The historical symbolism of animals from around the world.

Animals have been used as symbols since the dawn of time by humans all over the world. Animals have played many different roles throughout different cultures. Some as a source of food, some as companions and even as links to the world of spirits. Different cultures have used animals to make sense of the world and here we explore how four different cultures have made symbols of the turtle, elephant, cat and manta ray.

1. The “World Turtle” in Indigenous Cultures

Turtles are some of the oldest reptilians on Earth dating back to the Permian Period over 250 million years ago. The most significant feature of a turtle is that it carries its house on its back. Naturally different cultures have cultivated a view of the world as being carried by a giant turtle and to some cultures, the turtle is part of the myth of creation. For the Lenape and Iroquois people the Earth was created as soil piled on the back of a great sea turtle that continued to grow until it was large enough to hold people. For many Indigenous tribes, the continent of North America is referred to as Turtle Island. It’s believed that when the earth shakes it’s the great World Turtle stretching. After all, it’s not easy carrying the whole world on your back.

2. The Elephant in India


While the elephant is a strong symbol all over southern Asia, it is particularly revered in the Indian sub-continent. Known for their size, strength and intelligence they can be wild animals, but can also be tamed and used as beasts of burden. In Hindu cosmology elephants are supporting the world on their heads. A common representation is Ramayana describing 4 elephants placed at different cardinal points. Some depictions even have the elephants resting on the back of a turtle. Elephants have also been viewed as vehicles of the gods. Indra, the King of Heaven in Hindu mythology is said to ride a white elephant named Airavata, “the cloud elephant.”


3. Cats in Egypt

At one point it seemed impossible to browse the internet without being bombarded with funny videos, cute pictures and a tidal wave of memes about cats. The love story between humans and cats is not new. In fact, it started a millennia ago in Egypt. For a mainly agrarian society, the cat was an essential animal. It was the guardian of crops and killer of pests that could decimate the harvest so it’s no surprise that the Egyptians started to regard cats as protective animals and soon, even as a deity. Several Egyptian deities are feline headed with the main cat goddess being Bastet. She is the protector of the pharaoh and the goddess of fertility and childbirth. Cats were representative of the goddess and used to guard the chambers of pharaohs when they died. They would even be mummified like high-ranking humans.


4. The Manta Ray, the Ghost of Polynesia

People come from far to the Polynesian triangle for the chance to see this graceful and large fish. A manta ray can travel throughout the world’s oceans and its size and ghost-like movements when it swims have captured the imagination of many cultures but most particularly in Polynesia. In Hawaii, the manta ray is mentioned in the creation chant and is one of the “higher animals,” a mysterious creature who can dive where humans can’t. With their ability to travel far and wide, they are also seen as the “messengers of the ocean,” carrying news through the world.

Are there any animals in your culture that have special significance? Share in the comments below!


  • Juras Visockis said:

    Two animals are significant in Lithuanian culture: Aurochs (bos primigenius) and Wolf.
    In middle ages the hunting of aurochs was reserved exclusively for the nobility. Lithuanian word for noble (in the sense of chivalric behavior) derives from the name of aurochs in Lithuanian. Aurochs in Lithuanian is Tauras and adjective “noble” is “taurus”. Also the word for cup in Lithuanian is “taurė” which is a relic from the times when the drinking horns we used, obviously the horns of aurochs.
    There are few place names in Lithuanian related to aurochs, such as Tauragė (literally “Horn of the Aurochs”, Tauralaukis – a part of the Klaipėda city ( former village under the same name) meaning “The Field of Aurochs”, Taurai – a village in Tauragė district municipality, Tauragnai town in Utena district, the name of which comes from the nearby lake Tauragnas.
    The historical coat of arms of Kaunas city is silver aurochs with the golden cross between it’s horns
    The coat of arms of Tauragė is a trumpet made of horn
    The coat of arms of Tauragnai is black aurochs with red horns
    The statue of aurochs near the main entrance to Kaunas city
    The remnants of pre-christian Wolf cult are still found in Lihuanian ethnography. Herodoutus in his accounts about Neuri (who now by scientists are identified as Estern Balts – the ancestors of Lithuanians) writes that tey all (specifically men) are magicians and can turn into wolves. Lithuanian goddess of forests Medeina also had an ability to turn into maiden she wolf (vilkmergė) who helped animals and guarded them from hunters. The place names related to wolf are: Vilkaviškis town, Vilkija town, Vilkyškiai village, Vilkiškės village, Ukmergė town (prior to WWI – Vilkmergė, meaning “Wolf maiden”). Wolf (Vilkas) is one of Lithuanian surnames
    The legend of the establishment of Vilnius in which both wolf and aurochs are present

    I hope you find it interesting.

    Kind regards,
    Juras Visockis
    Vilnius, Lithuania

    April 22, 2024

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