Research Monday: The role of animals in human beliefs-Part 1.

One of my favorite parts of being a writer is carrying out research. It is fascinating, and nearly always about subjects I’m really interested in.

For the Wild Hunters series, I wanted to find out more about wolf and werewolf/shifter mythology. To see if there are certain universal themes amongst cultures. Before I got into the nitty-gritty of researching shifter lore – I decided to have a quick look at the role of animals in human mythology in general. This turned out to be a vast subject. And fascinating.

To condense it into a blog post means I will have to miss lots of stuff out, but I hope this post will give an overview. It seems that animals have been a part of human mythology for as long as records go back.

In the distant past, animals and humans were characterised as being much closer than they are now. As having an symbiotic relationship. In many myths from this time, humans and animals could communicate with one another. These narratives may descend from belief in a totemic ancestor, for example in North America or Australia. Or they may be based around the idea that all humans have an animal spirit. For example, the Mesoamerican belief in what is called tonalism – the idea that all humans have a link with an animal spirit that will last their lifetime.

Many of these ancient beliefs held within them the idea of shapeshifting. Humans being able to transform into various animals.

Ancient belief systems also talked of animals able to act as messengers to the gods – or even of deities that take animal (or half-man/half-animal) form. Zeus would change shape into that of various animals. Jaguar deities were found in many areas of South America. Vishnu took the form of a boar or a man-lion.

vishnu lion man form

Wolves are interesting, because they were highly regarded by some societies, yet disliked and feared by others. It isn’t always clear cut, but often the difference in views can be based upon whether a society was hunter-gatherer (often saw wolves in a positive light) or relied on agriculture (often saw them as negative).

One of the most famous myths is that of Romulus and Remus. Their uncle tried to set them adrift, but they were found and saved by a she-wolf. They became the founders of Rome. Yet in Norse mythology wolves were seen as much darker creatures. One belief was that the sun and the moon would ride through the sky on horse-drawn chariots. They had to ride swiftly, because they’re pursued through the sky by wolves trying to devour them!

soli and mani

It seems wolves play a signficiant role in many human belief systems and stories. Next week, I’m going to take a look at actual werewolf/shifter folklore.

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