Donkey

The idiom „Stupid as a donkey“ is well known. What are the origins of it’s symbolism? In Ancient Egypt Seth, the great enemy of Osiris, had the image of a donkey. That’s why Apuleius in his Golden Ass describes a great metamorphosis, the transformation of Lucius to a donkey and his way back – spiritual evolution towards the human-being. In this case donkey represents sexuality, instincts, sensuality, ignorance. The Red donkey was one of the dangerous creatures whom the soul met in it’s journey after death. Continue reading Donkey

Salamander

Salamander belongs to amphibians. Ancient authors ascribed fantastic features to this animal. It was believed to be able to survive in fire and was even identified with the element fire. They could also extinguish fire with the frigidity of their bodies. Egyptians had the hieroglyph Salamander which signified a man dead from cold. Some authors explain that this association with fire was invented because of the constant moisture on the skin of salamander and the milky juice it could produce if affronted. Others think that this description appeared from the fact that salamanders live in volcanoes. This creature was considered as very poisonous. It could instantly poison wells and orchards. French king Francis I chose salamander for his emblem. In medieval iconography it represented the man who never lost the peace of his soul (went through the fires of passion) and who was confident in God despite all troubles. So it corresponded to chastity, virginity, loyalty. It was also identified with Christ who would baptize the world with fire flames. In Alchemy Salamander was a symbol of a stone fixed in red (sulfur).

fire
fire

Dragon

Dragons are one of the oldest and the most universal fabulous creatures. The word “dragon” itself comes from Greek and signifies a huge serpent or water-serpent. He is a guardian of hidden treasures – an adversary which has to be defeated in order to find and get it. The treasure itself is immortality. In Christian religion dragons and serpents are the same: their destruction is Christ’s victory against the evil. A very well known image of St George fighting with a dragon is quite a common symbol in Christian art and architecture. It symbolizes the victory of Christianity, the perpetual fight between good and evil.

The sources of this creature are in the European folk traditions, Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies and Oriental dragons (especially Chinese dragon which was a symbol of Emperor and the primordial principle). In Medieval art we also find two affronted dragons. It means a neutralization of adversary tendencies of alchemical sulfur and mercury. A dragon swallowing his tail is called Ouroboros and represents the eternal return or cycle, self-reflexivity. The image of Ouroboros is traced already in Ancient Egypt. Later it came to Greek philosophers. Plato described it as a first, circular, immortal and perfect creature. In Christianity Ouroboros means the limited boundaries of the material world.

Dragons were believed to be real for a long time and were present in wonder collections. It is not surprising that dinosaur fossils were taken for the bones of dragons. Besides, stuffed dragons were formed from dead rays (fish) and dried afterwards.

Unicorn

Unicorns are present in the Greek natural history. The authors were convinced of the existence of these animals. They placed them in India describing as one-horned animals. A Greek physician Ctesias was the first to mention them and to call them wild asses. Aristotle follows him and calls them oryx, a sort of antelope and “Indian ass”. Strabo writes about one-horned horses and Pliny the Elder mentions the oryx and Indian ox which is probably a rhinoceros. Aelian adds that India produces also a one-corn horses and that the monoceros may mean the rhinoceros as well. An animal called Re’em (a wild buffalo) in the Hebrew Bible as a metaphor representing strength (because of his corns) was later translated as monokeros in Greek Septuagint and as unicornis in Latin Vulgata. The translators simply associated the writings of Greek naturalists about this fabulous animal with the Hebrew Re’em. That was the way the unicorn was introduced to the Christian symbolism.

During the Middle Ages the image of unicorn was taken from ancient and biblical sources. This animal was presented as a horse, a goat or an ass. In Physiologus there is an explanation that a unicorn can be trapped only by a Virgin. The Virgin represents Virgin Mary and the hole allegory stands for the Incarnation. When unicorn sees her he puts his head on her lap and falls asleep. Then the hunters can take him. This tradition was transmitted to the later medieval Bestiary. In some versions the unicorn is directly associated to the Christ: one corn symbolizes the unity of Son and Father.

Unicorn symbolizes also the divine revelation, the penetration of divine to the creature. In the Christian iconography it represents the Virgin fecundated by the Saint Spirit. The horn was compared with the psychical phallus, the symbol of spiritual fecundity. In the Middle Ages it became a symbol of the incarnation of the Word of God in the womb of Virgin Mary.

Until the 17th century unicorns were believed as real animals and their horns could be seen and possessed. They became very valuable because of their purifying powers. It was believed that they cured diseases, neutralized poisons and cleaned water.

Pelican

Symbolism of pelican appears from the Physiologus (II century AD), a collection of legends and stories about animals, plants, stones which was written in Greek in Alexandria by an unknown author. Descriptions are followed by the morals related to the Christian religion. It was very popular at that time to look for religious associations and manifestations of divine in nature. Pelican is described as a bird living in Egypt on the banks of the river Nile. He loves his children a lot but when they grow up they start to fight against his parents. They kill their young and morn for three days. Then their mother pecks her side and revives her children with her blood. The moral is that we strike God with our sins but he resurrects us with his own blood. That action was associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Later Physiologus was translated to Latin and other European languages. During the Middle Ages pelican became a hero of Bestiary literature as a symbol of self-sacrifice and paternal love. His example was cited by St Augustine, Origen, Thomas Aquinas. As the result the image of pelican was broadly used in Christian churches.

pelican - caritas

Crocodile

In Bible crocodile is mentioned as one of the monsters of chaos. Because of this fact crocodile was later associated with the Devil in Christian symbolism. His natural enemy hydra kills him from inside like Jesus Christ destroyed Hell after having descended there for three days. Hydra represents Christ and crocodile stands for Hell. The hydra rolls itself into damp mud till its look is indistinguishable, and then makes its way into the mouth of the crocodile, which swallows it unawares, and instantly bursts asunder. During the Middle Ages stuffed crocodiles were chained on the walls of the churches. They represented chained Devil.