Mayan animal gods
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—many-headed monsters, dragons, and unicorns—never existed in the real world.
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 between heaven and earth. They may also be the source of the wisdom and power of a shaman.
Animals often have a dualistic quality in mythology. They can be helpful to humans or harmful—sometimes both. They provide people with food, but at the same time, they can be dangerous. As sources and symbols, animals represent the mystery and power of the natural world, which can create or destroy.
Animals and People
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, such as guiding them through the or helping them complete tasks. One large group of myths involving animals concerns transformations, or changes, between the human and animal states. Other myths focus on the close connection between people and animals.
Transformation. 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 stories from around the world. Transformation myths are about crossing the boundaries that set humans apart from the rest of the world.
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
shaman person thought to possess spiritual and healing powers
dualistic consisting of two equal and opposing forces
land of the dead
Native American mythologies describe a time in the past when the boundaries between people and animals were less sharply drawn and beings changed form (known as shape shifting) freely. Bears were especially close to humans, and in some Native American stories, bears appear as humans wearing coats made of bearskins. The Tsimshian people of the northwestern coast of the United States 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 silkies—imaginary sea creatures resembling seals that 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 cruel or wicked sorcerers 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.
Connections. Myths, legends, and folktales often highlight the close links between people and animals. West Africans and Native Americans, for example, believe that each person has a magical or spiritual connection to a particular animal that can act as a guardian, a source of wisdom, or an inspiration. Among the Plains Indians of North America, individuals had to discover their spirit animal through a mystical experience called a vision quest. Some Native American religions in Central America include nagualism, the idea that each person's life is linked to an animal or object called a nagual If the nagual is hurt or killed, the person suffers or dies. One myth says that the naguals fought on the side of the Native Americans against the invading Spanish centuries ago. Traditional African religions had secret societies in which men believed they took on a leopard's strength by performing rituals that involved wearing leopard skins.
Totem Poles and Animal Ancestors
The Native Americans of the northwestern United States and Canada believe that each clan or kinship group is descended from a particular animal, such as a whale, wolf, or bear. This animal has become the group's totem, a powerful symbol of its identity. People display their identity and status with totem poles—tall standing logs carved with images of mythical animals. Totem poles mark the approaches to villages and the burial sites of chieftains and stand at the entrance of each clan house.
sorcerer magician or wizard
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern
In many societies, people believed that shamans had animal helpers who guided them through the supernatural realm. This idea is similar to the common image of a witch's "familiar"—an animal, usually a black cat, that gives the witch certain powers. Animals offer helpful advice to ordinary people in many legends. Generally, those who ignore the animal's advice will fail to achieve their goal.
Sometimes a family, a clan, or a whole society feels a special attachment to a certain kind of animal, usually one that they consider to be an ancestor or protector. This connection, called totemism, defines social groups and their behavior. Hunters are sometimes forbidden to kill their group's totem animal, for example. Among the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, the beaver, the eagle, the raven, and the killer whale are all associated with particular clans.
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