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!
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