Animal Symbolism

Q: What do you think about totemism and animal symbolism and (as another form of symbolism) specific speciesist types of symbolism used to depict nonhuman animal lifes under specifically speciesist perspectives, like antlers … speciesist pictograms+ads, even some toys?

A:  Perhaps this can be reduced to “animal symbolism” which is probably a janus-faced story. What animal symbolism reveals, is the different localizations of how nonhumans are “projected” in different cultural contexts. The image created becomes visible, exact ideas remain unclear. That’s not to say that ideas and questions about the “images” can’t be rightfully phrased, yet symbolism always remains only a symbol (or token) and contains the ambiguities of such.

The ambiguity of the token itself might be even better to analyze than the images themselves, e.g.:

– You might have the image of impressive huge living animal body, yet a hunt might be indicated with spears, the ambiguity is that the animal body is depicted alife.

– You might have the impressive antlers of a dead animal body, the ascription might be that of the association being made with antlers as indicating to some people “nature’s social darwinistic rule, they believe they protect the wildlife whom they hunt at another instance”, the nonhuman referred to in the symbolism is one of the connotation of strength, culture and naturalness, yet the animal body represented or depicted is dead, the condition of death combiled with awe would indicate an ambiguity

– Or, human features in animal symbolism, can be “negatively” or “positively” connotated and are full of such ambiguities.

Definitely animal symbolism is a highly complex cultural phenomenon to decipher, in particular when it’s speciesist, because the disguise and twists of contents/information of the symbol-coding manifests authority and power.

Pictures or symbols of nonhuman animal bodys at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey.

Animal Portrayals: in Mythology, where to start (a note)

(What kind of a relation to real nonhumans did a figure like the Sumerian Anzu, son of Siris depict?)

The Phoenix was undoubtedly a key mythological animal in various cultures. We’ve been mentioning his being called “the holy grail” by Wolfram von Eschenbach. (Das Geheimnis der Liebe zum Leben. Religiöse Widerständler und heidnische Modernisten

Nonhuman animals were more than just symbols where they were featured positively in myths. In this previous entry about the ‘Orphic Vegetarian Lifestyle‘, we quoted a soruce for Plato (The Laws) referring to civilizations that rejected or did not practice animal sacrifice.

And this would be the first question that needs to be asked when discussing nonhuman animals in mythologies: You find them in every culture, but mostly in a totemisitc form and along with that as “sacrifices”.

The Phoenix thus seems to make a good entry point for looking at ‘positive nonhuman animal portrayals’ in mythology, because in his/her context we don’t seem to find sacrifices tied to his “cult”. (And that sticks out!)

Two snippets I found mentioning that early cultures might not all have sacrificed nonhuman animals per se:

Godfrey Higgins, Anacalypsis: an Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis …, Volume 2, 1833, pp. 147.

Matthew Clark, Exploring Greek Myth, 2012, pp. 151.

The mention of such a mythologically mentioned time also appears in the Shahnameh, in the story of Zahhak and Iblis.

An impressive story of Persian origin is the Myth of Zal (human) and Simorgh (Huma / a Phoenix). Here are two Persian animated videos from the late 1970ies tellling the story of the Bird Simorgh saving the cast out baby Zal:

In this animated clip depicting “Kings and Heroes of the Shahnameh” using original miniatures, you can see how much the bird Simorgh was depicted as a chickenlike bird partly too. In the animations above the Simorgh has the features as depited in Persepolis: half mammal, half bird of prey. (Also very impressive.)

And finally I thought, I should add this more difficult aspect of how negatives and positives are merged when it comes to Animal Mythology:

Sir James George Frazer
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1890, pp 483.

Links: 22 Feb. 2014.