Animal Symbolism in Literature, Art and Media

Symbology in design, art and literature has been showcased repeatedly in the history of the creative mind. Art is unlike most things in the world. It remains timeless, carrying itself into the future, back to the past and so ever planted in the present. 

Symbolism takes many forms; colour, music and expression being the main examples. 

Due to its subjectivity, there are no incorrect assumptions or perspectives. Colour, for example, is a kaleidoscope of symbolism. It carries various meanings and emotions. And they convey a certain point. 

The use of conventional animal symbolism is just the same. Doves usually represent peace and purity, whereas a fox would represent slyness and cunningness. Hence, examples such as these weave their way into art and literature that date back thousands of years. 

Silhouette of various animals (source: get symbols)

Animal Symbolism And Politics

In literature, animals function as projections.

They are a projection of a character’s state of mind or of their deepest insecurity. An animal resemble the said character. It could also personifies an internal conflict. This is to portray a scenario without literally placing a character into it. This may also be a way to protect an author.

One of the world’s most infamous novels, Animal Farm, relies entirely on animal symbolism to tell the story. George Orwell wrote this classic in 1944 in the midst of the Russian Revolution. But he did not have it published until a later date due to the controversy surrounding it. The events of this novel symbolise Russia and the Soviet Union under the Communist Party rule, using name and event symbolism to properly carry it out. 

Illustration of Animal Farm (source: thenation)

Each animal or character represents a significant historical figure or party possessing the internal structure of a nation. There is a government (the pigs), a police force or army (the dogs), a working class (the other animals) and their own holidays or rituals. The location of the farm in question is neighboured by other hostile farms. Hence, the farm mirrors the political entity it represents with diplomatic concerns. 

Animal symbolism pinpoint certain characteristics of people in power. It creates alter egos rather than exposing real disputes and shifts of power in the era of the Russian Revolution. 

Animal Symbolism and Religion

Literature including animal symbolism can be traced back to sacred texts that have influenced and built society as we know it. Different religious contexts result in different animal ethics, creating their own individualistic approach on the characteristics of an animal and how they project onto a community or following. Religion plays an important role in many aspects of communal life; religious traditions or belief systems affect the fundamental understanding and moral dispositions of those who follow it.

Peacock in Hinduism (source: saffronart)

By focusing on main ancient religions that spread across East Asia – Hinduism and Buddhism – it will clearly show the use of animal symbolism in the roots of belief and moral integrity. Symbolism that is used to hold the base of religion and belief changes the way that a community carries itself, following what is taught and practised. 

In Hinduism, the majority believe animals to be symbolic of two main areas of interest; the hierarchy of living, and reincarnation. Karma determines the position of each animal within the hierarchy. And the consequences of a good or bad deed will either promote or demote them on the spectrum. This belief promotes good behaviour and instils respect in the community. Hindu deities, such as Rama and Krishna, reincarnate as animals too – especially as monkeys and cows.

Buddhism, on the topic of animals and symbolism, shows trends that pull in different directions; Buddhists are taught to respect sentient life, and not to kill or condone violence of any kind. Buddhism, therefore, promotes Vegetarianism as a consequence to this. There is, however, the belief that, among other realms, the animal realm is evil and something to avoid, hoping that their followers will live virtuous lives to maintain their position on the hierarchy.  

Buddha on lotus (source: pinterest)

Conclusion

Animal symbolism in literature, art and media has been consistently represented throughout the course of history. Certain ideals and beliefs rely on this symbolism to accomplish fulfillment, using animals as a way to judge ourselves and compare flaws or characteristics. Symbolism shown in literature projects a character’s personality, relating their story through the eye of the beholder, leaving it open to interpretation. There are no right or wrong ways to include symbolism in any medium of art and prose, but there are certainly different versions that can represent an idea or tell a story. 

Literature is beautiful in the sense of subjectivity, and that anyone can have their own version of understanding in their own heads.

Written by Niamh Flannery