Cultural Significance of Animals

Goals

To understand the cultural relevance and potential sensitivity of various animals, including bears, elephants, wolves, lions, dolphins, and killer whales.

Early Findings

CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE OF BEARS

  • Historically, bears — and the imagery and mythos surrounding them — have popped up in various cultures and stories, such as in Native American culture as the names of locations, in European fairy tales such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and even in the connection between teddy bears and the U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt.
  • In Native American culture in particular, the grizzly bear is profoundly culturally significant to various tribes and in numerous ways. "Grizzly bears [in particular] are considered sacred by many tribes."
  • Within the Ute Tribe specifically, "the veneration of the bear is expressed ceremonially".
  • "The bear is regarded as the wisest of animals and the bravest of all except the mountain lion; he is thought to possess wonderful magic power. Feeling that the bears are fully aware of the relationship existing between themselves and the Ute, their ceremony of the bear dance assists in strengthening this friendship."
  • The Ute Tribe and other Native American Tribes, such as the Shoshone, perform ceremonial Bear Dances "to charm the dancers and propitiate bears". In Ute culture specifically, it's said that this dance was a gift to the Tribe by a bear.
  • Grizzly bears in particular are important to Native American culture because the species was nearly eradicated by European settlers who believed bears and wolves represented the "wilderness" of the Americas, which they felt it was their duty to "subdue".
  • "For the English, taming the wilderness and claiming their dominion over the land involved the eradication of many predators, such as wolves, bears, and (in their minds) [Native Americans]. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Americans continued the policy of extermination. Even within national parks, government hunters sought to kill as many wolves and bears as possible."
  • For many Native American tribes, the sacred importance of bears dates back further than European colonization, with several tribes viewing the bear as a "medicine being with impressive magical powers [who] plays a major role in many religious ceremonies".
  • As well, the bear is a "symbol of strength and wisdom to many Native Americans". The specific qualities and importance ascribed to the bear varies somewhat from one tribe to the next.
  • "Among the Pueblo tribes, bears are considered one of the six directional guardians, associated with the west and the color blue. The Zunis ascribe healing powers to bears and carve stone bear fetishes to protect them and bring them luck. A bear's claw was one of the talismans frequently included in medicine bundles, and warriors in some tribes wore necklaces of bear claws to bring them power and strength. There were also many taboos regarding bears in different Native American tribes-- the use of hunting seasons (to avoid killing mother bears with their cubs) was the most common, but in some tribes, it was considered disrespectful and dangerous to insult bears, step on their scat, or even utter their names outside of certain ritual contexts. Among the Innu, it was taboo for children or unmarried women to eat bear meat, and some Apache tribes did not eat bears at all."

CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE OF ELEPHANTS

  • The elephant is culturally significant in various regional and religious cultures throughout Asia, including in India and Cambodia, and for the Hindu and Buddhist religions. The animal is similarly important in various African cultures as well.
  • "Elephants hold significant meaning in many cultures and symbols of these majestic creatures have been depicted in mythology and religion for thousands of years."
  • Universally and in a general sense, the elephant is often viewed as a representation of strength and power. As well, the creature often symbolizes "sensitivity, wisdom, stability, loyalty, intelligence, peace, reliability and determination, which are all seen in the animal's nature when observed in the wild".
  • "In many cultures, elephants are revered and highly respected due to their symbolic meaning. Cultures in most regions across the world hold some sort of value to the elephant as a symbol, which makes it a very powerful and prominent symbol." For many cultures, the placement of an elephant in the home — either as a statue, image, or other representation — is believed to bring luck and good fortune to residents of the home.
  • In Africa specifically, the elephant is often viewed as an "icon of the continent", and a desire to see or interact with them brings tourists to the region.
  • "Across Africa they have inspired respect from the people that share the landscape with them, giving them a strong cultural significance."
  • In the Sanskrit language spoken in India, "the elephant mandala is a sacred symbol. It explains the interconnectedness of the mandala maker's universe with the vast cosmos. An elephant mandala is useful in helping center the mind during meditation, enhancing the spiritual joy derived from a meditation practice and even during yoga".
  • In China, the elephant "is believed to be a symbol of good luck and happiness. In Feng Shui, elephants can also symbolize good luck, wisdom, protection and fertility, depending on the position they're depicted in. An elephant with its trunk raised up represents good luck, while fertility is symbolized when the trunk is down. Two elephants sitting at entrances provide protection".
  • For Buddhists, the elephant's significance ties into the birth of Buddha. "Buddha's mother, Queen Maya, did not fall pregnant until she dreamt of a white elephant. The elephant gave her a white lotus flower, circled around her three times and then entered her womb. When she awoke, she knew that the dream was an omen of the divine, and was finally able to conceive a child."
  • Within Buddhism, "white elephants are believed to be a symbol of purity, divinity and a calm mind, while grey elephants symbolize an untrained and agitated mind, which tends to wander off from the path toward enlightenment".
  • The elephant is similarly important within Hinduism, where it "is a very powerful and significant symbol...as one of their favorite gods, Ganesha, [who] is depicted in the form of an elephant. Ganesha is thought to be the remover of obstacles, as well as the god of luck, protection and fortune".
  • While Ganesha is depicted as an elephant and the creature is therefore important in Hinduism for that reason, he isn't the only representation of the elephant within Hindu culture. As well, elephants are "also associated with water and rain because of the god Indra. Indra was the god of thunder, rain, river flows and lightning and was usually depicted riding on a white elephant".
  • For the Christian religion, "elephant symbolism denotes temperance, chastity and patience. They are depicted in many ancient artworks and are thought to represent Adam and Eve in their male and female forms. The Bestiaries, which contain information and stories about almost every animal thought to exist (even imaginary ones), suggest that there are many symbolic meanings to the elephant".

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