In most folkore, animals are shape-changed humans, denizens of the other world, gods or goddesses in animal form, or part of the lore of hunted and hunter.
Wolves were associated with black magic, the coming of winter, the reign of chaos and darkness. Wolves were respeced as fierce and ruthless, but hunted by man because of his relationship with his livestock. Werewolves were very common all across Europe, some friendly, some evil. Despite their evil reputation wolves across Europe adopted feral children.
If anything, the fox is in even more stories that the wolf! The fox is Europe's prime trickster, followed closely by the raven. The fox seduces people and causes trouble all over the world. In Europe, the fox is a merry fellow, full of jokes and riddles. Grey foxes are the servants of Arawn, King of the Dead, but the red fox is attractive and magical.
The lynx symbolizes the revelation of truth in that it was believed that the cat could see through objects. Its urine hardened into a stone like amber, allowing the possessor to tell truth from lies.
The elusive Scottish wildcat is fearless. If a cat washed behind its ears, it would rain. If one cat was tossed on a fire, other cats would confess their secrets to relieve its torment.
In Europe bear cubs were once thought to be licked into their shapes by their mothers. A bear shirt was worn by Viking berserkers going into battle and conferred fearlessness. The bear is the keeper of dreams and medicine and has been the companion spirit of shamans across the pole. Both Beowulf and Arthur were named after bears.
The badger is a shape-shifter but is seen as protection against witchcraft and tricksters. In Europe, the badger is associated with the bear and is a forecaster of spring. In Gaelic the name for badger is Brock, a boy's name. If you hear a badger cry, it's a sign of death to come. The badger is an ancient sign like the black cat; if it walks in front of you and scrapes the earth as it goes, it's dirt for your coffin.
The weasel in its white phase is called an ermine and was a sign of royalty and purity, which is why you see its fur on the garments of kings and queens. The stoat is a large weasel that moults in spring to its brown color. It is, along with other animals who change their coats, symbolic of a spiritual journey. The pine marten is called the tree cat in Gaelic. They were hunted for their fur, known as sable, and are a sign of luck, determination and skill.
Omnivorous like the bear, hedgehogs are believed to be hard-working and no-nonsense, the hedgehog was supposed to carry apples or grapes back to its den whereas in truth it eats insects and only some fruit. Once, the earth was too large and would not fit into the skies. The hedgehog was clever enough to suggest to the creator how to make the earth small enough to fit. For this, she was rewarded with a suit of needles.
The mole suffers from association with humans, for its body parts were thought to heal. If a mole digs deep, a bad winter is coming. Called a mouldiwarp, this earth thrower was closely associated with the underworld. The mole was a prophet of kingship, but was also seen as an animal pest by farmers. The common shrew, for its vicious attack on insects, came to mean a vicious woman who was overbearing. Because it is so fast and voracious, it has also come to mean overly exited or aggressive.
Skin from the otter will make a warrior invincible. The otter is seen as friendly, but is a ferocious predator. Called "water dog" by the Celts, they are seen as shape-shifted kings or gods, who can laugh (chuckling sound). People who do not honor and respect the otter will have a life of suffering.
The seal is a famous shape-shifter called a selkie, changing into a human by shedding its skin. For years, seals were said to be the souls of those drowned at sea: their crying makes many think of ghosts. Although several species of Old World seals are found in the Arctic, there are only two very common to Western Europe, the gray seal (left) and the harbor seal.
The dolphin has always been a symbol of fair weather and good fortune. This is due to the fact that most of them appear around boats when the seas are calm. Whales, however, were seen as monsters of the deep, feared and seen as a sign of great danger.
There are thousands of stories about the stag, his antlers adorning many of the old gods. Deer were said to be "fairy cattle," and to hunt one was to enter the wild wood where one could be lost among the ancient people. Kings were sometimes descended from shape-shifted deer, spouses were often deer by day and human by night. Perhaps the greatest myth was of Herne, the hunter, who led the wild hunt and was crowned with antlers.
