Powerful deities and humans often shape-shifted into birds and animals. The fertility goddess Freya, put on a falcon skin and took the form of a falcon, allowing her to fly high above the Earth. The ancients adopted an animal or bird form, when they wished to travel undetected by humans. The ancient Egyptians associated higher animal qualities with revered deities, believing the sacred animals and birds embodied the characteristics of their gods and goddesses. The Egyptians worshiped the goddess Bast in her cat form, she was the goddess of dance, music, women, fertility and children, hers is a symbol of empowerment for women worldwide. The native North American Indians believed in the power of animals and birds to protect them and to provide fertile land, they saw them as messengers of the deities. The griffon and unicorn were adopted in medieval times as family crests, their image engraved on armour and seen as a symbol of strength and protection. The North American Indians engraved their totem poles with animal images and called upon the protective magical animal spirits to nurture and watch over them. The unicorn was first described by the ancient Greek naturalist Cresias in 398 BCE, he told tales of a white horse he had seen with one horn protruding from its head.
Cryptozoologists are still attempting to unearth the remains of unclassified creatures believed to have roamed the Earth. Tales of werewolves have been written throughout the literature of Europe, with many stories originating from Germany. There is a shrine outside the village of Wittlich, the last town where a werewolf was killed in the 1880?s.
The dragon, throughout history, has been seen either as a symbol of luck, strength and protection, or a creature to be feared and slain. Many people keep a dragon statue in or outside their home for prosperity, luck and protection. To the Aztecs, birds, animals and insects were an integral part of worship, they feared the moth, the scorpion and the centipede, dedicating altars, with the images of these creatures upon them, where offerings were made.
Grandmother Spider was one of the most powerful spider goddesses in Native American mythology. The Grandmother Spider Woman is a Holy goddess woman, she is said to have woven the web of the world, people made figurines of her out of earth, made from four different clays, red, white, yellow and brown. Hopi legends tell the tale of Spider Woman and Tawa the Sun deity, creating the Earth between them and bringing forth life with magical songs from the thoughts and images in Tawa’s mind. From these thoughts, Spider Woman created animals from clay, she made birds and finally man and woman. Spider Woman cradled man and woman in her arms, she wrapped them in blankets while Tawa led her creation from womb to Earth into the light, in a symbolic act of childbirth. This act was repeated in every human and animal birth. Women were chosen as Spider Woman’s representatives as homemakers and deemed that family name and property would descend through them.
The Sun remained in the sky after creation. Grandmother Spider has returned many times in order to teach and guide in different guises, presenting herself as the Navajo White Shell, or Changing Woman who controlled the seasons. Other guises were Selu the Cherokee Corn Woman who allowed herself to be dragged along the ground to fertilise the soil with corn and White Buffalo Woman. Many crafts were taught by Grandmother Spider Woman, such as the cultivation of food and the power of herbs, she taught people how to smudge for house clearing, showed them ways of healing, taught them how to weave dream catchers to stop children having nightmares. She brought the Sun and fire, pottery and weaving, in Cherokee myth, among the Hopi she is said to have created the Moon, and with the cutting of a thread in her web she gave and took life.
Anansi the West African Spider Mander man, could climb higher than any other mortal. His celestial web ascended to the heavens, after meeting Nyambe, the supreme Sky god, he returned to Earth. Anansi was rewarded by the Sky god with the gift of stories, after he performed various tasks using his ingenuity. One task was catching the jaguar that had teeth like daggers, and catching the hornets that had a sting like fire. In return Anansi gave Nyambe the Sun. Anansi is the trickster who creates change and prevents stagnation, he encourages ingenuity and enterprise in order to find a creative solution to problems. Anansi acts as a helper on Earth for Nyambe, who he called his father, he sends rain to prevent drought or destructive fires and he teaches farming.
Associated with the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca was the powerful jaguar, it was the form the Sun took on its nightly journey through the underworld Mictlan, to then fight off the dangers of the night and emerge triumphant the next morning. The eagle was the Sun during the day and each night the jaguar lost part of his flesh in the battle. The jaguar taught humans to use bows and arrows and gave them cooked meat from his own fire, but men stole the fire and killed his wife, making the jaguar their enemy by forcing him to live alone in the forests because of the death of his wife. The Mayans worshipped the cougar who was protective and guarded the village from harm, he was called the Earth Father, Lord of all the forest, when he roared it sounded like thunder. The Aztecs dedicated altars to the moth, the scorpion and the centipede, they carved the images of these creatures they feared and made offerings to appease them. The scorpion, the bat, the spider and the night owl were associated with the Aztec Mictlantecutl (Lord of Death) and could not be killed.
