THE SECRET SYMBOLS OF THE ANIMAL REALMAdded: 09 June 2017
For fans of horror movies, the bat has become an animal to be feared; the vampire bat is a satanic agent that sucks the soul from the body along with its lifeblood. However, there is more to the bat than purely negative symbolism.
In China, the ideogram for good luck, “fu,” sounds the same as the word for “bat” and so the animal is a lucky charm. Some bat caves in the East have remained unchanged for thousands of years; the bats that live there are revered as sacred animals. The nocturnal nature of the bat has given it some negative associations. It is symbolic of the night devouring the day; the bat is said to swallow the light because it wakes at dusk, the time between day and night. Christian belief, too, regards the bat with suspicion because it is seen as an incarnation of Satan.
However, the nocturnal nature of the bat makes it, like the owl, a creature that has access to hidden knowledge and secret information, able to detect things in the hours of darkness that are not accessible to diurnal creatures. Before echolocation was recognized and understood, the bat’s ability to find its way about was a source of great intrigue, adding to the mystique of the animal.
For the Celts, “bear” was synonymous with “warrior.” The name of the greatest Celtic king, Arthur, shares the same root as the name for bear-“artos”-meaning “bearlike.” This warrior-bear attribute was not restricted to the male; in the kingdom of the Gauls, there was a ferocious warrior-queen called Artio. The Greek Goddess of the Hunt, Artemis, also shares the bear’s name.
The bear is an earthy creature, and in Northern European pre-Christian society, it represented worldly power and authority, the equivalent of the lion in other societies. The bear is associated with the Moon. As the Moon disappears for a time, so does the bear, when he hibernates during the winter months. Diana/Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt (who also has close links to the Moon), is often depicted with a bear, and can shape-shift into the form of a bear. The constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor-the Great Bear and the Little Bear-are the stellar incarnation of this Goddess. These constellations are always visible in the northern hemisphere, and so are effective markers for the seasons.
The Finno-Ugric people made graveyards for bears until relatively recently. They laid out the bones of the bears very carefully, so that the animal could return from the dead. The power of the bear is borne out by the fact that the actual word for the animal was seldom used, replaced with other terms such as “the brown one” or “bruin,” “the old fellow” or “honey eater.” This is because the power inherent in names was such that to say the name of the animal was equivalent to invoking its spirit. Native Americans have a specific kind of witchdoctor called a Bear Doctor, able to take on the form of a grizzly to vanquish the tribal enemies.
Typically, the beaver is a symbol of industry, renowned for its building skills and often used as a logo for these reasons. We say that a busy person works like a beaver. However, there are other aspects to the animal. It has God-like status for some Native American tribes, and its bones were taken special care of, kept in a secret place for a year and then buried with due ceremony to bring good fortune to the hunt. Because the beaver carries with it a strong sense of home, family, and domesticity, for Native Americans it has all the instinctive qualities of the female.
There is a curious legend about a beaver hunted for the valuable medicine allegedly contained in its testicles. Rather than be captured, the beaver bit off his own testicles and threw them in front of the hunter, thus rendering himself valueless to the predator who was, nevertheless, free to take the object he desired. This peculiar anecdote gave early Christians the imagery they needed to make the beaver a symbol of chastity and purity, willing to cast off all impurities in the face of a Devil who then departed, thwarted.
The importance of the bee is reflected in its appearance on coins from Ephesus dating back to the fifth century BC, and in Minoan symbolism where the Goddess appears as half woman, half bee. In Egypt, the bee was the symbol of the Lower Kingdom. The bee itself is symbolic of industry and mutual cooperation; however, there is also a spiritual side to this insect. One of the symbols of Aphrodite was a golden honeycomb, and it was believed that the souls of her priestesses inhabited the bodies of bees. These priestesses were called “Melissae,” a word that has the same root as that of honey and bees. Male counterparts equating to drones, called “Essenes,” accompanied the Melissae. Essenes were eunuchs.
Because bees produce wax, they are frequently linked to places of Christian worship such as abbeys, since the monks and nuns used the wax to make candles for the church. As with many winged creatures, the bee is able to communicate in ways alien to human beings. The bee performs an elaborate dance to indicate the whereabouts of a particularly rich crop of flowers. Bees are believed to have magical powers to foresee the future, and are considered by many to be deities in their own right. It is perhaps for this reason it has been customary, for hundreds of years, for the beekeeper to tell the bees all the news of the household, particularly of births or deaths; a swarm of bees was regarded as carrying the soul of the deceased away with it.
Because bees feed on the nectar of flowers, and therefore fundamentally on sunlight, they are agents of transmutation, making something from nothing. They construct their honeycomb from thousands of perfectly symmetrical hexagons, and in turn, this structure contains the many secrets of the Flower of Life and of the six-pointed star or hexagram.
The marshy wetlands that the buffalo inhabits are universally acknowledged to be “transitional” places, territory that sits somewhere between the seen and unseen worlds. Therefore, the buffalo carries with it a significant amount of symbolism as a creature that has two hooves in the material world of man, and the other two in the spirit world of the Gods and the ancestors.
The white buffalo comes with huge significance attached to it for Native Americans, due no doubt because the appearance of such an animal is an incredibly rare occurrence; odds of one in a million have been quoted. To them, the appearance of such an animal is on a par with the reappearance of Christ. The place where a white buffalo is born is liable to become a focus of pilgrimage. People come to give gifts to the animal because of its sacred significance as a harbinger of peace, plenty, and good fortune.
The sacred stature of the bull dates back to at least 3000 BC, when early Hebrews carved the effigy of a God, called El, who appeared in the shape of a bull, at the end of their ritual staffs.
The bull is the archetype of brute masculinity, fecundity, tyranny, and ferocity. The bull also has its part to play in the story of Hercules and his monumental labors. A bull that is wreaking havoc on Crete tests Hercules’ huge strength. He strangles the bull into submission, and it is shipped away to Athens.
Bull sacrifice is such an ancient rite that any definitive origins are uncertain, and although in the Ellora Caves there is a painting of the Goddess Kali slaying a bull, its ritual slaughter is far older than the purported age of the painting (c.AD 500–1000) suggests. To ancient man, the bull was such a supremely powerful animal that being splashed in its blood conferred immortality. In Rome, a bull cult introduced from Asia Minor in the second century BC inspired a ritual called the taurobolium. The initiate stood in a trench, immediately below a board with holes pierced in it. A bull, standing on top of the trench, had its throat slit, and the hot blood gushed down through the slats, drenching the devotee. This gory ritual was the reenactment of a Mithraic legend about the bull’s blood as the origins of all life, and so rejuvenated the body and soul.
A remnant of the earlier bull sacrifice still takes place today, in the Spanish bullfights that have become synonymous with the country and its people. This particular ritual is a throwback to the same Mithraic legend as the taurobolium. This legend says the bull was the first creature on Earth. Mithras killed the bull and all other living things sprang from the blood that was spilled on the ground. Many of the oldest bullrings in Spain are on the sites of former Mithraic temples or at least are very close to them. Spain is not the only country to have bullrings; they also exist in South America and France. The bull is immortalized in the night sky, being one of the symbols of the astrological Zodiac in the form of the constellation Taurus.
Unlike the bee that goes from flower to flower with a great sense of purpose and intention, the butterfly seems to flutter about quite aimlessly, no great ambition lurking behind its beauty.
In view of the fact that the Greek word for butterfly, psyche, is the same as that for soul, it is interesting to note that winged creatures are universally thought to be able to communicate with other worlds and higher powers. There was a belief that human souls incarnated into butterflies between lifetimes. The connection between the spirit and the butterfly reaches across the world-from the Celts, who believed that the butterfly was a human soul in search of a mother, to the Aztecs, who believed that the last breath exhaled by a dying person took the form of a butterfly.
The lifecycle of the butterfly is highly visible at every stage, making it a symbol of transformation. Some Native Americans-particularly the Blackfoot-believe that the butterfly brings dreams. If a Blackfoot Indian paints a butterfly onto the wall of a tribal lodge, it is an indicator that any other patterns painted or drawn there were not simply the work of a man alone, but were inspired by the Great Spirit, for whom the painter acted merely as a conduit.
The camel has a disdainful expression that some might see as a sign of a bad temper. Despite its truculent demeanor and stubborn reputation, the camel is invaluable to man, the only creature that can carry him across a desert. A symbol of sobriety and temperance and commonly known as “the ship of the desert,” the camel can survive for long periods without drinking and has been used by man for thousands of years to help him travel to otherwise inaccessible places.
Since the camel protects man on his perilous journey across parched land, the allusion of it as a guardian is implied in the Persian Holy Scriptures. In the Avesta, winged camels watch over the Earthly paradise.
St. John the Baptist, among other ascetics, chose another aspect of the camel as inspiration for his unworldly lifestyle. The creature’s austerity meant that the coarse material made from its hair provided a suitable cloth for robes.
Even the most common household moggie has a mystique about it and the potential for the supernatural powers that man has ascribed to cats for thousands of years. Typically, in Western civilizations, the cat (particularly if it is black) belongs to the witch; it is her familiar, her companion, and her alter ego. As such, the cat shares magical secrets and arcane knowledge which, of course, she cannot explain to mere mortals, since they don’t speak her language. There is an unspoken communication between the witch and her grimalkin that transcends any language used by other creatures.
The Ancient Egyptians regarded the cat so highly that they revered it as a deity. Bast was the cat goddess, and mortal cats whose fur was of three different colors, or who had eyes of different shades, were honored in particular for their Bast-like appearance; it is not just the black cat that holds power. Egyptian priests believed that cats carried the magnetic forces of nature and so close proximity to the creatures enabled them to access these powers. If a cat died a natural death in the home, the Egyptians would shave their eyebrows as a sign of mourning.
However, the cat does not have such an honorable reputation everywhere, for example in the Buddhist tradition. Because it was absent at the physical death and spiritual liberation of the Buddha, it is viewed with suspicion as a base, earthly creature, lacking respect. The only other creature that was not there was the serpent. The link between the cat and the serpent comes in the Kabbalah, too, and also in Christianity; in pictures where the cat appears at the feet of Christ it carries the same negative imagery as the snake.
Although black cats are the archetypal good-luck symbol in the West, in Islam the opposite is true. Cats are regarded favorably unless they are black, in which case they are viewed with great suspicion since djinn can transform themselves into black cats. In the Western tradition of cat lore, the animal has nine lives, whereas its Eastern cousin has to manage with only seven.
The first literary mention of the cicada is in the Iliad, reputedly written in the seventh or eighth century BC, where Homer calls them “sage chiefs exempt from war.” This is likely to refer to the peaceful and melodious sound that they make.
The sound of cicadas chirruping in the warm evening air is very beautiful, and it is not surprising that the insect has musical links, some of which explain the provenance of the cicada. There is an Italian myth that the cicada was created by the Gods after the death of a mortal woman who was an exceptional singer, since when she died the entire world seemed empty and bereft without her music.
Like other winged creatures, cicadas represent disembodied souls, and are thus a symbol of immortality. In China it represents the spirit as it disengages itself from the body at the moment of death, and so a carving of the insect was placed on the mouth of the dying person to hasten the process. For the same reason the cicada is depicted on funerary items. However, because the insect seems to respond to the calls of the farmers in the paddy fields, it is a fortunate omen, an emblem of wishes and dreams that come true.
Because of its milk that is a staple food for many human beings, the cow is arguably one of the most useful animals in the world. It was one of the first animals domesticated by humans, and its symbolic importance is rich. It is emblematic of fertility, abundance, wealth, the universal Mother, and of rebirth. The cow is also a gentle and compliant creature.
It is not surprising that the cow is universally thought of as a mother figure. In Egypt the cow was personified as Ahet, the mother of the Sun itself. To make themselves fertile Egyptian women wore amulets of the Goddess Hathor, with the head of a cow, in her guise as Creatrix. In Europe, too, the cow was the mother-ancestor of all living things, called Audumla, the milch-cow. In Greek myth, one of the names for the Great Cow was Europa, which means “full Moon.” The stars were said to be the children of Europa. Curiously, the cow was also considered a psychopomp, a creature able to conduct the souls of the dead to the Underworld. The psychopomp aspect of the cow is still celebrated in the Nepali festival called the Gai Jatra or cow festival. In a boisterous celebration, every family that has lost a member during the course of the year has to take part in a procession, leading a cow, or, if no animal is available, then a child dressed in a cow costume is considered to be a fair substitute. The cow is believed to guide the soul on its final journey, including a voyage through the Milky Way, the constellations of stars said to be the milk splashed by the Great Cow that was the Mother of the Universe. The cow as a sacred animal is a fundamental part of Hindu iconography. In India the cow is so revered, and treated so gently, that it often causes a traffic hazard as it ambles along busy city roads. There are several reasons for the sacred status given to the creature. Not only does the Hindu faith have respect for all animals (vegetarianism is a tenet of the faith), but the God Krishna was a cowherd for a time, and one of his names is Bala Gopala, “the child who protects the cows.” Hindu deities rule over each and every part of the cow. During times of famine, the cow is far more useful as a creature that can produce limitless amounts of milk, than as a dead beast that would provide meat for a limited period only.
