The Elemental Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures
By John and Caitlin Matthews
In world astronomy, the patterns that the constellations make in the heavens have most commonly been those of animals. In Summerian mythology, the three-headed dragon, Mushussu, was the constellation of Hydra. Greek mythology provided the horse Pegasus while the Egyptians described Sirius the dog star. Half-animal and half-human fusions are represented by the centaur Cheiron who is the archer of Sagittarius.
In the southern hemisphere, the Southern Cross forms the toes of a great ostrich in South American star-lore, while in Brazil it is seen as a huge ray fish. The Milky Way is the Ostrich Way for the Australian Aborigines while for the Hopi of North America it is the stream of stars that Coyote let out of the pot. The Polynesians see it as the Long-Blue-Cloud-Eating Shark. Legends of the Pleiades are very vivid. The Ibos of Africa, like the Dyaks of Polynesia, see them as the hen with chickens, while to the Greeks they were a roost of doves. An Onandaga Indian story from North America tells us how dancing children became animals who formed the Pleiades.
While their elders set up camp around Bear Lake, the children amused themselves by making up dances that imitated animals, especially the birds like Hawk, Eagle, and Falcon. One day, an old silver-haired man attired in white feathers came to warn them to stop, but they ignored him. The next day the children begged their parents for food while they were out dancing, but their elders told them they must come home to eat like everyone else. After several days of going without their dinners the children grew light-headed from lack of food. As they danced, so their dancing feet began to leave the ground. They felt strange, as if something was happening to them, but they realized that they must not look down if they were to keep dancing.
An old woman gathering firewood saw the children rising like smoke and called after them to come back, but they kept circling into the sky. She rushed to their parents who piteously begged the children to return. Only one of the children looked down and fell through the sky like a falling star. The rest of the children reached the stars and became the constellation we call the Pleiades, though the Dnondaga call it the Ootkwatah.
Dancing the Animals
As far back as the 2nd century, when the scholar Pollux wrote of the Morphamos (“imitation of creatures”) or dances by which people suggest different animals by their movements, we have been “Dancing the Animals”. Such imitative dances from the basis for dance ceremonies worldwide, especially in those cultures where people depend on the bounty or timely migration of animals to keep alive. There are early examples of this depicted in prehistoric cave paintings in France and Spain, where our ancestors painted animals and the ceremonies and dances that would help lure the animals to the hunting grounds. Among the ibex, bison, horses and aurochs are found humanoid figures, sporting the animal heads of their desired prey.
Dancing the Animals requires humans to take on their shape as well as their gestures, postures and behaviors, and to this end masks and costumes are worn. For those who see the animal as a divinity, the dancer does not merely imitate the animal but becomes the animal god whose help he desires. In this way, from earliest times shamans, medicine-people, hunters, initiating elders and others have literally become the inspired gods embodied in the tribal circle, often lit by the mysterious flickering firelight in the depths of night when such mysterious are enacted.
Throughout parts of civilized Northern Europe, the remnants of prehistoric animal dancers and ceremonies are still embodied in seasonal folk custom, especially about the time of the year when winter is hardest and food traditionally least abundant: from the accounts of Saxon penitentiaries, which, penalized those who went attired as wild horned beasts at the calends (end) of the year, to the winter guizers or disguisers who still go out across the snow portraying the Winter Goat or Schiepercht, or the Hobby Horse, Mari Lwyd or Grey Mary, who still demand poetical dialogues at every door. These creatures still walk among us, creatures knows to our prehistoric forebears who had to dance these animals in order to obtain the food that would help them survive the winter and to help drive away sickness and pain.
Many peoples worldwide see the everyday world as part of a greater spiritual cosmos. This belief is often demonstrated by the location for four magical animals at the four main directions of the compass, so that there is a protective animals which over sees the north, south, east and west of the world. This potent belief enables people to feel the stability of what are often shifting circumstances and a difficult environment. These beings can help us locate ourselves in the universe and may represent maps of the soul or spiritual qualities that surround us.
In Mayan tradition, four great forest jaguars, the Balam, guard the directions, with ferocious teeth and sharp claws. For the Winnebego Indians of Wisconsin, with its severe winters, it is four bears who stand at each point of the compass- white, red, grey and black for the east, south, west and north, respectively. In Hindu tradition, there are the right Lokapala (guardian) elephants with their female consorts who stand at the right points of the compass, each with a Hindu deity upon its back. As the strong animal, the elephant holds the four spiritual creatures: in the west, stands the Chi-Lin (or Ki’Lin), the Unicorn, in the south is the Feng-Huang the phoenix, in the north is Gui Xian, the tortoise, and in the east stands Lung, the dragon.