The sow of three colors was closely associated with the great goddess of vegetation who wore the mask of the pig. So closely was it connected to the goddess, that it became tabu in many men's cults and religions dominated by a male god. But in the north, the pig was sacred to Freyr and Freya and the golden bristles of its fur were held in high esteem. Pig myths run all through Celtic myths, for whom it was the goddess, but also a shape-shifter.
Like the bear, the bison is a power animal, representing courage, endurance, and great patience. Hunted almost to extinction in Europe, they are making a comeback. As they died off, their myths were replaced by the black bull, a wise and brave shape-shifter that guided the young through magical battles.
The chamois is the only modern antelope in Europe. Its horn was prized for medicinal and magical uses. Antelopes were thought to be the origin of the unicorn legend.
In many cultures, the wild goat came to be a shape of a devil, associated with Pan, sexuality, fertility, play and trickery.
Like goats, sheep were associated with mid-winter, the god of the tree and returning sun, Tammuz, Jesus, Osiris, Baldur and Bel. The ram's horn signaled the turn of the year, and the lamb the rise of spring. The ram was said to be beyond evil, climbing into the mountains far from the wide roads of man.
The beaver is known to some as the “kidneys of the earth” because of its damming of waterways. The beaver has been hunted almost to extinction for its fur and gland oil, called castoreum.
The hare changes its coat in winter and is associated with the moon and the underworld. It is a totem animal for its speed and strength.
The red squirrel is dark brown, red, or cream, the three colors sacred to the moon. It is a messenger between the normal world and the world of the gods.
To hear a mouse squeaking near an ill person means that person will die, for a mouse is the soul of a person who was murdered.
The vole was confused with the mole, the mouse, and the lemming. It is considered a water rat, although it only superficially resembles one and is probably the inspiration for Ratty in The Wind and the Willow. Shy and solitary, the vole means much the same as the mouse.
The grass snake is considered a household protector in Europe and was often kept under a bed as a pet. The adder, the only poisonous snake in North Europe, was associated with the serpent of the Ash which was the world tree. There is some misunderstanding about serpents, eels, snakes, worms and maggots, because they all had the same name, "peist" or "wyrm." However, the wheeling figure of the serpent, Draco, used to be the polar constellation and thus was associated with the passage of time, the spiral, and the universe itself.
The common pond turtle is a symbol of fertility, wisdom and strength. It is bad luck to kill one unless you are a fisherman.
The frog has long been a symbol of fertility and is associated with goddesses and licentious behavior. A toad will eat anything it can get. It is said that a stone from its brain, worn in a ring, warns of poison.
The snail, with its spiral shell was another mythological figure, but often a monster. However its trail can reveal the initials of the one you love, and were long a part of divination. Representing fertility and hard work, the snail is seen as a solar animal carrying the year upon its back.
Like the salmon, the European eel migrates, breeding in the Sargasso Sea, the supposed location of the sunken Atlantis.
The grayling was thought to live on thyme, which gave it its odor. It feeds on river plants, but also on insects. The tench, related to the carp and catfish, is called the doctor fish. It is said that any sick fish who rubs up against the tench’s slimy skin will be made well again. Pike can grow to a huge size and are so aggressive that they attack anything. Small pike have been found choked to death on another fish of similar size.
The Celts thought that the sun was escorted into the land of the dead by crows. They also believed that a warrior who saw a crow would be torn by arrows or spears, his flesh torn by the beak of war. The crow was the bird of Lugh (sun god) who takes the form of the crow.
Most Europeans thought moths to be the souls of the departed. White moths meant ancestors were present, but dark moths meant death. Brown moths were a sign to be cautious with your trust, and moths meant obsession and overfocus. If moths fly around you, it could mean that you will get a letter. Also flying around a light meant that the immortals were wishing you well.
The Celts thought that insects were intermediaries between this world and the world of the immortals. Bees could carry messages to the dead, but were seen as a sun symbol, a guide to good luck, and a symbol of celebration and community. Flies did not have such a good reputation, and even the dragonfly was known as the adder's servant and thought of as a pest. The butterfly, another messenger of the dead, is also a symbol of transformation and creation.