The coyote shares many of the characteristics of the fox; it is the trickster God, the miracle-worker, the shape-shifter, and as such plays an important part in Native American belief. Because coyotes can be heard howling at night, they are often associated with the Moon. The coyote is one of the sacred animals that can open the door to the other world and it acts as a messenger between this world and the next. The coyote is sometimes held responsible for all the evils of the world, and in the countries where it makes its home it is generally a symbol of bad luck.
When Isis tried to reconstruct the body of her murdered husband Osiris, there was one part missing. The Nile crab, named the Oxyrhynchid, had devoured his penis. So in Egypt the crab was a cursed creature. Elsewhere, the crab is closely associated with the Moon; their growth is affected by the lunar cycles and it is possible that their appearance at the edge of the sea as the tides turned would have promulgated the link.
The crab appears as the Zodiacal sign of Cancer, looming over the horizon at the time of the summer solstice and another reminder of the turning of the tides of the seasons as the sun starts its descending path.
One of the traditional pet names for the dog, Fido, comes from the same Latin root as the word “fidelity,” and the trust and faith that a dog and its owner invest in one another is a defining feature of their relationship. For thousands of years man and dog have been close companions, living together, working together, and forming a close bond of mutual understanding. Every society has its dog mythology, its deities, and its symbols. The dog is often the companion of a God, too, in addition to being a psychopomp, guiding the souls of the dead to the next world. On a more earthly level the animal can be a guide dog or a guard dog, directing and protecting, one of the greatest allies known to humankind; man’s best friend, indeed.
The dog’s keen sense of smell takes on almost supernatural connotations, a skill denied humans and something that cannot be seen or detected by us. This is part of the reason why the dog acts as mediator between the seen and unseen worlds, seemingly gifted the powers of second sight and psychic abilities. The Egyptians were very keen that their corpses would smell as sweet as possible so as not to offend the sensitive nose of the jackal-headed God Anubis, who shepherded these souls through to their next dwelling place.
While some witches have cats as familiars, others have their dogs, in honor of the Goddesses of Death and their hounds. Hecate, the Goddess of the Underworld and the Queen of Witches, had her dogs; like the Devil, she haunted crossroads, her pack of hounds at her feet. Latterly Sirius Black, Harry Potter’s shape-shifting godfather, keeps a close eye on his charge by changing into a great black dog. Sirius, of course, is named after the Dog Star.
It is a telling sign among humans that often the animals with the greatest cultural and symbolic significance are the ones that it is considered wrong to eat. The majority of the world sees the eating of dog flesh as a great taboo.
The dolphin has become ubiquitous as a symbol of the so-called New Age, due in part to its benevolently smiling appearance, its intelligence, its ability to communicate verbally with others of its kind, and the fact that it’s a mammal that is comfortable in an environment normally reserved for fishes.
The name comes from the Greek delphinos, meaning “womb.” The name of the Delphic Oracle where the priestesses gave their prophecies holds the same root; the temple was dedicated to Apollo, who arrived at Delphi in the shape of a dolphin. For thousands of years the dolphin has been considered a helpful friend to humankind. It also acts as a psychopomp or guide to the other world. This is a fitting role for the dolphin given its ability to exist in a dimension alien to humans and because it has been seen to save those who might otherwise have drowned. The dolphin is symbolic of metamorphosis. There is a Greek legend about some pirates who, after capturing Dionysus and tying him up, fell overboard and turned into dolphins.
In its role as the saver of souls, the dolphin is compared to Christ and also to the Roman Sun God Mithras, whose worship was superceded by that of the new God of Christianity.
To call someone a “silly ass” is a derogatory term which implies that the ass is unintelligent; it is fair to say that the donkey does have a reputation of being obstinately stupid and, fair or not, this overarching quality forms a significant part of its symbolic meaning. Stupidity is a dangerous characteristic and this may well be why the donkey’s reputation is that of a dangerous, almost demonic creature.
The ass is also a symbol of lewdness, carnality, and the lower sexual urges. There is a Greek myth in which Apollo turns the ears of King Midas into those of an ass because he eschewed the formal temple music in favor of Pan’s pipes, inferring that the King would rather enjoy sensual pleasures than take a more enlightened delight in the harmony of the spirit and the higher mind. The donkey has long been seen as the poor man’s horse and so it symbolizes poverty and humility; Christ rode on the back of an ass when he entered Jerusalem, and his parents Mary and Joseph traveled in the same way.
The fish lives in the depths that are synonymous with the Underworld, and it has access to secret places that are forbidden to humankind. Water is closely linked to the womb, and the idea of birth and rebirth, and so the fish takes on this meaning too. Because it quite literally has access to hidden depths, the fish is party to secret and sacred information-the Vedas, which are said to contain all arcane knowledge, were delivered by a fish acting as the avatar of Vishnu. Similarly for the Celts, the salmon was a fish associated with wisdom and hidden knowledge. Christ chose from fishermen for his disciples, and early Christians, who had to keep their religion a secret, identified one another by a piscine symbol called the Ichthys.
Fish can lay vast numbers of eggs and therefore are symbolic of fertility and life. In the East, a pair of fish is used as a lucky charm in wedding ceremonies. There is an astrological sign that features two fish swimming in opposite directions-Pisces-and in Buddhism, a pair of golden fish is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols.
Wiliness, slyness and cunning, craftiness, trickery and guile, and yet wisdom too: these are all the qualities that are generally accepted throughout the world as belonging to the fox. An intelligent animal, Reynard, the famous fox that appears in fairy tales, has human characteristics and often converses with men and women in their own language. The first recorded instance of hunting the fox with hounds is from the sixteenth century, but the tradition is supposed to be much older. Although the animal was hunted for its beautiful pelt, the actual chase often turned into an escapade that resulted in a slaughter so bloody that the fur itself was rendered completely useless. The reason for the persecution of this creature, beyond mere straightforward culling, remains a mystery, although it may stem from early Christian belief that made the fox synonymous with that most cunning of tricksters, the Devil.
Because foxes live in holes and tunnels in the ground, they are attached to the Earth element and accordingly are the totem animals of several earth deities. The fox is also the symbol of the seducer or, most dangerously, the seductress; the “foxy lady” is aptly described.
The fox is the totem animal of Dionysus, whose seductively foxy priestesses wore fox skins.
In fairy tales, all it takes for an ugly frog to transform into a handsome prince is a single kiss from a beautiful princess. In this story, the frog is a symbol of transformation. The frog is a transformational creature in real life, too, and because the life cycle of this amphibious creature is carried out in so visible a manner it is a reminder of resurrection and the cycle of life, of birth, death, and rebirth. Egyptian mummies were wrapped with amulets depicting the image of the frog as a charm to help the person’s soul to be reborn. The frog’s links with water are obvious, and it often appears on rain charms. In Ancient China, the frog’s image appeared on the drums that were played to summon thunder, the herald of much-needed rain. In Egypt, the frog symbolized fertility (because of its enthusiastic mating habits and abundant spawn) and so they were sacred to Hekit, the Midwife of the Gods.
“Frog” has become the English-speakers’ nickname for the French, who notoriously eat frogs’ legs as a delicacy. Indeed, before the French ruling classes adopted the Fleur de Lys as their emblem, the frog was France’s national symbol.
Horny in all senses of the word, the goat is arguably most infamous as a symbol of lust and procreation, a reputation gained in no small part from the influence of the so-called Goat of Mendes (sometimes called Baphomet) in Ancient Egypt. This powerful deity was worshipped in a way that involved slaves copulating with goats in a ritual intended to honor the procreative power of nature. This Egyptian God was identified by the Greeks as Pan, the God of Nature, who sometimes wore goatskins. Later, for Christians who were keen to demonize any trace of the old pagan religions, the goat became the personification of the Devil.
Romans, too, saw the goat as a symbol of lasciviousness and fertility. Barren women were advised to have sexual congress with goats or, alternatively, to have their backs whipped with the skin of a sacrificed goat, cut into strips. This ritual was believed to purify the women and may even have inspired the name of the festival during which it was performed-“Lupercalia”-possibly from luere per caprum, meaning “to purify by means of the goat.”
Finally, what of the scapegoat? The first mention of it occurs in the Old Testament. A ritual involved two goats. One was set free and the other sacrificed. The liberated goat, however, was laden with the sins of the people and sent out into the desert to perish, its death often hastened by its being pushed over a cliff; the name of this cliff, Azazel-“the goat that departs”-was also the name of a demon. The concept of the scapegoat exists today as a term for someone who takes on the blame for the wrongdoings of others.
Because the hare is a nocturnal creature, it carries all the symbolism of the Moon; light in the darkness, concealed wisdom, arcane information, intuition, and the Goddess. The Moon is symbolic of rebirth and resurrection, because of its visible phases, and the hare shares these qualities, too. Significantly, in some parts of the world the shape of the hare is visible in the face of the Moon, further reinforcing the mystical connection between the two.
The hare is renowned for its fertility, and it is in this guise that it is simplified as the Easter Bunny. The Springtime Goddess, Eostre, governed the cycles of fertility and so her symbol was the egg; hence the chocolate eggs given to children at Easter, a remnant of a pagan tradition that has never been satisfactorily explained away by its Christian adoptees.
Some Native American tribes that have adopted Christianity link the hare with Jesus Christ, since the previous savior of these people was a Great Spirit Hare called Menebuch who had Christ-like qualities. Menebuch came down from the Heavens to educate humankind in all his ways, and to protect them from monsters and evil spirits. Three hares joined at the ears and running in a circle in the form of a triskele, is a mysterious ancient symbol that seems to have transcended cultural boundaries and geographical borders. At the center of the circle, the ears of the hares form an equilateral triangle. This motif appears in Buddhist caves 2500 years old; in Muslim artwork and designs; in synagogues and in several places of Christian worship throughout Europe. There is no definitive interpretation of the symbol although it may represent the attributes of the Triple Goddess, an age-old concept that transcends religious dogma.
For millennia the horse has enjoyed a spiritual, symbolic, and mythical significance that arguably surpasses that of any other living creature. Accordingly, its symbolic significance is massive and varied. That the horse has long enjoyed a vital link with humankind as a hunting companion, a beast of burden, as a means of travel, and as an agricultural asset is demonstrated by its image being seen in Paleolithic cave drawings, such as at Lascaux, dating back approximately 30,000 years.
The horse belongs to the Sun and the element of fire. Horses proudly draw the chariot of the Sun God. At the same time, the horse also belongs to the Moon and the element of water, since it carries on its back the God of the Oceans, too. It was believed that where a horse stamped, a spring appeared, and so the animal becomes a life-giver. In Greece there is a sacred well, called Hippocrene (the Horse’s Well), which is shaped like a horseshoe and is dedicated to the Muses. Pegasus, the Winged Horse, was held to have created this particular sacred well.
The horse symbolizes life and death, darkness and light, good and evil, depending on the context in which it is seen. As well as being a bringer of life, it is also a psychopomp, a creature that guides dead souls on the journey to the next life. As well as having spiritual significance, like the dog with which it shares many characteristics, the horse is valuable in purely practical terms, too. It represents power and wealth, since having a horse-or many horses-confers superiority on the owner, not only in terms of monetary value but in the distances he is able to cover and the speeds at which he can travel. This leads to another aspect of the horse-it is a symbol of freedom. Horses were used by warriors and so are linked with Mars, the God of War, and with all the associated male attributes: virility, sexuality, and strength. Wotan/Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, had supernatural powers, possessing eight legs as well as being able to gallop over water as though it were solid land. Horse Goddesses include Epona, the mother-Goddess of the ancient Britons, and Rhiannon. The sacred status of horses meant that the sacrifice of such a creature was a rare and profound event, and even today, there is repugnance among many people at the thought of eating horseflesh; not eating an animal is a sure sign that it is regarded as sacred.
A carrion eater that exists purely on the earthly plane, the hyena carries none of the symbolism of the , which also eats waste, but is considered divine because it operates in the element of air. It is impossible for the hyena to transcend either the coarseness of its surroundings or the degrading acts it has to commit in order to survive. Despite all this, the hyena is considered to have magical powers, and is considered something of a magician. Allegedly, it could hypnotize any animal by walking around it three times, it could imitate the human voice so accurately that it could cause people to leave their homes, and it was believed to have a jewel in its eye that enabled it to see into the future.
