Growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, superstitions were integrated into everyday life in our household, and they always related to avoiding bad luck! Spill the salt? Throw it over your left shoulder. Never walk under a ladder, or over a crack in the pavement, and when walking down the street with a friend, don’t ‘split a pole’ (ie. walk past a lamppost with it positioned on either side of you both!). And never, ever, mention the dreaded Friday the 13th! There’s just too many fear oriented superstitions to cover. But, on moving from Scotland to Portugal, we found some of our childhood myths to have reverse consequences in different cultures, such as superstitions around black cats being lucky or unlucky, which led us to wonder which animal folklore has varying meaning across the globe. Read on for seven animal myths that have different meaning, and therefore consequences for animals, around the world. Warning – some are real life tales of horror, death and destruction – all due to superstitions created by humans about animals.
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
Table of contents
Are Animal Superstitions Harmless?
Well, psychological studies show that negativity is contagious. It seeps into our thoughts and feelings, influencing our opinions and shaping our beliefs. So, if folklore encourages distaste towards a specific species, it can obviously have negative consequences for animals.
For example, a conservationist based in Chester Zoo, UK, named Dr Mariana Catapani, travelled to Brazil to integrate studies of human and animal behaviour in the conservation of giant anteaters and armadillos. Dr. Mari aims to use social sciences to better understand the economic, social, and psychological factors behind superstitious behaviour.
Over three years, she interviewed 269 rural people living in proximity to giant anteater habitats, and found four key elements that drive superstition, thus threatening wildlife:
- An individual is more likely to share the belief if a large number of people in their social group believe the superstition, or an important figure in the community repeats it.
- If a person has little knowledge about the animal’s behaviour and biology, they’ll fill in the gaps with folklore and hearsay.
- When a species is considered unattractive, ugly or weird, they’re more likely to be distrusted.
- Finally, if the animal’s appearance or behaviour causes unease in humans, for example, in the case of giant anteaters; a phallic snout, secretive nocturnal behaviour and a lack of visible differences between the sexes, it is often associated with ill fortune.
While only a minority will act on the superstition, the consequences can be barbaric for giant anteaters. Those that aren’t targeted on roads are frequently tied up and beaten, with a fierce focus on their snout.
Dr Mari suggests that educating local people about the biology of the animals is most effective in encouraging positive attitudes towards them. To promote the plight of the giant anteater in Brazil, the research team developed a children’s book named The Incredible Giant Anteater, which has been distributed to local schools in Brazil. The superstition itself, that giant anteaters are unlucky, isn’t mentioned in the book to promote a new narrative.
In addition, beliefs in some cultures are a threat to the survival of varying animal species. Cambridge University release a 2017 research paper, aptly named Fantastic beasts and how to conserve them; animals, magic and biodiversity conservation.
The study found that;
conservation needs to interrogate the interaction of magical animals, extant animals and biodiversity conservation goals
Subsequently, the recommend a multispecies ethnography approach, which combines studies of animal behaviour with that of human behaviour, values, cultures and superstitions.
The Power of Positive Beliefs
While negative superstitions have serious consequences for the survival of many species, the power of positive thinking rings true. In uncertain situations, or times of trouble, believing in lucky omens and trinkets can programme our brains to focus on bringing good fortune, rather than the avoidance of bad luck. Abundant thoughts are all the rage right now, but psychology backs this up, as what we believe, we perceive – our thoughts affect how we feel, and how we fell affects our behaviour. So if you think you’re lucky, according to the laws of the universe, you’ll attract prosperity!
1. Black Cats are Lucky or Unlucky
Poor black cats are at the centre of much pet folklore, dating back to medieval times in Europe, and it’s not often in a positive light. The negative associations with black cats dates back to when they were seen to be common companions of witches, thus bringing bad luck if they crossed your path. In the 13th century, the Catholic Church linked black cats to Satan, sending fear and apprehension through the congregation.
Add the spooky association with black cats and Halloween, and voilà, our little feline Star and her counterparts are apparently modern day monsters. Now, I’m not saying she’s an angel, anything but since she’s a cat after all! But it’s kinda crazy, don’t you think?
