Animals in Slavic Spirituality, Part I: Heroic Hedgehog, The Practical & Prickly Protector
“The Fox knows many things-the hedgehog, one big one.” – Archilochus
Animals often make an appearance in folklore as symbols of the traits they are thought to embody. People have had a strong relationship with animals since the dawn of time. Among the many critters found in stories of yesterday, the hedgehog is more relevant than you may initially have thought – especially in Slavic spirituality and folklore. One tale tells the story of a hedgehog poking holes in the black of the night, thus creating the stars and milky way above. Hedgehogs are found in several cosmological myths of Eastern European cultures. The hedgehog, in particular, is one unique animal that has been important to people for thousands of years. Ancient artifacts featuring hedgehogs have been found in burials, and the hedgehog today is a symbol of strength, power, and protection to the Slavic people.
Common creatures like frogs, cats, and bears might have exceptional qualities or special meanings thanks to myths and fairy tales. The reason why animals are so often mentioned in mythology, folklore, and fairy tales is due to their importance in culture and spirituality long ago. Majestic animals and creatures are frequently found in literature, art, and daily life. All around the world, people have relied on animals as a food resource, labor, and even friendship. Agriculture-based cultures depended heavily on domesticated animals like those found on farms, whilst more migratory hunter societies used wild animals for sustenance and their skins. Ancient societies relied largely on animals for existence and were more used to being around wild animals than current cultures are, even if they still employ animals for about the same functions they did centuries ago.
Because of their near physical proximity to animals and substantial reliance on them, humans have developed a rich oral history about how animals may benefit and hurt them. Animals serve as a symbol of the mystique and destructive force of the natural world. In certain stories, such as trickster tales or the fables of the storyteller Aesop, animals can represent people or human traits. In some myths, animals carry out brave acts or serve as intermediaries between gods and humans. They could also be the origin of a shaman’s knowledge and strength. Animals are a large part of culture and folklore today, but they were also very important in the ancient world.
In later years, in some cases, hedgehogs have been considered a nuisance to civilization and people have avoided them as a result. They were associated with witches by the Irish, who referred to them as “grainneog,” which translates to “witch-animal” or “ugly one.” In Romany, they are referred to by the name “hotchi-witchi.” In the past, people also called the prickly protector names like “urchin” and “hedgepig,” both of which are very ancient names (Welsh School of Homeopathy).
Figure (b) Clay figure of Minoan hedgehog goddess. Late Minoan III culture B.C. (Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses. 1999).
Long before the time of the persecution that occurred throughout the Middle Ages, hedgehogs were held in high regard and were considered to be a representation of the Goddess. Marija Gimbutas, an archaeologist from Lithuania who is known as the “grandmother of the goddess movement,” presents evidence in her book “Living Goddesses” that an ancient Goddess during the Aegean Bronze age took the form of a hedgehog and wore a garment covered in spikes that resembled the mystic creature. Gimbutas’ book is titled “Living Goddesses.” Her account claims that up to the start of the 20th century, women with uterine problems in Alpine villages would carry red-painted spiked balls called “hedgehogs” to church in the hopes that the church would bless them with fertility and promote healing.
The hedgehog is a primary example of transformation. When comparing the archaeological evidence of hedgehogs to folktales and cosmological creation myths that include hedgehogs, it is evident that hedgehogs have been connected to life and natural cycles for a very long time. Since the Bronze Age, the importance of hedgehogs has been so relevant throughout history that the practical creatures made their way into Chrisitan-based cosmological stories.
Slavs, unlike Greeks, Indians, or Iranians, have no rich corpus of tales about Pagan gods, old sacred texts, or lengthy epic narratives. While more advanced mythological systems are poorly represented in Slavic countries, the opposite is true for more primal levels of myth dealing with the natural world, the family, and the basic needs of common people. To investigate myths and ancient Slavic deities, we must use information from both folklore and ethnography. It is extremely critical to note that most tales, which likely stemmed from Slavic mythology, were first passed down orally before becoming written literature that represented the gods as characters in fairy tales. Studying folktales and the elements found within them will expose the existence of mythological ideas and deities, everyday beliefs, and rituals (Warner). These beliefs range from ideas about animals, spirituality, traditions, and the thinking patterns of the ancient Slavs.
