Luck or Misfortune? Hedgehogs in Folklore and Tradition
The hedgehog is a type of mammal that can be found in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Unlike some animals, such as the fish or the dog, the hedgehog does not feature prominently in mythology and folklore. Nevertheless, certain cultures that developed where these creatures are found have incorporated the hedgehog into their traditions. Some cultures have viewed this animal positively, whilst others perceive them in a negative light.
Hedgehogs in Egypt
In ancient Egyptian society, the hedgehog had a favorable reputation. The ancient Egyptians were familiar with two species of hedgehogs, namely Paraechinus aethiopicus, or the desert hedgehog, and Hemiechinus auritus, or the long-eared hedgehog. This is deduced from the way the Egyptians represented hedgehogs in the form of amulets.
Apart from hedgehog amulets (which are perhaps the most common representation of hedgehogs in ancient Egypt), images of hedgehogs can also be found in the art of some Old Kingdom tombs. In such scenes, the hedgehog is often either represented as an offering, or in hunting scenes. In some tombs, namely in Saqqara and Giza, there are representations of ‘hedgehog ships’ as well. These are ships identifiable by the image of a hedgehog’s face on their hulls. An example of this ship, which is made of pottery, has been discovered at Tell Ibrahim Awad.
Ancient Egyptian amulet in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA. (Public Domain)
It is not entirely clear as to the reasons behind the ancient Egyptian’s decision to designate the hedgehog as a ‘good’ animal. One popular interpretation is that the hedgehog was a symbol of rebirth, just like the much better known scarab beetle. This is plausible, as hedgehogs are known to retreat into their underground dens when food was scarce, and only reappeared was food was available again.
It is likely that when the ancient Egyptians observed this behavior of the hedgehogs, they thought that the creature had risen from the dead. Although the popularity of hedgehog amulets is said to have peaked in the New Kingdom, it did not become as popular a symbol of resurrection as the scarab.
The Clever Little Hedgehog
The ancient Egyptians’ admiration for the hedgehog is, however, not shared by other cultures. It seems that in some cultures, the hedgehog is traditionally regarded as a symbol of ill-fortune. In Mongolia, for example, it is traditionally believed that it is bad luck for a hedgehog to enter a person’s home. The reason for this is that hedgehogs usually walk with their heads down, thus concealing their faces. This is taken by the Mongolians to mean that the hedgehog is not an open and honest creature.
The hedgehog’s sly and crafty nature is also seen in a Mongolian folktale known as The Clever Little Hedgehog. This tale involves three friends – a wolf, a fox, and a hedgehog, who compete for the right to eat a plum that fell off from a sack of a passing caravan. In the story, the hedgehog outsmarts his friends (not once, but twice), and wins the plum for himself.
Although the hedgehog is perceived negatively, the Mongolians also believed that this creature could be used to ward off “bad things”, and therefore placed their skins over the doorway. Although what these “bad things” are is not specified, it may refer to snakes, as these are preyed upon by hedgehogs. Incidentally, it has been speculated that the ancient Egyptians believed that hedgehog amulets could protect them from poisonous snakes as well.
A faience hedgehog from Middle Kingdom Egypt. (Brooklyn Museum)
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Hedgehogs in Britain
In Britain, the hedgehog had an even worse reputation. In the Irish language, for example, the hedgehog is known also as Gráinneog, which translates as ‘little ugly thing’. During medieval times, it was believed by farmers that hedgehogs were thieves who stole milk from their cows by sucking on them at night. In addition to milk, hedgehogs were thought to steal eggs as well. There is some basis of truth in this accusation, though the eggs that were eaten by hedgehogs were often either cracked or damaged already. Hedgehogs simply do not have the physical strength to crack eggshells.
An urban European hedgehog out foraging at night. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
More malicious, perhaps, was the thought that hedgehogs were witches in disguise. Thus, there was a desire to eradicate hedgehogs, and the authorities seemed to have supported it. In 1566, a three pence bounty was placed by the English Parliament on the head of each hedgehog that was caught and killed. The church too offered its own bounties for the slaughter of hedgehogs.
Thus, the perception of hedgehogs varies by culture and time period. These strange little creatures have invoked awe in some and disgust for others.
Top image: A baby hedgehog (Christian Heilmann / Flickr)
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