WORDS BY HANNAH MÉNDEZ
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JANELLE SING
Throughout world mythology, the lore surrounding mythical creatures is rife with environmental undertones—and takeaways.
At this stage in the climate crisis, we’re having to explore beyond our imagination for sources of hope and inspiration. Oftentimes, we look to the future for solutions, in search of new knowledge, new technologies, new innovations, often disregarding the many virtues held in the past, virtues that may even be beyond our physical reality.
Storytelling might just be the most powerful weapon in this movement, it moves us past what we know to a world where we can dream, fantasize, and look to the otherworldly for answers. Some stories have been passed down for millennia through generations, shifting and morphing over time across different regions of the world, holding messages we just might have to dig a bit deeper to uncover.
I recently came across a jigsaw puzzle in a quaint local bookstore that featured mythical creatures from around the globe. I was immediately captivated by the idea, by the mysticism and magic of it all. And so, I bought the puzzle. Inside the box was a brief breakdown of each featured creature, where they originated, and what they’re about. The ones that stood out to me the most were those whose stories are rooted in the creation or protection of our environment. I thought to myself, what would they think of all this? What would they want to tell us about the current state of our planet? What could they teach us about ways to move through this crisis? What messages could they be sending us?
Upon doing more research, I discovered the beauty in the mythological and the overwhelming symbolism that prevails if you choose not only to see it but to believe it.
When walking along this mystical planet, you may wonder how certain configurations—a deep valley, a flowing river, a curious rock formation—came to be. Aboriginal Australians look to Dreamtime stories for answers, a long-standing storytelling tradition that serves to explain events from the time of creation. These stories brought unification and purpose to Aboriginal societies in the past, and are continually told today as an unwavering maintenance of identity.
In Dreamtime, the Goorialla or Rainbow Serpent is the creator of all life. While traveling across the land in search of its tribe, the Goorialla left deep grooves in the Earth, creating the gorges, creeks, rivers, and lagoons. It’s said that an altercation with humans caused the serpent to throw rocks across the land, forming the hills and mountains. And as the humans ran, they turned themselves into the animal, insect, bird, and plant life that exists today. Legend has it that the Goorialla retreated into the sea where it still remains to this day, leaving the remaining humans to care for all life on Earth.
The Goorialla symbolizes the beauty of our planet as well as the interconnectedness that landscapes, humans, and creatures all share.
In an interview, an Aboriginal man named Philip (Guburu) Obah, an elder of the Wadja people of North Queensland, contemplated that “perhaps the Rainbow Serpent emerged not only to define and describe the nature of a changing universe, along with the position of humans within it but also to bring people together, to unite them behind a shared symbol, experience and common cause.” The Goorialla symbolizes the beauty of our planet as well as the interconnectedness that landscapes, humans, and creatures all share—a reminder our societies and communities are in desperate need of. After all, how do we find hope amidst the climate crisis, how do we fight, if we don’t know what we are fighting for?
Known for its cyclical life, for being reborn from the ashes of its predecessors, the Phoenix is an unwavering symbol of resilience. Its imagery is everywhere from popular movie franchises to medieval art, but the history of the phoenix can be traced back to ancient legends in Egypt, Greece, and China. The Phoenix’s discernable bright, fiery colors and massive wingspan are famous symbols of transformation and optimism. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s often associated with the sun and is regarded as the sunbird.
The connection here seems obvious—our planet is quite literally on fire. There’s a reason the expression goes like a phoenix rising from the ashes. The phoenix demonstrates that the cyclicality of life, including death, is what breeds not only survival but strength and growth. The phoenix inspires us to find beauty in ruin, in the act of rebuilding. In a time of crisis, when it seems there is no other option but to burn everything down and start anew, there is hope for a fresh start.
In a forest, fires cleanse the ground of debris, open it up to the sunlight and help nourish the soil. For rebirth to happen, the Phoenix reminds us that we must move through death, and that’s not always a bad thing. For example, when it comes to the extractive industries operating to further degrade our planet, there is no reform or adaptation for survival. The entire structure of the industry must fall—and from its ashes, we can find the beauty in transformation, in starting again, in building back a better system not only for our planet but for all future generations.
In ancient Chinese mythology, cosmogonists identified four main dragons—the Celestial Dragon (Tianlong); the Dragon of Hidden Treasure (Fuzanglong); the Earth Dragon (Dilong); and the Spiritual Dragon (Shenlong). In Daoism, an Indigenous religious-philosophical tradition and pillar in Chinese culture, the dragon is regarded as a God and entity to be worshipped.
“The chi of yin and yang breathes out as wind, rises up as clouds, descends as rain, and courses underground as vital energy.”
This is especially true for the Shenlong, which literally means “spirit dragon”, who governs the wind, clouds, and rain on which all agrarian life depends. It’s believed that dragons create the clouds through their breath, symbolizing the celestial realm. The clouds are also fundamental in bringing the rain that is essential for growing rice. It is in part for these reasons that the creatures were made kings (Longwang) in addition to the belief that the Shenlong gods protected seafarers across the four oceans. When angered or neglected, the Shenlong brings bad weather, resulting in droughts, floods, or thunderstorms.
In the face of the climate crisis, rice cultivation is actively being threatened by droughts and floods. While our climate is changing so drastically as a result of extractive human practices, the Shenlong reminds us of the cyclicality of our Earth’s processes—of the vital energy and rejuvenation that rain showers bring for our soil and crops as well as us.
On the flip side of the philosophical question, when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, did it make a sound? I wonder—when there is someone around to hear it, what do they hear? For those who follow ancient Japanese folklore, they may hear the cry of the Kodama, a tree-dwelling entity deriving its name from ko—meaning tree—and dama—meaning spirit. The Kodama are ancient guardians of the forest, known for cursing anyone who attempts to cut down the trees they dwell in, and their cries, the echoes of a fallen tree, reverberate throughout mountains and valleys.
It’s said that stories about the Kodama are protected, in part because they have been passed down over successive generations and in part because of the Kodama’s link to Shinto, Japan’s Indigenous belief system that revolves around recognizing divine spirits—Kami—in the natural world. In fact, while walking around Aogashima on the Izu Islands, you might find small shrines at the base of the Japanese cedar trees that occupy the forests. The shrines are said to be remnants of the nature-worshipping religion that once dominated the area, and are still used as a place of worship and prayer.
The Kodama is an important reminder that just because a species cannot communicate in the same language as us, does not mean it lacks soul. It’s a perspective that can inspire us to open our ears, eyes, and hearts to the possibilities of sound, spirit, and identity beyond our conception.
In Hinduism, this three-headed giant elephant with numerous tusks and trunks was born during the process of Samudra Manthan, an ocean of churning milk. Airavata, considered the king of elephants, is the escort for Lord Indra—the king of the gods.
Airavata and Indra demonstrate the importance of recognizing the potential within each of our unique skill sets.
Before water arrived on the surface of the Earth, it existed only in the underworld, which for Lord Indra was too difficult to access by himself. As Lord Indra contemplated how to bring the water to the surface, Airavata offered to use its trunks to suck up the water from the underworld and spray it into the clouds. Once finished, Lord Indra used his powers to command the clouds to release said water, creating rainfall.
Airavata and Indra demonstrate the value of collaboration and the importance of recognizing the potential within each of our unique skill sets. When it comes to the climate crisis, some regions will experience continuous rain, while others may not see any at all. As Indra and Airavata have shown, working together means tapping into every talent we have, pursuing every contribution we can make, to achieve our shared common goal—the liberation of our planet.