Stoats in folklore and heraldry

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Public Domain

Stoats in folklore

The stoat (Mustela erminea), is a small animal that has a vast range and is native to both North America and Eurasia.  Consequently there is a great diversity of folklore and legend that has become attached to this small furry creature throughout the many different human cultures found throughout its territory.  This article briefly describes some of the folklore and legends that associate it with the royalty and institutions of Britain, followed by a discussion of the folklore of Brittany, France that lends it a possible spiritual symbolism that was attached to its use in heraldry.

Royalty and institutions

Stoats are animals that can change their coats with the seasons especially in northern regions of their range.  In the summer their fur is reddish-brown with a black, tipped tail. In winter the coat can turn pure white except for the tip of the tail which remains black.  Their winter pelt was much desired for many uses and often known as ermine.  

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Elizabet I with a stoat – Public Domain

The Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I of England by William Segar depicts Elizabeth with a white stoat, possibly emphasizing her purity. It was seen as a symbol of high status and used by royalty around Europe as well as Britain where it was used as trim in ceremonial robes and garments of the royalty.  Members of the House of Lords used it and academics of Cambridge and Oxford also used it in ecclesiastical garments still worn by Prelates of the Catholic Church.  Its use was seen as a sign of the equality of their status with nobility.  Thankfully in modern times because of cost and the growing abhorrence towards using real animal fur and the growing realization that it looks far better on the living animal, synthetic fur is increasingly being used. Nevertheless ermine and its substitute forms still has a special historic place in the folklore and heraldry of many lands.

Stoats in heraldry

In the folklore of Brittany, France, it is believed that rather than soil its pure white winter coat the stoat would prefer to die.  It was claimed that when it was being hunted it would turn and surrender itself to death rather than sully its pure white coat. The coat of arms of the former Dutchy of Brittany features  a pattern of ermine and it also appears on the Flag of Brittany as a symbol of purity and the willingness to die rather than give in to lower morals.

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Coat of Arms of the former Dutchy of Brittany

The tradition is said to have come from the time of Anne de Bretagne (about 1477 – 1514), who had been married to two successive French kings and was the last independent ruler of Brittany.  She had seen a stoat in white winter coat being hunted and chased to the edge of a mud swamp.  The creature had turned to face its attackers and death rather than try to cross the mud.  Apparently Anne interpreted this as the animal choosing to face death rather than dirty its pure white coat. She was said to have saved it and chose it to become the symbol of her dynasty with the motto: Plutôt la mort que la souillure. (Death rather than defilement)

In heraldry, or ceremonial purposes, ermine is given black marks or patterns that as well as representing the black tip of the tale also represents nails. The symbolism of this originated with Plato who saw the Soul and the Higher spirit and being “nailed”to the body, so the nail symbolically joins the soul and the body as one.

Spiritual symbolism

Another aspect of its symbolism is that in summer it had a brown coat which turns white in winter.  This is viewed as being symbolic of someone on a spiritual journey who has traveled through the Four Seasons.

Life’s journey can be represented by a symbolic chart which depicts a 24 hour clock face but also marked are the four seasons and the Cardinal directions. The 24 hour point at the top represents midnight and the night and also North and Winter. The 6 o’clock point is East but also Dawn and Spring.  The 12 o’clock point is South and Noon but is also Summer.  The 18 hour point is West or Sunset but also Autumn.  This represents the path of the ordinary person on life’s journey and sometimes called The Wheel of Life.

For those seeking spiritual development and enlightenment the path is longer.  The birth time is Spring/Dawn and they progress to mid-life at Summer/Noon and then to later life Autumn/Evening.  For those on the spiritual path there follows another stage of experiencing Winter as a living human being.  This can be an extremely harrowing experience and is often called the “Dark night of the Soul.”   Those that successfully complete this path come to a new Dawn without the need to further reincarnate having achieved the ultimate destiny at the end and unite with their Higher self while alive becoming their Higher spirit or a “god in life.”

A hidden story

For a small and fairly common animal the stoat was given a greater significance than its natural stature would seem possible.  Like many other everyday animals and objects that we take for granted there lies a hidden folk story and perhaps more waiting to be told.

© 18/4/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright April 18th, 2016 zteve t evans

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5 thoughts on “Stoats in folklore and heraldry

  1. I’m glad to learn something (or several somethings) every time I read your posts, Zteve. I had no idea stoats were the same thing as ermine. In fact, not sure if I’ve heard the term stoat before reading this. Also, I’m glad, like you, that synthetic furs are being used much more (Yay, technology is good for something!). Fascinating! I just hope I can remember at least a fraction of this plentiful information.

  2. Pingback: Let’s Talk Patronuses – The Curio Street Blog

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