Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tigers in Asian Mythology

You people out there really love your posts about felines. Today we've got this request: You did a post on lions and cats in Egyptian mythology. How about tigers?

Well, we can't do much for you about tigers in Egyptian mythology; tigers aren't native to Egypt, and they don't make an appearance in that country's mythology. But they do exist elsewhere in the world, namely all over Asia, and with a creature as gigantic and terrifying as the tiger, you know they're important in several myths!

Tigers are incredibly powerful predators, are threatened by nothing except for humans and other tigers, and can appear seemingly out of nowhere to take down their prey, so they are often associated with physical power and royalty in various cultures. In ancient India, they were considered to be the protectors of forests and jungles, attacking and killing humans who trespassed there without proper respect; because they were so powerful and difficult to kill, they also became symbols of invincibility and kingship, which in turn made them popular as animals kept in royal menageries and made their skins prized for use in royal clothing and furniture.

The Hindu god Shiva commonly wears a tiger-skin in order to represent his own power and ferocity; according to myth, he originally just traveled everywhere nude, but his great handsomeness and virility was proving extremely distracting to all women he happened to pass by, and eventually a group of sages who were meditating in the forest where he was wandering were forced to take action lest their wives all run off en masse to follow him. They dug a giant pit and summoned a huge supernatural tiger into it; when Shiva then encountered the tiger in the pit, he fought and slew it, and afterward was able to wear its skin so that he was no longer naked. In another version, the sages summoned the tiger in the hopes of getting revenge on Shiva for having previously caused them to lose their spiritual powers by pointing out their arrogance, but in either case, it's no match for the god of destruction.

Also in Hindu mythology we have the goddess Durga, the fierce warrior who destroyed the demon Mahishasura. Durga's name means "invincible", and so it should be no surprise that the tiger is associated with her closely - although she sometimes rides a lion, she also appears with a tiger as her vahana, representing her power and invulnerability in battle. Which big cat Durga appears on depends on the area of her worship, with the tiger more common in northern India and the lion more often seen in southern India and Bangladesh; it's most likely that the lion is the more classical version of the goddess's mount, but that the tiger became associated with her through ambiguous wording and the prevalence of tigers as the more dangerous and widespread predator in various areas. Either way, the message is clear: Durga is a badass and her mount is therefore the most badass creature around to match her.

Farther east in China, tigers have long symbolized ferocity as well, but also represent strength, determination and power of spirit. They are considered to be the rulers of all other animals, thanks to being by far the most powerful and dangerous of animals, and as a result often appear in folklore making decisions for all other animals. While they are undeniably frightening, tigers are usually represented as essentially noble; they're more likely to attack or menace people who have done something wrong or are morally bankrupt while letting the virtuous continue past them, and images of tigers are frequently used as protective charms to ward houses and businesses against bad luck, illness or other evil forces that might threaten them.

The Chinese convention of the Four Benevolent Beasts, a set of four noble mythological animals that act as representatives and protectors of the four directions and the four seasons as well as many other natural phenomena, also includes the tiger in the form of Bai Hu, the White Tiger of the West. Bai Hu is white to represent his incredible age and power, playing off the Chinese myth that tigers began to slowly turn white, starting with their tails, when they reached 500 years old; according to imperial Chinese legend, he never manifests in the world unless there is universal peace across the whole world or the current emperor is ruling his people with perfect virtue, making it unlikely that anyone ever gets the opportunity to see him in the flesh.

Bai Hu is a (comparatively) later addition to the Four Beasts, which has included different animals during different historical dynasties; he has become the firm popular replacement for the older qilin or Chinese unicorn (which was itself sometimes identified with or at least said to resemble a tiger) for the past many centuries, and it doesn't look like he's going anywhere any time soon.

As in India, the tiger's associations with incredible power and nobility make it a preferred companion and symbol for deities with similar connotations. One of these is Zhurong, the Chinese god of fire and sky who fought the terrible flood-bringing dragon Gong Gong to save the world from his rampant depredations, who rides a tiger in order to represent his great nobility and martial prowess. Another is Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, Taoist goddess of prosperity, longevity, virtue and good fortune, who appears depicted with the teeth of a tiger and the tail of a leopard to illustrate her fierce pursuit of purity and justice and refusal to tolerate evil or corruption in others. (It's not a coincidence that she and Bai Hu are both associated with the west!)

South from China, we encounter Vietnamese mythology, where the tiger is a major deity for various different ethnic groups and religious practices. The Tai Oi people of mid-coastal Vietnam revere a tiger spirit called Giang Avo, who is considered the protector of the forest and who can be enticed to extend protection over the dwellings of humanity as well. Complex rituals involving capturing and ritually sacrificing a tiger before burying it in the center of the town, thus letting the universe at large know that Giang Avo now protects the palce with all the tigerish ferocity at his disposal. Even in other parts of Vietnam, the tiger often appears as a protective totem placed at entrances or around perimeters to ward off danger.

It's not surprising that most tiger mythology is in Asia - after all, that's also where most tigers are. Their solitary nature and the fact that they tend to live deep in forested areas away from humanity mean that they were less commonly seen and had less noticeable impact on most ancient peoples, but even so their influence as a cultural symbol is just as powerful as that of the lion among African peoples.

There don't seem to be as many tiger deities as there are gods associated with lions... but new young Heroes could always set out to change that!