One prime minister exhorted us to unleash our animal spirits in the stock market and another has been recently likened to a gorilla by an opponent.The Congress party and its heir apparent have been compared to fat cats (sauchuhekhakebilli haj kochali) and many other four-legged creatures.The Make-in-India campaign has a lion as its mascot and India has been intermittently compared to a caged tiger and a slothful elephant. What’s it with animals andanimal metaphors?

Animals, imaginary and real, possess a rich mythological heritage. They have been a fount of symbolism, metaphor and magic. And in cultures all over the world, they have been worshipped and demonised; as have they been featured prominently as gods, heroes, tricksters and demons in traditional stories.

The early people prayed to animal gods. Thus we have the cosmic serpent, lion-goddess and thelightning bird. Cows and elephant-headed gods were also part of the pantheon. According to scholars, human beings lived in fear of wild beasts which led to their worship; they sought their protection and compassion. For example, the tiger in the Sunderbans–it is feared as well as respected. DokkhinRai, the tiger king looks after his people but also feeds on them. Fear also led to the creation of monstrous beasts such as Gorgons (snake-haired women) and Cerberus (three-headed dog). The bull and the buffalo have been similarly worshipped and demonised by many.

Soon however, mythologies emerged about heroic qualities of the animal gods. Suparna and Garuda brought nectar for the gods according to the Vedas.Animal godsalso began to be seen as metaphors for nature and natural phenomenon. Serpents are a symbol of immortality because they slough off their skin and take a new form.The Egyptianssaw the falcon as the sun god. The Benu bird is believed to have been the first deity at the sun temple in Heliopolis. Scholars point out that birds and winged horses are representative of the sun god becauseit was believed, perhaps,that they could fly up to the heavens where the sun lives.

An interesting development as seen in Greek myth is that of the winged horse Pegasus. Hesprang from the blood of Medusa after she was beheaded by the hero Perseus. Bellerophon, another Greek hero, tried to ride him but was thrown off and Pegasus turned into a constellation. His flight through the skies is compared to the journey of the immortal soul.It is possible that Medusa represented a fearful aspect of the animal and was hence feared while Pegasus, although mythical, was more heroic and hence became a god like figure.

In India, Surya, the sun god is personified as a horse and a goat, as is Agni.Surya is driven in a chariot drawn by seven horses. Agni is also referred to asa lion in some hymns of the Rig Veda, especially when he decides to hide himself in the waters, having fled the sacrificial altar. The avataras of Vishnu—Varaha, Matsya and others–combine the terrifying and divine aspects of animals as the people saw it at the time.

Soon animals were seen as companions, trouble-makers, helpers and teachers in folklore. The Panchatantra and the Jataka Tales are examples. An interesting motif is that of the animal (usually a bird or fish) becoming a repository of the soul of a human or demon king. Animals were magical beings and sources of power.

This principle is perhaps at work in the myth of Caduceus, which is the magic wand of Hermes. It is a short rod with two snakes intertwined around it and wings on top. Hermes is the messenger of the gods and inventor of magical incantations. A similar magical object is the staff of Asclepius which is said to hold a cure for all ills. This is a short rod with a single snake coiled around it. Asclepius was a physician and the story goes that physicians of the time advertised their services by offering to cure the disease of the guinea worm. There is another story that says that the snake on the staff is a symbol of homeopathic magic. And a snake-headed-staff was the best way to treat a snake bite.

The world we live in today bears scanty resemblance to the times that brought forth such comparisons and mythologies. Hence many of the references and even the proverbs that we use may appear incongruous. But that does not seem to stop us from invoking the animal, in spirit and simile, in our everyday speech.