Since the beginning of human history, people have lived in close contact with animals—usually as hunters and farmers—and have developed myths and legends about them. All kinds of creatures, from fierce leopards to tiny spiders, play important roles in mythology. A myth can give special meaning or extraordinary qualities to common animals such as frogs and bears. However, other creatures found in myths, such as many-headed monsters, dragons , and unicorns , never existed in the real world.
Many myths explore relationships between humans and animals. People may talk with animals, fight them, or even marry them. Sometimes animals perform services for humans, including guiding them through the underworld or helping them complete tasks. One large group of myths involving animals concerns transformations, or changes, between human and animal states. Other myths focus on the close connection between people and animals.
Myths of Transformation
August 20, 2020
Few animals capture people’s imagination quite like the wolf. For thousands of years, the wolf has fascinated us, frightened us, and drawn us in.
November 3, 2020
Both crows and ravens have appeared in a number of different mythologies throughout the ages. In some cases, these black-feathered birds are considered an omen of bad tidings, but in others, they may represent a message from the Divine.
November 23, 2020
In many cultures throughout the world, foxes are constantly depicted as something akin to a trickster deity, or even familiar animals that possesses magical attributes. Foxes are constantly depicted as antagonistic forces who would use their intelligence to outsmart their prey, or to escape from harm.
A princess kisses an enchanted frog and he becomes a handsome prince with whom, the fairy tale tells us, she will live “happily ever after.” Such transformations, in which people turn into animals or animals turn into people, take place in myths and legends from around the world. Transformation myths are about crossing the boundaries that set humans apart from the rest of the world.
Native American mythologies describe a time in the past when the boundaries between people and animals were less sharply drawn and beings freely changed form. This is known as shape shifting. Bears were especially close to humans, and in some Native American stories, bears appear as humans wearing coats made of bearskins. The Tsimshian (pronounced CHIM-shee-an) people of southern Alaska and the northern coast of British Columbia tell about Asdiwal, a young man who follows a white bear up a mountain to the sky. He discovers that the beast is actually a beautiful woman dressed in a bear skin, and he marries her.
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that the gods could blur the boundaries between different classes of beings.Ovid's Metamorphoses is a collection of Greek and Roman legends about mortals whom the gods turned into animals and plants. Both Chinese and Slavic mythologies include tales of people who, under some evil force, turn into werewolves.
The Scots have stories about selkies (pronounced SEL-keez), imaginary sea creatures that resemble seals and take on human form, marry men and women, and then return to the sea. In fact, the theme of animal wives or husbands comes up over and over again in mythology. Native Americans tell of girls marrying bears and men marrying deer. Eskimo and Chinese tales mention beautiful, seductive women who turn out to be foxes in disguise. In one Eskimo story, a woman enters the home of a hunter while he is out. She cooks for him and stays for some time, but eventually she puts on her fox skin and disappears. The well-known fable of Beauty and the Beast is a modern version of the myth of the animal husband whose beastly form cannot disguise his noble soul.
Sometimes transformations are forced on people by sorcerers, or magicians, or as punishment for offending the gods. When people voluntarily seek transformation, however, the change can be a sign of power. In many societies, individuals called shamans were thought to have supernatural abilities, including the power to communicate with animals or to transform themselves into animals. South American shamans were said to be able to change themselves into jaguars.
Mythological Animals in Context
The fact that animals play a role in the mythologies of all cultures demonstrates their universal importance to human society. Animals were and are an important source of food, labor, and even companionship to people everywhere. Domesticated animals such as one finds on a farm, in particular, were the backbone of agricultural societies, while more nomadic hunter societies relied on wild animals for food and for their skins. Although modern cultures continue to use animals for the same purposes as they did thousands of years ago, ancient cultures relied heavily on animals for survival, and lived closer to wild animals than people do today. This heavy reliance on, and physical closeness to, animals, resulted in a rich oral tradition in which animals both help and harm humans. They provide people with food, but they can also be dangerous.
Animals represent the mystery and power of the natural world, which has the ability to create and destroy. Animals may serve as stand-ins for humans or human characteristics, as in the African and Native American trickster tales or the fables of the Greek storyteller Aesop. In some legends, animals perform heroic deeds or act as mediators or go-betweens for gods and humans. They may also be the source of the wisdom and power of a shaman, a person who has contact with the spiritual realm and uses magic to heal the members of his tribe.
Tricksters Many myths feature animal tricksters , mischievous and unpredictable beings who use deceit, magic, or cleverness to fool others. Although some tricksters are just playing pranks, others act in harmful ways.
Common Animals in Mythology Certain animals appear frequendy in the myths and legends of different cultures, of Common Animals in Mythologyten with different meanings. Snakes or serpents, forCommon Animals in Mythology example, can be helpful or harmful.