Animals – Can they teach us spiritual lessons?

animalsWith the improvements in technology, close up and dramatic footage of behaviour of animals has become a top focus for television documentary programmes.

Behaviour of animals

We are amazed by the myriads of flying starlings forming beautiful patterns like clouds in the evening sky, the protection and encouragement of its cub by the polar bear, and the behaviour of sting ray fish as they appear to fly above the water to help in the hunting of their prey.

All this fascinating information stimulates the question about what such creatures might be able to teach us about our own lives.


We see a brave lion caught on film with a huge roar as it fearlessly challenges a vicious looking crocodile at the water’s edge, successfully protecting the lioness and cubs and we wonder what reserves of courage we could call on to face the adversities in human life?

Similes for animals

Is it anthropomorphic to notice when someone is happy as a lark, busy as a bee, gentle as a lamb, slippery as an eel, proud as a peacock, sly as a fox, as angry as a hornet, slow as a snail, strong as an ox, or as stubborn as a mule? Or is it just recognizing that nature can mirror what we might find in ourselves if we were to look a little more closely?

Animals and correspondence

This idea of correspondence between the natural and the spiritual is an important part of Emanuel Swedenborg’s philosophy. The medieval alchemists put it this way:

“As above, so below; as below, so above”

And in their book Soul Symbols, Helen Newton and Becky Jarratt show how we can learn much about the human spirit by watching what nature is teaching us.  Images of animals have a symbolic value in that they bring something about what it is to be human  into ordinary awareness. They provide meaning and enrich our understanding of humanity.

Two perspectives on images of animals

The authors point out this works in two ways. They distinguish between two perspectives. Depending on one’s state of mind, one can perceive a symbol such as an animal, in terms of soul perspective or in terms of ego perspective.

The soul perspective derives from a transcendent reality and gives us a higher wisdom. The ego perspective however comes from our inevitable sense of separateness from the creative source of life, a state of mind that falls into illusions about what is good and true to suit our own individual needs.


How might these ideas apply to different animals? Take snakes. The gliding, insinuating motion of a snake is of course due to the fact that it has no feet. The point that it is in close contact with the ground doesn’t suggest a higher state of mind but rather an external one. From an ego perspective one might say the snake symbolises an orientation towards the world and enjoyment of the senses — pleasant taste, smell, sound, sight and touch. Physical pleasure is good, but it is important to notice when something spiritual is missing.

We should not trust our senses, which can give us a distorted view of reality, but should look to our ‘inner code’ for guidance.” (Helen Newton and Becky Jarratt)

From a soul perspective on the snake, one might say the senses are our point of contact with the world, and their enjoyments enable us to live wisely in the world. The sense of feeling warns us to avoid extreme heat and cold and other dangers, and to preserve healthful conditions. The sense of taste when unperverted and wisely educated is a guide in choosing wholesome food.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes  and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:15-17)

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Posted on18th September 2013CategoriesMeaning of life, Symbolism

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