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Many have relied on symbolic meanings of animals for thousands of years, with animals serving as powerful metaphors for universal concepts.
Ancient societies passed down legends, stories, and songs that indicate that animals served as deities or guardians in the past. Archeologists have discovered animal figurines buried in tombs around the world, as well as charms that contain bits of feather, fur, claws and teeth. In the middle Ages, medieval heraldry adopted animal symbolism on family crests to convey the values of a family or clan.
If you’re looking for a certain animal to turn to for inspiration, keep on reading as we outline a list of popular animals and what they symbolize.
A Celtic symbol of diligence, ants are associated with patience, hard work, and self-sacrifice. As a social insect, it’s the perfect example of unity and teamwork too. For the Native Americans, Estonians, and Chinese, these creatures mean good luck. As a totem animal, it can teach you how to persevere towards your goals and dreams in life.
While Westerners associate bats with fear and superstition, the Chinese regard them as lucky symbols. In the Chinese language, the word bat is pronounced as fu, which is the same pronunciation for the word good luck. A group of five bats known as Wu Fu or Five Blessings, symbolizing long life, health, wealth, love of virtue, and peaceful death.
In Central America, bats are associated with other realms like the underworld. These creatures are known for their ability to find their way around in the dark. As they hang upside down in caves, they’re associated with clarity of inner sight or clairvoyance. As a totem animal, bats are thought to help you see things from a different perspective and face your fears.
An emblem of wisdom, courage, and strength, the bear is regarded as a spiritual guide by the Native Americans. These creatures are known for being fiercely protective of their young, associating them with motherhood.
Viking warriors invoked the bear spirit to give them fury and strength. The term berserk is derived from the word bear-coat, referring to a Norse warrior who transforms into a furious bear. The bear is also thought to symbolize standing up for your beliefs and facing your deepest fears.
More than that, the bear is thought to be connected to the earliest forms of known worship. The Helvetian Swiss people worshiped the bear goddess Artio. In ancient Greece and Rome, these creatures were sacred to Artemis and Diana.
In many cultures, the boar symbolizes honor and truthfulness, but it can also be associated with courage and ferocity. As a spirit animal, it will inspire you to go after what you want without hesitation or fear. For the Celts, the boar was associated with prophecy and magic. There were even Anglo-Saxon and Celtic shields bearing boar-head crests, which were supposed to give protection to the warrior.
The butterfly has become a metaphor for hope and transformation across cultures. A caterpillar reborn from the cocoon as a winged creature makes it a symbol of rebirth and resurrection. In Chinese culture, butterflies symbolize good fortune and long life. It’s likely because the pronunciation of the word butterfly is similar to the sounds of the Chinese characters for good fortune and the elders.
As a symbol of independence and cleverness, the cat inspires us to explore beyond our comfort zones and adapt to changing circumstances. In ancient Egypt, it was sacred to Bastet, the goddess of the home, fertility, and childbirth. In some cultures, it’s also associated with the feminine, the moon, and the power of transformation.
In Japan and China, crane represents long life and health, likely because of the myth of Honorable Lord Crane who lived for a thousand years and more. White cranes are also thought to originate from the Isles of the Blest, the Chinese earthly paradise.
For the Celts, the crane was the guardian of the otherworld and represented great knowledge. Some societies regarded the mating dance of cranes as a magical ritual. The ancient Greeks and Romans even copied the bird’s movements and performed the dance at the beginning of a new year.
A symbol of loyalty and unconditional love, the dog is regarded as man’s best friend. In ancient Egypt, they guarded the gates of holy places, associating them with protection. In Celtic tradition, it was a great honor to compare a warrior to a dog, as the strong spirit of the animal isn’t easily broken. As a spirit animal, the dog will remind you to be loyal, loving, and devoted to your family and friends.
