Cultural Significance of Animals

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Cultural Significance of Animals

Our research found that wolves, lions, dolphins, and whales (although not killer whales specifically) are each associated with various cultures and religious mythology. For example, wolves are culturally important to Native Americans, while lions are featured in Christian, Greek, and Egyptian mythology. Similarly, dolphins are culturally important to many cultures throughout human history, including Greek and Minoan cultures; and whales are of significant importance to Hawaiians. More information about each animal and their connection has been provided below.


  • Like the bear, wolves are culturally important to Native Americans. For most tribes, wolves are viewed as "medicine [beings] associated with courage, strength, loyalty, and success at hunting. Like bears, wolves are considered closely related to humans by many North American tribes, and the origin stories of some Northwest Coast tribes, such as the Quileute and the Kwakiutl, tell of their first ancestors being transformed from wolves into men".
  • The wolf plays different roles for different tribes. For example, the Shoshone Tribe views the wolf as their Creator, "while in Anishinabe mythology a wolf character is the brother and true best friend of the culture hero. Among the Pueblo tribes, wolves are considered one of the six directional guardians, associated with the east and the color white. The Zunis carve stone wolf fetishes for protection, ascribing to them both healing and hunting powers".
  • As well, wolves serve as the clan animal for a number of Native American tribes, such as "the Creek, the Cherokee, the Chippewa, Algonquian tribes like the Lenape, Shawnee and Menominee, the Huron and Iroquois tribes, Plains tribes like the Caddo and Osage, Southern tribes like the Chickasaw, the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, and Northwest Coast tribes like the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Kwakiutl".
  • There are a number of wolf gods and spirits in Native American culture and religion, including Chibiabos (Potawatomi), Kweo Kachina (Hopi), Malsum (Wabanaki), Moqwaio (Menominee), Pia'isa (Shoshone), Rou-garou (Metis), and Tivaci (Chemehuevi).
  • "The Native Wolf Symbol represents loyalty, strong family ties, good communication, education, understanding, and intelligence. Of all land animals, the Wolf has the strongest supernatural powers and is the most accomplished hunter. The Wolf is a very social and communicative creature, he uses body movement, touch, and sound. The Wolf Symbol has an important cultural significance to First Nations in North America."
  • "In some [Native American] cultures it is believed that if one wore the skin of a wolf they would actually transform into a wolf. This mythology led to the belief in such creatures as werewolves, part man, part wolf... [It] was believed that if a person put a wolf skin on they would transform into the wolf."


  • In Christian mythology, the lion has been used to represent both Christ's "power and might" and Satan's "open maw", making it a somewhat contradictory symbol in the religion.
  • Christianity also tells the story "of a repentant prostitute who dies in the desert, but is buried by a monk and a lion".
  • "Greek myth links this beast to Heracles and his epic wrestling match with a supernatural lion, which no earthly weapon could harm. In this context the lion is death, beaten by the solar hero."
  • In Egyptian cultural particularly, lions have long been viewed as a cultural symbol. "They were worshiped, and often trained to run alongside the pharaoh’s chariot or safeguard his throne."
  • As well, many Egyptian gods and goddesses — such as Ra, Maahes, Sekhmet, and Bastest — have the features or qualities associated with lions. For example, Bastest "is often depicted with the head of a lion as a symbol of her royal prowess. She was connected with joy, music, dancing and fertility".
  • Also in Egypt, the king was viewed as having the qualities of a lion, including strength and courage. "Lions were also considered a symbol of wealth. This royal relationship between lion and king is thought to have come from the tribal chiefs who hunted lion as well as other large carnivores such as crocodiles".


  • A number of cultures throughout the history of humanity have incorporated dolphins into their mythology, culture, and lore, with the first such imagery dating back to 1500 BC.
  • "The first culture that seems to have mythology associated with the dolphin was the Minoan, a seafaring people in the Mediterranean. They left few written records, but they did leave beautiful murals on the walls of their palaces, murals that show the importance of dolphins in their society."
  • In Greek culture in particular, dolphins are typically associated with Poseidon, which "probably explains why the sea god was so often surrounded by dolphins". The culture often connects dolphins with romance as well, such as in connection with Aphrodite and Dionysus.
  • "This image of the dolphin continued in myth and legend as the world transformed around them. Byzantine sailors, Arab sailors, Chinese and European explorers, all had tales of dolphins rescuing sailors or ships in trouble. Dolphins could predict calm seas. And a ship accompanied by dolphins was sure to find safe harbor, fair weather, and following seas. Just as with an albatross, it was terrible luck to harm a dolphin."
  • Archaeologists believe that many ancient human cultures viewed dolphins as a food resource. This is still true today, with people in the South Pacific, North Atlantic, Caribbean, and Central and South America hunting dolphins for their meat. In Japan, dolphin hunting is "almost industrial".
  • Despite that fact, hunting dolphins is generally viewed as wrong and barbaric, in part because of the positive qualities and mythology which have long been associated with the animal.


  • While no cultural connection could be found to killer whales specifically, we found that Hawaiian culture views whales in general as having a profound spiritual connection to people.
  • More specifically, the culture views all "aumakua" creatures, including not only whales, but also sharks, turtles, and owls.
  • "It is said that aumakua appeared in dreams and visions, providing spiritual guidance and a connection between the physical and spiritual worlds. Throughout Hawaii, many people still honor aumakua, whether it's a family relationship or a personal sense of respect."
  • In Hawaiian culture, whales — or "kohola" — are associated with the god of the sea, Kanaloa, who is "said to be responsible in helping the Polynesians discover the Hawaiian Islands. Whales are also revered as aumakua (spiritual protector) to specific families and were generally viewed as divine beings".