved on helmets and coins. Many cultures have stories in which animal characters representing human qualities present moral lessons.

Animals can also be symbols of the gods. People traditionally saw owls as wise; therefore, Athena , the Greek goddess of wisdom, was often shown with an owl. Likewise, dolphins can represent the presence of the sea god Poseidon.

Tricksters Many myths feature animal tricksters , mischievous and unpredictable beings who use deceit, magic, or cleverness to fool others. Although some tricksters are just playing pranks, others act in harmful ways. Occasionally, the tricksters themselves wind up being tricked or trapped. Their limited magical powers may serve to show off the greater powers of the gods.

In Native American mythology , the best-known trickster is the coyote, who has the power to take on human form. One of his favorite tricks involves masquerading as a hunter in order to sleep with the hunter's wife. Many African legends feature a trickster spider, tortoise, or hare that uses cunning to outwit larger or more powerful animals. African slaves brought tales of the trickster hare to the United States, where it eventually became popular as the character Brer Rabbit.

Monsters From the great sea beast called Leviathan (pronounced luh-VYE-uh-thuhn) in the Bible to the mutant lizard Godzilla of modern science fiction movies, monstrous animals appear in many kinds of myths. Monsters represent our darkest fears: chaos, or disorder, and uncontrollable destruction. A monster is more than just a large or fierce animal. It is something abnormal, something that breaks the laws of society and the natural world.

An animal may be monstrous simply due to its abnormal size. The most dreadful monsters, however, do not correspond to anything known in the real world. Often they are hybrids, mixtures of different species, which represents another kind of blurring of natural boundaries. Dragons, for example, are usually shown as a snake or reptile with bat's wings and sometimes with a head resembling that of a horse. In some traditions, dragons have multiple heads or the ability to change shape.

Other hybrid creatures include the griffin, a creature with the head, forepart, and wings of an eagle and the body, hind legs, and tail of a lion. Quetzalcoatl (pronounced keht-sahl-koh-AHT-1), a god of Maya, Tol-tec, and Aztec mythology , is represented as a plumed serpent, a part bird, part snake hybrid. In addition, the pygmies of Central Africa tell stories about encounters with a living dinosaur, a beast the size of an elephant with a long neck and brownish-gray skin.

Some hybrids are human and animal combinations. The centaur (pronounced SEN-tawr) is half man, half horse; the Echidna (pronounced i-KID-nuh) is a snake woman; the manticore (pronounced MAN-ti-kor) is part human, part lion, part dragon; and the satyr (pronounced SAY-tuhr) is a man-like being with the lower body of a goat. In mythology, hybrid creatures often have qualities that are split between good and bad, much like their appearance.

Common Animals in Mythology Certain animals appear frequendy in the myths and legends of different cultures, often with different meanings. Snakes or serpents, for example, can be helpful or harmful. The Romans regarded snake spirits as protection for their homes. The Hopi Indians, who live in a dry part of the American Southwest, have stories about a water snake that is associated with springs. Because the snake sheds its skin as it grows, some cultures see it as a symbol of rebirth and associate it with healing.

In the Bible, however, the snake is a treacherous creature that introduces Adam and Eve to sin. A Japanese myth tells of a huge snake with eight heads that holds a princess prisoner. Snakes and snake-like dragons play a similar evil guardian role in many other tales.

The bull is another animal that appears in many myths. It can represent either tremendous energy and power or frightening strength. In Celtic mythology, the bull was a sign of good fortune and fertility. In several Greek legends, bulls were associated with death and destruction. At different times, the hero Theseus (pronounced THEE-see-uhs) killed both a wild bull that was destroying farmers' fields and the Minotaur , a dangerous half-man, half-bull monster. Among Native Americans who traditionally survived by hunting buffalo, myths focus on the buffalo's fertility and generosity. The buffalo is also said to control love affairs and determine how many children a woman will bear. To the Celtic people, bulls stood for strength and power. Irish mythology tells of two famous beasts, the White-Horned Bull of Connacht (pronounced KAWHN-ut) and the Brown Bull of Ulster. The rulers of Connacht and Ulster each boasted of the size of their bulls; however, some said that the gods had sent the bulls to Ireland to cause trouble. Eventually, the two bulls met in a fierce battle that raged across all of Ireland. The Brown Bull won but then died. The death of the two magical bulls brought peace between Connacht and Ulster.