The hedgehog is highly revered for its incredible knowledge of some Asian and Eastern European myths and folklore. It is frequently said to possess intelligence greater than even the all-powerful Abrahamic God. The hedgehog also serves as a cultural role model at times, teaching humans various life lessons, how to cultivate crops, and observing traditional marriage rituals. Hedgehogs are revered across many cultures as being intelligent enough to have helped God create the world. According to a creation folk tale from Romania, the earth had already stretched out during creation to the point where the waters had run dry. God, who is the wisest of all creatures, sent the bee to the hedgehog to beg for counsel because he had no idea what to do. But the hedgehog refused, citing God’s all-knowing power as its justification. God asked the advice of the hedgehog specifically because God knew this was the wisest animal that he had ever created. The hedgehog is prone to talking to himself and the bee overheard the hedgehog mumbling as it hid nearby. “God does not realize that he must build valleys and mountains to make way for the rivers”… The bee flew back to the heavens and told God the news, and the hedgehog cursed the bee forever for her eavesdropping, cursing her to only eat her feces for the rest of her life. However, God reversed such a curse and turned the feces into something sweet – and that is how we have honey.” Similar tales are told by Bulgarians (Nagy). Some people in eastern Europe have heard comparable tales: The hedgehog is credited by the Finno-Ugric and the Mari with teaching humans and other animals how to produce fire out of tinder, steel, and stone. They claim that the hedgehog taught humanity how to plow the ground with an iron plow. The notion that hedgehogs are intelligent creatures is still prevalent in western European mythology. In a German folktale, a race between a hedgehog and a hare ends with the hedgehog winning thanks to a cunning ploy.
There is another variation of the hedgehog cosmological myth from Romania similar to the previous one mentioned. Another tale from Romania involves an earth diver. The earth diver is a common figure in many ancient creation myths who is dispatched into the primordial waters by a creator to find material—often sand, mountains, or mud—with which to create habitable land. Earth divers in tales are sometimes depicted as different animals, such as the hedgehog for example. Recognizable features of the hedgehog animal searching for the earth-based source of creation, point to a shared cultural heritage with Eastern European and Central Asian cultures (Leeming.) (Nagy).
According to one old 19th-century Latvian folk story, the hedgehog received his spikes directly from God after assisting him with the creation of the Earth (Nagy). The original text where this folktale can be found comes from a collection of tales by Lethis-Poskaitis, at the end of the nineteenth century (Nagy). This representation of the hedgehog in Latvian (Balto-Slavic) folklore is a display of the wisdom and cleverness of the hedgehog. The tale states that the hedgehog suggests to God to squeeze the earth to make room for the sky to cover the earth. When God took the advice of the hedgehog, mountains and valleys were born, and the Earth was now small enough that the sky was able to fit over it. This is when God gifted the hedgehog with a beautiful coat composed of spiky needles so that no predator can approach him (Nagy).
Despite this being a folktale from the 19th century, one must think how the hedgehog was significant enough in the eyes of the Latvians to accompany God in such a task as creating the earth. The reason for this is simply because the hedgehog has been a symbol of life and death, dualistic nature, since 10,000 B.C. Given that Latvia only acquired Christianity about 1000 years ago, it is amazing to notice how well the older beliefs have incorporated the hedgehog lore. This Balto-Slavic folklore ironically is not the only time the hedgehog appears in such a creation myth. He is frequently seen roaming around the universe and in other cosmological stories.
In one Vespian text, there was a hedgehog who “brought up the earth stuck on his spikes”. The Veps currently reside in the Leningrad and Vologda Oblasts as well as the southern region of the Republic of Karelia. The Russian government acknowledges the Veps as an indigenous people (BarentsInfo). According to Nagy, Razauaskas-Civjan describes the hedgehog as a mythical animal, a chthonic creature capable of creating the entire earth by himself. It is astonishing how such a small creature was so important to the Slavs and Old Europe in general that their folkloric beliefs include deities who could not create the earth alone. This idea is extremely relevant, especially in Romanian folklore. In one Hungarian etiological myth, there was also the story of the Milky Way and Hedgehog. This story notes that “The Milky Way was created when the hedgehog rolled along the sky: we see the holes he pierced with his spines.” (Nagy).