To Native Americans, the name of the jaguar is synonymous with a creature that “kills with one blow,” while the word “panther” comes from the Greek panthera, meaning “all beast,” showing just how important our ancestors considered this animal to be. The Mayans believed that, since the dawn of time, four jaguars guarded the entrance to their valuable maize fields. Since these people followed a lunar calendar, the jaguar, a nocturnal creature, connected to their Goddess of the Moon, who is sometimes depicted with the claws of this great cat. Its association with the night and therefore occult knowledge gave the jaguar the gift of second sight and prophecy, which explains why it sometimes appears depicted with four eyes, two for normal sight and two for supernatural vision. The jaguar was one of the major deities of the Mayans, appearing on their calendars, and venerated in the form of the Jaguar Priests who officiated at only the most important and sacred rites and rituals. The Incas, too, revered this big cat and built temples in its honor.
While the jaws of the jaguar were emblematic of the gates of Heaven, it was also considered to be the Lord of the Underworld, no doubt because of its ability to kill swiftly and surely, and was therefore one of the many creatures with the sacred responsibility of guiding souls to the world beyond. In the same way that the lion and the eagle are juxtaposed in many cultures, the jaguar was similarly aligned with this bird, which was called the “jaguar of the skies.” Gods and kings wore the skins and feathers of sacred animals as status symbols, and the Aztec Emperor sat on a throne of eagle feathers and jaguar skin. The animal carries the same powers of creation and destruction as the fire that, legend says, it brought to humankind.
It might seem odd that the adult version of the lamb-the sheep-carries quite negative symbolism, as a creature that blindly runs with the flock, unable to think as an individual. However, the lamb is a much more positive symbol. It stands for innocence and purity, the spiritual, the compliant, and gentleness. Further, the lamb is a symbol of spring, of new hope, and of triumph over adversity. The first lamb of the season, as the most potent personification of these qualities, was usually sacrificed to the Gods.
The sacrificial nature of the lamb carries resonance through the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. Hence, the symbolism of the Christ as the Lamb of God, sacrificed for all mankind but resurrected by a beneficent God. There is a specific symbol, the Paschal Lamb, which perfectly embodies this notion; the lamb appears with a halo and a banner, symbolizing both sanctity and victory.
The lamb is also a symbol of peace, and where it appears with the dove, this aspect is compounded. Sometimes the lamb and the lion appear together, a universal symbol of concord and harmony and the balancing of opposites.
One of the most powerful animals and appropriately laden with rich symbolic meaning, the lion is synonymous with the Sun, and as such is best personified as Leo, the Zodiac sign that has the great golden star as its ruler. The lion even looks like the Sun, with its tawny coat and shaggy golden mane.
The lion is the totem animal of kings and emperors, of Apollo, of Mithras, of Christ, of Krishna, of the Buddha. Its counterpart, the eagle, is called the Lion of the Skies. Christ is known as the Lion of Judah, and Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali, who acted as mediator between the Prophet and the people, was called the Lion of Allah. Krishna is known as the “Lion among Wild Creatures” and the Buddha is the “Lion of the Shakyas.” The lion, with its shaggy halo of a mane, might seem to be the ultimate personification of male energy. However, there are female deities who share the attributes of the lion, and the lioness is a ferociously protective mother. Hathor, the Egyptian Goddess, has the head of a lion when she appears in the aspect of Destroyer. Cybele, the Phrygian Earth Mother, rides in a chariot pulled by lions, and the lion, as well as the bee, was sacred to her. There is a negative side, however, to the great power of the lion. It is no accident that the collective noun for a group of lions is a “pride,” and the sin of pride is said to be the negative aspect of the Zodiac sign of Leo. Further, power can lead to corruption unless there is an awareness of moral and ethical values. The male lion can also be a symbol of laziness, and it is a well-known fact that the lioness is the one who does the majority of the hunting and cub-care.
Many animals simply symbolize aspects of their own personality. The monkey is mischievous and agile, and has a wily intelligence. It is also a good mimic, although it is not always certain that the animal understands precisely what it is imitating; in this sense the monkey is a symbol of randomness. A recurrent theme of the monkey is as an emblem of chaotic, unguided, unconscious action.
In the Ramayana, it is a monkey called Hanuman who helps Vishnu rescue his bride from a demon, and is deified as a reward. The monkey is a sexually active, fertile creature, and in India women are known to strip off their clothes and hug the effigy of Hanuman in the belief that this will help them to conceive.
Monkeys also have a propensity for anger, and the Egyptians, recognizing this, used the hieroglyphic symbol of the monkey to mean “angry.”
In the Mayan calendar, too, the monkey held prominence, regarded as hard working, a gifted orator, and talented at artistic pursuits in general. To call someone a monkey was considered to be a great compliment. The monkey appears in the Chinese Zodiac, too, and people born under its sign are said to be intelligent, agile, decisive, and entertaining.
A sacred animal for Native Americans, the moose is closely linked with the raven, considered a gift from this God-like bird. The animal is symbolic of male energy in that it is a good and persistent hunter; conversely it is also a female symbol, partly because of its unpredictable nature.
The moose is often happy standing neck-high in water, where it grazes on aquatic plants such as water lilies, and this link with water and the Earth further underlines its feminine traits. Another characteristic of the moose is its solitary nature. It does not travel in herds, preferring to live singly. The calf is weaned at six months and its mother drives it away prior to the birth of a new baby. Therefore, the moose is symbolic of detachment and independence.
A nocturnal creature, the moth is considered the butterfly of the night although it carries rather more sinister symbolism than its frivolous sister.
One of the archetypal images of the moth is of it dancing around a flame. This nocturnal creature craves light so much that it will immolate itself in pursuit of it. There is a dichotomy about this image. On the one hand, it symbolizes the sublimation of the ego as death makes the soul a part of the collective unconscious. On the other, it is an emblem of stupidity, vanity, and hubris.
Like the butterfly, the moth symbolizes the disembodied soul. However, the moth is also seen as a destructive force since, unlike the butterfly, it can do damage and is sometimes seen as a pest. Although the clothes-eating moth is something of a rarity, moths in general have suffered a bad reputation.
The mouse, such a small, seemingly insignificant creature, is one of the forms taken by the great God Apollo. There is a dichotomy with this symbolism, representing the idea of the God in both his aspects-as destroyer and as protector. Apollo, like the mouse, destroys by spreading plague, whereas in his guise as the Harvest God it falls to Apollo to save the crop from the attentions of the little creature.
In Europe, the mouse was symbolic of the soul leaving the body, an idea shared by other tiny creatures. It was believed that the soul/mouse escaped through the mouth as the dying person breathed their last breath. This supposition was so well founded that it even has witness reports.
The mouse also appears with the great elephant-headed Indian God Ganesh. Curiously, the huge Ganesh is described as “riding” this tiny animal. The physical improbability of such an arrangement does not matter, however, since this is a symbol of Ganesh’s humility.
Calling someone a pig is a pejorative term, implying that the person is dirty, greedy, and generally uncouth.
The pig is regarded as ignorant, gluttonous, and selfish, an animal that wallows in its own filth (notwithstanding the fact that the animal is actually extremely clean and scrupulous), one of the animals considered “unclean” by both Hebrews and Muslims and which is forbidden as food to followers of these faiths. To throw “pearls before swine” is to offer something to someone who is unable to appreciate it.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the pig represents worldly desire in all its forms-lust, material possessions, food. It sits at the center of the Wheel of Dharma as a symbol of things that tie us to the cycle of materialism, holding us back from spiritual enlightenment. However, there’s another side to the coin. All animals that were considered holy or sacred were also forbidden to be eaten, and the pig, too, despite its negative connotations, held sacred status, linked to the Mother Goddess in lots of different faith systems. The sow is a prolific mother, giving birth to many piglets. The fecundity of this creature means that she is associated with Demeter/Ceres, the Earth Goddess and mother of the harvest. To Hindus, as Varahi, she is the boar-faced Goddess who protects holy buildings. Durga, also, takes on the form of the pig as Vajrabarahi. The Egyptian Goddess of the Night, Nut, was depicted on amulets as a sow being suckled by her piglets. The Celtic Mother Goddess, Ceridwen, was called the Old White Sow, and both the deity and the pig were associated with the Moon. Only the Gods were considered worthy to eat the meat of the pig.
In China, the pig is one of the auspicious animal signs of the Chinese Zodiac, where it symbolizes hard work, love of family, and a caring nature. However, it seems that pigs might fly before they manage to shake off some of their more unfortunate associations.
Incredibly fecund, the rabbit is a symbol not only of fertility, but also of sexuality and lust, personified by the “bunny girl.” “Bun” is an old English word and refers to the distinctive circular shape of the animal’s tail. Although the rabbit didn’t make its appearance in the British Isles until the twelfth century, its prolific breeding habits meant that it was soon prevalent everywhere and it adopted a little of the same symbolic meaning as the hare, minus the mystery accorded the hare as the more elusive nocturnal creature.
Because of its fecundity and gregarious nature, the rabbit is a symbol of love and peace for some Native Americans. There is a courtship ritual called the Rabbit Dance. The rabbit’s foot is still seen by some as a particularly potent good-luck charm. While having its foot severed is presumably not very lucky for the rabbit itself, as a totem object the foot is believed to bless its owner with the same fertility and swift-footedness as the animal. The efficacy of the piece of rabbit worn as a charm did not escape the Lakota warriors, who believed that an armband of its skin would enable them to run as fast as the rabbit itself.
For some superstitious people in Britain, especially those that have links to the sea, it is taboo to call the rat by its name, so it’s called the “longtail” instead. This is because rats traditionally leave a sinking ship, and this ancient idea runs so deep that rats are still viewed as harbingers of doom. This points toward the power of the rat, since to mention a name is to call on the power of its owner.
In the West, much of the symbolism of the rat carries negative connotations. To call someone a “rat” means that they are immoral, despicable, dishonest, and greedy. Rats are considered unclean, scavenging animals, associated with bubonic plague and other diseases.
However, the rat is also a resilient creature and its intelligence and ability to survive almost anything is universally acknowledged. Even these seemingly positive traits are given a negative twist, however, when it is described as “cunning.” The intelligence of the creature is seen to be purely self-serving and somehow immoral. In the Hindu belief system, in contrast, the rat is the creature of foresight and prudence. In addition, in China the rat is one of the rulers of the years of the Zodiac, where it symbolizes imagination, creativity, adaptability, and ambition.
One of the most sacred creatures of the Celts, the salmon is a symbol of wisdom and esoteric knowledge. In fact, in this culture, the salmon is arguably the epitome of the fish symbol in general. To eat the flesh of the salmon was once akin to a shamanistic act, a means of attaining its wisdom as well as its reputed powers of second sight. Celtic folklore teems with anecdotes about the powers conferred by this sacred fish, which is generally depicted living in holy wells and itself eating magical food, such as hazelnuts and rowanberries.
The salmon is synonymous with the idea of rebirth and of reincarnation since it traditionally returns to its breeding ground, leaping upwards against the current of the river to do so.
Despite the coming of Christianity, the salmon kept its prominent place as a sacred symbol; the use of the fish as an emblem of Christ no doubt helped.
The scarab is one of the most important symbols in Ancient Egyptian belief, but why? What relevance, if any, does it have today? Modern Egyptians still believe that dried and powdered scarabs will help them to become fertile. However, it is as the sacred animal belonging to the God of the Rising Sun, Khepera, that the scarab is important. The Ancient Egyptians observed that the scarab beetle rolled its own ball of dung along the ground in the same way that the Khepera rolled the Sun across the sky. They also believed that the scarab hatched itself from this dung ball, symbolizing death and rebirth. As a God, the scarab was depicted with the wings, legs, and tail of a falcon.
The scarab was placed on top of the heart when a corpse was mummified. This was so that the heart, symbolizing the conscience, would not be able to speak because the scarab was in the way. Therefore, the soul could say nothing that might otherwise hinder its access to the Afterlife. Such was the power of the scarab that its image appears everywhere in Ancient Egyptian art and artifacts, on seals and amulets and on pieces of jewelry.
The prominence of the scarab for the Egyptians, however, seems to be a very recent trend when we realize that the beetle has been an important symbol since the Paleolithic period, between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.
Because the scorpion is so dangerous-it has enough venom to kill a man-in the countries where it lives its name is often not mentioned in case the scorpion is somehow “invoked.” Instead it is referred to euphemistically. Whenever this happens we know that an animal is particularly potent.
