It's Hedgehog Awareness Week, sponsored by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. I adore hedgehogs, so here is some of my favorite pieces of hedgehog art. (The artists are identified in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them.)
"Artistotle says that hedgehogs can foretell a change of wind," writes mythologist J.C. Cooper, "and accordingly 'shift the outlook of their earth-holes.' Pliny and Aelian go further, maintaining that hedgehogs have two holes, North and South, and block one or the other as the wind changes. Other beliefs were that the animal uses its spines to take the shock if it falls from a height, also that it collects grapes on its spines by rolling on them, then takes them home for winter storage. Plutarch says he had seen this done, the creature 'looking like a bunch of grapes shuffling along the ground, so thickly covered was the animal with its booty.' The Beastiaries used this belief to illustrate 'finding the True Vine of Christ,' though the act of stealing the grapes was 'the Devil robbing men of their souls' -- in general in Christianity the hedgehog depicted the Evil One and evil-doing.
"In early times the hedgehog was generally a symbol of the Great Mother, but in particular it was the symbol of the Sumerian Ishtar. Irish lore associated the hedgehog with witches who could take its form to suck cows dry. In China it also had a sinister reputation as one of the Five Animals [along with Fox, Weasel, Snake, and Rat, sacred but not to be trifled with]."
Hedgehogs play a more postive role in the fairy tale tradition, where they appear as Animal Guides, Animal Brides/Bridegrooms, and revenants of wise and gentle nature.
In Slavic tales in particular, notes Margaryta Golovchenko, hedgehogs are the keepers of knowledge and order and embodiments of magical power:
"The Slovenian duhovin, for instance, is a version of the bewitched child, possessing special abilities and qualities, and appearing with the body of an animal such as a snake, hedgehog, or raven. And, in the Soviet animated film Ezhik v tumane /Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), Hedgehog is the bridge between the conscious and the dream world, evoking sympathy from the audience as they watch him lost in a thick mist, chasing after the mirage of a white horse in the clouds.
"Perhaps the infrequency of hedgehogs in other cultural stories speaks to a unique characteristic of Slavic culture -- the stereotypically cold exterior of the Slavic people gives way to a wise and kind nature. Initially, the hedgehog’s kind personality might seem difficult to find under his intimidating façade. For the persistent reader who takes the time to discover more about him in Slavic tales, however, the hedgehog serves as a reminder that wisdom, kindness, and courage come in various forms."
The J.C. Cooper quote is from Symbolic & Mythological Animals (HarperCollins, 1992). The Margaryta Golovchenko quote is from an essay published by Tiny Donkey/The Fairy Tale Review (March, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors & artists.