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Weird & Wild

Weird Animal Question of the Week: Animal Myths From Around the World

From the baby-delivering stork to the sacrificial lamb, people have long used animals in their legends and religion.

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A postcard, circa 1900, depicts a stork delivering newborns.


From the lucky ladybug to the clairvoyant groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, we love to assign magical qualities to animals. We even hold one responsible for our very existence—the stork.

The baby-delivering stork is a beloved animal myth in Europe and the U.S.—especially for parents looking to answer that perennial childhood question, "How did I get here?"

Reader AnnaMarie Kahn asked us on Facebook: "How [do] other cultures explain away the most intimate of creation stories?"

In the early 20th century, anthropologist and folklorist Elsie Clews Parsons documented numerous conception myths around the world, from spirit-inhabited boulders in Australia catching women unawares to the paternity of Alexander the Great via serpent.

Anthropologist Alexander F. Chamberlin wrote in 1896 of international myths that describe children emerging from natural landscapes, including caverns and cabbage patches.

As for the stork, the Greeks and Romans considered it to be a real family bird. The National Zoo says that European white storks form monogamous pairs—though the partnerships aren't for life. This temporary monogamy, along with their diligent efforts at child care, including disgorging food for their young, would have given the birds a rep as model parents.

Storks also seem comfortable living among us, which may contribute to the animals' association with home and family. (Watch video: "Stork vs. Mongoose.")

"Storks nest on top of people's roofs," said David Fraser, an animal expert at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, "so in traditional European towns, you could see storks with great big nests, clacking their bills on the rooftops."

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An illustration for the 1845 poem The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe shows the implacable bird "perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door."


Clever Raven

Animal myths are very specific to culture, Fraser said, and often reflect an animal's significance in daily life and how a community views the animal.

Edgar Allan Poe may have us thinking of the raven as a dark omen, but the Haida people of the Pacific Northwest see this bird as clever. To them, the bird is a "trickster that played pranks on people but also did useful things," said Fraser.

Haida legend holds that a raven found a clamshell filled with frightened little creatures—the first humans. The bird then coaxed the timid creatures out of their shell and into the world.

Pure and Noble

In the pastoral culture of biblical times, Fraser said, lambs and sheep were seen as pure and thus were important animals often used in sacrifices.

The sacrificial lamb was "adopted by Christianity, so that the Christ figure was associated as the 'lamb of God,'" he said. "You wouldn't insult God by bringing an old, lame sheep and sacrificing it."

Similarly, the Innu people of northern Quebec and Labrador revered the black bear as the "most noble of their prey," Fraser said.

The people showed deference to the bear in life and honored it in various ways in death, lest the spirit of this valued but dangerous animal be offended and turn on the people or refuse to cooperate in future hunts. (Watch video: "Searching for the Spirit Bear.")

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The Egyptian crocodile-headed god Sobek reflects the culture's association between Nile crocodiles and life itself.


Like an Egyptian

Egyptians were particularly fond of animals.

"The line between human and animal in old Egyptian culture was quite porous," Fraser said. They too revered an animal that was both dangerous and represented a source of life—the Nile—in the form of the crocodile god Sobek. (See "Pictures: Millions of Puppy Mummies in Egypt Labyrinth.")

Today, animals are still very much on our modern minds, appearing in animations and documentaries and everything in between. Do our animal-centric superheroes, like Batman and Spiderman, reflect a modern way of mythologizing animals?

"It is awfully reminiscent," he said. "Maybe we have a tendency, like the old Egyptians, to see things that are part animal and part human [as] part of the supernatural, often in a good way."

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