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Introduction to Animal Symbols

All animals are symbols of our feelings and affections, some good and some bad. We can look at animals, on their own, or in groups and see a possible reflection of our own inner state. After all we sometimes say that a person is "as cunning as a fox" or "as stubborn as a mule" so we are already used to making some link between animals and how we feel and act. But the real symbolism or correspondence of animals goes much deeper than that.



Sheep have been domesticated for probably 12000 years and there are many breeds. Sheep are symbols of the simple goodness we bring to life when we have the desire and affection to do good for others and to be good ourselves. Such goodness is gentle and patient, just like sheep, but needs to be protected from attack by other selfish parts of our character that can easily destroy our desire to do good for others. This can be seen in the way a shepherd is able to bring a flock of sheep together to protect and guide it and rescue those ones that have gone astray. In the Bible flocks of sheep were often a sign of material wealth just as we can be spiritually rich if we bring together all sorts of good affections in our lives.



Goats are in many respects similar to sheep but they are more belligerent. They can be inoffensive and playful but they can also be capricious and mischievous and they have damaging horns. We may have gentle and kind affections that lead us to care for others but sometimes our reasoning leads us to use these affections to serve our own needs. This self-serving reasoning is symbolised by the goats horns which are used for fighting and can cause much damage just like the spiritual damage that can be done by our reason if it is led by self-interest. In the Bible Jesus talks about the need to separate the sheep from the goats. We too need to keep separate good and true affections from those that are being misdirected by selfish reasoning.



Pigs are omnivores, which means that they consume both plants and small animals. In the wild, they are foraging animals, primarily eating leaves and grasses, roots, fruits and flowers. Occasionally, in captivity, pigs may eat their own young, often if they become severely stressed. Properly kept they are a clean and attractive animal and can be quite intelligent. And yet they have a reputation for gluttony and dirtiness. It is these latter qualities which provide the symbol of spiritual greed – the love of self that takes everything from those around us. A pig will forage all the time, endlessly searching for something more to consume just like our self-love which will search out everything that can support and justify its existence.



Horses are known for their speed and strength and their ability to obey their rider who can guide a good horse as delicately as a sailing boat. Some 4000 years ago wild horses were first tamed for domestic use and since then many breeds have been developed. Horses are symbols of our understanding which can be strong and powerful, move at speed through all sorts of ideas and jump from one idea across to another. But they need a rider to control and direct them and this symbolises the way in which our love can guide and direct and ‘ride’ our understanding. In the Bible the most famous symbol using horses is the account of the Four Horses of the Apocalypse each one describing a different type of understanding. Our understanding can be a White horse – driven by pure love; a Red horse – driven by selfish love; a Black horse – driven by denial of the truth; a Pale horse – driven by hatred of the truth.



Asses were first domesticated around 4000 years ago, approximately the same time as the horse, and have spread around the world. They continue to fill important roles in many places today. As ‘beasts of burden’ and companions, asses have worked together with humans for centuries. The ass is less powerful than the horse and more obstinate. It is a symbol of our natural reasoning which can be argumentative and which would rather trust our own senses than rely on spiritual truth. Even so, such reasoning and understanding can see the folly of its ways and can then be obedient to the truth. This obedient understanding can then carry us to a higher spiritual way of living.



Humans first domesticated camels about 3000 years ago. They were used for milk, meat, and as beasts of burden - the Dromedary in western Asia, and the Bactrian camel further to the north and east in central Asia. As beasts of burden they can carry as much as 250kg and go a very long way without food and water relying on fat in the hump and water in the stomach. Camels thus provide a symbol of our memory which can carry around vast amounts of knowledge of the truth. Sadly we often make very little use of the riches we carry about. In the Bible Jesus says that it is as hard for this type of ‘rich’ person to enter heaven as it is to push a camel through the eye of a needle! Being rich in knowledge of truth without ever using it never brings us into a heavenly way of living.



Lions have probably been around for at least a million years and are renowned for their great strength and power. The mane of the male lion, unique amongst cats, is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the species. It makes the lion appear larger, providing an excellent display that intimidates. Power in our minds comes from the love we have and a lion is a symbol of the most heavenly love we can have – love of God. But as with all spiritual symbols we can turn that image upside down when we love ourselves. The lion then becomes a symbol of the power of our deepest selfishness which seeks to destroy others.



The leopard is the smallest of the four ‘big cats’. It owes its success to its opportunistic hunting behaviour and its adaptability to a variety of habitats and it consumes virtually any animal it can catch. It is more cunning than the lion, lying in wait to destroy its prey. The leopard symbolises the cunning power of evil distorting true ideas and making them seem to favour ourselves. The common expression ‘a leopard cannot change its spots’ comes from the book of Jeremiah in the Bible and pictures how evil keeps ‘black’ falsities mingled with the truth.




Wolves function as predators and hunt in packs and have featured in the folklore and mythology of many cultures throughout history. They can move very quickly and cover up to 5 meters in one bound which can make them the deadliest enemy of a flock of lambs or sheep which they quickly snatch and kill. Thus the wolf is a symbol of a sudden desire and delight for evil which quickly wipes out our true good affections. We can also be ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’, an image from the Bible, when we pretend to be good and kind people on the outside but inwardly are like ravenous wolves.




The living creatures of the earth, in general, correspond to affections, gentle and useful creatures to good affections, fierce and useless ones to evil affections. In particular, cattle and their young correspond to the affections of the natural mind and sheep and lambs to the affections of the spiritual mind.  

Emanuel Swedenborg

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