The scorpion is constantly prepared to attack, the sting in its tail always unsheathed. As such, the insect is the embodiment of brute aggression. This aggression is further promulgated by the fact that the female scorpion will only ever give birth once; her progeny have the grisly habit of destroying their mother by digging their way out of her belly.
The scorpion was a hieroglyph in Ancient Egypt and was sacred to the Goddess Selket, who had either the body of a scorpion and the head of a woman, or (more usually) the body of a woman with a scorpion sitting on her head. The power of this Goddess resided in her ability to wield the power of the scorpion against her enemies; however, she could also use this power as protection from scorpions, too. Selket also had power over snakes and other poisonous reptiles, protecting pregnant women in particular.
Lying on its belly close to the earth, limbless, hairless, and coldblooded, the snake represents the opposite end of the scale to the loftier spiritual heights to which Man aspires. The snake, or serpent, is arguably one of the most prominent animal symbols, and carries with it diverse and contradictory meanings.
Some of those contradictory messages include the serpent as a symbol of evil but also of healing powers; of cunning and also of wisdom; as a life form that is so base that it must be capable of reaching the greatest of spiritual heights. The serpent is considered, unsurprisingly, to be a phallic symbol, yet is also one of the oldest emblems of female power, seen, for example, held in the hands of the priestesses on Knossos as a symbol of their wisdom and power. This image brings to mind the latter-day snake handlers of certain charismatic churches in the United States, who believe that so long as they have faith then the snake will not bite them.
The dichotomy of the serpent symbol is embodied in the story of Adam and Eve. Demonized as an evil influence (the Devil himself) that persuades Eve to offer the forbidden fruit of knowledge to Adam, this fruit nevertheless contains knowledge and in eating it, the pair open their eyes to a wider world. As a phallic symbol, the snake also makes Adam and Eve aware of their own sexuality, and the first thing they do after this realization is to cover their genitalia with fig leaves. The serpent is a symbol of regeneration, reincarnation, and of healing powers.
Evidence of the god-like status of the snake to the Native Americans, too, is evident in structures such as the 4000-year-old Serpent Mound in Ohio. To Native Americans the snake was a dangerous creature, which deserved respect at the same time as suspicion. In fact, such was the reputation of the snake for telling lies and weaving deceit that the forked tongue of the creature was adopted as a description fitted to untrustworthy people, namely, the white man.
Since the snail carries its “house” with it, it is a symbol of self-sufficiency. The spiral shape of the snail’s shell has significant meaning, since the spiral itself is a sacred shape, the Golden Mean. The Mayans took the snail shell as their inspiration to create a glyph for the concept of zero; thus, a humble little creature is immortalized in the symbolic rendering of a discovery that, quite literally, changed the world.
The motif of the spider as creator/creatrix is repeated all over the world. In many creation myths, it is the spider that weaves the fabric of the universe. However, the seeming fragility of the cobweb led to suppositions that what the spider made was, in fact, no more than the illusory veil of “reality” that the Vedic scriptures call Maya. The idea of spinning and weaving is also an attribute of the Fates, in both Greek mythology and in the Qu’ran. Native Americans called the spider the “Thinking Woman,” who has the power to both make the world and destroy it if it is not to her satisfaction. Because of its ability to move in different dimensions, the spider was used as a means of divination. The African bird-eating spider is particularly skilled in this art, apparently, and symbols are placed at the entrance to its home in such a way that the spider will disturb them as it enters and exits. These disturbances are interpreted as auguries.
The horns of the stag lend it an especial significance as a magical and sacred animal, and as a masculine symbol; most horned animals carry this association, and because of these antlers, the stag is emblematic of fertility and male sexuality. Like the goat, it gives rise to the word “horny,” meaning sexually charged. Not only are amulets representing the phallus often carved from stags’ horn, but also in some branches of Chinese medicine, ground-up horn is used as an aphrodisiac. These same horns, because of their shape and the fact that they regularly drop off and then re-grow, are also emblematic of the World Tree, thereby making the animal itself synonymous with the idea of rebirth, and therefore of the Sun. It is no accident that the Hopi Indians cut their image of the Sun God from a piece of deerskin.
The Pre-Christian pagan God Pan has the cloven hooves and horned headdress of the stag. Wishing to render the old Gods fearsome to their former worshippers in the hopes that they would turn to the One God of the new religion, the early Christians turned Pan into the Devil, giving him the same characteristics, borrowed from the stag. The Celtic horned shaman Cernunnos bears a remarkable resemblance to Pan, too. Cernunnos was considered the Ruler of the Beasts and a God of Plenty. Wherever a white stag appears in myths and folktales and in dreams, it signifies the world of spirit. In the Arthurian legends, the appearance of this ethereal creature sends the knights off on spiritual quests. The stag is believed to have healing powers, too, and is sometimes depicted with an arrow piercing his side and herbs in his mouth. The stag has the reputation of knowing the uses of all the medicinal plants and herbs in the forest, so presumably he eats these plants in order to fix his wound.
The very word “tiger” conjures up notions of fierceness, swiftness, and also great beauty. To fight like a tiger is to fight with great savagery.
In China, the tiger, rather than the lion, is the King of the Beasts. Like the lion, it symbolizes nobility, power, ferocity, and authority. The tiger is also somehow seen as an angry animal; this is partly explained by the legend of the first tiger, said to have been a young boy, whipped many times by his teacher hence the stripes, who was pushed too far, escaped into the forest in a furious rage and transformed into the animal. For any warrior, to eat tiger meat or to wear the skin of the tiger is said to give dominion over the beast. A remnant of this belief is borne out by the image of the old buffer in his pith helmet standing on the head of the tiger-skin rug, demonstrating the power of his “superior” male ego in the slaying of the beast. Women were forbidden to eat tiger meat in case it made them wayward or difficult to control.
There are parallels between the wolf and the tiger, too, as a symbol of raw sexuality. Chinese myth has a story very similar to the West’s Little Red Riding Hood, which features a tiger in the place of the wolf, and there are stories of a fearsome creature called a weretiger, a nocturnal monster that is driven to terrible acts by the appearance of the full Moon. The tiger is believed to be a shape-shifter, and certain human beings have the power to transform themselves into the beast. The savage power of the tiger also makes it a symbol of protection; it would be a very great asset to have this animal on your side, especially since they are supposed to be able to consume evil spirits with no adverse effects. Because of this, effigies of tigers were placed on graves. The tiger is a very good mother and will defend her cub to the death. The dichotomy of the tiger symbolism-as a savage creature that also protects-is demonstrated perfectly by its place in Buddhist belief. Along with the monkey (symbolizing greed) and the deer (symbolizing lovesickness), the tiger, representing anger, is one of the Three Senseless Creatures of Chinese Buddhism.
The tortoise may appear to be an innocuous and rather unresponsive slow-moving household pet, but to ancient man it was a living collection of secret and sacred symbols, and as such, it was accorded the same kind of reverence as the greatest Gods. The four sturdy legs of the tortoise represent the four elements and the four directions. These legs support the flat underside of the creature, which represents the Earth. The dome-shaped shell of the tortoise represents the vault of the Heavens. Thus the tortoise carries the Universe, a task shared by other sacred creatures such as the whale and the dragon. This is represented in the Hindu cosmogram or map of the Universe, shown here. The cosmos-supporting tortoise is linked in Hindu iconography to Vishnu, who is said to have emerged from the waters of creation carrying the Earth on his back. In Native American belief the World Tree grows out of the back of the tortoise. In alchemy, the tortoise represents the Prima Materia or Massa Confusa, the Confused Mass, the first stage in the transformation of matter to spirit.
The remarkable story of Jonah and the whale is really a story of initiation, a symbolic death, and rebirth. The whale in this story was originally referred to as a fish, as it was in many old stories. Jonah had been chosen by God as a prophet, but was quite understandably shy of telling the people of Ninevah that judgement would soon be upon them for their wicked ways, so he took to the sea to avoid this duty. When a violent storm arose, the sailors decided to throw Jonah into the sea in order to propitiate the Gods. Instantly, the waters calmed, and there appeared a huge “fish” that swallowed Jonah. After three days and nights in the pitch dark innards of this fish, Jonah decided that he had had enough, and that it would be easier to give the prophesy than spend any more time inside the whale. In a fortunate case of either serendipity or divine intervention, Jonah was regurgitated not far from where he needed to be.
Jonah is not the only character to have had the misfortune to spend time inside a whale. This particular form of initiation was the fate of several Gods and mythic heroes, from Japan, Vietnam, and Polynesia through to Finland.
Jonah described the insides of the whales as sheol, meaning “the pit,” so the gaping jaw of the whale is symbolic of the gates of hell. The stomach of the whale also becomes a symbolic womb that gives birth to Jonah. It is significant, too, that Christ spent the same amount of time inside the tomb before he, too, was reborn; therefore the legend of Jonah’s whale was said to prophesy Christ’s ordeal.
Whale hunting is a controversial subject. However, for the Inuit people who have been involved in this practice for thousands of years and so know the animal very well, the whale is the trickster. There is a myth that a beautiful woman, who occasionally entertains mariners, lives in a lavishly furnished apartment inside the belly of the whale, a story no doubt invented to comfort a drowning man.
The wolf that disguises itself as the grandmother in the tale of Little Red Riding Hood shows the creature as a trickster, with malevolent intentions. However, the disguise isn’t very good and the little girl recognizes the wolf by its easily identifiable features-huge teeth and massive eyes-and so makes good her escape. Here, the wolf is also a sexual predator, another emblem of the animal that has endured since ancient times; the “wolf whistle” is aptly named and the tendencies of the wolf itself are well known. Like the wolf in the fairytale, its true nature is impossible to disguise for long, just like the proverbial “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
The wolf also has a reputation of being a loner, hunting not in packs but singly. In Greece, it was associated with the Gods Zeus and Apollo as a symbol of masculine power, energy, and sexuality. The Egyptians, too, worshipped the wolf, at the city of Lycopolis, which was even named for the creature. Here, the wolf also acted as a psychopomp, a creature that guided the souls of the dead into the Afterlife. Anubis, the greatest of all the conductors of souls, had the head of a wolf or of a wild dog or jackal. The God of Time, Chronos, has a wolf-like face, symbolizing the monster that devours human time.
It was a wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. Despite this maternal care, the word lupa meant “prostitute” as well as “she-wolf” and the Lupercal Temples were effectively brothels. Continuing with this theme, there’s a saying in France that if a girl is a virgin she is said to n’a jamais vu le loup, i.e. to have never seen the wolf; the opposite is true for a girl who has lost her virginity. The werewolf is arguably the most sinister aspect of this creature. Warlocks were believed to be able to transform into wolves in order to disguise themselves when they traveled to their unholy meetings, and the belief in a wolf/human hybrid is prevalent throughout much of the world.
As though all the real animals in this world were not enough, we have invented a vast array of mythical animals, too, which fulfill a symbolic need not provided by the many wonders within the natural world.
Belief in imaginary creatures seems to last for a season, then fades away, to be replaced with the next “fashion.” For example, it was once generally held that dragons really did exist; uncharted territory is marked on old maps with the legend “here be dragons.” Winged, fire-breathing, serpent-like creatures seem to exist in a similar form all over the world although their names may vary. Fairies, too, were regularly spotted, and even photographed in the early part of the last century. Today, it seems that creatures from outer space-and infamous fantastic creatures like the yeti or the Big Cat or the Loch Ness Monster-fill the space that is somehow still not satisfied by all the world has to offer. These newer creatures, too, teasingly allow themselves to be seen but rarely in such a way that they give us incontrovertible evidence of their existence. And why should they? Ghosts and similar entities have never gone away, and if we believe the evidence of high street bookshops then it would seem that angels and cherubs hover above every corner.
The antiquity of angels is well established, their existence described long before the Old Testament was written, and certainly long before the coming of Christianity. The first creatures that resemble anything like the angels we know today are from the ancient Akkadian culture, dating back to 2350 BC. It is likely that the angel concept existed even earlier than this, though.
The history of angelic beings is difficult to pin down. The single most comprehensive and exhaustive writing on the subject is by a somewhat nebulous figure called Pseudo Dionysus the Aeropagite, who listed the groupings of angels that are still commonly accepted today, in a book written in the sixth century AD, called The Celestial Hierarchy. Both Pseudo Dionysus and the Bible agree that the multitude of angels is immense, this number being mentioned in the Bible as a mind-boggling “a thousand thousands [angels] ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him” (Daniel 7:10). The notion that each person has his own guardian angel is an ancient one. This is a comforting idea, especially for children. This is not, however, mentioned as such in the Bible, although it does claim that each one of the faithful is helped by an angel that will protect and guide him throughout his life. It appears that the angel archetype is such a potent symbol that they exist in our collective consciousness whether or not we believe in any kind of God.