Focusing again on the dualistic nature of the hedgehog, Hungarian and Lithuanian texts associate the hedgehog’s spines being identical to beams of the sun, which makes the hedgehog a direct symbol of the sun (and life energy) itself. The hedgehog is a dualistic animal, one associated with creation, cleverness, darkness, and the sun. The cycles of light and darkness as well as death and rebirth, are all represented by the hedgehog’s dual nature. This symbolism of the hedgehog has also been found in many other ancient cultures including the Greeks and Egyptians. During winter in the Northern hemisphere, the hedgehog is known to burrow underground; another symbol of his “sunbeams” hiding away for hibernation just as the sun does in winter. In Greek mythology, Artemis was worshiped as the goddess of the hunt, as well as of animals in the wild, and specific qualities directly associated with women and childbirth. One myth features Artemis when she was here on earth and states she took the appearance of a hedgehog. The ancient Egyptians believed that the hedgehog possessed plenty of defensive capabilities because it was able to survive in the desert and was unaffected by the venom of snakes (Welsh School of Homeopathy).
According to Slavic legend, the hedgehog may point the way to the mythical and magical plant known as raskovnik, which can be used to open doors and uncover buried wealth. The plant is reportedly hard to identify, and only chthonic (underground) critters can locate it. In one version of the legend, raskovnik is described as having the appearance of a four-leaf clover, while in another version, it is described as having the appearance of grass. Hedgehogs also commonly appear eating mushrooms or around mushrooms in various folk tales.
Spiritual Significance of the Hedgehog
Hedgehogs are deeply symbolic of motherhood, inner tranquility, and unadulterated joy. Unless it feels threatened, a hedgehog could be the most carefree animal on the planet. The Earth Element is closely related to a hedgehog. Since its belly is always near the ground, the hedgehog maintains its balance and relationship with the Mother. This might explain why ancient cultures believed that hedgehogs had medicinal properties.
According to them, the hedgehog is a radiant animal and a sign of vitality. When you contemplate the Hedgehog’s assortment of needles, which burst forth like sunshine, it’s easy to see why the ancient cultures would make this parallel. The fact that hedgehogs are nocturnal is a fascinating conundrum. This creates an energetic balance for Hedgehog between the Sun and Moon, or the physical and metaphysical realms, on one side of its symbolism, and the psychic, intellectual, and visionary night counterparts on the other.
Hedgehogs and Baba Yaga and Fairy Tales
In the Russian folk tale of Marusia and Baba Yaga, there is quite an adventure between the two – and of course, a hedgehog. Marusia, a Russian girl loses her mother’s money and ends up in the path of Baba Yaga’s moving hut built on the legs of a chicken. Marusia is then compelled to serve as a house servant for Baba Yaga. Marusia unearths a great deal of information on Baba Yaga’s secrets. In one of the tales, Baba Yaga is said to have been assisted in adding an extra two hundred years to her lifespan by a hedgehog who was the son of a Tsar and the friend of Marusia. The hedgehog would help Baba Yaga find her magical flower that would extend her life if a favor would be done in return for the Tsar’s hedgehog son. Upon helping Baba Yaga, he was transformed into a boy.
In The Prince with the Golden Hand, we learn the story of a king and queen who have only one daughter. She was their only child, valued, and the most beautiful princess. A storm began to form as the princess was strolling through the garden just when princes and earls arrived to make their introductions and vie for her affections. She vanished out of nowhere with the hurricane. The princes and other nobility went out to find the beautiful Princess with the Golden Hair all over the world after learning the King’s terrible news. Throughout the narrative, Baba Yaga and her pincushion appear at various points. Our hero receives a rolling magical pin cushion from Baba Yaga to serve as his compass. The hedgehog, a messenger of the Underworld, is symbolized by the pin cushion. Only the Prince with the Golden Hand is trusted with the pincushion, and he aids Baba Yaga as well as the Princess with the Golden Hair.
