Cultural Artifacts: Talking Animals and Flying Carpets

by Laura Lee

I’ve long found it curious that talking animals populate our children’s stories, our fairy tales, and the stories of Native Americans; they are there in stories the world over. Years ago a friend brought over a stack of comic books in response to my query about his fascination with India. He said it was the best way to acquaint oneself with Ganesha and Hanuman and the whole pantheon. Each comic book featured one god, with the others playing supporting roles. I found the cartoon panels a delightful way to read their stories.

When Paul and I toured Egypt, I was amused by what I saw on the temple walls: carefully carved stone panels that so nicely and fully illustrated, step by step, in sequence, the rituals that once took place there. Here, put to sacred use, was the same comic book format. And why not? It must be the logical and effective means to reach an audience of all levels of literacy. And all those gods with human bodies, wearing animals masks…or animal heads? Well, seemed to me, these were more examples of talking animals!

I’m not demeaning the sacred texts of Egypt or comparing our profound experiences in spirit journeys to the escapades of Bugs Bunny and Winnie the Pooh. And ascribing our fellow creatures with the man of the attributes of humans is certainly an early impulse. One of the oldest known works of art is a small statue of a human figure with the head of a lion. It was carbon dated at 32,000 years old. Eleven inches high, it was carved with a flint stone tool out of the tusk of a mammoth and resides in a museum in Ulm, Germany. It looks surprisingly contemporary, as does much of art of the ancients — and ready to say something!

I think the connection lies deeper than anthropormophosing the creatures around us. The evidence is very compelling that these early societies found a way of activating the experiential doorway to the Alternate Reality. Consider how readily our physiology wants to make the shift, and knows how to, innately. Consider that the earliest instruments found — flutes made of the femurs of bird bones, among others — date as well to thirty thousand years; our ancestors were as musically inclined as they were artistic. Rattles and drums are easy to make.

Archaeologist David Lewis-Williams of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa suggests the most ancient art, inscrutable abstract markings, represents what shamans saw in their vision journeys. I believe these experiences had an even wider influence: the stories our earliest ancestors shared of their experiences in the Alternate Reality — of flying, of communicating with animals spirits — seeded our collective memory with the talking animals, and humans capable of flight, that we find in our popular culture. They are there in the night dreams of slumber as well as the “waking dreams” of spirit journeys. Neo of The Matrix and Aladdin on his magic carpet are iconic figures because we are familiar with the exhilaration of flyng in our dreams. We resonate with the talking animals of fairytale and folklore because on a deep level we have long been communicating with animal spirits.

On another level, you might say, of course animals can carry on a conversation — just loosen up the term and include nuanced gesture and body language. They have a lot to say; ask any pet owner! Or leave it to a little shared mind-reading, as Rupert Sheldrake would suggest in his experiments with dogs who know when their owners are ready to come home long before they hear the familiar sound of their owner’s car approaching, or the parrot who named the object in the photo he owner was gazing at, sequestered in the next room. Our friendships with animals have a long, long history, and go beyond a mutually beneficial arrangment for survival. Words are unnecessary in those moments of deep bonding.
And so it is with the animal spirits, I find, in my spirit journeys. For me the Bear Spirit is not a talking animal, but an aspect of Universal Consciousness that wears the robe of Bear, administering its special brand of grandfatherly, majestic healing. It does so in direct knowing, more than in words. In my many encounters with Grandfather Bear, somehow I just know what’s happening: I’m to climb aboard his broad shoulders, grab onto his fur, and off we fly around the earth to wrap it in cosmic ropes of energy, like a cocoon….. I’m dropping down, down, down through a tunnel into a softly lit cave. With one swift swipe of his paw, Bear splits me open, tinkers with some part of my heart, snaps me back together, and off I go back up the tunnel.

I’ve thought a lot about the physics, or metaphysics, or quantum physics — certainly we need to go beyond Newtonian physics here — in these spirit journeys. In the final analysis I am content to let the mysteries be the mysteries; so be it, I just feel blessed to have them. I wish our Western culture was more accepting of the notion. And while I loved the classic fairytales as a child, today I am more enchanted with two animated films written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, in which the spirits are allowed to be spirits. Japanese culture is more accepting of the notion. Both “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away” are both about a little girl’s adventures when they accidentally cross over into the spirit realm. In our fairy tales we can hint, remember, reminisce.

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” — Albert Camus