A horse/man hybrid, the centaur appears as the archer in the astrological sign of Sagittarius, and wherever he appears, he is a symbol of lust, the arrows signifying ejaculation as well as hunting prowess.
Centaurs are often depicted with sad faces, because they know that the brute force and lust that they represent needs to be balanced with spiritual power. Therefore, the centaur represents the constant struggle in human beings between spirit and matter, intuition and knowledge, conscious and unconscious.
The idea of a creature that is the personification of evil forces is ancient. There are incantations designed to repel “demons” that date back as far as the first millennium BC although they are not referred to as such. Essentially, in a world that is comprised of opposing forces, there must be a balance of male/female, black/white, good/bad. It makes sense that we need there to be a shadow side to good forces.
Although the demon, as it is commonly accepted today, is seen to be a malicious and ungodly creature that is the epitome of evil, the word originally meant something rather different. The Greek “daemon” was a divine being with its own energies and powers; each person had such an aspect to their soul, which was connected to the Great Spirit and could be responsible for sudden flashes of inspiration or enlightenment; literally, their “genius.” Places, too, had their “demons,” represented, for example, in the spirits of the elements: the salamanders, sylphs, nymphs, and undines. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy uses the notion of this familiar spirit in a beautiful and memorable way. Many of the pre-Christian deities of all nations had these creative, demon-like qualities. However, these ancient entities, if not absorbed and re-named as saints, were heavily discredited by the early Church and made into evil entities in the effort to replace the old pagan Gods with the one patriarchal God of the Christian faith. To “demonize” something or someone is to “represent as a demon,” i.e. to discredit or contaminate in some way. Lilith, the first wife of Adam, is commonly described as an “arch demoness.” Lilith already existed in a different form as the ancient Goddess Astarte, who is connected to Venus/Aphrodite, but Lilith’s refusal to adopt the missionary position, among other things, meant that she was cast out and replaced with the (seemingly) much more compliant Eve. Thereafter, Lilith was accused of all sorts of diabolic misdemeanors. Psychologically speaking, the demon has come to symbolize the difficult part of the personality or psyche that a person has to come to terms with in order to achieve balance and peace of mind.
This curious symbol is believed to have originated with the Hittites, a powerful race from Asia Minor.
The double head of the eagle effectively doubles its strength and eagle-like qualities. It is also called the Eagle of Lagash. This was the ancient Sumerian city that used it first as their royal crest. The Turks then used the symbol. It represents omniscience, since it can look in two directions at once. As a symbol of absolute power, it appears on several national coats of arms including those of Imperial Austria and Russia. It is also used as a Masonic symbol.
Ancient maps, showing uncharted territory, are sometimes enscribed with the legend “Here Be Dragons.” The word “dragon” comes from the Greek for “snake,” a creature with whom it is associated, as well as sometimes being referred to as a “worm” from its Germanic name, wurm.
For an imaginary creature, the influence of the dragon is far-reaching, existing in similar forms all over the world, an important archetypal emblem. The dragon can be symbolic of power, sovereignty, and spirituality, as well as of a variety of elements. The dragon can be an agent of good, to be encouraged, or an agent of evil, to be destroyed. Dragons have keen eyesight which often makes them guardians of treasure and keepers of secrets of some kind, a trait which gives them great wisdom as well as clairvoyant powers. In both China and Japan the dragon symbolized royalty, and appeared on the garments of the Emperor and the Mikado. The very word “dragon” was used instead of Emperor: “the Dragon’s Face” meant the face of the Emperor, “the Dragon’s Pace” his majestic walk. In Britain, Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur, was given a vision of a flaming dragon in the sky as a prophecy that Arthur would become king. This flaming red dragon later became the emblem of Wales. Over the border the Englishman George was given sainthood after he effectively killed a marauding dragon that was slowly but surely gobbling up all the young girls for miles around. Here, the dragon represents the Devil, also personified as a dragon in the fight with the Archangel Michael. In the Chinese Zodiac, the dragon is the fifth creature, and equates to Leo the Lion.
The term “fairy” tends to be used as a catch-all to encompass all manner of “little people”-elves, pixies, banshees, and the like-all different aspects of a spirit of nature that is generally held to be invisible to human beings. It has been said that they represent the “paranormal powers of the spirit or the extraordinary capacity of the imagination,” and as such can be said to symbolize an escapist aspect of the human mind that transcends the bounds of everyday normality as well as the laws of physics.
For generations, it seems that fairy-folk and human beings have rubbed along, side by side, sharing the same universe. It is possible that these creatures have their origins as the spirits of dead ancestors, which, prior to the coming of Christianity, were believed to take on a different form in order to guard and protect future generations. Features typical of the fairy are its supernatural powers, its ability to render itself invisible to human beings or to shape-shift, its spell-casting powers and its capability of flight. Fairies tend to appear as females but there are exceptions.
Fairies can be benign or malignant, and the natural world is crammed with plants, minerals, and the like which can either protect against them or which are their especial domain or property. The hawthorn, for example, is a fairy tree and anyone cutting it down or taking parts of it would find it best to ask permission of the fairies first. The word “fairy” shares roots with the word “fay,” which in turn relates to the Fates of Greek myth, the personification of destiny. Morgan le Fay, also known as the Fata Morgana in the Arthurian tales, is a fairy, although very different from the tiny sort that little girls see flitting in and out of flowers, as are many of the most powerful fairy creatures throughout mythology. The Shakespearian Queen of the Fairies, Mab, represents the same kind of ambivalence as Morgan le Fay, with a propensity for malice that hints at a strong link between fairies and witches. Both fairies and witches often appear in groups of three, another link with the Fates.
The time of the fairies is said to be twilight, the transitional time between night and day. They can carry away the soul of a person who dies at this time and take it back to fairyland. The fairy could be said to symbolize the state of mind between childhood and adulthood, the conscious and the unconscious.
Santa Claus, Old St. Nick, St. Nicolas, Sinterklaas, Papa Noel, Kris Kringle: whatever we choose to call him, for children, the concept of Father Christmas all boils down to the same idea; that of a magical, generous character that comes bearings gifts at Christmas time. The idea that good children will be rewarded with gifts while bad children will receive nothing has more than a semblance of the idea of rewards in Heaven for the virtuous and is arguably one of the consequences of the Christianization of a much earlier, pagan figure.
These days, the popular image of Father Christmas is of a bearded, jovial old gentleman, of portly girth, wearing red. Clearly an expert in quantum physics and a past master in time bending, Santa apparently manages to visit every single household where children live, in one very exhausting night, traveling through the skies with a retinue of magical reindeer that have the powers of flight. In fact, his brightly colored garb is a relatively recent introduction, though not, as popularly supposed, wholly invented by the Coca-Cola corporation but certainly popularized by them, inspired by an earlier cartoon that appeared in 1863, by one Thomas Nast whose work appeared in Harper’s Weekly in the United States. Despite its comparatively recent age, this depiction of Santa as we recognize him today is now ubiquitous; it’s an etching showing a smiling old man with holly tucked into the brim of his hat, clutching a pipe in one hand with a bundle of toys and gifts under his arm. Prior to Nast’s interpretation, Father Christmas’s appearance was much more subdued-a taller, slimmer figure dressed in a slubby brown or green color, as befitting his origins as a pagan spirit of nature.
One of the manifestations of this ancient nature spirit is in the guise of “Old Winter,” personified in a Norse ritual whereby an old man went from door to door, fed and watered wherever he went. The idea was to propitiate the spirit of the winter. Santa, too, has food and drink left for him. Similarly, the God Odin (who also appears to humans as an old man with a beard) had a huge feast at Yule for the slain warriors in Valhalla. Children left their shoes stuffed with food for Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir; in exchange, Sleipnir refilled these boots with gifts. These customs seem to have merged with the boisterous midwinter Saturnalia festival of the Romans. Later, in efforts to Christianize this pagan character, he was linked to St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian bishop born in Patara in Turkey who was known for his generosity. Indeed, in some parts of northern Europe, St. Nick still appears in the robes and hat of a bishop.
Santa’s reindeer, it seems, are particularly appropriate animals to transport him through time and space. They carry much the same symbolism of the horse, able to conduct spirits between the world of the living and the dead. Lapps capture these wild animals in a very canny way. Reindeer are partial to the red and white fly agaric mushrooms, which contain psychoactive substances that induce hallucinations of flying. The Lapps scatter the mushrooms where the animals will find them, then simply wait until the reindeer are intoxicated, and lead them away.
The idea that when a material being dies it leaves behind a shadowy imprint that will haunt the places it once inhabited is one that resonates around the world. The pervasiveness of the idea of the ghost indicates that it plays an important and deep-rooted part in the human psyche. Even the concept of a Heaven or Hell or other Afterlife as a home for the disembodied spirit has not changed the fact that for many people, ghosts actually exist. Ghosts do not have to be human; animals, too, can haunt the places of the living.
Communication with ghosts used to be called necromancy and was considered by superstitious Christians to be one of the Black Arts. Today, this practice is called Spiritualism, and the form of a Spiritualist ritual includes a nod to a Christian God at the beginning and end of the ceremony. This is despite the fact that in Christian belief, the ghosts that still walked the Earth were generally of those people who had not been buried under the auspices of the Church and were therefore to be avoided.
Ghosts represent the almost universal need for human beings to believe in a form of consciousness that exists after the physical death of the body.
The goblin, like the gnome, is said to inhabit underground areas such as caves, tunnels, and mines, but unlike the gnome, they can live closer to the surface of the earth, lurking in among tree roots and under hedges. They generally have a more sinister aspect than gnomes, being even more prone to malicious behavior, which is particularly directed toward human beings who may have incurred their wrath. Hopeful goblin-spotters can find the creatures in various places around the world that bear their name, such as Bryn y Ellyon, “the Hill of the Goblins” in Somerset in the UK, or at the Gap of Goeblin, in France. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, goblins equate to the fearsome creatures called orcs, who live underground and are the epitome of evil brute force.
The griffin has the body of a lion and the head of an eagle, sometimes with prominent tufted ears. It usually has wings, but not always. The griffin is sometimes confused with the wyvern, but has four legs unlike the wyvern with only two. These legs end in eagles’ talons, too. As a composite of two particularly powerful creatures, which are themselves rich in symbolic meaning, the griffin is believed to be particularly important, possessing power equal to that of the Gods whom it is often seen guarding. The griffin serves as an admirable symbol in heraldry, economically representing the attributes of the eagle and the lion in one single animal.
The griffin appears in many civilizations including Greek and Egyptian, and its key feature is to protect precious objects. In Crete, it was considered the guardian of throne rooms, and in central Asia, it guarded the valuable deposits of gold and precious gems that could be found there, descending upon anyone who appeared to be a threat and tearing them to pieces with their talons.
In medieval symbolism, the griffin represented knowledge, and later it came to signify the idea of a guardian; the ears represented attentiveness, the lion’s body was for courage, the beak stood for tenacity.
The hippogriff, recently brought from mythological obscurity when it starred in the Harry Potter series of books by J. K. Rowling, is the product of a liaison between a griffin and a horse.
In Greek myth, the harpies are monstrous creatures comprised of the bodies of birds and the heads of women, with sharp talons, that emit a disgusting smell. The name “harpy” means “snatcher” or “plucker.” The harpies eat carrion, and are three in number, called “Dark,” “Squall,” and “Swift Flyer.” These names are suggestive of storm clouds, and it is interesting to note that this imagery is carried further by the fact that only Calais and Zetes, the sons of the North Wind, could get rid of the harpies by driving them away. Greedy and malicious, the harpies supplied the Lords of the Underworld with the souls of people who had died before their time.
The incubus is a demon that takes the form of an attractive gentleman who seduces sleeping people-most frequently women but sometimes men-and has sexual intercourse with them, in the same way as his female counterpart the succubus. This creature sustains itself from the sexual energy released by his hapless partner at the point of orgasm, and repeated visits may even result in the death of the victim.
The provenance of the incubus is ancient, first appearing in Mesopotamia as a character called Lilu, the male counterpart of Lilith. Both incubi and succubi are not inherently male and female but are able to shift into either form to assuage their prodigious sexual appetites. The female succubi can “steal” sperm from human men, then turn into an incubi and use that same semen to impregnate women.
Mermaids may be perceived nowadays as creatures that belong only within the realms of mythology and the imagination, but this was not always the case. Until the nineteenth century, there was still a law on the statute books, decreeing that any mermaid found in British waters was the property of the Crown. Indeed, Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids on his voyage to America, although what he actually saw might have been a marine animal called a manatee that, notably, cradles its young in its arms in the same way as a human.
