And finally…. animals as seasonal good health totems around the world

Monday, 19 December 2016

This year our Christmas and New Year’s Card featured the mythical Fire-Fox; a symbol of good health and prosperity in the Suomi Tribes (Lapland Finland). After it went public, we were contacted by many patient organizations who wanted to share their own regional and national totem animal stories. Besides reindeer, our members alerted us to 20 other good health seasonal animals.

From ancient times, certain animals have been given a 'totem' status. They embody good luck and health spirits. Patients wearing totem animal jewellery to seek good health or protection after ill health is common in many cultures. In the Pacific island communities, these totem animals are often tattooed onto the skin and there are elaborate rituals and ceremonies associated with respecting these animals.

In the Finnish Lapland, the belief is that standing under the aurora borealis (Northern-Lights), a mesmerizing cold-light phenomenon spiraling silently in the upper atmosphere seen around the Arctic Circle, restores good health. The myth is that the lights result as the Fire-Fox scurries amongst the heavy snow-laden pine trees, his bushy tail dislodging snow crystals into the atmosphere and giving away his location: follow the lights and you will find the Fire-Fox and good health.

Snakes are also very potent health totems around the world. The World Health Organization, with whom we have an official relationship, uses the Rod of Asclepius symbol, a snake curled on a staff, first seen around 300 BCE. Cobras, especially the spectacled cobra, are a very potent symbol of good health and medicine; in India a cobra represents the god Shiva who resides amongst the Himalayan Mountains with its secret garden of powerful medicinal herbs and plants.

From Latin America and the Pacific Islands, we were told of the Gecko lizard. If you hear it's clicking, it harbingers good health and prosperity. From Africa the lion, giraffe and hippo feature as good health totem animals in many tribal cultures.

Bats in China and bears and wolves amongst the First Nations and Native American tribes in Canada and the USA all add colour and intrigue as to why these animals are linked with good health.

The Cranes, amongst the bird totems, have a big role in Asia. In Bhutan and Japan, many believe that the crane embodies long life. The elephant, however, is still the most popular symbol of good health in South East Asia.

Is there some scientific reason behind many of these associations?

We know that venomous creatures are often considered good symbols of health in many desert cultures. In the Thar Desert, straddling over India and Pakistan, the scorpion is considered a health restoring symbol in the Rajput nomads; it is often tattooed on children’s arms. The Gila Monster, a venomous lizard, in the Sonoran Desert Americas, has played a big part in Native American desert cultures. Tarantula spiders and centipedes appear in other cultures.  The modern truth is that venom has found applications in many biotherapeutic medicines. 

Perhaps the northern European and Japanese myths surrounding the salamanders, in Japan it is the Giant Salamander, arose out of the various complex proteins extruded from the skin of the salamanders when handled; these proteins have also found valuable use in modern biotherapeutics. Frogs and toads form the bulk of the totem animals, from Central America right down to Australia and New Zealand. They too extrude complex proteins from their skins.  

The crocodile, the symbol of great health and healing amongst the tribes of Papua New Guinea and Central Africa, is now linked to the search for a 'saviour antibiotic’ that will overcome antimicrobial resistance.

Sadly, the respect and protection totem animals enjoyed as 'taboos' ( you could not kill or harm them) has slowly eroded. Myths of health-restoring properties of animal parts, often promoted by 'quacks'  targeting male patients with underlying health conditions resulting in erectile dysfunction, has wiped out the rhino in Africa and the tiger in Asia.  At the WHO SEARO and WHO WPRO Regional Committees, there were many wildlife groups asking for patients to be aware and responsible for not buying or trading in these animal part products.

Have a great holiday season and protect your wildlife. See you in restored health in 2017.