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The Soul in Animal Form


Our distant ancestors believed that the life force animating humans came from the soul, imagined as a small being within us all, responsible for physical and mental actions. As the activities of animals or humans were explained through the presence of a soul, it was thought that in sleep or trance, the soul was temporarily absent, and in death, permanently so. Therefore, to guard against death meant to prevent the soul’s exit. However, once the soul had been perceived as having departed for good, it was of the utmost importance to prevent its re-entry. To secure either of these ends, our ancestors adopted many precautions, taking on the form of various rituals and taboos and the wearing of ornaments around the nose, ears, and mouth, ensuring that the soul could not leave and unwelcome forces could not enter. 

Among most cultures, the belief at some time persisted that the soul could temporarily leave the body without causing death to the person concerned. However, such temporary absence of the soul was thought to involve considerable risk, because the wandering soul could be subjected to various mishaps, be hurt, or even fall into enemy hands. It must be remembered that in the past, the soul was not perceived as an abstract concept, but thought to represent a concrete material thing, which could be seen and handled. Therefore, it could be kept in a box or a container and could be smashed, injured, or destroyed. We only have to think of the countless fairy tales, where the soul of the villain or magician is contained in a particular object that first has to be destroyed to break his power and magic. 

During sleep, the soul was thought to wander away and visit the very places of which the sleeper dreamt. The danger was ever-present that it would be deprived of finding its way back. Hence, it was formerly a common rule never to wake a sleeper, lest the soul had not yet returned, in which case, the person concerned fell ill. The wandering soul, however far it roamed, was always believed to return in the end. As long as it remained unharmed, even when it was outside the body, it would continue to animate the body it had left behind, and the person to whom it belonged would be safe. 

In myths and tales from around the world, the souls of the dead or those under a spell are often housed, if only temporarily, in the bodies of birds, butterflies, lizards, serpents, mice, frogs, and toads. Therefore these animals were never to be killed. 

Birds were especially thought to shelter the souls of the dead or those under a spell, a belief not only commonly Indo-European, but also found in China, Indonesia, Melanesia, Africa, and the Americas. In the lore of all nations, birds function as prophetic beings, messengers of death, or as housing those already passed into the netherworld and come to guide a newly released soul. In Greek myths, the souls of the dead are contained in birds, the soul of Alexander the Great reputedly flying to heaven as an eagle. 

Early Christian art took over this symbolism, depicting the souls of the dead in the hereafter as birds nesting in trees. In the catacombs around Rome, countless depictions of birds bearing the name of a dead person, or with inscriptions such as anima innocens, meaning ‘innocent soul’ and anima simplex, meaning ‘sincere soul’, can be found. These depictions clearly picture the birds as emblems of departed souls. According to Slavic lore, a soul leaves the body through the mouth as a bird. Silesian folklore contends that dead children’s souls are housed in birds fluttering over graves and gravestones. Around the coasts of the British Isles, it was said that seagulls are the souls of drowned seamen, and in Germany, ravens were believed to house the souls of the damned. 

In myths and fairy tales from around the world, there are countless examples of the souls of those under a magic spell or merely asleep, housed in animal form. The Nordic saga, The Song of Wolund, tells the sad tale of beautiful women turned into swans. In the well-known fairy tale, The Princess and the Frog, the frog can only be turned back into a prince through the love of a beautiful maiden. Often, tales relate how the soul leaves the body as a small animal or bird. 

This recalls the story of the Frankish king Gunthram (circa 600 CE). One day, while on a campaign, he lay sleeping in his servant’s lap. Suddenly, the man saw a small snake-like animal, perceived as the king’s soul, exit the monarch’s mouth. As the servant was observing the little creature, he realised that it seemed to want to cross the small stream next to which he and his master were resting. Carefully, he placed his sword across the narrow flow of water, and using this as a bridge, the small creature disappeared into the dense bushes, much to the manservant’s apprehension. After a few hours, however, it returned safely into the mouth of the sleeping king. Shortly thereafter, the king awoke and related the wonderful dream he had. In his dream, he had crossed an iron bridge spanning a large river. On the other side, he had found a cave filled with fabulous treasure. When the king and his men explored the dense bushes, they found a cave, exactly as in the dream, and claimed the treasure.

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