Tunes for a Monday Morning
Back in the hills at dawn

"Into the Woods" series, 44: The Speech of Animals

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Many an old story begins with the words, "Long ago, when animals could speak...," invoking a time when the boundary lines between the human and the animal worlds were less clearly drawn than they are today, and more easily crossed. Animals play a vibrant role in the earliest stories from around the globe: tales of animal gods and guardians, animal nurses and paramours, animal thieves and tricksters, animal teachers and ancestors. In ancient carvings and pictographs we find numerous representations of the animal kingdom, as well as images of men and women with animal characteristics: stag-men, bird-men, lion-women, KP 2snake- women, and other beings both beautiful and monstrous. Shamans and wizards were said to be able to shape-shift into animal form, attaining these powers after spending some time living with animals in the wild -- sleeping in wolf dens, traveling with reindeer, learning their speech and their secrets.

Folk tales from around the world tell us that the animals communicate with each other in a language unknown to men and women -- or else in a language that used to be known to us, but now is lost. The stories also tell of human beings who understand the speech of animals. Some are born with this ability, while others obtain it through trickery, or magic, or as a gift from the animals themselves, a reward for an act of kindness. In both Europe and Asia, snakes and dragons are closely associated with animal speech. In Norse myth, Siegfried tastes dragon blood and then understands the language of birds; in Arabian myth, one obtains this power by eating the heart of a snake. In eastern Europe, the snake must be white; in France it must be black or green; in Greece, the snake must merely lick the ears of the human supplicant. In some tales, humans blessed with the gift of understanding animal speech must never reveal their possession of it -- and often they lose it again when a careless word or laughter betrays them. Madness and the ability to speak the language of animals has often been linked, particularly in shamanic tales where the line between madness and oracular wisdom is blurred.

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In tribal traditions from all around the globe, animals are believed to have the power to cause or cure certain illnesses. Animal and their spirits are propitiated through gifts, prayers, song, dance, shamanic rituals, and the use of totemic objects. (I once watched a Tohono O'Odham friend sing to a wild hawk in the mountains near Tucson, slowly drawing the hawk within arms' length of where he knealt. The song, he said, was "hawk KP 4medicine," passed down in his family.) Animal tales are often told not just as simple entertainments but as teaching stories, or as part of healing rites intended to foster a proper relationship between humankind and the natural world. Today, in our rapidly urbanizing society, this teaching/healing aspect of myth -- and, by extension, of Mythic Arts -- has become more important than ever, while we stare ecological disaster in the face and while more and more animal species fall under threat of extinction.

Animal myths remind us that we don't own this earth but share it with others -- with our animal "brothers" and "cousins," as many tribal groups have named them. Some early Greek philosophers argued that animals, too, could reason and love, and thus were no less favored by the gods than human beings. To insist that man was the lord of all, they said, was the height of human arrogance. The Book of Job instructs us to "ask the beasts and they shall teach thee; and the Fowls of the air, and they shall teach thee; or speak to the Earth, and it shall teach thee," while the Qu'ran says, "there is no beast on earth nor bird which flyeth with its wings but the same is a people like unto you."

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In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram writes of the importance of re-learning the language of animals and re-telling the stories that bring us back into a balanced relationship with the natural world. "Human language," he notes, "arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but also between ourselves and the animate landscape. The belief that speech is a purely human property was entirely alien to those oral communities that first evolved our various ways of speaking, and by holding to such a belief today we may well be inhibiting the spontaneous activity of language. By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we KP 6stifle our direct experience. We cut ourselves off from the deep meanings in many of our words, severing our language from that which supports and sustains it. We then wonder why we are often unable to communicate even among ourselves."

David goes deeper into this premise in his book Becoming Animal, which explores our role in the biological/ecological kinship web that links us with other animal species; and, indeed, with all organic life. "How monotonous our speaking becomes when we speak only to ourselves!" he writes. "And how insulting to the other beings – to foraging black bears and twisted old cypresses – that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world…Small wonder that rivers and forests no longer compel our focus or our fierce devotion. For we talk about such entities only behind their backs, as though they were not participant in our lives. Yet if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us -- and if they still try, we will not likely hear them.”

