Bears, Wolves, and Horses.
These three animals are all very important in IE myth. They are also
important for all the Siberian peoples, as well as Native North
American peoples (wolf switches to coyote in the US Southwest).
Interestingly, all three seem to be very unimportant for the MidEast.
Bear is indeed native to the MidEast, tho' now quite threatened, but
you next to never hear about them. There always seems to have been
wild dog in the MidEast and anciently there may have been something
resembling the European wolf, but I certainly haven't heard say of it.
Horses came there late. But, as we've noted, the MidEast had their
bulls and lions.
Of all land carnivores, the bear is perhaps the most mythic, in that
it can be seen as 'another kind of human being'. It's as tall or
taller than us, and can walk bipedally. Bears (and big cats) are the
only land predators that can take down a full-grown, fully-armed,
fully prepared human-being single-handed. They are *dangerous*.
Wolves can take us down in-pack, but we have also taken wolves into
our homes and tamed them. The tension between domestic dogs nestled
among our sleeping babies and the hungy predator howling just outside
the door was, and remains, a real one. We have *always* know that
wolves and dogs freely interbreed. This dimorphism creates all sorts
of obvious metaphors. The good loyal dog of community (a family man
who sticks around, helping his womenfolk and children) vs predatory
late adolescent raiders (who were in fact called 'wolves').
With the horse, the magic is the fact you can ride them. It's the
supreme animal for personal mobility. The horse also lets just a few
men run vast herds of animals. It is also the supreme war animal.
Only when the Greeks invented heavy massed (and highly
disciplined) infantry was the horse defeated, but then the Huns
invented metal stirrups and saddles, and brought the horse back. If
you have lots and lots of 'free' grass (as it was on the steppes), a
horse often costs nothing to feed (elsewhere, where grass is rare,
horses are VERY expensive to feed). The horse also provides meat and
milk. And on top of it all, they are magnificant, highly personable
beasts: they are easy to love (unlike bears and wolves, or lions and
The horse is fully divinized in IE myth. It is a creature of day, of
The wolf appears as a trickster, sometimes a god, almost always as the
villain. The wolf is to be feared. It is often portrayed as a creature
of the night.
The bear seems even more fearsome: it was to be hunted by packs of men
with dogs, and taken down, partly to clear the neighborhood of
dangerous predators, but also as means of proving oneself. The bear,
because it hibernates, is also a symbol of death and resurrection. And
because the female emerges from her den with her winter-born cubs, the
bear is also a symbol of fertility. With the bear, we get Artemis (her
very name seems to be a reflex of the bear-word, arctos). Artemis is
simultaneously the fearsome virgin huntress -- a slayer of uppity male
hunters -- and protectress of mothers and young children. It's all the
images you get of the mother bear protecting her cubs from hunters.
The Hellenic Artemis is certainly descended from IE archetypes; at
the least, she and her brother Apollo are reflexes of the divine-twin
motif, albeit in a non-equine mode.
When we compare bears, wolves and horses to what we've borrowed from
elsewhere, lions and bulls come off second best. These are just big
The bull-cults you find in the Med or MidEast or Egypt never seems to
have really taken hold among IE speakers. It's just an agricultural
beast, an ill-tempered, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous animal.
We've always preferred the cow for her economic role, but we don't
seem to have divinized her particularly (notwithstanding cow-eyed
For the most part, lions have always been exotic beasts, something you
only hear about. Until relatively recently, you had about as much
chance of seeing an accurate picture of a loin (and much less a live
specimen) as you did of seeing a close up of the Martian surface.
We have our own home-grown mythic creatures. Why should be lusting
after other language-family's critters?