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

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

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.

Cultures have learned from them by observing their personality traits and how they adapt to environments (Public Domain/Deriv)

Cultures have learned from them by observing their personality traits and how they adapt to environments (Public Domain/Deriv)

According to the esoteric historian Manly P. Hall, the practice of totemism can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. The Neo-Platonists inherited the concept of spirit guides or a group spirit, such as the Daemons of Socrates, from the priests of Egypt and their scriptures. Hall believed these practices then spread to the Northern Asiatic peoples. According to Paracelsus, the 16th century Swiss-German born toxicologist and occultist, all life—great and small, even down to insects, plant life, and the mineral kingdoms—serves a great purpose.

The squirrel is no exception to these rules. In this modern age of urbanization, squirrels, like humans, are forced to adapt to new surroundings on a constant basis. This trait of preparation and foresight was encoded within the West African folk tale of The Squirrel and the Spider . In this story, a squirrel builds a home and farm without a path leading up to it, because he can travel through the trees without touching the ground. A sly spider tries to claim the farm by making a pathway himself and insists that this now gives him the right to the property. However, following a mighty storm, the spider is tricked of the farm's bounty by an impassible crow on the roadway. Squirrel, who does not need to follow the main paths and by-ways of other creatures, then manages to reclaim his farm.

Squirrels and Biodiversity

As forest regenerators who help with biodiversity, it is not uncommon to see an anxious squirrel looking around in every direction for enemies, before burying its nuts and seeds in a hiding spot for later. Subsequently, Grey Squirrels often forget where they have hidden their stash, causing great trees and forests to grow in place of their food. Scientific studies conducted by researchers from universities Wilkes, Princeton (Steele et al. 1996) and Purdue (Goheen & Swihart 2003) have shown that the unrivaled leaders in seed dispersion – and in forest regeneration—are Grey Squirrels.

Forgotten food stashes can often sprout into trees and forests.

Forgotten food stashes can often sprout into trees and forests. (BirdPhotos.com/ CC BY 3.0)

We can apply the lessons we learn from squirrels by looking at how we adapt to our environments in a sometimes stressful and chaotic world. Squirrels are highly intelligent problem-solvers and studies have shown they can even remember the solutions to puzzles for up to two years. Perhaps this is another indicator as to why indigenous cultures chose the squirrel as a messenger archetype. Their ability to store knowledge which could grow into a great forest of wisdom, was certainly an attribute that Ratatoskr the Norse squirrel took full advantage of!

Squirrels Today & the Red-Versus-Grey Controversy

One of the greatest tragedies that our ecology faces today is the decline of the red squirrel population in the UK. This has resulted in a controversial cull on grey squirrels. It was mistakenly believed that the Eastern grey squirrel was destroying the red squirrel population.

A red squirrel in the forest (Sciurus vulgaris).

A red squirrel in the forest (Sciurus vulgaris). (Peter Trimming/ CC BY 2.0 )

However, scientific research has amounted to dispel this myth, showing that the main reason for the red squirrel decline is due to traffic, human activity, and a diminishing bio-diversity caused by climate change. There was also a huge destruction of red squirrel habitats after World War II for agricultural reasons. Recent research has since demonstrated the neutral and very often positive environmental effect of grey squirrels.

The eastern gray squirrel

The eastern gray squirrel (HH58/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )

According to Peter Matthews of I-CSRS, or the Interactive Centre for Scientific Research about Squirrels:

We've recently sent Wildlife Trusts a publication for ‘Non-lethal methods in the conservation of red squirrels (UK)’ and over 124 thousand signatures under the petition against their ‘methods’. They said they ‘were interested and ready for further discussion’ but I think there's a need for much bigger public pressure in this matter ”.

The red squirrel is not as versatile in terms of diet as the grey squirrel and they have not adapted well to vegetation changes, which have resulted in support for the cull. Supporters justify it by claiming the Eastern grey squirrel is an invasive species, but it should be noted that grey squirrels were originally imported for ornamental purposes, but have now acclimated. According to Matthews, red squirrels can be helped by planting conifer forests, establishing them on islands and supplementary feeding. We find a similar argument used in British Columbia, Canada, where the native red squirrel decline is blamed on the grey squirrel.

Emily Gonzales, a professor at the University of Victoria and restoration specialist at Parks Canada, has refuted these points and shown that both the red and grey squirrel populations of British Columbia are important for the environment, and should be respected equally as they can co-habitat peacefully together.

Another damaging myth for the grey squirrel was that they caused bird population decline, but it has since been shown that predation by red squirrels is higher than greys, who utilize a greater variety of seeds than reds. This negative myth was dispelled in 2009 by BTO research and a study of urban birds (Bonnington 2014.)

Lessons from Nature and Myth

Perhaps the lesson is that we must respect all of nature’s creatures, even when we feel that we are acting for what initially seems to be a legitimate reason. As humans continue to adapt and co-habit with wildlife in our modern, urban environments there are many ways in which to help benefit integration. If you have a squirrel in your garden, for example, you can visit I-CSRS’s website for ideas on how you can use squirrel-proof birdfeeders, or safely deter them from getting into areas of your garden that you do not want them digging.

We can also read the mythologies and folk tales of our various cultures and try to see more clearly that every creature has a role to play in nature. We can educate ourselves and others so as to understand the deeper connection between all living things. And, maybe, we can also be like Ratatoskr the squirrel and bring the message of wisdom and conservation to those we share our world with.

Jonny Enoch is a clinical hypnotherapist, esoteric researcher, and writer. Currently, he resides in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Jonny is an avid reader, nature lover and has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Not only has he been researching ancient history, hidden symbolism, and occult subjects for over 20 years, but his quest for answers about the unknown has led him on travel adventures all over the world. Currently, he is writing a book on ancient consciousness technologies and lost civilizations.

David Halpin  is a writer from Carlow, Ireland. He compiles local folklore and documents alignments between ancient monuments near his home in Ireland, and is a regular contributor to Ancient Origins and various Fortean and occult websites. Join him for virtual and physical guided tours of ancient Irish sites at  @CircleStoriesDavidHalpin

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Top Image: Squirrels – ancient messengers from the underworld (Public Domain) and squirrel tracks (Squidocto/ CC BY-SA 3.0 );Deriv.

By Jonny Enoch & David Halpin

References

Ted Andrews, Animal Speak , (Llewellyn Publishing, 1993), p. 7.

History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw & Natchez Indians. Horatio Bardwell, Cushman 1962.

Manly P. Hall, Reincarnation: The Cycle of Necessity , (Philosophical Research Society, 1939), pp. 117-120.

Manly P. Hall, Clark E. Johnston, Think on these things , (Philosophical Research Society, 1997), p. 105

West African Folktales by William H. Barker and Cecilia Sinclair, with drawings by Cecilia Sinclair (1917)

Goheen & Swihart, Food-hoarding behaviour of gray squirrels and North American re squirrels in the central hardwoods region: Implications for forest regeneration:  [Online] Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.121.2347&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Harry Petit, Grey squirrels remember how to solve puzzles for up to two years: [Online] Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4693620/Grey-squirrels-remember-solve-puzzles-two-years.html

Sara Dubois, Chief Scientific Officer for British Columbia SPCA, Grey Squirrels: Invasive Species? Or Scapegoat?: [Online] Available at: https://www.islandconservation.org/grey-squirrels-canada/

Gonzales, E. K. The Distribution and Habitat Selection of Introduced Eastern Grey Squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, in British Columbia. The Canadian Field-Naturalist 2005, 119, 343–350.

Squirrel in my garden: [Online] Available at: http://i-csrs.com/squirrel-my-garden

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