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New Worlds: Animals and Their Meaning

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Animals serve far more than just set of a practical purposes in our world, as food sources, beasts of burden, and companions. We attach meaning to them as well, ascribing all kinds of mental and spiritual qualities to them based on their appearance, behavior, and more. They’re potent symbols, ways for us to organize the world and ourselves.

It’s tempting to assume that symbolism is universal. After all, aren’t we all observing the same things? Of course there are different species in different parts of the world, but when we all look at a rat, surely we see basically the same thing. In reality, no: symbolism is more like a mirror in which we can see ourselves, and the reflection can change a lot. Rats have a negative reputation in European thought, being associated with disease, viciousness, and untrustworthy behavior. And you can see where we get these ideas; rats can indeed be disease vectors (though admittedly, so can many animals), they bite people (ditto), and they sneak into our granaries and pantries to eat our food. But go over to China, and suddenly the rat is associated with intelligence, creativity, and even honesty — all qualities that people who own rats as pets might heartily endorse. India likes rats, too, with one serving as the vehicle or mount for the beloved god Ganesha.

Nor are rats the only example of contrasting symbolism — not by a long shot. Many parts of the world look at cats and see another untrustworthy creature, but ancient Egyptians worshipped them and honored them with mummification after they died. Cats aren’t the only creature that received such treatment in their culture, of course, and I’m not claiming that no one outside of Egypt ever saw positive qualities in a cat; many people have found them useful for hunting vermin or loved them for their companionship. (There’s a set of Chinese poems from I forget what century that illustrate the very relatable journey from “I have acquired a cat” to “I am now owned by my cat; I now exist to satisfy its every whim.”) But even a simple behavior like a cat’s tendency to bury its feces can be interpreted in multiple ways: is that an admirable marker of cats’ cleanliness, or a sign of their secretive, deceptive nature? Vultures feast on carrion; does their scavenging behavior make them filthy and horrible, or sacred agents of the reincarnation process, as in Tibetan Buddhist thought?

Yes. The answer to such questions is “all of the above.” If we can compellingly project an interpretation onto an animal, then from the standpoint of culture, that’s what matters. And if these interpretations contradict each other or perhaps vary based on context, then so be it; this is hardly the first part of human culture to refuse clear-cut consistency.

Our use of animal symbolism goes well beyond the casual, though. Early anthropologists went to great lengths to prove that “totemism” (borrowing a term from the Ojibwe language) is a universal stage of religious and social development; this encompassed multiple characteristics, but one of the key ones is the association of specific individuals or groups such as clans with a representative animal, often one thought to be ancestral to that group. Modern anthropologists have pretty thoroughly debunked the universality of totemism as a whole, but tendency to use animals as emblematic symbols is real and pervasive.

Sometimes this symbolism is heavily cross-cultural. Throughout medieval Europe, lions became a common symbol of royalty, despite the fact that lions had been extinct in most parts of Europe for centuries, if not longer. The eagle is also a favored emblem, the king of the birds as lions are the kings of the beasts. Sometimes there are careful differentiations; in the United States it’s a bald eagle, a creature native to this continent, but in the Holy Roman Empire it was a two-headed eagle — clearly not a thing found in nature, but then, we have no compunctions about deploying mythical creatures for our symbolism, too. Other instances may be based in history or traditional lore: why does the flag of Mexico depict not just an eagle, but specifically an eagle gripping a snake in its talons and beak? Because of the legend that the god Huitzilopochtli told the Aztecs they would build their city (Tenochtitlan) in the place where they saw an eagle devouring a snake.

Here in the United States, and maybe in other parts of the world as well, this idea of emblems has gotten absurdly elaborate. The legislatures for individual states have chosen all manner of official symbols; a skim of the Wikipedia page for (say) California turns up the trivia that our state land mammal is the California grizzly bear, our state marine mammal is the grey whale, our state bird is the California quail, our state reptile is the desert tortoise, our state amphibian is the California red-legged frog, our state insect is the California dogface butterfly, our state freshwater fish is the golden trout, our state marine fish is the Garibaldi, our state flower is the California poppy, our state grass is purple needlegrass, and our state trees are the coast redwood and the giant sequoia — and that’s before you get to all of our inanimate insignia, like our colors, dance, and folk dance; our mineral, rock, and gemstone (those all being separate things); our fossil, sport, tartan (what are we, Scottish?), and even our state soil. In some cases these designations are promotional, trying to increase the popularity of the symbol chosen, while in other cases it’s a matter of conservation: if you tell people that a given species is an emblem of their home, they might work harder to protect it.

In modern times, many of us still have a desire to see ourselves represented in animal form at an individual level. We don’t have a good vocabulary for it, though, in the sense of one that doesn’t raise problematic associations: it used to be that people would talk about a particular creature being their “totem” or “spirit animal,” but as awareness has grown about the problems of cultural appropriation and the misrepresentation of indigenous beliefs, we’ve moved away from using those words. For a time I saw people adopting the idea of a Patronus from the Harry Potter series — a magical animal guardian whose form reflects the witch or wizard who makes it — but J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments have made many of those same people uncomfortable with using that word for this phenomenon. I’ve yet to see a good alternative take hold, but meanwhile, the phenomenon itself continues.

Whatever term you use for it, though, be careful when declaring yourself somehow represented by an animal. The other person may not read into it what you intended . . .

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7 thoughts on “New Worlds: Animals and Their Meaning”

  1. Back in the 70s and 80s when adopting offical State Critters went overboard, some ecology group noted that the state animal, the beaver, was not rebouding from endangered status, and the Oregon Grape was being pulled out by the acre by developers.

    Maybe if we made the rainbeetle, very destructive to forests, the state insect it too would become scarce…

    1. Hah!

      In all honesty, I think most people are 100% unaware of the vast majority of their state symbols. I didn’t know California’s, beyond the bear, until I went looking.

  2. I have seen people suggest ‘daemon’ for ‘spirit animal’.

    What interests me a bit is whether people stick to animals that live near them or that they could be familiar with– like European royalty and the lions, only with North America because that’s where I am. I like moose, and muskrat, and raccoons, and opossums, and our elk (which are not moose but you know). But we teach kiddos lion and giraffe and alligator and kangaroo (and, hilariously, we’ve gotten a board book of Pokemon from the library and those are just as real to the toddler– who says a giraffe is real and not a Girafarig when you’ve never been to a zoo?).

    Sorry, I’m being heavily interrupted by a baby who doesn’t know about any animals yet.

    I am still disappointed that the two new schools in town, Borlaug and Alexander, were not the Boars (they picked Bulldogs, which is objectively better but BOARS) and either the Salamanders or Axolotls. But then, I grew up a Pretzel.

  3. “our state grass is purple needlegrass,”

    Things like this are symbolic of the legislature having too much time on its hands. :p

  4. “(There’s a set of Chinese poems from I forget what century that illustrate the very relatable journey from “I have acquired a cat” to “I am now owned by my cat; I now exist to satisfy its every whim.”) ”

    Lu You, 1183, Poem For My Cat

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