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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.