The mermaid symbol appears all over the world, and the consistency of her appearance leads many to suppose that they really do exist. With long streaming hair and the tail of a fish, the mermaid is the epitome of the Goddess figure, naturally associated with the water element and living in the “womb” of the sea. There are also mermen and a whole population of merpeople hidden in the depths of the sea as well as in freshwater lakes. The very first mermaid stories are from the Assyrian culture and date back to 1000 BC. This first mermaid started her life as the Goddess Atargatis, who loved a mortal man, a shepherd, but who inadvertently killed him. Distraught, she leaped into a lake, meaning to take on the form of a fish; instead, she became a human/fish hybrid, the mermaid. Unlike the siren, whose intention toward man is generally malicious, the mermaid has a kinder attitude to human beings. For sailors, the sight of a mermaid is a warning of stormy weather to come.
Paradoxically, although the mermaid is a symbol of female sexuality and is an object of desire, the mermaid’s tail precludes her having the sexual parts of a normal woman, and so she remains virginal, unobtainable, the object of frustrated dreams and desires and outside of the sphere of physical love; a Goddess, indeed. There is another side to the mermaid’s image that has a generally pejorative meaning. The symbol was used at Ephesus where there is a series of three signs, popularly supposed to be the world’s first advertisement. These symbols are engraved onto a paving slab. They are a pointing finger, a coin, and a mermaid. Together, these indicated the local brothel, with the mermaid figure denoting the prostitute.
Mermaids in literature often fall in love with male humans but are thwarted by the inability of the object of their desires to be able to breathe in water, or to exist in the same element. Like the Little Mermaid in the Hans Christian Andersen story, they are prepared to go to great lengths for this love, and in this particular story, the mermaid exchanges her beautiful tail for human legs, although each footstep she takes is excruciatingly painful. The other typical attribute of a mermaid is her beautiful voice, and in the story of The Little Mermaid, her tongue is taken away so that she can neither sing nor explain what has happened to the handsome prince. Most importantly, love, not desire, drives her to exchange her immortality as a mermaid for the soul of a human, and in so doing she apparently leaves behind the animal part of herself and becomes a far superior creature.
In Greek, this word means either “bride” or “doll.” Nymphs are spirits or deities that live close to water; waterfalls, streams, fountains, lakes, and wells all have their nymphs. Like the water that they are associated with, nymphs are notoriously ambivalent, changeable, and inconsistent. They preside equally over fertility and birth as well as death and decay. They are believed to steal children and to haunt the minds of the people who see them, sometimes driving them to madness. Reputedly, nymphs are at their most visible and dangerous during the time of the midday Sun, so it is best to avoid the places where they are likely to be at this time.
In Ancient Greece, temples at sacred springs were presided over by priestesses, all unmarried girls, also called “nymphs,” and the temples themselves-called “Nymphaeae”-were used specifically for performing wedding ceremonies. Legend has it that these priestesses would give into orgiastic ceremonies at the time of the full Moon, hence the term “nymphomania.”
The mythological bird called the phoenix exists under different guises: as the Garuda in India, as the Feng Huang in China, as the Ho-oo in Japan, and as the Benu Bird in Egypt. The main characteristic of this great bird, whose symbolic meaning resonates throughout myth, religion, and alchemy, is that it is reborn from its own ashes after combusting voluntarily. This unusual habit means different things to different people. To Christians, it is a reminder of the sacrifice made by Christ and his subsequent reward of resurrection and eternal life. For the Dharmic religions, it indicates the triumph of the soul over the body, and subsequent reincarnation. For others, the destruction by fire signifies the catharsis, or purification, of death.
The phoenix is also symbolic of the “dying” of the Sun as it goes over the horizon in a welter of flames, and its “resurrection” the next day as it burns back over the horizon. This was the favored imagery of the Egyptians.
The phoenix is said to live primarily on aromatic smoke, not harming anything in order to eat. Therefore it is a popular symbol in Chinese and Indian Buddhist belief systems. In the same way, the bird has become popular in Christian literature and art as a symbol of resurrection and of life after death.
There can only exist one phoenix at a time, and its lifespan is reputedly anywhere between 500 and 1461 years. Its habitat is also debated. Some accounts say that it spends its time in India, but there’s also a tale that tells us that the bird’s real home is in Paradise. When the time comes for the phoenix to die, he has to fly into the mortal world, taking a journey across the jungles of Burma, across India, and on to Arabia. Here it collects the herbs and aromatic spices it needs, then it flies on to Phoenicia in Syria, finds a tall date palm tree, and then constructs its funeral pyre. As the next day dawns the bird rises again.
A hybrid creature, the satyr consists of the body of a man with the legs, tail, and horns of a goat. The goat itself is considered to have a lascivious nature and the satyr takes on some of that symbolism. The great Greek Nature God, Pan, was a satyr, possessed of a large and prominent penis as a symbol of the procreative force. However, because the early Christian authorities equated sex with sin, it should come as no surprise that they connected the satyr to the Devil. The Goat of Mendes, the goat/human figure worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians, is still used as a pictorial representation of Satan. Satyrs attended Bacchus and Dionysus, who gave themselves to a life of wine, women, boys, song, and general debauchery.
The beautiful appearance and seductive nature of the sirens disguise a monstrous intent. They have the heads and breasts of lovely and voluptuous women and the bodies and wings of birds, but it is the loveliness of their faces and the sweetness of their voices that they use, with devastating effect, to lure hapless sailors toward them, so that they can then kill and eat them. Famously, Odysseus had himself strapped to the mast of his ship after plugging the ears of his sailors with wax, so that he could hear the song of the sirens and yet be unable to succumb to it. The nature of the siren, essentially, is of an evil that is able to prey upon human weakness. Medieval texts describe them as “stout whores.” Sometimes sirens are confused with mermaids, but in general mermaids are benevolent creatures whose domain is the most definitely the sea. Sirens are more ambiguous, belonging on sea, land, and air.
The sirens symbolize the dangers of the sea, and death itself. Egyptians believed that they represented dead souls that had failed to achieve their destiny and spitefully decided to blight the lives of others, too. Essentially, the siren stands as a warning against the distractions of desire and of what can happen if man succumbs to physical temptation. The mast that Odysseus made a conscious decision to strap himself to represents the axis of his soul, his backbone, and moral fiber.
The sphinx exists in slightly varying forms. It generally has the head of a woman and the body of a lion, although the most famous of the sphinxes, the Egyptian ones, do not have wings, unlike the Assyrian and Greek versions.
The sphinx, as the epitome of mystery and hidden secrets, has endured for centuries. Her riddle-“what goes on four feet in the morning, on two feet at midday, and on three feet in the evening?”-may have been answered long ago, but mankind is still fascinated by her, and the true significance that lies behind her implacable expression can only be guessed at. She has a reputation as a devourer; the wings given to her by the Greek and Assyrians would suggest that she was of divine origin. Greek legends have the sphinx as an evil monster that ravaged the land of Thebes, asking riddles of anyone who came its way, and devouring those who either answered incorrectly or failed to answer at all.
The bat-like wings, horns, cloven hoofs, and forked tail that are sometimes attributes of the succubus are often overlooked because of her beautiful and alluring appearance. The succubus is a type of demon that appears in the form of a beautiful woman that takes great pleasure in seducing men as they sleep, causing them to have sexual intercourse with her. The succubus apparently takes the most delight in abusing monks and other men of the cloth. The sexual energy of the victim nourishes the succubus, although the act exhausts the man so thoroughly that he may even die as a result. Lilith, the first wife of Adam, was effectively demonized because she failed to obey her husband, and has been called a succubus.
In the UK, some inns that date back to the sixteenth century still have the effigy of a succubus placed discreetly over the door. This was a secret symbol that the building was also a brothel.
This fantastical animal has a double meaning. On the one hand, it is synonymous with purity and chastity, yet on the other, the single horn on its head is clearly a phallic symbol. The positioning of the horn, though, in the center of the head and therefore at the symbolic seat of the mind, shows that the horn, in this case, stands for sublimation of the sexual urge. Popular legend says that only a virgin who is pure in mind as well as body can touch the unicorn, and medieval tapestries of the creature with the Virgin Mary were a reminder of the Virgin Birth. However, even this innocuous imagery was prohibited by the Church in the late Middle Ages, regarded as too erotic.
The lion and the unicorn often appear as a pair, most notably on heraldic devices. Here, the lion represents the Sun to the unicorn’s Moon.
The concept of an immortal creature, once human, that lives in a tomb and comes out at night to suck the blood of living creatures, which then become vampires themselves, is widespread throughout Europe, Russia, and many parts of Asia. The fact that the vampire takes all its nourishment in this way is a reminder of blood’s power as a sustaining life-force, and explains why ancient man daubed his dead in red ocher, in the hopes that the vitality of the color alone would restore life.
Vampires were once taken very seriously as a threat. In the Middle Ages, a Slav edict placed a heavy fine on any female vampire that was found guilty of taking blood from a man. The classic prophylactics against vampires have remained the same for centuries. These are the Christian Cross (since the vampire is the agent of the Devil); the silver bullet (the metal encapsulates the essence of moonlight which is necessary to the vampire, and therefore effects a sort of homeopathic poison); garlic, a herb of protection that is hated by all demonic creatures; and finally, the wooden stake through the heart. Today, there seem to be fewer blood-sucking vampires around than there used to be. However, the word is used to describe anyone who saps psychic energy from those around them. How to spot a vampire? The key feature is a lack of a reflection, since a reflection is a symbol of the soul the vampire doesn’t have.
The idea that Gods and Goddesses could shape-shift into the form of animals or birds, and that shamans could absorb the spirit of an animal by wearing skins and feathers as part of ritual practice, is ancient. The werewolf is a part of this tradition. However, the reason why a wolf in particular should have been chosen to represent the evil side of human nature is worth examining.
The belief in lycanthropy (human/wolf shape-shifting transformation) was an ancient one that existed in Classical times; even Virgil wrote about it. As any horror movie aficionado knows, werewolves change into wolves during the time of the full Moon. Like vampires, they have no reflection, nor do they have a shadow. Since both reflection and shadow are symbolic of the soul, in taking on the form of a wolf, the human soul and conscience are left behind, the ferocious nature of the beast taking over entirely.
The belief in werewolves is evidenced by documentation that describes the trials-and punishments-of such creatures, although belief in them was starting to die out by the seventeenth century in Europe. For example, in 1615 a woman was burned alive, accused of lycanthropy. A man, traveling alone late at night, was attacked by a werewolf but managed to chop off its paw. The woman in question was missing a hand. Other werewolf trials, carried out under the jurisdiction of the Church, worked with the same kind of logic that was applied to witch trials, often using severe methods of torture until the accused either confessed or died.
The zombie is a Voudon term that has become the popular name for a revenant, or one that returns from the dead. Although this could be considered a handy skill, the unfortunate zombie has no soul, and will only survive if it has access to a sufficient quantity of meat from normal, soul-containing human bodies. In this, there is a parallel between the zombie and the vampire.
In Haitian myth, a corpse can be reanimated by a powerful sorcerer called a Bokor. The zombie is really nothing but a robot that must do the bidding of the Bokor, since it has no mind of its own; it is simply a ghastly mechanical creature. Although we may think of the zombie as nothing but a handy device for use in horror films, there are several reported eye-witness accounts, with names and dates mentioned, of people seen wandering around several years after their death, a reminder that folklore, no matter how bizarre, carries a powerful symbolic punch.
The term “zombie” has come to mean a person who carries out certain actions automatically, without seeming to apply any conscious thought or decision-making process.
BIRDS: DIVINE COMMUNICATORS
In the Qu’ran, the word for “bird” is synonymous with “fate” and in Greek, “bird” and “omen” have the same meaning. Orthomancy, a form of divination that involves watching birds, was common practice all over the world in ancient times. Birds’ flight patterns were observed; the type of bird was considered; their calls and cries were pondered over, and sometimes this divination took the form of an analysis of bird entrails. Ancient Romans wouldn’t make any important decisions without first consulting their augurs. Indeed, the Latin word augury, which is taken to mean an omen or portent, actually has its root in the meaning of the word “bird” and also gives us “inauguration.” Bird augury wasn’t exclusive to the Romans but was carried out by Tibetans, Indians, Native Americans, Mexicans, Egyptians, Mayans, and Celts. Sacred places around the world were defined by bird symbols and messages: Mexico City, Rome, and the site of the omphalos at Delphi were all founded in this way.
