Working on a fundraiser for People For Animals featuring a jewellery collection based on Kamadeva, the God of Love, I came upon a description of the god as a handsome youth riding a parrot, his bow string made of bees each of the five arrows a different flower, his emblem, a dolphin. Who could not be tempted into love with such imagery! From all over the world come similarly charming instances of animals in myth and legend. There is this lovely story of the Kingfisher or Halcyon. In Greek myth, Alcyne, daughter of Aeolus, King of the winds, found her husband drowned and cast herself into the sea. The gods rewarded her devotion by turning her into a kingfisher and Aeolus forbade the winds to blow during the 'halcyon days'-the seven days before and after the winter solstice when legend has it that the kingfisher lays its eggs.
The same creature symbolises completely different things in different cultures. For example in early civilizations like Babylon, China, Japan, Greece and Rome the dragon was a sacred, benevolent creature, an emblem of divinity and power, a symbol of prosperity, rain and wisdom. Its serpent body symbolised matter and water, its wings spirit and breath. The Chinese celestial dragon guarded the kingdom of the gods, the 3-clawed Dragon of Japan symbolised the Mikado, the imperial and spiritual power. By contrast, the western world treated dragons as enemies who lived in dark caves and breathed fire. One of their saints is anointed for no better reason than killing the last dragon.
Similarly with bats, in ancient Egypt they were regarded as a lucky charm and hung on dovecotes to prevent doves from leaving while for American Indians they represented new life emerging from the darkness of the earth's womb. In parts of Africa they are revered as the souls of the dead.
In Greece, they were a symbol of vigilance. In China bats symbolized health, wealth, longevity and an easy death, in fact the very word for bat, Fu, also means good luck. It is only Western mythology that associates bats with vampires, witches and the devil.
India has perhaps one of the richest collections of animal folklore. But I'm not going to talk about elephants and monkeys. Instead let's look at some less familiar and perhaps that's why less loved creatures-what some people call the ughly buglies.
Beginning with my most favorite insect, the spider, she (I think of spiders as female because they are believed to represent the creative force of life) is one of the most powerful creatures in all myth and symbolism. She is believed to represent wisdom, creativity and new life. Her intelligence compensates for her size allowing her to ensnare other creatures. Her web is believed to connect her to nature's 4 elements. Many native American tribes had a spider deity. In the plains this was Inktomi, the trickster spider, a shape changer that brought culture to her people. The Pueblos had Spider Woman who created the universe while the Kiowa had the spider Grandmother who brought light to the world. A Greek story relates how the Goddess Athene entered into a spinning contest with a beautiful human girl Arachne. Upon losing, the jealous goddess turned Arachne into a spider as which she still continues to spin dexterously. In Hinduism the spider weaves life from its own body and is also the creator of illusion or maya jaal. So the next time you see this wondrous lady, think of her mystical properties. Who knows- she could augur a new project or even an addition to the family.
Believe it or not, lizards are wizards. Remember the story of Shivaji who used a gekko to scale an impregnable Mughal fort. Native Americans considered the lizard the Master of Animals and Fish, the messenger through whom the god informed man that he was mortal. Hawaii has lizard gods who are revered as our animal ancestors. In Maori myth, it was the lizard who rescued the first of the human race from the waters of creation. In Polynesia, Moko the king of lizards is worshipped as the god who protects fishing. Australian aboriginal folklore has a lizard hero who is believed to have taught the people arts. And there you were dismissing this fine, if not upstanding creature as a creepy crawly. Shame.
Mice are nice. Ganesha has one for his mount and it represents foresight and prudence. In Egypt, rats were worshipped and regarded as symbols of great wisdom since they always choose the best bread. The Romans drew omens from rats. To see a white rat meant great good fortune. In Japan a white rat accompanies the god of happiness and is also an attribute of the god of wealth. The rat is the first of the animals in the Chinese zodiac. Legend has it that centuries ago, the Chinese were looking for a way to measure time. So the Jade Emperor arranged a contest on his birthday. The first 12 animals to cross a certain river would be assigned to the 12 zodiac years, the cat and rat who were then good friends and poor swimmers persuaded the good natured and gullible ox to carry them over. As they neared the shore, the rat pushed the cat into the water and leaped over the ox's back to come first in the race. The cat of course has never forgiven the rat for his perfidy but we have to admire the little fellow's guts.The raven or crow, commonly thought to be a bird of ill omen and death, actually has much happier associations. The bird is a messenger of the sun god Apollo. According to Roman legend, they were once as white as swans until one day a raven told Apollo that Coronis a nymph that he adored, was faithless. The god pierced the nymph with an arrow, then turning his wrath on the messenger, turned him as black as soot. Hardly the bird's fault! Ravens were regarded as a symbol of fertility invoked at Roman weddings. In Zorastrianism, the raven is a pure bird as it removes pollution. In Hinduism, Brahma appeared in one incarnation as a crow. Chinese myth has a three-legged raven in the sun representing its rising, noontide and setting.
Celtic lore has a raven goddess, The Blessed Raven. The Celtic hero, Odin has a raven perched on each shoulder, Huginn and Munin (mind and memory). The raven is an American Indian chief, a messenger of the Great Spirit and the most popular of Amerindian heroes. Regarded as the creator, the Raven Man was one of the creatures that recreated the land after the flood. A Haida legend recounts how after the Great Flood, it was a raven that discovered a giant clam full of terrified folk. He persuaded them to leave the shell and explore the world. These became the first people on earth. Alaska's Inuits believe the raven came from primeaval darkness and taught the first humans how to survive. So clearly the bird clearly has a lot to crow about.
Finally the pig. The movie Babe went a long way towards re-establishing this brave and intelligent animal's place in history. Worshipped by the Greeks, it was the pig that suckled Zeus. Equally revered in Egypt, the pig was sacred to Isis. The black pig was the form taken by the Egyptian god Set in his typhoon aspect. In Chinese legend, the pig represents the unbridled power of nature. For the native Americans, the pig was a rain- bearer. Here in Hinduism, we have the Adamantine sow, Vajravarahi, Queen of Heaven as the feminine counterpart of Vishnu's boar incarnation. She also appears in Tibetan Buddhism. Neither greedy nor dirty, the pig deserves more appreciation.
Every animal, bird and insect is extremely important to the earth - enough to be venerated. Even the cockroach without whom your forest leaves will not turn to mulch and your sewers will choke from all the deadly rubbish that you send into them. I am still trying to find a cockroach god. Perhaps after World War III when they remain the only survivors, they will automatically attain godhood the way we have arrogated it to our own species.