Ananta was the Hindu goddess of infinite time, a creator Serpent goddess. Brahma, the Hindu Creator god and the other gods, slept between their incarnations on her coils. Brahma is associated with the Serpent goddess Kundalini, who symbolises the life force that resides like a coiled serpent at the base of the human spine. Manasa, a Serpent goddess identified with the Moon, reflects the dual role of preserver and destroyer, she is a popular goddess in Indian myth. Those who offend her are bitten, those who are devoted to her she guards against poisonous snakes. The Serpent goddess in India is revered and associated with fertility, rebirth and she is seen as the creating mother. Khadru, the Serpent goddess is said to have given birth to all the cobras in India and the divine water snakes, the nagas.
Uadjet, Buto or Wadjet, was the Ancient Egyptian Cobra goddess of the prehistoric kingdom of Buto, considered a goddess of the underworld, justice and truth. Snakes were associated with death and the underworld. Uadjet (Uraeus) became the symbol of Lower Egypt. Uraeus formed one of the two main power symbols of the pharaoh, it was worn on the headdress of the pharaoh to offer protection against enemies. Uadjet, known as the mother of the Sun and Moon, was associated with the eye of Ra, the Sun god. Uadjet would fix the enemies of the pharaoh with her fiery eyes and then spit poison into their faces. The Lady of the Heavens was another name given to her, she was associated with the heat of the Sun because of the way cobras basked in the heat of the Sun. Uadjet was pictured as winged and crowned, rising to strike and often chosen as a snake with a human face. She protected the infant Horus found among the reeds, while his mother Isis looked for the body of Osiris, her murdered husband.
The healing staff of the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds was entwined with twin snakes, symbolising the Tree of Life. The caduceus was adopted as a logo by the U. S. Army in 1902 for its medical corps, this symbol is thought to date back to Ancient Babylon. The twin serpent healing staff, which is topped with wings, is associated with Hermes the Greek god of medicine. Hermes is the winged messenger who carries messages between the underworld, Earth and the Heavens. In the classical world, the single serpent round the wooden staff is the symbol of Asclepius the healer demigod of Greece and Rome, his healing dream temples spread throughout the Roman Empire. Asclepius, the son of the god of light Apollo and a mortal woman, Koronis acquired his serpentine symbolism when Asclepius learned the secrets of overcoming death. He witnessed one serpent bring another dead serpent back to life, with a magical herb. After Zeus killed Asclepius, to prevent him from making the human race immortal, Asclepius became a god as compensation.
The only known existing dragons in the world are Komodo dragons, they are the worlds heaviest lizards and are extremely aggressive. Oriental tradition believes dragons were hatched out of gem-like eggs and that it took 1,000 years for the dragon to hatch and then 3,000 years for it to reach maturity. In China the dragon is considered a bringer of good luck and is associated with the I Ching trigram Chem, which means thunder. The thunder is said to have burst from the womb of the Earth Mother, in the form of a green dragon, at the spring Equinox, scattering the seeds of new life. During drought the dragons slumber under the ground or in pools or wells. The dragons rise in the spring and fight or mate, creating rain, then they scatter pearls and fireballs on to the Earth. The Year of the Dragon occurs every twelve years in Chinese Astrology, the Years of the Dragon are especially lucky for those born at this time. Joan of Arc and Salvador Dali were born under the auspicious sign of the dragon.
In the West, becoming a dragon was a punishment, in China and the Orient, becoming a dragon signified blessings. A boy who lived in the Szechuan province of China, Nie Lang, found a dragon’s pearl during the drought in Szechuan. The boy used the pearl to give his family and friends enough to eat. The fame of the pearl spread and Lord Zhou tried to steal it, the boy swallowed the pearl and was transformed into a dragon. Lord Zhou was washed away when the transformed dragon rose out of the river, to this day the province is protected by the dragon.
Chinese dragons were essential to agricultural life, as they controlled the weather and the seasons. Dragon King temples were created for the people to make offerings to the dragons, to ensure a good harvest. Ruling over the four seas are the Four Dragon Kings called, Long Wang. Oriental weather dragons had the power to divert flood waters away from towns, the deep pools left by storms caused the growth of healing herbs. If the dragons were angered by mortals, they would gather all the waters in a basket creating a drought. Dragons also had the power to swallow the Sun and cause an eclipse.