On the other hand, black cats are a symbol of good fortune in the Scotland . If a black cat crosses your path, you’ll be straight to the shop to play the Lotto, because your luck is in! Aren’t superstitions magic?
And if you’re a single lady looking for a husband in Japan, all you have to do is adopt a black cat. Seriously, that’s it, and you’re perfect partner will come into your life.
All you sailors out there will already know that voyaging with a black cat on your boat will keep you safe. Dating back to the 18th century, many British and Irish sailors would only set sail with a black cat on board. Even loved ones at home kept a black cat to ensure their husband’s safe return from sea. Bananas on a ship though? That’s absolutely out of the question!
A black cat named Musya was certainly lucky for these little orphaned hedgehog hoglets – despite being neutered, she was able to produce milk and took on the role of mum for the helpless babies. Awwww!
2. Legends of the Owl
Famously nocturnal in nature, the owl is also subject to varying fearsome legends. While owls are pretty much universally recognised as wise and intelligent, countless cultures believe that their shrewdness enables them to predict death and doom.
Frequenting the twilight hours, owls have gained an association with magic and witchcraft, which originated in Greek and Roman mythology; with the belief that witches could metamorphose into owls, then use their new found form to suck the blood from babies. Eeek!
In North American mythology, associations with owls ranged from messengers of death, to guardians of the afterlife. Many cultures still hold the belief that an owl hooting nearby is a harbinger of meeting your maker!
But, the Greek Goddess of wisdom and warfare, Athena always kept a little owl close. The owl gave Athena the power to see in the dark, together with foresight, when warning her of the threat of oncoming invasions. Enemies feared the sight of an owl on the battleground, as it predicted Athena’s glory.
These days, the little owl remains known as Athene noctua, and despite it’s petite size, it has a huge range, frequenting warmer parts of Europe, Asia, North Africa and New Zealand.
The African Bush Elephant is the largest land mammal on Earth, with elephants in general being recognised for their wisdom, strength and maternal instincts. Elephants symbolise good fortune in the renowned Chinese art of Feng Shui; that is, provided any elephant ornament in your home is facing your front door to attract positive luck.
But, whether the elephant’s trunk is facing up or down depends very much on which side of the Equator your reside! In Western cultures, the trunk of any elephant ornaments or paintings should be triumphing upwards, whereas, in Easter folklore, an elephant’s trunk should be facing downwards to attract abundance.
Ganesha, the Hindu God of Removing Obstacles, is depicted with an elephant head and tusks. He is believed to bring success, and remove the hurdles we face in life. Buddhists in Thailand also now avidly worship Ganesha, and his positive powers too, with his perceived ability to blow the wind of wealth in your direction.
In fact, in the West, many households now possess a Ganesha statue, due to the spread of Eastern therapies such as Ayurveda and Yoga. But, Ganesha’s trunk can have three positions, with each offering a different benefit:
- If Ganesha’s elephant trunk is positioned to the left, it’s his calmest and coolest form
- In Temples, Ganesha’s trunk is rolling to the right, which denotes worship and purity
- A straight trunk symbolises mental health benefits for all in the household
But, as you probably know, elephant tusks are deemed to hold medicinal properties in some corners of the world. Around 30,000 elephants are murdered every year for their ivory. The Ivory Game documentary warns that African elephants may become extinct in just 15 years, with biologists estimating that total loss of large mammals in Africa went up to 60 percent between 1970 and 2013 (Paterniti, 2017). The global animal black market is the 4th largest in the world, with an estimated $20 billion in profits (Tackling Wildlife Trafficking 2017).
Has humanity lost it’s way in a world of myths that create hellacious horrors, and the demonic destruction of our precious wildlife?
4. Dogs – From Saliva to Poop!
As expected, our beloved dogs don’t escape human desire to avoid bad luck, or attract blessings. As with black cats, many societies demonise black dogs as unlucky, believing them to be messengers of Satan. But, this means that they’re the least likely to be adopted from shelters.
In both Greek and Roman mythology, the guardian of Hades was a three-headed dog named Cerberus, while a Greek-Egyptian deity known as Hermanubis guided souls to Heaven. Even the Aztecs worshipped a dog-headed god called Xolotl, who they believed guided souls to the afterlife.