The Prince can be viewed as a youthful and radiant god, which is why he is depicted with a “golden hand” which is symbolic of the rays of the sun. On the other hand, he is not a direct depiction of a “sun god”. The Golden Prince is a symbol of the natural illuminating forces that are shared by the sun, the moon, the stars, fire, lightning, and zhivot (life energy). Considering the Prince is connected to natural light energy as well as the life force of the pincushion in the tale, this corresponds to the hedgehog as a symbol of life and a representation of various life cycles. “He is the “Shining” Lord,” the radiant god of all creation who gives us all good things.” (Woodruff). In Book 1 of Baba Yaga’s Secrets of the Old Ways, Woodruff also mentions other great connections, such as the young princess in the folktale being symbolic of the goddess of spring. Furthermore, this correlates with a prime example regarding the importance of ethnography – and proof that spirituality and spiritual representations are hidden in various folklore stories and fairy tales.
In another folklore Baba Yaga ventures out into the forest in search of mushrooms and parsley to add to her pot of stew. While she is there, she discovers a hedgehog eating mushrooms while perched atop his own massive mushroom. The story follows the hedgehog’s transformation into a boy who eventually becomes the main character. e.g., Marley (2010), citing Vilenskaya (n.d.).
(Dugan). The shapeshifting character displayed in this tale is known as a duhovin. (See section on Duhovin below).
- The Prince with the Golden Hand
- Hans my Hedgehog,
- Baba Yaga, the Girl, and the Hedgehog
- The Hedgehog That Married the King’s Daughter
- Prince Hedgehog
- Hedgehog and Little Bear
- The Hedgehog, the Merchant, the King, and the Poor Man
- Baba Yaga and the Hedgehog Boy
- Clean Birds
- The Hedgehog and the Fox
- How Little Hedgehog and Little Bear Dusted the Stars
- Winter Tale
According to Gimbutas in The Language of the Goddess, the hedgehog is an animal commonly found across Old European archaeological sites. The hedgehog was an animal that was frequently associated with creation and death and is therefore largely connected to the Regeneratrix, and cycles of life. These archaeological findings by Gimbutas have spanned across Indo-European cultures for centuries dating back to 10,000 B.C. “As the promoter of the beginning of the life cycle, the Goddess appears as a tiny mysterious fetus or uterus-like animal – the frog or toad, lizard, turtle, hare or hedgehog, and fish.” (Gimbutas, 185, Language of the Goddess). In a manner analogous to how the uterus protects the growing fetus, the hedgehog will roll itself into a protective ball when it feels threatened.
In the chapter Symbols of Death (Gimbutas), It is uncanny that Baba Yaga is mentioned as a symbol of life and death – thus related to the hedgehog which is known to have a similar representation in the past spiritual beliefs of the Slavs of Old Europe. Goddesses associated with death were a common theme, even in prehistoric European folk traditions. Gimbutas mentions that Baba Yaga is known by different names according to different regions. Ragana is a title that indicates another name for (Russian) Baba Yaga in Lithuanian and Latvian folklore. The image of this old crone witch is commonly depicted with a hooked nose that resembles the beak of a bird. It is widely known through folktales that Baba Yaga has the capability to transform or shapeshift into various animals, including a hedgehog. “She can transform herself into a myriad of shapes, primarily of a toad, hedgehog, and fish.” Naturally, birds are of course associated with this Regeneratrix figure of Baba Yaga. The significance of the hedgehog, however, goes even further than just a mere connection to the folklore of Baba Yaga. The hedgehog, like Baba Yaga, teaches us to know that nature is mortal and a cyclical power. “Baba Yaga, the ancient Goddess of Death and Regeneration in Slavic mythology, is well preserved in folk tales (mainly Russian) in a “degraded form”, i.e. as a witch.” (Gimbutas).
