Lessons from Animals

As a child my favorite book series was “Redwall “ by Brian Jacques. It was a tale about woodland animals living in harmony in a grand Abbey called Redwall. The novels usually ended with a horde of vermin attempting to conquer the Abbey, forcing the peaceful animals to defend their way of life. This series was my literary introduction into such a fantasy world, with profound imagery, invented rituals, and inspiring archetypes.

What struck me most, especially as a child, was how Jacques created a world of good and evil. In this world, we found that mice, otters, squirrels, hares, moles, hedgehogs and badgers were peacekeeping animals…creatures we view as “clean” and “compassionate.” And vermin, such as rats, weasels, snakes, ferrets, ravens and stoats, where the antagonists, because we view them as “dirty” and “destructive.”

This analogy is elegant in a tale meant for young adults. In our story…in our lives…animal archetypes may not be as black and white. Let’s explore a few common archetypes as seen in literature and cultural retellings.

Let’s start with what is small. Ants represent industry because of how the whole of the colony is greater than the sum of the parts. They represent community, hard work and teamwork. Scorpions represent vigilance, due to their resilience to survive extreme conditions, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. Battle-ready and deadly, size does not matter when facing a scorpion. And the butterfly is transformation…to start out as one thing and become something completely different. She represents beauty and gentleness.

Now, let’s discuss reptiles and amphibians. The snake is the biblical representation of original sin, a deceiver and trickster. But it also represents rebirth and power by how it sheds its skin. Frogs represent peace and spiritual cleansing. They are hidden beauty, and teach us to trust our hearts before our eyes. The salamander is the spirit of fire, a lore that came to being during ancient times. Salamanders hibernate in rotting logs, and when campfires were started, they would jump from the flames.

Let’s explore animals from the skies. The hawk, due to its predatorily fierceness and keen vision, knows truth, shifting between the physical and divine worlds. She represents intensity of spirit. The raven represents the unknown and explores mystery. She can be both destroyer and builder, and her messages are shrouded in riddles. The owl represents wisdom, as she is the symbol of the Greek goddess Athena. She keeps her knowledge in solitude, but aids others if asked.

Let’s explore beasts. Lions represent leadership and fearlessness. Seen as the king, he supports family, civil structure, and temperament. Tigers, in contrast, are solitary creatures of tactic and grace. They possess great concentration for focus, courage and conviction, and are often viewed as healers. Bears are seen as mother figures for their fortitude and inner strength. They are protectors of their cubs, and able to weather the worst winter storms.

Lastly, we explore canines. The fox is cunning. He senses the subtlest of changes, and slyly responds to outsmart his challenger. The dog is unconditional love and loyalty. She has short memories for forgiveness, and forever companionship. Wolves, in contrast, are spiritual teachers that embrace balance within your life. They show discipline to follow your destiny.

Combining archetypes creates fascinating results. A dog represents loyalty, and a wolf represents learning. But when you have a tale about a sheepdog and a wolf, it creates a natural good and evil plot that uplifts the sheepdog and condemns the wolf. Remember, there is no good or evil in these archetypes, only our perceptions based on what we value. What conflicts with our values will be evil, and what supports our values will be good…such as protecting our herd of sheep from a wolf.

There is wisdom in knowing these archetypes, for they all have a tale to tell, and a value to contribute to our lives. But from this wisdom we must not ignore there are universal evils. There are ideologies and behaviors that cause destruction and death…the anti-life to our fulfillment, to tear down our earthly efforts to watch the world burn. This is the absence of kindness…cruelty…and a theme we will discuss at length in a future week.