Celestial dragons live in the heavens in order to serve the gods, the male air and weather dragons bring the winds and rain, ensuring a good harvest. The rivers and subterranean waters are preserved by the female Earth dragons. The Celestial dragons are also responsible for volcanoes and Earth tremors. Thousands of years ago, the dragons taught wisdom and writing to the emperor Fu Hsi.
Draco the northern circumpolar constellation (near the North Pole), resembles a dragon, Draco is the home of the former pole star Thuban (now Polaris). The Roman astronomer Ptolemy (90 BCE-168 CE) named Draco. In Greek myth Draco is known as Ladon, the hundred headed dragon that guarded Hera’s golden apples of the fabled garden of the Hesperides nymphs. Dragons were once associated with meteors and comets, some believed that lights and flames in the sky were fire-breathing dragons warning of earthly disasters, caused by bad human behaviour.
While Uther, father of King Arthur, was leading his army into battle, a dragon flared across the sky. From seeing the fiery dragon in the sky, Merlin prophesied that Uther would win the battle and that after the death of the present king Aurelius, Uther would take his place. After the death of king Aurelius, Uther took the name Pendragon (the head of the dragon) and had a golden dragon as his emblem ever after.
Merlin made other dragon prophecies, one of his prophecies saved his own life by revealing subterranean dragons. Vortigen, who was trying to build a fortress, was told by seers that only the blood of a fatherless child, could stop the nightly earth tremors that kept destroying the tower he was attempting to have built. The fatherless Merlin came to his attention, the young Merlin told Vortigen that the tower that kept falling down, was being built on a site where there were two warring dragons. There was a white dragon and a red dragon, after digging deep the builders found the pool which Merlin told them to drain. The dragons woke and fought each other, the red dragon died first but not before mortally wounding the white dragon. Merlin prophesied that the red dragon was a symbol of the Celts and the white dragon was a symbol of the invading Anglo-Saxons. He also predicted that the white dragon would be victorious but later the red dragon would take back what was rightly his. Vortigen was killed in battle but later Uther, then Authur, drove back the Saxons.
During early Christian times in Europe, dragons were seen as the guardians of burial places and sacred sites, in England there are many Anglo-Saxon burial mounds named after dragons. During Christian times dragons began to be regarded as evil and many of the Christian saints slew the much feared dragons. St George was one of the most famous dragon slayers. In Cyrene, Libya, a dragon moved near the town’s water supply and would not give the townspeople water, unless a young female was given to the dragon every day. When the princess was to be sacrificed, St George appeared and killed the dragon, numerous hills were later named on behalf of St George. At Uffington Hill, between Oxfordshire and Birkshire England, there is a Dragon Hill where St George killed a dragon and no grass grows where the blood was spilled.
St Romain of Rouen, killed a dragon called La Gargouille, that was threatening the area around the River Seine in France. St Romain gave the dragon’s name to the gargoyle figures seen on the outside of mediaeval cathedrals in Europe. The Archangel Michael is portrayed dressed in armour, crushing a dragon underfoot. In the Radnor Forest area of Wales, four local churches dedicated to St Michael, encircle the forest to keep the slumbering dragon, the last in Wales, trapped in his lair so long as the churches stand.
Typhon, the serpentine god of the winds and Echidna, half nymph serpent and mother of Medusa and her Gorgon sisters, spawned most of the dragons in the Ancient Greek world. Ladon was the guardian of the golden apples on the Tree of Life, which gave immortal life in the magical garden tended by the beautiful Hesperides nymphs. The garden belonged to the consort of Zeus the father god, the goddess Hera. The Earth Mother Gaia gave the tree to Hera on her wedding day. As one of his twelve labours, Hercules killed the dragon.
The dragon Nidhogg (dread bitter), lived in Nifleheim, the realm of ice and snow, he devoured the corpses of those who had been evil in life. Yggdrasil the World Tree, contained the nine realms that made up the Norse universe, this included Asgard, realm of the gods which was near the top of the tree, the realm of humans in the center, Midgard, and Nifleheim were the regions of cold and darkness at the base of the tree. This is where the dead escended who were not chosen to live with the gods. Nidhogg gnawed at this root in between devouring the corpses of criminals or evil doers. It was Nidhogg who was held responsible for earthquakes in the Viking world. Nidhogg’s behavior was predicted to contribute to the literal fall of the world of the old gods and race of old human gods, it was prophesied that an earthquake would shake the tree causing it to be uprooted, this event would culminate in the battle of Ragnarok.
