The animals that inhabit the world along with human beings figure prominently in narratives throughout myth tradition. Not only do animals serve as creator gods or other deities, they also frequently play the roles of tricksters or of culture heroes. In many tales animals are the helpers of humankind, and in some stories they are in fact the consorts of people. In large numbers of myths animals and human beings assume each other’s identities through metamorphosis or by the magical powers of shape-shifting, and many Native American myths describe a time when the animal people and human beings are not clearly distinguished from one another. In other traditions human beings are spiritually linked to their animal doubles or belong to a clan that is said to be descended from an animal or that shares the characteristics and powers of a totemic animal. As in the example of the centaur of Greek tradition, characters in myth can also be part animal and part human being. Animals in myths commonly serve as messengers, guardians, or protective spirits, and in creation tales from several cultures, it is an animal—characteristically the turtle—that carries the world upon its back.
One of the most unusual of myth tradition’s animal creators is the praying mantis. In the stories of Africa’s Khoisan peoples, the mantis is the first living creature to appear upon the earth and the creator of other living beings, including the people. The creator mantis is also celebrated for inventing words and for providing fire for the people by stealing it from the ostrich. When the mantis creates new animals, he feeds them with various kinds of honey, and therefore each animal acquires its coloring from the red, yellow, or brown honey produced by bees and wasps. Mantis also creates the moon, for when he discovers that hunters have killed one of the animals he has made, he hurls its gall bladder high into the sky, and there it becomes a light to guide those who hunt at night. The praying mantis is not the only insect portrayed as a creator, for peoples from throughout North America’s Southwest regard Spider Woman as either the creator of the cosmos or as an animal helper in the process of creation. Birds are also frequently depicted as creator deities: in one of Egypt’s several creation myths the world is called into existence by the cry of the benu bird (or heron), and in Native American and Inuit traditions, Raven creates the universe. The World Serpent, an emblem of creative energy in the most ancient of myths, is perhaps the animal that most commonly appears as shaper of the cosmos.
Animals in myths from many cultures are deities or semi-divine beings as well as creators. Indeed, most of ancient Egypt’s gods are personified as animals. Bastet, for example, is the cat goddess (a protective deity), and Heket, a goddess of childbirth, is represented as a frog. The jaguar, a ferocious deity in myths from Mesoamerica, is the god that rules the underworld. Divine animals in myths often symbolize the power of cosmic forces, and in numerous traditions the figure of the serpent is associated with the underworld or with the earth and its fertility. In Australia and Africa, for instance, the rainbow serpent is an emblem of the fecund earth and of the watery realm of the underworld. In contrast, denizens of the air are usually characterized as sky gods, and therefore mighty birds often rule the heavens. In a recurring motif, the animal deities that represent the upper realm and the underworld battle one another. In myths from North America the Thunderbird is the powerful sky god whose enemy is the great serpent, and in southern Africa it is the Lightning Bird that struggles with the snake. This pattern can be seen in Egypt as well, where each night the snake god Apep attacks the sun god as he passes through the underworld, and in Norse tradition, where the mighty eagle that nests atop the World Tree exchanges daily insults with Nidhogg, the serpent that dwells at the roots of Yggdrasil.
In some traditions a bull, rather than a bird, is god of the sky, and in these accounts the thunderous roar of the bull echoes through the heavens. In the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh, the hero succeeds in killing the ferocious Bull of Heaven, but pays dearly for his victory over the celestial deity. Other stories of divine creatures can be found in Indian tradition, where the god Vishnu the Preserver often appears on the earth in the form of an animal. As the fish Matsya, for example, Vishnu saves Manu, the first man, from a great deluge, and as Kurma the tortoise he holds the sacred mountain on his back while the gods recover precious treasures from the Ocean of Milk. Vishnu’s other avatars include those of Varaha the boar, who uses his tusks to lift the earth from the bottom of the primordial sea, and Narasimha the man-lion, who tricks and kills an evil demon. In a story about Garuda, the divine eagle that serves as Vishnu’s steed, the motif of the power struggle between birds and serpents once again appears. In this tale Garuda’s mother, who is the mother of all birds, is captured by his aunt, the mother of all snakes. To free his mother Vinata from her sister Kadru, Garuda carries the elixir of the gods to the snakes as ransom. When the snakes lick the elixir from the grass, they slice their tongues on its sharp blades, and this, according to Hindu tradition, is how the snakes all come to have forked tongues.