The late naturalist John Hay expressed a similar sentiment in his influential book A Beginner's Faith in Things Unseen: “In a society so estranged from animals as ours," he said, "we often fail to credit them with any form of language. If we do, it comes under the heading of communication rather than speech. And yet, the great silence we have imposed on the rest of life contains innumerable forms of expression. Where does our own language come from but this unfathomed store that characterizes innumerable species?"

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While scientists ponder animal consciousness; and nature writers, the role of animals in our lives; artists, too, can strengthen the relationships between humans, animals, and the natural world...especially in the Mythic Arts field, where we daily work with the world's great wealth of myth, folklore, and ancient sacred stories.

KP 8There are a number of wonderful novels, for example, with animal/human relationships at their core: Second Nature by Alice Hoffman, Power by Linda Hogan, The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich, Bear by Marian Engle, Medicine Road by Charles de Lint, The Animal Wife by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Daughter of the Bear King by Eleanor Arnason, The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, The Jaguar Princess by Clare Bell, East by Edith Pittou, The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls by Jane Linskold, and many others. Whether set in a distant time, or a magical realm, or the modern world we live in, these novels draw from the oldest of stories to remind us of what we once surely knew (at least within our dreams): how to run the wolves; sleep with the bears; converse with the birds, foxes and deer; and reclaim our animal selves.

Animal tales

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Ama Eaton, the aunt of the young narrator of Linda Hogan's luminous novel Power, says "that animals are the pathway between humans and gods. They are one step closer to the true than we are. She says skin was never a boundary to be kept or held to; there are no limits between one thing and another, one time and another. The old stories live in the present. She believes in stars and their gifts, that the wind speaks in intelligent trees that look bright as bonfires to eyes that are open. For Ama the other world is visible. It lives beside us in trees and stone. She can see it, like a path of light across water, and hear it in the swamps at night.... And she believes her faintest move or thought is governed not only by spirits, but by the desires and dreams of animals who are people like ourselves, in different skins."

Stories are what we are, states Albert, a Trickster character in Charles de Lint's "Coyote Stories" (from his collection Moonlight and Vines). "Just stories. You and me, everybody, we're a set of stories, and what those stories are is what makes us what we are. Same thing for whites as skins. Same thing for a tribe and a city and a nation and the world. It's all those stories and how they braid together that tells us who we are and what and where we are."

''Stories nurture our connection to place and to each other," naturalist Susan J. Tweit agrees (in Walking Nature Home). "They show us where we have been and where we can go. They remind us of how to be human, how to live alongside the other lives that animate this planet....When we lose stories, our understanding of the world is less rich, less true.''

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The magical imagery today is by the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, whose work often evokes the old stories of Russian fairy tales and world myth. Go here for a interview with the artist (where she talks about the animals she works with) and to see more of her work.

Some previous posts on animal/human relationships: "Wild Neighbors," "The Peace of Wild Things,""Animal Stories," "Animal Stories, continued,"  and ""Word Magic." And I recommend Stassa Edwards' article on talking animals, "From Aesop to doge," in Aeon Magazine.


Terri, thanks for this post. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced a deep connection with dogs throughout my life. I now share the experience of living in Tucson with you, where I have daily contact with coyotes, owls, javelinas, and many more. I am beginning to learn more from living in the desert.

Hi Terri

This beautiful set of essays and pictures expressing the language and intuitive sense of animals hits home. Living here in the high desert of Southern California, I can feel that sense of intimate closeness with the landscape and its species. Last year, my partner actually saw a snowy owl in our garden pine tree. And that was so amazing considering they usually migrate and stay further north for the Spring. But upon further reading, I found it was not that uncommon for some snowy owls to migrate this far south and nest. I feel the bird had come here for a purpose and had connections to ancestral native spirits that still seem to haunt some of these uninhabited fields that stretch beyond our yard. Katerina's photo of the owl landing on the girl's shoulder reminded of a poem I wrote last year when my partner had witnessed the owl.

The Perch

Poised on a pine
the snow owl gleams
with twilight speckled
across his feathers.

The wind smells moist
promising rain
in the high desert –
but the bird
knows otherwise.