The connection between humanity and animals was astonishing before agriculture managed to take up a large role in society. Hedgehogs were not just a part of life, but they were dual-natured animals that also represented funerary customs and rites of Old Europe. “Their peculiar relationship – even equation – with the uterus of the life-giving, regeneration and transforming Goddess accounts for their prominent role in Old European symbolism.” Based on archaeological findings of Gimbutas, the hedgehog has been discovered in numerous sites pertaining to burials, especially infant burials. Hedgehogs showcase their dualistic nature between night and day, and the moon and sun, life vs. death in the Indo-European artworks of ancient times. The hedgehog is considered to be a nocturnal animal and its symbolism of regeneration dates back to the Upper Paleolithic era. Many artistic designs in the form of ancient petroglyphs and figurines can be found dating back as far as 10,000 B.C. (Gimbutas, 257, Language of the Goddess). “The presence of the hedgehog in Old Europe is firmly established. Figurines of hedgehogs and hedgehog vases with anthropomorphic lids – i.e. vases with prickle-like bumps, and with the Goddess’s face on the lid – are known from the Lengyel, Tisza, Vin?a, Karanovo, and Cucteni culture groups. Some of the best examples come from the Karanovo VI (Gumelnita) culture.” (Gimbutas). The hedgehog remained a symbol of life and death regarding graves until the early 20th century as their images were placed in burials then, and of course in antiquity (Gimbutas).
“The importance of the hedgehog in mythical imagery is well attested and terracotta figurines of hedgehogs are recorded in Vin?a, East Balkan, and Cucuteni Sites around 7,000 years ago. Hedgehogs were also connected to Old European folk medicine and there was a common belief that a wound rubbed with hedgehog fat was believed to heal someone instantly, and also rejuvenate and beautify a person. Superstitions and proverbs point to the hedgehog’s prominent role in sexual life as well. Witches were also known to take the guise of hedgehogs, in addition to the Goddess. The belief that hedgehogs suck milk from cows, behavior connected with witches or witchcraft in folklore, led to the hedgehog being bad luck as witches evolved from being helpful healers of the Goddess to being hated and frightful. A Hedgehog is nocturnal, and it does not emerge during daylight when startled in its nightly forages it rolls itself up in a ball from which sharp spines stick out in every direction. No wonder it is endowed with magical powers” (Gimbutas, pp 170-181).
In 2008 it was reported that a toy hedgehog was found in the grave of a child at Stonehenge. The child, who archeologists thought was about three years old, probably left the chalk figure behind when they died in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age, about around 3,000 years ago. Archaeologists who found the grave where the child was found lying on his or her side think that the toy, is thought to have been left there by a loving parent. Fay Vass from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society was excited about the find, stating that this is proof that people have been fond of hedgehogs since the Bronze Age (World Archeology News). What we can conclude from this discovery is that people, even thousands of years ago, were more than just fond of hedgehogs. This is another beautiful example of a burial featuring the symbol of rebirth, the hedgehog. Considering that the child is found lying on their side this position resembles returning to the uterus, with the symbol of rebirth beside them.
The reason for the symbols of animals within ancient cultures is due to the fact that for the great number and variety of old European artworks, these images represent symbolism that is lunar and chthonic. The artwork that features animals is built around the understanding that life on earth is an eternal transformation. The transformation is constant and rhythmic between creation and destruction, birth and death. The hedgehog is a primary example of such transformation based on its ability to “ball up” and poke out its thousands of spikes giving the hedgehog an almost shape-shifting type of ability that correlates directly to the transformations of the earth, humanity, woman, life, death and all the natural cycles of the world. When considering the archaeological evidence of hedgehogs compared to folk stories and cosmological creation myths featuring hedgehogs, there is a clear indication that hedgehogs and their association with life and nature cycles have existed for thousands of years.
Duhovin, or dahovina, are shape-shifting beings from old Slavic folklore. The Duhovin were typically described as enchanted children and adolescents who grew up with magical talents. This lends credence to the idea that duhovin are endowed with shamanic qualities and characteristics. The story of Istria and the Karst is told in one folklore story. This is a story of a youngster who was born a snake. According to researchers, the duhovin originated in the tradition of the Cici residing in the Cicerchia in Primorska. In other folklore, the duhovin is a hero with the body of a hedgehog, raven, or snake. Duhovin are frequently found as extraordinary animals with unique abilities and attributes, including turning into human beings. Over time, duhovin progressively acquired the meaning of a bewitched child or person, rather than a person with shamanic abilities. (Kropej).
Depending on the language, the word or name “Duhovin” might alternatively mean “ghost,” “bad spirit,” or “the devil.” This connects directly to the hedgehog in its dualistic representation of dark and light – and cosmological myths that feature him with the Christian God and the “Devil”.