The idea, too, that birds somehow revealed the secrets of the alphabet to humankind is far reaching. The best-known story is that Hermes, the Messenger of the Gods, “invented” the alphabet by watching the flight patterns of birds, cranes in particular. Robert Graves in The White Goddess tells us that the secret symbols of the alphabet were kept in a crane-skin bag, which makes perfect sense given also that the Alaskans used to use the skins of cranes, swans, and eagles as bags since these skins are the strongest.
In a beautiful, symbolic circle of completion, the feather or quill was/is a popular means of communicating the written word: the bird communicates in another way.
For sailors, this huge sea bird is said to be the reincarnated soul of a dead sailor that has come to help make a safe passage for the boat, or perhaps to give a warning of rough weather ahead. Therefore, killing or harming the albatross is the height of bad luck. In the Pacific islands, the albatross is commonly believed to be a messenger from the Gods, able to sleep on the wing. The bird is revered because of its close connection to the Divine, and on Easter Island one of the statues has the beak of an albatross.
There is evidence that the crane has been present on the planet for 10 million years and as well as this, the bird has a long lifespan-up to 50 years-so it is no surprise that, for many, the bird is a symbol of longevity.
The crane is a symbol of communication, too. A legend states that Mercury/Hermes invented the alphabet by watching the angular shapes of the birds’ wings in flight. Thereafter the letters were carried in a bag made of crane skin. For Ancient Greeks, the crane was a solar symbol and as such was dedicated to the Sun God, Apollo, who disguised himself as the bird whenever he came to visit Earth. In China and Japan, the crane similarly represents longevity and faithfulness, both traits that are true to the bird.
The dove carries a universal symbolism that is as ubiquitous as the bird itself. The world over, it is associated with the feminine aspect, love, and peace.
Pigeons and doves have carried messages for thousands of years and the notion of this particular bird as a messenger from the Gods is perhaps more pronounced than for others. This is backed up by the story of the dove sent out by Noah to determine how far the Ark was from land; the bird returned with a sprig of an olive branch, and the juxtaposition of the bird with the olive branch is a sign of redemption, peace, and resolution. Columba-the dove-is the “secret,” covert bird symbol of the United States, its soft reasonable femininity counterbalancing the masculine glory of the more visible and overt eagle. The dove is also the symbolic bird of Israel.
One of the more unlikely symbols of this seemingly innocuous bird is an association with the Devil that was given to it by a thirteenth-century Pope, Gregory IX. Gregory took it upon himself to preach a particularly impassioned sermon in which he denounced the bird as the personification of the demon Asmodeus, who apparently appeared to his followers in the unlikely guise of a duck and thereafter caused all sorts of unholy goings-on. Like other migratory birds, the appearance of the duck was an indicator, to ancient man, of the changing of the seasons; therefore, it was believed to have the powers of prophecy. The duck is a useful ally, in general a benevolent creature, its links with anything remotely demonic an aberration. Because it is a water bird it is linked to Poseidon/ Neptune, and in Egypt, where ducks were domesticated 5000 years ago, it was associated with Isis and with the Sun God Ra. The duck’s take-off, as it skims across the surface of the water and into the air, effectively exchanging one element for another, symbolizes the journey of the soul into the next world.
One of the most important archetypal bird symbols, the prominence of the eagle is a worldwide phenomenon. The eagle is the “King of the Birds” and the “Lion of the Skies,” and its use as a symbol is clear. It resembles power, authority, nobility, and truth; it is the ultimate solar symbol. In Greek the name of the eagle shares the same stem as aigle, meaning “ray of light.”
Notably, the eagle is the symbol of one of the four evangelists of the New Testament, St. John. Here, the eagle represents divine inspiration. However, the saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” applies here, because the bird is reputedly the natural enemy of snakes, and the eagle has been regarded as on the “side” of God ever since the Devil was symbolized as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, tempting Adam and Eve away from the straight and narrow path of good towards the twisting and corrupting path of evil. However, the eagle and the snake seen together symbolize the opposing concepts of matter and spirit, Earth and Heaven, instinct and intellect, the mundane and the sublime, and therefore the unity of the cosmos. In Norse mythology, the eagle sits in the great World Tree, Yggdrasil, counterbalanced by the serpent that twines about the tree’s roots. The eagle’s reputation as a symbol of truth comes from its sharp sightedness; the eyesight of the eagle is at least four times superior to that of human beings, and combined with its high-flying abilities it means that the bird can see the bigger picture, quite literally. Therefore, it is meant to be able to discern truth from falsehood. Because it flies so high, often appearing to be heading straight for the Sun, people believed that the eagle was the only creature in the world able to gaze directly into the brightness of the Sun without hurting its eyes. Therefore, the bird also symbolizes mental and spiritual enlightenment and the aspiration of a pure heart, able to look into the face of God with no fear. Shamans believe that the eagle communicated its gifts directly from God, the bird acting as intermediary. They believe that the first shaman was conceived after an eagle impregnated a woman, another symbol of the bird as a divine spirit or winged messenger. This has parallels with another winged creature, the Angel Gabriel, who told Mary of her impending condition. In both cases, the resulting child is a sort of spiritual hybrid, able to connect God and Man.
The eagle has always been the emblem par excellence of emperors and empires, even prior to its presence on the imperial standard of the Caesars and its latter-day use as the symbol of the United States, where the altogether more humble dove balances its grandiose power. The death of an emperor was heralded by the release of eagles into the skies, symbolic of the soul ascending to the Heavens. However, more sinisterly, the symbolic power and attributes of the eagle were appropriated by the Nazis to bolster their own image. This is an instance where a powerful symbol can be abused, something that also happened to another ancient solar symbol, the swastika, whose implicit benevolent meaning is unfortunately still tainted because of its use by the Nazis.
For Native Americans, the power of the eagle is such that possession of one of its feathers is the ultimate accolade, a sacred symbol of the mightiness of the bird and of its special place within the Native American pantheon. The eagle is the “father” of the people, a God, and illicit possession of a feather by anyone who does not have the right to have it is punishable by hefty fines. For the Aztecs, the eagle was not associated with the lion but with the jaguar, and the throne of the Aztec emperor was decorated with eagle feathers and jaguar skin to symbolize his association with these powerful creatures. The eagle “told” the people where Mexico City should be built, duly appearing perched on a cactus growing out of a rock, as decreed by an ancient legend.
Hoopoes are appalling nest-keepers, rarely clearing out any debris. It’s also a particularly bad-smelling bird. This could be why it’s listed in Hebrew scripture as an “unclean” bird, which is not to be eaten. Despite this, images of the hoopoe feature on the walls of tombs in Crete and Egypt, and the bird has a long association with magic and the supernatural. As a bird that can communicate between the world of spirit and matter, the hoopoe seems to be second to none. According to the Qu’ran, the hoopoe was the bird that told King Solomon about the Queen of Sheba. Moreover, it was the only bird that could tell the King the whereabouts of essential underground springs.
The hoopoe is also one of the birds able to forecast the weather, particularly storms, and with good reason. A recent discovery confirms an ancient aspect of its symbolic and superstitious meaning. It seems that the bird is able to detect the minute piezoelectrical charges in the atmosphere that can herald either a storm or an earthquake up to ten hours before the event.
On the Nazca Plains in Peru, artists living centuries ago carved out various shapes and patterns that are indecipherable from the ground, but when viewed from the air, come together in recognizable pictures. Among these images is a giant hummingbird that can only be seen when the viewer is about a thousand feet up. Ancient artists painstakingly created this secret symbol, hidden in the landscape, able to be seen properly only by the Gods in their Heavens or in a way they could never have envisaged, by modern man centuries later, from the vantage point of an aircraft.
Given its origins in the Americas, it is from this area that the symbolic meaning of the hummingbird comes. In the Andes it is a symbol of death and resurrection. It loses a significant amount of heat at night in order to conserve energy and seems to be dead if it is found at night. In the morning, however, the heat of the sunshine revives it.
One of the more epic myths about the hummingbird concerns a great warrior, Huitzil. His full name was Huitzilopochitli, which translates as “the hummingbird from the left.” The “left” here refers to the otherworldly realms that run parallel to the known Universe. The warrior’s mother conceived him from a ball of brightly colored feathers, which fell from the sky.
The relevance of tobacco for Native Americans involves the symbolism of the smoke that it makes that rises to the Heavens carrying messages to the Gods. Given that birds do the same thing, there are many associations between tobacco and birds, including the hummingbird. In a Cherokee myth, a shaman transforms himself into a hummingbird so that he can find the lost tobacco plant.
Aztec reverence for the hummingbird was profound. Shamans’ cloaks and wands were decorated with the feathers of the bird.
The ancient name for the kingfisher is the “halcyon,” and it carries with it a powerful legend that also explains some of the bird’s symbolic significance. The Halcyon Days-an idyllic time of peace and tranquility-refers to the 14-day period just before the end of the Greek winter when the weather is good and the seas are calm enough to facilitate the nesting of the legendary bird on the waves, although the real kingfisher does no such thing.
The kingfisher, as the halcyon bird, symbolizes the marriage of the sea and the sky, the Earth and the air.
Because the nest of the lapwing, at the edge of a body of water, is so well disguised, the bird is symbolic of a hidden secret. And although some accounts of Solomon’s introduction to the Queen of Sheba have the hoopoe as the matchmaker, others give the lapwing this honor.
Lapwing chicks are able to be up and about very soon after they have hatched, and can run away immediately if there’s danger; this precocious behavior gives rise to a phrase, “running about like a lapwing with a shell upon their heads,” coined by Ben Jonson, and taken to mean someone who behaves rashly.
The ethereal, sobbing cry of the lapwing means that the bird has sorrowful associations. The Seven Whistlers is an ancient folktale found all over northern Europe. There’s an old Gaelic name for the bird, the Guilchaismeachd or “Wail of Warning.” In some parts of Britain, the legend says that the wailing is caused by six of the whistlers in search of the seventh; however, once the seventh whistler is found, the world will end.
In the Bible, the lapwing is mentioned as an unclean bird, a bird of taboo, which generally means that the bird was considered sacred and should not be eaten.
The name of this bird not only tells us a lot about its nature, but also points toward the symbolism associated with it. “Mag” means “chatterer, ” and “pie” comes from “pied,” meaning black and white.
Because the magpie is attracted to bright and shiny objects, it’s a symbol not only of a hoarder, but also of a thief. Its clearly defined black and white markings have made it, in Christian belief at least, a symbol of the Devil (because it refused to wear full mourning for the Crucifixion), and elsewhere it is viewed as a trickster, like other members of the highly intelligent corvid family. This ambivalence is reflected in the old counting rhyme about magpies whose verses are alternately positive and negative, like the coloring of the bird itself. The devilish symbolism is exacerbated because the bird can even imitate the human voice, an alarming talent to superstitious minds.
The predilection of the magpie for shiny objects means that is linked to mirrors and reflections. In Japan a woman would regard her husband’s gift of a mirror with some suspicion. This is because of the belief that the mirror could turn into a magpie. This bird then spied on the wife on behalf of her husband. Even today, the backs of some mirrors in China are decorated with the magpie symbol.
In Greece, the magpie was the attribute of the Wine God Dionysus. Wine loosens the tongue and causes people to chatter like the bird. This chattering gives us the name “Gazette,” a journal full of gossipy items, from the Italian for magpie, gazza.
The ostrich is a symbol of avoidance, or ignorance, because of its perceived habit of hiding its head in the sand. Although this characteristic is inaccurate, it is a reminder of just how certain symbolic meanings can be engendered in ignorance rather than in truth. The ostrich, in fact, protects its eggs by burying them in sand, and occasionally has need to disguise this place-the nest can contain a collection of up to 30 eggs from different birds-by lying on it. The ostrich is also considered stupid, because it eats sharp objects and stones; in fact these abrasive objects aid digestion.
It is ironic that the two best-known ostrich symbols concern misunderstandings, because as a symbol of truth, the ostrich feather is unrivaled. Such a feather is the attribute of the Egyptian Goddess of Truth, Ma’at, who weighs the ostrich feather against her scales of reckoning. The other side of the scales holds the heart, the seat of the conscience. The ostrich feather carries this symbolism because unlike birds of flight whose feathers have one side heavier than the other, the ostrich feather is perfectly symmetrical.
Ostrich eggs are balanced on the tops of the pinnacles of Muslim temples in Mali, because the egg is symbolic of the World Egg, and carries an inherent reminder of faith and patience because the ostrich’s egg has a long gestation period.
