Associations of animals and spirits is universally human
Perhaps at twilight, you saw a fox. Crouched low to the ground, ready to run, its eyes caught a gleam of moonlight; and for a second, he made eye contact, his expression inscrutable. And then he disappeared.
For days, you remembered the glow of his eyes, burning for a split second into your eyes. Was he telling you something?
In the ancient world, some cultures believed the fox was an intermediary between the souls of the living and the dead, a seductress and a messenger. Most of us right now, here in Connecticut, still find a fox sighting exciting, unnerving, and almost mystical.
What is it about the otherworldly dimensions and animals? What is it about the brilliant red of a cardinal that gives us pause? The unsettling hoot of an owl. A butterfly that stayed too long.
The belief that animals are spiritual beings is as old as hieroglyphics, and certainly older. The Egyptians believed animals possessed a soul just as humans do. They didn’t even have a word for “animal” as separate from a human being. “For ancient Egyptians,” says Edward Bleiberg, Egyptology curator at the Brooklyn Museum, “animals were both physical and spiritual beings.”
Scientists like Carl Jung, Claude Lévi—Strauss, and Émile Durkheim, devoted years to studying tribes who identified with a particular animal and declared it their totem. Jung called these people primitive; Lévi—Strauss thought it was an efficient way to deal with life; Durkheim said all of us need to be part of a tribe, and an animal emblem is as good a foundation as any.
In almost every culture and religion from the beginning of recorded time, man has looked to animals for answers, identity, guidance, warnings, or comfort. Sometimes it is a land animal, like the fox, that assumes spiritual qualities and preternatural knowledge. But far more often, it’s something that flies.
The image of the soul is almost always a winged creature, including those angels on our Christmas cards. Yet, even the Old Testament, which refers to birds often, makes no mention of wings on angels Who would have talked to the angels when they showed up in Sodom if they had been sporting feathers growing out of their shoulder blades? In fact, the earliest known representation of angels with wings is on a centuries old stone coffin discovered in the 1930s near Istanbul.
Philosophers, anthropologists, historians, and theologians continue to speculate as to why, but the belief that the gods, the afterlife, and heaven all exist in the clouds somewhere ripples through almost every culture and religion all over the world. It seems that souls need wings.
The Egyptian soul, called ba, is depicted as a bird with a human head. In Hindu mythology, the soul had a human body with wings and the head of a bird. Among the more than 4,000 rock carvings on Easter Island, there are hundreds of so—called birdmen: the body of a man and the head of a sea bird, called the frigate bird.
The Greeks and Celts thought that the souls of the dead could reappear as birds; the Sumerians believe the dead live as birds in the underworld. In Islamic tradition, all dead souls remain as birds until Judgment Day. In Christian tradition, the dove is a symbol of God’s spirit. And there’s the old Turkish saying, “His soul bird has flown away.”
If our souls fly away, then the most logical go—between for this world and another would be something else that flies.
In Japan, a crane will grant wishes from the gods, especially if you fold a 1,000 origami birds. Biblically, doves send a message of peace. Roosters herald an event, wonderful or tragic. A rooster crowed three times before Christ’s betrayal. In Mexican folklore, the rooster crowed to announce the birth of Christ to his fellow animals. The next time a mariachi band embarrasses you at your dinner table, look closely. Quite likely you will see images of roosters on their buttons or embroidered on their sleeves.
The owl brings a message of despair, doom, and lost spirituality, a belief that traces back to Jewish folklore about Adam’s first wife, Lilith, who left him—and the Garden—for the demonic angel Samael. Her name translates literally to “screech—owl.” In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the guy who tattled on Roman goddess Proserpina for eating pomegranate seeds was turned into a screech owl, “… a loathsome bird.” The owl fares better in Hawaii, where it is considered sacred, capable of reaching into the realm of the spirit world.
The stork bears the newborn’s soul, according to most of Europe (and Mother Goose). The raven is a trickster, The Creator, a spirit guide, and the giver of fire for indigenous people of Alaska. In North Borneo, the hawk was the messenger of their god, helping them make decisions about journeys, agriculture, and war.
Gods have assumed the form of birds to visit their mortal counterparts. Think Leda and the Swan. Even the feathers and eggs of birds assumed mystical powers. Both Islam and Christianity have considered ostrich eggs and peacock feathers as sacred for thousands of years.
Ask a random group of people almost anywhere on earth if there’s a creature that reminds them of someone who has passed on. Invariably, people will start to name fauna—from red—tail hawks to cats to butterflies—that invoke the departed in some indefinable way.
No matter how we tell ourselves that the red cardinal who perches boldly in a nearby tree can’t possibly be the soul of a departed loved one, something deep inside us feels that the bird is bringing word from beyond.