Animals as Symbols of Death in Ancient Cultures

In ancient cultures, certain animals held a symbolic significance tied to the concept of death. Black cats, crows, moths, owls, snakes, butterflies, swans, vultures, bats, ravens, and worms were often associated with the afterlife. Black cats, for instance, were connected to witchcraft and bad omens, while crows were linked to death through their appearance and feeding habits. Moths were seen as a warning of impending death if found indoors, and owls were believed to predict death with their hooting in ancient Rome. Snakes, in various cultures including Christianity, were associated with destruction and deceit. Despite their symbolism of change and development, butterflies represented death in certain contexts such as the Philippines and China. Greek mythology portrayed swans as singing beautifully when someone passed away, and vultures were viewed as symbols of death in Native American and Tibetan cultures due to their feeding habits. Bats, with their nocturnal nature and connection to vampires, also represented death. Ravens, in Swedish folklore, were believed to bring news of a hero’s demise. Lastly, worms, while associated with life and death in mythology, served as symbols for both creatures.

Animals commonly used as symbols of death in ancient cultures


Throughout ancient cultures, certain animals were commonly used as symbols of death. These animals often had associations with witchcraft, superstitions, and unfortunate omens. They were believed to be harbingers of impending death or representatives of the underworld. In this article, we will explore some of the most prominent animals used as symbols of death in different ancient cultures.

Black Cats

Black cats have long been associated with witchcraft and unlucky omens. In many cultures, they are believed to bring misfortune or even death. This association can be traced back to medieval times when cats, particularly black cats, were seen as companions of witches and believed to possess supernatural powers. Their dark fur and mysterious demeanor made them the perfect symbol of death and darkness.


Crows have a striking appearance and hold strong symbolism in various cultures. Their dark feathers and haunting cawing sound create an eerie presence, often associated with death. Crows also play a significant role in nature as scavengers, feeding on carrion, which further reinforces their link to death. In many ancient cultures, crows were believed to be messengers of the underworld or guides of the souls of the departed.


Moths have a fascinating connection to death, particularly in Celtic mythology. In Celtic folklore, moths were believed to be souls of the deceased trying to communicate with the living. If a moth was seen indoors, it was seen as a sign of an impending death within the household. This belief stems from the idea that moths were messengers between the world of the living and the world of the dead.


Owls, with their nocturnal nature and mysterious hooting, have long been associated with death. In ancient Rome, it was believed that the hooting of an owl signaled the approach of death. This association comes from the owl’s appearance as a creature of the night, dwelling in darkness and often associated with the underworld. Owls hold symbolism in various cultures, representing wisdom, but also carrying the connotation of death and the afterlife.


Snakes are commonly associated with death in many cultures. In Christianity, snakes are often seen as symbols of destruction and deceit, stemming from the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent, representing the devil, led to the downfall of humanity. In other cultures, snakes are associated with the cycle of life and death, shedding their skin and representing rebirth and transformation.


Butterflies are intriguing creatures that symbolize change and development due to their transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. However, they are also interpreted as symbols of death in certain cultures. In the Philippines and China, for example, butterflies are believed to carry the souls of the deceased. They are seen as messengers between the living and the dead, bridging the gap between life and the afterlife.


Swans have a significant association with death in Greek mythology. According to Greek mythology, swans were believed to sing beautifully just before someone died. This belief in the swan’s connection to death created a strong symbol of mourning and elegy. The graceful beauty of swans and their association with death made them a popular motif in ancient art.


Vultures hold symbolism in Native American and Tibetan cultures as creatures associated with death. Vultures are carrion birds, feeding on dead animals, and their association with death is rooted in their feeding habits. In Native American cultures, vultures were seen as spiritual guides to the deceased, leading their souls to the afterlife. In Tibetan culture, vultures were believed to be celestial beings that carried the souls of the dead to the heavens.


Bats, with their nocturnal habits and connections to creatures of the night like vampires, are often associated with death. These winged mammals have a haunting presence and are commonly associated with darkness and the supernatural. In many ancient cultures, bats were believed to be messengers from the underworld, bringing news of death or impending doom.


Ravens have a strong association with death in various cultures. In Swedish folklore, ravens were seen as carriers of bad news, particularly about the death of a hero. They were also associated with the god Odin, who had two ravens as his companions and messengers. Throughout history, ravens have been depicted as creatures of mystery and symbols of death, often representing the transition between life and the afterlife.


Worms, while not conventionally linked to death, have mythological associations with both life and death. In some cultures, worms symbolize decay and the decomposition of organic matter, representing the inevitable cycle of life and death. At the same time, worms also have a positive connotation, signifying fertility and renewal in the soil. These contrasting interpretations make worms intriguing symbols in ancient cultural contexts.

In conclusion, animals have played a significant role as symbols of death in ancient cultures. The associations between death and animals such as black cats, crows, moths, owls, snakes, butterflies, swans, vultures, bats, ravens, and worms were shaped by their physical attributes, behaviors, and mythological interpretations. These animals served as powerful imagery of the inevitable cycle of life and death and held deep cultural beliefs and superstitions related to the afterlife.

Nature Blog Network is the leading birding research and information website. Serving the birding community since 2010.

Recent Posts