In rites, prayers and rituals, these directional guardian animals are invoked and remembered before any magical or transformatory work can begin, for they hold the four corners of the cosmos in their safe-keeping. In Navajo sand paintings, the hatali (medicine person), creates mandalas on the ground in colored sand for the healing and balance of individuals and the community. These invariably depict four sacred beings, sometimes in animal shape. The person who is feeling ill, displaced or out of balance is encouraged to sit in the middle of this sacred picture in order to feel their spiritual connection with the magical animals who keep the world safe.
Of all mythological creatures, the dragon is surely the best known. Virtually every culture in the world has its dragon myths, and countless stories have been told of its origins, history and of its defeat at the hands of dragon slayers. The dragon slain by St. George is perhaps the most typical and consistent in its imagery, and dragons found in the bestiaries of heraldry echo it very closely. In each instance, it has bat wings, a barbed and often poisonous tail, and it breathes fire. It is depicted thus in numerous English folktales, and it is often portrayed in Christian churches, or in the many paintings that describe St. George in the act of slaying the creature. In most of these, the dragon is usually represented as a far smaller creature than its more ancient forbears.
Most British dragons are really worms, a name that comes from Scandinavian tradition. These creatures are wingless, generally have lengthy bodies, and a poisonous rather than fiery breath. Dragons and worms have several traits in common- they tend to be scaly, haunt wells or pools, and have a deep attraction to maidens and princesses. Both creatures are known to hoard treasure, which they have either gathered for themselves or inherited, becoming guardians by chance. All are extremely hard to kill.
It is generally accepted that the myth of the dragon grew out of the remains of extinct dinosaurs discovered in ancient times and believed to belong to magical or unearthly creatures. Details such as their fiery breath and wily nature were added afterwards. Artifacts depicting dragons of one kind or another have been found as early as the 4th millennium BC. Excavations in Pakistan and China have unearthed objects decorated by winged snakes, while a cylinder seal dating to the late 2nd century BC shows a creature which is not far in shape from the traditional idea of the dragon.
The word “dragon” derives from the ancient Greek drakonta or drakon, which means “to watch” or “to look at”, suggesting that even at that point in time the notion of a dragon as a guardian was already established. In the Greek myth, it is a dragon that guards the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, while in European tradition it is usually crouched upon a vast mountain of treasure. The Latin word for dragon is draco and in classical Roman art the draco is generally depicted as a vast serpent with wings resembling those of a bat, a long tail and fiery breath. Pliny the Elder in his Historia Naturalis (AD 77) gives an account of dragons in the land of Ethiopia, describing them as perhaps 60 ft in length and living primarily off the flesh of elephants. However, over time there were fewer and fewer elephants and the Ethiopian dragons were forced to look elsewhere. The story is told that they twined themselves together to form a huge living raft and then sailed across to the Arabian Peninsula. These dragons were said to possess a stone called the Dracontias, which was lodged in the brain. In medieval times, alchemists sought these with great diligence, as they were believed to be an essential ingredient in the creation of the Elixir of Life.
The most ancient stories relating to the dragon make it a power that must be defeated or bound by a god or hero. These cosmic battles, which date back to the earliest times, include the story of the Egyptian Horus and Typhon, the Babylonian Marduk and Tiamat, the Greek Apollo and the Python, and the Graeco-Roman Hercules and the Hydra, and many more. slaying the dragon often disguises a deeper struggle between light and darkness with the dragon usually symbolizing the dark, and its slayer light and goodness. Out of this also came the traditions of the dragons as guardians of treasure- a just reward for those brave enough and strong enough to overcome these mighty adversaries.
Early references to dragon-like creatures turn up in Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, and Japanese accounts, as well as in classical Greek and Roman sources. In many of these the dragon described is not the evil creature of later mythology, but often a great serpent that represents the primal matter of creation itself, or the life-giving waters of ocean. In this context, its wings are described as sending forth the air, which is the breath of life. It is also seen as a messenger of the sky gods. Later, this symbolism changes, perhaps with the shift from Paganism to Christianity, which caused beings representing the ancient powers of the gods to become darker and more negative.
