Since people first began telling stories, animals have provided ways for them to explain changes in the weather, foretell luck, and propitiate their gods. At the same time that ancient civilizations domesticated certain animals, they also endowed them with mythical powers. In those days, a walk through the forest, jungle, or desert entailed animal encounters fraught with meaning and even awe.
Only the second animal to be domesticated (the dog was first), the goat took center stage in many myths, most notably the Greeks’. The debauched goat god Pan presided over a group of fauns, creatures that were half-goat, half-man, and Amalthea, the goat that nursed Zeus, gave the king of the gods her horn (the Cornucopia) and fleece (the Aegis). Goats came to represent lustiness, while hares represented lust’s productive offshoot, fertility; in fact, some ancient cultures believed that a great hare lived on the moon, creating a substance that perpetuated the life cycle. Meanwhile, animals like lions, leopards, and horses drew the gods’ chariots as well as symbolized loyalty.
Despite many agreements between disparate cultures regarding animal attributes, plenty of beasts’ traits radically differ from one mythology to another. For instance, owls signify wisdom and prophecy in most Western myths, while being feared as omens of death, disease, and crime in Eastern ones. Snakes, too, reveal a mythological complexity that Judeo-Christian society seldom grants them. Worshiped as symbols of eternity and renewal, snakes once guarded temples and functioned as pets for the Greeks and Romans. One animal that almost every mythology condemns, though, is the pig, associated with greed even during Buddha’s time, when the Enlightened One cited it as an example of our desire to wallow in illusion.