The Italian word for owl, strix or strega, also means “witch,” and this provides a heavy hint about one aspect of the bird’s symbolic meaning. Because the owl is nocturnal, it means that it has access to covert information, occult knowledge, and secrets. It is because of this reason that the little owl is the attribute of the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena/ Minerva, and also explains its appearance perched on top of a stack of books as a symbol of knowledge. The idea that the owl has access to information denied mere mortals is further underlined by the fact the bird can swivel its head an astonishing 270 degrees; quite literally, the bird can see behind itself. Its huge eyes add to its wise reputation.
The links with witchcraft and witchery are also because of some of the owl’s habits. It lives a solitary existence, only coming together to breed, and usually separating again once the juvenile owls have flown the nest. An efficient hunter, the owl’s feathers are particularly adapted so that its flight is silent, and the bird is able to take ten times the amount of small rodents in one night than a cat. Its killings are often accompanied by an unearthly screeching, which superstitious country dwellers attributed to supernatural causes.
The owl is a symbol of the feminine, the Moon, and prophecy. The Moon, acting as a mirror of the Sun, is itself symbolic of clairvoyant powers, another gift of witches. This gift of second sight, though, generally brings gloomy news, and everywhere the shriek of an owl in the night presages a death. The owl has other unfortunate symbolism connected with it. Since it chooses derelict buildings in which to make its home, the bird is associated with destruction and decay. The owl is also a companion of the infamous witch queen Hecate, Goddess of the Underworld. The belief that the owl could come and go between the lands of the living and the dead was not restricted to the Romans and the Britons. The same belief exists for Native Americans, for Africans, in China, in Japan, and in India, where the God of Death, Yama, is shown with an owl. The owl is a psychopomp, able to guide the souls of the deceased into the Afterlife.
The raven is one of the most intelligent of all the birds. To give some idea of its intelligence, if the average IQ for a human being is measured at the 100 mark, then the average IQ of a raven is 138. Its linguistic skills are legendary, and it is possible that the raven can understand as well as imitate human words. It is this intelligence, and the playful nature of the raven, that makes it the ultimate symbol of the trickster.
In some societies, the raven is as important as the eagle, and occasionally this black bird even surpasses the golden one in terms of its symbolic import. Like the eagle, the raven has few natural predators except for man. Unlike the eagle, ravens will work together for the benefit of the group, and so have come to symbolize the benefits of teamwork. Even if the raven has never been taught to speak in human languages, its voice carries a surprisingly human inflection and tone. This led to a belief that the bird knew everything, as personified by the ravens that belonged to the Norse God Odin. Called Hugin and Munin, from the words for “thought” and “memory,” the birds flew back to the God at the end of every day where they whispered into his ears all the doings of mankind. More sinisterly, the raven is seen as a harbinger of death, as personified in the Morrigan, the great Battle Goddess of Celtic myth who takes on the form of a raven. The raven is a carrion bird and was often to be seen at the sites of battles, making a grim meal of the bloody remains of the defeated army. The idea of the raven as a bird of malice is promulgated by the Bible story that Noah first sends a raven to find land; the raven never returned, and so was seen to be no friend of man. The dove, sent out next, returned with the sprig of the olive tree and has been a beneficial omen ever since. The ravens at the Tower of London are a symbol of protection par excellence. Birds have been kept in this spot for over a thousand years, due to an ancient legend that the country would be safe from invaders while ravens remain there. Indeed, this idea is so firmly entrenched in the national psyche that when the raven population at the Tower dwindled during the Second World War, Winston Churchill arranged that ravens be “imported” from Wales to keep the country safe.
In Native American belief, the raven is a symbol of the Creator and as such is a powerful protector of humankind. Myths tell that the bird not only made the Universe but also discovered and looked after the first man. The shape-shifting abilities of the bird are mentioned here, too, and as such, the raven is the preferred bird of shamans, who converse with the birds in order to discover what the Gods have in store for mankind.
The rooster would be easy to overlook as a bird of mystic significance. Nevertheless there’s a rich history of magical lore surrounding the bird. Its name, the “cock,” says it all, and it’s no accident that the name of the bird is the same as a slang word for penis. The rooster is the ultimate masculine symbol; it signifies the Sun, power, pugnacity, and sexual prowess. It appears as the head of the mystical Abraxas symbol. These links with the Sun are uni versal; the frilled red comb on the bird’s head looks like sunbeams. Many Christian churches have the rooster on their weathervanes. This is not only because the cock appears with the coming of physical light and therefore spiritual enlightenment, but also because the bird is a poignant symbol within the faith. It crowed once when Christ was born, again when St. Peter denied Christ, and it will crow again as a warning of the Day of Judgement. According to the Qu’ran, conversely, the end of the world will be upon us when the cock stops crowing.
All the solar power and masculine energy of the rooster made it fitting as a sacrifice to the God Apollo. Later, people believed that they could harness this energy by eating the bird, which explains in part why a bowl of chicken soup is said to have such a fortifying effect. In the East cockerels are bred specifically to live in and around Shinto temples. The Rooster also appears as one of the twelve signs of the Chinese Zodiac, where the attributes of people born under the sign include enthusiasm and a sense of humor.
Sadly, the sparrow has latterly become a not-so-secret symbol of the decline in the bird population and is held as an example of what can happen as a result of modern farming methods and the use of chemicals. Nevertheless, for thousands of years the sparrow has held a close place in the hearts of people as a symbol of satisfied domesticity, living in close proximity with us, happy to share space, and being so much a part of the natural landscape as to be virtually unnoticeable. The close relationship between humankind and this small, unassuming brown bird led to a certain species of it being called the house sparrow, and it is used in the Bible as an example of something that is cheap and plentiful, described as being sold “two for a farthing” although nevertheless important in the eyes of God. Here, the sparrow is a symbol of the importance of every living thing, no matter how lowly.
When parents think that their children are too young to be told how babies are made, the issue is fudged for a while longer, and the child is often told that a stork brings the infant. The image of the bird flying along carrying the baby in a sling is popularly used on christening cards and other artifacts. This affectation seems to exist across the world, even reaching into the mythology of the Plains Indians. The reason is unclear but it might be because storks will happily live in close proximity to humans.
The stork is famously dutiful toward its parents, so much so that in Rome a Stork Law (Lax Ionia) was passed to ensure that Roman citizens would emulate the bird and take care of their elders.
The migratory habits of the swallow are so reliable that they are a universal symbol of the arrival of spring. Because of this they are a welcome sight and most people regard it as a privilege if the bird chooses to live in close proximity to humans. The Chinese even used to date their equinoxes to the swallow’s arrival and departure. The spring equinox is the traditional time of fertility rites, and resulting pregnancies would sometimes be blamed on the girl’s eating a swallow’s egg. Confucius was allegedly born through this mechanism, which led to his nickname of “The Swallow’s Son.” There was a great deal of speculation about where the swallow went for the winter months. Aristotle theorized that they hibernated in holes, and an eighteenth-century writer supposed that they traveled as far as the Moon.
The swallow was associated with the Egyptian Goddess Isis, who was said to change into a swallow at night and fly around Osiris’ coffin, singing mournful songs, until the Sun arrived back the next morning.
The appearance of the swan, an ethereal, otherworldly creature, floating gracefully upon the calm waters that resemble the spirit world and the eternal feminine, packs a powerful symbolic punch even without any prior knowledge of the myths and legends surrounding the bird that have aided and abetted its significance. Its pure white color, its strength, and its beauty make it a symbol of light, both of the direct light of the Sun and the reflected light of the Moon.
Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the swan is believed to be silent until its moment of death, when its song is said to be the first and last sound it utters. Therefore, “swansong” has come to mean the final expression of an artist’s work, for example, or a late resurgence before the final demise. Curiously, though, the name “swan” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word sounder, which has the same root as “sound” or “sonnet.”
Birds, like animals, naturally carry their strongest symbolic meanings in their place of origin, which in the case of the turkey is in the Americas.
It is a symbol of fertility and motherhood, and because it lives close to the ground and is the avian opposite of the high-flying eagle, it’s sometimes called the Earth Eagle and is representative of the Earth Mother.
To the Toltecs, the turkey was “the jeweled fowl,” because of its sparkling colors, and was reserved as food only for festivals and ritual occasions. Nothing of the turkey was wasted; after it had been eaten, the feathers were used as ornamentation, and the bones used to make musical instruments or whistles.
For some tribes, however, most notably the Pueblo, the bird was considered so sacred that it was never eaten but kept for its beautiful feathers alone, which grow back after plucking. Because the bird was felt to be able to communicate with the Gods and could intercede on behalf of human beings, in the Pueblo funeral rites whole turkeys were buried along with the corpse, and occasionally these bones are still found. Prayer sticks decorated in a specific way with turkey feathers were given to the families of the deceased.
The Mayans used the emblem of the turkey in their codices, where it indicated fertility. The bird was decapitated in rituals designed to ensure that the Gods would favor man with an abundant harvest.
Although the bald eagle was chosen as the national bird of the United States, Benjamin Franklin was far more enthusiastic that the turkey should have this honor. He suggested that the eagle was a bird of “bad moral character” and that the turkey was the more courageous bird.
An archetypal symbol of death and decay, the vulture frequently stars in cowboy movies where it circles ominously, coasting along on the thermals, an indicator of imminent doom. It is true that vultures are scavenger birds but their supposed talent of being able to predict death is unsubstantiated. The Latin name for the bird, Cathartidae, has the same root as the word “catharsis,” meaning purification, and much of the symbolism of the vulture follows this idea.
The Egyptians, however, relied on a more wholesome aspect of the vulture’s character to inform their own symbolic meaning. A notoriously good mother, the vulture personifies the process of birth and the maternal instinct, and is associated with Isis. The Goddess is shown enfolded in the wings of a huge vulture, the solar disc behind her. The vulture was so revered that there was also a Vulture Goddess, Nekhbet, who is depicted with the head of the bird. Vultures were called “Pharaoh’s Pets” because they were invaluable in keeping the streets clean.
Native Americans, too, hold the vulture in high esteem and also see the bird as symbolic of both spirit and matter. A feather from the bird, used as a totem object, enabled the shaman to “come back to the self” after shape-shifting ceremonies. The bird is a symbol of purification and renewal.
Also called the Flicker, the woodpecker is believed to be a magical bird with powers of sorcery and clairvoyance. This may be because its behavior signifies changes in the weather; many of the folk names of the bird throughout Europe reflect this ability, for example pic de la pluie or rain woodpecker in France, and Ragnfagel, or rainbird, in Sweden.
The knocking sound made by the woodpecker as it burrows into the tree where it makes its home leads to an association with Odin, the Norse God of Thunder and also with Mars, the Roman God of War. The image of the bird is seen on Roman coinage because the founding twins, Romulus and Remus, were said to have been given solid food by woodpeckers, after they had been suckled by a she-wolf.
The bird’s association with thunder and lightning occurs elsewhere in the world. For example, the Pueblo associate the bird’s drumming with the sound of the thunder that is the precursor to rain. Many Native Americans believed that the woodpecker had the skill to be able to avert lightning, and its feathers were used in rituals and ceremonies because of this power. Among some tribes, the woodpecker was believed to have brought fire to humankind.
Although the wren is tiny it is known as the King of the Birds and symbolizes the power of humility. Despite its size and modest appearance, the wren is one of the most sacred of all birds and has a large role to play in myths and legends, where it is regarded as a magician, a magical symbol, and an emblem of wise intelligence.
In the Celtic pantheon, the bird is the symbol of the Druid, and its names in Irish, Drui, and in Welsh, Drwy, share the same root as the word for “Druid.” The royal nature of the bird is accepted all over Europe; in Spain, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, and France the name for the wren is the same as that for “king.” (In the Breton language and that of the Pawnee, however, the word for wren is the same as that for “happy.”) One explanation for this symbolism comes in a story where the eagle challenges all the birds to see which of them can fly the highest; although the wren is ignored as being too insignificant, the smaller bird wins the race when it secretes itself in the feathered ruff around the throat of the eagle. The wren pops out at the opportune moment when the eagle begins his descent, and wins the race by flying a few inches higher than the bigger bird. Therefore, the strength of the wren is in the might of its intellect and wit, as opposed to mere physical brute force and size.
Because of its sacred status, anyone harming a wren should expect dire consequences. Despite this, once a year the rules were lifted, and on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, the Hunting of the Wren took place in parts of the UK, Ireland, and France. The bird was caught, ritually slaughtered, and carried from house to house in a tiny box surrounded by a hoop or bower of flowers. The meaning of this curious ritual is unclear. It may have symbolized the death of winter and the coming of spring, since the wren is highly visible during the colder months of the year as it does not migrate; or it may have been because of a legend that the martyr St. Stephen, about to escape from prison, was caught again when the wren inadvertently alerted the prison guard.