Animals in Folklore and Mythology

   An introduction to the vast world of wildlife is enjoyed during childhood, mainly from numerous picture books. But what of the many generations who did not have picture books, nor T.V.? Following a visit to Oregon, and a review of Australian Dreamtime, and Japanese Mukashibanashi, I found some interesting similarities between the three cultures. In particular, I found that animals play a very important part in the mythology of not only the Native American Indians, but also the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime. Looking at Japanese Folklore, many tales dating back to over 1,000 years, we yet again can see the importance of animals.
   Let me share with you my findings.
Japan   Japanese mythology focuses on the Sun Goddess, and Shintoism emcompasses various gods and dieties who "live" in the mountains. Very few people have climbed mountains or hiked along rugged pathways without paying their respects to the dieties of the region. Even the illustrious Momotaro (who befriends a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant, and goes to fight the Ogres) and Urashimataro (who is solicited by the turtle whose life he saved) have shrines dedicated the them and their adventures.
   Many Japanese folktales perpetuate the teachings of morals. The story of a gentle man who cares for a young sparrow, Shita kiri Suzume, shows how happiness and riches will come to the gentle and kind, while fear, unhappiness, and poverty befall the greedy. This story is also one of many stories in which animals can easily converse with humans.
   In Tanishi Choja, the Tanishi (mud snail) takes a wife from amongst the rich girls in the village, and aspires to become a millionaire. The Mud Snail later turns into a handsome young man, but quite often, the birds and animals of Japanese folklore chage into beautiful women in order to repay a kindness done. For example, in Tsuru no Ongaeshi, a crane (tsuru) is rescued by a hunter. She later returns and weaves her soft underfeathers into beautiful cloth. However, she and others like the snake woman of Hebi Nyobo must leave their families when the secret has been divulged.
Australia   The myths of Australian Dreamtime seem to be prolific with stories of how or why certain rivers or mountains or animals came about. However, behind the simple stories of evolution are the parables guiding against carelessness, or teaching about following the strict rules of the tribe.
   The "Bora of Baime" tells of how the first tribes (including the pigeons, the black swans, blue-tongued lizards, and the pelicans) gathered together and prepared for a grand corroboree. Not only do we learn about the origins of various birds and animals, but also of what happens to those who do not treat others with respect, for those callously looking on at the water hole where one widow could not find clear water for her children are now the many trees that stand silent vigal at a place called Googoorewon.
   The story of Koobor, who took everyone's water-bag and hid them at the top of the tallest tree, tells why, as punishment, the Koala lives high up in the eucalyptus and doesn't require water. The story of the platypus, a marsupial which baffled the English scientists in the early years of white settlement, tells how a beautiful woman eloped with the man she loved rather than marrying the man she was promised to. As punishment, she is turned into a duck, and he is changed into a water-rat. The happy ending of this story is that their children are born from eggs and suckled with their mother's milk; clad in fur and have webbed feet and a duck-like bill. Brolga, a young girl who loved dancing, is also punished for refusing to marry "an evil man". She is changed into a graceful bird the moment she absent-mindedly strays from the safety of her village.    
North America   The folktales of Native Americans also show a great affinity with nature. As wuth the Australian Dreamtime stories, it is sometimes difficult to grasp which comes first, man or animal.
   One figure who constantly appears is Coyote. Coyote is at the same time both good and bad, kind and cunning, a fighter againgst crime and a perpetual troublemaker. His beginning is similar to that of the Japanese 12 animals of the Calendar. He wants so hard to be first in line when the Great Spirit hands out bows and arrows, but in the end, he comes in last. Feeling sorry for him, the Great Spirit gives Coyote cunning, and the ability to die and live again. This is the start of his many adventures. HIs antics not only fill the long houses with laughter, but also teach the children about the origin of certain things, and the rituals necessary for everyday life.
   While Coyote teaches the children of the west how to catch and prepare Salmon, Little Deer teachers budding hunters how to respect the animals, and hunt only when food or clothing are needed. Many stories tell of how young warriors befriend animals such as wolves, or bears, and become great medicine men whose visions help guide their people.
In Comparison    Very few Native American stories are told about humans alone, for the Indian world is not centered around "man". People will change into animals or fish and change back again. People will talk with the animals, ask for help, or receive advice. In other words, the Native American World is a world incorporating all living things, maintaining strength and peace and understanding across the full spectrum of Nature.
   In the Australian Dreamtime stories, men or tribes often change or are changed into the animals and birds of their name-sakes. In this way, the animals are our teachers.
   In contrast, in the Japanese Mukashibanashi we usually see the kindness of man towards animals, and the wish of animals to repay that kindness, sometimes by transforming themselves into people (often women).    It is important to note that all of these stories began as oral accounts, told around the campfire or hearth, or under the shade of a tree, at some special gathering, or just when children came near. My Nez Perce friend, Art McCormick, commented that the folktales remained with him during his adolescence and young adult years and gave him the strength to forge forward in a sometimes unfriendly world. Such is the strength of the teachings in folklore.
Some extra links:
  Warm Springs, USA      some Japanese stories      Australian Dreamtime 

Some other links within my page:

  Ariyoshi Sawako    Miyazawa Kenji    Murakami Haruki    The Nakasendo    Mark Twain 

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