A Little Bit of Symbols: An Introduction to Symbolism - Henry Reed (2016)


We’ve shared this planet with animals since time began. We’ve learned a lot from watching them and having relationships with them. Just as with the elements from nature, we see ourselves in the animals. They can have tremendous symbolic value for us. We identify with animals, project ourselves imaginatively onto the animals, and daydream about what it must be like to be such an animal. When animals serve a symbolic function, we can explore their qualities and benefit from the “symbol-on-the-brain” process. Sensitizing and expanding our consciousness to potentialities within us and how to best relate to them is one of the gifts animals offer.

We can ask ourselves, “What animal sparks my imagination? If I could be any animal, which one? Has an animal appeared synchronistically in my life from time to time?” Such questions can take us into our symbolic mind-set, so that we can learn from the animals.

A turtle has been one of my teachers. As a child I would often come across a turtle, and I’d try to make a pet of it. It would invariably escape and disappear. As a first-year psychology graduate student, I obtained a desert tortoise and attempted to train it to come when I called. Fresh lettuce or a strawberry was the reward. The signal was my speaking its name, Dr. Boring, honoring a famous historian of psychology, Dr. Edwin Boring. After much trial and error, I learned that the turtle could hear my voice best when I used a very low vibrato tone. As I tell the story now to kids at summer camp, the turtle taught this psychologist how to chant! Actually, the turtle has taught me more than that.

Slower than a rabbit but more reliable, the turtle carries its home with it and sticks its neck out with reluctance and great care. The turtle shell is shaped and marked like the planet Earth. Ancient Hindu mythology has the world supported by a turtle. Native Americans refer to their homeland as “Turtle Island.” Using these characteristics as a guide, we might express turtle wisdom as, “Life is long; let’s slow down, take the time to experience all there is, and move out in harmony with life. We can’t separate ourselves from our earthly home.”

As I researched and contemplated the literature on turtle symbolism, I became more mindful of my habits with regard to turtles. I stopped wanting to own one as a captured pet. I became more fascinated by the mantra, “In patience you possess your soul.” This biblical quote is a good example of what Native Americans might refer to as “turtle medicine.”

Native American teachings emphasize the spiritual or symbolic value of animals. In their view of the web of life, each animal has a function to fulfill by playing a role that takes advantage of the animal’s special attributes. Thus each animal possesses its own unique “medicine” or wisdom. Of all the animals, perhaps it is the bear that they hold in highest regard. Some say it is because when the bear stands erect, it looks humanlike. Animal/human—here is a contrast/duality that adds power to the symbol.

We are familiar with Smokey Bear, the bear market, the ubiquitous teddy bear, the Alaska governess’s term for herself—Mama Grizzly—and the bears that appear on the flags of Russia and California.

Bears make news, especially when they leave their wilderness habitat and visit human places. There’s a lot of damage, for sure. On the other hand, there’s a certain amusement, spectator value, and a lot of support for the bears. The official response seems to be, “Don’t tempt the bears, or else we’ll have to kill them as they become dangerous nuisances.”

That bears stimulate ambivalence is a key to getting bear symbolism going on the brain. I can easily imagine dancing with a bear, but then I can also see it suddenly turning on me. I feel the power of a mother, both to nurture with love and even to wound me as a way of protecting me from greater trauma.

In a dream, a mama bear chases me up a tree. What do I do now? I read that mama bear teaches her young to climb a tree at her signal of danger and not to come down before permission is given, or she smacks them. When the time comes for the cubs to be on their own, she sends them up a tree, but then she wanders off, never to return. After enough time passes, the bear cubs finally come down the tree, and by breaking mama’s fierce rule, they earn their independence, sad as it might feel at first.

In a dream years later, soon after seeing an actual bear climb a tree in my yard, I am walking along with a bear, keeping company together. In dealing with adversity or challenges, I had learned the art of hibernation, the simple act of taking a nap to awaken with a refreshed perspective. I’ve learned from bear “medicine” how solitude is important to my creative process. On the other hand, I’ve had to learn how to recognize when I’m being protective of one of my creations (including my ego) when I start to get angry—“Okay, mama bear, calm down, and let’s see if I can handle it. I know I have your strength going for me.”

Following the path of a couple of animals is a good way to explore symbolism and what it has to offer. Whether the attraction or curiosity about an animal stems from a special encounter or not, there is much to be gained by reading up on the animal: What are its habits? What does it contribute to the web of life? Integrating this kind of important information with some experiments in aligning with that animal’s spirit is a good plan. Imagine being that animal. Ask questions like, “What does it do for fun? How can I have fun in a similar fashion? Can I participate in the animal’s contribution to the web of life?” If I can think of some action I can take on behalf of that animal’s welfare, I believe that such actions, conducted ritually with the intent of evolving my conscious understanding of the meaning of that animal and the role of its medicine in my life, will prove rewarding.


You may admire me.

Slow and steady

I’m back!

Can you bear it?


Horsing around

Nobody can run like me.

Don’t give us false warnings.

I’m just curious.