The trickster, a mischief-maker or cunning rogue, can also be a culture hero, and animals in myths often serve in one or both of these roles. The animal trickster is commonplace in Native American tradition, where he appears as Coyote, Rabbit, Mink, Beaver, Raven, Blue Jay, Lox the Wolverine, or Iktomi the Spider. When, more rarely, the trickster figure is not embodied as an animal, he is often associated with one whose shape he assumes, and thus Nanabozho, the Ojibwa trickster, is also known as the Great Hare. As tricksters, animals in Native American myths both boldly test the boundaries of convention and humorously dramatize the follies of immoral behavior. Indeed, the trickster tradition is replete with tales of the wily rascal who outwits himself or whose boundless ambitions and greed lead to his comeuppance. In some accounts of their antics the tricksters unleash trouble in the world, as indeed Coyote does in a Navajo tale when he steals Water Monster’s children and thereby causes the world to flood. In other stories, however, tricksters are the culture heroes who bring fire to the people, who destroy threatening monsters, or who recover the sun when it is stolen from the sky. In a story told by the Crow, Old Man Coyote steals summer and shares it with the people, and in a Kalapuya tale he steals water from the frog people so that everyone can drink and bathe.
Like the animal tricksters of Native American peoples, those from African traditions can be troublemakers or culture heroes, the origins of problems or the sources of great gifts. For example, in a cycle of tales told by West Africa’s Ashanti people, although Anansi the Spider causes disease to enter the world, he also arranges for the creation of night, an interval when hard-working people can find time to rest. When people then reveal that they fear the dark, he arranges for the moon to shine in the sky at night. In one of the best known of the trickster tales, Anansi ends up stuck fast to a figure made of sticky gum because he is too greedy. Ture, the trickster of the Zande people, is also a spider, and, like Anansi, he improves people’s lives when he uses his cunning to provide them with water. Another animal, Ijapa the Tortoise, serves as trickster in a cycle of tales told by the Yoruba, and Yurugu the Jackal is the trickster who brings disorder to the world in stories of the Dogon. Hare, the trickster known as Brer Rabbit in North American folklore, is a popular figure throughout Africa. Just as stories of the trickster Hare emerge in the United States in the form of the Brer Rabbit tales, so too do the tales of Anansi, whose name becomes Aunt Nancy. Interestingly, traditional accounts of Anansi and Hare indeed appear to be conflated in the familiar American tale of Brer Rabbit’s sticky encounter with the taciturn Tar Baby.
While animals in myths sometimes provide human beings with the gifts of fire, water, or the sun or moon, they also prove to be helpful in many other ways. Among Africa’s Bambara people, the divine Antelope is the culture hero who teaches the people how to practice agriculture. In one of the stories of Rome’s founding, the infant twins Romulus and Remus are protected and nourished by a mother wolf and a helpful bird. The hero of the Ramayana, the ancient Indian epic, calls upon an army of monkeys led by Hanuman, their chief, to help him find his imprisoned wife and free her from her captors. In Norse tradition, Audhumla the Cow plays a part in the unfolding of creation by licking away the ice that covers Buri, grandfather of Odin and the other gods. Animals also lend their assistance in creation stories from North America. In the Iroquois tale of the earth-diver, birds break Sky Woman’s fall as she tumbles from the hole in the sky, and Turtle offers his back as a place for her to land. Then, while Sky Woman rests safely atop the waters, Muskrat, Beaver, and Otter dive into the depths of the primal sea in search of the grain of sand that will become the earth. Animals indeed serve as the earth-divers in almost all the Native American myths that feature this motif, and in many of the emergence tales it is Spider Woman who guides the people during their long journey from the depths of the underworld.
In many myths the creation of human beings follows that of the animals that are therefore regarded as the first inhabitants of the earth. In most Native American accounts, for example, the “animal people” are already present when human beings appear among them. Animals often assist in the process of people’s creation or in fact give birth to them. It is not surprising, therefore, that Native American myths emphasize human beings’ kinship with the animal kingdom and frequently describe the period just after creation as a time when animals and human beings live together as one people and share a common tongue. Even though the lives of people and animals become differentiated from one another when they can no longer speak the same language, the kinship between them is expressed in Native Americans’ practice of treating all animals with respect and in recognizing special relationships with particular animals through membership in clans. In myth, the ancient kinship is reflected in numerous stories wherein people and animals readily assume each other’s forms or marry one another.
Although Native Americans are by no means the only peoples who recount stories of marriages between animals and human beings or animals and deities (Zeus, as a swan, is the consort of Leda), almost all of North America’s native societies relate versions of this myth. Within these tales people or ancestral spirits marry such animals as the bear, deer, buffalo, whale, dog, raven, eagle, owl, gull, or rattlesnake, and on some occasions new races of beings emerge from these unions. In a tale told by California’s Modoc people, all Native Americans are said to be descended from the children born to the youngest daughter of the Chief of the Sky Spirits and the grizzly bear she marries. As the story goes, the Chief of the Spirits creates all the animals after he and his family move from the heavens to the earth. At this time the bears walk upright and speak the language of the Sky Spirits. When the Spirit Chief’s youngest daughter is lost in a storm, grizzly bears rescue her and raise her as their own. In time the young Spirit Woman marries one of the bears and gives birth to several children. When, many years later, the Sky Spirit finds his daughter once again, he is greatly angered to learn of her new life and punishes the grizzly bears by forcing them to walk on all four legs. He also withdraws their ability to speak and drives his grandchildren from their mother. Then, carrying his daughter, he retreats from the earth and is never seen again. Sky Spirit’s grandchildren, who are soon scattered around the world, are the first people, the ancestors of the Modoc and all the other tribes.
