Ecology for World-Builders: Animals Get Metaphysical

Apparently I can’t stop talking about animals’ relationship to the humans or equivalents thereof in one’s setting.

It doesn’t need to be resource-based in nature; that’s just easier. Animals are just as good for inspiring emulation, populating legends, creating rites of passage, and otherwise filling more metaphysical and symbolic roles.

Animals have been associated with personal qualities, both noble and ignoble, since before history. Consider the concept of the totem animal; one part metaphysical role model, one part spirit guide, it embodies a specific set of qualities. (I played once with the idea of totem-based mechanics, but I never really got to play with it much. Might riff on it some other time.) That’s not the only example, though, just the first that comes to mind. How much attention have you paid to good old medieval heraldry? Twa corbies, lions rampant, lots of animal imagery appealing to the human perception of those creatures’ noble traits.

Want legends? They’re everywhere. Some focus more on the perceived qualities of the animal in question: consider the plethora of animals from Native American myth. Others are more about the creation or embellishment of such creatures. Take Greek myth: You’ve got Arachne becoming the first spider, the peacock getting its tail patterns from Hera’s hundred-eyed servant Argos. Or, comparatively more recently, the tale of the quetzal having gotten the red in its plumage from the blood of the Mayan warrior-prince Tecún Umán when he was killed in the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica. (The quetzal alone has enough legendary significance for a post to itself. Maybe sometime soon.) Over in Egypt and the Middle East (particularly the ancient Middle East) we have a number of gods with anatomy, usually heads, of various other animals. And of course, there are mythical creatures inspired by existing species—I believe it would be safe to assume that Japan’s kappa legends came from encounters with the six-foot salamanders that hunt in the rivers at night.

Consider also the rite of passage. For cultures in which hunting is important, oftentimes adulthood is marked by one’s first solo catch, or by going out into the wilderness with minimal equipment and killing some sort of dangerous predator. In a culture that already depends on an animal, the creature can provide a rite of passage more directly: for instance, a horse-nomad’s ascension to adulthood being designated by her becoming capable of taming, training, riding and caring for her own horse. Others might be “chosen” by encounters with different creatures. We can vary these things up a little, particularly the hunting example. Big predators are all very well, but a group that values cunning over strength might designate a more canny target. Or one that tends towards the mystical might require the hopeful near-adult to locate a certain variety of frog, one whose coating has hallucinogenic properties, and lick it, then tell the elders what he saw. Behold, a test of perception and tracking and a vision-quest in one fell slurp.

There’s also a creature’s relation to magic. I discussed divination yesterday, but that’s barely scratching the surface. The world is full of stories about skinchangers, using bits of an animal to take that creature’s form. (One wonders what one could do by sewing together bits of several.) What about creatures whose blood has mystical properties, either innately or due to a connection with one of the gods of the setting? Or if you want to be a bit more mundane, there’s always just semi-arbitrary magical components; just look at D&D 3.5 spell ingredients.

Of course, animals’ uses to a setting don’t have to be purely anthropocentric; it’s just easier. I’ll get to some more nature-oriented purposes for animals tomorrow.

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