For centuries, animals have been at the forefront of mythological stories from cultures all around the world. From shape-shifting monkeys to enchanting manatees, there is an abundance of stories behind almost every member of the animal kingdom. We give you five of our favourites!
Perhaps one of the best known animal legends, the story of the manatee-mermaid has had a long tradition in seafaring folklore across the world. In Palau, the manatee endures as a central creature in local folklore, with tales of women turning into the gentle creatures, whilst there are also records of manatees being referred to as the “lady of the sea” in Malay folklore. Whilst many island populations have a long history of such tales, many of the best-known stories derive from sailors who claim to have seen mermaids rising out of the sea from their ships. With forelimbs containing five finger-like bones and neck vertebrae allowing them to turn their heads, it is not entirely inconceivable that these creatures were confused with a human form when sighted from afar.
Flickr | khyri
Whilst the coyote features regularly in a lot of Native American mythology, stories vary greatly depending on culture. Most of the time, however, the coyote is portrayed in the role of a “trickster”, using its intelligence and resourcefulness to test moral concepts. One such story from the North Californian Maidu tribe for instance, recalls the coyote laughing whilst watching the Creator bring the Earth into existence, and trying to do the same but ultimately being unsuccesful because it failed to take the task seriously.
Flickr | Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar
Stories behind the rabbit point to a long-standing and powerful African-American oral tradition that frequently depicts less-powerful creatures outsmarting stronger characters. Myths about hares, for instance, originated from the folklore of Bantu-speaking peoples of south and central Africa and spread to be part of traditional folklore of many cultures in the region. Like the coyote in Native American folklore, the rabbit embodies the “trickster” character in African mythology, standing up to authority figures without fear. As a consequence of the slave trade, the trickster rabbit became an emblem of courage and intelligence in extremely adverse conditions.
Flickr | elwillybobby
It’s no secret that the cow is considered holy in Hindu tradition. Regarded as the source of all prosperity, the Kamadhenu (meaning sacred cow) is believed to be a form of Devi, the Hindu Divine Mother, and houses all of the Gods inside her body. Whilst there are various versions alluding to the creation of the Kamadhenu, one Hindu text records that the Kamadhenu as having risen from the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons in order to gain an elixir of life.
Flickr | Ulrika
For centuries, monkeys, particularly macaques and gibbons, have held a special place in Chinese culture and mythology. While some Chinese deities appear as monkeys, leading them to be worshipped as religious symbols, other stories depict monkeys as supernatural beings with shape-shifting abilities. Such tales often include records of demon monkeys who shapeshift into humans in order to wreck chaos amongst the population. In contrast to that, “were-monkeys” (the monkey equivalent of a werewolf) were seen as more virtuous, turning into humans in order to pursue nobler lives - for instance to become Buddhist monks.
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