Jessica Augier Triptich

Laken Bridges,13 August 2010, Honors College, ARTA 4901, Prof: Ralph Slatton, Undergraduate Research Fellowship, The Honors College, East Tennessee State University. Bridges is recepient of the Honors Undergraduate Research Fellowship Grant. The Self, and all that it entails, is the embodiment of who one is and the search for Self is the driving force behind all of my artwork.

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The Animal in Art: A symbol of the psyche

by Laken Bridges

“The boundless profusion of animal symbolism in the religion and art of all times does not merely emphasize the importance of the symbol; it shows how vital it is for men to integrate into their lives the symbol’s psychic content.” "What is essential in a work of art is that it should rise far above the realm of personal life and speak to the spirit and heart of the poet as man to the spirit and heart of mankind." -- Carl Jung



Animals have always intrigued me.  For seven years of my childhood I lived on a family farm.  During this time I developed an affinity to animals, especially those that we raised.  I could spend several hours at a time playing with those animals, observing them, learning their personality traits, their likes and dislikes, and even, dare I say, their sense of humor.  At times I felt we understood each other on a higher level than the “trained” understanding associated with feeding or discipline.   When I chose to study art, a mentor advised me to stick to what I knew.  I slipped easily into the genre of animal imagery.  During my junior year I questioned my choices in imagery and sought to work with other themes.  Each time I worked on something other than animal imagery, I became distracted and eventually found myself working on ideas relating to an animal. At the end of junior year, I truly began to consider the animal imagery to which I am drawn.  I began to look at animal symbolism and how that relates to animal imagery.  In reading about symbols I began to question:  What is the importance of the animal in art?  Is animal imagery outdated?   What does animal imagery teach us about ourselves and about the world around us? 


Jungian theory and Sioux beliefs

“Animals share with us the privilege of having a soul.”—Pythagoras


In his book, Man and his Symbols, Carl Jung states, “man, with his symbol-making propensity, unconsciously transforms objects or forms into symbols (thereby endowing them with great psychological importance) and expresses them in both his religion and his visual art.”1


Jung further states that the animal is among the most relevant symbols to the human psyche and that many times the self is represented as an animal.2   Jung even reasoned that the human psyche includes animal character and therefore humans and animals must experience similar emotions and instincts and likely share similar archetypes.3 However, Jung also speculated that though animals might have a psyche they have minimal if any consciousness.4

Sioux author and historian Vine Deloria questioned Jung’s reasoning regarding animal consciousness. In his book, C.G. Jung and the Sioux Traditions: Dreams, Visions, Natures, and the Primitive, Deloria argued that if animals have a psyche and, as Jung mentioned, share similar characteristics and archetypes with humans, “would it not be possible that they have a consciousness comparable to ours, but expressed in a different way?”5  It is important to remember that Jung had a traditional Western mindset and likely did not regard animals in the same manner as Native American tribes and many earth cultures. Though Deloria appreciated Jung’s theories on animal symbols and archetypes, he felt that Jung saw only the symbol of the animal and not the animal itself as beneficial to humans.6  Native American culture embraces the idea that the interaction between man and animals is important and believes animals have knowledge to share with us.  Deloria argued, “perhaps what kept Jung from more fully realizing the necessity of a positive relationship with the earth and its creatures…was an overriding cultural assumption that the world was created for humanity alone.”7  Differences set aside, a common ground can be found between Jung and Deloria:  animal symbols hold great importance to the human psyche and animals do teach us, whether literally or metaphorically.


The animal symbol in history and culture

“What is a man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts, also happens to man.”—Chief Seattle

Art is strongly rooted in history, mythology, religion, and culture. In order to understand the importance of animal symbolism in art, it is necessary to examine its role in these areas.


Earth-based Cultures

Native American societies are known for their close relationship with animals and the natural world.  The Hopi tribe acknowledges animal spirit guides at every meal by leaving food on their plates as an offering.8Author Thomas Bahti explains that the Hopi’s relationship with animals is viewed on a spiritual plane rather than purely a physical one and states, “Ceremonies or observances connected with animals in this world serve to acknowledge the spirit-world, its predominance, and serve as a kind of threshold or connection between the two worlds.”9  Animals such as the badger, eagle and frog are important to Hopi societies because of their status in nature as spiritual beings with supernatural abilities.10  Most Native American cultures boast a plethora of stories that address specific animals and their characteristics. In the book, Living Cherokee, Cherokee storytellers relate stories about animals, including clever and healing turtles, a protective rattlesnake, and a prideful opossum, that offer wisdom and understanding of human nature and earth.11


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1 Jung, C. G., and M.-L. von Franz, eds. Man and His Symbols. United States: Dell Publishing, 1968. Print.
2 Ibid.
3 Deloria, Vine, Jr. C. G. Jung and the Sioux Traditions: Dreams, Visions, Nature, and the Primitive. New Orleans: Spring Journal Books, 2009. Print.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.

8 Willis, Roy, ed. Signifying Animals. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Duncan, Barbara R., ed. Living Stories of the Cherokee. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Print. 12 Arnold, A. James, ed. Monsters, Tricksters, and Sacred Cows: Animal Tales and American