In another tale, a story told by the Brule Sioux, it is a young woman’s marriage to an eagle that preserves the human race. In this myth the water monster Unktehi creates a great flood that swells until it threatens to inundate the earth. The people climb higher and higher as the waters rise, but they cannot escape the deluge, and after they are swallowed up, their blood stains the cliffs they climbed and then hardens into the red rock of the Sioux’s pipestone quarry. Only one person, a young woman, survives Unktehi’s flood, and she is saved when Wanblee Galeshka, the great spotted eagle, swoops down from the sky and carries her away. Wanblee’s nest, high atop a pinnacle of stone, remains untouched by the deluge, and it is there that the eagle and his wife make a home with their son and their daughter until the floodwaters recede. When the earth is once again fit for habitation, the children of Wanblee and his wife found the new nation of the Lakota Oyate and thus repopulate the world with the descendents of the eagle. Whereas animals and their spouses do not change their forms in the stories told by the Modoc and Sioux, in a myth of the Pomo people, a young woman is courted by a rattlesnake who takes the shape of a handsome young man when he visits her family to request her hand. On his fifth visit, Rattlesnake appears in his own shape and takes his new wife home with him. After the birth of their four sons, the young mother decides to visit her family one last time to bid her parents farewell, and when she returns to her husband’s house, she then becomes a rattlesnake.
In some traditions the shape-shifter possesses the sinister power to take the form of a predatory animal. Stories of the werewolf, for example, are commonplace in the folklore of Europe, and in accounts from Mesoamerica and South America the powerful shaman is said to be able to assume the form of the jaguar. The shape-shifter is also a dangerous figure in many myths from Africa and can appear as a lion, leopard, or hyena that preys on human flesh. In a tale told by the Bantu-speaking people, a young woman falls in love with a handsome, well-mannered stranger and agrees to marry him. Her brother, however, is wary of the suitor and insists on accompanying the couple when they set forth into the forest. Although the brother is not altogether certain, he fears that he might have caught a fleeting glimpse of a second mouth—one filled with pointed teeth—under the hair of the stranger’s head. When night falls, and the stranger goes off to catch some fish to eat, the brother takes the precaution of gathering spiked thorns to encircle the campfire. Sure enough, the stranger soon returns in the form of a hungry lion with glowing yellow eyes and wickedly sharp teeth. Huddled together inside their ring of thorns, the young woman and her brother must wait until dawn before they can at last make good their escape.
Many of myth’s tricksters possess the power to transform themselves, and Zeus and other deities are often shape-shifters as well. Not only does Zeus turn himself into a swan, he also takes the form of an eagle and a bull. While animals like Rattlesnake assume the shape of people, other animals transform themselves into different creatures. Among the Inuit, for example, it is said that Akhlut the Killer Whale becomes a wolf when he grows hungry, and therefore the sighting of wolf tracks near the sea serves as a warning that Akhlut has come ashore to stalk and kill his prey. Although some characters in myth can change their shapes at will, others are transformed by a power not their own. The maiden Io, for example, undergoes metamorphosis when Zeus makes her a heifer, and in another tale from Greek tradition, Halcyone and Ceyx are changed into birds as punishment for posing as Hera and Zeus. It is indeed not uncommon that metamorphosis serves as a form of punishment, and in the Chinese tale of Change-e it is therefore seen as fitting that the goddess of the moon is turned into a toad after she steals and consumes the elixir of life that was meant for her husband.
Myth tradition is populated by figures that are part human being and part animal. In fact, the shape-shifting Zeus also transforms himself into one of these creatures when he assumes the form of a satyr, a being that is both man and goat with a horse’s tail. The great god Pan is a satyr and a nature deity; with his goat’s horns and furry legs, he is appropriately emblematic of the pastoral realm. The god of herds and flocks, Pan sometimes causes frenzy (or “panic”) among the animals when he plays upon his pipes. The Greek centaurs, horses with the heads and torsos of men, are, with the exception of the great teacher Chiron, a rowdy and ungovernable race of hybrid creatures. The Minotaur, another legendary figure in Greek tradition, is the bull-man who eats human flesh, and the Harpies, part women and part birds, prey on human souls. In contrast, Ganesha, the Indian god of wisdom and writing, is greatly revered as a symbol of good fortune. Represented as a man with an elephant’s head, Ganesha, who has only one tusk, uses his second tusk as the pen with which he writes. In his fourth avatar, the Indian god Vishnu appears as a hybrid creature in the form of Narasimha, the lion-man. In this incarnation he is able to destroy the demon Hiranyakashipu, who is seemingly invulnerable because of Brahma’s promise that no god, man, or animal will be able to slay him. However, because Narasimha is neither altogether god, nor man, nor animal, he does save the world from the malicious demon.