The Hedgehog has evolved from a cosmological critter to a symbol of strength, protection, cleverness, and wit. It’s now also seen as a friendly character, cartoon, or protagonist in various forms of media across the world. Some of the more famous include the works of Beatrix Potter with Mrs. Tiggywinkle, Je? Jerzy (“George the Hedgehog” in English) – the Polish comic book, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the unforgettable 1975 animation by Yuriy Norstein “Hedgehog in the Fog”. This Soviet animation and story directly correspond to the influence of the hedgehog on the Slavic people today. “The Hedgehog in the Fog” by Norstein is an animation about a small hedgehog navigating a terrible world of fog. This film has inspired its own folklore, and there is even a hedgehog monument in Kyiv. The hedgehog cartoon took on new significance during the Maidan events; the everyman/hedgehog became a symbol of seeking the correct road and later resistance. In November 2013, Ukraine was in the process of preparing to ratify an association agreement with the European Union. This deal was a legal instrument that would establish a comprehensive free trade relationship and bring Ukraine closer to Europe. The Ukrainian government, on the other hand, said on November 21 that it would “halt” the preparations for the signature of the deal. Within a matter of hours, tens of thousands of people living in Kyiv surged out onto the streets to demonstrate, marking the beginning of the Maidan Revolution, which is also known as the “Revolution of Dignity.” During the Maidan Revolution, many monuments were destroyed, but not the Kyiv hedgehog statue, which was renovated to express these new meanings as part of Kyiv’s cultural legacy.
In 2009, a monument of the cartoon’s hero was made and put in downtown Kyiv in a tiny square at the intersection of Zolotovorit’ska and Reitarska Streets, as well as Heorhiivskiy Row. The young Hedgehog is on the route to his closest friend Bear with a jar of raspberry jam in this International award-winning video. Along the route, the Hedgehog finds a Horse, a Dog, an Owl, and a Fish in a weird fog. It may appear terrifying at first, but his interactions with such creatures invariably come out great in the end. The small Hedgehog became trapped in a fog but then eventually recovered. The Little Hedgehog and the Bear sip hot tea from a carafe in the evening, eat raspberry jam, and count stars above their dwelling, culminating in a serene and cheerful finale that reflects the hedgehog’s humble personality. However, there is a deeper purpose to this film and tale, just as there is a deeper purpose with all folklore and fairy tales. The film may mimic the significance of shifts, stages, and transitions in various aspects. We might experience ourselves in some type of metaphorical “fog” on our way to follow our friends or family to various locations or activities, couldn’t we?
We encounter a variety of individuals, we may experience culture shock, and we may begin to believe that we are lost. But you can’t be lost if someone loves you so much that they’d travel through the “fog” for you, or to get to you. The hedgehog demonstrates the importance of having a safe place to call home. The prickly hero shows us the value of doing simple things together, such as sipping tea (or coffee) or counting stars with a loved one. The time you spend having fun is not wasted. This narrative of the “Hedgehog in the Fog” additionally emphasizes that you should not run away from things that scare you since you will carry your fear with you. We occasionally doubt even if we’re not on the correct track. The answer is neither yes nor no at any particular time – you should travel anywhere you wish to go. If you have a goal, go for it; if you can’t, crawl for it! If you can’t crawl to it, start pointing yourself in its general direction. Over 35 international prizes have been bestowed for “Hedgehog in the Fog.”
Even in modern times, the Slavic people continue to have beliefs in their culture and spirituality that involve the hedgehog. The existence of the hedgehog and its involvement with earth, humans, and deities is an integral component of Slavic tradition; this is true whether the animal is shown in ancient tombs, old rock or cave sculptures, or in current media.
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About the Author:
Kimberly Anne is a USA freelance writer and Library Circulation Clerk from Chicago, Illinois. She holds a bachelor’s degree with honors in Creative Writing and English Literature. Kimberly Anne is also a member of the International English Honor Society. After devoting a decade to the personal study of global mythology, she began writing about mythology and ancient literature. She focuses primarily on Nordic, Germanic, and Slavic witchcraft and paganism. Kimberly is the official amanuensis of Patricia Robin Woodruff, PhD, MDiv. She spends her spare time communing with Landvættir, hugging trees, and chatting with her magical cats since she is a dedicated polytheist who also believes in animism. You can find her in the book stacks or on social media at @kimberlyanneinc