Story, Writing

Animals in Mythology: Guides, Guardians, and Tricksters

Ever see a bird outside your window and get the feeling that it’s trying to tell you something? Well, perhaps it is!

Stories from mythology and folklore are full of animal characters and symbolism, as they are representatives of the knowledge, strength, and magic of the natural world we share with them. Many cultures around the world see animals as guides and messengers, delivering valuable information from the realm of spirits. Others cast our animal neighbors as more mischevious, and even dangerous, folk who might not be as friendly as the Disney movies would have you believe. Often, the stories will carry common themes around the world– foxes are frequently cast as cunning tricksters– which makes me wonder if there might not be some truth to the tales (or “tails”…hehe).

Here are some of my favourites!

Birds

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Birds are frequently messengers and guides from the spirit realm, wielders of great knowledge or insight granted from their ability to view the world from a higher perspective.

In Norse legend, ravens are Odin’s messengers, and he keeps two of them for counsel: Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory). The pair flies around the world to bring information back to Odin

For many cultures, some birds (like doves) have a strong connection to the souls of the departed and may either be the physical form of those spirits or are the guides that lead the spirits to the afterlife. Hummingbirds, for example, are the resurrected spirits of fierce Aztec warriors and the messengers of Huitzilopochtli, a sun and war deity.

If you’re interested in learning more about myths and beliefs surrounding birds, check out this National Geographic blog!

Fish

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Fish are associated with knowledge, magic, and the unknown, and while many of them may feature as powerful monsters, others have secrets to share with aspiring heroes. In the legends of Fionn mac Cumhail, the salmon who eat the hazelnuts from a sacred tree would grant endless knowledge of the universe. The Zoroastrian creator-deity assigned fish as guardians for the tree of life.

When cast as monsters, fish often represent the fear humans would have of the water and the sea, and the unknown creatures that may lurk within its shadowy depths. This interesting duality of fish and water-dwellers in folklore is an interesting one: simultaneously feared and revered. Surely there’s a lesson in there somewhere about fearing the unknown until you gain wisdom and understanding.

Bears

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When they’re not the butt of foxes’ jokes, bears are revered for their strength as warriors and protectors. Warriors throughout the ages would try to channel the bear’s strength with totems and furs (poor bears), and names like Arthur and Artos would be reserved for those who exemplified such ability. As protectors, bears are guardians and kings of the forest, and the stories of lost children being sheltered by bears are common ones to this day. As hibernating creatures, bears are also keepers of dreams and spiritual medicine and encourage introspection to find the healing answers to one’s problems.

If you find yourself in the forests of British Columbia and Canada, you may be blessed with the sight of a Kermode Spirit Bear, who is known by its beautiful white fur. Legend has it that these bears have a special connection to the earth and stars, and were created as a reminder of the Ice Age, when the earth was once frozen and covered in snow.

Tortoises

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Tortoises are beings of great wisdom, peace, and patience, who know that any storm can be weathered for those with a strong will (and a hard shell). Many cultures believe that turtles and tortoises played a role in the creation of the earth and the concept of a world turtle, which carries the weight of the world atop its shell, is a common one (any Discworld fans out there?)

As with its other aquatic neighbors, turtles are sometimes associated with evil and mystery, however they are more frequently used as symbols of protection and good health. Some early Egyptian civilizations along the Nile used shells as shields and believed that tortoises had magical protective properties. Chinese myths also highlight the mystic qualities of the tortoise as a being with a supernaturally long life and associate the markings on its domed shell with the universe and the constellations in the sky.

Foxes

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Foxes are, in most stories, cunning and wily rogues, whose exploits range from outsmarting its larger, stronger rivals (wolves and bears) to shapeshifting into human form.

In Western myths, the fox is quite reliably a trickster whose strength lies in its mind rather than its physical might. You may have read the tale of the Fantastic Mr. Fox (written by Roald Dahl), who steals food from crueler, larger animals to feed his family. A Native American myth describes how Fox fooled Bear into ice fishing with its tail (back when bears had long tails), and when the lake froze, the tail snapped right off! Therefore, bears from that point on always had short tails.

The Kitsune is a well-known figure in Eastern tales– the shapeshifting fox spirit who frequently tricks (and sometimes falls in love with) humans, or who may be found safeguarding shrines to Inari, Japanese deity of rice, tea, and sake.

What are some of your favorite animal myths and folktales? Do you like to use them in your stories?

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