Mythology of Animals
by Joseph P. Muszynski, Ph.D

Introduction

The possibility exists that animals may have their own myths. Evolutionary biology tells us that non-human and human animals are biologically related, including similarities in brain function. Both see images. Depth psychology is rich in discussion of how we create myth from images. This opens the possibility that animals can also do so. Many questions arise. Are images all that are needed to “know” myth? If the archetypal images we see are related to instincts, would such images really be a uniquely human phenomenon? If other animals do have these archetypal, instinctual images within them, are they enough to lead to myths? The question of whether non-human animals are aware and conscious would be an a priori condition to believe this to be possible. Or, do we need speech for myth? A myth may only be a myth if it is told, somehow shared with others. We do know other animals communicate, both with each other and with us to the degree that we are receptive, but are they capable of sharing myths?

Myths are narratives through which we can know archetypes, but could they be purely visual narratives? Images are the structures allowing metaphors to emerge into human consciousness, suggesting the possibility that images allow metaphors to emerge into non-human animal consciousness as well. If they did, the conscious non-human animal mind would contain archetypes similar to humans’, producing similar metaphors. Could they also form the basis for non-human animal myths? Even if someone does not know what a metaphor is, they still have metaphorical thoughts. Is there reason to believe that non-human animals are incapable of image-based metaphors?

Animal Consciousness

First, we need to consider whether non-human animals are conscious and self-aware. Tom Regan’s seminal work, The Case for Animal Rights, uses evolutionary theory to part “company with Descartes and attributing consciousness – a mind, a mental life – to certain animals” (28). Descartes believed animals have no reasoning consciousness, clearly stating in Discourse on Method that the lack of language similar to human language in non-human animals, “attests not merely to the fact that beasts have less reason than men but that they have none at all” (32). He believed animals to be machines, lacking emotion and any ability to feel pain. Descartes’ perspective adequately serves human needs. However, such philosophy allows humans to describe non-human animals in strictly material terms, i.e., financial, considering actual animals only as a number in a cost analysis between species loss and human’s lost economic growth (Simon, 182).

Humans value themselves highly. In The Flight To Objectivity, Susan R. Bordo suggests that through Descartes the human mind came to be valued above all. Non-human animals became “understood as purely a reflection of how we feel about them, having nothing to do with their ‘objective’ qualities” (99). With human desires as the main focus of human life, the natural world became easily manipulated for fulfilling those desires. Arguing against this perspective, Regan notes that, “Because the relevant animal behavior resembles human behavior, […] there is a strong presumptive reason for viewing these animal experiences as being like their human counterparts” (66-67). With similar behaviors noted, it becomes apparent the non-human animal is conscious. Regan then argues for proof of beliefs in animals. He professes:

A holistic view of animal behavior allows us to decide when to attribute beliefs to animals, what beliefs to attribute, and whether the beliefs we have reason to attribute at one time, in one set of circumstances, are the same or different from those we have reason to attribute at another time, in another set of circumstances. (72)

If we accept non-human animal awareness, we can then imagine what their awareness entails. Further, we can speculate mythopoetically on what their beliefs may be.

In The Literary Mind, Mark Turner demonstrates that for humans, “narrative imagining, often thought of as literary and optional, appears instead to be inseparable from our evolutionary past and our necessary personal experience” (25). Narrative imagining is constant, mental, and visual. Turner suggests, “Story precedes grammar” (168), and even language. Our own mental and visual stories are common and further evidence that non-human animals could have similar mental and visual narratives. Do myths evolve from our inner narratives? If so, it seems possible the same could be possible for non-human animals.

Evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff believes dismissing anthropomorphism to be a waste of time. He writes in The Animal Manifesto that:

Our fellow animals not only think, but they feel – deeply. Animals live and move through the world with likes and dislikes and preferences just like we do. This is not being anthropomorphic. We’re not inserting something human into them that they don’t have. It doesn’t matter whether their thoughts and emotions are exactly the same as our thoughts and emotions. Both their feelings and ours are essential for a meaningful life. (76)

He then points out the hypocrisy of human dismissal of anthropomorphizing non-human animals when he reports about a real-world situation: “The same zoo officials who accuse activists of being anthropomorphic when they call a captive elephant unhappy turn around and freely describe the same elephant as perfectly happy” (77). By using mythopoesis we are able to discuss the parallels between the human animal and non-human animal minds. Animals’ thoughts and feelings may be similar to ours or they may perceive in completely different ways. Accepting non-human animal consciousness means that, “In this new trans-species world, dolphins have culture, crows use tools, sheep empathize, and snakes play. Fish subjected to electrical shocks retreat into dissociative rocking as a means of coping with pain, much as human victims of torture might” (Bradshaw, Elephants 6). Behaviors are similar among many animals, including humans.

