8 of the Most Popular Animal Species in the Ancient World
Animals far outnumber us on the planet. And while humans have domesticated some of them for work or food, others have been observed, admired, feared, and revered from afar. For many ancient cultures, all living beings, be they large or small; feathered, scaled, or furry, were the repositories of magical powers. Some animal species were even believed to serve as intermediaries between the multitude of deities and humankind, which explains how they ended up in cult ancient centers.
From specially-tailored dog outfits to slave eunuchs to serve their every need, the royal dogs of China’s Forbidden City had it all. Chen Shen, a curator at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, says canines in the court received royal treatment. "They reportedly lived in pavilions with marble floors, sleeping on silk cushions, tended by specialized eunuchs who worked for the Dog Raising Office.”
The eunuchs were trained to care for the royal dogs and waited on their every need, while the royal women entertained themselves by dressing up their dogs in luxurious outfits that were specially commissioned and tailored to each dog’s size and breed. The pet’s name was carefully recorded on the lining.
Unfortunately for the dogs, the days of living the high life came to an end when the Qing Dynasty fell into decline. In 1900, after the Boxer Rebellion was crushed, a foreign army occupied Beijing and looted the Forbidden City. In 1911 the last emperor of China, a child named Puyi, fled the Forbidden City and was forced to give up the throne, bringing an end to the royal family and their canine companions.
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The ancient Egyptians revered and worshipped many animals but none more reverently than the cat. They are one of the most prominent symbols of ancient Egyptian culture. The Sphinx is an overwhelming example of this. Just as the ancient cats themselves were mummified to maintain their status and integrity after death, their worship was equally well-preserved.
Three of the more popular feline deities are: Mafdet, who was associated with protecting against venomous bites; Bastet who was a guardian of Lower Egypt, the pharaoh, and the sun god Ra; and the more fierce lioness Sekhmet.
In the mortal realm, humans and cats lived and worked in harmony. Cats were a perfect solution to the overwhelming rat and snake problems of ancient Egypt. While the animals were not considered divine themselves, there are records that they might have been akin to demi-gods and as bodily representations of the feline gods.
Because of this, cats were protected for reasons beyond just their vermin-killing capabilities. To harm a cat was to attempt harm to a god, and that was entirely out of the question in ancient Egypt. Killing a cat was punishable by death a certain period of Egyptian history, whether intentional or not.
Imagine you are in battle, probably scared out of your wits, and then enemy troops start flinging snakes in your face. The ancient Greeks did just that. It was a case of biological, psychological, and unconventional warfare all wrapped up in one terrifying tactic.
They believe the Greeks used to use snakes as projectiles, hurling them at enemy ships before attacking in order to create confusion and fear. Eryx jaculus, the javelin sand boa, is a shy, non-venomous snake which is believed to have been used for this purpose. This snake grows up to 84 cm (33 inches) but is usually 30 to 60 cm (12 to 24 inches) long. Its range is southeastern Europe, Greece, the Balkans, the Caucasus Mountains, into the Middle East and northern Africa.
Hannibal is also said to have used snakes to create chaos on enemy ships. He allegedly had thousands of clay jars filled with venomous snakes and hurled at his enemies. When the jars smashed open sailors and oarsmen were filled with fear and Hannibal was able to defeat them.
The spider is an ancient and powerful symbol found round the globe, and have always elicited a wide range of emotions in people: fear, disgust, panic, and sometimes curiosity and appreciation. This broad spectrum of impressions has influenced origin myths, legends, art, literature, music, architecture, and technology throughout history.
Spiders have different meanings and purposes in culture. Arachnids and their webs embody many traits and interpretations, including resourcefulness, creation and destruction, cunning, deception, intrigue, the feminine, wisdom, fortune, patience, and death.
They are sometimes portrayed as a good omen and a helpful savior. For example, ancient Chinese folk culture celebrates spiders. They are thought to bring happiness in the morning, and wealth in the evening. Spiders are lucky creatures, and dubbed “happy insects”. The image of the spider features widely in art and literature in China, and spider jewelry or charms are worn to bring good luck.