The bond between ancient peoples and their fellow creatures is expressed in yet another way within myth tradition, for numerous deities are linked to an animal whose attributes they share. In other words, features of the god’s identity are symbolically represented through reference to the characteristics of distinctive animals. In some instances a deity is portrayed as having an animal companion, and in others an epithet reveals a special relationship between god and animal. In many traditions, moreover, particular animals are held to be sacred to certain of the gods. Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, is often pictured or described as accompanied by a deer, an animal that is indeed as swift and graceful as the goddess of the woods. The epithet “owl-eyed” links Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, with the perspicacity of the sharp-eyed bird that can see in the dark, and “bee,” Demeter’s epithet, emphasizes that deity’s role as the Greeks’ goddess of fertility. The cow, an emblem of maternal nurture, is the sacred animal of the Greek goddess Hera, the wife of mighty Zeus, and the horse, a symbol of the power of wind and storm, is sacred to Poseidon, Greek god of the sea.
Tales from myth and folklore preserve a vision of the animal kingdom that appears to be slowing re-emerging during recent years. As their narratives indicate, ancient peoples see connections among all the forms of life on earth and regard the presence of animals as inextricably linked to their own existence. Shamans from many ancient cultures call upon animals to mediate between the realms of the material and the spirit worlds, and hunters in traditional societies revere the creatures that they kill through acts of ritual ceremony. Within the traditional societies of Mesoamerica it is said that each person possesses a nahual, an animal double that serves as the protective spirit that lends its special strengths and traits to its human counterpart. Indeed, in the myths of the Aztecs, Tezcatlipoca and the other gods often assume the forms of their animal doubles. Similarly, animals are often associated with the identities of people’s clans, either as the ancestors of a lineage or as protective figures. Among the Sioux of North America, the sun god Wi defends and protects the people through his manifestation as the Sacred Buffalo. In India, where the cow and the monkey are sacred animals, customs with legendary roots continue to endure.
Within the traditions of both myth and folklore, certain kinds of animals are repeatedly associated with particular activities or roles. Myths from Africa, Egypt, India, China, and the Americas, for example, all link the rabbit with the markings on the moon. In Chinese tradition, Change-e joins the white rabbit that lives on the moon when she becomes a toad, the figure that appears during the time of an eclipse. In the stories of the Aztecs and Mayans, the moon, once as bright as the sun, loses some of its brilliance when a god hurls a rabbit unto its face. While the rabbit is not always seen as the figure on the moon, the interesting occurrence of this motif within several disparate societies is perhaps explained by that animal’s behavior, for the rabbit is a creature known for its nocturnal appearances. Fierce animals, usually predators, appropriately serve as guardians in myth tradition, and birds are often messengers. The turtle (or tortoise), a creature widely regarded as an emblem of stability and longevity, appears in tales from many cultures, and in myths from China, India, North America, and Bali, the turtle is the animal that supports the heavens or the earth. In Chinese tradition, the creator goddess Nu Gua uses the legs of a gigantic tortoise to prop up the sky after Gong Gong destroys the mountain that had supported it, and in the tales told by many Native Americans, the World Turtle carries the earth upon its back. Although the sturdy turtle is often assigned the task of holding up the world, among Japan’s Ainu people it is a mighty trout upon whose back the ocean rests, and in Norse tradition the World Serpent supports the weight of Midgard, the land where people dwell.
Many of the animals significant to myth tradition reappear in various genres of the folk narrative and in forms that arise within popular culture. Folk tradition, for example, offers the allegorical tales gathered together in Aesop’s collection of animal fables, the bestiaries and the beast epics (such as the tales of Reynard the Fox) popular during the Middle Ages, and numerous Native American accounts of how animals originally acquired their features or their coloring as well as other kinds of narratives. The figure of the animal helper is especially popular in fairytales, including the many variations of the Cinderella story or such tales as Puss in Boots. In popular culture, bulls and bears are the talk of the stock market, and doves and hawks debate the policies of governments. Animals of all kinds serve as the mascots for athletic teams or other institutions, and in doing so they continue to share their traits and attributes with human beings. Indeed, the irrepressible animal trickster also appears within popular culture and can be seen there in the form of Bugs Bunny or many other cartoon figures.
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