The 4th century BC Greek playwright Euripides was one of the first classical writers to describe a dragon breathing fire, while in the Old Testament, Moses mentions fiery serpents and Isaiah speaks of high-flying fire-breathing creatures which resemble dragons. In Egyptian myth, Apophis is a dragon of darkness who has to be overcome every day by the sun god Ra. In Roman myth, the goddess Ceres flies through the heavens in a chariot drawn by two dragons, and later lends this to the hero Triptolomus to enable him to distribute corn to the human race. Medusa, though not a dragon herself, is one version of the story escapes from Jason in a chariot drawn by a winged dragon. Apollo may be seen as a type of dragon slayer who kills the Python of Delphi- though the latter is more a serpent than a traditional dragon.
One of the earliest stories featuring a dragon of cosmic proportions is found in the Babylonian Epic of Creation, composed during the 2nd century BC. Here we learn of the struggle between the god of Abzu, god of the primordial waters beneath the earth, and his consort Tiamat, who was a dragon of the sea, against their son Ea, the all-knowing god of wisdom. Ea fought and killed Abzu and replaced him. He then engendered the hero Marduk on his consort and prepared for war against his mother. To swell the ranks of her forces in the coming war, Tiamat gave birth to a host of dreadful creatures:
Giant snakes, sharp of tooth and unsparing of fang.
She filled their bodies with venom instead of blood,
She cloaked ferocious dragons with fearsome rays
And made them bear mantles of radiance, made them god-like
In the ensuring battle, Marduk fought Tiamat in single combat. He forced wind into her belly which he then pierced with an arrow. He then split her down the middle and used one half to create the sky and the other to create the earth. the dragons to which Tiamat had given birth remained behind, hidden in the deep places of the earth.
Biblical tradition takes the idea of the dragon and marries it with ancient images from middle Eastern belief and tradition. Even the serpent of the Garden of Eden is sometimes referred to as a dragon, while the Book of Revelation a red dragon with multiple-crowned heads appears. It’s tail so great that it sweeps a third of the stars from the sky, throwing them upon the earth. a great war then ensues between the beast and the archangel Michael and his angels, who cast it down upon the earth. three unclean spirits like frogs come out from the dragon’s mouth, which are said to be devils, working false miracles. Finally, the dragon is thrown into a bottomless pit, where it will remain for at least 1,000 years, imprisoned by an angel with a key and chain.
In Hindu tradition, the dragon represents manifest power and the spoken word, and is a representative of both Aruna and Soma. The great god Indra slew a dragon named Vitra in order to release the primordial water and make the earth fruitful.
It is without doubt in China that the dragon achieves its most complex mythological and symbolic status. Here it represents the highest spiritual power and is emblematic of the representatives of such power on earth. dragons are said to influence every aspect of life and in this context are one of the 12 symbolic creatures of the Zodiac. Among its many other attributes, it is known to represent the sun, the heavens, and the fertilizing rain. Often dragons are represented as living in elaborate palaces above ground or beneath the sea, and there is evidence that in ancient times offerings were made to them oriental dragons are also known as shapeshifters and they can make themselves invisible at will. They have many different characteristics, some good some bad. the celestial dragon, T’ien Lung, is a guardian of the home of the gods and is sometimes represented as holding up the sky. Fu T’Sang, the Imperial Dragon, is a guardian of treasure. One very specific description shows that the dragon had become acknowledged as a hybrid being and that every aspect of it had symbolic meaning. It is said that:
The dragon’s horns resemble those of a stag, his head is that of a camel, his eyes those of the demon, his neck that of the snake, his belly that of a claim, his scales those of a carp, his claws are those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of the cow.
In both China and Japan, traditionally the dragon was able to change itself into a bird, and in a monastery ink you to there is a painting depicting a composite creature, half dragon, half bird. In Japan, the dragon myth evolved its own pattern. An ancient story tells how a dragon was formed from part of the fire god Kaguzuchi. It produced rain and snow in response to the prayers of men. And, as in both China and India, Japanese river gods took the form of dragons and were believed to bring rain. But it was only with the introduction of Chinese and Indian dragon myths that Japanese rivers became filled with dragons.
An ancient Japanese story tells how the daughter of the sea god happened to notice a beautiful young man looking into a well near the palace gates, and invited him into her father’s realm. The sea-king’s daughter married the youth, who was also a prince, and after three years in the kingdom of the sea, they returned to earth so that the prince pregnant bride could give birth-to a son and heir. The prince built her a palace in which she could give birth, but the princess begged him not to watch her. As so often in stories such as this, he could not resist, and saw that she turned into a sea dragon to give birth. Angry and ashamed, the princess deserted her son and husband, and returned to the sea forever.