A storm is miles off.

Spirits will migrate first
leaving their winter camp
for the mountains.

They will take the same trail
as last year – and the owl
will be drawn
to the girl offering
her left shoulder
as a perch. His place

to perceive things
from the other side.
This was an amazing entry this morning and I thank you for sharing it. It both inspired and enlightened me!

Hope you are feeling better!
My Best

For Ama the other world is visible. It lives beside us in trees and stone. She can see it, like a path of light across water, and hear it in the swamps at night.... And she believes her faintest move or thought is governed not only by spirits, but by the desires and dreams of animals who are people like ourselves, in different skins."

OH! and I meant to add, I love that quote above expressing how Anna perceives that "invisible world" a visible. I can personally relate to that.


Wendy--wonderful, wonderful poem.


There is a trick to it,
always a trick.
Siegfried drinks dragon's blood,
slippery and hot.
Faithful John listens
to the dark talk of ravens.
I am not afraid
of dragons, birds,
of blood or feathers,
but if the trick involves
a snake licking my ear,
outer or inner,
the lobe or the curl,
I will never learn
to speak to beasts.
Some things are too hard,
too elusive, too frightening
to take hold of,
like dreams,
like a second love,
like a walk with Death.

©2015 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Thanks for all the references to great books to read! Just finished several I had gleaned from precious articles and they were a scrumptious treat.

Surely all those of us who share our home with animals are fully aware that the lines of communication between species is well and truly open. My beasts constantly inform me when I should feed them and when I need to vacate the bed so that they can occupy it. It is also made abundantly clear to me that my objections to them walking on the kitchen surfaces and sleeping in the cupboards where we keep clean crockery, are redundant and without validity.

On a more serious note, I think that all human beings who have contact with the animal world are made fully aware of how those animals feel about that contact, whether positive or negative. It's just that those who perpetrate the negative turn a deaf ear and blind eye to the communicated distress. How else could a commercial whaler continue to hunt whales? How else could a fox-hunter flagrantly flout the law of the land. Did we ever really lose the gift of understanding the language of the wilderness or have we simply chosen to ignore it?

My daughter used to love birds and study them closely, and she learned their language. She tried to teach it to me - fascinating really, how much the twitch of a tailfeather can mean, or the pitch of a whistle.

I get so upset when I hear people say that humans are the only species who are self-aware, who communicate with depth, and pray, and can judge time or think about the future. People make such arrogant assumptions about animals! As Stuart said, surely anyone who lives amongst animals can plainly see they have a deep awareness of the world around them and that they try to communicate it to us.

I guess though it's easier to believe animals are dumb and mindless so we don't have to care ... even though it has been shown that cows have friends and suffer when they are taken away, and that they cry or even go mad when their babies are taken from them ...

Hi Jane

The title is perfect and the poem resonates with both poignancy and power. The last lines are breathtakingly haunting

Some things are too hard,
too elusive, too frightening
to take hold of,
like dreams,
like a second love,
like a walk with Death.

because they speak of our vulnerability, both the craving and fear of the human condition. There is a trick to coping with some aspects of the unknown, with a relentless curiosity but then there are also some things that are too
"unknown", things that can come to close to the heart and the survival of it. Beautiful work as always!

Very much enjoyed this!

Thank you Jane,

so much for these kind words!! I am glad you enjoyed the poem. I hope this Spring the snowy owl returns again to our yard. What a beautiful sight and gift it was to have him there!


Wow, thanks, Wendy.

Wonderful timing for this post, Terri, as the days lengthen in the northern hemisphere and around us, even in our cities, animals begin to speak to one another the language of the season.
I've noticed that in my small part of the world, not far north of yours, the birdsong has taken on a different set of tunes within the last week or so. Blackbirds and robins fight for territory. Foxes run across busy roads in the half-light of dawn, following scents they read as clear as traffic signs, and even the deer which hide in our urban woodland step out on urgent business...

On Saturday I was getting ready to leave for a day at a local festival, and Merlin, one of my cats, came up to me and was extra loving and interactive with me. I sat with him for a moment and suddenly had a premonition that I might be in an auto accident, and asked him if he was worried about me.

