Anthropomorphic Comparisons of Perspectivalism in Folklores

  • Robyn Isely
  • Written as an assignment for the course ANTH 2310Y - Language, Culture and Society at Trent University.

    This paper will examine the cultural significance of the myths and folktales in the Nootka, Manus, Nuer, Cree, Wasco, and Ancient Korea, with special attention to the transformation of animals into humans. If such animal-human characters are not available in the myths of the surrounding culture, the perspective view towards animals in their society will be examined. This paper plans to lay out each culture’s mythological significance and key elements, then in the end compare and contrast each culture to various Korean myths, and provide explanations for why some commonalities and differences occur in comparison. Examining the myths, or the attitudes the cultures have towards the animals in their environment, can illuminate the relationship humans share with animals. This paper will examine the cultural portrayals of the animal-human character, through their use of language and certain linguistic features, and how that can be a direct reflection of a culture’s held view towards nature.

    Every country, or every culture, has nationalistic myths that are distinctive in their own way. It is interesting to compare these myths to find commonalities and differences and ask why they happen. As a South-Korean immigrant, studying other cultures’ myths often leads me into discovering similarities with my own Korean folktales or cosmological myths. One of such similarities is the animals who transform to become like human. In Korean myths, animal characters becoming like human is common, similar to the Nootka’s transformers or the Wasco’s coyote. Yet, there are differences that are both ambiguous and obvious. The myths and folktales a culture creates is a manifestation of their perspective on the world, where the animal-human characters, with all their personalities and actions become a direct reflection of a culture’s attitude towards nature. The similarities and differences of the myths illustrate the commonalities of humans in general while exposing the separation from a culture to culture. From the Nootka to Ancient Koreans, these diverse group of cultures that exists all over the world will be examined.

    Nootka Myth and Their Linguistic Employment of Story-Telling Traditional myths of the Nootka culture tell cosmological or origin stories which include animal characters who acts and reacts with humanistic attributes. In the Legend of Nootka, there are the Transformer characters who create the world we know now. These men use their abilities to transform the animal-human characters, such as the pre-beaver, or pre-deer into fully fledged animals (Boas XXXX: 57-58). Before they were animals, these characters were beings with both animalistic and humanistic attributes. The identity of the animal-human morphed beings is illustrated through the Nootka use of consonantal play. In the Nootka language, they employ linguistic features to indicate a certain deficiency or a characteristic when quoting a character in a story that tells the hearer who is speaking, as well as certain characteristic the mentioned character possesses (Sapir 1915:10-11). This allows clear understanding and distinction when telling a myth; the animal-human characters are separate from normal humans or fully fledge animals. It is also very useful in illustrating the transformation, where by the changes in the consonantal play, people hearing the myth clearly understand exactly when the transformation took place. Prior to the transformation, the bear-human may have been spoken of in a certain way, and after their transformation, the way they are spoken of becomes distinctive and different from their prior state. The key elements of the Nootka myths include animal-human characters transforming into animals, as well as their linguistic employment of consonantal play to indicate when exactly the transformation takes place.

    Manus and their Perspective View towards their Own Culture For the Manus people, the perspective view towards their environment can be a direct reflection of their own cultural traditions. The hedgehog is an animal that is abundant in their environment, which is also a source of food for the people of Manus. In a Manus folktale, there is a story of people greedily hunting the hedgehogs, when one turns around and speaks to them (Williams 2003: 34). The hedgehogs were conducting a sacred funeral much similar to the traditions of the Manus culture. It is a story of disrespect towards the respect for the dead. The hungry, fat people become the burden of the story and are made fun of for their gluttony. The hedgehogs in stories also speak all Manus, Pirdo, and French, and this is a reflection of the hedgehog’s central identity to the Manus culture. From the way the hedgehogs are captured, to the way they are prepared are unique to each family groups (Williams 2003: 43-44). They are, in many ways, the symbolic representation of the Manus people and their cultural beliefs. They are utilized to highlight the Manus traditions and their perspective attitude and respect towards nature. From the way the hedgehog story emphasizes the importance of the treatment of the dead, which is highly important for the Manus, to how each stages of their capture reflects the societal system of the Manus culture, the hedgehogs become central in representing the Manus. As William states: “All these bush Manus who are the greatest hedgehogs eaters in the world are not eating meat but are eating culture.” (Williams 2003: 43). The key significance of the Manus culture includes using the hedgehog, the animal character, to denunciate or humiliate greedy human nature, and also the employment of the animal to remind and emphasize the importance of their culture.