Throughout Japan, dragons are also associated with Will-o’-the-wisps. These spectral lights are also called “Dragon-Lanterns” and are said to rise from the sea to the mountains where they rest in pine trees close to sacred temples. They were considered gifts from the dragons which lived in the sea.
In British folklore, there are several stories relating to winged, fiery creatures: one being that of the Dragon of Kingston who was eventually choked to death by a giant boulder that rolled down from a ridge into his mouth as he opened it to belch forth flames. The Dragon of Wantley in Lancashire was another dragon of this kind. An account of this creature from Legends and Traditions of Lancashire is typical of this kind of story.
The serpent of Handall in Yorkshire was half dragon and half serpent, since it had fiery breath and a venomous sting. It was a great devourer of maidens until a young man named Shaw killed it when he set out to rescue a earl’s daughter. The dragon that haunted Winlatter Rock in Derbyshire was probably the devil, who had taken this form in order to prey on the local population. The evil creature was finally driven off by a monk who stood upon a rock with his arms outstretched in the shape of a cross. His concentration was apparently so great that his feet sank into the rock and left impressions there that could still be seen in the 19th century. Apparently, the monk did not kill the dragon, but drove it away. It took refuge down a mine in the Derbyshire hills and the waters have been said to taste sulphurous and be slightly warm ever since, evidence of the dragon’s presence.
Dragons are less prevalent in Celtic tradition, despite the importance of the Red Dragon or Ddraig Goch in Welsh Lore. Two dragons are said to plague the people of Britain every May Eve until they are defeated by the legendary King Lludd (or Lud) who was instructed by his brother Llevellys how to catch the dragons by placing arat of mead covered by a cloth at the most central point in Britain. Lludd found that this was Oxford where the fighting dragons became lured to Earth by the smell of the mead. The nearer to earth they got, the quicker they changed shape finally metamorphosing into pigs who drank the mead, fell into a deep slumber, to be taken and entombed beneath Dianas Emrys in Snowdonia. This was later the sire of Merlin’s revelation. The great dragon killer of Irish tradition is Fraech who had the help of fairies to overcome the dragon.
Dragons are particularly in folklore and legends of Russia, and most conform to the classical type. Such natural phenomena as eclipses of the sun and moon are widely accepted to be caused by dragons; though when the heavenly orbs reappeared this was taken as a clear sign that if even such mighty creatures as dragons could not withstand the power of the heavens, then mankind could survive them also. Most of the dragons in Russian legends and folk stories are less intelligent than their counterparts elsewhere in the world.
The appearance of the dragon can vary a great deal according to which part of the world it comes from. In some places it has a head that is reptilian, while in India it sometimes has the head of an elephant, a lion or bird or prey, with the Middle East it is usually serpentine and may have many heads. The color of the dragon ranges from green, red, or black to yellow, blue or white. Dragons seem to love ruins and are often found in ancient castles, palaces or cities that have fallen into ruin. They are also found in swamps, deserts, and caverns, on mountains and in the forest. In other words, the dragon seems to be at home in virtually any setting. The story of the assault on the dragon’s lair is almost as fixed as the form of the dragon itself. In almost every instance, the hero, once he has found a way to kill the dragon, ends by cutting off its head, tongue, feet or tail, often to prove that he has killed the creature, but sometimes because it carries power of its own. Thus, in the Teutonic myth of the hero Siegfried, having defeated the dragon, he cuts out its tongue, getting some of its saliva on his lips in the process. Thereafter he can understand the language of birds and animals.
In Norse and Germanic tradition, we find one of the prime stories of the dragon in the epic poem Beowoulf. In the oldest traditions of the Norse people, Nidhoggr (“one full of hatred”) is the Dragon of Death, which drinks the blood of the dead and eats corpses. According to the Norseman Snorri’s Edda, it is said that Nidhoggr will survive the end of the world and live in the one that will replace it. Elsewhere Nidhoggr is described as living under the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil. A squirrel acts as a messenger between the dragon and a great eagle which sits at the top of the tree, sowing discord in the human race. The midgard serpent lives at the center of the earth or in the ocean, and was created from the eyebrows of the primal giant Ymir-though some sources describe him as the offspring of the black-hearted trickster god, Loki. Norse mythology describes this creature as living in the primeval ocean that surrounds the world. Later, Thor is said to have used an ox skull as a hook to catch the great serpent, dispatching it with his mighty hammer. In some versions, Thor himself dies as a result of breathing the poisonous breath of the serpent.
