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What Are the Roles of Animals in Mythology?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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There are many possible roles for animals in mythology, often depending on the culture from which the myths come. Animals are often used in stories as a way in which a character is helped or harmed, seemingly acting as a force of capricious nature. There are also a number of mythological traditions in which animals are characters themselves, often acting as gods or spirits in animal form to represent different ideas or actions for people. In some instances, animals in mythology might be objects of worship, while in others they are monstrous creatures that represent evil or destruction.

Animals can be represented and used in a number of different ways in mythology, though one of the most common is simply as a narrative device. While some myths give animals supernatural powers or human thought, there are other stories in which they simply are animals. They can serve symbolic purposes, such as the owl being synonymous with Athena or dolphins indicating the presence of Poseidon. They can also simply change the course of a story by being present, such as the tale of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, who steps on a snake on their wedding day and is bitten and dies.

There are a number of instances in which animals in mythology are given extraordinary intelligence, often acting as gods or spirits. Egyptian mythology, for example, is filled with images of deities that combine human and animal features, often a human body with the head of an animal. Native American stories also tell of animals that can take human form, such as men and women who appear as bears, but are really people in bear skins, or the stories of the trickster coyote. A number of African stories also contain animals that act as people, speaking and thinking, including trickster spiders and hares.

Animals in mythology can also be seen as symbols of negative concepts. There are numerous stories in which people are transformed into animals, often as punishment for displeasing gods or deities; such tales are quite common in Greek and Roman mythology and collected in a work by Ovid titled Metamorphosis. Some animals in mythology are purely fictional creatures, sometimes simply an unusually large version of a regular animal, or a strange combination of different traits and features of other animals. These monsters are often used to test heroes in stories, such as Perseus and Medusa, or as reminders of the dark or savage side of human nature, as seen in the Minotaur.

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Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Jul 04, 2012

@ankara-- Is that fish you mentioned in the Arabian nights stories too? I read many of the stories of the Arabian nights and I remember several different mythological animals being described throughout. I remember the mention of a fish and also a gigantic bird that used to carry Sinbad the Sailor from one place to another.

When I read this article, I found it interesting that just like Egyptian mythology, Hindu mythology also has deities that are half human and half animal. I wonder if there is any link between these two?

In Hinduism, there is Hanuman, deity with the body of an ape and human-like characteristics. There is Ganesh, the deity of success that has the head of an elephant and the body of a human except with six arms instead of two. And also Garuda, who is half bird and half human. It's usually depicted in pictures with the head of a bird along with a human body and wings.

I'm so curious about how this half-human, half-animal mythical creatures and deities came to be.

Does anyone know?

By bluedolphin — On Jul 04, 2012

@SarahGen-- That is interesting. Where did you hear this myth from? Does it belong to a particular culture or country?

There aren't really mythologies or mythological animals in Islam, but there are many cultural stories that are probably from the pre-Islamic era. For example, there is the myth of Bahamut which is a very big fish that holds up the layers of the earth and the seven layers of heaven. Bahamut signifies the oceans and the water beneath the soil and he holds up the soil and the sky.

Some people say that Jesus also saw Bahamut, but I think that this myth is much older and originated before Islam. The first time I heard this story was when I was a little girl. My grandmother would tell me about Bahamut.

By SarahGen — On Jul 04, 2012

One interesting mythological story I heard recently was about a hero whose mother had died while giving birth to him. And since he was all alone on a mountain, he had no one to help him and take care of him. After hours of crying, a wolf that had just given birth heard his cries and carried him back to her home just as she would carry her own babies.

The wolf nursed the baby and protected him until he was old enough to care for himself. He ended up becoming a courageous young man who protected the local people from foreign enemies who wanted to take over the land.

It's a really interesting story and I like how the animal in this myth was presented in a positive way. Usually wolves are the bad guys in myths and legends. But here, the wolf was the kind and caring animal who literally became the baby's mother.

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