However, many folktales warn of the dangerous traits associated with spiders, such as ensnaring webs, lies and deceits, lethal venoms, silent attacks, and creeping terror. For example, in Japan the Spider Princess, a mythological spider figure called Jorōgumo, is able to transform into a seductive woman who entraps travelling samurai.
Horses first appeared in Paleolithic cave art around 30,000 BC. These were wild horses that were hunted for their meat. It’s believed that they thought they would be granted power over the respective animal by painting it, thus making it easier to kill it for food.
It is commonly believed that horses were domesticated in the Eurasian Steppes around the year 3500 BC. They have been used throughout history for transport, warfare, and agricultural work. Horse images have also been used as a symbol of power and in funeral contexts.
There are also famous horses in mythology. For example, Sleipnir was Odin’s favorite horse in Norse mythology. The horse was grey, it was the son of the trickster god Loki and it had eight legs. Because it had so many legs, it was the fastest horse in all of the nine worlds.
Mythology also speaks about the unicorn, the Pegasus, the equalacorn (the Pegasus with a unicorn horn), the dragon horse of Xuan Zang and the hippocampus (the Phoenician and Greek sea horse). The colors of the horses also have various interpretations. For example, white horses are associated with warrior heroes, fertility and the end of time.
The hedgehog is a type of mammal that can be found in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia and though it doesn’t feature prominently in world mythology and folklore, certain cultures have incorporated it into their traditions. This animal has both positive and negative associations.
In ancient Egyptian society, the hedgehog had a favorable reputation. It is not entirely clear why but one popular interpretation is that the hedgehog was a symbol of rebirth. They often depicted the animal on amulets for protection from things such as poisonous snakes.
In contrast, it is traditionally believed that it is bad luck for a hedgehog to enter a person’s home in Mongolia. The reason for this is that hedgehogs usually walk with their heads down, concealing their faces. This is taken by the Mongolians to mean that the hedgehog is not an open and honest creature. They present this side of the hedgehog’s nature in a popular story of the animal tricking its friends. It’s not all bad though, Mongolians also believed that this creature could be used to ward off “bad things”, and therefore placed their skins over the doorway.
Much later, hedgehogs were associated with witchcraft in England, where 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.
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.
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, which carries messages from the bottom of the world tree, Yggdrasil, to its summit, where he acts as a liaison between the serpent-dragon, Niohoggr, and the eagle, Veorfolnir.
In one Native American example of squirrel totemism, The Choctaw believed that a solar eclipse was attributed to a black squirrel trying to eat the sun. They believed that because the squirrel was the creature that could climb to the highest branches of trees it was also the creature most able to ascend to the heavens and reach the sun.
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Monkeys and baboons were also greatly regarded in various roles and contexts throughout Egyptian history. As the representatives of the gods and in their role as pets and helpers, these animals were dear to the people. Quite bizarrely, in addition to being trained to pick fruit and lend a hand in mundane chores; monkeys also formed an elite squad that was every criminal’s worst nightmare! Evidence shows that the primates policed the streets with their human counterparts – much like canine companions of cops today.
One of the earliest pre-dynastic deities was the baboon god Baba (or Babi) – “Bull of the Baboons” who, it was thought, devoured the innards of the immoral dead. Extant art from the Old and New Kingdom periods portrays the primates in different settings; and monkeys in particular are often shown engaging in human activities including, among other things - harvesting figs, playing musical instruments, dancing, and even lending a hand in beer production and rigging and building boats as well.
The Egyptians regarded monkeys over and above their humorous antics; they considered them erotic symbols linked to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. They also kept the unpredictable animals as pets and associated them with their gods, such as Thoth-Khonsu, the ibis-headed moon god who was worshipped as the god of wisdom and credited with devising hieroglyphics.
Top Image: Some of the animal species that held a special place in ancient folklore: Horse ( Pixabay License ), dog ( Pixabay License ), hedgehog ( Pixabay License ), squirrel ( Pixabay License ), baboon ( Pixabay License ), cat ( Pixabay License ).