The dragon is found on the banners of many different peoples, including the Persians, Russians, Welsh and Norse. This may have contributed to its fierce and warlike nature. The myth of the dragon continues to grow, with the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien presenting the memorable Snaug the Golden and Anne the Caffery’s “Fern” series adding an entire new line to the story, in the shape of her Dragonriders.
The magical properties of dragons include the ability to guard treasure and knowledge, to usher in new cycles of time, to shape and sculpt the earth and to endure to the ending of the world.
Gods, Men and Animals
In world mythology, gods and animals are not always separate species of being. Gods can take on animal form or even the physical attributes of animals while retaining anthropomorphic features as well.
According to the Hindu Shatpatha Brahmana, “no god is without animality, no animal without humanity, no man without a part of divinity”. It sets out the three components which all human beings possess their divine, animal and human natures. “Those in whom the pati (master) is dominant are the wise who are close to the gods. Those who are ruled by their animal natures are called the pashu (cattle). Those who understand the connection between god and animals are those who practice the pasha (sacred bond), understanding the law which maintain the universe.” The Hindu Lord of the Animals is called Pasupati. Shiva looked at the gods and said, “I am the Pasupati, Lord of other Animals. The courageous Titans, the Asuras, can only be destroyed if each of the gods and other beings assumes his animal nature.” But because the gods were reluctant to do so, Shiva said, “it is no disgrace to recognize your own animal only those who practice the rites of the brothers of the animals will be able to overcome their own animal nature.” And then the gods and Titans realized that they were all the Lord’s cattle.
Human beings are not exempt from having animal natures either. Many beliefs around the world ascribe a spirit animal to each person, a spirit companion who protects their life-power. In some cultures, this spirit animal is embodied by the human being when they pass into dream or take soul-flights into the other world. Elsewhere, the animal becomes manifest during sacred dances which honor the animal spirits where, to the rhythm of drums, singing or percussion, people’s spirit animals become apparent from their movements and callings. Among shamans, this animal relationship is strongest and a considerable part of shamanic seances. For many witches worldwide, the ability to pass into animal shape is a feature of working spells or magic.
Lords and Ladies of the Animals
Throughout the world, the creatures are under the protection of gods and goddesses as well as divine herdsmen and shepherdesses who guard the safety and soul of the animals. In the presence of the Lords and Ladies of the Animals, all creatures come together unafraid, surrounding their divine protection. Many species of animals who would normally be antagonistic to each other, cease their predations of these figures. In early East Mediterranean mythologies, we find the Mother of the Mountain, who is called Rhea, Diktynna and Artemis, while in Asia Minor there is Cybele whose mountain throne is guarded by two lions. These ancient goddesses reveal themselves as the Lady of the Beasts. In Hindu mythology, this role in taken by Parvati, who, with her husband, Shiva, make up a partnership of the Lord and Lady of the Animals. Among the Busmen of Africa, it is the goddess K’o who is the matron of the hunt. She is a tall, luminescent goddess who dances with the hunters and communicates with them about the location of game, telling them which animals they may or may not take. She breathes upon those whose she favors. A painting from Ehorongue in central Africa shows her with her hymphs, who have the spotted skins of antelope. In Mesopotamian myth, it is Sakkan who is the god of the animals, responsible for their fertility, while in the Amazon it is the dwarf, Desana who guards the life of animals. Shamans negotiate with him so that hunters may take game animals but human souls must agree to reincarnate as animals of the hunt.
The Celtic god, Cernunnos, with his stag’s antlers, is a primal herdsman around whom all the animals flock for security. His role is found in the wild herdsman of the Welsh medieval story of Owein, in the Lady of the Fountain, which is itself based on pre-Christian myths. The wild herdsman sits under a tree and when he bangs his club upon the tree and brays aloud, all the animals come:
as numerous as the stars in the sky. So that is was different to stand in the glade among them. There were serpents, dragons and many animals whom he bacle go and feed. Then they bowed their heads and did homage to him as their lord.
To some extent, the half-beast, half-man figures of Aron and the Centaur Cheiron fulfil this office as mediators between men and animals, preserving peacefulness and felicity between the species. This sacred guardianship role feel to Orpheus in late classical mythology, where the inspired singer’s music caused the beasts to fall quiet in adoration of his song. In Christian lore, the Lord of the Animals is prophesied in Isaiah where it is said that “the lion shall lie down with the lamb”, and it is Christ who reveal himself as “the Good Shepherd.”
