November 06, 2020
🕐 12 Min Read
Ramp up your animal symbolism knowledge with our deep-dive into the underlying meanings of different animals throughout history and cultures.
Animals And Their Meanings
Animals. Hands down the most intriguing yet polarizing symbols. Throughout history, their meanings and perceptions have constantly evolved. In some cases, their presence would even alter the meaning or symbolism of the work.
At this point, you may be wondering why this is relevant to you. Whether it’s choosing a gift or identifying your spirit animal—you need to find your perfect fit. In this blog, we’re covering the varying animal symbolism, history, and more.
History Of Animals In Art
In art, an animal’s presence shouldn’t go unnoticed. If an artist placed them in the painting or portrait, there’s often profound—and in many cases contradictory animal symbolism and significance. While animals can impact the painting’s message, they’re very evident of the rich history of animal symbology in Western art.
Artists have assigned meaning to real and imaginary animals since classical antiquity. One of the first publications of this was Bestiary during the Middle Ages. This reading covered natural history and moral associations of creatures.
Piggybacking off of Bestiary, notable artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Titian would create their own variations from the Renaissance onwards.
Let’s go ahead and start uncovering these animals and their meanings:
Animal Symbology Breakdown
Some cultures correlate animals with fertility and vitality since they’re constantly living, moving, and growing. Their existence provides continued life for humanity through their meat, skins, and bones. Additionally, they are the missing connection to the spirit realm and afterlife.
Generically speaking, the bear is known for hibernating during winter and re-emerging in the spring. As a result, they’re regarded as the symbol of resurrection and coming of new life. Another meaning associated with the bear is strength and power due to their sheer size.
Specific birds have a variety of meanings. Collectively, birds signify the transition between life and death. Also, this animal symbolizes freedom since they have the liberty to fly to any location.
The buffalo or bison is an Earthly representation of bravery, freedom, kindness, strength, and respect. When you’re in the presence of a buffalo, it’s important to live in gratitude and stay true to yourself. In Native American culture, the Buffalo plays a major role in legends and oral tradition. They’re primarily known for safety, power, life’s sacredness, and durability.
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This majestic creature has major symbolism across numerous cultures over thousands of years. In the Irish folklore, the Bull is a symbol of virility, sovereignty, and wealth. The bull is also known for its masculine power and is associated with the following deities: Zeus (Greek), Apis (Egyptian), Min (Egyptian), Ra (Egyptian), Mithras (Persian), and Shiva (Indian).
The butterfly is emblematic of transformation and significant change. On the change front, this other animal symbolism at play is death and rebirth. Specifically, your old self is dying so a newer version can present itself.
The cow is yet another animal that’s easily connected to Earth. This also represents the symbol of power, nurturing, and fertility. Other meanings behind the cow include steadfastness, compassion, and perception.
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Cows are known as symbols of fertility, Mother Earth and power for centuries.
Cows are also associated with rejuvenation and new beginnings—similar to Mother Earth.
If you’re someone who’s known for their strong, grounded nature, the cow is the perfect symbol for you. They’re known for their strong foundation that can’t be uprooted.
As one of the most well-known predators across land and water, the crocodile has racked up a great amount of animal symbolism throughout history. In particular, the Ancient Egyptians depicted their god Sobek with the crocodile head. Other cultures from the African continent and Indo-Pacific region pinpointed its fierceness and channeled it as their chiefs’ symbol.
Surprisingly, the crow is known for its magic and mystery. They’re noted for their higher perspective, flexibility and “trickster” personalities. The double-edged nature of this animal is representative of those who use magic and those who manipulate.
As one of the most majestic creatures, the deer is associated with woodland deities Saba, Flidais, and Cernunnos. Whenever a deer appears in folklore, it usually signifies a profound change
Dogs are one of the most noted and symbolic of animals. In Celtic myths, they were known as shapeshifters. On the other hand, Classic Antiquity art classified man’s best friend as vigilant, faithful, and wise. During the Renaissance era, they represented fidelity and female seduction.
The Dove’s white body and gentle nature makes it one of the universal peace, innocence, and purity symbols. In Judeo-Christian culture, the dove holistically represented the soul and the Holy Spirit. Even the legends of King Arthur strongly associates it with the Holy Grail.
Chinese culture classifies ducks as a symbol of marital happiness and fidelity—usually adorning wedding invitations and as a “lucky” dish at the wedding feast. In other instances, the duck has been noted for its clairvoyance.
Identified as one of the feared European scavengers, Eagles were often associated with death and death-related deities. On the contrary, eagles have been marked as signals to reconnect with your spiritual path or to embark on a spiritual journey. They’re meant to remind you to listen to your heart and not rely on your mind so much.
Hailing as one of the animal kingdom’s largest and most powerful entities, the elephant packs major animal symbolism across cultures. Folklore throughout the African continent consistently highlights the close relationship between humans and elephants—specifically how one forms into the other and vice-versa. In Indian culture, this powerhouse was constantly used in battle and prominently endowed with religious symbolism through the various gods and goddesses. The Greeks also touted elephants’ military strength and triumph. Even Alexander the Great had his dynastic successors wear the elephant scalp as a crown or headdress.