Dogs almost always appear in myths and legends in a positive light. Native American stories generally portray the dog as the symbol of friendship and loyalty. In Greek and Roman mythology , dogs often acted as guardians. The three-headed dog Cerberus (pronounced SUR-ber-uhs), for example, guarded the entrance to the underworld. Many cultures associated dogs with death as well as with protection. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs of Mexico believed that dogs guided the dead on their journey through the afterlife. Occasionally, dogs appear in negative roles, such as the hellhound Garm in Norse mythology or the fighting dogs belonging to the Greek goddess Hecate (pronounced HEK-uh-tee).

The goat is another animal with positive and negative qualities. Male goats are negatively linked with dangerous or uncontrolled sexual lust, while female goats appear as mother figures. In Greek mythology, a she-goat nursed the god Zeus when he was a baby boy. Goat images in mythology are often associated with sexuality and fertility.

Foxes in mythology are usually quick, cunning, and sneaky. Japanese legends tell of fox spirits called kitsune (pronounced keet-SOO-neh) who can turn themselves into people, are often deceitful, and have the powers of witches. In another example of the two-sided nature of animals, Japanese mythology also portrays the fox as the messenger of Inari (pronounced in-AHR-ee), the god of rice. The ancient Romans regarded foxes as fire demons, perhaps because of their reddish coats. In Christian mythology, the fox is associated with the devil.

The frog appears in many transformation stories, most likely because it goes through a transformation of its own, from tadpole to frog. Another animal that undergoes a physical transformation is the butterfly, which begins life as a caterpillar, rests in a cocoon, and emerges as a butterfly to spread its wings. The Greek word for butterfly, psyche, is also the word for soul, and in Greek mythology the butterfly was the symbol of the soul's transformation after the death of the body.

Mythological Animals in Context

The fact that animals play a role in the mythologies of all cultures demonstrates their universal importance to human society. Animals were and are an important source of food, labor, and even companionship to people everywhere. Domesticated animals such as one finds on a farm, in particular, were the backbone of agricultural societies, while more nomadic hunter societies relied on wild animals for food and for their skins. Although modern cultures continue to use animals for the same purposes as they did thousands of years ago, ancient cultures relied heavily on animals for survival, and lived closer to wild animals than people do today. This heavy reliance on, and physical closeness to, animals, resulted in a rich oral tradition in which animals both help and harm humans. They provide people with food, but they can also be dangerous. Animals represent the mystery and power of the natural world, which has the ability to create and destroy. Animals may serve as stand-ins for humans or human characteristics, as in the African and Native American trickster tales or the fables of the Greek storyteller Aesop. In some legends, animals perform heroic deeds or act as mediators or go-betweens for gods and humans. They may also be the source of the wisdom and power of a shaman, a person who has contact with the spiritual realm and uses magic to heal the members of his tribe.

Mythological Animals in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Mythological animals have always been a popular subject in art and literature, perhaps because they are often unlike any other creatures seen in the real world. This fascination with mythological creatures continues to this day, with modern fantasy stories such as C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1955), and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books (1997-2007) all containing creatures like those found in ancient myths.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Cultures typically developed myths around animals that were common to the area in which the people lived. For example, Native Americans developed myths about coyotes, deer, and bears, while Egyptians developed myths about crocodiles and cats. If you were to write a myth about an animal that represented your culture, which animal would you choose and what would the story be about?

SEE ALSO Anansi; Basilisk; Brer Rabbit; Centaurs; Cerberus; Dragons; George, St.; Gorgons; Griffins; Leviathan; Manticore; Minotaur; Pegasus; Sacrifice; Satyrs; Serpents and Snakes; Tricksters; Unicorns; Witches and Wizards

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