What exactly constitutes a monster differs according to who is making the definition. Many of the creatures could be called monstrous, but this may simply mean that they are large, whereas the implication of the word “monster” is that the subject in question is hideously deformed. Certainly, fascination with such creatures has been with us for a long time, as witnessed by the number of descriptions of strange beasts that are to be found dating back to the earliest times. Most of these descriptions revolve around the idea that these creatures are aberrations of nature, malformed beings that have no place in creation. In ancient mythologies, there were many composite creatures, part humanoid, part animal or bird. In Babylonian mythology, for example, the eagle represented the goodness of nature, while other winged creatures such as the dragon, the Griffin, the Hippogriff and the Chimaera represented the forces of evil and destruction. In classical mythology, creatures such as the Centaurs, satyrs and the minotaur could be perceived as either good or evil.
In earlier times, freakish combinations of creatures, the kind of hybrids listed in bestiaries-including such strange monsters as Hydra, Fastitocalson, Sphinx, and Ichneumon-were accepted as part of creation. Monsters were everywhere-on land, in the waters and in the air- embodying all facets of the natural world. In some instances such creatures were regarded as signs from the creator, sometimes of natural disasters to come. The Babylonian priest Berosus wrote:
There was a time they say when all was water and darkness, and these gave birth and habitation to monstrous animals of mixed forms and species. For there were men with two wings, others with four, and some again with double faces. Some had the horns of goats, some their legs, and some the legs of horses and the fore-parts of men, like the Hippocentaurs. There were bulls with human heads, dogs with four bodies ending in fishes, horses with dogs heads, and men and other creatures with the heads and bodies of horses and the tails of fishes, and a number of animals whose bodies were a monstrous compound of the dissimilar parts of beasts of various kinds. Together with these were fishes, reptiles, serpents and other creatures, which by reciprocal translation of the parts of one another, became all portentously deformed.
Among the native peoples of North America, these creatures tended towards cannibalistic ogres, flying heads or giants, or else they were representations of the ordinary world seen through a darkened glass, for example, Burr women, an old woman who sits on the hero’s back and cannot be dislodged: sucking monstu, a giant who ingests his victims; Pot Tilta, an old woman who has a pot attached to her back that sucks people in; and the Cliff Ogre, a giantess who kicks people over a cliff to be eaten by her young.
Wherever one looks throughout the world, there are creatures of this kind-perhaps dreams, perhaps a rising from our deepest levels of unconsciousness, or representations of our most profound fears. Among the most popular stories nowadays are those which deal with such monsters as Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Werewolf, and King Kong, all of whom are modern examples of monsters that have seized our imagination and continue to fascinate us.
Animals have always been the links between human beings and the gods. Throughout the world, people have sacrificed animals as offerings to the gods. The reasons for sacrifice vary: sometimes it is so that the gods might wish to join in and enjoy a feast, but it can also be to appease them in order to avert punishment, or to obtain some request or prayer. Animals thus sacrificed or ritually set apart to be shared with the gods or spirits in variably involve the primary domesticated animals that are kept for meat such as the bull, cow, cockerel, goat and sheep.
In many parts of Africa, it is believed that the only way to make a connection between the gods, ancestors and spirits, and ourselves is through sacrifice. Without sacrifice, the lineage will wither. In cases of familial or tribal disputes, the medicine that binds people back into good relations requires the sacrifice of an animal. According to the Dogon of Mali, it is believed that all living beings have souls (kikinu) and the vital power of life (nyama). At the moment of sacrifice, the celebrant alerts the gods to the aim of the sacrifice by means of prayer, then the blood of the animal victim flows upon the alter carrying its nyama. The alter is believed to be a living being, drinking the blood like a baby at the breast of its mother. The sacrificial act restores connection in the otherworld. In this case, sacrifice is a means of revolving the circuit of energy between the worlds. Sacrifices also remove impurity. In Norse mythology, the boar Sonargoltr was sacrificed in a Sonarblot (blood sacrifice) to ensure a good harvest, while in Middle Eastern tradition, it is a different kind of sacrifice-a ritual setting aside- that is the reason for the scapegoat. The Laws of Manu, which were transmitted by Manu Vaivasvata in ancient Vedic times in India say:
He who injures animals that are not harmful, from a wish to give himself pleasure, adds nothing to his own happiness, living or dead, while he who gives no creatures willingly to pain of confinement or death, but seeks the good of all, enjoys bliss without end the slaughter of animals obstructs the way to heaven.
In one of the collection of Buddhist stories known as the Jatakatalls, Buddha denounces the sacrifice of cows noting that:
We see no cattle asking to be slain
That they might have a new and better life.
