The spiritual meaning and symbolism behind African animals
Throughout Africa, the richness and diversity of the continent’s culture can be appreciated in all parts of daily life, and the connection between the natives and the animals who once used to reign the savannah is no exception.
For hundreds of years, Africans have held a deep connection with the animals they are surrounded by, a connection often sourced in respect and how they depended on them for food, clothing, and art. Customs vary from tribe to tribe, yet all maintain the idea of balance and equality between human and animal, avoiding to significantly decrease the population by killing them unnecessarily.
Even more so, locals have always associated the animals around them with symbols, finding a deeper meaning and connection between them and these beasts:
Across the continent, the lion tends to symbolize strength, courage, pride, wisdom, authority, and protection, while the lioness represents fierce motherhood and feminity. In Africa, the lion, like all other felines, are also believed to possess special powers of protection.
Most tribes in Africa admire the lion, however, there were some–generally, those who raised cattle–that considered it the personification of evil, likely due to the fact that lions enjoy the taste of bovines.
It’s worth mentioning that although in Europe the lion has been considered the King of Beasts, that’s not the case in Africa, where natives find other animals more fearsome than this feline; instead, they are considered judges, who weed out the weak by eating them and the dangerous by killing them. This belief is present among Zulu people, who believe the lion is both a meat and grass-eating animal, and thus unites the world of carnivores and herbivores.
The lion is also considered “the beast of a thousand omens” by African healers: if a man travelling sees a lion crossing his path from left to right, it’s considered that he will acquire wealth by his journey’s end; if the man comes across mating lions it’s believed to mean he will marry a princess or wealthy woman, and if he comes across a lion who then chases him up a tree, it’s believed the man will come into trouble with his tribe’s king.
In Africa, the buffalo is regarded as a symbol of fertility and nutrition. This belief has its origin when buffaloes crossed the African landscape and locals noted how their waste brought fertility to the land, thus associating that virtue with the animals.
The fat, eyes, and reproductive organs of buffaloes are valued by healers and often sold as charms; it’s believed the scrotum of a buffalo attracts and retains money. That being said, Africans rarely hunt buffaloes for eating, resorting to doing so only on desperate times, as its meat–and particularly, their muscular legs-tend to be tough and hard to cook.
Dreams with buffaloes also carry a spiritual meaning–it is believed that if you are in trouble and dream of a buffalo standing and facing you, you will find a friend who will help you get out of trouble. On the other hand, if you dream about being chased by a buffalo, it’s believed you will be attacked and defeated by a very powerful enemy.
Across the continent, the leopard signifies agility, nobility, ferocity, aggression, and courage, and some consider it to be the Great Watcher. In ancient times, a courageous king who ruled over other monarchs was called the Leopard.
In Europe, the leopard is referred to as the Prince of Darkness, while in Africa, natives believe they are animal guides for the spirit of the dead, helping them find their resting place. The leopard is also considered as a totem animal and healers believe it to have special powers, with some even using their skin as ceremonial attire.
Given the animal’s exceptional eyesight, locals believe the leopard has the ability to see what others cannot; as their skin helps them camouflage in the wilderness, they also lend to the animal the virtue of shape-shifting and being able to fool those who seek to harm them.
In Africa, the elephant is deeply revered by the people. It’s associated with good luck, patience, wisdom, longevity, and happiness. They are also associated with royalty, as royal members used to ride on them. For some tribes, they are also a symbol of clarity and temperance.
Many tribes believe elephants were supernatural beings and that their bones and ivory tusks are the purest substances known. This association between the ivory and purity persists to this day, and the material is used for art ornaments and carved holy decorations, which healers believe enable the possessor of them to always enjoy heavenly protection.
The rhino is believed in most African tribes to symbolise fierceness and savagery, often associating them with furious people, yet they are also a symbol of agility, freedom, solitude, and inner peace. Their symbolism mirrors the contradictory nature of rhino’s behaviour in the wild, who are known to display aggressive behaviour and yet also to be quite passive and gentle.
As totems, rhinos are symbols of gentleness and peace, and healers believe they represent steadiness and security. Locals also believe their tusks to carry aphrodisiac qualities and thus are often hunted for the purpose of removing and selling them.
The deep respect and reverence that Africans have towards their animals can be acknowledged in everything from what they eat, to how they dress, and what they paint, as that’s how the symbols tend to be manifested. The symbolism of animals in Africa is as vast, complex, and the diverse as the different societies who believe and follow it in the continent, and it helps us understand the depth and richness of African culture while allowing us to appreciate the connection between locals, their customs, and their land.