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What Is Zoomorphism?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Zoomorphism is the process of ascribing a deity, person, or event with characteristics and descriptions that are animalistic in nature. The various deities in Egyptian mythology, for example, are frequently depicted with the heads or bodies of different animals, and these are used to symbolize aspects of their functions or personalities. Characters in a story or events may also be described using animals or animalistic traits to provide comparisons and create figurative language. In contrast to zoomorphism, anthropomorphism is the process of applying human qualities to inhuman creatures, objects, and other subjects, typically to make them more relatable or to provide insight into their function.

The way in which zoomorphism is used depends a great deal upon the context of it and social meanings that can be conveyed through such comparisons. Various cultures often associate different animals with certain ideas or values. In cultures influenced by Judeo-Christian thought or religion, the snake is frequently associated with trickery and maliciousness, due to the story of the Garden of Eden and a serpent being responsible for mankind's fall from grace. Other cultures, however, view the serpent as symbolic of the cycle of life and rebirth, since snakes shed their skin.

These types of differences can make zoomorphism more or less effective, and easily misunderstood, in different cultures. A group that views snakes in a negative way would likely read a line like "He slithered into the room" as a description of someone who should not be trusted or who is up to some villainy. This same line, when read by a different culture, might see it in another way, potentially reading it as a positive or indicating litheness and grace, as slithering can be seen in a fluid movement.

Such differences are important to keep in mind when viewing examples of zoomorphism in various mythologies and religions. Egyptian myths often use birds to symbolize wisdom as the wings of birds raise them above others. Many gods are depicted with bird heads, which show that they are above the thoughts of others and more intelligent or wise. The Hindu depiction of Ganesha with an elephant head symbolizes similar wisdom, as the large size of the head allows for greater intelligence.

Anthropomorphism can be used in a similar way to zoomorphism, though it gives various animals or objects more human characteristics. People often see house cats or dogs and associate their behavior with human emotions and thoughts, sometimes talking for them to imply the types of ideas they might have. Certain activities can be used for both zoomorphism and anthropomorphism. For example, a person telling someone else what to do might be labeled as "barking orders," while people might see a barking dog as excitedly telling other dogs about a good dinner or greeting someone coming home.

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