    The Nuer’s Cows and the Human Transformations How cultures view the world and the nature that nourishes them affect the relations the humans have with the animals that sustain them. The Nuer’s lifestyle revolves around the cattle where the animals become the sustaining backbone to the cultural heritage. In the Nuer culture, the transformation of both boys and girls into adulthood is initiated by the cattle. When boys go through the transition into manhood, and when the girls transform into married woman, it is the animal cattle that are central in the ritual process (Evans-Pritchard 1640: 16-17). The exchange of the cattle must be in the equation for the ritual to be successful. Various stages of a Nuer individual’s life, where one transition from one stage to another is dependent on the cattle, and in turn the cattle becomes the cultural manifestation of the Nuer traditions. The identity of the Nuer individual is also initiated by the presence of the cattle. The names that are assigned to an individual are dependent upon the family cow or the animal they are assigned to (Evans-Pritchard, 1964: 223-224). Names are a personal linguistic identity, where a word can describe a whole list of attributes to the person assigned. Acknowledging these names and changes of names, as some Nuers do when they obtain new adult names, recognizes the transformation the person from one state to another. This way, the Nuer cattle becomes the initiating element for the humans, and the cow becomes the reflection of the Nuer culture. The key elements of the Nuer’s perspective treatment towards the cattle include the human transformation being initiated by the cattle, and the linguistic identity of the Nuer individual, and its dependence on the animals the society is based upon.

    The Cree Beaver as Symbolic Animal-Human Character In Cree myths involving the beaver, the descriptive language used to illustrate the beaver character often show the ambiguity in the animal-human identity. The way the beaver character is illustrated in the myths, with humanistic attributes, intelligence, and human behaviours such as marriage, is not necessarily restricted to myths only, where in reality the Cree view the animal quite similar to the animal-human. In one of Brightman’s field note, a Cree native states: “Beavers real smart—just like human beings—like engineers or carpenters—work hard all the time (Brightman, 1993: 162). The mentioned beaver character in the story becomes common to the Cree culture and its population, that the actual beavers seen in nature are viewed with their depiction in the stories in mind. This way, the beaver that the Cree see and interact on a daily basis become a symbolic animal, with a list of human personalities because they are depicted as the human-animal in the myths. Another important significance of the beaver myths is the ability of the animal-human to transform into humans. In the myth of the human woman who marries a man who turns out to be a beaver, the beaver manages to trick the woman into thinking he is a man (Brightman, 1993:163-164). The physical appearance of the beaver looking like a human being makes the beaver character more human, while the ability to transform give mystical attribute to the animal-human character. Myths involving the animal-human transforming into an actual human creates the identity of the beaver as a human-like, mystical character. The key elements of the Cree myths involves the beaver that is given a whole list of human personalities that leads to a shift in view towards beavers in actual life, where they are given human characteristics too, as well as the prediction that the animal can transform into a human.

    The Wasco Coyote and the Quoted Speech In the Wasco culture, the separation between the younger and older generation causes issues in the language preservation. The method of story-telling of Wasco myths differs between the younger and older generation; however the quoting speech of the coyote remains the same, which preserves sections of the original story-telling method (Moore, XXXX: 216-217). With preserving the quoted speech of the coyote character, certain characteristic of the original coyote is preserved, even if the story is told in English. The personalities of the Coyote character and its involvement to the human societies in the stories are also preserved when telling the Wasco myths. The story of the Coyote Cycle is often told in Wasco with employment of code-switching, but despite the different versions of the story the Coyote as a memorable, culturally significant character is still intact. “... what one observes across five versions of the Coyote Cycle is a consistent correlation between the use of Wasco and directly quoted character speech, whether or not code-switching is involved. (Moore XXXX: 230). The Wasco culture and their representative animal-human character the Coyote, with all his mischief and characteristics is still illustrated despite the translation from Wasco to English. The key significance of the Wasco myths include the Coyote with all its distinctive characteristics and his quoted speech being able to be communicated to the audience, with help from language tools such as code-switching.

    Americans and How We Treat Animals as Humans In modern Western society, the folktales or even stories created for entertainment purposes in the media often depicts animal-human characters who look like animals but behave like humans. There are many examples on Treehouse TV. In the modern world today, animals are still treated and spoken to like humans, or infra-humans (Sanders and Arluke, 2007: 64). This transfer of giving human attributes to wild animals is quite common; however it is interesting to note that the reoccurring animals in Western society includes bunnies, bears, and dogs. This practice of creating animal-human beings is not an ancient trend specific to cosmological myths, but quite possibly a human nature. The transformation of animals into animal-human or humans into animal-human, whichever way it is viewed, seems to occur in all cultures around the globe, and also continuously.