The dove bearing the olive branch has been a symbol of peace and reconciliation. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was a love symbol associated with Aphrodite and Venus, as well as a symbol of wisdom sacred to Athena. The dove remains a representation of faithful, committed love in modern-day weddings. Some cultures believe that if a single white dove perches on the roof, a marriage of a member of that household is expected in the near future.
As the king of birds, the eagle symbolizes fearlessness and victory. In different cultures, it’s regarded as a mystical symbol of the sun and sky. Native Americans even believe that it carries the prayers of people to the sun god. To the Celts, it was the symbol of spiritual knowledge. As a totem animal, the eagle is believed to help you reach new heights.
Because of its long neck, the giraffe can see great distances, associating it with greatness and foresight. In Africa, they’re believed to be the messengers of gods. In some cultures, they’re symbols of good luck and fortune. This elegant animal can remind you to broaden your perspective and rely on your intuition.
The name jaguar is derived from the indigenous word yaguar that means he who kills with one leap. They’re thought to prey upon almost anything they come across, and kill with a powerful bite. Due to these characteristics, jaguars have been used as a war symbol by the Aztecs and Mayans. It’s also believed to be the guardian of the darkness, guiding souls through the world of the dead.
Commonly referred to as the king of the beasts, the lion symbolizes power, leadership, and authority around the world. In ancient Greece, it was identified with many gods and goddesses, such as Dionysius and Artemis. As a symbolic guardian, its image can be found on thrones, doorways, as well as in temples and palaces. Later, it also appears on heraldry and coat of arms.
The most mysterious of birds, the owl represents wisdom, insight and enlightenment. Its symbolism likely stemmed from its depiction with the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena. In Native American lore, it’s seen as the symbol of the feminine, the moon and night. In New Zealand, they’re regarded as noble ancestors and guardian spirits.
Ancient Romans even believed that placing an owl feather near sleeping people would urge them to reveal their secrets. However, owls are also seen as omens of death, especially if they perch on a roof and hoot. It’s widely believed that the deaths of Roman emperors, including Julius Caesar, were signaled by owls.
In ancient Egypt, the god of fertility Amun, was depicted with a ram’s head. Eventually, sacrificial rams played a role in fertility rites. Throughout the Mediterranean, rams were associated with powerful divinities and heroic figures. In some cultures, rams represent strength, power, and regeneration. As a totem animal, it will inspire you to use your strength and courage to face life’s challenges.
Before it became associated with evil in Christian societies, the snake was a symbol of rebirth, life, and healing likely because it has the ability to shed skin as if it’s reborn. Even today, symbols of medicine, such as the Rod of Asclepius, feature snakes. In some myths, it’s linked to the idea of giving birth, fertility and mothers. In some cultures, it remains the symbol of wisdom, protection, and guardianship.
A symbol of strength and courage, the tiger is honored in mythology throughout Asia. It’s one of the four celestial animals in Feng Shui, and is regarded as the symbol of protection against evil. Tiger images are commonly painted on the walls of temples and houses to keep danger away. In the Chinese concept of yin and yang, the tiger represents the yin or the feminine principle.
Native American tribes have regarded the wolf as a teacher and pathfinder. Highly intelligent and powerful, wolves have a special role in the pack and have a strong sense of community. As a totem animal, it will remind you to balance freedom, independence, and responsibility, as well as protect the people close to you.
Most recognized for its distinctive stripes, the zebra symbolizes individualism, freedom, and balance. They’re wild and free, reminding us to love our freedom and not to be bound by someone else’s rules. If you’re losing your sense of individuality and self-worth, they’re the perfect reminder for appreciating your uniqueness as a person.
These symbolic animals helped our ancestors in countless ways, from being a spiritual guide to providing protection and wisdom. Some of them serve as omens, reminders, charms and sentiments. Nowadays, many still believe that we have at least one totem animal that serve as a guardian you can rely on for good luck and protection. Whether you believe in spirit animals or not, the fact remains that animals are powerful symbols of universal concepts and serve as excellent metaphors.