Off the Map: Animal symbolism

Whether up close and cuddly or from a safe distance, I’d venture to say that most people have a long-standing respect and fascination with the animal kingdom. As the daughter of a high school science teacher, I really couldn’t avoid them. Our house was always populated with a variety of creatures — from cats, dogs and birds to rodents, reptiles, insects and arachnids, including scorpions. Undoubtedly, the near-universal appeal of animals has resulted in the widespread use of them as symbols, icons and representations throughout history. As such, they’ve taken on a whole different level of cultural significance.

The close relationship between humans and animals began at the dawn of history with the early domestication of cows, sheep, goats, dogs and so on. Animals began appearing in artwork and artifacts at about the same time; for example, some of the earliest known cave paintings depicted scenes of animals being hunted. In addition, many sacred texts of various world religions have prominently featured the use of animals to illustrate various concepts and to tie the human rituals with a divine purpose and meaning. For example, in Judaism and Christianity, the serpent is explicitly used as a symbol of evil and deceitfulness, while the lamb is a sign of sacrifice. In the Christian New Testament, Jesus Christ is often referred to as the “Lamb of God.” In Islam’s Qur’an, dogs are often used as a symbol of something unclean. In Hinduism, the cow is revered as a symbol of wealth and earthly abundance, while in Buddhism elephants frequently serve as the primary sign of strength.

As human culture progressed and congealed around states, nations and later the sovereign countries we know today, the people of various locales often adopted a particular animal to help symbolize and exemplify their national character and social identity. For the sake of a refresher on symbol usage, symbols have been created and employed for a wide variety of both intentional and unintentional purposes throughout human history; whether intentional or accidental in nature, they exist to more clearly convey a concept for a specific purpose. The interesting aspect is that animal symbolization was often based on a combination of both the observable traits of the animal, such as strength and speed, and the human-perceived qualities of the animal’s character. In a way, the animal was being anthropomorphized as a reflection of human nature, either individually or collectively for a specific culture.

A good example of this phenomenon is the lion, one of the most frequent and enduring animal symbols, which almost universally evokes the concepts of strength, bravery and nobility. Depictions of lions stretch back as far as 32,000 years and have persistently appeared in practically every major human civilization since that time — from the Egyptians, Assyrians and Romans to the Rajputs and Chinese, to modern-day nations, sports teams and other organizations. The lion’s longevity as a symbol isn’t surprising, as the beast’s perceived traits are something worth emulating. Some historical uses of the lion as a symbol are now ingrained in popular history, such as the “Rampant Lion” representing Scotland; the English king Richard the Lionhearted; the nation of Singapore whose name is derived from the Malay words for lion (singa) and fortress (pora); and the imperial guardian lions that are such an iconic part of Chinese culture (Figure 1).

In later times and to the present day, animals of many varieties continue to find favor as cultural and national symbols. Some of them are so implicit that it’s difficult to separate the animal from the symbolism with which it’s become so closely associated. In the United States, the bald eagle can certainly be classified as one such symbol that remains indelible and highly visible throughout the culture. You’ll find the bald eagle being used in contexts from the postal service to government emblems to retail names to Olympic mascots and so on. In France, the unofficial animal of the culture is the Gallic rooster, le coq gaulois, which stands for readiness and watchfulness, originally based on a Biblical passage. This is also the reason why many weathervanes feature a rooster. The lion was long considered the symbol of England, yet the bulldog emerged as another popular depiction during World War II to illustrate the country’s courage and resiliency in the face of German aggression. In China, the red-crowned crane is considered to be the unofficial animal symbol for its perceived longevity and immortality. As a geopolitical side note to this, the only reason this crane is not considered the official animal in China is because the assigned Latin scientific name translates to Japanese crane.

As I’ve mentioned previously in this column, I generally consider four broad types of symbol categories, as follows:

Sacred — the most recognizable group of symbols embodies a religious faith and creed and is often considered to be inviolable by adherents.

Historical — related to the sacred, historical symbols are those which have a clear historical place, yet may or may not hold the continuing significance of the sacred or other symbols that have persisted in meaning through long periods of time.

Cultural — these symbols have a culture-specific meaning, and as such they might not apply universally to every culture, yet they remain abundant in a wide variety of cultural contexts.

Functional — symbols used in transportation, utilities, safety notices and so on — basically all the things that we see every day for practical use.

Where do animals fit within these categories? They actually fall within all four, as animals have become arguably one of the most widely used elements of symbology. Admittedly, their use for the functional type of symbols is usually not to convey a particular meaning or quality but rather to simply indicate the presence of that animal. For example, a common road sign in the United States is the DEER XING signs containing a stylized, jumping stag, whereas in the Australian outback it’s not at all uncommon to see a similar yellow diamond sign with a jumping kangaroo to warn the driver of the animal’s proximity (Figure 2).

Another widespread use of animals as symbols that has emerged in more recent times is their use in marketing and mass media. While I don’t intend to recite a litany of famous cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Charlie the Tuna or Morris the Cat, it’s important to note that since the earliest days of modern media, animals have been frequently used as allegorical devices to satirize, reflect and reveal human nature. The use of animals in this way taps into our natural fondness for most animals and allows the content creators to use them as a gateway for nontraditional purposes. Usually this is considered benign and entertaining. We laugh at the animal behavior that mimics humans, and thus we laugh at ourselves safely and indirectly. However, at times the use of animal appeal has its limits, such as when the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company incurred a strong public backlash in 1988 over the use of their character Joe Camel (a cartoon camel with a cool vibe, discontinued in 1997) to sell cigarettes. Did it work? Well, a 1991 study showed that just as many six-year-old children could identify Joe Camel with cigarettes as they could identify Mickey Mouse with the Disney Channel.

Animals are obviously popular, important and endearing to cultures, but like any set of symbols, they need to be managed with the utmost care. With that in mind, I would suggest the following basic rules for leveraging animals as symbols.

First, do your research. This should be implicit to any content development with a potential cultural impact, but it’s especially critical to thoroughly understand a specific animal’s symbology and importance in your target locales. Second, reflect the obvious. Unless you’re aiming for an animal’s use as a human allegory, it’s best to simply reflect the known traits of the animal rather than infuse it with uncharacteristic behaviors. Third, avoid icons. It can be tempting to use an animal as an icon for one’s business, project or other context, but unless the animal has universal and positive appeal, such as a lion, it’s risky to use an animal that could be perceived locally as something completely opposite from your intended use.

We shouldn’t shy away from our universal love of animals and their historical and cultural importance as symbols, but in an increasingly interconnected world, we have to remain diligent in choosing our symbols wisely and continue to strive for something with a universally positive impact.