Animals In Mythology

A look at animal myths and superstitions.

"Cats have nine lives."

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

These sayings, and many more, permeate the English-speaking world, spoken without thought given to either their meaning or their origin. Often referred to as either proverbs or "Old Wives' Tales," these snippets of wisdom have roots in ancient times, and the mythology and superstition that forms the backbone of history.

Among the most popular animals used in mythology is the bird. The source of countless superstitions and allegories, birds have always held a special place in the collective imagination of humanity, often seen as something pure, wise, and above reproach. Angels have, since time untold, been depicted sporting downy wings of white or soft colours. The sanctity with which humanity views our feathered friends perhaps finds its source in the genetic ease with which birds defy gravity and soar the skies, as humanity has sought to do since time began. Mythology and superstition have accompanied birds since man first saw them take to flight. They have been the focus of attention from both science and religion, as well as receiving constant exposure in popular media. Life, death, luck, and love have all been tied to the tail-feathers of these winged marvels.

Many superstitions have tied birds to the Otherworld and death, and great misfortune is often said to accompany the death of one of these graceful creatures.

Indeed, common superstition has held, for millennia, that the death of a bird in close proximity to a person's home heralds the death of a member of the family. Likewise, a bird's entry into a home can mean either an immanent death, or the arrival of an important message in the near future. However, a bird which does not enter the home has been thought just as unfortunate. Many people still believe that a bird tapping at the window is also an omen of impending death to one of the house's occupants. This belief, associating the entry or interest of a bird in the home or its occupants, stems from the ancient belief that birds are actually the messengers of departed souls, or the souls themselves, come back to guide those soon to die. This superstition has given rise to such modern media giants as "The Crow."

While just any bird flying through the house might be considered a sign of trouble not far behind, the swallow enjoys a particular infamy as a sign of malevolent fortunes, ranging anywhere from severe and life-long illness to the possibility of murder! Some ancient mythologies conclude that it is the swallow who bears the tidings of displeasure from the gods. Perhaps the swallow's sombre colouring, a dull brown, originally inspired this grim role. Unlike the unfortunate swallow, red-breasted or feathered birds have often been looked upon as passion-inspiring and generally lucky. The robin, in particular, is revered in most cultures as a compassionate, fun-loving, and fortunous bird.

In contrast to the general heralding nature of the swallow, and the luck of the robin, some birds have been granted dominion over the realms of war and peace, power and purity. Crows, and their raven cousins, have always held a spot in mythology as the symbols of occult knowledge and power, wisdom, and, above all, war. Associated with the Otherworld, war, and death, perhaps from their macabre attendance on the battlefield, corvids have accompanied such mythological figures as the Norse God Odin, the Greek

god Apollo, and the Celtic Goddess Morrigan. Perhaps because of their connection with war and death, crows have generally been seen as symbols of ill fortune. Ravens have fared slightly better in popular lore, as the bestowers of wisdom and power. Ravens are particularly important in the lore of Britain, where they hold a place of superstitious honour in the famous London Tower. In fact, it is considered such bad luck for the ravens to leave the Tower that their wings have actually been clipped to prevent their

escape.

Unlike the corvids, whose dark colouring and bloody taste for the battlefield have stripped away some of the popular preconceptions of purity associated with birds, the dove has been immortalised as the symbol of purity, grace, and unconditional love.

Revered in most world cultures as a harbinger of peace and love, the dove has earned a special place in the human heart. Mythology associates doves with love and Mother goddesses such as the Persian Ishtar, the Roman Venus, and the Egyptian Isis, as well as the enigmatic figure of the Christian Holy Spirit. The dove has been hailed, over and over, in mythology as the saviour of humanity. In fact, a white dove, seen flying overhead, is considered a very good omen, and many people stake their luck for the coming year on the cry of a dove. If heard while going uphill, the year is said to be full of good luck, and if heard going downhill, it is thought that misfortune will follow.

Much like the dove and robin, the bluebird is also considered a very lucky sign, particularly when seen in the spring. Likewise, a woodpecker, when seen near the home, is considered a good omen. But, quite in contrast, the peacock is not universally seen as lucky. Though considered lucky, because its multiplicity of "eyes" was said to alert it to approaching evil, in India, and held in esteem in China and Japan, where peacocks are kept as symbols of status and wealth by the ruling families, the peacock receives only scorn from the rest of the world. The peacock's feathers were considered the most unlucky part of the bird, because they end in round, brightly-coloured shapes that look much like eyes, which some call "evil eyes."