    Ancient Korea and the Tiger, Transformation, and Terror

    There is a cosmological myth in Korea that is familiar to most Koreans called Dagun. It is a story of a tiger and a bear (Zong 1982: 3-4). The two animals, who wish to become humans pray to the deity who challenges them to stay for a hundred days in a cave eating nothing but garlic and mugwort. The bear succeeds and transform into a woman to create the population, and the tiger fails. This myth is similar to the Nootka myths of the transformers. Similar to the pre-beaver or pre-dear, these bear and tiger already possess the linguistic and intellectual abilities quite similar to the human. They succeed in transforming into fully fledge humans. The Korean tiger is also the equivalent to the Manus hedgehog. The hedgehog is central to the Manus culture; as is the tiger to the people of Korea. Also, similar to how the hedgehog character is employed to illustrate the shortcomings of humans, the tiger in the myth fails in his mission to become human – and in this story depicts the lack of solitude and endurance; viewed to be undesirable traits to have in the Korean culture. Parallel to the story, bears are viewed with characteristics of patience and endurance in the Korean culture, while the tiger is symbolic to impatience, irritable, yet powerful (Crane, 1992: 8). Employing the animals as symbolic representation of human personalities is not unique to the Ancient Korean myths; the Cree and how they add certain human traits to the beaver, or the Wasco’s trickster Coyote all employ the same tactics.
    How the tiger is described through linguistic process is similar to the Wasco culture and their method of story-telling. The Koreans do not employ code-switching, however similar to the Wasco’s preservation of certain quotes of the characters, certain sayings of the tiger character is also preserved. This way, the personality of the tiger is maintained, as well as the method of story-story that was told generations before is also preserved with original quotes, similar to the Wasco and their quoted speech. In the many myths and folktales about the Korean tiger, the tiger can gain a heroic and cartoon-like identity. The national symbol of the country can arguably be the tiger, and the animal-human tiger character in myths further adds dimensions to the animal, where the tiger is employed to teach lessons of human endurance, used as a representative image for a list of human attributes, as well as act as a myth-preserving identity to the Korean nation. As one historians states: “Having had to share their habitat with the most terrible animal from time immemorial, Koreans have spun myths and tales around the animal that made it their friend, guardian and mentor.” (Crane, 1992: 7). The tiger is not the only animal mentioned in Korean myths. In another Ancient Korean myth, there is the story of the nine-tailed fox who also desires to be human (Zong 1982: 37-39). In this myth, the transformation of an animal into human is emphasized. In the story of the Mud-Snail wife, a beautiful maiden in the appearance of a human marries a man who later finds out her true identity as a mud-snail (Zong 1982: 29-31). This particular myth is very similar to the beaver wife who marries a man who turns out to be a beaver. The marriage between an animal and human illustrates how the cultures viewed the animals, and therefore the kind of relationship they shared with the actual animals in nature.

    Across these cultures there are numerous animals mentioned to be the animal-human characters in their respective myths. A key factor in determining the type of animals employed to be the exemplifier character is geography. The types of animals used by each culture is different; and geography might be an explanation for the contrast. In the Ancient Korean peninsula, the tiger was the dominant, and feared creature of the mountain, and foxes were common. The close location to the sea also explains the Mud-snail, and why these myths chose the animals that it did. Similarly, the Manus hunted and interacted with hedgehogs on their daily basis, the Crees with their Canadian beavers, the Nuer with their cattle, and even the bunnies, bears, and dogs which are common wild, and domesticated animals for people living in the American continent.

    Myths are created and exist in all cultures, but the intentions of the myth are something to ponder about. How they formed depends on the geographic location and the perspectival view of the cultures towards their environments, historical events, and personalities of each culture manifested into myths. There are all these difference in the myths across cultures, but they are similar in details and as well as their intention, in the sense that they all try to decode nature, and their immediate surroundings. From studying the similarities and difference, the common desire to explain the world around them is discovered in each cultures, and in the process these animal-human characters are created, who are the cultural manifestations of their beliefs and traditions. The animal-humans, with their transformation allows the people who hears the myths to reflect the culture’s positive or negative attitude towards what surrounds them.

    Through examining the similarities, the common values each cultures have towards nature becomes evident, while examining the differences showcase the separate environments these cultures live in.


    Williams, Patrick. 2003 Gypsy world: The Silence of the Living and the Voices of the Dead. Catherine Tihanyi, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Chapter 2 The Dead among the Living (pp.4-28)

    Boas, Frans. Legends of the Nootka

    Brightman, Robert. 1993 Grateful Prey. Berkeley: University of California Press Chapter 6 They come to be like human

    Sanders, Clinton and Arnold Arluke. 2007. Speaking for Dogs. In The Animal Reader. Linda Kalof, Amy Fitzgerald, eds. Pp. 63-71. Oxford: Berg

    Sapir, Edward. 1915. Abnormal Types of Speech in Nootka. Canada Department of Mines, Geological Survey, Memoir 62, Anthropological Series, No.5.

    Evans-Pritchard. E.E. 1964. Nuer Modes of Address. In Langugae In Culture and Society, D. Hymes. Ed. Pp. 221-226. Ney York: Harper & Row

    Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1940. The Nuer. Oxford University Press. Chapter 1 Interest in Cattle. Pp. 16-50.