I went out for the day and had a lovely time. On the way home, I was rear-ended by a pickup truck. The accident was relatively minor all things told, but the convergence of the morning's interaction with my cat and the event that occurred struck me as quite powerful. Was it pure coincidence, or did he have knowledge that I did not, which he then shared with me through our unique connection? I'd like to think there was more going on there than science could ever understand. :)

With all animals it is essential to cultivate the skills of listening, of hearing, and of believing. Then, and only then, the art of understanding can be approached.

The desert is a wonderful teacher. As much as I love Dartmoor, I will always miss it.

Wow, I love this one, Wendy. Thank you for this gift.

Another wow. I love this one too, Jane! Oh, I feel so blessed this morning. Thank you, thank you, lovely ladies.

Fascinating comments today, everyone -- thank you for this discussion. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one here deeply interested in animal communication...and saddened by how much we lose when old country wisdom that comes out of centuries of close contact with non-human neighbors is not passed on. While environmentalists, teachers, and activists are on the front lines of the Good Fight to save our beautiful planet from even more destruction, artists have a vital role to play too, especially here in the Mythic Arts field.

though my barn is no longer full of animals and my border collie has gone, i keep paying attention to animals. they are gracious enough to attend to me, too, especially the whitetail deer that visit out back. they seem to like my voice somehow. more deeply, though, reading this post has been important to me.

"Many an old story begins with the words, "Long ago, when animals could speak...," invoking a time when the boundary lines between the human and the animal worlds were less clearly drawn than they are today, and more easily crossed. " I think about this often. In the Bible, there are a couple of instances where animals speak with humans (the snake in the garden and Balaam's donkey), and neither time does the human seem surprised, but just engages the conversation. According to Christian doctrine, ever since the fall of man, the whole world has been devolving. I often wonder about that devolution in relation to our communication with nature, especially animals. Is it that they no longer speak, as the dryads in Narnia became still and mute in Prince Caspian, or that we can no longer hear them? Both? I don't know, but I firmly believe that our current experience is far removed from the interconnectedness of Eden.

Thank you Terri

so much for these kind words toward my poem! I am so glad you enjoyed it!! And thank you , again, for always giving us interesting and thought-inspiring/provoking essays, art and wisdom.

Take care

Such a lovely post Terri. Speaking of awareness in terms of artists, I spent the weekend at an art workshop with Greg Manchess discussing creating very similar personal imagery to Katerina Plotnikova's for very similar reasons. I'm sure the timing of your post is not coincidental...

Greg Manchess! Lucky you. He's a lovely man and I imagine a fine teacher.

May I recommend a lovely documentary I saw on PBS, "My Life as a Wild Turkey," about a man who raises a clutch of of wild turkeys from the time they hatch. This post reminded me of how, as the turkey mother followed his chicks through the Louisiana countryside, many of the other animal residents accepted him as one of them.

I'll look out for that, Angela. Thanks.

It's hard to add anything but appreciation to such a beautiful post! However, I still remember the day I first met a woman who has since become a wonderful friend and teacher. Even with all I had learned, being around her I felt like a really awkward child. One question I asked her was, "Do you talk to plants?" She looked at me with those laser beam eyes of hers and said simply, "No... I listen."


P.S. I remember a dream a while back where I was communicating with another Being, and I was extrapolating about language and how we as humans have developed it to such a high art, with over a million words in the English dictionary alone. She looked at me and exclaimed, "How horrible to so limit yourselves to one form of communication!"

It's all in the perspective... :-)

Yes, excellent instructor (the things he can do with a paint brush!), and especially excellent human. One of the huge perks of the workshops I run - getting to hang out with all these lovely lovely artist-people. (

Great post. I've read many of the books you mention. I've just recently discovered Linda Hogan & Power is one of the first books I've read by her.

Gorgeous Post! An artist friend shared this site with me as I use animal imagery and myth quite a bit in my artwork. I can't wait to gobble up every book you referenced, and I also LOVE Plotnikova's work.
An aside, growing up, one of my Uncles told me that if I wasn't careful, I would talk to much to horses and forget how to speak to humans. I should not have been careful.

Thank you for this.

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