Though he believes that non-human animals are moral, Bekoff does not think this means they have religion, stating that, “Religion…invokes supernatural explanations for why certain behaviors are prohibited or required. It seems likely that morality (with manners as a subset) is really the only category that applies to nonhuman animals” (Wild, 15). However, he also throws out the assumption “that morality in other species will look just like human morality” so that we should “proceed with an open mind and view each species on its own terms” (Wild, 20). Most myths are not religious, but they are usually concerned with values and thus with morals. Bekoff notes that, “Animals form friendships, are caught lying or stealing and lose face in the community, they flirt, their sexual advances are sometimes embraced and sometimes rejected, they fight and make up, they love, and they experience loss. There are saints and sinners, bad apples and good citizens” (Wild, 45), clearly similar to situations to which an archetypal psychologist looks to discover the presence of archetypal myth in human behaviors. The psychologist gets to myths by beginning with images.

Depth Psychology and Archetypal Images

“Archetype” and “image” are integral terms for mythology, whether grounded in depth psychology or not. The ways in which images relate to myths are important for connecting consciousness to the creativity of the collective unconscious. C. G. Jung writes that dream “imagery frequently makes use of motifs analogous to or even identical with those of mythology. I call these structures archetypes because they function in a way similar to instinctual patterns of behavior” (CW 3: 254). These dream motifs are structural elements of the unconscious as well as of myth. Jung relates these elements to instincts. He defines the collective unconscious “as the ancestral heritage of possibilities of representation […] not individual but common to all men, and perhaps even to all animals, and is the true basis of the individual psyche” (CW 8: 152). Jung raises the possibility that archetypes found in the collective unconscious of the human might also be found in non-human animals (connected to the same ancestral collective unconscious).

Jung accepted non-human animals as living in unconsciousness. In Jung’s time, it was generally accepted that animal minds processed information through pure instinct. Thus, instinctual archetypes of the collective unconscious are present in instinctual animal minds. However, when found in our dreams, these archetypes are not clear to conscious human understanding. As Jung explains:

Our consciousness performs a selective function and is itself the product of selection, whereas the collective unconscious is simply Nature – and since Nature contains everything it also contains the unknown. […] In my opinion the collective unconscious is the preconscious aspect of things on the ‘animal’ or instinctive level of the psyche. (Letters Vol. 2, 540)

Defining the collective unconscious as “animal” or “instinctive” makes less sense if we accept that animals are conscious and aware.

Jung also writes that when compared with humans, “it is highly probable that animals have similar or even the same archetypes” (Letters Vol. 1, 540), and yet, “an animal has no consciousness” (Visions, 154). However, he paradoxically writes that the archetype of:

the wise old man is a big ape really, which explains his peculiar fascination. The ape is naturally in possession of the wisdom of nature, like any animal or plant, but the wisdom is represented by a being that is not conscious of itself, and therefore it cannot be called wisdom. (Nietzsche’s, 1393)

We now know that apes are conscious and aware of themselves. Current ethological data provides evidence of individual personalities found in non-human animals. What sort of wisdom and recognizance of archetype could a “big ape” actually understand?

Jung believes that images lead to actions in animals, writing:

the lowest layers of our psyche still have an animal character. Hence it is highly probable that animals have similar or even the same archetypes. That they do have archetypes is certain in so far as the animal-plant symbioses clearly demonstrate that there must be an inherited image in the animal which drives it to specific instinctive actions. (Letters Vol. 1, 427)

This implies similar behavior in the human, as perhaps the same archetypal and unconscious image releases energy to our consciousness and “drives it” to human behavior. These powerful images are found in our myths. Can a myth be metaphoric images only, formed into a simple narrative in our thoughts?