Perhaps the most majestic and lucky of all the birds, however, is the eagle. Universally seen as symbols of strength, swiftness and majesty, eagles have earned their place as the icons of some of the most powerful dynasties in all the world, including the Roman Empire itself, which sported an eagle as the imperial sigil. Considered a helpful

messenger, delivering warnings of approaching trouble and aiding in humanity's continued existence, the eagle has been raised up as a prophesier of grand fortunes.

Evidence of the reverence given these creatures can be seen in the ancient belief that the sun was borne aloft every morning by eagles. Most enigmatic of all birds, in superstition, however, is the cumbersome albatross. Among sailors, this large seabird is considered a harbinger of good luck. Its captivity or murder, whether deliberate or accidental, is thought to bring misfortune and woe to the ship and its crew, and death or curse to the sailor who kills it. This superstition is best emphasised in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Another winged creature which enjoys a long tradition of superstition is the bat. Perhaps because of its nocturnal nature, a manner once found odd and demonic, the bat's place in myth and superstition is plagued by accusations of spreading death and misery. Often pictured escaping either the depths of Hell, or Pandora's mythical box of sorrows, the bat's reputation has never been a pleasant one. For centuries, a bat in the house was considered a sign of approaching death to a member of the family. Seen as evil and unlucky, or even as the Devil in disguise, the bat is the archetypal symbol of death in Western mythology. Strange, then, that the dried, powdered heart of a bat, when carried in the front pocket, was said to stop bullets or prevent a person from bleeding to death, as late as the early twentieth century. And, while such expressions as "blind as a bat" continue to prevail, the washing of one's face in a bat's blood was actually once thought

to allow that person to see in the dark!

Finally, one cannot discuss animals of myth and superstition without discussing the mysterious and often misunderstood cat. Throughout time, the cat's ability to avoid most dangers of death and bodily harm have sparked humanity's own curiosity and imagination, bringing on mythological appearance and long lists of superstitions. Although differing between good and bad, according to the cat's colour and the culture viewing it, the cat has enjoyed a long, if dubious, place in folklore.

For starters, it is often said that if a cat looks in a mirror, bad luck will follow. This superstition most likely sprang from the belief that cats, particularly black ones, were witches in disguise, and since witches used mirrors to cast harmful spells, therefore a cat staring into a mirror could mean nothing but trouble. Likewise, most people believe that a black cat crossing one's path is bad luck. That idea, too, stems from the belief that the black cat is evil, and that an encounter with one meant that Satan had taken notice of that person. However, that belief seems to have prevailed only in the West. In the Orient, particularly in Japan, it is actually considered very good luck for a black cat to cross a person's path. And, strangely enough, although the black cat is viewed with suspicion and scorn by the West, the owners of these same creatures were generally viewed as possessing a lucky talisman. This was especially true amongst British sailors, who viewed the black cat with a certain reverence.

As mentioned before, the black cat was once considered a witch in disguise, and still tends to be viewed as a witch's familiar, or companion. As such, it has been ascribed many special powers, including invisibility, shape-shifting, and the ability to cast magical spells. In fact, it was once believed that, should a black cat, or indeed any cat, jump over a dead body, the corpse would turn into a vampire. The only way to prevent this change was to kill the cat responsible. However, since it was also considered bad luck to kill a cat, there was really nothing to do but lock the dead body away in hopes no cat could find it. This is believed to be the reason for the establishment of the first stone crypts underneath churches.

Mice, much like cats, were considered agents of the Devil and symbols of death and misfortune. Very likely because they were responsible for the spreading of various diseases, and because the cat population was kept under such stringent control because they were objects of evil purpose, the mouse enjoyed a certain freedom of movement while suffering a particularly malicious reputation. However, unlike the cat, the mouse was held in absolutely no reverence, and therefore, if a mouse was seen, it was very often immediately dispatched of. It might be prudent to note that there is some speculation that this centuries-old superstition of evil might, in fact, explain why Victorian ladies were always portrayed as being terrified of mice, as any lady of breeding should be absolutely horrified of anything wicked, by Victorian standards of thought.

In reflection, it is strange to note how much superstitions have changed over time, and yet, seemed to remain just as they were when they originally sprang to common use such a long time ago. It is also strange to see how very much animals have played an intricate part in the formation of human thought and society over the centuries. From

helpmates to companions to objects of speculation and superstition, the animal has maintained a vivid and encompassing part of humanity's daily life and thought. And so it can truly be said that not just dogs, but all animals, have become humanity's steadfast companion, and man's best friend.

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