It’s no surprise that the sly fox has a reputation for being cunning and deceitful—with Christianity going as far to say that this animal has devil-like qualities. However, other cultures have positive representations of the fox which include its value to humankind and as a symbol of wealth. In Japanese culture, the fox is considered a fertility and agriculture symbol.
The goat is associated with all aspects of maintaining and creating life. This meaning ranges from fertility, abundance and lust to vitality, creativity and virility.
Grasshoppers are known for being constantly on-the-move. If you come across one, it means you need to take a leap of faith. They’re considered good luck and are heralded for their good vibes. In the case you’re running into one, it’s a sign that you’re conflicted and need to move forward with a decision.
The Hawk is one of the most valiant birds that proudly represents courage, self-awareness, truth, and perspective. They’re known for their intuition, inner wisdom. If you see a hawk, it’s time to assess where you’re at in life and what’s the next move.
We’ve got another animal that’s a powerhouse in the mix and packed with variety. Horses are known for their strength, power and resiliency. When it comes to animal symbology, they represent stamina, wisdom, freedom, wildness, intellect, and loyalty. Additionally, they’re known for their nobility, divination, and prophecy.
Always boppin’ around, the hummingbirds are full of optimism, speed and lightness. They’re known as a sign of connection, playfulness and adaptability. When you see a hummingbird, it means you need to stop what you’re doing and not take things as seriously. Connect and keep it playful.
As one of the fastest animals on the planet, it’s no surprise that leopards are highlighted for their ferocity and aggression. On the other hand, they’re championed for their courage, activity, and speed.
Similar to the bull, the longhorn is known as the essence of masculinity. In Western tattoo art, the longhorn tattoo represented tenacity, determination, strength, and power. Additionally, the Celts emphasized their powerful build to signify great physical strength. Playing on the power concept, longhorns are also known as a symbol of abundance and wealth.
Monkeys are esteemed for their quick and keen wit, high observance and curiosity. In the Middle Ages, Western European art depicted them as the devil. Other representations included the fall of man or one who’s encompassed by earthly desires. However, the curiosity symbolism returned to the fold when monkeys were represented in art as copycats of painting and sculpting.
Hands down, the peacock is one of the most magical animals around. In an unsurprising plot twist, peacocks are symbols of immortality. Christianity views peacocks as a representation of the resurrection of Christ and eternal life. Due to their majesty, they’re also known as a symbol of pride, vanity, and self-assurance.
We’ve all heard the phrase “rise from the ashes” when it comes to the phoenix. This bird is symbolic of rebirth, hope, renewal, progress, and eternity. When it comes to renewal, it’s usually a time period that is prosperous and happy.
The owl is the most rare spirit animal and creature. In the case you encounter an owl, the universe is giving you a sign. This animal represents wisdom, patience, solitude, deep connection, and intuitive knowledge. An owl’s wide-eyes is known to pierce deceit and encourage you to see beyond the illusions created in your head.
Always on-the-move, the rabbit is known for its alert nature. In Renaissance art, the rabbit accompanies Venus and is meant to stand for lust. On the contrary, the rabbits feature with the Virgin Mary is emblematic of the triumph over sexual desire.
Leading with horns full speed ahead, the ram is depicted as the breakthrough animal. They’re also representative of sacrifice and achievement. Other meanings include the sun, creativity and virility.
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The famous poet Edgar Allen Poe celebrated the interesting and mysterious qualities of the raven. In Western culture, this bird is often associated with negative qualities such as a trickster or shape shifter. Among the Celts, the raven represents the dark side and is equated to death. On a positive note, Poe’s poem celebrates its high intelligence and wise and clever nature.
Snakes are some of the most symbolically charged members of the animal kingdom. The impressive variety includes regeneration and renewal, female sexuality, agricultural fertility. In creation stories and religion, they’re often associated with the underworld. One of the most notable features of the snake is in The Book of Genesis where the serpent tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. In many instances, the snake has negative connotations such as malice and poison.
Known for creating their intricate webs, spiders are meant to inspire you to create the life you always wanted. In Greek mythology, it was associated with Arachne and was meant to signify the association of fate and destiny. On the other hand, Native American tribes herald the spider as the creator of possibility.
Also known as “the king of beasts,” the tiger is well-known for its ferocity, Earthly power and anger. The Chinese label the tiger as a symbol of strength, courage, determination, and military prowess. In some cases, tigers are known as symbols of protection, awareness, and confidence. A little fun fact is Chinese graves have images of tigers so they can ward off malevolent spirits.
The mystic, non-existent unicorn is known as a symbol of purity and grace. This animal emerged in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and was rumored to only be captured by a virgin. Other meanings tied to this magical creature include dreams, virtue, integrity, healing, and freedom.
The last animal in this all-star line-up is the wolf. The wolf is well-established for its sharp intelligence, self reliance and an appetite for freedom. Mysterious and intimidating, this creature is known as the symbol for perseverance, stability, intuition, loyalty, and success.