Squirrels – ancient messengers from the underworld (Public Domain) and squirrel tracks

Squirrel! Fuzzy Messengers from the Ancient Underworld? The Little-Known Archetype in Mythology

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When it comes to archetypal spirit guides, often the focus is upon ferocious guardians and large, intimidating beasts. However, one of the most important, yet overlooked animals in world mythology is a much smaller creature—the squirrel.

It is only when we begin to examine the folk tales and ancient story traditions of various cultures that we can begin to appreciate the thoughtful placement of the squirrel within mythic narratives. It is almost as if the mythologies of the world comprise of a vast tree of tales and the squirrel is the messenger, scurrying from branch to branch, lending its unique perspective and attributes to folk tales and wisdom parables.

Squirrels are often messengers in folklore

Squirrels are often messengers in folklore ( Public Domain )

Ratatoskr, the Norse Hermes

In some traditions, the squirrel has been linked to Hermes and Mercury because of its fleet-footed nature and ability to traverse difficult terrain, and to climb trees. Perhaps the most famous squirrel in this context is Ratatoskr, sometimes translated as Drill-Tooth, from Norse mythology.

A 17th-century Icelandic manuscript depicting Ratatoskr. Although unexplained in the manuscript and not otherwise attested, in this image Ratatoskr bears a horn or tusk.

A 17th-century Icelandic manuscript depicting Ratatoskr. Although unexplained in the manuscript and not otherwise attested, in this image Ratatoskr bears a horn or tusk. ( Public Domain )

Ratatoskr carries messages from the bottom of the world tree, Ygdrassil, to its summit, where he acts as a liaison between the serpent-dragon, Niohoggr, and the eagle, Veorfolnir. There is very obvious shamanic symbolism in this act as Ratatoskr is moving from the underworld, through the middle world, and high into the heavens, while carrying out his tasks.

Yggdrasil, by Oluf Olufsen Bagge

Yggdrasil, by Oluf Olufsen Bagge ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

There is also a tantalizing hint of a lost knowledge of deeper physiology here, and perhaps even brain chemistry, in Ratatoskr’s role, as he seems to fulfill the same function as a neurotransmitter. He carries messages from one place to another, with the world tree, Ygdrassil, acting as an allegory for both the mind and the entire universe. Again, this reminds us of the shamanic maxim, “As above, so below.”         

Totems and Spirit Guides

The shamanic practice of totemism is sacred to Indigenous tribes around the world. The San people of Africa base many of their rituals and traditions on animals like the eland and the mantis. Native Americans carve and erect images of spirit animals on the surface of long wooden poles called totems, representing universal archetypes.

‘Totem Pole’ featuring various animal totems, Vancouver, British Columbia.

‘Totem Pole’ featuring various animal totems, Vancouver, British Columbia. ( Public Domain )

One Native American example of squirrel totemism comes from The Choctaw, who believed that a solar eclipse was attributed to a black squirrel trying to eat the sun. As the first stages of the eclipse began, tribe members would try to make as much noise as they could in order to scare the black squirrel away. As the voices of the people reached a crescendo, their efforts seemed to have the desired effect. The moon began to move away from the sun, and the full strength of the sun’s light reappeared. The people, thankful and elated, would begin the cry of “ Funi lusa osh mahlatah !” or “The black squirrel is frightened!”

A Black Squirrel

A Black Squirrel (Airwolfhound/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

On first impression, the choice of a squirrel for the animal that might even reach the sun may appear to be a strange one. However, we must remember how the manifestation of totemism presents itself in terms of characteristics and attributes. The squirrel was the creature that could climb to the highest branches of trees, so therefore it was also the creature most able to ascend to the heavens and reach the sun.

Even in mythologies located as far apart as North America and Europe, the squirrel was still regarded with awe in terms of its ability reach places that other creatures and humans could not.

Animism and Spirit Guides

Masks and dance ceremonies are still used today by tribes to invoke the spirit of animal teachers. These traditions are part of what is known as animism, or the anthropomorphic view that all life has a spiritual essence.   

Some metaphysical concepts of animal souls teach that they have an emotional and mental capacity in their lower bodies but lack an individual mind and soul like humans possess. In this context, animals operate as a collective entity, or by instinct, and cultures have learned from them by observing their personality traits and how they adapt to sometimes dangerous environments.

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Ancient Technology

The four-handled tureen adorned with dragons, birds and spikes
Chinese archaeologists have discovered ritual tureen and “soup bowls” next to a badly decomposed body in a Zhou dynasty-era tomb. Among the remains there were also uncovered two wine vessels, which experts suggest were probably used as part of the funerary rituals.

Ancient Places

Healing Temple of Aesculapius (Asklepios) by Robert Thom
In the ancient world, many cultures built elaborate temple complexes dedicated to their healer gods - Imhotep in Egypt and Asklepios in Greece for example. These gods were recognized as having the power to cure supplicants from a variety of ailments within sleep and sacred dreams. Those who desired healing might travel many hundreds of miles to reach such a temple

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