|Peter Paul Reubens, "Leda and The Swan," 1601,|
Our animal cousins have never been far from us, especially while we sleep. We only think we're different.
During homo sapiens’ million-year dream-time, animal and human were deeply enmeshed. Consciousness was like a fish coming out of the water. Our dreaming selves dive back into the furred and feathered and finned.
In those blending waters of the lower brain, distinctions fade, similarities grow. A fish walks with our feet, a horse has a human head. The snake slithers round Eve’s forearm and sets as golden arm-bracelet. Birds caw our name from the trees, seals stare back with beloveds' eyes.
A shaman’s initiation ordeal meant being devoured, digested and tutored in the ways of healing by one great animal or another. His or her familiar was a totem topped by an eagle or bear or killer whale.
Is it the guilt of our killing hunger that painted hyper luminous beasts in the Paleolithic caves, and chases us at night, braying the Wild Hunt across the sky?
In myth, transformation from human to animal is a commonplace. In Greek myth Cyncus, who grieved the fall of his friend Phaeton so deeply, turns into a swan; Philomena’s rape and disfigurement (her tongue is ripped out, to prevent her from telling on her aggressor) transforms into a nightingale whose song pierces the heart. Actaeon the hunter is turned into a stag while spying on naked Artemis in her bath and then is devoured by his own dogs.
When human and animal pair, the result is never sure. Pasiphae loved the Cretan Bull, and their union produced the Minotaur. Zeus seduced the maid Leda in the form of a swan, and Leda gives birth to Helen, whose beauty launched a thousand war-ships. Go figure.
Some gods are animals—Cernunnos the Celtic woodland god has the horns of a stag; the Egyptian god Anubis, guarder of graves, is a dog. The Russian raven-god Kutkh releases the sun and the moon from its bill. Coyote and Crow both enjoy a rich tradition of Native American folk-tales.
Mythic monsters are legion. A griffin is eagle and lion; dragon a flying snake; Argus is a hundred-eyed giant and Cyclops a boor-bully with just one. Scylla is a many-tentacled she-beast whose lair is just before the mouth of Charybdis, the whirlpooling monster. Apollo gets his prophetic powers from killing the Pythian snake, and the Medusa—the chick with those nasty adders for hair—petrifies anyone caught in her gaze. (Literally.) When she is beheaded by Perseus, the winged horse Pegasus leaps from her spilled blood.
Animals keep us guessing just what’s really going on. The Devil is a poodle in Goethe’s Faust, the prince is a frog who may have already joined us here at the Pond. One of my cousins, MacOdrum of UIst, runs with the seal-tribe. You just never know.
For today’s NaPoWriMo challenge, pick an animal and write its myth. You can riff on an existing tale or concoct your own. Put your beloved pet in a folktale, or walk a mile in an animal's paws. Let’s honor the beasts who ensoul the Garden, and the child in us all who can still see and talk and ride with them.