Fafnir was a Norse and German dragon who had a fabulous hoard of treasure in the cave in which he lived. The dwarf Regin persuaded his godson Sigurd to find and kill Fafnir so they could claim his treasure. Sigurd stabbed Fafnir when the dragon left his cave to drink at a nearby pool, Sigurd then stabbed his brother and roasted him, some of the hot fat dripped on Sigurd’s finger. He licked the burn and then understood the language of the birds, the birds told him that Regin intended to kill him as well. Because he had been made aware, Sigurd beheaded the dwarf then claimed the wisdom of the birds and the treasure.
Beowulf was a king whose servant stole a golden cup from a dragon’s den, the angry dragon came in pursuit. Along with his warriors Beowulf pursued the dragon, but in fear all of the warriors ran away except Wiglaf, a young warrior. Together Beowulf and Wiglaf defeated the dragon but Beowulf was fatally wounded and buried in a place overlooking the sea, the treasure was buried with him. Because the treasure was taken from a dragon guarding it, it was considered cursed.
In Finnish mythology birds were the servants of Siclulintu, the soul bird. The birds carried human souls into their bodies at birth on behalf of Siclulintu and carried them back when the person died. The Caladrius is known as a bird of prophecy, it was very rare and only kings could own one. The bird had the ability to look into the eyes of a sick person and carry the illness away to the Sun where it was burned. If the bird believed that nothing could be done to save the sick person it would not look into their eyes.
The Arabian mythical phoenix had brilliant gold, red and purple feathers, it was the size of an eagle. The phoenix was made up of the elements of the cosmos, every five hundred years it burns itself on a funeral pyre and from the ashes a new phoenix is born. The Greek phoenix was not consumed by fire and every five hundred years it built a nest out of cinnamon, spikenard and myrrh in the branches of an oak and there it takes its last breath. From its lifeless body a young phoenix is born, the newborn phoenix carried the nest to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt and offered it in the temple of the Sun. The Roman philosopher Pliny claimed an actual phoenix was on display in the Roman Forum during the reign of the Emperor Claudius, who ruled between 41 and 54 CE. The resurrected phoenix was the symbol of alchemist’s quest to turn base metal into gold.
In China and Japan the people believed the phoenix would bring long life and health, images of the phoenix were worn or carried to ensure this. In China Feng Huang, the male phoenix was a vermillion bird made of flames and considered the symbol of positive yang energy associated with the Sun. The female phoenix, the yin energy is called Hou-ou and is considered the bird of the Moon.
The Quetzals are four species of birds from the Central and South American rainforests, said to have been the companions of the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl was believed to have created humanity and to have been the bringer of fire, domesticated animals and maize. The laws and calendar were given by him, he instructed the priesthood and brought fertility and healing. The feathered serpents were part of Mayan, Aztec and Toltec, myth.
In remote parts of Mexico a feathered serpent lives in graves and must be left offerings in order for him to bring rain. Quetzalcoatl the Lord of the winds, travels through water, land and air to deliver the storm clouds ensuring rain. At one point Quetzalcoatl was tricked into leaving Mexico, but he made a promise that he would return in the form of a white-skinned, bearded man and this was to bring a new ago allowing him to reclaim his heritage.
The Arabian Night myth of the Roc, tells the tale of a huge bird with an enormous wing span, so gigantic that it obscured the Sun. Its strength was such, it could carry three elephants in its massive claws, with its strong wings it controlled the winds and from its eyes lightning flashed. The Roc only landed on Mount Oaf, the World Axis, it never came to Earth, its huge egg became a symbol of the Sun as it shone so brightly. Sinbad the sailor said the Roc carried him from his sinking ship, he then became stranded in the Roc’s nest on top of Mount Oaf. He was able to escape by tying himself to the Roc’s leg.
The magical thunderbird from North American Indian mythology, one of the first birds to appear at creation and chief of all the birds of the upper world, who are in never-ending battle with the land animals and their leader, the trickster raven. He is the bringer of rain which pours from a lake on its back as it flies, its eyes create lightning and its wings cause thunder. When the thunderbird flies, it is accompanied by eagles, it is associated with regulating the weather, it has control over the elements and can bring the sunshine, tame the winds and bring much needed rain. The thunderbird protects all the Indian nations from their enemy the Waziya (the North wind).
The albatross cares for its eggs on a floating raft, killing an albatross brings a curse to the perpetrator. In Japanese myth the albatross is a sacred bird and the servant of the chief god of the sea, seeing an albatross is good luck. Bird of Paradise also called the Bird of god, had brilliantly coloured plumage and it was without wings or feet, using its tail feathers to hang from trees. It dropped its eggs from the tree onto the ground, as they broke full-grown birds emerged.