Writing more directly about our understanding of these images is archetypal psychologist James Hillman. He writes, “Mythic metaphor is the correct way of speaking about the archetypes” (Re-Visioning, 157). We understand archetypal images to varying degrees and only indirectly through metaphor. Our understanding of archetypes is “indirectly, metaphorically, mythically” (157). Hillman suggests human mythology is powerful because you do not know myth; you encounter myth in images. Each of us is able to get to know any myth in a multitude of different ways, beginning powerfully with an image.

Animals would seem to have images similar to ours within them. However, when depth psychology notices animals it is usually in the context of how the human animal uses non-human animals. The non-human animal is often seen as a spiritual guide to be found within human dreams. In Animal Guides, representative of depth psychology’s perspective, Jungian analyst Neil Russack writes that his “book is a map tracing journeys in which people are guided by animals into a richer humanity. Animals break down barriers and bring a healing presence into our lives” (10). Non-human animals guide humans toward enrichment or become present to heal us. G.A. Bradshaw, the originator of trans-species psychology, notes, “By dissociating the symbolic, spiritual and ‘real’ physical animals, current engagement with myth, image, and dream has remained an anthropocentrically driven exercise. The pervasiveness of anthropocentrism and animals-as-objects-in-service is subtle” (Elephant Trauma, 18). The non-human animal is rarely appreciated as an individual with its own existence.

Even ecopsychology is still broadly human-focused and lacks specific consideration for non-human animals. When Theodore Roszak defined the sub-discipline, he aimed to “generate a new, legally actionable, environmentally based criterion of mental health” (15). The field remains firmly grounded in depth psychology and the focus on how environmental conditions affect the human psyche. Nevertheless, ecopsychology attempts to move beyond human priority. When Stephen Aizenstat suggests, “Special care would be taken to listen in ways that allowed the voices of Earth’s inhabitants to be heard in the full range of their sound” (99), he comes closer to recognizing and imagining the lives of actual non-human animals. Bradshaw understands that we need to open a pathway to “begin from what is known to be held in common […] and then explore what is different, what are things that make each person and elephant unique” (Elephants, 18). Imagining is a pathway through which understanding animals’ myths could deepen our relationships with them and give us insight into their perspectives on the world we share. Myths reflect a view of the world and animals’ views may be different from ours in important ways.

The Polyphonic Voice of Mythology

The problem of whether mythology must be shared to be mythology also needs to be considered. In Re-Visioning Psychology, Hillman writes, “Without speech we lose soul, and human being assumes the fantasy being of animals” (217-218), suggesting speech is needed to understand archetypes. Hillman focuses on images; the images hold fictions; these fictions are stories for the soul; these stories aid our souls to heal from neuroses and psychopathologies. In Healing Fiction he defines archetypal psychology as, “reflection upon the subjective fantasy factors going on all the time, recognition of the images and their ongoing operation in all our realities” (75). This is human reflection on internal imaging. Paying attention to internal archetypal images allows them to rise from the unconscious to assist in healing us. However, here there is no mention of the need for language to understand these images as he professes, “Know Thyself is the self-reflexive moment, a psychological a priori within all moments, that laugh of self recognition glimpsed in the images of one’s selves in all things” (78). Hillman leaves clear the path for allowing the other into human psychology. To step through that door is to step into myth. Recognition of an image, which Turner suggested comes in the form of at least a simple narrative, may be all that is needed for myth to be present.

Each image has personal meaning for whoever sees the image. Personal context becomes important in the contemplative discovery of one’s relation to any image because no image has only one meaning. Hillman states that, “By definition, an image is a particular and brings with it the criteria and internal relations by which it can be understood” (The Dream, 142). An image holds everything it needs to be understood in a myriad of ways, though more than one person may find similar understanding in an image. The lack of universal meaning in an image is because, “The depth of even the simplest image is truly fathomless” (The Dream, 200). If Jung is correct and non-human animals have similar images that come forth from the same collective unconscious shared with the human animal, these images’ “fathomless” depth should be enough to provide non-human animals with some meaning. If there is meaning, some sort of myth may place that meaning into the context of his or her life. A self-aware, non-human animal should have some ability to interpret images from the unconscious