Many dog superstitions relate to the association of wolves howling at the moon. Some societies fear howling dogs in the night, as they’re thought to foretell death. If a dog howls for no reason, then they’ve seen a spirit, and if they howl at a crossroads, the Greek goddess Hecate is near – which is not a good omen!
On a positive note, ancient Romans and Greeks hailed dog saliva for it’s healing powers, using it for wounds and surface treatment. To this day, I’ve heard many say ‘Let your dog lick your cut and it’ll heal quickly‘. Have you heard that one too?
Now, while a mandrake is definitely not on four legs, did you know that the root of this plant haas hallucinogenic and narcotic properties? So much so, in fact, that it was used as an anaesthetic for surgeries in ancient times. Well, according to legend, when you dig up a mandrake root, it’s screams kill all who hear it. To avoid an untimely death, a furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must escape. The poor dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this, the root can be handled without fear. Yep, people genuinely lived by this. But, we have to ask ourselves, is humanity really any different these days?
While, in general, historically, dog’s are regarded as Man’s Best Friend, with the survival of early humans dependant on the hunting skills of their domesticated canines. But, our canine companions still aren’t safe from our crazy folklore.
By the way, is there a superstition in your neck of the woods that standing on dog poop is lucky? This one is famous in the UK; a fable most likely created by someone who wanted to turn a stinky lemon into lemonade!
With their whiskers, teeth and claws believed to possess magical powers, tigers are another species that isn’t safe from myths created by humans. Believe it or not, their genitals are used as aphrodisiacs, while their bones are robbed from their bodies to bring well being to humans. Subsequently, and shockingly, there’s only 400 Sumatran Tigers left in the world due to illegal poaching for their body parts.
In Japan, talking about a tiger is unlucky, which fortunately, doesn’t have any repercussions for the beautiful beasts.
Actually, 2022 is the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Water Tiger, with the tiger symbolising courage and strength, as well as possessing the ability to exorcise evil spirits. In Chinese folklore, the tiger is seen as one of the four super intelligent creatures, as well as the dragon, phoenix and tortoise.
6. The Koi Carp
A fishy folklore descending from Chinese and Japanese culture, means koi carp are highly regarded. This is all down to their perceived ability to conjure good fortune. This animal superstition is now incredibly popular in the West too, with gardens widely adorned with decorated ponds of koi carp.
Anglers are a particularly superstitious bunch, due to folklore dating back thousands of years, and fishing for carp is widely renowned to bring misfortune. The Golden Carp is an old fable, in which the gods became angry with humans, and turned them all into fish. One god showed remorse for this move, so the other gods agreed to transform him into a carp. But, not just any carp, The Golden Carp; the largest of all, and protector of the waterways.
So, animal superstitions affect our fellow Earth-lings whether they’re on land, in the air or swimming in the sea.
Again, Chinese tradition views the deer as a symbol of prosperity. Deer are one of the few mammals that inhabit all corners of the world, and despite being hunted by humans and other wildlife, their numbers remain constant.
Seeing a deer means that the universe wants you to connect with your spiritual side, and you need to open up to communication with higher powers. It’s said that a deer won’t appear to you more than six times throughout your life. Each time a deer graces your presence, you must begin to look out for signs in order to follow your inherent path.
In China, sighting a deer chewing grass signals an avalanche of good fortune. Buddhists believe that deer represent kindness and protection. Seeing a deer running in terror in a dream is a sign of impending danger and evil, therefore they’re warning you to be cautious and vigilant.
Recently, the fable of The White Deer reemerged following the shooting of this sacred animal in Liverpool, UK – instead of guiding the statuesque creature back to safety, a police officer shot him as he ‘might have caused a danger to motorists‘, causing outrage in animal lovers around the world.
In many mythologies, including Celtic, a white stag relates to the afterlife. In Arthurian legend, the pursuit of the white stag represented a spiritual quest to achieve purity, divinity and awakening. Of course, it had to be hunted in order for a human to achieve these traits. Go figure!!
Symbolism of the white stag is also frequent in Japanese, Indian, Mayan and European cultures.
So, what’s your opinion on animal superstitions? We think it’s time for an education overhaul, and a huge change in our human, but often not humane, approach to wildlife.