Because they are so common in parks, picnic areas, and children's movies, it’s easy to forget that the squirrel family is complex and includes a wide variety of animals that have been around long before fox squirrels were eating all the best seed in your bird feeder. Squirrels have captivated people with their complex behaviors and influenced cultures around the globe for centuries. Here, we invite you on a journey to explore some of the ancient squirrel legends from a variety of cultures around the world!
Ancient Greeks and Romans
For the ancient Greeks, the squirrel was connected to the god Hermes (or Mercury, his Roman counterpart), who was the god of trade, wealth, luck, fertility, animal husbandry, sleep, language, thieves, and travel. In addition to being the cleverest and most mischievous of his fellow gods, Hermes was the herald and messenger of Mt. Olympus. He was associated with squirrels because of their fleet-footed nature, ability to traverse difficult terrain, climb trees, and of course, their curious personalities.
Known as Ratatoskr, sometimes translated as Drill-Tooth, the squirrel was an integral character in Norse mythology. Ratatoskr’s movement up and down trees represented rain and snow, while his nests in trees and food burial represented the earth and air elements. In many Norse myths, the humble squirrel carries messages from the base of the sacred tree Yggdrasil, through all nine worlds, to its top. On these journeys, Ratatoskr acted as a courier between the underworld, the middle world, and the heavens (ancient-origins).
Adaptable to many environments and with the foresight of food storage, squirrels appear in the West African tale ‘the Squirrel and the Spider’. In this story, the spider, who is envious of the squirrel’s farm, attempts to steal it from him. But the squirrel, who can use the trees to access his farm, is always one step ahead of the sly spider.
Squirrel legends even extend into outer space! Members of the Choctaw Nation believe that a solar eclipse is caused by a black squirrel attempting to eat the sun. When the eclipse begins, tribe members make as much noise as possible in an effort to frighten the squirrel (represented by the moon) away from the sun. As the eclipse proceeds, the nose crescendos until the zenith of the eclipse coincides with the loudest noises. The noise scares the rodent away, as the moon begins moving away from the sun, and the sun returns to full strength. The Choctaw people will then cheer “Funi lusa osh mahlatah!” or “The black squirrel is frightened!” (firstpeople)
In other stories from Indigenous American peoples, squirrels are praised for their industrious food-gathering and courage. In fact, among some South Eastern nations, squirrels are honored as caretakers of the forest. Other Pacific Northwest Coast tribes consider the squirrel a messenger who may bring warnings of danger to the people.
Yet, in other folktales, squirrels are noted instead for their noisy and aggressive behavior and are portrayed frequently spreading gossip, instigating trouble between other animals, or annoying others with their bossiness. For example, Iroquois people have a story called ‘How the squirrel got its stripes.’ In this tale, a stripeless chipmunk teases a bear and is clawed on its back, causing the iconic stripes of chipmunks (jstor.org).
In Celtic myths, the squirrel is closely linked to Queen Medb, the goddess of war. She is often depicted with a bird and a squirrel on her shoulders, who act as the messengers of the earth and sky. Much as in Norse mythology, the squirrel carries messages between this world and the next. Of course, squirrels are known to make loud chattering and other noises when predators are nearby, so the squirrel was a natural choice for Medb’s guard. However, unlike most other squirrel legends where caching food is viewed as preparedness and thrift, the Celtics see this behavior as a symbol of greed.
In Hindu mythology, squirrels also play a very important role. According to legend, the Indian palm squirrel assisted Lord Rama (the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu) in collecting sand and building a bridge to reach his captured loved one. Lord Rama blessed the squirrel to show his gratitude, and three stripes, the marks of his fingers, appeared on its back.
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Studying myths can help scientists understand the connections between animals, humans, and our environments, as these stories are often rooted in careful natural history observations by first peoples. From sing-song rhymes about their foraging habits (like “Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry will cause snow to gather in a hurry,” which is used to predict weather), to explaining eclipses, squirrels are compelling creatures that have shaped cultures and captured the human imagination around the world and throughout history!
About the Author
Madison Temple is a recent Biology graduate of Colorado Mesa University. Besides having a fondness for squirrels, she also enjoys anthropology and reading mythology. She combined these interests in this blog post, which she hopes you found informative and entertaining!