Rather they go unwillingly to their death,
Struggling vainly with their last breath.
The sacrifice of animals causes much disquiet today in society that has become removed from the primary methods of farming or the immediate processing of food. The magical role of sacrifical animals is to make a bridge between our world and the otherworld, as orthodox forms of ritual slaughter in Judaic and Islamic lore attest. All hunters in traditional societies maintain a respectful view of their prey. Initiation into the adult role of the hunter involves the learning of prayers or propitiation that leads the animals soul to the rightful place into the otherworld, as well as understanding the hunter’s code of “take only what you need; spare the females with young.” The taking of a large meat animal from one’s livestock involves a sharing in nurture and a thanksgiving. In mass consumer society, this primary gratitude and respect has been lost, so that depleted wild animal stocks such as fish are taken, until there are few adults left to spawn and replenish the seas. Unless we re-learn the old respect soon, we may find ourselves without the means to sustain ourselves.
The ability to shape shift was part of many of the cultures that depended upon hunting to survive. This primal ability is still seen among the Bushmen of Southern Africa, who not only follow in the tracks of animal prey but run like the animal they are chasing and make cries similar to it. Around the fire at night, before and after a hunt, they take the form of prey animals, imitating and embodying them. This behavior has been part of human tradition from earliest times, when the sympathy between hunter and hunted was crucial for survival. Many traditions of disguising and masking derive from such pursuits. In Irish lore, the hunter’s ability to blend into the landscape as an animal became a form of invisibility. Special shape shifting spells of invocation called Fith-Fath were employed by Gaelic hunters in order to enable the hunt. Such pagan spells were even used by St. Patrick, who when he was being pursued by enemies, invoked a Fith-Fath to change himself and his followers into the shape of deer in order to put scouts off the scent of their human prey. The remnants of this spell are left in the fairy-tale giant’s cry of “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum.”
In world myth, the ability to shape shift between animal and human forms is usually found in extraordinary individuals. Foremost of these in Irish myths us Tuan MacCarill.
Tuan MacCarill was called upon by Finnen of Moville, the teacher of the great saint of Columbia, to relate his lineage. Tuan came with the first colonists, the Patholonians, survivors of the great flood. When the Partholonians died out, Tuan passed from old age into the form of a stag and saw the coming of the Nemedians. When they died out, Tuan passed into the shape of a boar. In this form, he saw the coming of the Fir Bolg until the coming of the Tuatna de Danaan who overcame them, when he took the form of a hawk. Finally be became a salmon and in this form was caught and served up as a meal to the queen of Ulster. When he was later reborn of her womb, he retained the memories of all he had lived through in previous forms.
A similar tradition is found in the case of the Hindu god Vishnu who is seen to shift shape through the many ages of the world. Each of his appearances is called an avatar or “vehicle of manifestation” and he passes into these shapes whenever the world is threatened, for he is the preserving god of Hinduism who has appeared in the shapes of Rama, Krishna and Gautamu Buddha. His earlier avatars include Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise, Varaha the boar, Nr-simba the man-lion as well as Vamana the dwarf. This ability to shape shift could be said to be in the nature of reincarnation. Although some of Vishnu’s transformations are purposeful acts of rescue, taken as a whole they are the means by which the history of the world is preserved and extended. The final avatar, Kalki, will govern the Age of Strife and is still to come, punish evildoers, reward the virtuous, destroy the world and so create a completely new cycle of life.
Some shape shifters do not wish to be caught and will use their skills to avoid entering into contracts or relationships. We see this in the myth of Proteus, the first man of Greek myth or, as he is also known, Nereus, the old man of the sea, who when challenged takes the successive forms of a fish-tailed being, a lion, a stag and a snake. He was challenged by Aristaeus, the son of Apollo, who successfully out-wrestled him. Even within this myth, the whole memory of the world is seen to be embodied in one being whose very cells have come down via the ladder of DNA to their present pattern. In this way, the ability to take animal shape remains magically within each of us.
Supporters of the Earth and Sky
In many myths the earth is not able to stand by itself without supporters, many of whom turn out to be in animal form. Among the Kato Indians of California, the earth was thought of as a great horned serpent that wound slowly southwards through the primeval waters with the creator Nagaicho standing upon its head steering it. Among the Iroquois, the earth rests upon the back of a turtle (specifically the box turtle, Cistudo Carolina) who is the only animal capable of such stability. This belief is also found in Hindu tradition where Kurma the turtle, one of the avatars of Vishnu, holds up the earth.