Perhaps the biggest barrier to the possibility of non-human myth is our openness to the idea. Human myths of oral tradition may aid in providing a mythopoetic path toward changing our perspective. Writing down myths serves to concretize the narrative and the wisdom within. However, as Sean Kane aptly suggests in Wisdom of the Mythtellers, “What the mythtellers and the oral poets know is that truth cannot be captured in a solitary idea. It is alive and uncatchable. It tumbles about in the polyphonic stories told by the animals and birds and mountains and rivers and trees” (255). Kane responds to the dominant use of our own psychological perspective in the analysis of myth. He reminds us that myths also hold and convey the narrative wisdom of cultures whose relationships with their local landscapes are of utmost importance to their survival. These myths are told in the polyphonic voice:

an echo in human expression of a world in which everything has intelligence, everything has personality, everything has voice. Polyphony assumes that these various beings are not just communicating individually and directly to human beings; rather, they are in networks of communication with each other, the human listener being simply a part of that network. (191-192)

These myths give voice and animated purpose to human and non-human animals alike. Trans-species courtesy allows communication between beings and aids in the survival of both.

Kane suggests polyphony shapes myth with patterns, “rendered in such a way as to preserve a place whole and sacred, safe from human meddling” (50). The absence of meddling, understood to be improper human behavior, maintains a balanced way of life. The human able to understand the value of the mythic patterns and share the mythic song of place is the mythteller; the mythic song contains the wisdom of maintaining the proper place. In a polyphonic world, the danger exists that most humans have stopped listening to other voices.

Even literary myth often begins in polyphony, as in the beginning of the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala:

The cold recited me a lay, the rain kept bringing me songs.
The winds brought another song, the waves of the sea drove some to me.
The birds added songs, the treetops magic sayings. (Lonnrot, 4)

Myth is gathered from every corner of the natural world, voiced by birds and heard by a human. However, as in The Kalevala, though a narrator can begin in polyphony, our myths often proceed toward the singular human voice. A loss of polyphony parallels a rising human population and a landscape gradually reflecting more human influence. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram suggests we can regain parts of the human soul by coming to a new understanding of the speech of non-human animals and landscapes. When he points out, “Our obliviousness to nonhuman nature is today held in place by ways of speaking that simply deny intelligence to other species and to nature in general” (28), it is the mythologist’s task to identify new ways of speaking. Can simple images be used to understand new myths that explore, explain, and acknowledge the intelligence of non-human animals?

Conclusion

It is important to consider our need for a deeper awareness of animals’ own myths of their worlds. Such understanding may instill a new sense of trans-species courtesy, in which humans understand how human dominance has led to non-human animal loss. When we lose a non-human animal species, we may be losing entire mythologies. This already happens in part when a human language goes extinct. Mythology can function as a natural magic, in which we rediscover how the language of human animals belongs to the greater category of animal expression. Abram points out how human language “does not set us outside of the animate landscape but – whether or not we are aware of it – inscribes us more fully in its chattering, whispering, soundful depths” (80). We can better understand how non-human animals live in this world if we could place ourselves more firmly in their world.

We might also discover a better understanding of ourselves. Jung wrote that, “through continuous commerce with animals a man assimilates the truth of the natural mind to such an extent that it alienates him from the cultural or spiritual mind” (Visions, 133). However, the end result of Jung’s individuation process is basically a negotiated unification of consciousness with the unconscious. A progression toward unification has the goal of reunification with the “natural,” or animal, mind. Jung offers the possibility that “the animal – we don’t know – may have a better knowledge of the deity than man, but of course an unconscious knowledge” (Visions, 134). But if other animals are conscious, perhaps their knowledge is of the natural world as a deity, a knowledge that we seem to have tried to distance ourselves from. Maybe Jung is metaphorically correct when he writes, “from our standpoint, an animal has no consciousness, it is exactly what we call unconsciousness” (Visions, 154), but only because animals might live consciously with myth as their natural language. If other animals live in myth, or “still” live in myth (which implies that we have left that state of understanding), their thoughts would constantly be of the creative power of the natural world. As our myths are so often about creation, non-human animal myths might hold important knowledge for us.

References

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Joseph P. Muszynski, Ph.D., is a writer and mythologist, holding degrees in Mythology, Film, and Anthropology. He currently edits for The American Naturalist journal, while also working on multiple projects, including a book on comics and myth. He also hopes to expand his work on animal’s myths.