When it comes to archetypal spirit guides, often the focus is upon ferocious guardians and large, intimidating beasts. However, one of the most important, yet overlooked animals in world mythology is a much smaller creature—the squirrel.
It is only when we begin to examine the folk tales and ancient story traditions of various cultures that we can begin to appreciate the thoughtful placement of the squirrel within mythic narratives. It is almost as if the mythologies of the world comprise of a vast tree of tales and the squirrel is the messenger, scurrying from branch to branch, lending its unique perspective and attributes to folk tales and wisdom parables.
Squirrels are often messengers in folklore ( Public Domain )
Ratatoskr, the Norse Hermes
In some traditions, the squirrel has been linked to Hermes and Mercury because of its fleet-footed nature and ability to traverse difficult terrain, and to climb trees. Perhaps the most famous squirrel in this context is Ratatoskr, sometimes translated as Drill-Tooth, from Norse mythology.
A 17th-century Icelandic manuscript depicting Ratatoskr. Although unexplained in the manuscript and not otherwise attested, in this image Ratatoskr bears a horn or tusk. ( Public Domain )
Ratatoskr carries messages from the bottom of the world tree, Ygdrassil, to its summit, where he acts as a liaison between the serpent-dragon, Niohoggr, and the eagle, Veorfolnir. There is very obvious shamanic symbolism in this act as Ratatoskr is moving from the underworld, through the middle world, and high into the heavens, while carrying out his tasks.
Yggdrasil, by Oluf Olufsen Bagge ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
There is also a tantalizing hint of a lost knowledge of deeper physiology here, and perhaps even brain chemistry, in Ratatoskr’s role, as he seems to fulfill the same function as a neurotransmitter. He carries messages from one place to another, with the world tree, Ygdrassil, acting as an allegory for both the mind and the entire universe. Again, this reminds us of the shamanic maxim, “As above, so below.”
Totems and Spirit Guides
The shamanic practice of totemism is sacred to Indigenous tribes around the world. The San people of Africa base many of their rituals and traditions on animals like the eland and the mantis. Native Americans carve and erect images of spirit animals on the surface of long wooden poles called totems, representing universal archetypes.
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‘Totem Pole’ featuring various animal totems, Vancouver, British Columbia. ( Public Domain )
One Native American example of squirrel totemism comes from The Choctaw, who believed that a solar eclipse was attributed to a black squirrel trying to eat the sun. As the first stages of the eclipse began, tribe members would try to make as much noise as they could in order to scare the black squirrel away. As the voices of the people reached a crescendo, their efforts seemed to have the desired effect. The moon began to move away from the sun, and the full strength of the sun’s light reappeared. The people, thankful and elated, would begin the cry of “ Funi lusa osh mahlatah !” or “The black squirrel is frightened!”
A Black Squirrel (Airwolfhound/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )
On first impression, the choice of a squirrel for the animal that might even reach the sun may appear to be a strange one. However, we must remember how the manifestation of totemism presents itself in terms of characteristics and attributes. The squirrel was the creature that could climb to the highest branches of trees, so therefore it was also the creature most able to ascend to the heavens and reach the sun.
Even in mythologies located as far apart as North America and Europe, the squirrel was still regarded with awe in terms of its ability reach places that other creatures and humans could not.
Animism and Spirit Guides
Masks and dance ceremonies are still used today by tribes to invoke the spirit of animal teachers. These traditions are part of what is known as animism, or the anthropomorphic view that all life has a spiritual essence.
Some metaphysical concepts of animal souls teach that they have an emotional and mental capacity in their lower bodies but lack an individual mind and soul like humans possess. In this context, animals operate as a collective entity, or by instinct, and cultures have learned from them by observing their personality traits and how they adapt to sometimes dangerous environments.
Cultures have learned from them by observing their personality traits and how they adapt to environments (Public Domain/Deriv)
According to the esoteric historian Manly P. Hall, the practice of totemism can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. The Neo-Platonists inherited the concept of spirit guides or a group spirit, such as the Daemons of Socrates, from the priests of Egypt and their scriptures. Hall believed these practices then spread to the Northern Asiatic peoples. According to Paracelsus, the 16th century Swiss-German born toxicologist and occultist, all life—great and small, even down to insects, plant life, and the mineral kingdoms—serves a great purpose.
The squirrel is no exception to these rules. In this modern age of urbanization, squirrels, like humans, are forced to adapt to new surroundings on a constant basis. This trait of preparation and foresight was encoded within the West African folk tale of The Squirrel and the Spider . In this story, a squirrel builds a home and farm without a path leading up to it, because he can travel through the trees without touching the ground. A sly spider tries to claim the farm by making a pathway himself and insists that this now gives him the right to the property. However, following a mighty storm, the spider is tricked of the farm's bounty by an impassible crow on the roadway. Squirrel, who does not need to follow the main paths and by-ways of other creatures, then manages to reclaim his farm.
Squirrels and Biodiversity
As forest regenerators who help with biodiversity, it is not uncommon to see an anxious squirrel looking around in every direction for enemies, before burying its nuts and seeds in a hiding spot for later. Subsequently, Grey Squirrels often forget where they have hidden their stash, causing great trees and forests to grow in place of their food. Scientific studies conducted by researchers from universities Wilkes, Princeton (Steele et al. 1996) and Purdue (Goheen & Swihart 2003) have shown that the unrivaled leaders in seed dispersion – and in forest regeneration—are Grey Squirrels.
Forgotten food stashes can often sprout into trees and forests. (BirdPhotos.com/ CC BY 3.0)
We can apply the lessons we learn from squirrels by looking at how we adapt to our environments in a sometimes stressful and chaotic world. Squirrels are highly intelligent problem-solvers and studies have shown they can even remember the solutions to puzzles for up to two years. Perhaps this is another indicator as to why indigenous cultures chose the squirrel as a messenger archetype. Their ability to store knowledge which could grow into a great forest of wisdom, was certainly an attribute that Ratatoskr the Norse squirrel took full advantage of!