The ancient Persians believed the touch, sight, or shadow of The Bird of Paradis (the Huma) brought good fortune. If Huma perched on the head of a person, they would become a great leader or even a king. In Slavic folklore Mater Slava (Mother Glory), or Mater Sava (Mother Owl), took the shape of a brightly coloured bird, each of her feathers shone a different colour, armies were led by her to death or victory.
In ancient Greece when Zeus the father god was preparing for battle with the Titans, the eagle brought him thunderbolts, Zeus adopted the emblem of the eagle and because of its close associations with Jupiter, the eagle became a symbol of earthly power. In North American spirituality the eagle was considered the messenger of the Great Spirit, its feathers said to carry the prayers of the people to the Father Sun.
In Hopi myth it is believed the hummingbird was created from a sunflower stalk and the Creator goddess, Grandmother Spider, breathed life into it. The feathers of the hummingbird are used as charms by people who are travelling, they ensure a safe plane journey.
The North American Indians believed the jay was named after the ancient Greek Earth goddess Gaea and carried messages between the dimensions. The jay is a trickster and has the ability to mimic other creatures, it is secretive and can fly unseen. In Europe the jays are said to be the souls of the Celtic Druids.
The owl was the sacred creature of the Roman goddess of wisdom Minerva, Athene was often depicted with an owl, considered a symbol of wisdom. The Romans believed an owl feather placed near sleeping people would cause them to talk in their sleep and reveal their secrets. They also believed that a hooting owl was a harbinger of death, when perched on a roof or on a public building. The death of Julius Caesar was signaled by a hooting owl which landed on the roof. In Celtic myth the owl goddess is a bird of the Grandmother goddess, associated with the waning Moon and with winter and death, the Celtics believed her to be the oldest of creatures. The Celtic god of the underworld, Gwynn app Nydd, guarded the entrance on top of Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, ruled the souls of slain warriors.
Fairies often took the form of swans, Celtic goddesses also took the form of swans, swan goddesses and fairies had wonderful voices and healing powers, they could be told apart from other swans by gold and silver chains around their necks. Angus, son of the Irish Father god, the Dagda, lived in a palace and dreamed one night of a faery woman, he desired her so much that his mother searched all of Ireland for the object of her son’s desire. The maiden was found one year later on the Lake of the Dragon’s Mouth in the form of a swan, she was with 149 other swan maidens, each chained in pairs with silver and gold hung with bells. Her name was Caer, and every year she donned her fairy form. Angus was given permission by his father to marry Caer if he could identify her from among the other swans. Angus found the Dragon’s Mouth and immediately recognized Caer, when he called her Angus was transformed into a swan. The two swans flew away to his palace on the Boyne, they sang of their love, the beauty of their singing voices caused all those who heard them to sleep for three days. Because of the belief in fairy swan maidens a swan could not be killed in Ireland.
In Greek lore bees were considered to be the souls of dead priestesses and had the ability endow a person with prophetic powers. The father god Zeus was born in a cave of bees and was nourished by them. If an infant was touched by a bee after birth, he was destined to become a great philosopher or poet. The bee priestesses of the various bee goddesses were called Melissae (Latin for bees), three prophetic Melissae (bee priestesses), who practiced divination beneath the cliffs at Parnassus and drank honey mead to induce prophecy, were given to the messenger Hermes by Apollo.
In 4000 BCE, the Minoan Crowned Butterfly goddess was the symbol of fertility in ancient Crete. The mortal Psyche (in Greek means soul), married Eros god of love, but was permitted to meet him only in darkness, she transformed into a butterfly on her death. In Greek myth this was believed to be a common form for the human soul to take between incarnations. Hina, the butterfly goddess of Hawaii and the South Pacific Islands is associated with the Moon, Hina is the one who eats the Moon, explaining the Moon’s different phases. Hina is one of the creating goddesses of the world, her spirit is believed to be contained in every woman, as she was the first woman. Huna has now made her home in the Moon, she travelled there on a rainbow pathway.
Fabulous creatures, mythical animals and birds have been the stuff of legends for centuries. They have guided, protected, watched over and been idolised by humans, depending upon their cultural beliefs. Humans, gods and goddesses have worshipped and shape shifted into them. The ancient Egyptians believed that after death a human spirit could take the form of an animal or bird, allowing them to return to Earth for a short time.