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White Animals

Updated on March 26, 2015

In myth and legend white animals were often considered to have particular significance.

  • A white deer led King Arthur to the magical Sir Pellinore's well.
  • Buddha's mother was reputed to have dream of a white elephant on the night before his birth.

And powerful mythological animals, such as the unicorn and the pegasus are described as being white in color.

Even young children have more positive attitudes towards animals that a white than animals that are other colors--so the idea of color significance begins very early.

The White Buffalo

A white American Bison sacred by several native American tribes. The Sioux describe how White Buffalo Woman brought them the sacred buffalo calf pipe.  There are several recemt examples of white buffalo including Miracle (Wisconsin, 1994-2004) and a small herd in Wyoming.

White Cloud, at the National Buffalo Museum at Jamestown
White Cloud, at the National Buffalo Museum at Jamestown | Source

The White Hart

"Hart" is an archiac term referring to a male deer (a.k.a. stag). A white stag appears in a number of important British myths and in heraldry. The meaning of a white stag in Celtic legend could be ominous or miraculous.

When Pwyll tresspassed into Arawn's hunting grounds the white stag appeared as a warning. And a white deer led King Arthur to the Sir Pellinore's well.

A white stag is also a common object of quest, symbolising a spiritual attainment. The white stag is a good example of how the pale color of the animal can be read as representing wither the underworld and death, or purity and enlightment.

Real white stags still occur as a result of a recessive gene causing leucanism (reduced skin pigmentation).

These days the legend of the White Hart is mainly apparent through the large number of British pubs that carry this name.

And real white stags are occasionally still discovered include the example pictured above, photographed by Ken Grindle in Gloucestershire, 2009. (For more examples of real white deer click here).

The White Boar

Similar Celtic tales feature other white animals such as the boar pursued by Pryderi and Manawydan which leads them to a magical castle.

And a white boar was the emblem of King Richard III of England

The Spirit Bear

The white color morph of a black bear is sometimes referred to as a 'spirit bear'. Spirit bears occur in a population of bears in British Columbia (Canada). The exact genetic basis for the coloring is not currently known but is likely to be due to a recessive gene and is not albinism. About one out of every ten bears in this population are pale or white in color.

Source
Detail from "The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle", a tapestry on display in the Cloisters Museum (New York)
Detail from "The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle", a tapestry on display in the Cloisters Museum (New York)

The Unicorn

Some mythical animals may have started off as garbled descriptions of animals from far away locations. Early description of the unicorn describe it as having many colors, and the colors of its horn correspond to the colors of a rhinoceros horn--suggesting this may have been the original inspiration for the 'monokeros'. Over time the descriptions become more detailed and uniform, and the unicorn is described as being uniformly white. Throughout the medieval period unicorns had an overall appearance like a deer, modern unicorns are normally depicted as looking like a horse.

Other White Animals in Myth and Legend

The Greek King of the Gods, Zeus, took the form of a magnificent white bull to abduct the princess Europa who bore him three sons including Minos (father of the Minotaur).

Use of White Animals

White animals are often used preferentially in activities such as religious sacrifice and the creation of high status clothing.

Citations

  • Best, D. L., Naylor, C. E., & Williams, J. E. (1975). Extension of color bias research to young French and Italian children. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 6(4), 390-405.
  • Blau, H. (1964). The Iroquois White Dog Sacrifice: Its Evolution and Symbolism. Ethnohistory, 97-119.

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      redoer01 7 years ago

      A very interesting post. Why do people connect unicorns with, I'm not sure, is it purity? (remember Iris Murdoch's novel?, there are also some Dali's unicorns). Is it somehow related to moose being a symbol of being cheated upon? How?

    • psycheskinner profile image
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      psycheskinner 7 years ago

      Thanks for visiting :) -- I have a lot more information and pictures to add here when I get more time.

    • perihelionecho profile image

      perihelionecho 7 years ago from Michigan

      Awesome posting. I've always been fascinated by uncommonly white animals (we always refer to them as albinos although I know sometimes this is not the case). Being a Michigander, who sadly lives too far south to see brown moose let alone white, I love the moose pic.

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