There are also many traditions about a primordial man or being from whom all material creation is fashioned. Their very being is everything that we see around us. This myth is extensively told in Hindu tradition and is found throughout Indo-European myths, from the Norse Ymir to the Mesopotamian Tiamat. It is a tradition still embodied within the mystical lore of the Jewish Kabbalists who believe that Adam Kadmon is the one who represents the microcosmic world, which is itself a reflection of the macrocosm, which is all that is. Very often there is a primal pillar, tree or support that keeps earth and sky separate that is venerated at the support of creation, which is what we find in Norse myth with the world tree Yggdrasil. Yetl, the raven culture hero of the Tlingit people of the American north-west Pacific coast, discovered the way to prop up the earth. He drained a pool of seawater at low-tide and killed the beaver who lived there, cutting off its foreleg to act as a prop. Then he put Hayicanke, the old woman who Lives Under the Earth, to administer the prop. When her attention slips and she falls asleep we suffer earthquakes that usually wake her up again. The beaver is also a world prop in Welsh tradition as the Afanc.
The other common supporter of the earth is the giant. This myth is most familiar to us from the image of the Greek Atlas holding the globe of the earth upon his back, but in fact it stretches back much further. In Hittite myth, the giant Ubelluri is the original supporter. In the course of conflict between the storm god Teshub and a defeated deity, Kumarbi, the latter creates the rebellious Ullikummi to challenge Teshub. Kumarbi plants his son on the shoulders of Ubelluri where he grows prodigiously until he is 9,000 leagues tall. The gods are alarmed at his sudden appearance and cannot overcome him, so they send Ea, the god of wisdom to the supporter of the world, Ubelluri, who says,
“When they built heaven and earth upon me, I knew nothing. But when they came and they cut heaven and earth apart with a cutter. This, too, I knew not. Now something makes my right shoulder hurt, and I know not who he is, this god.”
When Ea heard those words, he went around Ubelluri’s right shoulder, and there sat Basalt (Ullikummi) stood on Ubelluri’s right shoulder like a shaft. The end of this myth is missing, but we not that Ullikummi is described as a basalt pillar while Ubelluri sounds like an antique Atlas, too busy doing his job to know much about what goes on above him. It is significant that pillars of basalt are the produce of volcanic eruption, which could make this myth a distant memory of earth’s upheaval.
In Norse tradition, Ymir is the progenitor of all the giants. He was formed of the ice blocks from the strams of Niflheim, the icy north, and the sparks from Muspellheim, the fiery south, which mixed together in the primordial void of Ginnumgagap, and he was nourished by the cosmic cow Audumla. Odin and his brothers Vili and VC killed him and rolled his corpse back into Ginnungagap where they made the earth from his body, the seas from his flesh, and the heavens from his skull. It is said that Ymir’s eyebrows are supported by four dwarves whose efforts allow daylight, moonlight and starlight to penetrate to the surface of the earth. If this is indeed so, then these four dwarves should be given thanks for holding up the mere eyebrows of a giant to give us light, for they do no less than holding the sky for us. This same myth is alluded to in the Welsh compendium of primordial myths, “Culhweh and Olwen”, where the eyes of the giant Yspaddaden are held up by forks.
Taming the Animals
Throughout world mythology, the power of magical creatures lies in their untamably natures, for we seldom invest domestic animals with such mighty powers. Stories of the domestication of animals for meat are part of the early myths of civilization and animal husbandry in all cultures. We see how pigs have healed people of diseases, how the cow opens the way to abundance and so on. However, the most enduring myths of animal taming are not so much about domestication but of subduing the animal passions of human nature. Prime exemplars of this tradition are Buddha and Lao Tze, both of whom are depicted as riding upon a buffalo.
In the Book of Genesis, Adam is given the guardianship of all animals by god, who commands him to name the animals. This is movingly illustrated by William Blake’s “Adam naming the Beasts,” and was excitingly recast in C.S. Lewis’ book The Magician’s Nephew from the “Nardia” series. The act of naming is also an act of knowing the inner nature of something. In this case of the Greek hero, Orpheus, it is the music of his lyre that speaks to and subdues wild animals, making them biddable and harmless. Music is the universal language that is understood by both men and beasts. In ancient Chinese myth, it was the raven-nosed emperor Yu who rid the land of harmful animals and who could capture and tame beneficial ones a hundred animals a time. He beat loudly upon a dance drum and all the animals obeyed the rhythm in the Dance of the Hundred Animals.