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Humans have used animals as symbols since the dawn of time. After all, they are the closest living beings that link us to nature. In contrast with plants, they move, and interact with us and in some cases, they are our companions. A source of food or danger, a source of wonder, often linked to the world of spirits, different cultures have used animals to try and make sense of the world. In this perilous time for biodiversity, losing animals would mean losing a part of our souls. Let’s see how four different cultures have made symbols of the turtle, the elephant, the cat, and the manta ray. 

The “World Turtle” in Native American Cultures

When you look at a turtle, even a young one, the feeling you get is that of an ancient animal and it’s no wonder! Turtles are some of the oldest reptilians on Earth, dating back from the Jurassic era when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The fearsome dinosaurs are gone but the humble turtle is still with us today. Humans have always known it and discovered that they could grow quite old indeed. But the most significant feature of a turtle is that it’s carrying “its house on its back”. So, is it any wonder that different cultures viewed the world as being carried by a giant turtle? In Northern America, the turtle is part of the myth of creation.

Around the World in 4 Symbolic Animals, turtle

For the Lenape and Iroquois people, the world was created by piling soil on the back of a sea turtle until it was large enough to hold people. For many Native American cultures, the name for the continent is “Turtle Island” and when the earth shakes, it’s the great World Turtle stretching. After all, carrying a whole world is not that easy!

Elephant Symbolism in India

The Asian elephant is a strong symbol all over southern Asia but on the Indian sub-continent, it is particularly revered. Elephants are impressive for their size, strength, intelligence and sense of family. In India, they can be wild animals but they can also be tamed and used as beasts of burden. 

In Hindu cosmology, elephants are supporting the world on their heads. Accounts differ about how many they are: sometimes 16, sometimes 8 but the most common representation is in the Ramayana, describing 4 elephants, placed in the different cardinal points. Some depictions even have the elephants resting… on the back of a turtle! 

Elephants are also vehicles of the gods. In Hindu mythology, Indra, the king of Heaven, is said to ride a white elephant named Airavata, “the cloud elephant”. 

From the mount of the gods to a god itself, it’s a short leap… One of the most worshipped gods of Hinduism is Ganesha, He is is unmistakable since he has the head of an elephant and a man’s body with a distinctive big belly.

Around the World in 4 Symbolic Animals, elephant

Ganesha personifies culture, intellect but also the removing of obstacles, therefore, making it a very popular god to pray to. His cult culminates with Ganesha Chaturthi, a 10 days festival celebrating the elephant-god where huge crowds gather and pay homage to the image of Ganesha. 

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Cats and Egypt

If there is one animal who’s the darling of the Internet, it’s the cat. With millions of funny videos, memes, pictures of cute kittens and even a language of their own (LOLspeak), felines do not cease to fascinate humans. This love story between humans and cats is not new, in fact, it started millennia ago in Egypt. 

There are no other civilizations that venerated the cat like the Ancient Egyptians. For a mainly agrarian society, the cat was an essential animal. It was the guardian of crops, killing pests and rodents that could decimate a harvest if left unchecked. It’s no surprise that the Egyptians started to regard cats as a protective animal and soon, even as a deity. 

Around the World in 4 Symbolic Animals, cats

Several Egyptian deities (all females) are feline-headed but the main cat-goddess is Bastet. First depicted with a lion head since 2800 BC, Bastet soon took the face of the more familiar cat. Daughter of Ra and Isis, she is the protector of the pharaoh and the goddess of fertility and childbirth. Of course, a goddess needs representation on Earth and cats were indeed used to guard the chambers of the pharaohs and when they died, they would be mummified like high-ranking humans. So popular was the cult of Bastet that her festival in Bubastis (a city dedicated to the goddess) was the largest in Egypt with hundreds of thousands of people; attending. if Herodotus is to be believed. Archeologists even found different necropolises where hundreds of cats were embalmed and mummified. 

Harming this sacred animal (unless it was for a ritual sacrifice) was also forbidden. So much so that a legend said that when war erupted between Persia and Egypt in the 6th-century BC. Persian king Cambyses decided to place cats before his own front lines during the battle of Pelusium. The Egyptians did not dare to defend the city out of fear of killing the cats and Pelusium was conquered.

Manta Ray, the ghost of Polynesia

One of the most majestic inhabitants of our oceans is without a doubt the manta ray. People come to the Polynesian triangle from far away to get the chance to see this graceful, and  large, fish. Measuring up to 8 meters, it’s an impressive, but inoffensive fish as it does not have a stinger on its tail, unlike other rays, and eats plankton.

A manta ray can travel throughout the world’s oceans and its size and ghost-like movements when it swims have captured the imagination of many cultures but more particularly in Polynesia.

In Hawaii, the manta ray is mentioned in the creation chant and is one of the “higher animals”, a mysterious creature who can dive where humans can’t. 

Around the World in 4 Symbolic Animals, manta ray

In French Polynesia, it can have a more sinister meaning. Manta rays are seen as sometimes dangerous animals who prevent pearl divers from coming back to the surface by covering them with their large bodies. In the Tuamoto archipelago, they are even accused of abducting children and some legends speak of manta rays with human child faces. 

Because the manta ray can travel far and wide, they are also seen as the “messengers of the ocean”, carrying news through the world. This ability is associated with the manta ray tattoo, a popular design since the Disney-Pixar movie “Moana”. It symbolizes freedom but also, quiet strength. Think about it carefully if you want to get some new ink! 

Of course, it is very tempting to go on an animal-related activity when you’re traveling: going to see sea turtles lay their eggs on a beach, participate in elephant bathings, help in a cat shelter or dive with the manta rays. If you do, Flockeo encourages you to make some background checks about the activity provider to make sure that it is respectful of the animals’ well-being, their integrity, and their environment. The planet will thank you. 

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