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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Spirituality: The Whale totem

Animal totems represent the virtues and special characteristics of an animal. They are not pets and people use them as an aid to get in touch with nature, help create inner harmony and wisdom and to help the evolution of their spiritual being. By getting touch with the qualities of an animal a deeper affinity and understanding of the animal is created both with the animal and with nature, leading to greater harmony with the universe.

Right whales – Public Domain

A totem is a symbol, picture, sculpture or other object that reminds us of the animal spirit it represents. Animal totems do appear in other traditions around the world as well as in North America. People experience animal totems differently because there are many stages of personal and spiritual development and everyone has different needs and tasks to accomplish in this world.

Whales as an animal totem

Whales are sea creatures that have been on the planet for millions of years. They are perfectly adapted to their marine environment living in harmony with the sea and the natural order. They move through their environment with grace and power. Some species of whales are known to communicate with each other over great distance.
The Whale Totem symbolizes harmony and ‘Oneness’ with nature, the power and mystique of the sea, ancient wisdom, communication and communion.

Precious gifts of nature

Whales have been the inspiration for many stories, paintings, songs, legends, works of literature and film. They are present in all the oceans of the world and are known by many people and societies many of which have created traditions and rituals around them. In the past many human societies hunted them and depended on them for their survival. Some species of whale were hunted to the brink of extinction.
The Whale Totem reminds us that the gifts of nature are precious and not to be taken for granted. The Whale Totem also symbolizes inspiration and creativity. It reminds us that humans also have natural gifts that can actually enhance the natural world if only we choose to use them wisely. The keyword being ‘choose’ for we do have choice on this which also means we have responsibility for the consequences.

Nurturing children

The female whale if very protective towards its young and often they will join together with other females to form groups that encircle the young. This allows the mother to hunt for food while the calf is protected by other females.
The Whale Totem symbolizes nurturing and protection of young and reminds us of our responsibilities to children.

Harmony

There are many different species of whales and many of these are very different from each other. Some are hard to tell apart even by experts. The color, size and characteristics of whales vary greatly and for the most part they all seem to get along tolerably well.

The Whale Totem symbolizes living in harmony with each other. It reminds us that there are also different races of humans, with different characteristics, and we come in different shapes and colors and that each of us have a right to be here and our need to live in harmony with each other.

For everything there is a season

Many whales are great travelers who move with grace, strength and endurance through the ocean relying solely on their own powers and resources taking only what they need along the way to survive. Some species of whale such as the Baleen have to migrate to find food for their survival in different seasons. No one understands how they know it is time to move on or how they find their way to their new feeding grounds which can be thousands of miles apart.
The Whale Totem symbolizes grace, strength and endurance in moving through their environment and reminds us to tread lightly on the planet taking only what we need to get by. It also symbolizes trust in intuition and knowing when to move on, telling us that for everything there is a season and a time for every purpose. It teaches us to trust the natural order.

Qualities of the Whale

There are many wonderful virtues and qualities that whales possess that would help a person evolve spiritually and in wisdom. A person who can see these virtues and qualities and tries to emulate them, even if only partially successful, will experience greater harmony and ‘Oneness’ with nature and the universe. They will grow in wisdom and intuition and in doing so learn how to take only what they need from the world. They will become someone who nurtures and accepts and fulfils their responsibilities to the young, offering them protection to grow spiritually and in doing so will experience the flowering of their own soul.

Spirituality: The Cougar totem

Animal totems are symbols that represent an animal and an animal spirit.  They help remind us of the special qualities and attributes an animal possesses that help it live in harmony with the natural world.

Opening doors

In some cultures, particularly those of North America, there is a belief that an animal spirit will find a person when they are ready to evolve spiritually, or when they have a task that must be accomplished.  In other cultures it is believed that doors to spiritual development can be opened by studying an animal’s behavior and special attributes. In both cases there is the need to bring these special attributes and qualities into practice in our own lives to further spiritual development.  This does not mean literally taking up hunting, burrowing or other animal activities.  It means looking at how they live in their environment and how they harmonize with nature – living as ‘One’ with nature.

Animal totems

Many human cultures around the world use animal totems and ideas and practices vary from region to region.  A totem can be a sculpture or carving, or any type of pictorial representation such as a drawing or painting, or an object that can meaningfully represent an animal and spirit. Totems are tangible, visual reminders of the qualities of the animal and the animal spirit which we cannot touch or see, but we which are trying to get in union with.  The belief is that by getting in touch with the qualities we grow and evolve in knowledge and spiritually.   Even making a determined attempt to do this will bring significant rewards helping us to know ourselves better.  An animal that can help us with this is the cougar.

Know who we are

The cougar has many different names given them by humans, including puma catamount, mountain lion, panther, screamer, and many more.   None of them matter to this animal as it is a beast that knows who it is.  It knows its own name. The Cougar totem reminds us that in this life we are on a constant voyage of self discovery and that as life progresses we discover more of ourselves.  In doing so come to know ourselves and we come to know who we are.  Other people will think of us as they will but it is what we think of ourselves that matters.

Know our own power

Being a solitary animal the cougar must know its own power and trust in its instincts to survive.   It is a powerful and stealthy hunter often stalking its prey with great stealth and deliberation, or lying in wait for the right moment to pounce.  In the chase it can reach great speed but tires quickly. The Cougar totem teaches us that we must learn to know our own power and learn to trust our instincts.  If we can do this we can choose suitable goals that are attainable and satisfying.   When we know this we know what goals are within our power to attain and we can focus on them stalking them with deliberation. The Cougar totem reminds of the power of focus, determination and patience for there are times when we must actively seek out our dreams and other times when we must be prepared to lie in wait and seize the moment.

Climbing to higher levels

Learning these things is not always easy and it is often by trial and error that the skills and knowledge are attained.  Humans are not naturally solitary like the cougar and we may feel alone in our trials.

Cougar – Public Domain

The Cougar totem reminds us that through trial and error and our own effort we can evolve our own spirituality and abilities to higher levels.   Although we may live in human society receiving help from others it is up to us alone how we use our qualities and talents.  It is our responsibility alone to find the path to our own spiritual growth.

Gentleness and strength

The Cougar preys on deer and actively seeks them out. Deer are associated with gentleness.   From the deer the cougar gets nourishment and from the nourishment it gets gentleness and strength. When rearing cubs the mothers ferociously protect their cubs in their determination to nurture them to independence.  We are reminded that the powerful need to learn, determination,  and the patience to nurture as sometimes it takes great strength to be gentle which is not the same as weakness.    There are times when gentleness is more powerful than force and the Cougar totem teaches when to know this and when to use it.

Learn to know ourselves

Although we are all destined to evolve spiritually there are many people who fight against this in themselves and resent others from doing so.  They feel threatened because what is happening they do not understand.  They will mock and sabotage and deliberately hurt others who they see growing spiritually.   But the cougar has determination, patience and focus which give it power.  Though it is a solitary creature and its path is a lonely one the cougar naturally knows and trusts itself overcoming opposition and obstacles and instinctively finds the way.